Sunday, January 21, 2007

My near-death match with wrestling's Hart family

This story was on the “notable” list in the Best American Sports Writing series.

From Saturday Night Magazine


For Bret “The Hitman” Hart and his brother, Owen, wrestling is the family business, and the ring is in their blood. Go ahead – you tell them it’s all fake

By Gare Joyce

Behind the trademark reflecting sunglasses, bedecked in pink and black tights, Bret “The Hitman” Hart – 235 Calgary-born pounds of the stuff that heroes are made of – is set to take on the world wrestling champion, Rick “Nature Boy” Flair, the lascivious peroxide blonde regarded by the cognoscenti as the greatest wrestler of his generation and by all fair-minded folks as a real rotter. Flair could have scratched out of this title match at Saskatchewan Place in Saskatoon last October. He had apparently suffered an inner-ear injury a few days before and had been advised by doctors to take a month off the circuit. A wrestler, however, wins the respect of his peers by his willingness to get into the ring with an injury, to avoid the no-show. Flair has the respect of his fellow pros but the sympathies of the generally unwashed crowd are summed up in three words: “Flair, you suck.”

The old industry joke goes: Q. What has 100 legs and forty teeth? A. The first two rows at a wrestling card. To this loyal throng—pubescent fantasists, bikers, loud, round women who drink at the Legion, working stiffs and a few slumming semiologists—a world championship match involving a true Canadian is the Stanley Cup, World Series, and Olympics rolled into one.

Wise guys will always deride pro wrestling and call it “phoney,” “fake,” or “just theatre.” Of course the nay-sayers have never attended a live show and scrutinized the action. “They’ve probably never taken a shot in the squash either,” Hart says. For those in attendance, the matches shock because of the quantity and the degree of contact. In the first minute of this showdown, Hart suffers a severely sprained ankle. His punches raise welts on Flair’s face and compound the champion’s vertigo. After five minutes of action Hart notices that one of his fingers is jutting out at an odd angle. Recognizing this as a simple dislocation, he pulls the finger back into the socket and goes back to work.

Stu Hart, the father of the Hitman, sits in the stands, wringing his oft-broken hands. A former promoter and wrestler himself, Stu Hart still has some celebrity in Saskatoon. He has been brought in from his home in Calgary and introduced to the crowd for the sake of nostalgia, a remembrance of eye-gouges past. Watching the action in the ring, seeing Bret taking the fight to Flair, Stu recognizes moves he taught his son. And though the game has changed a lot, Stu knows you can’t fake a dislocated finger.

Two hundred and fifty nights a year, Bret Hart slams into turnbuckles, jumps off the top-ropes, kisses canvases, lets blood, and peers out into unsightly mobs. Hart broke into the pro game sixteen years ago, working on a small regional wrestling circuits before a few hundred fans. Today he plies his trade in arenas throughout North America, Europe and Japan. He has performed before as many as 93,000 fans at one live card and millions more on pay-per-view television. Western Report calls him “almost certainly the best known Albertan on earth.” The Hitman would accuse that august publication of thinking small. He operates on the assumption that the Harts are Canada’s first family of sport and that he is nothing less than the nation’s greatest athlete. Camp it ain’t.


In a demimonde populated by caricatures, Bret Hart is simply a character, the closest a wrestler might come to The Everyman. “I’m basically good but I can be as bad as I have to be,” he explains. The wrestling crew divides evenly between baby-faces (sugar-coated goody-two-shoes) and heels (evil incarnate). Matchmakers draw heat (create fan interest) by shooting angles (developing story lines and conflict between wrestlers). Surrounded by a comic-book cast that includes a catwalk-obsessed GQ fashion plate, a sword-wielding Viking, a Ugandan cannibal, an unscrupulous billionaire, a heartless tax man, and other broadly drawn no-goodniks, Hart provides relief in both substance and style. Hart has no shtick. His nickname, The Hitman, connotes nothing more than the finality of his finishing moves. Though he bears the stamp of the common man, it is in no way the imprint of mediocrity. For more than a year, hart owned the Intercontinental belt, the second-most prized not to mention bejewelled accessory in the World Wrestling Federation. Only the WWF’s world-title belt ranks higher. The championship is perhaps not the best measure of Hart’s excellence; it is his longevity that truly impresses. In a business with weekly turnover, the thirty-five-year-old Hart has been a staple in the WWF for eleven years, longer than any of the federation’s stars except for Hulk Hogan and Mexican baby-face Tito “El Matador” Santana.

Bret Hart’s ring skills are unique these days. He has mastered hundreds of holds, reversals and throws. The majority of wrestlers on the circuit today are larger than Hart and a number of behemoths dwarf him. Yet few have command of more than a couple of signature moves. Hart does nothing particularly original—there really isn’t anything new under the ring lights—but he pays homage to the past and borrows from wrestling styles around the world. “I resent being called ‘just an actor’ or ‘just a bodybuilder,’” Hart says. “There’s a lot more to what I do. I was a provincial champion as an amateur wrestler in high school. I’ve watched the best wrestlers in the world since I was a kid and I’ve worked with Japanese and European champs. The only [WWF wrestler] out there that’s close to me technically is The Rocket, my little brother Owen.”

No-one is born to wrestle but no-one more than the Hart kids was born into the business. Their father, Stu, wrestled for more than four decades and, until his retirement two years ago, was the promoter of Stampede Wrestling, a Calgary-based circuit renowned for its gothic violence and gore. Stu’s career dates back to the sport’s dark ages—before television broadcasts—practically, as his wife describes it, “to the invention of the headlock.” Stu and Helen’s eight sons have all been engaged in pro wrestling, if not in the ring then in promotion. “At six I had my first job, selling programmes,” Bret says. “Then I worked my way up to ring crew, then to music.”

The Hart kinder’s exposure to pro wrestling wasn’t limited to the arena. For many years Hart House, the family’s twenty-room home on the outskirts of Calgary, served as a residence for wrestlers working Stu’s shows or for those training at his wrestling school. It is no coincidence that the four Hart sisters married pro grapplers. Ellie married Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, with whom Bret twice won the WWF tag-team title. Diana married Davey Boy Smith, “The British Bulldog,” who deposed Bret as the WWF Intercontinental champ before 80,000 fans at Wembley. With an angle of unprecedented verisimilitude, their match was billed as “The Battle of The Brothers-In-Law.”

The Hitman maintains that he is an excellent athlete although not “a natural.” Still, he says his understanding of wrestling feels almost preternatural: “Sometimes in the ring I feel like I’m tapping into the past, maybe something that I saw on a card when I was six or practised in our back-yard ring. I’ll do something instinctively, and it will work before I realize what it was.” Bret Hart usually avoids false modesty. He’ll tell you that, when he arrived in the WWF eleven years ago, he was already as skilled a wrestler as there was on the circuit. But when he can tone down the braggadocio, he’ll admit that he cannot take full credit for his greatness, that he was simply a product of his environment. Wrestling was the Hart legacy, something imposed upon him, as inescapable as a hammerlock.


“What you should know about Stu,” Helen Hart tells me conspiratorially, “is that he never got enough to eat when he was a child and he has been trying to make up for it ever since.” Mrs. Hart is sitting at a table in a Calgary steakhouse while her husband defoliates the salad bar. “Stu has a healthy appetite,” she says, “for a wrestler, that is. For normal-sized people, the amount of food he eats would be dangerous, but in his business there were always big eaters. We had to cook for Andre The Giant—he’s five hundred pounds—and the McGuire twins—they were over seven hundred pounds each. Stu is no trencherman compared to them.”

As wide and as thickly set as the door to a bank vault, Mr. Hart returns to the table with a plate loaded six inches high. “Oh Buff,” Mrs. Hart says, “you can make two trips up there, oh really.” For the amusement of onlookers, she goes through the motions of being appalled by her husband’s lack of etiquette.

He teeters slightly on his cowbody boots before wedging himself into the booth. “What was that?” he asks. “You’ll have to forgive him,” Mrs. Hart advises me. “Stu’s hard of hearing.”

Stu leans across the table. “Here, feel my ear,” he says.

“Stu, the young man is trying to eat,” she says.

He turns his head to left profile and waits for me to work up the nerve. I touch the calcified membrane that few would mistake for an ear. It has the shape and texture of petrified cauliflower. “If wrestling was all fake,” he says, “I’d have ears that look like yours.”

The waitress arrives, lugging Stu’s dinner, the second-largest prime rib on the menu—the largest is a promotional eat-two-sixty-four-ounce-steaks-and-we-tear-up-the-bill. “I’m not complaining about my ears,” Stu says, as he carves. “If I didn’t wrestle I wouldn’t have met Tigerbell.”

“The young man’s not interested in ancient history,” says Helen.

Stu continues. “I was a fair athlete back in the late thirties,” he says, punctuating each pause in the story with a forkful of rare meat. “Played for the Eskimos in football, played and coached hockey and baseball. I was Canadian amateur wrestling champ too, never pinned as an amateur. When I was a youngster on leave from the navy, I made it to Philadelphia and met up with Toots Mont, who was one of the most famous wrestlers around in those days. He took a liking to me and started me into pro wrestling. While I was down there I made a trip to New York and met Tigerbell. Her father, Harry Smith, had been a miler at the 1912 Olympics. Harry was a big celebrity in New York, had lots of famous friends.”

“I don’t know what my family thought of you and me,” she says.

“She read a lot of books,” Stu says, “and was dating this teacher. She had her choice of a lot of suitors and she picked me and we got married.”

“It wasn’t quite the noble savage and Fay Wray story,” Helen says. After almost a half-century of practice the Harts have developed their own style of repartee. They trade the floor and work in flurries, like good tag-team partners trading places in the ring.

“I started up Stampede Wrestling back in ’48 with fifteen thousand bucks,” Stu says. “Our best years we took in a million dollars a year at the gate with shows all across the Prairies.”

“If it sounds the least bit glamorous,” Helen tells me, “you should ask him about driving hundreds of thousands of miles to cards in small towns in the dead of winter, six huge wrestlers crammed into one car to save gas money.”

“Had them all here. Killer Kowalski. Sky Hi Lee. Harley Race, now there was a great worker.” Stu rhymes off names for ten minutes. The best of them he calls “great workers,” investing the words with the distinction worthy of “artists” or “craftsmen.” Stu makes it clear that Stampede Wrestling’s best worker was its most unlikely candidate. “Tigerbell here put together the programmes and press releases and handed out the pay cheques while I was cooking up the meals for the wrestlers and the kids.”

The conversation halts for a moment as Stu tucks into his meal with renewed seriousness. Helen reaches for a manila envelope and pulls out a stack of photographs. She shows me a recent shot of their son and daughters and their spouses at a family gathering. “That what Bret looks like without his hair slicked dwon,” Helen says. “The WWF wants all their wrestlers to do something with their hair but Bret’s isn’t flattering.”

“That’s Jim Neidhart there,” Stu says, pointing to a huge man with a billy-goat Vandyke. “The bastard.”

“If Stu calls him a bastard that means he likes him,” Helen says. “Bret’s career only took off when he became The Anvil’s partner.” Then Helen pulls out an eight-by-ten glossy of their children posing beside Rocy Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion from the 1950s. “That’s from 1965,” she says. She points out Bret, a slight, angelic-looking eight-year-old with a brush cut.

“Marciano,” Stu says. “I tried to shoot an angle with him one time. After he quit boxing, he came up here to make an appearance at the Stampede parade. On our float I set it up so that Waldo Von Erich [a psuedo Nazi villian] would take a shot at Marciano. I didn’t tell Marciano about, just for the best eefect. So Waldo pulls Marciano’s cowboy hat down over his head and Marciano doesn’t react. ‘Just clench your fist, anything,’ I tell Marciano. We could have sold out the Corral the next week, the place would burn up. But Marciano didn’t want any part of it. He was, I dunno, righteous, self-righteous or something. He thought all this wrestling stuff was comedy—that is until a wrestler—I don’t want to say who—snatched him in the dressing room in Chicago one time …”

“When he says ‘snatches’ that means he jumped him and beat him up,” Helen advises.

“Yeah, Marciano had a notion that all this stuff was fake but he got cured,” Stu says proudly.

“Wrestlers,” Helen sighs. “They’re just like overgrown kids. And Stu wonders why I only went to two or three wrestling shows in all the years we’ve been married.”

“Did you ever hear about the time Sika the Samoan got in a bar fight and bit off a guy’s nose,” Stu says. He puts down his knife and fork and goes at what’s left of his prime rib with his bare hands.


Fifteen minutes into their match in Saskatoon, Bret Hart has Flair in a compromised position, flat on his sun-lamp-orange back with his hairless left leg in Hart’s grip. Hart turns and whirls and suddenly Flair’s face is being pressed into the ring floor. Hart is sitting on Flair’s back and has the Nature Boy’s legs in a most unnatural position. This is Hart’s signature move, the Sharpshooter, a combination of two submission holds: the Figure-Four Leglock and the Boston Crab. Hart is administering the coup de grapple, pro wrestling’s most devastating submission hold. He knows that he’ll win now, that he’ll win the world championship, and waits only for Flair to give in.

In 1981, long before his transformation into The Hitman, Bret Hart was an anonymous greenhorn on the WWF circuit. He languished at the bottom of cards, scratching out a living, just waiting, he says, “for that one big break to make a name for myself.” Bret was sure that his break had come the day the Japanese wrestling office called. The Dynamite Kid had signed to fight the Japanese hero Fujinami for the world junior heavyweight title (under 200 pounds) at Madison Square Garden. But twenty-four hours before the bout, the Dynamite Kid was held up at the border because he didn’t have a work visa. The Japanese officials asked Hart to fill in on short notice. “The Garden was and will always be like Carnegie Hall,” Hart says. “Once you perform there you know you’re established.” Hart flew to New York and appeared at a press conference for Japanese journalists the afternoon before the match.

After the press conference Hart went to his hotel room, took his phone off the hook, and went to sleep, dreaming of the status that was soon to be his. At 6:15 he packed up his gym bag and set out to walk over to MSG. He got as far as the hotel lobby. An official from the Japanese office stopped him. “You’re off the card tonight,” he told Hart and handed him an envelope containing $200. Hart was dumbfounded and demanded an explanation. The official told Hart that the decision had been made by Vince McMahon Sr., then the voice of God in the WWF and the most powerful man in wrestling. “The Garden is only for the biggest names in the game,” the official told Hart. “Vince Senior decided you don’t have a big enough name.”

“I’ve always wanted to get past that knock of not having a big enough name,” Hart says. “I always wanted to get even for that. It was the worst experience I’ve had in wrestling, worse pain than all the injuries I’ve had.” In Calgary and western Canada, there had been security in the Hart name—a certain amount of baggage but also instant recognition. But the biggest name from one of the territories, from Stampede Wrestling, couldn’t even get him in the door at the Garden.

After this disappointment, Hart was determined to make a name his own way. He rejected the suggestion of the WWF that he become Cowboy Bret Hart. “I told them I can’t ride a horse and I don’t sound like a cowboy,” Hart says. “More than that, I didn’t want to get typed as a cowboy for my entire career.” Hart took on Jim Neidhart as a tag-team partner to create “The Hart Foundation,” developed the Hitman persona, and became a heel in defiance of the conventional wisdom that he was too good-looking to be a bad guy. Soon after repenting his past sins Hart set out as a newly righteous soloist and won the WWF Intercontinental belt. “Whenever I wrestle at Madison Square Garden, I think, ‘They know who I am now,’” he says. “I’m pretty damn high up.” With Rick Flair contorted beneath him, Hart is sitting on top of the wrestling world.


Now appreciate that an audience with The Hitman and The Rocket is not easy to secure. Three out of every four weeks they’re on the road, utterly at the mercy of the WWF matchmakers. The only place to corner them is at the gym. On the road and at home they pump iron two hours a day, five days a week. In Calgary The Hitman and The Rocket do their lifting at B.J.’s Gym, a body-culture emporium owned by one of their brothers-in-law and decorated with glossy photos and posters of pro wrestlers, most prominently The Hitman.

Also appreciate that a member of the media will be granted an audience with The Hitman and not necessarily Bret Hart. That is to say, Hart will show up in character. He arrives in the same attire he wears into the ring for an evening’s simulated hostilities: a black leather jacket adorned with a Hitman logo on the back and wraparound reflective sunglasses. He has lacquered down his hair and adopted The Hitman’s good-natured conceit. For The Rocket the occupational schizophrenia is less pronounced because, as a recent arrival in the WWF, he has yet to develop much of a character. “I’m just an all-American, clean-cut, high-flying wrestler,” The Rocket says. “I don’t have to paint my face.” And to his mother’s relief, he is blond enough that he doesn’tr have to slick down his bangs.

And also appreciate that The Hitman and The Rocket have their guards up.For the past year the WWF has been enduring a spate of bad publicity. In 1991 a doctor in Pennsylvania was sent to jail for illegally prescribing steroids to several WWF wrestlers. Though the Harts were never mentioned in the charges, Hulk Hogan, longtime golden boy of the WWF, was implicated. Later the federation became the object of another scandal when former wrestlers and officials claimed they were objects of unwelcome homosexual advances from high-placed WWF executives. “All the recent charges—and most of them are unfair—have put us on the defensive about our profession,” The Hitman says.

Inconvenienced, in character, and on guard, the Harts still manage to charm. Their business requires a sense of humour as much as gym-built muscles. Bret and Owen talk proudly, lovingly, about their brutal and often cynical trade because it is, after all, the family business. “When I was just a little kid, I didn’t have a real good idea of what wrestling was,” Bret says, removing his shades and dropping The Hitman’s arrogance. “Guys came up to me and said, ‘My dad can take your dad.’ I had to defend the family honour and wrestling too. I was fighting for a just cause but I wasn’t sure what it was.”

Bret and Owen, the two most successful wrestlers of the Hart progeny, were originally reluctant warriors. “We were the two sons who didn’t want to go into the business,” Bret says. “I wanted to go to film school but after I started wrestling for my father I couldn’t quit. I was better than all the other guys starting out. I had a gift.”

Owen’s account of his ring debut sounds like the confession of a “father wound” at a New Age men’s therapy group. “I wanted to be a phys ed teacher,” The Rocket says. I wrestled only to appease my father. I was compelled to get into the ring. Once I started there was the pressure of having the Hart name—I was expected to be good.”

It wasn’t merely the family name that gave The Hitman and The Rocket their shot. Back then, the organization of pro wrestling provided greater opportunities for novices. “Ten years ago you could find work all over the world,” Bret says. “There were a bunch of regional shows or territories. The WWF was the main organization but the other outfits acted as feeder systems. Stampede Wrestling was just one of a whole slew of them.”

The phenomenal growth of the WWF squeezed out the smaller shows and, in turn, led to a decline in the quality of wrestling. “Now any guy who works out in a gym wants to be a wrestler,” Owen says. “Lots move up without learning the ropes and paying their dues.” Bret cites the Ultimate Warrior, the heir apparent to Hulk Hogan, as a prime example of a star wrestler who can’t wrestle. “I’d like to see the Warrior do three or four moves in the ring,” The Hitman says. “He has a clothesline [a forearm to the throat] but that’s it. WWF wrestling is fast-paced and theatrical, but there has been a loss of skill. Owen and I definitely have a foot in the past as far as knowing the moves and I hope were part of a new wave of wrestlers, a return to old-fashioned amateur wrestling skills.”

The Hitman also hopes his sons will be part of that return to the Harts’ family values. “I’d like my sons to be the first third-generation pro wrestlers,” he says. “My oldest son, Dallas, doesn’t quite understand what it’s all about but he takes it seriously. He went into hiding when I lost my Intercontinental title. The youngest, Blade, is two years old and he goes crazy as soon as he sees me on TV>”

In one of Stu’s last matches—he was in his sixties—he teamed up with Bret. Neither Bret nor Owen can foresee staying in the game long enough to enter the ring with their sons. “I keep saying one more year and that’s it,” Bret says. The Hitman’s forehead, just below his hairline, is creased with scar tissue from gashes that were opened by punches and sometimes sharpened fingernails. He probably never envisaged such a build-up of wounds. Owen seems even less inclined to hang on. “I can see wrestling until I’m thirty, but then I’d like to get out and be with my family,” he says. “I wondered whether it was all worth it last year when I was injured at the Survivor Series. I was doing an aerial move off the top rope and took a head butt to the groin. I had to finish the match because it was on live TV but I spent a week in the hospital. I almost had to lose a testicle. I had just got married and wanted to start a family. It put into perspective the risks that I was taking.”

Though their older brothers, Smith, Keith and Bruce, were once regulars on the Stampede Wrestling circuit, Bret maintains that his sisters Ellie and Georgia were his toughest and most frequent opponents for sibling scraps at home. “My sisters were tough enough for any of us to duke it out with,” Bret says. “It was a no-win situation. My father was especially partial to the girls. If you were caught laying a finger on your sister, you had to deal with old Stu.”

The Hitman fighting, maybe even losing, to a girl? Being put in his place by his father? Bret Hart perhaps realizes that he has strayed too far out of character. He stands up abruptly, puts on his shades, and assumes The Hitman’s belligerent hauteur. “You are finished,” he announces.


My eyes are watering, my neck has just cracked, and the well-appointed dining room at Hart House is starting to spin. The clenched right fist and thick forearm of Stu Hart has just bruised and almost crushed my nose. “You felt that, did’ya?” he asks. “See, I’m just shooting it across like this …” He does it once more, further loosening my tenuous grip on consciousness. Stu Hart is showing me a little ringcraft. I have said nothing to encourgae this lesson. I have advised him that I’m late for an important appointment. He said that he’d rush through it. “I’m only showing you this ‘cause you seem like a good guy,” he says. His hand grips me near the right elbow. “See, I have you there,” he says. I can see the pictures of the Hart family that hang on the walls around the long dining table. I can see a vintage photo of Stu from his fighting days. His body was then rippled and his dark eyes were piercing. Suddenly the pictures are upside down—or rather I am. I have hit the floor with a jolt, how I don’t know. I can feel my head being pressed towards my navel. “Some people think this wrestling stuff is fake,” he says. “They have no idea what goes on inside the ring, how tough this stuff is.” Stu—who I am now sure is the world’s most dangerous seventy-seven-year-old—leans his full body weight, about 260 pounds, onto my back. I free up my head but I can’t draw enough breath to cry “Uncle.” “It’s a good thing I like you,” he says without menace. I look into the living room and see studio portraits of the Hart children from the sixties. With my head ringing, my spine cracking and the world fading to black, I can now understand that for Bret and Owen and the other sons the Hart name was sometimes a burden, one that, if you crossed Stu, could collapse a lung.


Last summer rumour had Bret Hart ready to leave the WWF. According to a few published reports, other wrestling circuits were interested in him, but a closed-door meeting with Vince McMahon Jr., the owner of the WWF, sorted out the matter. The son of the man who ruled that Hart didn’t have a big enough name decided that The Hitman was worthy of a push, which explains this showdown with Flair in Saskatoon. Hart is ready to ascend to the summit: the WWF world championship. Flair is writhing on the canvas, struggling to escape the Sharpshooter. This night Hart has his finishing move locked in and awaits on the ref to halt the proceedings. Flair submits. The ref calls for the bell. Hart lets loose the hold, grabs the championship belt, and holds it aloft. The fans give him an ovation and see in this match many things. Good guy vs bad guy. The decent Canadian vs the ugly American. Gel vs peroxide. These are subtexts that promoters invent and enact, the plot confections that the mat fans swallow whole. But the victor, the new champion, is playing out another story line that is closer to the truth. When Hart was starting out in the early eighties, trying to make a name for himself after working his father’s promotions in western Canada, Flair was already the best scientific wrestler and the best showman in the game. Now Hart has not only won the most important title in wrestling, he has won it in what was for four decades his father’s territory. Bret Hart suffered indignity long ago but, for The Hitman, retribution is the only angle to shoot, the only sure-fire way to draw heat.


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