People say you should never meet those in the public eye that the younger you admired because you'll be disappointed. That they'll be too full of themselves, too insincere, too stuck in a persona or too different up close to how they come across at a distance. That happens, but sometimes it works the other way too. Sometimes you meet someone who's not trying to impress or give you the hard sell; who has been through a lot but seems at peace with themselves; who isn't looking for attention but accepts it as part of what they've done in life. The type that would pose for a photo and do with a good heart.

People also say that self-praise is no praise and they're right. In classic wrestling bluster, Bret 'The Hitman' Hart proclaimed himself to be, "The best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be." But he was right too. Say what you like about TV wrestling being a soap opera with collapsing tables, but Bret Hart was a superb athlete (if you want to see how good, look at the tribute videos on youtube) who, like other athletes, did things with his body which took the people watching out of themselves. And, like many before him, there was a far deeper person behind those feats than even the most ardent fan gave him credit for.

He first appeared on Irish TV screens in January 1987 when Sky Channel was introduced and 'Superstars of Wrestling' was its Thursday night highlight. Hart was one half of the new tag-team champions the Hart Foundation and if you'd watched wrestling on 'World of Sport' on ITV in the 1970s and then saw him and his partner Jim 'The Anvil' Neidhart in action, you would never again think of those Saturday afternoons quite so fondly again. This new thing on the telly had everything: better characters, bigger crowds, more mayhem and in Hart a master technician who while being a 'bad guy' back then, was still one of the main reasons to watch.

In the 21 years since, generations of fans have come and gone - older ones accepting that scripts and choreography are part of the show (hopefully) and still enjoying it; others losing interested completely - and the heroes and villains have changed and changed back but Hart remains with the elite in people's memories. Unlike many of his contemporaries he didn't embark on the long descent into obscurity in small halls in nowhere towns in the US or wrestle past when he should have. He suffered a serious injury, put his health first and got on with the rest of his life. Now, at 51, he's become a bestselling author.

Listen to Gerry Ryan's interview with Bret Hart.

That other glory life of stadiums, huge pay days and worldwide adulation forms part of his autobiography, 'Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling', but there's a lot more besides: the skulduggery and chicanery off camera, the price of fame, grief (his brother Owen died in the ring in 1999), serious illness (Hart had a stroke in 2002) and family upheavals are all there too. Written over the course of eight years, the book has been described as the best ever written by a wrestler. And, just like he did in the ring, Hart approached the challenge differently: while the genesis of the book came a long time ago, he didn't write it while still working and didn't have that audience in mind, either

"I've always said I didn't write this book for wrestling fans," he says, "even though I know wrestling fans will love it. It's written for the person that doesn't watch wrestling. I really wanted people to know what it was like to be me. I'm not bitter towards wrestling. I hope no-one reads that from me. I have a lot of great memories and I'll always be grateful. I'm proud of everything I did and I have no hard feelings."

When Hart was a teenager he kept a diary about his time playing high school football; years later when a household name he found it and decided to do the same thing with wrestling. But being on the road for 300 days a year meant he had to think of another way to get everything down as it happened.

"I decided to buy a little recorder and I started making these little tapes, always with the idea that someday when I was old I'd pull them out and see what I was talking about," he says. "It was always for long term, a long ways away. And I made one rule with myself: that I wouldn't listen back to them [after recording them]. I always thought it was important to write an honest book and tell the truth. Some people will be disheartened and change what they thought of me and that's bound to happen with a small percentage of people. But I think on the other hand people will think I was honest and told the truth."

Following the death of his brother and Hart's stroke he describes
completing the book as "a kind of therapy". However painfully physically and mentally it was to finish it, the response has reflected the honesty and effort which went into it. The book was on the bestseller list in his native Canada for four months, with many highlighting Hart's eye for detail within its pages. He intends to use that gift to write another three or four books, including a novel, and has an even more ambitious plan closer on the horizon. That plan is revealed not with a fanfare, but in passing when asked about the new Oscar-tipped Mickey Rourke film 'The Wrestler."

"No, I haven't I've just heard that it's really good," he says. "I've yet to see an honest movie about wrestling and I'm hoping when I see this one it will be. If not, I'm determined to make it myself."

Hart, it transpires, is going to film school in Los Angeles next year with the objective of getting his book up on the screen. He believes that if he hadn't ended up wrestling he may have been behind the camera anyway, and feels he was preparing for it even when preparing for matches.

"When I wrestled Steve Austin I remember describing to him before we ever had the match that when I put him in the sharpshooter it would be like Jack Nicholson trying to lift the sink in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' - that he nearly gets out of it but not quite. We all fall in love with Jack Nicholson when he can't do it. It's like someone said to me on my US book tour that their favourite matches of mine were the ones where I lost and when I did the DVD of my career it wasn't about every match that I won."

It's entirely with keeping with Hart's character that he's as willing to talk about failures as much as success - it's what make his book such an engrossing read. During our conversation he freely admits that the ageing process and not being able to do the things his body once allowed him to do have been tough to deal with. He looks old when he sits down to talk, but the more he discusses the future the years start to wind back and you can see the steel in his eyes - the same look he had when he took off the wraparound shades 21 years ago.

"I'm determined," he says, "that the second half of my life will be every bit interesting as the first." You don't need to have wrestled in front of 80,000 people or leglocked someone in a school playground to take inspiration from that.

Harry Guerin

'Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling' is published by Grand Central.