The WWE will crown a new heavyweight champion this Sunday, but in the eyes of the legendary Bret “Hitman” Hart, the Survivor Series main event will be missing the two best wrestlers in the world: Daniel Bryan and CM Punk.
“I miss Daniel Bryan and CM Punk since they both exited the scene, and I find myself watching wrestling less and less since those guys left,” said Hart. “I don’t know if they’ve filled their shoes. Dean Ambrose has done a lot to fill their space, and I really enjoy watching him, but it’s going to be a tough job for whoever wins the championship–that person will have a lot of weight on his back to carry the team.”
Punk’s issues with Paul “Triple H” Levesque grew to the breaking point, with the major problem taking place year after year at WrestleMania as part-timers reappeared and claimed the coveted spots in the main event.
“I’d have to take Punk’s side on it,” explained Hart. “Triple H is a bodybuilder nut. He goes after the bodies. He doesn’t care how good–and he can look in the mirror–guys work, he cares how guys look. Punk and Bryan are guys concerned with how they work. It’s a different philosophy. I admire Punk for taking his stand. He was the guy doing all the work, every week, going injured, and here’s a guy sitting at home–working three or four times a year–and you’re going to give him the main event at WrestleMania? I’m not buying it.”
An underappreciated piece of Punk’s legacy, explained Hart, was his willingness to stand up for other hard-working wrestlers.
“All the wrestlers in the dressing room should be more understanding of what was on the line there,” said Hart. “Punk went to bat for the wrestlers in the company who were doing the work, and I have a lot of respect for that. I also have a lot of respect for guys like Batista and Brock Lesnar, but if they’re not going to do any kind of schedule and just come in and collect the big check, that’s not fair to the guys who are doing all the work. I don’t see how anyone else could see it any differently.”
While the problem existed mainly between Punk and Triple H, the person who regrets the fallout most is Vince McMahon.
“Vince is sorry that they lost Punk,” said Hart. “Vince has a better sense of wrestlers’ look and their work, and Triple H is more prone to bodybuilders. If a guy is 6’5” and has a bodybuilder’s physique, that’s all that matters to him. But he’s wrong.”
The “Excellence of Execution” has focused his attention on deciding the next WWE champion.
“Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose are the hardest working guys in the company,” said Hart. “They’re the most deserving to be the next champion, even though Reigns has been the most short-changed with booking.”
The title is vacant because of Seth Rollins tore his right ACL, MCL, and medial meniscus, and will be out of action until next spring. Despite the recent comparisons, Hart does not think that Rollins is the second coming of Shawn Michaels.
“Shawn was always really safe,” said Hart. “He was always a really safe worker, but I don’t know about Seth Rollins. That knee in the face that he gave to John Cena was unprofessional, at best. It’s really strange that a guy like Rollins, who I have a lot of respect for, would be that reckless with that knee in the face. If someone kneed me in the face like that, I would have met him in the back dressing room with a baseball bat. There’s just no excuse for it.”
Hart revealed that a WWE champion has two major responsibilities: never hurt an opponent, and do not suffer an injury of your own.
“You can’t hurt somebody like that under any circumstances,” said Hart. “It’s totally reckless. It can’t happen. The other thing is, when you’re the champion, you have a responsibility to not get hurt. You have to be spot on. I love that Rollins kept going on and finished the match, and that shows a lot of courage.
“Nobody can hurt you and you can’t hurt yourself. It’s not allowed. I was champion, off and on, for quite a few years, and I never missed one title match from an injury. I got hurt lots of times, but the reality is you’ve got so much pinned on you and so much tied onto you, the company and your peers can’t afford for you to get hurt. When you do get injured, it throws a wrench into everything. I do feel bad–Seth Rollins is a young guy and he’s obviously very talented, and I hope he comes back from his surgery and learns from all these things. I hope they give him another chance and his opportunity has not been squandered from an injury, regardless of whose fault it was.”
Hart called himself “The Best There Is, The Best There Was, and The Best There Ever Will Be” as part of his gimmick, but he took legitimate pride using that mantra to keep his opponents safe, as well as healthy enough to keep working.
“I always took a lot of pride in being a safe wrestler,” said Hart. “I never injured anyone. All the times they put tag titles on me, Intercontinental titles on me, or the world title on me, the only time I couldn’t defend the title was when I had to forfeit the belt when I quit WCW and retired from wrestling forever. That was from a blow to the head from Goldberg, and he ended my career with that kick at the MCI Center. Aside from that, every time I got in the ring, it was my responsibility to protect the wrestlers I worked with, and it was my responsibility to not get hurt myself, and I’d like to think I was an absolute pro in that regard.”
Hart remains conflicted over the injury Sting suffered at the hands of Rollins at Night of Champions this past September after receiving a powerbomb to the turnbuckle.
“I question the logic of doing something like that to a guy like Sting, especially knowing his age and the circumstances,” said Hart. “I like to think that Sting said, ‘You can do that move.’ Sting is a tough guy, and I have a lot of respect for him, but a lot of guys think they’re indestructible. Maybe he said to go ahead, then found out the hard way it’s a more serious move than he thought. That’s between the two wrestlers.
“I’d like to think there was an understanding between them. At the same time, going back to when I wrestled Bob Backlund at [the 1994] SurvivorSeries, or whenever I wrestled Jerry Lawler, you’ve got to cater to your opponent’s needs when you’re wrestling an older wrestler. I couldn’t have had Jerry Lawler trying to do the same spots as I’d do with my brother Owen. I didn’t try to wrestle Bob Backlund the way I wrestled Bulldog at Wembley [Stadium]–I worked Backlund’s kind of match. Again, that’s experience that a younger wrestler may not have, but maybe they talked about it and Sting gave Rollins the all-clear sign.”
Hart explained that wrestlers are never forced to agree to moves which could place their health in jeopardy.
“Nobody makes you do anything in wrestling,” said Hart. “There’s always another way to do it. If you’re uncomfortable with a tombstone piledriver or you’re not comfortable with a certain suplex, you can find another way to do it. I was never comfortable with Scott Hall’s Razor’s Edge. I flat out said, ‘You’re not doing that to me. You’re not going to drop me on the side of my head from six foot eight inches in the air.’ And I slipped behind his back and did a backslide instead. Now I was champion, and maybe that’s why, but any time I was ever in the ring with a wrestler–at any point in my career–if I did not feel safe with a move they were going to do on me, we just did something else.”
Hart fought at the first eleven Survivor Series cards, and admitted his favorite two matches are against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in 1996 and a world championship match against Kevin Nash in ’95. He sees distinct similarities between Nash and Roman Reigns.
“Reigns is just like Kevin Nash,” said Hart. “If you look back at Reigns, his character was getting over really good on his own. Then they rushed him into a babyface turn and crammed him down everybody’s thoughts, and people rejected him. It wasn’t his fault. It was kind of like with Kevin Nash. He was slowly getting over, and I wrestled him at [the 1994] King of the Ring
and we had a really good match. All of a sudden, by August, they were ready to make him the new champion. And I’m going, ‘He’s not ready yet. Give him a little time and let him get even more over.’ Why is there a rush? Reigns got dealt a bad set of cards. It has nothing to do with his work rate–he’s a really good worker and his style is really good. He just needs to be himself.
“They tend to rush guys too soon, and that makes me think of Steve Austin. Vince wanted to turn him baby face much sooner than he did. I remember Steve stopped it. Austin said, ‘No, let me get over more.’ And it paid off to be a little smarter and not rush. Some of the mistakes have more to do with the bookers instead of the actual wrestlers. Reigns is a victim of bad booking.”
The worst-case scenario for this Sunday’s Survivor Series is that Reigns go over cleanly and wins the championship as a babyface, then listens as the crowd at the Philips Arena in Atlanta rain boos down upon the new champion.
“That’s a tough call,” admitted Hart. “But the second I heard the circumstances about Rollins’ injury, I thought this put Reigns in a position to regain what he lost and do it right this time. It would be nice to see him get a chance as champion.”
Hart is widely known for the “Montreal Screwjob” incident at the 1997 Survivor Series, but he also has a full reel of highlights at the (formerly) annual Thanksgiving Day tradition.
Hart wrestled in a 20-man tag match with Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart” as part of the Hart Foundation at the inaugural Survivor Series in 1987 and again in 1988.
“Those big tag matches were scrambled eggs,” explained Hart. “You just waited for your queue to get eliminated the whole time. Most of the time, it was very rushed. There were so many guys involved, and I really don’t have any great memories of them.”
Hart’s first vivid memory of the Survivor Series occurred in 1989 as he locked up with the “Macho King” Randy Savage.
“I still remember the moment at the Rosemont Horizon with Randy Savage,” said Hart. “When we finally tagged in at the exact same time, me and Macho, there was this unexpected huge pop from the crowd. We could feel it when we got in the ring together, and we looked at each other and thought, ‘Why aren’t we wrestling each other more often? Why aren’t we doing business with each other?’ We wanted to wrestle each other in a storyline, and I remember, after that match was over, Macho Man grabbed me by the wrist, took me to Vince McMahon, and said, ‘I want to wrestle him.’ Vince said to us, ‘It will happen one of these days.’
“The thing about that Survivor Series match that people don’t remember is that I had fractured my sternum three weeks before. That was the Dino Bravo injury. It was hard for me to move around in that match, and at the end of the match, Macho Man dropped a big elbow on me from the top. That was a pretty hard, painful elbow off the top. My ribs were killing me.”
One of Hart’s saddest days in wrestling also came at the Survivor Series, but it had nothing to do with Montreal and Shawn Michaels. Hart’s brother, Dean, passed away the night before the 1990 Survivor Series in Hartford, which saw Hart battle the Undertaker in his WWE debut.
“That’s the one I remember most,” said Hart. “It was the Undertaker’s debut in Hartford, but that was the day after my brother, Dean, had passed away. I kind of dedicated that match to my brother Dean, even though it didn’t represent it in the finish. I gave my all despite the storyline. I lost to [Ted] DiBiase at the end, but we had a nice little sequence there before we went into the finish and he beat me. I remember that being a salute to my brother Dean, a tribute to him. That match always had meaning to me.”
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper provided color commentary for the pay-per-view broadcast, and shared Hart’s loss with the fans watching at home.
“Roddy mentioned it on the air, even though Vince and the WWF didn’t want to acknowledge that Dean had passed away,” said Hart. “Roddy did it on his own. The WWF didn't care that my brother died and they didn’t care that I stayed to do the show. Vince called me a couple days later and apologized, saying he didn’t know Dean had died, even though I had told him. Pat Patterson had said to me in the elevator, ‘You look like somebody died,’ and he and Vince walked down the hall laughing. But I think it went in one ear and out the other, in fairness to them. They didn’t realize the circumstances I was under, but that was a really significant moment and I gave it all in that match.”
Hart’s matches at the Survivor Series were a microcosm of his career, as he started off as one face in twenty-man matches and fought his way to the main event by 1992 against Shawn Michaels.
“That Survivor Series was the one after I had won the title [from Ric Flair], and I like to think of that as the drug-free era,” said Hart. “Everyone was drug free. The testing was so strong and complete in those days, that when I wrestled Shawn at the Survivor Series, there was nobody left. All the big names, like Warrior and Hogan, were gone, even the Road Warriors were gone. The smaller players in the company, literally and physically, were the only ones left. Shawn and me were the ones left to try to save the company. By ‘92, Shawn had not had a lot of singles matches. He told me he was not in the position that day to deliver that day, and he wanted me to pace myself to lead him through the match. But all in all, it was a very good, solid, credible match.”
With Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker working part-time schedules, and John Cena off television until mid-December, Hart identified the wrestlers in position to carry the WWE. One, he noted, is Dean Ambrose, who is dripping with passion.
“I watch Dean Ambrose and I really admire him,” said Hart. “He likes to put emotion into the match. There’s a lot of drama and he gets a lot out of the expressions and body language. That’s forgotten by too many wrestlers. My criticism of wrestlers today is that they’re all high spot monkeys. Everything is a high spot, and they go right into the next move to the next move to the next move. Then we forget what they just did. We can’t register all that. Guys are forgetting how to tell a story. Nobody sells anything or registers or enough in wrestling today. They do some absolutely breathtaking moves and get back up on their feet and do another running spot, missing the whole point of what they just did. Dean Ambrose is a guy who takes his time with his storyline and his moves, and he gets the most mileage out of the simplest things.”
Hart believes current Intercontinental champion Kevin Owens is also ready for a chance to shine as WWE champion. Despite Owens’ relative inexperience in the WWE, he has over fifteen years of experience in the ring.
“Kevin Owens as good a choice as anybody to become the next champion,” said Hart. “I love his matches and I love his work.”
Melissa Joan Hart–who is no relation to Bret–made news in the wrestling community this week when she commented that Owens’ character is lazy in the ring, but the “Hitman” vehemently disagreed with that assessment.
“Owens may fool you with his size, but he can move and motor out there,” said Hart. “He is really good and is such a great performer with his technique. He’s a big guy that does some absolutely incredible things in the ring.”
Hart is always outspoken about the WWE’s poor booking of Cesaro, but he feels that problem extends to the majority of WWE’s European superstars–a reason he believes Sheamus will not leave the Survivor Series as world heavyweight champion.
“Look at the European wrestlers, from Wade Barrett to Drew McIntrye–who isn’t there any more–to Sheamus, they are all very good wrestlers,” explained Hart. “But there is a bit of an ignorance from Vince on the promotion’s side of not recognizing these talents because they speak with an accent. I don’t know how they lost Drew McIntrye. They booked him so horribly right from the time he got there. He could be in one of the main events this weekend. What a waste of a talent. Some of the booking for guys has been really bad. Harry Smith is another guy who has a lot of wrestling skills. I scratch my head some time how they can let a guy like that go.”
Talent development is a high priority for Hart, and he has nothing but appreciation for Bray Wyatt. Hart worked with Mike Rotunda, who is the father of Wyatt and Bo Dallas, but explained that Wyatt is a self-made superstar.
“Mike Rotunda was always a really good, reliable, safe, and steady worker,” said Hart. “He was one of the few wrestlers I worked with that I never told what to do. Mike was capable of telling me what to do. He was a really good heel, and I’d put him right up there [in terms of greatness] with Ted DiBiase. His kids are even more creative. They’re talented in a different way than Mike, and it’s fair to say they’re even better than Mike.
“Bray Wyatt is a unique, different kind of talent than all the rest. He’s kind of like Kevin Owens. He’s a bigger guy with a lot of versatility and style. He stands out. He’s created that character himself. He’s not a character where they go, ‘This is what we want you to do.’ He’s a character that goes, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ He’s very innovative and creative on his own.”
Wyatt is currently embroiled in a feud with the Undertaker, who returns to action this Sunday in tag team action against the Wyatt Family. Amazingly, the Undertaker was actually the one who helped repair the rift between Hart and Shawn Michaels.
“One of my favorite matches was the first time between him and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania,” said Hart. “That’s actually one of the biggest reasons I buried the hatchet with Shawn.”
“Right from day one, the Undertaker was always a hard worker and respected by everybody in the dressing room. Undertaker is a guy who will take a lot of risks and lay it all out there, but he’s also a guy who is super safe and always protects the guys he’s working with. You could put your life in his hands, and he won’t let you get hurt. He’s certainly one of the greatest of all time.”
In response to the Kliq’s growing influence behind the scenes with Vince McMahon, the Undertaker formed his own posse–called the Bone Street Krew–and “BSK” is tattooed on his chest.
“Undertaker wasn’t a guy who liked a lot of politics,” said Hart. “He did not stab backs on his way to the top. He wasn’t a guy interested in backstage bulls---, he was a real straight-up kind of guy. He didn’t like all the Kliq shenanigans or the way they went about doing business. He and his friends were men who made their own decisions and formed their own thoughts.”
If the 58-year-old Hart were to turn back the clock and re-enter the ring, his choice for an opponent would be none other than the “Beast Incarnate.”
“I would have loved to work with Brock Lesnar,” said Hart. “I would have loved the chance to wrestle him just one time, especially if I could bring back the old Bret Hart from ’97.”
Lesnar’s greatness is only enhanced by his advocate, Paul Heyman.
“Paul Heyman is the best manager in wrestling, ever,” said Hart. “But he also loves the business. In order to be as smart a guy as he is about wrestling, you need to first be a really big wrestling fan. He was a kid who grew up watching wrestling. We share that, and we both have an appreciation for everything–from guys like Abdullah the Butcher to Rey Mysterio, and all kinds of different styles, shapes, and sizes. You need to have a whole assortment of chocolates in the box.”
Hart is happy to see his niece, Natalya Neidhart, more involved in the WWE Diva division, but found the mentioning of Ric Flair’s deceased son in the current Paige/Charlotte feud very distasteful.
“How could they not see the slight there?” asked Hart. “That’s really insensitive to Ric and his family, and I totally sympathize with Ric. You didn’t see them doing that after Jerry Lawler lost his brother. Maybe someone just made a poor judgment call, but I was flabbergasted to see they did that to him. It was totally wrong.”
Hart extended his thanks for the unconditional support of all his fans, and he is grateful that people have stood by him throughout his entire career.
“For all the people who ask, I’m good,” confirmed Hart. “I have my wrist surgery coming up in the next week, but other than that, I’m good, and I still have the best fans in the world.”
Hart shares the same frustrations as his fellow die-hard wrestling fans unhappy with today’s product, and offered advice for the WWE creative team.
“Wrestling today is as good as it has ever been, but I just question a lot of the booking,” said Hart. “They should go back and watch and the old stuff.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.