In 1997, Bret Hart defended the WWE Championship against Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in one of the most controversial matches in professional wrestling history. The finish and the events surrounding it are still talked about today, some 17 years later.
But that fateful night in Montreal was hardly the first time Hart and Michaels had waged war over the most coveted prize in WWE. Not only had they battled it out in the first Iron Man match at WrestleMania XII, but they had competed against one another five years earlier at the very event they would make infamous.
The 1992 Survivor Series was very much a show that bridged the gap between the Hogan era of World Wrestling Entertainment and the New Generation of the company that would take over throughout the middle portion of the decade. It was the first indication that Vince McMahon was willing to take his company in a new direction from the meatheads and larger-than-life Superstars who had dominated the WWE landscape years earlier.
Hart and Michaels were key to the future of the industry, McMahon believed, and despite an advertised main event pitting Randy Savage and Mr. Perfect against Ric Flair and Razor Ramon, he put the unproven WWE champion Hart and intercontinental champion Michaels in the headline spot of one of his most important shows of the year.
They would succeed, proving that they could pick up the ball once carried by Hulk Hogan, Savage and The Ultimate Warrior and run with it.
Before we get to their first main event, here's a look at what brought the future Hall of Famers together.
Prior to their singles careers, Michaels and Hart were part of a tremendous tag team division. Michaels and partner Marty Jannetty were the dynamic, energetic and high-flying Rockers tandem, while Hart teamed with Jim "the Anvil" Neidhart to make up the bruising Hart Foundation.
It was not common for the two teams to meet, thanks to their statuses as babyfaces, but they did compete on a few occasions. One notable occasion was the September 11, 1989 episode of Prime Time Wrestling.
They would also battle it out in October 1990 during a taping of Saturday Night's Main Event. Unfortunately, a broken rope would severely hamper the quality of the match, and at the behest of Hart, McMahon promised not to air the match. By doing so, he ensured that the Rockers' tag title victory would never be seen and that they would never enter the history books as champions.
Hart would enjoy singles success first, capturing the WWE Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam 1991 from Mr. Perfect in an instant classic.
Michaels would split from Jannetty, turning heel and throwing his former partner through the glass window of Brutus Beefcake's Barber Shop set. It was a moment that still ranks as one of the greatest backstabbings in WWE history.
WrestleMania VIII was a banner night for both competitors as Michaels notched his first singles victory at the Showcase of the Immortals, defeating respected veteran Tito Santana. Hart, on the other hand, regained his intercontinental title by knocking off "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in a match that proved Hart's ability to get the absolute best out of his opponent.
In the summer of 1992, Hart and Michaels clashed in their first significant singles bout.
The Hitman had pitched the idea for a Ladder match to Vince McMahon, and during a set of television tapings, Hart and Michaels battled for the IC title in WWE's first-ever Ladder match. Hart retained, and both men continued to earn the respect of management for their outstanding performances in high-pressure situations.
SummerSlam 1992 brought Hart's first shot at main eventing a pay-per-view. There, he defended his title against brother-in-law "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith in an epic, five-star affair. The match confirmed McMahon's belief in Hart as a legitimate main event star. He lost the match and the title but emerged from the event far better off professionally than when he entered it.
Michaels defeated Smith to capture the IC title at the final Saturday Night's Main Event. It was the first step toward singles greatness and the first hint that McMahon was buying into The Heartbreak Kid as a valuable asset to his ever-changing company.
Hart would take a giant leap toward immortality around the same time, defeating Ric Flair to capture the WWE Championship. It was a historic moment for McMahon and his company, as the boss put his faith in a wrestler rather than an over-the-top character or a bodybuilder type. He was putting all of his eggs in the Hart basket and was determined to ride with The Hitman as his top star.
At Survivor Series in November 1992, he would trust his two bright, young stars to deliver a match that proved all doubters wrong and backed up his decision to place them in prominent roles in his company.
The Survivor Series 1992 main event was unlike any marquee bout WWE fans had ever seen before. Sure, the company had produced countless classic technical wrestling matches in its existence but they were almost always reserved for the undercard. That is, unless Hulk Hogan or The Ultimate Warrior wanted to make it back to the hotel in time for room service, leaving tag teams or midcard stars to close out live events.
With incredible pressure on them to deliver, Hart and Michaels did just that. They wrestled a brilliant, smart match that put their considerable skills on display for the audience and announced that style was something they could come to expect more of.
For 26 minutes, they captivated the audience with a wrestling match that did not play on a larger storyline or feature any outside interference. Instead, it was two talented individuals doing what they did better than just about anyone else. The fans responded, and Vince McMahon had his suspicions regarding the stars confirmed.
It would take four more years for Michaels to achieve the level of success that Hart did in 1996. When he did, ironically enough, it would come at Hart's expense. While the Hitman was happy to see Michaels get a run with the title following WrestleMania XII, he also recognized that The Heartbreak Kid had become a major political player behind the scenes.
Their friendship evaporated, and their egos ran wild. They became rivals on-screen and off. With each feeling disrespected or held back, tensions mounted, and the issues between them proved far too intense to overcome.
Hart's departure for WCW following the historic Montreal Screwjob at the 1997 Survivor Series fractured a father-son relationship between Hart and McMahon that was not repaired until The Hitman returned to the company in 2010, some 13 years after the most notorious night in wrestling history.