Professional wrestling is just a show, but don't tell Bret Hart that.
The five-time World Wrestling Entertainment champion and two-time World Championship Wrestling title holder will be in Altoona tonight at the Jaffa Shrine with Big Time Wrestling, but things have changed for Hart since he was last in Altoona.
"It's hard to remember specifics, but we were fighting the Bulldogs, and I remember going to Altoona," Hart said. "Those were the good old times. Those were the most fun days back in 1984 and '85, because wrestling wasn't quite discovered yet. Wrestling was really born in places like Altoona."
Hart's fame and success in the ring flourished after those matches at the Shrine in the 1980s, but the professional wrestler has had to deal with plenty of adversity outside of the squared circle.
"[Bret's] family is kind of like the Kennedy's," Bret Hart's former manager, Jimmy Hart, said. "But because his daddy was a wrestler and had the school in Calgary, you learn to deal with stuff and just keep going. Bret has dealt with a lot of tragedy, but the fans have always been so great with him and meant a lot to him."
In 1999, Hart's younger brother Owen died at a WWE pay-per-view after a failed stunt. Three years later, his brother-in-law, David Smith, also known as the British Bulldog, passed away at 39. The next year, he lost his father, Stu.
"I think that in the end when you weigh it all up, I'm grateful for all wrestling gave me, and I think my dad and brother Owen would say the same thing," Hart said. "I'm proud of everything I did. After dealing with what happened with my brother Owen over the years, I've come to see it was a horrible accident, and I don't think [WWE owner] Vince [McMahon] would want something like that to happen. It wouldn't be advantageous to anyone.
"We were hurt by that, though. I don't think my dad ever got over what happened with Owen. It had a rebound effect with my dad and Davey. I think my dad and Davey would have lived a lot longer if not for Owen dying."
As Hart was losing family members, his in-ring career was fading. Hart famously refused to lose the WWE title to Shawn Michaels in November of 1997 and left the company for WCW after McMahon rigged the end of the match to switch the title to Michaels.
After joining WCW, Hart never found the same success he had in the WWE and grew weary of the direction the business was going.
"Wrestling was everything for everyone," Hart said. "Then it turned to concentrating on certain audiences in the late 90s when the wrestling fans were cheering bad guys, and it wasn't any fun anymore.
"Grandpa and grandma weren't going anymore. It wasn't a family atmosphere. It was guys with beer guts and rednecks; they weren't good fans. They were just there to get drunk. Not all fans were like that, but it got too rowdy for young kids. Now it's more acceptable."
Recently, Hart has worked out his differences with McMahon and the WWE and occasionally appears on their programming. He was inducted into the company's Hall of Fame in 2006.
Hart was in the building when former rival and current WWE announcer Jerry "The King" Lawler suffered an on-air heart attack earlier this year.
"It was quite stricken in the locker room, and it was a horrible feeling. It reminded people of what happened with Owen," Hart said. "It was stressful for everyone from Vince McMahon to you name it. Jerry was fighting for his life. His heart stopped for 20 minutes, but those paramedics kept pushing on his chest and really worked hard to save him.
"Everyone carried on. The WWE should have been applauded for finally doing things the right way."
That experience, along with the other tragedies Hart has dealt with over the last 15 years makes him appreciate moments like tonight.
"This will be one of those rare times the Hart Foundation and Jimmy Hart will be together," Hart said. "I don't know if it will ever happen again. They all live pretty far away, and I don't get to Florida very often. It's luck of the draw that we'll be all together, and it will definitely be a trip down memory lane."