The Best There Is, Was, and Ever Will Be. Originally published on October 20, 2004 Written by Kirsty Quested
Sometimes the word “legend” is used with monotonous regularity, especially in this, the world of professional wrestling. A fickle mistress, at best. Given that legend status is also largely a matter of opinion, bestowing the title depends on the opinion of the bestowee. However, whether you’ve loved him or hated him, few would disagree that Bret “Hitman” Hart qualifies as one of the genuine legends in a business packed with wannabes and one-hit-wonders.
Bret’s talent had already shone even before Vince McMahon turned wrestling upside-down and changed it forever. His traditionalist style and personality remained a fan favorite when McMahon turned wrestling in a direction in which some thought Bret had no place. Now the legend lives on in honored retirement, his greatest matches still taking pride of place in all “best of” lists on websites across the globe, including that of the WWE.
Bret Hart was one of the first performers during the (then) WWF’s explosion onto the international scene who was his own person – who could assert his own personality within that of his character, without robbing someone else of theirs. It was one of many unique talents that, over a 22-year career, would ensure his place as one of the all-time greats in the history of the business.
Bret Sergeant Hart was born on July 2, 1957, into what would be the middle of a tribe of 12 kids. Ironic really, considering Helen Hart had been told she probably couldn’t have children. “Every time Stu hung his pants on the bed I was pregnant,” she recalled with an impish grin. “It’s very cold in the winter…and we love children.” Fortunate, wouldn’t you say?
Stu Hart, the patriarch of this remarkable clan, ran a local Calgary promotion, Stampede Wrestling. “Wrestling has, and always will be filled with some of the most bizarre, outrageous characters,” Bret said in the documentary Wrestling With Shadows, and this description held true not just for his career but for his childhood as well. The Hart mansion was always filled with strange men, women, and animals of all descriptions (tigers and bears included!). In one of his columns for the Calgary Sun, Bret recalls Archie “The Stomper” Gouldie breaking Stu’s arm and threatening to rip down the house and pile-drive Helen Hart into the bargain. Upon looking out the window one day and seeing the Stomper making his way up the driveway, the 10-year old turned pale and stammered to his mother “H-h-he’s here!” To his consternation, not only did Helen not batten down the hatches and call the police, she greeted the behemoth at the door with a hug and an envelope containing his paycheque. Such was a day in the unpredictable Hart household.
From the tender age of 6, Bret worked for his father in this unique industry – hawking programs, setting up rings, queuing up intro music, and later on, refereeing. His brothers were all involved and it seemed inevitable that Bret would take up the mantle of the family business. Like all his siblings, Bret had been “stretched” by Stu in the infamous Dungeon, which he used both as a teaching tool for submission wrestling and as form of discipline if any of the kids got out of line. Despite no small amount of talent and success in amateur wrestling during his high school years however, Bret did initially disdain a career in both the amateur and professional arenas in order to study film at the Mount Royal College. But not for long. “It happened in a heartbeat,” said Bret. “My dad needed some guys, and all of a sudden, I was a professional wrestler.”
Contrary to popular lore, Bret was not initially trained by Stu in the Dungeon, not in professional wrestling anyway. His professional training he credits to his father’s (then) tag team champions, Japanese wrestlers Mr. Hito and Mr. Sakurada. “You biggest one (of Stu’s sons)” said Mr. Hito. “Why you no wrestle?” In their non-existent spare time, they trained the young Hart in the art of professional wrestling – this being how to protect yourself, and more importantly, your opponent. The protégé learned well. In his entire career, Bret Hart never injured another wrestler – ever. It’s doubtful whether anyone else of the same tenure can boast that record. Additionally, it is to Mr. Hito and Mr. Sakurada that Bret credits his other moniker, “The Excellence of Execution.”
On the Stampede circuit, Bret’s talent and professionalism were immediately obvious. When Stu sold his territory to the up-and-coming Vince McMahon, Jr., Bret was part of the package. Despite his ability, Bret started like everyone else in the WWF – at the bottom, doing jobs. Being Stu Hart’s son meant not a jot, and Bret had to fight to prove himself to Vince. It wasn’t long before the promoter took a closer look at the young Canadian. The first evolution of his character was to be “Cowboy” Bret Hart, complete with rhinestones, a Stetson and even a horse. “It’s like a dream come true when they come up with a gimmick for you because it means they’ll give you a push,” Bret said. “But the more I thought about being Cowboy Bret Hart and tried to get excited about it, the less I liked the idea. I’m not a cowboy and it seemed like a putdown to real cowboys.” Instead, Bret suggested tagging himself up with his brother-in-law, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. Whereas most tag teams consisted of two very similar-style performers, the combination of Jim’s hard-hitting, bulldozing approach and Bret’s technical, high-flying ability was unique – but it worked. The Hart Foundation was born. Initially they weren’t given much of a push. In those days they didn’t even stand out physically – what would become their trademark pink-and-black was at that time ordinary black and blue. It would take two more of Bret’s brothers-in-law, Davey Boy Smith and Tom Billington (The British Bulldogs) to convince McMahon that the Hart Foundation deserved a shot at the straps – and followed this up by refusing to drop them to anyone else. Heels at the time, Jim and Bret finally gained the recognition they’d worked so hard for. They were about to stand out even more.
“It was all Judy’s fault,” said Bret. The costumier for the WWF had run out of material and the Foundation boys needed a rush job on new tights. “I just have this – a lovely shade of pink,” said Judy. Pink??? A heel tag team in pink. Yeah, right. That’ll be happening. As it was, they had no choice. “Maybe it would be good for a laugh,” mused Bret. Upon seeing one of his up-and-coming, baddest heel teams in pink, however, Vince McMahon wasn’t laughing. Jim and Bret developed cold sweats as their boss toured all the way round them, his eyes wide and his mouth agape. “Pink,” said, “you’re wearing pink.” They were about to begin laying all the blame at Judy’s feet when Vince announced that he’d pinpointed what they’d been missing all along. “You had no color,” he said. “From now on, you don’t wear anything else.” Heel tag team champions in pink – now that’s taking a risk. But it worked. It worked so well, that despite their bad-boy status, they were getting more fan letters than any other tag team in the WWF. Responding to the fans reactions, Vince turned the Hart Foundation babyface. Their versatility was astounding, able to produce great matches with monsters like Demolition, then turn it around for high-flyers like the Rockers.
The WWF cut Jim loose after his temper got the better of him, which saddened Bret, but also opened the door for his singles career. Vince was sceptical – the Hart Foundation had always worked so integrally – but nevertheless gave Bret the push, based on the prowess he had shown in previous Battle Royals and Royal Rumbles. Bret captured his first singles title, the Intercontinental Championship, from Mr. Perfect (Curt Hennig) at Summerslam in 1991 in a highly regarded and technically brilliant match. If there had been any doubt about the Hitman’s ability to work alone, it had been erased.
When people think of the rock band Queen, almost everyone can think of at least one song they like. This was because of their incredible versatility and ability to re-invent themselves. The same was true of Bret Hart. Everyone could find something they liked about him. The older male fans admired his no-nonsense, traditional personality and technical prowess. The younger guys liked his high-flying talent and courage with tricky moves. And the girls, young and old, melted over his looks and rarely-bestowed smile. Looking was all they would get to do; in 1983 Bret had married his long-time girlfriend Julie and had the first of their four children – Jade, Dallas, Alexandra and Blade.
Bret Hart’s meteoric rise to the top of the WWF owed much to his unstinting work ethic and ability to keep his style fresh and innovative, while still retaining a traditional approach. Articulate and intelligent, his promos contained genuine cynicism and were more cerebral than much of the frenzied grinding into the camera people were used to seeing from the likes of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Sycho Sid and the Ultimate Warrior. Vince McMahon capitalized on his incredible popularity as a babyface and launched him into some of the most closely-followed feuds in WWF history. Among those to withstand a long-running storyline with Bret was his younger brother Owen Hart.
Pitting brother against brother would have been irresistible to Vince and the scriptwriters in the WWF, but Bret was initially wary. “I was reluctant to do it because of the family name, and the fact that we really were close brothers,” said Bret. “I knew the storyline would be long and drawn-out, and we would have to go through this charade 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, of hating each others guts.” At this time, Bret had already captured the WWF World title twice. Getting a shot at the world champion usually means a substantial raise in pay, and Owen, a reluctant star, was really only in the business for the money, planning to work hard, save hard, and retire young so he could go home to his family. He won his brother over by saying it wasn’t fair that other guys with families got to work with Bret, and he couldn’t. “When he put it like that,” Bret said, “I said right away, we’ll do it then.” Bret and Owen both agreed that their feud would not just fizzle, as so many of them do, but would instead be provided with proper closure by the brothers reconciling on either a Raw or a pay-per-view – to ensure all the fans witnessed it.
The scriptwriters must have been salivating over the storyline possibilities of a sibling rivalry, and wasted no time making it one of the nastiest in WWF history. For their part, once they’d adjusted to their new regime, Bret and Owen began having some of their most enjoyable matches. Trust between performers is a huge part of a successful match. The more you trust someone, and the better you know them, the more risks you are able to take. Thus, you can put together matches that are fantastic for the fans to watch. Knowing each other as well as they did, and with both of them being so technically sound, Bret and Owen pulled out all the stops. They were having some of the greatest matches in WWF history, including Wrestlemania X, and the brilliantly contested steel cage match at the 1994 Summerslam. (If you haven’t already, you must check out this match to see one of the best suplex moves ever executed.)
One storyline per performer at any given time will not suffice for long, however, and in addition to working with Owen, Bret also continued a long-running feud with former Rocker, the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels. It seemed inevitable that the writers would pair these two superstars up. They were of the same era, had similar styles and were a fair match for each other physically. Like a bad relationship, their feud was on and off for years. They would break away for a short time, but would inexorably be drawn back together by the writers, who responded to the huge reactions generated anytime Bret and Shawn faced off. They put together not only the first 60 minute Iron Man match (Wrestlemania XII) but also the very first WWF ladder match (an invention of Stu Hart’s.) Perhaps the fact that this match took place at a house show in May 1992, is the reason it’s overlooked as the first ladder match, which has been popularly supposed to have been the Wrestlemania X match between Shawn and Scott Hall (Razor Ramon). (I’ve checked this out pretty thoroughly. Contradict me if you will, but please provide the proof.)
Although disagreeing on pretty much everything from the color of the sky to the position of the moon along its ecliptic, the one thing that Bret and Shawn do agree on is that at some point, their scripted feud crossed the line into reality. There seem to be many and varied reasons for this, depending on whose version you’re listening to at any given time. Shawn had formed the “Kliq,” consisting of himself, Scott Hall (Razor Ramon), Kevin Nash (Diesel), Paul Levesque (Hunter Hearst Helmsley) and Scott Waltman (1-2-3 Kid), and this collective appeared to be steadily gaining some power-behind-the-throne status. The WWF was heading in a new, more adult direction, and whether or not Bret blamed this partly on the Kliq, he felt that overall, wrestling was becoming less and less presentable to kids. The animosity between himself and Shawn increased. Bret’s manifested itself by taking pot-shots hinting at Shawn’s sexuality. Shawn retaliated by making scathing comments about Stu, and occasionally even dishing out the odd potato in their matches. (Watch carefully during the Iron Man at Wrestlemania XII – Shawn’s knee in Bret’s back at around 38 minutes is a classic example.) “The whole thing’s getting stupid,” Bret said at the time, and has since gone on to say that he tried a number of times to bury the hatchet with Shawn and maintain a professional working relationship, only to have Shawn nip him behind the knees again and again. Understandably, Bret’s frustration with Shawn’s lack of professionalism and his tendency to let his temper and immaturity get the better of him increased. Coupled with the new, raunchy WWF of which Bret disapproved, his passion for the business was on the wane. When the offer came in from Canadian TV series Lonesome Dove, it seemed like a good time to take a break. Bret dropped the belt to Shawn at Wrestlemania XII, and temporarily hung up his tights.
During his absence, the direction of the WWF continued to change. In addition to the more adult storylines, the lines between heels and babyfaces were becoming blurred. Fans were beginning to cheer the guys they were supposed to hate, and in no-one was this more obvious than the up-and-coming Stone Cold Steve Austin. Stone Cold’s character was designed to be as nasty and disrespectful as possible, but the more he jeered at the fans, the more he insulted the other wrestlers, and the nastier the stunts he pulled, the more the fans adored him. “It’s like, he’s so bad he’s cool,” Owen Hart said at the time. Vince McMahon recognized the way the fans reacted to Steve Austin and did not fail to capitalize on his unexpected but burgeoning popularity. “The quintessential ‘good guy,’ the kind of guy that my parents would have thought was a ‘good guy,’ people puke at that,” said McMahon. “People don’t want that anymore.”
“In the end, the fans decide everything,” Bret remarked. Perhaps as an attempt to cool the heat between Shawn and Bret, Vince began building Steve Austin to work with Bret on his return. Steve taunted the absent Hitman, taking jabs wherever possible and setting up the new storyline. Another reason for setting up Bret and Steve could also have been Shawn’s refusal to drop the strap to Bret at Wrestlemania XIII, a job he was supposed to do to “return the favour” after Bret put Shawn over at Wrestlemania XII. Instead he forfeited the belt after a tearful speech about going home to find his smile. The official reason given was that he needed time to recover from injury. Bret, annoyed at having been cheated out of the title shot, scoffed at these excuses. Whether or not Vince was making a genuine attempt to cool these two off, for all intents and purposes the feud was re-ignited. Shawn tells us he was hurt by Bret’s insinuation that his decision to pull out of Wrestlemania XIII had less to do with his injury than it did with his reluctance to drop the WWF title back to him. Bret backs up his statement by pointing out that despite Shawn’s assertion of “career-ending injuries,” he was back in the ring in an amazingly short time. For his part, Shawn snidely remarked on Bret’s “Sunny days,” a reference to the bubbly, blonde valet Tammy Lynn Stych (Sunny) and her – ahem – “involvement” with Bret. Bret’s vehement denial of this accusation seems to have provoked one of two interpretations. The first being that, given Bret was so outraged, Shawn must have lied. You just don’t cross that line and accuse someone of marital infidelity and not expect a furious response.
Others maintain the old “methinks he doth protest too much” is in fact evidence by proxy that Shawn touched a raw nerve. Whatever the truth, it was enough to ignite a backroom brawl in which Bret, from most eyewitness accounts, dominated Shawn and seemed about to take him apart, until Vince sent them both home to cool off.
During Bret’s absence, he was approached by the WWF’s arch-rival, the WCW, an operation owned by sports billionaire Ted Turner. They had already had some success in luring away some of the WWF’s biggest names, including the larger-than-life Hulk Hogan. Their competing Monday night show, Nitro, was out-rating the WWF’s Raw. Now they wanted Bret – and to prove it, they offered him more money than he’d ever dreamed of. “They’ve offered me 9 million dollars over three years,” said Bret. “I got interested in that.” Vince countered Turner’s offer with about half the money, but with a 20 year contract. This was unheard of, and it was still more money than any of the other top guys were getting. After a great deal of soul-searching and bouncing back and forth, Bret eventually put his loyalty to Vince McMahon and the WWF first, and accepted their deal. “I always saw my relationship with Vince as kind of like a father,” said Bret. “And I felt like, if I left, it would be a bit like leaving my dad, especially when the chips were down. Loyalty’s important.”
Meanwhile, the scripted heat between Bret and Steve was working nicely. Bret returned to the WWF with a bang at the 1996 Survivor Series, defeating Steve Austin in a match that strongly hinted at how well these two would work together. However, despite the WWF’s best efforts at creating a super-heel in Steve, his popularity increased and babyface feuds just don’t work. As a result, two significant events took place. The first was the reconciliation of the Hart brothers, Bret and Owen. Although their feud had taken a backseat to the real-life animosity between Shawn and Bret, it was nevertheless time for the brothers to kiss and make up. This they did on a Raw taping after Bret interfered in a match between Owen and their brother-in-law, Davey Boy Smith. What had been a three-way snark-fest was resolved in seconds as only WWF scriptwriters know how to do, but it made for great television and some of the emotion between the three men could very well have been for real. As a direct result, the New Hart Foundation was born, encapsulating Bret, Owen, Davey, their friend Brian Pillman and the return of Jim Neidhart.
The second significant event was Vince’s success in talking Bret into changing his character – to become, for the first time in years, a heel. “At first I was lukewarm to the idea,” said Bret. “I’d always taken so much pride in being the hero. Still, I guess there are only so many times you can rescue the girl from the railroad tracks without people getting bored with it.” Coinciding with Bret’s reversal of character was that of Steve Austin’s, and it was to take place all in one match – at Wrestlemania XIII. After a hell of a brawl that ranged all over the arena, Bret got a bloodied and exhausted Steve into the sharpshooter and refused to release it even after Steve “passed out” from blood loss. Although Steve had not tapped out, guest referee Ken Shamrock ended the match and declared Bret the winner. Not content with his victory, Bret solidified his new heel status by kicking the unconscious Steve while he was down. Shamrock physically wrestled him away and for the first time in nearly 10 years, the Hitman was a heel.
Vince had big plans for his new bad guy. It meant also that the Hart Foundation were collectively heels, but in a unique sort of way. The gimmick they came up with was an “anti-American” stance, in which the Hart Foundation would ridicule and lambaste the American fans, while retaining, interestingly, babyface status in their home country of Canada. “It’s a road no-one’s ever gone down before,” said Bret. “Trying to be heels in the States and good guys back home.” Steve assumed the role of the patriotic American defender, as did another fresh babyface, Mark Calloway (Undertaker).
The Hart Foundation systematically alienated the American fan base. Still beloved in Canada, they had to deal with being booed and having things thrown at them all over the States. “Sometimes I’ll meet a kid who’s really down about it, who wishes I’d change back,” Bret said. “I don’t have any real answers for them either. I just hope that when this thing’s all over, I won’t have damaged the relationship too much.”
At the 1997 Summerslam, Bret was on the card challenging the Undertaker for the world title. To capitalize on the already burning heat, Shawn Michaels was scheduled to referee the match. This was a source of no small amount of consternation to Bret, in storyline and in reality. “I’m kind of worried about this thing with Shawn,” Bret was heard to remark to Pat Patterson in the documentary Wrestling With Shadows. “It seems like he’s gonna scoop my heat.” In a way, he was right. The heat during that match was very much between Shawn and Bret, with Shawn eventually costing the Undertaker the match by belting him with a chair meant for Bret. With no choice but to bang out the 3-count, Shawn exited the arena in disgust and Bret was the new world champion. Although the outcome of the match was entirely scripted, it was evident watching Shadows that Bret had taken little pride in winning the title in such a way. Handing the belt to his son Blade, he sat on a bench clearly contemplating his new heel status and the unpleasantness that went along with it. During press photographs taken a short while later, he was noticeably subdued.
It was about this time that Vince dropped his bombshell. Pleading financial dire straits, he told Bret he would have to break their 20-year contract. Whether or not this reasoning was true remains to be seen. There are those who believe that the size of Bret’s unprecedented 20-year contract was causing no small amount of consternation to the WWF’s other big names – Undertaker, Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels, who may conceivably have demanded the same. What followed at Montreal may have well been Vince’s way of sending a message to his superstars – if you try to play me against the WCW, this is what will happen to you.
Bret was understandably very upset. He had worked 14 years for the WWF, and had always thought he would end his career with them. Vince encouraged him to go back to the WCW and see if he could get his old deal. Bret was convinced it would have fallen through; instead they jumped on the new opportunity, saying “What is it going to take to get you here?” With a very heavy heart, Bret signed with the WCW. He had 4 weeks to go with the WWF. As a unique part of his contract, Bret was given reasonable creative control over the Hitman character for the last 30 days. This was extremely rare, but whether or not Bret suspected foul play, he insisted on this unique clause. Thoughts turned to how his exit, still kept under wraps at this stage, would be orchestrated. The first obstacle was the nearing 1997 Survivor Series, to take place at the Molson Centre in Montreal, Canada. Shawn was set to challenge Bret for the strap. Vince told Bret he wanted him to drop the belt to Shawn at Survivor Series. For the first time ever, Bret refused Vince. He had never once said no to his boss before. He felt it would be unfair to the Canadian fans, who had stuck by him during his anti-American gimmick and his bad-guy status. He felt it would be unfair to the Canadian fans who followed the WCW. And lastly, he felt it would be detrimental to his career – Canada was the one place he was still a hero, and to drop the belt to anyone in his home country was something he felt he just could not do. He insisted it had nothing to do with dropping it to Shawn, whom he had again tried to patch things up with by telling him he had no problem whatsoever putting him over, just not in Canada. Shawn replied by saying he appreciated the sentiment, but that he would not to do the same for Bret. This further solidified Bret’s refusal to drop the belt in Canada.
Bret and Vince argued back and forth for weeks. “You told me I could leave any way I want to, and now you’re saying I have to lose in Canada,” Bret said to Vince. “This is really strange.” Vince argued that he could not risk Bret showing up for Turner’s operation wearing his belt. Bret responded by saying he would never do that to Vince, and, anxious to find some compromise, tried many different scenarios on Vince, including forfeiting the belt the next night on Raw, accompanied by a goodbye speech which would have tied up all the loose ends nicely.
With the tension increasing and still no compromise reached, the relationship between Vince and Bret turned icy as the Survivor Series approached. Bret had not made things easier by refusing to shut up about how he felt about the direction wrestling was taking. Still with no decision made, Bret entered the Molson Centre in Montreal on November 9, 1997, and once again tried to find some compromise. This meeting with Vince would have a difference. At this meeting, Bret was wired. This was mostly due to the fact that the Shadows documentary was being filmed, but Bret did not tell Vince their meeting was being recorded. Anyone who has seen the documentary has heard Vince finally agree that Bret did not have to lose to Shawn that day. They agreed on a run-in from both Shawn’s D-Generation X-ers, and the Hart Foundation, meaning the match would end in disqualification. “I think it allows me to leave in a nice way, with my head up,” Bret said to Vince. “Whatever you want,” Vince replied.
Unbeknownst to Bret, Vince had already decided that no matter what anyone thought about it, Bret was not taking his strap out of Montreal that night. Just how many people were in on this is unclear; that Shawn Michaels and referee Earl Hebner were “in the know” is fact. In front of thousands of Canadian fans, Earl, at Vince’s urging, called for the bell as Bret was escaping from Shawn’s sharpshooter, indicating a submission that had never taken place. “I heard someone say, ‘ring the bell,'” said Bret. “That’s when I knew it was Vince McMahon.” In an impotent expression of rage, betrayal and humiliation, Bret spat in Vince’s face, then proceeded to fling expensive WWF equipment around the apron until Jim, Davey and Owen hit the ring and pulled him away.
Backstage, Vince locked himself in his office and refused to come out. Bret confronted Shawn in the dressing room, who swore to God that he had nothing to do with it – something that seemed ironic given that he was lying and that he had converted to Christianity. Meanwhile, Undertaker was hammering on the door of Vince’s office, demanding that he come out and apologise to Bret. Bret’s wife, Julie, was dressing down Hunter Hearst Helmsley in the corridor, and doing such a good job of it that he could not even look her in the face. Eventually Vince was forced out of his office, and accompanied by his son Shane and Sgt. Slaughter, went to Bret’s dressing room. Upon being told that Vince was there, Bret let it be known in no uncertain terms he did not want to speak to Vince, and that if he was still there when he got out of the shower, he’d deal to him. Apparently figuring that he could handle himself, Vince did not heed the warning and was subsequently KO’d by a right hook of Bret’s that would have dropped a rhino. Shane jumped on Bret’s back; Davey jumped on Shane, and eventually everyone got separated. Bret had snapped, swearing and yelling at Vince, who could do little more than growl incoherently. He tried to rise, but had no legs; eventually he was carted up under his arms and dragged away. The Shadows crew caught him stumbling down the corridor, punch-drunk and limping. “It was a Stu Hart judgement call,” Bret said of his decision to thump Vince. The next day, despite time remaining with the WWF, he left for the WCW.
The fallout from what would be forever known as the “Montreal Screwjob” continued for a very long time. Vince, sporting a worthy shiner, appeared on a WWF TV interview insisting that “Bret screwed Bret,” and that he had no sympathy for him whatsoever. Unaware at that time of Bret’s being wired during their meeting in Montreal, Vince dug himself unknowingly into a pit of lies, which would be revealed when the documentary was released, something Vince tried his best to prevent. Despite protesting initially that he had not known what was going down, Shawn eventually admitted he’d been in on it all along, and that he regretted screwing over “one of the boys.” Owen Hart was so disgusted he tried his best to get out of his WWF contract and move to the WCW with Bret, but Vince clamped down and refused to let him go. And Bret hit out at Vince, Shawn, Earl and the WWF in a subsequent Calgary Sun column in which his anger and sadness was clearly evident.
When Bret had first been in talks with the WCW, Vince had warned him that they would have no idea what to do with a “Bret Hart.” Bret grudgingly admits he was right – when he got there they had no concrete plans for him. They did not seem to know who to build him for, despite an array of interesting prospects – Hulk Hogan, Bill Goldberg, and Sting to name but a few. “If I try to count the number of good things they did when I was there, I’d really have to scratch my head,” Bret said. They would begin to build him for someone, then suddenly have him do a job for a completely irrelevant match. They pulled him out of starting the Molson Indy, an event he’d been scheduled and advertised for for months, only to have him wrestle at a house show in which he had not appeared on the card. Despite all this, wrestling was his passion and he devoted unflagging energy to it, which had paid huge dividends for his career but was to the detriment of his family life. “I can’t say I was the best husband,” Bret has admitted. “Julie’s been stuck with most of the dirty work. I don’t know how she ever put up with it.” Whether or not she tired of Bret’s relentless schedule or not, eventually Julie threw in the towel. For reasons never made completely clear, Julie and Bret divorced. Bret’s sadness over the disintegration of his marriage and his frustrations would soon be overshadowed by a tragedy that would rock the world of wrestling to its foundations.
On May 23, 1999, Owen Hart was scheduled to appear at a pay-per-view billed as Over The Edge. Also disillusioned with the raunchy direction in which the WWF had taken, he had refused sleazy storyline after sleazy storyline, and was eventually saddled with an old gimmick, the Blue Blazer. One of the Blazer’s functions was to ridicule the stars of the WCW. One of those was Sting, whose trademark was floating from the rafters of the arena into the ring, super-hero fashion. It was decided that Owen would parody this stunt. The difference between Owen and Sting, however, was that Sting had been professionally trained to rappel from great heights, whereas Owen, scared of heights all his life, had no training whatsoever. Even the one rehearsal undertaken earlier in the afternoon had not gone well, and when the time came for Owen to descend from the rafters he still had no proper training with the harness, one that featured a special snap-shackle quick release. The snap shackle required less than 9 pounds of pressure to release – less pressure than it takes to pull the trigger on a gun. Whether Owen accidentally knocked the quick release, or whether the equipment failed in some way remains unclear – whatever the reason, Owen Hart plunged 78 feet to his death in front of 16,000 horrified fans. In an appalling display of mercenary insensitivity, Vince insisted the show carried on after Owens body was wiped off the mat. The fans at the live show were not told he had been killed. Had they been, some of them said, they would have left. They vented their disgust at being kept in the dark so they could not make the choice to walk out. Vince’s excuse for keeping the show going was that he thought the fans would riot. To say that wrestling fans would riot because someone got killed is testament to just how warped the priorities of Vince McMahon really are. The real reason was that he did not want to refund the pay-per-view. In the end, as it always has been, it was about money.
Bret learned of his brother’s death as he was flying to LA to appear on the Tonight Show. He immediately turned around upon landing in LA and flew back to Calgary. “I just kept thinking, it was such a crummy end,” he said. Bret stood by Owens widow, Martha Hart, throughout the funeral arrangements and the lawsuit she subsequently filed for wrongful death against the WWF. In a heartbreaking column in the Calgary Sun, Bret farewelled his younger brother.
When Bret returned to work at the WCW, he was disappointed to learn that they still hadn’t given much thought to his storylines. Eventually they started building him for Bill Goldberg, during which time Bret pulled the “steel plate” gimmick and knocked Goldberg out when Bill speared him. The idea was Bret’s, Goldberg had liked it, but he had had to fight Eric Bischoff to get it approved. When it went down so well, he wasn’t given any credit. Later in the year, Bret had one of the few matches he really enjoyed with the WCW, although it was bittersweet. In the same arena in Kansas City where Owen had been killed, Bret matched up against a good friend of Owens, fellow Canadian Chris Benoit. Their match, designed as a tribute to Owen, has gone down as one of the best in wrestling history. Although Bret had wanted to put Chris over, Chris insisted that it be the other way round. Neither could hold back the tears as the match ended, and as they embraced in the ring many of the fans joined in weeping tears for Owen Hart.
Towards the end of 1999, Bret was scheduled to fight Bill Goldberg. Perhaps he was feeling fragile. Maybe he had a premonition of things to come. For whatever reason, Bret said to Bill, just before the match, “Whatever you do, don’t hurt me.” The first potato, unintentional though it may have been, was a forearm to the face that Bret described as “a brick wrapped in a pillowcase.” Dazed, Bret tried to shake it off and locked Bill into a figure-4 on the corner post. “The way the move is supposed to work,” said Bret, “is for him to grab my leg as it comes up over the apron.” Bill neglected to do this, so when Bret went to fall backwards, he cracked his head on the concrete floor. Blow number 2. The second potato was a mule kick that smashed into Bret’s head, with no bend in Bill’s leg and the full force of his considerable size and strength behind it. Bret dropped to the mat instantly. “I saw a million stars,” said Bret. After the match (which Bret does not really remember), no-one checked to see if he was OK.
No-one offered to drive him to a doctor, or even back to his hotel. He made it there on his own, stumbled to his room and collapsed, fully clothed, on the bed.
Bret continued to wrestle over the next three weeks, always feeling dazed and sometimes nauseous, until he saw his doctor during a trip home. Tests revealed a severe concussion and Bret was told by his doctor in no uncertain terms – no stress, no travelling, no working out, and above all, no wrestling. His columns for the Calgary Sun over these months reveal his frustration at being tied down, and his fear of how badly he was hurt. “I kept losing my train of thought when I was talking,” he said. “I’d see a shaving cream commercial and just burst out crying.” Eventually, the WCW released Bret from his contract, and 5 days later, in the Calgary Sun, Bret retired from the world of professional wrestling. Truly, the end of an era.
Bret was to suffer more personal tragedy. Martha Hart’s lawsuit against the WWF had ripped the Hart family apart, with, to this day, several of them no longer speaking to each other. The gentle and sophisticated matriarch of the Hart clan, Helen, died on November 4, 2001, from complications with diabetes. On May 18, 2002, Bret’s brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith, died suddenly of a heart attack. These deaths followed those of Brian Pillman in 1997 and Bret’s young nephew, Matthew, in 1996. The Harts had taken blow after blow. Somehow, Bret soldiered on.
While Bret may still have been hopeful of one day stepping back into the squared circle, his doctors had other ideas. However, they finally gave Bret the go-ahead to begin light exercise. He was soon cycling around Calgary, and eventually he was allowed to go back to the gym. It seemed as if the Hitman may have been on the verge of a comeback when he had a minor accident on his cycle on June 24, 2002. “I was cutting through the grass just off the pathway and I was actually coasting up the crest of a hill in a very relaxed way and I hit a pothole that was really camouflaged,” he said. “It didn’t look like anything when I went over it. I hit the front tire and it wobbled me and, when the back tire hit, it caused me to fall over. It wasn’t like I was thrown 10 feet or spiked on my head or anything. If anything, it probably looked like nothing. When it happened, I thought: ‘How embarrassing.’ It was a really pathetic kind of tumble. It looked like a toddler trying to do a headstand. I got whipped to the ground and I really hurt my back. It felt like somebody had speared me like a fish in the river.” As he lay on the ground, he saw stars out of his left eye. When he tried to stand, he couldn’t lift his left leg over the seat of the cycle. He was transported to hospital by ambulance, where doctors informed him he had suffered a stroke. They could not say what caused it, but were unable to rule out his previous concussions as contributors.
The stroke paralyzed Bret down his left side. For a man so active, these chains were frightening and debilitating. “When they told me I’d had a stroke,” said Bret, “I thought, what? Old people get strokes. And I’m thinking in my head at the time, OK. People recover from strokes. But I had no idea then just what that recovery would involve.” Testament to his determination, Bret was walking – albeit very unsteadily – 10 days after his stroke. Displaying the same resilience and fortitude as he has always done, Bret battled along the road to recovery. He credits much of his success to the staff at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, who in turn were impressed by how easy he was to work with, and how hard he worked. His determination paid off. Today, Bret has regained most of what the stroke took away. He is once again cycling, working out in the gym, and devoting time to his favorite charities. He has traveled the globe as a commissioner for wrestling events. He will, unfortunately, never be able to wrestle again. To do so would risk severe brain damage, and/or another stroke. He is in the process of writing his autobiography, which from all accounts is making good progress. And in December 2004, he can be seen in Toronto, treading the boards in a musical production of Aladdin, as the Genie of the Lamp.
Sadly, Bret’s father, the remarkable Stu Hart, passed away on October 16, 2003. “You kind of look at the good side of it,” said Bret. “He had a glorious life that wasn’t cut short.” The tributes that poured in from all over the world honoring one of the first men of wrestling touched the entire Hart family, and stand as testament to the enormous contributions he made to the world of professional wrestling.
Bret Hart recently said in a Calgary Sun interview that he has never felt better. “I have a new lease on life. After everything I’ve been through, the sun is shining.”
Josh wakkodel wrote:
Finally someone has the compassion and undeniable facts to back up a true legend to the wrestling business. Most of the stories surrounding Bret “THE MAN” Hart were usually opinions of a man that they had never met in person or hated because of the way everything turned out. I have been a Hitman fan ever since the first Heart Foundation first came to the WWF(E). I was personally at the Over the Edge ppv and saw the most horrific site in my entire life…. One of my most favorite superstars whether heel or face, it didn’t matter to me, had fallen to his death. We watched horrifically as they tried and tried to revive him in the ring. At one point, my buddy Kevin said, “It’s all just a shoot man”. I lashed out in rage at him saying, “We’ve seen the same stunt millions of times with Sting, What makes you think that this is staged? OWEN IS REALLY HURT MAN!!!” What pissed most of us off for most of the night is that they just kept the show going in fear that we were gonna start rioting (even though KC is already known for its major brawls at sporting events, just look at three forths of the Chiefs games at Arrowhead stadium, some moron always seems to start a fight of some sort over beer or whatnot). Anyways, we had been waiting and waiting for the announcement for anything as far as the condition of Owen, but unfortunately…..we never did until we had gotten home and turned on the news to find out what we all had felt and dreaded….. Owen Hart falling to his death. I still to this day haven’t been able to go back to a ppv or anything wrestling related. When we watched Raw the next night, I didn’t hold back any tears. Even my buddy Kevin, who NEVER cries “cuz cryin is for sissies”, shed tears of sorrow and pain. I really appreciate the way that you have shown Bret out to be in your article…. through everything that the Hitman has gone through, he truly is the best there is, was, and ever will be.
Omar Martin Alarcon Palacios wrote:
He won all WWE and WCW titles…many times….He beat all other legends: Stone Cold, HBK, Rock, Undertaker, Triple H, Goldberg, Mankind, Rick Flair, Sting, Hogan, Bulldog, Owen, Benoit………ufffffff….. He was chosen the greatest WWE champion off all time, over Hogan, Stone cold, Goldberg, HBK, Undertaker, and many others.. …..His match with HBK (WM 12) was chosen than the best WWE macth of all time , and others matches: with Stone Cold (WM13), with Owen Hart (WM10) and with British Bulldog (Sumersslam 92) are considered into top 10 matches of all time……..He was the best, is the best and will be best of all time….He´s The Excellence of Execution…Bret “Hitmaaaaaaaannnnnnn” Hart!!!
Daniel Cove wrote:
all i can say is wow..this article is really good. i had gone to see bret and owen and all the other wrestlers in the mid 90’s when i was a kid. i’ve liked bret since i can remember..i still have wwf magazines from that era..but me and my friend joe look back when we were kids and saw these guys wrestle and talk about the good times we had. wrestling is nowhere near as good now. i mean when wrestling got huge in like ’99 and 2000 it was awesome to watch..now its like they have a lot of the same guys but its going downhill..but i just wanted to say i loved this article..the hitman is the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.
When i was younger i didnt realize how technically skilled these guys were but now i look back like wrestlemania 10 at the height of the bret/owen feud and just go wow these guys were incredible in that match. they will always be remembered in our harts forever.
Keith Learmonth wrote:
That was a truly amazing article, and although i havent really been a wrestling fan since the days Bret was around, i have to say, i truly respect him, for all he did for the industry, and i respect Kirsty for giving me and all the other fans who read it, this great article, which was very well written, and gave me a better understanding of the man that is, Bret Hart.
Andrew J Davidson wrote:
The first thing I need to say, thank you. Thank you for your incredible articles on the Hitman, Bret Hart and Owen Hart.
The article about Bret stewed up emotions of anger and frustration, and the never ending thoughts of “What If?”. It also made me remember a time when I loved wrestling, loved Bret and loved the technical brilliance he displayed regardless of his opponent, the direction of wrestling and his era in general. It also made me desperately want a “Best of Bret Hart” DVD collection. And ofcourse, lastly, it made me want to punch Vince in the face, again for the ridiculous ending he provided us all with.
stephen mullan wrote:
what can i say, i was truely lost for words!! after reading it i just sat in front of tne computer with my head in my hands trying to absorb all i had just read! i new Bret had his troubles, but to what extent i could never have imagined!! the article was both overflowing with information, and very easy to read! a credit to you! Bret is a true ‘hero’! and there c ould not be a truer statement! he is without a doubht the best there was and the best there ever will be! there has been many who have tried to fill the huge viod in professional wrestling that Bret has left, but these only result in copies and imations!the word legond is a word i use with great caution! but Bret ‘the Hitman’ Hart is certinaly that!
Oliver Newman wrote:
I was on the net and stumbled across this Article. As a huge Bret Hart fan I thought i’ll give it a read and WOAH! What a read a SUPERB Piece of Journalism on your part and a tremendous Tribute to the GREATEST (In My Opinion) Wrestler of all time Bret Hart!
Richard Jenkins (South Wales) wrote:
Hello. Having just recently discovered OnlineWorldofWrestling.com i decided to look throught the colums of the past few years. Having just finished your colum on Bret Hert i wish to say thank you. Having watch wrestling when i was younger i loved Bret Hert, allways have allways will. At the moment i do have a tear in my eye from reading your colum. It was full of information and was delt with in the manner in which I personally know how you feel (or felt as it was written a while back). Thank You so much for being a great person who was not swayed by the fact that things happened long ago. Bret Hart is a Legend and i thank you for showing me all the facts on my favorite wrestler of all time. i have to point out only recently have i had access to the Internet and i have lost my reception to WWE as it now is. Once again i thank you. Your writting truely moved me in ways i cannot put into words.
Jon Legg wrote:
My name is Jon, Im a 18 year old wrestling fan from the UK, loved your article on Online World of Wrestling :D. Bret Hart is my idol, i still have my Bret Hart doll i took it to uni with me, i started watching wrestling with my dad at the age of six, and remember crying at survivor series 97…(was only ten :( ) however, recently i have switched off from wrestling, but reading your article has given me some renewed passion for wrestling again.
Tom Cliff (Wem, Shropshire, England) wrote:
Hi im guessing its very very late for me to be writing to this column on the 24th October 2005 but this was the best column i could find about Bret Hart and what has happened in his career, more importantly the Montreal Screwjob. I first off wanna say that this is one hell of a great column about “The Hitman” Bret Hart and his illustrious and legendary career, your column is very down to earth and to the point and demonstrates that there are alot of Hitman fans who want him back in the squared circle again. I started watching WWF or WWE nowadays on October 16th 1995 at the age of only 4 so i’ve been watchin WWE for just over a decade and you can guess how old i am. I can still remember him beating Isaac Yankem in the cage, a month and a bit before Survivor Series ’95, i was very lucky to see a steel cage match on my first viewing of WWF/E because after that i was hooked on WWF, the Hart Foundation and most importantly of course Bret Hart.
I wanna say im losing a lot of hope of Bret Hart comin back to the WWE now since it’s past Wrestlemania 21 and even Summerslam of the same year but hearing that Hart and McMahon met at a conference negotiating his return (without an arguement amazingly) gives us fans some hope, especially now that he has a DVD coming out on november 15th and the plan is for Bret to come out and say a farewell to the RAW yes RAW fans but i’ve seen so many websites and heard so many return rumours to last a lifetime. Basically i just wanna see him in the ring again doin anthing really, commisioner, 50/50 general manager on RAW (not crappy smackdown)or a referee. If he does come back on the roster more importantly and wrestled again for a couple of years, what would be good is to see his music come on every time Shawn Micheals has a match for a distraction and for him to return in Montreal when Shawn Micheals confronts him, for him to come down to the ring and to hav him lock the sharpshooter on HBK, that would be something to see. I know Bret is getting on a bit now and is 48 years old but there is quite a few wrestlers that are older than that and still wrestling like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, there in there 50’s, Koko B.Ware wrestles in Memphis wrestling. It really is unbelievable how a shuffle sick kick to the back of the head can end someones career. I know Bret said he would never wrestle again but it really depends what moves affect him, wel who knows.
Sue from Singapore wrote:
Having read the article on Bret Hart, I would have to say a big THANK YOU for having it in the column. I accidently came across this site and my god! I had no idea so many things were going on behind the scenes between Vince and Bret. Ifully remember the ‘Montreal Screwup’ and the fall of Owen Hart. Bret Hart is my favourite wrestler ever since i’ve been watching wrestling. This is an excellent article on the LEGEND! I’ve always loved him as a wrestler and a person. I had the chance to watch the match between him and Owen Hart when the WWF made a stopover at Singapore. I still have the pictures and they are truly a treasure to keep.Guess that was one of the last matches i saw Owen with Bret together. The video of Owen’s fall still shocks me to this day. Whatever Bret said about the present WWE is true…it’s getting raunchier everyday day, it’s not like how it used to be.To me he’s always the best…The Best There is…The Best There Was…And The Best There Ever Will Be…love that punchline…Truly the GREATEST! Thanks for the chance..