Great wrestlers are able to make themselves synonymous with a wrestling move, or catchphrase, or mannerism. The legendary Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart did this many times over – his Sharpshooter finisher, the infamous ‘five moves of doom’ set-up, “The Best There Is…” and even the way he shook his hands out in front of him upon entering the ring.
Moreso than many of the top all-time guys, however, Bret was able to forever associate a large number of other, smaller details with himself. The chest-first bump into the corner, the way he played dead to set up a surprise cradle for the win, and something that would in fact defy the very principles of professional wrestling itself.
His big Wrestlemania moment at the eighth edition of the spectacular in 1992 saw him regain the Intercontinental title from ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper. This rare ‘babyface vs babyface’ major match unfolded as a clinic in making the audience care about every little thing you did, as the live crowd panicked every time either man teased fully embracing the dark side to win by any means necessary.
Piper ultimately opted not to cross the line entirely, throwing down the ring bell he contemplated using to keep hold of his first WWE championship of any kind, and applied his classic finishing hold, the sleeper.
Bret’s way out of this predicament not only earned him the pin and the title, but became yet another aspect of the industry that almost certainly prompts mention of his name when used by absolutely anyone else at any given show, in any given match.
With Piper stood behind him, sleeper firmly locked in, Bret used all of his rapidly-diminishing strength to lead the two of them near a corner and lunged a foot onto the turnbuckle. With one swift kick-up, both feet pushed off the buckle and knocked Roddy back, with Hart rolling backwards on top of him in a pinning predicament.
Just like that, three slaps of the mat later, a title had changed hands. A Wrestlemania moment had been created. And the ‘Hitman sleeper special’ was born.
And yet, that doesn’t come close to covering the gravitas of Hart’s creativity. On Piper’s 2007 WWE DVD special release, Born to Controversy, ‘Hot Rod’ light-heartedly attempted to discredit the validity of one of his very few televised defeats.
The late, great Piper argued that because he refused to let go of the sleeper, his submission hold retained seniority over the pinfall counter that came after it. So, according to the rules of wrestling, the referee should have checked to see if Hart could continue before then counting Roddy’s shoulders down.
But here’s the beauty of it: by performing such a reversal, Hart was also proving himself to have more than enough of his bearings to continue, thus no check or raising and dropping of the arm from the man in the middle was necessary.
In addition to launching his main event credibility with a marquee victory over a bona fide top guy, Bret ran rings around the very principles of the old school wrestling rules with one kick and backwards roll.
He took the torch from one of the main figures in wrestling’s mid-1980s heyday and carried it on his back through some of WWE’s most testing times, taking in such epic main events as Summerslam 1992 and Wrestlemania X until November 1996 rolled around.
Back at Madison Square Garden, the site of such legacy-cementing wins as over Mr. Perfect at Summerslam ‘91 and Yokozuna to regain the World title, Bret was no longer the hungry up-and-comer looking to make a name for himself. Rather, he was the target of the new upstart, one ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.
After half-an-hour of intense wrestling to determine whether the old lion or the young lion would rule the WWE pridelands, Bret found himself caught in a desperate but painful throwback to Austin’s early days in the company, the Million Dollar Dream.
But amidst the flashbacks to the days when Ted Dibiase himself would teach him painful lessons on how ruthless the singles scene can be, Bret remembered the clever trick that helped him usurp the old guard and utilised it to prevent Stone Cold from doing the exact same thing to him.
Clever, effective and timeless: that counter outsmarted veterans and prospects alike while at the same time exposing the stubbornness both types of wrestler shared: had Piper or Austin simply let go of the hold, kicking out would have been a formality!
Of course, Austin would go on to superstardom in Hart’s place, mostly because the Hitman lost sight of that sleeper hold counter and what it represented.
As his feud with the Rattlesnake grew increasingly hostile and violent, Bret drifted away from the superior technical wrestling that brought him this far and sought to end Steve’s career in a no-holds-barred Submission match at Wrestlemania 13.
No longer looking to prove he was superior to Austin, Bret attempted to cripple his bloodied nemesis – and as he did, the fans who essentially willed him up to the top of the mountain despite WWE management’s initial judgments abandoned the maniacal Canadian during his descent into madness and sided with the dangerous thug who would go on to become the greatest superstar in history.
And as Austin went into supernova, Bret would soon find himself screwed in Montreal and his career effectively over.
If only Shawn Michaels had attempted a sleeper hold instead of the Sharpshooter…