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Wrestling superstar Bret "The Hitman" Hart grapples with becoming senior citizen

WWE pro wrestling legend visits Prince George this weekend as guest star of seventh annual Northern FanCon

On July 2nd, Bret “The Hitman” Hart will have a 65-candle birthday cake to try to extinguish.

Thirty-five years as a professional wrestler and all the malfunctions at the junction that come with the territory took a toll on his external part, but his lungs were well-protected in that 235-pound body and he should have no trouble getting the job done.

Wrestlers have to be agile contortionists to survive submission holds with limbs and ligaments intact but they also need the brute strength of a barroom bouncer and the speed and stealth of a ninja to climb to the top of their trade in the squared circle and Hart had all those qualities in abundance.

But all those backbreakers, clotheslines, piledrivers, suicide drops and body slams left a world of hurt on the Hitman and sometimes he can’t help but feel like an old man. While athletes in other sports have trainers whose primary purpose is to keep them as healthy and pain-free as possible, Hart was expected to heal his war wounds on his own. There was sports medicine staff to tape his aching joints or massage his back after he’d had it smashed into a turnbuckle or been tossed off the top ropes. He learned to live with his pain, which hounded him like an unwelcome party-crasher he could never seem to evict.

“You can’t fake a body slam,” said Hart, who visits Prince George this weekend as one of guest stars of the seventh annual Northern FanCon at CN Centre. “A body slam is exactly what it looks like, some 230-pound man picking you up over his head and slamming  you down on the ground. You may use your hands and feet to break your fall, but a body slam hurts. It hurt the first day I took one and it hurt the last day I ever took one as a wrestler.

“I have a lot of pain issues, I’d be lying if I told you I sleep like a baby,” he said. “The last couple months, probably since February, I’ve been moving a lot slower than I was a year ago. My back is constantly out and I’m not sure what it’s from or why it happened. It’s been something I kind of expected maybe. All those body slams, all those turnbuckles, all those bumps I took as wrestler, they add up.” 

But when he looks back at a career that earned him his nickname as the Excellence of Execution, the championship belts he won, the money and fame it brought him, and the friendships gained in a remarkable life as a wrestler, despite all that pain it was all so worth it.      

Hart wrestled his last match in September 2011 and as one of the legends of WWE wrestling he’s spent much of his retirement traveling to wrestling events, trade shows and autograph-signing sessions all over North America. The pandemic brought that part of his life to a virtual standstill and kept him close to home in Calgary, where he lives on the outskirts of town with his wife Stephanie, close to his four children and four grandchildren.

He just got back on his touring saddle in April to hit a few Texas towns and help promote WrestleMania 38. He’s looking forward to swapping stories and posing for pictures with his fans in Prince George during the FanCon autograph sessions throughout the day Saturday, a prelude to his appearance at Kin 3 later that evening at the WrestleCore professional fight card, which includes former WWE wrestlers The Bollywood Boyz and Santino Marella.

“This one in Prince George that I’m going to is one of the only ones I’m doing,” said Hart. “It’s close, only an hour flight, and with all the COVID crap, going through the borders is way more of a headache than it used to be.

“The fact that people even remember me all these years later and how I wrestled and all that stuff makes me feel really good. I just feel people appreciate how good I was and how hard I tried to be exceptional and be on my game all the time.”

His father Stu’s life as owner/promoter of Stampede Wrestling from 1948-84 meant Bret and his seven brothers and four sisters were surrounded by wrestlers most of their lives growing up as kids in Calgary. That family legacy followed Bret throughout his life, long before he became the Hitman, when he was a skinny kid being challenged by the neighbourhood bullies.

“I remember beating kids in fights in elementary school and beating them with pro wresting holds like sleeper holds and the Boston crab outside in the soccer field,” he said. “ I always felt I had to be tough because my dad was tough. When I went to wrestling practice I always felt I had more pressure on me to do better than anybody else because my dad was a pro wrestler.”

Hart had no ambition to pursue a life in pro wrestling but he was an accomplished high school wrestler who won city and provincial championships and he continued to compete in collegiate wrestling as a film student at Mount Royal College in Calgary. His dad and his college coaches thought he was good enough to advance to the Commonwealth Games and Olympics and although he had the skill, his desire for amateur wrestling waned.

He was 21 in 1978 when opportunity knocked. He’d been a referee for about a year, following the Stampede Wrestling circuit to shows in Western Canada, when he was asked to replace a wrestler unable to get into the ring. Before long, Hart was the tag team partner for his brother Keith.

“I knew what the life was all about because I’d been a referee and I knew right from the start I didn’t want to be an average wrestler or do it for a lark, I think it was something I was always bound to do,” Hart said.

“I had to be a star for my dad because his business needed a star and I could be close, whenever he needed a guy to step in and sort of be the main event. I couldn’t be the top guy (he lacked the size to take on bigger wrestlers), but I could be maybe the second-to-top guy.”

Countdown in WWF rocket to superstardom began in 1984

Hart held his role as the babyface with Stampede Wrestling for six years until he joined Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation. Starting out his first year in the WWF as a singles wrestler, he toiled in obscurity. He was already a skilled, technically-proficient pro wrestler and his reputation was already established as guy who could safely get in the ring for a high-quality match. But until he hooked up with his brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, Hart and manager Jimmy Hart to form the Hart Foundation, Hart was a small fish in a big pond.

“Right away I felt I was as good or better than most of the guys there, but nobody would tell me that,” Hart said. “When I first went to WWF it was so hard to get anybody to notice me or co-operate with me in the ring and give me a good match. I was a promoter’s kid and you’re almost blackballed in the business. I was almost shunned and ignored by everybody and I kind of just kept me mouth shut and slowly I won people over and convinced them I could wrestle.

“Really what saved me was when Jim The Anvil came in and I became a bad guy. Then it didn’t matter if I won or lost, I could just go in there and be a jerk and just be a really good bad guy. That’s what happened, I became such a good bad guy, people started to like me and eventually I got turned into being a good guy.”

By that time, Hart had earned the respect of his wrestling peers in the dressing room. His fame grew exponentially at stadium shows and pay-per-view events with the Hart Foundation in their trademark pink and black attire and he and Neidhart won two WWF world tag team titles in the seven years they were a team. Hart made a breakthrough as a singles wrestler when Andre the Giant requested him as an opponent at an event in Milan, Italy in April 1989 and he won his first WWF Intercontinental championship in 1991 in New York, beating Mr. Perfect (Curt Hennig) for the title. A few months later at WrestleMania 8, Hart pinned Roddy Piper for his second Intercontinental crown. For the wrestlers on the circuit at the time, those were considered classic matches.

“There’s a lot of things that are misunderstood about wrestling,” said Hart. “The truth is, the only thing they tell you is the last three seconds. They only tell if you’re winning, you’re losing, it’s a disqualification. He’s going to put you in a bear hug and so-and-so is going hit the ring and attack him from behind. They also tell you how long your match time is, but that’s all you know.

“The rest is up to you and that wrestler sitting across from you. I was the guy who would sit down and say this is what we’re going to do. I would often tell my opponents this is going to be the greatest match you’ve ever had, this is going to be a classic, and I started to be the guy who could give everyone a classic match.”

One of pro wrestling’s all-time greatest matches happened in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium in London at SummerSlam 1992, when Hart lost his WWF Intercontinental belt to the British Bulldog. For 24 minutes, Hart and his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith showed off their carefully choreographed moves and off-the-charts athleticism while the sellout crowd went ballistic. Hart suspected the WWF was going to take his title away and suggested dropping it to Bulldog, which won him some points with his WWF bosses.

“The truth is, when you’re the (world) champion you’re the highest-paid guy in the company and the intercontinental champion is the second-highest paid guy in the company, so when you offer to lose the title you’re basically offering to give someone else your pay, and that’s kind of what happened with Bulldog,” said Hart.

“But my stock went up so high after the match at Wembley with Davey that a month later, instead of Davey being the big star, I got the world title after that (when he beat Ric Flair for the title in Saskatoon in Oct. 1992). I got promoted to the highest position in the company and that was the start of it. When I became champion  I knew without  question that I was the best wrestler at the time, that nobody was better than me.

“No one had the fan base I did. I just understood the audience and what it would take to get reactions and what would be a surprise ending that would blow their minds. I was so certain of my quality and my ability as a performer that I didn’t take a back seat to anybody.”

Many of Hart’s matches from his primetime years of the 90’s, when he was working 300 nights a year in the WWF, through to his departure to World Championship Wresting (WCW) in 1997 are readily available to internet viewers on YouTube and other platforms. He’s at his best at Wrestlemania 13 in Chicago in March 1997 when he takes on Stone Cold Steve Austin, one of the Hitman’s all-time favourite matches.

Hart has had a surge of platitudes sent recently from wrestlers now working the top circuits who compliment him on the quality of his fights and he’s proud of the fact that in his thousands of matches he never seriously injured any of his opponents. The same can’t be said for all those he fought and his career came to an end at age 42 after a December 1999 match with Bill Goldberg in which Hart was kicked in the head and left with a severe concussion.

There’s a fine art to pulling punches, stopping just short of making bone-breaking contact with kicks and coming close enough to smashing an opponent’s face into a metal post while making it look like that punishment is really happening. Night after night, Hart showed he had mastered it.

“I’m really proud of how I worked as a wrestler and I still enjoy watching my old matches and I see how flawless they are,” he said. “I’m never in the wrong place, I don’t do anything that looks phony or rehearsed.

“I was a really safe wrestler, I never hurt anyone I worked with, and I was really careful throughout my career not to get hurt. I got hurt a couple times but I never took a concussion injury until that one guy kicked me in the head and ended my career. I generally stayed healthy and wrestled 300-plus matches every year.”

Wrestling with the fame game

Hart is known as the most famous Albertan and he’s probably one of the most recognizable Canadians of all time just because of his popularity and visibility at the height of his career. Like other WWF stars, his matches drew millions of TV viewers, he had dolls made to his likeness, he was featured on an episode of The Simpsons and he got more mail than any other wrestler. He struggled at first with promotional interviews to hype his matches and had to learn that part of the wrestling game over time. He started wearing sunglasses to disguise how nervous he was when it was his turn to speak into the mic. His wraparound shades became Hart’s gimmick and he’d always look for a kid in the audience to give him his glasses just before he climbed in the ring.

Hart has always been generous with his time for his fans and remembers his first year with the WWF when nobody really knew him. He walked into a Holiday Inn with a group of wrestlers and was in the lobby getting his hotel key with Tito Santana, who then held the Intercontinental crown. A crowd of about 30 kids swarmed Santana asking him to sign their programs but he looked away and swore at them and got into the elevator.

“I told myself then, if I’m ever in my lifetime a big star in this business I will stop and sign all those autographs and appreciate every fan, it was a little lesson,” said Hart. “It’s easy to get annoyed but I always accept it as an important part of the job and I think I get that from my dad. Always remember every fan you’ve got. You need that fanbase to support you and if you take that time to be a gentleman, it pays off.

“About fame, there’s a point where you have to accept it and embrace or reject it and push way from it and they don’t have time for an autograph. Me, I embraced it.”

Hitman got his name from boxer Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, who retired temporarily after losing a fight to Sugar Ray Leonard. Hart read an article about Hearns hanging up his gloves and took his nickname, finally finding the hook that Hart Foundation manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart had asked Bret to find.

Hart is famous for his quote ‘I’m the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” He truly believes that and is not shy about explaining why he said what he did.

“I can I come across to people sometimes as someone who is really full of themselves, but I really do think I’m the greatest wrestler of all time and I don’t care if you think I’ve got a big head or a big ego,” he said. “I really think that nobody did it better than I did. I’m a guy who looks back today on my life and I’m proud of how I carried myself and I stand behind my body of work.”

Health scares creep into retired life

Hart suffered a stroke in 2002 while riding his mountain bike which paralyzed his left side and it took months of therapy to rewire his brain and re-establish those connections to his body.

“I’m lucky I recovered as well as I did, it was a full-on stroke and Iost 50 per cent of the use of my body, like getting chopped in half by a saw. Half of my body was dead and the other half was alive. I’m just grateful I’m as healthy as I am today. I have a pretty clear memory, my memory was never affected by the stroke or the concussions.”

In 2016 he was told he had prostate cancer that required surgery to treat.

“The doctor told me the bad news that it was cancer but the good news was it was a cancer we can beat,” said Hart. “That was a big hurdle in my life, but it wasn’t the life-changing event I thought it was going to be. I consider myself a cancer survivor and a guy who’s really grateful I got checked when I did and diagnosed when I did and got fixed and it worked out for me. I have normal life now and that’s all you can hope for.

“I’m really grateful  for the Canadian medical system. I’m glad I live in a country where we’ve got good doctors and good medical coverage. I’ve had two knee replacements and I had a stroke and was in the hospital for almost six months. The American guys I know, if they had the medical costs I’ve had since I retired, they’d be broke today. They’d be out a couple million dollars, for sure.”

Hart’s 2009 autobiography, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, was a New York Times best seller. His bucket list wish to write another book about his life in the early years before he became a wrestler and how his love for the sport developed watching his dad train the stars of Stampede Wrestling in the basement “dungeon” of the family’s Calgary mansion.

Tickets to see Hart and attend Northern FanCon this weekend, starting Friday night, can be purchased online here.