Baseball has long held the title of America’s pastime. The NBA and NFL have respectable followings of their own. However there is also the world of sports entertainment that has been made famous by the phenomenon of professional wrestling. My father has always called it “rassling” and when I walked around the house doing my best impersonations of the stars of what was then called the World Wrestling Federation (“WWF”), he always shook his head in laughter. In spite of the wisdom he possessed about the spectacle I was obsessed with, not once did he ever try to dissuade me from watching the heroes that I came to believe in. And when he and my uncle took my brother and I to Madison Square Garden to see Hulk Hogan live in person, it was if we had been transported to wrestling heaven. As I aged, my view of wrestling changed and so did the characters I found to be standouts. Among them, was Bret Hart, known as the Hitman and leader of the Hart Foundation, the heel group that had an enormous following of fans. When he retired not long after suffering a devastating concussion in the ring, I and many fans looked back on the many matches he took part in with sadness knowing he would never set foot in the ring again. I always wondered what really went on behind the scenes and when I saw that he had written this autobiography, I knew that I had to read it. And I am happy to report that the book did not let me down and it is one of the best books about the wrestling industry that I have ever read.
Those of us who are wrestling fans accept some of the truths about it, mainly that it is entertainment. But every wrestler will tell you in person that there are some parts of the industry that are very real and lives are affected. The life of a pro-wrestler is a crazy one, based on traveling over three hundred days per year, nagging injuries, backstage politics, fame, success and attempts at maintaining a “home life” while mostly away from home. The fans rarely see the sacrifices the stars make to bring joy and excitement to the millions of wrestling fans around the world. And when the show is over, some stars ride off into the sunset while others struggle to survive after stepping out of the squared circle. For Bret Hart, it is a mix of both but in ways that no one could have expected when he first started out in what he calls the cartoon world of wrestling.
As to be expected, the story begins in Canada at the Hart family home where patriarch Stu Hart (1915-2003) and Helen Hart (1924-2001) raised Bret and his eleven siblings. He takes us back in time behind closed doors to witness that daily events in the Hart household. From the beginning, he makes it clear that the Hart siblings have some serious dysfunctional relationships. Their father is a wrestling promoter and the family struggled with the highs and lows of the business. Hart is open about the times of poverty the family endured and the other times when money flowed in. Some of the Hart children sought to make their own careers but the family was a wrestling dynasty and before long, Bret himself laced up the boots and began a career that was nothing short of extraordinary.
The book is captivating from the start and Hart has no shortage of anecdotes about growing up in a large family under a man feared by anyone who dared to get close enough to Stu’s dungeon. The story flows very well and we begin to see Hart’s life taking shape. The story takes the biggest turn when Vince McMahon, Jr. enters the story. It is at this point that life is never the same from Bret or professional wrestling. McMahon realized early on that in order to pull ahead, regional wrestling promotions would have to fold and to achieve this, he purchased a number of them, guaranteeing an iron grip on the East Coast. Bret soon faced the decision that many wrestlers of his time had to make and decided to take a chance and go to work for the WWF. The book picks up speed here and the things we learn about backstage production will more than satisfy wrestling buffs. All of the big names are in the book but sadly many of them are no longer with us. But through Bret’s stories, we can revisit the era ruled by stars such as Andre The Giant (1946-1993), Bobby Heenan (1944-2017), Adrian Adonis (1953-1988) and Chief Wahoo McDaniel (1938-2002). Throughout the book, Hart never loses focus even in the midst of so many larger than life characters. In the land of the giants, he rises to the top and eventually becomes the WWF champion. His ascension was by no means easy and his relationship with Vince is examined in detail. Hart pulls no punches and thoroughly explains his view of the Montreal Screwjob, his brother Owen’s death and how McMahon handled each situation. Those two moments in the book might change the way many view the minds behind the business. Wrestling fans will be familiar with both events but it is worth reading what Hart has to say.
The successes in the ring are offset by the events in his personal life which he discusses frankly. Professional wrestling is filled with many demons and Hart was not immune, Performance enhancing drugs, pain killers, infidelity, alcohol and acts of aggression are the devil’s brew that can dismantle the life of even the strongest of the strong. Hart discusses each one and in the process reveals the many struggles that can serve as the downfall of a wrestling star. The stories are sad and in some cases tragic. One that stands out in the book is that of Tom Billington (1958-2018) known by fans as the Dynamite Kid. His story is one of the most tragic that I have come across from the crazy world of wrestling. There is more to his life that Hart could not cover but Billington’s story can easily be found on the internet. Hart was one of the lucky ones and as friends died, he lived and counted his blessings. But two events happened that forced him out of the ring and changed his life in ways he could have never imagined.
During a routine match with superstar Bill Goldberg, Hart suffered a career ending concussion. I remember the match and it was clear that Hart had been seriously injured. However, no one watching that night knew just how serious the injury was but that would soon change. Hart recalls the profound changes in his life and the excruciating effects it inflicted up his body. His life became a daily struggle to do the most mundane tasks and when things seemed to be stable, he suffered another medical emergency that completely changed his future. For fans of the Hitman, this part of the book will be tough to get through. But I can say that throughout it all, he never stops being the Hitman and the story does have its shining moments. This autobiography is a treasure trove of information about the business and it is nothing short of seductive. I literally could not get enough of the stories about the older wrestling stars. They lived wild lives but also made their names as legends in the squared circle. Bret Hart is among those that have managed to survive but he carries with him many scars, both physically and mentally from his time in the business. This is his story, one of success, fame, love, heartbreak, tragedy and redemption. And I am sure that it will leave you at times speechless and at others, cheering Hart along in support. Wrestling fans will love this book.