An Appreciation of Bret “The Hitman” Hart

Tom Billington, known to pro wrestling fans as the Dynamite Kid, passed away earlier this week. His influence on the craft of professional wrestling can scarcely be overstated. Neither can the toll his style took on his own body – Dynamite Kid was a pioneer of hard-hitting, high-flying wrestling, but he spent the last couple decades of his life confined to a wheelchair as a consequence. This article over at The Ringer is a great read on his life’s work and the damage that work did to his body and mind, and is a much more meaningful look at Dynamite’s life than I could even attempt.

By the end of the article though, a central question emerges. What does it mean, in a moral sense, to enjoy pro wrestling, and what does it mean in a moral sense to enjoy wrestling specifically when it is at its fastest and most exacting on the performers? After all, Dynamite Kid is hardly the only wrestling performer who left himself a wreck because of the way he worked. Chris Benoit, who wrestled more exactly like Dynamite Kid than anyone else, turned his brain to goo in the process, then murdered his wife, child, and himself. Daniel Bryan had to sit on the shelf for two entire years, and until he publicly announced his comeback none of us thought his return was even a possibility. Japanese legend Mitsuharu Misawa fucking DIED as a result of taking the sort of dangerous bump he had taken his entire career.

I don’t have the answer to this question. I suspect no one answer exists. But it did get me thinking about Bret “The Hitman” Hart.

Bret Hart put the ‘professional’ in professional wrestling. As a performer, he concerned himself with two things above all else – first, with ensuring the safety of himself and those he worked with, second, with presenting his matches as realistically as possible. Both of these things are foundational aspects of what professional wrestling is as a performance art, and yet, when we talk about great wrestlers and great matches, both of these concerns tend to fall by the wayside. We consider them so fundamental that they hardly seem worth remarking upon, sort of like watching an NBA game and paying strict attention to the dribbling.

But Bret Hart is unquestionably one of the greatest wrestlers ever, despite (and in some ways, because of) the fact that he mostly eschewed dangerous spots, bumps, and strikes in favor of realistically grounded mat work and simple, no-frills storytelling. He brought excellent ring work to WWE (then WWF) in the time of noted racist Hulk Hogan, when big gimmicks, big physiques, and boring-ass kick-and-punch matches were the federation’s calling card. That’s still true of WWE in some ways – every argument and complaint posted online today to the effect of “WWE is misusing Asuka/Finn Balor/Sasha Banks/Bayley/Seth Rollins/The Revival/Ember Moon/etc.” is a modern update of arguments and complaints about how WWE misused Bret Hart.

And yet, Bret Hart ultimately rose to the top, winning five WWE Championships and carrying the main event scene through the Fed’s darkest days. His influence is deeply felt everywhere, and yet, he ultimately inspired few direct imitators, to an almost eerie degree. There aren’t too many workers out there these days who make their bones emphasizing mat work and realism to the same extent; of those current wrestlers whose work I’ve seen, NXT Women’s Champion Shayna Baszler’s work probably comes closest. But once Bret Hart made it to the main event in WWE, he opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts – after Bret Hart showed WWE fans what a well-worked match was, the fans would never accept a plodding, roided-up monster again. Diesel didn’t draw a dime. The Big Show was never given more than a handful of transitional reigns. John Cena and Batista had to conclusively demonstrate that they could have great singles matches before they were accepted as top stars, and in Cena’s case, it was begrudging acceptance at best. Even The Undertaker, who was always over, pushed himself to his limits to keep up when he was at the top of cards.

This is the true legacy of Bret Hart. His work ensured that wrestling fans would accept nothing less than the best. (Oh yeah, that’s right, he was also instrumental in making Stone Cold Steve Austin a megastar, but that’s another story for another time, and one that has been written about enough already.)

And now, here are five essential Bret Hart matches for you to seek out, presented chronologically:

      1. Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect (c) – Intercontinental Championship Match, Summerslam 1991: Bret’s first truly huge singles match, and one of the most celebrated matches in the Fed’s history. While it isn’t an all-time great match in absolute terms, it was miles ahead of most every match WWE was putting on at the time and stood out to everyone for that reason.

      2. Bret Hart vs. Ric Flair (c) WWE Championship Match, 10/12/1992: This one is kind of hard to find – it’s from a random house show that was only taped for VHS release, and Hart has openly stated he isn’t proud of it. Which is a shame, because it rocks pretty much exactly as hard as a Bret Hart vs. Ric Flair dream match should. Again, good luck finding it, but if you manage to track it down it’s worth every minute of your time.

      3. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart – Wrestlemania X: Another hugely famous match, and one of the very best opening matches done by any promotion ever. This is also a fantastic example of the realism of Bret’s style – pay attention to how they work the holds and use that early mat work and build a hugely satisfying story around it, capped by one of the finest finishes in wrestling history.

      4. Bret Hart vs. Diesel (c) WWE Championship Match (No Holds Barred), Survivor Series 1995: Remember what I said earlier about how Bret really didn’t take much in the way of spectacular bumps? This match has the most prominent exception to that. Kevin Nash has precisely two great singles matches in his career, and this is one of them, which is a testament to Bret’s greatness as a worker. This one starts off slow but remains well worth it, and is notable again for it’s realism – a wild brawl that is built logically and believably.

      5. Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin (Submission Match), Wrestlemania 13: I cannot praise this match enough. A perfect blend of ring work, story telling, and good old fashioned hatred and violence, and yet it’s still safely worked! If I get started I’m gonna ramble about this match all day, s0 I will simply point out that this match is the best match there is, the best match there was, and the best match there ever will be (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), and also the most historically important pro wrestling match ever, and you should watch it by any means necessary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s