I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking which match I’m going to talk about. Let’s be honest, when those two names get brought up, you’re talking about one of two matches, although they had many memorable meetings in the ring, it was two particular events that stuck in our minds as a collective fanbase. One, was the most controversial moment that wrestling had ever seen, a moment we will probably never see again in our lifetimes. The other? One of the greatest matches the industry had ever seen and my personal favorite match that solidified my status as a wrestling fan.
A little background for me. I had joined the world in watching Wrestling when it was reaching it’s highest peaks. Shawn Michaels was plagued with injury and was coming to what could have been the last day of his career and Bret was over on a show I didn’t even watch. Even after he had gone I had constantly heard about how Shawn was the best wrestler the company had ever seen, but the problem was they never really showed you that and as for Bret? The only words that ever came out of the company’s mouth about Bret at that time was “Montreal Screwjob”.
Needless to say the company didn’t really peak my interest about either of these men at the time. Thank god for VHS tapes is all I can say…I’m a huge history buff and if I’m interested in anything I want to know the history of it. I turned to VHS tapes because it was the only way I could watch the things that had happened before I had gotten into wrestling and even before I was born. One of the tapes I came across was Wrestlemania Twelve. Now I knew Wrestlemania was a big thing for the WWE, I didn’t know much about that particular one, it was just a case of…let’s see what this one has got on it. That was the magical thing about those tapes, if you didn’t know…you were taking a gamble. Sometimes you got gold, sometimes you didn’t. When I picked up the Wrestlemania Twelve tape? I got gold.
The Build Up
This match had a simple but extremely effective build up, calling it basic seems to be an insult because of how well it worked and had these two not faced off before or had a history together, it may not have panned out the way it did, but this was Shawn and Bret…while their relationship hadn’t become what it would go on to be, there were mumblings in the air, whispers that what was going on between these two guys was real and after this match, the whispers would only continue.
Shawn and Bret was a special match, unlike storylines and feuds today that try and cater to the fans on a weekly basis, this was booked smartly. Sadly today fans are spoiled and if we don’t get what we want, we like to complain about it. Back then there was still a belief that what we were watching was real, sure the notion of the show being pre-determined was one people knew about, even those that were smart o on the inside were willing to throw away their disbelief if the product captured them enough and Shawn and Bret were two stars that made people believe what was going on in the ring because they were just so genuine together.
While they hadn’t faced off against each other on a regular basis up until this point, Shawn and Bret had faced off against each other in the past and the story in the ring was always the same, both guys wanted to show they were the best at what they did in that ring and would go toe to toe with each other in order to do it. Every outing these two had in the past was always a special occasion because you didn’t really know the next time they would fight and you also knew, even with them fighting before, you’d see something you hadn’t seen before.
The two had been on their own paths for a while leading up to this point, Bret was the champion going in to the event and his year, really it was a journey of him becoming the face of the company at that time. It’s well documented that while Bret wasn’t the greatest on the microphone, his skill in the ring and his honesty is what made him a hero, something he took great pride in, that was what the year had been for Bret in my eyes, solidifying himself as the hero…and Shawn’s path was…less than stellar to say the least. He had a bad year both in and out of the ring. While his performance was consistent in the ring, it was his personal demons that would come to haunt Shawn, the year before it seemed Shawn would have big things in store for him, he had won the Royal Rumble and was going to Wrestlemania to face Diesel, his bodyguard who had betrayed him. Shawn would lose the match and what followed was a string of bad luck for Shawn some of it by design, some of it circumstantial, he had been attacked outside a club in Syracuse, had to forfeit the Intercontinental title and due to injuries was written off of TV after receiving a scripted injury from a match against Owen Hart. Along with that and multiple lost opportunities to gain the title it looked like Shawn would never achieve his boyhood dream and then for the second year in a row, Shawn would win the Royal Rumble meaning he and Bret would face each other. After regaining some of his lost honor and a Wrestlemania main event on the way, the matchup that always gave us something new in Shawn Vs. Bret didn’t disappoint as it was announced the match would be an Iron Man match, although Iron Man matches had happened at house shows and other non televised events in the past, the mainstream audience had never seen or likely heard of this…this would be the first time a match of this caliber would be seen by a large audience.
A brief input on this match stipulation…it’s special, that’s the best way to put it and it’s special for good reason. For those that don’t know, an Iron Man match is a match with a time limit, usually sixty minutes and the wrestler with the most pinfalls in that amount of time is the winner. It’s a long endeavor for any athlete to participate in and takes the right combination of wrestlers to pull off. Not everybody can go an hour in the ring and do it well and the match itself has all sorts of special connotations to it that in my mind no other match really brings to the table. The very idea of it can’t help but create images of an all out war going on in the wrestling ring, non stop for sixty minutes…just two men battling it out for what must feel like an eternity in order to get their hands on the greatest prize. That’s what makes the build up great for me, it’s just a natural story with a match built up around it. Shawn has wanted that title since day one and has fought tooth and nail to get it, after a string of bad luck, he regains his honor at the rumble and is determined that this Wrestlemania, things go his way. Meanwhile Bret’s the fighting champion, he’s the hero, the best there is, was or ever will be and he’s going to do anything he can to prove that and keep the title while doing it. There’s no bad blood here, there’s no personal attacks that would come down the line as their relationship soured…this is a story about one thing and that’s the belt. Perfect story telling.
Bret and Shawn’s relationship at this time was generally just excitement, while tensions may have been in the air, they were most likely out of a competitive nature, things didn’t become volatile just quite yet although word is the locker room and some of the fan base was starting to believe in things that weren’t quite there yet. The story is that the two would sit down whenever they could to talk about the match and planned out move for move exactly what they were going to do for what they were calling “The Marathon”.
Both men are immensely proud of how the match was put together and how it turned out and the story that amazes me of just how well these two put things together, according to Bret there’s a point in the match where he would have to climb up to the second rope and look at the clock and if the two men had timed things right, there should be five minutes left in the match. Bret climbs to the second rope, looks at the clock and the clock strikes down to exactly four minutes and fifty nine seconds. Timed perfectly from beginning to end without a single botch or mistake according to both men and both were praised immensely by people in the business. Similar to that of Savage Vs. Steamboat, many would claim it to be the “Greatest Match of All Time.” Again, not my job to agree or disagree with that.
One final part of preparation these two had, which helped plant the seeds into the minds of the fans and even the guys backstage that what was going on here was real. After the war these two went through, Shawn is celebrating with the title, he says something to the referee along the lines of “Tell him to get the hell out of my ring” or something to that effect. The two don’t shake hands and Bret leaves the ring abruptly. Now obviously with these two getting on good terms again, maybe the story changed for good PR, maybe facts become mixed but as far as I can tell, the whole aftermath was planned to further the story. Bret at the time was planning to take a break from wrestling and wanted to keep his options open for when he came back, hence the aftermath of the match, where the battle may have been over but the war certainly wasn’t. This little post match frustration showcased by both men was so believable that according to Bret, Owen had called him up telling him that everybody in the back thought he and Shawn hated each other. Bret’s response? “Good, let them think that! We want them to think that!”
Holy hell this match, I cannot get enough of this match guys. This is the kind of match where I’ve seen it so many times, I wonder and I worry and I have to ask myself every time I see it “Will I get sick of it?” Will I get sick of the iconic Shawn Michael’s entrance? Will I get bored at any point during those sixty minutes? Will i sigh from boredom when the match goes into overtime? The answer is always the same. No I won’t and no I can’t. It’s just so perfect as a match, even if you don’t know the story, you don’t need to. This is one of those matches that tells the story through the action going on in the ring, every move, every reversal, every tiny detail just has me on the edge of the seat from the entrances to the final bell. It’s an hour of pure athletic, competitive wrestling and it’s brilliant from start to finish.
It was the first of it’s kind and you can tell these two were going to the races with what they were given, they could have had a back and forth match, have a down to the last minute finish and still do the aftermath that they did and call it a successful day and a great match. What makes that match though, what makes it stand out and what makes it set the bar in my eyes is the fact that they wanted it to go into overtime. They wanted to go that extra mile and they wanted to make this match even more than what we were expecting it to be. It’s an hour of wrestling guys, that’s a long time, people could have lost their patience, people could have given up on the match halfway through…especially seeing as it’s an hour without a single pin. Not one, nobody gets pinned until the match goes into overtime. That’s a big risk to take even for these two and the match they put on made sure you didn’t get bored, it just has this aura surrounding it that I can’t explain, even to this day…it’s just the kind of match where I find myself sitting in absolute silence, watching in anticipation for the next move, waiting to see the next direction the match would go in. As a young boy who had never really seen anything like this when I first saw it…it just hypnotized me. Before I saw the match I was curious, an interested party when it came to wrestling. This was THE match…I can’t explain it, every fan has a moment or a match where they say “That was what did it for me.” I could have been one of the many numbers of people that was part of the fad, part of the whole “wrestling is cool” craze that happened during the Attitude Era. Come 2000? I could have given up, I could have let it fall out of my life because as interested and intrigued as I was during those years. As many cool moments as there were, there wasn’t a moment that made me a fan…there were moments and matches that made me want to watch the next week but when those people went away was I going to keep watching? I honestly don’t know, because I was far too curious about the past…and it was this match where I just knew, I’d be watching this for the rest of my life…regardless what path this crazy world went down…this match made me a fan and you can’t replace that. You can’t take that away…it’s the football game that made you stick with the NFL even through all the madness that goes on there, even with all the bad games you may have to sit through in order to come across a gem. It’s the movie that makes you want to sit down in the theater again and again, regardless how bad the movies you see may become. It’s the feeling you can’t explain and it’s a reason you can’t put words to. This match, I can’t describe it because to me, it’s THE match…the one that got me hooked, fully, properly hooked. All I can say is watch it, be patient with it and let it take you in places you don’t expect it to, because although there’s been Iron Man matches that took place, they’ve never been as magical as this one and I can honestly say in my opinion. There was never a match that made me feel the way this match did, that I have seen from before it, or after it.
So Why Do We Love It?
Well clearly you know why I love it, but why is it still so critically acclaimed? First of all anything with these two in it that wasn’t in Montreal at 1997 is a barn burner, guaranteed…I think there was only one bad match they had and it was a tag match that had lousy ring ropes that they couldn’t control. Shawn Michaels is a lot of people’s favorite wrestlers (he happens to be mine) and back then your favorite was either Shawn or Bret…you can really see that, in that audience and around that time frame why that was, they were both great at what they did and they both captivated you in their own special way even with their flaws being present and known to many people both on and off camera.
It’s a match that brought something new to the table. It was one of the last great old school style matches that took place before the Attitude Era…I don’t think you could have had a match like that during the Attitude Era, an athletic showcase like that? For an hour? Attitude Era fans expected hard hitting, bloody battles, not technical prowess and modern day fans are extremely hard to please, while we look back at it fondly today. I can’t see many fans accepting something like that now…maybe I’m wrong but it just seems like it came along at the right place and the right time before the whole industry transformed and became this weird mutant beast that lived throughout the late nineties. One of the last great sound offs of the New Generation (an Era that gets far too much abuse by the way) before the Attitude Era took over. It’s just special, you can’t put a price on that, you can’t even describe it properly. It’s just one of those things you have to watch and draw from yourself, for somebody it may just be a good wrestling match, for others it could be an overrated mess. For me? It did so many things, being the first of it’s kind to be televised it set a bar in a big way that in my opinion hasn’t been met since. An Iron Man match is still a rare commodity in this day and age and it should stay that way. Think of every other gimmick match that’s come and gone. Steel Cage? Hell In A Cell? Elimination Chamber? Money In The Bank? While you still enjoy it, do they really feel special anymore? Do you think you’ll miss anything new if you happen to miss one of those? Iron Man matches, they don’t happen that often…it wasn’t until 2000 that another Iron Man match graced our television screens after Shawn and Bret had theirs in 1996 and it would be another good amount of time before another one after that. It’s one of the few matches left that still has a huge amount of meaning to it and part of me would like to think it was because of this one, that sort of pioneered the way the match should be built, how it should be planned and how it should be pulled off. Like so many of the classic matches this industry has seen, I could talk about it forever, but unless you’re ready and willing to sit down and watch it (for those that haven’t) I’m not going to convince you of anything. It is one of those you have to watch start to finish, you can’t just have it on as background noise and I realize for an hour, some people might not be bothered to do that, regardless how good it is. For those of you who’ve already seen it, my advice is see it again, watching a match again you might be able to notice little things you didn’t see before in previous viewings. For those that haven’t, I’d say give it a watch if you think you’re ready to watch that kind of match, if you’re just getting into wrestling I can definitely see somebody coming away with the opinion of the match as being boring or overrated, which is fine, you’re allowed to have that opinion. Personally though, I think you need to get an idea of what a good match is, then get an idea of what a great match is and THEN…go and watch this match, because that’s when the true appreciation of what these men did will really shine through.