Iron Man: WWF 1996 to Wrestlemania

While WWF fired back via their Billionaire Ted Skits at the start of 1996, soon to be champion Shawn Michaels was nervous as two of his close friends, Kevin Nash/Diesel, and Scott Hall/Razor Ramon, were rumored to be WCW bound. Diesel was the WWF champion, but dropped the strap to Bret Hart at that previous years Survivor Series. The plan for 1996’s Wrestlemania was for Shawn Michaels to win the title against Bret Hart, in, as WWF official and former wrestler Pat Patterson proposed, a 60 minute Iron Man match (Michaels 220). In this kind of match, the two would wrestle for an hour, and whoever had the most pinfalls, submission etc at the end, would be champion. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were considered two of the best pure athletes in professional wrestling, and few if any other people on the roster would have been able to deliver in a match of this type.

On the road to Wrestlemania, Bret Hart retained his title at Royal Rumble against the Undertaker, via interference from Diesel. Shawn Michaels, who previously teased retirement in an injury storyline, would eliminate Diesel to win the battle royal style Rumble match, which in storyline granted Shawn a title shot at Wrestlemania.

1996’s Royal Rumble, held on January 21rst,  was also the PPV debut of Steve Austin under his Ringmaster gimmick. Fresh off his ECW run, Austin debuted on the January 8th Raw, and was awarded the Million Dollar Championship by his manager Ted Dibiase. The following week he had his first WWF match against then jobber Matt Hardy. A former wrestler known as the Million Dollar Man, Dibiase created the Million Dollar Championship for himself during his own WWF run, after several failed attempts to win the world title.

The following month was In Your House #6: Rage in the Cage, held in Louisville Kentucky on February 18th. Here Bret Hart defended his title against Diesel. This match was held in a steel cage, intended to prevent outside interference. Undertaker emerged from underneath the ring to attack Diesel, as revenge for the  Rumble match interference, leading to Hart retaining via disqualification. In the planning meeting of this match, Hart objected to having two title defenses in a row ending in interference that saved him. The story goes that Undertaker yelled at Hart saying it’s not always about you. Kevin Nash said this incident led him to seriously consider WCW’s offer to jump ship.  

Also at this PPV Shawn Michels defeated Owen Hart, who had kayfabe injured Shawn, starting Shawn’s concussion/retirement angle. Shawn put up his Wrestlemania title shot in the match.

In the Wrestlemania build up, WWF owner Vince McMahon conceived of the idea of Shawn’s victory being labeled as “The Boyhood Dream.” (Michaels 219) The WWF shot vignettes of Shawn training with his former partner Jose Lothario, and the two telling stories etc. Hart was also featured in vignettes training with his father, the legendary Stu Hart. Stu was the patriarch of the Hart family, and trained countless wrestlers in his basement, known famously as the Dungeon. 

Wrestlemania XII was held on March 31rst in Anaheim. The card included the Undertaker defeating Diesel, avenging the Rumble interference, and bringing his mania record to 5-0. 

Rowdy Roddy Piper returned to the WWF to face Goldust in a Hollywood Backlot Brawl (Piper had appeared in Hollywood films and Anaheim is close to Hollywood). While the WWF was not in its Attitude Era yet, the Goldust character pushed the envelope (as did Piper). Played by Dustin Rhodes, the son of legendary Dusty Rhodes, Goldust was an androgynous drag queen obsessed with movies and all things gold. He debuted that previous August, and starting at the Royal Rumble, was accompanied by Marlena, a sexy blonde who would watch Goldust’s matches in a directors chair while smoking cigars. She was played by Terri Runnels, who at the time was married to Dustin. In the buildup to the backlot brawl, Goldust expressed sexual attraction towards Piper, something he often did to his opponents. In an era when homosexuality was still not widely accepted, the Goldust characer pushed the buttons of the audience. Piper won the match, which included an appearance by a white Bronco, an allusion to OJ Simpson’s famous police chase. In fact, the initial idea was for Piper to wrestle O.J. Simpson himself. (Piper Born to Controversy DVD).

Also returning was the Ultimate Warrior, who beat then undefeated Hunter Hearst Helmsley in a squash match. Before being known as HHH, Hunter played the character of a New England snob. Sable made her WWF debut here, accompanying Hunter to the ring. 

Regarding the Iron Man Match, while Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels later had a real life legendary dislike of each other, at this point they got along well. When discussing the outcome of their Wrestlemania match, Shawn quotes Bret as saying “Vince spoke with me and I’m on board. I’m more than happy to do it for you. I don’t have a problem putting you over. I just want the match to be good. (Michaels 220-221) Shawn says “He then made it very clear that he was doing me a favor, and he reminded me that he had told me a few years ago that he thought I would be the guy to take his spot.” (Michael HBK) Bret knew that WCW was getting hot, but speculated that eventually Vince would come out on top. Hart felt like a loyal soldier and wanted to help, figuring that a Hart/Michael’s rivalry would be just the thing.

Specifically planning for Wrestlemania, Bret came up with a numbers system to pace their match, below five was good, eight was time to slow down, and at ten one of them would grab a hold for a breather. (Michaels 221) Shawn made a spectacular Wrestlemania entrance, flying down to the ring on a zip line. The main event would go 60 minutes without a pinfall, known in the business as a Broadway. Shawn’s idea was after the bell Bret would walk up the aisle with the belt, assuming he’d won, but on screen WWF President, and former wrestler Gorilla Monsoon, would order Bret back to the ring for over time (Michaels 222). Then Shawn Michaels would hit his signature move, Sweet Chin Music (a side kick to the jaw), for the win at one hour, one minute and fifty six seconds. Bret had the idea to not shake Shawn’s hand after the match (Hart 381), a move designed to make the perception among wrestling fans and the locker room that the two really did have animosity toward each other, planting the seeds for a return match.

In the moment though, Wrestlemania ended with Shawn Michaels as the WWF champion. The torch had been passed, and the WWF was in the dawn of a new era, but it was an era Shawn would almost face alone. 

Hart, Bret. Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Grand Central Publishing, New York and London, 2007.

Michaels, Shawn, and Feigenbaum, Aaron, Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story. Pocket Books, New York, London, Toronto and Sydney, 2005.

Rowdy Roddy Piper: Born to Controversy DVD. WWF 2006

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