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This Day in Wrestling History (Nov. 9): The Montreal Screwjob

Today’s TDIPWH will be presented in three parts. The second part will focus on the major events of the day, while the final part will focus on the career and life of Chris Jericho. This part will focus on one of the most important events in wrestling history: the Montreal Screwjob.

19 years ago today. WWF presented Survivor Series (WWE Network link) from the Molson Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 20,593 were in attendance, with 250,000 homes watching on PPV.

Sole survivors in bold.

  • The New Age Outlaws (Billy Gunn and Road Dogg) and The Godwinns (Henry and Phineas) defeated The Headbangers (Mosh and Thrasher) and The New Blackjacks (Blackjack Windham and Blackjack Bradshaw) 4-2 in a Survivor Series elimination match.
  • The Truth Commission (The Jackyl, The Interrogator, Sniper, and Recon) defeated The Disciples of Apocalypse (Crush, Chainz, 8-Ball, and Skull) 4-3 in a Survivor Series elimination match.
  • Team Canada (The British Bulldog, Jim Neidhart, Doug Furnas and Phil Lafon) defeated Team USA (Vader, Goldust, Marc Mero and Steve Blackman) 4-3 in a Survivor Series elimination match.
  • Kane defeated Mankind. This was Kane’s WWF in-ring debut.
  • The Road Warriors (Hawk and Animal), Ahmed Johnson and Ken Shamrock defeated The Nation of Domination (The Rock, Faarooq, Kama Mustafa and D'Lo Brown) 4-3 in a Survivor Series elimination match.
  • Stone Cold Steve Austin defeated Owen Hart to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship. This was Austin's first match since suffering a neck injury at Summerslam in August.
  • Shawn Michaels defeated Bret Hart by "submission" to the WWF Championship.

Ah, you're wondering why the quotes, aren't you? Chances are you already know why. Well, let's back up the truck a little bit... back to 1993.

The mistrust between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon goes back to 1993. Hart was set to become the new face of the WWF (he needed one as the federal government was on Vince's ass, you know with the drug charges and all, and a bulging muscles guy as the top man in the company wasn't exactly a good look), but Hulk Hogan, who had just returned to the company after a near-year long sabbatical (i.e. his heat from the steroid scandal had died down), was not willing to put Hart over. Despite the fact that fans warmed up to Hart and cooled considerably with Hogan in the early 1990s, Vince ultimately sided with Hogan. Bret, with one foot out the door, agreed to a handshake deal to remain in the WWF, but Vince nearly reneged on his promises to Hart. Surprise, surprise: Bret called him out on it, and Vince had to redo the contract.

While Hart was a clear fan favorite, his booking said otherwise. Hart was the WWF champion for much of 1994, but despite having a hot feud with his brother Owen, he was at times overshadowed either by feuds that seemed hokey (i.e. the two Undertakers) or stellar performers by the fast-rising Shawn Michaels.

By 1995, Michaels, Kevin Nash (then wrestling as WWF Champion Diesel), and the rest of the Kliq were having their way behind the scenes, being put in prime storylines. Hart was offered a slot in the Kliq, but ultimately turned it down, a decision that would come to haunt him in the years that followed. Hart spent most of 1995 in feuds with Bob Backlund, Jerry Lawler, and Isaac Yankem, D.D.S., while the Kliq, very much in Vince McMahon's ear, was in the featured spots and stories.

Hart would regain and lose the WWF Championship by the time Wrestlemania XII ended (won it from Diesel, lost it to Michaels), and once again, Hart had one foot out the door. In the fall of 1996, Hart was offered a deal to go to WCW. Bret kicked around a figure of $3 million a year for three years, with Bischoff returning with a slightly lower offer ($2.8 million a year). Bret went to Vince McMahon and asked him to make an offer to keep him around. The offer was historic: $10.5 million over 20 years: $1.5 million for the first three years as a wrestler, followed by seven years as a senior advisor at $500,000 a year, followed by a decade as a company standby at $250,000 per year. Hart agreed to the deal right before RAW was set to go on the air in October 1996.

It didn't take long for Vince to realize that he was not going to be able to afford it. The WWF, in even worse financial shape than it was when the deal was first drawn up, was forced to break the deal as originally written and restructured the deal. There’s also the theory that Vince had buyer’s remorse and wanted to push Hart out so he didn’t have to pay out the deal. In any event, Vince gave Bret the bad news and told him he was better off in WCW. Given six weeks to get a new offer from WCW, Bret was offered initially a $5.4 million deal over three years, but he talked up them up to $7.5 million over that period. Bret asked Vince to convince him to stay. He couldn't do it, and after some soul searching, Bret would sign with WCW on November 1, with the contract to go into effect a month later.

Throughout 1997, the professional animosity between Hart and Michaels became personal, with the two getting into multiple physical and verbal confrontations on-and off-camera. Naturally, this would be used in a storyline. It should be worth pointing out that at the time Bret signed with WCW, Bret was the WWF Champion, and per wrestling tradition, that meant he had to leave the title behind on the way out. If Bret had left the WWF with its championship belt and did what Madusa did with the WWF Womens Championship belt back in 1995, it would practically be the death of the company in terms of credibility. So Bret had to drop the WWF title to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series. In Montreal. Montreal's in Canada, where Bret Hart's a national hero to a country that treats wrestling more as sport than as entertainment.

Cue awkward silence.

Why Bret said no changes depending on who's telling the story. This much is true: Bret had a clause in his contract that more or less dictated his exit; he had creative control in his final days, provided he gave 30 days notice (which he did). Some say it was the Kliq influence. Some say since Michaels refused to lose to Hart, Hart was only returning the favor. Some say it's because he didn't want to lose the belt in Canada, with Bret equating dropping the title to Shawn in his home country with rape.

In the days leading up to the match, Paul Levesque, aka Triple H, pushed the idea to screw Bret out of the world title, saying "Fuck him! If he doesn't want to do business, you do business for him." In the hours leading up to the match, Hart, Michaels, and longtime road agent Pat Patterson worked out the match finish: Shawn would hook in Bret's finishing maneuver, the Sharpshooter, while referee Earl Hebner was knocked out from a ref bump. Bret would reverse it and Michaels would tap out. While Bret tried to revive the referee, Michaels would hit Sweet Chin Music. A second referee would count the fall, but behind the referee, members of the Hart Foundation would run in and break up the pin. The first referee would revive and Hart would kick out at two. A massive brawl would ensue between the Hart Foundation and Shawn Michaels' D-Generation X stable, resulting in a massive brawl and a double disqualification.

Despite Hart's reservations, he went along with the plan considering that Hebner and Hart were friends. Even Vince McMahon signed off on it, perhaps a little too willingly. Hart was told prior to the bout from Leon White, aka Vader, and Davey Boy Smith, both of whom had seen similar situations play out in Japan, to look out for a screwjob. Don't stay on the mat too long, kick out quickly, and don't get in a submission hold, they would tell him. Even with the headsup, Hart knew something was amiss when Vince McMahon wasn't at his usual place in the commentary table and more WWF officials than usual were surrounding the ringside area.

The bout went back and forth and went into the crowd (something that was becoming increasingly common with WWF main events), with the Montreal masses eating every second of it up. Even if the two hated each other's guts, Bret and Shawn had incredible chemistry and talent and could have a great match with just about anybody separately and a classic together (for more, see their Survivor Series 1992 and Wrestlemania XII bouts). Eventually, the two would get back in the ring. The ref bump happened as planned, then confusion. Hebner went down, Mike Chioda ran in, but no Hart Foundation. Odd. Chioda might have run in a little early. The two would go into the finishing sequence. Michaels hooked the Sharpshooter in... well, as best as he could. Hart told him how to do it.

If only Bret knew.

Michaels hooked in the Sharpshooter, Hebner quickly got to his feet, and Vince McMahon gave the command to Earl: ring the fucking bell. Hart was in the midst of reversing the hold (as planned in the finishing sequence they first settled on), and Shawn fell. Confusion and shock took over the building. Triple H and security grabbed Shawn as he took off with the WWF Championship belt. For Shawn's part, he looked confused and angry. What's with the sudden finish, he probably thought. Hebner took off and was in his hotel room less than a half hour later. He would not leave the room for the rest of the night. As for Bret: he was pissed.

Hart caught on to the ruse immediately. Bret Hart was screwed out of the WWF Championship in front of 20,000 plus Canadians and a worldwide audience on PPV. Fans caught on not long after. Garbage began to litter the ring. Hart spat at McMahon, flipped off the backstage area, smashed a few monitors, and mock drew "WCW" for all the world to see. While the meltdown didn't air on PPV, it was made famous-or infamous-in the wrestling documentary Wrestling with Shadows. The home audience was bewildered, and Internet wrestling fans took to their message boards with the belief that they had seen perhaps the most creative finish to a wrestling match ever.

Once he got to the back, he ran into Michaels, who immediately denied any involvement or wrongdoing in the incident. Triple H also denied any involvement in the screwing. Eventually Bret and Vince got into a confrontation backstage, with Hart decking McMahon. McMahon suffered an injured ankle, though how he ultimately got it remains up for debate. Backstage, many sided, unsurprisingly, with Bret, even threatening a full-on locker room mutiny. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and only Mick Foley and the remains of the Hart Foundation missed RAW the following night. McMahon made a bold play to all involved outside of Hart: keep quiet so the blame could be placed squarely on him. He would take the heat, and everyone would be okay in the end.

And that's exactly what happened. A week later, Vince McMahon justified his actions in an interview best remembered with these words: "Bret screwed Bret; I have no sympathy whatsoever for Bret". The incident and subsequent interview gave birth to the Mr. McMahon character, a ruthless boss that would do anything and use anyone to get his way, consequences and repercussions be damned. Running parallel with the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the two would go on to have a feud that would revive the company and the business as a whole, culminating with the once left-for-dead WWF buying WCW in 2001.

Shawn Michaels would go into retirement following Wrestlemania XIV after suffering a severe back injury two months prior, but would return in 2002. He would have just one world title run over the next eight years, but he was clearly in a much better place. He cleaned himself up, got married, had two kids, and found religion. He retired for a second time in 2010, and was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame the next year.

As for Bret, despite coming into WCW red hot just before Starrcade 1997, he was ruined almost from the outset. He was involved in the main event in a failed recreation of the Montreal Screwjob, a finish that fans hated and many argue was the first domino of WCW's downfall. Though Hart would go on to win WCW’s Triple Crown (World Heavyweight, United States, and Tag Team titles), his inconsistent booking ensured he would never reach the heights he did in the WWF. 10 months after suffering a concussion in a bout against Goldberg, Hart was fired on medical grounds in October 2000. He would formally announce his retirement a week later.

Bret suffered a stroke in 2002 after an accident on his bike caused him to land on the back of his head. Bret, who suffered total paralysis on his left side, would make a full recovery. Hart went in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, but Michaels left the ceremony before Hart's speech, and Hart himself would not appear at Wrestlemania the next night.

The beef would come to a definite conclusion in 2010. In January, Hart and Michaels had a heated discussion, after which, to the shock of many, the two men hugged it out. As for McMahon and Hart, Vince has been on speaking terms with Bret since Hart's stroke, but the story was finally put to rest in a less than stellar bout at Wrestlemania XXVI. Ironically, on the same night, Shawn Michaels' career ended at the hands of The Undertaker.

The two participated in a Greatest Rivalries DVD with Jim Ross, with the longtime adversaries—now friends---chronicling their careers. The documentary was actually one of the first shows to air on the WWE Network when it launched back in February 2014. Both Hart and Michaels appear sporadically on WWE programming to this day.

The events of and leading to that chilly night in November remain among the most debated in wrestling history. Who was in the right? Could it have been handled better? Was it really an elaborate work? While there’s no hard evidence to suggest it was a work, these questions and more will be asked for generations to come, perhaps with no concrete answers to any of them.

I’ll close with a piece of an article from the November 11, 1997 Calgary Sun about the Screwjob:

And while everyone will put their different spin on what happened, and like with Hogan, and Bruno, and nearly every other superstar of the WWF beforehand, Bret Hart failed one of the things he wanted most out of his career, and that was to walk away from the company without the bitterness and with mainly good memories.

Both Bret Hart and Vince McMahon wanted their legacies to be tied together and represent all that can be good about pro wrestling. But the fact it is, no matter how great the match with [Davey Boy] Smith at Wembley Stadium or at the In Your House in Hershey were, or the Wrestlemania match and SummerSlam matches with Owen were, or the SummerSlam match with Hennig, or the Survivor Series match with Michaels, or any of the rest, his legacy, and Vince McMahon's legacy will forever be tied together in wrestling history.

The defining moment of both a Hall of Fame wrestler and the man who for a decade was the dominant promoter in the industry will be the moment that the world realized, right in front of their eyes, with no apologies, and with no turning back to re-write history, just how truly deceitful, to the core this business can be, and just how much 14 years of being one of the great performers in the history of the industry truly meant on the inside to the company that benefitted from it.

Only the future can determine whether this was a defining moment in the balance of business when it comes to pro wrestling.

Here we are, 19 years into that future. It can safely be said that it absolutely was.

Your turn, Cagesiders. Discuss the Montreal Screwjob.

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