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Canton’s Corner: Paying Homage To Bret “The Hitman” Hart

Bret Hart poses with Canadian flag

I was sitting here today trying to think of a current subject to write about for a Canton’s Corner blog post. There were a few things I had in mind, but then I kept thinking about this article that I wrote about Bret Hart in September 2010. I’m assuming most of you reading this never read it because it was on a different version of my TJR site from over a decade ago when we were getting way less page views than we get now. I decided to re-post here today because I am proud of what I wrote about my fellow Canadian, who is a legend all around the world, but is a God-like figure in my country. I have updated some things and linked to all of the reviews of shows I have done, but for the most part, it remains unchanged.

On another note, I know some people call him “The Hitman” Bret Hart, but I think that’s wrong. On his official Facebook page, it says Bret “The Hitman” Hart so that’s what we’re going with. Now let’s get to the column.

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Paying Homage To Bret “The Hitman” Hart

January 4, 2010. Dayton, Ohio. Monday Night Raw. Bret Hart was back in a WWE ring for the first time in thirteen years. What were the first words out of his mouth?

“Well, I guess hell froze over.”

Did hell freeze over or did that one moment make everything in the wrestling world feel right again?

If you saw Bret Hart wrestle during his amazing career you know why he was great. When you watched Bret wrestle you knew how much he wanted to perfect his craft. The little things mattered to him. He’s one of the best performers ever in terms of selling an injury. You don’t think about that all the time, but it’s important. He made it look real. He made you feel his pain. He made you believe. He was born into a wrestling family in Calgary, Alberta. His dad Stu was a famous professional wrestler who grew on to become even more known as a trainer. A case can be made that Stu Hart trained the best group of wrestlers in the history of wrestling and the best of the bunch is Bret Hart. His impact on the business is everlasting for those that saw him. If you didn’t? It’s hard to cover everything, but thankfully for you, there is Youtube, WWE Network, DVDs, documentaries and books out there to tell you that story. I’ll do my part too. It’s important to know how it all started though.

The Journey to the Top

There are so many Bret Hart moments that I can name off the top of my head. Like with most wrestlers his career didn’t begin with WWE, but from an international standpoint that’s what we know and that’s what we base it off of. Right or wrong that’s how it is for him.

His journey began with The Hart Foundation team that was part of with brother-in-law Jim Neidhart, who is the father of WWE’s Natalya. They traveled the road together for a number of years as heels and faces, winning the tag titles two times. Keep in mind this was the best era for tag team wrestling in WWE’s history, so to be one of the best teams during that time means a lot more than it does today. During the run of the Hart Foundation, everybody knew Bret was the more talented one. He had so much potential, so once 1991 hit Bret ventured out on his own.

Bret went on to be Intercontinental Champion, winning it from Mr. Perfect at Summerslam 1991 in New York City. A great match and moment for Bret as his parents looked on in the crowd. A year later at Summerslam 1992, he put over his other brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith in Wembley Stadium. It was a classic, five star match that holds up well to this day.

In 1992 it was time for him to be elevated to that main event level. He ended up winning the WWE World Title from Ric Flair at a non-televised event in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on October 12th. It was only seen on Coliseum Video although these days the match is easy to find. You can even check it out below.

Prior to that, Bret was always thought of as a guy that could be a World Champion, but would it ever happen? Vince McMahon was in love with the bigger muscle bound guys like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. He did put the belt on talented smaller wrestlers like Randy Savage and Ric Flair, but a case could be made that they were more charismatic than Bret.

The main event run was rocky. His first title run wasn’t one where the company was fully behind him. He went into WrestleMania IX in 1993 as World Champion, lost the belt to Yokozuna and then watched as Vince pushed Hulk Hogan to the top again. Bret thought Hogan might put him over soon after, but Hogan never did it. For that next year, Bret was near the top, but wasn’t the top guy again until WrestleMania X. Finally he was champion again and this time he was booked as the top guy. Truth be told he never lit up the world in terms of being a top draw, but the matches were always great. He had some great matches with top guys like Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Diesel, Bob Backlund, Owen Hart, Mr. Perfect, Bam Bam Bigelow and countless others.

For me, I can pinpoint most of my favorite wrestling memories from the mid 1990s to either Bret or Shawn Michaels. They kept me watching as a teenage WWE fan. They kept me interested. If it wasn’t for them who knows where I’d be as a fan? Who knows where WWE would be as a company? Neither guy was on the level of Hogan or Austin in terms of selling tickets, but both can be linked to them and both can be considered as the guys that bridged the gap between the two boom eras in WWE’s history.

Whenever people talk about Bret’s wrestling career the first name associated with it is Shawn Michaels. That’s fair, but that wasn’t his best feud. His best rivalries came against his younger brother Owen and Steve Austin. To me, they are the best examples of the gifts that Bret had as a performer. In one case he was the prototypical babyface and in the other he was as dastardly as any heel there’s ever been.

Brother vs. Brother

The feud with his brother Owen was perfect for me in many ways as a teenage wrestling fan who was always a fan of the Hart family. Living in southern Ontario, being a fan of the Harts was a natural thing. They were Canadians that proudly represented our country. By the end of 1993 Owen was the younger brother who hadn’t reached his potential yet while Bret was the established former World Champion.

At Survivor Series 1993, the Hart team won their elimination match. Owen got pinned, though. He wasn’t happy about that. At the Royal Rumble in 1994, Bret & Owen teamed up to go for the tag titles. They lost thanks to Bret’s knee injury. The ref threw the match out. Owen was pissed off, so he took it out on Bret by kicking him in the injured leg: “I kicked your leg out of your leg!” What? Oops. Later in the night, Bret won the Royal Rumble at the same time as Lex Luger and would be given a World Title shot at WrestleMania X. As for Owen, he wanted to wrestle Bret, but Bret said no. He didn’t want to fight his brother. He was the honorable, noble babyface. Owen was the bratty little brother that was a heel.

The match at WrestleMania X in New York City was epic. We got to watch a 20-minute technical wrestling clinic that was contested mostly in the ring (there were a couple of out of ring moments) providing us with a match that will live on forever as a classic. My favorite part was the finish. Bret was going for a victory roll when Owen was able to block it, sit on top and cover Bret for the three count. I was so happy for Owen. I’m a younger brother. My older brother and I fought quite a bit. It felt like Owen’s victory was a victory for me too, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s like rooting for an underdog sports team that comes through in the biggest game of their life. That’s what this was. I’ll never get tired of watching this match. And to think, this opened a WrestleMania. There will never be another opening match as good as this, that’s for sure. Five stars.

At the end of WrestleMania X, Bret won the World Title again. Everybody in the locker room celebrated. Everybody except Owen. The feud continued to Summerslam 1994 where they had one of the best steel cage matches in WWE history. It was the blue cage with the metal bars. There was no blood, but they made it work. Five stars again. Over the years Bret would say many times that the best thing about Owen was that it never felt like work. It was so easy to wrestle him that he made it fun.

The feud worked so well because it elevated Owen. It brought him up to Bret’s level. His career from that point forward was solidified as a near main event level guy. It was because Owen’s talented, but also because his brother Bret helped him get there. That’s what top guys do and that’s ultimately how their careers are defined. Being great on your own is one thing, but can you bring others to your level? Bret could do that and he proved that throughout his career with a number of different performers.

The Best Match and Feud with Steve Austin

“Any time I stepped in the ring with Bret whether it was overseas or here in the States somewhere I wrestled him a million times. He’s a guy that has always called himself the Excellence of Execution. He lives that, he breathes that and he truly believes it in his heart. That’s why he was so good.” – Steve Austin at the 2006 WWE Hall of Fame.

Whenever I am asked what the best feud in wrestling history is my answer was, is and likely always will be Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin. It was a simple story. Bret was the former WWF champion that was off TV for much of 1996 after working an arduous schedule for the years prior. Austin challenged Bret to return at Survivor Series 1996. Bret accepted, they had a five star match and the wheels were in motion for an amazing feud.

Cue WrestleMania 13 and the Submission Match. Austin vs. Hart with Ken Shamrock as the special referee. I know I may get some heat for labeling this match as the greatest WWF match to ever take place but I truly believe that it is. It will always be remembered as a great brawl that incorporated several elements to make it interesting.

I think as I’ve gotten older and watched it many times I’ve appreciated it more and more. It’s hard to have a perfect match. I don’t know if you really can. To me, though, this is the closest example of that. It’s why I love the business. Good vs. evil is what wrestling’s all about and in this one match they flipped that upside down in a way that made sense. Austin became a hero after this. Yeah, he was on his way already, but this really vaulted him into that place. Hart became a villain to most while still sticking to his values. The key to being a good heel is always believing that what you are doing is right, which was Bret did in this match. He didn’t think he was wrong to attack Austin after the bell. He thought he deserved it. Those of us at home? We hated him for it. Austin put up a valiant effort and he lost, but he went down fighting. He didn’t quit. He simply lost to the better man on that night. The most telling thing about this match was the reaction Austin got after it was over. He was offered help. He refused. He stood on his own two feet and walked out of there like a man. He won over the audience in a way that makes this match as my favorite moment in the history of wrestling. The wrestling business is about telling stories. As a lifelong fan of wrestling, this match was the greatest story ever told.

This match had everything that is good about the wrestling business. Two great competitors, a terrific storyline, an extremely high workrate, plenty of crowd heat, one of the greatest blade jobs ever and the greatest double turn in the history of the business. If you wanted to teach somebody on how great professional wrestling can be that’s the match to show them.

Why is it the best feud ever or at least one of the best? Because each guy was better for it. It elevated Austin from the position he was in before. Sure, he likely would have moved up anyway, but by being in a feud with a bonafide legend like Bret it helped him. In Bret’s case, it showed that he could be an elite heel. That was always a question to me. He was a babyface through his entire singles run until that feud. Not only did he pull it off, but he drew incredible heat as the anti-American that kicked ass as much as he taunted the fans. The Hart Foundation stable he formed with Owen, Bulldog, Neidhart and Pillman was one of the best factions WWE has ever had even though their run only lasted seven months. Their impact is everlasting thanks in large part to Bret’s promos. Who can forget the enema line in Pittsburgh? Classic!

It’s a shame that sometimes people overlook the greatness of Austin vs. Hart because of what happened later in 1997. Then again, can you blame them?

The “Screwjob” at Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal

It’s hard to properly cover all the history involved in this show in a few paragraphs, but I guess the starting point would be WrestleMania XII in the spring of 1996. Bret Hart lost the WWF World Title to Shawn Michaels in a very memorable Ironman match. Hart took the next six months off (he was going to film a TV show that was cancelled) to rest his body after years of being on the road while Michaels had a difficult title reign due to WWF business being down during much of 1996. When Hart came back in late 1996, Michaels was still the top babyface in the company. Shawn had the title again in February of 1997 when he suffered a knee injury. He forfeited the title, saying the injury was career-threatening and that he had “lost his smile.” In Hart’s view, Michaels didn’t want to put Hart over at WrestleMania 13, as had been rumored. That created a lot of animosity between the two.

By the time the spring of 1997 rolled around, with Michaels on the shelf with the knee injury, Hart was asked to go heel by owner Vince McMahon, so he did it by being a heel in America while being a hero in every other country around the world. The chance for a rematch at WrestleMania was gone, which left Hart with doing a double turn with Steve Austin at WrestleMania 133 in what many people call the greatest match in WWE history. According to Michaels’ autobiography, a second opinion on his knee let him know he could come back with proper rehabilitation. Three months after forfeiting the title, Michaels was back in action. A month after that, even though they weren’t directly feuding, they took shots at eachother on the air. According to both guys, they encouraged it and despite taking personal shots at eachother it was kept professional. That ended in June of 1997 when they had a pull apart fight in the locker room mostly because Shawn insinuated that Bret, who was married, was having an affair with Tammy Sytch aka Sunny. The fight resulted in Michaels threatening to quit. He would come back, but he was sent home due to the “Sunny Days” comment. Also around this period, Hart was negotiating his contract with McMahon. He had signed a long term deal for $1 million per year, but McMahon retracted it a few months later saying he couldn’t afford it.

Even though there was genuine hate between the two, they worked together at Summerslam 1997 with Michaels as the referee for Hart’s title win against The Undertaker. That led to Michaels turning heel just like Hart was. Michaels would go on wrestling the Undertaker for the next two PPV main events while Hart had a meaningless feud with a midcarder like The Patriot. Michaels also went on to win the European Title from Hart’s brother in law the British Bulldog in a match in England. This infuriated Hart as well as his entire family.

In Hart’s book, he wrote about how he talked with Michaels in October 1997 about how he would put Michaels over if that’s what McMahon wanted. Hart claims that Michaels told him he would never put Hart over even if Vince wanted it, which led Hart to say he would not lose the title to Michaels in Montreal at Survivor Series. In his autobiography, Michaels denies saying any of this. On November 1, 1997, just eight days before Survivor Series, Hart ended up signing with rival promotion WCW for $3 million per year although he wanted to stay with the WWF out of loyalty. It was McMahon that told him to sign with WCW because he feared for his own company. What he also feared was that Hart might show up on WCW TV with the WWF title, which is why there were so many questions heading into the show.

Could Vince trust Bret? Could Bret trust Vince or Shawn? What exactly was going to happen? The issue was very real. Smart fans and marks alike had no idea what was going to happen. Little did we know that we were about to see what is arguably the most famous professional wrestling match ever.

The screwjob came about like this (this is from Shawn’s book). Michaels, along with Triple H, talked to Vince about it a couple of days before the PPV. It was suggested by Hunter to screw Hart out of the title. Gerald Brisco, an agent with the WWF that put together the matches, went to Shawn to work out the finishes for the match. Michaels claims that Hart was the one to suggest the Sharpshooter spot, so as soon as he heard that idea from Bret he knew that would be the moment. They didn’t tell Pat Patterson, who was an agent that was close to Bret. He, much like Bret, thought it would be the double DQ ending. They felt like if Patterson knew he’d tell Bret. They told Earl Hebner about it on the day of the show. The locker room didn’t know. The announcers didn’t know. Only a handful of people (Vince, Brisco, Hebner, Shawn and Triple H plus some of Vince’s cronies) really knew what was going to happen.

The most common question asked of this situation is whose fault was it? I think it was the fault of both Vince and Bret with some fault falling on Michaels’ shoulder. However, the issue was mainly a Vince/Bret one and it all came about because of trust. At the time of the incident, I blamed Vince for it. Yes, I understood his paranoia with WCW overtaking his company and his champion signing with them. I understood the position Bret put him in by refusing to put Michaels over due to the personal relationship that those two had. I also understand why he says he doesn’t regret it. This whole thing spawned the heel Mr. McMahon character that is arguably the most profitable heel character that McMahon has ever had. This one match made McMahon into a bigger star than anything else ever could. The next four years led to incredible business and profits for a company that was teetering on the edge for three years prior. Does Vince regret screwing Bret? From a personal perspective, I’d say yes. From a business perspective, I’d say no.

To this day if you mention the “Montreal Screwjob” to a wrestling fan you will get differing opinions on it. Some people blame Vince. Some people blame Bret. Some people blame Shawn. Some people think the whole thing was a work even to this day. I never thought it was a work and I always sided with Bret more than Vince. I think McMahon drove him away in a move that was unnecessary. He should have found ways to make Hart and Michaels work together as professionals for the betterment of the company. Both of them should have handled things differently, but if you look at the big picture McMahon’s more at fault than Hart is. With that said, I absolutely agree with Vince when he says he has no regrets because he felt like it was something he had to do at that time. That’s the key phrase: at that time.

In a perfect world, Bret and Shawn should have been friends (as they were prior to the start of their feud in 1996), Bret should have been wrestling in the WWF for another 3 or 4 years after Montreal happened until he was in his mid 40s when he would have retired. He never should have spent a moment in WCW because he was always a WWF lifer to me. He also should have been in the WWF to prevent his brother Owen Hart from attempting the stupid stunt that cost him his life in May of 1999. With all of that said, I’m glad that Hart was able to mend the fences with McMahon, glad that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame to say goodbye to his fans, and glad that he has been able to close the chapter on his life with the excellent DVD they put out covering his amazing career.

I thought the Hall of Fame and DVD were the end of Bret’s association with WWE. I was wrong. Believe me when I say I had no problem being wrong about that.

It was the worst of times too…

If you made a movie about Bret’s life there’d be a good portion of it dedicated to the bad times he experienced. He was basically kicked out of the company that was his life in 1997. He went on to WCW, where he wasn’t happy, but at least he was paid well. Two years into his run there, his career ended because of a severe concussion problem caused by an errant kick by Bill Goldberg. No farewell match. No goodbye. A month after the match his injuries were so bad that he had to stop. A sad way for a legend to go out.

That wasn’t even the worst part of 1999 for Bret. It was in May of that year when his brother Owen, arguably the closest family member he had due to their careers in the WWF, passed away while repelling down to the arena in a silly Blue Blazer outfit. Bret was working for WCW at the time when he found out. Owen never told him about the stunt. If he did, Bret says he would have tried to talk him out of it. Owen was in a position where he had to do what the company wanted, no matter how silly it was. That stunt was never going to sell a PPV or draw a TV rating. It didn’t need to happen. Owen should still be with us today.

In 2002, Hart suffered a stroke. He hit a pothole, flew over the handlebars of the bike, and landed on the back of his head. He suffered total paralysis on his left side, which required months of physical therapy. It took him a few years, but he has recovered from that. There’s no telling how much physical or emotional pain that can cause a person. You can read about it, but unless you live it how can you really know? Some people never regain their health, yet here he is speaking fine, walking fine and doing normal things although he obviously can’t move like he used to.

Bret has his haters too. What successful person doesn’t? Most anti-Bret people like to mention how he appeared to be a big mark for himself. I understand that, but if you’re going to reach the level of success he has then you’re going to be proud of your work too. His real-life disagreements with Ric Flair have taken on a life of their own. They may never be friends and they may not have the kind of respect for eachother that you’d like to see, but so what? It’s not our business.

I like how honest Bret is. That’s why I love his book so much. He admits in there that he screwed up his marriage to his first wife Julie (the mother of his kids) with extramarital affairs. He talks about his stubbornness a lot. He never says he is perfect. He is self-deprecating. He is real. The wrestling business is full of phonies (read a book written by Hulk Hogan if you don’t believe me), but Bret’s always been honest about it. In good times or bad, he’s going to tell you what he really feels. That’s made him some enemies over the years I’m sure. It’s also earned him millions of fans all across the world.

I think this quote from page 551 in his autobiography (Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling) best sums up his life:

“What goes around does come around. Life isn’t always fair. Live every day like it might be your last because, good or bad, you never know what’s waiting around the corner.”

The book was written in 2007. I wonder if he knew what was waiting around the corner for him? I’m not sure if he did.

The 2010 Return to WWE

The rumors of Bret returning to WWE in some capacity had been circulating on a regular basis for over 12 years. When he was in WCW, some people thought maybe he was sent there by Vince to bring that company down. As it turns out they did a good job doing that on their own. Two years later when his brother Owen died at a WWE PPV event people thought there’s no way he’d ever be back. A few years after that Bret suffered a stroke, he was hospitalized and Vince McMahon made a call to him because they were very close. The seeds were planted for some kind of reunion. But when?

In 2005, WWE produced a 3-disc DVD on Bret. It was as good as anything they have ever done. A year later at the 2006 Hall of WWE, he was there to give a speech. Did this mean he’d be back in some kind of wrestling angle? No. I sure didn’t think so. The big question at that moment was would he even show up at WrestleMania the next night? He didn’t. His detractors blamed his ego while his fans were disappointed, but they could understand that the bad blood that existed was hard to erase.

Late in 2009, word got out that Bret was talking to WWE again. “We’ve heard that before” was the general consensus among the Internet Wrestling Community. Some were optimistic. Some were pessimistic. It’s just like Montreal all over again where some sided with Bret while others sided with Vince. Me? I thought that maybe enough time has passed to where Bret would be willing to come back to say goodbye. The guest host concept was there, so all they had to do was bring him back for one show and that was it if he wanted. Then it was announced for the first Raw of 2010, January 4th, Bret would be back. I was so excited I even wrote a fantasy booking article about what I would do to book Bret’s return. I felt raw emotion that day because of the respect I had for Bret.

That night Bret came out, spoke from the heart and had a face to face talk with Shawn Michaels. The word is they never really talked about it much beforehand. They each knew what they wanted to say, so they went out there and did it. In the end, they buried the hatchet, shook hands and hugged in the middle of the ring. The most memorable moment of WWE in 2010 (along with Shawn’s retirement a few months later). No question about that. In the ensuing months, Bret beat Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 26 and then took on the role as GM of Raw for a few weeks before they killed that angle. You could tell by the expression on his face that he felt at home in front of the crowd. It’s where he belongs.

 

A Champion Through It All

I think the best compliment I could pay Bret Hart is that he was always the guy that cared the most. He cared about his image, he cared about his career, he cared about his fans and he cared about perfecting his craft. That’s not to say others didn’t. There are plenty of wrestlers that had similar drive, heart and determination, but maybe they lacked the talent or the focus that Bret had.

The debate about who the best wrestler ever is a neverending one. I’m not here to make any qualms or bold statements. I’ll say this, though. I’ve been to 50+ WWE or WCW wrestling events in my life. Living in Southern Ontario affords me that luxury. Road trips into Ontario, Michigan, New York, Ohio were enjoyable to me. I’d guess that I saw Bret wrestle live at least 15 times. The first time I was about 10 years old and the last time I was 19 years old at WCW’s Mayhem PPV in Toronto in late 1999. I’ve seen hundreds of performers wrestle in person. Bret was as good as any of them. I saw him in tags, in brawls, in technical wrestling masterpieces and he always busted his ass. He never took a night off and never coasted. He could have if he wanted. Nobody would have complained. He earned that right. But he could never do that. He had too much pride and too much passion for the business to not give his all. That’s what I love about Bret Hart.

To Bret Hart I say thank you for making me believe in the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be. As a pro wrestler, there is no greater gift you can give the fans, no matter how smart they are, than making them believe. That’s what pro wrestling is in its simplest form.

The Excellence of Execution. The best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be. Call him whatever you want. Remember him with one word. A word that is descriptive of not just his wrestling career, but all of the obstacles he has overcome in his life.

Remember him as Bret Hart: Champion.

“The greatest moment of my whole life. I dedicate this moment to all the people that believe that the biggest dreams can still come true.” – Bret Hart, holding the WWF World Title.

Thanks for reading.

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