Class of 2018
I doubt anybody would be able to convince me, unless something drastically changes in the coming years, that the late 1980s was somehow not the greatest age for tag team wrestling in WWE history.
I wasn’t around at the time. Certainly, I wasn’t watching pro wrestling. My experience of that boom period has all been in retrospect. Nonetheless, in a testament to the quality of tag team wrestling of the time, I can happily fire up the WWE Network and stick on a show from the Golden Age safe in the knowledge that at least two teams are guaranteed to have me coming out of my seat.
I cannot prove it for a fact, naturally, but I anticipate that people entered the arenas back then talking about Hulk Hogan, but left talking about the tag teams, being the workhorses of their day who, in some quarters, would go on to provide the solid wrestling foundation in the years that followed.
It was a different style of tag team match back then, empirically speaking. All the familiar and ageless tropes were still there to be found of course, and in some ways to a far greater degree, but the matches themselves played out generally with much greater urgency, creativity and mobility. The Revival have, in recent years, made a name for themselves as one of the greatest teams in WWE for a long time, but their MO was shared en masse by the entire tag division of the time I’m talking about. In that division, it was normal to be exceptional.
The Hart Foundation weren’t just a staple of that division but, in many ways, its unsung heroes.
When you think about tag wrestling in the 1980s WWF, as it was known then, the first name that springs to mind is doubtless that of Demolition, and it is true enough that Demolition – the only three-time Tag Team Champions of their generation – dominated the division’s scene for the better part of their active tenure. They were not, however, one of the teams that kick-started the Golden Age of tag grappling. That honour belongs to the British Bulldogs and the only team of their generation not called Demolition to receive more than one tag championship reign: the Hart Foundation.
It might be because of the brilliance with which Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart performed that has ensured I have ever since remained something of a sucker for a big man / little man combination. The Mouth of the South’s bejewelled duo remains, to my mind, the best example of the formulation. Neidhart brought the strength, the brawling and the larger-than-life personality, while Hart brought his now famous technical expertise and prowess. Continuity was a word used in abundance then that has fallen out of favour in WWE since, but the Hart Foundation had it more than any other team. The stories they told were seamless, not least because, despite having their obviously favoured roles, neither watched as radically different to the other. Though unique, they were never incongruous. Bret could throw-down like the Anvil in a fist fight, and the Anvil could go at quite the pace whenever one was set by Bret or his antithesis on the opposing side. Their chemistry was multifaceted, their effectiveness boundless.
It is a shame – a borderline crime, in fact – that the Foundation are not recognised as the central pillar of the age’s tag division that they were, though it is perhaps far from surprising. The Foundation never truly had one standout classic match in that time, and never on a big platform; at least, not one people still talk giddily about today in any large number. As a result, the Foundation have perhaps slipped from the memories of the most recent generation of wrestling fans as an important and influential team in their own right. If this is an issue, and not a paranoid straw-man argument created from nothing by a wrestling fan deeply attached to the Hart Foundation and a little embittered at their relative lack of celebration on the part of WWE today, then it is an issue bred only from the aforementioned normalisation of the exceptional – the mantra of WWE’s tag division in the late 1980s and the ethos that the Hart Foundation helped pioneer as early as 1985 with their encounters opposite the talented likes of the British Bulldogs and Killer Bees.
This is not to say that they never had high profile successes as a team, though. The case is quite the opposite, in fact. Their six man clashes alongside the likes of Jim Duggan and Danny Davies opposite the Fabulous Rougeaus and British Bulldogs respectively were a lot of fun, and any time they entered the ring opposite the team of Strike Force it turned into a real treat. Their closing bow at WrestleMania VII against the Nasty Boys is an unheralded late-in-the-day hipster classic and something of a last hurrah for the division’s glory age, while their shared foil to André the Giant in the WrestleMania II battle royal is an early example of their worth to the company. Truly, though, it is their back-to-back championship challenges at Summerslam 1988 and Summerslam 1989 – against Demolition and the Brain Busters respectively – that top their video library, and not just theirs. TLC be damned, those two matches stood atop my list as the best two tag matches Summerslam had ever hosted until this year just gone; even now, they might remain firmly entrenched in that spot.
Demolition might have been the biggest team of their age – in literal and figurative terms – but the Hart Foundation were a damn close number two and the true workhorses of that workhorse division. They didn’t get the glory all the time, they don’t really get the plaudits now, but they did get what it meant to be one of the world’s best teams and, no matter their opponent or the year in which they faced them, the Foundation turned out to be a team that proved their worth every time they stepped between the ropes, all with apparent ease. Not only did they start redefining tag team wrestling’s place in the hallowed halls of the WWF before the name team of their generation ever did, they carried on doing it after that name team’s own star power had since started to fade.
Most impressively of all, though, the quiet importance of the first Hart Foundation came to be absolutely eclipsed by the extroverted successes of the second group to bear the name.
Changing from tag team to stable, the Foundation reunited in early 1997 under the leadership of the now multiple-time World Heavyweight Champion Bret Hart, and it seems the second time around they weren’t willing to settle for doing their thing in the background. They were the best, they demanded to be treated like the best and they were prepared to take no prisoners until that became the reality of their situation.
From Stone Cold Steve Austin to Shawn Michaels, from The Undertaker to Vader, Hart – alongside his younger brother Owen, his brothers-in-law British Bulldog and Jim Neidhart and, of course, Brian Pillman – tore through the entire roster to become arguably the hottest property in the hottest year of the company’s creative history. No longer content with dominating the scene of a single division, they came to possess every active championship of the time in the company at one stage or another in their life-cycle: the World Heavyweight, Intercontinental, European and Tag Team Championships all found themselves in the grasp of Canada’s finest. If you loved Evolution or The Shield, if you love the Bullet Club in any of its forms, then you owe a debt of gratitude to the unmitigated success of the second Hart Foundation, who did it all first.
Their segments on television were gold. Their promos on the microphone were gold. Alongside their opposition in the now famous Border Wars angle, the second Hart Foundation became a tour de force of a creative enterprise, going on to claim responsibility not only for at least one of the greatest matches in WWE’s pay-per-view history – the Ten Man Tag Team Match at In Your House: Canadian Stampede – but, to some degree, also found itself wrapped up in two of the most impactful controversies in the history of not just WWE but the entire industry too: the breaking of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s neck and, obviously, the Montreal Screwjob.
If the first Hart Foundation changed the landscape and meaning of tag team wrestling and the place it could hold in the world’s foremost pro wrestling promotion, then the second Hart Foundation changed the landscape of professional wrestling in its entirety forever. That’s impressive enough; that they put together more than one inimitable classic on the way makes it even more so. Everybody talks about D-Generation X as a pioneering factor for the Attitude Era; well, just like with the first Foundation and Demolition before it, the second Foundation were crafting that Era months before DX ever even became a thing.
The Hart Foundation might not necessarily be the first name people think of when they’re asked to think of the most influential teams and stables in WWE lore, but as their selection for inclusion in this year’s reader-voted LOP Hall of Fame indicates, eventually we always come back to them. There’s a reason for that. It’s because they were the fuel in the engine that might not have made all the noise but instead busied itself with keeping the wheels of change turning. Doing that once is worthy enough of inclusion in a HOF of any kind but doing it twice, in radically different ways, is practically unheralded.
This might be just one quiet corner of the IWC, but nonetheless it fills me with joy knowing that, at least here, the Hart Foundation has finally received the recognition it deserves as a force for change in WWE history, a pillar of its time (in both instances) and, beyond anything else, home to some damn fine talent.
It is my honour and privilege to now officially induct the Hart Foundation into the Lords of Pain Hall of Fame Class of 2018.
80s Wrestling Con takes place on Saturday, October 26th in Freehold, NJ at iPlay America. The event features Ted DiBiase, Sgt. Slaughter, Bob Backlund, Paul Orndorff, Demolition, Brutus Beefcake, and more! For Superstars, Attractions, and Ticket information go to 80sWrestlingCon.com.