We're in the process of putting together our annual "Greats Of The Game" special, and I was searching for a "career-defining story" for Bret Hart when I came across this gem. I wish I had remembered having this about four months ago, but what the heck, it's still a fun read.
From Wrestling Superstars, August 1999:
SUPERSTAR DREAM MATCH: BRET HART vs. VINCE McMAHON
COMPARING THE COMBATANTS
Stands 5'11" and weighs 235 pounds ... Began his pro career in 1976 ... A graduate of his father Stu's Dungeon ... Two-time former WWF Intercontinental champ ... Two-time former co-holder of the WWF tag team title with Jim Neidhart ... Five-time former WWF World champ ... Three-time former WCW U.S. champion ... Claims to have been "screwed" by Vince McMahon at the end of his WWF career.
Stands 6'3" and weighs 253 pounds ... Bought Capitol Wrestling Corporation from his father in 1982 and thus took over control of the WWF ... Didn't step into the ring as a wrestler until April 1998 ... Hasn't held any major titles, but has undermined the title reigns of several WWF champs, including those of Steve Austin and Bret Hart ... Claims that "Bret screwed Bret."
He called himself "the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be," and to his everlasting credit, it was more than just another wrestling boast.
Once he finally left The Hart Foundation and began to forge a solo career, Bret Hart began to realize his true potential. He captured the WWF Intercontinental title. Then the WWF World heavyweight title. Then another WWF World heavyweight title. Then a third. A fourth. A fifth.
Then he decided to leave the WWF and enter WCW.
It was a decision not made in haste, but one that Bret felt had to be made. In its wake, Vince McMahon decided he had to make sure Bret didn't take the WWF title with him to WCW, so he had referee Earl Hebner call for the bell as soon as Shawn Michaels applied a sharpshooter on him at Survivor Series' 97, even though Bret never submitted. He did this in front of a Canadian crowd. In front of his countrymen.
Bret was outraged. He spat at McMahon from the ring, then punched him after he returned to the dressing room area.
"McMahon screwed me," Bret said.
"Bret screwed Bret," McMahon responded.
Bret left for WCW. But the echoes of the dressing room assault remained ... until now.
WRESTLING WITH SHADOWS
When Bret Hart agreed to participate in the documentary project that ultimately resulted in the film Wrestling With Shadows, he thought it would be a learning experience. He'd always loved film, and as a teenager even harbored some dreams of working behind the camera as a producer or a director.
When events between Hart and McMahon began to unfold during the year-long shoot, the "Hitman" realized that the documentary was going to be more than a learning experience. It was going to be something of an emotional release. By baring his soul and his career on film, Hart would be able to exorcise the demons that hounded him during his last months in the World Wrestling Federation, the very demons that perched on his shoulder and whispered in his ear, "Hit him! Hit that lying scumbucket McMahon!" The very demons that cheered when he did.
When Wrestling With Shadows became as popular as it did, Hart was initially pleased. Then dismayed. The learning experience that had become an emotional release was now becoming an emotional burden. Advertisements for the videotape of the documentary peered back at him from the pages of every wrestling magazine he looked at. The Arts & Entertainment cable television channel seemed to be rerunning the film every week.
Everywhere Hart turned, there was the vivid reminder of what had been ... of the man who screwed him ... of the most humiliating moment of his career.
He was constantly forced to relive the shame and the pain. Yes, he relived the punch, that one sweet moment of physical revenge. But while Hart's shame was played out before a pay-per-view audience, his pleasure took place behind closed doors. At times, it didn't even seem real.
And it was beginning to feel like it wasn't nearly enough.
NOT A HAPPY (Mc)MAHON
WrestleMania XV was not a happy time for Vince McMahon. A new WWF World champion was crowned, and it was the one person McMahon absolutely did not want wearing the belt.
"I'm back, son, so whether you like it or don't like it, deal with it, because I'm the champ, and that's the bottom line," scraped the raspy voice of newly crowned WWF champion Steve Austin.
Austin once again was wearing the WWF World championship belt, and that meant that McMahon and "Stone-Cold" were once again on a collision course. The impact took place at SummerSlam '99, where McMahon once again donned the tights to wrestle Austin, as he had at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
It was slated to be a cage match, and McMahon felt he had a foolproof way of making sure that Austin lost his belt. He'd rehired Paul Wight, who had since become the most dependable member of Team Corporate, to be the special referee for the match. He paid Mankind, who was still the top free agent in the WWF, to guard the cage to protect against outside interference. And he loaded up Austin's match schedule with five solid weeks of title defenses--35 straight championship matches--against the WWF's top stars, right up to the day before SummerSlam.
Austin entered the match weary and ripe for defeat. McMahon was cocky.
When the bell rang, McMahon wrestled well, even better than he did at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. For much of the contest, it appeared that he would, indeed, defeat Austin. He scored several two-counts, but Austin was always able to kick out.
Except that ninth two-count. Austin was too exhausted to kick out. What was it that enabled him to avoid the pin? It was like some unseen force from below had ...
McMahon realized it too late. Someone or something under the ring had impacted Austin's body, causing him to avoid the title-losing pinfall. McMahon sneered at the canvas as if something was about to pop up from beneath the ring at any second. Paul Wight stood back, expecting an earthquake to occur.
Suddenly, McMahon felt a blistering impact on the back of his head!
Bret Hart had delivered a clothesline from the top of the steel cage that knocked McMahon senseless. Paul Wight was stunned, but he made no moves toward the "Hitman." Mankind watched the events with a wry conspiratorial smile.
Hart pulled a pocket knife out of his boot and sliced the canvas open to reveal some bizarre mechanical device that was designed to punch up into the flooring with enormous impact ... clearly enough impact to simulate a wrestler kicking out.
The "Hitman" smiled.
Then he spat in McMahon's face.
"Never mind the why, Vince, or the how." Bret spewed. "It doesn't matter. Gears, levers, padding, and remote control. Nothing too complicated, except maybe for you."
He spat again in McMahon's face.
"How's it feel to lose a title that was in the palm of your hand, huh, Vince? You like it? Are you enjoying the taste of your own medicine? I hope so, because this is just the beginning!"
Hart left the cage through the door that Mankind opened for him and disappeared into the dressing room area just as McMahon was returning to consciousness. He never knew what hit him.
Until he saw the videotape later that evening.
McMahon wouldn't admit it, but he was clearly unnerved by Hart's attack. After all, the "Hitman" was in the midst of a major campaign for the WCW World title; that he showed up at SummerSlam the way he did was as shocking as it gets in wrestling, even in these shock-a-day late-'90s.
While on camera, McMahon always seemed to keep one eye to the left or right, just in case Hart would jump at him. While in meetings, he always kept one eye on the door, just in case Hart would come bursting into the room.
Hart did nothing.
For a while, anyway.
He let McMahon simmer and stew in the juices of his own fears, waiting and wondering when the "Hitman" would strike next. But there was no next strike. Not yet, anyway.
Just the letter.
It came via overnight messenger, one of about a dozen such letters McMahon receives every business day. McMahon wasn't even going to open it at first, until he saw the return address: Calgary, Alberta.
Yes, I cost you a title victory. But that was just a small taste of the pain and suffering you cost me and my family. You never earned a title; I was five-time World Wrestling Federation champion. You never had to go home and answer to your children for the way you won or lost a belt. You never understood a thing about pride or honor.
This isn't about a title, or about Steve Austin, or about the Corporation, or about any of that crap. This is about more. Much more.
You and I know each other well, perhaps too well. We both know that this thing is bigger than both of us, and that we both need to put it behind us. I've received a leave of absence from WCW to take care of business I feel needs handling.
Here's how I want to handle it.
One match, to a submission finish. But not inside a WWF ring, and not inside a WCW ring. Not inside a steel cage, either. The only audience I want is one camera man, a documentary filmmaker.
And I want it to happen in my father's basement. In the Dungeon right here in Calgary.
Are you man enough?
The letter was signed and notarized, and copies were forwarded to all wrestling magazines and media outlets.
McMahon threw the letter on his desk, leaned back in his chair, and removed his glasses. As he tried to decide whether Hart was serious, there was a knock on his office door.
Dad, you gotta see what I--"
Shane McMahon, holding the overnight envelope, stopped in mid-sentence when he saw the same letter sitting on his father's desk. "So what are you gonna ..."
Then the phone rang.
"Mr. McMahon," the secretary said, "I have phone messages from Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, USA Network, and CBS Sportsline, all in the last five minutes, calling to ask about--"
"Quiet!" McMahon barked. "I know what they're calling to ask about. I'll have a statement for them by noon."
"Bret Hart has challenged me to a match," Vince McMahon said to the assembled throng of reporters. "He has stated terms and conditions for the match--location, observers--and has been as arrogant in demanding this match as he was as World Wrestling Federation champion. However, even given the one-sided nature of the challenge, I accept his terms, on one condition."
McMahon, ever the showman, paused for dramatic effect.
"Win or lose, I want sole U.S. television rights to the videotape."
THE "HITMAN" RESPONDS
"Let's do it," Bret said very simply, and his personal lawyer drew up the papers and had them in the mail to McMahon the same day.
The match would take place Sunday, October 31, 1999.
In Stu Hart's Dungeon.
It would be the greatest match nobody would see live.
"Who the hell ever imagined it would get this cold, even on Halloween?" McMahon asked Gerald Brisco, who joined Shane McMahon to accompany his boss to Calgary for the bout. "This is insane weather! No wonder Hart is such a cold-blooded swine."
Brisco chuckled at his boss' turn of phrase, but he was worried for his boss all the same. In wrestling, the man with the home-ring advantage has a significant edge over his foe. This was more than a home-ring advantage at the Charlotte Coliseum or Madison Square Garden; this was the home-ring advantage--in Hart's parents' house, for goodness' sake!
The video crew met McMahon as he drove onto the Harts' property and began filming the trio--McMahon, McMahon, and Brisco--documentary-style.
"This is gonna make a heck of a video back in the States," Shane said.
Vince glared at his son.
Hart was waiting at the front door.
MI CASA, SU CASA
"Who else is here?" McMahon asked the "Hitman."
"You three, the camera crew, Owen, and my folks. That's it, as agreed."
"Fine. Where are we going?"
"What's your rush, Vince?" Bret asked. "Take all the time you like.
There are no tricks here. This isn't like the last time you and I were in Canada together," Hart said, referring to the infamous Survivor Series double-cross. "This is as honest as Calgary snow: you, me, the ring, and a camera for posterity. Want something to eat?"
McMahon eyed his foe suspiciously. "I'm fine."
McMahon glanced at Brisco, who pulled a bottle of Gatorade out of a handheld cooler he was carrying.
"You don't trust a thing, do you? C'mon, let's check out the Dungeon."
Stu watched his son ... and smiled.
McMahon had seen wrestling rings in homes before, but he'd never seen anything like this. Not that there was anything so unusual in what he saw, but one look and you could sense the history that had been made in the room. The countless stars of the sport whose cries of agony had carried through the house. The innumerable leglocks, headlocks, and maneuvers that had inflicted physical and mental pain on those both fortunate and unfortunate enough to step into this wrestling ring.
History hung in the air like a smoky haze.
And more history was about to be made.
Before Hart disappeared into a side room, he indicated a bathroom where McMahon could get ready. While the combatants prepared themselves, the camera crew loaded up a fresh cartridge of videotape.
Nobody quite knew what to expect. The atmosphere was very matter-of-fact. McMahon was accustomed to large crowds, but he was also accustomed to solo workouts in the gym. Still, this was pure Hart territory. Yet McMahon was confident: No outside interference was possible, and even if he lost, how bad could it be? Sure, McMahon was no youngster, but neither was Hart, 42 at the time of the match. McMahon had four inches and nearly 30 pounds on his opponent, so how bad could it be?
Hart appeared in simple, Steve Austin-style black trunks. McMahon emerged from the bathroom wearing the outfit he'd worn twice against Austin.
The film crew fired up its camera.
The moment of truth was at hand.
HOW BAD IT COULD BE
"Let's do it," Hart said as he stepped into the ring.
McMahon looked around the room. Brisco and his son. The camera crew. Stu Hart. That was it.
"What about a referee?" McMahon asked.
"Don't need no damn referee in the Dungeon," Stu Hart said softly.
McMahon entered the ring.
Slowly, Hart and McMahon circled each other. With no crowd cheering, the match was eerie: Each man could hear the other breathe. Every whisper seemed as loud as a scream.
"Come on, you son of a ..." Hart mumbled under his breath, his hands darting out every few seconds.
The "Hitman" lunged at McMahon, taking him down to the canvas with a Russian legsweep. McMahon hit the mat with a sickening thud, and Hart scrambled to hook up Vince's leg. McMahon had fallen close to the corner and reached for the bottom rope just as Hart was about to open the match with a sharpshooter.
Hart was in position for the hold. McMahon held the rope. Bret looked at the camera, then at Stu, who nodded. Bret let go of the hold.
"Don't need no damn referee in the Dungeon," Stu Hart said again softly.
The combatants circled each other again. McMahon, relying on his bodybuilder's experience, went for a test of strength that dropped Bret to his knees and saw Stu's eyebrows raise. Vince followed up with a kick to the midsection, an elbow to the back of Bret's head, and an elbowsmash.
"Go, Dad!" Shane screamed enthusiastically. The match stopped for a beat as everyone in the room looked at him. It was the last comment anyone at ringside would make.
Bret struggled to his feet and began working a wristlock on McMahon, then followed up with a chicken wing. He brought Vince back to the mat and tried working him into position for a bow-and-arrow hold. Vince managed to escape the attempt and catch Bret in a full-nelson.
Bret, still in the full-nelson, struggled to his feet, then scampered up the cornerpost and executed a backflip that, because Vince was locked in the hold as well, flipped McMahon to the canvas. Now it was Bret's turn to enjoy the advantage. He dragged Vince to the center of the ring and applied a figure-four leglock. Hard. McMahon screamed in pain.
Upstairs, in the living room, Helen Hart cringed, the echoes of decades of such screams reverberating in McMahon's cries.
Bret was beginning to enjoy the match.
He released the hold, but kicked McMahon in his dimpled chin, stunning the WWF owner long enough to be able to flip him over into a sharpshooter in the middle of the ring.
In the living room, Helen took the remote control from the television set and raised the volume to drown out the horrible sounds.
"All right! All right! Enough!"
McMahon had cried, "Uncle!" The match, suddenly, was over.
Bret rolled out of the ring and propped himself against a wall, catching his breath, leaving McMahon writhing in pain by himself.
Vince finally began to regain his composure. He glared at Bret, who stared back in silence. "That's it?" Vince asked.
Bret reached into Brisco's cooler, grabbed a Gatorade, took a swig, and wiped his mouth.
"That's it. No Halloween tricks or treats. As straightforward and as honest as it gets. That's what the Dungeon is about. It's wrestling, sure, but it's also about life. I'm getting dressed. As far as I'm concerned, we're done here."
Bret left to take a shower. McMahon headed into the bathroom to change for the ride back to the airport.
"Not bad, Vince," Stu Hart said softly. "Not bad."
Vince, Shane, and Brisco returned to Connecticut, where, three days later as Hart had promised, a videotape copy of the match arrived via Federal Express.
"Do it," McMahon said as he handed the tape to his son, who headed straight for the editing room to prepare a five-minute presentation for the next edition of Raw Is War.
The following Monday, five minutes of nothing but McMahon beating up Bret, accompanied by the most propagandistic voiceover commentary by Vince himself, appeared on Raw.
In Calgary, Owen and Bret watched Raw on cable. Bret was stone-faced. Owen was outraged.
"Brother, that's the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen!" Owen screamed at the television. "Bret, Vince went and screwed you again."
The "Hitman" rose from his chair and turned off the television set.
"Nope," he said with a clear conscience that no longer lusted for revenge, "Vince screwed Vince ... again."