In a surreal world dedicated to a uniquely haphazard and comically inept breed of pretense, Bret Hart’s appeal was simple: he made everything seem 'real'.
This will be the third time I have written about professional wrestling for PopMatters. In A Miscarriage of Justice, I likened the superstars of World Wrestling Entertainment to the politicians of Washington (I’m still not sure which of the two groups I was trying to offend), and in There Was No Way to Tell This Man Was a Monster, I studied Scott Keith’s Dungeon of Death, being a fan’s account of how the professional wrestling industry kills off its heroes at such startlingly young ages.
After those two decidedly damning columns, you might fairly ask why I continue to dedicate my precious time and attention to an industry as irredeemably dysfunctional and depraved as professional wrestling. Here’s my answer: Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
As a kid, I was what wrestlers and wrestling promoters call a “mark”, in that while I knew that the outcomes of wrestling matches were predetermined, I was still very gullible and malleable in my fandom; I cheered and booed whoever the World Wrestling Federation programmed me to cheer and boo, and if the WWF said that someone was the best, I assumed that it was true.
While performers such as Randy Savage and Curt Hennig and Tito Santana were some of the more gifted storytellers, selling their opponents’ moves very convincingly and carrying even their most hapless colleagues through watchable matches night after night, my favorites were the big, obnoxious blowhards like Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior. These beefy beasts boasted nowhere near the subtlety and athletic prowess of some of their more talented peers, but I had yet to develop a sense of what really made a good wrestling match, and so it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that I started to notice that the best wrestlers were not necessarily the biggest or the most popular. Once I began to study the mechanics of wrestling matches in a more serious, sophisticated manner, Bret Hart pretty much immediately flew to the top of my list of favorite wrestlers, and there he has remained ever since.
His appeal was simple: in a surreal world dedicated to a uniquely haphazard and comically inept breed of pretense, Bret Hart made everything seem real. To watch Hart take a punch or a chest-first bump into the turnbuckles was never entirely comfortable; my response to any given Bret Hart match was to alternately cheer and wince. Further, Hulk Hogan and the Warrior and their predictable, paint-by-numbers ilk told essentially the same story with every match. In Hogan’s case, every match ended with the Hulkster throwing a somehow defiantly spastic fit and then punching his opponent a few times, giving him a big boot to the head and finally dropping a leg across his face for the one-two-three. But while Bret Hart certainly had his favorite moves (Scott Keith refers to Bret’s reliable suplex-legsweep-backbreaker-elbowdrop-Sharpshooter sequence as “The Five Moves of Doom”), and while you could usually expect a Bret Hart match to end with his opponent tapping out to the Sharpshooter submission maneuver, Hart would often surprise the audience with clever, out-of-nowhere victories.
My favorite example would be his main event bout against Kevin “Diesel” Nash at the 1995 Survivor Series; Nash had hurled Hart through an announcer’s table (well before this had become a professional wrestling cliché), and when he got him back in the ring and pulled him to his hands and knees to deliver his signature Jackknife Powerbomb move, Hart slumped lifelessly to the mat, seemingly not just defeated and unconscious, but indeed near death. As a bemused Nash bent to pull his unresponsive opponent up from the mat again, a possum-playing Hart leapt at Nash and wrapped him up in a pinning hold called a small package. It happened so fast that anyone who blinked or turned away at the last minute would have missed the outcome of the match.
Hart produced similarly spontaneous and thrilling finales in his In Your House match against the late Davey Boy Smith (also in 1995) and in his match with the late Bam Bam Bigelow at the inaugural King of the Ring in 1993; you never knew how Hart would defeat an opponent, and more exciting still, since Hart’s “Hitman” character was a gifted but fallible athlete rather than an unstoppable superhero like Hulk Hogan, you never necessarily even knew whether Hart would defeat an opponent.
Really, with the help of a number of other young superstars who emphasized athleticism over cartoony theatrics, Bret Hart changed the entire professional wrestling landscape in the 1990s. Unfortunately, his reign proved to be short-lived, for the industry’s changes continued, and Hart struggled to keep up and fit in right up until a poorly executed kick from Bill Goldberg left Hart with a concussion that necessitated his immediate retirement from the ring in 2000.
Had the professional wrestling industry been more kind to Bret Hart, his only out-of-ring contributions to the pop cultural landscape would have been his stint on Lonesome Dove: The Series and his brief, strangely out-of-character cameo on The Simpsons. Instead, and I don’t mean to celebrate Hart’s misfortune or anything, but Bret “The Hitman” Hart has given the world one of the most compelling documentaries ever in Paul Jay’s Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows and now, with Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Hart has given us one of the world’s most engrossing, credible, captivating autobiographies.
Wrestling With Shadows had been planned as nothing more ambitious than a slice-of-life documentary about a popular Canadian wrestler. However, fate would make the project required viewing for wrestling fans and arguably history’s most inviting wrestling-related film for non-fans as well, when the camera crew ended up at ringside at the 1997 Survivor Series pay-per-view in Montreal, for Bret Hart’s last match with what was then still called the World Wrestling Federation. A convoluted series of contract disputes and increasing if well-founded paranoia on the part of both Hart and WWF owner Vince McMahon had led The Hitman to seek employment with WWF rival WCW, and the chief issue as his departure loomed nearer was that he was still the WWF champion, and McMahon was determined to get the belt off of Hart sooner rather than later, lest he risk a fatal blow to his already fledgling business: watching his champion stride into the enemy’s arena still wearing the WWF belt.
A Women’s Champion named Alundra Blayze had done this very thing to McMahon in December of 1995, famously dropping the WWF Women’s Championship belt into a trash can on a live WCW broadcast. So while Hart had always been a loyal WWF employee, McMahon can perhaps be forgiven for his anxiety, if not necessarily for his actions: Hart had a “reasonable creative control” clause in his contract which took effect during his final 30 days with the WWF, and since he and his Survivor Series opponent Shawn Michaels had developed some legitimate real-world dislike for one another, Hart balked at losing the title to him. He offered to lose it to any number of other WWF performers, just not Shawn Michaels. McMahon agreed that the match would end in a double-disqualification so that neither man would win; they’d deal with the championship issue later.