He was an undisputed champion in the ring, but life has dealt Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart some tough blows recently.
In February he was operated on for prostate cancer, but fortunately it appears to have been caught early and the prognosis is good.
Coming from a wrestling dynasty, Bret’s career stretches back to the ’70s when he competed as an amateur.
He joined the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE), in 1984, switching to the rival World Championship Wrestling in 1997 and only leaving that in 2000 when a stroke curtailed his career.
He returned to sporadic in-ring competition from 2010-2011 with WWE – even winning a final championship.
In an incident-packed career he has won more than 30 championship titles and been world champion seven times.
Cancer is never an easy thing to go through, but I had a lot of support and a lot of great fans and other wrestlers who reached out, that all helped me get through itBret ‘The Hitman’ Hart
The 58-year-old is now coming to The Pyramids in Southsea on Sunday as part of a short UK tour of An Audience With... – shows where he will be sharing stories from his four decades in the ring and fielding questions from fans.
Speaking from his home in Calgary, Canada, Bret says of his recent operation: ‘It’s never an easy thing to go through, but I had a lot of support and a lot of great fans and other wrestlers who reached out, that all sort of helped me get through it.
‘I’ve got to have regular check-ups for the next few years, but I think I’m through the worst now. They think they got it all in one shot, so I’m just on to a slow recovery and hopefully in the next few months I’ll be back to normal and getting my life back on track.
‘I was lucky I had one of those cancers that they say if you get it early and you’re on it quick you can have a full recovery. It’s a 96 per cent recovery rate for prostate cancer.
‘My diagnosis was early and I did a lot to make sure I was on top of it.’
Given this recent run-in, was he ever concerned that he wouldn’t be able to make it over to the UK for the tour?
‘I was worried I wouldn’t be ready for it, but at the same time my doctors said I was looking at a couple of months recovery and this is a couple of months now.
‘The recovery is kind of slow, I’m not allowed to lift anything or do anything strenuous or over-exert myself, so you find yourself watching a lot of TV. It’s been very light living. I’ve had that for a couple of months, so that’s enough of that for me now.’
And the cancer hasn’t been the only health problem Bret’s been dealing with. He had to have surgery last November on an old wrist injury.
‘That’s been a big challenge for me too. I had real trouble holding a pan and gripping things. It’s all been coming together slower than I hoped.
‘When I was going through both these surgeries, it was a challenge to think that I would be ready for this tour and to finally get out of the house.’
Bret says its rare for fans to throw him ‘lopsided’ questions that he can’t or won’t answer – even when it comes to difficult subjects like the death of his wrestler brother Owen in an accident when a stunt entering the ring went wrong.
‘I enjoy these Q&A things where I get to talk to fans. Usually they have good questions, fun questions – things that remind me of certain stories. A lot of the time they’ll want to revisit the mayhem – the Screwjob in Montreal, my WCW experience, Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels (pictured on the canvas opposite with Bret).
‘I don’t ever mind talking about these things. Sometimes you find new perspectives on things.
‘I find it fascinating – I have fans who go back a long way, to when I did things (in the UK in the 1970s and early ’80s) with Joint Promotions and Big Daddy and all those guys.
‘Maybe every once in a while you get an older fan who’s got a question about what Marty Jones was like, or what kind of guy Big Daddy was. I find there’s a real love for reminiscing where we go back and talk about experiences.’
During his ’90s heyday, Bret was one of the global superstars of WWF – how did he cope with the adulation?
‘I like that there’s a lot of fans, that’s the beauty of the event. When a lot of these guys were young kids, I was their hero on TV.
‘They’ve grown up and are doctors or whatever and have gone on and done great things with their lives. But they never forget that childhood connection. I’m proud I was a good hero to them.
‘I never take it for granted. I usually get a pretty strong emotional connection with fans. Sometimes grown men and women they break into tears when they tell you how much you meant to them – it’s powerful stuff.
‘It’s uplifting and I’m going to use this whole trip as therapy to help me recover.’
Although Bret retired as a fighter in 2011, he has kept close ties with the sport and watched how it’s developed. He recently announced he will be in the corner of his niece, Natalya, when she faces WWE women’s champion Charlotte – daughter of Hart’s former nemesis Ric Flair – in May.
‘I think that the wrestlers today are very skilled and a lot of them are really great, gifted wrestlers, like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk and even Kevin Owens. I tip my hat to them. I enjoy watching them, they’re special talents and they carry that torch to the next generation.
‘There’s a lot of those wrestlers who’ve had a big impact since I left. I’d like to have worked with CM Punk or Brock Lesnar, but I find that there’s something missing in wrestling that was more prevalent in my era. I think the actual storytelling was better.
‘I could allow a story to unfold or not be rushed. ‘There’s no drama any more, it’s just like bing, bing, bing, bing. They’re too busy setting up the next moves and it seems very rehearsed like the whole match is rehearsed. I miss the natural flow in my matches.
‘I watched a lot of my old matches from the ’90s and I like the storytelling better, but that’s just my preference. Fans now like that it’s more fast-paced and there’s not really any pause to tell a story.’
One of the accusations often thrown at pro-wrestling is that it’s faked – a suggestion which makes Bret bristle.
‘I think people who say that are kind out of touch with reality.
‘The least-best word to describe wrestling is fake.
‘There’s a lot of injuries and it’s high impact. I never thought of, and I still don’t think, of any of my matches as fake. The terminology is degrading.
‘I think fans understand that there’s a storyline process. As an example, you look at my match with Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13, there was a lot of blood and (Bret’s trademark move) the sharpshooter, he didn’t tap-out and all that.
‘It was a very violent struggle and it tells the story of a good guy and a bad guy, but it tells this beautiful struggle of a battle of two people fighting for everything they believe in, and it’s a very magical thing that you can have that kind of match and that kind of performance.’
He goes on to compare wrestling to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which has become hugely popular with its sometimes brutal bouts of mixed-martial arts fighting.
‘Then you have UFC and you see two wrestlers that are trying to break each other’s arms and legs, trying to do everything that me and Steve Austin were doing, but the big difference was that no animals were harmed in the filming of the movie that I made.
‘Both me and Austin were very close friends. He’ll still call me up every once in a while and tell me that was the best match he ever had.
‘There was a beauty to the violence of pro wrestling when it’s done right. It’s an artform. People say wrestlers are not athletes. It’s more like figure skating – it takes two people to tell a story and you can make it magical.
‘I’m so much more proud today to have been a pro wrestler that pretended to hurt people than be a UFC wrestler that broke his knuckles pounding out one of his friend’s faces.
‘I respect UFC, but I sure am glad I didn’t have to do that to make a living.’
‘I stand today and say I am so proud of all my matches, what I delivered and what I brought to the ring every night.
‘I never injured one wrestler in my career. Not one wrestler stepped into the ring with me who didn’t go home to his wife and kids. I was always a pro.
‘You watch somebody being picked up over the head of someone who’s 6ft 4in and getting thrown halfway across the ring, it doesn’t get any more real.
‘Wrestling’s all about trust and respect. You have to trust and respect each other, whether you like each other is irrelevant.’
‘I always made the boast about being the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be, and I really stand by that.’
n An Audience with Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart is at The Pyramids in Southsea on Sunday at 4pm. Gold tickets £42, platinum tickets £82. Call 08450 180180 or go to dartshop.tv