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Hart ache
There was nothing staged about the McMahon-Hitman feud

By PERRY LEFKO -- Toronto Sun
"I thought it would be great for WWF fans, especially Canadians, to see Bret back in some capacity." -- Vince McMahon on split with Bret Hart

In the world of professional wrestling, some people have a hard time separating fiction and fantasy, but there is nothing fake about the feud between Vince McMahon and Bret Hart.

 To use a wrestling term, there's a lot of "real heat" between the two. It is so strong that The Fan 590 wrestling authority Joltin' Joe said fans would line up to see the two go at it.

 If McMahon had his way, Hart would be part of tomorrow's WrestleMania card at the SkyDome, 12 years after he performed in the same event and at the same venue on his way to becoming one of the biggest superstars in the history of the squared circle.

 McMahon made an offer to the Canadian legend from Calgary to be part of the show, even though Hart has been retired for two years because of a career-ending head injury.

 But it was an offer he could refuse, even if it just meant acting as a guest referee, proving that McMahon's influence can't penetrate Hart's stubborn will.

 "One of the public things that my character (Mr. McMahon) says is that I always do everything I do for WWF fans," McMahon said in a wide-ranging interview with The Toronto Sun earlier this week. "The reality of it is, that is the case. Despite the way I would feel personally about someone, if it's the right business thing to do, I'll do it for our audience. So, I went through the right diplomatic channels to invite Bret and, quite frankly, I thought it was on a confidential basis and agreed that it would be. Unfortunately, I, like a few other people, read his diatribe in The Calgary Sun."

 Hart, who writes a weekly column for The Calgary Sun, revealed what happened and how he rejected the invitation because McMahon wouldn't give him the archival film footage and photographs of his time in the WWF.

 "I thought it would be great for WWF fans, especially Canadians, to see Bret back in some capacity," McMahon added. "It's Bret choice not to want that. I'm alright with it. It's unfortunate for Bret. I think it's unfortunate for WWF fans."

 Character likeness

 Hart has been seeking the likeness of his character, The Hitman, for use in personal projects, but McMahon doesn't feel he is obliged to provide that to his former employee. McMahon bristled for one of the few times in his lengthy interview with The Sun when asked if an offer was made to give Hart the film and photographic catalogue of himself.

 "I don't know how inside you want to get on this stuff. It sounds like you do," McMahon said sternly. "It sounds like you want to dwell on this stuff and it's like, please, don't make me have to get into this thing with Bret in terms of being a crybaby -- in terms of maybe someone, I believe, who needs psychological help and everything else.

 "I'm trying to do the right thing business-wise and for our fans and then I read about some sort of (library) crap. I don't know of any performer that's worked for MGM or any other major studios who thinks he has, in some way, some right to ownership of films he's done. So, I don't know why Bret would think that he should have some right to ownership or right to usage of videotape, which is no different than any actor who performs in any sitcom or television show. Unless it's written in the contract, there is no ownership.

 "They're adequately paid and compensated, as Bret was when he was here. His talents are enormous -- (or) were -- and we will always appreciate his contributions here. Beyond that, he has own agenda that I guess maybe you and a few other people still care about. If you do, I would suggest I can count those people on one hand -- and that would include all of your readers."

 McMahon and Hart once had a close personal relationship. In fact, Hart has been quoted as saying McMahon was like a second father to him at one point.

 Hart joined the federation in 1984 when his father, Stu, sold his franchise in western Canada to McMahon. Hart struggled in the beginning and came close to quitting, feeling his career had basically spun in a whirlpool of anonymity. He started to rise in popularity in the early '90s as part of a tag-team duo with his brother-in-law Jim (The Anvil) Niedhart, a onetime professional football player with a square head, goatee and fiery temper. They became known as The Hart Foundation and starred in flashy pink and black singlets.

 Hart's career took off when he became a single performer, ascending to the top as the heavyweight champion and aided by McMahon's decision to transform The Hitman character from a bad guy into a good guy. In 1993 and '94, Bret Hart was the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the world.

 He started pursuing a TV career, which began with a recurring part in the Canadian series Lonesome Dove. In 1996, Hart participated in WrestleMania and engaged in a thrilling 60-minute Ironman match with his ring rival Shawn Michaels. Hart lost the belt (as part of the arrangement beforehand) but he and Michaels gave the worldwide audience a match to remember.

 Hart's character then moved in a different direction as McMahon positioned the Hitman as a heel. With his younger brother Owen, brothers-in-law Niedhart and Davey Boy Smith and close friend Brian Pillman, Bret became the leader of the New Hart Foundation. They participated in a story line that badmouthed the American way of life and extolled the virtues of Canadiana. Even though it was an act -- although Hart is proud of his Canadian heritage and Canada's anti-gun laws -- he played the role to perfection.

 Hard financial times for the WWF, coupled with an outrageous three-year offer from the rival World Championship Wrestling, forced Hart to move in '97. He had been involved in the WWF for 14 years -- most of them glorious and guided by the creative hand of McMahon -- and really didn't want to leave.

 Hart, who had become the champion again, wanted to exit on his own terms -- and had creative control in his contract to demand that -- and discussed with McMahon various ways to "drop" the belt. They talked about handing it over the day after the Survivor Series pay-per-view event in November '97. Hart maintains to this day McMahon reneged on an agreement they had discussed in a closed-door agreement about how the Survivor match against Michaels would finish. Unbeknownst to McMahon, Hart had been equipped with a hidden mike as part of the production of a documentary, Wrestling with Shadows, that was being filmed about his life and famous ring family.

 During the match, Michaels applied Hart's signature move, The Sharpshooter, on him and referee Earl Hebner ended the match. Hart had lost his belt and, in his opinion, his dignity. He believed McMahon, who had been positioned near ringside, had screwed him.

 Hart demonstrated his disgust by spitting on McMahon and later punched him in a dressing-room confrontation, temporarily knocking out his boss and leaving him with a black eye.

 Neither the spit nor the hit were phony.

 Hart's personal and professional life hit significant lows thereafter. Mismanagement in the WCW never allowed his character to develop and he was forced to retire some three years later because of the effects of a kick to the head in a match against Bill Goldberg.

 The previous year in May, Owen Hart died following a stunt that went tragically wrong at a show in Kansas.

 McMahon went to the funeral in Calgary and privately met with Bret. Hart claimed McMahon offered to give him the library material of himself, but McMahon denied the claim.

 Waiting for library

 And, that's the way it was left until recently, when McMahon reached out to Hart, through Carl DeMarco, the president of WWF Canada and Hart's onetime business manager. But, Hart won't do anything for McMahon, it would appear, until he receives the library material of himself.

 Coincidentally, the night after tomorrow's WrestleMania, the WWF will be in Montreal for RAW, it's popular Monday night TV show seen around the world. This will be the first live show at Montreal since the controversial Survivor Series -- the WWF did a taped show in Montreal last October -- and while the focus will be the followup to WrestleMania, there might be some people who will associate Montreal with the Survivor controversy.

 "Only a few inside people remember the Bret-McMahon incident," McMahon said. "You'd probably have to ask the Montreal fans. Probably the only way to determine that is if you come Monday to Montreal and do a survey of some kind. I would suggest they are there to be entertained just as they were entertained that night as well (in 1997).

 "I don't think it's a real big deal."

More on: WrestleMania 18

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