Bret Hart is arguably the best storyteller to ever don a pair of wrestling boots. His exquisite technical prowess and pink and black in-ring attire are a hallmark of his legendary career. However, despite Hart’s intense portrayal of an anti-American heel in 1997, it wouldn’t have cut the mustard in 1998.
If the Montreal Screw job had never happened (November 1997) and Hart never went to WCW, WWE’s Attitude Era would have still been the most famous period in modern professional wrestling. The anti-establishment bravado spearheaded by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin made the era a time of reinvention.
Austin was already tailor-made for the highly volatile TV-14 product. Everyone else, however, charged their stripes to match the contemporary look of the times. If Bret Hart had stayed on, he would undoubtedly have to change as well.
As WWE became a horse of a different color in 1998, the thing that made Bret Hart special became irrelevant. There was less emphasis on stellar wrestling matches as main event bouts became fistfights in the saloon with tables, chairs, and the occasional big bump.
Water cooler talk among fans had nothing to do with the matches. People were captivated by DX’s mocking satire, memorized by the statuesque Sable, and galvanized by Steve Austin driving a beer truck. A wrestler’s aesthetic needed to match the attitude of the time.
The Big Boss Man traded his blue correctional uniform for black tactical gear when he returned to WWE in 1998. While this change was perfect for the Boss Man, other wrestlers drastically changed their looks and persona.
Kama Mustafa went from a background character in the Nation of Domination to a flamboyant pimp, The Godfather.
Jeff Jarrett returned to WWE as an NWA-inspired traditionalist before reverting to his country music gimmick. When neither worked, he got a haircut, changed his gear, walloped people at will with a guitar, and coined the catchphrase: “Don’t Piss Me Off.”
The Undertaker was already a pro at reinventing himself, having already done it twice before the Attitude Era began. The deadman went from an undead hero to a satanic cult leader. Taker returned from injury in May 2000 with an entirely overhauled biker character dubbed “The American Badass.” Undertaker has stated on many occasions that consistent reinvention prolonged his career.
Cosmetically, Bret Hart’s pink and black aura wouldn’t have stood out to the new wave of wrestling fans. Maybe a subtle change of ditching the singlet top would suffice. As illustrated in Cunningham’s picture, replacing Hart’s traditional wrestling boots with amateur wrestling shoes underneath kick pads would differentiate his appearance.
Perhaps it was time for Hart to embrace the anti-hero persona that dominated the late 90s and lean a little more into the “Hitman” aspect of his namesake. Hart could rock pinstripe garb and fedora. “The excellence of execution” would be the mercenary of mercenaries. Tommy gun not included.
Hart wouldn’t need a weapon to kneecap a target or make someone go to sleep. His legendary technical know-how would make him more dangerous than most for the right price. A universal truth about Bret Hart is his credibility. You’d watch his stuff in the ring and go, “That guy is real.” The perfect resume for a sharpshooter.
Hart wouldn’t strictly attack the heels or babyface wrestlers. He’d attack anyone, giving his character more depth because the audience would never know who “The Hitman” would have in his sights. Give Hart a steady stream of victims until he encounters the one contract he reluctantly accepts or the one job he takes “on the house” because it’s personal.
Eventually, Hart encounters the one client who treats him like an indentured servant.
Eddie Edwards is a great wrestler who’s been a mainstay in Impact Wrestling. In 2018, Edwards underwent a character change due to a legitimate freak accident with a baseball bat. Proudly embracing his Boston roots while adopting a hardcore edge gave Edwards a much-needed overhaul from head to toe.
Bret Hart adopting a similar look and persona would give him a fresh coat of paint. Like Edwards, Bret would bounce back and forth between working weapons-filled brawls and great wrestling matches without losing his place as a top guy.
Hardcore matches were a staple of the Attitude Era. Hart’s ingenuity would have added more depth to the division by bringing a more serious approach to a spot on the card that was no-nonsense as it was comedic.
The best technical wrestler on the planet trading suplexes for kendo sticks would have been a paradigm shift for Hart’s character. The matches would be better and safer for the wrestlers involved, while the big bumps would mean more.
WWE’s inaugural table bump at the 1995 Survivor Series is attributed to Hart watching Sabu put himself through tables in ECW. However, Hart felt Sabu often did it without reason and wanted his bump to mean something. Diesel knocked Hart off the apron, sending him crashing through the commentary table in a shocking moment that no one saw coming.
In the documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1997), Bret expressed his disillusionment with wrestling becoming a world where the anti-hero is king. If these were his true feelings, getting knee-deep in middle fingers, crotch chops, ho’s, and blood baths would have been a difficult transition for the straight-laced traditionalist.
Odds are Steve Austin’s initial program as champion would have been against Bret Hart. The two were made for each other, and their matches would unquestionably augment Austin’s soaring popularity. A new champion’s first series of matches is important.
However, they’d eventually move on, and that’s when Hart would have to change. Main event acts move down the card as they lose their steam. Hart would get a few more chances to remain at the top of the mountain, but no alteration of any kind equals a zero-sum.
The Rock and Triple H were on an unstoppable path to superstardom, and no one saw Mick Foley’s ascension coming. Undertaker and Kane would always be in the main event mix. Also, Chris Jericho, The Hardy Boyz, Edge, Christian, Rikishi, and Kurt Angle would soon arrive on the scene.
It feels wrong to write such a piece about a brilliant storyteller who earned a high level of success, in part because he didn’t change. While everything we know about Bret Hart suggests he would have resisted change, sometimes people don’t change with the times, but it’s the times that change people.