WM Top 25: #6 – Iron Man, WrestleMania XII

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To say that Shawn Michaels and Bret “Hit Man” Hart have had a storied past in the wrestling history would be a gross understatement.

The pair first came together in the World Wrestling Federation in late 1988, both working in good guy tag teams, Michaels with Marty Jannetty as part of The Rockers and Hart with brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart as The Hart Foundation. They crossed paths briefly during this time but nothing concrete ever materialized, despite WWF Magazine running an article about the two in a spring 1990 issue, chronicling a singles match between the two that was held on a TV taping and planting the seeds for an eventual feud between the two teams.

Their rivalry would really pick up in 1992 in a rivalry over Hart’s Intercontinental Title that would eventually transition into a battle for the WWF Championship. Hart would come out victorious in this series of battles, but it was historic just in the idea that two men of their smaller statures were allowed to main event WWF events that were more known as being “the land of giants.”

The rivalry would pick up on-screen again at the turn of 1996. Michaels had won the 1996 Royal Rumble match and guaranteed himself a WWF Championship match at WrestleMania XII on March 31 in the shadows of Hollywood, California. Hart had defeated Davey Boy Smith, Undertaker and Diesel in the months leading up to WrestleMania, and the stage was set for the two old rivals to meet again. This time it would be on the biggest stage of them all, for the biggest prize of them all, and in the biggest match of them all – a 60-minute Iron Man match. An Iron Man match meant that the wrestlers involved would compete for a planned amount of time, in this instance 60 minutes, and the one with the most pinfalls, submissions, count out or disqualification wins at the end of one hour would be declared WWF Champion.

The weeks leading up the event showed the two rivals training in each man’s own unique way. The event hype really made the match seem like a big deal and legitimate contest. Hart was shown training with his legendary father in the frozen wilds of Calgary while Michaels employed the assistance of his original wrestler Jose Lothario. It was the most legit a contest looked in the WWF in years. To a twelve year old like me, the match seemed like a “pick ‘em” and was really more interested in Ultimate Warrior’s return than the main event anyways. At the pay per view itself the ending seemed telegraphed from the onset as Hart, the champion, walked out the usual way, while Michaels zip-corded his way into the arena to much fanfare.

Sixty minutes is a long time to wrestle in today’s pro wresting culture and with today’s athletes, but if anyone could deliver in this type of match it would be Hart and Michaels. According to Michaels’ book, each man planned half of the match on the fly while they were in the ring, using a code of one through five to determine how much they pick up the intensity at any given moment. The match went the entire 60-minute limit with neither man scoring as so much as even one fall. The time limit ended as Hart had Michaels locked in his Sharpshooter submission hold. Hart left the ring content with a draw, but the on-air WWF President Gorilla Monsoon arrived and announced that the match would into sudden death overtime where the winner of the next fall would be Champion.

Hart re-entered the ring under duress and with his concentration broken. Michaels sensed a chance at redemption and just a minute and a half later, Michaels had hit Hart with two of his patented “Sweet Chin Music” superkicks to win his first of many WWF World Championships. Michaels accepted the Title belt as Vince McMahon himself on commentary declared “that the boyhood dream had come true.” As an aside, Hart and Michaels had developed a vicious line of legitimate bad blood between at this point and Michaels eloquently told “Hit Man” to “get the F out of my ring” as he celebrated his victory.

With this match Michaels replaced Hart as the company’s hero. After the match Bret took a hiatus from the WWF while Michaels and his real-life buddies, referred to as “The Clique” ran roughshod over the WWF both on-screen and off-screen. It was the WrestleMania match that set Shawn Michaels onto his worldwide road to stardom and laid to the groundwork to the moniker of “Mr. WrestleMania” that he still refers to himself as to this day.

The battle between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels raged through the WWF off and on over the better part of eight years. They battled through the tag ranks, through the mid-card and finally as the pinnacles of the profession. They fought for eight in the ring and have continued to fight for another ten outside of it.

But that Iron Match that night in Anaheim, California, at WrestleMania XII was a true landmark in both man’s careers and in WWE and WrestleMania history. Over the years leading up to the match, actually good pro wrestlers with technical merit and the ability to carry an entertaining match for a long period of time had become a dying art in the WWF. Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, two men who were dwarfed in the Hulk Hogan main event era of the 1980s, were given the chance to take the ball and run with it and send the WWF into a new direction. Michaels and Hart were, and still are, considered two of the most gifted in-ring competitors in professional wrestling history. They are in the top ten of any all-time wrestlers countdown that is worth its salt. That night showed that the WWF still remembered that the middle “W” stood for wrestling and they had the two best in the game at the time showing the entire world how it was done.

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