Wrestling news rarely excites me anymore. There is very little in the way of heart pumping rumours since the big 2 became…well the big 1 and its little annoying brother. The most noteworthy type of wrestling news this decade has sadly been hearing who the latest is in a long line of deaths. However, breaking news in the last fortnight made me feel like it was January 2000 all over again.
The news simply read; Bret Hart to return to the WWE.
In today’s age it’s fairly difficult to find anything to genuinely shock and excite a long-time wrestling fan. Yet this was it. Bret Hart, a man who had frequently shown his disdain for both WWE and its hierarchy of Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels and Triple H, was going to return as a performer. To older fans it’s truly sensational news, enough to make the idea of watching Raw (a chore to say the least) a must see moment in the week again. For newer fans they may be wondering what all the fuss is about, so I’ll set the scene. In the words of Antarctic explorer Captain Oates, “I may be some time”…
To many, Bret Hart epitomises the great rise and fall story of WWE. We may have had the DVD’s for both WCW and ECW, yet if ever a mere man’s journey were to fit that blueprint, The Hitman would be your star. In the Hogan and cartoon era of the 1980’s, Bret was part of the legendary tag team The Hart Foundation with Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart (Natalya’s dad to WWE fans or to TNA fans, that old dude who wasn’t an Indian who beat Jay Lethal a while ago). While the likes of Hogan and Andre would be selling out the stadiums and getting all the mainstream press, The Foundation along with other seminal teams like The British Bulldogs and later The Rockers would be the guys praised by the wrestling press. Gaining 5 star reviews and lighting up the undercard, these teams would set a benchmark for tag team wrestling in America which would arguably never be rivalled. By 1991 Hogan’s time as the top guy in WWE was beginning to come to an end and the likes of The Ultimate Warrior and Randy Savage were either being given the boot or hitting the commentary table rather than the mat. WWE needed somebody new.
After WrestleMania VII in March 1991, Bret had become a singles wrestler and at Summer Slam defeated a departing Mr Perfect in a classic encounter to win the Intercontinental title. As 1992 rolled around Bret continued to grab frequent match of the night honours with epic battles against Roddy Piper and Davey Boy Smith. His headline bout with Smith in front of over 80,000 Wembley Stadium fans at Summer Slam suggested to both the audience and the writing team that perhaps Bret could be the guy to lead the company, now that Hogan was hiding low with a steroid scandal looming large. Bret was the antithesis of a Hogan. Much smaller, more agile with his appeal based on giving the crowd a great match rather than a great spectacle. So in October 1992 Bret captured the WWE Title from Ric Flair and embarked on a 6 month reign with the belt.
Now I’m not going to go into finite detail about the next few years of Bret’s career (you’ve got Wikipedia for that) but to this point it was an inspiring tale of a man going from opening tag matches to being the top dog, a tradition still seen today with the likes of Edge, Jeff Hardy and of course Shawn Michaels. I could give the story a Hollywood sheen by saying how Bret took the company to the heights of Hogan and beyond, but this didn’t happen, in fact quite the opposite did. Commercially, Bret was a failure. Despite being regarded as a fantastic wrestler, Bret didn’t have the charisma or larger than life persona of Hulk Hogan. Bret was a great draw across Europe, but the WWE with Bret at the helm were drawing dwindling numbers. Not necessarily all his fault, but his time at the top began when wrestling in general was no longer the sensation it once was.
In a move which would be replicated frequently over the next 4 years, the WWE tried somebody new. In the summer of 1993 they tried Lex Luger. He failed, so they went back to Bret who then spent 1994 tearing up the house show circuit with brother Owen. By the end of the year they went with Diesel. He too failed to turn things around so Bret again got the title. 1996 was the year of Shawn Michaels who dethroned Bret in the famous (or infamous) Iron man match at WrestleMania XII. However HBK was not the answer either and Bret returned to great fanfare in November.
This entire period demonstrated one thing to the WWE. Whoever failed, they always had Bret. While he may not be a great draw or a huge star, he nearly always guaranteed a great crowd response and match quality. In November 1996 though, Bret’s return had been inspired by the challenge of a new prospect. This foul-mouthed rising star would turn out to be the man to eclipse Hulk Hogan, as the number one in wrestling.
Many consider “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to have been partially built by Bret Hart. Stone Cold’s abrasive, disrespectful and colourful persona was the perfect match for Bret’s cool-headed, nice guy character. They brought the best out of each other in every way, yet also paved the way for WWE’s change in attitude. At WrestleMania XIII in a pulsating Submission match Bret rendered a bloodied and battered Austin unconscious. Instead of being greeted by cheers, his victory was met with a chorus of boos as the fans had finally accepted and embraced the anti-hero Austin. Bret for the first time in a decade was a heel. His career, which had basically been going round in circles for 4 years now had direction again. There was the potential of fresh matches and feuds and the beginning of an incredibly creative character with angles based around his feeling of betrayal from the American fans and art imitating life, with his real-life feud with Shawn Michaels being revealed on-screen. Having recently signed a 20 year contract with the WWE, Bret looked set for life. Yet within 6 months both his and the wrestling world had turned upside down.
The Montreal screwjob in November 1997 is arguably the greatest wrestling conspiracy theory out there, which will only be fuelled further by his return. Vince can’t afford him and says Bret can join WCW. Bret says he’ll leave but won’t lose to Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series, but will the next night on Raw (or to any other superstar). Vince, Shawn and Earl Hebner manage the finish which cheats Bret out of the title at the PPV and we have ourselves a classic story.
This ended Bret’s career in WWE on a sombre, distasteful note. This would be dealt a further hammer blow by the death of his brother Owen, in a tragic accident at the Over the Edge event in May 1999. In-ring, Bret’s career had already meandered into becoming just another overpaid face in WCW. A stirring tribute match with the late Chris Benoit in October would be his final great act before retiring in January 2000 due to a concussion.
In the decade since his retirement Bret’s attitude seemingly fluctuated between bitterness, self glorification and whining whenever it pleased him. His resentment over the Montreal incident and the WWE’s continuous reminders of it, demonstrated that clearly neither side was over it. The question was continually asked by wrestling fans and journalists, would Bret ever return to WWE? Well he did work with them on a well-received DVD in 2005 and was also inducted into the Hall of Fame a year later, but he still hadn’t appeared as an on-screen personality and to many, it seemed that would never materialise.
Now wrestling fans across the world eagerly await the January 4th episode of Raw. So many questions, now over a decade old, need answering. What will happen when Bret and Vince collide? Or even Bret and Shawn Michaels? What will his role be?
For now we can only speculate but considering all the hype and frenzy, it surely is a given for Bret to feud with Vince and at the very least interact with Shawn Michaels. Fans have waited too long for Bret to return to the WWE… and then challenge a John Cena or Chris Jericho. As good as they may be it would surely be creative suicide to avoid the Screwjob and the mounds of potential fascinating storylines and promo surrounding it.
To the next big question, what is the pay-off? Can he wrestle? The logical answer would obviously be no. After his retirement Bret also suffered a stroke which affected him both physically and mentally. Not to mention he’s 52 with bad knees and one bad knock to the head could theoretically kill him.
So we’ve had logical, but what about a more sceptical approach? Potentially he may do it. Even with all the injuries and with the knowledge of deadly consequences, you can’t completely rule the idea of Bret wrestling out. After all we once though Shawn Michaels couldn’t ever wrestle again due to fear of paralysis. Steve Austin can also join that crowd. And if broken down 50 year olds can’t wrestle then somebody better tell the Flair’s, Hogan’s and Funk’s (both of them) of this world. The fact is Bret left both the WWE and professional wrestling in fairly controversial circumstances. The ego is such that there will always be the belief that they can do it just one more time. Except this time they’ll be no screwjob decision or mistimed kicks to the head, but a sharpshooter in the centre of the ring and a goodbye celebration done in the right way in front of a standing WrestleMania crowd. What happens between the opening bell and the crowd roar at the end? Again it would probably be naive to suggest it will just be a one sided weapons attack from Bret on a likely prone and bloody Vince. Nobody knows for certain what he can or can’t do.
But to many, it doesn’t matter. Bret Hart symbolises a great deal for WWE fans of many a generation. He’s the guy who was the alternative WWE fan’s favourite of the 1980’s. The fan, who wanted to see the great matches and not the showboating and legdrops. For fans of early 90’s WWE, he’s the guy who made an hour’s worth of Kwang squashes and Doink the Clown skits seem worth it, just to get a 20 minute clinic with an Owen Hart or 1-2-3 Kid at the end of the show. And for fans of the attitude era, he’s the guy who helped build Steve Austin. Bret was the Apollo Creed, the sacrifice to create and inflate Vince McMahon’s Ivan Drago, which Stone Cold Rocky would slay…and make billions of dollars in doing so.
Whether he can still wrestle or bring in a huge PPV buyrate remains to be seen, and ultimately to the real wrestling fan at heart, is irrelevant. Whatever happens, the Hitman has come back home and it’s excellent to have him back.
Bret, HBK and Vince verbally sparring on the first Monday of a new decade? Hulk who?
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