Some interesting details have emerged this week of negotiations between WWE and Bret ?Hitman? Hart concerning a possible return to the company in an official, on-screen capacity. Even now, over a decade after Survivor Series 1997, such an eventuality would be pure, unbridled dynamite. Naturally, it got me to thinking. If there is one person in professional wrestling who polarises opinion more than any other it is Bret Hart. To some he is the living embodiment of a legendary combatant. During his 1992 – 1998 prime Bret was arguably the most reliable and trustworthy performer in all of wrestling. Despite the protestations of Ric Flair, Bret Hart was a reliable drawing card from 1993 onwards. This was especially true in relation to the United Kingdom and his native Canada. He contested scores of worthy and truly outstanding contests and invariably put the welfare and integrity of company and story before himself. To those who hold him in the highest regard, the events in Montreal in November 1997 were a travesty of injustice that robbed a great performer of his passion.
That’s only half the story though. To others, Bret Hart was (and still is) a vainglorious, shallow and self-indulgent egotist. Though no one can diminish his in-ring attributes, the man behind the pink and black left a considerable amount to be desired. Portraying himself as a role-model to millions, Bret’s glossy image was famously undermined by his hated rival Shawn Michaels. The boys behind the curtain live by the credo: ?What happens on the road, stays on the road?. Such trite nonsense served Bret Hart very well indeed. By his own admission, ?family man? Bret did more than his fair share of diddling during the long, cold nights. Looking back at it all it is easy to see why Shawn gleaned so much amusement from the highly-strung Hitman. Shawn may have been petulant, brash and irresponsible but he was no hypocrite.
Bret Hart was an extraordinary performer who was selfless as they come in the squared circle. Never has this been more finely illustrated than the marvel of a performance he produced to give the overly muscled Davey Boy Smith his proudest moment at Wembley Stadium. His match with Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIII remains as compelling and essential as it did twelve years ago.
In the wake of Montreal, the vast majority of wrestling personalities (and WWF employees) believed Bret the victim of Vince McMahon’s paranoia and naked fear of WCW. There was never any chance of Bret turning up on Nitro with the WWF title. As much as Eric Bischoff loved to stir up a maelstrom, I?m convinced if Bret had explained a condition of his coming was that no reference was to be made to his being WWF champion prior to his arrival, the Bisch would have complied. The loss of Bret to WCW was always going to be damaging to the WWF whatever happened. No part of that bloody process can be used to justify what Vince McMahon did that day. It was reprehensible and without merit.
In perhaps the ultimate irony, Bret became the patsy for the inadvertent creation of the ?Mr. McMahon? character. To better explain, Vince’s ruthless disregard for Bret Hart and the public manner in which he acted thrust his countenance into the fan’s collective consciousness. Aggressively (and successfully) channelling that newfound hate into a wrestling character, Vince created the persona that would serve as the antagonist to blue-collar hero ?Stone Cold? Steve Austin. This led to the Attitude boom and the resurgence of the WWF. It was the act of an unscrupulous SOB. It was also brilliant.
In the wake of Montreal, the Bret Hart who had served the WWF with distinction was dead. In his place came just another soulless, overpaid WCW mid-carder. Bret invariably delivered in the ring, but the passion and desire was gone. In one of his more lucid moments, Vince Russo attempted to reinvigorate Bret towards the end of Hart’s WCW tenure; in the process affording Bret his only WCW World title. It was, however, too little too late by this juncture, as both man and company were on an inexorably downward spiral. One month later (at Starrcade) Bret was belted in the head by Bill Goldberg and, multiple concussions later, he was finished. Bret’s stroke in July 2002 (after falling off his bike and landing on his head) terminated forever the persistent speculation of a Bret Hart comeback.
This scribe tries his level best to maintain a dignified ambivalence towards Bret Hart. It’s clear to me that the root source of Bret Hart’s degeneration (no pun intended) into an embittered relic owes much to his sense of being denied the opportunity to cement his legacy. However aggrieved he may rightly have felt, there can be no denying Bret Hart milked the fallout of Montreal to the maximum. From 1997 to 2001, Bret Hart lambasted, lashed out and otherwise castigated the WWF at every available opportunity. There is only so much baggage one can carry before he begins to collapse under the weight of it all. Montreal poisoned Bret Hart’s sense of perspective and mortally wounded his pride. It has taken twelve long years for Bret to even consider truly moving on. As a result, he allowed Montreal to destroy many aspects of his life, including his first marriage. The sad truth is during these first five years only once did Bret truly have a genuine grievance. That of course came in the wake of his brother Owen’s tragic accident at ?Over The Edge? 1999.
For the record, I wouldn?t dream of calling Bret’s motivations into question in the wake of his beloved bother’s death, and God knows I cried my eyes out during the Raw tribute show. After a protracted legal battle (which permanently destroyed what remained of the once mighty Hart Family) the WWF paid Owen’s widow Martha a substantial, multi-million dollar sum. The WWF then proceeded to sue the manufactures of the faulty latch into financial oblivion (The latch was known to be a faulty design and had already been discontinued in the UK and Europe. It subsequently malfunctioned upon application in Kansas and dropped Owen to his death).
After Bret’s stroke in 2002, Vince McMahon reached out to him and attempted to heal the multitude of lingering wounds. Perhaps weary from watching his family’s once proud legacy crumble around him, Bret accepted Vince’s largesse and slowly began the process of healing the chasm that existed between them. Though clearly mellowed after a near-death experience, Bret remains capable of unedifying bouts of melodrama. His spat with Ric Flair, over the Nature Boy’s stinging and clearly delusional appraisal of Bret’s legacy in his (otherwise entertaining) autobiography, was a real lowly moment. Watching (and reading) these two legends pointlessly slander one another over details neither truly understood was as unpleasant as it gets. You just wished Bret (because Flair isn?t capable) would rise above it. He can?t though, and that is why many long-term wrestling fans roll their eyes when talking about The Hitman. He all to often rises to the bait and makes a fool of himself. He very childishly refused to appear on-screen with his fellow inductees at Wrestlemania XXII for no reason other than a rather craven case of spite. The sight of retrospectives of Ric Flair’s storied career securing record DVD sales and the man himself being labelled the best ever bore at Bret like madness. Bret secured his own disc in 2006. I?ve heard it referred to as a ?lingering love letter to himself?. I can?t better that assessment. Worse still was the resurgence of Shawn Michaels, who since his return in 2002 has gone on to legendary status. Upon his exit, he will rightly be regarded as the finest WWE in-ring performer ever. This truth is like a dagger in the heart for Bret Hart.
Whatever the outcome of these so called negotiations, I can?t see Bret returning as a permanent or even semi-permanent on-screen performer. I think we should move past that idea right now. I can however see an angle taking place involving Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels and probably Billy Liar (Triple H. If you don?t get the reference watch ?Wrestling With Shadows?) leading into Shawn’s likely Hall Of Fame induction in 2010. On that night, it has been mooted Bret Hart will be asked to induct his bitterest enemy into the HOF. As doubting as I am, Bret Hart would never have anything to prove to me or anyone else if he stood up and acknowledged the wrestling career of Shawn Michaels. It’s a surreal symmetry that would underline Bret’s conviction that he has, finally moved on from Montreal. It takes a man to look his enemy in the eye and shake his hand. Shawn might win one final battle that night. It will be Bret, however, who will in that moment win the war.
Daniel R. Browne.
P.S. Just imagine the pop that will greet Bret’s music. Go on. Tell me it doesn?t, love him or loathe him, make you smile?