Welcome to WrestleMania Memories, where we look back at the moments in WrestleMania history, good or bad, that have stayed with us for over three decades.
In my time watching professional wrestling, the memories that always stick out to me are when the wrestlers can tell a complete story in the ring. The story doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to have a beginning, middle, and end, which I can watch for the most part in the execution of their moves and the expressions on their faces. Athleticism, feats of strength, there’s nothing wrong with those things. But I watch professional wrestling because it is my version of theatre, and few matches told a contained story better than Roddy Piper vs. Bret Hart at WrestleMania VIII.
While this was a match that had a lot to do with Bret Hart defeating a veteran of the “Rock and Wrestling” era on his climb to headliner status, the real story here was “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s conflicts with whether to be a “good guy” or whether to be the “Hot Rod”. Piper had taken some time off to test Hollywood a few times and this was his most recent return to the squared circle. It took little time for him to defeat the man who beat Hart for the Intercontinental championship in The Mountie, and that meant we were seeing two supposed babyfaces square off in the middle of the ring. This was still a rarity in the World Wrestling Federation at the time. Where would the heat come from?
There’s a great opening segment between Piper and Hart with Mean Gene Okerlund that sets this up. Piper clowns Bret with jokes about his family and when he was a young kid and Bret takes offence. Piper questions Bret: “Are you trying to be some kind of hero?” It’s interesting Piper asks that, because that’s exactly what some would ask of Piper. As tempers flare, Piper reveals behind the IC championship a roll of tape (a staple foreign object) as Bret backs away. You get the sense that Piper may not be everything he says he is, and is confrontation with a real positive role model like Bret, the reflection in Bret’s sunglasses let Piper see who he is.
It’s also important to point out that despite being in the main event of the first WrestleMania and a constant top player, Piper never became WWF World champion. Winning the Intercontinental championship was the first gold he ever attained in the World Wrestling Federation, and when he looks at the camera and shouts, “She be mine!” you can feel a sense of Smeagol turning into Gollum. What lengths will Piper goto to stay WWF Intercontinental champion? Is he ready and willing to take every shortcut he used to in order to keep the Hitman from taking back what he thinks is his?
The two men begin trading arm drags, allowing the crow to react. After rolling Bret out of the ring, Piper spits on Bret in frustration and anger. After hitting a dropkick, Bret goes down like he hurts his shoulder. The referee pushes Piper at bay, only for Bret to be playing possum and wrapping Piper in a small package. Piper slaps Bret in rage, still playing by the rules.
After both men spill to the floor, Piper gets in the ring first and opens the ropes for Bret Hart to enter. This is the tease to the audience that at any moment, Piper may just snap and go back to his old ways. Bret enters reluctantly as the Hoosier Dome crowd celebrates the sportsmanship. Bret begins checking his knee as Piper leans in for an uppercut. At this point, Piper skips the wrestling and goes straight to brawling on the Hitman. Eventually, Bret is broken open after a bulldog and Piper is relentless with punches to the face.
Bobby “The Brain” Heenan makes reference to how Piper needs to hit Bret with something else, mentioning a steel chair or a ring bell. As Piper tries to goto the top, Bret once again shows he has the advantage by getting up and going into his signature moves. After blocking the Sharpshooter and getting a leg up before eating a middle rope elbow drop, Piper launches Bret into the referee and clotheslines Hart out of the ring. Piper rams Bret into the steel steps, tosses him back into the ring and grabs the ring bell.
Piper holds the bell high, ready to hit a bleeding Bret Hart with the bell to retain his Intercontinental championship. It’s at this point that everything about his career seems to come to a head. Is he going to keep playing the villain? Does he deserve to be champion if he takes the shortcut? How could he do this to someone he watched grow up and whose family he respects? With Bret having trouble getting up, Piper looks to the crowd and how they are reacting to his actions. The boos flood from the Hoosier Dome and Piper just can’t do it. He tosses the ring bell away to the adulation of the crowd.
Piper instead hooks on his patented sleeper hold, only for Bret to push himself off the corner and flip Piper with his shoulders down. The referee wakes up and counts to three. Piper gets up quick with no bell to ring to announce the winner but the crowd knows. As Howard Finkel announces that Bret is the new champion, Piper pushes the referee and grabs the strap from him. With Bret wiping blood from his face trying to get up, Piper rests the Intercontinental championship on his shoulder and helps the new champion up.
The story being told was simple, but it elevated a match that was low on high spots and high on performance. Roddy Piper walked in as champion, ready to do whatever it took to stay champion. But when he held the ring bell high to do exactly that, he had an epiphany. Smashing Bret Hart in the face with a ring bell might keep him Intercontinental champion, but it would also mean that everyone was right. A villain is always a villain. Piper wanted to be more than that and tossed the belt aside. He may not walk out as champion, but he certainly proved that people can change. There’s that saying about dying a hero or living long enough to become the villain. Roddy Piper lived as a villain and got to live long enough to become the hero.
Don’t forget that ring bell either. In the 1990s, it was more than just a heavy prop. It would become the symbol for whether a wrestler stays good, or a wrestler goes heel.