SPORT ON TV: The sadist, the loving father and a knockout end
Sunday 07 November 1999
Bret "The Hitman" Hart was the hero of Paul Jay's enthralling film, and he made for a good one, having had 14 years' practice as the No 1 Hero in a field where there is plenty of competition. Hart was born into wrestling, with seven brothers who also became wrestlers, and four sisters, who all married one. And their father is Stu Hart, an ex-pro wrestler and - from most angles at least - a full-time sadist.
At school, all the other kids thought they were "the weird wrestling family". So what would they have thought if they had known what Stu was up to in the basement? The Harts grew up with screams coming from the "dungeon" below the living room, where dad was demonstrating neck locks and full nelsons to aspiring wrestlers. Even in his 80s, he is doing it, taking iron-pumping 20-year-olds to the brink of oblivion with educated twists and tweaks of their limbs.
The Hart boys found one man's pathetic pleading for mercy so amusing that they taped it. In a voice which oozes contempt, Stu keeps telling him to "have some discipline". But all the time, they knew well that soon, the screams would be theirs. Bret could "remember my dad squeezing me so hard that the blood vessels would burst behind my eyeballs. I'd go to school the next day with red eyes. You'd be screaming, begging for your life, which Lord knows I did on numerous occasions. My dad was always screaming in my ear, `you've breathed your last breath', and I can remember that ringing in my ears lots of times and thinking, `I probably have'."
Child abuse, most people would call it. But Bret, as is often the way, couldn't see it like that. "He sounds like a sadist, almost a psychopath," he said, "but you've got to know my dad to know that he isn't. He's just a big, gentle, loving guy."
This was just one of the contradictions which Jay unearthed below the surface of a business which appears to deal in certainties, from the characters involved to the ultimate triumph of "good" over "bad". There are the wrestlers themselves, who look like steroid-fuelled meatheads to a man. Yet Hart, who provided the film's commentary, quickly showed himself to be smart, eloquent and thoughtful. Another wrestler, while tying up his 30-hole boots, revealed that he had a degree in business and was busily developing a 100,000 square-foot shopping mall in his spare time.
Hart himself turned out to be the biggest contradiction of all. In face of competition from a new wrestling circuit run by Ted Turner, WWF's ratings were dropping through the canvas. Vince McMahon, the "creative genius" behind WWF, decided to try something that no one had tried before. He would turn his No 1 Good Guy into the No 1 Bad Guy.
Difficult, you might think. In fact, it was easy. Hart, a Canadian, simply walked into the ring in America and started pressing the button marked P for patriotism. And this being wrestling, he pressed as hard as he could. "Last week," he told a huge audience in Pittsburgh, "I said the United States of America was one giant toilet bowl. And if you were going to give the United States an enema, you'd stick the hole right here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."
The fans all booed. They had loved him for years, but now they hated him. Except in Canada, that is, where the Hitman remained a Good Guy. "Canada is a country where we still take care of the sick and the old," he told an adoring Calgary. "We still have health care, we have gun control, Canada isn't riddled with racial prejudice."
But the greatest irony was saved until last. After years of fighting phony bad guys, Bret couldn't recognise the real one in front of him. Everyone else could see McMahon was running WWF for no one's benefit except his own, that for all he cared about them, the wrestlers could be performing chimps. Such was Bret's naive loyalty he turned down $9m from Turner's WCW, and signed a 20-year deal with the WWF. Even when McMahon wanted to break the contract less than a year later, Bret still believed him when he said he would allow his last bout to finish as an honourable draw.
McMahon, inevitably, stitched him up. Hart left the WWF as a loser in front of his home fans in Canada. Touchingly, he seemed genuinely surprised and upset. McMahon locked himself in his office afterwards, but Bret just marched in anyway, and punched him so hard that he knocked him out cold.
It was a thought-provoking end to a story beautifully told. You probably started out with at least a hint of disdain for the fans packing the stadiums to cheer and boo at mock violence. But here was some real violence, and guess what? It was far more satisfying than the fake stuff.
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