Bret Hart: The Hitman's Legacy

Matthew MaloneyCorrespondent IJune 16, 2009

Bret Hart's story is easily the greatest wrestling story ever told.

It is in essence an historical document of the business as told by one who has lived through and survived (barely) changes, events and even eras in the industry few foreseen before their occurrence and fewer still adapted too afterwards.

Obviously this was particularly true for his famous wrestler, trainer, promoter and father Stu Hart, an massive figure in wrestling history who was to struggle financially and personally as a new era of wrestling, masterminded by Vince McMahon spread across North America.

Its amazing to think how much Bret Hart has seen during his time in wrestling.

As a young man with his father, he was at the same table where all the heads of the old territories bickered and heckled over what to do in the face of young upstart Vince McMahon Jr's national expansion from his fathers New York territory.

Then followed his early role as a WWF jobber riding the crest of an unprecedented Hulkamania boom in 80s pro wrestling.

Canadian Stampede wrestling where Bret started out was to succumb to Vince McMahon, Bret Hart's new boss, along with all the other territories that dared stand against him one by one; leaving Bret and wrestling's future forever intertwined with Vince McMahon.

Bret witnessed the end of his father's world of pro wrestling while initially hanging on to the coattails of its WWF successor. Many, like his brother Bruce were left behind and forever embittered.

For Bret, shoot/carnival style wrestling finally died however the day Stu Hart died. Stampede and others were replaced first by cartoon wrestling (hence the title of his book) and later by a sleazy, non-sensical and ultimately personally unfulfilling style of wrestling product (personified by Vince Russo) that he himself never quite adapted to as part of WCW.  

Finally the Monday Night Wars that Hart first had fought under the WWF flag and later the WCW flag and the subsequent demise of WCW was to be the final act in Bret's 24 year long career. Crash TV booking had reduced WCW to a rabble wrestling promotion by 2000 and just under a year later WWF bought out his former employers.

Hart himself admits WCW never used him properly so it is fair to say his work in WCW can safely be ignored when determining his legacy.

It was as part of the Hart foundation, Bret was finally able to establish himself as a tag-team with brother-in-law Jim 'The Anvil' Neidhart under the extravagant manager Jimmy Hart (his namesake). Over the years the Foundation was to be a mainstay of the WWF tag division and this famous stable was to expand to including Bret's brother Owen, The British Bulldog and 'Flyin' Brian Pillman.

But Bret unfortunately also later had to bear the tragedies that happened to these men and others he grew close to during his time in wrestling. The 'grim reaper of wrestling' as Hart claims was never far away from wherever Hart went.

In between, Hart toured to wrestling hotspots like Japan, Germany and Britain and notspots like Puerto Rico, India and the Phillipines among other weird and interesting places. Hart is this regard is probably right in that he more than any other wrestler previously could rightfully claim to be the world's first true world champion as he had toured extensively worldwide and had got over in 5 different continents.

More than anything though these tours would build Hart a solid and intimate worldwide fanbase all over the world which few wrestlers have matched.

From an in ring point of analysis, Bret was like many other wrestlers trained in Stu's dungeon, technically adapt in actual wrestling ability ('excellence of execution') and inculculated with a strong sense of storytelling ability in the ring or 'ring psychology'.

Bret wasn't totally old school though. He later introduced the concept of the ladder match to the WWF, which, like in so many other things, he was to clash over with his arch-nemisis both in ring and out of ring, Shawn Michaels.

As a trainer, Bret Hart brought many of his 'crew' into the industry. Former UFC champion Ken Shamrock and the late Andrew 'Test' Martin among others all sparred with Bret during their formative years.

Hart's might be rememberd most though for his role as champion of the WWF during the mid-90s. After major steroid and sex scandals that had hit the WWF was at the point of no return (or so it seemed at the time) with its main family fanbase. The WWF needed to buy time to reinvent itself for a new audience, especially in the face of the growing threat of WCW.

During this sensitive time Hart was called upon to be the WWF's representative and spokesman as champion of the company. A role Bret did to the best of his abilities with professionalism and dignity unlike his real life feud opponent Shawn Michaels.

The in many ways inevitable Montreal Screwjob was to ironically ignite renewed ratings for the WWF in its rating war with WCW. Overnight Vince had become a real life bully and the fans flocked to see him pay for it Stone Cold style.

So in assessing Bret's legacy we should take into account the circumstances of his accomplishments aswell as their effects.

Is 4 of Triple H's world title reigns worth 1 of Bret Harts? Probably. Bret Hart had alot more competition back in his time (Randy Orton?, Dave 'Woody' Batista? You're kidding me) then the 'master of the WWE Universe' has today.

Whereas HHH, Hogan and Michaels etc. did their best to bury upcoming challengers while they were at the top, Hart and more progressive personalities like Macho Man, Harley Race and The Rock always tried to make their opponent look good in the ring so that their feuds could continue longer and therefore be better for business.

Was Bret Hart a money maker on the level of Hogan, Macho Man, Stone Cold, The Rock....or even John Cena?! Probably not, but again the circumstances of his time at the top have to be considered.

How many great matches can Bret claim to have had anyway?

Alot. From his early feuds with the Dynamite Kid, Curt Henning, and Steamboat to his memorable match with Bulldog at Wembley Sumerslam 1992 (back when the IC title a much more prestigious prize) all the way to his thrilling matches with Stone Cold and Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania in the mid-90s and his final great match with Chris Benoit in 1999 which was arguably WCW's only dignified moment in its final 3 years.

Finally who cares about Bret anyway?

As the media reaction in Canada especially and around the world will tell you, Bret still has alot of fans out there. Sure, they may be older now and likely don't watch TNA or PG-era WWE but they still remember the Hitman. His book was an international bestseller and not many get the recognition Bret does from the fans and marks alike unless there's a consensus about his legacy.

Also Bret was noted among wrestlers (judging by some of the other autobiographies I've read) for being one of the dressing room favourites and enjoyed healthy working and personal relationships with many of the greats of his day. Thus in 2005 after a recovering from a stroke, even Vince eventualy relented and invited Hart into the WWE Hall of Fame (despite being knocked out once by the guy!).

Likewise Hart is one of the youngest members of the old school George Tragos/Lou Thesz Wrestling Hall of Fame (which only inducts wrestlers with both amateur and professional backgrounds). One of the highest honours given by his peers.

Bret is one undoubtedly of the greats, not the greatest, but one of the greats whose legacy is somewhere in between that of the Kurt Angles, Mick Foleys, Randy Savages (and indeed Shawn Michaels) of this world and the Ric Flairs, Hulk Hogans and Stone Colds who were to definitively symbolise their eras.

Bret's legacy is especially hard to define because he was in his prime at a time when wrestling was at its lowest. So it may be simply his story is his greatest legacy.

This was a review of 'Bret Hart: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling'. If you had or have an interest in wrestling, if you are literate and if you aren't an inanimate object you should give this book a go. A real page turner and shocker in some places.