KELLER'S TAKE KELLER: Thoughts on the comparative greatness of Ric Flair and Bret Hart
Jul 14, 2004 - 2:07:00 PM
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Comments by both Ric Flair and Bret Hart have stirred a debate over who was the better wrestler of the two. Bret refers to himself as the best there is, was, and ever will be. Flair acknowledges in his book that many people refer to him as the greatest ever. As Bruce Mitchell wrote in his recent Torch Newsletter feature column, it is very important to Flair to be seen as the best. It's obvious from Bret Hart's comments yesterday at Bret Hart.com that he feels the need to let everyone know he's better than Flair and why.
In my opinion, Flair was the better of the two. For one, over the years, you just hear a lot of talk about "great Bret Hart moment" - at least not compared to conversations about "great Ric Flair moments." There also haven't been as many wrestlers who have "dreamed of wrestling Bret Hart" as there have been wrestlers who have openly "marked out" the first time they wrestled Flair. Those are tipoffs to greatness.
Both were great performers for their day. Flair had a longer streak of being widely regarded by his peers and fans as the greatest wrestler in the country at the time. But both have been referred to as that. Flair throughout the '80s. Bret in the early '90s.
Both were headliners, too. As much as in-ring performances are important to being the greatest ever, so is actually being a main eventer. Flair without a doubt drew more fans as a headliner than Bret, but they were part of different eras where the overall state of the industry was different. While Flair headlined territories all over the country during his peak with his NWA World Title runs, Bret headlined the WWF shortly after the Hulk Hogan era ended. Both did well in their roles.
Flair was more able to adapt to his circumstances. He could play a heel in one territory and a babyface in another. He could have crowds going nuts for his matches if he was against a big stiff green monster getting a push or against a fellow excellent worker such as Rick Steamboat, Barry Windham, or Terry Funk. Although Flair used a lot of the same moves and bumps, his matches varied from opponent to opponent depending on the circumstances and the style of his opponent.
With Bret, you more or less knew what you were going to get. That's not a bad thing, but variety wasn't there. Be it a match against Diesel or Shawn Michaels or The Patriot, Bret was Bret. His interviews as a babyface were respectful and consistent, but hardly memorable or invigorating. His promos were rarely the subject of conversation around the water cooler at the office the next day. When he turned heel, he showed good range, but again you didn't sit on the edge of your seat when the mic was held up to his face. With Flair, we all did.
One big difference between the two was their performances at house shows. Flair has a rep for working his ass off every single time he stepped foot in the ring. There was no difference between a TV match, a PPV match, a major market big arena match, or a small venue in a small town. He gave it his all.
Bret Hart earned a rep for going through the motions a bit at house shows and then turning it up when the cameras were on or the crowds were huge. That's not an indictment of Bret because just about everyone other than Flair had that policy about their matches. It was just smart for longevity to not overwork yourself at houses shows when the theory is fans are just excited to see you in person and be part of the atmosphere, so as long as you give them a few signature spots, they'll be happy.
Flair is criticised for having a limited moveset. I criticised him for that ten years ago (in editorials recently posted online in the new "Ric Flair Section" in the Torch VIP Appendix featuring dozens of articles on Flair's career). I think he would have been wise to learn a few more offensive moves (not dives over the top rope, but simple additions that would have added some variety). But Bret wasn't Mr. Innovation. He isn't looked back upon as the Bryan Danielson or A.J. Styles of his day by making fans gasp in amazement every match at something new being displayed. He had his set of moves, too.
Each wrestler could pick apart flaws in each other's styles or incidents where they weren't on their game. But both have been widely regarded by their peers who have worked with them as imperfect, but largely excellent all-around performers.
I've seen both in person many times. I don't have many memories that stand out from Hart's matches. If I had seen his match against British Bulldog in the UK or against Steve Austin at WrestleMania or one of the better Shawn Michaels matches, I probably would have some great live Bret memories. But even the everyday, ordinary house show matches I've seen Flair in stand out. Bret's don't. When you saw Bret, you were watching a great wrestler of his day. When you saw Flair, you got a sense that you were watching a star.
All things considered - interviews, drawing power, ability to have great matches with a wide variety of styles and skill levels of opponents, longevity on top, peer praise, sheer overall star power, and quality of matches over the years, Flair edges Bret in most every category.
But both had really good careers. While I'm all for wrestlers offering us their opinions of and insight into other wrestlers, I don't feel it does either of their reputations any good to engage in a "remember this time when you missed a move" tit-for-tats. Greatness is subjective.
And greatness is a label to be applied to you by others, not yourself.
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