Welcome to Article 6 of this series. Today I'll be looking at how the WWE thought a group of people bashing a 64 year old man would prove great viewing.
Wrestling and wrestling angles have often been based around the idea of closure. That somehow, some way, there would be repercussions for the bad guy or that the hardship that the good guy was put through was all worth while. Wrestlemania 26 saw an attempt to bring closure to one of the most controversial moments in all of WWE history. The question is, why didn't it work?
Perhaps it's best to start at the beginning.
In Survivor Series 1997 Vince McMahon screwed Bret Hart out of his championship run. Fearing that he had run out of options with two competitors that hated each other enough to not be totally professional and with Hart leaving for WCW, McMahon crossed a line that many considered sacred in wrestling by fixing the match. Shawn Michaels would receive the championship and many thought that Hart would go to WCW and become another asset to help them keep control of the ratings war.
History, though has seen things rather differently.
WWE managed to make hay out of the Survivor series controversy, creating one of the best heels in history in Mr McMahon and using his to rail against the up and coming babyfaces of Steve Austin and (eventually) the Rock. Eric Bischoff, on the other hand, was so obsessed with the nWo that he could not see the potential that Hart- as arguably the most over babyface in 1997 wrestling- could bring to their company. His disappointing run at Atlanta was tragically cut short when Bill Goldberg severely injured him during a World Championship match, cutting short his career and leaving him with further health problems- including a stroke in 2002.
After the Monday Night Wars were long finished, the WWE inducted Bret into the Hall of Fame, with Steve Austin doing the honours in 2006. Everything seemed like it was going along nicely and Hart and the WWE seemed to have reconciled.
But the Montreal Screwjob continued to be unresolved. Shawn Michaels had not publicly apologised for his part in the incident and McMahon never attempted to gain Hart's forgiveness. It just seemed to hang there with the fans feeling that even if HBK and McMahon had said something to the Hitman privately, as fans they deserved an explanation.
He returned as host of Raw in January of 2010 and buried the hatchet with the Heartbreak Kid in a touching moment of reconciliation.
Vince on the other hand, was not so forthcoming, kicking Hart in the crotch and walking out. McMahon's pettiness was amplified by having him refuse to have Bret's father Stu Hart inducted into the Hall of Fame. From there the feud went down some strange angles, including having Bret fake a leg injury but eventually, the match got made- Vince McMahon vs Bret Hart in a No Holds Barred Match at Wrestlemania 26.
And oh dear.
Firstly the match itself. Nobody expected it to be Brock Lesnar vs Kurt Angle but what they did to compensate for that made it worse. I'd like to have been in the booking meeting for that match. I assume there was a Sensible Agent and a Bizarro Agent.
Sensible Agent: Ok, so we've got Bret Hart and Vince McMahon in the ring in a No Holds Barred contest. Now we can't get Bret taking any bumps so we probably should keep this match quick- like 4 or 5 mins tops.
Bizarro Agent: No we should make it 11 mins!
Sensible: 11 mins! But that's more than Orton/Legacy, Punk/Mysterio and the Tag Team Matches are getting! Triple H is only getting a minute more! In any case we can't get Bret Hart to do a match that long without taking a bump.
Bizarro: I know! We'll get some lumberjacks that Vince paid off and march them to the ring, only for them to turn on him when he's there!
Sensible: Why would they do that?
Bizarro: Because they're the Hart family!
Sensible: That seems pretty dumb of Mr McMahon. Mercenaries don't usually have close family ties to those who they are acting against. Besides, wouldn't the sight of a whole bunch of guys beating up Mr McMahon seem a tad more like a gang bashing?
Bizarro: Ah but you see Mr McMahon will re-establish himself as the heel by cowardly grabbing an iron bar to get back into the ring!
Sensible: Cowardly in the sense that he's trying to fend off nine assailants by himself? Then what happens when he gets back into the ring. Bret can't take any bumps remember!
Bizarro: Bret hits him with the iron bar about 15 times before picking up a chair and hitting him with that another 15 times before finally locking in the Sharpshooter and ending the match! The crowd will go wild!
Alas, they did not. Instead of seeing closure for one of the most controversial moments in wrestling history, what they saw was an old man being beaten up relentlessly and incessantly as 'payback' for something that occurred 13 years ago.
But all this is not the worst problem with the storyline. Don't get me wrong- that's all bad, but what was worse was that they got the WWE Title involved in their grubby feud.
The reason John Cena got beat by Batista for the WWE Title before the Elimination Chamber was not because Batista won it in the Chamber off him (which would have worked) but because Batista was now suddenly Mr McMahon's bodyguard in his war against Bret Hart- a war that John Cena got involved in himself.
Why does Hart need a knight in shining armour? It did nothing for either feud- Cena wasn't even in the WWE at the time of the Screwjob. It just made the WWE Title match- a world title match- seem less important because the creative team wanted to try and get this feud over. Where were their priorities? Were they afraid of the Cena sucks movement that was beginning to build in the WWE and saw this as an opportunity to put him next to one of the most beloved names in WWE history?
The Hart/McMahon match at Mania 26 is significant because of the fact that it totally missed registering in the short or long term. It was supposed to be the ultimate act of closure to the wrestling community who saw the Montreal Screwjob as a total betrayal. One could see by placing as many chips on the table as possible- including the involvement of Batista and Cena and cameo comments by the likes of the Undertaker that this was supposed to be seen as the WWE's way of showing how much they realised this mattered to the WWE universe. Unfortunately, it actually didn't. While the WWE were probably looking for a chance to put the ugliness of Survivor Series behind them, the Wrestling Universe had basically done that already.
There was a rumour that this angle was to allow McMahon to round off on his 'Mr McMahon' heel character and play a more straight role in the WWE afterwards. If that was the case, then it was a swing and a miss- there were simply too few people who would have cared about Montreal that much any more to worry about what occurred. And even if the whole crowd did care, if the beating McMahon took was to turn him babyface, where would that have left Bret Hart and all of the lumberjacks- some of whom were active wrestlers at the time? Would they have had to turn heel?
The Bret Hart/McMahon feud dominated far too much TV time leading into Wrestlemania 26. This wasn't because it was the feud the WWE was trying to force the fans to like, it was because the WWE thought it was a feud that would still resonate with their fan base. WWE simply overestimated how much the wrestling history of WWE meant to the average Wrestlemania fan- a mistake they have never made again- with later Wrestlemanias once again orientating towards a more mainstream focus.
That concludes the sixth article in this collection! Next time, we look at how not every lesson from this feud was learnt in time for Wrestlemania 27. See you then!