In 1996, the two biggest babyfaces in the WWF did battle in the main event of WrestleMania 12. Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart put his WWF Championship on the line against THE rising star in wrestling, Shawn Michaels.
Both men have a list of classic contests before and after this match that stretches longer than almost any of their peers. But the question is: is this match actually as good as people make out?
In WrestleMania week, Gary Tait and Paul Benson both look back at the encounter and make the case to back up their opinion on one of the most divisive main events in WrestleMania history. And we want you reader, a member of the wrestling jury, to read their testimony and make your voice heard. Is this match a classic encounter between two wrestling legends? Or is it an over-long, over-indulgent snooze-fest of a match?
Read what our two writers have to say and cast your vote at the bottom of this article:
Gary Tait – Case For The Defence
This conversation regarding the Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels Iron Man match came about in a random WhatsApp chat with me and Paul. I stated that I didn’t feel the match got enough love and is often overlooked as the one of the best WrestleMania matches of all time. Paul disagreed with this. I was stunned. Little did I know that there are people out there who dislike the match.
This led me to rewatching the match. Maybe I was looking at it through nostalgic eyes. After all, this match was at WrestleMania 12, so I would have been 13 at the time. Therefore, it made sense that maybe, just maybe, I was romanticising the match a bit too much. What I found was a big fat NOPE. The match was still as great as it always has been in my eyes. It has everything, and when the pre-match promo comes on it instantly reverts me back to being that 13-year-old kid watching it again. But let’s look at the match.
Firstly, Shawn’s entrance is a thing of beauty. That zip line down to the ring sets the tone that this isn’t just some ordinary main event. This is it. It’s big match feel time. The start is all about them getting a feel for each other. Can Shawn hang with Bret when it comes to the technical aspects of the game? During the opening trading of holds, it’s Bret that comes out best in these instances.
Then Michaels starts to get the upper hand. It’s a slow building pace of a match, but it needs to be – it’s going to be an hour long.
Things start to pick up, and who can forget the Chimel getting some sweet chin music? The match goes back and forth, with each man picking on certain body parts during the match. It was very telling as the match went on that Shawn had stepped up to a level we never knew at that time he had with regards to technical ability.
Let’s not forget the in-ring psychology of the match either. It is pure wrestling that fans today cry out for. The face mannerisms, the selling by both guys. It is a joy.
Of course, we get the big spots. The crossbody to the outside by Shawn, the piledriver by Bret. It’s amazing watching again, with the crowd never getting “sleepy”. They are active during every pinfall attempt or submission hold.
We get to the end and Shawn is in the sharpshooter. Even now, 21 years later, I still believe Shawn is going to tap out. The clock continues to tick down and then boom; the match is over. Bret thinks Shawn has tapped but us watching at home know differently. This is WrestleMania. We do not go home with a draw, surely? This can’t be how this feud ends. All the drama before and during the match, they can’t be leaving us with this?
All of a sudden, as Bret is waking away, out pops Gorilla Monsoon. The match is not finished. It is now extra time. The look on Bret’s face is priceless. That said, Michaels looks beaten. Bret comes back to the ring, in my view in a heel mood, and just starts beating on the man. Then, bang, sweet chin music out of nowhere. Michaels may have hit it, but he’s that beaten he can’t even get to the pin. With the crowd’s energy helping him, Michaels gets back up and hits a second sweet chin music and 1, 2, 3, this time it is all over. Shawn is the champ and the crowd loves it.
We then get the famous “The boyhood dream has come true” line and Shawn in the middle of the ring cradling the title in his hands. It is nothing but pure wrestling and after watching it again I stand by my opinion that it is one of, if not THE, greatest WrestleMania main event of all time.
Paul Benson – Case For The Prosecution
It should have been amazing. We all thought it WAS going to be amazing. I still remember my excitement when it was announced that not only would the two best wrestlers in the world be facing each other for the WWF Championship, but we were going to get it for an epic 60 minutes! Be still my beating heart….
What 11-year-old me failed to appreciate at the time is the fact that sometimes, less truly is more. The match could not have been more anticipated but when it came around, the format and the execution robbed the occasion of just about every element of what made a pro-wrestling match exciting to me.
There is shared blame here. In hindsight, the stipulation did them no favours but at the end of the day, it was up to the two men in the match to weave a masterpiece on the canvas they were given. And they just didn’t.
The intrinsic problem with an Iron Man match is it removes the jeopardy of any nearfalls during the body of a match. How can a nearfall get the audience on the edge of their seats when they instinctively know that if the pinfall is counted, the other guy has the rest of the match to make it up? It can’t.
So what do you need to do to make up for that? You need to fill the hour with action and mini-stories. Almost like a Royal Rumble. Think Angle and Lesnar in 2003 with the whole story about Lesnar’s early disqualifications giving him a physical advantage in terms of damage but having to make up the falls. It gave the entire match flavour.
Michaels and Hart opted instead for a slow-paced exhibition. Rather than tell stories, they opted to show how good each man was at executing various manoeuvres. All this did was prove once again that moves matter for nothing without drama and story to weave them together. This is a lesson that so many young wrestlers years later need drilling into them but one that these two masters of their craft should have known already.
So we got a display of almost flawless technical wrestling. For an hour. No real high points, no dramatic beats, nothing to hang our hat on.
Here’s a game….Looking back now, can you describe any highlights of the bout? Can you give me a brief summary of the action that took place in the match? Does ANY of it stick in the mind?
What did you come up with, honestly? Very little I suspect. Because Michaels and Hart didn’t give us any reason to care about any of the match. It was sterile, it was flat and, dare I say it, it was incredibly self-indulgent.
Two men who were without doubt the best in the world at the time forgot every single thing that made their respective bodies of work so special. No emotion, no reason to get emotionally invested, no drama, no soul. Instead the two decided to use the occasion to demonstrate how impressive their cardio was and how they had mastered more moves and holds than almost anyone else in the game before or since.
Quite simply, it was a huge mis-step on the biggest stage of them all. There’s no huge shame in that. People make mistakes. We have all misjudged things that we wish we could change in hindsight. It happens to everyone in life. But the reverence in which people hold this match just reeks of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Just because it involves Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels facing each other in a WrestleMania main event and the longest singles match in WWE history, does not automatically make it great. Or even good.
I motion, ladies and gentlemen of the wrestling jury, that this match is the biggest let down, the biggest disappointment, the biggest anti-climax in wrestling history.