#BretWeek: Essential Viewing, Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm

Like the WWE does with their DVD collections, we seek to tell a very specific “story” with every person we pick to be the Wrestler of the Week.

That may not be everyone’s story about them, but it is our story about them. Each time, we start off by letting you Better Know our feelings at the moment — what we think about when we think about whomever or whatever we’re writing about. And we end it each time with a discussion that, to the best of our abilities, tries to give you as many different perspectives as we can muster, even if it we don’t always have a real Difference of Opinion.

And the one other constant of these weeks has always been the Essential Viewing pieces that we do on Tuesdays. The idea of these Essential Viewings has always been, for us, about giving you the necessary context — through video clips that we can (relatively) readily available on the internet — to understand as simply as possible what we are trying to say about the performers we picked. We try to tailor the footage we pick to the things we think you have to see to really “understand” what we think made these people great to us, or at least warranting of our attention, without overwhelming you with videos of every single good match someone had.

The reasons I’m explaining all this are two-fold: Firstly, as the WWE network — and the accompanying purge of readily available videos — has made telling our story directly significantly more difficult. The WWE, as is their right, has removed a significant portion of what was once a robust library of internet videos — uploaded by both them and third parties — making it almost impossible to tell any type of story about anyone without having to explain every paragraph that “you’ll just have to imagine how good that was to see”. Which means, that in the coming weeks, we will likely be tinkering with formats as less and less is easily embedded into our site, but more and more can be seen almost immediately — depending on if MLB AM can get their shit together — by a significant portion of the audience through direct links to the network pages. Is it ideal? Probably not, but we’ll see what happens, and how much we can do without making each Essential Viewing read like a spec script for The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The second, more important, reason is to say that watching Bret Hart isn’t just essential to understand him as a performer, but nearly everything that’s come after him. Almost anything you’ll ever see him in before he left the WWE is something that should be seen by anyone interested in becoming a professional wrestler, or seeking to expand their horizons as a consumer of the medium. As we tried to articulate yesterday, Bret was both everything good and bad about professional wrestlers, and performers in general.

As talented a technical performer as there has ever been (or ever will be), Bret’s work in-the-ring is considered top of the line by almost anyone who’s ever had a chance to see him work a match with almost anyone. While Bret’s greatest strength was being able to work with nearly anyone — which we’ll get to later — it was his work with people who could keep up with him that was obviously the most compelling.

From the very beginning, Bret was — especially when he was able to work with fellow former Stampede performers like Dynamite Kid — a revelation in the ring. Both he and Billington didn’t just have a “high workrate”, they had within them a kinetic energy, seeming to exist in the entire space of the ring, not just the spots they needed to hit to work “their” match. Either could lead, or be led, and this allowed them to carry someone to or be carried themselves to a great match.

Though, while the narrative behind Bret — both from his perspective, and to a large extent, the WWF’s — is that of some sort of magical heroic journey of an underdog who overcame the odds much in the same way Daniel Bryan has. But from the very beginnings of his career in the WWF Bret was, at the very least, well liked by the brass. Alongside Jim Neidhart, the Hart Foundation held the Tag Team gold for over 400 days during two lengthy title reigns, with first one beginning with this match against the British Bulldogs.

Although it took him several years to permanently break into the singles ranks, once he did, he star rose rapidly. After beating Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental title at SummerSlam 91’

He’d hold it until he… uh… got sick? It’s really hard to know exactly why they decided to have him drop the title to Mountie with a “100 degree fever” so that the Mountie could lose it to Roddy Piper. Regardless of how they got there, the match that resulted between the two at WrestleMania VII remains easily the best of Rowdy’s WWF career and one of the great battles for the Intercontinental title ever.


He would then drop the belt once again relatively quickly, this time to Davey Boy Smith at SummerSlam ‘92 in front of one of the biggest houses the WWE has ever seen at Wembley Stadium.

Despite having to hold Davey Boy’s hand through the match because of a crack binge the Bulldog went on with Jim Neidhart in the lead-up to the show, it — even more so than the Piper match from just a few months before — is considered to be the greatest Intercontinental match of all time, out of maybe Steamboat-Savage. When people say “the Intercontinental title used to mean something” this is what they are talking about.

These reigns, almost needlessly broken up — even if Hart was actually sick, explaining that to the crowd and making a No. 1 contender’s match for the title made more sense — were the pinnacle of a run in the WWF that began with, of all people, THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR who defeated the longest reigning Intercontinental champion IN HISTORY the Honky Tonk Man. After a decent reign that poured prestige — if not necessarily good matches — into the title, he dropped it to Rick Rude before regaining and holding it until he vacated it for the WWF Championship.

This made the title the literal stepping stone it had only ever been for Savage, who lost it to Steamboat in that WM 3 match en route to winning the WWF title during the WrestleMania IV tourney. And like Savage — and Warrior — Hart would go from losing the belt to almost immediately being put on a path towards the WWE title. For Hart, his first run with the belt came just months after SummerSlam, at a house show in Saskatoon, CA when he beat Ric Flair in a match that would down in history as … one of the more disappointing matches ever.

It’s not that it’s bad, as much as it’s not as fluid or crackling with potential wrestling energy that one would expect from two men considered to be on the “great in-ring performers” Mt. Rushmore. This was likely because, well, both men take their characters “seriously”, which basically is a nice way of saying that they kept wanting to look better than one another. For Bret, that make sense, as he was about to become the face of the company by having the torch passed his natural successor as The Man. Flair… well.. not so much.

The match was a microcosm of the trouble with trying to move up through the ranks following the downfall of the territorial era. Everyone was fighting for a job, and nobody was willing to let go of their spot without a fight or a chance to make themselves look good. Enter WrestleMania IX.

The match, which approximately 100X better than it had any right being, is mostly known for its ending, where Fuji through salt in Hart’s eyes, allowing Yoko to score the pinfall and win the title. And while probably a bummer for Bret Hart fans, the result absolutely made sense and definitely set the stage for Hart to “get his win back” after a year of building him into an unbeatable monster heel.

… Enter the REAL unbeatable monster heel (at about 4:21).

For those who have neither the time, or inclination, Hulk Hogan — who mentioned his “long-time” friendship with Bret Hart for the first time that night and had already fought in a match for the tag team titles — is inexplicably challenged with the title as bait by Fuji immediately after his guy won it in match that just happened. This is perhaps the most infamous moment in WrestleMania history from backstage politics point of view, though whether or not it’s in the top five for Hogan.

Then, because Hogan was on his way to WCW, the Hulkster only appeared on WWE a handful of times after before dropping the belt right back to Yokozuna at that June’s King of the Ring PPV.

And while Yoko was busy getting his win back, Hart was working his way through a performance that would once again plant him near the front of the line for “best wrestler of all time” honors, with a 3-match tour-de-force.

Beyond the stamina required to work three matches, two of which went nearly 20 minutes, Hart decided to add the wrinkle of working as though his hands had been hurt during his first match so that he would not be able to perform the Sharpshooter, forcing him to end the matches in as many different ways as possible. This, of course, led to a major program with Yokozuna in the build up to a massive SummerSlam match between the two. Right?

Not so much.

That’s right, Bret Hart gets the Miz treatment, subjugated knocked down to a nowhere feud with Jerry Lawler while Yoko takes a ride on the Lex Express. Luger, the All-American reject replacement from the Hulk Hogan factory worked with Yoko in a Foreign Menace storyline for the ages. The Jet Age, but “the ages” nevertheless. He wouldn’t even work with Lawler directly, taking on Doink the same night that Lex “beat” Yoko by count-out.

But, despite the seemingly nowhere path he had been lead on, Bret being Bret, he had a fantastic match with the vastly underrated Matt Bourne, who had at the time turned the clown in a dark and twisted heel more reminiscent of Pennywise than Bozo.

Bret would eventually make his way back into the main event picture, winning the 1994 Royal Rumble while simultaneously igniting the feud with Owen (which we touched on in detail last week with the younger Hart’s Essential Viewing). This of course, led to a major program with Yokozuna in the build up to a massive WrestleMania X match between the two. Right?

Not so much.

That’s right, Bret Hart got the Rock treatment, given a Royal Rumble victory, but only by tying another competitor as the company tried to decide who they were going to make the star of the future. Thankfully for Bret (and the future of the WWE universe), Vince decided to make it a popularity contest between Bret and Lex, which Bret won handily.
But in order to deal with the accompanying “controversy”. Hart was forced to work a match with his brother. It would, because it’s Bret (and Owen) end up essentially redefining the concept of the “curtain jerker” in the WWE.

Owen and Bret put on the match of a lifetime, with both looking as good as they possible could. The result is SHOCKING (seriously, this was the Yankees losing to the Marlins in 2003), but given the way the match was worked, it also made total sense. Bret would his second match that evening, this time against Yokozuna — who defeated Luger by DQ after special guest referee Mr. Perfect inexplicably turned on him – where he would finally recapture the gold.
And although the match is essentially impossible to find in English, the match itself isn’t particularly important. But what is important is that it was the first day of the end of Bret Hart’s time on top in the WWE, as a storm was coming and it was getting time to batten down the hatches. But we’ll get to that tomorrow.

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