The Montreal Screwjob

It’s 20 years since the Montreal Screwjob – an event which took place on 9th November 1997 at the WWF Survivor Series. A business decision which changed the fortunes of the WWF forever, which came at the expense of arguably its hardest-working and most talented star, Bret Hart.

What was the Montreal Screwjob?

The real-life deception of wrestler Bret Hart by WWF owner Vince McMahon. It was carried out in Montreal at Survivor Series 1997. McMahon and other WWF staffers conspired to change the scripted ending of Bret Hart’s match against Shawn Michaels, without Hart’s knowledge, so he would lose his WWF Championship.

What happened?

In what was his final WWF appearance for a decade, Bret Hart was ready to defend his title against challenger Shawn Michaels in the main event of the 1997 Survivor Series. It was decided backstage and agreed between Hart, Michaels and McMahon that the match would not have a ‘clean’ finish – a decisive victory by one man – and instead would be subject to a ‘schmoz’ finish, which would involve members of both wrestlers’ crews interfering in the match and the referee calling for a double DQ.

The main event began in unusual fashion, as Hart and Michaels brawled around the ringside area and on the stage for an extended length of time, before taking it into the ring for the match to officially begin. After a few minutes of in-ring action, match referee Earl Hebner was rendered ‘unconscious’ – an important phase of the plan that Hart and Michaels had laid out in advance.

With Hebner down, Shawn Michaels grabbed Hart’s legs and locked on the Sharpshooter, Hart’s own trademark submission hold. Although Hart’s plan was to reverse the hold and carry on the match, Hebner got up quickly and called for the bell to be rung, signalling Michaels’ victory by submission. The match ended before Hart realised what had occurred – the match ending had been changed without his knowledge, and he had lost the title.

Why did the Montreal Screwjob happen?

Basically, the Montreal Screwjob happened because Vince McMahon didn’t trust Bret Hart to drop the WWF Championship honourably, before Hart made the move to join the rival World Championship Wrestling. However, there were a number of other contributing factors, including the personal issues between Hart and Shawn Michaels.

McMahon and the WWF had been decisively beaten into second place by the WCW over the course of the Monday Night Wars. McMahon had been playing it safe for years within the cartoonish confines of his wrestling storylines, until WCW made a number of plays to gain some of that audience share during the mid-1990s.

Firstly, WCW Executive Producer Eric Bischoff made moves for a number of McMahon’s current and former stars. The most notable name was Hulk Hogan, who together with McMahon had put the WWF and pro wrestling on the map, bringing global prestige and a new generation of wrestling fans through the WWF doors. Hollywood beckoned for Hogan, who took his leave from the WWF in 1993 – but just a year later he would be back in the ring, this time for WCW, winning their World Championship in his very first match at their 1994 Bash at the Beach.

Initial plans for Hogan didn’t shake out too great – his world-beating act had grown stale – but WCW turned the wrestling world upside down when Hollywood Hulk Hogan re-debuted with a shock as the leader of the New World Order, along with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.

As former WWF Superstars Diesel and Razor Ramon, Nash and Hall had left for new, much more lucrative deals with WCW than the ones McMahon wanted to offer them in 1996. And with Hogan, the nWo would take WCW’s Monday Nitro far above and beyond the WWF’s Monday Night Raw in the ratings, as the Monday Night Wars brought millions of new fans to both shows. That was another of Bischoff’s moves – the launching of a new WCW flagship show to go head-to-head with Raw on Monday nights.

Nitro was on the verge of making their dominance insurmountable – and Hart was set to join them, following McMahon’s withdrawal of a contract offer just months into a one-of-a-kind deal, which would have seen Hart remain with the WWF for 20 years.

Old school vs new

Hart was old-school; he didn’t care much for the new edgy direction which the WWF was taking. With scantily-clad ladies and a new thirst for adult themes, Raw was becoming too raw for Bret.

Not so for Shawn – the leader of D-Generation X, a faction which encouraged fans who didn’t care for them to ‘suck it’, and the innovators of the style of raunchy content which was starting to bring back fans to the WWF’s failing product.

Once word got out that Hart was set to join WCW, McMahon believed that the loss of just one more big name – his World Champion, no less – would be the final nail in the coffin for the WWF.

With Hart now into the final month of his contract, he received a special perk which allowed him control over the manner of his departure from the WWF. It was customary for departing Superstars to lose to a chosen performer in order to pass on ‘the rub’ – but in a bizarre turn of events, the ever-professional Bret refused to lose to Shawn.

Refusing to lose

This decision came from a conversation the two had previously had. There had been an extended period of hostility between the two men, which took in off-script name-calling on the air, plus a real-life locker room fight. With their careers on the line against a dominant WCW, and Bret’s preference for a united locker room, Hart had attempted to patch things up with Michaels. According to his autobiography, Hart had tried to tell Michaels that he would always do what was asked of him in the ring, including losing to Michaels. In an apparent fit of pique, Michaels would tell Hart that he would never be prepared to return the favour.

As champion, Bret was appalled at this lack of respect shown to the entire locker room, and decided to have it out with Vince. With this, the expected outcome of their Survivor Series match – Hart passing the torch to Michaels – was now thrown into doubt, as Hart refused to lose the Montreal match.

Hart offered a number of alternatives to McMahon – he would lose anytime, anywhere, to anyone except Michaels. Hart’s move to WCW was looming, and the possibility existed in McMahon’s head that Hart would behave dishonourably – it had happened before during the take-no-prisoners Monday Night Wars – or that WCW would take the advantage in making an announcement on the next night’s Nitro.

On the very first episode of WCW Monday Nitro in September 1995, Lex Luger made his return to the company just one day after appearing at a WWF house show, and eight days after a high-profile appearance on their Summerslam pay-per-view. And three months later, former WCW wrestler Deborah Miceli fka Alundra Blayze returned to Nitro with her WWF Women’s Championship in hand – which she would drop into a trash can live on air.

With these reputation-damaging incidents in mind, and Bischoff’s tendency to talk out of turn about the opposition while Nitro was on air, McMahon decided to take drastic action.

The aftermath

Unusually, Vince McMahon and a number of WWF officials were present at ringside during the match – in storyline it was chalked up to the simmering tensions between Bret and Shawn, and the possibility that it may have spilled over into ‘real’ violence. However, McMahon was there to ensure that the plan was carried off without a hitch. According to the Hitman biography, McMahon was heard yelling at the timekeeper to ‘ring the fucking bell’ following the confusion which took place within the ring. Michaels, in a strop that was thought to be a mixture of his bad-boy attitude and a hint that something wasn’t right, grabbed the WWF Title and left in a hurry, closely followed by Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Gerald Brisco.

As seen in the footage, Hart calmly walked to the ropes, standing above McMahon, and spat on him. As the show went off the air, Hart made ‘WCW’ gestures with his hands, and began trashing television equipment around the ring.

Backstage, chaos reigned as WWF wrestlers who sided with Hart showed their anger at what had unfolded. The Undertaker reportedly threatened to beat down the door to Vince’s office, demanding answers and an apology to Bret. McMahon went to the locker room, where Hart and Michaels were. As captured in the ‘Wrestling With Shadows’ documentary, Michaels swore to Hart he knew nothing about this plan. Some sources, including Titan Screwed and Hitman, then report that Hart threatened McMahon to leave or he would receive a knockout punch. McMahon foolishly chose to stay, and was subsequently knocked out by Bret. McMahon also got an ankle injury during the commotion.

With so many conflicting sources, there’s some confusion over who was aware of the plan before it was carried out.

Who knew about the Montreal Screwjob?

Aside from McMahon and Michaels, a number of people were aware of what was planned for Montreal, including Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Gerald Brisco. It’s said that Pat Patterson knew about it, but others dispute it due to Patterson and Hart’s close friendship.

Another name left out of the plan was Jim Ross, then-head of talent relations, who it was felt was too close to a number of the wrestlers that would be affected to remain neutral in his dealings.

The highly recommended Titan Screwed has it that Vince Russo and Jim Cornette were at some point involved in meetings about what to do with the crisis situation, although neither were briefed on the final plan. Referee Earl Hebner was apparently told shortly before the match by Brisco on what to do, despite having sworn to Hart (according to the Hitman autobiography) that he would not go along with anything he was asked to do to screw Bret over.

No matter who was really behind it all, the Montreal Screwjob would have far-reaching consequences for the future of the WWF.

The Montreal Screwjob and the Attitude Era

With Hart leaving for WCW, the top babyface spot was now opened up for a fast-rising star: Stone Cold Steve Austin, who would capture the WWF Championship from Shawn Michaels, ushering in a new era at Wrestlemania 14.

As for McMahon, his company would benefit hugely from the Montreal Screwjob. With fans’ disgust ringing in his ears, McMahon took on a new character known as ‘Mr McMahon’ – the evil billionaire boss who saw Austin as the enemy, to be defeated at all costs. McMahon’s interviews immediately following Survivor Series 1997 – most notably his insistence that “Bret screwed Bret” – would actually make him one of the most hated and most effective authority figure characters in wrestling history. It’s a well-worn trope by now but in this guise, was a huge contributor to the success of the Attitude Era, as fans tuned in to watch McMahon get his comeuppance.

Hart would not fare so well in WCW, as their decline in popularity began a month after the Screwjob, with the supposed culmination of the WCW vs nWo storyline which saw Sting defeat Hogan in the main event at Starrcade 1997. Seen as the hottest free agent in wrestling history, Hart was badly misused, debuting as a guest referee in the semi-main event (between two non-active wrestling personalities on the roster) before objecting to the false finish in the Hogan/Sting match. Legend has it that Hogan ordered a so-called fast count favouring him to be counted normally, making his opponent Sting look terribly ineffectual, and squeezing all the satisfaction out of Sting’s proper win a few minutes later.

The months between Starrcade and Wrestlemania were a chance for fans who had had enough of the nWo, to change the channel to see the WWF charging up for its most successful ever boom period – the Attitude Era.

And suddenly the war was over – thanks to one huge business decision which shook the industry as we know it today. Bret Hart’s work through the late 1980s and 1990s was integral in keeping the WWF afloat, just long enough for McMahon to seize an opportunity to see it become the biggest wrestling show on earth.

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