One key ingredient of a successful pro wrestling feud is chemistry between the parties involved. Both competitors (or more, if you’re talking feuds between tag teams or stables) need to trust each other in the ring, and when it comes to promos, it certainly helps if the rivalry’s participants can play off the other’s insults without relying much, if at all, on a script. That, in itself, is what helps keeps wrestling fans invested in the product — these are grown men and/or women who make it appear as if they’re the worst of enemies, but thanks to their mutual trust and respect for each other, they can make that on-screen hatred look real.
Then again, there are times when the participants in a wrestling feud are actually enemies off-screen. This doesn’t happen too frequently, but even when it does, the rivalry can still make for compelling viewing. That was what happened in 1997 when Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels beefed with each other for most of the year on WWE programming. The Hitman and the Heartbreak Kid were two of the company’s top stars at the time, and as long-simmering real-life tensions between the two men began to mount, so did the intensity of their on-air feud. And when it all ended following the events of the 1997 Survivor Series, Hart and Michaels were left with a fractured relationship that took well over a decade to repair. Here’s the truth about that real-life rivalry.
Hart and Michaels started out as good friends
It may seem hard to believe given what we know today, but Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels used to be pretty good friends behind the scenes. According to Bleacher Report, the Hitman and HBK were WWE’s top two singles champions in 1992, with Hart holding the WWE Championship and Michaels wearing the Intercontinental title around his waist. And as Hart once recalled, they were getting along quite well in the run-up to their match at the 1992 Survivor Series.
“Shawn and I always got along,” Hart revealed. “Right from the start. I can remember having a lot of fun with Shawn and [Curt Hennig, aka Mr. Perfect]. I considered Shawn one of my better friends. We were tight back then. I can honestly say I went to bat for Shawn. I always said Shawn was one of the better athletes I ever saw.”
During that initial Survivor Series match, Michaels and Hart fought like two men with no love lost for each other, telling a great story that allowed them to showcase their strengths as in-ring competitors. Outside the ring, their mutual respect remained intact in the match’s immediate aftermath, but sadly, their relationship gradually deteriorated over time. Much of it apparently had to do with the new friends Michaels made as his star continued to rise.
Michaels fell out with Hart after joining the Kliq
By 1995, Shawn Michaels was a full-fledged member of a backstage clique known as — wait for it — the Kliq. Also made up of Scott Hall (aka Razor Ramon), Kevin Nash (aka Diesel), Sean Waltman (aka 1-2-3 Kid and later X-Pac), and later on, a young up-and-comer named Hunter Hearst Helmsley, the Kliq were WWE’s resident big men on campus. They may have worked hard in the ring, but they partied even harder, and as IWNerd noted, there have been many tales of how they would purportedly use their backstage clout to bully or hold back wrestlers who refused to play ball with them — including, but not limited to Bret Hart.
At WrestleMania XII in 1996, there seemed to be legitimate tension between Hart and Michaels as they prepared to face off in a 60-minute Iron Man Match for the WWE Championship, per Bleacher Report. Much of it was related to how WWE supposedly saw him as “yesterday’s news,” with Michaels’ membership in the Kliq potentially allowing him to gain unreasonable creative control once he became champion.
That match was supposed to be a classic passing-of-the-torch moment, with Michaels achieving his boyhood dream of becoming WWE Champion and Hart gracefully acknowledging his younger opponent as the company’s new top guy. However, there have been many, including WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross (via eWrestlingNews), who have corroborated claims that Michaels instructed referee Earl Hebner to tell Hart to “get the f*** out of my ring” as he celebrated his victory.
Hitman vs. HBK in 1997: Lost smiles, Playgirl spreads, and 'sunny days'
All things considered, Michaels’ antics at WrestleMania XII were merely an appetizer for his feud with Hart in 1997. According to Bleacher Report, their real-life relationship had “deteriorated to the point of no return” by then, and this was proven when Michaels cut his infamous “lost my smile” promo early that year (via YouTube) and announced his retirement from wrestling due to an apparently serious knee injury. It has long been alleged that while Michaels was legitimately injured, what hurt him more than that was WWE’s plan to have him drop his WWE Championship to Hart at WrestleMania 13.
Ultimately, WWE changed its plans for the event, with Hart instead defeating “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in an all-time classic match and cementing his transition to an anti-American/pro-Canadian heel character. His rivalry with Michaels continued after WrestleMania as he used his promo time to call the Heartbreak Kid out for posing for Playgirl and being an overall poor role model for kids. The now-unretired Michaels, meanwhile, fired back with gusto, emphasizing that he had the right to live his life the way he wanted. He even dipped into real-life rumor and innuendo, suggesting during a later promo that the Hitman was enjoying some “Sunny days” — this was a reference to the claim that Hart, a married man, was having an affair with WWE Diva Tammy Sytch, aka Sunny.
According to WrestleTalk, that latter comment led to an actual backstage brawl between Michaels and Hart, one that resulted in the Heartbreak Kid throwing a tantrum and threatening to leave WWE.
It took 13 more years for Hart and Michaels to end their feud
Wrestling fans who were following the sport in the late ’90s likely know what happened next — the Montreal Screwjob, where Bret Hart was assured that he would not drop his WWE Championship in his home country at the 1997 Survivor Series, only for WWE chairman Vince McMahon to scream for the bell as Michaels had Hart trapped in the latter’s own finishing move, the Sharpshooter. Of course, Hart was nowhere near ready to submit, and when the dust had settled, Michaels was WWE Champion once again, and Hart was headed to rival promotion WCW with an extremely unpleasant taste in his mouth over how WWE denied him a chance to leave on his own terms.
For years, Hart held a grudge against practically everyone who was allegedly involved in the Screwjob. But with Hart suffering a stroke in 2002 and Michaels kicking drugs and becoming a born-again Christian around the same time, it seemed inevitable that the two onetime rivals would bury the hatchet for real. Also helping was the fact that McMahon resolved his differences with the Hitman and inducted him into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, per Bleacher Report.
It may have taken a while, but on the January 4, 2010, episode of “Monday Night Raw,” Michaels and Hart publicly reconciled on live television, finally putting an end to a long, bitter feud that went far beyond the scripted nature of pro wrestling.
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