The poorly executed run of the Excellence of Execution.
It's often hard to remember these days that at one stage the WWE was not the impenetrable fortress that it is today. Indeed, it was only two decades ago when the WWE found itself in what could only be described as dire straits. Guys like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Lex Luger, Kevin Nash, Sean Waltman and Scott Hall had all upped ship and moved across from Stanford to Atlanta. To put that in some sort of perspective, it would be like if John Cena, Seth Rollins, Brock Lesnar, Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler and Roman Reigns all decided to move to ROH in the space of 3 years or so.
The WWE still, however had one ace up its sleeve- Bret Hart. Having lived part of his WWE career through the latter stages of the Hogan era (such as when Hogan essentially decided to steal Hart's thunder at WM 9) Hart was battle tested in front of the WWE audience in the main event, but more importantly, he could work in a way that no other main eventer (with the exception of Savage) that had shifted to WCW could. As he continued to pull off great matches with the likes of the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin, many were willing to believe that maybe, just maybe the WWE could hold on with the Excellence of Execution leading the way.
But Bichoff had heard rumblings that the contract that Hart was signed to was, ahem, not worth the paper it was written on and waited with baited breath. And dear Uncle Eric would be proven right when Vince, seeing the writing on the wall when it came to the WWE's finances informed Hart that the 20-year contract that he had signed with WWE was now something the company could ill-afford and thus McMahon suggested to Hart to reopen negotiations with Bishcoff and WCW.
Well, we all know what happened next. One screwjob later and Hart was bound for WCW- the hottest babyface in wrestling who had been wronged by a callous and insecure owner. How hard could that be to get right?
Just remember who we're talking about here...
So what went wrong? Well first let's start with the less petty and tragic reasons why Hart's WCW career isn't remembered the same way his WWE career is. For a start, there is no doubt that Bret Hart as a character and as a worker was yearning for a time when words like 'kayfabe' were sacred and treated with respect. Unfortunately, in 1997, the two main factions in both companies were D-Generation X and the nWo- remnants of the infamous Kliq who believed that the principles of kayfabe were holding wrestling television back from what it could be. And so when wrestling was getting more offensive, more controversial and blurring the lines between shooting and working, Hart seemed to be being left behind.
Furthermore...actually that's about it. And there is no doubt that the above point could have been remedied with some fairly arbitrary booking.
Which brings me to the first real point about why Bret Hart's WCW run was such a clusterfuck.
If you have a red-hot babyface coming into your company, what would you do with him? Would you a) Bring him in to big fanfare and give him a massive feud to ensure that he would have a prominent spot on your show? b) Turn him heel in order to change the whole agenda and leave your audience agape as well as opening up all sorts of intriguing angles or would you c) essentially book him in three matches in a period of five months (admittedly 2 of which were when he was still in a no-complete clause)- allowing his momentum to slowly ground to a halt.
If you selected c) then Bischoff may well have hired you in 1998.
The first six months of 1998 were hell for Bret Hart's wrestling career. Every elementary booking mistake seemed to be made. First, he had a feud with Ric Flair that lasted all of one match. That's right, the Nature Boy and the Excellence of Excecution had a great match that wasn't even the main event at 1998's Souled Out. Incidentally this was because Hogan was going to interfere in the Lex Luger/Randy Savage match and so it was bumped up. That's right- if Hogan actually interfered in a match it needed to go on last.
And why did Hart and Flair have a great feud ripped out from under them? Because Flair was getting too many cheers. Imagine if the WWE worried about that sort of thing with John Cena- he'd have a revolving door of enemies! Hart then decided to defend the honour of WCW against nWo- a move that seemed like a slam dunk- particularly after WCW nerfed Sting so completely.
But then in April, in one of those boneheaded moves that would become so synonymous with WCW, they turned Hart heel in order to assist Hogan to recapture the World Heavyweight Championship from Randy Savage.
Well, Vectron, you may say, at least now Hart would be part of one of the hottest heel stables around.
Nope, he was just an 'associate'.
Is Bret Hart suddenly an attroney? What the fuck does an associate mean?! If you were going to turn him heel, why not go the whole hog and have him as a new member of the nWo to generate some real heat? All that does is make Bret Hart look like the nWo equivalent of Falcon from Age of Ultron. Sure, he's apparently part of the Avengers, but if we were really honest, is he really who we want?
Admittedly, Hart eventually won the United States Title and actually legitimised in the same way that great wrestlers would often legitimise the IC Title in the WWE. Many times he was called upon to main event PPVs for the title because he could be relied upon where as guys like Goldberg and Hogan had...mixed results. So why not give him a run with the big enchilada?
Directing where he thinks he should be on the card...
There is no doubt that the WCW was essentially poisonous at times, but no one suffered from it more that Bret Hart. And there is little doubt that one of the main instigators behind it was Hulk Hogan. This was possibly because- despite all expectations, including Hogan's own- Hart had become the hottest babyface on the planet in 1997. Not even WCW's Sting could touch him.
In WCW in 1998 and 1999 being in the nWo was not about being the 'bad guys'- though ostentatiously that's what they were. It was being the 'cool guys'. In hindsight this was one of the major reasons for the downfall of the nWo as an entity- that any face that was remotely interesting was immediately shot down into flames so that the nWo gravy train could continue (some of the more unkind would remark that it's kind of the reverse problem that WWE has with John Cena...). As such any face worth their salt was a) buried under a bunch of nWo defeats, b) stuck in the midcard where they would not be able to reach the titles, c) made to turn heel to essentially become one of a growingly faceless nWo army or d) all of the above. With Hart they plumped for d) and essentially ensured that he would find it infinitely harder to get to the top.
Of course none of this was helped by the fact that Hart had Owen, Davey Boy and others watching his back in WWE. In WCW he was essentially like Sansa Stark in Season 5 of Game of Thrones- not a friend in the world.
Yet another reason why Hart may have been kept down is actually one of laziness. Guys like Luger, Hogan and Nash all were past their best days and there may have been a bit of concern about a fired up mat master like Hart coming in and showing them all up and making them look like a bunch of old men. Much easier to keep him in the midcard with the vanilla midgets who weren't going to get anywhere anyway.
And yet for all that, in early 1999 it looked like he was going to have a major feud with Bill Goldberg when tragedy struck his family.
Owen Hart, his brother, died at a WWE PPV event.
The sad futility of Owen Hart's death is something that truly made Hart recoil from the wrestling business. If he had qualms about the sensationalised nature of the product before, those had been amplified ten-fold by Owen's tragic death. Hart took four months off from wrestling before coming back and wrestling Chris Benoit in a Owen Hart tribute match that ran 25 minutes- a rare highlight of his later WCW career that tore the place down.
Soon he and Goldberg would come to clash again with Hart's World Heavyweight Championship on the line when tragedy would strike again.
There is a lot made of 'stiff workers' but essentially to me they boil down into two types. There's the Kenta/Bryan Danielson type of worker who might leave bruises on your body but you still trust because he expects as good as he dishes out and he is in control at all times.
And then there's the Jack Swagger type of stiff worker, who, when they're fired up and in the moment can do something really, really reckless. And that's the danger. Because you're trying to trust the guy but in the back of your mind is the notion that at some stage he may get all excited and come at you full tilt with something that won't just smart but will actually do some real harm.
Goldberg falls into the second category. I mean, anyone who manages to concuss themselves when delivering a spear is someone who I'd think twice about entering a ring with. At 1999's Starrcade Goldberg gave Hart an almighty kick to the head that landed Hart with a concussion- one that was exacerbated later during in the match due to Hart hitting his head on the concrete floor after a botched Figure Four. These injuries forced Hart to retire from the WWE soon after. Though if he had been fit, he would have been a prime player in the new 'nWo 2000' with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash.
That's right- even when he was going to be pushed he could only do with the rotting albatross of the nWo hanging around his neck.
In his autobiography Hart cited two highlights from his time in WCW. One was a promo that he did with Goldberg in 1999, and the other was his brother's tribute match with Chris Benoit. How can such a talented and over wrestler have only two highlights from a 3 and a half year tenure from a company with a massive budget? Or to the point, how can a massively successful company who was riding the wave of popularity who wanted to remain successful- possibly more so- underutilise a wrestler who could make almost anyone look like a million bucks? Were guys like Hulk worried that they'd looked gassed opposed to the Excellence of Execution? Was Bischoff so worried about pleasing his nWo buddies that he didn't allow for what Hart could bring to the company? Or was it something else?
Furthermore, the move also helped WWE foster the Mr McMahon character which would help the WWE win the Monday Night War. So, with the benefit of hindsight, WCW managed to acquire the biggest babyface of 1997 and managed to cock it up in such a way that WWE came out of it better than they did.
That's WCW for you.
And that's article 45. Next time we look at a main event where both workers were hated and the match was flat. For a championship that had been run into the ground over the previous couple of months.
The InVasion Saga
Article One: Shane has a surprise for Daddy
Article Two: Booker T vs Buff Bagwell and the Temple of Boos
Article Three: Daddy's little Girl Gets in on the Action