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As he bounced off the ropes, Bret (The Hitman) Hart saw the kick coming.

Even as he jerked his face away and raised his hand to block the hit, he couldn't stop the motorcycle boot from planting itself at the back of his head. He felt a sharp, sudden pain.

This, Canada's most famous professional wrestler figured, is what it must feel like to get whacked with a hockey stick or kicked by a horse.

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"That kick could shake the brick out of one of the buildings down here," Mr. Hart recalled in an interview. "If I hadn't turned my head, he probably would have shattered my jaw and broke all my teeth."

While much of pro wrestling is orchestrated -- story lines, preplanned moves and theatrical wallops with painless props -- the 1999 kick that came out of the blue was the knockout punch for Mr. Hart's colourful career.

It resulted in a debilitating concussion that would permanently keep him out of the so-called squared circle. He battled headaches, memory loss and mood swings, but the toughest wrestling match of his life was yet to come -- the one with his insurance company.

It has taken until now, five years after he filed his claim for $800,000 (U.S.) in disability benefits, for Mr. Hart to settle with the venerable Lloyd's of London and win that payment.

He says his row with the insurance company was emotionally devastating, especially because the during past five years he also lost both his parents and recovered from a stroke.

"With all the things I went through, it was another big, giant weight on my back," said the 48-year-old former grappler.

Eyeglasses dangle from the collar of his shirt and his long hair is more grey than it was in the days when he entered the ring with stringy, black locks and wraparound sunglasses.

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"They subjected me to a lot of unnecessary grief that I think was no sweat off their back," he says of his tussle with the company. "This was all just part of the tactics the industry uses to drag a little guy as far as they can until they give up."

Mr. Hart -- who underscored his performances by proclaiming himself "the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be" -- wasn't familiar with playing the underdog. But in this new role, he wasn't about to roll over.

Millions of people around the world follow professional wrestling, which is more entertainment than competitive sport. The primary purveyor is World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., which trades on the New York Stock Exchange with a market capitalization of a whopping $894-million (U.S.).

Fans love their wrestlers to be bigger than life. When Bill Goldberg, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive lineman, retired from the National Football League with an abdominal injury, his size, shaved head and menacing looks made him perfect for pro wrestling.

In 1999, Bret Hart was on top of the pro wrestling world, holding the championship belt and making $2.5-million (U.S.) a year. A favourite of Canadian fans, he had been performing professionally since 1978 and was a member of Calgary's Hart wrestling dynasty, started by his father, Stu, who founded Stampede Wrestling.

On Dec. 19, 1999, Mr. Goldberg took on Mr. Hart, who is four inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter, in that fateful World Championship Wrestling match in Baltimore. After the boot to the head, Mr. Hart stumbled through the rest of the match and left the ring in a daze, holding the back of his neck.

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"I couldn't sleep. I had a headache. I thought if I could just get one good night's sleep, I'd be okay," he said. "I was in no shape to be anywhere and I didn't know it."

Still, he performed in a few more matches -- with the footage of the Goldberg kick airing at one of them. "There's nothing sacred in wrestling," Mr. Hart said with a shrug.

In January of 2000, a leading sports injury doctor and expert in concussions, Willem Meeuwisse, diagnosed him with a concussion. The muscle at the back of Mr. Hart's neck was torn. It had a hole the size of a quarter and deep enough for the doctor to stick his finger, one-knuckle deep. Mr. Hart said.

"I had a hard time tying my shoelaces," Mr. Hart said. "I had a hard time turning my head to change lanes in traffic. I had a hard time watching TV. I had a hard time with short-term memory, trying to remember where my car keys were, my cellphone, the remote control. I can remember going on mad hunts for all of them and wondering an hour later what I was looking for."

He found himself bursting into tears while watching a shaving cream commercial featuring a father and son, but he couldn't get excited about a major victory for the Calgary Hitmen, the Western Hockey League team he co-founded.

It wasn't until July of 2000 that Mr. Hart realized -- or at least finally admitted -- that his wrestling career was over.

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He had paid his annual $40,000 premium with Lloyd's, and believed now it was time to cash in on the disability benefits. He filed his claim in October of 2000.

Statements were taken. Doctors' reports were submitted. Meanwhile, his mother, Helen, lost her battle with diabetes and died in 2001. Mr. Hart suffered a stroke and partial paralysis in 2002. And his father, who never recovered from the loss of his wife, died in 2003.

After the stroke, Mr. Hart was assessed by a Lloyd's doctor who questioned the veracity of his concussion.

"It was a very emotional time for me," said Mr. Hart, who has since made a strong recovery and is able to get back to doing the things he once loved, including hitting the gym.

"I found the whole thing a humiliating and degrading experience."

By March of 2004, there was still no movement on his insurance claim. He filed a lawsuit in the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench for more $1.2-million (Canadian) in unpaid disability benefits and another $1-million in punitive and aggravated damages for breach of duties.

Three months later, Lloyd's filed its statement of defence, denying that Mr. Hart suffered a concussion in the match against Mr. Goldberg or in the few matches he competed in shortly thereafter. It said that Mr. Hart misrepresented his health in his application for insurance coverage with Lloyd's and denied that the firm had acted in bad faith in responding to his claim for benefits.

"To the extent that the plaintiff has suffered any disablement or impairment from, and after, the dates of the matches, it has been caused by psychological or psychiatric conditions, including depression, which have not been diagnosed as untreatable or permanently disabling," Lloyd's alleged.

In effect, according to Mr. Hart and his lawyer, Lloyd's suggested that Mr. Hart was sad about the death of his younger brother seven months before the bout with Mr. Goldberg, and no longer wanted to wrestle.

Owen Hart had died in May of 1999, when he fell more than five storeys during a wrestling stunt that turned disastrous. That accident culminated in a $21.3-million wrongful-death settlement to his widow.

Bret Hart was grieving the loss of his brother, but he was at the peak of the wrestling world when he took the kick to the head. He said the timing of the accident couldn't have been worse, and it couldn't have been a worse way to end his career. "I didn't want to get hurt," he says.

Brian Vail, Lloyd's Edmonton-based lawyer, said insurance claims involving injuries take more time to resolve than simple property-damage cases. Even more complex are cases of people who have medical records in more than one country.

"I can absolutely guarantee you that every insurance company on the planet, in a liability case like this, they do not like a file to drag," Mr. Vail said.

"They do not like claims to be open long. They do not like them to take a long time. It's not in their interest to keep a claim open."

Mr. Hart and his lawyer, Kenneth Staroszik, don't see it that way. "If you have a lot of integrity and you pay a huge premium and even though you have a really good case, don't bank on it," Mr. Staroszik said.

There was no celebration when the claim was formally settled out of court last month. For Mr. Hart, it was more a sense of relief. Now he's getting on with what he calls a more simple life.

He remarried last year. He's busy playing dad to his four kids. He has a three-part DVD coming out this month. He's getting on with his autobiography. And he has been acting on television and the stage.

"There's life after wrestling," he says, laughing. "You can't keep a good man down, but you can keep him out of the ring."

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