Authors: Bret Hart
The next day I was standing at the foot of the steps in front of Hart house, glad to be home in one piece.
A few days later I was in Stu’s kitchen when Aunt Joanie phoned. Surprise, Smith and Maria were there! And surprise, again, they were married! My whole detour to Chicago turned out to have been for nothing after all. The look on my face didn’t even come close to my poor mother’s aghast expression!
I GOT HOME FROM PUERTO RICO just in time to see Dynamite work with Nelson Royal, the NWA Junior Heavyweight Champion, during Stampede week. Watching Royal in action lit me up; I wanted to be doing what he was doing, and to be doing it with him. But first I needed to put some weight back on for my Calgary debut in September, and so I took most of the summer off. Smith got back to town with his new bride, moving Maria into the attic of Hart house; it must have been a real shock to her to see that the Cadillacs in the yards were all wrecks.
That year Keith and I were the older brothers introducing thirteen-year-old Owen and Diana to the annual summer pilgrimage to visit Dory and Terry Funk in Amarillo. Dory was considered the best wrestler in the business, and Terry was as good in many ways but was the more wildly unpredictable of the two. Now that I was determined to become a really good wrestler in my own right, the opportunity to learn from the Funks took on a whole new significance for me.
The Funks let me referee a couple of nights, and they even threw me into a couple of job matches with a big Japanese guy named Tetsuo Sekigawa and a local named Dennis Stamp. I attempted to throw a punch to Stamp’s gut but accidentally smashed him in the groin. A lot of wrestlers would have been angry, but Dennis forgave me for my greenness and gave me a good match. (Twenty years later, Terry Funk would pick me, of all people, to work his retirement match with him, and Stamp was the referee.)
Stu’s business got worse that summer. A match between Mike York and The Magnificent Zulu at the tail end of August was so terrible that at the ten-minute mark a fan in the front row stood up and yelled, “Hey, come on, Stu! What is this shit?” Stu cringed and watched for another thirty seconds and then walked up to ringside, pounded his hands on the apron and ordered, “Go home! Go home!” After the match, barely out of the fans’ view, he scolded Mike and Zulu for putting on such a phoney performance.
I really wanted to have my own place, away from the chaos at Hart house, and Smith suggested a fixer-upper that I could resell quickly for a modest profit. He pointed out that it was by investing in houses such as this that Jovica made the money to start up the Puerto Rico territory. That was how I ended up living in a dilapidated part of town known as Ramsay, in a lopsided gray shack with leaky ceilings that seemed to have been decorated by a color-blind lunatic.
Then Smith left to work in Germany with Bruce, Dynamite and Hito. Stu also lost most of the rest of his roster to the Maritimes. It was good for wrestlers to give their faces a rest in front of regional fans so promotions regularly exchanged talent, but this time the roster was really thin. That was how I became a temporary booker for Stampede Wrestling, working with Ross to make up the cards.
Neither of us felt we were qualified, but Stu seemed to think we were doing a fine job, so he let us book the whole territory.
Ross was a walking encyclopedia of wrestling. He collected and studied everything he could get his hands on: magazines, programs and publicity photos sent to Stu from territories far and wide. He could recite from memory who fought whom, when and where they fought, and how the finish went for any card from most of the territories around the world back to the 1940s. Even as a kid, Stu would ask Ross’s advice on who could get over. He had such a keen eye that when he critiqued young, green wrestlers with brutal honesty, they accepted his opinion because he was rarely wrong.
Ross at twelve got so upset over the booking of a Stampede week card that he got into a heated argument with Stu and ended up popping him square on the chin! Stu was stunned, but it turned out that Ross was right.
I made my official Stampede Wrestling debut in Calgary on September 1, 1978, and I was proud that the match with Mike York passed muster with Stu, who watched the whole thing nervously, probably because he was curious to see how bad it might be.
I spent most of that month with the skeleton crew on an old Greyhound bus Stu bought with money he could ill afford. The referee, Sandy Scott, was also the driver, a heavy-smoking Scot in his mid-forties who could pass as a much younger man. With his little red Afro, neatly trimmed beard and false teeth, Sandy resembled an elkhound.
Kasavubu liked to mellow us out on the night drives by getting us to sing the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Norman Frederick Charles III was also a regular. He had been one of the Royal Kangaroos, a top tag team, but he’d had a falling out with his partner. Now in his late forties, he was thin and frail with bandy legs and a scruffy beard. We often joked about how he’d lost his ass in a card game because his outfit hung on him like a pair of old long johns, but he was the British Commonwealth Junior Heavyweight Champion nonetheless, having taken the belt from Dynamite just before Tom left for Germany, in an angle where Norman destroyed Tom’s knee.
Jimmy Rougeau was a stark contrast to our tired old North American Champion, Paddy Ryan. Paddy, like so many of Stu’s Calgary crew, was the last to know that the sun was setting on his career. I could see the light dim in his eyes when I gave him his finishes, and after he worked he’d sit redfaced and out of breath. It didn’t help that he weighed four hundred pounds and smoked like a chimney.
I soon got used to long drives, listening to music, singing, going from town to town, finding camaraderie in this strange mix of humanity. The bus would pull over in the middle of nowhere for a piss stop and that was a sight unto itself: Men of all different sizes and colors pissing at the side of the road while gazing up at the northern lights.
I worked my first program with Norman, who had been around long enough that he wasn’t keen on taking a lot of bumps. He knew plenty of short cuts, and he knew exactly how to settle me down and make me look good enough. On September 26, 1978, he pulled a chair up beside me in the dressing room in Regina, sipping coffee from a foam cup and smoking a cigarette. “Well, kid,” he said in his raspy Aussie accent, “looks like there might be a decent house coming in. Maybe this would be a good time to work a title change. What do you think about getting a little juice?”
Getting a little juice meant deliberately cutting my head with a razor blade. I felt butterflies in my stomach at the thought of it. As a referee I’d seen it done lots of times, close up; blading was practically a rite of passage in Puerto Rico. I told Norman I’d consider it, then went to check on the other matches, peeking out of a little hole in the wall, to give myself time to think. If I was going to make it to the top in wrestling, this moment was bound to come sooner or later. But that didn’t make it any easier. I wanted to believe that, in some pathetic way, this might help me get over and help my father at the same time.
The plan had been for Dynamite and Norman to pick up where they left off when Dynamite came back from Germany in December, but when I called Stu about all this, he liked the thought of me working title matches with Dynamite, rather than Norman. If I was going to cut myself, it was best to keep it near the hairline. I didn’t want to end up looking pocked and pitted like so many wrestlers. I found Norman and told him, “You better show me how to make a blade.”
He looked over my shoulder as I snipped a quarter section of razor blade. I cut the top corner at an angle, taped all but the exposed point and then taped the blade onto the wrist tape on my left arm.
Despite being known as a despicable heel, Norman settled into a basic babyface match with me and, after fifteen minutes of clean wrestling, the crowd started to buy it. As we broke clean on the ropes, Norman said, “Are you ready, kid?”
As I came at him, he side-stepped me and threw me out onto the floor. He followed me out of the ring and reached into his trunks and slid on his brass knuckles; which were really just paper napkins, tightly taped together.
He nailed me. Down I went.
I had the blade in my hand now. I rolled onto my stomach, jabbed it deep into my head and cut.
I cut again.
And then, suddenly, blood poured all over my face. Hot blood. My blood.
I heard Norman say, “Jesus Christ, kid, it’s a good one.” He dragged me back to the ring. Because the crowd had fallen for his babyface act, they were livid. As I desperately fought back, the fans got behind me even more because in their hearts they knew it’d been their fault for encouraging me to trust him. I staggered through the match with blood running down my face until Norman said, “Let’s go home, kid.”
On my knees and totally at his mercy, we locked hands as Norman planted some last kicks to my ribs. Suddenly I rolled onto my back, prying Norman’s legs apart with my feet, tucking his head and collapsing him into a sunset flip out of nowhere.
The ref counted one . . . two . . . three!
The crowd jumped to its feet with a roar as Norman sat up with a stunned look on his face. As the referee handed me the belt, Norman jumped me from behind, knocked me flat and stomped out of the ring. After he left, I got up slowly and raised the British Junior Heavyweight belt over my head. I walked down the aisle to pats on the back and words of praise from the fans.
In the dressing room, Norman congratulated me, then inspected the cut on my forehead, which was an inch long and right to the bone: “Nice job, kid.” Then, with a goofy grin, he said, “Now I better show you how to make a butterfly bandage.” And off we went to the sink.
What a strange business.
That November, Ross thought it might be interesting to throw my brother Keith and me together as a tag combo, since Stu’s tag champs, the Castillo Brothers, had nobody to work with, and I had no real opponents as Junior Heavyweight Champ. When I walked into the dressing room in Edmonton on the day of our first match, I found Ross talking to Raul Castillo. Ross turned to me to say, “Raul has a family emergency. They’re going back to Puerto Rico. Dad says you and Keith will have to take the tag belts tonight.”
And that’s how I became the holder of not one but two title belts so early in my career. I knew that both were not likely to be mine for long, but Stu, Ross and I decided that it might do good business for me to hold on to the title for a little while after Dynamite got back, so he could go after Norman, defeating him to avenge the knee injury. Then he’d come after me. I wanted desperately to work with Tom, learn from him and maybe even impress him with how much I’d improved since our last struggle of a match back in May. I wanted to put Tom over so that he could see clearly that he was our champion and that I was only holding the belt for him; it never occurred to me that Tom might assume that I was just another spoiled promoter’s kid, out for easy glory.
Anyone watching Dynamite and me wrestle for the three weeks leading up to our Boxing Day match in December 1978 would have had plenty of reasons to think it was real. Under the guise of
“working,” Tom stiffed me, over and over, until I just did the same back to him. One minute he’d smash me right in the face or kick me as hard as he could or simply throw me with complete disregard, and then, just as suddenly, he’d be working again, calling spots and taking bumps for me.
I’ve always felt wrestling was a lot like figure skating, but when your pairs partner is trying to throw you on your head, it stops being art.
When we got back to the dressing room after our first title match, I wasn’t sure whether Dynamite was stiff or if he had it in for me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had actually just learned what would become my signature moves: my pile driver, back breaker, German suplex and what was initially a pretty weak Dory Funk Jr.–style elbow smash, or lifter. They all came from running out of things to do in the face of Dynamite’s onslaught and trying everything I could think of.
We sort of worked all the following week and then dueled it out in Calgary in a return title match that was televised. Even though Dynamite had been stiffing me every night, I was still giving him the benefit of the doubt. I finally realized that Tom was intentionally stiffing me when he intentionally soccer-kicked me in the face just as I was cutting myself. The kick alone was bad enough, but because of the blade, he could have severely injured me. I still can’t think of anything more unprofessional.
The match became a working brawl. Wayne was the referee, and after trying to regain control, he gave up and headed back to the dressing room. There was one little problem. Stu barked at both of us, “We need eight more minutes for TV, goddamn it, right now!”
I was slumped in a turnbuckle, regretting that I’d ever stepped in the ring with The Dynamite Kid. He walked across the ring and offered to shake my hand. I extended my hand despite my doubts, only to have him kick me in the ribs as hard as he could. And just like that we were off again, with Stu filling in as the referee until we gave him his eight more minutes.
When we got back to the dressing room, I made a weak attempt to confront Tom, who was glaring at me, wanting me to. Hito held me back, and I sank into my chair, thinking, What the hell is his problem?
In our third and final week together, we had the only match in which I was going over, in Calgary.
Dynamite broke into an impressive series of cartwheels and a handstand, and then he picked me up, I thought, to slam me. Instead, he slowly fell to the mat with me on top of him, pinning himself for the one . . . two . . . three. The crowd groaned its disapproval at the obvious dive, and I was embarrassed to have my hand raised. The following night I dropped the belt back to Dynamite in Edmonton.
Dealing with Tom was like dealing with a bad-tempered pit bull. I just never knew when he’d take a bite out of me, or why, but I knew that as talented as he was, sooner or later we’d have to make a truce. I was relieved to be done with him, yet sorry he felt the way he did about me.