#BretWeek: Essential Viewing, Part 3 – All Alone on an Island

We ended yesterday with the Montreal Screwjob, the most significant moment of Bret’s career, and for all intents and purposes, the start of the Attitude Era. An era that in many ways — beyond being the catalyst — Bret was the most important part of. His departure — and the way it went down — redefined the WWF from top to bottom. Along with putting Steve Austin in the right spot to take the torch, the way he exited the company forced Vince into the spotlight and acknowledged as the owner of the company. This completely changed the storytelling dynamic of wrestling, with the line between the story and “the story” was now totally blurred.

No longer did the mishaps, misdirections and changed plans need to be explained to make the narrative make sense: they had God AND the machine in Vince McMahon’s Mr. McMahon character. Mr. McMahon acted as God because he is God of the WWE Universe. Bret, because of his adherence to what was quickly becoming an antiquated system of storytelling — both the concepts of “good” and “bad” guys, and the relatively wholesome/family friendly stories being told to appeal to as broad an audience as possible — became the figure who would bring us the truth of what we were watching. It was a truth build on lies, but it at least freed us from the idea that we had to root for one side or the other, instead letting those performers who were on our wavelength one way or the other be who we rooted for.

That the illusion was broken by telling us that the what we were watching was fake stood in direct contrast to the goals of Bret through his entire career: to make everything look as real as possible. Which is why it’s probably best Bret wasn’t around for the Attitude Era, no matter how important he was to it happening in the first place.

Best for business, anyways. It was not best for Bret, who found himself in a very odd place when he first entered WCW. He’d start off hot enough, instantly jumping into a feud with Ric Flair over who was really the “best”. As was often the case with feuds like this, while it didn’t do a disservice to either man, it definitely didn’t live up to the hype.

Even face-to-face confrontations between the two, like this one shortly after Hart debuted at Starrcade 1997,

Regardless of the actually quality, though, it more importantly didn’t exactly move the needle the way that anyone would have expected it. Past their primes, and with Bret as the physical embodiment of the change the WWF was bringing to the industry — as opposed to the physical embodiment of the change WCW wanted to bring to the industry, like Hall and Nash — Hart felt like more like a discarded toy than a conquering hero.

That’s because Bret Hart was, even more so than Hogan, a complete creation of the WWF. Not Bret Hart the character, but Bret Hart the famous wrestling star. Lacking the natural charisma of Flair, Hogan, Michaels, Austin or the Rock, the Hitman made his way to the top through superlative wrestling ability. But he made it through superlatively wrestling in the WWF. While his core — his in-ring skills — were the most portable and best to have, not be able to perform at the level he once did, he suffered the same fate that Hogan and Savage would have if they didn’t have the charisma that they do: nobody would have cared.

And while it’s not exactly fair to say “no one cared”, the weren’t compelled to care for any reason other than they were told to and had heard Bret Hart’s name before. They didn’t have the relationship with Bret that fans had in the WWF after years of historically good matches and free sunglasses handed out to kids in the crowd. No matter what they did, they couldn’t recreate the magic of the Hitman in WCW. Even those who had previously been reluctant to put Bret over ended up doing so, with Flair taking the loss in Hart’s debut in WCW.

Even Hogan got in on the fun, working significantly more than expected to try to get Hart over.

But none of it worked. Frustrated and injured, Bret took time off to heal his grind when, in the WWF, Bret’s brother Owen infamously died performing a stunt at the Over the Edge PPV. Bret would take months off, mourning the loss with his family and mentally recuperating. He’d come back and work with long-time family friend Chris Benoit in an Owen Hart tribute match. While maudlin and bittersweet to look back on, it’s also Bret’s last great memory with the company and in professional wrestling.

Bret would soon after find himself feuding with Goldberg, leading to a match at Starrcade. And this:

It’s that moment, that exact moment when Bret body hits the mat that his career was over. All the championship, the fans and the feuds were done with one (literal) swift kick. And while Bret probably deserved better, it seemed fitting that it was someone pushed ahead of him despite significantly less skilled but with a much better look. Twas ever thus.

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