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The Hitman: Rise to the top


By ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun
  Bret 'The Hitman' Hart is known the world over as wrestling's good guy. In his trademark pink tights, Hart climbed to the very pinnacle of the World Wrestling Federation and ruled that glorious ring for a number of years. Now grabbing hold of the rival World Championship Wrestling ropes after a falling out with WWF boss Vince McMahon, Hart looks back on his life with Sun writer Eric Francis. Today, The Hitman recalls his hard climb to the top and some of his more memorable bouts.
 
 After years of resisting the temptation to join the pro ranks of Stampede Wrestling, Bret Hart finally buckled in 1978.
 Wearing a no-frills pair of trunks and boots, the Calgary kid took to the ring for a few years of hard knocks.
 After that, he planned on returning to Mount Royal College to continue his dream of being a film director.
 "I figured I'd use wrestling as a vehicle for travel for a couple of years," admits Bret, who set out on a gruelling schedule which often included seven shows a week in seven different cities across Western Canada and the northwest U.S.
 "I was big locally but wrestling wasn't as glamorous as it is now -- it was probably one step up from topless dancing. I was always on the road."
 Technically sound from Day 1, Hart continually developed into one of the most complete wrestlers on the circuit. With wrestling junkets to places like Japan, Germany and England, Hart did well to pick up various techniques which he incorporated into his own unique style.
 His high-flying, fast-paced style made him one of the fan favorites but he never struck many as a future champion.
 "The cast of Stampede Wrestlers was so strong at that time it was like the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s -- it was hard to emerge because there were so many superstars," said Bret's brother Bruce, involved with the Stampede circuit in various capacities from 1973 until 1990.
 "Guys like the Dynamite Kid, the British Bulldog, Benoit, Brian Pillman, Owen Hart and the top Japanese guys were the best wrestlers in the world at that time. Late in his first year, he was still pretty green but I remember one night he and Dynamite Kid wrestled for an hour. All the old veterans like (TV host and announcer) Ed Whalen were raving about the match. It made believers out of a lot of people and that was the first inkling of his greatness.
 As Whalen bellowed on TV that night, "I just saw the best match of my life."
 Hart's development continued for six years in the junior circuit until 1984 when his father, Stu, essentially sold out to the upstart World Wrestling Federation. Bret and the boys immediately joined the WWF, which opened the door for increased exposure and travel.
 At the same time, Bret's wife of four years, Julie, gave birth to Jade, their first of four children.
 And although it appeared Bret was starting to establish himself both personally and professionally, he was very unsure of his future on both fronts.
 "I was just coming off knee surgery and I wasn't a very good interview -- I was nervous about speaking in front of the camera," says Bret, now one of the smoothest talkers in the biz.
 "My first match in the WWF was in Hamilton and it always reminds me of that big hook in Broadway they used to pull the crappy entertainers off the stage. (WWF owner) Vince (McMahon) said 'that Dynamite Kid is great and Bret is horrible.' After that I couldn't get a break -- I became cannon fodder."
 The fans in Toronto even booed the Canadian good guy. ("I guess it's that whole east-west thing," says Bret.)
 While Hulkamania ruled the wrestling world, Hart figured the end was near in 1985, just before the inaugural Wrestlemania.
 "I pleaded with them to team me up with Jim 'The Anvil' Neidhart to form the Hart Foundation and be a bad guy," says Bret, whose sister Ellie is married to Neidhart. "That was the opportunity I had been waiting for."
 One year later, the two donned their trademark pink outfits in a bloody cage match in Calgary against the Bulldogs. McMahon was thrilled with their initiative and a year later they found themselves hoisting the belts as World Tag Team champs.
 "Pink is now my lucky color -- it turned my life around," recalls Bret.
 "I knew I finally made it -- I was a world champion of something. And when I die, I figured I had something they could put on my tombstone."
 With mouthpiece manager Jimmy Hart bellowing ringside instructions through a megaphone, the two wrestlers became known worldwide for their devious deeds.
 "We were two of the most irritating jack-offs of all time," sneers Bret, who did more than 300 shows that year. "I likened my character to a hyena. We'd sneak and hide and do terrible things to our opponents. I was such a cool bad guy, you almost had to love me."
 Although he'd finally gained the attention and accolades, he couldn't help but figure his days were numbered.
 "I thought that was as good as it was going to get," says Bret, who would go on to tie Hogan as the WWF's only five-time world champ.
 "All of a sudden, it became huge money and I was in a big city every single day. But for some reason, I was always fearful I was going to lose my job or that wrestling would be a fad and I'd be working for Stu or pumping gas."
 Bret was worried about making payments on a huge mortgage he had taken on after doing his own version of the Jeffersons and moving out of his dumpy home in Ramsay and buying his current 22-room house. So he made a pledge to work hard at staying on top.
 The fans respected his technically-sound wrestling, as did his colleagues who appreciated his dressing room contribution in the form of blackboard cartoons he drew of his wrestling partners and opponents.
 With all the travel, which regrettably kept him from his wife and children for long stretches, he used to laugh about how he could parachute into any city in North America and find the gym, the arena and the best restaurant.
 He won his first intercontinental title in 1991 and his first world crown in Saskatoon a year later. He spent the next seven years travelling around the world defending the title and alternately trying to reclaim it. There were highs and lows but through it all, Bret pinpoints a 1992 loss to brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith (aka The British Bulldog) at a packed Wembley Stadium as the "best documented match of all time."
 Due to the ever-increasing exposure of the WWF, Hart became recognizable in every corner of the globe. He's been spotted and mobbed by fans in India, Israel, Japan, Ireland, England and everywhere else he roams. His immense popularity also caught the eye of the producers of the Lonesome Dove series for which he appeared as Cowboy Luther Root in eight episodes in 1994-95.
 A year later, he voiced an episode for The Simpsons in which he appeared in cartoon form.
 "That gave me immortality," chuckles Bret.
 He's met hundreds of celebrities, some of which he stays in touch with, and has even been a guest of U.S. President Bill Clinton's at the White House.
 A year ago, Bret turned down a more lucrative offer from the rival World Championship Wrestling circuit to renew his contract with the WWF. However, four months ago, he had a change of heart and announced he was headed to the WCW. The move was expedited when McMahon admittedly lied to Bret at a match in Montreal where Hart was unceremoniously disqualified in a match and stripped of his title.
 A dressing room punch-up with McMahon ensued and as far as the WWF is concerned, their greatest champion no longer exists.
 "My history has been vaporized," says Bret quietly. "Out of respect for all I've done for them, I should've been able to leave on a nice note and say goodbye to all my fans."
 However, the true Hart fans, and there are still thousands of them, have turned the page with him for a new chapter in his life -- a chapter entitled WCW.

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