Pulse Wrestling’s Top 100 Wrestlers of the Modern Era: #6 – Bret Hart

For a generation, “The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be” isn’t just a catchphrase; it’s the truth.

6. BRET HART

Aliases: The Hitman, The Excellence of Execution
Hometown: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Debut: 1976 (Stampede), 1984 (WWF), 1997 (WCW)
Titles Held: WWF Champion (5x); WWF Tag Team Champion (2x, with Jim Neidhart); WWF Intercontinental Champion (2x); WCW World Heavyweight Champion (2x); WCW United States Champion (4x); WCW World Tag Team Champion (with Goldberg); NWA International Tag Team Champion (5x, 4 with Keith Hart, 1 with Leo Burke); Stampede British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight Champion (3x); Stampede North American Heavyweight Championship (6 times); WWC Caribbean Tag Team Champion (1x, with Smith Hart)
Other Accomplishments: Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Match of the Year award in 1989 (vs. Ric Flair – May 7, 1989); WWF King of the Ring in 1991 and 1993; Co-winner of the Royal Rumble in 1994; Member of WWF Hall of Fame (Class of 2006); Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame; Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (Class of 2008); Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (Class of 1996); Ranked #1 Singles Wrestler in PWI 500 for 1993/1994; Wrestling Observer Newsletter Feud of the Winner in 1993 (Jerry Lawler) and 1997 (Hart Foundation vs. Steve Austin); Two WON 5 Star Matches (vs. Owen Hart in Steel Cage at Summerslam ’94 and vs. Steve Austin in a Submission Match at Wrestlemania XIII); Holds the record for most consecutive Wrestlemania appearances with 12; Placed 39th in CBC’s 100 Greatest Canadians List (Between Mario Lemieux and Avril Lavigne!); Author of autobiography Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling; appeared on television programs like the Simpsons, Mad TV, and Lonesome Dove: the Outlaw Years; Never injured an opponent in the ring (unlike some people (Goldberg)) during his career

Disclaimer: I’m going to ignore Bret’s run in Stampede because I’ve never seen any of it. I’m also going to skip right over his tag run with Neidhart because, as good as they were, you could not swing Hornswoggle around without hitting a good tag team in the WWF of the ’80s (even if he and Neidhart did help establish the big man/little man dyanmic teams from Cryme Tyme to LAX to Steenerico use today). And his family heritage should go without saying, so I will. I’m focusing pretty much solely on his WWF singles run, with a backhanded nod to his WCW run. So, you know, viva la career retrospective!

For a generation, “The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be” isn’t just a catchphrase; it’s the truth. I’m talking about my generation, specifically; fans who came to WWF in the period between the Boom times of Rock ‘n’ Wrestling and the Attitude era, the ill fated New Generation period. It was a pretty critical era in wrestling history, as Shawn Michaels came in to his own a singles wrestler and the rest of the Clique flourished, creating future stars like Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sean Waltman. I have to jam Owen Hart’s rise from jobber to the stars to upper mid-carder in there, too, even if his connection to Bret had a whole hell of a lot to do with it.

It was a down period for Vince and co., though, both in business and in product. For every great moment or match, there were seemingly hundreds of lame gimmick wrestlers; enough for a couple guys to start a website about them that has become a cottage industry. Against that backdrop or Lex Expresses, wrestlers with second jobs ranging from hog farmer to garbage man, and Doink and his menagerie of midgets, Bret stood out like, well, a man in pink and black tightes. His no frills entrance (other than giving his trademark shades to a ringside fan, almost always a kid) and ultra technical in ring style stood out from everyone else on the WWF roster at the time, especially since other mat technicians like Mr. Perfect, Ric Flair, and Ted Dibiase had been phased out around the time I became a fan (fall of 1993). Hart was the last real bastion of guys who could have good matches with anyone, which is why he was one of the only people to make Yokozuna and Diesel not look terrible during their runs on top, and get top shelf matches with the few people who weren’t slugs on the WWE roster. That was pretty much just Owen and the Clique until Austin came along.

Which leads us to his oft discussed in ring style. He gets a lot of crap for how formulaic he was in the ring, most notably Ric Flair. Beyond the fact that it’s amazing that Flair would have the balls to call anyone formulaic (I say this as a Flair mark, mind you, but come on!), it kind of amazes me that anyone can knock in anyone else in mainstream American wrestling for having a formula for their matches. Everybody, from Samoa Joe to CM Punk to John Cena to Undertaker today to Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage, Flair, and Hulk Hogan in the ‘80s and Austin, Goldberg and Rocky in the ‘90s, has a formula. Wrestling matches are largely built on formulas. The crowd knows what they’re seeing and act accordingly. Occasionally the formulas are broken and tweaked to get a crowd reaction or show that this is a really serious match (Savage dropping five elbows on Warrior at ‘Mania VII comes to mind).

Yes, Bret leaned on the infamous 5 Moves of Doom (a term made famous by one of Hart’s biggest fans on the ‘net, amusingly) too much and could dog it in the ring with best of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that he could make anyone he worked with, from Papa Shango to Fatu watchable, and dragged a blown up Davey Boy Smith through a classic at Summerslam ’92. Aside from excellent one off matches with the likes of Mr. Perfect, Flair, and the 1-2-3 Kid, he had memorable runs with everyone from his brother Owen to legends like Jerry Lawler and Bob Backlund.

He can also take credit for being a significant figure in the careers of both Stone Cold and the Undertaker. In the former case, he helped Austin move from the realm of underrated mat technician to bona fide megastar during their epic feud. Austin got his first chance to really cut loose in the ring(and one of his last, due to that neck injury Owen gave him) at Survivor Series ‘96, and things just kept escalating between them from there, both in ring and on the mic. Without Bret as a foil, it’s likely Austin never would have been able to develop the character that defined the WWE’s boom period. In the latter case, he was the first guy to prove you could actually have good matches with the Undertaker that didn’t involve flat out brawls or gimmicks (i.e., he was the first to have solid to great matches with him not named Mick Foley).

And, of course, there are his many matches with Shawn Michaels. Their rivalry spilled over from the ring to backstage and back again. As the two best workers in the company for the majority of their run as solo stars, they constantly jockeyed with one another for favor with Vince and to have the best matches on the card. They were also pioneers, having the first ladder and Ironman matches in company history. Neither of those matches really lives up to the standards set by later iterations, but that’s the problem with being a pioneer; you get there first, but everyone who comes after can improve upon what you did. In fact, their best match (at least by reputation) was probably the one that came the earliest in their series, and had the least gimmicks around it; a champion vs. champion bout for Bret’s WWF title at Survivor Series ’92 before either guy became so wrapped up in political maneuvering.

Their Ironman match is a particularly thorny thing to judge; it’s an impressive feat simply that they wrestled for over an hour, especially in 1996, but their unwillingness to take a fall for the duration of the scheduled 60 minutes, and Bret’s particular lack of interest in making any of Shawn’s submission offense look good, hurt the match a lot. Also, Shawn hitting the superkick on a leg that Bret all but tore off and beat him about the head with doesn’t sit too well. There were issues on all sides there. Of course, they had one last match that was notably disappointing, but more about that later.

Compared to the colorful performers who sandwiched is sporadic runs on top of the WWF, he was a throwback. Stacked up to the guys who preceded him, he wasn’t a larger than live superhero like Hogan or Warrior, a manic cartoon character like Savage, and he didn’t ooze charisma and style like Ric Flair. Compared to the guys that followed him, he wasn’t the bad ass that Stone Cold was or the verbally gifted showman the Rock was. He never had a gimmick with the mystique the Undertaker always carries in to any match, and he had to get all foreigny to get the kind of insane reactions John Cena gets. He couldn’t combine all of that showmanship and technical chops like Flair, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, and Shawn did at their peaks. It’s fair to say that he was never quite considered the worker that Benoit and Eddie were, either. And, of course, he lacked the freakish size and physique of the likes of Andre, Yoko, Batista, Khali, Big Show, and Goldberg (the oaf that ended his career with an errant boot). He and HHH share a year and change period where they were the guy in the ring, but Bret never had Hunter’s ability to drop dick jokes and come up with enough impressive sounding nicknames to choke Jim Ross. And he never married in to the family, either. Have to mention that. By law.

He was merely a gifted technician who told you what he was going to do and went out and did it. In any other medium besides wrestling, his catchphrase would be incredibly grandiose, but even ignoring the fact that the Rock and Flair blow him out of the water with their bravado, he made his boast sound less like smack talk and more like a plain statement of fact. He was relatively clean cut, (greasy hair aside) and he was one of the last wrestlers to see his role as top guy in the company to involve being a role model for children (although I have to think Cena and Mysterio have taken up that mantle). He has more in common with a Bob Backlund or Bruno Sammartino than anyone other significant figures you can compare him to in WWE history (it’s really weird going back and forth between the two abbreviations, but there is a distinction there, I think).

Sure, he has a famous name that helped him get a foot in the door (well, that and Vince bought Stampede). However, as history has shown, that will only take you so far. You have to be able to back it in a significant way to make it to the top, and Bret is right there with the likes of Eddie, the Rock, and Curt Hennig, in a place where he was able to transcend his famous name and be a cut or twelve above the likes of your Greg Gagnes and David Sammartinos. Jeff Jarrett is somewhere in the middle in my books; certainly good in his own right, but not an upper echelon performer, no matter how many rented NWA Titles he throws in my face otherwise. I have no idea where to stick Randy Orton, since I find him supremely underwhelming but have to admit he plays his role well. Also, he’s pretty damn young to even be in this conversation, world title reigns aside.

Unfortunately for Bret, it’s his throwback ideals that made him the odd man out in the birth pangs of the Attitude era, the singularly turbulent year of 1997. Bret still viewed things in black and white as shades of gray became the new direction of the company he’d been such a loyal hand for, causing the famous double turn at Wrestlemania, which set the wheels in motion for what happened in Montreal. It’s a shame, really that, for all his accomplishments in the ring, Bret is more remembered for the Montreal Screwjob to the majority of modern day fans. That pivotal moment, when Vince McMahon told Earl Hebner to “ring the fucking bell!”, transforming him forever from goofy announcer to evil corporate overlord of WWE, created the Mr. McMahon character that was one of the pivotal parts of the Attitude Era, but it was also the functional end of Bret’s career.

Sure, he went on to WCW and won all of their major upper card titles, but Vince proved prophetic when he said WCW would screw it up with him (not that you needed to be a prophet to predict WCW screwing up something that could have been huge). Bret was worth more to WWF as a member of the WCW roster than he ever was to WCW, as he was a pivotal, tragic figure in WWF lore but just another guy on WCW’s bloated roster. His main event push in ’99 wound up being too little, too late, and not just because Goldberg brained him a couple times at Starcade to end his career (even though he hung around working matches for another month; man, those were painful); in the grand scheme of things, he was just another older guy in a parade of them in WCW’s main event scene, and it was two whole years after the iron was hottest with him. Even the one thing he did in WCW that was worth preserving for posterity on his WWE produced career retrospective DVD, his tribute match to Owen with Chris Benoit, is tarnished for obvious reasons, even if Bret had nothing to do with it; that was pretty much the one thing that made his trip down south worthwhile, and now it’s compromised, too.

Despite all of the bitter irony and tragedy you can ring (and many people have rung) out of the end of Bret’s career, I can’t bring myself to consider him a tragic figure, even with the stroke and dressing up like this. I can’t entirely go along with the idea that he was screwed, or care even if he was in the final, Glazer-esque factual analysis. That’s partially because I think he was being a bigger diva than an army of bikini clad Hawaiian Tropics models with two hours of wrestling training from Fit Finlay in refusing to drop the title to Shawn. That said, I have to believe that even if he’d agreed to lay down for Shawn, the ending of the match would have been the same anyway, solely because it created Mr. McMahon. I don’t believe that was a happy accident.

But Montreal navel gazing aside, I mostly refuse to see him as victim because, no matter how pivotal he was in the biggest sea change in modern wrestling history, I’d prefer to remember him as the guy who could get a solid match out of anyone and great matches out of the best workers he was paired with. I have to imagine that he wants it that way. That’s a big reason why he’s at this place on the list, a rather fitting one to encapsulate his career. He was never considered the absolute best to lace on the boots, but he was certainly in the conversation. Even more so for anyone who was ever 12 years old and had to choose between him and Lex Luger as their favorite WWF babyface going in to Wrestlemania X.

The entire Top 100 Wrestlers feature can be found here.

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