Order the e-book version of The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era here
The above link is for purchasers in the USA, but the book is on sale at the discounted rate worldwide, so visit your Amazon site if not in the United States
Happy Holidays, ladies and gentlemen! I thought I’d give you a bit more content to check out to give you a better idea of how the book functions this time rather than posting reviews, though I am of course proud of the worldwide 5-star rating thus far! If you want a good, thorough, critical review, this is an option. Basically, the book goes like this: an introduction to the concept of creating uniformity in how we judge pro wrestling matches, an explanation of the rankings process, 50 Honorable Mentions, and then the Top 100, each of which features a match or rivalry profile like the one included below for Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart. Enjoy the sample, enjoy the book, and enjoy the last few days of 2018!
Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart
WrestleMania X to Summerslam 1994
#1 All-Time at Summerslam / Top 20 All-Time at WrestleMania / #1 All-Time Pay-Per-View Opening Match / Top 5 All-Time Cage Match / Match of the Year in 1994
Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart may not have been the most glamorous feud with the most high profile matches and it may not have taken place in the most lucrative era but, like in boxing when a fighter is called the best “pound for pound” in the world, their brotherly duels made up the best “match for match” series of the 1990s, including the greatest opening match on pay-per-view ever and the blueprint for how to work a deeply affecting, wildly entertaining technically-styled match (at WrestleMania X), and the smartest Cage Match in history that doubles as the all-time best overall match at Summerslam, having gone head-to-head with the other 5-star caliber bouts in August Classic lore to earn that distinction.
The simplicity of it, from the start, was the source of its brilliance. Owen was a sparingly used wrestler who had been around for a while, but who had never caught his big break. His older brother, Bret, meanwhile, was the first Grand Slam Champion (holder of all the major titles at some point in time) and the leader of The New Generation. Theirs was a story of intense jealousy and, though we had seen that before between larger-than-life personas, the manner in which the Bret vs. Owen story was told embraced the understated demeanor and workmanlike approach of The Hitman that tonally defined the period between 1994 and 1997 and was, as such, made to feel like it could be happening to you or someone close to you; perhaps no prior rivalry in the WrestleMania Era had ever been so relatable.
At Survivor Series ’93, the Hart brothers (Bruce and Keith included) teamed up for a traditional Elimination Match. Unquestionably, it was the biggest thing that Owen had ever been given the opportunity to do in the WWF but, though he looked like a million bucks in that match – every bit the horribly underutilized wrestler that he was – he was the lone Hart to be eliminated, thanks to an inadvertent collision with Bret.
The story that they would go onto tell over the next year has become timeless; and that it can be interpreted differently now than it was told then is one of its greatest strengths in such an “all-time”-centered discussion. What WWF presented in 1993/1994 was Bret, the wise older brother and very much the protagonist in the story, trying as hard as he could to save his family after his little brother’s envy came close to tearing it apart, but who was eventually driven to fight after Owen had taken things too far; and the presentation was so marvelously acted by both that it stands the test of time as it was presented. Interpretation of something so genuinely relatable, however, allows for the Owen-Bret situation to be reframed in a different context: with Owen as the protagonist.
How easy is it to connect with Owen’s arc too? Even if you had no sibling to rival, you could still relate with a best friend horsing around and causing you to roll your ankle before the big game, consequently keeping you on the sidelines while your team achieved a great victory; or a best friend with an amazing career costing you a job that you really wanted; or any number of similar instances of someone with everything you desire knowingly or unknowingly making you feel held down in some way. Can you imagine then being able to play in the big game to redeem yourself for missing the previous, being wide open for the win, and your best friend fumbling your chance away like Bret did to Owen at Royal Rumble ’94? Though Bret had managed to talk him down over the holidays in 1993 and make amends by getting them a Tag Team Championship shot at The Rumble, Owen again came away feeling like his big brother had tried to hog the spotlight in what The Rocket had outright stated in a pre-match backstage interview was “the biggest match of his life.” Bret hurt his knee and, rather than tag in Owen, he tried a last ditch attempt at The Sharpshooter before his leg pain became intolerable and the referee stopped the match to protect him.
In today’s world, Owen would likely have been embraced by an audience sympathetic to his cause but, back then, Owen was so good at being such a jerk about what had happened (i.e. verbal tirades galore and kicking Bret’s “leg right out of [his] leg”) that he emerged as the top heel character of 1994. Framed in whichever context resonates with you most on any given viewing, particularly of their first match, it is hard to argue that the Bret-Owen family drama is quite possibly the most rewatchable saga in WWE history.
WrestleMania X was a legendary night for the brothers Hart. Bret, in his autobiography, expertly described the fine line that they so seamlessly walked in order to ensure that Owen’s eye-popping skills did not turn the crowd in his favor. “He played the nasty little brother, cheating viciously at every turn, and I kept outsmarting him, but never in a way that made me look overconfident or cocky,” he said. Owen was insufferable throughout the match, his impressive mastery of the envious younger sibling surely due in part to honest emotions that he tapped into and up to which he turned the detestable volume to ten. Bret, aided by his arguable-best-of-all-time grasp of how much more raw emotion pro wrestling is capable of drawing out of people when theatrics are deemphasized, put in one of his many performances worthy of a Best Actor nomination; there was not a single moment of the match in which he did anything to threaten his status as the protagonist. Also, to further emphasize a common theme from that era, Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler were excellent in their roles on commentary, King never wavering in his affection for Owen born of his hatred for Bret and McMahon gloriously cheesy in his steadfast defense of Bret’s virtues.
It was a masterpiece in storytelling, a benchmark for elevating a lower card talent, a perfect example of what made The Hitman one of the Top 10 stars of the WrestleMania Era, and the definitive case for why Owen deserves the Hall of Fame nod…and yet it still was not quite as good as their Cage Match for the WWF Championship at Summerslam.
WWE set-up WrestleMania X perfectly. Owen was showcased as Bret’s equal in the opening contest and, being craftier than the master of craftiness, cleanly pinned The Hitman with a counter to a Victory Roll. Bret, of course, went onto defeat Yokozuna to regain the WWF Title in the main-event. The Rocket had a legitimate claim to a title shot. To further enhance Owen’s resume, he won the King of the Ring tournament in June, outsmarting Tatanka, submitting 123 Kid, and getting by another of the era’s top stars in Razor Ramon with a little bit of help from his brother-in-law – and most notably Bret’s long-time tag team partner – Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, who earlier in the night had helped The Excellence of Execution retain the WWF Title. The Anvil had colluded with Owen to both ensure The Rocket’s King of the Ring coronation and guarantee that Bret would remain champion long enough for Owen to get a chance to take the title from him. The Anvil’s decision to side with The King of Harts added another dynamic to the family’s on-going turmoil as Summerslam approached.
More and more members of the Hart clan were highlighted, leading to the vast majority of the family (including the returning Davey Boy Smith) sitting at ringside for the WWF Championship bout at Summerslam. The Cage Match stipulation became necessary for the purpose of keeping the likes of Neidhart, who played a central role between King of the Ring and Summerslam as the figure who had initially planted the seeds of jealousy in Owen, and other Harts out of the fray. The Cage raised the stakes; and there is just something to this day about that old blue-barred cage that enhances the look and feel of the gimmick.
Unostentatious as The Hitman himself, the Cage Match between Owen and Bret stands out as the most unique version in the stipulation’s long and storied history, a performance that asks its audience to be patient and to pay attention to detail and then rewards everyone willing to go along for the ride with continually elevating emotional peaks and valleys. The underlying theme of the match-type so often, as demonstrated so well by the earlier-mentioned Blanchard-Magnum TA “I Quit,” was imprisonment in order to facilitate violence. A bloody war Bret vs. Owen was not; the battle between the Hart brothers was simply about winning…because winning means you are the best, holding the WWF Championship means you are the best, and beating your brother means you are the best. In this case, the only means to victory were escaping over the cage or through the door, and so for over thirty-minutes they scratched and clawed toward escape.
The animosity between them did not so much spark a desire to hurt each other physically, then, as it lit within each of them a burning passion to emerge the best wrestler from a family whose very existence had revolved around wrestling for fifty years. Though the match threatens to watch as far too tame for its genre due to the typical standard, it actually ends up being riveting due to the constant sense that it could be over at any moment; Owen vs. Bret is like methodical sex peaking with the perfect climax. Much like the Ladder Match at WrestleMania X, Owen and Bret’s Cage Match is so smooth and authoritative in its intent that it compares favorably even to sub-genres that are far more aesthetically-engaging; using another analogy, it is like jazz, whereas Hell in a Cell or more violent editions from the Cage Match library are like hard rock. Bret vs. Owen, it should be noted, was certainly not without its fair share of crescendos, citing specifically their roughly-dozen falls from the top rope and steel bars, chief among them Bret’s Superplex of Owen from near the top of the cage.
Bret Hart denies that it was the greatest Cage Match of all-time, admitting only that “it was surely the best one without blood,” but in respectful disagreement with The Best There Is, The Best There Was, and The Best There Ever Will Be, no other Cage Match can claim to be quite so idiosyncratic, so special that nothing else watches quite like it.
It remains to be seen if the rest of the Top 10 greatest matches, rivalries, and stories will be able to endure quite like Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart has for the last twenty-five years. Confidently, if these rankings had been made fifteen years ago, Owen-Bret would have been in the Top 5, it remains in the Top 5 presently, and when these rankings are revised fifteen years from now, it will assuredly still be in the Top 10. It is an eternal all-time Top 10 member.
Order the e-book version of The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era here