final title run ended in 1997. After Hart ended long-running WWF Champ Diesel's 358-day reign at the 1995 Survivor Series, it quickly became apparent that the Hitman was simply keeping the belt warm for the guy whose popularity was quickly reaching a fever pitch among the WWF faithful--"The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. After his defeat in the main event of WrestleMania XI, Michaels dropped off WWF TV for a short time, re-emerging as a babyface and beginning a year-long road to redemption for his past evil ways and a push that would, around the time of the Royal Rumble, start to focus on Shawn's "childhood dream" of winning the WWF World Championship.
At the same time, Michaels' backstage crew of wrestling buddies, the "Kliq" consisting of Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, the 1-2-3 Kid, and recent arrival Hunter Hearst Helmsley, were beginning to exert influence in booking decisions and the WWF's creative direction, much to the consternation of pretty much anyone on the roster that wasn't those five guys. (At the In Your House: The Great White North PPV, Michaels forfeited the Intercontinental Title to Shane "Dean" Douglas after Shawn was legitimately beat up in a bar fight a few days before and unable to compete. Douglas then immediately lost the title to Razor Ramon in the same night. Standard WWF development, or Kliq-influenced booking?)
Still, no matter how large a part backstage politics played in the rise of Shawn Michaels, the bottom line is that during the 1990s Shawn developed into a premier in-ring performer, able to work matches with nearly anyone the WWF would throw at him (he's really the only reason the title match with Diesel at WrestleMania XI was at least watchable and not straight-up clunky, finish notwithstanding). The fans recognized this and it's to Vince McMahon's credit that he listened to his fanbase, moving away from the Diesel experiment and his knee-jerk instinct to push the largest dudes in the locker room and finally letting two "smaller" in-ring technicians headline his flagship event.
But with Michaels' star on the rise, the Hitman was quickly becoming an afterthought, and after Michaels won the 1996 Royal Rumble to earn the chance to achieve his boyhood dream, there wasn't a single WWF fan that watched the build to the event, the training vignettes, and didn't realize that Michaels' victory was being telegraphed for weeks.
Bret's not being pushed as a heel just yet, but look at the juxtaposition of these two fan favorites--the music gets darker and more dramatic when Bret begins to speak, and after a quick concession to Michaels' growing fan base, he proceeds to spend his time criticizing Shawn's personality and ring antics. "This isn't dancing, this is not a dance marathon--this 60-minute iron man match is going to be the biggest fight he's ever had." Sure, we purist Hitman fans will respond to that, but the majority of the WWF fanbase were sure to see that as sour grapes or jealousy, and it just rallied more fans to Michaels' side.
And how about that choice to give an entire hour of the biggest event of the year to two "smaller" guys? It's almost like Vince McMahon, indignant that the fans wanted to see two natural-looking technicians tear the roof off instead of the lumbering larger-than-life supermen Vince preferred, spat "they want wrestling? Fine, we'll give 'em more wrestling than they can stand! And they can't leave their closet until they've smoked every last cigarette in the carton!"
Well, hey, thanks for that, Vince. After last year's bullshit, a solid hour of one of the best main events in WrestleMania history is gonna be a long, deep breath of fresh air.