December 15, 1996 was a night that will forever be memorable to me. The Showdown at the Corral, a tribute to Stu Hart for his 80th birthday was truly a supercard: WCW’s Chris Benoit defeated WWF’s Rad Radford (Louie Spicolli), legends like Makhan Singh (Mike Shaw) and Rhonda Singh stepped into the ring, Owen Hart and Razor Ramon broke the top rope in their battle for the Intercontinental title; Bret Hart and The British Bulldog gave us a preview of their WWF title match two nights later at In Your House 5, without the blood; and Bad Company reunited for the final time, as Bruce Hart and Brian Pillman faced the Funk Brothers in a violent brawl.

But for me, what defines that night was when I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up into the face of Stu Hart.

“I’ve been watching you,” he said, having been in the row behind me with family watching the show. “You’re a big bastard, you could be in the ring with those guys.”

In an instant my life was changed.

Shortly thereafter I began training with Keith Hart, and I still remember going up to the mansion in the hills the first time and meeting Helen.

“Hello Darling,” she said in her New York drawl, making me feel at home as I waited for the never-punctual Keith to arrive. I had heard about what incredibly kind, generous people Stu and Helen Hart were, and that was quickly confirmed.

It was an intensive year, as I learned the ropes literally and figuratively. It was a rigorous schedule of learning bumps, being stretched by evil Keith, and being in awe of taking bumps in the Dungeon, all leading up to the moment that defined my brief career.

December 2, 1996, days before my 18th birthday, I dragged my younger brother up to the Hart House, we trudged through the snow and down into the Dungeon where Keith was waiting with his trademark evil grin on his face. As my brother taped, Keith and I mat wrestled and he proved his adage that “Old age and treachery will beat youth and enthusiasm every time.” In the meantime, Stu had made his way down the stairs and offered his advice and criticism. Wearing an old pair of trunks, you could see the glint in his eye as he stepped onto the mat. I may have been 64 years his junior, but I knew I was about to get my ass handed to me.

I could hear Keith snickering as Stu tied me up and bent me in assorted ways that a human body is not meant to go. At one point I think my feet were behind my head, and my arms were somewhere below my rear. That is the one and only time I have ever been that flexible. At one point when I was worn out, Stu was trying to turn me over for the sugarhold and I believe I was sort of moaning “nooooo.” So he gently slapped me across the face and made me roll over, prompting more laughter. The sugarhold was his trademark submission. I can tell you from personal experience, I tapped.

By the end of the night I was sore, tired, and worn down. But I was also exhilarated. I had survived the ultimate test, because that night I earned his respect.

“He’s a good kid, just a great big son of a bitch,” Stu says on the tape I made of the evening. It’s a tape I will always treasure.

Unfortunately I would go on to discover that the wrestling business and I were not meant to be. After a handful of matches I decided that as much as I loved pro wrestling, I wasn’t ready to make the physical and emotional sacrifices that it requires. So now, I write about it. I have been lucky in that my brief “career” has given me opportunities that most can only dream of, including joining the SLAM! Wrestling staff, and allowed me to forge relationships with many rising stars in the business. My physical wrestling may be done, but I personally am far from finished.

And it’s thanks to that one night, so many years ago, when Stu Hart took the time to speak to me.

So Stu, for everything, even what you never realized you did for me. Thank you.

Jason Clevett has also been in the Dungeon, and is glad that Stu was 81 when he was stretched by him, and not 54.