The Anti-Antagonist: The Hart of a Champion

Adam Gorzelsky

Bret HartThere is no set formula for building a successful World Champion. Over the years, the WWF/E has placed the gold around the waist of men of all shapes and sizes and has utilized various methods to establish these individuals as a talent worthy of holding the company’s top crown.

We’ve seen dominate, larger than life faces such as Hulk Hogan and John Cena that are memorable for the shear uphill battle that awaited any challenger to their throne. We’ve seen dastardly (yes, I said dastardly) heel champions such as Triple H who used brutality both to remain champion and garner incredible heat from the crowd.

Pure technicians such as Kurt Angle represented the company as elite athletes who appeared to be a cut above all other competitors who stepped into the ring…At the same time, unfathomable masses of humanity like Andre the Giant and Yokozuna left fans questioning how it was possible to knock such behemoths off of their feet, let alone pin their shoulders to the mat for a three count.

Although I’ve seen and enjoyed these varying championship models over the years, one prototype always has stood out in my head as the gold standard. I know many will disagree, and this opinion may be the product of nothing more than my personal hero worship of the man himself, but when I think of a WWF/E champion, I think of Bret Hart.

We all know the story that Bret’s rise to prominence in part was the product of the steroid scandal that rocked the WWF in the early 90’s…Vince had to build and promote a champion who didn’t have a needle sticking out of his ass and Bret fit this mold perfectly…Following an era in which the possession of 24-inch pythons trumped in-ring ability, such promotion of a believable undersized champion presented an interesting challenge.

What set Bret apart and allowed him to excel at this role was the notion of him being a fighting champion…A man who would take on all comers, yet live to fight another day…He never dominated a quality opponent, or turned into superman at the end of the match…He simply willed himself to victory in a manner that left fans truly believing that he could not allow himself to lose…That the title simply meant that damn much to him. Maybe it was this respect for the title that has left me with such a lasting impression.

In any case, I can’t help but see a little Bret Hart when I look at CM Punk’s current title reign. Don’t get me wrong, the individuals themselves aren’t exactly mirror images…Bret Hart was as clean cut as they come, while Punk is anything but a stereotypical heroic figure…However, when you get past the surface, it becomes apparent that Punk possesses many of the qualities that made Bret Hart an iconic figure in wrestling history.

Consider Punk’s rhetoric upon winning the WWE Championship. He focused on the prestige of the Title and his desire to end the game of “hot potato” that had been contributing to its lost value over the preceding few months. Since that time, he has worn…yes worn…the Title with pride and has tried his damnedest to remind anybody willing to listen that it is the ultimate prize for anybody who has dreamed of stepping inside the squared circle.

Recently, it appears as though the booking surrounding his reign finally has caught up with the type of image that fits Punk’s vision of a champion…It wasn’t until Big Johnny proclaimed that Punk had a target on his back during the post-Wrestlemania Raw that I started to see this connection.

Like Bret, Punk is undersized…As such, he naturally has a physical disadvantage against 90% of the competitors who qualify as Title contenders (yes, that figure was calculated scientifically)…Nonetheless, although facing one larger opponent can exemplify the never-say-die underdog mentality, facing a gauntlet of perspective suitors takes the concept of a fighting champion to the next level.

This was the early 90’s Bret Hart…Although he always maintained a focused feud against another superstar, he defended the Title against all comers along the way. I’ll never forget Bobby Heenan’s commentary to this effect during Bret’s Championship match against a young Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series ’92…He wondered aloud if exhaustion would get the best of Bret during the match because of his rigorous schedule of defenses…At the time, I remember thinking to my seven-year-old self that this man was the definition of a Champion.

I truly hope that creative is taking Punk in this direction. While it appears as though he will be feuding with Jericho into the near future, we already have seen Mark Henry injected into the situation as a bit of a third wheel and have heard rumors of Lord Tensai being the next on deck.

Take it a step further though…Punk’s character and the WWE Title in general would benefit greatly from a storm of challengers on a weekly basis. Maintain a major feud that culminates in a PPV Title match for personal reasons, but demonstrate the pure desire to attain and retain the gold each week…I’m not sure if this is what John Laurinaitis meant when he referred to the bullseye on Punk’s back, but the unique dynamic created by the Jericho feud certainly has laid the groundwork.

In the end, for better or for worse, there will never be another superstar quite like Bret Hart. In my opinion though, CM Punk may be as close as you can get. He has the respect for the business and thoroughly understands the prestige associated with rising to the top of the biggest dog on the block…With his lack of size comes the natural and believable perception that victory on a nightly basis comes solely as a product of sheer desire and a willingness to lay it all on the line to maintain his lifeblood, the WWE Championship.

These intangibles and Vince’s willingness to establish a fighting champion made of pure heart left an indelible picture of Bret Hart etched in my mind. If a bullseye truly has been painted on CM Punk’s back, the potential is there to create another masterpiece.

As always, you can follow me on Twitter @PolishHMR if you have any questions, comments, or random thoughts throughout the week.

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