Vince McMahon is one of the most ruthless businessmen in modern history, as wrestling’s biggest names will tell you. After McMahon bought what was then WWF in 1980 from his father, Vince Snr, he set about breaking long-held conventions in the wrestling world, which were truly groundbreaking.
Prior to his purchase of the promotion, all wrestling companies adhered to their own turf in America under the guise of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). Almost immediately, McMahon pulled away from the NWA and set about trying to expand his promotion.
Instead of owning their turf in New York and the north east, McMahon expanded across the country by signing top talent from other promotions.
In 1984, Hulk Hogan was signed from the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and became his prized asset. One year later, with Hogan the focal point of the company, McMahon took a huge financial risk, which could have crippled him, by running the first-ever WrestleMania.
Of course, on the cusp of WrestleMania 36, we know the gamble was a roaring success and Hogan was the main event in seven of the first eight WrestleManias.
That helped WWE dominate the 1980s and Hogan became a household name. ‘Hulkamania’ had run wild and made WWE a ton of money, but the landscape was changing.
After nearly a decade on top, a leagion of fans saying their prayers and eating their vitamins as instructed by the Hulkster, people were starting to get a little sick of him.
McMahon, who was dearly close with Hogan, knew he was paying someone a lot of money who people didn’t really want to see much of anymore.
From McMahon’s perspective, it was time to do what you always have to do in wrestling – make new stars. The star he had in mind? Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart.
Hart also entered WWE in 1984, but wasn’t the immediate poster boy Hogan was and at 6ft, didn’t have the striking 6ft 7in of the Hulkster either.
No, Hart did it the hard way. He worked his way to the top with undeniable wrestling skills and organically connecting with the crowd. It took years, but he was popular and ready for the top of the card.
Hogan didn’t feel that way.
After Yokosuka had defeated then champion Hart at WrestleMania 9 in April 1993, Mr. Fuji challenged Hogan to an impromptu match – for some reason – which the Hulkster won with his leg drop and became a five-time WWF champion.
McMahon wanted the title on Hogan so he could get to SummerSlam – in August – where Hogan would drop the title to Hart and pass the torch in the process.
Hogan stated in an interview with UK Wrestling Magazine Powerslam: “Basically, it was a case of where the promotion and I did not get along and couldn’t reach an agreement on the direction we wanted to go. We had contrasting ideas, creative differences.
“Vince McMahon had other wrestlers he wanted to place in the spotlight. At the time, I thought that Hulkamania could generate more interest, he thought otherwise.”
Hogan didn’t believe Hart would draw and instead dropped the title back to Yokozuna at King of the Ring in June, while Hart won the namesake tournament.
That was Hogan’s final WWE appearance in his initial run and he sat out the rest of his contract before officially leaving at the tail-end of 1993.
Hogan admitted his ‘heart and soul wasn’t really in it’ in regards to the wrestling business and he took a step back to concentrate on other ventures, which ended up being WCW on a huge contract a year later.
There, in the rival promotion in 1996, he formed one of the greatest stables of all time – the NWO.
Bruce Prichard, Vince McMahon’s longtime right-hand man, said McMahon was very hurt by Hogan’s decision to leave, but that didn’t mean he didn’t push him.
“He was hurt, and he was hurt not just from a business standpoint,” he told Something to Wrestle With podcast.
“He was hurt from a personal standpoint, because through those building years, there were no two closer people in the business than Vince and Hulk, that helped develop all those aspects of Hulkamania along the way.
“So there was a personal bond and a personal friendship that had been built that now, Hulk going, he can say it was business, it was personal. I think Vince really took it personally and I think he was hurt. It was like a really bad divorce.”
It was personal because Hogan felt he was forced out. And when you look at Prichard’s next comments, it was clear they were going with Bret Hart as their top guy regardless.
“We were moving on. Now if he came back, great, how will he fit in the new picture,” he said.
“However, there were no hopes of, ‘Oh my God, we could get Hulk back.’ I think everyone had resigned themselves to, ‘Hulk’s gone, make Bret, move on.’”
Over the next few years, Hart became a five-time world champion with iconic feuds and matches against Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels and his brother Owen Hart to name a few.
Then we got to 1997. Hart had a huge offer from WCW – just like Hogan had done – and he had some thinking to do.
He didn’t want to leave. He had always been loyal to WWE and he was still involved in the top angles.
However, WWE was shifting to the Attitude Era, which McMahon felt was more relevant to stars like Austin – who was on the cusp of becoming nothing short of a megastar at this point – and Michaels would take the company forward.
The chairman has gone on record to state he felt Hart’s body was deteriorating and he was starting to decline. McMahon wouldn’t match what WCW was offering and he let Hart know he wouldn’t be at the top of the card if he remained, or earning as much.
Once Hart decided he was going, Vince wanted him to drop the title to Michaels. Hart and Michaels had real-life bad blood behind the scenes and had fought with each other.
When Hart approached Michaels and said he’d be happy to drop the title to him at the 1997 edition of Survivor Series in Montreal, Michaels said “Thanks, I appreciate that. But I wouldn’t do the same for you.”
From that point, Hart refused to drop the title to Michaels, much less in his native Canada.
Performers are always expected to drop the title on the way out – or lose anyway. Hogan had done it in ’93, even if it was to the wrong man.
That caused McMahon, Michaels, Triple H and referee Earl Hebner to conspire against Hart with the infamous ‘Montreal Screwjob’ being the result.
The controversy saw Hart robbed of victory live on PPV. The wrestling world had never seen anything like it – he was being cheated in a match that was supposed to be pre-determined.
Hart departed for WCW the next day, but not before knocking McMahon out backstage for his crimes.
Who knows what would have happened had he stayed with the company. Maybe Steve Austin and The Rock wouldn’t have been the two biggest stars the business has ever seen – maybe they would have been even bigger?
One thing that is for sure; McMahon knew when he had a star on his hands and he needed to refresh his main event scene.
He’s been criticised for failing to see that in recent years, but Hogan and Hart felt his vision in full force during their initial runs.
Both men returned to the company eventually and had matches with McMahon at WrestleMania to play off the real-life bad blood that had festered from these very incidents.