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Hitman's heart to Hart
Member of iconic family wrestles with tribulations of growing up in the ring
By DAVE NAYLOR - Calgary Sun


Bret Hart poses for a portrait Thursday, October 18 in front of the old "Hart House". Hart recently released a new book. (Brett Gundlock/ SUN MEDIA)



The Hitman discusses his new book

At the height of his popularity, it could be argued Bret (Hitman) Hart was the most recognized Canadian in the world. As a top wrestler, he was pulling down millions of dollars a year and was mobbed wherever he went. But behind the wrestling facade, Hart was battling demons.

From a family that was tearing itself apart, to drug use, to being a serial adulterer, Hart had a behind-the-scenes life no one saw. Now, with the release of his gripping new autobiography, Hitman: My Real Life In The Cartoon World Of Wrestling, Hart blows the lid off all the dirty laundry. While in Calgary this week, he sat down with the Calgary Sun's Dave Naylor.

It wasn't easy growing up a Hart.

Being one of 12 kids born into a veritable wrestling dynasty brought a childhood that would have driven a lesser man insane.

"As a child I was drawn to my sweet mother and intimidated by my gruff father," Bret writes in his new autobiography, Hitman: My Real Life In The Cartoon World Of Wrestling.

"Stu (my father) had a temper so fierce that some would consider his corporal punishment child abuse."

The young Hart boys were regularly thrown down stairs and beaten.

"Too many times I limped around bruised and battered, my eyeballs red and ruptured because of his discipline. On more than a few occasions, I thought I was going to die."

Things changed for the better when Bret won the high school wrestling championship in his hometown of Calgary.

"My dad was gruff," Bret says. "Corporal punishment was more common in those days. He was a product of his time, trying to deal with 12 kids all as wild and out of control as we were."

Stu struggled to make his own wrestling association -- Stampede Wrestling -- a success as Bret grew up. It was lean days for the family but the wrestling lifestyle slowly started to suck the youngster in.

In February 1977, Bret dropped out of film school and started down the path of a wrestler.

Some of the best moments in the exceptionally well-written book are about the long drives across the Prairies on the way to matches in Saskatoon, Edmonton and Regina.

One night during a snow storm, the van broke down near Regina. It was carrying half a dozen behemoths and four midget wrestlers.

Bret told everyone to hide in a ditch while he tried to flag down a ride. Finally, an elderly couple pulled over.

"Before I could explain my predicament, the wrestlers rose out of the ditch like the ragged ghosts of Genghis Khan's army and began to run toward the car. The old woman nearly fainted as her husband clenched his teeth in fear and floored it," Bret writes.

As Bret learned his craft, Stampede Wrestling grew in popularity and became a worldwide phenomenon full of characters like Leo Burke, the Cuban Assassin, Duke Myers, J.R. Foley, David Shultz and newcomers the Dynamite Kid, Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith.

Bret learned how to "blade," in which a wrestler would tape a razor blade to his arm or hide it in his mouth so he could slit his own head open during a match. It was called getting "juiced."

He learned wrestling moves and how to execute them without hurting his opponent. He learned how to fling himself into the turnbuckle without crushing his chest.

It was during those formative years that Bret met his future wife Julie at a card in Regina.

Over the course of several stops through the city, romance bloomed and they eventually married. It was the start of a tumultuous relationship.

Nights at Stampede Wrestling, held on the grounds where the world-famous Calgary Stampede takes place, were consistently sold out.

There were near-riots as "crooked" referees gave victories to the "heels."

There were licence suspensions and controversies when wrestlers like Bad News Allen would drive forks into the heads of the "babyfaces."

Bret would tour around the world to wrestle. Each tour left Julie alone for several weeks. Each tour seemed to end with threats of her leaving him.

In Japan, Bret became Tom Billington's (the Dynamite Kid) drinking buddy.

"(Tom) grew lonely, dangerous and occasionally cruel. One morning as we waited to leave on the bus, Tom opened the window, calling and waving over a poor vagrant.

"I thought Tom was going to toss a few coins ... but instead he spit right in his face and said, 'F-- you, you dirty yellow bastard.'"

While in Japan, Bret cheated on Julie, something he would do countless times over the next several years.

"When we fell out of the elevator on the way to our rooms, two cute Japanese girls approached us and asked for autographs," Bret writes.

After signing, he invited them into his hotel room, where they had sex.

As he travelled the world, Bret almost turned it into a game trying to pick up pretty women.

"The lust was stronger than the guilt," he writes.

After returning from Japan, Bret was still steroid free and had increased his weight to 106 kg. But Stampede Wrestling was falling apart under control of his brother Bruce.

During a match in 1984, Bret badly injured his knee and went into surgery.

He was worried because Davey and Dynamite's careers were moving ahead -- mainly because they were bigger from steroid use -- while doctors told him he'd be out for six months.

"I realized that if I wanted to feed my family, I needed to heal and heal fast. I'd have to take steroids."

Within minutes, Dynamite had arrived and injected Bret in both buttocks. Bret became violently ill that night. It turned out the steroids were meant for horses.

"When I was working for my Dad, I didn't have to poison my body, I didn't need it," Bret tells the Sun.

"But when I got to the WWF (World Wrestling Federation), everyone was doing it. And Dynamite and Davey Boy were making three to four times the money I was. If I didn't take them, I wouldn't have a career."

Bret says he used steroids "moderately, on and off" throughout his career.

The face of wrestling was changing dramatically in the mid-'80s. Vince McMahon's WWF was moving across North America, gobbling up smaller territories.

Stampede Wrestling soon collapsed and Bret moved to the WWF.

In 1985, Bret bought a small dictation recorder and started making notes that would be turned into his book.

As he toured, the adultery continued. One night in Oklahoma City, he picked up the wife of a state trooper. Her husband was a regular user of steroids and the pair went back to his room where she expertly injected Bret with steroids before having sex.

"My release, my amnesia, or maybe my anaesthesia, was women. Sex seemed like the lesser of all the sins that lay in wait for us," he writes, saying it saved him from drugs and alcohol.

"I knew for certain that this was going to be a long road ahead. I was 27 and I was never going to survive it if I didn't find some female company.

"I felt truly terrible about being unfaithful. It was so weird: I was on top of the world but ashamed of myself at the same time."

Bret started an affair with a waitress in Newark, N.J., which Julie uncovered after finding telephone bills.

More threats of divorce followed.

Days later, Bret bought a 23-room mansion -- perhaps in an attempt to placate Julie, and his own guilt.

"My fondness for women kept me out of trouble. It may have even saved my life, when you consider how many wrestlers died from their drug and alcohol addictions."

But, Bret tells the Calgary Sun, it just wasn't a case of emotionless trysts.

"These weren't one-night stands. I valued the time I spent with them," he says.

Nights on the road for wrestlers were a haze of booze, sex and drugs.

Bret tells of one party where he entered a room to find a mound of cocaine on a table.

He snorted two lines.

Bret says doing that cocaine earned him the trust of other wrestlers, some of whom saw him as just a promoter's son.

"It was like I had something on them and they had something on me," he says.

His young WWF career consisted of losing to various wrestlers in different cities across North America.

It was a grind night after night.

The WWF even tried to call him Cowboy Bret Hart and make him ride to the ring on a horse. He declined and suggested he partner up with Neidhart to become the Hart Foundation.

At the same time, Davey and Dynamite joined the circus as the British Bulldogs.

Steroids were as easy to get as the women.

In fact, wrestlers lined up to be handed the drugs by a doctor in the hallways of arenas.

Bret says not once did Vince McMahon tell wrestlers to take steroids and is "only guilty of looking the other way." But he's critical of McMahon's decision to ban pot smoking.

Because of that, Bret says, many wrestlers became hooked on alcohol and pills.

"Give them some booze and some downers and they were in heaven," says Bret.

Many went down the road to addiction hell.

Bret says his match against Davey Boy Smith in Wembley Stadium in England was his greatest bout.

His book reveals that after a summer of taking crack, Davey was completely out of it and Bret had to whisper instructions to him the entire match.


"That was the test of my life being in that situation."

The book details Bret's rise to the world's top wrestler.

It shows the pride he took putting on a good show and telling a story; how the crowd was able to suspend its disbelief for 15 minutes while he was out there.

"I was exceptionally good at taking an ass-whipping," he laughs.

There are chapters on the well-documented "screw-job" in Montreal, where Bret was deceived by McMahon and lost his belt, and the in-ring death of Hart's beloved brother, Owen.

The book is filled with heart-warming stories of Bret's interaction with fans all over the world. Whether it was little kids in Israel or meeting people dying of cancer in Montreal, the people touched by the Hitman remembered meeting him for the rest of their lives.

And it seems reciprocal as Bret recalls how much the fans meant to him.

And, depressingly, there is page after page of family strife.

Bret saves his harshest words for brothers Davey and Bruce and sisters Ellie and Diana.

In a phone call after Owen's death in 1999, Ellie screamed at Bret: "You know, Bret, I've hated your guts since the day you were born and I'm glad to tell you that."

Bret says that was one of the more pleasant exchanges as the family tore itself apart as it was hit by tragedy after tragedy -- the deaths of Stu, Bret's mother, Helen, Owen, another brother, Dean, and the heart attack death of Davey Boy.

There were also the deaths of an endless stream of wrestlers -- Brian Pillman, Curt Henning, Rick Rude, Road Warrior Hawk, Eddie Guerrero, Bam Bam Bigelow, Ernie Ladd, Bad News Allan.

The book doesn't even mention his good buddy Chris Benoit, who recently killed his wife and son in a murder-suicide.

Bret still isn't sure how family members will react to the book. He's waiting for an independent review -- from his aunt in the U.S.

Today, he's still recovering from a stroke, but was recently able to lift 136 kg -- a mark he set while in hospital, when he couldn't even lift his hand.

He says he's also looking forward to travelling and even muses about going back to film school.

He's now starting to suffer the aches and pains of a career of being tossed around. He has aches in his joints and terrible lower back pain.

But he says writing the book has been therapeutic.

"I feel free at last. These will be my last words on wrestling. I'm riding off into the sunset," he tells the Sun.

Bret writes: "For as long as I can remember, my world has been filled with liars and bull--, ... losers and con men.

"Unlike so many wrestlers with their various made-up names and adopted personae, I was authentic, born Bret Hart into a wrestling world I couldn't escape. I can't say life's been easy, but I can say it's been interesting."

RELATED LINKS

  • More on Bret Hart
  • Previous Book Reviews
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  • Preorder Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling