Before he was able to stake the claim of “best there is, best there was, and best there ever will be,” Bret Hart was saddled with a character that would not be on such a high horse: In 1984, he was originally asked to debut in WWE (then WWF) as a wrestling cowboy.
The Calgary, Alberta native had good reason for not wanting to don a ten-gallon hat and spurs: he’d known a few cowboys, and staunchly held the belief that "if you called yourself a cowboy, you'd better be one."
Bret knew he wouldn’t get far pretending to be something he wasn’t, and to prevent his career from stopping before it could really take off, he turned to the building block of what had gotten him into the WWF in the first place: his family.
Hart lobbied that he would be better utilized teaming with his brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, who he worked with previously in the Calgary-based promotion Stampede Wrestling, and who was married to his sister Elizabeth. According to Bret, his idea was initially brushed aside, but management acquiesced when he nearly quit the company over his displeasure.
So, the tag team of Bret and Jim Neidhart came together under the managerial guidance of Jimmy Hart (no relation, somehow). Initially every wrestler under Jimmy Hart’s wing was referred to as members of ‘The Hart Foundation,’ but before long the combination of two Hart’s and Neidhart along with their in-ring success claimed the Hart Foundation name for themselves.
As a team, they were a perfect match. Bret’s technical prowess and ring generalship was complimented by Neidhart brute force and muscle, a former 280-pound football player. With Jimmy on the outside running interference and calling plays through his occasionally-weaponized megaphone, they became WWF Tag Team Champions by February 1987.
In the following years, the team would engage in serious rivalries with the British Bulldogs, Demolition, The Fabulous Rougeaus, and The Rockers.
By 1988, the duo’s rising profile had caught the attention of crowds, and they began the transition from bad guy cheaters to fan favourites. This meant distancing the in-ring duo from Jimmy Hart, who famously ‘sold’ part of their contracts to the Rougeaus.
Jimmy was free to continue antagonizing the crowds, and The Hart Foundation was free to continue building popularity on the strength of Neidhart’s truly incredible prowess at delivering fired up promos that were equal parts threatening and hilarious.
The duo would feud with every team Jimmy managed, eventually claiming their second tag team championship along the way. They remained together as champions until “WrestleMania VII” in 1991, where they lost to the Nasty Boys and decided to go their separate ways.
Bret would go on to become one of the greatest singles competitors of his era, earning the WWF World Heavyweight Championship five times, and at least one reign with every secondary title in the company along the way. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.
As with almost any good idea in pro wrestling, The Hart Foundation name would be used again a couple of times, most notably in 1997, when Bret and Neidhart recruited Bret’s brother Owen, their brother-in-law The British Bulldog, and Brian Pillman. The group was presented as anti-American following Bret’s turn back to the bad guy at “WrestleMania 13.” Though they were mostly hated by Americans, the team received a heroes welcome every time they stepped foot on Canadian soil.
For an impressionable young Canadian wrestling fan, The Hart Foundation was a special team. Before them, teams that were outwardly Canadian -- such as the Rougeau brothers -- played on the trope for heat, creating easily hated outsider archetypes with few (if any) redeeming qualities.
The Hart Foundation was different: they stuck together, they worked as a team, they were family. There was no dramatic breakup when it became time to go their separate ways. And when Jimmy Hart’s machinations threatened to come between them, Neidhart remained at the side of his brother-in-law. As Jimmy’s influence faded, crowds came around on them for a simple reason: they didn’t need the interference and megaphone hijinks to win. They just needed to do what they did best: stick together and be damn good at wrestling.
This year, at “WrestleMania” weekend, Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart will take their place in the WWE Hall of Fame, cementing their status as one of the best tag teams there was, and ever will be.