Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The best there ever will be.

"You can be a good person and do everything right and it doesn't guarantee you anything." - Owen Hart

I can place the era that I started watching wrestling again, when I was 13, and it was mostly because of two events: the return of the Undertaker at SummerSlam 1994, and the fact that Bret Hart was the reigning WWE (then, the WWF) champion.

It's astonishly easy to admit: Bret "Hitman" Hart is a hero of mine.

I can blame Andrew for my renewed interest in the Bret Hart's career. His video collection is stock-piled with classic WWE pay-per-view events (including all the SummerSlams and Wrestlemanias). We spent a good portion of my time in L.A. - at least at night - watching classic matches from the '90s.

I watched wrestling religiously back then, after taking time some time off in my pre-teen years. From 1994-1998, I watched almost every pay-per-view event with my buddies Josh and PJ, and caught many of the weekly TV shows in college. My interest traces as far back as the rivalry between Hulk Hogan and Randy "Macho Man" Savage in the mid '80s. At least that's as far back as I can remember.

No matter who came and went, Bret Hart was always my favorite.

Mostly, I think it was his work ethic and overall "averageness" that made me a fan. His Hitman character was simple: technical, proficient wrestler who took on all comers. Bret wasn't big, he wasn't flashy, and he didn't have quite the charisma guys like Hogan or, later, The Rock, had.

But man, he knew his stuff. I just finished his autobiography, and the biggest thing that sticks out is that he was a consumate professional who worked hard and gave everyone an opportunity to shine. His success came as it should have: through dedication and sticking it out. It wasn't his size or his ego that got him to the top. It was his skill and professionalism. His co-workers respected him for that.

"There was always something different about my fans," Hart writes in his autobiography. "They really believed in me as a person."

And that's true. The Bret Hart in the ring was the same guy as the Bret Hart in the locker room.

Bret Hart was one of the few wrestlers to use his own name. He didn't appeal to the crowd during his matches. He was a loner, a history buff, and true to the friends who didn't betray him.

That kind of thing appeals to me. I always respected how Bret Hart's character, as World Champion, gave everyone a title-shot opportunity - even guys like Doink the Clown. He was an egalitarian.

And good lord, what an excruciating finishing move. The Sharpshooter, a modified Scorpion Death Lock, was intricate and beautiful to watch.

The Undertaker, always my second favorite, had the mood and the atmosphere and the spooky persona down. He was talented, yes, but it was his theatrics that made me a fan. Bret Hart appealed to the average guy in me. When you don't have a lot of charisma or athletic gifts, you try to out-work everyone. I understood that.

Bret Hart's hard work paid off in a lot of ways. He's, by far, the most decorated wrestler of all time: two tag teams championships, two intercontinental championships, seven world titles, two King of the Ring tournaments, various other championships, and so many fan and industry awards (including induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006) it's impossible to list them all. Again, it's something I see in myself. Overachievers get my respect.

What's tragic, however, is what has happened to Bret Hart since November 1997 - the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" that served as his inglorious ousting from the WWE. Since then, it's been one misshap after another: a so-so career in rival WCW, the death of his fantastically-talented brother Owen in a freak accident, the drug abuse of his fellow comrades, a concussion, a divorce, and - in 2002 - a debilitating stroke after a bicycle fall.

In other words, my childhood hero is human, just like the rest of us, and that's helped me to respect him even more.

His autobiography lays the imperfections out there: infidelity, a bit of drug and steroid abuse, a chaotic family life. Still, when seen against the tableau of what was going on in the rest of the wrestling world, Bret Hart's life was pretty tame. That's why it's such a shame to read about what's happened to him since the glory days.

My fear, like his, is that his legacy will somehow be erased - that people younger than me won't remember what a great performer Bret Hart was.

I suppose that's why, after I returned from Los Angeles, I immediately hit Amazon and bought his book. For my own mind, I wanted to hear Bret Hart's story. Maybe it's my dread that my best days are behind me now, or some strange need for nostalgia, when I watched a purer form of wrestling entertainment than what's on TV now.

Whatever. It's been great to relive the days of my boyhood hero. After all, when you grow up with few male role models around, you look up to what's available at the time. Bret Hart, a hero in his home country of Canada, was one of them.

Of course wrestling is staged and the outcomes are pre-determined. Telling that to a wrestling fan is like telling your parents Santa Claus doesn't exist. It doesn't take away the fun, and it doesn't take away the real people behind all the hooplah and exhibition. They get hurt and they have problems and they deal with real life just like the rest of us do.

To me, Bret Hart was more real than most.

Here's to you, Hitman.

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