This is going to be more of a "fan's history" of his career than what I'd write about most wrestlers, and both since "greatest moments" is in the title and it would take many articles to cover it, there's a certain important but negative moment that won't be dwelled on like it usually is.
Two quick notes:
- Bret Hart's autobiography covers his career better than I ever could. It's well over 400 pages of fairly small print and amazingly detailed, easily one of the definitive pro wrestling books. I just wish he'd release the original, unedited 1,500 page manuscript.
- Also, in lieu of the repeating the same link over and over, the post-"Wrestling With Shadows) issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (subscribers-only link) was used to fill in some of the important details in this article about Bret's contractual issues in 1996-1997.
Most fans, even the hardest of the hardcore, probably haven't seen much of Bret Hart's early work beyond what's on official WWE DVDs. Even then, most of it is not in ideal shape: His family's promotion, Stampede Wrestling out of Calgary, ran on a shoestring budget where even editing the TV show was too expensive. Instead, cameras were first turned on when each match started to heat up.
Due to the cost cutting, aside from his Japanese tours, the vast majority of his early work is all chopped up. It's hard to gauge just how good he was back then: He was clearly the best pro wrestler in the family, but from what survives he looks rough around the edges. How much of this is due to the first half of all of his matches being gone is unclear.
While Stampede is romanticized now for producing so much amazing talent and being an institution locally, it had a fairly bad reputation in the wrestling business. The Harts were considered eccentric, it didn't pay well due to the small population base (which is putting "small population base" lightly), came off low budget in general (the TV show was shot in black and white well into the '70s), and generally looked down upon even though the actual wrestling was great.
In spite of all this, they had a fair number of TV clearances throughout Canada, so Vince McMahon bought the territory from Stu Hart when he was expanding the WWF in Summer 1984. The imported Stampede talent filled out the bottom of the cards and didn't make much of a dent. Their fortunes turned around when, off the cuff, Bret suggested he hook up with brother-in-law Jim Neidhart and manager Jimmy Hart (no relation) as the Hart Foundation.
A smooth team who had some of the best matches in the company, they now had a role, but not much of a push. It took the British Bulldogs (Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid, more brothers in law via Bret's younger sister and his wife's younger sister, respectively) needing to drop the titles due to an injury and Dynamite Kid demanding the Harts get the titles for that to happen. After that, they were established as a top WWF team until they split in 1990.
The strangest thing happened in 1988. Vince McMahon asked Bret for a meeting and explained that for some reason he got more fan mail than Hulk Hogan, so he was going to get a big singles push as a babyface. While this was the first of two false starts for him, it was still when he started to become a real superstar.
While, as a kid, my friends and I were not the types to send fan mail to Titan Towers, Bret Hart was absolutely one of our favorites, even when he wasn't pushed as something special. We gravitated to the more exciting wrestlers in the company, but that wasn't all of it, because it's not like we singled out the other talented tag team wrestlers apart from their teams. I can't put my finger on it, but when I first heard the fan mail stories, it immediately clicked in my head.
The Hart Foundation split up for good in 1991, with Bret immediately becoming the top contender for Mr. Perfect's Intercontinental Title. The title change, at SummerSlam '91 at Madison Square Garden, was one of "those" matches in my childhood. Not only was it an incredible match, but everyone: Me, my friends, the fans at MSG that night...they all saw it as a big coming out party that was a long time coming.
Aside from a break in early '92 when the belt went to The Mountie and then Roddy Piper, he held the title for the next year, eventually dropping it back at SummerSlam, this time at Wembley Stadium in London England against national hero Davey Boy Smith. The result was the obvious one, and Bret was moved down the card into a feud with Papa Shango after the loss.
A month and a half later, my dad gave me the wrestling results section of the NY Daily News. It said that Bret Hart beat Ric Flair to win the WWF Title in some town named "Saskatoon." I dismissed it as a weird mistake: The newspaper sports writers didn't know wrestling and somehow a disqualification or count-out win got written up as a title change.
That Saturday, WWF Superstars of Wrestling opened with Gene Okerlund interviewing none other than new WWF Champion Bret Hart! I felt a combination of utter glee and complete shock. Not only was Bret Hart WWF Champion, but his title win was treated as an event in a different way from how he was quickly branded a "fighting champion" who regularly defended the title on TV, which never happened back then.
Arguably his best singles match with Shawn Michaels was the culmination of the initial "fighting champion" run at Survivor Series '92, and in general, this run saw a dramatic increase in the quality of the average WWF Title match. Flair's rematches with Hart around the horn got rave reviews, especially a famous 60 minute iron man match at the Boston Garden.
Bret lost the title to Yokozuna (the first Royal Rumble winner to be guaranteed a WrestleMania title shot) at WrestleMania 9. Hulk Hogan, who returned to the ring that night after a year off, came out to protest in light of manager Mr. Fuji's interference. Somehow he immediately won the title in an impromptu match, but the experiment didn't work and the belt was switched back to Yokozuna within a few months so Hogan could leave again.
The night Yokozuna regained the title was one of the greatest of Bret Hart's career. He won the first PPV King of the Ring tournament, where he defeated Razor Ramon, Mr. Perfect, and Bam Bam Bigelow in a series of excellent, distinct matches where he was told not to use his Sharpshooter finisher at all to mix things up. It set up a feud with Jerry "The King" Lawler to determine the "real king" which, while it peaked over the next few months, actually ran on and off for over two years.
As good as the Lawler feud was (among other matches like his house show feud with Yokozuna), Bret still came off as marginalized on TV since Lex Luger had been turned to replace Hogan as a musclebound patriotic babyface. Bret was high profile with plenty of TV time, but he wasn't the top star on TV.
It seemed like his status was finally cemented at Royal Rumble '94. His brother Owen turned on him to set up a hot feud and in the Rumble match itself, Bret and Luger eliminated each other at the end to become "co-winners." Bret was noticeably cheered much louder when the official decision was teased. This directly set up a mini tournament at WrestleMania 10: Yokozuna vs Luger with the winner facing Bret, as well as Bret vs Owen in a match to make his title match more fair than it would be if he was fresh.
WrestleMania itself kept him on the same path. Bret vs Owen opened the show and was incredible, possibly the greatest WWF match ever up to that point and still one of the greatest of all time. Owen won with a simple counter, dropping down before Bret could finish a victory roll (the move that won King of the Ring for him) for a clean pin. Yokozuna beat Luger by disqualification in a screwy finish, leading to Bret getting a clean pin to take the title. The show ended with Bret on the babyfaces' shoulders as Owen skulked in the aisle.
Bret was the real top guy again, mainly feuding with Owen for most of the year. They had great chemistry, but never reached the quality of their first match again. After Owen, he moved on to Bob Backlund. The former champion had been back as an undercard babyface for two years after a long layoff that saw him mostly disappear from wrestling after he left the WWF in 1984. After a great babyface technical match on Superstars of Wrestling, Backlund "snapped," procured the crossface chickenwing on Bret, and turned heel, reinventing himself in his forties.
Backlund was brilliant as a crazed heel, but only Bret was able to get good matches out of him at that point. Always somewhat awkward in the ring and new to to the heel role after being a career babyface, wrestlers complained that he was impossible to work with. In spite of that, he got the title so he could transition it to Diesel (Kevin Nash), who was possibly the worst stylistic matchup for Backlund.
And so began what was possibly the weirdest period of Bret Hart's career.
After returning from an "injury" caused by Backlund, things started well enough for Bret: He had a great match with Diesel that ended in a no contest, he had a "new attitude" that consisted of growing a five o'clock shadow and bending the rules, and had good TV matches with Owen and Jeff Jarrett as well. During the build to WrestleMania 11, though, he began a freefall that lasted for most of the year.
With Diesel vs Shawn Michaels and Bam Bam Bigelow vs Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor as co-headliners at 'Mania that year, Bret worked third from the top, blowing off what was left of the Backlund feud in an "I quit" match. Between Backlund's limitations, time constraints (they got about 10 minutes), and restrictions imposed by Vince McMahon (Bret said in his book that they were told to only use submission holds), they didn't click at all, and it was Bret's worst big show match ever.
On top of that, Shawn Michaels turned babyface the next night, putting him above Bret in the pecking order. For the next six months, Bret was put into a bunch of lousy mid-card storylines, albeit ones where he usually had very good matches: He was branded a racist and xenophobe by Jerry Lawler as he battled Hakushi, bested Lawler in a "kiss my foot" match built up by Lawler dipping his feet in horse manure, took on Lawler's dentist Dr. Isaac Yankem (Kane, who "treated" Lawler after Bret made him kiss his own foot), and had to retrieve his stolen jacket from French-Canadian pirate Jean-Pierre LaFitte.
Thankfully for Bret, he was considered the reliable standby when Diesel bombed as champion, and the experiment ended at Survivor Series ’95, 364 days after Diesel’s title win. Bret’s first PPV title defense was a classic bloodbath against Davey Boy Smith, and over the course of the next couple months, house show business rebounded with a Bret vs Diesel vs The Undertaker feud on top. Even with the momentum he was building, Shawn Michaels was clearly being groomed as the next long-term champion, especially once he won the Royal Rumble again.
Bret vs Shawn at WrestleMania 12 would be a 60 minute Iron Man match, the first one the WWF ever did on PPV. The build-up was a series of training videos and sit-down interviews between the two where they sniped at each other, all building to what many fans expected to be the greatest match in WWF history.
They had an excellent match, but the decision to not have any falls in regulation and have Shawn win in sudden death overtime defeated the point of the gimmick, which is to build drama through the score and sacrificing falls (like getting disqualified) to do damage. Bret had great respect for Michaels’ talent, and even took himself off TV for months to give him the spotlight while also trying out for some acting gigs.
Bret’s contract was up around the time of when he was set to return. WCW offered him close to $3 million a year for three years, but he didn’t want to leave and asked Vince McMahon to make the best offer he could.
That ended up being a 20 year deal that paid $1.5 million annually for three years followed by stints as an executive and a company spokesperson. In addition, if the deal was breached, for his last 30 days in the company, Bret and Vince would have to agree on all creative decisions about the Bret “Hitman” Hart character.
A year later, while Bret was the best all-around performer in the business, Vince McMahon breached the contract and gave him written permission to negotiate with WCW, who signed him to a deal worth a little less than the 1996 offer. The reasoning given was that the WWF was losing too much money to pay Bret: He had a guaranteed weekly salary instead of the "downside guarantee" structure that became a WWF hallmark. Even now, WWE's 10-K filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that someone like Triple H (his contracts are public since he's an executive officer) is only guaranteed $1 million annually with the "downside" format.
We all know how it ended (a certain Montreal Screwjob), how badly WCW used Bret, and how his health and family spiraled downwards, so I want mainly to focus on the good stuff from the last few years of his career.
It can’t be overstated how good he was in 1997. He went from a solid, gritty talker to an incredible interviewee. His submission match with Steve Austin was one of the greatest matches in WWE history and easily the greatest double turn in wrestling history.
The idea of Hart only turning on the American fans seemed risky with international television, but Hart thrived. He knew what buttons to push about Americans when addressing the Canadian and European fans, and a little bit of luck (the number of Raw tapings in Canada that year, as event routing has always been way ahead of the creative process) put him over the top. In all of the craziness, it also gets forgotten that he and Shawn Michaels were on pace to have their best match yet in Montreal before it got cut off.
While his WCW run was absolutely puzzling, with a number of long, unexplained stints where he didn’t wrestle, Bret delivered whenever he was given something to do, which usually meant a long match with Chris Benoit or Booker T on Monday Nitro. He also gave Randy Savage one of his last great matches at Slamboree ’98 and had a solid rivalry with Ric Flair before being cut off at the knees.
As frustrating as it is to look back on with hindsight, it was even more maddening at the time: WCW had the hottest wrestler in the business (who was still a great wrestler), paid him a lot of money, and did almost nothing with him, while we were watching him sit in the crowd. Anything good, like Bret knocking out Goldberg by goading him to hit the spear while Bret wore a steel plater, was in spite of WCW.
The one pure moment of greatness he had there was bittersweet at the time and is even more so now. After a groin injury, Bret was finally going to be used as a legitimate main eventer, but his brother Owen died the night before Bret’s Tonight Show appearance that was going to kick off his big run. Bret sat out for four months, returned when the wrestling fraternity proved to be a better support system than his family, and returned as a babyface in September 1999, 4 months after Owen’s death.
Just a few weeks in, though, WCW had a Nitro scheduled at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, where Owen fell to his death. WCW classily let him do what he wanted, and he picked an Owen Hart tribute match with Chris Benoit, who was one of Owen’s best friends. They got 30 minutes of TV time to wrestle a clean match where Hart family friend Harley Race served as guest ring announcer, ending with the expected Bret win and a tearful embrace. They both had better matches technically, but few as emotional.
For all of Vince Russo’s inane booking decisions when he started in WCW a few weeks after that, he did push Bret as the WCW World Champion and the company’s undisputed top guy, but it was the beginning of the end. He suffered a concussion when Goldberg super kicked him full force at Starrcade a couple months later. He suffered at least one more concussion later in the match when he hit his head on the floor, and not knowing any better, he suffered several more over the course of the next month, with post-concussion syndrome ending his career.
With WCW in cost-cutting mode in 2000 (they cut, no joke, 200 wrestlers that Spring), he was eventually fired via an injury clause in WCW contracts. It took him two years before he felt like he was making a substantive recovery, only to have a stroke within days of that realization.
The most impressive thing Bret Hart ever did was recover from that stroke: It was a major, serious stroke that left him paralyzed on one side, and the treating doctors couldn’t prevent it because it took too long to pinpoint a blood clot as the cause (a clot can be destroyed with the drug tPA, but they feared his brain was hemorrhaging instead). It took everything he had, but he made about the best recovery one could hope for, and doesn’t look that much older than his 56 years.
The stroke also got him on the road to putting a lot of anger and resentment behind him. He soon reconciled with Vince McMahon. Once his recovery was behind him, he put his fear of WWE burying his career to rest with a lavish DVD set and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. In 2010, “I guess Hell froze over,” as he put it, and he returned to WWE as a performer.
As fans, it’s our duty to not let the Montreal Screwjob be the biggest thing to happen in his career, even if that’s exactly what it was. For all of the criticism about how he wouldn’t let the subject drop, he rarely brought it up unless an interviewer asked about it.
We should put it behind the skill and weird charisma that made him stand out to the admirers who inundated him with fan mail years before WWE considered making him a singles star.
Behind becoming the best interview in wrestling almost 20 years after starting his career in the worst territory for promos in North America.
Behind all of the great matches with the British Bulldogs, Mr. Perfect, Shawn Michaels, Randy Savage, Owen Hart, Bam Bam Bigelow, Booker T, Chris Benoit, Ted DiBiase, and countless others, some of whom had their career best bouts with him.
Behind being the anchor of WWE’s international business when pro wrestling collapsed in the US in the mid-‘90s.
And of course behind making a ridiculously inspirational recovery from a stroke that would have permanently paralyzed most people.
Why not focus on the positive?