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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Spotlight on Harry Smith
May 22, 2006 by Heath McCoy


Editor's Notes: Heath McCoy is the writer of the highly praised book entitled Pride & Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling and is also a writer for the Calgary Herald newspaper.

Since his famed father went by the title British Bulldog, you might call pro wrestler Harry Smith, Bulldog Junior. Then again, you might not say that to his face.

There's nothing Junior about this 19-year-old, standing six-foot-six and weighing in at 255 pounds, as he tosses his long-haired hulk of a training partner around the ring at BJ's Gym, near Calgary's downtown core, like the guy was a crash test dummy.

The beating 21-year-old Will Hunter takes - happily - is staggering. Multiple drop kicks to the head and chest; flying power slams; the kid's twisted body crashing to the mat like thunder, until you'd swear he was going to break into pieces.

Sure, professional wrestling is just as much theatre as it is sport. The violence is an illusion, more the work of stuntmen than true combatants. But tell that to Hunter as he picks himself up after a particularly crushing slam to mat, just a little bit slower and more pained after the eighth hit than he was on the seventh.

"Let's try that one again," says Harry, preparing his partner for yet another round of assaults.

Surrounded by pictures of his Herculean father, the British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith, his uncles, Bret and Owen Hart, and his grandfather, promoter Stu Hart, wrestling legends all, Harry is putting on a show for the camera-man and he wants the pictures to be perfect.

Having wrestled professionally since he was 14-years-old (not counting the many exhibition matches he took part in from the age of eight), Harry is about to take the next step in his career. He's making the leap to Vince McMahon's WWE - the multiple-media empire that rules the world of professional wrestling - and it's important to him that he makes the transition looking like a star.

Throughout his teens Harry has been a mainstay of the Hart family's Stampede Wrestling promotion. Run by Stu Hart, Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling was a Western Canadian institution from the 1940s to the late '80s, spawning some of the biggest names in the business, and gaining notoriety around the world. In 1990 the promotion closed its doors, unable to compete with the big-budget flash of the WWE (then called the WWF). Stampede's top talents, including Bret "The Hitman" Hart and Davey Boy Smith, went on to be massive stars in the WWF.

In 1999 the Hart family resurrected Stampede Wrestling and Harry was on board almost from the start. But it's been a tough slog. Long gone are the pre-WWF days when Stampede Wrestling had television exposure and drew in thousands of fans in arenas across Western Canada each week. Now, the promotion generally runs once every second week in legion halls and a crowd of 250 fans is considered a big success.

Harry's about to say goodbye to all of that. He's wrestling his last Stampede Wrestling match on May 12, in Cochrane's Spray Lakes Arena, and on June 5th the son of the British Bulldog is set to make his debut on the WWE's Monday Night Raw program, seen in over 100 countries.

Harry's a polite kid and there's not a trace of arrogance in his demeanour, but rather unwavering determination when he states that he always knew the day was coming when he'd make the big time. "I could have signed the day after high school," he says. "(The WWE) told me, 'You've got a job here.' But I didn't want to sign then. I had an opportunity to wrestle in Japan, like my father did 20 odd years ago, and that was a dream of mine. I said, 'If I go to Japan and come back to you guys in a few years, will I be burning a bridge?' They said no. . . . So I've been to Japan and I've been to Europe and I've become a better, more seasoned wrestler. I feel like I've built my stock."

Indeed, it's no small feat that a grappler as young as Harry is being drafted straight into the WWE's flagship Raw program, bypassing the promotion's official farm team, Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW) in Kentucky, where most of McMahon's young stars must prove their worth. "I'm jumping that," he says. "I'm not going to OVW, starting as the bottom card guy and making a whole lot less (money). . . . I'm signed to a pretty good deal."

Harry only has a vague idea of what the WWE's plans are for him, but he's been told they're gearing him up for a big role. The deal was hashed out last month, when Harry accompanied his uncle, Bret Hart, to Chicago, where "The Hitman" was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame prior to WrestleMania 22. There, a talent scout for the WWE told Harry that the time to join the promotion was now. "He said 'We have a very good opportunity for you on the Raw roster," Harry recalls. "'A lot of the heavyweights are injured right now. . . . and we need a big guy like you, a new face. The time is here. We'll bring you in in a year from now, but we're not sure if this same position will be available.'" Suitably enticed, Harry signed on.

In doing so, he thinks he may have opened the door for others on the Stampede Wrestling roster, like his cousin Nattie Neidhart, daughter of Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart, and his best friend T.J. Wilson, who have been in talks with the WWE.

But the wrestling business hasn't always been kind to the Hart clan. Harry's uncle Owen died in a WWE ring in 1999 when a dangerous stunt went awry. For a time, the Hart family was caught up in a vicious lawsuit with the WWE over the incident. (Eventually, the case was settled with the Harts receiving $18 million from the organization).

Even more painful for Harry was watching his dad slowly self-destruct, falling victim to a string of serious injuries and the steroids and pain-killers diet that had felled so many wrestlers. He watched his parents' marriage crumble, as his mother, Diana Hart left his father. For a moment, it looked like Davey Boy had turned his life around. He was trying to kick his drug habit and make a comeback, even teaming up with Harry in the ring on a couple of occasions. But in May 2002, 39-year-old Davey Boy died of a heart attack, linked to years of steroid abuse.

Harry prides himself on his clean lifestyle. He has never touched steroids, he says, and he's determined he never will.

But can it be avoided in the big time, where wrestlers often turn to steroids to look the part? Where they fall back on pain killers in order to perform at their peak, even when they're injured?

"I'm not worried," Harry says. "The WWE is doing very strict drug testing right now. They're even testing for pills. If they find some sort of pill or muscle relaxant in your system, you have to have a doctor's prescription for it, otherwise you're going to fail the test. . . . All Vince McMahon wants is for his wrestlers to look like athletes and I'm already pretty much there. I don't think I have much to worry about as far as that goes." Harry concedes: "It's a very hard, very fast lifestyle. But I'm pretty sure I can avoid (the pitfalls)."

Because his father was unable to avoid those pitfalls, and didn't live to see his son make it to the WWE, Harry admits his dream-come-true is bittersweet. His father lived and breathed wrestling, and the British Bulldog would have been proud of his son. "It's a shame he's not around to see this," Harry says. "I would have liked for him to see me get signed, to see me make it to the big time. But when I get to the WWE I'm very confident in my wrestling ability. I won't bring down Davey Boy Smith's name, or the Hart family name. "I want go there and be Canada's greatest star."

by Heath McCoy
Calgary Herald ..


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