When it is Canada Day, and you want to write a wrestling article about it, there feels like only one place to start.
For a country that has produced Patterson, Jericho, Edge, Christian, Kim, Omega, Storm, Owens, Stratus, Piper and so many others, one name still dominates.
But what else is there to say that has not been said already about Mike Sharpe..?
(Only kidding – although watching Iron Mike mumbling and grumbling around the ring in his cast is great fun.)
Of course, the real top Canadian is Bret Sergeant Hart.
There are not many wrestlers whose middle name I know without going to Wikipedia. I imagine Bret never told Vince McMahon his middle name, or we would have seen Bret gimmicked up in military fashion, Sergeant Hart appearing as a rubbish rival to Slaughter, and that would have been it.
Indeed, that is really the topic of this piece – the fact that Bret Hart was essentially gimmickless, and rose to the very top in a bizarrely unique way.
We could do a Bret Hart lifetime retrospective, his top five matches, an in-depth look at his title wins, and discuss a job of screwing in a French-Canadian metropolitan area, but it has all been done. Merited column inches, for sure, but it is a career well-covered, and a man deservedly revered.
So where to start? Then, during our weekly HOW to be Great podcast recording last week, it hit me.
Bret’s uniqueness comes not from something he did not have, but through something he did not need. The Curious Incident of the Hart in the WWF is that he got to pinnacle of his chosen profession by doing the exact thing he was there to do.
Confused? Look at it this way…
Lionel Messi is often deemed the world’s best footballer, as he is really good at football; Robert De Niro, in the acting world, is venerated for his acting ability; Frank Sinatra, a singer, is considered one of the very best of all time because boy could he sing.
While it may sound very obvious, in the world of professional wrestling Bret Hart is one of the very best because of his wrestling. And that makes him almost unique.
When it comes to the greatest of all time, there are plenty of tremendous wrestlers, but for how many of them is their technical ability their overriding characteristic?
Shawn Michaels is as good between the ropes as any, but what got HBK to the top was his charisma, with his undoubted wrestling ability a huge bonus. Ditto Randy Savage.
Few are considered on Ric Flair’s level in the ring, but it was the styling and dealing, wheeling and profiling, the occasional ‘woo’ and the feathered robes that were key.
For Andre it was his size; for Warrior the running and the tassles; for Piper the sheer gift of the gab; The Rock’s electricity; Undertaker’s mystique; Hogan’s pythons; Austin’s attitude.
They all had wrestling ability on differing levels, matches of varying quality, and every one deserves to be considered worthy of wrestling’s pantheon. They are the greats, plain and simple.
Yet I would venture that every single one trails Bret Hart on one thing in particular: the singular focus on being the very best inside the wrestling ring.
This is the kind of sentence that generates a headline, then gossipy bad takes that imagine wrongly that infer a slur against anyone else. Some will also take it as me saying Bret is the greatest wrestler of all time.
I am not attempting to imply any of these things. I am simply pointing out what it is a rather astonishing observation: almost every wrestler to ever get to the top of the industry has been able to count on something other than simply their in-ring skill to assist them.
Bret Hart was in great shape, but not visibly imposing. He turned into a good talker, but it took many years. He had no discernible gimmick, other than being himself.
And yet, despite on paper lacking some of the aspects that one-dimensional critics tell you that Vince McMahon desires, Hart elbowed, leg-swept, back-broke and Sharpshootered his way into the highest echelon going.
The first wrestling show ever shown to me was Summerslam 1991. I was aware of wrestlers’ names from Daniel Swan’s Top Trumps set that we used to play with at playtime when it was too wet to kick our foam football around, but I had no pre-conceptions of any of them when I saw this show from Madison Square Garden. The muscled-up Hogan and Warrior were victorious, The Mountie went to the clink for the night, and Virgil claimed a belt covered in the letter S. But one thing stood out for me.
I do not believe I ever had a notion that wrestling was real. I have no recollection of a ‘Santa Claus’ revelation, a ‘have-you-heard’ rumour ripping through the playground and devastating a generation who believed in those Irish whips and monkey flips. I think it was explained to me before I ever switched the show on.
I do, though, remember watching Bret Hart and Curt Hennig wrestle for the Intercontinental Championship and marvelling at how realistic these two made it. A little over 20 minutes after watching the man in pink and black for the first time, I celebrated his title win. I had a new hero.
Everything The Hitman did smacked of realism. My cynical young mind realised these guys were stamping when they punched and that they had a habit of putting their head down to be kicked after their counterpart hit the ropes, but Bret added moments to his arsenal that made you believe.
He would headbutt his opponent, but rub his own head, selling the effect. He took a turnbuckle front-first, rightly imitating what would happen if you were out of control, rather than conveniently spinning round at the last moment.
He tried to slow down those smaller and nimbler than him, and targeted the knees of the monsters that he faced. Working on a leg meant setting up for his signature leg-grapevine submission, and he even had a few other leg holds to keep his adversary – and the fans – guessing.
Over many years, showing great consistency, keeping true to his character, Bret Hart the wrestler became irresistibly over with the fans. The conclusion to the Royal Rumble of 1994 is a terrific indicator.
After the departure of undisputed top hero Hulk Hogan, the WWF had invested everything in trying to establish Lex Luger as the successor, and yet after Lex and Bret crashed to the floor simultaneously, the crowd in Providence provided proof of their preference. “Bret, Bret, Bret,” they chanted. I have always believed that in the face of that clear choice, Vince McMahon admitted defeat on the Luger experiment.
Nothing had been done with Bret Hart other than putting him in the ring to present a believable character who worked to be the best. Years later, as the societal attitude shifted, people took to Steve Austin as the working class hero sticking it to the boss. However, Bret was from the same stock; people believed in his story – he really was their champion. Our champion. My champion.
To me, the closest to Bret’s crown as the wrestler’s wrestler have been Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles, and even the former, despite being the best wrestler on the planet, did not really make the big time until he had a beard and shouted ‘yes!’
Styles is the closest to being the person that, no matter what is tweaked with his character, he shines in the ring whatever the opponent or situation. That AJ Styles can be directly compared to Bret Hart is about the biggest compliment I can pay the Phenomenal One.
If you accept that the majority of wrestlers in their prime are aged 30-40, it stands to reason that their formative years watching wrestling would have included at least some of Bret’s heyday of 1991-97.
Sami Zayn, Dean Ambrose, Nick Aldis, Drew McIntyre, The Revival, CM Punk and Seth Rollins have all publicly stated their adoration for Bret Hart, and they are the tip of a pink-and-black iceberg.
Of those that faced Hart, how many had their best match against Bret? From Austin to Perfect via Nash, Bulldog and Waltman, anyone who looked on the run sheet and saw their name against Bret Hart’s knew they had drawn a decent assignment that day.
He is the ultimate wrestler’s wrestler, and his matches will stand the test of time because of bulletproof logic and – go on, let me say it – excellent execution.
True wrestling love, in all our hearts he commands. Today, we stand on guard for him.