In the same way cinema has a canon or literature, wrestling also has its canon; unofficial, as these things always are, but unconsciously agreed to through much online discussion and publication of magazines and books.
There are the canonical ‘great’ pay per views; Great American Bash 89, WrestleMania 17, Spring Stampede 94, just to name a few. There are the canonical great stars and wrestlers (not always mutual); the likes of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold, Eddy Guerrero, and Dynamite Kid. Then there are the canonical ‘great’ matches; the original Hell in a Cell, Steamboat vs. Savage at WrestleMania 3, Eddy vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. at Halloween Havoc ’97, Austin vs. Dude Love at Over the Edge, Omega vs. Okada at Dominion.
Bret Hart, as much as anyone, has found his back catalog canonized, meaning that anyone searching for a list of his best matches will come across the usual suspects; Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam ’91; Roddy Piper at WrestleMania 8; Owen Hart at WrestleMania 10 and SummerSlam ’94; Shawn Michaels in the famous Iron Man match; Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13. These are the canonical matches of the Hitman, the matches that have become beyond dispute (to be fair, I love every single one of these matches, apart from the Iron Man match which I’ve never particularly enjoyed).
Underneath these are the more cult classics, less talked about but still mentioned enough that they form a familiar baseline to a wrestler’s reputation. For The Hitman, this includes matches like The Hart Foundation vs. Demolition at SummerSlam ’90; The Hart Foundation vs. The Rockers at WrestleFest ’90; The 1-2-3 Kid on Monday Night Raw; Hakushi at the inaugural In Your House and later on Raw; Bret and Owen vs. The Steiner Brothers at WrestleFest ’94.
But a wrestler the caliber of Bret Hart cannot and does not have just a handful of classics to his names. What about those forgotten classics, the great matches that deserve a place on the pedestal but never get talked about? Here I am to shine a light on the hidden gems of the ‘Excellence of Execution.’
Bret Hart vs. Dynamite Kid (House Show, Capital Center, 14th September 1985)
Although Bret and Dynamite had already contested several scorchers in Stampede Wrestling, this is probably the best quality footage of the two men competing in singles action and is also a great wrestling match in and of itself.
Viewed from a distance of 34-and-a-half years later, with the developments in athleticism in wrestling since, it’s fascinating to observe how ahead of its time this match is. This is the template for modern Strong-Style, a contest of smooth flips, lightning-quick reversals, stiff strikes, and suplexes. It also brings to mind the classics Guerrero and Malenko would contest in ECW 10 years later.
Dynamite is known, quite rightly, for being an innovator, but Bret keeps up with him, absorbing some vicious, strong-style offense from the Kid and retaliating with some crisp responses of his own, even pulling out a body slam on the arena floor, which is a little uncomfortable when you consider he would severely injure his back a little over a year later.
A great match, but don’t let the sudden ending put you off. This is worth your time!
Found On: The British Bulldogs (Home Classics, WWE Network)
Bret Hart vs. Ricky Steamboat (House Show, Boston Garden, March 8th, 1986)
This match is a little bit more well-known now with Steve Austin having given it praise, and it appearing on the Bret “Best There Is, Best There Was, Best There Ever Will Be’ DVD. Still, it doesn’t get talked about enough for my liking, featuring as it does two of my favorite wrestlers let off the leash and allowed to put on a competitive, athletic match.
Steamboat was on top of his game as always (I swear the man had a peak of abilities that lasted 10 years or more – he just hit an incredible level of ability and stayed there!) Bret was not the wrestler he would become later but he’s still pretty damn good and this match gave him a chance to showcase his singles abilities away from the Anvil.
Hart plays the heel from the start, jumping Steamboat before the bell and resorting to that old chestnut again, body-slamming his opponent on the arena floor. Steamboat tries to rebound by focusing on the left arm, whilst Hart rebounds with attacks on the midsection in the battle of the body parts.
Even though Steamboat took the win, Hart looked the stronger man, counting a phantom pin on Steamboat whilst the ref was down. Steamboat then snatched the pinfall by rolling through a crossbody, making him look exceptionally lucky that he won.
A future star is born here.
Found On: The Hart Foundation (Home Classics, WWE Network)
The Hart Foundation vs. The Rougeau Brothers (House Show, Madison Square Garden, September 1986)
One thing I do miss about old-school WWF (and something I applaud AEW for trying to promote) is the depth and excitement of their tag team division. Actual dedicated tag teams with chemistry and individual identities and everything! Those were different times, friend. The division was so wide and strong that they could use the division to put on one of the best Survivor Series matches ever, a 5 team, 20 man match at Survivor Series ’88.
The Hart Foundation was part of the rock bed of the tag division and they demonstrate exactly why here. They garner great heat from the audience without doing anything particularly heel-ish as such. The crispness of their ring work and the psychology of isolating the ‘face in peril’ was enough because they did it so well.
The Foundation also worked so well because each man had their strengths and stuck to them. Anvil was the power man, while Bret was the technician, coming together on double teams to combine their speed and power with big impact moves.
The surprise here is The Rougeaus. While I always liked them as a tag team, the Rougeaus were never the most dynamic of partnerships. Yet here, in generic black trunks, focused on the in-ring action and not a gimmick, they seem urgent, vital, surprisingly athletic, overwhelming the Harts with their speed, reversals, and monkey flips. The Quebecers never did this!
Eventually, Jacques, as the face in peril, makes the hot tag to Raymond, who explodes into action and eventually takes the Anvil over with a sunset flip for the win.
A really fun match that shows why the tag team formula was so successful in the ’80s!
Found On: The Hart Foundation (Home Classics, WWE Network)
The Hart Foundation vs. The Brain Busters (SummerSlam ’89, Brendan Byrne Arena, 28/08/1989)
This would have been a dream match at the time, with two of the best tag teams of the 80s competing. Not only that, although the Brain Busters had been in the WWF for a little short of a year, they were still seen as faces of the NWA, having been a part of the original lineup of the Four Horsemen amongst other accomplishments. This then, in short, was a big deal.
Bret has talked about in his book how he was worried about losing in a non-title match on a major pay-per-view to a team so strongly associated with the NWA. In hindsight, it is strange booking – the Harts would have looked stronger if they had been allowed to win here but just came short when the titles were on the line. However, it is what it is and they the teams assembled a cracker of a match anyway.
Considering the Busters were so dominant in the NWA, and were arguably the better of the two teams, it’s really interesting to see them on the back foot here, with the Harts dominating the action, utilizing double team moves to great effect. The Busters eventually take advantage over the Anvil, and everything both teams hit is executed so smoothly, it’s a real treat to watch. The crowd is red hot for this one, and it adds to the atmosphere, especially when Bret makes a comeback and snaps Tully with suplexes, slams, and members of the famous ‘Five Moves of Doom’.
The Busters steal the win with some typical Bobby Heenan subterfuge, but the bigger crime is that these two teams were booked into a massive feud off of the back of this. The Busters would soon be gone, but at least we have this gem of a match.
Found On: SummerSlam ’89 (WWE Network)
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels – Ladder Match (TV Taping, Portland, Maine, 21st July 1992)
Fun fact: it was Bret Hart who brought the concept of the Ladder match to the WWF, having partaken in several whilst working for his dad in Stampede. This is ironic, as Bret hates reckless wrestling – I wonder what he thinks of the years of insane TLCs and Money in the Bank matches that have occurred since?
Not that this can be considered to be in the same vein as those later, stunt-filled matches. This is a slow build full of psychology. Attempts to climb the ladder come slow and tentatively but build into a tense crescendo as both men go for last-ditch efforts to grab the gold. Shawn’s bumps against the ladder are beautiful – he was up there with Curt Henning for enthusiastic selling.
It’s the little touches that make the difference: Sherri leading Bret away from the ring so that Shawn can sneak up the ladder, meaning Bret has to run back to make the save just in time. Or Shawn carrying the ladder to the ring before Bret knocks it into him, meaning Michaels had to do the hard work of bringing the ladder to the ring, rather than Bret attacking Shawn in the aisle and having to drag the ladder himself to the ring.
WrestleMania X will always be seen as the birth of the ladder match. But the future starts here.
Found On: Bret “Hit Man” Hart: His Greatest Matches (Home Classics, WWE Network)
Bret Hart vs. Ric Flair (TV Taping, Saskatchewan Place, 12th October 1992)
Strangely, Bret’s first Heavyweight title win never seems to be celebrated as a match itself. Partly it could be because the match itself was taped to be aired but was never shown on TV for whatever reason, instead, appearing on compilation video releases. The other reason could be the general animosity that Hart and Flair have discussed their matches together with, giving the match the reputation of being a slog to sit through.
In actuality, the match itself is a fun little contest. Flair plays the cocky veteran, underestimating the younger challenger, while Hart plays the confident, resilient challenger who keeps coming back through the champion’s offense to eventually overcome the odds and take the glory. Mr. Perfect added extra color to proceedings, throwing in the element of uncertainty as to whether he would interfere or not.
The crowd was hot and came unglued when Hart held Flair in the sharpshooter, making him shake his head in submission. It was rare for the WWF Heavyweight title to change hands then on TV and you can tell no-one in the crowd expected the change that night, adding to the excitement.
Don’t believe the participants. This one is a cracker.
Found On: Bret “Hit Man” Hart: His Greatest Matches (Home Classics, WWE Network)
Bret Hart vs. Jean-Pierre Lafitte (In Your House 3, Saginaw Civic Center, September 24th, 1995)
Ah, the man now known as PCO. Often castigated for being lumbered with a dumb pirate gimmick, complete with the eye patch, Lafitte was a very talented individual, similar to Bam Bam in that he had great agility for a big man of his size. It’s quite warming to see him now get the success and recognition that was due to him then.
The motivation for this match, that Lafitte had stolen Hart’s jacket, is an insult to even the most accepting wrestling fan. Thank God, then, that Hart and Lafitte had strong chemistry together. Another slow builder that leads to a beautiful action-packed climax, the story of Hart as the veteran picking his moments against the impatient newcomer, hitting and missing big moves with equal abandon, is an exciting one and it was great to see Hart wrestle someone other than Lawler, Shawn, and Owen for once during this period.
Found On: In Your House 3 (WWE Network)
Bret Hart vs. Davey Boy Smith (In Your House 5, Hersheypark Arena, 17th December 1995)
This might be sacrilege to a lot of people, but I don’t like the much-hailed encounter between these two at SummerSlam ’92. Sure, I was a kid at the time and a fan. I was British too, so the Wembley Stadium extravaganza was a massive deal to me. But something about that match left me cold.
Nowadays, I can see the problem. I can see the Bulldog going through the motions as Bret led him through the match move by move. According to Bret’s book, Davey Boy had been a little too attached pipe in the week’s previous. Such a trait does not a classic make.
For my money, Bret and Davey Boy’s match at In Your House 5 is a much, much, better match. For starters, there are none of that two faces playing tweeners ambiguity that I find a little tedious for the most part. There’s a real tension between the cocky, disparaging heel Bulldog and the hurt and bitter Hitman. Diana, Bret’s sister, and Davey Boy’s wife create great drama by choosing to remain at the Bulldog’s side, even though he’s being an arsehole. Not only that, but Davey Boy, as far as I’m aware, was relatively clean, giving the match every opportunity of being the classic it quickly became.
The two men took to the mat (it’s forgotten how Davey could go on the mat as well as hit power moves) but as things escalated the big moves hit with crisp impact amongst some clever reversals. Bret did a great blade job, coating the mat with blood and leaving a pool of crimson on the ring mats by the steps. It’s not the biggest cut I’ve seen but somehow the blood adds real drama to proceedings.
The end is a little flat, as Hart snatches the win with a cradle. Still, a sneaky pin like that can work in a match like this, where both men are evenly matched and the difference between victory and defeat can simply be one man thinking that extra move in front of his opponent.
A great story that yielded a great match. Don’t believe the hype about SummerSlam. This is the match to watch.
Found On: In Your House 5 (WWE Network)
What do you think? Do you agree with my picks? Are there any Hitman classics that rarely get talked about that you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!