The year is 1997, your champion is on his way out of the company and is refusing to put over his successor and you’re worried he’s going to leave and take the WWF Title to WCW tarnishing your championship. So since he isn’t willing to do business you give him a false finish and screw him out of the title. This is a scenario that can’t be scripted, it couldn’t possibly have been a worked storyline…. or could it? In this article we will discuss the rivalry between Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Vince McMahon both inside and outside of the ring.
We begin with the early times in the career of both Hart and Michaels, both men had great careers that should be covered in great detail. These two men’s legacies are NOT solely defined by what happened on that November night at Survivor Series in Montreal. Both men’s careers seemed to parallel one another’s as both WWE legends debuted in the 80’s as one half of a tag team; The Hitman would debut along side his brother in law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart as one half of the hard hitting “Hart Foundation.” while Shawn Michaels would later team with Marty Jannetty as the charismatic duo known as “The Rockers.”
After a successful run that accumulated two World Wrestling Federation Tag Team Championship reigns, Hitman and Anvil would go their separate ways as singles stardom came calling for Bret. Hart would then go on to win his first of two Intercontinental Championship reigns when he defeated Mr. Perfect at Summerslam 91′ in what is widely regarded as one of the greatest matches in WWE history.
Eventually, Shawn Michaels would go separate ways with his long time tag partner on what would be a historic episode of Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake’s “Barbershop” when after shaking hands and hugging Marty Jannetty, he would then hit him with a thunderous Sweet Chin Music that is now infamously known as “the kick heard around the world”. Shawn would go on to be managed by “Sensational” Sherri Martel which culminated in Shawn winning the Intercontinental championship from The British Bulldog in what would become the first of his three Intercontinental Championship reigns.
Despite some great tag team matchups between The Rockers and The Hart Foundation this story really started during the early singles runs of Bret and Shawn. They faced each other in the first ever WWF ladder match for the Intercontinental Title in 1992. At this point Bret and Shawn had a mutual respect as workers and there was a small friendship between the two men at one time. Shawn had even been quoted on multiple occasions as saying “Bret winning the IC title gave me hope that a guy my size, who wasn’t like a Hulk Hogan or a Randy Savage could be trusted to carry the company.”
Also in 1992 Bret Hart would be the first of the two to capture the ultimate prize when he beat “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair on a WWF Coliseum Home Video event in a classic five star match for the World Wrestling Federation Championship. Over the next few years Bret would become the top baby face star in the company while Michaels remained a top heel, prominent within the Intercontinental Title scene becoming synonymous with the championship.
The next time these two would meet in a marquee match would be at Survivor Series ’92 when then Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels would challenge Bret Hart for his WWF Championship in another wrestling clinic that would result in Hart retaining his title as two of the best in the business tore down the house in what would be merely a touchstone of one of the greatest rivalries of all time.
The earliest tension between the two would begin during Wrestlemania 10 at Madison Square Garden in 1994. Despite Bret having a classic match with his younger brother Owen Hart, and later winning the WWF championship from Yokozuna in the main event, many people felt as though Shawn Michaels stole the show in his now legendary ladder match against Razor Ramon for the IC title. In 1995 at Wrestlemania 11 HBK would once again steal the show when he challenged “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel for the WWF title. Despite not winning the championship, HBK would become a babyface due to ongoing support from the crowd due to his exceptional in ring ability.
Later in 1995 Bret Hart would defeat Diesel to win his third WWF championship. In January of 1996 HBK would win his second consecutive Royal Rumble, setting up the first ever 60 minute Iron Man match between HBK and Bret at Wrestlemania 12 for the WWF Championship. Tensions would begin to boil that night when after beating Bret to win his very first WWF title, Shawn told referee Earl Hebner to “Tell him to get the fuck out of my ring” during Shawn’s post match celebration; neither man offering the ceremonial handshake.
In the summer of 1996 Scott Hall and Kevin Nash (Razor Ramon and Diesel) would make the jump to World Championship Wrestling with the allure of guaranteed contracts and less work dates too much to ignore. At the same time, the pressure of being champion was getting to Shawn as the rating were dropping due to the popularity of WCWs “New World Order” faction, led by Hall, Nash, and a newly heel “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan.
With ratings on the decline, Vince McMahon made the call to the veteran, Hart, to back to TV and put the company on his shoulders once again. Bret would return at the 1996 Survivor Series for the first of his many classic encounters with the Texas Rattlesnake “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. That same night Bret defeated Austin while Survivor Series HBK would lose the WWF title to Psycho Sid.
Things started to really heat up in early 1997 after Shawn won the WWF title back from Sid at the Royal Rumble he then came out on Raw and relinquish the title due to a knee injury and claims that he had “lost his smile.” With that being the case, many people, especially Bret Hart, believed Shawn had faked the injury in order to get out of the agreement made a year prior that he would put Bret over at Wrestlemania 13 in exchange for Bret putting Shawn over at Wrestlemania 12. This incident was the start of what would make a mutual respect and friendly competition turn into a hatred and deep personal turmoil between the two athletes.
Tensions between Bret Hart and WWF owner Vince McMahon would begin in the summer of 1997 when after offering Bret a long term deal, Vince decided he didn’t feel The Hitman embodied their vision of the future, couldn’t afford to honor his 20 year contract, and suggested Bret make the jump to WCW. The tensions between Bret and Vince would play out on screen on an episode of Raw when Bret would lash out due to this, as well as his disdain for DX and the newly coined “Attitude Era” as Bret felt everything this new Era, and especially everything Shawn Michaels stood for was against his values and didn’t have a place in the wrestling business.
After many very personal promos on live television the real life heat between Hart and Michaels had begun to get out of control, with Bret calling Shawn and Triple H “gay” and “faggots”, with HBK implying in turn that Bret was having an affair with then diva Tammy “Sunny” Sytch (a claim which both parties have denied) on an episode of Raw. Backstage heat then came to a head at a Raw taping in Hartford, CT when Bret and Shawn got into a fist fight backstage.
In August of 1997 at Summerslam Bret Hart would defeat the Undertaker to win his fifth and final WWF championship thanks to special guest referee Shawn Michaels inadvertently hitting Undertaker with a chair shot to the head intended for the Hitman. In order to punish Shawn for costing him the title Taker would face HBK in the first ever Hell In A Cell match at In Your House: Bad Blood in October of 1997 with the winner going on to Survivor Series in Montreal, Canada to face Hart for the WWF title. Shawn would go on to win the match against Taker to become the #1 contender.
After HBK’s victory over Taker, the stage was set for him to defeat a departing Bret Hart for the title on Bret’s last night in the company, but there was just one problem…. Bret wasn’t willing to drop the title to his real life foe in Canada. Part of Bret’s reasoning stemmed from a claim that when he went to HBK and told him he was happy to put Shawn over that Michaels replied and said “Thank you Bret, but just know that I’m not willing to do the same for you.” Bret has said on many occasions this was the main reason he was unwilling to drop the belt to Shawn in Montreal.
A secret meeting then took place the night before the match. The attendees were Vince McMahon, Gerald Brisco, Triple H, and Shawn Michaels were Triple H was famously quoted as saying “Fuck that, if he doesn’t wanna do business then we will do business for him.” This was the first time that screwing Bret out of the title was brought up. Throughout the course of time leading from this up to the infamous night in Montreal, WWF head of creative at the time, Vince Russo, claims they gave Bret “dozens and dozens of options on losing the belt” and “Bret refused to do any of it and left Mr. McMahon no choice.” Also on that night at a live event in Detroit, already paranoid about collusion backstage, Bret confronted Earl Hebner and asked Earl if he had been told to screw Bret and Earl responded with “I would never do it Bret, I swear on my kids’ lives I would never do that” giving Bret felt some sort of security in knowing the assigned official was on his side.
Now we reach the night of Survivor Series 97′ and Bret is still firm on not dropping the belt to Shawn. In a recorded conversation featured on the “Wrestling with Shadows” documentary Vince told Bret there would be a large run in and the match would end with a no contest finish and Bret would be allowed to appear on Raw the next night while he was no longer under contract and relinquish the WWF title. Before the match Bret and Shawn had a long heart to heart and decided to reconcile their differences and put on one last great match between them.
The segment begins with HBK walking out to a thunderous round of boos from the pro-Canadian crowd. Shawn who was the European Champion at the time would hump the Canadian flag as well as performing multiple other disgraceful actions with the countries flag. Of course, Bret’s music hit to a near deafening baby face reaction from his Canadian fans. And the match began.
It was a great back and fourth match, but Vince McMahon was at ringside rather than on the announce table, which was very unusual. The match was going good until they finally reached a spot where Shawn would put Bret into his own finishing maneuver known as “the sharpshooter”. Once applied Vince immediately instructed referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell. The timekeeper rang the bell and Hebner was gone from the ring faster than Muhammad Hassan’s career ended. After realizing what had happened, that he’d been screwed out of the championship, Bret would then spit in Vince’s face before writing “WCW” in the air with his finger, letting out his frustrations in front of a capacity crowd.
This is only the beginning of what was a very infamous night in WWE history.
Back in the locker room Bret would then go on to confront Shawn Michaels with Shawn claiming “I didn’t have a fucking thing to do with this, with God as my witness man as soon as I got back here I gave the belt to Vince. I will have no part in this”. Bret claims even though he knew Michaels was lying, he couldn’t justify beating him up in case he actually didn’t have anything to do with it.
Then, after locking himself in a dressing room, Undertaker beat down Vince’s door until he agreed to open the door, come out, and explain himself to Bret. It is claimed by Vince, Bret and multiple other witnesses that Bret knocked Vince out cold with one punch.
Now, with the entire story being told… what if I told you all of that was a work? I believe it is and here’s a list of reasons why.
1. The “Wrestling With Shadows” documentary: Vince rarely lets backstage workings of the company to be told, nonetheless recorded, ESPECIALLY in 1997. So why is it, that the night of the screwjob, camera crews were allowed backstage to document it?
2. Everybody came out better due to it when they should have come out worse: How much better could you plan it? Vince became the biggest heel in the history of the business and used that heat to propel Steve Austin to become arguably the most popular wrestler in the history of the company. Shawn became a major heel with DX and Bret had major sympathy points after leaving, despite the fact WCW wasn’t smart enough to put him on TV right away.
3. The timeline added up perfectly for Bret and Shawn to have a return feud: Ever notice how Shawn’s back injury kept him out for four years? The same amount of time that Bret signed with WCW? Well who’s to say the plan wasn’t for Bret to come back after his WCW contract ended and rekindle the hottest feud at that time.
4. Stu Hart being Bret’s Father: picture a performer telling Stu “I’m not dropping the belt to that guy.” What do you think Stu would have said? And Bret being the professional he is? Why would he be so willing to not do business when he has prided himself on integrity and always put the business first.
5. Bret punching Vince wasn’t recorded: out of everything that happened backstage in Montreal the only thing that wasn’t caught on video or even audio was the altercation between Bret and Vince, and when Vince showed up on Raw all he had was a minor bruise that could have easily been the work of the makeup team backstage and to the naked eye at least didn’t look like much of a “black eye” especially after claims from individuals like Sgt. Slaughter and Brian “Road Dogg” James that Bret rocked Vince and apparently knocked him out cold.
6. The commentary of other wrestlers: In countless shoot interviews with superstars of the era who were both there and absent from the scene, numerous performers have intimated when asked that it was indeed “a work”. Most notably X-Pac, Nash, Hall, and Jim Cornette among others.
7. Mass departures, almost: After the event took place all members of the Hart Foundation quickly left the WWF, except one; the late Owen Hart. It is entirely possible, even likely considering the magnitude of the situation, that Bret told Owen in confidence that it WAS all a work and to stay rather ruin his career in WCW.
8. Old School Bret: Bret has always had an “old school” mentality and approach to wrestling. It’s a part of his heritage and how he came up in the business, how he learned. Part of that mentality was maintaining “kayfabe” at all costs. Making things as real as they could be to the audience, because the more real it is, the more invested they are, and the more invested they are, the more likely they will be to buy that ticket.
9. Cash cow: Look at how much money this produced. Do you really believe they had no idea this was money? Of course they did, that’s why it was planned, that’s why it was kept under lock and key that this was a work, and all this time later we can look at the number of documentaries made about it, endless fan inquiry to the subject, all the interviews given about it, all the way to this very article you are reading now. It all points to being one of, if not the best works of all time.
10. Bret’s memory lapse: Ever notice how once he got to WCW there was never another mention of it there, like Bret just stopped being mad and forgot all about it? I bet you didn’t. You think at that time, with the ratings war is full effect, that Bret with an open mic wouldn’t have cut a scathing promo against Vince, Shawn, and the entire World Wrestling Federation that lied to him and screwed him after all these years of loyal service and hard work? Well, it’s easy to do when you’re in on the work.
Those are 10 solid points backed by evidence pointing to the likelihood of “The Montreal Screwjob” being the greatest work in the history of wrestling, it’s best kept secret. It is our theory this was all done for several reasons, most notably, the “Monday Night Wars”. You have to remember that at the time WWF and WCW were embroiled in a heated ratings war going back and forth between talent and ratings. WWF at this time hadn’t yet turned the tide and they needed some kind of insurance policy as they were about to lose one of their best talents to their bitter rival. The plan according to our theory was to simply work this angle, let Bret make his millions in WCW, keep Shawn going in WWF, and then when his contract was up, for Bret to conclude the biggest rivalry in the history of the business with Shawn Michaels; a rivalry that was as “real” as the Monday Night War itself. This feud would have been the insurance policy of the WWF, the thing that regardless of where things were at that time, would put the WWF over the top to defeat their competition.
Obviously, that’s not how things worked out. No one could have predicted both men would suffer serious injuries within the next two and a half years, one that put Shawn Michaels out for four years, and one that prematurely ended Bret Hart’s career (Thanks Goldberg). No one knew at the time, the state WCW would be in well before they were set to return to the Hart – Michaels feud to slay the competition. At the time WCW was running strong and WWF was hanging on by a thread which is another reason such an act of desperation and calculation makes all the more sense. Now, because nothing went according to plan we never got to see things unfold as we believed they were intended to, so what does that leave the parties involved with? A good story, a big work; one that they could never admit and will never admit.
What do you think happened? Let us know in the comments below!
Trailer to Direct TV’s Montreal Screwjob to give you a feel on that fateful night at Survivor Series