If you’re one of the cool kids like me then you for sure know today is the 25th anniversary of Bret and Owen Hart’s iconic cage match at Summerslam 94. For those of you who inexplicably haven’t seen it, I have half a mind to call your mothers.
The entire angle is an absolute masterpiece, following the story of a jealous younger brother trying to “step out of the shadow” of his accomplished older brother. Their match at Summerslam was such a different approach compared to most previous cage matches, focusing on world-class technical wrestling all while still utilizing the cage, and as Bret would later say, almost made you forget it was a cage match at all which are usually bloody massacres. Bret, of course, would retain his WWF Championship that night, which was essentially Owen’s last shot at the Hitman for the world title – which leads me to the question: what would happen if you took that same exact angle and put it in front of a 2019 audience? Who would the fans get behind? Who would be the heel? How would it be booked? What would they change?
During the summer of 1994, we were still in an era where fans wanted their babyface heroes triumphing over evil. This had always been the tried and true formula until the latter half of the 1990s when something strange started happening, not only with wrestling fans but also to society in general. It was time for something different. Something edgier. In all honesty, people were tired of being nice. To paraphrase Vince McMahon, we had grown tired of cheering for the squeaky-clean good guy telling us to say our prayers and take our vitamins. This exact shift is what gave us the Attitude Era, where we were now giving our bosses the middle finger (hopefully not for real) and using the word “pie” in conversations which weren’t exactly about pastries.
Fast forward to now. I’ve noticed that the trend over the last decade or so is to not necessarily cheer on the badass anymore but to get behind the underdog or the up-and-comer. Think about it. How often do we see angles where the established Superstar is booed mercilessly when challenged by someone on the rise? Gone are the days of fans being satisfied with a 4 year Hulk Hogan title reign. We want what we haven’t seen before. We want what’s next.
So how does all of this tie into my original point about Bret and Owen? Well, consider what I’ve mentioned above while following their same story arc but place it in front of a present-day crowd. Do you honestly think Bret would still be the overwhelming babyface in this angle?
Their story began at Survivor Series 93 when the seeds of Owen’s jealousy were planted after he was the only Hart brother eliminated in their match against Shawn Michaels and his Knights. This, of course, was only a tease as the real turn would come 2 months later after Bret and Owen’s loss to the Quebecers at the 1994 Royal Rumble. “The kick felt ‘round the world”, as Todd Pettengill would later call it, was Owen’s official coming-out party as a heel. Remember, Owen had bounced around the lower to mid-card for a number of years, and Bret had already won every title in the company at this point. As beloved as Bret was, I have to believe that more than a handful of a 2019 crowd would be applauding this same moment, as opposed to the chorus of boos hurled toward Owen that night.
On to Wrestlemania 10. Owen catches Bret (and the world) by surprise when he blocks Bret’s Victory Roll and gets the 3-count in one of the greatest, if not THE greatest opening match of all time. Other than a few cheers here and there, the vast majority of the Madison Square Garden crowd was strongly behind Bret and blew the roof off the building a few hours later when he went on to defeat Yokozuna to capture his second World Wrestling Federation Championship. Now, to me, this is where things would really change if this all happened today.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the next night on Raw would be utter chaos, as even the most casual fan would be able to recognize that Owen was now well on his way to becoming a serious threat to Bret’s title run. If anything, the crowd would be split 50/50 in terms of which brother they’d choose to support. Yet in 1994, Owen did nothing but become even more despised by fans who did not approve of his jealousy and dirty tactics.
I’m just gonna go out on a limb here and say that by the time Owen becomes King of the Ring, he is the hottest babyface in the industry in a 2019 setting, all while changing absolutely NOTHING about he portrayed his character then. His methods to win the tournament 25 years ago were considered despicable – but even the most stubborn member of today’s crowd would not be able to deny the fact that his in-ring work was second-to-none, which is probably more important today than ever before. Now I say this with Bret being hands down my favourite wrestler of all time, but I seriously believe that by Summerslam, Owen would have to be your new World Wrestling Federation Champion.
For a bit of a comparison, Owen Hart’s pursuit of the WWF Title back in 1994 was not unlike Daniel Bryan’s journey to the World Title 20 years later, which culminated at Wrestlemania 30. The circumstances and storyline may have been different, but the framework remains the same – the underdog who never really got his fair shake was finally getting his moment. Heel or babyface be damned, today’s crowd, more than ever before, is more interested in seeing true talent get the recognition they deserve.
Wrestling has always been a good reflection of the times, and this is evident over the years as we move from era to era. From the American hero overcoming the odds against evil foreign enemies during the 1980s and early 90s to a group of misfits telling everyone to “suck it” in the late 90s, to the current era of “smart” fans wanting “their guy” to reach the pinnacle of the business. I believe Bret and Owen’s tale from 25 years ago is one that would stand the test of time in any era, save for the odd tweak here and there.
Now, go watch that match before I call your mom.