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The Life

November 18, 2002
Hart and soul
ESPN The Magazine

When, exactly, did World Wrestling Entertainment jump the shark? Was it when the pair of 300-pound Samoans drop-kicked a couple of girl grapplers -- sending one to the hospital -- in a segment called HLA, for "Hot Lesbian Action"? Or when Billy and Chuck, a pair of supposedly gay wrestlers, scammed the national press by pretending they were going to exchange marriage vows in prime time -- then backed out with a smarmy wink at the last minute? Or, most recently, was it when the company's biggest star, Triple H, let himself be shown ripping the panties off a supposedly dead woman in a funeral home and doing the necrophilia nasty? (As he scooped a handful of ooze from the coffin, he uttered the instantly infamous line: "I really screwed her brains out.")

Vince McMahon
Too much is never enough for Vince McMahon & Co.
Welcome to the real Fear Factor, folks. Arena football is pulling more fans than some WWE shows. The ratings for its Monday Night Raw are half what they were three years ago -- before Steve Austin went stone cold. And there's a palpable feeling that Stephanie McMahon, who's taken over the scriptwriting reins from her father, is out of her league trying to out-Jackass Johnny Knoxville.

Wrestling, it seems, is having an existential crisis. And when that happens, you know the world is getting to be a strange place.

For those in the business of finding solutions to such things, I'd suggest a trip to a rose-brick and ivory house on a hill on the outskirts of Calgary, where an 87-year-old man named Stu Hart will grip your hand with a butcher's handshake, pound his cane, and tell you, "We used to do it classy, clean and clever."

I met Stu while reporting a piece in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine called "Overkill," which is about the sad last days of Davey Boy Smith. "Unnecessary bunch of bulls---," is what he said about Smith's death. That pretty much sums up what I found.

As Stu talked about Davey, he used about a dozen different euphemisms for steroids. My favorite was "wheat germ oil." He did this not to be coy, but because he's a man of manners, and old time wrestlers don't kiss and tell about their business. There in his kitchen, alone, Stu can singlehandedly take you back to a world of dimly lit gyms and carnival strong men. Or, if you want, even further than that, to his days on the Western Canadian prairie, when he grew up in a tent. During the Great Depression he played with the Edmonton Eskimos, then went to New York's Times Square, where he wrestled in a gym beneath the smoking Marlboro cowboy sign as "The Canadian Strongman." It was there that he met his wife Helen, a Rita Hayworth look-alike. In 1948, she traveled back to Calgary with him to build a dream around 12 kids and a company they called Stampede Wrestling.

The way Stu saw it, there was nothing fake about making a fight look real. Clenches had to be sharp. Reactions had to look believable. And the action always had to drive simple morality tales about good and evil. So it was fitting that the place where he taught his craft was called The Dungeon.

"He liked to make you moan and groan when he got you down there," Superstar Billy Graham once said. "I was a bouncer in a lot of bars and I dragged a lot of drunks out by their feet, but I was never in positions where I couldn't hear anything but groaning from my guts."

Graham described walking into "a room with no door to close behind me, mats on the floor, and three walls covered with blood, snot and saliva." But in truth, the Dungeon is little more than a corner of the a basement with wood paneling, a mat, low hanging pipes, and windows that let in plenty of sunlight. Stu made sure it had its own entrance so the wrestlers wouldn't get close to his four daughters, or trample on Helen's Victorian carpets.

In the early '80s, Vince McMahon bought Stampede Wrestling from Stu, beginning a consolidation of the industry and the end of Stu's reign as one of the old territory czars. (Today, he matters as much as Gary Hart -- Senator or Playboy, take your pick.)

Since the glory days, he's lost Helen, two sons (Dean and Owen), a son-in-law (Davey Boy) and a grandson who perished from a flesh-eating bacteria. There have been divorces and separations, trials and errors, books and movies about all of it. Yet Hart House, like Stu, is trying to remain vital. All of Helen's fine furnishings are still there, albeit dusty and threadbare. And, as if to defiantly show that the Harts are still a happy family, all the kids' pictures hang in a row in the living room, their Leave-It-To-Beaver smiles captured for the ages in gilded frames.

Stu doesn't teach anymore. In fact, Stampede Wrestling is a ghost of its former self. It was running shows out of a theater in Calgary a while back, but then the crowds thinned and the Harts were shuffled off to a VFW hall in a town called Ogden. Still, Stu's sons Ross and Bruce aren't giving up. When I visited the Dungeon on a Thursday night in August, Bruce, who has the weathered blonde look of a ship's captain, pressed his finger solemnly against his mouth and watched his latest crop of students careen into one another at breakneck speed.

"Punish him!" he hollered at one point. "Pull his head to your head!" At another he railed: "Whenever you duck you should look like you're getting out of the way of a truck. It's the little points that enhance perception." Finally, when two guys were so jacked up that they threatened to tear a hole in the low ceiling with their flying leg kicks, he said: "Remember guys, whatever you do, do well. You don't have to hit 40 home runs in a game." Each word was chosen carefully. In the room that day were Harry Smith and Teddy Hart, sons of two of Stu's daughters. "We're the last generation of Harts who are going to make it," Teddy said.

The Harts are show people, which means they understand the show must go on. But even as they mourn Davey Boy, who was willing to pump anything into his body to stay in the limelight, they continue to believe that wrestling can be something honorable.

You don't have to like wrestling, or even understand it, to feel for a family that wants to rescue its livelihood from necrophiliacs and gay-bashing Samoans.

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the co-author of Sex, Lies & Headlocks, a biography of Vince McMahon (Crown Books). E-mail him at

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