KENTUCKY FRIED RASSLIN'
By Scott Bowden
The Arrogance of Execution: Scott Bowden's three-part look at Bret Hart's bio winds down with a look at the Hitman's blossoming career and ego in the '80s and '90s
"You'll be rich and famous in a far-out profession."
--Fortune-cookie message received by Bret Hart at the end of Chinese meal on Christmas 1987
Despite finding his niche in the Former Fed as part of the Hart Foundation, Bret Hart was becoming increasingly frustrated in 1985. In his bio, he writes that while big men like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant were drawing the houses, "they never worked the kinds of fast-paced beautiful masterpieces that we did." Hart's attitude at that point is easy to understand, as he still wasn't a true WWF Superstar in his eyes or the fans' at that point, despite having some of the best matches in the business with partner Jim Neidhart vs. the British Bulldogs. In fact, Neidhart had taken to referring to himself and Hart as "pseudo Superstars."
To avoid being overshadowed by the massive bodies in the Fed at the time, Bret, like most of the boys, was a regular customer of Dr. Zahorian, who would be at the center of the federal government's case against Vince McMahon in the mid-'90s. Dr. Zahorian was a mark doctor, who supplied the boys with their "candies" -- steroids, painkillers, speed and downers. Looking back, Bret questions his own judgment as the dead bodies of wrestlers were already starting to pile up.
Oddly enough, it wasn't Hart's increased muscle mass that caught Vince's eye. A breakthrough for the Foundation came prior to an NBC SATURDAY NIGHT'S MAIN EVENT taping in '86. At the suggestion of their seamstress, Hart and Neidhart reluctantly decided to part from their typical black-and-blue and occasional black-and-red attire and wear "neon bubblegum pink" to the ring. Pleased when he saw their new look, McMahon told the stunned tandem, "Don't ever change that color! That's what you've been missing!" The pink-and-black attack was underway.
The Hart Foundation continued to have some of the best bouts in the company but were never targeted for the World tag belts until Dynamite Kid (Tom Billington) suffered a freak back injury that was more a cumulative result of the abuse he'd put his body through both in the ring and out. Despite Dynamite barely being able to walk, Vince pressured the Bulldogs to drop the belts in the ring. Billington agreed but only if they lost to the Hart Foundation -- an uncharacteristically unselfish moment for the English grappler. Later, Hart writes how dismayed he was to witness Dynamite's slow, agonizing fall from grace. Despite desperately wanting the belts as an affirmation of their greatness within the company, Hart claims that upon winning the straps he "vowed to himself to never forget that wrestling is a work."
Occasionally while reading his book, I questioned whether Bret accomplished that.
Bret was among the first to keep his copies of his straps and have them mounted on his wall like trophies, something the older wrestlers had a laugh over. It should be noted that a lot of the boys do that today. I noticed Chris Jericho had the two belts representing his "Undisputed World title" win over the Rock and Steve Austin in the same night hanging on his wall during an interview for the new Shawn Michaels DVD. I think the boys who grew up watching wrestling and were huge fans are more apt to be belt marks.
I'm reminded of when I called Jerry Lawler earlier this year to jokingly congratulate him on his HOF induction. His son Kevin Lawler had tipped me off that the King wasn't exactly thrilled with the honor because he'd be missing a rare Cleveland Indians exhibition game in Memphis. Besides, Lawler sees the WWE HOF for what it is: a marketing ploy. Upon receiving my call, Lawler said, "Shit. Right. That's like congratulating somebody for winning a fucking belt."
There are times in the book where you get a sense that Bret was clearly his biggest fan, with the exception perhaps of two young girls in Italy crying uncontrollably when they spied the Hitman leaving an arena. "We love you, Hitman," they screamed, tears streaming down their faces. Bret claims that upon seeing this, Jimmy Hart told him, "That's not something you see anywhere else for anybody else in this business." Maybe, maybe not.
You do get a true glimpse into how Bret saw himself and others during his run. More than anything, you can get insight into the ego of an increasingly successful wrestler over time. It's also interesting to read how Bret's relationship with McMahon evolves, from one of the first times McMahon complimented the Hart Foundation after a bout ("He actually spoke to us!") to the punch after the now-infamous 1997 Montreal Screwjob. You also get a feel for the often-empty promises McMahon delivered to not only Hart but countless others over years, including Owen Hart, who was buried underneath for years before Bret successfully lobbied for Owen -- not Bruce Hart -- to get the spot in the proposed brother vs. brother feud.
After going as far as he could with Neidhart in tag bouts, McMahon kept delaying plans for Hart's anticipated push as a singles star. Eventually, he followed through, with Hart winning the Intercontinental strap from Mr. Perfect in a great match at the '90 SUMMERSLAM event. I don't think I truly understood what a feat that match was for both wrestlers until reading Hart's book. I knew Curt was in pain entering the bout, but I don't think realized just how shot Hennig's back was. There's no way he should have been in the ring, let alone delivering such a first-rate, grueling performance.
Even more amazing than the Hennig bout: When Hart dropped the IC belt to Davey Boy Smith in an incredible bout at London's Wembley Stadium he was dealing with a panicked, fried Bulldog who had been in Florida for weeks smoking crack with Neidhart. Still, this was to be Bulldog's moment, but Hart had other ideas for the post-match scenario: "He was trying to milk the crowd. I was thinking, 'The drama is me, not them; for fuck's sake, please look at me, Davey!'"
Still, despite having the best bout in the company in ages, Bret was paranoid about his spot. The night McMahon informed him he'd be winning the World title, Bret thought he was being called into the boss' office to be fired.
Hart couldn't resist taking a few shots at Ric Flair, the man he won his first WWF heavyweight championship from, referring to the Nature Boy's style as "full-blast, non-stop non-psychology." Flair fired the first shots in his own bio, having the gall to accuse the Hitman of being repetitive when making his comebacks. I love both guys' work, so the criticisms seem petty to me. I will say, though, that Bret isn't the first one to knock Flair's chops as nonsensical. Lawler hated his bouts with Flair, claiming fans in Memphis wouldn't understand why a guy would chop a man instead of punching him. Then again, Lawler also booked Frankenstein's monster, Darth Vader, a Gene Simmons look-alike and Spider-Man himself in Memphis rings, so take that with a grain of Mr. Fuji's salt.
I wasn't exactly shocked to learn that Lawler and Hart didn't get exactly get along. Hart criticized that Lawler was stiff in the attack following his KING OF THE RING tournament win in 1993. Hart writes, "I vowed to myself that I'd get even with him later." And he supposedly did, with Hart writing that he potatoed Lawler repeatedly in their first PPV bout together and that the King had to crawl back to the dressing room on his belly like a crocodile. Even if that's true, I wouldn't exactly be proud of that.
Hart later complains that Shawn Michaels took liberties in their Iron Man match at WRESTLEMANIA 12, with several "potato shots." Again, it's hard to take Bret seriously at times when he complains about stuff like that. Ironically enough, Bret isn't nearly as hard on Goldberg, who ended his career with a stiff kick to the head. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Shades of gray: Not everything is black-and-white in Bret's bio.
I distrust some of Hart's claims because of what he wrote regarding his experiences working in Memphis. Maybe he didn't pack his tape recorder on those occasions -- maybe he just doesn't remember it right. But I don't recall the Memphis ring ropes being "garden hoses" and or there being bolts sticking out of the canvas. The ring was hard, sure, but Hart's ramshackle description is overdone, complete with his claim that "hillbillies" were in the audience. I was working in the area at the time, and the Memphis crowd, especially around ringside, was relatively sophisticated compared to the cesspools in Nashville and Jonesboro. Besides, I'm sure the Stampede crowds were far more refined. I suppose it's easy and fun to poke fun at Southerners.
Iron wills: Personal pride and jealousy between Michaels and Hart blurred the lines between reality and fantasy.
Still, Hart was willing to drop the title to 'Taker or Austin, so it seems like a compromise could have been made somewhere along the way. I mean, I do see McMahon's point on having Hart put over his designated replacement -- after all, it was wrestling tradition from the territory days for a departing star to do jobs on the way out. Nevertheless, I feel for Bret, and ultimately I can't support McMahon's decision to get the title off Hart that way after all they'd been through together. And it's not as if Bret wanted to leave for WCW to begin with -- he simply couldn't turn that kind of money down, especially when it appeared that Michaels and Triple H had Vince's ear on the direction the company was headed. The deceitfulness displayed by Vince, referee Earl Hebner, HBK and Trips was a new low for the business.