Bret Hart didn’t know it, but his iconic heel turn began in June 1996 at King of the Ring.
Hart wasn’t on the show of course; he was in the middle of an eight-month, self-imposed exile from the company following Wrestlemania 12.
However, as Stone Cold Steve Austin began to spew out one of the greatest promos in the history of the business towards a defeated and broken Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in the final third of the event, the Teutonic plates in the wrestling business immediately – yet very slowly – began to shift.
Austin’s 3:16 promo had gone over huge with American audiences, and shortly thereafter, he was beginning to gain traction with WWF fans as a babyface. Hart’s own status as the company’s preeminent good guy was on borrowed time.
As documented in the now-seminal wrestling documentary Wrestling with Shadows, Hart struggled in real time to comprehend the shifting sands in fan behaviour. Despite occasionally displaying heel tendencies during the course of the odd match, the Canadian ticked every box on the babyface checklist. Hart was the quintessential protagonist throughout the 1990s and loved playing the hero, and to many, genuinely was one.
But the cookie-cutter babyface shtick that remained more or less unchanged since the 1980s had become incredibly dated, and the American audience demanded change.
Wrestling is often cited as mirroring the cultural landscape of the time, and television audiences of the mid-to-late ‘90s wanted to be intellectually challenged: the good vs. evil trope had been ground to sawdust.
The age of the anti-hero was on the horizon, the zenith coming in the shape of James Gandolfini’s mesmeric performance as Tony Soprano, and The Sopranos becoming an American cultural phenomenon on TV in the process. This helped to usher in characters like Omar Little, Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer as loveable – but deeply complex – rogues on TV; America wanted their shades of grey.
In a wrestling context, ECW had already kick-started the anti-hero movement. They might have been small in number, but the ECW diehards knew wrestling, and were smart to the business in a way the majority of WWF fans (outside New York) weren’t.
In Paul Heyman’s promotion, characters were three-dimensional, flawed, often exaggerated yet also grounded in reality. A world away from the plumbers, hockey players, farmers and evil dentists that punctuated the WWF landscape.
Austin represented this new type of character. He was straight-talking, didn’t wear anything fancy, and kicked ass, took names and talked trash whilst he did it. Most importantly of all, Austin was relatable to the audience. In the completely sterile world of 1996 WWF, the Texan stood out by a country mile.
Hart also recognised this. It’s often been remarked that Hart saw the greatness in Austin before anyone else, himself included. As Austin has stated many times down the years, Hart handpicked him to be his comeback opponent at the 1996 Survivor Series. Hart wanted to help elevate Austin, and knew he was the man to do it, even calling him “the best wrestler in the WWF today”, despite the fact that Austin was nowhere near the title picture.
His return at the November ’96 PPV in Madison Square Garden was arguably the last time Hart received a thunderous ovation as a babyface in America. Hart and Austin produced a stellar match that was awarded four stars by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer. By the time the pair were to meet again at Wrestlemania 13 four months later, their career trajectories would never be the same.
Inside the ropes, Hart was a wrestling genius who could visualise the makeup of a match in a way that was unparalleled, and constantly thought of ways to incorporate new ideas into his matches. However this innovation didn’t extend away from the ring.
Hart’s act had remained unchanged since turning babyface in 1988 and had, in the eyes of American fans, grown increasingly stale. Hart had also done little to change anything about himself in the intervening years, aside from variations of his ring attire.
The Bret Hart of the Hart Foundation tag team of the late ‘80s was essentially the same as Bret Hart the singles wrestler in early 1997; the stagnation was palpable.
According to Hart in his meticulously absorbing book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Vince McMahon sat with Hart at the beginning of March and broached the subject of turning heel at Wrestlemania 13 against Austin.
McMahon had in all probability listened to the lukewarm receptions Hart had been receiving during the first months of the year, and having invested a lot of money in Hart when he signed him to a 20-year deal in October 1996, knew turning heel was the only viable option left for his longest-standing wrestler.
Reading Hart’s comments on the subject is fascinating, because whilst he admits turning heel would ‘pump some kind of new blood into my character’, he also believed that the American audience had turned heel on him, without fully grasping why they’d become tired of the Hitman act.
Hart laid the groundwork for the turn on the go-home Monday night RAW show. After losing a WWF title match against Sycho Sid in a cage match due to The Undertaker slamming the door in his face, Hart erupted at McMahon, shoving him to the ground and cutting a scorching promo.
Hart cursed on TV (“frustrated isn’t the goddamn word for it, this is bullshit!”) for the first time in the company’s history, and blamed everyone for ‘screwing him’ out of winning the title since his return. This led to a melee involving Austin, Sid and Undertaker as the show went off the air.
Six days later, Hart and Austin produced the greatest wrestling match in Wrestlemania history (despite the WWE’s propaganda machine trumpeting Undertaker and HBK’s bout at Wrestlemania 25 as the best). The pair created a clinical masterpiece amidst a whirlwind of lawless chaos that will arguably never be surpassed.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Hart was now a fully-fledged heel, and it was revolutionary.
McMahon sold Hart on the idea of maintaining his babyface status everywhere except for in the USA. This made sense, as Hart was the company’s No.1 face all round the globe, and was always a bigger draw internationally than domestically.
Hart was especially loved in Europe, where fans tended to flock towards Hart’s athleticism and good looks, as opposed to the disproportionally-sized muscles and bombast of Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warror.
A heel turn of this kind had never been attempted before, and hasn’t been since, but McMahon was confident that Hart could pull it off.
“Everyone around the world loves to hate Americans,” McMahon explained to Hart. “We come across like we are better than everyone else.”
Hart’s 22-minute promo on the RAW following Wrestlemania was the longest in the company’s history. It’s often said that the greatest villains in cinema have genuine elements of logic to justify their barbaric actions. This was also the case for Hart’s heel turn.
Hart took to the mic and made it known that it was the American audience that had turned their back on him, cheering for bad guys like Austin and Sid, both of whom had cost him the title.
Furthermore, Hart weaved real life figures such as OJ Simpson and Charles Manson into his promo, stating, “nobody glorifies criminal conduct like the Americans do.” It was the greatest promo of Hart’s career up to that point.
The next week, Hart concluded his three-and-a-half year feud with brother Owen and annual squabbles with the British Bulldog, interrupting their match and delivering a fantastic speech about family values and how America had turned the Hart family against each other.
In the space of two weeks, Hart had delivered more captivating promos as a heel than his decade as a face. Owen, especially, gave an Oscar-worthy performance, gently sobbing whilst slowly digesting his older brother’s words of wisdom.
The trio hugged in the middle of the ring and Hart gave a steely look towards the crowd, showing utter contempt for the audience that he believed had divided the family for too long. The Hart Foundation 2.0 was born.
Soon thereafter, Brian Pillman and a returning Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart joined the group. 1997 was the year of the faction, with seemingly everyone on the roster affiliated to some form of group, and the Hart Foundation stood high above the rest. Week after week, Hart was now knocking it out of the park with his promos – by his own admission never his strongest facet – by touching on real life issues and, despite his own reservations behind the scenes, going all-in on the pro-Canada angle.
The Canada vs. USA storyline slowly developed into the biggest angle in the company as spring gave way to summer. A knee injury ruled Hart out of action for several months; as a consequence, McMahon gave him even more promo time.
The apex of the angle was undoubtedly the July In Your House: Canadian Stampede PPV. The event is generally regarded as one of the best of the IYH series – despite having only four matches on the show – and everyone from Steve Austin to Jim Ross to Bruce Pritchard to Hart himself have remarked the crowd that night in Calgary was one of the loudest they’d ever heard.
In particular, Bret’s reception that night in Calgary was deafening; the hometown hero returning at the peak of his career in the company’s hottest angle sent fans delirious. The occasion wasn’t lost on Hart.
“We’d touched a nerve across Canada, but for the fans in Calgary it went much deeper than that. They’d grown up with and stood by Stu’s old Stampede crew through the decades of highs and lows, and now we were squarely on top of the business, all of us like brothers. These fans were here to thank all of us, especially Stu,” wrote Hart in his book.
In retrospect, the end of the Canadian Stampede PPV has now taken on a tragic spectre. Wrestling’s royal family would never celebrate another moment like this again, with the Hart clan seemingly overwhelmed with heartbreak in the months and years ahead. They weren’t to know it then, but this was the end of an era.
Throughout the summer of 1997, Hart continued his tirade against America, touching on controversial subjects such as gun control and healthcare, all the while carrying the Canadian flag to every Monday Night Raw that took place in America as a heat magnet. “If you were going to give the United States of America an enema, you’d stick the hose right here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” was one of Hart’s most infamous lines.
Hart won his fifth WWF Title against The Undertaker in a hugely-underrated clash at that year’s Summerslam. Undertaker, who recently described Hart as being one of his best opponents and ‘as smooth as silk’ in the ring, welcomed to the opportunity to demonstrate that he could also wrestle, having been confined to the Frankenstein-esque gimmick for the entirety of the decade.
Yet it was here that Hart’s heel turn started to fizzle. The ending of the match, in which guest referee Shawn Michaels inadvertently cracked Undertaker in the head with a steel chair and cost him the match, had also turned Hart’s real-life nemesis into a heel.
With both Hart and Michaels now on the same side of the divide, it was far easier to dislike the latter due to Michaels being genuinely unlikeable. Furthermore, Michaels’ stripper routine was scarcely something the average fan in 1997 wanted to see a babyface perform.
Further steam was taken out of Hart’s turn when he was shoehorned into a program with The Patriot towards the end of August. The introduction of the character killed the momentum of the Canada vs USA storyline, as The Patriot, who wore a mask, was a character that had been seemingly airlifted from the early 1980s and dropped into 1997. He was a jarring addition to the storyline, but Hart, ever the pro, tried valiantly to make it work.
The Canada/USA angle, which had been white hot for five months, slowly dissipated as behind the scenes issues between Hart and McMahon took hold in the autumn. Despite being the champion, Hart wasn’t in the main event of the September or October 1997 IYH PPV’s, now stuck in middling feuds with The Patriot and Vader.
Michaels was now firmly the company’s top heel, so much to the extent that going into the 1997 Survivor Series, Hart was almost a babyface, just eight months after turning heel. Michaels’ persona pushed the envelope much harder in a way that Hart’s heel character – despite possessing elements of truth to his assertions about life in the USA – didn’t. It was far easier to be hated as an obnoxious, exaggerated jock-esque, frat-boy heel than one having genuine gripes with America, it seemed.
Hart was now a luke-warm villain, and knew as much. “I came from being the number one good guy in the whole world, and I gave that job up to become the number one bad guy,” Hart recalled his final conversation with McMahon before signing for WCW in Wrestling with Shadows. “And now you’ve given my bad guy job to Shawn Michaels, how can I become a good guy again? I’m stuck in limbo.”
Despite having a month left on his contract, the events of Montreal would mark the end of Hart’s legendary WWF run, and as Hart’s name and legacy were buried – never to be mentioned on WWF TV for years – his final year in the company didn’t garner the plaudits it undoubtedly warranted.
For years, people tended to associate Bret Hart and 1997 with two things: the Wrestlemania 13 match with Austin and Montreal, neglecting everything in-between. Only with the passing of time has there been a reappraisal on the greatness of Hart’s entire year.
Hart himself is in no doubt that 1997 was the zenith of his 13-year career in the WWF, stating numerous times that he believed his promo work had vastly improved and that he could hold his own against anyone from the company at the time.
Hart’s heel run is unquestionably amongst the finest in the history of the company. The uniqueness of it, the fact that he was only a heel in America; the crisp, authoritative delivery of his promos in which Hart on a weekly basis highlighted the flaws in the American societal system; how he could back up his words in the ring; how he became the first wrestler to swear and the first person to physically confront McMahon on national TV; how he convincingly blurred the lines between fiction and reality and how he maintained his babyface status all over the rest of the world elevated Hart to the pantheon of truly extraordinary heels.
Bret in 1997 was, to steal Lex Luger’s gimmick, the total package.
Had Hart remained with the WWF into 1998 and beyond, it’s intriguing to wonder how his character would’ve evolved in the full-blown Attitude Era. Despite his concerns in Shadows about his status in the company towards the end, a babyface turn would’ve been inevitable eventually, and with wrestling fans’ tendency to forgive even the most heinous of acts in time, Hart would’ve easily been the company’s biggest babyface that wasn’t named Austin or The Rock.
So raise a glass to the unequivocal brilliance of Bret Hart’s 1997 run, because you will never see one like it again.