Reflecting on Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart at WrestleMania XII

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 03: Hall of Fame inductee Shawn Michaels attends the 2011 WWE Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Philips Arena on April 3, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Moses Robinson/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 03: Hall of Fame inductee Shawn Michaels attends the 2011 WWE Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Philips Arena on April 3, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Moses Robinson/Getty Images) /

Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most audacious matches in wrestling history: Bret “Hitman” Hart vs. “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels in a 60-minute Ironman Match for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XII.

I say “audacious” because this was the first televised Ironman Match in the WWF/E’s history, and they decided it would happen at the biggest show of the year in the main event. When running a match this long, there’s a risk of exhausting fans and making them apathetic by the time the finish comes around. In 1996, there weren’t two better wrestlers suited to have this match than Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels.

With an increased awareness of what constituted “good” wrestling aligning with their rise, these were two wrestlers that revolutionized what it meant to be headline attractions, especially in the World Wrestling Federation.

Both stars were on parallel paths for close to a decade. Already main event stars prior to this match, their status as undeniable top-of-the-card draws was cemented at ‘Mania XII. These two undersized wrestlers — relative to the megastars of years before — were at the apex of a movement that emphasized a more deliberate and exciting style of wrestling.

“Deliberate and exciting” also summarizes Hart and Michaels’ respective wrestling styles. The same could be said about their execution of the hour-long marathon match.

Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels’ Ironman Match at WrestleMania XII and what made it such a spectacle.

To break down what makes this match so special requires an authorial perspective, meaning separating the story into chapters like you would a book, TV series, etc.

If you watch the match with this mindset, it becomes clear that Michaels and Hart also viewed it this way. Their vision was a match divided into four parts, with each part possessing a specific quality and significant moments.

Michaels, ever the showman, descended from the heavens, while Hart, the traditionalist, walked to the ring. Not much had changed since the first time they met on pay-per-view at Survivor Series 1992 minus Michels being a babyface instead of a heel. The greatest change was beyond the surface: it was the fact that Bret and Shawn were no longer placeholders until Hulk Hogan returned.

The two stood face-to-face in the ring while referee Earl Hebner announced the rules of the match. Michaels’ surprising solemnity juxtaposed Hart’s noticeable confidence. It was time for both men to test their limits. What could they accomplish in one hour?

Q1 – Down goes Chimel

The earliest portion of the match goes as expected. Because there’s so much time ahead of them at the start, Hart and Michaels engaged in an exchange of holds. Arm drags into armbars and headlocks comprised the majority of the action in the first 15 minutes, laying the foundation for the match.

The commentators built up the fact that Michaels was repressing his usual pedal-to-the-metal style, and was actually getting the better of Hart, the technician, on the mat. Hart takes on a more ruthless and arrogant demeanor later on, and its origin could be traced back to the moments where Shawn one-upped him at his own game.

Seconds before this supposed first quarter’s end, Hart sent Michaels outside the ring with a mean clothesline. Michaels formulated enough energy to avoid another attack and sent Hart into the ring post, who subsequently lands on timekeeper Tony Chimel’s lap. Michaels charges up his signature move, Sweet Chin Music, and connects…with Tony Chimel’s face; Hart evaded Michaels’ hellish kick at the last second.

Chimel deserves props because it looks like he took ALL of that kick, and if he actually didn’t, props to him anyways for his masterful sell. This brings me to a technique used masterfully to cultivate and maintain the crowd’s interest in the match.

Q2 – Give and take

As daunting a task this match was, Hart and Michaels’ differences as performers were made for a match this long. Quick bursts were immediately followed by holds; it felt like the wrestling equivalent of this:

The idea, presumably, was to space out big moments every few minutes or so to give the crowd something to be audibly enthused by in various parts of the match, instead of giving them an elongated segment full of explosive action and gassing the fans out before the finale.

The “rest holds” were more than just that; they were entertaining because both wrestlers were great ad-libbers. Hart synched in a headlock, directed his anger towards the referee, and urged him to do his job.

“Ask him, Earl; ask him! What? It’s not a staring contest!”

Hart’s hilarious outburst summed up his growing frustration with Michaels’ unwillingness to surrender. If you know what the “Hitman” sounds like, I’m sure you would appreciate what makes this so funny. His throaty, raspy voice played a role in making him an exciting talker, and when the time came, a great heel.

We begin to see a brawl forming in this segment of the match. Tight punches and uppercuts were landed by both wrestlers, but Hart’s attacks became noticeably more malicious. Hart smashed Michaels with a clothesline — a clothesline so aggressive you could hear the slap on it — and drove his knee into his back, causing a collision with the referee. Hart then focused his attack on HBK’s back.

The match was officially halfway through, and Hart’s actions were demonstrative of a change in personality, albeit subtly.

Q3 – Planting seeds

Hart, the defining babyface of a generation, was beginning to behave in a way that was unbecoming of this era’s greatest babyface. We’ve seen this in other face vs. face matchups where one of the wrestlers takes on a subtle heel role to bring balance to the match; Hart was assigned this same role four years earlier when he wrestled “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith at Wembley Stadium.

The common denominator between this match and Hart’s match with Davey Boy is the reverence for his performance. As Hart put it in his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, his ethos for matches wherein he lost was to make fans “remember the loser.”

This wasn’t done with the intent to overshadow the victory of his opponent, but for the opponent to get a greater rub off the fact that they beat Bret Hart.

“The Showstopper” shined throughout this part of the match by exhibiting his fearlessness and awesome athleticism. Call Michaels’ brand of selling “overselling” if you want, but there’s no denying that some incredible visuals happened as a result of his selling, which included him bouncing, flying, and flailing his limbs. There’s even a bump he takes to the outside of the ring where he flipped clean over the corner turnbuckles inside the ring, causing the cameraman standing outside to run away like debris was falling from the Arrowhead Pond’s (now the Honda Center) ceiling.

Steve Austin’s match with Hart at the following year’s WrestleMania is marked as the start of Hart’s transition into a bona fide heel, but it could be argued that started here.

Near the end of these 15 minutes, Hart knocked Michaels to the outside of the ring, falling directly onto Jose Lothario (his trainer and manager at the time), and strutted around the ring after. You could start to hear a diverse reaction to Hart’s antics, with some of the crowd applauding him while others booed him.

Hart was the kind of performer to never play to a crowd. Even as wrestling evolved towards a faster-paced style, he remained grounded in what he knew always worked for him. This made his next move all the more surprising; Hart, noticing he was receiving boos from the crowd, gave them something more to boo for and exited the ring solely to toss Michaels into the steel steps in the corner, once again crashing with the elderly Lothario who couldn’t get out of the way, and showing no remorse about it.

This night would be Hart’s final on-screen appearance for about eight months after requesting some time off to rest. This was well-deserved, considering Hart was the company’s literal iron man. Thankfully, none of the work done in this match to tease a heel turn went to waste, and when he returned to the WWF later in the year, fans witnessed these minor transgressions become something more.

Q4 – Deadlock

The preceding quarter saw the pace pick up, and now it was time for Hart & Michaels to maintain it. Desperation set in and both threw everything they had at each other. The score remained even at 0-0, with neither man scoring a decision of any kind in the first 45 minutes.

Pin or submission attempts up to this point were rare, and that might have been done for fear of draining the crowd with near falls. Now, it was the final stretch and Hart hit Michaels with everything from a superplex to a suicide dive. Michaels dominated the final five minutes by going for big move after big move and pin attempt after pin attempt. In a last-ditch effort, Michaels goes to the top rope, hoping to land an aerial attack, but Hart caught hold of his legs and quickly locked in the Sharpshooter, but time runs out before Michaels could submit.

This one hour of wrestling is only a microcosm of Michaels and Hart’s complex history and rivalry together. Their story went beyond what the camera saw, and in the years since they last faced each other, there have been books, TV shows, and feature-length documentaries produced or published on the matter.

On this night in Anaheim, Calif., whatever real-life tension they had didn’t exist. The only thing that mattered was piecing together a match that would hopefully define both of their legacies. According to Hart’s book, earlier that day he and Michaels sat down to plan the match, with Michaels planning the first 25 minutes, and the rest being left to him.

In those final five minutes, Hart was relieved to realize they had accomplished everything they set out to do. They had made it to the end of the match and kept the crowd invested. In Michaels’ offensive onslaught with five minutes remaining, you could hear the effect of having a timed match. Fans were aware time was running out and were clamoring for someone to score a fall and win the match.

Despite not forcing Michaels to surrender to the Sharpshooter, Hart claimed his WWF Championship and proceeded to exit the scene before he was halted by the announcement that the match would continue under sudden death rules: No time limit and the first fall wins.

Sudden Death

Hart was visibly displeased with this announcement. He bickered with Gorilla Monsoon — the on-screen president of the company at the time — for a short while and went back to attacking Michaels’ back. The match ended shortly after when Hart ate two Sweet Chin Musics from Michaels, who then scored the clean pinfall.

You may be familiar with Vince McMahon’s call on the result, “The boyhood dream… has come true, for Shawn Michaels!”

The match was done and Michaels celebrated to close the show. “It’s the greatest match I ever had,” Hart proudly announced in his book.

Selling, pace, quips, big moves, tension, and drama all congregated to make a very digestible hour of television.

It could be argued both men have authored better matches — trust me, I think they definitely have — but what I don’t think can be argued is that this is either wrestler’s most impressive match. Perhaps its most impressive quality is that it doesn’t feel like it’s an hour long. It was paced in a way that didn’t bore the crowd and kept their interest unfaltering despite how tame it was in some moments.

As mentioned earlier, Hart and Michaels blazed a trail, but they also accomplished keeping the Ironman match relevant in WWF/E for years to come. There have been several Ironman matches since that have usurped it, in my opinion, but the likes of Kurt Angle and Sasha Banks would never have had the chance to have classics of their own under this stipulation if it weren’t for the original Ironmen.

Both men were immensely proud of the match; in the WWE-produced Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart DVD, the namesakes sat side-by-side in the same room and were interviewed by Jim Ross. They both praised each other for the role they played in the bout. (This is a must-watch for any WWE fan. It’s an introspective, at-times awkward, look at grief and forgiveness. The tension pushes both Hart and Michaels to be totally honest with each other)

Next. WrestleMania’s 5 Greatest Finishes. dark

Though their relationship soured because of great mistrust and profound pettiness, they eventually found it in themselves to reconcile and form a friendship like the one they had before wrestling politics ruined it. At WrestleMania XII, there weren’t any trust issues present; each man held the other’s safety and reputation in their hands and created a one-hour-plus masterpiece of athleticism and drama that would be regarded by fans and people in the industry as one of the most important wrestling matches ever.