A couple months ago, Matt Hardy started breaking character on his Twitter feed. The odd cadence of his Woken (formerly Broken) Matt Hardy character sometimes disappeared from his tweets. In its place were old photos, distinguished from the periodic early Hardys material he’d tweet out by their lack of captions.
They were poignant. He and his brother, Jeff, backstage at WWF events as young men. Collages of Make-a-Wish encounters. Old wrestlers, some sadly departed. Family and indie gigs. All of them without words, leaving no ability to contextualize them from the outside, beyond what we already know about the journey of the Hardy Boyz from North Carolina spot monkeys to one of the most successful tag teams of the modern era.
This kind of mute introspection makes it seem like Matt Hardy may be retiring, and soon. A tweet sent out August 4 seems to indicate he can’t go anymore. It’s a GIF of him delivering a flying leg drop to a prone wrestler, while Jeff simultaneously dives onto the hapless victim. The Event Omega is the name.
It’s also, Matt tweets, the move most culpable for his spine and pelvis fusing together at age 43.
A fused spine in your early 40s is testament to just how grueling this “fake sport” can be. This is crucially so in the case of the Hardys. They came along fully after the death of the territories. Their charted career path, from tiny indies to making their own small promotion, OMEGA, to the WWF was rare back then. The increasingly trite observation made by current WWE heels that having once wrestled in bingo halls makes beloved babyfaces like Daniel Bryan suspect would’ve found some purchase in 1997, but not much. The wrestling landscape was different, both more and less monolithic than now.
Matt and Jeff Hardy brought a daredevil style with them which was at the forefront of changing pro wrestling tastes. People didn’t do what the Hardys did, but once the Hardys were in front of millions of people every Monday night, they had to start. But here’s the terrible lesson: just as the Hardys were at the bleeding edge of popularizing an impossibly risky style, Matt Hardy is at the forefront of displaying the toll of wrestling like he wrestled for more than 20 years.
The old-timers will tell you the same cranky thing, that the style of wrestling which preceded the late 90s WWF/WCW/ECW boom was slow for a reason: you could not do the dives, broken tables, and all the rest night after night. You have to go more slowly, or you’re doomed. You won’t make it.
Matt Hardy had his share of injuries, but nothing that would foreshadow the spinal injury. The injury which will end his career, whether that’s imminent or not, is the one in the GIF, the one which didn’t put him on a shelf but which he did over and over, 220 odd pounds flying up and then down to a sudden thud of pelvis slamming against vertebrae.
He did it willingly, enthusiastically. Because, my goodness, he was brilliant at pro wrestling. Jeff was an even bigger risk-taker, and had the benefit of being a little more traditionally good-looking. He was the star, a world champion years before Matt.
But Matt had the brain for the business. He had to, with Jeff inevitably creeping toward superstardom by the mid-2000s. He reinvented himself, over and over. Matt Hardy Version 1.0, where he harnessed the internet as a means of putting himself over. The way he swallowed the indignity of his very real life girlfriend, Lita, leaving him for his very real life friend, Edge, to make fodder for one of the hottest, most uncomfortable angles of that era; to this day I still don’t know what of the aftermath outside the ring was real and what wasn’t. And then the Broken gimmick.
The Broken gimmick was and is brilliant, the pro wrestling version of the bonk on the head gag of yesteryear’s cartoons. It nearly revitalized TNA/Impact Wrestling on its own, an archly ironic, multi-year storyline which was delivered with stony-faced seriousness by everyone involved. The combo was intoxicating and relentlessly fun.
That was Matt’s baby, the one which allowed him to eclipse his brother in the esteem of the general wrestling public. He was a troubled genius who had finally fixed things. He was namedropped on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast as a guy who’d figured out how to make a hot angle away from the glare of WWE, a shot of warning as the tandem indie/NJPW snowball began to run away down the hill. There were rumors of bigger things than TNA, even as he and Jeff entered a bitter legal battle with GFW/Impact over who owned the rights to the Broken gimmick.
Best of all, he was finally clean, with a beautiful family front and center in his manic public image. Not for nothing did the Broken vignettes center on the family estate out on his dad’s old tobacco field in Cameron, NC; it was a testament to where he came from and how much he’d gained via the craziness of his and Jeff’s particular brand of pro wrestling.
He and Jeff returned to WWE, of course, to one of the loudest pops any of us have heard in years. The translated Broken gimmick—he’s Woken Matt Hardy now—hasn’t hit the heights it did in TNA, mostly due to commentary treating it as a joke (for a corollary, imagine Michael Cole snickering whenever The Undertaker shows up and see how good a career the icon would have) and his pairing with heat vampire, Bray Wyatt. But he seems, at last, happy and content, doing a final, extended roadshow to wind things down to a life in his mansion with his family.
Jeff will go another few years, though he seems awfully beat up, too. But the curtain is inexorably closing on Matt’s career. It feels as though you can only fully appreciate him in retrospect, by seeing his constantly evolving personas as presaging broader pro wrestling trends—he’s one of the rare wrestlers who knows what we want before we do. Soon, appreciation in retrospect will be all that we have, and he will be terribly missed when he finally returns to Cameron.