My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling
By Bret Hart
Random House Canada,
571 pages, $35
In his poem Death of a Lady's Man, Leonard Cohen wrote: "I'll never see such arms again in wrestling or in love." It's a fitting poetic filter for examining the deeply emotional life of Calgary wrestling icon Bret (The Hitman) Hart via his memoir Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling.
The sixth-born son of a family invested in wrestling - Stampede Wrestling was run by his late father, Stu Hart - Bret Hart originally balked at the idea of donning wrestling tights. The mere thought of his clothing touching his sister's leotards in the wash horrified him.
Amid such comic recollections, Hart reveals his development into a universal wrestling hero. After a stint as an amateur city wrestling champion, he began working for the family business. By 1985, when the territory was sold to WWF (later WWE) owner Vince McMahon, Hart had landed a spot on the roster, where he would remain for the next 14 years.
The wrestling business proved as packed with melodrama as with blood-drenched plot lines. When a major steroid scandal in the early 1990s hit the company hard, Hart became the WWE's perennial world champion. In spite of the Hitman pseudonym, Hart was free from campy gimmickry; he was an emotionally vulnerable champion, an underdog with whom new fans could identify.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in an encounter during a 1993 trip to Israel, when a young fan dressed in "a crudely sewn pink and black replica of my ring outfit" paraded a sign that read, "NEW REL WORL SIMPION." Approached by Hart, the boy said, "I don't want to bother you. I just want to look at you. You are my hero." This kind of adoration is not unusual for Hart; he is an emblem of strength for the disenfranchised.
Hart also recounts how an engineering student used his self-aggrandizing mantra to help survive in her broken home: "I remember looking in the mirror as a teenager and saying, 'Rosalie, you are the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.' "
Wrestling, unlike other sports, has no off-season and the hazards are numerous. It's a career without aftercare or unions, instead offering an accruing death count. Hart recalls the struggle to raise four children with his ex-wife Julie, a task irrevocably impeded by weeks on the road. Hitman is as much travelogue as autobiography, taking the reader on international gigs with wrestling's colourful fraternity, who resemble insecure playground bullies, juvenile pranksters and masters of late-night excess.
Some familiar figures from wrestling's past make impressions as genuinely caring men, such as a weeping Andre the Giant on his last day of work. Hart dutifully commemorates the passing of nearly 30 co-workers while providing insight into the creative process of putting together a believable wrestling spectacle.
In early 1997, he played the role of the pro-Canadian hero, which displeased U.S. wrestling audiences. He would pontificate on Canada as a leader for having universal health care, questioning American values and the U.S. lack of heroes.
Simultaneously, the WWE's product was growing raunchier, and Hart was used as a morality metre. But that moral code made him easy prey. In Hart's final WWE match, in November, 1997, Vince McMahon rang for the bell early while Hart, then champion, was trapped in his own submission move, making it appear he had given up, a very different finish from what was planned. Hart's apoplectic sentiment is vivid in his recreation of his post-match confrontation with McMahon. He would never wrestle for the WWE again.
Disaster struck once more at a WWE pay-per-view event in May, 1999. Owen Hart, the youngest of the brothers, fell from the rafters while attempting a ring entrance and was killed almost instantly. Hart's tender reflections on his brother provide catharsis, at least for the reader, as he likens the brothers to charging stallions, "steam coming out of our nostrils in snorts."
The painful familial tensions surrounding Owen's death were enhanced by the touring WWE in Calgary, which "lit a fuse to the powder keg at Hart house." Hart's parents are described as proud but exhausted figureheads, drained from soothing the massive family in "an almost infinite circle of concern." There were, however, moments of levity. On a night out drinking with the boys, Hart recalls how respectful his peers were toward his father, and how, after a shot of Jack Daniel's, his father's eyes lit up "like Dracula drinking holy water."
In 1999, while wrestling for Ted Turner's WCW, Hart, then 42, was seriously concussed in the ring and forced into retirement. A stroke in June, 2002, left him temporarily immobile and hospitalized. It was in this abject state that he received a phone call from McMahon. Hart struggled to explain his desire to be remembered by his fans, and a partial mending between the two men began, culminating in a DVD retrospective of Hart's career released by the WWE in 2005.
In an industry with a flimsy lifeline, Bret Hart survived a succession of grievous tragedies with his legacy intact. It is that combination of strife and strength that solidifies his spot as perhaps the last true wrestling hero.
Nathaniel G. Moore is author of the satirical sports novel Bowlbrawl. He is completing a coming-of-rage novel called Randy Savage's Moustache.
A LION'S TALE
Around the World in Spandex
By Chris Jericho with Peter Thomas Fornatale, Grand Central, 409 pages, $29.99
The first undisputed heavyweight champion of the WWE tells of his journey from dreamy boy in Winnipeg to superstar in the wrestling ring.