“To anyone and everyone, cherish the moments you have in this world. Do not waste your time with hate or anger.” – Smith Hart
Smith Hart knew the end was near. Diagnosed with prostate cancer 18 months earlier, the disease eventually spread throughout his body. In December he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given less than a year to live.
With his condition worsening, Smith was moved to hospice care in June. When I called him a few weeks ago, he spoke in a slow, labored tone. Although in the throes of what he called an “irreversible process,” with the hours on his life ticking down, he made sure to mention the word “hope” in the same sentence. He wasn’t done fighting quite yet.
I told him about the amazing match his nephew, Harry Smith, had at an independent show here in Charleston a few weeks earlier.
“I always hear that about him,” he replied. Although he struggled to speak, I could almost see the twinkle in his eye.
Smith also wanted to thank the many fans, whether he knew them or not, for thinking about him and praying for him. He had been genuinely touched by the response he had received over the past several months as he bravely waged his battle with an opponent he knew would never relent.
“God be with you … bye for now” were the final words I would ever hear from him.
The eldest of Stu and Helen Hart’s 12 children, Smith Stewart Hart lost his battle last Sunday. He was 68 years old.
Being the eldest offspring of Canada’s royal wrestling family was more of a curse than blessing, said Bruce Hart, the second of the brood of a dozen.
“It was a tougher period for the oldest kids. We were having some real financial troubles back in the ‘60s when Smith and myself and some of the others were growing up. It was way easier for Bret and Owen.”
In some respects, said Bruce, brother Bret benefited by coming along later in the Hart chain. “If Bret had been the oldest kid instead of Smith, it’s doubtful he would have gotten to the point he did. But circumstances just didn’t work out in Smith’s favor.”
Smith acknowledged the giant shoes he had to fill in a post earlier this year.
“It hasn’t been an easy life as some may think. I grew up the son of an icon, and that shadow of Stu was insurmountable. I know my parents wanted big things from me. Where my father saw me as an heir apparent to his athleticism, I was never as dedicated as an athlete as he was. I always wanted to have my hand in the creative end though, and while I often butted heads with my parents over this and other lifestyle choices, it never waned my respect and admiration for them.”
Bret acknowledged the uphill battle Smith faced as the oldest brother.
“It could never have been very easy being the oldest of 12 kids. The enormous task of trying to fill my stern father’s shoes may have been too challenging, or perhaps he simply didn't want or need it. Smith followed his dreams and although many didn’t come true, he was one-of-a-kind and every bit as unique, gifted or talented as any Hart, including my father.
“He did it his way and God bless him for that. In Smith’s final days, I clearly recognized the strength and determination of my father who he spoke so lovingly about and, without question, was his hero and guardian. I believe they’re together again. He finally found his peace.”
Following his death, WWE issued a statement that read, “WWE is saddened to learn that Smith Hart, member of the storied Hart wrestling family and uncle of WWE Superstar Natalya, has passed away at age 68. He wrestled extensively in Canada and Japan, and was most well known working and promoting Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling. He appeared occasionally in WWE during programs and matches involving Bret and their brother Owen.”
That, of course, only tells a snippet of the story.
As part of the Hart family, Smith grew up in a surreal environment, one that was once described as a cross between the Beverly Hillbillies and the Addams Family.
Family patriarch Stu Hart, a feared and dangerous shooter, stretched hundreds of aspiring grapplers in the fabled Dungeon, a training room in the dark basement of the family’s rambling 20-room, twin-gabled Victorian mansion perched in the hills of Calgary, where Hart would put young wannabe wrestlers through their paces on sweat-soaked mats in the family basement.
It was a crazy, ugly, beautiful world ... often at the same time.
“From the time that I was in diapers, there were wrestlers running around the yard, wrestlers screaming in the basement, there were bears under the porch. I can’t tell you what kind of a circus it was, but we all loved it and we all miss it,” Bret Hart said at his dad’s WWE Hall of Fame induction in 2010.
“That house was right out of ‘The Munsters,’” pro wrestling great Superstar Billy Graham (Wayne Coleman) recalled. “Stu liked to make you moan and groan when he got you down there. I was a bouncer in a lot of bars and I dragged a lot of drunks out by their feet, but I was never before in positions where I couldn’t hear anything but groaning from my guts.”
As for the Stampede Wrestling territory Stu Hart ran, “You had to see it to believe it and appreciate it,” said Bret. “It was the craziest place in the world. (But) I think we delivered some of the greatest wrestling the world’s ever seen up there, and some of the greatest stars that the wrestling world has ever seen came right out of Calgary.”
Black sheep of family
While Smith Hart never enjoyed the level of success of other family members, most notably Bret and Owen, he just might have been the most underrated of the litter. Not necessarily in the ring skills category, but creatively he was cutting-edge, said Bruce.
“Some of his ideas were a bit twisted, but also sort of borderline genius,” Bruce said of Smith, the self-described “black sheep of the family. “His style really suited the wrestling business.”
Many of Smith’s closest cronies, he said, were “degenerate projects” who came through the Dungeon and worked for his dad’s homegrown promotion.
“They were all like kindred souls. Smitty schooled a lot of the guys who emerged from that stretch. He was down in the Dungeon with them. He always had these unconventional perspectives, but in a way it reflected the nature of the business. I know Vince (McMahon) would have been enthralled with him.
“If Smith would have just had a break or two, he probably would have been some kind of creative guy working with Vince. Vince has that same kind of preserve sense of creativity, having grown up on guys like Dr. Jerry Graham and Johnny Valentine. Billy Graham was another one that Smith hung with. That’s one of the reasons why they did get over. They were unconventional.”
Smith and Bruce also shared an unconventional sense of humor, one that Bruce said sometimes both befuddled and intrigued their dad.
“I think he maybe liked it, but Smith and I were always being criticized for it. It was almost like our sole motive was to disrupt things and pull pranks. I guess my intent was to make it kind of bizarre — real or by accident. That was part of the art.”
Smith officially retired from the ring in 1986 when he would help train the next generation of wrestlers along with brothers Bruce, Keith and Ross. That group would include such future stars as Chris Benoit, Jushin Liger and Brian Pillman.
Pillman in particular, says Bruce, fit right into the Hart mold. “He was one of those guys too who became famous for pushing the envelope. He was around me maybe more than Smith, but he and Smith seemed to get together and share perspectives, and come up with some brilliantly twisted stuff.
“Smitty was always giving input to me and Pillman. It was always borderline bizarre. I think he was smart enough to realize that it was years ahead of Vince. Smitty was pretty good at it and could have done more had he been a little less restricted by Stu.”
Smith, said Bruce, helped set the table for some of Stampede’s classic angles. But he always had to fight for recognition.
“They were able to ride the wave on a lot of his stuff. Even some of the stuff I did was not quite as scrutinized as Smith. I remember I had to go through hell to convince my dad to bring in Dynamite Kid and later on Junkyard Dog, Jake Roberts and guys like that. Bret and Owen and those guys rode on the tidal wave of all that stuff.”
Stampede was an outpost for some of the most colorful personalities in the profession. Under the booking of Bruce Hart, the promotion took on a harder edge with controversial angles and storylines.
“My dad was a little gun-shy about the heat. Crowds took off, so he didn’t mind that. But he was always a little dubious with some of the new talent that we brought in.”
Bruce recalled a Caribbean tour when he and the equally mischievous Dynamite Kid convinced Smith to get creative with his mustache during the final night of a tournament.
“Up until that last night Smith had a regular mustache,” said Bruce. “Dynamite and I talked him into shaving it to Hitler form. Smith was pretty worried when he stepped into the ring. It got a pronounced reaction for sure.”
Pranks like that also got a sour reaction when news reached Stu Hart back in Calgary.
“We were always up to some kind of mischief,” he said. “Smitty had a great sense of humor. A bit twisted at times, but that’s what kind of made it. But I don’t ever recall him doing anything malicious. He was always helping people. He was even a mentor to Pillman and Dynamite. I think they were maybe to some degree inspired by him.
“When I first kind of hooked up with those guys, they were kind of quiet, introspective types. I maybe had some influence of them myself, but Smith seemed to take them under his wing. He’d have them engaging in these twisted, practical jokes. I think he got a kick out of perpetrating some of that stuff. But it really enhanced some of the things they were doing in the ring.”
Bruce Hart still wonders how things might have turned out differently for his older brother.
“He surprisingly had a pretty interesting footprint, given that most of the fans here in Calgary never knew how much of an influence he was. He had some tough breaks that were obstructive to his success. He made a few bad decisions, but the die had already been cast. Stu was kind of unduly harsh on him because he was maybe wanting him to be the president of the United States or head of the honor society.”
To Bret Hart, eight years his junior, Smith was a huge influence and mentor.
“He changed my life in so many ways. He taught me how to draw and he was the first brother to ever team up with me in wrestling. Above all things, Smith taught me to laugh, right up until his final days. He’d light up the room with that classic Smith humor. He also spoke of his regrets with clear-headed honesty. Smith was a fighter. He had great strength and amazing courage right down to the bitter end. He proudly fought cancer until his dying breath and he was lovingly supported by every Hart in our family. He loved us, and all of us loved him so much.”
Never one to shy away from controversy, Smith was vocal in his views on the business, often speaking his mind via social media and various wrestling sites. But when he revealed on his Facebook page that he had been moved into hospice care to be more comfortable in the final months of his life, he offered a heartfelt apology to those he might have offended over the years.
“I am now more comfortable after being moved into hospice care,” he wrote. “I would like to end any strife or suffering I have been involved with over my life. To anyone and everyone, cherish the moments you have in this world. Do not waste your time with hate or anger. To anyone I have offended, mistreated or been at odds with, please accept my humblest of apologies. While I may not have always been everyone's cup of tea, I always did my best to be the person I was most inspired by, my father.”
Shortly before entering hospice, Smith paid a final visit to the gravesite of brother Owen, who died tragically at the age of 34 in a stunt gone awry at a 1999 WWE pay-per-view.
He posted a message along with a photo on May 23. “Today marks 18 years since our family was broken by the loss of our Dear Owen. As I near my own end, I rejoice that I will see him again soon. This last week I have been confined to a hospital bed, barely able to move. Conversations with my doctor are indicating that I may be moving to hospice care soon.
“I will try to keep everyone updated as best I can, but it becomes harder and harder to do anything with each passing day. I heard Sir Roger Moore (James Bond) died of cancer today. This vicious disease has no mercy, but at least his battle was quick and his suffering has ended. Thank you again to everyone for thoughts, prayers and well-wishes. I truly have been blessed with a lot of love and great friends throughout my life. Please keep my children in your prayers also.”
Smith Hart left behind five children, several grandchildren and a treasure trove of memories.
His passing fell on the birthday of brother Bret who, ironically, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer the same week as Smith. Bret was fortunate to catch the cancer early and went into remission soon after treatment. Smith, sadly, faced a different fate.
Bret finds solace in knowing that his brother will be reunited with loved ones who had gone before him.
“I know that the gates of heaven will open up and welcome one of the most unique and original characters ever. One can only stand in admiration at how Smith stayed truth to himself, always proudly dancing to his own tune. No one was more proud of being a Hart than Smith. He wore his name like a badge of honor. I believe that the Hart family is like being part of something that never leaves you, even if someday you find out you have to leave it. But I also believe that Smith is being embraced in the joyful arms of many loved ones gone before.”