Fans of wrestling on the web have been frothing at the mouth the last few days. Bret Hart, in an interview conducted overseas, stated that, basically summing up the sentiment he shared, said that he does not consider WWE heir apparent Triple H, Paul Levesque, a great wrestler or a great wrestling mind. He also said he cannot remember HHH having even one great match.
Really, this is fascinating stuff, and the reason I still pay attention to wrestling. You see, the stuff you see every Monday and Friday, and every fourth Sunday, is secondary to the stuff off the screen. The behind the scenes happenings are infinitely more interesting than that of anything shown on television. TV is almost just a supplement for what happens behind the camera.
Bret Hart is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, and my personal favorite. It started innocuously for me in 1990. Bret was part of a tag team, The Hart Foundation, with his brother-in-law, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. At the impressionable age of ten, I was still a huge Hulkamaniac. But my best friend at the time sort of took a shine to Bret Hart, and I followed along. As young kids are wont to do, we imitated our favorite tag team, him as Bret “The Hitman,” and me as the maniac Anvil. Although our friend, currently a MMA champion, always playing Bad News Brown, would kick our asses all over my wrestling arena basement. Thanks Shawn Baker, me and Josh are still nursing all the cranial injuries.
But I digress, because a funny thing happened in my second full year of watching wrestling. The Hart Foundation split up after dropping the WWF Tag Team Titles to the Nasty Boys at WrestleMania 7. My “Hitman” friend and I were distraught. But not for long. For you see, it was readily obvious to anyone who watched the Hart Foundation who the wrestling workhorse of the team was: it was Bret. I had long since crossed over to being a Hitman fan by sheer force of osmosis by my friend. He was a cool character. The Hitman, not my friend. We were losers. The distraught we felt was soon assuaged as Bret embarked on a stellar solo career that year, taking the Intercontinental title from the best heel in the business at the time, Mr. Perfect, at the pay-per-view following WrestleMania 7, Summerslam 1991. (Ah, for the days of four PPV’s a year with well planned and paced storylines…) Bret was off and running, and that victory catapulted him into superstardom.
Bret, at that time, was something of a phenomenon, as in those days the WWF was a muscleman meat factory. The bigger and more rippling the muscles, the higher on the card you were pushed. Bret was different. Bret was not a 300 pound roid-head like the Ultimate Warrior. He fought from underneath, got the crap kicked out of him for the better part of his matches. He used guile and will, and fought off the advances of his opponents by unmercifully working their calves and hamstrings until it was time to apply his finishing hold: The Sharpshooter. In reality, if you ever actually apply the hold to someone, it affects the back more than anything, but we’re picking nits here. The move looked cool, and it DID involve twisting the prone opponents legs, so if it meant it affected the legs, by God logic be damned in those impressionable years, it worked the fucking legs.
Bret went on to have a healthy reign as Intercontinental Champion. Unlike today, back then it meant something. Being Intercontinental Champion meant you were the pure wrestling horse of the company, and just a step below the WWF Champion. By horse I mean you were the man who, unlike Warrior or Hogan, who provided the best WRESTLING match on the card. The one who accumulates the snowflakes (snowflakes means stars, stars means who wrestled the best, most enjoyable match on the card. ***** means classic, just like a movie critic.).
Bret’s career, in my opinion, hit its high point at Summer Slam 1992. The event was held at Wembley Stadium in London, England, in front of probably the biggest crowd the WWF has ever drawn, over 82,000. (WrestleMania III is considered the biggest, at an alleged 93,173 at the Pontiac Silverdome to witness Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan. But the stadium could only hold 78,000 max. Take any wrestling attendance figure with several pounds of salt. Wembley, however, was documented at 82,000). It was a double main event, with “Macho Man” Randy Savage defending his championship against the Ultimate Warrior (a fantastic match, btw) and co headlined with Bret Hart defending his Intercontinental Title against home town boy, and Bret’s brother in law, “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith. Bret considers this match his magnum opus. For you see, Davey had been a bad boy leading up to the event. Overwhelmed by the idea of impressing his fellow Brits, he had been smoking crack for months on end. Bret had to literally carry Davey though the match. The fact that the match ended up being a five snowflake classic (that would be *****) is a testament to Bret Hart. The match went on last, the IC title match over the Federation title. And worth it, as, in my opinion, its one of the greatest matches of all time. Bret carried it. And this was not lost on the man calling the match with Bobby Heenan. The estimable owner of the WWF. Vince McMahon.
About a month after the Bulldog won the IC title, he lost it to an upstart young heel named Shawn Michaels, on the last episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event to air for 15 years. Michaels was a talented, but troubled, young upstart. More on him in a few paragraphs.
Bret, having lost to Smith, but rapidly winning a huge fanbase, arrived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada on October 12, 1992. He was told to arrive early, but had no inclination as to why. Ric Flair had been WWF Champion since early September, and back then, the title generally stayed with the titleholder for upwards of six months. Flair was seemingly on the outs of the federation of the time, so Bret, dutiful company warrior that he was, was informed he was to become the Federation’s standard bearer that night. It had to be satisfying for Bret, winning the WWF Championship not only in Canada, his homeland, but in the city his father, legendary hard-ass Stu Hart, had grown up in.
Bret won the championship from “The Nature Boy” and was off to the races, as the WWF, trying to realign itself away from the stigma of steroids (Vince McMahon at the time was under federal indictment), went with a man who resembled someone the fans could get behind and actually become. I will never forget that Saturday morning, when I turned on WWF Superstars (Saturday morning at 11am) when I saw Bret parade out with the WWF Championship. I literally ran down to my friend Josh’s house to make sure he was watching.
Bret danced with the WWF title on and off for the next five years. He was always, basically, the top of the food chain in the WWF. He ran into some lean times (the kliq era, ladies and germs) but he always put out, as his PPV performances were semi-legendary, even with the most middling of performers. Bret was the rock in which the WWF was built around. He won and lost the title a few times, had a legendary feud with his brother, Owen, which served to make Owen a bigger superstar than he could have ever dreamed, and then came Shawn Michaels.
Shawn was similar to Bret: a smaller guy who delivered the goods, in spades, in the ring. In his prime, i cannot argue there was a better all around performer than Shawn Michaels. He was that good. However, his persona, his character, was abrasive to young males watching the product at the time. He posed for Playgirl. He was a glorified male stripper. Men my age (the teenage years) hated him, even if he was a brilliant in ring performer. Bret was cool and cocky. Bret was our guy, at least until “Stone Cold” showed up.
To boot, Shawn Michaels was the biggest asshole backstage that ever lived. He refused to lose (job) to anyone for quite a while. He was insufferable. In a sense, he was the exact opposite of the professional that was Bret Hart. And Hart and Michaels HATED one another. It is the greatest rivalry the pseudo-sport has ever seen. They even got into a heated fight in June of 1997 backstage, where pansy-boy Shawn got his ass beaten in by Stu Hart’s boy, and threatened to walk out of the company. This feud was as real as real can get. Bret and Shawn HATED one another. Bret was his own man, who respected both the industry and took Vince McMahon at his word; indeed, he took Vinnie Mac as a surrogate father. Michaels cared about one thing, at the time: Shawn Michaels. He was just a petulant asshole who refused to ever lose. Michaels was addled by a drug addiction at the time, and addled with an affliction called “assholeitis.” Basically, there was not a figure less sympathetic than HBK in 1997. All of this came to a head at Survivor Series 1997.
You see, Bret and Shawn were to meet for the WWF Title at this PPV. Both were on the hot streaks of their lifetimes in ring, Shawn as the envelope pushing antagonist of D-X, Bret as the asshole leader of the pro-Canadian, anti-American Hart Foundation. Yes, friends, both guys were heels (bad guys) at that point. However, the November 9th match was slated to take place in Montreal, so Bret would be the unquestioned babyface (good guy) in the match.
There were, however, complications.
For you see, Bret had signed a twenty year contract a year prior to this event, turning down three million a year from WCW. Bret never wanted to leave the WWF. He just used WCW to leverage WWF to get more money. Smart negotiating.
However, once Bret signed that contract with the WWF, Vince McMahon, king of tact that he is, started having second thoughts. He was pissed that Bret has got one over on him. In addition, he saw where the wrestling market was going. WCW was kicking his ass with the NWO angle. He realized he had to stoop to more sleaze to get one over on WCW. Bret was no fan of this.
Bret had grown up under the umbrella of his dad, Stu Hart, who believed in the most credible, believable style of wrestling. No frills, just guys beating the crap out of eachother. So when Shawn Michaels and Triple H started the legendary faction known as DX, what with their sophomoric humor and constant referrals to their genitalia, well, Bret didn’t like it. It was a slap in the face of everything he believed in. However, Vince McMahon realized Bret was wrong, and, thus, in the way of his fledgling company getting the jump on their hot upstarts. He wanted Bret out of the way, and out of the way as soon as humanly possible.
So Survivor Series 1997 comes upon us. In Montreal, Quebec. A few weeks prior to the event, asshole Shawn Michales states that he will not job (lose) to anyone in the company. This aggravates Bret to no end. The original finish to the match was to be Michaels beating Bret in his home country. Bret would have had no problem with that…except for Shawn Michaels petulance. Bret also feels that the storyline arc leading up to this match was Bret winning and Michaels getting his comeuppance. That assessment is spot on, in my opinion. Bret was lionized in Canada, and having HBK win, a month after he destroyed Davey Boy Smith in London, would be bad business. It was in the best interest of business to let Bret win in Montreal.
But Bret had already heeded the word of his mentor and boss, one Vince McMahon. Bret was the ultimate company man, but one scenario he was dead set against was losing the WWF Title to Shawn Michaels in Canada. And i cannot blame him. Bret WAS the Canadian market at that point. Losing the title to HBK would kill his value. Canada was his value.
So the match starts, with “The Hitman” destroying HBK all over the Molson Centre. And…well…anyone reading this should know the ending. It sucked, but it happened.
Which brings me back to my original point: Bret Hart is his own man. And, my Christ, I love him for that. He made enough money, and was savvy enough with it, that he does not need the WWE, unlike some wrestlers who need WWE just to finance their latest spell through rehab. Bret goes back to WWE on occasion because WWE NEEDS Bret Hart. Bret represents a great period for many WWE fans. Myself included. Bret may be a little jaded at this point of his life, but can you blame him? Especially after the death of his brother on a WWF event?
Simply put, Bret Hart is all that is right about pro wrestling. The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.
All thanks to you Josh Hoye. I am still recovering from the concussive friendship of Shawn Baker. Don’t know about you.