For Queen and Country #14
May 10, 2008
By: Daniel Browne of
Greetings. Sometimes the dogged, tenacious desire of a particular thing to survive is all that’s required to perpetuate its existence. That and a particularly healthy predilection for shameless self-promotion. The events of Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal, culminating as they did in an emotional schism that’s never truly been allowed to heal, are always dredged up and picked over whenever Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart are mentioned, in tandem, within a sentence.
The need to not elaborate further on this now twelve-year odyssey of strife is such a screamingly obvious imperative that even I, arrogant to the last, have no intention of doing so. I noticed this week that Bret proffered his opinion, apropos various subjects, most notably concerning the latest in the very long line of noteworthy HBK performances at Wrestlemania. He admitted to appreciating the match and reiterated (for the umpteenth time) his sincere belief in “Michaels the performer”. Such repetition was buttressed by a vague allusion to a lost opportunity; Bret apparently imbued of a wistful longing, wishing he’d put Shawn over properly whilst he had the chance (“In the right way”, as he put it). What any of that means is clear only to Bret who, in 1997, found the idea of laying down for Hannibal Lecter preferable to jobbing to HBK. Thus, the usual pious tedium masquerading as relevance from the “Second Canadian Hitman”.
I’m not, as you’ll gather, the world’s biggest fan of Bret Hart. I could never escape the irony of a man constantly inferring the fakery of wrestling, all the while being such a fraud. As much as Shawn Michaels was an insufferable boob prior to 2002, he understood Bret for what he was: A precious, disingenuous, highly-strung hypocrite with delusions of Godhood. This cuts to the very heart (pun not intended) of the reasons why these two men mixed like diesel and anything. Firstly, you were dealing with a man who, despite his deep insecurity about the business affording him his fame, took (and takes) himself far too seriously. On the other hand, you have a man who displayed all the maturity and restraint of a spoilt child, delighting in the revelry of his own delinquent tendencies and possessing the power and freedom to realise them over and over again. It was the classic schoolyard mentality. The hard-worker couldn’t abide the silliness and irreverence of the cool kid, and the cool kid couldn’t resist needling the hard-worker for being so serious and secretly longing to be cool. With ego and avarice at stake, the result was only ever going to be full-scale conflict. So it proved…
In the fallout of Survivor Series, Shawn avoided another thrashing from Bret for two reasons: One, he somewhat convincingly feigned both innocence and a rather melodramatic disbelief. Traumatised and seething, Bret was too distracted to see through the subterfuge. Secondly, the chief focus of Bret’s considerable ire was of course Vince McMahon, the architect of the grubby little conspiracy to screw Bret Hart in front of his compatriots. If reports are to be taken as Gospel, Bret supposedly launched Vinny a good three feet into the air and walked out. An oh so typical display of long-distance bravado (and a midget) confirmed the extent of Shawn’s personal sincerity (or lack thereof) the next night on Raw…
After returning to in-ring prominence in 2002, the newly God-fearing Shawn conducted a sit down interview for WWE’s short-lived Confidential series. Like all good and original ideas dreamt up by WWE, it swiftly became mired in the re-written historical politics of the company, and died a premature death. I digress. Shawn used this forum to finally admit publicly what most insiders had long suspected: he knew all about Montreal. This revelation did not however come loaded with contrition. Shawn claimed he acted for and in defence of the company in a difficult time; as if WWE was Rome and Vince and Shawn, in a time of war, it’s appointed protectors. As the Mayor of London, Mr. Boris Johnson, might say: what an inverted pyramid of piffle.
Upon arriving, to much acclaim, in WCW (as planned) in late 1997, Bret seemed to have found the perfect platform from which to perpetuate his career. Truth be told, his three year stay in WCW contained very little that was memorable, bogged down as it was by injuries, politics and Bret’s own loss of passion. The noted exception to this was the classy tribute match in memory of Bret’s brother Owen after he was killed in May 1999. Alas, the involvement of Chris Benoit rightly or wrongly casts a shadow over that otherwise lovely moment.
Retiring in 2001 after a Goldberg-induced permanent concussion resulted in the end of his in-ring career, Bret bided for a year or so before, in June 2002, suffering a severe stroke after falling off his bicycle and landing on his head. It was during his convalescence that Vince McMahon reached out to Bret and began the process of healing the wounds of Montreal. As a consequence, Bret went from persona non grata to a venerable legend of WWE, enjoying the fruits of an hysterically self-absorbed DVD biography and, in 2006, his entry into the annually celebrated WWE Hall of Fame. The preceding four years between stroke and applause contained several rocky moments, most notably a bizarre scripted, television burial of Bret, Montreal and Canada by babyface Shawn Michaels on Chris Jericho’s “Highlight Reel” in 2003. This set things back a good year, before ultimately being smoothed over. Bret’s acceptance speech and the warm, almost loving response he received at the Hall of Fame (not to mention the utterly priceless look of total disgust on Hulk Hogan’s mug throughout Bret’s speech) seemed to signal the end of the road for this tale of woe. Bret’s silly comments about Shawn prior to the event (indicating he wouldn’t go on stage if Shawn was there – he was, and Bret went on anyway) and refusal to appear with the other inductees on the ‘Mania event itself sadly indicated otherwise…
The talk involving these two extraordinary characters has accelerated recently owing to Shawn’s stated intention to retire next year, traversing the Ric Flair route of induction and in-ring glory the following night. When asked to speculate on who might perform the induction, Shawn somewhat cheekily stated his lack of aversion to Bret Hart doing the honours. Bret naturally shot it down, but not in the Hell will freeze over before manner we’ve come to expect. He simply stated it would be some time before he’d consider it. That in itself is news. When was Bret Hart ever likely to countenance anything involving Shawn Michaels?
The recent interview, the latest in a possible (yet highly tentative) thawing of relations between these two men, indicates that perhaps we the wrestling fans might enjoy the closure we all seek. The issues of Montreal have dragged on and on and become part of wrestling lore, but after twelve years everyone would like to forgive and forget and celebrate the good times and good memories these men have provided. Both men have come a long way since the events that have, in many ways, served to define them, and it’s long been time to let go. It’s always been Bret, the victim, who’s had the hardest time breaking from the baggage of 1997. I love the idea of Bret inducting Shawn, because it would validate the distinction Bret speaks of between career and personal character, and because its probably Bret’s last chance to show the world he’s moved on and beyond Montreal and is a bigger, worthier man than the embittered old bastard who, in recent times, typically wears the face and speaks in the voice of Bret Hart. I implore Bret to bury the hatchet and prove his quality, in the process creating a moment of legendary worth. It’s important Bret realise such an action, in assisting in the celebration of Shawn Michaels career, celebrates the Man Bret Hart in ways a thousand speeches couldn’t convey. Instead of Gene Roddenberry, you would have Nelson Mandela. The Undiscovered Country awaits, and only Bret Hart can decide if we set sail for prominence or remain mired in acrimony. Till next time.
Daniel R. Browne.