Bruce Hart, from the legendary Hart Family, is one of the most influential forces to ever work in the wrestling business. He is a second-generation wrestler and a member of the Hart wrestling family, being the second child of Stu and Helen Hart. As a wrestler, Bruce Hart carried several championships, including the Stampede North American Heavyweight Championship, and participated in WWF’s Survivor Series 1993.
With Bruce Hart bringing talent from England and Japan to his family’s Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling promotion, all-time greats such as Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask would revolutionize pro wrestling with their faster-paced hybrid styles deemphasizing the heavyweights that had generally dominated the sport. In a recent interview with me, Bruce Hart opens up about his rich history in the business.
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Evan Ginzburg: Tell us about your childhood. When did you realize your family wasn’t your typical 9 to 5ers?
Bruce Hart: "I essentially was born into it. I can’t recall there was a time when there wasn’t wrestling. I remember my dad [Stu Hart] had the dungeon as far back as I can remember. He would train the wrestlers, and there was a myriad of them down there. Every Saturday, my dad would pay the wrestlers, and they’d show up at the house and get their money and their itinerary for the week. My dad was strictly protective of the business, strictly kayfabe, and the heels and babyfaces always had to stay in character. The babyfaces would be in one part of the house while the heels would stay in character on the other side.
At the Cauliflower Alley Club, I saw Hard Boiled Haggerty and Bob Orton Sr. I went up to them and said, ‘I used to be terrified of you when I was 5-years-old, and you used to be vile and despicable, and I was almost scared to approach you now!’ We all laughed.
There were legendary shooter types like Luther Lindsay and George Gordienko, and we’d sneak down to the dungeon to see the shooter types like them and Gordon Nelson and a few others who were tough. Then you’d have these wannabe types who were trying to get into the business, and they had to go through like the 3-headed dog at the gates of hell, and some of these guys like Archie The Stomper Goldie and quite a few others went on to become quite successful on their own. There was a guy named Reggie Parks who came back in the late 50s- he was just breaking in- a nice enough guy. Not all that imposing from what I remember. He got put through the ritual by Stu and whoever else. I saw Reggie at one of the WrestleManias, and Owen, who was a great ribber, got on the phone with Stu. Owen was hemming and hawing like Reggie Parks, and Owen said, ‘You took advantage of me, you stretched me, and I don’t think you can take me now!’ A few minutes later, there was a reception at the hotel, and Stu sees Reggie Park, and he’s ready to have a big confrontation with him, and Reggie didn’t know what he was talking about!
It was intriguing as a kid- there was a myriad of colorful and unconventional from the midgets to the bald-headed wrestlers to the ladies to the Nazis and Russians, so it was kind of interesting to see these ongoing cross-sections of bizarre characters. We lived out in the country in those days, and my dad had this agricultural background, and there were the cows and chickens and horses and this odd procession of folk. Any of the neighbors who were around likened us to The Addams Family and The Beverly Hillbillies."
Evan Ginzburg: Do you have any personal favorite wrestlers from the time?
Bruce Hart: "A guy who was like a second uncle was Luther Lindsay. He seemed like a genuinely nice person, and my dad had great respect for him. Another guy he was breaking in at the time was, who was also helping around the house, was Ray Gordon- he was a good friend of Pat O’Connor. I think he beat Pat O’Connor in the National Amateurs back in the 40s. Fritz Von Erich and the kids and Doris had a trailer in the backyard. I don’t remember him being all that nice though he was always around as he was breaking in. Fritz’s kids [Kerry, Kevin, Chris, Mike, and David] were around the same age as us. Another nice guy was Bob Marella, better known as Gorilla Monsoon. I remember Dad had the wrestling bear hibernating in the basement, and we locked my brother in the bear cage. Dad raised hell when he found out. There were always wrestling bears and dwarfs and sinister Nazis."
Evan Ginzburg: The pitfalls of the business, did your dad want you and your brothers to be part of it?
Bruce Hart: "I would say absolutely no. He was adamant that we all get our educations. The older ones like myself had to go to the university and get our degrees. And the younger ones like Owen did, too. Bret didn’t. With 12 kids, some took shortcuts, and the road had been paved by the older ones. But my dad not in any way was encouraging. I remember the Von Erichs told me it was almost ordained or decreed by their father that they get into wrestling, but my dad was probably disinclined for us. He saw the underbelly of it and a lot of the negative aspects, so we were probably discouraged.
I think I got into it after I got my degree. I was intrigued by it, and it was kind of fascinating, and to some degree, addictive. You get caught up in all the different aspects of it- the crowd reaction and being in the spotlight. Myself and my brother Keith and later Bret, we were all skinny and not in my dad’s eyes big enough to get in there. Back then, there was an emphasis on size. We didn’t have a lot of guys like Daniel Bryan or Rey Mysterio. Tennessee had the smaller guys, as did Oklahoma. I don’t think I ever weighed more than about 180lbs in those days, and I was deemed to be too small. And I had a contract to teach the next year. I went to England in the summer of ’77, and I had some wrestling shots to pay for my expenses.
When I went to England, there was some remarkable talent. It was bare-bones over there. I remember guys like Tony Charles and Geoff Portz. Roy St. Claire was also good. Jimmy Breaks was phenomenal. George Kidd, who was Scottish. Pete Roberts, who was good. Another guy who was exceptional was Mark Rocco. Another guy I made his acquaintance who reminded me of Mick in Rocky, an old trainer, and he told me he had two prospects he wanted me to check out. For some reason, they seemed to think that Canada and North America was the land of milk and honey, and he wanted me to check out these two kids. They were about 140 pounds and were either painfully shy or arrogant to the point they wouldn’t give you two words. Those two proved to be Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy, who I don’t think was even wrestling yet- he was about 15 at the time. Dynamite was about 18, and he was on the show at the time. In England, nobody was making much money- maybe the equivalent of $10 a night. And I told him I’d look at this seemingly withdrawn skinny kid, and I was astonished at what a worker he was- truly a revolutionary style if you can imagine a mix of Finn Balor, Daniel Bryan, and Rey Mysterio and even more dynamic and twice as fast. So, I remember I called my dad back in Canada and told him I had a prospect for him. If you were under 220 in North America, it was considered not big enough to be used, so I remember I kind of exaggerated his weight and said 180, and my dad was still adamant and indifferent.
To make a long story short, back in Calgary, business wasn’t great, and Dad had a crew of not particularly compelling overweight types with wool tights and pot bellies. I pestered him for about six months, and he almost, just to shut me up, brought him in. When Dynamite walked into the dressing room, everybody rolled their eyes. He worked The Cuban Assassin that night, and they tore the house down. Bret wasn’t that excited about getting into wrestling either, but seeing Dynamite proved to be a big catalyst for him. This cast a big footprint on the business as we sent Dynamite to Japan, and he and Tiger Mask, Sayama, revolutionized the business. He kind of paved the way for the dynamic smaller guys- an interesting alternative to the alternative of that time- the Billy Grahams and Hulk Hogans- big heel types. Most of the faces like Bruno and Pedro were kind of typical of that era."
Evan Ginzburg: Keeping in mind your dad was disinclined for his children to join the business, what paved the way for you to get involved in the squared circle?
Bruce Hart: "My dad was acutely aware of a lot of these second-generation kids getting pushed because their dads were the promoter- guys like George Gulas. The promoter’s kid syndrome being pushed as champions whether they had the ability or not. So, my dad was even harder on us- we had to pay dues and work that much harder. He wasn’t pushing us that much. My dad had some old Mexican guy down in the dungeon, guys like William Regal or Dave Finlay, and an older guy who wrestled under the name Frank Butcher. He was kind of an old jobber, part-time referee. There was another French-Canadian guy up here named Michel Martel. I remember Martel’s brother and I would get this Frank Butcher to teach us these routines…you do one of these… I’ll do two of those… Martel’s brother and I would bring this Frank Butcher down to the dungeon, and later Martel’s brother became a big star as Rick Martel.
My dad would come down to the dungeon and kind of roll his eyes. Like the kids were playing- he didn’t take it all that seriously. I think that after a year or so down there, we had a revolutionary thinking babyface Dan Kroffat- the guy who came up with the idea of the ladder match, and the first ladder match happened around that time with him. He taught me a lot about ring psychology, and he came up with an idea for my first match. There was a British guy who wrestled under the mask named Kendo Nagasaki and a manager Lord Sloan who was a Paul Heyman type. Kroffat told me he had an idea. Kendo Nagasaki was our lead heel around 1973, and he had an idea. At that time, I think I had refereed on the road- my dad didn’t want us wrestling on TV or on the road. There was some kind of angle worked with Sloan, and I hit the ring, which set up a match the next week. My dad wasn’t that thrilled with it, but I got a big pop. I had long hair in those days like Jeff Jarrett- in the days of the hippies. I think we sold out the next week, me and Kroffat against Nagasaki and Sloan. I got to work main-event in my first match and had juice and lost my hair. It was good, though- I got a lot of sympathy, which was a key component to being a smaller babyface. You need that sympathy and setting up the comeback, which is the essence of any babyface in the business. It’s so simple it’s mind-boggling that not everybody gets that. It helped me grasp the ring psychology. And it sort of paved the way for Bret and Keith coming in later and made Stu a little less adamant about the size thing. I was probably around the same size as Finn Balor is now, but at the time, I was small. In the old days, it was almost an affront to the heavyweights if a smaller guy was asked to be put over.
Later, I went to England, and Dynamite revolutionized the business. He became the equivalent of a Wayne Gretzky. He totally transformed the style of Stampede. It had always been the Abdullah The Butcher and Ox Baker types up here. Steve Wright and a lot of the Japanese guys came over here, too, like Jushin Liger, Hiroshi Hase, and Toshiaki Kawada and a bunch of guys like that, and they went back to Japan and brought those elements over there. Japan had previously also been dominated by the Inokis, Babas, and Sagaguichis, who weren’t that dynamic. These guys changed the whole mindset in Japan. The guys that followed were the likes of Yamada and Nakamura. Me going to England and Dynamite coming here set in motion Bret, Davey, Owen, Pillman, and Benoit, who were a byproduct of that which is of note."
Evan Ginzburg: What are some of the highlights of your career in wrestling?
Bruce Hart: I think in 1980, I was in Hawaii and booking for Lea Maivia, and remember Dwayne Johnson was kind of a young headbanger. Dynamite was working for Peter and Lea Maivia, but Hawaii was not a bad place to hang out even though we were getting paid a paltry sum. My dad and I were never on the same page as far as booking as he thought I was too extreme with my ideas, but Bret and Keith were leaving at the time, and he asked me if I would take the book, and I didn’t think I’d get a real chance and didn’t want to lock horns with him. Anyway, my dad told me he had basically two choices- my Mom wanted us to close the territory after Stampede week- we’d bring up Andre and Harley Race and the girls. My dad was talking about closing for the summer, and I felt he was planning on shutting down for good, but I figured I’d try to take over the booking. When I came back, it was kind of a bare-bones crew- a lot of marginal and mediocre talent. I was trying to make the proverbial stone soup and do with what we had.
About a month before Stampede week, I came back, and a guy named Dick Steinborn called me up and said he had just won a variation of the Jr. Heavyweight Title, and he asked if we would bring him up to defend the Jr. Heavyweight title. We hyped that a bit. Dynamite was a heel, and I was a face, so we wrestled each other, with the winner getting the title shot. I didn’t like bookers who were always pushing themselves. I was kind of adamant that I don’t become one of those types. Steinborn came back the week before, and I said I’d be happy to do a job for Dynamite, and I was surprised that both said it would be better for business, as I was a face and Steinborn was a heel, that I worked with Steinborn. I went over Dynamite, which is somewhat a surprise as he was over and the pre-eminent superstar at the time. Steinborn told me they were phasing out the belt, and he’d be happy to drop it. So out of the blue, "boom" — I snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and this was one of my defining moments. It was gratifying to experience that.
Watch: Dynamite Kid vs. Bruce Hart in Stampede Wrestling
Bruce Hart: The best thing for me was that it kind of ignited the territory. Business took off- exploded in Calgary. We were selling out for 3-4 years after. A lot of the American guys were calling now like David Schultz and ‘Bad News Allen’ Coage. We didn’t seek anyone. My dad let us do our thing, although he wasn’t always agreeable. It was a satisfying stretch. A lot of guys I launched during that stretch became cutting edge. Guys like Honky Tonk, Mike Shaw, and the others I mentioned became great workers during that time."
Evan Ginzburg: When did you decide to retire and move on to education?
Bruce Hart: "It wasn’t exactly my decision. Even during that period, my dad and I were never quite on the same page as far as methodology, but it really kind of reinforced his image. Nonetheless, I was kind of advocating for a dynamic, spectacular, and radical style that was taking off. But my dad, during this stretch, always wanted to bring back his own cronies to work. I remember he brought Archie Goldie back. And a guy who was kind of pathetic at that point, Sam Menacker- I think he must have been about 80 with the blue-black dyed hair and the pancake makeup. Dynamite and Davey always claimed he came out of his coffin for the Friday night matches. These guys kind of created friction between my dad and me, like the old movie, "I Never Sang for My Father."
It was about this time when Vince McMahon Sr. passed away. My dad went down to the funeral, and I gathered that Vince Jr. made some overture to buy our territory at that time. I was never consulted or even brought into the loop or made aware of any of this. We were running in Vancouver at the time, and there was this other old fart Gene Kiniski. I was always locking horns with these old farts as they had a pronounced different approach to wrestling, and they were always playing on Stu, who was old school and never really liked the Dynamite Kid or Sayama style, which was perpetrated by me.
In September 1984, all the fans were saying this was the last night. The ring announcer says, "This is the last night. Stu Hart had sold the territory to Vince McMahon." This was done behind my back. Stu was supposed to get $1 million, which he never got. Vince was going to take Bret, Davey Boy, Dynamite, and Neidhart like he was doing my dad a big favor, although they were among the business’s best workers. I was totally left out in the dark. After the ten-thousand-dollar deposit, he told my dad he couldn’t honor the contractual agreement and that if Stu wanted to start up again, he could. My dad was so hurt.
At that time, the economy had crashed, and I was working at some weight lifting supplement store, struggling to get by. Stu said he wanted to start up again, but he had gotten fucked by Vince. He lost his top talent. He was angry. I was being realistic that we couldn’t replicate what we were doing. We put together a splinter crew of people like Mike Shaw, The Cuban Assassin, and I trained a few guys like Pillman, Benoit, and Liger, but it was kind of touch and go whether we’d get off the ground. It was kind of difficult, and every time I turned around, Bret or Davey would be saying to Mike Shaw or Bad News, "I can get you into WWE now," where they could get more money. So, I was developing all these guys who would end up in WWE and not getting a penny of it with Vince, basically raping and pillaging the promotion. My dad got tired of being a farm system for those assholes and pulled the plug again.
I became an outspoken critic against WWE, and that always obstructed or made unlikely my ever working for them. My style of wrestling was the antithesis of what WWE was doing. It gave me satisfaction that so many of my guys made it to the WWE and became cutting edge and the revolutionary types that took it in a different direction in the ’90s. At no point was I ever trying to be a clone- the pre-existing bullshit. Most of the indie promotions today- I use the term promotion loosely- one of the biggest mistakes is trying to be a copy of Vince’s stuff. It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude and commitment. You must have something better and worth seeing."
Bruce Hart is currently teaching History in Canada and hosts the weekly wrestling radio show Hart Beat Radio with Bob Johnson.
Hear me as a special guest on Bruce Hart’s ‘Hart Beat Radio’ below:
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