In the quarter century that has passed since this match took place, it has become rightfully immortalized, although the environment in which this match was created remains frozen in time.
WWF Monday Night RAW 07/11/94
WWF World Championship
In 1994, Bret Hart clearly had a vision for the type of World Champion he wanted to be. He wasn't your older brother's WWF champion. Instead, whether intentionally or not, he was your father's NWA champion, a modern-day Jack Brisco. Brisco, who held the NWA title for most of the period between 1973 and 1975, was a highly-skilled athlete and an excellent wrestler, but more than that, he was a clean-cut, guy-next-door type who treated wrestling, and his opponents, with a certain respect. As with most NWA champions, when he faced a local babyface, he took on the heel role, but played it in a much more subtle way so that it wasn't a dramatic departure from his usual persona. This usually meant little to no outright cheating and instead meant wrestling from a position of dominance to set up the babyface's comeback, all while showing moments of mild frustration that he can't put the challenger away.
As his successors Ric Flair and Harley Race became the dominant NWA champs and mostly wrestled as heels, the Brisco doctrine became more of a distant memory. Understandably, Hulk Hogan was something far closer to Bruno Sammartino than any long-term NWA champion. He faced his challenger of the moment in a series that usually lasted three matches, then moved on to the next monster to repeat the cycle. The Bret Hart feud formula wasn't the Hulk Hogan feud formula, nor should it have been. When Bret became champion for the first time in 1992, wrestling was in the doldrums. Domestic business had collapsed drastically in a fairly short period of time under the weight of company scandals. Ultimate Warrior and Davey Boy Smith, two wrestlers who were being positioned as the top babyfaces in the company, were fired for using HGH as Vince McMahon was facing indictment for steroid distribution. Bret, who always had a dedicated WWF following -- at one point, he received more fan mail than any wrestler in the company -- was also someone more established at the Intercontinental title level, and he wasn't the level of star just yet that could immediately reverse the WWF's fortunes. He could, however, either slow the sinking or prevent things from getting worse.
In Bret's first run with the title, he was presented as an unusually active champion, an easy label to apply because it was true. The WWF put him in title defenses four to five nights per week and played this up heavily on television to get him over as a Fighting Champion. He was often vanquishing low-level foes, but so many of the stars were gone first of all, and second, he was doing it decisively, and beating other midcarders made clear that Bret Hart was now a cut above the guys that were previously presented as at about the same level that he was.
With plans of Bret beating the Ultimate Warrior at the 1993 Royal Rumble and Hulk Hogan at the subsequent Summerslam not working out as originally planned, Bret wasn't really put in a position to be a real champion until his second run, which started just three months before this when he beat Yokozuna at Wrestlemania X. For the foreseeable future, the company would be built in the image of Bret "The Hitman" Hart, who fans clearly preferred to Lex Luger when they were asked to choose between them. Bret could finally take main events somewhere more consistent with who he was. This was how he crossed paths with the 1-2-3 Kid.
Kid was a supremely talented independent wrestler, working a highly-regarded series against Jerry Lynn in the Minnesota indies that continued to the Global Wrestling Federation, which was a more high-profile setting. The Razor Ramon upset on the May 17, 1993, episode of Monday Night RAW is widely considered one of the most memorable moments of the era and it made Kid a bonafide star. Bret spoke highly of Kid at the 1994 WWF Hall of Fame ceremony, clips of which were included in the pre-match video. It speaks to what made Bret an effective champion. He wanted to test himself against someone he saw as a great wrestler, and it was a breath of fresh air because they didn't have to presume that they hated each other or manufacture an issue to get there. This is a big part of why Bret Hart was a star -- he was a real person in a sea of cartoon characters. He was facing a challenger who also resembled that remark and earned the opportunity by simply being talented and getting some big wins.
This match aired on television only six days before Hulk Hogan would have his first match in WCW, a title match against Ric Flair at Bash at the Beach. It reprsented quite the reversal in stature for the two companies -- the WWF running a title match between two great workers in a dingy building in a small market while WCW headlined with a dream match featuring the two biggest stars of their era, taking place in a major, full-sized arena in a city that hosts Walt Disney World and is notorious for being a tourist trap.
Bret went out of his way to make Kid look credible here. When Kid snuck in the armdrag off of their first lockup, Bret's face said it all -- he was both surprised and impressed. Bret attempted to use his size to his advantage, something he didn't get to do very often, by bodyslamming Kid out of his second armbar attempt, an example of the aforementioned Jack Brisco subtle heeling. This continued when Bret applied a chinlock, which was the first step in turning the crowd. The match started with the crowd firmly behind Bret, booing Kid and acting dismissive of his chances, and the chinlock started the ball rolling in their preferred direction, putting sympathy on Kid. These holds are sometimes written off as restholds, and that's often deserved, but here, it played a key role in turning the audience.
The first image after a commercial break was Kid once again in control, with Bret only able to turn the tide with a knee to the gut, another subtle heel move. Bret slowed the pace, which was another example of great psychology because it built anticipation for Kid's eventual faster-paced comeback. Bret hit Kid with a series of awesome European uppercuts in the corner, which only further endeared him to the audience. At this point, the crowd was slowly moving to Kid's side, and more great offense like the swinging neckbreaker from Bret only helped build sympathy. When Kid blocked Bret's crucifix attempt and covered him for a three count, Kid was in the ropes and Bret was declared the winner anyway because the referee was out of position. Bret insisted on a restart, hammering the point home that this is a champion who finds it important for his title defenses not to end in controversy. Catching Bret off his guard just after pleading his case to continue the match, Kid snuck in a quick nearfall and almost got the victory. The crowd bit hard. In Bret Hart's WWF, the great wrestlers could become the new champions at any time.
Frustrated, Bret grounded Kid and went back to the chinlock, which at this point made for a fully-divided crowd that just minutes earlier was solidly on Bret's side. When Kid blocked Bret's hiptoss attempt with a backslide, only to be cut off again, they finally had the people where they wanted them, chanting "1-2-3!" and fully supporting Kid's title bid. When Bret attempted the middle-rope elbow, Kid kicked him squarely in the face. It was a common transition in Bret Hart matches, but it had more impact here because it reinforced that high flying was Kid's domain. To hammer this point home, Kid hit a flying crossbody for a hot nearfall, and after Bret barely kicked out, Kid clotheslined the much larger champion over the top rope. The message was clear -- we were watching a WWF now where the best wrestles were as big as anyone in the company. After the best nearfall of the match, one where Kid reversed a superplex mid-air to land in a pinning position on top of Bret, Bret finally secured the sharpshooter, and with it victory, after Kid got a little overzealous going up top. As the two congratulated each other on a great match when it was over, Jim Ross had the wherewithal to stay quiet since the wrestlers were conveying the points just fine on their own, a sixth sense he wouldn't always have in future years.
If the NWA champion working style died another death when Bret Hart was no longer the top guy, it wasn't because the groundwork was never laid by matches like this, nor was it because wrestlers like Kid didn't know how to sell themselves as challengers at just the right pitch -- strong enough to be taken seriously, but not so strong that he would lose his underdog appeal. It's more that the American wrestling scene became increasingly impatient, aimless, and focused on outside shenanigans as the years waned on, a continued trend that helped Sean Waltman make big money at the end of the decade as much as it deprived us of some chances to see a great wrestler in long title matches. It was also a trend that, sadly, would eventually leave Bret Hart as a casualty. The small building and small market suggest otherwise, but these were happier times, not because the present was great as much as it was that the future hadn't yet been bargained away. Even if the elevator never hit the top floor, Bret Hart and the 1-2-3 Kid were hard at work building the ground level.