By DAN GELSTON, AP Sports Writer
Bret “The Hitman” Hart could take his shots in the ring.
His face was a crimson mask during bloody bouts against The British Bulldog and Roddy Piper, he broke his sternum in one match, and roughed it up nightly with some of the baddest wrestlers in the WWE. Hart was on the short list of wrestling’s biggest stars in the 1990s and parlayed legendary feuds against “Stone Cold” Steven Austin and Shawn Michaels over a 25-year career into a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame .
But a hurt more real than getting flattened under a Banzai Drop usually came after the final three count. Like so many wrestlers, Hart was more at home on the road than with his own family. He abused drugs, chased women and suffered from loneliness in a new city every night, living at times the kind of perilous lifestyle fans don’t see behind the fame in the fantasy world of professional wrestling.
Hart is one of more than three dozen former wrestlers who dissect the pitfalls of life on the road in the documentary “350 Days .” The documentary airs nationwide in select movie theaters Thursday. Former WWE greats “Superstar” Billy Graham, Greg Valentine, Tito Santana and Wendi Richter recount the toll the vagabond life of a pro wrestler could have on physical and mental health, and the broken homes that were often a result of the carousing.
“I don’t look at myself as a wrestling tragedy,” Hart told The Associated Press. “I saved my money. I’m not broken down. I’ve got my share of injuries and hardships in wrestling. But I’m no wrestling tragedy. I don’t feel like I present myself like that. Unfortunately, there are a lot of wrestling tragedies and that does come across in the film. It’s a very tough life. It’s not a life for everybody.”
The project was helmed by Darren Antola and lifelong wrestling fan and agent Evan Ginzburg (an associate producer on Mickey Rourke’s “The Wrestler”) and more than 120 hours of interviews from 72 wrestlers were whittled down to about 39 wrestlers for the final cut.
“The title is ‘350 Days’ because at the peak in that mid-80s period, these guys were so huge, so popular, they were literally wrestling up to 350 days a year,” Ginzburg said. “The toll on the human body, on the marriages, on the relationship with kids was too much. Survivor Series was on Thanksgiving night. Starrcade was (around) Christmas night. How do you tell your kids, daddy’s not going to be home (for the holidays)? This is really what the movie is about.”
Hart said 350 days was a bit on the high side of his personal count, but he figured he was on the road 300 to 320 days each year for 23 years.
“If I could have worked half as many days, I would have been a hundred times happier,” Hart said. “That was the sacrifice that we all made and we all suffered through. I’m not sure there was anything we could have changed about that. If today’s wrestlers can have the money, they can get on a lighter schedule, I’m all for it. It’s important for the (WWE) to look after their talent a little better than they used to.”
The wrestlers — some who have died since they were filmed, including Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and George “The Animal” Steele — offer a candid look behind the curtain of what comes with all those miles on the road.
“It was Piper and me riding down the road doing eight balls of cocaine,” Valentine said in the film.
Added Richter, “I couldn’t have children. I couldn’t put them on a turnbuckle while mommy worked.”
“Sitting in a room with a bunch of wrestlers doing cocaine, you really got to know each other,” Hart said in the film.
It’s not exactly the “Train, Say Your Prayers, Take Your Vitamins” slogan promoted by Hulk Hogan in the 1980s.
But most of the wrestlers interviewed said they had no regrets about the punishment — in and out of the ring — suffered over decades.
“For the most part, a lot of wrestlers from that generation look back on their careers and probably a lot of them don’t have much money. Or they never made a lot of money and don’t have much left,” Hart said. “They have their dignity.”
Hart headlined a pair of WrestleManias, but he had a bitter split with WWE in 1997 and his career ended a few years later from a concussion caused by a kick to the head. He suffered a stroke in 2002 and fought cancer, but the Canadian recovered from both and recently received an honorary degree from Mount Royal University. He still watches wrestling — especially old AWA matches — and has caught up on lost time by being there for his grandchildren. He hopes today’s stars have the balance of health, happiness and a fruitful career that so many of his contemporaries failed to find on 300-plus nights on the road — because wrestling fame won’t last forever.
“I’m loving life just being Bret Hart,” he said. “The Hitman part is kind of fading a bit.”