Bret Hart should be worried about the launch of the WWE Network. For guys like Brian Pillman and Dustin Rhodes, the Network will be a godsend, as the largest possible audience of wrestling fans will be able to look back at their careers through their own eyes and not the lens of the WWE storytelling machine. For someone like Bret — whose legacy is tied so strongly to his unimpeachable brilliance and creativity in the ring — actually seeing what he was like at the time hurts.
That’s not to say that Hart isn’t brilliant, or his work isn’t as transcendent as we thought it was. Like watching Michael Jordan play, you begin to realize the effect that lionization can have on a legacy. While Hart, like Jordan, is among the most gifted performers ever in his given field, the perception of the two is far less based in reality than mysticism. Some of that, of course, is good will built up from years of overachieving.
But a lot of it comes from the nature of how sports choose to tell their stories, both in forming the mythology surrounding them and the sense of obligation to the truth when telling the “real” story of what’s happened.
Like Jordan’s (first) last shot is remembered not nearly as much for the push that threw Byron Russell to the floor as it is for the amount of time on the clock, the perception of Bret’s acrimonious exit from the WWF serves not just a chance to boost his legacy, but the legacy of those involved. Instead of being seen as the comically petulant act of someone in the twilight of their run at the top that it was, its seen as a final act of rebellion against a dictatorial ruler. And, honestly, the dictatorial ruler wouldn’t want it any other way.
For all the conspiracy theories surrounding wrestling, the one that’s always struck me as the most interesting — and least likely — was the idea that Bret Hart was in on the Montreal Screwjob as a way to put someone over on his way out. The Screwjob is both the seminal moment for the Attitude Era and, more importantly, the Mr. McMahon character. From the moment Vince said “Bret screwed Bret”, it became clear that things were significantly different than they had ever been.
Nothing was the way it seemed, while simultaneously being exactly what you thought it was. McMahon, who had to that point made his presence on television known as a commentator had slowly found himself embroiled in more and more controversy as the internet pushed more and more of “real life” into the front of the show. No longer able to pretend to just be an announcer, McMahon began acting as a surrogate for management, allowing Hart and other to voice their frustrations about what was happening to an increasingly more disgusted McMahon.
And pushing McMahon more than anyone was Hart.
From WrestleMania XII through the end of his WWF career at Survivor Series 1997, he played the role of “Chief Complainer”, telling anyone who would listen how he’d been screwed by anyone with anything nearing authority on the show, from Sid to Gorilla Monsoon how unfairly he’d been treated. That this was largely how Hart actually felt seems to make sense now, but when it happened, it seemed entirely out of character, like the WWF was pushing for Bret to get boos from people to whom booing the Hitman was second only to throwing Hogan’s torn shirt back in the ring. But the complaints were as real and like a flesh-eating virus, began to consume nearly every aspect of Hart’s career.
Unable to let go of his glory days, while also weary of the direction that he perceived HBK and HHH were taking the company, Bret did what Hogan did years earlier: allowed his ego to get in the way of a good story. That he spent much of the last two years of his WWF career putting on some of the best matches in the history of the business gives you an idea of why he’s remembered the way he was, but it’s the last one that tells you the most about where he was, not just a performer but as a man.
There’s a particularly harrowing scene in the infamous documentary on the Screwjob, Wrestling with Shadows, where Bret’s then wife berates Triple H in front of a hallway filled with people for being involved in the Screwjob. H vehemently denies it, though Mrs. Hart knows better. There’s no way that someone so close to the situation could have been that oblivious to what was going to happen, even if nobody ever told him directly (though, spoiler alert, it turns out it might have been his idea all along.)
What’s she’s missing in her somewhat righteous anger is that we could have said the same thing about Bret. The business is fickle and it’s easy to get caught up in your own hype, but for a man so brilliant in the ring and smart to the business outside of it, he was more often than not too much of a mark for himself and that, for all his next-level ring work, will be his true legacy.