With it now confirmed that Daniel Bryan and Kane are set to lock horns at Extreme Rules, many fans have expressed frustration that “the little superstar that could” was going to be pushed aside in favor of the old guard (Triple H, Randy Orton) or the corporate-appointed “next top guy” (Roman Reigns). Fans worry that the big Wrestlemania 30 win for Bryan was nothing more than an appeasement to the fans who rejected Batista’s return so forcefully.
Time will tell whether or not Daniel Bryan will turn into the next face of the company or just be remembered as a popular act in the right place at the right time. This article isn’t going to try and predict the future. Instead, let’s look at the past.
Hulk Hogan was already the dominate force in the WWF when the first WrestleMania rolled around. His main event match wasn’t even a big title defense, much less a title win. Even when Randy Savage won the WWF Championship at WrestleMania IV, Hulk Hogan was still in the center of the spotlight (his rematch with Andre was the top-billed match for the tournament-themed supershow). The year that Savage held the belt saw him working side-by-side the Hulkster with Hogan rarely away from the very top of the card.
Hogan’s stranglehold on the main event scene essentially remained in place until he left for WCW. The other men who held the belt prior to that were nothing more than placeholders. Ultimate Warrior was quickly shuffled away from the championship after his run, and Bret Hart infamously lost to Yokozuna who dropped it to Hogan at WrestleMania IX. The only time Hogan wasn’t around the title picture while in the WWF was during the time when he wasn’t wrestling at all (after WrestleMania VIII, when Randy Savage and Ric Flair fought over the title).
The point is, the modern idea of “crowning a new champ at WrestleMania” was not a concept until a decade into the supershow’s existence. Once Hogan was gone, however, a new face of the company had to be crowned. Bret Hart was the first to be given that particular torch.
Bret Hart: Mania-Made Man?
Though this was Hart’s second championship run, it was the first in the WWF’s post-Hogan era. The company would not be in the dire straits it would soon find itself, but it was clear in 1994 that the 80’s Wrestling Boom was now very much in the rear view mirror. Bret Hart did not have the charisma or the mainstream appeal of Hogan, but he was a very popular performer and a legit draw in many different parts of the world.
Unfortunately for Hart fans, it was clear that Vince was not convinced that Hart was the man to carry his company. Instead Bret was seen as a reliable hand who could keep the belt warm until the next superstar emerged. The next PPV after WrestleMania X was King of the Ring, which saw Bret lose a title defense to Diesel (by disqualification). That’s not exactly the best way to kick off a championship reign. The match also took place mid-way through the show. You might think “but it’s the King of the Ring, the tournament takes precedence.” And that’s a fair point, except for the fact that Jerry Lawler vs. Roddy Piper was the main event.
Bret held the title, retaining against his brother Owen at SummerSlam. That match was the peak of a tremendous feud between the Hart brothers, yet was only the #2 match on the card, second to the Undertaker vs Underfaker main event. Once again, though Hart was proving himself in the ring and with the crowds, his reign felt like a glorified transitional one.
The real star in Vince’s eyes was the near-seven foot Diesel. He won the Triple Crown in his first year as a WWF competitor and took the championship from Bob Backlund in late 1994.
If you don’t recall, Bob Backlund had been Bret’s post-SummerSlam feud, culminating in a mid-card title defense at Survivor Series that saw Bret’s mom throw in the towel on her son, awarding the match and the title to Backlund. He dropped the title to Diesel three days later.
Diesel went on to carry the belt amid dwindling box office numbers, PPV buyrates, weak feuds and lackluster matches, yet he held the belt longer than Bret Hart. Why? Because Vince loves him some big man champions.
Bret would eventually regain the championship a year after losing it, only to see it shuffled around in the lead up to WrestleMania 13. He then turned heel and entered into another hot angle for the company before his infamous 1997 departure in Montreal.
Time will tell whether or not Bryan’s presumed #2 match with Kane is an omen similar to Bret’s #2 SummerSlam match with his brother. Looking at 1994 it’s clear that Bret was a workhorse who could help the WWF Championship retain some integrity in the post-Hogan era. It’s also clear that he was not going to be positioned as the undisputed face of the post-Hogan era. Will Bryan’s championship run make him out to be the face of the company or will he just be a workhorse putting on great matches in the undercard while Vince and co. search for the next top guy to carry the torch?
In the next article in this series, we’ll take a look at the booking behind the post-championship win of Shawn Michaels. Did he fare better than Bret? Will Bryan’s title run compare to that of his former mentor?