By Mike Mooneyham
July 18, 2004
Although the new Ric Flair book has been out less than two weeks, the mud-slinging is enough to make the George Bush and John Kerry camps blush.
Not surprisingly, Bret Hart was the first to publicly lash out at Flair, and he lashed out with a vengeance. That Hart struck back before the book’s ink had time to fully dry is not surprising because of the iconic status he ascribes to not only his wrestling character, but to his lofty position in Canada’s sports hierarchy.
What it all boils down to is actually quite simple. Hart, truly buying into his gimmick about being the “the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be,” sincerely believes he was the best wrestler in the business. Unfortunately for the Canadian legend, though, that label more aptly describes Ric Flair.
While Hart enjoyed main-event runs in both the WWF and WCW throughout the ’90s, Flair has been a headliner from the early ’70s to this day and is widely regarded by his peers and fans as the greatest performer of his generation. Hart may have been born into the business, but Flair was born for the business.And that’s not to downplay Hart’s significance to the industry. After all, the infamous Montreal finish at the 1997 Survivors Series involving Hart ironically proved to be a pivotal point in pro wrestling history and one that would lead to a dramatic shift in the Monday night wars. A cloud of controversy, however, has surrounded Hart ever since the fateful night of Nov. 9, 1997, when Vince McMahon made the decision to get the WWF title belt off Hart without him agreeing to do the job.
Therein lies part of the problem for Hart, whose bitterness over Montreal has unfortunately colored his career – and his life – ever since.
Hart’s subsequent run in WCW was nothing short of a train wreck, concluding with a serious concussion at the hands of Bill Goldberg in late 1999 that ultimately led to Hart’s retirement from the business. In recent years the 47-year-old Hart has been plagued by a number of personal setbacks, including the tragic death of brother Owen in a WWF ring, a stroke that effectively ended his career in 2002, a severe fissure within the dysfunctional Hart clan and the death of several family members, including parents Stu and Helen and ex-brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith.
“At the end of the day, the one thing I tried to say in the book is that it’s important to have relationships away from the business,” says Flair, who openly acknowledges his own relationship failures in his book. “Bret doesn’t have a family. It’s sad.”
WAR OF THE WORDS
Like the Hitman, many Canadian fans and Bret Hart loyalists will take great umbrage with some of the statements Flair made in his bio, which moves up to No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list next week. To his credit, though, Flair has spent most of his career taking the high road, making a point not to burn bridges and exercising a strong degree of self-restraint when under fire. Sadly the same cannot be said of Hart, who regularly ripped Flair, among others, in his weekly Calgary Sun column.
Hart made headlines several years ago when he lambasted the highly respected Jack Brisco, a former NCAA heavyweight champion at Oklahoma State and a two-time NWA world titleholder during the ’70s, who defended McMahon’s decision to screw Hart out of the title in Montreal.
“I thought Vince McMahon did the right thing by taking the belt off him,” Brisco, now 62, said during a chat on the Slam Wrestling Web site. “Bret Hart owed it to Vince McMahon, the other wrestlers and the WWF to do the time-honored tradition. What does it mean, ‘I can’t drop the belt in Montreal because I’m from Canada?’ He’s from Calgary. That would be like me saying I couldn’t drop the belt in Florida because I’m an American.”
“It wasn’t a question of losing in Canada, it was a question of losing to somebody who had no professionalism and no respect for me, or for any of his peers in the dressing room,” said Hart, referring to nemesis Shawn Michaels. “Jack Brisco shouldn’t pass judgment on things he knows nothing about without firsthand info & other than that which he gets from his deceptive brother, Jerry, who, in fact, had a large part in orchestrating how to screw me, under orders from McMahon.”
Last week Hart acknowledged the derogatory remarks he made about Flair and Hulk Hogan in the ’90s, but claimed he had made a sincere effort to apologize – “in the interest of doing business with them, for the greater good of the business.” Later, though, he claims he was never given any kind of a chance in WCW, intimating that Flair or Hogan could have been behind it.
“Now, years later, Hogan and Flair have both spoken inaccurately about me and have tried to debunk and minimize my contributions to a business that I was born into and have devoted my life to with deep passion and dedication,” says Hart. “Wrestling wasn’t just a job for me, it was the only way of life I knew long before either Hogan or Flair laced up a pair of boots and took their first wrestling lesson to see what it was like.”
“Personally,” Flair says in his book, “I never saw dollar signs on Bret Hart.” According to Flair, Hart was too protective of his own image. “(Bret) could have been the president of his own fan club.”
The sentiment is shared by many in the business.
“We need people who understand this business and don’t get so carried away with it that they believe their own publicity,” Vince McMahon said shortly after Hart left the company. “He thought he was a Canadian hero. His character was. You do the best you can to try and keep everyone’s feet on the ground and make it work for everyone. Sometimes you just can’t do it.”
AN OVERDUE RECEIPT
That Flair finally issued what in wrestling parlance is known as a “receipt” should have come as no surprise to Hart or his fans. It’s also not surprising that his controversial comments struck a raw nerve with Hart, who unloaded on Flair with both barrels in a venomous response that went so far as to challenge Flair to perform the same biologically impossible act that Vice President Dick Cheney recently suggested to Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Hart’s scathing commentary took Flair to task on a number of subjects, ranging from his in-ring ability to his out-of-ring character. While disparaging his mat skills (claiming that Flair couldn’t even lace up Randy Savage and Mick’s Foley’s boots), Hart admits he had never even seen Flair wrestle upon meeting him in 1989, 17 years after Flair’s pro debut. He also makes a wildly exaggerated claim about knowing more about “ring psychology and real wrestling at the ripe age of 9 than Ric Flair knew in his entire lifetime.”
“The single greatest contribution that Flair ever gave to pro wrestling was the wooo from his silly chops,” says Hart, who apparently has taken one too many. Perhaps an even more far-fetched claim was that Flair elevated himself at the expense of others, conveniently forgetting that Flair made more stars and did more jobs than probably any top name in wrestling history.
Clearly much of Hart’s anger is indirectly aimed at Triple H and Shawn Michaels, both of whom Flair puts over in the book as being two of the greatest performers in the business. For their complicity in the Montreal Survivors Series, however, they are undoubtedly at the top of Hart’s list of targets.
“Next to Kevin Nash, he was the lowest-drawing champion ever,” Flair says of Hart. “When he came to WCW, he bombed so badly he picked up his toys and went home. In the book, I simply said Shawn Michaels was a better worker.”
It also hasn’t helped that Hart’s bitterness has alienated him from a company that brought him fame and fortune. It has to hurt seeing Flair, at the age of 55, basking in the success he still enjoys in the business, including a top spot on the roster, the adulation of his colleagues, the most lucrative DVD in company history and a hot-selling book.
“Nature Boy” Buddy Landel, who worked a high-profile program with Flair during the mid-’80s, weighed in on the war of the words last week with statements carried on the 1wrestling.com Web site.
“I’ve wrestled them both and if my thoughts mean anything, here goes. Ric Flair is the single greatest wrestler – bar none – that has ever been in our business. You see Flair arriving, you know here comes the champ. See him in the airport, here comes the champ. In the ring you get your money’s worth – if you could ever find a seat. To the few, including myself, who have had the pleasure of wrestling the world champ, it was a tough long night ahead of you and you’d better be in shape. Bret was decent, but a robot in my opinion. To someone who wrestled them both, there was no comparison. Ric Flair has earned the right to say whatever the hell he wants to say.”
“American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, one of Flair’s most famous rivals, echoed Landel’s sentiments in statements on the same site.
“They say every seat in an arena is 17 inches apart and putting asses in those seats is what it’s all about. If that’s the case – Bret Hart or Ric Flair? I went seven days a week with Ric Flair for an hour every night and we sold them all out. But enough about me. Ric Flair had the ability to put an ass every 17 inches. Bret Hart went from Calgary to the WWF and made his name. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, but the greatest wrestler to lace his boots was the ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair. Nobody in the business today and nobody in the history of the business could lace Ric Flair’s boots.”
At least one reader agrees that Hart’s vitriolic rant is a weak attempt to discredit Flair.
“Bret thought it was unprofessional for Flair to show up on WWF TV with the WCW title? Here’s a guy who wasn’t even professional enough to drop his title at a pay-per-view (where the biggest things are supposed to happen – not Raw like he wanted) before going to WCW. Vince had to resort to snookering the belt away from him – and Bret punches him in the face for it,” writes Jack Hunter of Charleston. “Bret doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to talking about being ‘professional.’ Bret did this because he felt he was ‘mistreated.’ Well, Flair took the belt to the WWF because he was mistreated. Not to mention they owed him money for it. Chris Benoit compared the WCW title to a ‘piece of tin’ right after winning it and defecting to the WWF. I’m quite sure Bret doesn’t have any unkind words for his father’s student (Benoit), which proves once again that Bret’s just talking out of his ass.”
Hart’s most emotional response was to Flair’s claim of Bret exploiting his brother’s death to get back into the limelight. In the book, Flair writes, “What unnerved me the most was the way he used his brother’s death. Through his column in the Calgary Sun, Bret relentlessly bashed Vince McMahon. I sympathize with the emotion – and even the anger – he felt over losing a brother, but I lost respect for him when he made the case into a public spectacle. Why didn’t he take the matter up privately with Vince? It seemed to me that Bret cared more about getting screwed in Montreal than he did about Owen’s death, and he used his brother’s death to grind his ax with Vince.”
“Frankly, this is such a low-class blow that it is even beneath him,” Hart responded. “If he wants to take potshots at me as a wrestler, that’s bad enough, but it is reprehensible that he would judge me for the way I handled myself in the aftermath of my brother’s death. All I can say is that I stood by Owen’s widow through a fierce and bitter time, never once failing her or their children. I did what I think Owen would have wanted me to do and I answer to Owen’s memory, not to Ric Flair. For him to say that I fueled the lawsuit because of Montreal is ridiculous and disgusting.”
Rightly or wrongly, it’s Flair’s honest sentiment, and one which Hart will have ample opportunity to further rebut when he pens his own autobiography. This round and this book, though, belongs to Flair.
Most likely the controversy between Flair and Hart is just beginning. Flair is scheduled to appear on Hart’s home turf Wednesday for a special appearance on TSN’s “Off The Record” that is sure to add fuel to the fire.