Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hitman and Me

Professional wrestling has predetermined outcomes.

In plainer terms, it’s fixed. Rigged. Scripted.

As a form of entertainment that is, by so many measures, based in fiction, it’s difficult for the bookers (the masterminds behind the ongoing storylines, not to mention the outcomes of matches) to truly surprise the loyal fanbase.

My father introduced me to the spectacle of professional wrestling when Hulkamania was running its wildest in the mid-1980s. I grew up on the WWF universe with Hulk Hogan, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior as the lead players, and a cast of top tier villains like Andre the Giant, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase as the foils to our heroes. By the time I was nine years old, I could read the trends of the pro wrestling world. I could discern the main event level talent, from the midcard, from the jobbers (the guys employed to make bigger stars look good by losing to them in convincing fashion).

A funny thing happened late in my elementary school career. Hulk Hogan decided to leave wrestling and pursue a movie career. Randy Savage semi-retired from active wrestler to color commentator. The Ultimate Warrior’s contract negotiations fell apart and he left mainstream wrestling amidst a river of bad blood. Andre the Giant died.

And out of the ashes, the legitimately unpredictable came to fruition: Bret “The Hitman” Hart won the world championship.

By conventional standards, Bret Hart was a big man--six feet tall, two-hundred forty pounds--but in land of giants he was small. Moreover, prior to the fall of 1992 he was one-half of a mid-level tag team, The Hart Foundation, and then a mid-card singles wrestler.

My reaction when I heard he had dethroned Ric Flair for the world championship at an untelevised show in Saskatoon? A resounding: huh?

In the months to follow, The Hitman won me over. He’d never have the larger than life personality of The Macho Man or the Warrior, or offer the super hero theatrics of The Hulkster. But the WWF sold him as a fighting champion. An everyman who cut a schedule more rigorous than any champion before him, took on challengers of all sizes, and offered matches that were, frankly, better than most any of his main event predecessors. Hart proved himself capable of taking merciless beatings in the most convincing fashion possible for periods of ten to twenty minutes before willing his way to victory via a series of complicated reversals and maneuvers. Gone were the days when Hogan’s main event repertoire consisted of nothing more technical than a body slam. Hart’s signature series featured a side-Russian leg sweep, second-rope elbow drop, snap suplex, and his signature finisher, the Sharpshooter.

After The Hitman beat Flair, he worked his way through a series of fresh-faced challengers. People like a fledgling “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, Papa Shango, and Razor Ramon. By the time Wrestlemania IX rolled around, I was sold on the new champion.

Concurrently, the WWF built up it’s truest challenger to The Hitman. A 500-pound Samoan dressed up like a sumo wrestler, equipped with remarkable speed and agility for his size, billed as Yokozuna.

The two were headed for a showdown in Las Vegas. A match I would have been excited for anyway, but grew fanatical about when my father won a call-in radio show that allowed us to get the pay-per-view show live, for free in our living rooms--the first time I’d ever see a show of this caliber in real-time.

Hart lost the world title that night in a turn of events that was not only heartbreaking but oddly bittersweet. Not only did Hart lose, but seconds later, an impromptu match started up in which newly crowned champion Yokozuna put his title up for grabs against the newly returned Hulk Hogan, who won the championship back.

The Hulkster was the champ, and I should have been happy. Truth be told, in the moment it happened I was happy. But whether a post-steroid shrunken-down Hogan was less appealing, or his act had worn thin, or I had simply outgrown Hulkamania, the luster of that championship run wore off pretty quickly, and I pined for Hart to reclaim his status at the top of the wrestling world.

One year later, Hart did just that, winning his second world championship by pinning Yokozuna (who had beaten Hogan in the interceding months) at Wrestlemania X in Madison Square Garden. While the second title win wasn’t as unfathomable as the first, I still didn’t see it coming, and rejoiced at the changing of the guard.

For the four years to follow, Hart would win and lose the world title three more times, before a bad falling out with WWF management and Shawn Michaels--Hart's arch-rival on-screen and off. He went on to a run in WCW wherein the bookers didn't really know what to do with him. He took a bad kick to the head and suffered a concussion that would end his career. In the recovery process, he suffered a stroke that nearly killed him.

At the risk of being blunt, I saw no shortage of tie-ins between the timing of Hart’s journey and my personal life at the time. He was a scrappy, average Joe champion to look up to at the same time that I started to come into my own, developing my own identity, preferences, and creative endeavors in my middle school years. He retired when I was in college--the lone four-year period when I didn't watch wrestling more than a couple times a year.

His days in the ring behind him, Hart set to work on his memoir. He had kept diaries and notes throughout his career, and tied all of these pieces together for a 500+ page narrative of his life. I’ve read well over a dozen autobiographies and tell-all books from behind the scenes of wrestling. None of them touch Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. I bought it in the late fall of 2007, and when I moved to Baltimore in January 2008, the book was my constant companion over breakfast, in the wee hours before I fell asleep, and through long waits at the Motor Vehicle Administration. Hart shared backstage stories about his own experience and his experiences with so many other major names in the wrestling, compiling a rich and thorough history of a twenty-year period in the business. Just as Hart had been an inspiration in my early teenage years, in my mid-twenties I found comfort this story that recalled so much of what I had watched in my youth, and provided a welcome escape from life at my first traditional nine-to-five job, in a strange city where I had yet to make many friends.

After I finished Hart’s book, I set aside a weekend night to watch a recently released WWE three-DVD set dedicated to Hart, starting with a two-hour documentary, followed by a collection of his best matches.

That summer I published a tribute article to Bret in my first pro wrestling column on 411mania.com. I received a nice note from Bret’s publicist afterward, thanking me for my words. I wore my Hitman t-shirt when I attended Wrestlemania 25, not because Hart would be there (he wouldn’t), but to pay homage to my biggest hero in the wrestling world at the wrestling world’s biggest event. I was pleased at the number of strangers who complimented me on the shirt. It seemed like a fitting tribute to a superstar who was long gone, but not forgotten.

Then the unthinkable happened. Perhaps even more shocking than Bret Hart’s first world title win, a gray-haired Hitman returned to WWE. He hugged it out with Shawn Michaels on live TV. Then, at Wrestlemania 26, he wrestled his first match in over a decade--a low impact affair in which he was protected, mind you--battling with Vince McMahon. While it’s difficult for a non-fan to comprehend, I don’t know there’s any clearer way to demonstrate two wrestling personalities have buried the hatchet than to watch them act in concert, putting on staged fight in the ring. In order to do so, the men involved need to trust each other to trade punches and grapple hard enough to make it look real, but without malicious intent. Hart locked in the sharpshooter one more time, and it was as though each time McMahon slammed his hand against the mat to tap out was a statement. An apology for the Montreal Screwjob. A gesture of forgiveness for Hart’s decision to leave the WWF for WCW. An acknowledgement of The Hitman’s legacy.

It wasn’t a very good match, but it was a satisfying enough epilogue to a magical career. Bret Hart was alive and OK, and riding off into the sunset with his oldest grudges settled once and for all.

About year into my stay in Baltimore, I came out of the closet as a pro wrestling fan, and the wacky world of wrestling became a regular point of conversation among a few co-workers who were casual fans, or loved this stuff as much as I did in their childhoods. Particularly my next-door office neighbor humored me through updates on the latest goings on, and chided me over my long-term allegiance to Bret Hart.

But it was he who came to me with the news, early summer 2012, that The Hitman would do an autograph signing at a local minor league baseball game in Bowie, Maryland. And so, three of us piled into a car. I wore my Hitman t-shirt once more and clutched my copy of his book, as excited as I’d ever been for a celebrity encounter.

We arrived during the first inning of the baseball game, when the line to meet Bret already stretched three-quarters of the way around the stadium. So we waited. Through hot dogs, and idle chatter with other fans, and bits of the baseball game. We waited for about three hours until we were no more than a dozen people from the front of the line.

The organizers announced that Hart had already stayed past his scheduled appearance time. They were sorry, but everyone left in line was out of luck.

I ducked out of the remaining line and managed to cut through a crowd to reach Bret as he walked toward the backstage area. Long enough to shake his hand and thank him for coming. He smiled and nodded.

In truth, the experience was more dissatisfying than disappointing. Aside from a few days advance notice about Hart’s appearance, I’d never had any real expectations of meeting him, so I can’t say that I was even as heartbroken as I was when I watched him lose his first world title. I had less a sense of sorrow than of unfinished business.

So, two days, later I visited Hart’s website to see what other appearances might show up on his calendar, only to find that he was signing at another minor league baseball game that very night, two hours from home in New Jersey.

It was time for an impromptu road trip.

Though I arrived at the stadium an hour before the start of the game, the line for Bret’s autograph already stretched about as far as it had when I joined it with my friends two nights before. I had a flicker of doubt for sure. That one of the few fates worse than driving back right away empty handed would be to wait another three hours in line and also leave empty handed.

But I kept the faith.

Three hours passed. I read about 50 pages from In Cold Blood, watched an episode of Friday Night Lights on Netflix on my phone, and chatted with the other folks in line about our likelihood of actually getting to meet Bret Hart.

This time, The Hitman didn’t let me down.

The game ended and management started ushering people through more quickly, and I finally got my moment. A shave past midnight, I crouched beside Bret as I had my picture taken with him and looked on as he signed my book. There were still upwards of 30 people behind me, so I kept my remarks short, shaking his hand one more time, patting his back, and telling him I was big fan.

And it was over.

In an ideal world, I’d love to sit down with Bret Hart, buy him a beer and talk about his greatest matches, his travels, and the impact he had on me. But then, I could say the much the same of Adam Duritz, Christopher Nolan, or John Irving. What matters much more is this: I got to spend over a decade of my formative years watching him practice his craft; I got relive and study his work in the years to follow; I got to see him return to the ring; and push comes to shove, I did get to shake his hand twice, and walk away with one of my most cherished pieces of memorabilia.

Later today, I will attend my second WrestleMania live and in person. I’ll cheer for guys like Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose, favorites from the new school. But as I take a sip of beer and take in the spectacle of Wrestlemania 31, I’ll most certainly also take a moment to reflect on wrestling’s star who will always be, for me, “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” “The Excellence of Execution,” Bret “The Hitman” Hart.

1 comment:

  1. Have fun tonight, Mike! I just watched WM X again this week. Hitman was one of the best in the ring there ever will be. Nice post!

    -Timmy C

    ReplyDelete