Many of you know the story of how the Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty) won the WWF tag team titles from the Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart) in 1990, which never aired and was erased from history. What most of you don’t know is the hilarious manner in which the office broke the news to the Rockers that the match didn’t count.
Date: November 4, 1990
Location: Orlando, FL
Source: John Flyer’s Wrestling Interview Collection #1, prowrestlingonly.com, prowrestlingstories.com, Wrestling Observer Newsletter
The WWF taped an edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event on October 30, 1990 in Ft Wayne, Indiana. SNME was a 90-minute show that aired on NBC a few times per year, pre-empting the hugely popular Saturday Night Live. Because it was network television exposure in a well-known time slot, and because marquee matches rarely aired on WWF syndication at the time, SNME was among the most highly viewed and highly rated TV shows the WWF had. The only show that had (sometimes) more viewers was the WWF Main Event annual specials on NBC, which aired in prime time.
What a lot of people forget, however, is that NBC canceled this particular episode of SNME prior to this show airing. They instead gave the WWF a one-hour slot on Friday night on NBC, and matches from this show would air on November 23 as NBC Main Event. But the WWF didn’t know that until after this show was taped on October 30.
At this SNME taping, the Rockers defeated the Hart Foundation for the WWF tag team titles in a two out of three falls match. It was the first and only time the Rockers won the titles, although the match has since been erased from history because it never aired and the WWF doesn’t count it as a title change.
There are several theories as to why Vince McMahon changed his mind about the Rockers winning the tag team titles.
Shawn Michaels wrote in his book that the Harts politicked to keep the tag team titles. Bret Hart is on record saying that before the match took place, Vince McMahon called him and Jim Neidhart into his office and told them he was breaking up the Hart Foundation in order to make Bret into a singles star. Bret said Neidhart wasn’t pleased with this news, but pretended to be okay with it in front of Vince.
Marty Jannetty believes some in the office may have been afraid the Rockers would get over too much, to the point they’d have leverage over creative decisions.
Outsiders have speculated that Vince McMahon simply later decided he didn’t want the Rockers as champions, possibly because of their size (Davey Boy Smith would often call them “midgets,” which is ironic since his tag team partner Dynamite Kid was smaller than either Michaels or Jannetty) or because of their reputation (particularly Marty’s) as partiers who couldn’t be relied on.
The main real reason, though, is that Jim Neidhart was going to be released from the company around Thanksgiving. Right around that time, Demolition gave their notice. This meant the WWF would be losing two of their top teams, leaving them with just the Rockers, Orient Express, Bushwackers, Road Warriors, and Power and Glory. Since the WWF ran multiple shows per day back then, they needed more teams and decided to retain Jim Neidhart after all. That decision wasn’t fully made until after the match took place, so Vince simply decided it was best to keep the titles on the Hart Foundation since it made the most sense from a booking standpoint.
A huge part of this story is that the ring rope broke during the match. In the second fall, the top rope broke and it made it difficult to have a good match.
Expectations for the match were high going in. This was back when guys like Hulk Hogan and Earthquake were in the main events, and good actual wrestling in the WWF was the exception instead of the rule. The Rockers and Hart Foundation were determined to have the best match they had ever had, and Bret said guys in the back (one of which was Earthquake) stayed to watch instead of going back to their hotels (although this makes little sense since it was one of the first matches on the card).
Bret ended up hating the match, calling it one of the worst he’s ever had. It didn’t help that referee Freddie Sparta froze up and didn’t know what to do, even though Bret was telling him. Bret’s plan was to keep Shawn in a long chinlock while they fixed the rope, which could be edited off of TV later. But it wouldn’t happen, and didn’t until later. Bret was flustered and all the spots were off and they couldn’t do their best moves without the top rope.
While the match never aired on television, it was released as part of the Shawn Michaels DVD many years later. The match airs in full, with no commentary, with only one edit after the second fall when the ring crew fixes the rope. During the second fall, you can see Bret visibly upset and making comments to both the referee and Shawn. After the Hart Foundation won the second fall, the referee went to raise Bret’s hand, and he refused and looked really pissed at the ref. He was mouthing off to him, and Neidhart looked pissed too. Finally the referee got word and told them what would happen, and the ring crew came out.
When the Rockers won, it was anti-climactic and everyone was upset about it. If they only knew, it was about to get worse.
The Rockers wrestled a few days later, on November 3 in Augusta, GA. This was a house show, and they defeated Power and Glory (Hercules and Paul Roma). There are conflicting reports here. The WWF never acknowledged title changes until they aired on TV, so logic would say they weren’t introduced as tag team champions. However, internet reports say that they were, and indeed, Marty is on record saying they took the belts home the night they won them.
Then the next day (November 4), Shawn was at Marty’s house in Orlando. Marty said they had a show in Tampa that night, although records show it was really Daytona Beach (they ran afternoon shows sometimes back then, so it’s possible they had a show in Tampa, but no records exist of it). Vince McMahon called.
Marty answered, and Vince told him that they were going to take away their tag team titles. That was quite newsworthy, as it’s extremely rare in wrestling history when a title changed hands but it was ignored before the match aired on television.
But that wasn’t the funny part.
Vince then proceeded to quote Marty an old rule in some rulebook, and then said JACK TUNNEY wasn’t going to sanction the match.
Yes, Jack Tunney. The FIGUREHEAD WWF President (in the role of what would today be called the GM), who only the fans at home believed had any power. Vince was kayfabing his own wrestlers, pretending that Jack Tunney had any power at all and that he was really the President, when everyone with a brain knew Tunney had no real power and was just playing a role on television.
He also told Marty that he doesn’t want to air a match with no rope. Marty was in shock that Vince expected him to believe that was the real reason and that he involved Jack Tunney’s name. He told Vince he wanted Shawn to hear this, so Shawn got on the phone too. Marty and Shawn looked at each other and said to themselves, “Bullsh*t!”
It’s so hilarious Vince used Jack Tunney as a reason when explaining the title switch to the Rockers. This would be the equivalent today of Vince calling Braun Strowman in real life and telling him he’s suspended because Kurt Angle didn’t like what he did to Roman Reigns in the ambulance angle.
In Vince’s defense, perhaps Marty misunderstood him and that Vince was just telling him how they planned to explain it on television. I’d like to believe that’s the case, but Marty told this story just two years after the incident, so his memory should’ve been fresh.
Also in Vince’s defense, Jim Neidhart has told the story of the match, and his memory was way off. He said one rope broke before the first fall even happened (false), and said another rope broke later and that there was just one rope (also false).
Thirdly in Vince’s defense, the match was very long (almost 40 minutes) because of the rope having to be fixed, and they were only given an hour on TV. That hour had to be used for more important things, like getting the Ultimate Warrior over as the new WWF champion. Still, they could’ve always aired the tag title match in syndication.
Still, Marty’s story holds up. He said he and Shawn pressed Vince for the real reason, even asking if the match was bad, if he thought the Rockers wouldn’t be good representatives for the company, or if it was something they did outside the ring that made him change his mind. Vince insisted the ropes were the real reason.
As noted, the match never aired. Marty and Shawn never fought for the titles because there was nothing they could do and Vince was the boss. Shawn said Vince told him that they’d put the belts on them at a later date, but it never happened. One reason given was that word had gotten out what happened, and so if they did the title change again, it would have less impact. That makes no sense, though, because this was the days before the internet and nobody knew about it except newsletter readers and the fans in the building.
The WWF aired a segment on syndication in the Indiana markets where Jack Tunney explained what happened and that he couldn’t sanction a match with the ropes breaking. Give them credit for at least doing that, as it’s not something WCW would’ve ever done.
Bret hated the match and felt sick when it was over. He felt bad for the Rockers and thought they deserved the titles, but hoped it would never air because of how bad he thought the match was (if you watch it, it’s not bad at all).
In hindsight, it’s mind boggling that the ropes weren’t fixed on the spot so that the match could be stopped. It’s not like everyone in the back wasn’t watching it, and Howard Finkel or one of the guys at ringside could’ve easily gone to the back and asked what to do. The referee did drop the ball, though he wasn’t the only one. The show wasn’t live! They could’ve done anything they wanted and edited it later.