There is just so much pro wrestling, spread over so many promotions and so many years. There is so much, in fact, that a great deal of it—not just forgettable Reagan-era bouts but legitimately legendary matches featuring iconic performers giving dazzling performances—is presumed lost. These matches might well be out there to find, and the possibilities of what might be waiting to be discovered on video are basically endless, but there’s a reason that wrestling fans call these lost treasures “holy grails.”
And yet, unlike the grail itself, many of these matches are out there, somewhere—WWE has proven as much in recent years by releasing matches long thought not to have been taped through the WWE Network’s “Hidden Gems” section. One such grail was known to have existed, but had long been believed lost by WWE. This was a 1986 bout in which Bret Hart drew an apparent miracle of a match out of Tom Magee, a strongman/bodybuilder/gymnast/karate black belt with leading man looks who was getting a tryout with the promotion. The legend behind this match was that Vince McMahon immediately proclaimed Magee his next champion after watching on the locker room monitor. Said legendary part of it is tied to just how little of a legend Magee turned out to be. The “Man of Iron” was otherwise a dud as a wrestler, which understandably made people want to see how the hell Bret got anything great out of him. Until Tuesday night, it was presumed that we’d never know for sure.
But towards the end of that evening’s SmackDown Live broadcast, during which I was also recording my podcast, a well-known wrestling fan and sometimes ringside photographer named Mary-Kate Anthony tagged me and a few others when she tweeted a photo:
Fans who didn’t know Anthony were skeptical, but WWE producer T.J. “Tyson Kidd” Wilson—a Hart family member by marriage—quickly vouched for Mary-Kate in the replies. As it turns out, she’s had this tape for the last decade or so. It came her way when Bret, via mutual friend/Bret’s assistant Marcy Engelstein, sent his tape collection to Mary-Kate for conversion to DVD. Despite the fact that it came directly from Bret, there’s still some residual doubt that it’s actually the match. The veteran tape collector Roy Lucier discovered last year that Bret and Magee met again on May 16, 1989. Like the more famous October 7, 1986 match, it was an unaired “dark” match at a television taping. Unlike the first match, Magee was asked to take the lead and it went terribly. The VHS tape in question is labelled September 19, 1989, which is likely not a match date at all—there was no TV taping that day, and Magee looks to have left the company entirely a few weeks earlier. The label might be a mistake, or it might be the date that the VHS copy was made for Bret. Both are about equally likely given that WWE was not yet in the habit of recording every event for insurance purposes, so it’s probably not from a random show that took place on the date written on the label.
WWE is clearly aware of the fervent desire among hardcore heads to see the match, but does not appear to have a copy in its archive. The bout was not included on either of WWE’s Bret Hart DVD sets, despite his desire for its inclusion. It reached the point of an in-joke; a DVD set of similarly unseen matches included a joke about the lost Hart/Magee match in an interstitial segment. Those in the company who have asked for copies of the bout while working in the developmental system—Colt Cabana and former creative assistant Rob Naylor have been public about their requests—never got it, despite their ability to find other potential holy grails. There was every reason to believe that this footage was lost and gone forever.
WWE was great about saving footage much earlier than other promotions, but there are still gaps in the archives. It makes sense that this tape might have gone missing, as many of the tryouts that have been released were clearly sourced from VHS; it’s at least theoretically possible that Bret was given the promotion’s only copy after the master was disposed of. Hell, it’s not even the only famous Bret match to have fallen through the cracks: His only singles match with Andre the Giant, which took place on a card in Italy and was shot by a local crew, is also not in the archives. As a result, the version WWE released on DVD is an obvious YouTube rip.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably still wondering what makes Magee so unique that this match is not just intriguing but legendary. It’s easy to see why Magee was such an interesting prospect based on his look and athletic prowess; he’s the kind of guy who would get a million chances if he signed today. And yeah, the account of the match in Bret’s book helps, as do the assessments by Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer, who feels this was the match that best illustrates what made Hart uniquely gifted. (Before you ask: no, Meltzer can’t find his own VHS copy.) None of that quite elevates it to holy grail status, though. We’re talking about Bret Hart, here, an all-time great and a uniquely gifted in-ring storyteller who was consistently able to drag lesser talents to quality matches, generally while playing with fans’ expectations a la Daniel Bryan. Magee was not the first inferior talent that Hart put over, so what’s so much more special about this match than, say, Bret dragging entertaining matches out of Kevin Nash or Kane back when they were still green?
The answer is Tom Magee. It’s not that Magee was just bad or even inexperienced, though he was both. He sure seemed like the most perfect possible physical specimen for pro wrestling, and his resumé stacked up well, but he displayed less basic aptitude for the entertainment sport than even the most famous flops. Watch, for example, Magee’s only available WWE match from around the time of the Bret Hart bout, in which he grappled with middling veteran Terry Gibbs a few months later. Magee looks, well, fake. His facial expressions and body language are overly performative, his movements somehow weirdly dainty, and he looks terrified that he’s going to hurt his opponents for real. There’s no follow-through on anything and his karate kicks, which should have been his strong suit given his background, might actually be the worst part of the package. This can be blamed on his greenness, to a certain extent, because he clearly had no idea how to pull them convincingly, but as a result this actual black belt doesn’t even really look like someone with martial arts experience. Pro wrestling is hard, but none of what Magee does works. It wasn’t that he was bad per se, although he was absolutely very bad. It was that he was terrible in ways that great athletes—which Magee was—with the talent and skills that theoretically transfer to pro wrestling—which Magee had—just aren’t expected to be this particular variety of bad. If he was less terrible, the idea of Hart carrying him to a great match would be less compelling.
To be fair to Magee, that era of WWE was not a good learning environment for anyone—the decidedly idiosyncratic and low-impact in-ring style, focus on sizzle over steak, and nonsensically exhausting travel schedule didn’t make it easier for anyone to excel. That Magee was paired with Gibbs as a nightly opponent, instead of someone with a track record of bringing talent along, also couldn’t have helped. But it’s not as if Magee’s non-WWE performances are much better. A New Year’s Day 1986 “martial arts match” with Riki Choshu, who was arguably the best wrestler in the world at the time, is entertaining. But it’s worth noting that a lot of this is thanks to the presence of the best wrestler in the world, as Magee’s faults are still out in the open.
Two years later, Magee was not any better. That year, he authored the consensus Worst Match of the Year for 1988 in a pairing with disgraced sumo Hiroshi Wajima. Both are awful, incapable of performing even the simplest of pro wrestling moves, like smashing your opponent’s face into the ring apron. Perhaps most damning is an undated match from Europe with Col. Brody, which consists almost entirely of Magee working on offense. This means “action” such as headlocks and wrist locks where Magee is not even pretending to apply pressure. There’s also a flying clothesline where he just kind of jumps off the top rope with his arm gently outstretched. If it’s not a gymnastic feat of some kind, the grace and explosion you’d expect from such a stud athlete aren’t at all apparent.
If you want to see what McMahon might have seen in Magee without Bret Hart playing it all up, you’ll have to check out Magee’s December 6, 1988 WWE bout with consummate professional and brilliant wrestling mind Arn Anderson, which aired only in France. (This one wasn’t even known to have happened in the first place, much less to exist on video, until the footage surfaced few years ago.) Magee is still Magee, of course, but Arn is just so damn good. Watch him subtly leaning into strikes and using his body language and facial expressions to add color and carry the illusion of Magee applying the holds properly, and the result is one heck of a fun historical curiosity. But even with Arn getting a good match out of Magee, the seams in Magee’s game are plainly visible. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, even Bret Hart, could have gotten a match out of the same guy in which there were not just no visible holes but Magee looked not just competent but good. In a few weeks, we might not have to imagine it anymore.
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.