by Brian Phelps
Back by popular demand after the success of "Who is Better? Sting or Undertaker?" is the newest installment of the debate series. In this post, we tackle arguably the most widely debated rivalry in pro wrestling history... Shawn Michaels... or Bret Hart? I also think this installment will approach the age old debate from some fresh perspectives as well. It might even surprise you. Let's get it on.
Who is better? Bret the "Hitman" or the "Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels? I suppose that depends on what your definition of "better" is and who you ask. This may be arguably the toughest debate in all of pro wrestling. There are so many factors that really blur this debate for the ages but I will do my best to answer this question.
As sports broadcasters say, this is a "tale of two halves". This question though if you think about it is really unfair to Bret Hart since his career ended prematurely. Shawn Michaels wrestled about 8 years longer into the 2000s than Bret Hart did. So Shawn has a much bigger body of work during his main event run than Bret to go on so Shawn has a huge unfair advantage in the debate. This means that this debate has to be tackled a little differently.
Let's talk in terms of importance. From a historical perspective, which wrestler has a bigger footprint? In other words, who did more to steer or change the course of wrestling history? This may come as a shock but it's Bret Hart. Before you all call me crazy, let me tell you why.
Most people will automatically say I'm wrong and cite Degeneration-X as more important than anything Bret Hart ever did. For those that think that way you're either too young to have actually watched Bret wrestle or you're simply not giving him enough credit. Don't be so prisoner of the moment. Even though D-X was a big part of wrestling history, Shawn didn't change the course of wrestling history with it. The nWo were the ones who changed wrestling history because D-X were created as a response to the success of the nWo faction. D-X didn't make history, they followed the history that the nWo made.
Bret Hart is in that group of wrestlers that never quite get the credit they deserve. He joins other wrestlers like Sting, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and Chris Jericho. Oddly enough 10 years ago, Bret Hart got a lot more credit than he does now. The sands of time have somewhat glossed over Bret Hart's imprint in wrestling history. Newer fans know Bret Hart as simply an old wrestler who got cheated out of the world title by Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels. They don't realize just how important a role Bret played in the course of pro wrestling history in the 1990's.
People forget that Bret's match with Stone Cold at Wrestlemania 13 is the reason why Austin was known as the toughest S.O.B. in the World Wrestling Federation. Austin trapped in the Sharp Shooter with blood pouring down his face was an iconic moment that wouldn't have existed without Bret Hart. Austin's match with Bret Hart at Wrestlemania helped propel the "Stone Cold" gimmick to new heights at the time.
People forget that Vince's evil Mr. McMahon gimmick was born out of the Montreal Screwjob. So without Bret Hart there may never have been an evil Mr. McMahon character. It was Bret's decision to go to WCW that set in motion the events that would go on to become the infamous Montreal Screwjob.
People forget that Bret Hart took Shawn Michaels career to new heights in the mid 1990's. At that stage of their careers, Shawn needed Bret a lot more than Bret needed Shawn and that's a fact.
Now don't get me wrong because Shawn is an extremely influential figure in pro wrestling, but you could make a case that Shawn was more influential in a negative way than a positive way. The difference between Bret and Shawn is that Bret's presence in certain key moments altered the course of pro wrestling history more profoundly than Shawn's presence did. Bret played a bigger role in shaping the course of where wrestling went than Shawn even though his career didn't last as long. In other words, if Bret hadn't existed the wrestling world would be effected far more dramatically than if Shawn hadn't existed.
Shawn did quite a bit to negatively impact wrestling in the 1990's. It is well documented that Shawn Michaels utilized backstage politics and political maneuvering to position himself and his buddies Triple H, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and X-Pac at the top of the company. It is well documented that Shawn and the Kliq went out of there way to hold back other stars. Shawn engaged in a lot of dishonorable behavior including the Montreal Screwjob, politicking, and drug use.
This leads me to the point that I'm just not sure how great Shawn Michaels would've been without the politics. I still believe he would've been a huge star, but I'm just not sure how big. Don't get me wrong. Shawn Michaels had the in-ring abilities to become all-time great, but that doesn't always matter. Just ask guys like Tyson Kidd and Dean Malenko. Bret Hart made it to the top on his wrestling ability and didn't rely on politics. Bret Hart's character was an extension of his actual personality. A no nonsense grappler who let his in-ring ability do the talking for him. In terms of ethics and honor I would take Bret over Shawn every time.
In Shawn's defense, I believe he has matured tremendously during the second half of his career in the 2000's versus the first half in the 1990's.
Now that I feel that the debate has some additional perspective I think some of the more basic points can be made.
In terms of mic skills, Shawn Michaels has Bret beat hands down. Shawn is almost a little underrated as far as mic skills. I don't think Bret was terrible on the mic, but he was very average at best. The saving grace for Bret Hart is that talking a lot wouldn't have made sense with his gimmick anyway so his modest mic skills did nothing to hurt his career growth. It fit who he was. Shawn's character was a flamboyant cocky upstart so he needed the mic to help get himself over. I kind of think of Shawn vs Bret as the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird argument. Shawn Michaels like Magic Johnson was a lot of razzle dazzle while Bret Hart was more like Larry Bird in that he was all about no nonsense execution.
When it comes to in-ring ability, I think it's a stalemate. Bret wasn't as versatile as Shawn was, but Shawn lacked the precision and technical execution that Bret prided himself on. These guys wrestled two different styles. Shawn was quicker than Bret, and more of a flyer. Bret's technical wrestling ability was off the charts not to mention years ahead of his time. I think that Bret Hart's style is more emulated today than Shawn's. Bret Hart paved the way for guys like Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, Daniel Bryan, Doug Williams, and Kurt Angle. I think Shawn's influence came more from paving the way for smaller wrestlers to main event rather than for his specific style of wrestling. So, I think it's really in how you look at it.
Shawn's ability to tell a story in the ring is second to none, but Bret Hart is underrated at telling a story in the ring himself. I urge anyone who doubts Bret Hart to watch Wrestlemania 8 against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Wrestlemania 13 against "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in addition to his matches with Shawn Michaels. We all know Shawn can tell some amazing stories. He's probably the greatest story teller in the history of pro wrestling.
As far as who had "The Look", I'm going to give the edge to Bret Hart. Bret Hart looked like a Hitman. I think Bret Hart the most polished look in the history of pro wrestling. Everything about his character seemed real. I sometimes think of Bret Hart as the James Dean of pro wrestling. Nobody embodied cool like Bret Hart. He had the best overall look I've ever seen. Shawn Michaels had the look for that time period, but Bret Hart's look could be applied today and still work. Shawn Michaels couldn't pull off a mullet today.
Now, it's time to play a little what if game. Earlier, I said that the question of who is better is unfair to Bret Hart because his career was cut short due to injury. Shawn's comeback in 2002 and the 7-8 years that followed completely changed this debate. It's allowed Shawn Michaels to solidify his hall of fame status as well as carve his legacy in a way that Bret Hart didn't have the opportunity. So, we have to fill in the blanks a little bit here.
Let's say that Goldberg hadn't injured Bret Hart, and Hart's career didn't end prematurely. Well, we all know that it's probably a safe bet that Bret Hart would not have saved WCW from being eventually bought out by Vince McMahon. When Vince bought out WCW that means that Bret Hart would possibly have returned to the WWF in 2001 (assuming that somehow Bret and Vince mended fences over Owen earlier than in our timeline). This means we could've seen Bret Hart take on a new era of WWF stars such as Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, Batista, Kurt Angle, and Chris Jericho as well as cross paths with Stone Cold, Triple H, Undertaker, The Rock, and Mick Foley again. This means more Wrestlemania moments, more time to carve out his legacy, and the ability to retire on his own terms which would mean getting a proper send off like Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels did. This would change the ENTIRE complexion of this debate. We may be having an entirely different conversation now if Bret had wrestled up until 2009 for instance.
In conclusion: I believe that Shawn Michaels at the end of the day will go down as the better wrestler over Bret "Hitman" Hart... but only by default. Shawn Michaels cut corners, played politics, held back other stars, and engaged in dishonorable acts like the Montreal Screwjob... but you can't erase what Shawn Michaels accomplished by hook or crook. You can't take away Shawn Michaels God given talent in spite of all of his questionable ethics and moral compass at certain times of his career. It doesn't change the fact that he is the greatest in-ring story teller of all-time. He really is the greatest in-ring performer of all-time. He is probably the greatest all-around talent in the history of pro wrestling. He wasn't necessarily the best in any one measurable category, but he had the greatest set of intangibles of anyone I've ever watched.
Had Bret Hart not retired due to injury and got to wrestle another 5-10 years then we may be having a very different conversation because Bret Hart very well may have ended up going down as better than Shawn Michaels. As unfair as it may be to Bret Hart, I really have no other choice than to give the edge to Shawn Michaels by default. Shawn just has a larger body of main event work than Bret. While I don't believe Shawn is the better pure wrestler, Shawn did have the better career. He had the money, the power, the friends, the women, the accolades, and the storybook ending to his career. Bret Hart's story kind of turned into a Troy Aikman/Steve Young kind of story. A guy that was probably better than everyone else, but injury prevented him from cementing his rightful place as the very best that ever was.