It started well enough.
When CM Punk returned to the ring against Darby Allin at AEW All Out 2021, eagle-eyed fans noticed that the start of the match was exactly the same as the increasingly legendary Bret Hart vs. 1-2-3 Kid match that aired on the WWF’s flagship Monday Night Raw on July 11, 1994. It wasn’t super obvious, but that sequence, with the younger wrestler (Kid/Allin) arm dragging and receiving a halfway impressed acknowledgement from the older wrestler (Hart/Punk), stood out to the various connoisseurs of Bret Hart GIFs on Twitter. It wasn’t much more than a wink and a nod, and that’s fine.
The larger Bret influences on the match, which Punk would soon admit were absolutely intentional, were more structural than anything else. The very specific sense of pacing and change-ups that had fallen out of favor among modern elite wrestlers not named Bryan Danielson. Bret Hart’s giant, awesome wrestling brain was finally starting to influence how more current wrestlers were laying out their matches, and it ruled.
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What makes the Bret Hart style of match stand out, especially these days, is that, while he’s often been derided for his “five moves of doom,” the overall structure of his matches managed to be dramatic without being patterned in general, much less relying on constant false finishes. With the modern style relying so much on those constant false finishes, the Bret Hart approach, or something close to it, executed well, is going to stand out in a big way.
Bryan Danielson, though he will rely on those big runs of kick-outs in some matches, works in a similar vein, to the point that two of his most well-received career performances (vs. KENTA in ROH and vs. John Cena in WWE) climaxed in a big string of false finishes that were so elaborate that they lost any sense of being predictable. Sasha Banks almost completely eschews the modern standard near fall runs in many of her major matches, too, and it makes her stand out in a good way. She’s more likely to break out one big creative spot as a transition to the finish instead of running through big moves.
That Dax vs. Cash match looked familiar. Awesome tribute to Bret and Owen. pic.twitter.com/kNcnIwMrgV
— Wrestling News (@WrestlingNewsCo) April 28, 2022
How Much Hitman Is Enough?
When the current AEW Bret Hart love-fest started almost nine months ago, the influences where broader stylistic notes in terms of laying out matches or smaller nods like lifting the opening of the aforementioned 1-2-3 Kid match. Over time, it became a lot more overt. In something like the Dax Harwood vs. Cash Wheeler match from the first round of the Owen Hart Foundation Tournament, it was understandable for obvious reasons. Both members of FTR were wearing it on their sleeves that they were doing a tribute to the Harts, complete with Hart Foundation-themed gear, for crying out loud. So it wasn’t surprising that they stitched together memorable sequences from several famous Bret Hart matches, including his WrestleMania X match vs. Owen. During the whole Bret Hart reevaluation campaign, his influence on FTR had felt more stylistic, so the match felt like an outlier as far as being such an on the nose tribute act.
Then came Double or Nothing this past Sunday, where two of the biggest matches on the show climaxed with very obvious nods to famous Bret Hart finishes. One, naturally, came in one of the finals to the Owen memorial tournament: Britt Baker defeating Ruby Soho by countering a victory roll, a la the aforementioned WrestleMania X match. (It wasn’t exactly the same, with Baker countering a completed victory roll into a cutback pin, but FTR had already used the exact 1994 version for a false finish in their tournament match.) With how uncommon the victory roll is in 2022 and it not even being the first nod to that finish in either of the Owen tournaments, that felt like a bit much. But it was nothing compared to the main event.
After referee Paul Turner got bumped during Sunday’s “Hangman” Adam Page vs. CM Punk match for Page’s AEW World Championship, Page grabbed the title belt and started acting as if he would use it as a weapon. That hesitation led to the opening that Punk needed to hit the Go 2 Sleep and win a pro wrestling title for the first time in over a decade. It was a good way to get across the degree to which Punk had gotten to Page mentally during the build to the match … but it was also such an obvious nod to the finish of Bret Hart’s WWF Intercontinental Championship win over Roddy Piper at WrestleMania VIII in 1992 that it was … a lot.
The Best There Is, Was, or Ever Will Be … In Moderation
It’s one thing to lift the overall Bret Hart aesthetic, or some basic chain wrestling that made up a memorable part of a memorable Bret Hart match. It’s another to lift the emotional core of one of his most famous matches — one that was widely celebrated recently with the 30th anniversary having just passed — wholesale for the finish of a major pay-per-view main event. That’s not what we had been seeing in or even really wanting out of a lot of the previous in-match Bret Hart tributes. For all of the criticism over the last decade-plus from older wrestlers and some older fans about “cosplay wrestling” or indiscriminate lifting of cool Japanese moves from video games, this was a lot more glaringly on the nose than the vast majority of the most-maligned derivative wrestling of, say, the 20 years since the launch of Ring of Honor.
Wrestling is, in some form, a performance art, and there’s nothing wrong with derivative art, even at its most obvious. There are numerous absolutely amazing cover songs out there. Led Zeppelin were a bunch of plagiarists who ripped off old blues songs without attribution, but they sill put out great music. Hundreds of artists have sampled the drums from one of their best songs, “When the Levee Breaks,” to amazing effect.
Being derivative doesn’t make the art bad. But succeeding creatively with a derivative work it requires making the derivative work your own, putting your own twist on it. The Double or Nothing main event wasn’t that. It was a naked tribute, and it felt like one. I’m sure that there are ways to invoke that finish and make it feel fresh, but that’s not what happened on Sunday night in Las Vegas.