Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Then there was Bret

The documentary, "Wrestling with Shadows," was obviously a piece that tried to make Bret Hart look like a victim. We had seen before clips of Vince McMahon talking about the Montreal Screwjob before and as always the line that is remembered is "Bret screwed Bret." The documentary only shows Bret Hart's side of the story and only offers glimpses as to what Vince McMahon was saying. Bret really did not want to do the right thing and drop the title when he was supposed to. He had an ego and really believed what he was saying about being a wholesome character and being a role model that people should follow. This turned him into a modern version of Hulk Hogan, who did not want to lose to anyone and cost him more than he bargained for.
It seems to me, from what I have read and the interviews that Bret Hart has given, he really had trouble distinguishing what he accomplished in the ring and who he was as a person. He took what he did and showed the crowd very seriously. First off he really felt that any loss on his part would hurt the character he tried to portray. And as we saw in the documentary, that character really just seemed to be himself. But as a wrestling fan, I know that would not have been the case. A good example would be the match in which Bret broke his sternum. Instead of allowing the match to end as quickly as possible and let his opponent pin him, he decided to lose in a way that would not make his opponent look good. He put his health at risk over his image! He did not seem like the kind of guy that was willing to put someone over. And this was especially true when it came to Shawn Michaels. The video only touched upon this very little but Bret Hart truly did not like Shawn Michaels. I have seen interviews that really reflect his Lou Thesz like mentality in that he believed Shawn was too showy and cocky. He believed that Shawn's more high flying and Mexican styled form of wrestling was too effeminate and he was not the kind of role model kids should have.
First one can understand that Vince was scared. The women's champion had already shown up on WCW before and trashed the belt on screen. So why not let Bret forfeit the title? Well, Vince already had experience with that when Ric Flair made his first stint with the WWF and ran his mouth about being the real world champion and carried around the gold belt. Vince did not want to give Bret an angle when entering WCW and have him claim that he was the real champion and that he had never lost the title. One could see that Vince had no choice but to ask Bret to lose the title.
So why could Bret just do what he was supposed to? He did not do what should have done and that was drop the belt to Shawn at the pay-per-view. That is the way of the business. One thing seems clear to me and that is Bret was not thinking. His mind was not in the mindset of a wrestler or promoter, but rather a star who wishes to preserve their self image. In the documentary there is this whole hopeless kind of mindset Bret gives to the camera when he talks about being relegated to being the number 2 heel. He seems to think that the comments he makes about the audience will be there forever and that he can't turn face. Usually, I see a confrontation between two heels leading to one turning face. Two heels facing off usually doesn't work well with the audience. It just doesn't happen so fast. Also, he had to think about the fact that Survivor Series was one of those traditional pay-per-views that had been around for a while and people did not want to get a disqualification ending. Did he really believe that one loss in Canada would hurt his image. Losing the belt and keeping his image would have been so easy! Shawn was the clear heel and having someone like Rick Rude run in a help him screw Bret out of the title and have it actually be planned would have been perfect. The people would not seen Bret lose cleanly and the title would have changed hands. His pride and self preserving attitude would not let him do something like this.
I have seen lots of my favorite stars lose cleanly. Shawn Michaels lost to Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIV, The Rock lost clean to Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 15 and he was still hated by the people and then loved again when he turned face. Triple H and Shawn Michaels, arguably my favorite current wrestlers both lost to Christ Benoit at Wrestlemania XX cleanly. These superstars put over other wrestlers for the benefit of the wrestler and most importantly the people. If Bret had lost to Shawn, not necessarily cleanly, it would have given the fans something to cheer or boo. It would have allowed the WWF to move in the direction Vince wanted which is what he had asked Bret to let him do. These superstars that I mentioned did not lose their aura of being the greatest wrestlers to me when they lost on the greatest stage of the business. Shawn Michaels had wrestled what many thought was his last match and made Stone Cold the top guy in the business. That is what a wrestler should do, for other fellow wrestlers and the company.
I do appreciate the fact that Bret Hart was a great wrestler and provided some great matches but he put himself in the position that allowed the Montreal Screwjob to happen.


Sam Ford said...

I think it's interesting that Bret positions himself as a spokesman for the boys, bringing up the fact that promoters ride the wrestlers until their bodies break down and then they take them out back and shoot them in the head. Rough, to be sure, but it's certainly true that wrestling is full of stories of yesterday's superstar being today's broke and broken down old man. WWE seems to be super-loyal to some people and pay them for life, for instance Fred Blassie, Arnold Skaaland, Jim Barnett, Gorilla Monsoon, etc. These guys got the deal Bret was expecting with his 20-year contract, to be involved with the WWE in some capacity from then on.

One thing that is important to emphasize is something Mick Foley highlights in The Monday Night War, that WWE really was in financial peril during this time. At the height of its losses to WCW, WWE business was getting dangerously low, and many feel it was the huge gamble of getting Mike Tyson for several million dollars that helped generate mainstream interest in WWE once again and turned ratings around.

In othe words, there is likely some truth in Vince's sentiment that they couldn't afford a big money, 20-year commitment to Bret at the time he told Bret to go ahead and seek the WCW deal. And what I believe helped is how outspoken Bret had become about not being comfortable with WWE's direction. It was already becoming clear that this was what the fans wanted--Austin as a face, more risque or "adult" programming, etc., and maybe Vince didn't want his highest-paid performer complaining every step of the way. That sentiment, added to WWE's financial woes, led to the situation, I would say.

As for my take on the screwjob itself and the documentary, that's captured in the few pages I wrote in response. I'd love to get any further thoughts you all might have along the way on how WWE used what would otherwise be negative publicity to instead fuel its storylines and make the Mr. McMahon character even more mythological in his evil.

Joshua Shea said...

I was at this particular show. It was just about at the end of my multi-year obsession with seeing any WWF show that mattered (I wasn't traveling to Albany for a house show, but did for a PPV). Because of the Internet, or more specifically the newsgroup rec.sport.pro-wrestling, I was well aware that Bret had signed a WCW contract and that this was his last PPV. The two friends I went with, also big fans, and I discussed how they would have Bret lose the belt since we knew a) he was wrestling in Canada and b) he was facing Shawn Michaels.

If you can pick up a copy of the original PPV on DVD, the mood is much different. What's compressed into two minutes on the Wrestling With Shadows documentary is drawn out over 15 minutes. The fans were really pissed at first when they recognized what happened, but after about 5 or 6 minutes, the audience noise died down quite a bit and we were left with Bret standing in the ring with British Bulldog, Owen Hart and Jim Neidhart. Then he started trashing monitors the play-by-play teams use. The emotion in there, while initially intense, soon became like someone slowly pouring water on a fire (which I guess could be said about Bret's career beyond this point.) I had no idea what this event would truly mean to the history of late 20th century wrestling.

While I think that Wrestling with Shadows does paint it very much from Bret's point of view, I also don't think it lies.

If Bret Hart was unwilling to lose in Canada (a whole freakin' country, not to mention wrestling is a work, not real) because it would tarnish his legacy, his actions in refusing to drop the title and then having Vince McMahon's hand forced have done more to tarnish his legacy than if he just would have laid down and taken the pin. His lackluster WCW run and being forced into retirement didn't save anything. I'm guessing most wrestling fans under 25 only remember Hart as a singles wrestler, and most under 20 probably barely remember him wrestling. His legacy is Montreal and that happened because of his ego.

As Sam mentioned, WWE was in financial peril at the time this all was happening. WCW was picking off their top talent left and right. Vince McMahon had already seen his womens' belt be thrown into a trashcan on an episode of Nitro from Medusa Micelli/Alundra Blayze.

Bret wanted to come on RAW the next night and simply vacate the title. Boy, that's an exciting story. What would have happened though if Bret kept the title in Montreal and didn't show up to RAW? He could have gone on Nitro the next week and done more than just trash the WWF title. Imagine the mileage that Bischoff could have got from being the one to destroy the WWF belt. I could see a full page ad in USA Today with a picture of Bischoff destroying the belt next to a picture of Vince with his head down and the headline in 112-point type reading "Out with the Old, In with the New". It very well could have been the end of the WWF and frankly, I don't blame Vince McMahon one bit for his actions. Bret's extreme actions called for Vince's extreme reactions, regardless of how much of a big Bret Hart fan I was, and am.

narwood said...

Normally I agree with your arguments, Luis, but here I feel you're making some gross generalizations.

Firstly with regards to Hart feeling any loss would hurt his character - unless I've missed a very crucial aspect of his career, you're basing this entirely on the two very specific examples. Firstly, the match where he broke his sternum. He noted that his opponent was one he didn't particularily wish to lose to, and whether this preference was grounded in his character or his own personality, so long as we acknowledge that his wrestling character is a magnification of his self, rather than a 2D 'stock' character, it shouldn't matter. Putting his performance above his health is neither limited to Bret Hart, nor indicative of egotistical confusion over reality. To name just one example, we saw the same thing with Steve Austin. His neck was broken, but instead of lying quietly and waiting for the paramedics, he not only finished the match, but stumbled from the arena under his own power. If nothing else, continuing on in the face of actual physical distress makes for a more interesting wrestling story, supported by the fact that you've not only remembered it, but are using it as an important fact to support other arguments.

Then there was Montreal, which itself is special because no matter what else, it is the departure of Hart from his long-time relationship with the WWE. The rhetoric that keeps recurring is that he "didn't want to do the right thing... and drop the title." Well, who declares this to be the "right thing?"

It would seem the answers are "wrestling history" and "logic." You're meant to drop the belt before leaving, even though we've seen several instances in which this doesn't happen. And there's a good argument for why Vince would want to prevent any chance for the belt to make it over to the WCW. Yet the historical context was one of upheavals and boundary pushing. In his response Joshua notes that he and his friends were discussing HOW Hart would drop the belt. What better ending, then, to defy expectations? Vince has proven himself adept at turning any outcome to his advantage, and this would merely have been an early example of fostering a little bit of randomness in order to have more to respond to. Blaming Hart for not acceding to the typical plan put forth by Vince is not neccessarily Hart flying in the face of wrestling entertainment, but Hart, existing within the sphere of individuals comprising the world of wrestling. His viewpoint is based on his perception of having personal fans (bolstered by his status as a Canadian wrestler), which is a contrary motivation to the perception of being a cog in the machinery that serves fans of wrestling.

Finally, a quick note on Canada. It may be a large country, but the total population is roughly equal to that of California. There IS a tendency to self identify as "Canadian," embodying certain "Canadian" traits - especially in opposition to the overbearing influences of the USA so nearby.

Sam Ford said...

A lot of good points, Tess. particularly about WHY Bret's loss in Canada was a big deal to him. Luis' explanation is actually quite a bit like what I explained before that many fans felt, that it's the same as an American wrestler not wanting to lose in America. In Bret's case, his concern over losing was how it was his last match, and this all comes down to the question of what "reasonable creative control" really means.

In actuality, as far as making himself marketable in WCW, the "screw job" was the best thing that could have happened to Bret, if WCW had known how to capitalize on it. The night after Montreal, several WWE wrestlers protested and would not come to Vince's show. Brother-in-laws Davey Boy and Jim Neidhart jumped to WCW as well, and they were completely not capitalized on.

Vince at least knew how to roll with the punches on this one, quite literally in this case, playing up the black eye Bret gave him, showing the footage of Bret smashing the monitors on his show, and making Vince and dX heels by mocking a hero who was no longer even on their show.

Basically, the WWE was building up what was now a WCW character, but they didn't do anything to capitalize because they already had their power--the nWo--who wasn't willing to share the spotlight with "The Hitman."

As poorly as things ended for Bret, even at the end, he was always treated as a major deal in the WWE and was just another face in WCW, so I'm glad that the company and Bret have mended enough fences to celebrate that history.

narwood said...

Actually the point is that it's NOT the same as an American wrestler not wanting to lose in the USA. It's more akin to the scenario of a wrestler not wanting to lose in his hometown in a territory based system- all of Canada, in this case, functions as a hometown, due to Canada's status as a marginal 'other' in the USA-based WWE. Except the stakes are even higher, given that Canada also exists as a country on the geopolitical level the US does.

Sam Ford said...

I am actually not arguing with you in this regard, Tess, but pointing out that Luis' argument is along the lines of what many fans have said who fell on Vince's side of this argument.

I agree that you can't conflate the Canada and the U.S., although Montreal is particularly interesting in this whole "losing in Canada" argument because of Quebec's relationship with Canada, etc.

But you make a good point about Canada as country but also a solidified whole that may be more akin to a state. What is your take on Bret losing in Calgary vs. Montreal, and would this have made a major difference in the argument? Since I know you spent some time in Calgary, what do you feel would be the differences in Bret's cultural status in Alberta versus Quebec?

Carolina said...

I have to say that I disagree with Luis's opinion on what happened at this Survivor Series and his stance that Bret was the one that put himself in that particular situation. First of all, I like that you bring up that Shawn and Triple H both lost cleanly to Chris Benoit at WrestleMania 20, but I hardly think that justifies the types of things those two did/perhaps continue to do backstage. Shawn Michaels, much as I am a fan of his, he hasn't always been the perfect worker who does as he's told. I believe around the time that Bret was with the company, they'd ask Shawn to lose this match or lose that match and he would refuse to do so, repeatedly. He did this because he knew just how good he was, and he knew that Vince wouldn't seriously reprimand him because Vince needed him to go out there and perform. So if you really want to compare Bret and Shawn, I think you have to realize that Shawn seemed to be more of a pain to work with overall, at least during that time period, than Bret's one-time refusal to lose would let you believe. I've read Shawn's autobiography and unless my memory is getting shot, I do recall him refusing to lose to Bret on occasion. If you were Bret, would this be the man you'd want to lose to in your last hurrah with the company that made you?

The losing in Canada argument is interesting, and by no means am I trying to justify Bret's rationale here. But the fact is that he had been granted some creative control, "reasonable" creative control rather, and this was well in his rights to do. Bret lost to Shawn at WrestleMania 12, the show that everyone remembers where Shawn first won his championship in a classic Iron Man Match. And after the match was over, Shawn told him to "get the f*** out of his ring". No handshake, no acknowledgement, just get out. I guess my point is that I think Bret's dislike of Shawn as a person was a stronger reason for him not to lose than him being in Canada of all things. At least, that's been my understanding of his explanation after the release of this documentary. The losing in Canada thing, if that was really a legit reason, is weak. I'm more understanding of his reasons if it stemmed from dealing with Shawn, who could easily make Bret's ego look miniscule in comparison.

katejames said...

I think Carolina's point that " I think Bret's dislike of Shawn as a person was a stronger reason for him not to lose than him being in Canada of all things" plays into Luis's original though about Bret not quite separating his character from himself, and thereby getting too emotionally charged about thigns to get the job done as he's instructed to do.

The whole business about 'reasonable creative control' seems very odd to me. First, it's totally ambiguous, and second, it can possibly hold any legitimacy in the world of Vince.

From what we see of Bret Hart's upbringing and relationship with his father, it's really no wonder that he might intertwine his criteria for wrestling and personal success, and might become extraordinarily invested in his image and legacy (yes, especially in Canada).

But I think Josh's point that the planned turning in of the belt the next night sounds like it would have been a snore is right on; it had to be bigger than that. There is never a missed opportunity to capitalize on potential drama in pro wrestling. And the whole screwjob did wonders for Bret's legacy in the end.