Bret “Hitman” Hart

Bret Sergeant “Hitman” Hart, professional wrestler, stroke and cancer survivor advocate (born 2 July 1957 in Calgary, Alberta). The most famous member of the “first family of professional wrestling,” Bret Hart grew up in Calgary, where his father’s Stampede Wrestling promotion thrived for more than 30 years. Hart succeeded Hulk Hogan as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF)’s biggest draw. He earned a reputation as the best in-ring performer of all time and was the biggest star in the sport for most of the 1990s. He has been inducted into the Canadian Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, the WWE Hall of Fame, the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame

Bret Sergeant “Hitman” Hart, professional wrestler, stroke and cancer survivor advocate (born 2 July 1957 in Calgary, Alberta). The most famous member of the “first family of professional wrestling,” Bret Hart grew up in Calgary, where his father’s Stampede Wrestling promotion thrived for more than 30 years. Hart succeeded Hulk Hogan as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF)’s biggest draw. He earned a reputation as the best in-ring performer of all time and was the biggest star in the sport for most of the 1990s. He has been inducted into the Canadian Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, the WWE Hall of Fame, the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame. 


Stampede Wrestling

Bret Hart was born in Calgary, Alberta, the eighth of 12 children in what is widely considered the “first family of professional wrestling.” Hart’s father, Stu, was a former CFL football player and an amateur wrestler who had qualified for the 1940 Olympic Summer Games.

Stu Hart was a revered figure in professional wrestling. He was the head of Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling, a promotion that also produced its own syndicated TV coverage. The Stampede Wrestling program was broadcast in 50 countries between 1957 and 1989.

Bret and his siblings grew up surrounded by wrestling. All seven boys became pro wrestlers, while each Hart daughter married a wrestler. Stu trained some of the biggest names in the sport from the Hart family home’s basement, known as the “Dungeon.”


Early Years and Education

Bret Hart took up amateur wrestling at age nine, spending countless hours in the Dungeon training with his father and brothers. He joined the wrestling team at Calgary’s Ernest Manning High School and won the Calgary city championship in 1974. He later earned a collegiate title while studying filmmaking at nearby Mount Royal College (now Mount Royal University).

Early Wrestling Career

Hart dropped out of university and, following his older brothers Bruce and Keith, began wrestling in Stampede shows when he was 19. He quickly stood out. His physical abilities transferred seamlessly from collegiate wrestling, and he demonstrated a natural ability to tell a story through the action in the ring — a key component of the sport. In 1978, Hart won his first Stampede title when he and Keith were crowned tag team champions.

Over the next six years, Hart won several Stampede championships. He also saw his international fame begin to develop after wrestling in Japan for the famed New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion.


World Wrestling Federation (WWF)

In 1984, Vince McMahon, Jr., the owner of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF; now called World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE), purchased Stampede Wrestling. This was part of his successful attempt to monopolize the industry by absorbing the many traditional, regional promotions. A verbal agreement was reached between McMahon and Stu Hart for a reported US$750,000. As part of the deal, McMahon would hold the rights to several Stampede wrestlers, including Bret.

Stu has claimed he never received payment. He reformed Stampede Wresting the following year with his son Bruce. But the most talented performer in the family, Bret, remained with the WWF. At their behest, Hart briefly assumed the character of “Cowboy” Bret Hart, but it didn’t last long. “Unlike so many wrestlers with their various made-up names and adopted personae, I was authentic,” Hart wrote in his 2007 book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling.


Hart made his WWF television debut on 29 August 1984. His early years in the WWF were spent in a tag-team with his brother-in-law Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart. Hart’s fast, agile and methodical style was a fitting counterpart to Neidhart’s barroom brawl approach.

By the early 1990s, Hart’s exceptional in-ring abilities catapulted him into singles competition. In 1991, he won the Intercontinental title, the second-most prestigious singles title in the WWE, to the Heavyweight championship. On 21 July 1992, Hart retained the belt after beating rising American star Shawn Michaels in the WWF’s first-ever “ladder match.” (The winner must climb a ladder in the middle of the ring and grab the belt hanging above.) One month later, Hart squared off against brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith (“The British Bulldog”) in front of more than 80,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. On 12 October 1992, at an event at Saskatchewan Place in Saskatoon, Hart was crowned Heavyweight champ for the first time after defeating Ric Flair.

Worldwide Fame

Hart’s popularity soared. His signature black-and-pink trunks became an iconic part of his persona, as did his mirrored sunglasses, which he always gave to a young fan on his way to the ring. Hart held the Heavyweight belt various times in the next four years. He succeeded Hulk Hogan, who left WWF in 1993, as the face of the company and its biggest draw.

Hart also earned a reputation as the best in-ring performer in pro wrestling. Others began referring to him as the “Excellence of Execution.” In addition to “Hitman,” he began referring to himself as “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” Few argued otherwise. Hart developed a popular submission maneuver — the “sharpshooter” — and set a standard in marrying technical wrestling ability with the power to read and control the crowd. Hart earned Match of the Year honours three times between 1992 and 1997.


Leaving the WWF

In the mid-1990s, contract negotiations began to sour the relationship between Hart and the WWF. By late 1996, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), a rival promotion started by Ted Turner, was outperforming the WWF in television ratings. It had also poached some of the WWF’s top stars. Despite this, the 39-year-old Hart agreed to a 20-year contract to remain with WWF — the first three as a performer, the last 17 working behind-the-scenes.

But by September 1997, as the WCW continued to eclipse the WWF, McMahon reportedly asked Hart to take a pay cut. He also gave Hart permission to void his contract and pursue a deal with the WCW. On 10 November 1997, news leaked that Hart would be leaving the WWF.

Title-Bout Controversy

With his contract set to expire, Hart’s final pay-per-view event for the WWF took place on 9 November 1997 at a sold-out Molson Centre in Montreal. McMahon wanted Hart, the Heavyweight champ, to lose to Shawn Michaels. Hart refused, not wanting to relinquish the belt in front of a Canadian crowd. Instead, he agreed to lose the belt to Michaels at a later event in the US.

Near the end of their match in Montreal, Michaels put Hart in the “sharpshooter” submission move. McMahon then came ringside and ordered that the timekeeper ring the bell, signalling the end of the match and declaring Michaels the winner and new title holder. This came as a shock to Hart, who hadn’t submitted and was expecting to win the match as scripted.


Was it all planned from the start? Was Hart aware of the plot twist or just as surprised as the fans? What transpired in Montreal that night remains one of the most hotly debated moments in professional wrestling history. Hart has maintained that he was blindsided by the move. However, he was criticized for “exposing” the machinations of pro wrestling by lifting the veil and discussing its predetermined nature. This was considered a great faux pas in the industry.

On 15 December 1997, Hart made his television debut with WCW. He was also voted “Most Hated Wrestler of the Year” by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. In 1998, the NFB feature documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows was released. It details Hart's life, his career with the WWF and his feud with Vince McMahon.

Family Tragedy

On 23 May 1999, at a pay-per-view event at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, Owen Hart, the youngest of the Hart brothers, was being lowered to the ring from the rafters as part of an entrance stunt, when a buckle on his harness snapped. He fell to the ring and was rushed to hospital. He reportedly died within minutes of the fall. He was 34 years old.

The tragedy rocked the wrestling world and prompted outrage from the Hart family. “Owen would be alive if they still did wrestling like we used to,” Stu Hart told reporters, referencing the stunts and spectacle of the era.

On 4 October 1999, just over four months after Owen’s death, the WCW was scheduled to again perform at Kemper Arena. In tribute to his brother, Hart put on a memorable match against fellow Canadian Chris Benoit, a wrestler who had trained with Stu in the Dungeon.


WCW Career

Hart continued to find success in the WCW. He held title belts and headlined prominent events. But he never reached the same level of fame as in his heyday with the WWF.

On 19 December 1999, Hart sustained a concussion when his opponent accidentally kicked him in the head. The injury forced him to retire soon after.

Post-Wrestling Career

Hart has appeared in various acting roles during his career. In 1995–96, he appeared in five episodes of the TV series Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years. He also had a cameo on The Simpsons (1997). In 2003, he was the voice of Hooded Fang in the animated series Jacob Two-Two vs. the Hooded Fang. In 2004, he joined the theatrical production of Aladdin in the role of the Genie; he reprised the role on a cross-Canada tour in 2006.


Health Issues

In June 2002, Hart was riding his bicycle on Calgary’s Bow River path when he struck a pothole, flipped over his handlebars and landed on the back of his head. Later that month, he was hospitalized with a stroke that caused paralysis on the left side of his body. After months of physical therapy, Hart managed a successful recovery. He later became a spokesperson for the March of Dimes’ Stroke Recovery Canada program (now known as the After Stroke program).

On 1 February 2016, Hart revealed in a public statement that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent a biopsy and became an advocate for cancer testing.

Honours

Bret Hart was ranked No. 39 by public voting in CBC TV’s The Greatest Canadian (2004). He and his father, Stu, were part of the inaugural class of the Canadian Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 2006, Bret Hart was inducted into both the WWE Hall of Fame and the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 2021, he became the first pro wrestler to be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.


Further Reading

  • Heath McCoy, Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling (2007).