Pop Culture

Real-life wrestling

December 22 1997
Pop Culture

Real-life wrestling

December 22 1997

Real-life wrestling

Pop Culture

Taking a break from his daily workout in the gym at his 810-square-metre, five-bedroom home in northwest Calgary, Bret Hart gingerly extends his right hand to greet a visitor. It isn’t much of a handshake. The six-foot, 235-pound Hart offers only limp fingers and no grip—hardly what one would expect from a five-time champion of the World Wrestling Federation. But he has a good excuse. “I’ve got a broken bone in my hand, so I have to be careful,” says Hart, whose soft voice bears no resemblance to the intimidating growl of the character known worldwide as The Hitman. The explanation gets even more interesting when Hart admits that he broke the bone by landing a haymaker punch to the upper jaw of Vince McMahon—founder, owner and promoter of the WWF, a company that has taken professional wrestling out of seedy, low-rent arenas and turned it into a multimilliondollar international TV spectacle. “I’ve got a sore hand, but I figure he’s a lot sorer,” says Hart with a hint of satisfaction.

Professional wrestling, of course, is not a sport so much as lowbrow theatre in which method acting and character development are as crucial as body slams and pile drivers. But Hart’s punch was the real thing, and it reverberated around the wrestling world. McMahon suffered a concussion from the

blow, had his ankle broken in the ensuing melee when others intervened and is still bothered by blurred vision that he says could be permanent. The fisticuffs—which erupted in the wrestlers’ dressing room after a pay-per-view event in Montreal last month when Hart claims that McMahon had deceptively taken his title—ended the 14-year WWF career of one of the federation’s most popular characters. Hart quickly signed for close to $3 million a year with the rival World Championship Wrestling—a circuit owned by TV mogul Ted Turner. And while McMahon has not pressed charges for what he calls an “unprovoked” attack, he doesn’t rule out legal action if his sight is permanently impaired. “I feel hurt at a personal level,” says McMahon. “Bret and I were friends for a long time and I never thought he would do what he did. It seems like his Hitman character became the same as Bret Hart. But for God’s sake, this is entertainment, not real life.”

More intriguing are the underlying reasons for Hart’s bitter rift with the WWF. He says he wanted out because McMahon had changed his in-ring character into a strident Canadian nationalist—which was fine— who was also a borderline racist—which was not fine. As well, Hart was uneasy with the vulgar language that was becoming common in WWF storylines. Then, he says,

he lost the championship belt in Montreal after he had been assured by McMahon that he would be able to leave Canada “with my head up” before losing it in the United States. “I said I’m not going to be trashed or humiliated in my own country and Vince said he agreed, that it was the right way to go,” says Hart. But McMahon doesn’t remember it that way. The WWF owner told Maclean’s that he and two others met with Hart on Oct. 21 in Tulsa, Okla., to say that Shawn Michaels would win the belt from Hart when they met in Montreal. “It was not Bret’s preference,” says McMahon, “but he knew that was the plan.”

Hart, 40, a championship high-school wrestler in Calgary who studied film at Mount Royal College before turning to pro wrestling, understands the gimmickry of WWF strategists who develop good guys and bad guys like soap-opera characters and then decide which will be champ. His father, Stu, was a pioneer wrestling promoter in Western Canada, and Hart is well aware that business comes first. In 1996, he signed a d 20-year contract that would have paid him I $1.5 million annually for three years and £ $500,000 a year for the next 17, when he g would serve in a management position. But I that’s when things started to unravel. While § his new ultra-nationalist character was popular abroad, where Hart was greeted in arenas from Bahrain to Germany to India by thousands of fans waving Canadian flags, he worried that the new anti-American tone— designed to make him someone Americans would love to hate—flirted with racism.

Hart was also concerned that, in a ratings war with the WCW, the WWF has given its productions a more adult flavor, lacing the wrestlers’ rants with profanity and sexual overtones. Hart, who is married with four kids aged seven to 14, had built his character into heroic proportions by playing the tough guy who ultimately did what was right. “If kids are watching Bret Hart on TV on Saturday morning,” he says, “you can know they are in good hands.” But McMahon dismisses Hart’s concerns as a “cop-out” by someone who has not changed with the times.

Former colleagues say Hart had been a model WWF employee, willing to “go over”—wrestling talk for “lose”—whenever he was asked. “I can’t speak for what happened between Bret or Vince,” says Ken Shamrock, a WWF wrestler known as The Most Dangerous Man Alive. “But I can say that Bret is the kind of guy all the wrestlers looked up to.” Hart puts it this way: “I gave the company everything I had. I did everything they asked, often more than 250 bouts a year, and in all that time I missed only two dates. I was a loyal employee and thought the company would be loyal to me.” In a world of make-believe, where the words are usually as phony as the wallops, the Hitman sounds really hurt.

DALE EISLER in Calgary