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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, November 3, 2000

May Bret's retirement bring him peace

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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Since about some point in 1998, I've been a critic of Bret Hart's. Hart, up until his departure from the World Wrestling Federation in November of 1997, had just about always been a favourite of mine. The Hart Foundation was both my favourite stable and my favourite tag team, and Hart himself my favourite champion. His words and actions since 1997 have been less than stellar, to me, but at the same time, he's been through more during that time than most of us ever will. Now that he's retired, I have an opportunity to take a look back at his storied career and decide, once in for all, where I stand.

I don't mean to suggest that my opinion in any way reflects Bret Hart's success. He's one of the all-time greatest wrestlers, whether I say so or not. That much is clear. It's not as some sort of 'expert' (something I've never claimed to be) that I examine his career, either, but as a great fan of his.

Since I'm a young man even now, I've had a chance to see Hart's career through many different eyes. First, the eyes of a casual wrestling fan during the mid-eighties, and I really mean casual. I didn't even know most of their names beyond Hulk and Macho Man, and I probably couldn't even spell 'intercontinental' at the time. I was only about six. At that point, Hart was just a boring wrestler who wore a funny outfit (pink, haha!) and didn't have too many fans, or at least not the loudest ones. Same could be said for Jim Neidhart, for that matter.

Time passed and I started to pay more attention to wrestling, and by the time I was ten, Bret Hart was getting close to headlining shows, especially in Canadian venues. At the old Montreal Forum, there are three wrestlers I can definitely remember bringing down the house with their followings and their seemingly-awesome matches: Undertaker, Razor Ramon (always a big fan favourite in Montreal), and Bret.

At the time, Bret Hart represented to me everything that Hulk Hogan did not. I mean, they did a lot of the same things. They high-fived fans on the way to the ring, made time for the kids on their way out after the match, wrestled as huge fan favourites in Montreal, and had basically formulaic endings to their matches. Whether it was the Hulk-up and big leg drop or the half dozen moves Bret used in his sequence leading up to the Sharpshooter, you could tell when either man was headed for the victory. But Bret was different. He seemed somehow sincere, as if he really meant it. At the time, I didn't know what the Hart family name meant, or that he really probably did mean it. I didn't know that Hogan was an entertainer first and wrestler second, or that Hart was the opposite. Bret just seemed like a genuinely nice guy.

Time passed and my interest in wrestling waned, along with the interest of thousands of casual fans during the early nineties. There wasn't really much to say about that era, except that I'd turn on my television every few weekends to watch the boring squash matches, and I didn't see much of Bret. Mostly that big truck-driver guy.

It wouldn't be until early 1996 that my interest in the sport was renewed, and my thanks for that has to be squarely divided into two places. For one, I genuinely thought some kind of WWF-WCW invasion was taking place when, not even knowing what the heck WCW was, I turned on a local station to find Nitro on in syndication, with Razor and Diesel beating up some guys I vaguely remembered from the old NWA. I thought it was cool, at least cool enough to catch a few episodes. Eventually, I figured out that it had nothing to do with the WWF, but they'd fooled me. I found this show called Monday Night Raw, and I gave that a try. I thought it was pretty lame at first, and didn't much care for it, but it quickly got better. To my surprise, Bret Hart his former partner Jim Neidhart, his brother Owen, The British Bulldog (I wasn't aware of the relation), and this guy I remember as Flyin' Brian from WCW's Four Horsemen (he kept arguing with Chris Benoit). They called themselves the Hart Foundation and they won pretty much all the titles. It was very cool. The Canadian shtick, the gang mentality, and seeing all my favourite wrestlers from years back, together for the first time, was just awesome.

PAINFUL DAY ... The strain of Owen's death shows on the face of Bret Hart as he talks after Owen's funeral at his parents' southwest Calgary home. -- DAVE CHIDLEY, Calgary Sun
It wasn't until after Bret left the WWF, in 1997, that I got interested enough in the 'sport' to turn to the 'Net. It was the night Bret Hart lost a really strange match to Shawn Michaels for the WWF heavyweight title, at Survivor Series at the Molson Centre, that I was interested enough to go look something up. I wanted to know what the heck had happened, and I eventually found out. I didn't know Bret was leaving until I saw him show up on Nitro that first time, and even then it didn't feel right. Maybe there was something to my gut instinct after all, because I don't think Bret ever fit well in WCW.

That's really strange, if you think about it. Eric Bischoff, responsible for the stunting of many a career during his tenure in WCW, seemed to just love former WWF stars, but for some reason Bret Hart wasn't really a beneficiary of that particular bias. I'm still not sure why. Bret had some good matches with Curt Hennig and Ric Flair, and since then he's had his moments. My personal favourite has to be his thwarting of Goldberg's spear at the Air Canada Center in Toronto (he used a metal breastplate to block it), but of course there's also his first WCW heavyweight title victory over Chris Benoit at Mayhem last year.

To that extent, you've got to admit that Vince Russo did at least one thing right. He pushed Hart, among others. Bret had some good matches under the Russo era in WCW, but unfortunately, Goldberg knocked him in the head pretty good with what's been called an "over-enthusiastic kick", and that was pretty much the end of Hart's WCW career. Bret sat on the sidelines for the better part of 2000, coming out of his shell only every so often, for example to congratulate Lance Storm at New Blood Rising about his victory over Mike Awesome. That was a touching moment, as I added Bret's last pay-per-view appearance in WCW to his last pay-per-view appearance in the WWF, the only two I'd ever witnessed.

It may seem like some sort of storybook legend, but if that were it, then this would be a simple matter indeed. Unfortunately, somewhere after Vince McMahon "screwed" Bret out of the title at Survivor Series and the day Bret announced his retirement, there was a whole lot else going on.

Bret's continued bitterness toward Vince McMahon is a legend in and of itself, and people are still talking about it today. Bret pens a column for the Calgary Sun which is of course available right here for your reading pleasure, and in it, he's criticized Vince McMahon more than I've criticized pretty much everyone combined. He's even made some less-than-pleasant remarks about members of his own family, a family steeped in controversy and tragedy for two years now.

It's common knowledge that at in May 1998 at Over the Edge, Owen Hart sadly died as the result of a stunt gone horribly wrong. I won't rehash the details here, but it's affected the whole Hart family and pretty much everyone connected to wrestling ever since. Some feel that Bret used this tragedy to repeatedly lash out at Vince McMahon, perhaps partly over issues unrelated to Owen's death, but none of that was ever substantiated and though I've been guilty of it on several occasions, it's hard to criticize someone in Bret's position. I had just come back from vacation when my father -- also a fan of Owen's -- delivered the news to me about his unfortunate passing, and it made me sick to my stomach. It still does today.

As if that weren't enough, Bret has had to go through a divorce, repeated injuries, all the chaos surrounding WCW, and worse. It was almost as if the fates had something against wrestling, and turned their anger against the most storied of wrestling dynasties -- first the Von Erichs, and now the Harts.

What upset me the most, as a continued wrestling fan, was Bret's lashing. He used his weekly column to attack wrestling on several occasions, berating the sport that made him famous and that even today, pays his bills.

Ultimately, I'm not sure just how much the fact that Bret retired not due to disgust with the injury, not even because he was injured, but only after that he was released by WCW, will reflect on his career and his character. Some might argue that if he truly despised the sport, he would have retired then and there, instead of continuing to collect paycheques that amounted, for Bret, to blood money.

It's a lot to digest. Bret gave his all to wrestling for more time than I've been alive, and has contributed to the entertainment of millions upon millions of fans. I regret that things didn't turn out better for the Hit Man, but that doesn't make me feel any better about the things he's had to say over the past year. A great deal of tragedy has befallen a great deal of great men over the years, and I have to imagine that some have handled it with more poise than Bret. Not that I would necessarily be as good or any better a man were the situation mine, but this analysis is regarding Bret Hart -- Hero to Many, not Bret Hart -- Ordinary Man. Somehow, the standards seem different. Maybe they shouldn't be, but somehow they are.

I haven't looked up to many in my life. It just feels too clichéd to me, most of the time. Sure, there are people close to me whom I admire, but this is different. This is a media hero. Maybe if I didn't put so much stock in Bret, if I didn't look up to him the way I did, I'd more easily be able to accept his actions. But I've never seen Bret Hart as a man. He's always been a hero to me.

I sincerely hope that Bret stays retired, if for no other reason than to avoid the wrestling stereotype of false retirement. Bret accumulated a great deal of respect and honour during his long career, but he's also shed a fair bit of it since leaving the WWF. New fans have only met this bitter, angry Bret, while even the staunchest of older Bret Hart fans have to admit he sometimes doesn't seem like the same man.

I'm in no position to judge anyone, let alone Bret. He's gone through so much, accomplished so much, and in general just led an extraordinary life in and out of the squared circle. I just hope he lives his post-wrestling days in peace. If nothing else, he deserves that.

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