Welcome back to another edition of Retroactive Reconstruction! Here we take a look at abortive, not quite there, or downright abysmal gimmicks before we retroactively reconstruct them into something better. It's fantasy booking at its finest! Today we look at a man that could best be described as "perpetually screwed."
I think one of the worst stories in the world is the fable of the boy who cried wolf. On one hand, it serves as a valuable lesson not to continually make false claims to the point that no one will believe you the one time that you do need their help. On the other hand, this story has trickled its way into the societal subconscious in such a devious way that whenever we hear anything that goes against what we normally expect to happen, our first instinct is "bullshit." We think that we're about to snookered by another con man, most likely for the guy's own amusement.
But what happens when we essentially ignore the first instance of the wolves legitimately feasting on the sheep? Or rather, see it happen and instead of doing something to prevent a future occurrence, simply shrug our shoulders and go "Fuck it. Life sucks?" What message does that send to the wolves? They can get away with it.
All things considered, with this in mind, it becomes easier to sympathize with Bret Hart.
You think that I'm going to talk about the Montreal Screwjob, but truthfully Bret Hart has had this shit happen to him before. And we let it happen, because the extenuating circumstances were different and in kayfabe there was a real reason to go through with it, but at the end of the day we let it happen. We let Bret Hart's first title reign in the WWF end under fishy circumstances. And because we didn't raise our voices up loud enough, the wolves at the top of the rock pile decided to end his final WWF title reign in similar fashion. Because while there was a lot of other crazy and insipid things that pushed Vince to pull the trigger on the Montreal Screwjob, in the back of his mind I'm sure was the prevailing thought that: "Why not? We've done this to Bret before."
Our story today involves a young champion, a behemoth, an impromptu leg drop, and one of the worst Wrestlemanias of all time.
Bret Hart. If you listen to him, he was the best there is, the best there was, and the best that ever will be. If you listen to anyone else, you'll hear everyone agree that he is one of the best technical wrestlers that has ever walked the squared circle in the WWF. (In recent years, you'll hear smarks coming out and defending some of his mic work too, a facet of his game that was never quite as knockout as his in-ring skills). All things considered, Bret Hart is one of the legends upon which the modern world of pro wrestling is built. It's a goddamn shame that he was treated so pisspoor for most of the time towards the end of and after his career, though. But more on that later.
Bret Hart started out in his father Stu's Stampede Wrestling Federation waaaaaay back in 1976, initially working as a referee and was not an in-ring performer. Then, one fateful day, one of the wrestlers scheduled for a match couldn't go and in desperation Stu asked his son to step in. So in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the journey of the Hitman began.
He was a regular performer in Stampede Wrestling, and received prominent training from legendary Japanese coaches Mr. Hito and Mr. Sakurada. It didn't take long for Bret to wow the crowds with his electric performances, his boyish good looks and charm, and the hellacious matches he could put on with The Dynamite Kid.
It is stunning to see that as much as the years have weathered him, he still looks like that kid from Stampede. (via 3.bp.blogspot.com)
Important to note is that Bret refused to use the fact that he was Stu Hart's kid to succeed in the business. He faithfully jobbed whenever he needed to, and took pride in the believability of his performances. As he himself once said,
Nobody could take a shit-kicking like Bret Hart.
He'd remain one of the promotion's top draws, until everything was purchased in 1984 by WWF as part of Vince McMahon's empire-building dreams.
Initially, Bret Hart was asked to debut as a singles wrestler in the WWF utilizing a cowboy gimmick, but Bret refused. His reasoning was that where he came from, "if you called yourself a cowboy, you'd better be one." In an amazing move of leniency, WWF didn't bury him on the spot and instead let him join his brother-in-law Jim Neidhart in Jimmy Hart's heel stable: The Hart Foundation. By 1985, he was being billed as Bret "Hit Man" Hart, and the Foundation was eventually reconfigured to feature him, Jimmy Hart, and Neidhart. And Neidhart and Hitman proceeded to fucking own the tag team division.
Proving that, yes indeed, real men wear pink. BADASS pink. (via 38.media.tumblr.com)
They were one of the first great tag teams in the WWF, and won the belts in 1987. By then, Hart was establishing himself as a great singles wrestler as well. The previous year, he had his first singles program with Ricky fuckin' Steamboat, and their March 8, 1986 clash at Boston Garden was included on Bret Hart's 2005 DVD as one of his favorite matches he's ever been in.
Dubbed "the Excellence of Execution" by Gorilla Monsoon, Hart also took to calling himself (borrowing a line from The Natural) "The Best there is, the Best there was, and the Best there ever will be!" He also started wearing his famous mirrored sunglasses around this time, too, though initially they were there to hide his terrified eyes while he cut promos. (Hart himself will be the first to admit that his speaking wasn't what got him over with the fans; it was his wrestling)
See, there was something about this kid that the people loved cheering. Vince McMahon approached Hart asking him if he'd like to turn face, telling Bret that he received more fan mail than any other wrestler in the company. In the end, Vince decided to have his cake and eat it too: He didn't break up the Hart Foundation because they were too over, and instead had them turn face and sack Jimmy Hart as their manager. Sort of like how the Shield just turned face not because they'd had a real change of heart (at least Seth Rollins didn't), but because they were too fucking awesome to boo (at least Seth Rollins wasn't). Eventually, the Hart Foundation would break up, but that was okay for Bret, because he had a rocket strapped to his back for the foreseeable future.
CRANK IT! (via www.wwenews.net)
WHY IT WAS AWESOME
Bret Hart was pretty much Mr. Wrestling at the dawn of the 90's, feuding with Mr. Perfect and capturing the Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam 1991, (their rivalry pretty much lasted their entire careers in both WWF and WCW) defeating Shawn Michaels in the WWF's first-ever ladder match (pretty much giving us the great-great-grandfather match of all MiTB cards), and dropped the IC to the British Bulldog at SummerSlam 1992 in what is still considered one of the greatest SummerSlam matches of all time. He was about to crack through the glass ceiling to the top of the rock pile. It was only a matter of time.
And that moment would come on October 12, 1992, when Bret Hart defeated Ric Flair for the WWF Championship. During the match, Hart dislocated one of his fingers, but decided "Eh, I've done worse" and popped it back into place to continue the match. That right there is a man dedicated to the craft.
And really, the dawn of the age of Hart as champion should've and could've been if not a golden age of wrestling than certainly a silver age of wrestling. After all, we were several years removed from Hulk Hogan's jobbing to the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VI or "HE SLAMMED HIM!" at Wrestlemania III. It could've been something better.
But it didn't. And…say…I think I hear a familiar guitar-laden anthem coming on the horizon. We'd better get through this soon!
WHAT KILLED THE ANGLE?
Based on my PhD in Gimmickology, I conclude that there were three major things that killed Bret Hart's first title run.
First, his size.
…Not how the rest of the world viewed him, mind you. The fans loved Bret. They loved his abilities, and they all loved them the Sharpshooter.
The higher-ups, on the other hand, were a bit more reserved in their appreciation. Remember, we in the midst of an embarrassing PR fiasco for Hulk Hogan who had to take a leave of absence from the company when Dr. George Zahorian alleged to have provided steroids to wrestlers such as the Hulkster. Considering that Bret Hart didn't boast a steroidal physique, this should have been a sign to the bosses that maaaaaaybe sticking with only cartoonish supermen was going to cost them in the long run.
Alas, the bosses that be still had cartoon dollar signs in their eyes from the days when Hulk Hogan could body slam Andre the Giant into the fault lines, so anything that didn't look like HULK HOGAN was going to have an uphill battle. Also, this left the door open for another behemoth of a being to come in and potentially wreck guys like Hart as legitimate champions.
Second, this fucking guy.
It is amazing to me how casually racist the 80's could be. Rodney Agatupu Anoa'i was not, nor at any time was he ever, a Japanese man or a real sumo wrestler. ("Yokozuna" is the highest rank a sumo wrestler can achieve in Japan) Yet they billed him as a Japanese monster, with Mr. Fuji (…seriously?) coming out in a kimono and waving a flag with the Rising Sun on it as his manager. Admittedly, they finagled around that by billing Yokozuna himself as from Polynesia, as if that was enough to convince the clueless 80's audiences that this here was a Japanese man and do not question the matter. (They didn't.)
Yokozuna got a meteoric push, challenging for and winning the WWF title within his first year with the company. He was unstoppable. Big, (BIG) strong, and possessor of a terrifying move (BANZAI!!!! Drop), he was probably the Ur-example of a monster heel (with the possible exception of Andre the Giant) in the WWF. The big guy wasn't a steroidal freak, but he was something larger than life. And that made him worthy of getting a test run with the title.
And to Bret Hart's credit, he did the job to Yokozuna. At Wrestlemania IX, they met up and Yokozuna went over. Try as he might, Bret just couldn't beat the big dog. However, there was some very smart booking involved at the (near) finish. Bret Hart has Yokozuna locked into the Sharpshooter. The crowd is going nuts. Hart's got him! Yokozuna's gonna quit! He's gonna-
The fans were about to get reeeeal salty in a moment, folks. (via msn.foxsports.com)
"Blinded," Bret Hart let go of the Sharpshooter. This allowed Yokozuna to get the pin on Bret Hart and BOOM. There's a heel holding the championship at Wrestlemania.
This is the springboard for an excellent rivalry. Mr. Fuji could tell the fans that Yokozuna is an unbeatable monster, and that there is no one that could beat him. And every fan would boo because they know that that is horseshit: Bret had him locked in the Sharpshooter! He was going to win! In addition to that, Bret Hart comes out of this match looking very good. Sure, he lost, but he wasn't made to look like a complete schlub. After all, the only reason that he lost was because Fuji cheated. It's not like someone was about to come in and render that ending entirely pointle-
WHEN IT COMES CRASHIN' DOWN AND IT HURTS INSIDE!!!!
Third, this. fucking. guy.
Not…terribly difficult finding your favorite "stupid Hulk Hogan face" photo, brother. (via memecrunch.com)
As it turned out, the WWF and Hulk Hogan apparently decided that the heat from the Dr. Zahorian fiasco had cooled off enough that it was time for the Hulkamania to run wild again in the WWF. So Mr. Fuji decides to challenge Hulk Hogan to an impromptu match. Hogan at first acts like he's more interested in helping out his "blinded" friend Bret Hart, but god bless that Canadian's heart. Bret did the job and urged Hogan to go out to the ring and fight. And when Fuji went to hit Hogan with the salt, he ducked and it blasted Yokozuna in the face. Cue LEGDROP 1-2-3…and Hulk Hogan is a five-time WWF champion in an ending that was faster than Sheamus-Bryan.
Aaaaaand now Bret Hart looks like a complete jackass. There's a better way to put this, isn't there?
It's even worse than when Hogan wrecked Sting at Starrcade. Because Hogan makes it seem like...
1.) Yokozuna wasn't really trying that hard when he was up against Bret Hart if he's still got gas in the tank to face Hogan.
2.) If Hulk Hogan could nail Yokozuna with one leg drop and no other offense whatsoever, then what was the point of anyone else holding the belt? Hogan is essentially WWF's deity.
Of course, Hogan would eventually leave the WWF due to contract disputes and other reasons, so he had to drop the belt. And instead of dropping it to Bret Hart who could actually, you know, work a match against a lot of foes, Hogan balked because of Hart's size and concerns over his ability to draw (which is wrestling code talk for "I don't like this guy because he threatens my position") and instead dropped the belt back to Yokozuna. And even then he lost when a "Japanese photographer" blinded him with a flash so that Yokozuna gets a dirty pin.
What had been a relatively tightly-written storyline becomes completely nonsensical and rife with continuity errors, simply because Hogan has to have his way. OR ELSE, BROTHER.
This is easy.
Keep Hogan away from the main event at Wrestlemania IX. That's it.
From there, you continue a feud between Bret Hart and Yokozuna, that ends with Bret Hart getting him to submit to the Sharpshooter. Hogan and VKM might think that only big men can get over, but audiences love a David-Goliath storyline. Once Hart goes over Yokozuna, he's a made man.
THEN you weave in the jealous-brother angle with Owen Hart.
You know those two will bring down the freaking house during their feud, and it's something that could last for a long time. And give Bret free reign to be as passionate as he can be cutting promos about being a brother betrayed. The audience might not always like his speaking, but they will definitely feel for his emotion.
From there, you can enter into the feud between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. If Wrestlemania 10 and 11 could be main-evented by Owen and Bret (with Owen barely going over the first time on account of a hesitating older brother and Bret convincingly going over the second time), let Wrestlemania 12 be the exact same as it was before: a legendary Iron Man match between The Hitman and HBK. And of course HBK goes over.
Just like that, you've got another made man. Owen Hart might've gone over because he was Bret's brother and he didn't want to hurt him, but Shawn Michaels is another thing entirely. A triple threat of Bret Hart, HBK, Owen? That's money. Just wait until Stone Cold breaks into the mix, with that refusal to tap to the Sharpshooter.
In the end, the 1993 Screwjob just needs to go away. Because it ripped away a chance for Bret to prove himself as the top dog in the WWF without Hulk Hogan monkeying around in the background and eventual foreground, it left the Hitman looking like a patsy to be abused. And because Bret Hart was such a company man, he was willing to do the job. That's admirable, but in the cutthroat world of pro wrestling it most likely exposed him to be screwed over in Montreal in addition to the legendarily childish behavior both Bret and Shawn exhibited leading up to that fateful match.
Because if you take away that one blemish on an otherwise excellent WWF champion…then maybe, just maybe, we're in a situation where Vince McMahon wouldn't dare run across the camera screaming "Ring the bell! Ring the fucking bell!" in order to stay alive against WCW.
And another RR Post in the books! What did you think? Agree with my madness? Disagree with my methods? Drop a line in the comments below. For those of you new to the series, be sure to check out the rest of the RR posts in my profile. Tune in next time, when we transition from title season and into angle slammin'!…eh, because we're looking at angles as a whole and not just people.