Two Good Bretts

Brett Whitehead
July 27, 2012

M
y good friend Matt proposes a theory that that are two primary experiences in life. Great experiences that are poor stories and terrible experiences that are amazing stories. For an example of the former, Matt, Ray OíConnor and I play in a band that hired a male stripper to show up at one of our gigs dressed like a police officer. Our plan was that he would pretend to be a cop, and then start dancing and stripping once everyone believed they were getting arrested. To sweeten the deal, we chose a bar known for its liberal allowance of pot smoking and underage drinking. Unfortunately, the stripper terrified the crowd and no one was able to fully appreciate the joke except for us. Great experience, not so great story. In the same token, two years ago, Matt asked Ray and I to buy $50 tickets to a Weird Al Yankovick concert for his birthday. Inexplicably, Weird Al decided to play only original music that night, and the show was undoubtedly the worst show I ever attended. Terrible experience, but a story that always gets a laugh in hindsight. Iím not sure where this story will qualify, but I suspect under the former. To improve that classification and hopefully hit a sweet spot somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, I will add proper context to express why I think this is so funny. This is the story of how I got Bret “the Hitman” Hartís autograph.

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My enjoyment of professional wrestling has been covered ad nauseum on this website, so it should come as no surprise that three different people contacted me in the Spring of 2012 to inform me that the minor league baseball affiliate in Wilmington, Delaware was having “Wrestling Night” on June 14th and that Bret ďthe HitmanĒ Hart was signing autographs. Bret Hart was my favorite wrestler growing up, primarily because we shared the same first name. While that may seem naÔve, the only famous people named Brett in the mid to late 80ís were Brett Butler of Grace Under Fire, [see http://www.fearlessbooks.com/fsBButler.htm], and Brett Butler, light-hitting Cleveland Indians outfielder [see http://www.baseball-reference.com/…/butlebr01.shtml]. Faced with a dearth of proper role models, Bret Hart was, and probably still is, the best “famous Bret(t)” in my lifetime [see http://deadspin.com/…/brett-favre-once-sent-me-cock-shots-not-a-love-story].

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Raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Bret Hart belonged to the premier pro wrestling family in modern history. Stu Hart, Bretís father, ran Stampede Wrestling, a wildly successful promotion during the regional days of professional wrestling, which was what existed before WWF developed the national monopoly it possesses today. Stu Hart is also known for the “Hart Family Dungeon,” a training facility where many of todayís modern wrestlers learned to wrestle, including Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit.

While Bret Hart and Owen Hart are the two most famous Hart family members, the entire family lived and breathed pro wrestling. The males became wrestlers or ran the wrestling promotion. The girls did the same and usually ended up marrying wrestlers themselves. Both Jim “the Anvil” Nighthart and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith are/were married to Hart women. Both Bret and Stu Hart are members of the WWE Hall of Fame and the current WWE roster possesses two members of the Hart family.

Bret was raised to be a wrestler and succeeded beyond even the lofty expectations established by the legacy of his family. Bret held 32 championships during his career, including seven Heavyweight Title reigns. Listed as 6’1”, Bret Hart was the first “undersized” wrestler to break through professional wrestling’s glass ceiling and reach professional and main stream success without being 7 feet tall and cut like a bodybuilder. Bret’s moniker was the “excellence of execution,” which was represented in his crisp wrestling style and impeccable storytelling within the ring. All of these facts, however, were rendered totally irrelevant because of one labor dispute in the late 1990s.

****

There are few things more inconsequential than minor league baseball. Results, by and large, mean nothing. The games serve only as a showcase of the individual players who hope their stay in the minor leagues is a stepping stone to fame and fortune in the major leagues. The forest is irrelevant to the visibility of the trees.
There are “fans” of minor league baseball; however, I cannot see the reward in that fandom. Best case scenario, the best player(s) outplay the competition and are taken away to the next level of success. To compensate for this inherent paradox, minor league baseball focuses on making the experience of going to the ballpark more of an attraction than the game on the field. For example, the Wilmington Blue Rocks have two mascots. One is a moose and the other is a gigantic piece of celery that dances on the field when the Blue Rocks score. College interns traverse through the stands and give prizes. Itís easy to be entertained, even if the product on the field lacks in personal investment. In addition, the cost of both tickets and concessions are infinitely less expensive than the larger conglomerate 30 minutes up the road at Citizens Bank Park. This environment appeals to two subsets of people. People who donít like baseball and young children.

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I believe that most casual, friendly arguments center on when something that is “a favorite” being mistaken as “the best.” The aforementioned Matt in paragraph one has said multiple times that the greatest rap song ever is “Same Song” by Digital Underground. I, of course, think this is crazy. That song may be Matt’s favorite song, but there is no way it is the best rap song of all time. Matt and I argue about this a lot.

When I am asked who are the top five greatest wrestlers of all time, my list goes Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and the Undertaker. Conspicuous by his absence is Bret Hart, who is my “Same Song.” Bret Hart is one of my favorite wrestlers, but there is no way he eclipses any of the esteemed names listed above. Even then, Bret Hart is barely within my top 5 favorite wrestlers. On both lists, Bret Hart is well behind Shawn Michaels, which is total bullshit.

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On June 14, 2012, I arrived the Wilmington Blue Rocks’ stadium with two friends who were at best marginally interested in both baseball and professional wrestling. We splurged for $11.00 box seats, although, I quickly realized the $4.00 seat upgrade was not worth it once I saw the line for Bret Hartís autograph. While the Blue Rocks’ stadium is not large in any respect (capacity of approximately 6,500 people), the line ominously wrapped around the entire concourse. I knew waiting in line would be a long wait, but assumed it couldn’t be more than an hour. To pass the time, I purchased a 24 oz. Bud Light Lime and took my place in line. At 7 pm, I bet my friend that I would be in my seat with an autograph by 8 o’clock at the latest.

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In the late 90’s, professional wrestling experienced an unprecedented boom in popularity. I suppose you could take issue with the “unprecedented” portion of the last sentence; however, the amount of success the professional wrestling industry experienced during that period is crazy to think about in hindsight. The era of Hulk Hogan had long-since crested and there was nothing that could have anticipated the popularity boom of Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock. More noteworthy is that the five years preceding that boom is remembered solely for its unpopularity. WWF and their primary rival WCW were in the midst of a recession where income and public interest were at an all-time low. While Steve Austin and the Rock reigned over wrestlingís renaissance, the title of “best wrestler alive” during this period was Bret “the Hitman” Hart.

Amidst the multitude of accolades and professional respect, it is undisputed that Bret Hart was the best wrestler of a weak era of professional wrestling. In 1996, Bret Hart wrestled Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 12 in what many argue is the greatest match in Wrestlemania history. The total number of pay per view buys for that event was 480,000. By contrast, Wrestlemania 26 was held in 2000 at the height of wrestling’s most recent popularity. This event was characterized by (1) being one of the only Wrestlemanias which ended with a “bad guy” winning, (2) the only Wrestlemania that did not feature a classic one-on-one match; and (3) total, utter crap [see http://slam.canoe.ca/…/apr3_wrestlemania.html]. Even still, the event was purchased by 940,000 households, nearly doubling one of the best Wrestlemanias in history [see http://www.groupsrv.com/hobby/about655218.html].

I should note that the significance of Bret Hartís legacy is not defined by missing the bus on wrestling’s popularity boom, as there is nothing significant about being the big fish in a small pond. Hakeem Olajuwon, the Hall of Fame center for the Houston Rockets, is not more or less noteworthy because he won two Championships during Michael Jordanís retirement any more than Two and a Half Men is noteworthy for being the number one comedy during a period when reality television has neutered the comedic sitcom. What makes Bret Hart noteworthy is how patently unfair and tragic his career became at its conclusion and that is why Bret Hartís career is more interesting than Ric Flair, Steve Austin, and ultimately, Shawn Michaels.

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As I mentioned before, the crowd on “Wrestling Night” at the Blue Rocks was not there for quality baseball. The poor quality is generally expected because the Wilmington Blue Rocks are the single A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. To provide context, single A is the lowest level of professional baseball and the Kansas City Royals are a terrible major league baseball team. It could be argued that no professional baseball team deserves lower expectations.

As the line slowly moved forward, I attempted to engage the people around me. Anticipating that we were spending considerable time together, I wanted to become familiar with my fellow Delawarians and discuss wrestling. Despite my friendly demeanor and slowly diminishing sobriety, my attempts at camaraderie ultimately proved fruitless. This was disappointing to me because during my trip to Wrestlemania, everyone wanted to talk about wrestling. You couldnít go to a restaurant without having a 20 minute conversation with a stranger about the historical significance of Randy Orton. But at the Blue Rocks game, the adults were in line because their kids wanted autographs from a wrestler, and none of the kids knew who Bret Hart was. I tried to discuss Bret Hartís legacy with a mother in her early forties and her 10 year old son, but neither of them remembered Summerslam 1991, so I just went back to getting drunk alone [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9llXNkA1Ts&feature=related]

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This may not come as a surprise, but Canadians love professional wrestling. It fits into the Canadian zeitgeist of weird pop culture interests, like curling and Bare Naked Ladies. Whereas the American interest in professional wrestling was still growing in 1997, the Canadian interest at this time was at a frenzy due to a wrestling storyline that was antithetical to the foundation of wrestling fandom.

At its core, the purpose of wrestling is to get the entire crowd to root in unison for one wrestler, while deriding the other. Pro Wrestling is not regular sports, where there is equal rooting on both sides. By design, wrestling seeks to avoid differentiating preferences.

There have been exceptions to this rule in the past, but none more apparent than the United States vs. Canada storyline that the WWF featured in 1997. During this time, Bret Hart and his family, all proud Canadians, had fallen out of favor with the general WWF audience. To antagonize the crowd, Bret Hart attacked “U.S. values” and claimed that Canada was a superior country with superior citizens. Now, I should mention that anti-American storylines are nothing new. St. Slaughter was an Iraqi sympathizer character in the main event of Wrestlemania VII, which was held during Operation Desert Storm [see, specifically the poster featuring Hulk Hogan waiving the American Flag, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WrestleMania_VII]. Muhammad Hassan was a Arab wrestler in the mid-2000s who was removed from television after his wildly insensitive “Arab terrorist” character did not sit well with post 9/11 society [see http://slam.canoe.ca/…/03/27/17775686.html]. What made Bret Hartís story unique was that the anti-American character had a hometown that supported him unconditionally. Canadian wrestlers were booed in the United States, but then the United States wrestlers were treated as villains when the WWF went to Canada.

While this experience is familiar in all sports generally, I can assure you it is very odd in the world of professional wrestling. During this time, I watched a match where the Canadian crowd was loudly rooting for the opposite outcome than I was at home. Bret Hart, the jerk who had been booed relentlessly in Michigan, was now a superhero. Rising superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin had garbage thrown at him. When Bret Hart and his Canadian brethren ended up victorious over the American wrestlers, the place exploded with joy, while I sulked at home.

Now generally, I have no issue with Canada. I went there at age 19 and enjoyed the low drinking and gambling age. My friend and I were astounded by the amount of beautiful women walking the streets of Montreal. At this moment, though, I can remember thinking something for the first and last time ever. Professional wrestling led me down a jingoistic path that I could not escape. As Canadian flags waived and anti-American signs rubbed salt in my wounds, one thought became crystal clear.
I hate Canada.

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At 8:45 pm, the crowd is getting restless. The line for Bret Hart is moving, but in a way that resembles how hair grows. You know that itís moving, but only because youíre further than where you started. Bret Hart is on break from signing autographs from 8:15 and 8:45 and a gentleman in a Hot Topic T-shirt has informed us that Bret will stop signing autographs at 9:45. Bret has an engagement in Reading, PA the next day and has to leave Delaware immediately. We are assured that the line is moving as fast as possible, but we are not assured that we will get the autograph we have been waiting two hours for. Everyone takes account of their placement in the line and starts panicking. It is generally understood in my section that we will probably arrive at Bret Hart at exactly 9:15 pm. I have just finished my third 24 oz. Bud Light Lime.

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Oddly enough, I was in a similar situation two weeks earlier at the Philadelphia Comic Con Festival [see http://www.wizardworld.com/home-pa.html]. My birthday was coming up that week and my friends and I usually allow birthday boys/girls to do whatever they want with unconditional support. Usually, I pick going to the horse track, but decided that going to Comic Con would be less economically exploitative and also have fewer creepy weirdos. As it turns out, I was wrong on both accounts.

The appeal of Comic Con was that CM Punk, the current WWE World Heavyweight Champion, was in attendance and signing autographs. I happen to be a big fan of CM Punkís professional work and thought that getting his autograph would be a worthwhile birthday endeavor. Also in attendance was the guy who played Thor and all past captains of the Star Trek enterprise.

To my surprise, all autographs were at least $75.00 (except for D-listers such as Melissa Joan Hart, who—while not charging $75—still managed to price herself out of the market at $30) in addition to the $50.00 it cost just to get in the building. The lines were also massive. As we walked through the Philadelphia Convention Center, there was a line that was 100 yards along and approximately 8 people wide. When I asked someone who everyone was waiting for, another man in the line bellowed ďSHATNER,Ē which made complete sense. There must have been at least 400 people waiting in line and the autograph cost $100.00 with an additional $100.00 if you wanted a picture. [ As a side note, Shatner’s tent butted up against the concession area, and Jess and I got to see many a giddy comic fan exiting Shatner’s tent while we ate pizza. Again, Shatner was in a tent, not visible to those unwilling to pay to see him, and people exited extremely excited after blowing at least $100. Go figure. -ed. ] I was hoping to get a baseball signed by all the Starship Enterprise captains, but quickly deduced that it would cost would outweigh the equity in an item that only appeals to ironic hipsters.

Although it seemed like a rip-off, I dragged two people to the event on the premise that I was meeting CM Punk, so I gritted my teeth and waited in line to get CM Punkís autograph. I waited in line for 45 minutes and didnít move a single step. Eventually, another man also wearing a Hot Topic T-shirt told us that CM Punk was a tight schedule and that time was limited. Thirty minutes later, the same man walked up to our line, told us time was up and that no more autographs were getting signed. I walked away empty handed, with only this crazy picture to show for my day.


Figure 1: A man in a homemade Bumblebee costume.
Figure 1: A man in a homemade bumblebee costume.

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The Montreal Screwjob is a strange event for non-wrestling fans to comprehend. To assist with understanding the story, I will do my best to delineate between what is real life (out of the ring situations regarding Bret Hart, actual person, designated as real) and wrestling storylines (in the ring storylines regarding Bret Hart, man who wears hot pink spandex, labeled fake). On November 9, 1997, Bret Hart walked into Montreal Canada as the World Heavyweight Champion to face his (real and fake) nemesis, Shawn Michaels. During this time, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had a professional rivalry based on a lack of respect (real and fake). Bret Hart felt that Shawn Michaels disrespected his legacy and Shawn Michaels felt that Bret Hart wouldn’t get out of the way of Michael’s success (real and fake).

A few months earlier, Bret Hart had become the subject of a bidding war between rival federations WWE and WCW (real life). Hartís contract expired with WWE and Hart rejected overtures from the newly successful WCW to remain loyal with WWE (real life). A few months later, Vince McMahon, the (real life) owner of WWE approached Bret Hart and asked him to sign with WCW, as McMahon could no longer afford to keep him at his contractual salary (real life). Bret Hart, as instructed, signed with WCW (real life) and agreed to wrestle one last (fake) match at Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal, Canada.

This is where the story starts to get weird. It is alleged that Bret Hart was asked to lose his last match to Shawn Michaels in Montreal (fake). Bret Hart, consumed with (real) hate for Shawn Michaels, refused to (fake) lose in his (real) home country. To appease Hart and McMahaon, a (real) compromise was brokered where the match would end in a (fake) double disqualification and then Hart would voluntarily surrender the belt the next night on live TV (fake).

While McMahon outwardly agreed to this compromise, his ego refused to allow an employee dictate his product (real). Operating behind Bret Hartís back, McMahon convinced the referee, Shawn Michaels and the guy who rings the bell to end the match early (real). The match called for a moment where Michaels had Hart in Bret Hartís signature finishing move (fake) and McMahon decided to end the match at that point (real), signaling to the fans that Bret Hart had submitted in his hometown in his own finishing move. (I guess both real and fake. As it turns out, this is still confusing.)

If that sounds incredibly dickish even for wrestling standards, thatís because it is. I remember watching this match on television and being confused at the complete chaos that followed after the ending. Bret Hart looked completely heartbroken, in a way that you can sympathize with if youíve ever been lied to, cheated on, or dumped. As the gravity of the moment sinks in, you can see Hartís sadness quickly turn to anger. Hart spits on McMahon, destroys thousands of dollarsí worth of electronic equipment surrounding the ring, and gestures “WCW” in the air on live pay per view.

The aftermath of this event should have been obvious. Bret Hart would move on to the increasingly popular WCW and bury the horrific McMahon, the cowardly Michaels and the now depleted WWE in his wake. To make matters worse, Michaels would soon retire from wrestling because of a back injury and it was presumed he would never wrestle again. By all accounts, all was right with the world and the bad guys, so to speak, would get their comeuppance. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.

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I brought three things in my backpack that night for Bret Hart to sign. The most-prized item was Bret Hartís biography, simply entitled HITMAN.

My dad bought me HITMAN for Christmas a few years back and I read the 500+ page book in about a week. It is a fascinating read, but more for how itís written instead of what is said. During Bret Hartís career, he always intended on writing an autobiography so he took meticulous notes to commemorate his career. The result is an incredibly long factual history on the career of Bret Hart. There is no insight, no metaphors or allegories. Bret doesnít speculate on the history of professional wrestling or analyze the ups and downs of his career. He just tells story after story about what it was like to be Bret Hart. For example, the following is a passage of what happened in the dressing room after the Montreal Screwjob:

I had my friends: [Under]taker, Shamrock, Foley, Vader, Rude, Crush, Savio and especially Owen, Davey and Jim. This whole thing could turn into a damn mutiny Ė or worse!

Finally Vince came down the hall with his posse and stepped into the dressing room.

“He wants to talk to you,” Rick called to me in the shower.

“Tell Vince to get the hell out of here before he gets hurt.”

Rick and Davey returned seconds later and told me in unison, “He says heís staying.”

I told them to please warn him to leave. “If he stays, he gonna get knocked out.” But they came with the same answer.

I came out of the shower sopping wet, with no towel and calmly walked past Vince. I was actually thinking that if they ever did a movie about this, it wouldnít look very good if I beat up Vince naked. As I picked up a damp towel from the floor, Vince dryly offered, “Itís the first time I ever had to lie to one of my talent.”

“Who are you kidding, you lying piece of shit?” I shot back. Shawn now sat crying in the corner.

The whole book reads like this. Just a collection of oddly specific facts in chronological order. This moment is probably the worst moment of Bretís career at that point. Thousands of emotions are circling through head, and he chooses to recall needless conversations and what seems like a joke about being naked. The other recurring theme shown in this example is Bretís complete and utter hatred for Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels. Shawn Michaels is only mentioned in this story to relay that Shawn is crying on the floor. Shawn doesn’t say or do anything, Bret just really wants us to know that ďthe Heartbreak KidĒ Shawn Michaels was a piece of shit.

While in line, I flipped through a few pages and read that exact paragraph. In that moment, the autograph seemed clear. I decided to get Bret to sign on the inside cover ďDear Brett, I hate Shawn Michaels, Sincerely, Bret Hart.Ē

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In contrast with WWE, WCW was experiencing unprecedented success in 1997. Riding the wave of the “New World Order” (NWO) storyline, the WCW drew millions of viewers every Monday Night and demolished WWE on a regular basis in attendance and televised ratings. The NWO storyline involved an invasion of WWE stars (fake) which culminated in Hulk Hogan becoming a villain (kind of both). This story arc made wrestling a cross-over success and was the turning point for pro wrestling’s late-90s popularity.

The addition of Bret Hart to WCW after the Montreal Screwjob was supposed to be the precipice to outright domination by WCW. Bret Hart’s first WCW impact was to be at Starcade 1997, WCWís version of Wrestlemania and a show that would feature a main event that was a year in the making. Hulk Hogan, both the leader of the NWO and the heavyweight champion of WCW, was slated to face Sting, a previous fan favorite of WCW who had not wrestled in over a year and was returning solely to defeat Hogan and restore order to the world of professional wrestling [see http://www.dailymotion.com/…starrcade-97-promo_sport##]. At the heart of this match was pro wrestlingís most basic premise: Create a villain that everyone wants to see lose, and then book a hero to defeat that villain. It never fails and is the core of every main event at Wrestlemania.

Unfortunately, WCW outsmarted themselves. Instead of keeping things simple and giving the fans what they wanted and expected, the main event of Starcade had Hulk Hogan defeat Sting without cheating, only to have Bret Hart claim that the ref made the “three count” too fast, and then re-start the match without authority [see http://www.dailymotion.com/…hogan-vs-sting-starrcade-1997-part_sport]. Sting won the re-started match and was presumed the World Heavyweight Champion; however, everyone in the crowd was either too disappointed or confused to celebrate or appreciate the moment. The entire event was universally panned and seen as a colossal creative disappointment [see http://www.onlineworldofwrestling.com/…/joel03.html].

The finish of this match was not, however, Bret Hartís fault. As legend goes, Hulk Hogan refused to lose in professional wrestling, and the end of the match was a bartered agreement to maintain his Hulk Hoganís aura of invincibility. Hoganís ego got in the way of providing the crowd with a good show and Bret Hart was merely a pawn in the overall production. Had this been an isolated incident, it wouldnít have mattered. Unfortunately, the Starcade finish was a harbinger of things to come. In the months that would follow, Hoganís ego would become more noticeable and the product of WCW slowly suffered. As WCW progressed into 1998, fans became disenfranchised with WCW and tuned out. Once again, Bret Hart was the flag bearer for a business in decline.

To make matters worse, WWE did not experience the hardship everyone anticipated. On the heels of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, and a new villainous Vince McMahon, the WWE began slowly defeating WCW in ratings and PPV buys. Vince McMahon capitalized on the press and attention he received after the Montreal Screwjob and created money-making storylines of his own, where he was an “evil boss” determined to screw over his talent. In essence, Vince would end up screwing Bret Hart twice with the same move.

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Iím not proud to say this, but I have only cried because of a sporting event once in my entire life. Due to extenuating circumstances, I humbly admit my own breakdown on September 30, 2007, when the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Washington Nationals to clinch the National League East title and their first playoff berth in fourteen years. As late as September 12, 2007, the Phillies were seven games out of the Wild Card playoff spot, but thanks to a torrid run of victories and an unprecedented collapse by the New York Mets, the Phillies were going to the playoffs for the first time since I was in middle school. After years of watching them come up short, I was afraid I was never going to see the Phillies win anything and began taking their failures personally. On that date, I watched the game on Jessie Dís bed and cried with joy when the final out was recorded [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-ifJPtRGUc].

My sensitivity aside, I remember that game because of one obscure quote from Harry Kalas in what I believe was the 7th or 8th inning. At that point, the Phillies had the game well in hand and the playoff berth locked up. The camera panned to Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell smiling and laughing on the dugout steps. Harry Kalas, most likely overwhelmed with the moment, gushingly said “Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand! Two good buds just checking it out!” which was hysterical because of Kalas’ accent and just how random it was. As I talked to my friends later about the game, no one remembered the quote except for me and Ray. We still use that line regularly and even considered getting matching tattoos of each other holding beers with the line written on top of both portraits. Our rationale for the tattoos was that we could bump them together and ďcheersĒ the tattoos; however, the prospect of seeing my face on Rayís body was unappealing to Rayís wife and the plans were permanently scrapped.

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Starcade 1997 was not just the beginning of the end for WCW, but it also marked the beginning of the end for Bretís career. As WWE gained more popularity, WCW devolved into a mess of backstage politics and waning fan support. In the midst of WCW’s downfall, Bret Hartís brother Owen Hart was tragically killed when a harness that was carrying him from the ceiling to the ring malfunctioned, dropping Owed 90 feet to the ring below [see http://www.deadwrestlers.net/owenhartdeathvideo.html]. Approximately two years later, Bret was accidently kicked in the head during a match and Bret suffered a concussion [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvcMxmbwS2A]. Due to the failure of WCW to properly diagnose and treat Bretís injuries, Bret continued to wrestle for months after this injury, compounding the problem even further. In 2001, due to severe post-concussion syndrome, Bret Hart was forced to retire from wrestling. Bret would experience further tragedy a year later, when a bike accident caused him to have a stroke.

All of the above referenced events occurred before HITMAN was written and are covered at length. The book ends with what Bret feels is the ultimate injustice through that period, which is Shawn Michaelís triumphant and celebrated return from wrestling after a five year retirement. Somehow, Michaelís back was able to heal to a degree that allowed him re-start his wrestling career. While it was believed that Michaels could only wrestle one or two matches, Michaels ended up running off a ten year streak of amazing matches that cemented his legacy as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. This turn of events infuriated Bret Hart. In the last chapter of the book, Hart writes:

Shawn Michaels found religion and settled down with an ex-Nitro girl. Over time, he seems to have convinced himself that it was me who screwed him over at Survivor Series. To me, Shawn will always be a phony, a liar, and a hairless yellow dog . . . Iíll never forgive Shawn or Hunter for killing the business that so many of us gave our lives for. Although pro wrestling will never truly die, but sic will always morph into something else, the business that I knew and loved and gave all I had to is dead and gone forever.

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At 9:00 pm, I am six feet away from Bret Hart and approximately 75% “in the bag.” I am unsure if it was the Bud Light Limes, the excitement of the event, or my childhood enthusiasm resurfacing, but I was incredibly stoked to meet Bret Hart.

As I approached the table and handed him the book, I couldnít bring myself to ask him to trash Shawn Michaels in his autograph. One, Bret Hart had come a long way from that point and publicly forgave Shawn Michaels for the actions in 1997. Bret returned to the wrestling ring in 2010 to face Vince McMahon in a co-main event at Wrestlemania. Prior to his ring return, Hart entered the ring with Michaels, congratulated him on his success and the two men hugged on national television. If Bret could put his hatred of Shawn Michaels aside, who was I to bring it back up and ask him to memorialize it even further in writing?

I decided on something else that I felt was timeless and poignant for the moment. On a hot summer night in Wilmington, DE, what better could Bret Hart sign in my book aside from “TWO GOOD BRETTS JUST CHECKING IT OUT?” It felt right as I handed him the book, so I just went with it.

I held back my laughter as I asked him to write it out, and then held back even more laughter when he asked me twice what I wanted him to write. Like a true professional, Bret finished the autograph, smiled politely when I told him that he was awesome and shook my hand. As I walked away from the booth infinitely too pleased with myself, he called me back and asked “How did you like the book?” I stopped completely, pointed at him and said “Bret, your book is fantastic.” He nodded his head, signed a few more autographs and then went to whatever god-forsaken area of Reading, PA was paying him to do the same thing the next night. I went back to my seat, watched a few week pop-ups to the infield and yelled loudly at every baseball player who stepped up to the plate. All in all, perfect night.

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Figure 2: Success!  Bret "The Hitman" Hart's autograph.
Figure 2: Success! Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s autograph.

Well, almost perfect. Somehow my message ended up lost in translation and Bret wrote ďTo Good Brett, Just Checking it Out!! Bret ďthe HitmanĒ HartĒ, which is not what I wanted, but ultimately much funnier. On a rudimentary level, his signature is funny because itís a former professional wrestler, so you would assume he would mess it up. I also like to think itís funny because the autograph makes zero sense whatsoever. One, I am presumably asking Bret Hart to address me by the nickname “Good Brett,Ē which my friend Neal quickly appropriated. Secondly, Bret is signing ďJust checking it out!!Ē which is a phrase that makes no sense in either the lexicon of Bretís career or the conversational interaction of everyday life.
Yet, when I asked for the autograph, Bret didnít miss a beat. Iím sure Bretís nonchalance was attributed to years of signing autographs for people I’m sure were drunker than I was, but I think it is the perfect representation of how I feel about Bret Hart’s legacy.

Previously, I mentioned that Bret Hart returned to the ring at Wrestlemania 26 to fight Vince McMahon in what was supposed to be the culmination of their animosity towards each other. Due to Bretís history of concussions, he couldnít fall on the mat or he would risk losing his Lloyds of London insurance policy that supported his post-wrestling career (real). In an unsurprising conclusion, Bret Hartís Wrestlemania match was a clusterfuck of storylines that came off as awkward and unfulfilling [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9XxTNV4z_M&feature=fvwrel]. Thirteen years later, Bret still couldnít get the finish right. But even though the match didnít live up to expectations or give the fans the satisfying pay-off they were looking for, Bret still got to pound on Vince McMahon for fifteen minutes and get his hand raised in victory at the end. Bret Hart may never be the perfect superstar in WWE history, but his clumsiness still has charm.

brett.whitehead@brutalhorse.com
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Jacques Dangereux, app by WildTaters

Check out The Ringer by Camp Dracula,
available now.

The Ringer, album by Camp Dracula