Oral History: How Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart became the Excellence of Execution

Bret 'The Hitman' Hart was a five-time WWF World Heavyweight Champion and five-time WWE United States Heavyweight Champion. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

The best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be. It’s not a mantra, it’s the truth.

Throughout his professional wrestling career, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart lived by those words. It was taken as fact in a world of fiction, and understood as non-fiction when collecting facts as to why he’s considered by many the greatest pro wrestler of all-time.

It’s with this understanding that it should come as no surprise that Bret became the first professional wrestler to be honoured on the Canadian Walk of Fame last month.

It’s easy to consider Bret Hart as one of the greatest ever when you add up all the five-star matches, the pool of career accolades and the testimonials among fans and wrestlers. But how did Bret reach this pedestal of greatness? What qualities did Bret possess that made him stand above the rest in a sports entertainment industry full of giants?

Sportsnet sat down with Bret and several members within the professional wrestling business to break down the characteristics that made ‘The Hitman’ such a legendary figure.

His Foundation

There is perhaps no more well-known family in pro wrestling. The Hart family’s legacy was forged in Western Canada thanks to the success of Stampede Wrestling, a regional wrestling promotion established long before Bret began paving his own way to superstardom. Once in WWE, his legacy was cemented thanks to several noteworthy matches and storylines throughout the 1990s. Much of that legacy surrounds Bret’s family, and his father Stu Hart.

Bret Hart: I was the son of Stu Hart, and my dad was Canadian amateur champion. Being the son of a wrestling promoter and a guy that was certainly a legend in the wrestling business, the wrestling profession, as a legitimate tough guy, at wrestling. I had to live up to my dad’s reputation and I remember thinking, ‘I need to try and be the star for my dad. I’m going to be the star he needs me to be.’

Natalya Neidhart (WWE Superstar; Hart family member; Calgary, AB native): You think about what my grandfather passed on to Bret, and Bret carries that on today, and I look up to Bret so much that for me, and my own career in WWE, especially as a woman, I try to think about those qualities: dedication, durability and passion. Bret is the person that carries that torch today but it all came from my grandfather, Stu Hart.

TJ Wilson (former WWE Superstar; Hart family member; Calgary, AB native): Bret really (hit) that stride in those early ‘90s. I think he exploded so much that everybody wanted to learn his backstory, and that’s where all the Hart family stuff came in. It’s like seeing a Marvel movie and then going back and seeing the backstory of the next movie that comes out.

Jimmy Korderas (former WWE referee of 20-plus years; Toronto, ON native): Stu was all about respect and that showed with all his children. And it filtered down, you see it with (Natalya), you see it with TJ. In Stu’s mind, respect for the business and those you work with was first and foremost and that was very apparent with Bret, because that’s the way he treated everybody. He treated everybody with respect.

Dave Meltzer (Wrestling Observer Newsletter; San Jose, CA native): It’s funny because he was actually a dual citizen (Bret’s mother Helen was American), but everyone knew he grew up in Calgary and was the first Canadian to win the WWE title. I think being the first, and also calling attention worldwide to the heritage of Stampede Wrestling which was unknown outside of Canada, was part of it.

Bret: When I first went to WWE, they wanted me to say I was from America. And I remember going, ‘I’m Bret Hart from Calgary.’ That’s where I’m from, that’s where I want to be from. I stuck to my guns and made them. I stayed ‘Bret Hart from Calgary’ with my dad’s history which eventually got worked into my storylines about The Dungeon and growing up in the Hart family.

The Dungeon was a training ground for prospective wrestlers, situated in the basement of the Hart family home in Calgary. The Dungeon received its name thanks to the small and dank conditions, in both appearance and scent, but also due to the harsh nature of the training. Stu would bring interested grapplers downstairs to test their aptitude for the profession and commitment to the craft. It wasn’t unusual to hear screams and cries for help as Stu locked a trainee in a submission hold. Each member of the Hart family — the British Bulldog, Dynamite Kid, Jim Neidhart, Brian Pillman, Superstar Billy Graham and many more — trained under Stu in The Dungeon.

The “Dungeon” in the three-storey Calgary home formerly owned by pro wrestling’s famous Hart family. The house went up for sale in 2010. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Eric Young (former WWE Superstar; Florence, ON native): All of these amazing talents have come through The Dungeon. The mystique of it, the prestige of saying, ‘Oh I trained there. I survived The Dungeon.’ Everybody wants to, especially if you’re Canadian, you want to hook your wagon to that because it’s just this unmatched success and unmatched lore and that’s because it was promoted and talked about in very high regards on WWE television.

Korderas: It’s a who’s who list of who was there (trained in The Dungeon). If there was a Mount Rushmore of families, the Hart family is definitely on that Mount Rushmore of wrestling families, for sure.

Bret: I just think all of this went into this character that I was at the beginning, a real wrestler, with a real history and a real reputation. I was always trying to live up to be the son of Stu Hart. I always had so much weight on my back to live up to my dad’s reputation to be tough and to be the best.

Natalya: My grandfather, his only refuge was wrestling. So for our family, we bleed it. It literally is in our hearts. We bleed pro wrestling. When you think about the greatest pro wrestling families of all-time, the Harts are No. 1. We really are so passionate about the industry.

His Canadian Roots

Bret changed the line of thinking that international wrestlers couldn’t be supported in the United States, as Hart proudly proclaimed his Canadian-ness, and fans around the world embraced it. In 1997, as Hart chastised the U.S. and American fans as part of a storyline on WWE television involving likes of Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin, he was still lauded across the globe, particularly in Canada.

Bret: I was always mindful that I needed to be a hero in Canada. I need fans in Canada to go, ‘Yeah that was cool what Bret Hart did, I still back him even though he cheated last night.’

Sami Zayn (WWE Superstar; Montreal, QC native): I would love to do a more modernized version, a bit more of an intellectual approach, a bit more of a factual approach to what Bret did in 1997 because I thought it was revolutionary. It’s never been done before and it’s never been done since. Global hero, despised in one country like that. It was revolutionary, we all remember it, we all rave about it to this day.

Meltzer: I think he played into Canadian frustration over Americans considering them like the little brother and acting superior. He played into things in society like health care and violent gun crimes that Canada was superior to the U.S. in that nobody in wrestling had ever done. The fact he did that in the U.S. and got booed for it made Canadians proud of him. Plus, WWE did a lot of TV out of Canada that summer and it was really a perfect storm. I think there was also the element that Canadians were more into wrestling itself and Americans were more into show biz wrestling, and Bret represented the former. The other key to Bret’s legacy is that he was the hero to Canadian kids wanting to be wrestlers in that era and a lot of Canadians turned out to be strong at the mechanics of wrestling since Bret was so good at that aspect.

Young: There are a lot of Canadian wrestlers. I don’t know what it is, there must be something in the water, (but) we seem to be good at it. Bret would be a huge part of any of our careers: idolizing him, learning from him, and watching how he did it.

Wilson: Being born in wrestling, it was a very different setting than a lot of other people. You have to experience it a little bit in Calgary, and the Hart house, to fully understand. I think that’s where that believability becomes so important to Bret, through his whole life.

His Execution

In a world of scripted sports entertainment, the only aspect of a Bret Hart wrestling match ever left to be determined was whether it would be awarded a five-star review. Hart wanted to be the best professional wrestler in the industry and did so via a commitment to believability inside the ring.

Bret: I’ve always taken myself pretty seriously. All my dreams came true when I won the world title (for the first time in 1992). It gave me credibility and it made my life. I had proven a point to myself. I didn’t get into wrestling to be a wrestler, I got into wrestling to be the best wrestler in the world. And suddenly I was the best wrestler in the world. That meant so much to me that I gave so much and tried so much harder to live up to that. I think that I did a good job as a hero for the rest of my career.

Natalya: He really had such a strong foundation, and that foundation, that work ethic, I think that Bret is one of the greatest engineers or architects in the history of pro wrestling. His precision, just how he believed in himself and how he believed in his work. His integrity, his quality of work, his work ethic… it’s just second to none.

Korderas: Going into the business we have the suspension of disbelief, and we want to believe that everything we see is real. The thing about Bret Hart was everything he did in the ring made you believe. He was so crisp with everything he did.

Young: I think he’s the best storyteller ever, in the history of pro wrestling. Every single thing he did was done with absolute perfection and that’s where the believability comes.

Natalya: (The Hart Family) cares so much about the quality of the sport, as much as anything, and I think that transcends. I think people feel that when they watch a Bret Hart match. That’s timeless. You think about some of the greatest pro wrestling matches in the history of the industry — whether it’s Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12, Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13, Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart at WrestleMania 10 — some of the most iconic pro wrestling matches in the history of the industry involve Bret Hart.

Young: I think he’s the best storyteller ever, in the history of pro wrestling. His ability to use physicality and wrestling as a vessel to tell this amazing good vs. evil story. Whether it was him and Shawn (Michaels), these two top-of-the-mountain babyface wrestlers wrestling at WrestleMania 12, one of the most iconic matches of all-time, or whether he was wrestling a limited Diesel, who was a big guy but couldn’t do a whole lot. Those were two completely different opponents but he could have these amazing matches and tell these amazing stories.

Bret: It’s quite a complicated thing to have an Iron Man match with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12. Very few wrestlers in the industry anywhere can do that. My matches were always very tight, always very believable, always very logical. All you have to do is see Bret Hart take one front turnbuckle and you start to question whether wrestling is real or not.

Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12. (Photo courtesy WWE)

His Influence

As Bret’s star power grew, buoyed by his in-ring prowess, many aspiring pro wrestlers took notice. Wrestlers today who name Bret as an influence include top WWE stars such as Drew McIntyre, Roman Reigns, Edge and more. Hart’s commitment to his craft is now applied by wrestlers across the industry.

Bret: I was six-feet tall, I was 235 pounds, I didn’t have a super physique, I wasn’t a car salesman interview guy. I was all about the wrestling, though. Even when I was a nobody, people would say, ‘He’s a good wrestler.’ I was a wrestler’s wrestler. I understood the moves, the timing and how to tell a story. I became famous amongst my peers for being the best guy out there to tell a great story.

Natalya: Bret’s always been my inspiration, as far as going, ‘I want to be like Bret Hart where I can have a great match with anyone.’ Bret had a magic about him, it really was art. He could work with anybody and bring out the absolute best in them, like a magician. And then whenever that person would wrestle against someone else, it wouldn’t be the same magic, because the magic was Bret. Bret was so confident in his own abilities that he wasn’t afraid to help someone else look good, because he knew just how great he (was).

Wilson: He saw his matches like little movies and I think that’s why he took certain pacing to his matches. I think that’s where all that believability comes from because he’s seeing it as scenes and if this scene’s not believable, we can’t go to the next scene.

Young: As a person that’s been in wrestling and understands it at a very high level now, it was Bret’s self-belief. It’s not cockiness. He believed that he was Bret Hart. He believed that he was the Excellence of Execution. He believed that he was the best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be. … Everything he did was perfect. He didn’t do something unless it made sense and unless he could do it well.

Ricochet (WWE Superstar; Philadelphia, PA native): He’s actually an inspiration of my style now. I’ve been going back and studying a little bit of Bret Hart, trying to take a little bit of his direct style of wanting to win the match. I’ve always been a fan of ‘The Hitman’.

Korderas: He is one of the best innovators, but he did it in a different manner. He knew that he had to make it as authentic as possible. For example, the Sharpshooter. It’s the little things that matter and Bret was a master at doing the little things. He was able to do everything well. People wish that they could be as smooth and as believable and as technical as Bret is in the ring.

Natalya: I think he’s the greatest of all-time. He didn’t have all the smoke and mirrors, he didn’t have all the crazy pyro, he didn’t have a crazy entrance. You were just getting the true character. And he believed in himself so much and he took being a champion so seriously, like it was a part of who he is.

Wilson: There’s a certain intangible that Bret had … he was able to make these timeless classics, and those matches hold up. They don’t just live in nostalgia from 20 years ago, 30 years ago. You pull them up and watch them today, they still hold water, they still hold the exact same amount of water today … (if not) more.

Korderas: Bret was great at making it look so good. It just felt like it was so easy, so natural to him.

Bret: I always was real because I believed I was real, in the sense that it was a character that was formed from the beginning that was based on reality. I always to try to explain to people that I was Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart when I was 6-years-old.

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