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#17 Bret Hart
A wrestler whose longevity and durability seems to fly under the radar in the scope of the rest of his career achievements, Bret Hart is almost universally recognized as being one of the finest technical wrestlers and one of the steadiest main event talents in wrestling history. A second generation wrestler who seemed destined for greatness from the moment he stepped into the ring, Hart became the most consistent wrestler in North America during the 1990s.
Hart's beginnings have been well-documented, he grew up as the eighth of twelve children and under the stern discipline of his father, Stu, and his mother, Helen, who together ran the sprawling Stampede Wrestling territory which worked all of Western Canada and some spots in the United States. From a young age Hart was involved in the territory, beginning as a small child selling programs outside of the arena. In high school he competed in amateur wrestling and became one of the better wrestlers in Canada before eventually beginning his professional career in 1978.
Similar to Dory Funk Jr. Hart immediately became a popular wrestler in Calgary because of his family history. Since Hart's older brothers were wrestlers he began teaming with them, mostly with his brothers Keith in Bruce. Early in his career he and his oldest brother Smith ventured to Puerto Rico to work in Capital Sports Promotions where Hart learned the hard way wrestling in some of the most uncomfortable conditions in the business. He would capture his first title as a tag team with Keith, winning the Stampede Wrestling International Tag Team Championships in November of 1978. He would hold the title five times in total, four times with Keith and once with Leo Burke.
In June of 1978, a new era began in Stampede Wrestling and a theme would develop, one that would trickle into every other promotion in the world and eventually redefine professional wrestling as we know it. The Dynamite Kid, an undersized wrestler from England came to Stampede Wrestling and won the British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight Championship. Despite his small stature, Dynamite impressed the crowd with his technical brilliance and athleticism, wrestling at a faster pace than ever before seen on a consistent basis in the mostly plodding world of wrestling in the United States and Canada. A lot of astute observers, including Bret Hart, claim that Dynamite is the best wrestler they have ever seen and the average quality of his matches attest to that.
The intense Dynamite became a staple for Stampede Wrestling and as Bret Hart quickly emerged as a can't-miss talent the two would wrestle each other countless times in Calgary, trading the Mid-Heavyweight Championship and establishing Stampede Wrestling as one of the premier territories in the world when it came to in-ring action. The matches, along with the ones taking place in Japan with Tiger Mask and Dynamite, helped push wrestling into a faster, more athletic and ultimately more entertaining product. It would take major promotions such as the World Wrestling Federation about 15 years to catch up to what was being done in Calgary.
In the early-1980s Hart got some key international experience, working for New Japan Pro Wrestling, mostly as a mid-card heel but also teaming up with his brother Keith and Tiger Jeet Singh in six man tag matches against top names such as Antonio Inoki and Riki Choshu. In 1981 he also made some appearances for All Star Wrestling in England and the Catch Wrestling Association in Central Europe. Later in his career when Hart was the WWF World Heavyweight Champion he would become arguably the most popular WWF star in history when it came to touring overseas, and part of the reason for that was because from a young age Hart was exposed at the international level. In addition to his work overseas, Stampede Wrestling had a lot of international television deals and the Hart family were well-known names in random enclaves all over the world.
1984 Vince McMahon was in the middle of his war against the professional wrestling establishment and eventually the battlefield came to Calgary. Instead of fighting McMahon head-on, Stu Hart elected to sell the promotion to the WWF, sending a lot of Stampede talent to the WWF. Hart, along with Dynamite and his cousin, Davey Boy Smith, were the crown jewels of Stampede and McMahon happily acquired them with the plan to use them to flesh out his increasingly deep roster.
McMahon's original plan for Hart was for him to be a singles wrestler, using a cowboy character but Hart disagreed with that idea and instead suggested joining a stable with his brother-in-law Jim Neidhart and his manager, Jimmy Hart. The Hart foundation became a heel tag team and began working on the undercard. In what has become a lost strategy in today's WWE, the tag team division used to have different levels, similar to the singles division. There were main event-level tag teams such as The British Bulldogs and Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik, and there were mid-card tag teams like The Hart Foundation.
In the mid-1980s the WWF's tag team division was perhaps the deepest it has ever been, and it became an underrated asset in turning a regional promotion into an international sensation. At the time it was common for the WWF to run weekend dates with multiple shows each day, and the deep and talented tag team division played a role in having high-quality matches and carrying long portions of the show. The short performances by Hulk Hogan may have been the top drawing card, but the tag division kept the fans engaged for the duration of the whole show.
The heelish Hart Foundation became one of the pillars of that division, with the smooth Bret Hart working a nice contrast with the physical powerhouse Neidhart. Add in one of the most charismatic managers of all-time in Jimmy Hart and The Hart Foundation became one of the best heel tag teams of the 1980s. During his first couple years in the WWF Hart was given two of the most iconic monikers in wrestling history. The first was "The Hitman" and the second was the "Excellence of Execution" given to him by WWF announcer Gorilla Monsoon for his superb technical wrestling ability.
Hart engaged in his first singles feud in the WWF in the winter of 1986, challenging perennial babyface, Ricky Steamboat. In March of 1986 Hart and Steamboat blew-off their feud at the Boston Garden in a sensational match. One year later Steamboat would have a similar match against Randy Savage at WrestleMania III that would receive legendary acclaim, but Steamboat vs Hart at the Boston Garden was one of the first truly great matches of the WWF's national era.
In February of 1987 The Hart Foundation finally won their first tag team championship, defeating their long term rivals The British Bulldogs with the help of crooked referee Danny Davis. They would win their first match at WrestleMania, defeating The Bulldogs and Tito Santana in a six man tag match that saw them team with Davis at WrestleMania III. They would defend the championships against The Bulldogs, The Killer Bees and The Rougeau Brothers before dropping the championships in October to Strike Force (Rick Martel and Tito Santana).
In November of 1987, Hart would have his most high-profile singles match to date against Savage, losing to the Macho Man on an episode of Saturday Night's Main Event, which was broadcasted on network television and began to show that Hart could be a significant singles star for the WWF. Hart bounced between tag team matches and singles matches for the next year, wrestling in a Battle Royal at WrestleMania IV and defeating Greg Valentine and The Honky Tonk Man at WrestleMania V. During that same time span, Hart began getting copious amounts of fan mail and eventually McMahon realized that The Hart Foundation and particularly Bret could become big stars and turned them babyface.
After losing to The Brainbusters (Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard) at SummerSlam 1989, Hart began one of his most famous singles rivalries against Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig, losing to Hennig on an episode of Prime Time Wrestling in November of 1989. The Hart Foundation would also begin working with a new tag team, The Rockers, a pair of young high-flyers who were definitely influenced by the athletic matches that Bret and Dynamite Kid had earlier in the decade.
The Hart Foundation defeated The Bolsheviks at WrestleMania VI and then defeated Demolition at SummerSlam 1990 for their second reign as WWF World Tag Team Champions. They would defend the titles against The Rockers, Valentine and The Honky Tonk Man and Power and Glory before dropping them at WrestleMania VII to The Nasty Boys when Jimmy Hart cost them the match. Following the loss, Neidhart and Hart began to go their separate ways as it became clear that Hart was going to become a big singles star for the WWF. This was confirmed when Hart defeated Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam 1991 for the Intercontinental Championship with The Sharpshooter, a move he pilfered from Riki Choshu and would go on to trademark it throughout the rest of his career.
The match is recognized as one of the best in Hart's career and in the histories of both SummerSlam and the Intercontinental Championship. At the time the Intercontinental Championship was considered the "workers" belt; while limited in-ring performers such as Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior carried the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, the Intercontinental Championship was recognized as being the championship that the superior wrestlers, like Henning, Savage and Steamboat carried. Holding the Intercontinental Championship made you arguably the second most important champion in wrestling and often went on second-to-last on major shows; a far cry from the curtain-jerking status it has today.
The singles success continued for Hart, as the next month he won the 1991 King of the Ring tournament and followed that up with a successful title defense at the randomly named This Tuesday in Texas PPV, defeating Skinner. Hart would lose the Intercontinental Championship to The Mountie in controversial fashion. Jimmy Hart threw water on Bret, distracted the referee and allowed The Mountie to use a cattle prod to shock Hart and win the championship. Two days later, Roddy Piper would defeat The Mountie for the Intercontinental Championship, setting up a match at WrestleMania VIII between Hart and Piper.
The Hart vs Piper feud would end up being one of the most beloved feuds of the 1990s. The fans loved Hart; but they loved Piper in a different way. The two icons, one past his prime and the other about to blast off to the stratosphere, would engage in a bloody and spirited fight in front of a divided audience, with Hart defeating Piper and regaining the Intercontinental Championship.
Hart would continue to build momentum over the summer of 1992 with a pair of memorable matches. The first was a ladder match on a taping of Wrestling Challenge against Shawn Michaels. The ladder match became popular in Stampede Wrestling but had remained relatively unknown to the masses until Michaels and Hart had their match for the Intercontinental Championship, which was won by Hart. Hart would end up main-eventing his first PPV, SummerSlam 1992, by defending the title against The British Bulldog (Davey Boy Smith). The match took place at Wembley Stadium in London and drew over 80,000 fans, with Smith defeating Hart with a wonderful roll-up to capture the championship. The match received numerous awards and Hart has said it was the favorite match of his career. It also proved that Hart was capable of drawing a huge crowd, especially overseas, and that he could be the lead babyface for the promotion.
The success of SummerSlam likely led to Hart getting promoted to the main event and eventually capturing the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Hart would win his first championship from Ric Flair, at a show in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Flair was on the way out of an unhappy alliance with the WWF and agreed to put over Hart. Hart would successfully defend his championship against Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series 1992 and against Razor Ramon at the 1993 Royal Rumble. Hart would drop the championship at WrestleMania IX, falling in the main event to Yokozuna.
It has been often stated that the reason Hart finally got his chance to be a main event talent and the world champion was because at the time Vince McMahon was in the middle of a struggle with the federal government about supplying WWF performers with steroids. To counter the pressure being put on him by the court, he needed to put the championship on a guy that was clearly not on steroids, so Hart got the championship and became the face of the company. In reality that is probably a bit of an overstatement; the fans had tired of muscled-up stars who were limited workers and instead pined for faster, more athletic matches. Hart was rapidly becoming the most popular babyface in the company and it was only logical to put the championship on him.
What a lot of people forget about Hart was that he wasn't necessarily a young wrestler when he first captured the world title; he was 35 years and had already been wrestling for around 15 years. Most fans only really remember Hart's career from his reigns as Intercontinental Champion on, but he had accomplished so much before that, including being a tremendous tag team wrestler and anchoring one of the more prominent wrestling territories in the industry. Hart may have only had a five or six year run as a top guy in wrestling, but his resume is much thicker than that.
Hart got embroiled in a behind-the-scenes controversy with Hulk Hogan following WrestleMania. The story goes that Hart agreed to drop the championship to Yokozuna and allow Hogan to run-in and capture the title right after Yokozuna had won it (which he ended up doing) because Hogan agreed to drop the title back to Hart. Getting a rub from Hogan, even as his star was fading, would do wonders for Hart so he agreed to do it. The problems arose when Hogan allegedly refused to lose to Hart; instead dropping the title back to Yokozuna. Hart would end up chasing Yokozuna for the title well into 1994.
Hart would become the only two-time winner of the King of the Ring Tournament when he won the 1993 tournament and then feuded with Jerry Lawler. After disposing of Lawler, Hart began to feud with his younger brother, Owen, with things beginning to spiral out of control when Owen Hart walked out on his family after winning a multi-man tag match at Survivor Series. The storyline was built around the idea that Owen, who was a tremendous talent in his own right, was constantly in Bret's shadow and that Bret didn't respect him as an equal. Bret played the role of the embattled brother trying to keep things civil against the increasingly unhinged Owen extremely well and the two would have a classic feud.
They would meet in a singles match at WrestleMania X, with Owen defeating Bret in a great match with a roll-up. Later in the evening Bret would close the show by defeating Yokozuna, finally regaining the WWF World Heavyweight Championship that he lost the year before. He would continue to feud with his brother Owen, the two eventually blowing everything off with a classic steel cage match at SummerSlam, which Bret won.
Hart would eventually find himself in a strange feud with Bob Backlund, who hadn't wrestled in the company for about a decade. Backlund, a babyface similar to Hart in his heyday, snapped and made a vicious heel turn, eventually snatching the title away from Hart at Survivor Series 1994. Hart would try to regain the championship from Diesel, who had defeated Backlund just a few days after Backlund defeated Hart, coming up short in a match at the 1995 Royal Rumble in what was probably the best match of Diesel's career. Hart would end his feud with Backlund at WrestleMania XI in an "I Quit" match. WWE management got the bright idea that nothing but submission holds could be used in the match; leading to a match that was much more boring than it should have been and Hart has reflected on it as being one of the worst matches of his career.
Following his victory over Backlund, Hart began to use his celebrity to crossover into other branches of entertainment, mainly acting. In the meantime he reignited his feud with Lawler. By Survivor Series 1995 he was back wrestling full-time and defeated Diesel in a No-Disqualification match for his third WWF World Heavyweight Championship match. Hart began working with The Undertaker and retained the championship over him at the 1996 Royal Rumble and on an episode of RAW.
Shawn Michaels would win the 1996 Royal Rumble and secure a match against Hart at WrestleMania XII. The ensuing Iron Man match lasted over an hour and saw Michaels capture his first WWF World Heavyweight Championship over Hart in one of the most defining moments in WrestleMania history. Hart would then take a hiatus from the WWF, returning to face a newcomer to the company, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin had terrorized the roster with his unpredictable antics and violent behavior. Hart returned at Survivor Series and defeated Austin, which earned him the number one contender spot for the world title. Hart failed to capture the championship the next month against Sycho Sid when Michaels inadvertently interfered. This led to greater storyline tension between the two, who were the most popular babyfaces in the company, which was indicative of the tension between the two in real life.
Hart didn't care for Michaels behind the scenes, thrown off by Michael's erratic behavior and frustrated with the politics backstage that Hart felt restricted the careers of not only himself but everyone else on the roster. Michaels would regain the championship from Sid at the Royal Rumble but quickly relinquished it by announcing his retirement from wrestling, infamously saying he "lost his smile." Hart would capture the vacant championship in February of 1997 but lost the title to Sid one night later when Austin interfered in the match. Frustrated with the lack of justice in the WWF (and in the crowds going support for Austin) Hart began to show some negative tendencies towards the fans, and was beginning to be labeled as a crybaby.
This would lead to an epic "I Quit" match between Hart and Austin at WrestleMania 13 which saw Hart defeat a bloodied and beaten Austin when Austin passed out while in the Sharpshooter. The match is notable for not only being one of the best matches in the history of the industry, but for effectively turning Hart heel and Austin babyface. From there, Hart would become an anti-American heel, one who criticized the United States and played up his legendary status in Canada. He formed The Hart Foundation to back him up in fights and by the summer of 1997, Hart was the biggest heel in the company. He captured his final WWF World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam when he defeated The Undertaker when
Michaels cracked The Undertaker with a steel chair while aiming for Hart.
Behind the scenes things were not going well for the WWF as they struggled under the weight of their battle with World Championship Wrestling. McMahon let Hart know that he was not going to be able to pay the remaining salary on his contract and told Hart that it would be in his best interest to negotiate with WCW. Hart eventually signed with WCW; but he was still the WWF World Heavyweight Champion. McMahon wanted Hart to drop the championship to Michaels at Survivor Series 1997, but Hart refused to do the job to a man that he didn't respect and had admitted to not wanting to do the job for Hart, particularly because the event was in Montreal, where Hart was beloved. While Hart gave McMahon alternative ideas to drop the championship, McMahon decided to double-cross Hart and ended up screwing him out of the championship, really cutting their match short and awarding Michaels the championship. The event became known as The Montreal Screwjob and would go down in history as probably the most controversial moment in wrestling over the last 50 years.
Hart left the WWF and debuted in WCW in December of 1997. Despite being the hottest name in wrestling, WCW struggled to effectively use Hart, debuting him on PPV as the special guest referee at Starrcade 1997 for a match between Larry Zbyszko and Eric Bischoff. Throughout 1998 Hart would drift between moments of success and moments of indifference in WCW. He became the 800th person to join the nWo in April and would end up constantly lost in the shuffle between all of the names in WCW vying for the spotlight. In 1999 he would have two blink-and-you-missed it WCW World Heavyweight Championship reigns that ultimately didn't mean anything. Hart's most memorable moment in WCW came when he wrestled Chris Benoit in a classic match that was presented as a tribute to his brother Owen, who tragically died in an accident before a WWF match earlier that year.
Hart's time in WCW would come to an end when he suffered a severe concussion after getting kicked in the head during a match with Goldberg. Unable to wrestle, Hart's contract was later terminated by WCW. After leaving the company Hart retired and pursued outside interests. For a while he remained an outsider in the wrestling universe, but eventually he buried the hatchet with Vince McMahon and Michaels, even working a few matches with them in the new millennium.
So why rank Hart at #17, particularly several stops ahead of his greatest rival, Michaels? I think the big difference between their careers is that while they were both great workers, Michaels' prime was cut down due to injuries and personal issues, and while he would enjoy remarkable longevity, his window as being the top guy in the company was very short. Hart was pretty much the man from 1992-1997 and headlined more of those shows during that time span than anybody else. In addition, while Hart wasn't the biggest draw in wrestling history, his time as WWF World Heavyweight Champion was significantly better than Michaels. Both men were among the best in-ring wrestlers of all-time and had some of the best matches ever to take place in, outside and above a wrestling ring, but Hart proved to be the more durable and dependable star during his prime, which is why he gets the nod over Michaels.
Next week #16 on the countdown will be revealed, a territorial giant who enjoyed more than a half dozen world title reigns.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
17. Bret Hart