wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 Bret Hart Rivalries

January 11, 2015 | Posted by Mike Chin

Bret Hart was one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time. He was, in many ways, the successor to Hulk Hogan’s throne as the top of face in WWF, but approached big-time feuds in a wholly different way—not as an irresistible physical force, but more as an everyman. His feuds were more personal and rooted in wrestling credibility, and for the outcomes were rarely foregone conclusions.

Hart had some truly outstanding feuds, and this week I am looking at seven of the best of them.

#7. Davey Boy Smith

In 1992, the WWF hosted SummerSlam at Wembley Stadium and the stage was set for Davey Boy Smith to have the biggest night of his career. He wasn’t in the world title picture, but rather competing for the Intercontinental Championship (at a time when it still was quite prestigious) and performing in the main event opposite Bret Hart—a master worker and Smith’s real-life brother-in-law.

Against a backdrop of kayfabe family dissension, Hart and Smith proceeded to deliver one of the greatest matches of my lifetime in a fluid, back and forth, face vs. face match that set Hart and Smith’s opposing advantages—grappling and athleticism versus raw power—in clear contrast and led to one of the best pure wrestling WWF main events of its era.

That first run and great match would be enough to bring Hart-Smith to the edge of this countdown, but the point to really elevate the rivalry into the number seven slot came when the WWF revisited the feud three years later, with Hart as world champion and Smith still a relatively new heel. While Hart was a heavy favorite, and The British Bulldog didn’t exactly seem poised for a world title run, the WWF was shrewdly able to build credibility for Smith in this specific matchup based on the men’s history, and Smith picking up the clean pin three years earlier. Hart won this good, but less remarkable rematch to give some closure to the idea of Davey Boy Smith as a main eventer. A couple years later, the two would cross paths again, but this time as allies under the banner of the new Hart Foundation stable.

#6. Mr. Perfect

Sometimes wrestlers have their best programs pitted against performers with opposite or complementary skillsets. Sometimes they make magic for all of the similarities between the two. Such was the case for Bret Hart and Mr. Perfect—portrayed, respectively, as a hardworking everyman and arrogant perfectionist, but in reality probably the two best pure in-ring technicians of their era. Perfect debuted in WWF toward the top of the card feuding with Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior, before being more firmly situated at the top of the mid-card where he anchored the Intercontinental Championship scene for the better part of a year. Hart emerged from the tag team division and rose through the singles ranks to get a shot at the IC strap.

Hart and Perfect delivered one of the greatest SummerSlam matches of all time in 1991, in which Hennig pushed his real-life bad back from his mind to put over Hart strong—letting him kick out of the Perfectplex and submitting in seconds to the Sharpshooter.

The two would meet again in a rare-for-the-time face vs. face match up during the King of the Ring tournament in 1993, and briefly rekindle their rivalry on and off in late-90s WCW—a feud that was fairly inconsequential in terms of storyline by that point, but nonetheless continued to deliver great matches.

Mr. Perfect was one of a small handful of wrestlers who could truly hang with Bret Hart in the prime of his career, and particularly in its first iteration, the program went a long way toward legitimizing The Hitman.

#5. Yokozuna

In late 1992, the WWF started the Bret Hart experiment in earnest, when he got his first world title reign. A segment of the fans—myself included—bought in and appreciated The Hitman’s unique skillset as a main eventer. Just the same, he couldn’t reproduce Hogan-eque box office numbers, and thus, when given the opportunity, Vince McMahon opted to put the strap back on The Hulkster.

He did so by way of Yokozuna.

Yokozuna debuted as an indestructible monster, mowing down jobbers and winning the Royal Rumble, last eliminating Randy Savage. He was set up as the challenger to Bret Hart for WrestleMania 9, won the strap by nefarious means and promptly dropped it to Hogan.

When 1993 Hogan neither caught fire, nor demonstrated a willingness to work the full WWF calendar, Yokozuna got back the strap. The WWF tried out Lex Luger as the next top face, but when that didn’t pan out come spring, Hart got the nod again, beating Yokozuna in the main event of WrestleMania 10.

I can’t claim to have originated this turn of phrase, but my favorite interpretation of WrestleMania 10 was that it was as close as Vince McMahon has ever come to a public apology for misbooking his talents. At WrestleMania 9, Hart was a plucky young champ who could compete, but ultimately could not overcome the mighty Yokozuna. A year later, he beat the big man clean to relaunch his world title run. Combined, the matchups shored up Hart as a meaningful WWF champ, and put together the best in-ring outings of Yoko’s career.

#4. Owen Hart

This is the point of the countdown at which we transition from good feuds to great feuds, and the competition gets much stiffer. I’m sure plenty of folks will give me a hard time for not putting this program in the top three, and, truth be told, I was pretty torn.

Bret vs. Owen got a lot of mileage out of how realistic it was. Particularly through a kayfabe lens, this feud was not like the disintegration of the bond between the Hardy brothers leading into WrestleMania 25 in which Matt tried to kill Jeff and their first real one-on-one encounter was an Extreme Rules Match. There was a slow burn build with plenty of foreshadowing as Owen was a little too prideful to team with his brothers at Survivor Series and understandably miffed when Bret being in the wrong place at the wrong time caused him to be the only member of the team eliminated—lending a sense he’d been shown up by not only Bret, but also his non-WWF Superstar brothers. The two made an earnest effort to reconcile and pursue tag team glory, but when that run didn’t result in a title win, Owen’s frustrations compounded upon themselves. In the follow up, Bret reluctantly accepted a match against his increasingly obnoxious younger brother—a match that Owen won, which was also believable in the sense that, despite being lower on the card, it made sense that he would know his brother’s moves well enough to steal a pin off of him. Owen went on to follow in his brother’s footsteps in winning the King of the Ring tournament to set up an earnest steel cage grudge match between the two at SummerSlam 1994.

The feud would move along more subtly from there—Owen as cornerman for Bob Backlund against Bret, and as a general background antagonist as Bret moved on to feud with other upper mid-card talents, and Owen transitioned to tag ranks with Bret’s old rival Yokozuna.

The Bret-Owen feud told a compelling story, resulted in two excellent one-on-one matches, and ended in one of the most perversely satisifying reunions I can recall in wrestling, when they reunited as heels in the new Hart Foundation.

#3. Jerry Lawler

No, the Bret Hart-Jerry Lawler program did not produce as many great matches as Bret-Owen, but it did result in off the charts heat. It all started when Hart won the first PPV King of the Ring tournament and Lawler crashed his coronation with a brutal beatdown. The war was on, and Lawler played his chickenshit heel role to a tee, picking his spots, dodging confrontations, and picking sleezy wins, such as his DQ victory at SummerSlam 1993 when Hart wouldn’t let go of the Sharpshooter. The feud would continue off and on for over a year, and include Lawler insinuating Isaac Yankem, Doink the Clown, and Hakushi as proxies, indirectly leading to some very good matches, before really coming to a head in a Kiss My Foot Match in the summer of 1995. While Lawler would continue to antagonize Hart over commentary in the years to come, it was clear that Hart had, rightly, gotten the last laugh for the feud.

The additional wrinkle that really pushes this feud over the edge to get the number three spot in my book is the Memphis factor. Lawler had an unusual deal with the WWF of the time, in that he worked under the WWF banner while still running and wrestling for his USWA promotion in Memphis—not to mention being the biggest face of that promotion while acting as a heel when he performed anywhere else in the US. As a result, when Vince McMahon agreed to send Bret and Owen down to Memphis to help out Lawler, they played the role of unlikely heels to Lawler’s hero, creating a unique, simultaneous parallel universe in the world of kayfabe. At the time, I experienced it through the lens of Apter magazines, and while Bret spoke poorly of the experience in his memoir, it remains a fascinating footnote to both men’s careers.

#2. Steve Austin

Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin was not a great feud by design, but was probably one of the happiest accidents of its time. Hart was a main eventer who temporarily found himself outside the world title picture. Austin was a mechanic, brought in to deliver high caliber matches and put over the real stars.

When Austin became Stone Cold, he took on a rough-around-the-edges, disrespectful persona that ran in direct opposition to everything Bret Hart represented in the sense of traditional values. The two were paired for Survivor Series 1996 and turned in an instant classic of a match. Then, when Shawn Michaels lost his smile, the deck got shuffled and the two were pitted against one another again at WrestleMania 13, for a match that many argue was the single best match in WrestleMania history, including a remarkable double turn in which Hart walked in a face and left a heel, and Austin capitalized on his growing popularity to unofficially turn face. The two would go on to represent opposite sides of a US vs. Canada feud that might have seemed farcical or anachronistic in less able hands, but actually manifested as a red hot program that went a long way toward kickstarting the Attitude Era.

Very few rivalries can be recognized as worthy representations or defining factors in shaping a paradigm shift in wrestling. Stone Cold vs. The Hitman was not only a rivalry that resulted in multiple exceptional matches, but a feud that went a long way toward changing the course of wrestling culture.

#1. Shawn Michaels

Could there be any other pick for number one? And what can I say about Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart that hasn’t already been expressed in documentaries, shoot interviews, panels, books, and hundreds, if not thousands of other Internet columns?

A quick and highly reductive summary: Hart and Michaels each rose through the tag ranks, then met in the WWF mid-card, then again in the WWF main event scene for a spotlight rivalry that proceeded off and on for the next five years (conveniently book-ended by their first world title match at Survivor Series 1992 and their last showdown at Survivor Series 1997). In the mid-1990s, a real-life beef rooted in ambition, conflicting values, and political machinations took over, culminating in the Montreal Screwjob that exiled Hart from WWE programming for almost a decade. Hart and Michaels were smaller wrestlers who contended for the top spot as the face of the WWF—a war that each of them arguably ceded to Steve Austin in the end.

Between the shoot intrigue, the simply superb in-ring matches, and the rivalry’s capacity for longevity whilst maintaining the interest of the WWF viewership, there was no greater rivalry in either man’s career—and very few that can compare in all of wrestling history.

What are your picks for the top Bret Hart rivals? Vince McMahon? Bob Backlund? Diesel? Let us know in the comments section. See you in seven.

Read stories and miscellaneous criticism from Mike Chin at his website and his thoughts on a cappella music at The A Cappella Blog. Follow him on Twitter @miketchin.