Thursday, November 26, 1998
SLAM! Wrestling Guest Column
Cheering bad guys isn't new
I remember the very first time I heard Bret Hart criticize the fans for cheering for "scum" like Shawn Michaels and Stone Cold Steve Austin. I was listening and agreeing with what the Hitman said. But then I started to think about what he was saying. Bret was acting as though cheering for the anti-heroes was something new.
Let me tell you something, Hitman: It's not!
Every since I was a young nine-year-old watching the dawning of Hulkamania, wrestlers who were the "bad guys" have been cheered by some capacity or another. The greatest example of this is the legendary Ric Flair. Here is a man who has garnered the respect of millions throughout his many years of dedication to the sport so many of us love. This is the same Nature Boy who has returned to the ring and has caused us to despise Eric Bischoff for preventing the Four Horsemen from riding over the NWO and restoring respect to the WCW. How many of us remember Flair as the Dirtiest Player in the Game? I'm sure most of us do. This is "The Man" who would use any and all dirty tactics to win matches and humiliate opponents. I don't recall too many times in the old NWA days where the rest of the Horsemen (no matter who made up the group) were not involved in the outcome. Or, what about in his WWF days, when Ric decided to tarnish Miss Elizabeth's name by stating that they were having an affair in order to try to cause Randy Savage to (unsuccessfully) lose focus on their upcoming match at Wrestlemania VIII?
Despite all of his history, Ric Flair has been cheered both in the past and in the present. Why, I can look back at the time he won the WWF title at the Royal Rumble in 1992. I watched it at a sports bar and at least two thirds of those watching with me were cheering for the Nature Boy. You must remember that another participant in that event was THE HERO, one golden-haired, Venice Beach wonder boy with the 24-inch biceps named Hulk Hogan.
Flair isn't the only one who gained his popularity as a rule-breaker (which back then was enough to place a wrestler in the heel category. You see, Hulk Hogan fought fair and didn't have to break the rules to win (Some things have changed since then, eh?). How many people can remember when seeing a man heading towards the ring with bag-pipe music blaring, wearing a kilt and holding a microphone didn't make you groan and hit the Mute button? This man was/is one Rowdy Roddy Piper. If Hulk Hogan was the hero of Rock-N'-Wrestling, then Piper was its anti-Christ. The Piper's Pit segments featured a vindictive evil SOB who took pleasure in verbally abusing some with his tongue and the rest with his fists, most times with men like Cowboy Bob Orton and Paul Orndorff assisting him. My older brother woke me up once just to see Piper beating Mr.T with his belt on a Saturday Night Live Main Event. You see, Roddy was one of my favorite wrestlers. I even dressed up like him for one Halloween.
I always respected men like Hogan, Ricky Steamboat, Andre the Giant, and Hillbilly Jim but it was the men like Flair, Piper, Jake Roberts and Arn Anderson who I cheered for. I loved Piper hammering Jimmy Snuka with that coconut on one of his Piper's Pit segments. Jake would drop men with his vicious knee-drops and DDTs and then dropped his snake Damien over top. The Horsemen who double and triple-team opponents like there was no tomorrow. But I haven't even mentioned who my favorite wrestler is.
I was and have remained a fan of one member of the tag team that wrote the book on rule breaking. This tag-team would sucker punch opponents every time the referee's back was turned and use their manager's megaphone to render the opposition unconscious. They even went so low as to aid their stable-mate, the Honky Tonk Man, in an attack on Randy Savage and laughed with delight when HTM pushed Miss Elizabeth to the ground. This team persuaded a referee to help them cheat out the tag-team champions of their belts; a team I learned later was made up of two long-time friends of my hero, one who was even had married his sister.
In case you do not remember this person or the piece of history I described, the man is none other than the great Bret "Hitman" Hart. The Excellence of Execution. The Best there was, the Best there is, and the Best there ever will be.
The Bret Hart I first watched was no role model in the ring and, as far as I knew, outside of it as well. Remember that this was the time before everyone was surfing the Internet allowing him/her an opportunity to find out the smallest details of every wrestler in the world. What I knew of Bret Hart was the image created by Vince McMahon and the rest of the WWF. And yet I cheered him anyway. Why? Because he was exciting and interesting.
As I grew, so too did the Hitman; as Bret became a singles wrestler and won both the Intercontinental and, finally, the Heavyweight titles. And, as he matured, the fans took a liking to Hart and he became the new hero in town, replacing Hulk Hogan. He was cool. He was funny. He was everything people looked for in a hero. However, his style never changed. While a great technical wrestler, the Hitman never shied away from breaking the rules in order to emerge victorious. Why should he? Everyone else was doing it, and to him, so the new rule became: Do unto others before they do unto you. And still I cheered him. He was someone we could relate to; one of us not a Superman-like character that Hulk Hogan seemed to be.
But all along the way, I kept hoping to see the Bret of old. While a great role model, the Hitman kept on getting the short end of the stick. Men like Yokozuna, Bob Backlund, Jerry Lawler, and even his little brother Owen would break every rule in the book to beat him. And while he fought back, Bret only went so far. He was, after all, a role model to children everywhere so he had a reputation to protect. And, like him or hate him, Bret is a great role model for children. If my kids grow up to be like him, I'll be damn proud of them.
But then, he got mean. With the fans climbing off the Hitman bandwagon to support the anti-hero-scum like Austin and Michaels, and the WWF doing nothing to stop the constant interference by others in his matches (which cost him titles he held or ones he was fighting for), Bret did what he had to and fought back. He gathered together the only men he could trust and assembled the Hart Foundation. His brother Owen; his brother-in-law British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith; his former tag-team partner and brother-in-law Jim Neidhart; and trusted family friend, the late Brian Pillman, joined Bret in his crusade against the American anti-heroes. Canada loved him. But in doing so, Bret was cheered for performing acts and reciting phrases as low and "scumy" as Austin and HBK. Coincidence? I think not! Canada loved her wrestling son more as the heel than as the hero. There was nothing good about the Hart Foundation. They were a gang of bullies who attacked out-numbered opponents in order to gain an advantage. Still, in my opinion, it was the most enjoyable time I'll remember of Bret's career. I'm sure many of his fans would agree.
The so-called bad guys are far more interesting then the good guys. With the heels, you never know what will happen next. Wrestling isn't different than real life. Howard Stern is the most popular radio personality in North America. Jerry Springer's ratings are comparable to Oprah's. And Al Bundy became a household name because everybody was watching Married … With Children. Of course, don't forget that the American public is still supporting President Clinton despite the fact that he lied to them during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
Steve Austin expresses himself like millions of people wish they could and he's a real man. He fights his battles alone and is the blue-collared wrestler the average person can relate to. We laugh out loud at the antics of DX and so many people consider the NWO to be "Too Sweet"! We respect men like Bret Hart and need them as heroes but it is the villains that make us want to watch. As much as I dislike Shawn Michaels (any person who picks their nose with our flag will never have my respect), his feud with Bret is the one I will remember the most about the Hitman. It probably made me support Bret even more.
Bret seems to be quite disturbed by the fans' betrayal of his hero status. He is constantly criticizing them for believing in men like DDP and Kevin Nash. The Hitman should look no further than his NWO crony Hollywood Hogan as how to handle the fans as a former hero. Hogan has not only turned his back on the fans but has embraced their dislike in order to develop his own character. Hogan feeds on their boos and has created the arrogant and cocky SOB we listen to every week. He mocks the fans, tells them that they are his legion of Hollywood worshippers, and has basically become an eviler version of the Thunderlips character he made famous in Rocky III.
What Bret Hart needs to do is to assume the role the fans have designated him to be. Be the rule-breaker and adapt to the wrestling and life of the late-1990s. Heck, he's the HITMAN! Hitmen aren't supposed to be the good guys anyway. They're men for hire to put the hurt on others. The NWO can hire him out to fight the Wolf-Pack. The Horsemen could hire him to destroy Hogan's group.
The fans will start to cheer for Bret as his heel role develops (of course, with WCW, Bret's role will likely change in a few weeks). They did before. He won't get anywhere by fighting with the audience. He needs to ignore them like Austin did or to mock them like Hogan has. The cheers will come but not because he's "saying his prayers, eating his vitamins, and doing the training", but because he's a bad guy. We, the wrestling fans, like the so-called bad guys.
Years pass by but something's never change.
Brian Hayes is from Burlington, Ontario. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org