The most flawless in-ring competitor of his generation or any other, Bret Hart possessed the rare ability to connect with people through matches alone. He was an expert storyteller, bringing a Stampede realism and believability to mainstream pro wrestling at a time when it was needed most.
Hart made his own luck in WWE. We have grown accustomed to seeing “great workers” of the modern era fall flat or lose a crowd given the wrong program or card position. Bret never allowed an audience that option. He just dragged you into it – a meaningless match he could make mean something. And while the company was out looking everywhere else for their next big star, he took the choice from out of their hands.
Seen at the time as an also-ran by the powers that be, it was tag team success with The Hart Foundation which threw his career an early lifeline. He and Jim Neidhart mixed contrasting styles and characters, creating a compelling dynamic while giving Bret the platform to showcase his talent clearly. Once that door creaked open for him, Bret forced his way through – his combination of technical ability and match psychology separating him from the rest of the locker room.
It was at this time we first saw one of Hart’s greatest strengths as a wrestler; the duality he brought to The Hitman character. At the drop of a hat, he could slide from heel to face / face to heel, equally effective in each, without losing his edge. It gave him depth as a performer. He could show a darker side to the hero or redeemable qualities in the villain as a storyline or match required it. It was a concept he grasped better than anyone and was able to utilize effectively throughout his run.
Solo stardom was the next logical progression for the already very popular Hitman. His connection with the crowd and near-perfect match quality made him the guy to build the company around. Hart had a terrific wrestling brain and understanding of how to work around the limitations of opponents. His name on top of a card guaranteed the main event would always deliver. He could be paired up with anyone from the 1-2-3 Kid to Yokozuna and produce a match worthy of closing the show.
Working alongside personal friends and family though is what brought the best out of him. Battles with Austin, Undertaker and Piper, a handful of great matches with Hennig, SummerSlam against Davey Boy, and a couple of classics with little brother Owen provide some of the greatest examples of his capabilities.
The ghosts of Montreal shadowed his career for way too long – an incredible 13 year run reduced to one single incident. And while everybody has their own opinion on it, as do I, it’s old ground I’d rather not re-tread. Ironically it was McMahon who said that WCW would never know what to do with a Bret Hart, and how right he was. Given the hottest property in the business at the time, WCW did the same thing they always did and squandered it right away from day one. While championship reigns followed, he was creatively and artistically stifled by the confines of WCW’s ineptitude. Save for a few momentary highlights, it was an otherwise dismal time for The Hitman.
Tremendous personal tragedy tailed him in the years that followed, and his own in ring career was effectively ended at Starrcade ’99 due to injuries suffered in what should have been a dream match against Goldberg.
Hart’s return to WWE some years later was a welcome one. He was back where he always belonged. There was almost a sense that he had regained control of his legacy. He got the Hall of Fame send off he deserved and it gave fans the opportunity to say goodbye in the right way. A step back in to the ring however was less desired, with Bret’s injuries greatly limiting what he could do physically. An ill-conceived WrestleMania match up with Vince and the select few bouts since would be best forgotten about.
Given his ring smarts, natural athleticism and technical proficiency, it seems reasonable to assume Hart’s wrestling prime could have continued well into his forties had his health allowed for it. Bret has spoken numerous times over the years of his wish to work with the next generation of stars, the likes of Angle, Batista and Mysterio. It’s just a shame we were robbed of those matches. What he did achieve in his time as an active wrestler though, will surely never be forgotten. An exceptional talent and inspiration to those who came after him, The Hitman remains one of wrestling few truly global icons.
Defining Match Of The WrestleMania Era: Bret Hart vs. The British Bulldog at SummerSlam 1992.
If you ever needed proof of how far the intercontinental championship has fallen, this is it. Over 80,000 packed in to Wembley Stadium to see The British Bulldog get his shot at then champion Bret Hart. This was Hart’s first time headlining a PPV, and it’s what he considers his finest performance.