- Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan (1980-1988)
- Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes/Ricky Steamboat/Terry Funk (1985-89)
- Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels (1989-1997)
- Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Mr. McMahon (1997-1999)
- Kane vs. Undertaker (1997-)
- The Rock vs. Triple H (1996-)
- Diamond Dallas Page vs. Macho Man Randy Savage (1997)
- Trish Stratus vs. Lita (2000-2006)
- Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. (1997-2005)
- Edge & Christian vs. Hardy Boyz vs. Dudley Boyz (1999-2009)
This week (on my birthday) we take a look at 2 of the most colorful, controversial & most heated rivalries to ever be devised: HBK vs The Hitman & Stone Cold vs Mr. McMahon. These two super rivalries consisted of intense personal combat and unforgettable memories which forged the way for an entire generation of competitors and viewers alike to live a life with attitude…
Excellence Personified: Looking back over the fence at the World Wrestling Federation, the 90s ushered in a younger, more brash style of character. Bravado mixed with a more physically-expressed machismo and a more psychologically-enhanced focus seemed to be the door into the future at that time. From the ashes of the glory days of Hulkamania rose an age of intense in-ring competition, aggressively fueled by opposing life philosophies. A “new generation” hit the scene and began to morph the foundation of wrestling from over the top cartoon characters and off-color skits to a subtler, faster-paced form of combative entertainment. This movement was led by two men who walked strikingly similar yet very different paths. Bret Hart was born of a traditional wrestling family. Being one of 12 children, and his father, Stu, a thoroughly respected and distinguished amateur wrestling star whose career lasted from the 40s through his official retirement in 1986. The Hart patriarch even trained arguably some of the most technically tough, not to mention most hard-nosed personalities to ever dawn a pair of tights & boots (Iron Sheik, Ole Anderson, Nikolai Volkoff, “Superstar” Billy Graham; Stu’s teachings would be passed down for generations). From background alone, Bret was destined for great success in the world of grappling. His first taste of true success came during the mid-1980s; riding the undercurrent of the Hogan/Andre wave of pandemonium, a solid tag team division was being formed. At the helm was Bret along with his future brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, together known as “The Hart Foundation” they set the entire tag team scene and destroyed every challenge; with Bret’s technical savvy, speed, and futuristic sunglasses complimenting Neidhart’s overpowering, no nonsense, pointed-beard ground attack. Although, amongst the rubble were the British Bulldogs and a few other exceptional teams who helped construct the baseline of tag team wrestling in the late ‘80s. As the ‘90s loomed closer, The Hart Foundation continued to lay the groundwork for more athletic duos to showcase their skills on a popular worldwide platform. Then in 1988, like a lit firework, one duo busted onto the scene, added high-risk excitement & mesmerizing tandem offense which ignited the crowd. The combination of Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels; known then as “The Rockers” showed to be very innovative & flamboyant as they danced and super kicked their way to success. These two teams did battle many times, both stood atop the tag team ranks at alternating points, crafting their skills and biding their time until the right opportunity presented itself. Then in 1991, almost simultaneously, both breakout stars decided to rid themselves of their longtime partners and pursue singles glory. Bret went on to be known as “The Hitman” due to his superior knowledge of submission wrestling and his precise execution of his maneuvers. These skills were only icing on the cake to Bret’s heralded sportsmanship as well as his high level of integrity which his father undoubtedly beat into him. For example, in the summer of 1994 Bret was the WWE(F) Champion and performed an incredible match with then-known wrestler “123 Kid”, Bret pinned the kid for the 3 count, referee was going to end the match but kid’s foot was on the rope which is supposed to break up the pin. Bret demanded the match continue, which it did moments before Bret locked in his signature “Sharpshooter” hold, officially ending the match. Sometimes, a man’s principles will win him battles, other times they will cost him. He earned worldwide respect for his endeavors, and achieved becoming the World Wrestling Federation Championship five times prior to his unceremonious departure in late 1997 (more on that in a minute).
Shawn Michaels was born into a military family. One can imagine the intensity one would have to endure; always traveling, constantly having to make new friends, etc. The future “Heartbreak kid” may not have been born into the wrestling business but being the son of a serviceman undoubtedly breeds one to be a bit more thick-skinned than your average joe. After arriving in WWE(F) in 1988, The Rockers were one of the hottest acts, providing a different, flashy, high-flying style which enthralled fans across the globe. Both the Hart Foundation & The Rockers took the tag team division by storm until both pairs broke up in the very early 90s. Bret left his partner in 1991 and went on to win the Intercontinental Championship twice; once from Mr. Perfect in one of the best Summerslam matches of all time, and the other time from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at WrestleMania 8 in a classic performance. In 1992, Shawn decided to put his partner through a plate-glass window, sending him into obscurity and walking his own path down the road to superstardom and ever since has made being the “Marty Jannetty” of a successful tag team into the running joke of professional wrestling.
As both careers paralleled each other like a two-player game of “snake” eventually their paths must cross. Fun fact: Shawn & Bret had the very first ladder match in company history for the WWE(F) Championship at the 1992 Survivor Series Event. Bret was riding high as the “top guy’ in wrestling for a few years. Then in 1996, Shawn won the annual Royal Rumble which put them on a collision course at the biggest event ever at that time WrestleMania 12. To make this confrontation unforgettable, it was announced to be an “Iron Man Match” which was decided to be a full hour of nonstop in-ring competition with the man who scores the most pinfalls/submissions during the allotted time period will be the undisputed champion going forward. After what many consider the greatest match of all-time (yours truly included), the match lasted the full 1 hour without one man getting a decision over the other, the score was 0-0 when the bell rang to conclude the contest. Bret assumed victory and carried his belt toward the aisle. The official in charge, Gorilla Monsoon, ordered the match continue into overtime until there is a clear winner. Bret reluctantly re=entered the ring and continued an onslaught on Michael’s back. Then out of nowhere HBK hits a direct super kick (Sweet Chin Music) to capture his first of 4 World titles. Bret walked away into the shadows for a few months to refresh himself. Upon returning he noticed a change amongst not only the other wrestlers, but also the attitude of the fans and society in general during the fall of 1996.
As Bret tried to uphold his strong family values & wholesome beliefs, he noticed fans gravitating toward more rebellious, brash personalities such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels who were notorious for their outspoken nature/less-than-honorable tactics. Bret thought best to seek refuge in family; he assembled the new Hart Foundation with his Canadian brethren Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart, Brian Pillman, and the British Bulldog. This unit was a formidable force; starting a national pridewar between the U.S. and Canada during the Spring into the Fall of 1997. During this time, Shawn Michaels would become associated with Hunter Hearst Helmsley better, known to fans now as Triple H. Together these two, along with the 9th Wonder of the World Chyna, formed Degeneration X; a rebel faction who completely disregarded every rule and urinated over every formality they encountered. Fans responded positively to the multiple acts of defiance & constant sophomoric comedy, which enraged “The Hitman” as he challenged Michaels to a final battle where one man would stand atop the Federation as “The Man” and the other will blaze his path elsewhere. During the historic match, the tension was almost visible until the unthinkable happened. Shawn Michaels put Bret Hart into his own submission maneuver and the referee turned to ring the bell ending the match and awarding the championship to the “Heartbreak Kid” surrounded by unbelievable controversy. The owner of the World Wrestling Federation appeared at ringside as Bret spit in his face before decimating the ringside area, throwing television monitors, even punching McMahon backstage after the event, exposing him as the master manipulator behind the scenes of the entire organization. Bret would immediately leave the company and appear for rival WCW in the months & years to follow while Shawn Michaels went on to severely injure his back in early 1998, sidelining him for 4 ½ years. He later returned full time in 2002 and enjoyed a legendary career until his official retirement in 2010(ironically the same year Bret returned to bury the hatchet and confront his former employer after the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” at Survivor Series 13 years earlier). This ended the chapter of the most controversial era in sports entertainment history (1997-2010).
Corporate Rebel: As the dust settled from the Montreal screw job, in the aftermath of the departure of one of the most beloved figures in history rises a juggernaut. A new corporate image rapidly swept across the land of McMahon. Ruling with an iron fist, the chairman of the World Wrestling Federation stopped at nothing to get the outcomes he deemed appropriate, if that included “screwing” one of his employees to gain a mental advantage and/or attain physical intimidation, so be it. As long as Mr. McMahon got his way, everything was as smooth as a baby’s butt cheek. Then the glass was shattered in the boss’ figurative fortress of conformity. A rebellious, angry, raging redneck from south Texas named “Stone Cold” Steve Austin didn’t even know the meaning of the word humility much less see himself as “just another pawn” in McMahon’s entertainment chess game.
Every order and demand from “Vinnie Mac” was met by acts of blatant chaos, defiance, and physical assault. After Stone Cold won the championship from Shawn Michaels in March of 1998, the age of attitude was officially kicked off as Steve made the wildly popular decision to do things the “hard way” and give his employer the middle finger every time they were in within eye distance of each other. Austin overcame numerous opponents McMahon presented so the boss had to use his superior intellect to counter the “Texas Rattlesnake’s” vicious path of dominance during the hayday of the much celebrated “attitude era”. The evil McMahon even went so far as to “swerve” the audience, and other wrestlers, in order to gain the upper hand on his arch-nemesis. Any upper hands gained were always short-lived as the “Bionic Redneck” seemed to constantly find a way to get one over on his tormentor. From pouring cement into McMahon’s expensive luxury car, driving a beer truck into the arena and drenching the chairman & his son, or pulling a fake gun on him after an unreasonable firing, simply so we could enjoy the distinguished head of the WWE(F) empire soiling his pants and being humiliated on live nation-wide television.
The master puppeteer was as strong-willed as his adversary, though. The ruthless billionaire went so far as to create “master plans” and form a protective faction known as “The Corporation” to ensure the heartless tycoon’s wishes go according to plan. Stone Cold would not let the numbers game deter him from becoming a 6-time champion, and the face of his tormentor’s company; opening cans of whoop-@$$ everywhere he went before stomping mud holes in everyone he encountered then walking them dry, which earned him the moniker “toughest s.o.b” in history. After a severe neck injury at the hands of Owen Hart greatly shortened Austin’s tenure as a performer, McMahon saw this as the perfect excuse to endorse The Rock as the millennium’s newest and most charismatic superstar. Austin wasn’t ready to step aside and held off The Rock’s persistent campaign of electrifying showmanship at two WrestleManias (15 & 17) but the “People’s Champion” would not be denied on his third attempt; thwarting and ultimately retiring arguably the most successful & popular “superstar” McMahon’s company had ever seen up until that point at the 19th installment of the boss’ self-confessed greatest creation. From the late ‘90’s into the turn of the 21st century; this rivalry set the bar to new heights with record-breaking merchandise sales, crowd attendance, television ratings, emotional investment, as well as lucrative monthly pay-per-view buy rates soared higher than ever during this blockbuster, surreal segment in time, which those who lived through & watched all the timeless moments will keep them fondly in their hearts for the rest of their days. (1998-2003).
Next week we take a special look at the emergence of The Undertaker’s long lost brother Kane and their never-ending rivalry/alliance. Also, The Rock’s career long feud with his greatest and most troublesome foe, Triple H…