To me there is something beautiful about a brotherhood of big, tough men who only pretend to hurt one another for a living instead of actually doing it. I came to appreciate that there is an art to it. In contrast to my father, who loved to proudly tell people who the real tough guys, or shooters, of his generation were, I can just as proudly tell you who the great workers, or pretenders, of my generation were. — Bret Hart
Satellite TV entered my house when I was eleven. At first, I was mainly obsessed with MTV’s never-ending carousel of music videos. That was until my dad spotted a small advert in the TV section of the newspaper, letting us know that something called WrestleMania V was showing on Sky TV that evening. The incredibly-named ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage was to face off against the blonde-moustached Hulk Hogan. My brothers and I tuned in to watch, and our heads promptly exploded.
31 years ago today, The Mega Powers Exploded at WrestleMania 5, as @HulkHogan challenged “Macho Man” Randy Savage for the WWF World Heavyweight Title.
Please be sure to follow us through out the day as we pay Tribute To WrestleMania 5. pic.twitter.com/xZspZaHAiE
— 80’s Wrestling (@80sWrestling_) April 2, 2020
Looking back now, we weren’t obsessively into Wrestling for that long. After WrestleMania V we kept up with the storylines for a while, but I don’t remember too much after The Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan to win the top belt at WrestleMania VI. But in the short period that it grabbed us, we watched it all the time. Quickly, the World Wrestling Federation made us familiar with characters that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake, Mr Perfect, ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, André The Giant, ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka, ‘The Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase, Bad News Brown, Dusty Rhodes, The Big Boss Man, ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, ‘The British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith and The Honky Tonk Man, along with the tag teams of The Hart Foundation, The Bushwhackers, Demolition and the Legion of Doom. We even got to know the brilliant commentators: Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, Bobby Heenan and Vince McMahon.
Mum and dad used to get mad at us kids for play-wrestling all of the time. After the shows had finished we’d become the wrestlers, jumping off the sofa and getting each other into holds. Typically to Gorilla Moonsoon-like cries of “Look out!”, “He’s put him in a half nelson!” and “Right in the breadbasket!” Often the wrestling would escalate to the point of an accident, tears or both. I once cracked my brother’s head open on the corner of a the stereo cabinet in the lounge. Children are different these days, probably much nicer to each other as they are typically in front of screens instead of making up their own games. I’m not sure which is better.
I didn’t think about wrestling for a long time. A few years ago I found myself walking to the train station, listening to the Reconcilable Differences podcast and hearing Merlin Mann raving about a 1990s ‘Hell in a Cell’ match between The Undertaker and Mankind. The match happened many years after I stopped watching. One of the wonders of the modern world is that I can stop what I’m doing and then watch whatever it is that I’ve been reading or hearing about, usually on YouTube. The match is brutal; a complete health and safety nightmare. The fence-clad ‘cell’ that surrounds the ring starts to buckle under their weight, shortly before The Undertaker sends Mankind 22ft through the air into a table next to the ring below. After receiving medical attention, he climbs back up only to be ‘chokeslammed’ through one of the cell panels, falling a the same distance again, this time to the ring mat. From Wikipedia:
According to both Foley [Mankind], Calaway [The Undertaker] and Prichard [sic], the second bump through the cell roof was completely unplanned, Calaway would later say that he thought Foley was legitimately dead following the second fall, and asked Funk to check if he was still alive, while Foley would describe Ross’ commentary as “not part of a wrestling match, but a legitimate cry for my well-being”. Foley later said that the only reason he survived the fall was because he did not take the chokeslam properly, as he had been too exhausted to lift his body weight in response to the chokehold.
Somehow, Mankind gets up and they wrestle further, while one of his dislodged teeth hangs from his nose. Things get ridiculous when thumbtacks are scattered in the ring, and this gimmick is somewhat overshadowed by what went before. There is a brilliant summary and commentary on the match on YouTube which is well worth watching:
The podcast got me thinking about what I’d seen as a kid. Yes, wrestling was made up. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great. The wrestlers still had careers and reputations to nurture and build. Getting to win a belt was something agreed before a match finish, but generally you only got to be the winner of the best matches if you were popular and good at the job. The work had to be believable on TV, to the fans in the area and sometimes even right next to the crowd as they brawled. They wrestlers also had to record lots of TV spots, trash talking and gurning to the camera to keep the storylines going. Every time they got into the ring they were putting their trust in each other to make it great but also to keep it safe, and it didn’t always work out.
I worked hard to bring out the best in my opponents. I gratefully acknowledge the hundreds of wrestlers I worked with in thousands of matches over twenty-three years, and am proud that I never injured another wrestler to the point that he couldn’t work the next day. — Bret Hart
I started reading Hitman, Bret Hart’s autobiography, towards the end of my holiday in April. I thought that it would be some light reading to go with my vacation vibe. As an ebook, I didn’t realise it would be such a monster read at nearly 600 pages. I knew Hart as part of The Hart Foundation tag team back when I used to watch at the turn of the 1990s, but I hadn’t realised he’d gone on to much greater things including winning the WWF World Championship belt. The whole book was an education. Early on you are introduced to the wrestling lingo:
- Babyface: A ‘good guy’ in the storyline.
- Heel: A ‘bad guy’. A babyface could ‘turn heel’ as part of a story.
- Kayfabe: To keep in character, even outside of the ring. Although the storylines were make-believe, nobody wanted to disappoint fans by being seen with their supposed arch-enemy on a tour bus or having a beer together.
- Getting heat: When you’re a hot property or you’re having a great match, this is shorthand for adulation and frenzied fever from the fans or the crowd.
- Putting someone over: Letting them win. Apparently the end of matches were decided by the person doing the booking, but the content of the matches themselves were down to the wrestlers.
- Getting some juice: Secretly and deliberately cutting your forehead with a razor blade during a match in order to add blood to the proceedings. Apparently wrestlers would hide a blade in their mouth and then spit it out and cut themselves when they had taken a blow to the head.
Getting some juice seems to be something that happened a lot in the earlier years, but the promoters knew they had to try and curb it as wrestling became more mainstream. From Hitman:
Though I’d bladed when I thought it would increase the artistry of the match, the practice was clearly stupid, and stopping it was a step in the right direction to protecting wrestlers. What bothered me was that Vince banned blading four months too late. My forehead had so many deep cuts in it from our recent run of cage matches that I could easily pull the slices apart with my fingers. Pat Patterson later explained that the real concern was that AIDS could be spread by all that self-inflicted bleeding in the ring. I was relieved, and at the same time I felt bad for ever having done it.
Hart’s story is fascinating. His life in the business traces a route from the 1970s — where wrestling was fragmented across regions, with his dad Stu running the Stampede Wrestling promotion in Calgary, Alberta — to the turn of the millennium, where the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) run by Vince McMahon was all-conquering. Hart was the eighth of twelve children, all of whom were involved or married into wrestling in one way or another. Their childhood home had a room in the basement that was nicknamed ‘The Dungeon’, where Stu would take pleasure in teaching ‘submission wrestling’ to anyone wanting to get started in the business.
The author comes across as sincere and honest, documenting his hectic schedule of life on the road and the impact that this had on his relationship with his family, as well as his womanising and his use of steroids. You get a good sense of how much work it was, and how much effort he had to put into keeping in great shape and ensuring he was earning a living. Hart is self-aware of his qualities, and has an intelligent understanding of what makes a great wrestler:
I have my own theory on the three qualities it takes to be a great pro wrestler. The first one is look or physical presence. On a scale of one to ten, Hogan, being such an awesome specimen, might rate a ten, for example. Although it always helped, it wasn’t as important to be tough as it was to look tough, especially if you were a heel. The second quality is the ability to talk, to sell yourself; Hogan might score another easy ten, whereas a guy like Dynamite would have to work to earn a two. The third is wrestling talent, the ability to work. Here it would be just the opposite: Hogan would rate the two and Dynamite would get the ten. A score in the high twenties adds up to a great wrestler.
Losing can be a beautiful thing if it’s done right. The Hitman character was generally seen as a wrestler who, try as he might, could never quite win. This made him more human than, say, Warrior or Hogan. His constant struggle to make it to the top was endearing to the fans because it was something they could identify with in their own lives.
Early in Hart’s career, he suffers a horrible injury at the hands of wrestler Dino Bravo. Although Hart could see that their planned move would have problems, it was difficult to stop the match and ‘break Kayfabe’ in front of all the fans:
The referee, John Bonello, stepped between us, pushing him back, and it was while I was standing on the apron with my back to the crowd, knowing the spot was coming, that I realized it was quite some distance to the steel fence, that it was bolted to the floor and that it wasn’t going to budge when I hit it. But it was too late! Dino, right on cue, rushed the ropes and launched me backwards into the air. As if in slow motion I twisted and braced myself, but my foot was tangled in the cord from the mic stand, and I feared that it would catch and pull me downwards, head first into the fence. Somehow, in a millisecond, I was able to shake my foot free then—wham!—my chest hit the top of the fence, and I crumpled to the arena floor. In very real agony, I was unable to catch my breath. My first thought was, Don’t die, don’t die. It felt like I’d crushed my rib cage or maybe even punctured a lung. As I twisted around on the floor, nobody seemed to realize this wasn’t part of the show! I thought, Just hold on … somebody will know I’m seriously hurt. Oh no they won’t … my selling is realistic, so nobody realizes I can’t breathe. … I might die here on the floor of the Maple Leaf Gardens. God, what an awful way to go.
There seems to be little thought to wrestler wellbeing, such as ensuring they have an income if they are injured in a match. This is a theme that repeats throughout:
Vince’s generosity extended to $200 a week while I healed. Luckily my $10,000 SummerSlam 1989 cheque arrived to cover me. Still, I found myself going back to work after only eighteen days. My ribs would bother me for years, and I had to be careful taking hard falls and turnbuckles. There’s a certain art to being able to work hurt and not disappoint your fans. I’m proud to say that nobody noticed a thing.
These physical injuries culminate in an awful event where Hart’s brother Owen loses his life as he makes a vertical entrance to the ring:
Hanging from a cable off a catwalk up in the rafters of the arena, Owen suddenly fell seventy-eight feet to the ring, smashing chest-first across the ropes, about a foot from a turnbuckle, bouncing hard onto his back toward the middle of the ring. He lay there for several minutes turning blue while paramedics worked feverishly on him, to no avail.
It’s hard not to judge history by the standards of today. Looking back, it is so sad to know that there was no holistic support for the wrestlers. As well as getting little or no pay while they were off work due to physical injury, there was no support for the those who were battling mental issues and addictions. Wikipedia has a long page, filled with sorrow, documenting a list of premature professional wrestling deaths.
The impact of Owen’s loss on his family is deep, and causes significant rifts. At this point, a lot of the extended family’s income and future earnings is either directly or indirectly dependent on the company that now has a near-monopoly on the wrestling business. So the immediate pain splits into different views about how to approach Vince McMahon, the man who runs the business.
Bret has his own run-in with Vince McMahon. Due to various reasons covered in the book, Bret wasn’t happy with the decision that he should drop the world championship belt to Shawn Michaels before leaving the WWF to join the rival World Championship Wrestling. McMahon had agreed, but then during the match the bell was rung prematurely, causing Michaels to be declared the winner. I wasn’t familiar with this story before picking up the book, but it is apparently very famous, now known as The Montreal Screwjob. There’s an episode of the documentary series Dark Side of the Ring which covers this in a lot of detail.
What I found interesting is the ‘kayfabe’ side to the story. At the end of the match, Hart looks truly devastated, spitting on McMahon, writing the letters ‘WCW’ in the air and then smashes up some ringside gear. You wouldn’t typically expect the wrestler to acknowledge the existence of the other wrestling promotion, nor McMahon’s role as a senior person involved with the incident. Backstage, McMahon goes to see Hart in his dressing room and is apparently knocked unconscious by him. From Wikipedia:
The far-reaching impact of the incident led to its adoption as a theme in matches and storylines of the WWF’s “Attitude Era” and the creation of the character of “Mr. McMahon,” the evil arrogant boss. Many wrestling fans, and several within the business, believe the entire incident was an elaborate work executed in collaboration with Hart. Nonetheless, Hart was ostracized from the WWF while McMahon and Michaels continued to receive angry responses from Canadian audiences for many years.
There’s some interesting detail on the incident in the excellent 1998 TV documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows which has been made available on YouTube:
With the advent of the Internet, ‘keeping kayfabe’ must have become almost impossible, with wrestling fans sharing stories with each other online about the real people behind the characters. It makes sense that the business would adapt to this, turning McMahon’s real-life role as the boss of the WWF into a storyline. Back in the days when I watched the show, McMahon was seen as just one of the match commentators and nothing more.
During the last few years that are covered by the book, Bret suffers a quick decline brought about by WCW’s poor management and terrible storylines, as well as his own serious injuries that start with concussion from a kick to the head and a subsequent stroke after falling off of his bike.
I’m really glad I read this. It put my brief spell as a wrestling fan into context and gave me a newfound appreciation for the work that they did. Yes, it wasn’t ‘real’. But we loved it.