Last month, the Undertaker received one of the most heartfelt send-offs in WWE history at Survivor Series. Despite limitations at the age of 55, he had the chance to wrestle his final match months before. His cinematic “Boneyard” finale against A.J. Styles at WrestleMania 36 will be remembered for its ability to capture the essence of the Undertaker.
Earlier this month, Sting debuted in All Elite Wrestling. The 61-year-old plans on resuming his career with the new company, rewriting the last chapter of an iconic stretch that appeared to end following an injury five years ago.
If only Bret Hart had been that lucky.
Hart suffered a concussion in a match against Bill Goldberg at Starrcade in 1999 when he took a kick to the head. The show’s tagline was “The Battle to End the Millennium,” but, more accurately, it was the match that effectively ended Hart’s career. Though he continued wrestling into the following month, Hart’s in-ring run of brilliance ended on Dec. 19, 1999, in Washington, D.C.
At only 42—that is, a year younger than Styles is today and eight years younger than Chris Jericho—Hart was forced to deal with the sobering fact that his career was over. His health was further compromised in 2002 when he suffered a stroke. Fortunately, he recovered and remains healthy and active. So instead of lamenting the moments that were lost when he was injured—which likely would have included an inevitable return to WWE and potential WrestleMania matches against Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Jericho and perhaps even Shawn Michaels and John Cena—time is better spent celebrating the endless amount of magic Hart created in the ring.
As the calendar mercifully turns from 2020 to 2021, the timeless work of “The Hitman” continues to endure, living on in today’s generation of stars—including the world champions from WWE and AEW.
Drew McIntyre is built like Goliath, but he possesses a rare ability to connect with a crowd as the underdog. This did not happen by accident. McIntyre long admired the work of Hart and now is attempting to replicate it in his own unique manner.
“The first time I was in Ireland to wrestle, I ended up getting stuck there for a few extra days and I stayed at Sheamus’s house,” McIntyre says, recalling memories from a decade and a half ago. “We were just getting to know each other, and we spoke at length about our passions and goals. Our goal was to get to WWE, but we had no idea how to do it. So we decided to stay up and watch matches together. When I asked what we were going to watch, he said he loved watching Bret Hart matches. That was perfect because I did, too.”
Sheamus always had an appreciation for Hart’s ability to bring the best out of his opponents, whether it was a heavyweight like Bam Bam Bigelow or someone with a much slimmer frame like the 1-2-3 Kid.
“We studied Bret because he was the one we’d looked up to as kids,” Sheamus says. “We studied Shawn [Michaels], [Steve] Austin and Rock, too, but Bret was the one that really brought technical wrestling to the forefront of the industry. Bret could work with such a variety of opponents, and his work helped us develop our love for the business.”
Hart told such realistic, compelling stories through his actions in the ring. As a child, while many of McIntyre’s friends were drawn to the showmanship and larger-than-life physiques of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, it was the stories Hart told in the ring that captivated him. Those matches continue to leave an imprint on McIntyre’s work, where his mission is to speak to people through his in-ring stories, even to young children, just like Hart once did.
“I still marvel at how Bret connected with people,” says McIntyre, who delivered a great performance in Sunday night’s TLC triple-threat match against Styles and The Miz. “It was his storytelling and that realism. When I was studying the matches with Sheamus, we watched certain Bret matches over and over again, and then we decided we were going to have matches just like that. So we told promoters we wanted to wrestle each other, and all the moves in those matches were ones we’d learn from watching Bret.”
“I bought a camcorder, and we’d record our matches off this tripod,” adds Sheamus. “There were falls-count-anywhere matches, last-man-standing ones and submission matches. We were honing our skills. And yes, we were trying to wrestle just like Bret.”
McIntyre and Sheamus wrestled across Europe for Irish Whip Wrestling, doing their best to replicate the Bret Hart–Mr. Perfect match from SummerSlam 1991.
“We certainly weren’t wrestling at Madison Square Garden, but we’d try to wrestle the match just like Hart and Mr. Perfect,” McIntyre says. “I can still remember doing the headlock takedown-head-scissors-kickout series. That was in their match, so it was in our match, too. I ended up doing that stuff with Mr. Perfect’s son, Joe Hennig (later known as Curtis Axel), in FCW. It was easy to remember because I’d watched it so many times.”
Now in his second run as WWE champion, McIntyre continues to incorporate elements learned from Hart. One of his more memorable pay-per-view finishes as champ took place against Randy Orton at SummerSlam in August.
The modern style of wrestling has taught that a match ends only after a finishing maneuver is hit, or after the finisher is hit for a second (or third) time following an opponent kicking out. But that match was unique. McIntyre defeated Orton with a backslide, an exceedingly rare surprise finish to a title match. It was no surprise that the man who came up with the spot—Adam Copeland, who is best known in WWE as Edge—is also a Bret Hart disciple.
“Orton had recently won the ‘Greatest Wrestling Match Ever,’ so it was a brilliant idea to beat him with an old-fashioned wrestling maneuver,” McIntyre says. “Bret didn’t win every match with the Sharpshooter. Whenever he’d catch a pin out of nowhere and win a match, that was so cool.”
Hart served as the inspiration for Sheamus to join the wrestling business, which was especially fitting because he was also the wrestler that made him into a fan as a child.
“When I was working at a nightclub in 2001, that’s when I first met Bret,” Sheamus says. “He was working [as the on-screen authority figure] for World Wrestling All-Stars, and I was working at a nightclub. When I met him, he sat down and gave me his time and shared some advice. He also connected me with his assistant, and that’s how I ended up in the Monster Factory in New Jersey in 2002.”
The one aspect of Hart’s wrestling that has always resonated with Sheamus is the way he sold.
“I was never a fan of Superman or any of those indestructible superheroes, but I was a fan of the ones that had some sort of vulnerability,” Sheamus says. “That was Bret. He sold so well. You’d believe he was getting the crap kicked out of him, and then he’d come back. I can still picture how he’d take the turnbuckle. He was never afraid to beat his body up in order to get people invested and bring that believability into his work.
“Hulk Hogan is an unbelievable icon in the business, and people loved when he’d ‘Hulk up.’ But I always preferred to see Bret fighting from underneath. His ability to sell really captivated me. Bret always found a way to overcome the odds. That’s what endeared me to wrestling.”
Subjectivity is at the core of what makes wrestling beautiful. While it may be impossible to say that there is one star who defines the entire industry, Kenny Omega is certainly staking his claim in an extremely convincing fashion.
A former IWGP heavyweight champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Omega is the reigning AEW champion, as well as AAA’s megachampion. He is also now the most discussed performer on back-to-back nights each week, appearing on Impact on Tuesdays and then the following evening on AEW’s Dynamite. The core of Omega’s foundation as a wrestling fan was built by watching Hart, and he has also set out to create a culture and climate around his work that is similar to the aura that once surrounded Hart’s matches.
“I was just having a friendly chat about the matches I feel are game-changers in pro wrestling,” Omega says. “Every time I thought about the matches that changed my perspective on professional wrestling, or the ones that showed me a different layer to pro wrestling or what it could be, each one was a Bret Hart match.”
Omega has perfected the art of telling a story in the ring. Whether it is a deathmatch against Jon Moxley, a pay-per-view opener against Hangman Page or a long-term story with Kazuchika Okada, there is connective tissue that can be drawn to Hart, who constantly presented new wrinkles and nuances in his matches.
“The Bret Hart–Mr. Perfect match [from SummerSlam] showed a different dynamic than what I’d ever seen in what a heel and face could do in a wrestling ring,” Omega says. “The bad guy was still the bad guy, but this was different. He wasn’t a worse athlete just because he was the bad guy. These were two elite athletes clashing in the ring. Of course, there were a couple moments when Perfect would resort to some cheap tactics, like a closed fist or a rake to the eyes, but that was a very technical contest from start to finish. It showed that wrestling could also exist outside of that small little box we’d known.”
Another moment that left a lasting impact on Omega was Hart’s feud with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, which culminated in a submission match at WrestleMania 13. In addition to being one of the best in-ring matches in wrestling history, the narrative of the match saw a double-turn, with Hart starting the match as the babyface and ending as the villain, while Austin opened as the heel yet emerged by the end of the 22-minute contest as a heroic figure.
“Bret was the architect of the most revolutionary character creation ever in wrestling,” Omega says. “Bret–Austin is a masterpiece. It’s evolutionary, but it was a different situation because it wasn’t just about putting on a great match. There was a specific goal in mind, and that was to essentially build Steve Austin and present him in a light where he’d be the ultimate badass.
“Even though Austin had done these terrible things leading up to that show, all you remembered after the match was his heart and the struggle. That never-say-die attitude. How could you not want to cheer for someone like that? It was incredible. And it wasn’t like this was a 50–50 or even a 70–30 split with the crowd. The vast majority of people really respected Austin after that contest, which made that such an effective piece of storytelling.”
Hart’s collection of work served as a driving force that helped shape how Omega watched and consumed pro wrestling, which has clearly paid dividends as he has developed into one of wrestling’s signature stars.
“Bret’s in-ring work was second to none, but he still doesn’t get enough credit for also being one of the greatest entertainers,” Omega says. “He could really relate to people. He could make you cheer for the good guy and hate the bad guy. He created some really beautiful stories in the ring.”
Hart’s mastery of the entire art form defined his work. Wrestling is currently ensconced in an era when matches stand out for their particularly flashy or daring spots, but Hart’s performances were unique because they were built around the entire match. He perfectly understood a match’s pace and tempo, and his greatest skill was the ability to connect a story arc with those watching.
Hart’s matches were built off a foundation of realism, believability and his uncanny timing. He also influenced this generation’s stars with the memorable finishes to his matches.
Ring of Honor star Jonathan Gresham is one of the premier technical wrestlers in the world, and he has made it his mission to restore order to a chaotic scene in wrestling, where there is an alarming lack of creativity at the end of matches.
“From watching Bret’s work over the years, what stands out to me is the thought Bret put into the way he finished matches,” says Gresham, who is ROH’s pure champion as well as one half of the tag-team champions. “I’ve really gotten into working body parts and finishing matches with those types of moves, like a hammerlock or a drop toehold or a Mexican surfboard. Bret finished matches with all kinds of moves, what I call nowadays routine wrestling moves, and you never knew how or when a match was going to end.”
Hart took moves that were glossed over throughout the course of a match, then used them as finishes, adding even more credibility to the full body of wrestling maneuvers at his disposal.
“Fans are conditioned now to think that those moves are only there to transition to bigger moves, but I would love it if that old way, the one Bret developed, became new again,” Gresham says. “That’s something I picked up from Bret, and it really inspired me with the way I wrestle today.”
Kevin Owens, who headlined Sunday’s TLC pay-per-view against Roman Reigns, is extremely passionate about the art of pro wrestling. That was on display as he took a tremendous beating in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match against Reigns, yet still found a way to make people believe he could escape the beating and find a way to win the match. Yet Owens noted that no one should be compared with Hart when it comes to passion.
“Bret took great pride in everything he did,” Owens says. “I try to have that same passion and pride in my work, but I wouldn’t put myself in the same class as Bret. Nobody should.
“I never want to be a part of something that’s not memorable TV. It bothers me a lot if that happens. I want it to be memorable for positive reasons. In that aspect, I’m like Bret, and we have a lot of people in WWE who show that kind of pride. Bret always had that pride in his work, and it always showed.”
No Bret Hart story is complete without mention of Shawn Michaels. The two will forever be associated as each other’s fiercest rival. Despite a genuine dislike toward one another, they created some incredible magic together in the ring, especially at WrestleMania XII, when Michaels defeated Hart for the title in a 61-minute Iron Man match.
Tasha Steelz is one of wrestling’s emerging stars. She was blossoming throughout the indies and then the NWA before signing with Impact Wrestling. She is athletic and dynamic in the ring, and a key component to her work is a versatility that allows her to work with wrestlers of contrasting styles. Steelz also took guidance from Hart’s work.
“I would study tape of a lot of technical wrestling, which has helped me develop my style today,” Steelz says. “A match that means a lot to me is the Iron Man. I learned so much from that, between Bret’s technical mat skills and Shawn’s aerial style clashing. There was so much storytelling and psychology.”
Hart and Michaels had other outstanding matches together. There was a ladder match from July 1992, as well as their first pay-per-view singles bout against one another at Survivor Series later that year. Their final match together, which was the occasion of the infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” appeared as if it were heading toward becoming a classic until it ended so suddenly.
The Michaels–Hart rivalry still lives on, though now through only their legions of fans. Johnny Gargano is a devoted student of Shawn Michaels, yet this current stretch in Gargano’s career has been heavily influenced by Hart.
“Bret’s heel work in the Hart Foundation doesn’t get enough credit,” Gargano, NXT’s North American champion, says. “It’s such an underrated part of ‘The Attitude Era’ and it was really ahead of its time. I’ve watched so much wrestling and I’m such a wrestling nerd that I kind of subconsciously take things from different places. When Bret was a heel, there was a certain dynamic to that where, even though he was the bad guy, he still thought he was a good guy. I’ve taken pieces of that to make my character.”
Gargano is more closely associated with Michaels, especially because of their extensive time together at the WWE Performance Center, but he was greatly inspired by Hart’s technique.
“I’m very on record as being a Shawn guy. That’s no secret,” Gargano says. “I also have so much respect for Bret. The rivalry with Shawn and the rivalry with Owen, those are two of the best stories of all time.”
There are not many constants in life, and the same can be said about wrestling. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. And one is that the overwhelming majority of this era’s most captivating stars were all shaped by the wrestling brilliance, psychology, selling, and passion of Bret "The Hitman" Hart.
“The people in wrestling that the fans love to watch, this is something every one of them has in common,” McIntyre says. “The ones that have a reputation as being solid in-ring with their holds, their strikes and their storytelling, I’ve found that every single person with that reputation was inspired by Bret Hart.
“Kenny Omega is a good example, but so are the Revival, Johnny Gargano, Sheamus and even a Hall of Famer like Edge. My career is based off the realism I learned from Bret. I put my own spin on it, creating a style that is distinctly mine, but when you go back and look at the foundation of it all, you’ll see Bret Hart at the core. He changed the business forever, and his legacy lives on.”