When thinking of Bret "Hitman" Hart, it is easy to remember such classic moments as the WrestleMania 12 Iron Man Match against Shawn Michaels, his battles over the WWF World Heavyweight Championship with the Undertaker, the bloody war with Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13, and of course the controversial happenings of Montreal in 1997. Memories also harken back to Hart’s runs with the Intercontinental title and his iconic matches with Mr. Perfect and the British Bulldog at SummerSlam 1991 and 1992, respectively.
However, perhaps oddly, The Hitman’s first world title win does not always come straight to mind. A moment most wrestlers get remembered for, a point in time that can mark the change in a competitor’s status, from mid-carder to main-eventer with one 3-count or submission. In Hart’s case, the first elusive World Title victory did not just change his status but also the possible direction of the WWF as a whole. Here, we look back on a slightly surprising title victory on one October day in 1992, and how the WWF seemingly could not entirely pull the trigger on Bret Hart this first time around.
Living in the Shadow of Hulkamania
In ’92, the WWF World Title was in the hands of Ric Flair. Somewhat smaller than many of his 1980’s predecessors, Flair was rightfully viewed as a bonafide main event player due in part to his name value and history in the wrestling business. Headling many NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions shows for years, Flair’s stock was still as high in 1992 as it was in his ’80s run "down south." "Slick" Ric was in possession of the championship synonymous with Hulk Hogan before him, which was customarily contested between huge mountains of men in the WWF’s "Land of the Giants" through the previous decade.
However, at this stage in WWF history, the giants were disappearing. Hogan was gone, pursuing a career in Hollywood. Potential successor Sid Justice had departed the company amidst failed drug test rumors and backstage issues with management. The former fan-favorite The Ultimate Warrior was again self-destructing his main event chances and was released.
Short on leading talent and a natural "good guy" to carry the championship, Vince McMahon looked within his promotion for a challenger to Ric Flair. After holding the Intercontinental Championship on two occasions and experiencing a rise in popularity, Bret Hart became the company’s chosen new flag bearer.
As with Flair, Hart was slightly smaller in stature to some of the previous WWF Champions that had been a financial success for the company. However, what Bret lacked in size, he made up for in his ability. Able to work with anyone and put on an engaging match, Hart’s more technical mat-based style was a different direction to the powerhouse methods displayed by Hogan and his peers prior. McMahon decided that "The Hitman" was just the man to line up to challenge Flair.
This is where we start to see the differences in the WWF’s attitude towards the title and champion that go further than just the change in size and ring style. Hart’s title match would not be on a big pay-per-view with the world watching, as Hogan and the Warrior had become accustomed to in the past.
Bret would challenge Flair at a smaller show in Saskatoon, Canada. This event was not even broadcast on television, but rather taped for a Coliseum Video release later. The match itself, now easy to find, is as perfect an example of late 1992 WWF you can find. From referee Earl Hebner still sporting a light blue shirt and bow tie (as opposed to the now regular striped top) through to the red, white, and blue ring ropes, this is a real snippet of its time. The commentary by Gorilla Monsoon and Alfred Hayes added later for the videocassette release only adds to the nostalgia. The action itself is of a higher standard than many WWF title matches that preceded it.
Flair and Hart go back and forth for nearly 30 minutes, working various body parts and putting on a heck of a wrestling match. It was offbeat from the sometimes plodding, punch, and pose style of a few years past. Eventually, Hart forced the submission from Flair with his Sharpshooter finishing hold, and the fellow Canadians in attendance lapped it up.
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The First WWF Title Reign of Bret "Hitman" Hart
In this pre-Internet age, many fans were not aware that Hart had won his first World Championship. Some only learned of the title change when "The Hitman" defended it on an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event shortly afterward. A far cry from the fanfare and hype most Hogan title wins went hand in hand with. The fact that Hart was defending the championship so early in his reign against voodoo man Papa Shongo was also a step away from the Hogan days. Bret would often be described as a "fighting champion" on commentary as he wrestled on free television again and again in the early part of his championship run. Hogan, on the other hand, would very rarely defend his title on TV. You had to pay the big bucks back in the day to see the champion, brother.
Hart’s first pay-per-view title defense was against Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels at the 1992 Survivor Series in November. In another example of the change in championship promotion, Bret’s main event was against a challenger that the WWF did not build as a genuine threat at the time. Still viewed as a mid-card talent at this stage in his career, and with hardly any hype going into the match, HBK never really came across as someone who could dethrone the title holder in 1992. This was in complete contrast to just a year prior, where Hogan was billed almost like the underdog going into his title defense against The Undertaker.
The 1992 Survivor Series was very much a show that bridged the gap between the Hogan era of World Wrestling Entertainment and the New Generation of the company. This first high profile meeting between Hart and long-term nemesis Michaels still stands up today. When watching this contest back, the standard in quality between this title match and the previous years’ Hogan offering is vastly apparent. Hart had his routine, yes. His side Russian leg sweep, middle rope elbow, and Sharpshooter mainstays were there for all to see in most Bret matches. However, this still felt new and fresh. Hogan’s stale big boot and leg drop were nowhere to be found.
Hart continued to defend the title regularly on television. It could be said that less is more, however, as Hart’s regular matches were against the likes of Skinner, Papa Shango, and The Berserker. During his last run, Hogan would be seen far less but have more memorable contests against the likes of The Undertaker and Sgt. Slaughter. Not that these matches stand out due to in-ring quality, but more so that Hogan was an attraction. He was always portrayed as the star, and seeing him was a treat. Whereas Hart’s matches were technically superior, he was still carrying the slight aura of the mid-card workhorse, and not much was done in a promotional sense to change this.
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Next up for Bret "Hitman" Hart was 1993’s Royal Rumble, and newcomer Scott Hall. Debuting as "Razor Ramon," Hall was given numerous video packages on WWF television and billed as a considerable threat to Hart’s title reign. As Ramon rolled through squash matches and dominated the likes of Virgil on TV, the WWF commentary teams worked hard to build his status as a challenger Bret should have concerns about. For the first time in his three and a half month title reign, Bret was almost getting the Hogan treatment. The match itself was excellent. Bret, again showing why his in-ring ability warranted a title run, and Ramon being the perfect heel foil for "The Hitman." The contest felt more like a main event title match to the previous Hart defenses, mainly due to the work that was put in to portray Hall as a genuine challenger. Hart again retained using the Sharpshooter, and on this occasion, took notable strides in his believability as a top tier champion.
On that same January show, Hart’s next challenger stepped forward. The vast 505-pound Yokozuna had won the Royal Rumble. 1993 was the first year that the Rumble winner would receive a title shot at WrestleMania, so that year’s main event was fixed in place. Hart would take on the monster challenger in the main event of the biggest show of the year.
Of course, it was not Yokozuna or Bret Hart that left WrestleMania that year with the title. Bret was devastated to learn that the plan was for Yokozuna to defeat him, with Hogan then winning the title in an impromptu match right afterward. Again, the differences in how a Hogan title reign and this first championship run of Hart’s were handled was quite apparent. "The Hulkster" would never have had this scenario put upon him, never mind agree to it. Hart, forever the professional, played his part and left WrestleMania 9 as an afterthought in his own main event.
Recommended read: WrestleMania 9: The Controversy Behind HULK HOGAN Winning the Title
Bret, of course, went on to great success in the WWF. Four more title reigns followed, a fantastic run as a heel in 1997, with incredible matches regularly throughout his career. This first title run, however, showed how the WWF struggled with the idea of moving forward without the Golden Goose of "The Hulkster." Seemingly never backing Hart fully with the "Hogan Treatment" made Hart’s initial title run seem anti-climatic.
The Lasting Impact of the First WWF Title Reign of Bret "Hitman" Hart
Historically, Bret’s win over Flair in 1992 opened doors. Many years later, smaller, more technically gifted performers would win world titles. Wrestlers like Chris Benoit, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Eddie Guerrero are far from a perfect fit for the typical WWF mold of the ’80s, yet had success at the top. Hart’s title win in Saskatoon could be seen as a very early forerunner for these smaller talents’ success. Hart’s own long-term rival, Shawn Michaels, was also of smaller stature in comparison to a Hogan or Warrior and enjoyed much main event joy and financial reward in the years that followed.
It could be argued that Hart ascending to the main event picture here came around due to the steroid scandal, a lack of options, or directly down to Bret’s work ethic, making him hard to ignore. Whatever the reason, Hart’s first title reign pales in comparison to his later championship successes. However, this writer believes that it was down to an inability for the WWF, and Vince McMahon himself, to entirely pull the trigger on the Hitman, and leave the imposing character of Hulk Hogan firmly in the rearview mirror.
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