Think for a moment about your last day at work at your last place of employment. Or a place where you worked for a long time. You were loyal to that company, and would do anything for it. In turn, for that loyalty, they would do anything for you. But after a long time at one place, you decide it’s time to move on and do something else, whether it’s for financial or personal or professional reasons; it doesn’t matter. Your boss does everything he or she can to talk you into staying, even going so far as to put their business in financial jeopardy, because while keeping you on will cost them a lot of money—money he or she knows that doesn’t exist—the consequences of letting you walk is much worse. Eventually your boss does the math and decides you’re better off leaving after all. The financial burden is simply too much. You hug it out, and you wish each other well. Probably you got a party in your on the way out, with all your co-workers wishing you well in the next phase of your life. Drinks flow, tears shed, and everyone knows the place won’t be the same without you.
Ok, chances are your last days of work at that job you were thinking about weren’t like that. It certainly wasn’t like that for one Bret Sergeant Hart. While nearly everything in the above paragraph was a simple summary of Hart’s final months in the World Wrestling Federation, his final hours were anything but a happy ending. Bret was more or less not only shown the door, he was booted and given the finger on the way out. Bret’s tumultuous final months in the WWF concluded with the most famous—or infamous—incident in wrestling history, one talked about to this day fifteen years later: The Montreal Screwjob.
So how did we get there?
I. 1993: DTM: Don’t trust McMahon.
One would assume, and probably correctly, that the roots of the Montreal Screwjob go back to the previous year. But look deeper for a moment. Back in 1993, WWF Chairman Vince McMahon told Bret that he would go over Hulk Hogan at Summerslam. McMahon later told Hart that Hogan was unwilling to job to Hart, and not surprisingly, Bret was not happy about it. Hogan and Hart had a confrontation, and the two went to McMahon, with McMahon denying a title switch would occur at the event. The confrontation left Bret less trusting of both Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon. Keep this in mind, as the trust issue will come up often through this timeline.
Bret’s contract was set to expire late that year, but in November, Hart and McMahon negotiated a handshake deal that would allow Bret rights to the “Hitman” nickname and allow him to do outside acting gigs from the WWF. But when the time came to put pen to paper, McMahon sent Hart a contract without the perks agreed to in the handshake deal. Hart called McMahon on it (rightfully so) and McMahon drew up a new one with the perks.
II. 1996: Where’s my money?
Following Wrestlemania XII where Bret lost the WWF Championship to Shawn Michaels in an epic one-hour ironman match, Hart essentially took a leave of absence (though he did work some overseas tours) from the company. However, Bret was also a free agent, free to sign with any other wrestling company in the world. In September 1996, WCW came calling, specifically Eric Bischoff. Bischoff met with Hart unannounced, and Hart came back with a price to get him to WCW: “the exact same contract as Hulk Hogan, plus one penny.” Eventually, Bret told Eric a more concrete number: $3 million a year and he’ll consider it. Perhaps nothing to sneeze at today considering many top professional athletes make a lot more than that, but back then, $3 million American was a lot to ask for. (For wrestlers, hell, it still is in 2012. You probably won’t need both hands to count those making $3 million a year as a wrestler.) Two days later, Eric came back with a contract worth $8.4 million over three years ($2.8 million/year).
Vince heard about the offer and told Bret he could not match it financially (Remember where WWF was in 1996 compared to WCW. WCW was white hot with its New World Order storyline, while WWF was languishing in the late days of the “cartoonish gimmick” mid-90s.). Vince went with a different route in his contract: full compensation in the event of an injury, and complete creative control over his character in the last 30 days. Hart agreed, but when it came time to sign, the perks weren’t there (sound familiar?). Hart eventually signed, but only after McMahon redid the contract. A bit of a nailbiter too, as the contract was drawn up the day Hart was to announce his return to the WWF on Monday Night RAW.
The incentive-laden deal was for $10.5 million over twenty years: $1.5 million in the first three years as a wrestler, followed by $500,000/year for seven years as a senior advisor, and $250,000/year for ten years as a company standby. Let me save you the math here: it will have taken twelve years to financially match what WCW offered for three.
III. Summer 1997: Seriously, where’s my money?
It took Vince McMahon less that a year to realize he was not probably not going to be able to cut those checks to Bret. In June 1997, citing “financial peril” (and mind you, WWF was in financial peril—Wrestlemania 13 earlier that year had a 0.77 buyrate, the lowest ever for their big show), combined with his intention to take his company public, McMahon told Hart that his contract may have to be restructured. In September, Hart’s contract was indeed restructured, with McMahon telling Bret that the bulk of what he was owed would have to be deferred to the end of his contract.
With the financial situation seemingly beyond repair, Vince told Bret he would he be doing him and himself a favor if he left for WCW. He gave Bret about six weeks to negotiate a new deal with WCW. Eric Bischoff initially offered $5.4 million for three years (a full three million less than what he’d offered the previous year), but Bret talked WCW up to $7.5 million for three years (still $900,000 off from the deal Bret was offered in September 1996). A week before Bret’s negotiating period expired, Vince asked Bret to stay in the WWF, but Bret needed convincing. With the landscape changing into what would eventually be the Attitude Era, coming up with a storyline for Bret proved to be an impossible task, and Bret signed with WCW, with his deal set to begin there on December 1.
IV: Bret and Shawn were friends once.
Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were good friends until around 1994. Hart was even offered a place in the infamous Kliq, a collection of talent that looked out for themselves that ran rampant backstage in the WWF in the mid-1990s (Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, Sean Waltman, Paul Levesque, and Tammy Sytch). Though there were a series of misunderstandings, as is usually the case with any friendship, the two were cordial towards one another. That changed in the summer of 1996, when the two began firing verbal salvos at one another, notably Hart making cracks about Shawn Michaels’ Playgirl spread.
V. 1997: The war is on!
Hart and Michaels were engaged in personal and professional warfare in 1997, jockeying for supremacy both in the ring, and behind the scenes. Following the 1997 Royal Rumble event, a “Final Four” match was booked to determine the #1 contender for the WWF Championship due to the controversial finish of the Royal Rumble match. The Undertaker, Vader, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Hart would face off in an elimination match at In Your House: Final Four in February. Originally, The Undertaker was booked to win the match and the title shot, with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels to face off in a non-title Wrestlemania rematch a month later. Those plans were tossed out a few days later when on a Thursday episode of RAW, Shawn Michaels forfeited the WWF Championship, citing a career-threatening knee injury (you remember that night, don’t ya? The night he “lost his smile”?). It didn’t take long for the locker room to figure out that the knee injury was a ruse.
In the spring of 1997, Shawn took it to Bret verbally, breaking kayfabe on multiple occasions. In March, Shawn called out Bret’s alleged need to hog the WWF title, saying it would take “a handwritten note from the Lord Almighty to get the belt from [him].” Two weeks later, Shawn called out Bret on his negotiations with WCW. The beef continues, but the two shake hands and squash it—for now—and agree to work a match at King of the Ring that year. In May, Shawn alleges an affair between Bret (married, by the way) and Tammy Sytch, then known as Sunny. The infamous “Sunny days” comment by Michaels (himself having a relationship with Sunny the year prior) led to several backstage altercations, most notably one in June at a house show in Hartford, Connecticut. This led to Michaels being suspended, but in July, he threatened to quit the WWF altogether. Michaels eventually was “talked off the ledge”, so to speak, and appeared at Summerslam as the special referee between Undertaker and Bret Hart.
A month after the backstage fight in Hartford, Bret and Shawn agree to stop taking verbal shots at one another. It didn’t last long. During the summer and fall of 1997, storylines of an adult nature were being increasingly phased in on their programming, much to the chagrin of Hart. Michaels tried to get Hart to play along, twice asking Bret to use homophobic slurs in promos in the early fall. During this time, Hart also attempts to reconcile with Michaels, saying that despite their differences, he was willing to drop the title to Shawn. Shawn’s response: he appreciated the sentiment, but he wasn’t willing to do the same. Bret was angry, and ultimately refused to drop the title at Survivor Series, though in Hart’s documentary, Wrestling with Shadows, Hart specifically said he would not drop the belt in his native Canada (where the event would take place; he equated the situation to “rape”). Shawn has a different take on the incident, saying he would willingly lose clean to Bret had storylines demanded it.
VI: November 1997: The creative control card.
Following a failed attempt by Vince McMahon to keep Bret Hart in the WWF, Hart signed with WCW on Halloween 1997. With his new deal set to begin in December, this gave Hart creative control over his character for the entire month of November. Just days prior to signing with WCW, Hart was asked to put over Michaels in exchange for a win at the next month’s PPV. Hart refused. Just one week before Survivor Series, Hart offers to lose the title to Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Ken Shamrock, even the Brooklyn Brawler—anyone but Michaels, saying he’ll put him over if Shawn puts him over first. Vince was having none of it, insisting that Hart drop the strap at Survivor Series, for fear of a repeat of an incident in December 1995 that landed WCW in court: Debra “Madusa” Miceli (then known as Alundra Blayze) throwing the WWF Womens Championship belt in the trash on an episode of WCW Monday Nitro. Eventually, Michaels, Hart, and McMahon decided on a disqualification finish with Bret’s Hart Foundation and Michaels’ D-Generation X getting involved, and Hart handing over the title on RAW the next night.
VI: November 5-8: The plan comes together.
Recalling the situation, Paul Levesque (more commonly known as Triple H) pushed for the idea to screw Bret out of the world title, saying, “Fuck him. If he doesn’t wanna do business, you do business for him.” That week, Michaels, Triple H, and McMahon plan the screwjob finish, with McMahon telling the others to deny involvement. In the days leading up to Survivor Series, at least five other men: Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, Pat Patterson, Robert Remus (commonly known as Sgt. Slaughter), and Gerald Brisco had met with Michaels or McMahon to discuss the finish; however, the number of people with knowledge of the screwjob is unclear. Patterson’s suggestion finish went as such: at some point in the match following a ref bump, Hart would put Michaels in the Sharpshooter. Hart would reverse it, putting Michaels in the hold, with Shawn tapping out with the referee still down. Bret would attempt to revive the referee, but with his attention diverted, he would be caught in Sweet Chin Music. Michaels would cover, at which point a second referee would count, but the Hart Foundation would break up the pin. The first referee would come to, and Hart would kick out at two. A massive brawl would ensue, resulting in the double disqualification. Why would Hart agree to such a finish? Because the first referee was one of Bret’s closest friends, Earl Hebner. Earl swore on his kids that there would be no funny business, screwjob, or such.
VII: November 9: Sunday night screwjob.
In a closed-door meeting before the match, Vince agreed to the double disqualification finish that Hart wanted. McMahon seemed a bit too willing to go along with it. In the hours leading up to the match, Vader, who had seen similar situations in Japan, along with Bret’s brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith, warned him that there may be a screwjob coming, so don’t lay on the mat too long, quickly kick out of pins, and don’t get in a submission hold. With over 20,000 rabid fans at the Molson Centre in Montreal, interest in the WWF Championship match was at a high not seen in quite some time. Officials surrounded the ringside area, something unusual for a wrestling match. Bret also sensed that something was going down when he saw that Vince wasn’t on commentary. They brawled into the crowd, largely without incident with officials surrounding the duo. Eventually, the bout did get back in the ring, and the obligatory ref bump occurred.
Then, confusion. An official yelled for Hebner to get up. Mike Chioda, the second referee, ran out to the ring and told Earl not to get up yet. The rest of the Hart Foundation remained backstage. Michaels, doing the Sharpshooter wrong, fixed his mistake (with the help of Bret), tightened the hold, and Earl told the timekeeper to ring the bell. Vince McMahon at ringside told the timekeeper to ring the fucking bell (his words, not mine). Hart was reversing the hold, and Shawn fell. Hebner left the ring and took off to the back. Shawn feigning confusion and anger, also headed backstage with Triple H and security. Bret Hart (and many of the fans in attendance) was PISSED. He found McMahon by the ring apron and spat in Vince’s face. Fans threw garbage in the ring. Bret smashed monitors. The rest of the Hart Foundation tried to calm Bret, but before leaving the ring, he traced the letters “WCW”.
VIII: The immediate aftermath.
The infamous screwjob finish resulted in the Survivor Series PPV ending a few minutes ahead of schedule. Fans in Montreal were livid, fully aware of what had just happened. Around the world, the immediate reaction was confusion and shock. Many took to the Internet, calling the finish one of the greatest and most creative ever. Backstage, chaos was the order of the evening.
Shawn was asked if he was in on the finish, and told Bret he was not (as we know now, this was a lie. But that’s for later.). Vince McMahon had locked himself in his office with Gerald Brisco and Sgt. Slaughter. Mark Calaway (better known as The Undertaker), banged on McMahon’s door and demanded he apologize to Hart. Eventually, Hart and McMahon ran into one another, and Hart nailed McMahon, sending the chairman to the floor and injuring his ankle (how that ankle got injured depends on who’s telling the story). Bret’s wife at the time Julie confronted Triple H, but was escorted away by Owen Hart. Earl Hebner, the man who rang the bell, was already on his way to his hotel room. Once he got there, he never came out of his room for the remainder of the night.
With a locker room mutiny looming, many wrestlers threatened to boycott the next night’s RAW or even leave the WWF altogether. McMahon’s reasoning that Bret Hart refused to do what was best for business and putting the WWF in jeopardy quelled much of the mutiny. At the same time, Bret himself suggested to the locker room that they fulfill their contractual obligations and not risk their careers. The Hart Foundation and Mick Foley were not in attendance at RAW the next night. Smith immediately left for WCW following Bret. Jim Neidhart would leave later in the month after being humiliated by D-Generation X. Owen, unable to break his contract with the WWF, stayed until his untimely death in 1999. Mick Foley also returned to work following the Montreal Screwjob, becoming a three-time WWF Champion in 1999.
VIII: 15 years later, the legacy lives on.
“Bret screwed Bret. I have no sympathy for him whatsoever.” The real-life incident was actually the genesis of one of the most compelling characters in wrestling history: Mr. McMahon, a Machiavellian owner determined to screw anyone over for his personal interests, consequences be dammed. Vince’s explanation of why the screwjob occurred (Hart refusing to drop the title on the way out per wrestling tradition, and having the WWF title belt appear on WCW programming with Eric Bischoff free to do whatever he pleased with said belt) was all the justification he needed to pull the trigger. The Mr. McMahon character came along at the perfect time, just as Stone Cold Steve Austin was ascending to the top of the card. The two were the perfect combination in propelling the WWF from near death in the mid-90s to the largest wrestling company in the world (and the only major wrestling company in North America) less than four years later.
Bret Hart’s wrestling career languished in WCW. Though he would be a WCW Triple Crown champion, he was never the popular superstar he was in the WWF. Hart’s wrestling career ended in 2000, following an errant kick by Bill Goldberg resulted in him getting a concussion. Shawn Michaels’ in-ring career ended even sooner. Just two months after the Montreal Screwjob, Michaels was backdropped on to a casket, severely injuring his back and forcing him into retirement following Wrestlemania XIV, where he dropped the title to Austin. After marriage and becoming a born-again Christian, Michaels returned to the ring a changed man in 2002.The Montreal Screwjob has been done, redone, and well, to put it blunt, overdone in the decade and a half since. One of the more notable incidents occurred the next year at Survivor Series when The Rock had Mankind in the Sharpshooter and McMahon had called for the bell to ring. The Rock became the youngest (at the time) WWF Champion ever. Mankind was not the only man screwed; in the semifinals earlier that evening, Stone Cold Steve Austin was screwed when Shane McMahon abruptly stopped counting the pinfall in his match against Mankind. More recently, this finish was done during a Saturday Night’s Main Event match in 2006 where Shane McMahon “submitted” Michaels in the Sharpshooter.
Michaels and Hart continued to have an antagonistic relationship in the decade following the Montreal Screwjob. In the years following the Screwjob, Earl Hebner, Triple H, and Shawn Michaels all admit to having knowledge of the finish. The two would take shots at one another during radio interviews and in Bret’s 2007 book My Life in the Cartoon World of Professional Wrestling. Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, but to avoid an incident, Michaels left the ceremony early. Hart also did not appear at Wrestlemania 22. The two shared professional respect towards one another, however.
The longtime rivalry was finally put to rest on the January 4, 2010 episode of RAW guest hosted by Bret Hart. The two aired their grievances toward one another for the first time in years face to face, and agreed that their Ironman match from Wrestlemania XII should be the highlight of their careers over the Montreal Screwjob. The two shook hands, and though it appeared Michaels was about to superkick Hart, the two hugged it out. Both men have since confirmed that their hatchet burial was genuine. While in storyline Bret and Vince still had issues, the two have been on speaking terms since Hart suffered a stroke in 2002. Bret and Vince did have a match at Wrestlemania XXVI, in which Hart defeated McMahon with a Sharpshooter. On the same night, Shawn Michaels’ storied career came to an end after failing to defeat The Undertaker.
The two appeared with Jim Ross on a Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart DVD last year, and yes, the Screwjob gets quite a bit of discussion. I highly recommend it if you are a wrestling fan. Regardless of which side you took in the Montreal Screwjob, the three men at the center of it all have put it behind them and moved forward in their lives. For all of us, and them more importantly, it’s for the best. The events leading up to and during the night of November 9, 1997 will still be broken down ad nauseum for years to come. Some say Bret was in the right. Some say McMahon was. Some will even say it was an elaborate work. One thing is for certain and inarguable: Bret Hart getting screwed in Montreal was and still is perhaps the most significant tipping point in wrestling history.