Working, Fighting, and Bret "Hitman" Hart
Even among his pro wrestling peers, Bret Hart has suffered a great deal, in the ring and out. His cancer diagnosis is sad, but Hart doesn't go down easily.
Photo by Mandy Coombes, via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons
Bret Hart, seven-time world champion (five in WWE and two in WCW), announced via Instagram on Monday that he is battling prostate cancer. There's no indication as to how bad it is, though if it's enough to warrant a public acknowledgement it's probably bad enough to be a threat to his long-term well-being. But given all that Bret Hart has been through—all the things he put himself through and that wrestling put him through—it's easy to believe in him. Few in this sport have ever worn suffering better, or more eagerly.
Hart is one of the greats, and a personal favorite of mine. My friend Alex would say, "Nobody takes a beating like Bret Hart," and it's true. He did this thing where he'd run full bore into the turnbuckle, chest first, bouncing off with a sickening thud and a face like he'd just been kicked in the nuts. He'd bleed and suffer, 30 or 60 minutes at a time. The guy could simply go in a way that his peers could not. He and Shawn Michaels, his rival both in-ring and out, were forebears of a highly technical, fast-paced, stamina-intensive style that came into vogue more by necessity than choice: Vince McMahon was in deep trouble with the feds over alleged steroid disbursement, and WWE had to shift the focus away from the guys with physiques only chemicals could buy.
This isn't an obituary, but the sense of tragedy that follows Hart around makes the news both harder to take and almost expected. His interviews now have a certain doleful quality to them, his shoulders shrugging, eyes downcast, even when he's happy. He was great when he was great, yes, but he could've been even greater. It's an odd thing to say about a man with seven world championships, but it's true. Bret Hart was that great, and that unlucky.
There was the rivalry with Michaels in the 1990s, a vicious thing the stuff of pro-wrestling lore. Michaels was, at the time, an admitted drug addict and pervert, which didn't sit well with the old-school Hart, whose family wrestling pedigree extended back to World War II. Michaels wasn't just another wrestler, however; he doubled as arguably the greatest talent of the decade. Imagine having a co-worker that you can't stand; then imagine that you have to work with them every day and that the company will fold if you can't make that working relationship click. Then you both backstab each other anyway, because your workplace is a wrestling ring.
It's impossible to pin down how many more titles Hart would've won without Michaels in the picture or how long his reigns would've lasted without the constant politicking. It ground him down, to be sure, culminating in the infamous Montreal Screwjob. If you're unfamiliar with it, just know that McMahon forced Hart to drop the title to Michaels against his wishes, in real time and on live pay-per-view, via referee shenanigans. It was and is perhaps the most infamous single moment in pro wrestling history, nearly 20 years later, and poor, betrayed Hart was there at the center, watching his real-life enemy and the man he considered a second father collude to strip him of his dignity.
And so he went to WCW, where he had some OK moments, but it all seemed off. Hart, more than anyone since Hulk Hogan, was WWE. Maybe even more so, since Hogan was so large that he transcended the sport in a way Hart didn't. Watching Hart come out to different theme music to muted crowds in a dimly lit WCW arena felt decidedly wrong. It wasn't supposed to be that way; McMahon gave him what amounted to a lifetime contract once upon a time for a reason.
It got darker from there. Hart's brother Owen died in horrific circumstances at a WWE event, plunging from the rafters when his harness, meant to lower him from the sky for a superhero gimmick he was working, broke. The event where this happened continued, with the wrestlers going back out to finish the show after attempting to put the sight of Owen Hart being wheeled out on a gurney out of their heads. Bret was furious and heartbroken, a fact made all the worse by the fact that he was the brother who was still on television.
Hart had maybe his last truly great match in WCW after Owen's death, a match with Chris Benoit meant to serve as tribute to his fallen brother. It was, like most of Hart's career, a triumph of substance over style, and a fast, crisp exhibition of pro wrestling as physical art in motion. Nothing would ever be the same for Hart, understandably. The joy was gone for him, and he's said as much in interviews. The dysfunction of WCW coupled with Owen's death just made the business dark for him.
Hart's career ended with a kick to the head by Goldberg. He was concussed enough as a result that he could never fully recover. There was no big sendoff befitting his status as arguably the best pure wrestler of his generation. No mention at all, either, in WWE, which is understandable given the rancor of the relationship but still sad given just how important he was to the company during its leanest days. Hart just disappeared, only to show up in the wrestling rumor mill a few years later with the news that he'd suffered a stroke after hitting his head during a biking accident.
I remember reading it and thinking just how rotten it was that Bret Hart—Bret fucking Hart—was being beaten down so much by life. But over the years that softened a bit. He is, by all accounts, now a happily married man and a grandfather several times over. He's still a bit cantankerous about the business, but he's a legitimate national hero in Canada. All told, those wrestling fans—myself included—saying "poor Bret" have maybe missed the point. Bret wouldn't be Bret without the success, but he probably wouldn't be Bret without the hardship, too.
All of which is to say that if there's anyone out there who is equipped to take cancer and put a submission hold on it, it's the type of man Bret Hart is: weathered but unbowed, scarred but unbeaten.