Heart to Hart: 90 minutes on the phone with Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart
“In the end, it’s just wrestling, you know what I mean?” This is what Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart tells me. And he adds a chuckle as he says it. But this occurs at least 30 minutes in to a conversation that will see him offering his position on the current game, looking back on some of his achievements, discussing his family and focusing on his autobiography, Hitman, which of course looks in near-microscopic detail at Hart’s career, family and a life given up to (and for) pro-wrestling.
Bret Hart was one of 12; his father Stu Hart was legendary for stretching out wannabe wrestlers and green teens in the infamous Dungeon. Stu was Canada’s greatest wrestling promoter. Bret’s mother, Helen, hated wrestling. Stu promised her he would be done with it soon after marriage. Helen’s eight sons would all end up either wrestling or working backstage. Their four sisters would all marry pro-wrestlers.
So you can see how someone could write an interesting book just based on that background. But Bret would go on to become the best-known of the Hart clan; he was one of the most-loved stars of the 1980s and 1990s – a World Champion and one of the top draws in Vince McMahon’s WWF (now WWE).
My first memory of Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart was seeing him double-crossed by that no-good rat, Bad News Brown. They had teamed up to win a 20-man Battle Royal at WrestleMania IV, Brown had to be the victor and slammed Bret in the back of the head with his devastating kick, “The Ghetto Blaster”. It was 1988. I will go on to share this memory with Hart and he will laugh and point out that stories from fans keep him going; he will tell me that he is “truly amazed” that his matches are known to people who were born in the last decade (“little kids will tell me about matches of mine and I will be thinking how do you know that?”).
I have also read Hart’s book – and I have watched (more than once) the riveting documentary, Wrestling With Shadows. So whilst I am talking to a stranger, I feel like I am talking to someone I know; someone who has already given a lot of himself.
So we don’t start with him saying “in the end it is just wrestling”; we start with him saying a simple “hello” and taking his time to feel his way in to the interview; measuring his responses, thoughtfully assessing the worth of the questions. I’m feeling him out, working out what to ask and what not to repeat – aware that Hart has been interviewed for NZPWI twice; also aware that Hart is happily very vocal in putting his views across.
After the hello phase we concentrate on Hitman, his 600-page tome of an autobiography – a book that was the culmination of, as Hart explains, “seven years where I wrote almost every day; writing through my stroke, using the book as a motivation and a distraction from the pain and limitations of the stroke, using it as an excuse to move on with my life.”
And that is exactly what Hart has done – he has moved on by looking back.
“It was very difficult to please everyone, but in the end I am pleased with it; thanks have to go to Anne Collins, my editor at Random House Canada. It’s a big book and it’s a difficult book but I am immensely proud of it.”
I am curious to know about feedback; the book has been out for a couple of years, or close to it. What did people in the industry have to say about this mirror being held up?
“Surprisingly I haven’t heard a great deal back. And I’ve come to the conclusion…” he pauses, setting it up, “that maybe a lot of wrestlers cannot read a book this big.” He laughs but then clarifies that beyond the gentle ribbing he is sure that maybe the book is actually too big for those with a busy travel schedule. “I made sure that books made it to The Undertaker and to Stone Cold Steve Austin and I am disappointed that I haven’t heard anything back from them. I thought I might. But nothing. They’re busy I guess, maybe one day I’ll hear something but I’m not holding my breath.”
What about from the family?
“Well, my niece Nattie [Natalie Neidhart, daughter of Bret’s old tag-team Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart] or Natalya as she’s known now in the ring, she loved it. And has been, I guess you could say, a staunch defender of it. I hope that she found it inspiring in some ways, being that she’s wrestling herself now, but she was very kind. She and I talk a lot, we’re very close.”
Her father was less happy.
“Jim didn’t like it. I think he was hurt by the portrayal of him. So was my brother Bruce. But I made a rule that I would be honest. Sometimes I do think I was a little too honest, maybe that’s a fault – but I always thought I was fair.”
Hart gives the example of his treatment of Vince McMahon in the book. “I describe the ups and downs of my relationship with Vince but I always give credit where it’s due and in a lot of ways I forgave Vince for everything when he met with me on a park bench and chatted to me; he apologised and we were like old friends. And I detail that in the book too, so I definitely think I was fair.”
There must have been particularly hard passages to write. Did he find himself stopping, unable to carry on?
“Well, yeah, I mostly ploughed on through it but there were some hard parts to write, parts that were harder. It was – in some ways – all hard to write. But it was a joy too; very surreal at times, reading back old journals, listening back to tapes of myself across 30 years…”
Did he hear anything from Julie? [His first ex-wife]
“I know that Julie was concerned as I wrote the book that I wasn’t going to be kind to her, but I know she was relieved that I didn’t pin it all on her; I think I shouldered the blame. I mean that’s the other thing, I dish a lot on people in the book but I think I’m pretty hard on myself too. I established that early; if I was going to throw stones I needed to throw a lot at myself. And I think I did that.”
“I’m working very hard to promote the book; I still do as much as I can. It did well in England, I toured there to massive turnouts. It was a very positive tour and in Germany they are looking to have it put out as an audio book. So that’ll be interesting.”
An audio-book? Would he voice it himself?
“Yeah, definitely. It makes sense, when it’s possible, to have the book read by the author and this book is very much in my voice so it’s something I am interested in doing.”
Maybe some more wrestlers will check out the story if it’s an audio-book? Great for those long drives, huh?
“Yes, that’s another reason to look at it – I just want as many people as possible to read the book, to check out the story. It’s my life and it’s all there and I gave a lot to wrestling; sometimes I think I gave too much. But it’s all there in the pages, stories of my family, a lot of heartbreak and a lot of happy moments.”
Bret is quick to point out that “people focus on the tragedy in my life. And I think people think that I focus on the tragedy, there has been a lot, sure. And it happened all in one period of a few years. My brother Owen died. Then there’s the Montreal Survivor Series – which is all in the film that Paul Jay made [Wrestling With Shadows] – and then of course my stroke, my retirement from the ring. But those three things may weigh heavy for some but for me they are parts of the story and there’s a lot to celebrate as well. Most of my life has been amazing and I think I put that across in the book also.”
Bret goes on to describe crying when losing the world championship. “Of course you know it is going to happen. You are made aware of it before hand, sure, we know about winning and losing matches. But I still cried for real – because it hurts. It means something to you. And to go out there and put that energy in to it, to put yourself in to it, it has to hurt. It has to mean something.”
But there was one time when Bret didn’t know.
And so we touch on the most infamous match in modern pro-wrestling history. The match Bret Hart has thought about and talked about more than any other. That match that any wrestling fan knows by the name Montreal Screwjob. It is covered in Paul Jay’s award-winning documentary film, almost by fluke, and it is the night when for many aware that wrestling was for all intents and purposes fake, it suddenly became a little bit too real.
Hart refused to drop the belt in his hometown – Shawn Michaels ended up winning in a match cut short, Vince McMahon disappeared, he, Michaels and Triple H were all in on the plan, Michaels and Triple H swore themselves innocent.
Looking back, 12 years on, Hart says, “it always hurt me that I was accused of never getting over what happened in Montreal. Of course it was a big deal, of course it felt good when I cold-cocked Vince…” and there’s a pause here for an almost-sinister chuckle, “and of course it took a long time to get over the betrayal. But I can honestly say, now, I have forgiven Vince. He made his decision and I don’t regret my actions; I feel I carried myself with an integrity that is consistent across my career, the film, my book – you get the same character with me – but I honestly don’t know that I could ever forgive Hunter [HHH] or Shawn.”
I’m amazed to hear Bret say that he has never, to this day, seen either of them since.
“If there was a knock at the door now and it was Shawn, I honestly wouldn’t know what to do. He was at the Hall of Fame ceremony when I was inducted, but he got up and left when I came to the podium; they had a word with him beforehand and so at least he was respectful of that. I made it clear that if he got within a few hundred metres of me I’d be back on the plane so fast”.
Hart goes on to say that he has read portions of Michaels’ ghost-written autobiography and says, “I heard that he tried to say that parts of that book were just written to sell copies, and that he didn’t mean for some of it to get out that way, but I don’t buy that. He’s a big enough name that he would have final say on the book – he could ask them to take certain things out.”
Hart praises Shawn’s work in the ring, “I have never run him down as a performer – and I never will. We had amazing matches together and he has gone on to have amazing matches.” Hart tells me that he was blown away by Shawn Michaels’ match with The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXV.
But he is not impressed with the antics of Shawn and Hunter endlessly re-running the DX gimmick. “When I see them I just want to put my finger down my throat; it makes me want to be sick”.
So how would it work if Hart, as rumoured, was to return to the WWE Raw show as a guest host?
“Well, there are rumours, there are always rumours and I am open for offers. But…” and here he drinks in a large pause, “that [seeing Shawn and Hunter] would have to be something that was discussed before hand; we cross that bridge I guess if we come to it.”
Bret still devotes a lot of time to wrestling – he watches the WWE product, keeping up with his relatives, The Hart Dynasty. “I’m as proud as can be of them, I think they’re all great and they deserve every success and I think they’re doing great; they have what it takes to be big stars. I think I’ve seen just about every match they’ve had. I catch up on YouTube and my girlfriend has been great at keeping me up to date with their matches if I miss them.”
Hart also favours Randy Orton. “I’m a big fan but I’m a little upset with how he is being used; they’re doing the same thing with him over and over and I think they need to change it up, try something new with him.” He was sad to see Jeff Hardy bow out recently “because he’s just great; but he had an excellent run and he’s always exciting.” He’s also a huge fan of Rey Mysterio.
There’s the TNA promotion too which he says “is good for the wrestling, but I’m not so sure about the ridiculous storylines. I don’t get it. But they have some great people, I think pound-for-pound AJ Styles might be the best wrestler in the world today; he’s one of them anyway. That’s for sure.”
And recently Hart signed autographs and made a special appearance in a commissioner-type role with Ring of Honor. “That was great, I really like what they are doing and I may go back to do more work with them.”
“I’m definitely at peace – and I guess the book is a big factor, sure. But the thing that got it started for me was when Vince agreed to release the DVD of my matches. I remember worrying that I might get stitched up, they might make some jokes, but I was so thrilled with it. For me it was about letting the matches speak for themselves and for a while I was worried they would be locked up. I’m just thrilled that people can see them again, or see them for the first time. The Hitman was an important character. And the DVD, my book and my appearances to sign autographs, to speak at book launches, I guess it’s all part of reclaiming my legacy.”
Bret says the other gift the book has given him, beyond buying back some freedom, unpacking the baggage of his past, is the process of writing. “I wrote columns before, but I found, through working on the book that I just love writing. And I think I am okay at it. So there’ll definitely be more writing.”
He would like to try his hand at fiction – “I want to have a go at telling a story that has nothing to do with me, nothing to do with wrestling” – but he will also return to the memoir-form.
“It’s a 600-page book but it could have been a 1200 page book and I really believe that some of the stuff that was cut out was good, things that fans would want to read. So I might work to put together a volume of stories; I am also interested in writing about wrestling from my point of view now, as someone who spent 30 years in the ring but now watches from the sidelines.”
Recovery from the stroke has been “close to 100 per cent; about as close as it will ever get, some days I feel a bit of pain in one side, but I’m basically very good now.” But it is unlikely that Bret will ever make it back in to a ring.
“I like to say never-say-never because it is the wrestling industry, but it is very unlikely. I’d still like to wrestle Kurt Angle if I had one more match. I think that’d be something to see. And Rey Mysterio or AJ Styles too.”
And though there’ll never be complete peace within the extended Hart clan, “things are about as good as they’ll be.” Bret laughs a knowing chuckle as he says this. “I wish no one any harm, we get on as well as we can and, well, time is a great healer.”
With that it is time to say goodbye. Bret thanks me before I get a chance to thank him. Ninety minutes has passed from when we first, tentatively, said hello. And I have been chatting with a character every bit as consistent and measured as the man you saw in the ring, in the film Wrestling With Shadows and who poured his heart and soul in to one of the best books I have ever read.
It was a pleasure Bret Hart. Thank you.