(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels – WWE WrestleMania XII
Twenty-five years ago this was hailed as the best match in WWE history. It has been referenced many times over the past quarter century.
Parts of it have been replayed countless times and put into WWE’s various promotional materials. And to this very day many fans still call it the best 60-minute Ironman match of all time.
With such heavy praise, let’s see how well the match holds up now.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Shawn Michaels won the 1996 Royal Rumble match to earn the right to challenge the WWF/E Champion at WrestleMania. That was his first step in achieving his boyhood dream of being world champion and his first step in undoing a long chain of setbacks. He failed to win the title at the previous year’s WrestleMania against Diesel. A real-life scuffle at a nightclub in Syracuse, New York was worked into his storyline of getting hurt. And in November 1995, he suffered a storyline concussion at the hands of Owen Hart.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Shawn was facing Bret Hart in his prime. Bret was a legendary in-ring worker who could go the distance and out-grapple pretty much anyone. He won the title back in November and was considered the best wrestler in WWE by fans and by some of the wrestlers as well.
So with all of that, could Shawn achieve his dream, or would Bret’s technical superiority and greater experience help him retain his title against his most difficult challenger yet?
This match originally took place on March 31, 1996. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
The first lock-up ends in a stalemate. Shawn takes Bret down but Bret pulls ahead until Shawn breaks free. Michaels lands some Backdrop-style headlock escapes and then tries taking Bret’s arm but Bret out-grapples him and resumes control. A third attempt at a headlock escape fails and even when Shawn tries shooting Bret off the ropes Bret maintains his headlock. Bret keeps Shawn grounded and gets a two-count off a headlock takeover. Shawn tries a back suplex but Bret maintains the headlock. Shawn escapes again and another chain sequence ensues and goes on as we pass the five-minute mark.
Shawn overpowers Bret but Bret quickly wrestles back into control with, you guessed it, a grounded headlock. He gets some quick one-and-two-counts but Shawn eventually escapes and hits an arm drag into an armlock. Shawn keeps it in for a while but Bret manages to escape and lands a drop toehold. Some great mat counter-wrestling ensues and Shawn gains control with a hammerlock. Bret fights to his feet, powers Shawn into a corner, and starts hitting shoulder thrusts to his gut. Shawn hits back and goes for an Irish whip. Bret counters, but Shawn answers that with a headscissor that sends Bret to the floor.
Bret spends a few seconds recovering at ringside and when he returns Shawn goes right back to his arm. Bret sends Shawn into the ropes but Shawn skins the cat and again goes for the arm. Once again Bret gets up soon afterwards and sends Shawn into the ropes, but this time he lands a kneelift to Shawn’s gut and a leg drop across his throat. Bret applies a chinlock but Shawn escapes via stunner/jawbreaker. Shawn lands a leg drop of his own and follows with a fujiwara armbar. Bret fights to his feet but Shawn sends him into the ropes. Shawn goes for a leapfrog but Bret catches him with a spinebuster. Shawn avoids a sharpshooter so Bret clotheslines him to the floor.
Shawn sends Bret into a ringpost and then goes for a superkick but Bret dodges and Shawn kicks the timekeeper instead. Bret regains control and once in the ring he applies a chinlock. This chinlock goes on for a while until Shawn escapes via armdrag and then lands a clothesline. Shawn tries getting some momentum but Bret counters back into yet another chinlock. Shawn fights out again, avoids a press slam, and tries an O’Connor roll but Bret blocks it so Shawn hits a dropkick. Shawn goes back to working Bret’s arm extensively but Bret rolls over into another grounded headlock. Wait, no, Shawn rlls over into another armbar and drops his knees into Bret’s shoulder. Shawn goes back to the arm but Bret powers him into a corner and elbows out.
Bret fires back with uppercuts (with the good arm) and goes for a corner whip but Shawn counters with a kneelift to Bret’s gut and tosses him shoulder-first into a ringpost. Shawn follows with another smash into the ringpost and a standing shoulderbreaker. Still working the arm, Shawn hits a diving ax handle to Bret’s shoulder and then lands a hammerlock scoop slam. He smashes Bret into turnbuckles and then the two start trading arm wringers. A short brawl ensues but then Shawn takes Bret down with a jumping armbreaker. Shawn follows with a short arm scissor and other arm-targeting attacks as we pass the 25-minute mark.
Bret counters a cross armbreaker by rolling over and stomping Shawn’s face. But the damage to his arm makes it hard for Bret to capitalize so Shawn lands a shoulder to Bret’s gut in a corner. Shawn follows with another armbar variation but Bret powers to his feet, lands some punches, and then lands a hotshot onto the second rope. Then Bret catapults Shawn into a corner and he hits the top of the ringpost face-first. Shawn reverses a turnbuckle smash and goes for a corner crossbody but Bret dodges and hits high kicks to Shawn’s gut that send Shawn flying. Bret follows with a Manhattan drop and a clothesline which get him a two-count. Bret lands a running bulldog and goes to the top rope but Shawn cuts him off. Bret fights him off and drives his knee into the back of Shawn’s neck on a dive and also hits the ref on his way down as the 30-minute mark passes.
Shawn counters an Irish whip and hits a powerslam for a two-count. he sends Bret into the ropes again and goes for a back body drop but Bret counters with a kick and hits a piledriver for another two-count. Bret lands a leg drop and climbs the turnbuckle again but once more Shawn cuts him off. Shawn tosses Bret down and lands a running Frankensteiner with punches. Shawn attempts Sweet Chin Music but Bret holds onto the ropes. Shawn hits a backbreaker but only gets a two-count. He hits a back elbow off an Irish whip and tries another SCM but Bret bails to the floor so Shawn hits a top-rope body press to the floor.
Shawn breaks up the ref’s ring-out count to toss Bret back into the ring. He goes for another diving crossbody but Bret rolls over on the momentum and covers Shawn. One, two, kick-out. Shawn reverses an Irish whip and goes for a hiptoss. Bret counters with a backslide attempt bit Shawn resists and then flips over into a small package for another two-count. Perfect-plex by Shawn. Bret kicks out. Sleeper hold by Shawn. Bret backs him into a corner to escape. Shawn reapplies the sleeper and Bret sinks down. His arm goes down once…twice…thr – no, Bret holds on but Shawn throws him into a corner.
Shawn reapplies the sleeper again and Bret goes for a back suplex counter. Shawn lands behind him and hits a back elbow and a front kick. Bret ducks a corner charge and sends Shawn falling near a cameraman. Bret takes advantage by driving Shawn back-first into a ringpost and then once back in the ring, Bret starts targeting Shawn’s back. Bret shoots Shawn into a corner hard and then hits a second-rope diving elbow to the back as well. Then Bret hits a rib breaker followed by another leg drop. Then Bret kicks Shawn’s back as Shawn slumps into a corner as the 40-minute mark passes.
Bret shoots Shawn into another corner and Shawn does his rope-flip sell onto the top. He lands a super back suplex and then locks in a camel clutch that goes on for a long time until Shawn fights out. Bret prepares a back body drop but Shawn counters with a sunset flip for a two-count. Shawn fights out of a superplex and goes for a diving ax handle but Bret hits a punch to the gut. Bret follows with a Russian leg sweep for a two-count and then sends Shawn into another corner with so much force that Shawn flips over the rope, to the floor, and onto his manager Jose Lothario. Bret whips Shawn into Lothario again and then tosses him back into the ring at the 45-minute mark.
Bret hits a belly-to-belly suplex for a two-count and then a strike exchange ensues. Bret punches Shawn’s back again and goes for a suplex but Shawn counters with an O-Connor roll. Bret kicks out and the momentum sends Shawn through the ropes and to the floor. Bret follows with a suicide dive through the ropes and then the ref begins his ring-out count once Bret returns to the ring. Shawn makes it to the apron and Bret goes for a suplex. Shawn lands behind him and the two trade waistlocks until Bret lands a bridging German suplex. One, two, Shawn kicks out.
A strike exchange ensues with Bret on his feet and Shawn on his knees. Shawn asks for more so Bret continues hitting him until a head-butt knocks both of them loopy. Bret locks in another camel clutch as the 50-minute mark passes. After well over a minute in this hold, Shawn starts fighting back so Bret switches to a sleeper. The crowd starts firing up as Shawn fights to his feet. Shawn fights out and runs to the ropes and both men hit simultaneous clotheslines. More brawling ensues and then Bret connects with a top-rope superplex. Bret goes for a sharpshooter. Shawn kicks him back and blocks a Figure-4 so Bret applies a half crab. Shawn gets a ropebreak so Bret lands a single-knee backbreaker and goes to the second rope.
Five minutes left.
Bret dives but eats Shawn’s boots. Shawn hits a dropkick and a corner forearm. He sends Bret into the opposite corner and Bret does his trademark forward corner bump. Bret reverses an Irish whip but Shawn hits a flying forearm. Shawn fires up and hits a big back elbow. He slams Bret and hits a tope-rope crossbody for a two-count.
Three minutes left.
Shawn hits a suplex followed by a diving elbow drop but only gets a two-count. he sends Bret into the ropes and lands a gutwrench powerbomb.
Two minutes left.
Shawn hits a top-rope moonsault body block. Bret kicks out and then reverses a corner whip. Shawn kicks Bret’s face and dives off the second-rope. Bret tries to counter with a powerbomb but Shawn rolls over into a Frankensteiner-style pin. One, two, Bret kicks out.
One minute left.
Shawn slams Bret and slowly goes to the top rope. He goes for a diving dropkick…but Bret counters with a sharpshooter.
Thirty seconds left.
Shawn holds on and despite everything that he’s been through, Shawn manages to stop himself from tapping until time runs out. The bell rings to signal the end of the Ironman match.
Match result: 60-minute DRAW
The ref hands Bret the title belt but as he leaves WWF/E Commissioner Gorilla Monsoon enters the ring and rules that the match must be restarted under sudden death rules.
Bret goes right after Shawn’s back with punches, forearms, a back body drop, and another backbreaker. Bret sends Shawn into a corner but Shawn does the flip over escape and then hits Sweet Chin Music out of nowhere. But then he collapses from the pain. But Shawn fights through and hits one more SCM. Then he covers Bret. One, two…and three! Shawn beats Bret!
Winner and NEW WWE champion after 1:01:52: Shawn Michaels
I really wanted to like this match. From an offensive perspective it was pretty damn solid. Both Bret and Shawn wrestled outstandingly. They showed how technically skilled they were and they showed just how varied they could be in the ring. But the match suffered from two fatal flaws that didn’t just hamper the match but crippled it: the no-selling of limb damage and the stipulation. Both of those things really hurt this match to the point that it makes it one of the slowest and most boring 60-minute matches in modern times.
At first, the wrestling that both guys showed was flawless. Both guys did some awesome countering, maintained control with some impressive chain wrestling, and logic-driven approaches to wrestling as storytelling. But by the halfway mark, the match started turning inconsequential. Shawn wasn’t selling all of Bret’s work with headlocks and other neck-targeting moves and Bret largely stopped selling Shawn’s extensive armwork. Both wrestlers put so much time and effort into destroying a limb to gain an advantage but none of it mattered as the match progressed. Because of that, much of the wrestling for the first forty minutes ended up meaning nothing. It was basically wasted motion that only managed to pad the match’s length.
Of course, this could’ve been salvaged if everyone involved here didn’t choose to go the full sixty minutes without any sort of fall. I’ve seen 60-minute matches, some of them one-fall and some as Ironman matches. And one of the most important things needed to keep audiences engaged is to give them a reason not to tune out and, unfortunately, Bret and Shawn failed to do that here. A the Wrestling Observer originally reported, because some fans knew the match was going the full hour, some chose to leave for the bathroom, go to the concessions, or otherwise not care. There was a fatal lack of surprises in this match that would’ve elevated this match to that upper level. Something, anything in the first five minutes would’ve added so much more to this match. An early advantage would’ve added the drama and tension. Had Bret gotten a three-count off his piledriver after squeezing Shawn’s head for so long or had Shawn gotten a sudden tap-out on his armbreaker after destroying Bret’s arm for so long, it would’ve given purpose to all of that earlier submission work and technical grappling. But most importantly, it would’ve made this match much more unpredictable and therefore more worth paying closer attention to.
Not only that, but the match wasn’t even structured as a competition. There’s a famous statement about great wrestlers and great wrestling matches being as much about the space between notes as the notes themselves. In this case, there was a very clear sense of “moving from one spot to the next” on an almost perfectly-timed basis. Individual segments were timed down to the second. Both Bret and Shawn moved somewhat robotically between moves as if they were programmed to follow a “sell, get up, counter” sequence in which each action was siloed from the others. The match’s pacing was completely off; both guys were supposed to be exhausted after going sixty minutes, yet they both spammed Irish whips and ran around the ring at the same speed 50 minutes in as they did five minutes in. because of these factors, the match came across as less a contest and more as a performance. It didn’t have the intensity, believability, or tension of a brutal match between two wrestlers that truly hated each other. in many ways, it was a sterile match that had motion but not movement.
So what we were left with here was a match that was technically sound but void of raw tension. It was like a film that had great visual effects but subpar writing with a rather predictable conclusion that made the first ¾ of the match unnecessary. As a result, this match doesn’t live up to the hype it had in 1996, nor has it aged well after over 25 years.
Final Rating: ***1/4
This match was and is an enormous disappointment. Bret and Shawn had great ideas on paper but in execution they both fell on their faces. By going an hour without a single fall they robbed the match of any drama and reason for fans to really watch carefully. They shot themselves in the foot by failing to add any surprises. And while “swerving” fans just for the sake of surprise itself is usually a bad thing that shows poor creativity, it was crucial here. Both of them would’ve come across as more interesting wrestlers had they gotten more falls earlier in the match and the contest itself would’ve been more worthwhile. If they wanted to go the whole hour without falls, then they should’ve just made this a one-fall match with a 60-minute time limit. Calling it an Ironman match without actually living up to the Ironman’s multi-fall parameters made the stipulation nothing more than a cheap marketing tactic and not part of the match itself.
This isn’t a match worth re-watching or revisiting. Even with nostalgia goggles on, this match just doesn’t hold up. I’ve seen better 60-minute matches that are much more worth your time. All Japan had some great singles and tag matches go 60 minutes and they remained exciting from start to finish. AJW did an eight woman Iron tag match and it’s still one of the most exciting and fast-paced 60-minute matches you’ll ever see. AEW outdid this match by a country mile with MJF versus Bryan Danielson at AEW Revolution. Hell, even Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar had a better Ironman match and that one had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.
I know many fans consider either Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels as their favorite wrestlers. Unfortunately, these two widely-hailed fan favorites really missed the mark in this not-so-great match.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.