The date was Nov. 9, 1997. The venue was the Molson Centre. The location was Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The event was Survivor Series, the annual World Wrestling Federation (WWF) pay-per-view (PPV) held in the month of November every year. The headlining attraction was a WWF championship match pitting titleholder and native hero Bret Hart against his arch nemesis, both real and imagined, D-Generation X leader Shawn Michaels.
It was the Montreal Screwjob, and it happened on this date in pro wrestling history.
The long winding road to get there was full of speed bumps, most of it complications that come with big business and the politics that come with a talent roster full of big egos and insecurity. In the pro wrestling world the competition isn't real in sport but it is in spirit.
Michaels always thought he was better than Hart. He made no secret of that fact, too. Indeed, the two had more than a few run-ins during their time together in the WWF, both in classic matches inside the ring and in backstage scuffles that started as works but ended up as shoots.
As Hart himself said on the critically acclaimed Greatest Rivalries DVD, "we worked ourselves into a shoot."
The issues between the two were borne of jealousy, insecurity, and philosophy. Michaels wanted what Hart had, but more than anything he wanted "The Hitman's" respect. Known as one of the best workers of his time, a careful technician who could carry a match when needed, Hart's reputation was that of a hard blue collar worker. A bit of a mark for himself, sure, but that comes with the territory.
Michaels, meanwhile, was fast and loose, extremely talented in the ring but always raw and a bit unpolished. Boy could he really go, though, and Hart matched him step for step. It actually made for a chemistry few wrestlers have ever had and led to a number of classic matches.
While these two were busy feuding over the course of a number of years, the business itself was changing. The WWF suddenly had strong competition from World Championship Wrestling (WCW), so strong in fact, that the company was in trouble come 1997. WCW had created a Monday night program, Nitro, that was soundly defeating Monday Night Raw in the ratings each week. And with Ted Turner's deep pockets backing the promotion, talent was jumping ship left and right. Big names, too, like Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, who would go on to form the New World Order (nWo), the very group that helped WCW destroy the WWF every Monday night.
During this period, Hart's contract came up and he was courted heavily by WCW. He was offered an unheard of amount of money, something along the lines of three years for $9 million. The WWF, in rough shape financially, couldn't come anywhere close to matching. So they got creative and devised an historic 20-year contract that would ensure Hart would be with the company for life, first as a wrestler and then, when he retired, as an executive.
That was in late 1996. By the same time the following year, the WWF was in even worse shape and WCW was that much stronger, able to swoop in with an even bigger offer. Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWF, was forced to break his contract with Hart, unable to honor it as his company was collapsing under its own weight.
So McMahon told Hart to go back to WCW and see if he couldn't get a similar deal as before. When he got one better, it was only a matter of time -- with a little bit of soul searching -- that led "The Hitman" to sign the deal, agreeing to part ways with the WWF after many, many years of loyal service. That may not be something others care about but it tore at Hart's insides.
He didn't want to leave. He felt like he was being forced out, even if the money was good.
The problem, of course, is he was the WWF champion at that time. The belt had to come off him before he left for the rival promotion, one that had shown it would resort to underhanded tactics like having talent from the WWF show up on television and drop its titles in trash cans. This, of course, led to a nervous McMahon asking Hart to drop the belt at the planned Survivor Series show where Hart was scheduled to face Michaels in Montreal.
But he said no.
He wouldn't do it. The account on the reasons why varies. At first it was because of The Kliq, then it was because he didn't want to job to Michaels, who he hated and had straight out told him he wouldn't return the favor, then it was because he didn't want to lose the belt in Canada, and especially not in Montreal. In his documentary, Wrestling with Shadows, he equated the situation to "rape."
That's how serious he took this whole thing.
Fearing the worst, McMahon met with close aids to figure out what to do. Triple H has given accounts that he helped push the idea to screw Bret out of the title.
"Fuck him," Triple H said. "If he doesn't want to do business, you do business for him."
Hart and those close to him thought something fishy might go down and he was warned not to put himself in a position that would leave him open to shoot situations like a fast count or a submission. He actually met with McMahon in a closed door meeting before the match, saying he would prefer to do a smoz finish. McMahon, a little too cooperative, agreed that they could figure out a way out of this that saw Hart keep the title and give it up the next night on Raw.
A meeting even took place between Patterson, Hart, and Michaels where they worked out the finish of the match. Ultimately, it was decided "The Heartbreak Kid" would draw heat by putting Hart in his own finisher, the Sharpshooter, only to have Hart reverse it while referee Earl Hebner was knocked out after taking a bump earlier in the match. Michaels would tap, a new ref would run in but the rest of the Hart Foundation would come running down and the whole thing would break down resulting in a disqualification and a big brawl to end the show.
So why would Hart go along with this plan if it called for him to be put in a submission hold his friends warned him about?
Because he trusted Hebner, a longtime friend who personally assured him he there would be no funny business. Not on his part, not on his watch, swear on his own kids, it simply wouldn't happen.
It finally came time for the match and though many forget it thanks to what came at the end, the two actually had an awesome back-and-forth brawl full of emotion in front of a hot crowd that was loving every minute of it. After all, the two had the chemistry and immense talent to make it a great match, despite what was to come.
Then, the ref bump happened. Hebner went down and they went into the final sequence. Michaels put Hart in the Sharpshooter, at one point messing up only to have Bret tell him how to fix his mistake.
Little did he know, he was assisting his arch nemesis in his eventual downfall.
Shortly after "HBK" locked it in by turning over and sitting down, Hebner shot up, no longer selling the bump, and shouted, "RING THE BELL! RING THE BELL!"
Immediately after doing so, right as Hart was grabbing for Michaels' ankle to reverse and Shawn was playing along, letting go and dropping down for the set up, Hebner ran out of the ring and to the backstage area. Around the same time, Triple H and a security team made its way down, hopeful to grab Michaels and get him to the back as soon as possible to avoid incident. For his part, Shawn acted confused, as though he had no idea what was happening, even going so far as to feign anger at the situation. No one knew how Hart would react.
He didn't take it well.
Upon realizing what happened, that he had been screwed by McMahon, and possibly a lot of other people, though he couldn't have known as much at the time, Hart stood up, went over to the ropes and spit straight in McMahon's face. He then flipped the bird towards the backstage area and proceeded to melt down in the ring. He destroyed the announce desks next to the ring, breaking each and ever monitor. He stood in the ring and mock drew the letters W-C-W in the air to signify he was leaving for the rival promotion. He stayed out for a while, riling up the already confused and upset fans.
Once he got to the back, he ran into Michaels in the locker room and asked if he was in on it. Shawn lied straight through his teeth, too, claiming "as god is my witness I had no fucking clue. I wash my hands of this whole thing, I don't want any part of it." Many years later, Michaels would of course admit he did know and that he willingly went along with it but kept quiet because McMahon had ordered everyone to place the blame on him because he could take the heat and come out of it okay.
That's exactly what happened, too.
McMahon and Hart would ultimately have a confrontation and though accounts vary as to what happened next, the widely held belief is that Hart punched McMahon once and he fell to the floor, injuring his ankle. Hart has said he knocked him out while others claim McMahon hammed it up and took a flop fall for dramatic effect. Either way, it was the parting shot "The Hitman" needed after what had just occurred, or at least that's how he told it.
The fallout was immediate. Most of the locker room was upset at the situation, for obvious reasons. Many pledged loyalty to Hart, even threatening to boycott Raw the next night, though Mick Foley was the only non-Hart not to show up. He quickly went back to work anyway.
McMahon had some explaining to do and he did so in a now infamous segment where he proclaimed "Bret screwed Bret." His argument was that the WWF simply couldn't risk Hart leaving with its most coveted title so it could show up on WCW television where Eric Bischoff could do with it what he saw fit, lawsuits be damned. So McMahon did what he had to, recruiting his good little soldier Michaels to carry out his bidding, screwing Bret out of the belt. But it was Bret who really screwed Bret by refusing to do business when the tradition in the industry is to drop the title and put someone over on your way out.
Ultimately, this was a big win for the WWF and the beginning of the end for WCW.
Because of his role in the situation, McMahon would become an on-screen character known as Mr. McMahon, the heel owner of the company not afraid to screw anyone over. This was right at the same time Stone Cold Steve Austin was rising to the top as the biggest babyface in pro wrestling and the two would go on to have one of the most memorable feuds in pro wrestling history.
Hart, meanwhile, would go to WCW, who were riding high at the time. He wouldn't show up until Starrcade '97 where the company tried to recreate the Montreal Screwjob in a match between Sting and Hollywood Hulk Hogan for the world heavyweight championship that saw Hart come down and restart the match after a crooked referee made a fast count to give Hogan the victory. Except the count wasn't fast, and controversy reigned supreme. Fans hated the finish, and it was ultimately a turning point in the war between the two competing promotions.
WCW would hang on for a few more years but never recovered and were ultimately sold to McMahon in 2001. Hart wrestled there until 2000, when his career was ended by Bill Goldberg thanks to a careless kick that gave him a concussion. It was the beginning of the end, as he would sustain a lot more head trauma working with said concussion before finally calling it quits.
The WWF used the Screwjob to create the "Attitude Era" with McMahon as one of its biggest drawing stars. Michaels helped get it going with D-Generation X but he would suffer a back injury at the Royal Rumble in Jan. 1998 that put him on the shelf for four years and resulted in a drug habit it took becoming a born again Christian to fix.
Even after his career ended, Hart bitterly held on to his grudge, for years vowing never to have anything to do with the WWF, which would become WWE. Eventually, though, his stance softened and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. He still held a grudge against Michaels, though, and that lasted until Hart had reconciled with the company enough to make his return to television on Jan. 4, 2010, as a guest host of Raw. He would start the night by having it out with Michaels live in the ring. The two would later state it was a legitimate meeting and that they finally buried the hatchet and were ready to move on, more than a decade after the incident first took place.
Later, the two would participate in the Greatest Rivalries DVD, sitting down right next to each other with Jim Ross serving as mediator for a comprehensive tell all interview that went over their entire careers, which had intertwined dating back to their times in tag teams with the Hart Foundation and The Rockers, respectively. That video stands out as one of the best WWE has ever produced.
It should be noted that there are a few conspiracy theorists out there who believe the Montreal Screwjob was a work, an elaborate hoax created and held up to this day. That's for you to decide but all evidence points to the contrary.
No matter what, it will always be one of the biggest stories and most infamous incidents in the history of the industry.
Wrestling with Shadows, a documentary about Hart that was filming during this same time period:
Michaels talking about the events leading up to the Screwjob from the Greatest Rivalries DVD: