It’s real, and it’s spectacular.
After some six weeks of speculation, WWE announced on Friday that they would be streaming the world premiere of one of the most sought-after lost matches in the promotion’s history on WWE Network after Monday’s Raw. As I explained in this space in March, Tom Magee was a brilliant athletic specimen who certainly seemed like he should have been a massive pro wrestling star given his leading man looks, bodybuilder physique, and proficiency in strength-based sports, gymnastics, and karate. Unfortunately, he turned out to have little aptitude for performing as a pro wrestler and flamed out after a few years—but not before Bret Hart masterfully maneuvered him into looking like he belonged in a now-infamous October 7, 1986 match from Rochester, New York.. As the legend had it, Hart did an astonishingly great job making Magee look like the next big superstar, leaving Vince McMahon hollering “THAT’S MY NEXT CHAMPION!” at the backstage monitor. In the popular imagination, the Herculean work of putting over one of wrestling’s all-time duds stands as Hart’s truest masterpiece. For decades, though, the popular imagination was the only place in which this match was definitively known to exist.
And now that the legendary lost match is online for everyone to see, did it live up to expectations? Was it, as Hart wrote in his book, “an absolute clinic for anyone who ever wanted to know how to make a big green guy look great,” or the work of a magician, as Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer described it?
Well, it absolutely was. But there are some qualifiers needed here.
First and foremost, nobody has ever called this a great match. That’s not what it was supposed to be, and it is not that. The mystique of the match was always pegged to Bret Hart leading Tom Magee through the match, doing everything he could to cover up his myriad obvious flaws, and doing it well enough to give Vince McMahon a completely cockeyed idea of the guy’s potential. To truly understand what is happening here and why it’s remarkable, it helps to have a good understanding of what Tom Magee matches usually looked like, and how other great wrestlers tried and failed to get a match out of him. The stuff we linked back in March, as well as the 1988 match between Magee and Ted DiBiase that hit WWE Network’s “Hidden Gems” section a few weeks ago, will help with that. Knowing the normal beats of a Bret Hart match will help, too, because it will point to things like timing issues and Hart talking to Magee. But to appreciate how remarkable Hart’s work is here, the most important thing is to have seen Magee being bad at pro wrestling everywhere else.
The video starts with the match already in progress, for some reason; Hart has already taken Magee to the mat in a headlock. The video is, somewhat surprisingly, fully produced—live commentary by Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan and multiple camera angles, which was pretty much the works in the 1980s. Normally, when WWE releases old tryout matches, they feature isolated, single-camera angles; the ones that do look like a full production never have commentary. McMahon had promised Hart that this particular match would never air on television, and while it was scheduled to air on British television several months later, it didn’t end up in broadcast. Regardless, all that production suggests that McMahon might have been snowing Hart.
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The way that Hart has always told the story, including in his memoir, was that he gave pretty simple instructions to Magee. “I found McGhee [sic] with [my brother] Owen, and told him that if he trusted me, I’d get him over,” he wrote. “‘Give me your three absolute best moves. If you have a good match, Vince will have big plans for you.’ I designed a match that was really simple, inserting his big moves at just the right times.” If you’ve watched other Magee matches, you know that arm drags, roll-ups, and athletic explosions like backflips and (to an degree) dropkicks were pretty much the extent of his skills, with his striking and attempts to sell for his opponents standing out as weak spots. “Once the bell sounded he did everything exactly as I’d told him,” Hart continued. “As good as he looked, he was horrible, pathetically phony. I struggled to maneuver him into place without the fans realizing his shortcomings.”
If you take Hart at face value, the match does show some self-awareness on Magee’s part; whatever he lacked as a wrestler, he had the good sense to listen to the veteran. Here, Magee does only the things that he’s good at, never once throwing the punches, kicks, or chops that looked “pathetically phony” in his other matches. This still leaves one big problem for Hart, who has to be a bad guy working over a good guy who sells like an actual fish out of water. Two years later, DiBiase dealt with this challenge by limiting his striking on Magee to chops to the chest, which was brilliant. Chops, while safe, actually hurt, which meant Magee wasn’t acting so much as reacting. Hart, on the other hand, famously hates chops; he believes that something that hurts his opponent, even if safe, goes against the art of trying to make a simulated fight look good without hurting your opponent/dance partner. Instead, Hart clearly told Magee to tone his reactions down to grimaces while also limiting most of his selling to work on the ground, where there’s less a performer could get wrong. Magee doesn’t quite “die” on Hart, but he comes a lot closer than you’d normally expect in this setting. It helps.
Which brings us to a misconception that might make this match a disappointment to viewers with heightened expectations. Hart in no way makes Magee look like he had a perfect, flawless debut match. He didn’t, and he couldn’t. There are some timing mistakes, especially when Magee is supposed to move out of the way of Hart’s second rope elbow drop. Not only does Magee visibly flinch and not commit to moving when he’s supposed to, but Hart also executed the move as he always did when it missed, landing back-first (and thus more spectacularly) instead of in the knees-first elbow drop he did when the move landed. Bret is also noticeably talking to Magee throughout, especially after mistakes like this. All of which is fine, and to be expected given how green Magee was. He had only been wrestling for a year and was coming off of a five-month hiatus to train for and participate in a strength competition in Canada.
And while McMahon thought (comically) highly of Magee coming off of the match, there were no immediate plans for him to replace Hulk Hogan. Instead, he was slotted on WWE’s C-level live event tour to get seasoning. It’s not as if Magee was going to be champion within a year if he continued to show promise. He was being hidden until he was ready, and because that moment never came—and because he looked hopeless in most of his other matches—the match’s legend only grew.
Most of the famous examples of carrying a bad wrestler to a quality match involve the better wrestler having a match around and despite the presence of a lesser performer. Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair would bring movement and flashiness to the matches and try to fit wrestlers into a fairly strict template that was more about them than the wrestler they were trying to elevate. Kurt Angle and other gifted mat wrestlers could build similar matches around putting lesser wrestlers into holds and letting them escape. Jerry Lawler could have a match with just about anyone based on various walk and talk shortcuts.
But Bret Hart did none of these things against Tom Magee, or in the other matches in which he was forced to carry a green, immobile, and/or unskilled opponent. Instead, Hart had a match with Magee, one in which he led his inexperienced and unskilled opponent by the hand throughout, pacing it so that every big moment was set up so that Magee would shine. Unlike most of the wrestlers of his era, Hart had an artist’s temperament and prided himself on upending fans’ expectations. Plenty of other great wrestlers were happy to plug lesser dance partners into a rigid formula and talented enough to put the broader experience over, but Hart aimed for something more generous, and more difficult.
All of which is to say that, after decades of hype and hope, Hart/Magee delivers. There have been better matches with bad wrestlers, but this is the greatest clinic I’ve ever seen at making someone look good in a wrestling ring. It’s not flashy, but its cohesiveness is more impressive than any one-sided showcase could have been. Given the difficulty level inherent in a partner like Magee and the unselfishness of Hart’s work in putting it over, it’s hard to imagine any similar match that could top it. It really was worth the wait.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.