A group of legendary champions were seated around ringside, acknowledged for the massive crowd on hand. In a group that included Bruno Sammartino, Dusty Rhodes, Bob Backlund, and Harley Race, it was Bret Hart who received the loudest cheers of all. Though Hart had the advantage of being a main event star sometime after the other listed greats, it was still a sign of Hart's unassailable status that nearly 15 years after hanging it up as an active wrestler, "The Hitman" could still pop a stadium.
Monday marks the 61st birthday of Bret Hart, and it's as good an excuse as any to examine the extraordinary career of an extraordinary performer. In this instance, the top feuds and rivalries of Hart's career will be considered, for they were the foundation of why "The Hitman" is still so fondly remembered as one of the greats.
There was never much of a prolonged story between Hart and Diesel, but their paths did cross for four pay per view matches that would be fought over the WWE Championship between 1994-96. The first three matches of that extensive series (at the 1994 King of the Ring and 1995 Royal Rumble and Survivor Series) were among the most exciting matches of Kevin Nash's career, as his brute power and Bret's ring savvy made for a potent combination.
The match at the '95 Rumble was a fascinating stalemate between two very different competitors, smudged by an interfering horde. 10 months later, their unrestrained brawl at Survivor Series brought out the best in Diesel, particularly in the aftermath when the rebellious now-ex-champion assaulted Hart in a blind fury. Hart always worked seamlessly with bigger foes (Yokozuna and Bam Bam Bigelow also come to mind, for different reasons), but his sporadic showdowns with Diesel stood out in WWE's darker times.
9. Davey Boy Smith
This entry begins a rather curious three-item swing that pitted Hart against his best rivals from across the pond. In the case of his singles bouts with brother-in-law Smith, there were only two of major significance: their all-time classic Intercontinental title match in Wembley Stadium at SummerSlam 1992, and their comparably-fierce outing at the fifth In Your House, for Bret's WWE Championship.
The two matches were more than three years apart, but shared a thread. For the IC bout, tensions ran high between the close-as-brothers in-laws, as their competitive juices began to supersede their lovingly respectful bonds. When a now-heel Smith challenged for the big belt in 1995, he made sure to position wife (and Bret's sister) Diana in the crowd, just had been the case when he defeated Hart in 1992, hoping to mirror that coronation. Both matches were technical masterpieces, but displayed the sort of aggressive acrimony that can come when even two allies square off with so much on the line.
8. The British Bulldogs
The history of tag team wrestling cannot be accurately told without invoking The Hart Foundation's many battles with Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid in the mid-eighties. In a promotion that boasted Macho Man Randy Savage, Tito Santana, Ricky Steamboat, and other gifted marvels, it would be awfully hard to top the Harts and the Bulldogs, the absolute best of "Stu's Crew", when the four were on opposite sides of the ring.
Really, an entire DVD (or a WWE Network Collection) could be devoted to Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart's gainful underhandedness and contrasting skill sets being employed in a bid to stifle the dazzling athletics and hard-hitting tenacity of their English doppelgangers. Dynamite Kid (prior to his horrific December 1986 back injury) reportedly refused an order for he and Smith to drop the Tag Team belts to Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik, willing to lose them only to "the hardest working team in the territory". Bret noted that Dynamite was the biggest reason that he and "The Anvil" were finally getting a legitimate run.
7. Dynamite Kid
When Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler executed an over-the-top-rope Suplex spot in their recent IC title match on Raw, I couldn't help but think of Hart and Dynamite's boundary-pushing matches in Stampede Wrestling, particularly over the British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight belt in the late-1970s.
Their matches would become the stuff of Stampede legend, masterful science and brilliant athleticism blended with stiff strikes and a competitive fire that would bring the matches close to looking like a shoot (and sometimes, inching over that line). Bret still considers a Ladder Match he had with Dynamite in Regina, SK one night in 1981 among his all-time greatest bouts. If the two were 20 to 30 years younger, they would have left today's indy fans of discriminate tastes with their jaws on the floor, as the technique and intensity of their bouts holds up even today.
6. The United States Of America
This is a bit more of an open-ended entry, but a story looking at Hart's finest rivalries cannot exist without it. For eight months in 1997, a suddenly-heel "Hitman" lamented the decline in values of America, the moral decay that he claimed was in effect. As fans began to boo him for what he felt was justified complaints about various injustices, Hart began railing against the character of American crowds, while still being revered as a valiant hero in Canada.
Bret and his Hart Foundation comrades waged a North American turf war with the likes of Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, The Patriot, and another US-born grappler that didn't care for any of Hart's anti-Americana rhetoric. It was during this time that Hart, not often lauded as a strong interview, gave some of the best and most impassioned interviews of his career, earning raves for the feeling profound weight of his weekly spiel. The heat for the battles waged for God and country, especially at Canadian Stampede, were off the charts.
5. Mr Perfect
In 1988-89, WWE toyed with a potential "Hitman" singles push, sometimes separating he and Neidhart for house show runs, as well as occasionally for TV bouts. It wouldn't be until 1991 that Hart embarked on the ultimate singles run, but his potential as a solo act was evident well before then. Throughout 1989, Hart tangled with good friend Curt Hennig on a number of cards, stealing the show with their highly-physical, flawlessly-executed time limit draws.
Even before their iconic matches at the 1991 SummerSlam and 1993 King of the Ring, Hart and Perfect were making music in places like Maple Leaf Gardens, Madison Square Garden, and even a notable unfilmed match in Anchorage, AK in August 1989 that each would herald as one of their greatest matches ever, regardless of opponent. The two complemented each other so well, feeding into each other's strengths, while executing intricate reversals that few on WWE's roster of the time could have replicated.
4. Jerry "The King" Lawler
When Hart was temporarily removed from the main event scene in 1993, he had a right to feel scorned. An ageing Hulk Hogan, absent his earlier steam, was a poor replacement, and an attempt to build Lex Luger into the second wave of patriotic Hulkamania did little to fill the Hart void. Bret's consolation was a rivalry with Jerry Lawler that would become far more heated and intriguing than the World title tier of the day.
It began with Lawler taking umbrage with Hart's King of the Ring win, and continued with Lawler antagonizing the Hart Family with mean-spirited remarks. When Bret finally sunk his hooks into Lawler at the 1993 SummerSlam, he gave Lawler his just desserts, nearly ripping him in half with the Sharpshooter. The proper blowoff set for that year's Survivor Series unfortunately wasn't to be, but the 1995 revisitation of their shared hatred was a decent sequel to the explosive 1993 acrimony.
3. Owen Hart
It is the standard by which all future sibling rivalries are judged. Owen Hart had not amounted to more than a trusty midcard performer at the time in which he forcibly shoved Bret after a match at the 1993 Survivor Series. But the affable, erstwhile-benign Owen took to the jealous little brother role like a duck to water, and by the time WrestleMania X rolled around, the bitter acrimony was at a fever pitch.
It wasn't just that the matches themselves were in a league of their own, but that the angle brought out the best in both men. Owen's crazed obsession with outdoing Bret, and Bret's residual regret that things turned out this way, implanted some shining nuance into an era that was all too cartoon-like. The rivalry always felt fresh, in part because Bret and Owen could always come up with something new to add to their matches. On opposite sides of the ring, the Hart brothers always produced a gem.
2. Shawn Michaels
For the most part, this list attempts to adhere to kayfabe, the carefully-laid storyline designs that map out the direction of the characters in front of their portrayers. In the case of Hart vs. Michaels, this is impossible, because real life stuck its nose pretty far into their on-screen chilliness. By 1997, the lines between fiction and reality were so blurry that no optician had a remedy.
On screen, their rivalry always had a fierce undercurrent, from the Harts-Rockers battles in which Hart and Neidhart played it a tad more heelish, to their singles bouts in the mid-nineties that Michaels bumped like crazy through. After their polarizing Iron Man match at WrestleMania 12, their on-camera story was put on the backburner, but real-life discontent would backdoor its way in, adding (if nothing else) a genuine saltiness to the kayfabe proceedings. The June 1997 backstage fight and the Montreal post-show drama blend in with everything that spectators witnessed, and it only adds to the overall intrigue.
1. Stone Cold Steve Austin
To hear Hart tell it in his autobiography, at least as far back as 1993, he was impressed by WCW star "Stunning" Steve Austin, and thought he would work well with him should the opportunity ever present itself. Intuitive and astute as Hart has been, even he could never have guessed that four years later, he and the eventual "Stone Cold" would put together what many consider to be the greatest WrestleMania match ever, nor could Hart have predicted the surrounding context.
That Hart and Austin pulled off the most effective double turn in wrestling history speaks volumes of their pantheon-level talents. That their feud was just as great with Hart as the face and Austin as the heel as it would be when the roles were reversed speaks even louder. Through Hart, Austin broke through to the main event, never to look back. And through Austin, Bret would produce some of his greatest work as a villain (as a wrestler, character, *and* promo), having the ideal foil to play off of. Now *that* is a great feud.