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It seemed like an eternity until the pastor called me to the podium. I rose slowly from my seat, away from the insulation of loved ones–Julie, our four kids, my friend Marcy and Olympic wrestling champion Daniel Igali. I felt them all take a deep breath as I made my way to the aisle.
My father’s funeral service was held on October 23, 2003, at the biggest church in Calgary, yet it overflowed with an eclectic throng of thousands who came to pay their respects to the legendary Stu Hart, old-time pro wrestling promoter extraordinaire.
I moved slowly, a silent prayer resounding in my head, “Please, God, help me make it through.” I am an experienced public speaker, but my confidence had been shattered by a major stroke.
It hadn’t been that long since I’d been trapped in a wheelchair, paralyzed on the left side, unsure whether I’d ever walk again. Since then I’d been having emotional meltdowns triggered by the most unlikely things; this is common among stroke victims. I didn’t know how I was going to deliver a eulogy worthy of my father and not break down. It was also hard for me to walk tall when I felt so many eyes measuring the difference between what I was now–my body stiff, the chiselled edges softened–to what I’d been.
But when I walked past the pew where my brothers and sisters sat–my limp more noticeable than I wanted–I sensed, perhaps for the first time in our lives, that they were all behind me, even those with whom I’d had differences. Do it for Dad, Bret. Do it for all of us. Do us proud. There’d been twelve Hart kids, and now there were ten. Our beloved mother, Helen, had died just two years earlier. We’d all been through so much, travelled such a long, long road.
This wasn’t just the end of my father’s life, this was something deeper, and I think we all felt it. So many times over so many years I truly thought this godforsaken business was dead to me, but this was the day pro wrestling died for me–for good.
In the front pew sat Vince McMahon, billionaire promoter of the WWE (once the WWF), who’d made a failed attempt to steal my dignity, my career and my reputation. Beside him sat Carlo DeMarco, my old friend turned loyal McMahon lieutenant. They were doing their best to look dignified, but I knew–and they knew I knew–that McMahon’s presence at Stu Hart’s funeral was more about image than anything else. It only made me more determined to climb the steps with my head held high. You don’t matter to me any more, Vince. I survived you, and everything else too. I had thought it was wrestling’s darkest hour when I’d had my heart cut out in the middle of the ring by that son of a bitch. Then the Grim Reaper of wrestling took my youngest brother, Owen, and that was the blackest day.
Keep walking, I told myself, for Davey, Pillman, Curt, Rick, Liz . . . so many of us are gone, so young, and directly on account of the wrestling life. Hell, even Hawk. People told me he had wept like a baby when he heard Stu had died of pneumonia at eightythree . . . and then Hawk died that very night. One more for the list. And surely not the last.
I reached into my breast pocket and took out my notes, carefully unfolding them on the slippery, polished surface of the oak podium. I surveyed the crowd, my gaze stopping at the young apprentices, Chris Benoit, Edge and Storm, who looked back at me with respectful anticipation. Next I glanced at a company of stalwart ring veterans–The Cuban, Leo, Hito, even Bad News–all more ruminative and melancholy than I’d ever seen them. I read it in their faces, the unspoken truth that burying a man like Stu Hart was truly the end of what we had lived for–and too many had died for.
And then the sight of old Killer Kowalski, in his good suit, transported me back four decades, to before Owen was even born.
I am a survivor with a story to tell. There’s never been an accurate account of the history of pro wrestling. All the public knows is what is packaged and sold to them by the industry. Since I’m no longer in the business, I’m in a decent position to tell the truth, without fear of recrimination. With this book, which is based on the audio diary I kept through all my years in wrestling, starting in my early twenties, I want to put you in my shoes so you can experience what pro wrestling was like in my era, through my eyes. It’s not my intention to take needless jabs at those who made the journey with me, but I’ll pull no punches either. Not here.
Wrestling was never my dream, and all too often it was my nightmare. Yet ingrained in me from birth was the instinct to defend it like a religion. For as long as I can remember, my world has been filled with liars and bullshitters, losers and con men. But I’ve also seen the good side of pro wrestling. To me there is something beautiful about a brotherhood of big, tough men who only pretend to hurt one another for a living instead of actually doing it. I came to appreciate that there is an art to it. In contrast to my father, who loved to proudly tell people who the real tough guys, or shooters, of his generation were, I can just as proudly tell you who the great workers, or pretenders, of my generation were. Unlike so many wrestlers with their various madeup names and adopted personae, I was authentic, born Bret Hart into a wrestling world I couldn’t escape. I can’t say life’s been easy, but I can say it’s been interesting.
I’ve always thought of myself as a quiet, easygoing kind of guy, and I believe I was well respected by most of my peers. Some have labelled me as arrogant, and others say I lacked charisma. Admittedly, I wasn’t the best talker or mic man in the business, but I more than made up for it with my technical proficiency in the ring. I don’t think anyone can rightly dispute that I was a wrestler who put the art first and gave everything I had to the business–and to the fans.
I’ve always been grateful to have been a world champion who actually did travel the world. People from all walks of life, from New York to Nuremberg, from Calgary to Kyoto, have told me that I inspired them in some way and that I represented everything that was decent about pro wrestling, the way it used to be, when there was still honour in it. It seems like all the world loves an honest battler.
I worked hard to bring out the best in my opponents. I gratefully acknowledge the hundreds of wrestlers I worked with in thousands of matches over twentythree years, and am proud that I never injured another wrestler to the point that he couldn’t work the next day. Regrettably, I can’t say the same about some of those who worked with me. I took it as a challenge to have a good match with anybody. I respected both the greenhorn jobbers, whose role it was to lose or put me over, and the old-timers, the big tough men of wrestling who allowed me the honour of standing over them with my hand raised. I refused to lose to a fellow wrestler only once in my career, and that was because he refused to do the same for me and others.
The public record is filled with false impressions of me from those who think they know me. Sadly, that includes some members of my own family. My youth wasn’t as loving and sweet as the fable that’s been perpetuated in wrestling lore. I’ve been hurt and betrayed by some of my brothers and sisters, yet I don’t feel I ever let them down. Some of them sometimes behave as though they begrudge what I’ve achieved, even though I’ve paid my dues in ways they can’t even imagine. The truth is, my family knows very little about me.
It wasn’t easy growing up the eighth of twelve kids, with seven brothers and four sisters. As a child I was drawn to my sweet mother and intimidated by my gruff father. Stu had a temper so fierce that some would consider his corporal punishment child abuse. Too many times I limped around bruised and battered, my eyeballs red and ruptured because of his discipline. On more than a few occasions I thought I was going to die before he was done with me. Often, as I was on the verge of blacking out from some choke hold of Stu’s, he’d huff, “You’ve breathed your last breath.”
My father was two different people. At an early age I began to call one of them Stu, and I was terrified of him. Dad was the father I loved. When I was little I used to think Stu overlooked the bad behaviour of his favourite kids and ignored the goodness in the kids who didn’t matter as much to him. Looking back I can see that he was hardest on the ones he thought had the most potential. He instilled in me a tenacious drive to succeed by implanting in me his own strong fear of failure. For most of my youth, he teetered on the brink of bankruptcy while I feared becoming the first Hart kid to fail a grade in school. My empathy with his fear connected us.
Like my father, I developed at least a couple of alter egos. At home I kept to myself and generally did whatever my older brothers told me to do; it was just easier that way. At my father’s wrestling shows every Friday night, I played Joe Cool, popular with the girls and on top of the world–all part of the show. At school I was shy, but the fights were real. All the Hart kids were bullied for wearing hand-me-downs, and I was always scrapping to defend the family honour. The wrestling fans on Friday nights had no idea that I often attended school wearing shorts in the winter because that’s all I had, or that I got my first pair of new runners when I was fourteen.
Later on in life I was one guy on the road, another at home and yet another in the ring. Which on...
Written without collaborators and based on decades of tape recordings he made throughout his career, HITMAN is Bret Hart's brutally honest, perceptive and startling account of his life in and out of the ring that proves once and for all that great things come in pink tights.
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