Written by: J. Johnson
An all-time favourite among loyal fans, casual fans, wrestlers and critics alike. And for a number of reasons, it may also just be the greatest match to have happened at WrestleMania. There are many reasons why everyone still mentions the first Iron Man match in WWE with reverence. It marked a serious changing of the guard; no longer did one need to be a bulking behemoth to hold the biggest prize in the industry. Although one can argue a lot of the points in this match.
Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels‘s careers in the WWE had sort of mirrored each other in the sense that they weren’t the biggest of guys, did stuff in the ring which was ahead of their times and their popularity was proof that the audience connected with them more than what Vince gave them credit for. But that didn’t mean that they were best friends and the match would be without the drama spilling off-screen into the back.
Bret Hart had at this point, been in the business for 20 years, out which 13 years were with the WWF. He had risen through the ranks and had gone from being a tag champ to IC champ to the company title holder through sheer perseverance, hard work and a clean-cut image.
He was a veteran by the time he won his first championship and was highly respected within the locker-room and adored by fans all over the world. During the troubled times faced by the WWF, what with the steroid and sexual harassment scandals, WWF had pinned their hopes on Hart to carry the torch for the company after Hogan had ran out of gas into retirement.
That being said, Hart was never the favourite child of Vince (alluded to by Hart himself), possibly due to his lack of showmanship skills and his squeaky clean persona which was starting to wear thin with the American audiences. But Vince stuck with Hart as his main guy for a long number of years till his attention turned to a similar candidate on the roster, who had all the qualities to rival ‘The Hitman’, and maybe better.
Shawn Michaels too had started off as a tag team guy and followed a similar path as his arch-nemesis Bret Hart, in that he became the IC champ and had graduated from being one of Vince’s employees to being one of Vince’s ‘Boys’. However, the perceived impression of him within the company, especially among his peers, was in no way similar to that of Hart’s.
While Bret was respected by his co-workers, Shawn had gone from being liked to loathed at record speed, due to his drug problems and the resulting attitude. His political workings too had rubbed people the wrong way and he favouring the Klique (a backstage group comprising of Shawn, Diesel, Triple H, Scott Hall & Sean Waltman) with his influence on Vince had become a bone of contention with other wrestlers, including Bret Hart.
While all of this was happening, Bret and Shawn were still friends and had respect for each others’ abilities in the ring and when the match was announced, both men were ready to steal the show yet again.
Bret, after working for all those years and being on the road, was on the verge of a long-deserved break from the schedule and was looking out for options outside wrestling. A recurring role in a soap in his hometown of Canada could have just been the ticket for him and he couldn’t wait to have one more classic match on his way out as a show of gratitude for his old boss.
Shawn, on the other hand, was being primed to be the ‘guy’ that the company had chosen to go with in keeping with the changing attitudes and reactions across the WWE universe. While it sounded all good, the underlying tension between the two egos was simmering and the showdown was set.
One hour is a long time for any wrestling match, especially when it takes up one-third of an entire pay-per-view broadcast.
Unless the two Superstars involved are skilled enough to not only carry the action for the entire hour-long period but also keep the audience invested, the results could be disastrous.
Hart and Michaels were two of the very best wrestlers on the planet by the time their match rolled around, and they did an excellent job of keeping the WWE faithful inside the Anaheim Pond interested in the story they were telling. What they produced on that night in California was, and still is, one of the greatest matches in both WWE and WrestleMania history.
However, it wasn’t without its moments as midway during the match, Bret Hart was seen screaming at the referee, “Get your face away from me, it’s not a god-damn screaming contest!”. Shawn, getting overzealous in his attempts to outshine Bret, even got in a very evident ‘potato’ with a knee to Hart’s back that evoked a genuine howl of pain from the champion.
In his book, Hart elaborates how the match took a turn in realism after that and a lot of the shots exchanged started becoming more and more stiff. But both the talented performers kept their personal feelings aside and executed the match exactly the way they had wanted to, and as the audience, we had enjoyed every bit of the action.
The physical toll it took on both men was so great that when Michaels hit his first superkick, Bret Hart was actually the first to get back to his feet. After the match in its stipulated time yielded no result, it went into overtime when it was restarted under sudden-death rules by Gorilla Monsoon. The second Sweet Chin Music is something we have seen hundreds of times in replays, but the elation captured on HBK’s face can only be truly appreciated if you watch the match from beginning to end. Vince McMahon’s memorable commentary is still fresh in my mind, all these years later, “At last, the boyhood dream has come true.”
The style they utilized makes the match an acquired taste. For those fans raised in the fast-paced Attitude Era, watching a match like Hart-Michaels may be a chore. It was very long; it poured over into an overtime period and featured a great deal of mat-based action.
Today’s fans seem very split over the match, with some enjoying the pure wrestling aspect of the match while others favor the wild and chaotic Iron Man match Triple H and The Rock had four years later at Judgment Day 2000.
Regardless of personal taste, it is extremely difficult to argue against the match’s place in history.
This match cemented the legacy of both men as not only the top-most workers of the company, but also as the bonafide stars that they were. While the ensuing years did a lot of good to the company, the same could not have been said for both the men involved in the match, as Bret went from one catastrophe to another, while Shawn’s battles with his inner demons took a turn for the worst and forced him to retire shortly thereafter.
However, in terms of pure match quality, no other title match in WrestleMania history has the kind of resonance as this one and certainly is the most memorable Iron-Man match in the WWE/F history.