Bret Hart: A Real Life in a Cartoon World

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.

Or so Hart thought. In reality, McMahon and Shawn Michaels had met in secret to formulate a plan to screw Hart out of the title. It was like an absurd wrestling tale of betrayal and foul play come to life. As agreed, Michaels placed Hart in his own Sharpshooter maneuver, from which Hart was supposed to escape. Instead, as soon as Michaels applied the move, McMahon raced to the timekeeper at ringside and ordered him to “ring the fucking bell!” as if Hart had submitted.

Being betrayed by one’s longtime employer and surrogate father figure would be bad enough, but things soon got even worse for Hart. While many predicted that McMahon’s selfish deed would be his undoing (WCW had been consistently defeating the WWF in the battle for ratings, and fan sentiment for Hart was expected to be the final nail in the WWF’s coffin), McMahon instead parlayed all the negative fan reaction into his biggest moneymaking feud of all time, wherein his “Mr. McMahon” character spent months trying to screw “Stone Cold” Steve Austin out of the championship.

McMahon essentially exaggerated and celebrated his back-stabbing shenanigans towards Hart and made a fortune doing it, while Hart appeared at WCW on the greatest wave of fan sympathy and momentum anyone could ask for, only to watch as the people running the company mishandled his character at every turn and completely stalled his once-legendary career. And just as his fortunes started to rise again and WCW finally gave him the championship and some compelling storylines, he suffered his concussion and faced a sudden and unceremonious retirement.

Worst of all, Bret Hart’s younger brother Owen died in a tragic in-ring accident in 1999, and in the time since Owen’s death, a majority of Bret Hart’s closest peers have also died young, most of them from health complications stemming from abuse of steroids and other drugs. In recent years, both of Hart’s parents have died, and his remaining siblings and their spouses have largely turned on one another in a series of painful, escalating feuds.

In a final, bitter one-two punch, Hart suffered a stroke in 2002, and while his storyline and real-life arch-nemesis Shawn Michaels had retired from professional wrestling in 1998 due to a back injury, he managed to return to in-ring action and begin an unprecedented Act II that has not only given his own legacy further longevity, but which has also served to slowly redeem the once-hated Michaels in the eyes of many fans. Where once Michaels was despised for his part in what is still known as The Montreal Screwjob, a good portion of wrestling fans have come to buy into the WWE’s portrayal of the story, which contends that McMahon and Michaels were not screwing Bret Hart but instead simply doing what was right for the wrestling business. Shawn Michaels’ miraculous comeback began, incidentally, in 2002; the same year Hart found himself learning to walk and talk again.

It’s nearly too much for a reader to endure, let alone the man who actually experienced it all. Had Hart’s forays into television proven more viable, he’d at least have somewhere else to focus his creativity and energy; one can only assume that Hart’s wrestling memories are not always a pleasant place to dwell.

I can’t speak to the quality of Hart’s role and performance in Lonesome Dove: The Series, ‘cause journalistic objectivity be damned, I refuse to watch any Lonesome Dove project not written by Larry McMurtry. (Lonesome Dove: The Series was eventually canceled because it was simply too expensive to produce.) Living in the United States, I have likewise never had the opportunity to see Hart’s stage performances in Aladdin. But Hart’s 1997 cameo on The Simpsons (“The Old Man and the Lisa”) was somewhat disappointing and off-putting, as so many celebrity Simpsons cameos tend to be. Hart only had a few spoken lines, and he inexplicably chose to deliver them in a gruff, tough-guy voice, as if he were trying to portray a stereotypical wrestler, rather than his own comparably subtle “Hitman” character, which had always tended to keep his cool.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson remains the only professional wrestler to have ever successfully transitioned from wrestling to a full time career as an actor; Hart’s Hollywood career ultimately proved as uneventful and short-lived as those of Jesse Ventura, Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and John Cena. Hart’s contributions to the pop cultural landscape, then, are primarily wrestling-related. What makes them distinct is that, more so than even such standout works as Mick Foley’s Have A Nice Day and Foley Is Good or Barry Blaustein’s Beyond the Mat, Bret Hart’s Wrestling With Shadows and My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling transcend the wrestling industry. I know a number of people who feel nothing but disdain for wrestling but who have nonetheless watched and enjoyed and in one case even purchased Wrestling With Shadows, ‘cause more than even Beyond the Mat, it lets us see how the industry really operates, added to which Bret Hart is a much more pleasant host than Barry Blaustein.

And then there’s My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, which was published in Canada well over a year ago but which only hit American bookstores this past November. If you want to know about the professional wrestling industry, My Real Life deserves its space on your bookshelf. Six hundred pages long, Bret Hart’s autobiography is a brutally honest chronicle of his 20-plus years as a wrestler. No filters. No politics. None of the usual PR-conscious B.S. that undermines other wrestling biographies (“The only history pro wrestling sells you is what works for the business,” Hart notes.)

Not 50 pages in, discussing his first matches in Puerto Rico in the late ‘70s, Hart writes of a short, 350-pound wrestler named King Kong who took some liberties with Hart in the ring and then shook his hand and thanked him backstage:

I smiled down at him, thinking, Fuck you, fatso. It was all part of paying my dues.

A couple pages before, Hart casually mentions smoking marijuana and getting “high as a kite”, which is somewhat startling coming from someone who rose to fame against the backdrop of Hulk Hogan’s absurd and tiresome “Train, say your prayers and take your vitamins” sermonizing. For someone who so clearly prided himself on portraying a hero, it must have been difficult for Hart to be so forthcoming about his infidelity and partying; soon, the reader grows used to such offhanded remarks as “One night, I went with all the boys to a fuck show,” and while initially startling, Hart’s candor quickly proves him a much more credible historian than any of his self-conscious peers (helped by the fact that Hart’s accounts are based not on memories, but instead on a series of audio cassette journals he recorded throughout his career).

I mentioned earlier Bret Hart’s wince-inducing bumps into the turnbuckles; in My Real Life, Hart tells how he came to develop his unique method of taking the bump chest-first rather than back-first, and on the same page, still set in his first months as a professional wrestler, Hart invites a young Jake “The Snake” Roberts to move in with him. For a fan of ‘80s wrestling, these revelations are magical; my fellow marks might be interested to know that Hart was already acquainted with Andre the Giant, The Junkyard Dog, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, The Bushwhackers, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Hulk Hogan and even a young Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson before the ‘80s had even started.

Throughout My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Hart’s prose style is simple and unassuming, even when the subject matter is anything but:

Getting a little juice meant deliberately cutting my head… I snipped a quarter section of razor blade. I cut the top corner at an angle, taped all but the exposed point and then taped the blade onto the wrist tape on my left arm … Blood poured all over my face. Hot blood. My blood … In the dressing room, Norman congratulated me, then inspected the cut on my forehead, which was an inch long and right to the bone … What a strange business.

Despite this unsettling excerpt, Hart soon adds, “Life as a pro wrestler is highly addictive. Once you get a taste for it, your old life fades away and disappears.”

Again, I can hardly say that I am happy that things went the way they did for Bret Hart. He is, after all, my favorite wrestler, and I wouldn’t wish his misfortunes on my least favorite wrestler. But it’s curious to consider that Hart’s legacy, compromised though it has been, might not boast the posterity it does today were it not for McMahon having cheated Hart back in 1997, which led to the stirring and infuriating Wrestling With Shadows. And while a legacy-conscious Hart would no doubt have produced his memoirs eventually, no matter what direction his career and life had taken, the results would not likely feel as urgent and relevant were it not for everything Bret Hart has been through.

That said, Hitman is not always an easy or pleasant read. I was particularly struck by the line, “If I’d had to write a will, it would have been a few lines, but if I’d had to write a suicide note, it would have been a thousand pages long,” but each chapter boasts poignant observations such as, “The only way I knew to provide for my family was what was keeping me away from them.”

Hart does his part for the reader by assuming that we’re capable of reading a well-paced and intelligent tale; Hart doesn’t win his first world championship in the WWF until nearly 300 pages have passed; he hasn’t even joined the WWF until page 157. (Twenty pages later, he’s snorting rails with Jim Neidhart, Roddy Piper, Don Muraco, Mr. Fuji and the Iron Shiek.) Hitman’s index alone is nearly 20 pages long.

Further, fans who have come to see Hart as a vainglorious self-mark will find no small measure of evidence in Hitman. In Hart’s defense, I will say only that his in-ring work backs up his boasts, and that he is right to be proud of his professional wrestling legacy. I have always felt that someone who is (at least arguably) the best at what he does should not be judged too harshly for believing it himself, and when Hart writes, “If Hogan was the Elvis of wrestling, I was the Robert DeNiro,” I cannot think of a more fitting summary of his legacy.