NZPWI had the opportunity to speak to Bruce Hart late last month.
Bruce, son of the legendary Stu Hart and brother of WWE Hall of Famer Bret “Hit Man” Hart, was the first of the second-generation Harts to step in the ring, and served as the booker of Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling for many years.
Bruce was the man behind Stampede when New Zealand’s Crazy Nick and Sweet William – better known as The Bushwhackers – were competing in Canada, and wrestled the duo on several occasions.
He also visited New Zealand himself, travelling to the country with brother Keith on the same tour that saw Harley Race and Ric Flair battle over the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
NZPWI Editor David Dunn spoke to Bruce Hart about his time in New Zealand, his memories of New Zealanders in Calgary, growing up as wrestling royalty, his thoughts on WWE, the Hart Brothers University training school and more in this exclusive interview.
David Dunn: Tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up as part of the Hart family, coming from that huge family with the legendary dungeon right there in the basement of your house.
Bruce Hart: It was kind of fascinating to grow up just in the wrestling business, within that whole spectrum; it was a trip for sure. It was kind of interesting… I was actually the first of the Hart kids to get into the wrestling business, so I was never really a mark after I got in like later on when Bret and all of them attained the stardom that they attained in the WWE. I already wrestled quite a bit so I was, I guess, better informed about all the variables of the business. It was fascinating and I got a lot of satisfaction out of seeing how many of the Harts became big stars. It was kind of satisfying to see them evolve into what they became outside of Calgary, not just within our own little backyard. They became huge global stars; that was kind of nice. I was happy I was able to contribute in some ways, because I was the booker and running all the ideas out here and that was sort of where they initially got their starts. It was a fascinating experience just growing up in the wrestling business and being part of something that spawned so many iconic superstars.
Was there a lot of pressure for you and your brothers being attached to the Hart name when you first broke in, coming from that background with Stu as your father?
To a certain degree. As I said before I was the first of the so-called Hart kiddies to get in the ring, and I think there was a fair bit [of pressure] because my dad had been a huge star. He’s sort of in the generation of the Lou Theszs and the Pat O’Connors and the Peter Maivias and that bunch. There was a bit of pressure. [It was] a double-edged sword because the name and the fame was kind of enhancing the inside track for you to get into the business. At the same time their expectations were high so you had to live up to them. If you didn’t, you’re deemed a colossal failure so that’s part of it. I’ve seen some guys that rose to the occasion and I’ve seen others that were the son of a star and fell short of the mark and were deemed epic failures. It’s good or bad depending on how you convert it and how you deal with it.
When you first broke in this was in the Stampede territory, and this was back before WWE’s global expansion, so tell me a bit about Stampede and how big that was for people in Calgary and Canada in general, in the territory days.
Back in those days you didn’t have all the other additives, some of them artificial like social media and all that stuff, so in essence you had to sink or swim on your own. If your wrestling wasn’t decent and wasn’t getting over with the fans the business wouldn’t be surviving. In its own way it was a phenomenal learning environment. I started booking or handling the matchmaking for my dad around 1980 and I was bent on being different. One of the promotions at that stage had a propensity for just pushing big guys, and none of the Hart kids – myself included – at that time were that big, we were all under 200 pounds and kind of skinny. I’d wrestled a bit in England and Japan and I noticed some of the best guys in those places weren’t necessarily the business so I started putting more emphasis on speed and skill rather than just size. Because of that I was developing a leaner, meaner – it was sort of like evolution – these guys like Tom Billington, Dynamite Kid, or guys like him. A lot of the traditionalists over here thought they were too small and they were almost going to be laughed out of the arenas because they were half the size of these big lumbering heavyweights that had been the mainstays up until this point. Their speed and their skill – we put a lot more emphasis on speed and agility and wrestling. We became almost like a cutting-edge promotion. Those guys later on became the huge thing in Japan and even in the WWE when they got there years later. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of with the legacy of Stampede. For all intents and purposes we were never really a clone or a copy or trying to conform to the pre-existing norms of anything else, we were always striving to be our own compelling, original outfit. I think that’s why we enjoyed such success and turned out so many guys who were ultimately considered among the best workers, the Brets and the Dynamites and the Daveys and the Benoits and the Jushin Ligers, guys like that. It was something we instilled in those guys and they certainly lived up to that creed.
You had the Kiwis over there as well, Sweet William and Crazy Nick, long before they were the Bushwhackers…
They were actually serious heels or villains over here. We originally brought them in in the early 70s, ’74 maybe. Nice guys, I found them to be very professional. It’s kind of ironic, not to mock them, they’re almost now perceived as clowns or lovable buffoons or whatever but they were actually fairly serious villains, good workers; took good bumps and had really good ring psychology. They were very good at making anyone they worked with look good. Just real good guys, Luke and Butch – they’ve gone through a few names but I used to know them as Nick and Luke.
Some of the better wrestlers in the history of the business came out of New Zealand. I hope they’re well remembered. The Pat O’Connors… when I was a kid my dad had a guy from New Zealand, his name was Dick Hrstich but he wrestled in the States as Ray Gordon. I’m told he was one of Pat O’Connor’s cronies – I think he’s even a bit older than Pat, but I know he’s a great worker. John da Silva, a big Maori, he was up here for us when I was a little kid. I think even Peter Maivia had some roots to New Zealand as well. There was some really outstanding talent coming out of New Zealand. There’s probably a lot of guys I’m not even, sad to say, familiar with that worked out of New Zealand. Because the guys I alluded to made it to North America so that’s why I’m familiar with them. There were very good wrestlers coming out of New Zealand who were top notch professionals and very well respected all over the world. I’m sure you’ve probably heard of all those guys and your readers who are old enough to remember those guys would agree those are tremendous workers, the Pat O’Connors and the Dick Hrstichs and the John da Silvas, some of those guys.
Did those guys contribute to your decision to come down to New Zealand for a little bit, and how did you actually wind up getting down here? How did that get organised?
I had wrestled a fair bit in Hawaii and the South Pacific before that. At the time I was the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion and there was a promoter in New Zealand, I’m sure you’re familiar with him, Steve Rickard, and he was doing the tour of the Southeast Asia like Singapore and New Zealand and Australia, and I think Hong Kong, in conjunction with a guy named Terry Priest. He called me up and said he had the world – NWA was the big thing at the time – the World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair and Harley Race were signed up for this tour and he was seeing if he could get the NWA World and Junior Heavyweight Champion, which I was holding at the time. So he invited me over and I was happy to go over. I actually went over with my brother Keith too. We had an awesome time. I remember Christchurch and Wellington and Auckland. It was a nice place and I had a lot of fun, met a lot of people. The crowd was very enlightened and responsive, seemed to know the difference between good wrestling and lousy wrestling. That basically how I ended up down there. Sad to say I haven’t had the opportunity to come back since but I have very fond memories of New Zealand, the people and everything. It was good, seemed like a great place, and I’d love to get back there again.
That’s wonderful to hear, Bruce.
You’ve come from Canada, you spent a bit of time in the UK too, so how did New Zealand and the South Pacific and that general tour compare to the other territories at the time? Was it competitive with anything else being offered up in the world?
I remember I actually met Steve Rickard before, he was a kid wrestling for my dad, and I ran into him in Hawaii when he was partners with Peter Maivia who was an old buddy of his, I guess. From what I understood, New Zealand used to be a very thriving and vibrant territory in the 70s or whatever. I think Steve Rickard told me he used to bring over a lot of Americans. I wasn’t sure if they were in conjunction with the Australian promotion, which was pretty successful back in the 70s as well – I’d hear about Jim Barnett and that bunch that had wild and extreme stuff with King Curtis and Mark Lewin the bloodbaths and stuff. I gathered New Zealand had been a similar type of territory or promotion as to what we had over here in Calgary.
I’m hopeful that maybe sometime those types of regional promotions such as that might come back. I think it’s one of the things our business needs more than anything right now – the grassroots all over the world need to be re-sown. If WWE was a little bit smarter using better judgement they would be going out of their way to encourage the re-sowing of the seeds of the grassroots because that’s where the talent came from. The biggest indication to me that there’s a huge need for new talent right now is the fact that WWE seems to have to keep recycling Dwayne Johnson and my brother Bret and Shawn Michaels and Mick Foley and the Undertaker for the 40th year in a row at WrestleMania or whatever. There’s not that many really dynamic new guys coming in. It’s because there’s not that many legitimate territories or promotions that are producing talent. There’s a few kind of nondescript ones in the States that are trying to make out like they’re producing talent but the big problem I find is they’re all trying to be an illicit copy of the WWE. In fact I think they’d be far better advised to try and develop their own brand of talent, which is all we ever did in Stampede Wrestling. Any of the guys who have actually come from the indie promotions over the last few years that have become notable stars in WWE like Daniel Bryan, or Bryan Danielson, and Phil Brooks, or CM Punk, they were always sort of – in my estimation – their own type not trying to be a clone or a copy of someone in WWE, actually having the wherewithal to try and be something different which is where it’s at. There are some Elvis impersonators out there that are starving and having to work day jobs. I think to succeed these days you’ve got to actually dare to be different; start your own course not being a copy. The guys I see in WWE getting pushed are getting pushed because they’re big one-dimensional muscle-heads or they’re kissing somebody’s ass.
What’s your take on the WWE developmental system and that new Performance Center that they’ve opened up in their attempt to try and get some new talent in?
I think the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. I can’t honestly name too many guys that have been great workers or decent workers that have come out of there. Maybe you could tell me some of them, I can’t name one off-hand.
No, that’s fair enough.
I think part of the problem is even if they are getting good training, and I’m not sure that they are, but the other half of the equation you have to give them a working environment where they can apply what they learn in training for a year or two where you’re actually just working in front of a crowd five/six days a week, 52 weeks a year sort of thing and be learning how to interact with your opponent, work the crowd and all those sorts of things. I don’t think NXT or whatever, I’m not a big fan of all those bogus reality shows and crap like that. The best thing you could do for your wrestlers when you’re training them is send them off to different promotions where they just develop their persona and learn how to work and learn how to interact with each other and learn how to work the crowd and all that. Do it far away from the WWE fans so if and when you become a decent performer, you want to hit the WWE with a Superstar, Many of these guys they come in there and they’ve barely learned how to work like those Nexus guys a few years ago. Most of them hadn’t learned how to work before they were inflicted on the public. They go out there and once the fans already have these preconceptions it’s tough to become a superstar as you’re already developing. In the old days when you’d go to one territory or another, when you finally sent a guy like Dynamite Kid or Benoit, Owen or Davey Boy or whatever to WWE they were already ready for stardom. I see too many guys that are going to WWE who might even have some potential but they get sent in there before they’re really learned how to work and the fans tend to have a diminished regard to them because they’re not supermen when they arrive. That’s why I think they need to really re-establish the promotions. I’m not sure what it’s like in New Zealand or whatever but if I was a wrestling fan in the last 20 years I would feel severely short-changed because – I’m not sure if and when WWE goes to New Zealand – but if they come to Calgary, which is in North America, they come here maybe once a year. It absolutely doesn’t sustain the people’s appetite. I can’t imagine if you had rugby, they played one game a year or 18 months, I don’t know how that would sustain…
That would not sit well with the New Zealanders.
I’m not sure why they got rid of all the promotions back in the day anyway. I think it was insecurity or paranoia, they thought they needed to wipe out all the competition but in actuality all they did was killing he golden goose that was laying the eggs. They were getting a steady supply of guys like the Bulldogs and Bret and Owen, Benoit and Jericho, all those guys from Calgary. They were getting guys from the other promotions and they should have been nurturing those promotions and trying to support them rather than going to inordinate lengths to get rid of them.
Your last appearance in WWE, you served as a special guest referee in Bret’s match against Mr McMahon at WrestleMania XXVI. What are your thoughts on that whole angle – Bret getting revenge for Montreal and that WrestleMania moment for the Hart family?
They induced us to come down there – the main reason I went down there was they were planning on inducting my dad into the Hall of Fame and they invited us down for that to be… they have this other sub-plot with Bret fighting Vince and they wanted the Harts to be part of that. They took us out to the football stadium in Phoenix when they were having WrestleMania there. I remember they ran this finish by us that entailed all the Hart kiddies and nephews and nieces, there’s about 15 or more, accompanying Bret to the ring and then we were in some kind of contrived lumberjack match. We were supposed to partake in beating the crap out of Vince, and I was the biased referee helping Bret. I remember they ran the whole things by us and it ended up with the Harts beating the living hell out of Vince and me helping Bret and finally Bret putting the sharpshooter on Vince. They ran it by us and Michael Hayes, who was Vince’s booker or whatever, said “what do you think?” I think, like all the other smoke-blowers down there, we were supposed to say we loved it or whatever.
Anyway, I sort of frowned and said “that sounds like a bunch of crap to me”. You’ve got Bret who’s supposed to be the best there is or whatever, and his whole family and me, the crooked referee, having to gang up on this 65-year-old non-wrestler. I said the amusing thing is we’re the faces. It seems like it’s imbalanced and there’s no kind of ebb-and-flow to it. I told them off the top of my head, I said giving a bit of thought to whatever’s already in place here you’ve got Bret who’s coming back from a debilitating stroke and this is his first match back since he suffered the stroke. It would seem to me, it would make more sense if Vinnie’s the heel, getting some heat. Bret, who could be a sympathetic figure; you should play that up all the way. I said beyond that, “you guys orchestrated some scenarios a few weeks back prior where Bret was injured in some moronic limousine car-crash nonsense in the back where he was supposedly injured. That would only make it that much easier for Bret to be selling that if Vinnie was working his leg or whatever”. I said, just off the top of my head, at the Royal Rumble six weeks prior to WrestleMania they’d had some charade with Shawn and Hunter where Hunter screwed Shawn or something, there was some kind of heat between them. Beyond that Bret and Shawn had the big 10-plus years in the making reconciliation where they kissed and made up before WrestleMania. I said just off the top of my head if you had some scenario where Bret is selling all match and people are rallying behind him and he finally makes the big, penultimate comeback and puts the sharpshooter on Vince I said maybe you could have Hunter and Stephanie come running to the ring and take [out] the referee and then Hunter comes in and ambushes Bret and is about to give him the Pedigree. At that critical point who hits the ring but the Heartbreak Kid and does the whole comeback on Hunter, maybe gives him the Sweet Chin Music. I said that’d set the stage for a match that nobody would have ever conceived of, which in itself would be quite the draw: Bret and Shawn of all people tag teaming against Hunter and Vinnie. They were all looking like wow that’s kind of radical but much to my chagrin Bret was the guy who kind of gave it the thumbs down. He said he couldn’t do a second match because of some Lloyd’s of London insurance policy, he could only have the one match. I’m not sure what happened after that but he ended up coming back anyway at SummerSlam in some comparatively lame charade with the Nexus. It was a little frustrating, I think, when Bret came back after all that hype and the water that had been under the bridge, it’s kind of sad or frustrating that was the only match he really ended up having. He’s really not done anything since. Being the star that he was I think it was a waste of his talent; they could have come up with some more compelling storylines to justify what they had to work with. That’s just my opinion.
I think we’ll conclude this interview if we can just talk a little bit about the Hart Brothers University wrestling school – is that open at the moment, or you’re in the process of re-opening it?
Yeah, we’re in the process right now – as I said before, one of the things the wrestling business really needs is to re-sow the seeds of the grassroots and bring a new generation of wrestlers that are comparable to some of the guys I was mentioning like the Dynamites and the Daveys and the Brets and the Owens and the Benoits and the Jerichos, and like some of the guys you and I alluded to like the Pat O’Connors and the Bushwhackers. It was so many vibrant characters back in the 70s and the 80s like the Funks and the Harley Races and the Ricky Steamboats, all those guys. No matter what spin WWE tries to put on it, there’s no denying there’s way fewer these days. That was our main reason for doing Hart Brothers University and trying to apply our wealth of experience and our insights and all that into regenerating a bunch of new wrestlers. It’s been going really well. We’re hoping that we can be at the ground floor of the new generation.
As I said before, WWE, I don’t think they’re going to admit their talent is kind of scraping the bottom or whatever, but when they keep having to bring back Dwayne Johnson or my brother Bret or Mick Foley or Shawn Michaels or Brock Lesnar, it tells you all you need to know about the new generation. The Daniel Bryans and the CM Punks, they’re by-products of some of the smaller promotions in the States like Ring of Honor and some of that. But to the best of my knowledge I don’t recall any notable stars coming out of NXT. That’s why I believe there’s a huge upside – I’m certainly not even seeking to necessarily develop talent for the WWE, I’m more looking to develop talent just for the business itself and maybe be a part of the renaissance and the rebirth of the wrestling business. I’m hoping this might spawn some kind of growth. I’d love to see New Zealand or Australia or Japan, all these places, starting to come back and the revival of those so-called territories, exchanging talent and guys having the opportunity to make a living in the wrestling business aside from being in WWE. I’m hopeful that WWE will get their head out of their butts or open their damn eyes and realise if the business was stronger globally in all these other places it’d be of huge benefit to them. That’s the way they should be seeing it; not “we gotta put them out of business before they become a threat to us”. They should put aside their paranoia and tunnel vision and be supporting and aiding and abetting any of those developments. So in a long-winded way that’s what the HBU’s about. I’m hopeful that we might get some kiwis, some people from your part of the world up here. I know our promotions guy’s been talking about maybe having us come to New Zealand and do a four-week seminar down there, something like that – that might be something down the road as well. We’re sort of open to different kind of suggestions. As I said before, we’re training guys right now and anybody that’s looking to get into wrestling, we’d be more than happy to hear from them.