We’re going to talk about two more wrestling luminaries this time. Let’s jump in!
XXXV. Jerry Lawler
Briefly discussed last time, wrestling’s most enduring “King” had been a notable presence for decades, whether as a wrestler or ringside commentator. Best known in his home territory in Memphis, TN, Lawler had worked with WWE since 1993, longevity that very few others in the company can match.
I first remember him from an intense rivalry with Bret Hart (probably Hart’s finest overall rivalry from that period), culminating in a Sharpshooter the “Hitman” positively refused to let go, one of the first truly notable wrestling acts of my experience. Lawler quickly retreated behind the mic, where he would frequently and bitterly deny allegations that he was the “Burger King,” but it wasn’t until he was paired with Jim Ross that he really rose to prominence in WWE. His boisterous appreciation of the female form became Lawler’s hallmark (and at least one real relationship he found as hard to hide as his connection to “Grandmaster Sexay,” Brian Christopher, who was after all his son). What’s remarkable is that he actually maintained his double life. In WWE, Lawler would watch the gigantic Mabel in the ring, but in Memphis, Lawler promoted him as a star attraction. He rarely competed for WWE, but maintained an active presence in his own arena. Incredibly, it seemed he would never actually compete at a WrestleMania, until this year’s, during a heated feud with fellow ringside personality and decided non-wrestler Michael Cole.
There were feuds with Doink the Clown (which included perhaps the last time midget wrestlers were properly integrated into WWE, quite memorably, at the 1994 Survivor Series, which you need to see to believe), Andy Kaufman (revisited in the 1999 movie MAN ON THE MOON, for which Lawler agreed to personally recreate the famous Letterman appearance where coffee was generously exchanged), world championships with AWA, the crown, the tights with just the one strap, times when he really did feel like a relic when he made that sporadic wrestling appearance, when he called to drop the boom on, say, Brian Kendrick (who had funny things to say about it afterward), times spent away from WWE employment (never for very long), unquestionably the most regular presence on Raw, both before and after the dawn of the brand era…I can’t pretend to be an authority on Jerry “The King” Lawler, but to be a professed fan, who loves the fact that he’s an accomplished cartoonist on top of everything else!
XXXVI. Bret Hart
If only for that 1993 feud with Jerry Lawler that effectively culminated at Summer Slam (though it was supposed to continue into Survivor Series, until Lawler experienced one of his separations with WWE, and was replaced by Shawn Michaels for a Family Feud match meant to springboard a feud with his brother Owen), Bret Hart remains inextricably linked to Lawler in my estimation of the history of professional wrestling. I know, seems a little silly, but in many ways, the two are more similar than you might at first think. Both are hardcore relics of a bygone era, an earlier time when wrestling was more like Bruno Sammartino remembers it, focused on the art of wrestling itself, and the territorial mentality that no longer exists. Whereas Lawler successfully adapted to the modern age, I’d wager the “Hitman,” in many ways, never did, and it’s all thanks to the same family legacy that helped launch his career in the first place.
The Harts are still beyond a doubt the most famous wrestlers to ever emerge from Canada, the slightly more resilient version of the Von Erich clan that dominated Texas in the 1980s. As you may be aware, the Von Erichs tragically imploded, with one suicide after another. True, on the surface, that’s not what happened to the Harts, but like Jack Kennedy before them, both the Harts and the Von Erichs were dominated by a patriarch bent on achieving greater success through his offspring than he ever achieved (a shame that none of them was aware of the Guerrero clan south of the border, but then, the business still managed to kill Eddie). Bret’s older brothers survived and retired from unremarkable careers, but Stu’s shining pupil was fortunate to emerge during WWE’s formative days, rising to prominence as a member of the Hart Foundation before striking out on his own.
By 1992, steroids finally became a scandal for the company, even though it had blatantly driven the original Hulkamania machine, and Vince McMahan frantically sought a different kind of champion. After a brief transition period with Randy Savage and Ric Flair holding the heavyweight belt, the “Excellence of Execution” was finally, somewhat improbably, given his chance, a sort of latter-day Bob Backland, which was all the more appropriate because in later years Backland would actually return to feud with Hart. After setting off on a furious pace of title defenses against every conceivable challenger (including Shawn Michaels at the 1992 Survivor Series, four years before HBK would finally be given his turn, and five before the far more infamous SS encounter), “Hitman” was felled by Yokozuna, a Samoan monster posing as an unstoppable Japanese machine, and fell well off the championship scene for a year, only to collide with Yokozuna and his presumed successor, Lex Luger, in 1994. By this point, Bret and younger brother Owen had developed an intense chemistry in the ring, and together they put on the most notable championship clash of this particular reign at Summer Slam, before “Diesel” (Kevin Nash) claimed the championship for a year.
I wouldn’t blame Hart for getting a little spun around in this whirlwind, but it never seemed to occur to him that he might take his efforts in the ring a little more seriously. He sincerely enjoyed what he was doing, no matter the opponent. He found chemistry with Hakushi (who lost a great deal in the recent natural disasters that struck Japan) in 1995, but that feud went nowhere very fast. He’d rose to WWE prominence in 1992 by putting on a spectacular match with Davey Boy Smith, the “British Bulldog,” at Summer Slam, but rarely seemed interested in developing a reputation for putting on truly great matches, instead focusing on his technique, a few spotlight matches here and there, a few worthy opponents, but rarely when it really counted. It’s a pattern that would ultimately doom his career. I don’t mean to suggest that Bret Hart is not one of the truly notable wrestlers in the history of the sport, but he spoiled his chance to be one of the greats, or “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” as he liked to put it, by steadfastly believing in technique alone. No wonder, too, since Stu’s infamous training “dungeon” featured hours meditating on specific holds. I don’t know how a showman like Owen Hart emerged from that kind of environment, and neither did Owen, who will have his own feature later, so I won’t dwell too much on his now.
Suffice it to say, but I would have done Bret’s career differently. I would have allowed Owen to beat him, if only momentarily, for the title in 1994. Even if Owen didn’t take his career seriously, it would have allowed fans to, and would have given Bret a more genial profile. Instead, the 1997 Bret who acted like a spoiled brat well before the Montreal Screwjob, convinced both in character and privately that he was an untouchable Canadian institution, ended up happening. Even the feud he had with Steve Austin in 1996 and 1997 could have been taken more seriously. WWE will have you believe that Austin’s push was delayed because the company mistakenly believed he’d work better as a heel than as a heelish face, but if anyone could have seen past that, it should have been Bret Hart, if he understood wrestling as well as he thought he did. Unless he was always looking after his own interests, as he bitterly claimed was the case with Shawn Michaels.
I really don’t mean to open old wounds, but the fact is, Bret Hart remains a fascinating subject. He knew he would be miserable in WCW, and while I certainly can understand and identify with that kind of clairvoyance, it’s not as if he tried all that hard. There were plenty of opportunities, if only he’d tried a little. The onscreen attitude he’d used in WWE didn’t serve him so well in WCW, but either he never understood that, or was legitimately given a chance for something else (maybe it just seemed too authentic by that point). If Hulk Hogan refused to work with him, he had plenty of other options, Sting and “Diamond” Dallas Page being two he half-heartedly embraced (Ric Flair had been unimpressed in 1992, and probably uninterested in 1998). There was the concussion he received from Goldberg, which he blamed for the end of his career, but then, shouldn’t a veteran like Bret Hart have been prepared to handle someone as apparently unpolished as Goldberg by that point? He’d let his apathy literally endanger not just his career, but his life. He was a world champion a few times, in the end, with WCW, but he admits even now that he simply didn’t care. He had plenty of reasons by that point, but perhaps many of them he’d created for himself. I don’t want to revise history, either, but an Owen Hart who had more support from his own brother might not have been hanging around rafters in 1999. I realize that Bret must have had that exact thought a thousand times in just 1999 alone, but still. It was something he barely considered in 1994, let alone the last months of 1997, when he reluctantly switched allegiances, and left his brother forever behind.
Whereas Jerry Lawler is the story of a wrestler who tackled the winds of change and resiliently bounced back from every challenge, Bret Hart is the story of a career that saw every challenge seemingly as an insurmountable problem. If even one of his turning points had been different, if he’d been ready for that first world title, if he’d handled the feud with Owen differently, if the Montreal Screwjob hadn’t happened, if his brother hadn’t died, if he hadn’t been kicked in the head by Bill Goldberg…Still, a remarkable story unfolded in 2010. The “Hitman” actually returned to WWE. Suddenly, that career fraught with peril became a thing of the past, and a new chapter was opened, a chance to get everything right, and that’s exactly what happened. Whodathunk? One of the most troublesome legacies in wrestling history suddenly has a chance for a full redemption. And perhaps greater things still.