Bret Hart takes pride that he brought realism to everything he did in pro wrestling. Few things were more real in his career than the moment that ended up consuming him and ultimately delivering a life lesson he hopes others can learn from.
The wrestling legend was on the wrong side of the notorious “Montreal Screwjob” in November 1997. With Hart on his way to rival WCW, owner Vince McMahon got the WWF championship off him and onto Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series. Without Hart’s knowledge, McMahon had referee Earl Hebner call for the bell when Michaels had Hart locked in the Hitman’s own Sharpshooter hold, though Hart was not actually submitting.
“It was unfortunate things went the way they did, but I always think that the screwjob was probably my most defining hour,” Hart said in a Zoom interview.
In A&E Network’s new two-hour “Biography: Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart” airing June 6 at 8 p.m., Hart talks about how the events of that day, and the aftermath, left him feeling as if he were emotionally carrying around a “big bag of rocks.” Continually having to answer questions about Montreal and people’s assumptions that it was all just a wrestling angle only added to it. Hart believes his actions showed his passion for his career, his history and his legacy.
“I would have fought to the death over that kind of thing, of what I did and how I carried myself and what the true story was,” Hart said. “I’m very particular about people who get the story wrong and people who assume it was just a storyline.”
It took him more than a decade to find peace with it all.
“It was an important lesson for me to send to everybody who knew me or knew my story was: you can’t carry around the kind of anger and hate and bitterness for so long,” Hart said. “I carried it around for a long time.”
Hart remembers an instance during his run with WCW when both companies were in the same city. He was a “time bomb” of anger, knowing he could run into Michaels or McMahon just about anywhere.
“I got so stressed out that I thought I would see Shawn and that I would have to kill him, I’d have to go crazy,” the now 63-year-old Hart said. “I don’t know what I would have done. It was just this hate had been building up and building up and now we’re in the same city. We could just bump into each other at a gas station or the airport in the morning, the gym. I knew that it was really bad.”
It’s all part of Hart’s documentary, the last of eight WWE bios produced by A&E. The documentary provides one of the most complete pictures of Hart’s life and time in the company. The film provides a peek into him growing up as one of 12 kids in the Hart family and what his life looks like today. His kids and second wife, Stephanie, provide insight and there is video of him interacting with his grandkids. Hart’s hope is the documentary will fill in the gaps other productions about him have not covered.
“I think it will be a very important moment for me,” Hart said. “It will be two hours of maybe a lot of little things people didn’t know or think about with me.”
One of those is Hart’s affinity and skill for drawing cartoons or the fact he had no intention of being a wrestler during his high school years in Canada, despite the fact his father Stu ran Stampede Wrestling in Calgary.
Hart instead envisioned himself becoming a movie director. He made rough 8-millimeter films with friends, which the documentary shows, before enrolling in and eventually dropping out of film school. Hart felt he screwed up when that happened and decided to shift his passion for storytelling to wrestling.
“What it really did for me was I didn’t get to be the guy who got to make movies with a movie crew and actors and things like that. I got to be my own stunt man, stunt coordinator, my own editor, my own scriptwriter,” Hart said. “I could tell my own stories with my wrestling.”
Hart wound up crafting some of the most memorable feuds and matches in the WWF/WWE throughout his career. The documentary focuses on the level of realism around his TV persona, which was a far cry from the larger-than-life, cartoonish characters McMahon’s company made so popular in the 1980s.
Hart used his real name and eventually was able to work his family members’ real wrestling backstories into what fans saw on TV. It was something WWF wasn’t comfortable doing right away when he was a part of The Hart Foundation tag team with brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.
“When I first went to WWF they didn’t play up the fact that The Hart Foundation versus The British Bulldogs … were all brothers-in-law,” Hart said. “It’s like, ‘Aw we don’t want them [the fans] to know that. It’s too much information.’ ”
Eventually, commentators Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan started to mention Hart’s father and the famous Hart Dungeon. WWF raised the curtain even more during his Intercontinental championship feud in 1992 with his brother-in-law, “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, which culminated with a SummerSlam match at Wembley Stadium in London. They used that for “gasoline” on the angle. He felt that opened the door for his storyline with brother, Owen Hart, at WrestleMania X, two years later.
“I think it just added to the realism,” Hart said. “Everything about my work, the way I tried to wrestle and get across when I wrestled, was realism.”
Hart prided himself on being a wrestler “who could tell a different story and to do something that was not expected.” Hart credited his time around Stampede Wrestling and being such a fan of the business with allowing him to see the formulaic matches and finishes he felt were being relied upon too much. He tried to use that to his advantage.
“Just when you think they’re gonna turn left, I’d crack it to the right and go a completely different direction,” he said. “Just when you think he’s not gonna move, you move. Just when you think he’s gonna do this, I do that.”
Hart said the move British Bulldog used to beat him at SummerSlam — a sunset flip attempt in which Bulldog countered by hooking his legs for the pin — was something he kept in his pocket for 15 years, waiting for “the rainy day” to use. It’s something he would like to see today’s wrestlers do more of.
“You don’t have to waste moves,” he said. “They’re very special. I see a lot of wrestlers have genius moves, fantastic stuff that they’re gonna do but you don’t have to use it all in one match. You can save stuff. I’ll save that one and put it in my pocket and save it for WrestleMania five years from now.”
By 1997, Hart was in his “absolute prime,” a multi-time world champion and “hitting home runs” every time he went to the ring. His famous WrestleMania 13 match with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was on March 23, 1997. Hart said even his match with Michaels at Survivor Series would have been five stars had the screwjob not happened.
He never wanted to leave WWF and felt “pushed out.” McMahon had to go back on a 20-year, $10 million contract they had agreed upon with the company going through financial struggles. Hart eventually signed a three-year contract at around $2.5 million per year with WCW.
A kick from Bill Goldberg at WCW’s Starrcade in December 1999 left Hart concussed and ultimately ended his career months after his brother Owen died in a tragic accident during a WWF pay-per-view in May. Hart suffered a stroke in 2002 after falling off his mountain bike and had to learn to walk again — which the documentary covers.
“They say strokes are caused by stress” he said. “I was about as stressed out as you could get in those days, in a bad place, still angry, as angry as I was the day [the screwjob] happened, even more so with the heartache of losing my brother Owen.”
Eventually, Hart knew there needed to be a truce.
Inspired by watching the classic WrestleMania 25 match in 2009 between Michaels and The Undertaker, Hart reached out to WWE in an attempt to make peace. He and Michaels made up and shook hands on the Jan. 4. 2010 episode of ‘Monday Night Raw.”
“As hard as it might be for me to do, it will open the door to be at peace to being happy,” Hart said. “It was a lesson for me and it was a lesson for the world.”
Like so many moments in his career, Hart said he wanted it to be as real as possible. He and Michaels started making amends backstage, but Hart asked Michaels to save it for the ring. When it was finished, the bag of rocks was no longer weighing him down: “It was over.” He believes Michaels felt the same way.
“If you can find a way to make peace with it, that is the way to go,” Hart said. “I never second-guessed myself ever, and I’m appreciative of the friendship I have with Shawn, Vince, Triple H. We’ve moved on. The hate is not there anymore.”