The greatest worker in wrestling history is a topic that’s been doing the rounds again lately. Despite the answer being entirely subjective and any given name could be argued both for and against on any given day, it hasn’t stopped legendary wrestlers from being asked for their take.
The subject was broached again in recent times when Ric Flair was asked by comedian Kevin Hart on his YouTube channel who the Nature Boy – beside himself – believes is the greatest worker in the history of the business. Shawn Michaels, came the reply.
Whilst Flair has the humility nowadays not to throw his own name into the mix (not that he needs to, mind), Michaels’ name has also been put forward by the likes of The Undertaker and Steve Austin recently. Speaking strictly in WWE terms, the two names that are usually top of the totem pole are Michaels and Bret Hart. And of course for good reason.
These are the two wrestlers with the highest calibre of back catalogues out of any performer in the company’s history. Hart and Michaels really are in a league of their own, with perhaps Kurt Angle the only other acceptable alternative.
But yet given how much HBK’s name has been bandied about within the last year or so, is this just the latest example of the company attempting to shape the narrative to their own liking? It wouldn’t be the first time the company was guilty of it.
For every valid reason one can surmise to claim Michaels’ is the finest worker in wrestling history, here’s the main argument of why he isn’t: Bret Hart was simply better.
As modern wrestling has descended into ridiculously choreographed stage fighting laced with equally high levels of high spots, zero psychology and no selling, Hart’s matches have undergone a major reappraisal. There’s now a far greater appreciation for just how much of a wrestling genius Hart was than, say, 20 or 15 years ago.
A video was recently posted on Twitter of Hart selling a Stone Cold Stunner at the 1996 Survivor Series. Now, we all love how The Rock sold it, flopping and bouncing around like a fish, but Hart’s was the complete antithesis of Johnson’s: his was brutally realistic, as if Austin had done serious damage to The Hitman’s face. He clutched his face and rolled over a couple of times on the mat. Evidence that there is genius in simplicity.
And this is what Hart brought to every single match he ever had: stark realism. Nobody – before or since – made wrestling look as authentic as the Canadian.
Hart didn’t do flashy high spots from the top rope, because there was no need. When both he and Austin appeared on Edge and Christian’s podcast in 2018 to break down their masterpiece at Wrestlemania 13, Hart said he approached the bout as if it were a school fight. Yet he maintained this mentality for every match he ever had.
An easy comparison to illustrate the point is to look at how Hart and Michaels took Irish whips: Michaels would do his Flair-esque upside down flip that was completely illogical (there’s no rationale to flip upside if someone threw you into a corner in real life, is there?). Hart meanwhile ran full steam and took a front turnbuckle to the chest that looked absolutely devastating. Now you tell me, which version adds another layer of brutality to the contest?
It’s all the more surprising, and galling some could argue, that Austin gives Michaels the nod considering how many times he’s admitted, on the record, how pivotal Hart was on his career. On Jim Ross’ ‘Grilling JR’ podcast, Ross revealed that he spoke with Austin recently, who admitted that without Hart there would be no Stone Cold.
Hart, seeing his huge potential, went out of the way to make Austin look every bit his equal throughout their program in 1996 and 1997, including his suggestion that Austin get colour in the legendary submission match at 13.
And Hart’s altruism with Austin wasn’t an isolated incident. There’s a laundry list of workers who’ve stated their greatest matches were with him: Owen Hart, X-Pac, Roddy Piper, Kevin Nash, Bam Bam Bigelow, Mr. Perfect and the British Bulldog to name a few.
Waltman especially, is effusive in his praise for Hart, saying that their match on a Monday night RAW episode in July 1994 put him ‘on the map’. The Undertaker named Hart as his greatest opponent in a 2002 interview with Off The Record’s Michael Landsberg. “Bret was as smooth as silk,” he said during the making of The Last Ride docuseries last year. Who other than Hart could make Tom Magee look so good that Vince McMahon thought he had the new Hulk Hogan?
How many wrestlers did Michaels make in his singles career?
Even Nash, close confidant of Michaels and someone who was reportedly one of Hart’s biggest naysayers during their time together in WCW, was in awe of Hart. “I wouldn’t let another other 5ft 11 guy in this business give me a backbreaker, but I did with him because it worked, it,” Nash told Austin on his podcast back in 2013.
Hart’s authenticity was such that one could firmly believe he could feasibly pick up a man of Nash’s size and give him a backbreaker, because it fitted into the psychology of his game plan. When Hart squared off against men who were much taller, we knew how the course of the match would go, he would attempt to take them off their feet and get them into the sharpshooter. It was methodical, but never boring.
Another example of Hart’s true greatness is the varied outcomes of his matches: Davey Boy at IYH 5; Bam Bam, Curt Hening and Razor Ramon at King of the Ring 1993; Austin at Survivor Series ’96 and Nash at Survivor Series ’95 all ended in Hart winning without the need of his finisher. There was an unpredictability to the endgame of his matches that were lacking in Michaels’.
The mention of King of the Ring 1993 brings us to another point. Nobody in the history of the company has ever produced three massively captivating yet entirely different matches on the same show as Hart did on that June night. As if that wasn’t enough, he was able to weave a story that interconnected all three of his bouts together. His semi final clash with Hening – in particular – is exceptional, an underrated jewel in his extensive body of work.
A recent article on Sports Illustrated highlighted the influence Hart’s legacy has on the current crop of WWE wrestlers, with the likes of Drew McIntyre and Sheamus studying Hart’s matches as their education when starting out in the business. However the word one that’s repeatedly used throughout the article is realism.
My own metaphor for Hart and Michaels is the two are the wrestling equivalent of The Wire and The Sopranos. These are the two TV series that most can agree are the finest ever produced. Yet deciding on which is the better show tends to come down to which one the individual stumbled upon first. This also applies to Hart and Michaels, 1a and 1b.
To go even deeper, Michaels as a wrestler is more like The Sopranos. He possesses a little more pizazz, there’s a little more flash and theatrics to the Texan’s style. Hart meanwhile is very much akin to The Wire: brutally realistic, no frills, no thrills, just raw, visceral, unparalleled storytelling.
If you’ve made it this far, I know what you’re thinking. If legends such as Austin, Undertaker and Flair believe Michaels is the greatest, who am I to argue otherwise? Yet it isn’t within the realm of possibility that WWE – and by extension Austin and Callaway – is trumpeting Michaels due to the fact that he’s been a loyal solider over the years.
WWE would never voluntarily elevate Hart atop the mountain due to his chequered past with the company, but put him in the conversation as the greatest? Absolutely.
After all, this is a man who went to the enemy (albeit forced) in 1997 and knocked out the owner of the company on his way out the door. McMahon would simply never allow Hart to stand alone. And the company has its fair share of history in pushing awards and recognition towards performers on their books or in their good graces at the time.
Fans want entertainment in their wrestling, and outside of Hart’s magnificent heel turn in 1997, his work on the mic was subdued at best. Hart offered more matter of fact sentiment than blustering Ultimate Warrior-style drivel. By his own admission, Hart’s weak spot was cutting promos. Michaels has the clear advantage on this one.
Yet when it comes right down to it, when you strip away all of the hoopla, tune out the static, the very essence of pro wrestling is to make staged combat look legitimate, and nobody – especially in WWE – did it better than Bret Hart. Certainly not Shawn Michaels.