Bret Hart recently shocked fans, revealing he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Since that announcement, Bret has undergone successful surgery. With luck, the seven-time world champion is truly out of the woods.
Bret Hart has led a life full of triumph, heartbreak and contradictions. One of the last of the old-school workers and defenders of kayfabe, Bret inadvertently ended up exposing wrestling’s inner workings more than almost anybody. He was the principled voice of reason on TV, but often played the wild child behind the scenes. Ultimately, though, Bret was, above all else, a damn fine pro wrestler.
Bret Hart has led such a full life, I couldn’t possibly do all of it justice in a single article, so this one only covers up until the Montreal incident. Here’s a few facts you might not know about the early life and career of the man who truly was one of the best there ever will be…
Bret Hart grew up surrounded by wrestling bears, giants and fork-wielding maniacs.
Terrible Ted, the excellence of wrestling bear execution.
Bret Sergeant Hart was born July 2, 1957 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Bret was, of course, the son of the legendary grappler Stu Hart, which meant the lil’ Hitman got an even more potent dose of pro wrestling craziness than your average second generation wrestler. Bret was the eighth of 12 kids, and his dad Stu wasn’t just a former wrestler, he was an old-school wrasslin’ promoter whose sprawling territory was big enough to attract all the major stars, but backwoods enough that they still dealt in lot of pretty sketchy carny sh*t.
The Hart Family lived in a sprawling 20+ room mansion overlooking Calgary, and during the summers, the Hart Family home was often home to Terrible Ted, an honest to goodness, real live wrestling bear. All the Hart kids tell fond stories of hanging out on the porch eating Creamsicles and having Ted lick whatever they dripped off their feet. Of course, numerous wrestlers would also mosey through the Hart’s kitchen, including the likes of André the Giant and the cutlery-wielding Abdullah the Butcher (who got his first big break in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling). Oh, and let’s not forget the basement was home to The Dungeon, where Bret’s dad would twist victims into screaming submission on a regular basis. So yeah, if you’ve ever wondered why most of the Hart kids ended up a little strange, well, wonder no longer.
His dream was to be a cartoonist or filmmaker instead of a wrestler.
Young Bret with that telltale “I’d rather be drawing dicks” expression.
Much like his brother Owen, Bret had no designs on being a wrestler when he was young. Watching his dad struggle to keep Stampede Wrestling afloat made it all too clear that wrestling was a hard, thankless business.
Despite his serious on-air persona, Bret Hart’s first love was cartooning. By all accounts, he was pretty good, and became infamous for the unspeakably lewd cartoons he would leave on the backstage white boards. If you can’t imagine tight-ass Bret Hart spending his free time backstage working on X-rated masterpieces starring ’80s and ’90s WWF superstars, well, you’re not alone, but apparently he did just that, and everybody loved them. In a way, Bret’s cartoons became his own special brand of backstage politicking – he’d do elaborate drawings for guys like André and Vince McMahon and they’d love them so much they’d suddenly become Bret’s best pals.
Of course, cartooning is an even less dependable occupation than wrestling, so when Bret graduated high school, he planned to go to film school. Ultimately, as often happens, one thing led to another, and Bret fell into the family business without really meaning to, but he never gave up his cartooning pen, and to this day still describes his matches as “action movies.”
Bret was roommates with a young Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
When Bret first began competing for Stampede Wrestling in the late ’70s, the promotion was home to a revolving door of soon-to-be legends, like Dynamite Kid, the Junkyard Dog, and a lanky porn star-looking, second-generation wrestler named Jake Roberts. Surprisingly, Bret and Jake hit if off immediately and were soon renting a house together. That’s right, straight-laced Bret Hart used to be roomies with one of the most infamous hell-raisers in wrestling history. Of course, Bret wasn’t particularly angelic behind the scenes, but still, this feels like a prime sitcom setup. This week on Jake and the Hitman, Bret gets upset when Jake’s snake eats his Air Jordans. Whoooa-oh! It writes itself.
He was originally going to ride a horse to the ring as “Cowboy” Bret Hart.
Of course, Bret was willing to play a cowboy for that sweet Lonesome Dove money.
By 1984, the WWF was storming and pillaging the wrestling landscape, so Stu Hart, wisely seeing the writing on the wall, agreed to sell Stampede Wrestling to Vince McMahon. Stu’s one major caveat was that Vince had to hire Bret, Jim Neidhart, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith. And so, just like that, the extended Hart Family was primed to conquer the WWF.
Of course, things didn’t go perfectly right off the bat. Originally, the WWF wanted Bret to be a dime store cowboy who rode a different horse to the ring every night. An equine version of Alberto Del Rio and his rented cars. In the end, “Cowboy” Bret Hart never happened as Bret, who grew up around and respected real cowboys, balked at the character. As an alternative, Bret suggested they team him up with brother-in-law Jim Neidhart as the Hart Foundation. Not a bad backup, I’d say.
He lost another brother years before the death of Owen.
Dean Hart was born three years before Bret, the fifth Hart kid out of 12. Dean was a roguish charmer and, by most of his family’s reckoning, actually the most charismatic, best-looking Hart sibling. Like all of the Hart boys, Dean dabbled in wrestling, but he mostly focused on concert promoting and various other schemes.
Unfortunately, Dean’s kidneys were damaged when he was hit by a bus in 1978. Combined with an alcohol problem, Dean eventually developed Bright’s disease, and in 1990, he passed away from kidney failure. It was the the first premature death to fall upon the Hart family, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Konnan taught Bret how to do the Sharpshooter.
Turns out Bret beat a Mega Man robot master to earn the sharpshooter.
Few would laud Mexican wrestling fixture Konnan for his excellent execution, but it was K-Dogg who taught Bret to do his iconic finisher, the Sharpshooter. Prior to Bret’s first serious singles push in the early ’90s, Pat Patterson decided Bret should start using Sting’s Scorpion Deathlock as his finish. Bret was having trouble with the move and was in no position to go to the Stinger for tips, so he tracked down Konnan, who was the only guy in the WWF locker room who knew the move. Of course, it was around this time that the WWF stuck Konnan with the legendary Max Moon character, so yes, technical master Bret Hart learned his submission finisher from an infamously sloppy luchador who was playing a spacefaring cyborg at the time. Wrestling, everybody!
Bret and Jim Neidhart once gave a drunken Vince McMahon the Hart Attack in a bar.
“So, about last night…”
After a series of steroid and drug-related scandals, Vince McMahon introduced mandatory drug testing to the WWF in 1991. The unrestrained, drug-fueled ’80s were at an end, and everybody, including the boss, Vince McMahon, got together for one last blowout to mark the end of a self-destructive era. During the revelry, Vince got completely smashed and Hogan convinced him to take the Legion of Doom’s notoriously dangerous Doomsday Device in the middle of a bar. Vince took the move, but LOD were as gentle as possible, and half the locker room lined up to catch Vince.
Bret, also drunk off his ass, witnessed this nonsense and loudly proclaimed that the Hart Foundation would at least have the balls to give Vince their finisher for real. Before Bret could take it back, Vince was in Bret’s face daring him to do it, so Jim Neidhart hoisted Vince up and Bret hauled off and obliterated the boss with the Hart Attack (a running double-team clothesline), bouncing the chairman’s skull off the floor. A hush fell over the room as everybody half expected Vince to fire Bret on the spot, but instead Vince just popped to his feet and insisted Bret buy him a drink for taking the move. It’s hard to believe the Vince of the early ’90s and the man who recently wanted to fire a guy for touching his arm are the same person. You used to be fun, man.
He also roughed up Shane McMahon for grabbing his wife’s ass.
Now, who would ever want to punch this face?
Vince wasn’t the only McMahon who Bret laid hands on around this time. Shane McMahon had started refereeing and doing various odd jobs for the company, and shortly before WrestleMania VIII, Shane, Bret and Bret’s wife Julie ended up at the same bar together. Bret introduced Julie to Shane, and the little brat went bright red, because, as it turns out, he’d just tried to play grab-ass with Julie not knowing she was Bret’s wife. Guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the McMahon tree.
It didn’t take long for Bret to discover the source of Shane’s sheepishness, and without thinking, he slammed the boss’ son up against the wall and threatened to rip his privileged head off. We don’t know if Shane shuffled around throwing baby jabs at Bret’s head in response, but I’m guessing he didn’t. He is still alive, after all.
Bret thought he was being fired the night he won his first WWF Championship.
Bret Hart won his first WWF World Championship on October 12, 1992, beating Ric Flair with the Sharpshooter on an non-televised show in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Ironically, Saskatoon was where Bret had his very first wrestling match, many years earlier.
The decision to put the belt on Bret was a last-second one. Vince had brought in Flair to carry the company in the absence of Hogan, but had quickly soured on him, and wanted to get the belt on fresh blood as quickly as possible. When Bret was called into Vince’s office before the show, he had no idea what he was in for – he’d been struggling to climb the card for years, and it seemed like he may never have that breakthrough moment. Bret sat down, Vince quizzed him about his WWF career for a bit, then dropped this doozy of a line.
“I’ve done everything I could think of, put the Tag belts on you, and the Intercontinental belt, and I finally reached the point where I don’t know what else to do with you.”
Thankfully, just as Bret must have been planning his full-time cartooning career, Vince continued…
“So that’s why I’ve decided to put the World belt on you tonight!”
Good one, Vince. Is anybody at all surprised Bret ended up having some friction with this joker?
Bret and Shawn Michaels’ in-ring rivalry transformed into a real fight backstage.
Bret’s not mad, he’s just disappointed.
For most of their tenure together in the WWF, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were close friends. They bonded over the fact that neither of them were typical WWF muscleheads, and HBK looked at the older Bret as something of a mentor. Sadly, the friendship wasn’t to last.
Starting around 1996, Bret found himself less and less impressed with his old friend’s attitude, and the new clique of cronies he hung out with. Shawn didn’t seem appreciative when Bret put him over at WrestleMania XII, and outright refused to lose to Bret at WrestleMania 13. Things were rapidly turning sour backstage, and then Shawn went off script during a promo, implying Bret had been fooling around with Sunny. Bret certainly had more than his share of affairs, but apparently Sunny wasn’t on the list. Or maybe he just didn’t like it being confirmed on TV. Either way, things were about to boil over.
Bret confronted Shawn backstage at King of the Ring ’97, and before long, punches were flying. In the end, Bret got the better of it and walked away with a fine trophy – a couple precious handfuls of Shawn’s already-thinning hair. Shawn immediately stormed into Vince McMahon’s office and quit, although Vince obviously took him back. Bret and Shawn’s friendship would not be so easily repaired.
Beginning in the late ’80s, Bret considered jumping to WCW multiple times.
We all know Bret Hart rather dramatically turned his back on the WWF in 1997, but that wasn’t the first time he had a chance to jump to WCW. As it turns out, Bret had numerous opportunities to grab some of Billionaire Ted’s bucks.
Bret’s first offer from WCW came in 1989. Brian Pillman passed Ric Flair’s number along to Bret, and it turned out The Nature Boy was elbow-dropping his coat excited to bring The Hitman in. Ric offered Bret a generous contract, but then the WCW bean counters got involved and the deal fell apart. Later, in 1992, Harley Race also tried to bring Bret into the WCW fold, tipping him off that WCW was going to tap into Ted Turner’s bank account and make a serious run at the WWF. Bret again declined to make the leap. Finally, in 1996, Bret became a free agent after WrestleMania XII, and both the WWF and WCW were jockeying for his services. One night, Eric Bischoff himself staked out Bret’s hotel room, and asked him to name his price. Bret’s response?
“I would want the exact same contract as Hulk Hogan, plus one penny.”
Needless to say, that one didn’t fly. Time and time again, Bret had proven that when the chips were down, he was going to stick by the WWF. Unfortunately, the WWF wasn’t always going to stick by him.
Vince McMahon encouraged Bret to go to WCW.
In late 1996, Bret signed a new, very cushy, contract with the WWF, bringing his free agency to an end. The WWF contract didn’t guarantee Bret as much money per year as WCW was promising, but the contract was for 20 years, and came with a whole host of bonus goodies and clauses. Most notably, if Bret and the WWF were to ever part ways, Bret would have complete creative control for the final 30 days of his tenure.
Vince almost immediately began to regret Bret’s contract. The WWF was still cash-strapped in ’96 and ’97, and Vince claimed he simply couldn’t pay it. Vince assured Bret he’d still get every cent of the contract, but payment would be deferred until the end of the contract. Again, this was a 20-year contract. Vince then began openly encouraging Bret to get back in contact with WCW to see if their offer still stood. Bret had been a steadfast employee for more than a dozen years, but apparently Vince had no more use for his loyalty.
The table was set for the most dramatic public falling out in wrestling history. But that’s a tale for another time.
There you are, a few facts from an excellent career. Know any interesting tidbits I missed? Just want to share some favorite Hart memories? Let’s make this comment section a celebration of the life of The Hitman.