Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic

On 24 January 1998, the day before Super Bowl XXXII (Broncos 31, Packers 24), former 5-time WWF Champion Bret “The Hitman” Hart made his in-ring debut for the competition, top US promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW), in a match against then former 13-time world heavyweight champion, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

TODAY’S ISSUE: Hart vs. Flair at WCW Souled Out 1998

In a rematch from a WWF house show in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on October 12, 1992 in which Hart defeated Flair for his first world title, the two legends of the ring and prolific champions met again, this time with only pride and respect on the line.

Since the Hitman’s arrival in WCW, Flair was not pleased with Hart’s catchphrase claim of being “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be”. Flair took this statement as a personal affront to his own amazing legacy. The build up to their second meeting was all about the desire each man had to be respected by his peers, opponents, and most importantly, by one another.

Flair was the elder statesman of pro wrestling who had beaten ‘em all and coined the phrase “to be the man, you’ve got to BEAT the man”, and he himself was certainly that man. Hart was fresh off the infamous Montreal screw job only two months earlier, and wanted to establish himself in his new company with a big win over one of the greatest wrestlers ever to lace up a pair of boots.

Long before CM Punk, Hart basically utilized a straightedge gimmick. He was the everyman, the working man’s hero who did most of his talking between the ropes. Never too flamboyant, he tended to his business with little trash-talk or showboating. Flair was the polar opposite of Hart, a jet-setting playboy who enjoyed the spoils he’d earned by years and years of being the best, often with a little help from his friends, and was none too shy about reminding us how great he was.

By way of comparison, I recently took another look at their first epic battle before reviewing the rematch from ten years ago, courtesy of Coliseum Home Video:

The original Flair/Hart match in 1992 was a 30-minute contest of strategy, toughness, and will-to-win. Hart methodically punished Flair’s left arm for most of the opening 10 minutes, until the “dirtiest player in the game” took a thumb-to-the-eye shortcut and started working on Hart’s leg in preparation for his submission finisher, the Figure Four leglock. Late in the match, Hart actually placed the Figure Four on Flair for quite a while weakening the Nature Boy’s leg and enabling Hart to eventually force Flair to submit to the Sharpshooter, earning the Hitman his very first of seven total world championships.

They worked a methodical pace, which isn’t to say the contest wasn’t exciting, but they certainly were in no hurry to tell their story. The house show crowd was with them all the way, buying each false finish and popping like mad when their fellow countryman held aloft the prestigious WWF championship belt.

This was a different match from a simpler time, when Hart’s Superplex to Flair was the only thing even close to a “high-spot”, but the drama of the challenger surprising the veteran champ by hanging with him throughout, outwrestling him more often than not, and enduring every bit of punishment the Nature Boy could dish out made the match a nail-biter. Hart and Flair are both experts at drawing the crowd into their matches, and they certainly were up to the task on that October night in Canada.

Fast-forward over five years, and Hart was now the newcomer on Flair’s turf, just as WWF had been Hart’s stomping grounds long before (and after, for that matter) the Nature Boy had breezed into town for a short year-and-a-half stint.

Hart busted out a Figure Four early on, obviously with no chance of securing a submission victory. He was merely interested in reminding Flair that he too had a fully developed arsenal of punishing lower-body holds at his disposal. Playing mind games with the master manipulator could have been a dangerous choice by Hart, but it was certainly a bold move by the Canadian Hero.

This time they wrestled at a quicker pace in deference to the more HDD-afflicted crowd of 1998, but they also only had 18 minutes to work with, and needed to cut to the chase a bit faster. Just like in their first contest, they worked a test of strength via a top wristlock tug-of-war, which Hart won just as he had the last.

Flair’s inability to control the action through mat wrestling caused him to lose his cool early and take a walk outside the ring to gather himself before taking another stab at the “Excellence of Execution”. Hart’s mind games seemed to be paying off, as the limousine-ridin’ veteran was taken out of his game. The Hitman maintained control until Flair took exactly the same shortcut from the first match, the illegal thumb to the eye, to turn the tide in the Horseman’s favor. The hometown WCW crowd began to “woooo!” for Flair as he took advantage of his self-made, unethical opening and began to work on Hart.

They must have watched a copy of their first match together while planning this one, because so many sequences were identical to those found in their 1992 WWF match. But in a new wrinkle, Flair convinced referee Billy Silverman to check in with the timekeeper so he’d know how much time had elapsed in the match. Flair actually wanted the ref to turn his back so he could low-blow Hart and press his advantage that much further. That was some high-quality, old school, veteran cheating. Flair’s old WWF crony Bobby the Brain Heenan even gave a comedic cover for the nut-shot on commentary, weakly explaining something about a trick knee and the cartilage acting up on the Nature Boy which, or course, colleage Tony Schiavone didn’t buy for one second. Funny stuff!

Now Flair began utilizing his familiar offensive onslaught. He threw vicious chops in the corner, dropped a big knee to the head, and sprinkled in liberal amounts of cheating and shortcuts, like choking Hart with all his might. But the Hitman continued to battle back, stemming the tide of Flair’s momentum and going to work on the Nature Boy’s left leg for two purposes, as Professor Mike Tenay analyzed (Tenay was MUCH better here than in his current TNA role, by the way). Attacking Flair’s leg not only took away the Figure Four as an offensive choice for the 13-time world champ, but it also softened Flair up for the Sharpshooter.

By this time in his career Hart had clearly evolved, as his battles with Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and other WWF Attitude Era icons had given him a more aggressive edge which was evident in his offensive move set. The turnbuckle Figure Four and stomping his opponent’s leg while draped over the bottom rope were both prime examples of the more seasoned Hitman compared to the man who defeated Flair in Saskatchewan five years earlier.

Flair continued to focus on Hart’s leg, and every time he connected it changed the complexion of the match and cut off any momentum Hart had amassed. The Hitman make a rookie error, turning his attention to the ref to question his count and Flair, ever the opportunist, leveled Hart with a chop block from behind that temporarily crippled the Canadian. Flair then cinched in the Figure Four in the middle of the ring and the Hitman writhed in pain.

Hart countered and broke free, but remained face-first on the canvas while Flair ascended the ropes for the move-that-never-hits. But Hart was playing possum, and popped up (gingerly, but quickly enough) and launched Flair from the top turnbuckle to the hard ring straight on his back. This was another sequence that came directly out of their earlier match.

After a few more exchanges, they repeated yet another spot from their first contest, as Flair drilled the chest of Hart with his infamous knife-edge chops and the Hitman responded by dropping his singlet, exposing his bare chest and daring Flair to strike him once more. It was on now – Hart had had enough of the Nature Boy!

Bret used a variation of his 5 moves of doom, then repeated the Superplex from the first battle in their war and applied the Sharpshooter. Flair didn’t last half as long in the submission hold this time around, but he also didn’t have “Executive Consultant” Mr. Perfect to distract the referee as he did in Saskatchewan. The Hitman’s victory here made the series Hart 2, Flair 0.

Since the two matches happened in different companies and different eras of the modern pro wrestling age, it didn’t bother me that they recycled so much from the first match for the second. I was actually more surprised by it than anything else, and I was pleased that they still put on a good show that really made the ppv for me ten years ago.

Any time two great storytellers and in-ring technicians the caliber of Flair and Hart get in the ring together, they’re bound to entertain, and these two ring generals delivered both times they met. Few of Flair’s contemporaries can boast a perfect record against the Nature Boy, and it’s too bad WCW completely mishandled Hart after this strong showing in his debut match. A fresh face could have stood out from the crowd instead of being mired in the will-he/won’t-he crap of the nWo, which is exactly what ended up happening to the Hitman.

It’s a shame Goldberg botched that kick to Hart’s head almost two years after this second match with Flair. The concussion Goldberg caused led to the end of Hart’s career and his long-term physical breakdown. If not for that one injury, the Hitman could still have been good today for the occasional in-ring appearance, and he might have even been the one to retire Flair at WrestleMania XXIV in two months.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

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