Bret Hart has seen the future of wrestling, and he is the man wearing the WWE championship.
“Seth Rollins is one of the hardest working wrestlers I’ve ever seen,” said Hart.
“He’s one of those rare guys in the industry today who is an innovator and a guy who creates new ideas, moves, and psychology.
“I know I got really excited about wrestling again after watching CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, but now neither one of those guys is around, and Seth Rollins is going to carry the company. His timing is impeccable and he does a lot of challenging, creative, complex stuff.”
Midway through the calendar year and three months past WrestleMania 31, the “Hitman” delivered his “State of the WWE” address exclusively to Sports Illustrated.
“Daniel Bryan is finished,” said Hart. “He’ll never wrestle again. I don’t think he knows it yet. I feel terrible about Daniel Bryan. For all intents and purposes, he had the exact same thing happen to him that happened to me after Bill Goldberg kicked me in the head [ending Hart’s career].
“One day, you learn it’s over. Doctors tell you that you can’t wrestle and you’ll never wrestle again. I lost millions of dollars because of that. I pray that it’s not the same for Daniel Bryan.”
Bryan’s attempted comeback included many of the same dangerous maneuvers that were part of his repertoire before the neck injury.
“I saw him in a lot of his matches after he came back from the injury, and he was taking suplexes on the back of his head, powerbombs, and other really dangerous moves,” said Hart. “I know he wanted to test it out, but I think he may have pushed himself too hard. He’s like Dynamite Kid in the sense that they’re both tough and neither wanted to admit that injuries got the best of them. He’s finished forever, but I don’t think he’s even realized that. He’s probably thinking, ‘Maybe it will get better in a few months,’ but unfortunately, I don’t think it will.”
Bryan’s absence is a major void. Despite the tumultuous stretch he endured this past year, Hart believes Roman Reigns will still be a future WWE champion. The biggest issue was that his push was artificially manufactured.
“It was so manufactured that it hurt someone who was naturally getting over on his own,” said Hart. “As soon as the company decided they were going to make him the star, people started to sour on him. Roman Reigns is a really good wrestler and he’ll find his path. He turned the corner at WrestleMania when the fans accepted him on his own merit just ‘cause he had a great match.
“But, in the creation of Roman Reigns, he seems to now be a lot like Triple H’s character. Long hair, indestructible, no facials, he’s always angry, and there’s no softness in his eyes, so it’s very hard to get sympathy. All of that was poorly thought out. There are ways to achieve all those things with dramatic logic in the match, but they missed a lot of that with him. The company said, ‘We’re going to get this guy so over that no one will be able to compare to him.’ In the end, no one liked him. They just need sometimes that there is a logic that goes to wrestling and people like to see.”
Hart understood that the WWE was in a difficult predicament heading into WrestleMania 31.
“I can see the problem,” he said. “They had Daniel Bryan who, because of his injury, was basically going to comeback and repeat the exact same storyline that he did the last year, and Vince didn’t want to do that again. So they took a sharp turn and said they were going to get Reigns over. It’s easy to say now they should have done different things to help establish Roman Reigns as a babyface character, but my thinking in all this is that they tend to get a little too pig-headed in their thinking – ‘We’ll do this, this, and that’s all there is to it.’ The fans are too smart for that.”
Reigns became so disliked that even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was booed by the live crowd in Philadelphia at the Royal Rumble simply by his association with him.
“When Reigns got that endorsement from Rock, they tried so hard to have people love him,” said Hart. “It was a really tough time for Roman Reigns, but I don’t think it was his fault. The booking wasn’t thought out enough.”
In spite of the bumps along the way, the “Excellence of Execution” was extremely impressed with the way WrestleMania 31 was booked and executed.
“The way that the end of WrestleMania was booked, especially the final main event, was brilliant,” he said. “The WrestleMania finish was a Vince McMahon finish. Vince really put his head on straight, thought about it, and came up with the perfect way to get Roman Reigns over and keep everyone guessing. I thought the pay-per-view, despite the poor buildup for Roman Reigns, achieved the goal in getting Reigns accepted.”
Hart’s devotion to wrestling is still evident the moment the 57-year-old speaks. While he is sometimes critical of booking decisions or in-ring work, his heart still beats for the business.
“I know Seth Rollins is a CrossFit guy,” said Hart. “I just think back to my days, and I don’t how I could have done CrossFit training and then wrestled that night. I tip my hat to a lot of the young wrestlers, there are a lot of great ones out there.
“If you watch punches, kicks, and moves where there is contact, Cody Rhodes is one of the best. I watch a lot of wrestlers in WWE throw the phoniest, worst punches – WWE tries to cut camera at the last second. In my day, wrestling had to look pretty real. Cody Rhodes’ punches are right in there, his kicks are right in there, and you never see Cody Rhodes talking in the ring. You see a lot of wrestlers – who aren’t good professionals – talking and calling spots in the ring. They’re oblivious to the fact that all the fans can see them calling a high spot to the guy. There is an art to wrestling and there is a need to do it right. Cody Rhodes exemplifies all the right things.”
Hart immediately bonded with Cody's brother Dustin [Rhodes] Runnels when the two worked for WWE in 1990.
“Second generation wrestlers almost naturally bond together, but I had a lot of respect for Dustin before he even got to WWE,” said Hart. “When he first left, I remember having a long talk with him in his hotel room about coming back one day when he could be a new face and see if the WWE could use him right. It’s the same discussion I had with my brother Owen.”
Runnels, who is currently recovering from shoulder surgery, ultimately returned to the WWE with a vengeance, sporting a blonde wig and kept viewers constantly on their toes as Goldust.
“I have so much respect for Dustin,” he said. “I said to him a few months ago, ‘You’re the hardest working guy in the business.’ He was never a guy who cut corners. Goldust was a far better wrestler and far bigger star that he ever got a chance to prove. He made that gimmick work. And Cody Rhodes has done the best he can with what he’s got. He tried to make Stardust work to share a little history with his brother that they can one day look back on.”
Count Hart among those who believed that the Rhodes’ brothers were destined to settle their feud at WrestleMania 31.
“It would have made much more sense to let them have their moment,” Hart said. “It’s not very often you can build into a storyline that for real. Cody and Dustin are great workers and could have done the same thing Owen and I did [at WrestleMania X]. They’ve probably wrestled with each other their whole lives, and thinking about wrestling concepts and ideas, so to have that storyline yet not give them the big stage is a big question mark.
“There are a lot of people in the creative department of WWE who haven’t got a clue about the history and what’s really important or even what the wrestlers will look back on one day as cherished moments. Not putting Dustin and Cody together and letting them have that moment is something that was lost. Creative sometimes overthinks things. I find more and more that WWE, sadly, doesn’t listen to the fans. Instead it’s more like, ‘This is our way or no way. We’re going to push this idea down your throat, whether you like it or not, until you love it.’ I think they need to refrain from that and give the fans what they want. That’s always been Vince’s motto, and I think it works a lot better.”
Brock Lesnar just returned to Raw this past week, and Hart sees wrestling starting to move in a different direction with the “Beast Incarnate” leading the way.
“You won’t see a smaller guy – under 200 pounds – be a main event in WWE for a long time,” Hart explained. “I think you’re looking at guys like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk phased out. After Hulk Hogan, the business took a different direction. Wrestling became the forefront of the business from me to Shawn and all the way to Punk and Bryan. It was all about the matches and the work rate.
“But this year at WrestleMania was a changing of the guard. They established Brock Lesnar as this super heavyweight monster and you’re going to see bigger wrestlers in the main event. John Cena will be U.S. champion for a long time, and he’ll establish that belt, and the intercontinental belt will be the belt again for the wrestling guys. It’s taken a shift. Guys like Lesnar will sew up the main event spots and work when he wants, and the smaller guys will carry the shows all around the country and entertain people, but they’ll never get the big money spot at WrestleMania. It’s a cycle. In the 80’s, guys like myself and Shawn Michaels never thought we would be the star of the show. We always were working hard, but Hogan and Warrior were the guys in the main event making the big pay day.”
Another topic of concern for Hart – a former two-time tag team champion – is the state of tag team wrestling.
“For so long, I don’t know why WWE killed everyone off that started to get built as a team. It was the same thing when Cesaro and Tyson Kidd [as tag team champions] lost in that handicap match to Randy Orton on Raw. Vince has soured on tag team wrestling. He says it’s the same old thing over and over.
“But the only reason for that is because somebody in the back isn’t smart enough to tell the wrestlers how to change it up and make it different. There should always be at least one tag match on every card, and you should have a tag team division that means something. If you did, you’d see the tag team division revive itself and become as important as the rest of the card. The fans are smart – they know it’s not always about the body or the storyline, sometimes it’s all about the wrestling.”
Hart remains close with Tyson Kidd, who injured his neck during a frightening moment in a non-televised match with new WWE talent Samoa Joe.
“I only know that he’s hurt pretty bad and they’re crossing their fingers,” said Hart. “I’m not sure if he’s going to need surgery, but it seems to me there was a lot of poor planning involved in that injury. I don’t know whose fault it is or why an injury like that happened, but someone is accountable. The WWE has done a lot in the last few years to improve conditions for wrestlers. They have doctors there and they give wrestlers adequate time to prepare, but in looking at what happened with Tyson Kidd, clearly there is still a lot of room for improvement.”
Kidd was injured when Joe performed his “Muscle Buster” maneuver.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” said Hart. “The move that Samoa Joe did was reckless, and the way they rushed that match beforehand in the back without giving Tyson time to prepare was mistake. Tyson is, pound for pound, one of the best wrestlers in the world. And that includes his mind. If you went behind the scenes at WWE, Tyson is an intricate piece of so many other matches. It’s a shame that a guy who is that talented and given so much to the company is hurt, but I just hope it’s not so serious that his career is over.”
In terms of accountability, Hart recalled the incident between Steve Austin and Owen Hart at SummerSlam 1997.
“When Owen dropped Steve Austin on his head, Owen was totally negligent,” said Hart. “He was wrong to do that move to Steve the way he did and he was wrong to not believe Steve that he was hurt. Owen was skeptical about Steve’s injury, and I told Owen that Steve was in a pretty dangerous spot. I know that wrestling is a tough job, and I know Samoa Joe is a good guy and was probably just trying too hard that day, but you never want to injure one wrestler or stop someone from feeding their family.”
Hart also provided some perspective as to why Sting lost in his WWE debut at WrestleMania.
“It was so obvious that Sting was going to win that too many people took it for granted,” he said. “So that was the swerve. Then Rock and Triple H planted a few seeds for WrestleMania 32 in that long promo in the ring, and that’s why Triple H needed to go over. Also, Sting isn’t done yet. I’ve heard he has a light contract of a few more pay per view dates.”
The opportunity for Paul Levesque to learn from Vince McMahon, Hart explained, will keep the WWE running in the right direction for a long time.
“Paul is a smart, intelligent guy, and Vince is a good teacher,” Hart said. “Vince is as well-schooled on wrestling as anybody I’ve ever met. He’s an unmatched genius when it comes to putting matches together and his psychology. I’ve always had a lot of respect for Vince and there is nobody who can fill his shoes, but Paul has shadowed Vince a lot. He has been educated and schooled in what’s right – including how to build a guy up and how to tear a guy down – and Paul has enough of that cut-throat business sense to run a wrestling business.”
When it came to Owen Hart’s notorious pranks and hijinks, Hart thinks one of the finest came against none other than Vince McMahon.
“Henry Godwin had a match with Triple H at an In Your House pay per view in the 90’s, and it was a pigpen-type match with a bunch of animals,” he said. “Some guy pulled up earlier in the day in a livestock truck with pigs and sheep and goats. He pulled in and asked, ‘Where do I put them?’ Owen was right nearby and said to follow him, like he was helping the guy out and knew exactly where to go.
“So Owen directed him and the animals right into Vince’s office. Vince was off in catering, and all I can remember are those goats and pigs knocking over everything in Vince’s office. Vince laughed pretty hard when he walked in and saw goats eating his papers and everything else. I don’t know how many guys who had the balls to do that, but stuff like that it was you loved about Owen. The same reasons people like Daniel Bryan are the same reasons people liked Owen. He was a guy you could cheer on because he had so much heart.”
Hart knows exactly what he needs to be changed to make WWE’s wrestling an even better product.
“It’s the details,” Hart said. “There is too much attention on rehearsed high spots. It’s a lot of action, but I don’t see any storytelling. And the babyfaces don’t sell any more. I can remember crawling and begging, or getting thrown into the turnbuckle frontwards and everyone in the building wondered if you’d get up again. People understand that.
“Wrestlers today – look at Roman Reigns, for example – he does a lot of the same moves I did, but then just gest right back up. It defies logic. Especially after these really incredible, breathtaking moves, and then guys just kick out. A lot of it is wasted and used in the middle of a match.”
The lack of emphasis on finishing holds also grinds Hart’s wrestling sensibilities.
“Wrestlers always have to go higher,” he explained. “John Cena was using the stunner as a spot, and [Steve] Austin got mad about that. I would have, too. Why would you use his finishing move as just a spot? If you keep having all these complex moves and high spots, then you need to top it and keep going higher and higher. And then you’ve got to come up with something that’s really dangerous, like a spike piledriver off the top turnbuckle.
“But if you do things smart, then you don’t have to kill yourself every night. Wrestling can be pretty simple. It’s an art, and the simpler the better. It needs to be simple, easy to follow, and logical. The match should always build up. Unfortunately, a lot of the wrestlers today have a great first 30 seconds in their match, but then it all goes downhill from there because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Hart, who has spent his entire life in wrestling, was broken up over the loss of longtime friend Dusty Rhodes.
“I smile when I think of Dusty because I have such nice, happy memories,” said Hart. “But I’ll miss him a lot. He wasn’t a WWE guy. He was a wrestler that was famous around the world for being a wrestler. It’s impossible to measure the impact that Dusty Rhodes had on fans and wrestlers alike, but he was really one of a kind.”
The friendship between Hart and Rhodes dated back over 30 years.
“I was down in Florida in the late 70’s, and I didn’t work for Dusty’s company, but I was sort of there as an extra,” he said. “Even in those days, Dusty was a real general in the dressing room. He was a great detail guy in wrestling and could always pinpoint some little thing you could do to improve your match. He had a real eye for the business and how to do it right. I’ll really miss him.”
Dusty Rhodes and Hulk Hogan were both stars in the 1980’s, and Hart was asked which direction the business would have headed had Vince McMahon chose to put his marketing machine between Rhodes in 1984 instead of Hogan.
“Dusty could have the torch-bearer for the company, but he was sort of the opposite of Hogan,” Hart explained. “Hogan’s draw, more specifically back in the 80’s, was that he was much more in touch with kids. Dusty was more in touch with the old fans – anyone who grew up watching wrestling. He had a pretty storied history, even by then. Looking at the way Vince went, he was aiming for the young kids and Hogan was a better option.”
Hart takes a lot of pride when his fans call him, “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” But he’s just as proud to say wrestling fans are the most dedicated in the world.
“I had someone thank me last week,” said Hart. “He said I stopped and shook every hand on the way back from my match, and this happened more than twenty years ago. He said he never forgot it. The fans have long memories, but I never forget them either.
“I was once one of those kids who was reaching out to the wrestlers. There is a relationship between me and my fans, and it’s nice they don’t forget.”