On the 20th anniversary of Bret Hart’s infamous loss and subsequent punchout of his boss, we talked to wrestling insiders about what really happened.
Source: Wikipedia Commons
There is no mind more curious than that of a professional wrestling fan. Fight me.
Wrestling is an industry rooted in mystery and illusion, toeing the line between real and fake, tugging on the heartstrings of fans and forcing them to suspend disbelief. These days, it profits from transparency. Although it's dwarfed in overall global popularity by major sports, wrestling podcasts dominate the Sports and Recreation charts on iTunes, and wrestling memoirs routinely become New York Times bestsellers. Fans are ravenously hungry for old wrestling stories and current behind the scenes information in a way that would seem absurd to common television viewers. In wrestling, that's just what being a fan is these days.
There isn't much about pro wrestling we don't know anymore, or at least, have the ability and opportunity to know. We know every performer's real name, we know they slap their legs or torsos to make their kicks sound more devastating, we know about the little razor blades hidden in wrist tape back when bleeding wasn't taboo on WWE television.
But there's one event wrestling fans continue to revisit with questions, and it's the one that launched this era of inquisitiveness altogether: The Montreal Screwjob.
The “Screwjob” has become a colloquial term for the 1997 edition of WWE's Survivor Series, and the main event between its two biggest stars and best performers, Calgary’s Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. In short, Hart (the real person) entered the ring with the understanding that he would not be losing the match, but midway through the contest, company owner Vince McMahon double crossed him and had Michaels win the match. It might have looked like a part of a storyline, but the truth—or several versions of it—would soon come out. McMahon had actually screwed Hart—who was leaving to join rival WCW—and altered the finish without his knowledge.
"It became something that people talked about so much for so long that people became fascinated with digging a layer deeper," said Conrad Thompson, co-host of Something To Wrestle and What Happened When, two prominent wrestling podcasts."(The Screwjob) created kind of a thirst for that insider knowledge to a new section of fans who maybe hadn't been interested in that before. To them, it was just this fun escape and it wasn't something that they had to know, sort of, how the sausage was made."
1997 was one of the hottest periods in the history of professional wrestling. WWE and World Championship Wrestling were running head to head, with the Ted Turner-backed WCW starting to dominate the television ratings war thanks to the mega-popular NWO faction, featuring Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. In addition, there was a third, rogue outfit, Extreme Championship Wrestling, which offered another alternative for wrestlers looking to make a living in North America.
It was a good time to be a wrestler, financially. Never before or since have performers had as much leverage as they did in that particular era when it came to negotiating contracts. At the time, WCW was dishing out lucrative contracts that were also guaranteed—something ethically commendable, but fiscally perilous in a profession as hazardous as wrestling. They could afford it, both due to Turner's backing, and their monstrous ratings on TNT every Monday night.
McMahon's WWE (then WWF), meanwhile, was reportedly feeling the pinch. Although Hart was the company's biggest star, arguably its biggest live gate draw globally, and most critically, its champion, McMahon gave him the go ahead to negotiate with his biggest rival, Eric Bischoff and WCW. This was despite the fact that a little over a year prior, Hart had signed a 20-year contract set to keep him with the company for the remainder of his career.
Hart had several opportunities to jump ship in the past, but always remained loyal to McMahon, whom he considered a father figure of sorts.
“When we first started talking to Bret, we had Nitro. My roster was already pretty full, we were already kicking Vince McMahon's ass. Bret would have been nice to have, but certainly wasn't a critical player. It's like having three Joe Montanas and sitting down to talk to a fourth Joe Montana,” Bischoff told VICE.
But the WCW pockets were ultimately deep enough to afford four franchise quarterbacks, inking Hart to a lucrative deal. Though Hart's contract information with WWE has never been made public, Wrestling Observer founder Dave Meltzer has reported that Hart made $1.5 million annually before merchandise, pay-per-view and other residual payouts at that particular time. In the midst of a 2002 racial discrimination lawsuit levied against the company, Turner released its payroll information, which revealed that Hart was making roughly $2.6 million annually. In total, Hart earned $6,754,074 in salary and additional payouts, the third-highest amount of any performer in WCW from 1996 to 2000, next to only Hogan and Bill Goldberg.
“What changed for Bret's benefit and provided him the enormous financial opportunity is that between the first conversation with Bret and the second conversation, Ted Turner called me and said I want to launch a totally new show called Thunder. An entirely new, prime time, live two-hour wrestling show. I knew at that point, there was no way I could split my current roster without diluting it, without cannibalizing it. I knew I had to create an entirely new brand. If we're going to launch an entirely different show, we need an entirely separate roster,” Bischoff said. “That's what enabled me to get the budget to get Bret Hart, because much like Hulk Hogan and the NWO were head of the Nitro phenomenon at that time, I looked at Bret Hart and the fact that he was leaving the WWF as an opportunity to create an entirely new roster and brand that Bret would be the leader of. That was the only reason I was able to offer Bret that kind of money.”
With Hart having decided to leave for WCW, he now had to finish his final days in the WWE, and at some point, drop the championship to a performer who was going to remain with the company. What is known about Hart's contract with WWE at the time is that he had creative control over his character for the final 30 days of his tenure, meaning he could legally veto booking decisions he deemed to be adverse to him or his future career.
Hart's 1997 run—character wise—may be looked back upon as the finest of his career. In the United States, he portrayed an anti-American villain who berated fans and their country for bigotry, a lack of universal health care, etc etc, all the while proclaiming that Canada was the superior country to live in. Transplanted in 2017, that Hart character would be remarkably poignant.
The chief focus of his ire—both in character and out of it—was Michaels. Though the two had respect for one another as performers, and had engaged in wonderful ring spectacles in the past, they neither liked nor trusted one another. The two were entangled in backstage incidents, and took several not-so-thinly veiled personal shots at one another on television, including Michaels alleging on the air that Hart was having an affair with female performer Sunny.
With roughly three weeks remaining on his contract, Hart was set to face Michaels in Montreal at Survivor Series. Hart requested that he not drop his title that particular night, but instead, lose to a wrestler of the company's choosing the following night on Monday Night RAW (including to Michaels, provided Michaels lost to him first), or even at an upcoming pay-per-view in Springfield, MA, in a four-way match against Michaels, The Undertaker and Ken Shamrock. In Hart's mind, it was both within his contractual rights to make the request, but also a reasonable compromise, even though the company would have preferred he lose the title in any fashion that night to Michaels. McMahon's stance is that he was concerned that if Hart did not lose the title in Montreal, he could potentially show up on WCW's flagship Monday night program Nitro the next night with the WWE title and make a mockery of the company—all he had was Hart's word that he wouldn't do it.
Hart, McMahon and the company's writers went back and forth trying to decide upon a finish for the match in Montreal that would be satisfactory to all parties.
“There was an uneasiness because Bret had been pretty difficult all week. It was constant negotiation. Bret would agree, then he'd disagree, he'd agree, then disagree, he'd agree, then call back and say ‘nah, I don't wanna do that.’ It was a lot of give and take all week, trying to get to the point that we needed to get to,” Bruce Prichard, who was one of the company's lead writers and generally known as McMahon's right hand man at the time, told VICE.
It was finally decided that the match would end in a disqualification, with Bret's real life brother Owen Hart and real-life brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith interfering in the match, causing him to technically lose but allow him to retain his title.
Or so Hart thought.
Though Hart has said he'd had suspicions about the company trying to screw him that night, he and Michaels met earlier in the day and had an emotional chat, seemingly burying the hatchet and putting to rest all of their prior issues.
Not surprisingly, the two began having a tremendous, high-tempo match that only they were capable of having at that time. The two had planned a sequence in which Michaels would put Hart in his own finishing maneuver, the Sharpshooter leg lock. The spot went off relatively well, though Hart had to covertly correct Michaels on how to apply the hold while laying on the mat. Moments after that, the bell rang.
Michaels' music played, he was declared the winner, and referee Earl Hebner bolted backstage.
The Montreal Screwjob had happened.
“I was watching at Gorilla Position (right behind the entrance curtain) with Davey Boy and Owen Hart. They were the only two people there. Anybody who says they were there weren't there,” said Prichard. "Watching it, I thought it was a mistake. I'm watching for a spot, and then all of the sudden the bell rings. So I'm trying to talk to the truck, to the timekeeper, I'm trying to find out what's going on. In the meantime, I've got Davey Boy in front of me and he's going 'they just fooked him. They fooked Bret. What do we do?' And I had no clue. I just kind of sat there for a minute and then said, 'I guess fucking go out? I dunno.'"
As Davey Boy and Owen went to the ring, Michaels was feigning anger and frustration with the outcome and heading backstage (it wouldn't be for many years before Michaels admitted he was in on the plan). As unenviable a position as Prichard was in, lead commentator Jim Ross, who was also the head of talent relations at the time, may have had it even worse.
“I didn't know it was coming. I had nothing in my mind as far as what we were going to say. Thank God for that. I didn't want to know,” Ross told VICE. “We never tracked down every little piece of minutia we could get. It just wasn't important. We felt that we were good enough and knew the game well enough that we could narrate whatever you put on our monitor. We'd been around the block a couple times, so we should be OK there. We didn't know anything. So when the finish went down and the bell rung, it was like...uh oh, I get it. Then, Kevin Dunn, the executive producer is in my ear like "OK JR, we're out in 10, 9..." It was a quick out. I didn't have time in ten seconds to think about anything other than getting off the air.”
As the cameras went off the air, Hart went on a rampage, destroying the ringside set before standing in the middle of the ring and drawing the letters “WCW” with his fingers. Afterward, he went backstage, took off his ring gear, showered, dressed, tossed his knee brace in his bag and then uppercutted McMahon out cold, never to be seen again on WWE premises until 2010.
Hart would later tell Sports Illustrated it was the “most beautiful uppercut punch you could ever imagine.”
“I actually thought it would miss and go right up the side of his head, but I popped him right up like a cork was under his jaw and lifted him right off the hand. I broke my right hand just beneath the knuckle, and knocked Vince out cold,” he told SI in 2014.
What makes the incident most unfortunate, and in truth, more fascinating, is that it all may have been totally avoidable. Hart has said subsequently that he had already exceeded his number of mandatory 1997 dates with WWE by November 9, and as such, could have said “I'm not working anymore.” However, with more than three weeks remaining on his contract, it would have been legally impossible, or certainly inadvisable, for him to show up on a rival company's show. And as Bischoff explains, even if he were to have rolled the dice and appeared on Nitro the next night (and it should be noted he did not appear on Nitro until December—so if he could have appeared the next night, why didn't he?), he wouldn't have done so with the WWE title.
All signs point to the fact that Hart was probably telling the truth, and probably would have done exactly what he said he was going to and drop the title before he left the WWE.
“Bret and I talked sensibly about him dropping the title. I didn't really give a damn. I told him it was fine if he dropped the title, it wasn't really going to affect the audience at all. In other words, in my opinion, Bret was a bigger star than the title, and him making the transition was something that that the audience would understand and respect,” said Bischoff. “We were already in the middle of a trademark lawsuit, we were losing ground. Honestly, if I had gone rogue and attempted to convince Bret Hart to bring that title onto WCW television, I would have faced the corporate firing squad. Even if I would have wanted to do it, I wouldn't have been allowed to do it. Which makes it even more sad in a way, that this happened, because there was absolutely no basis for the possibility of that happening.”
The incident is discussed and debated to this day, with most wrestling fans taking a fairly firm stance on who they side with in the controversy—along with conspiracy theories that the Screwjob itself was a work.
“If you were inside the business and you were one of the boys, and strictly one of the boys, then you probably err on that side with Bret, that you have to communicate things, and there has to be understanding and trust. But I also think if you grew up in the office, so to speak, those types are always going to side with the office, that you do what the boss wants to do, and if you don't want to, he'll do it for you,” said Thompson.
What isn't debatable is the impact the incident had on shaping the wrestling world as we know it today, and it's impact in peeling back the curtain on the business.
In 1997, there was a fledgling internet wrestling community that accompanied the iconic Wrestling Observer newsletter which had been in circulation since 1980. Message boards and wrestling news sites were starting to pop up, and fans were beginning to become “smart” to the business. Fans in past years may have known that the outcomes were predetermined, but little else. Anything that went on behind the scenes was very closely guarded, and even if things slipped out, they weren't easily transferable to the world at large anyway.
The Screwjob fell at a time in which interest in wrestling was extremely high and when curiosity about the inner workings of the industry was beginning to bubble as well. At the same time, the industry as a whole was starting to loosen up about “keeping kayfabe.” wrestling slang for maintaining the aura of reality in the presence of the general public.
“With this era, that 97 era, maybe the reason it's so fascinating is there's a lot out there, but not everything's out there,” said Thompson. “Imagine 20 years ago, what would Bret Hart's Twitter have looked like? What would his Instagram have looked like the week of the Screwjob?”
The major reason why we know so much about the Screwjob is because there were documentary cameras filming the whole time. The lauded Canadian documentary film Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, directed by Paul Jay, came out the very next year, following Hart during the build up and the aftermath of Survivor Series.
Almost a year to the day, NBC would air a network special titled Exposed! Pro Wrestling's Greatest Secrets, which absurdly showed wrestling techniques performed by goofy masked wrestlers and a poorly disguised Harley Race. The following year, Beyond The Mat would be released to critical acclaim, giving another backstage look at the WWE and the wrestling industry as a whole.
Unless you were reading Meltzer's newsletter at the time, the Screwjob seemed like it could potentially have just been an elaborate storyline. After all, WCW's major storyline was a fake “invasion” from a rogue faction mostly consisting of former WWE performers. Most fans' context and understanding of wrestling was minimal, but substantial enough that they could no longer be babied as viewers. They knew that some things weren't real, but couldn't always detect which of those things those were. The industry at large, both in WWE and WCW, leveraged that to the maximum.
Nothing is a better example of that than the Mr. McMahon character, Vince McMahon's on-screen heel persona. With real life animosity heaped on McMahon in the wake of Montreal, he decided to turn himself into a full-time character willing to do, in storyline, what he'd actually just done in real life—fuck over an employee for the perceived betterment of the company. His foil turned out to be Stone Cold Steve Austin, a foul-mouthed Texan who also just did what Bret Hart had done in real life—beat the shit out of his boss.
The moment that bell rang in Montreal, it pushed over a colossal stack of dominoes. McMahon's character and his feud with Austin would propel WWE ahead of WCW and Bischoff, who had already been playing a heel boss character as head of the NWO. The “Monday Night Wars,” the television ratings battle between RAW and Nitro ensued, and ultimately ended in WWE's favor when it acquired WCW in 2001. Moreover, Triple H, who has been credited by Michaels in interviews as the first man to suggest the screwjob finish, went on to marry McMahon's daughter Stephanie, become the highest ranking WWE executive beneath his father-in-law, and you guessed it, now plays an on-screen loathsome boss who fucks over employees and opines about “what's best for business.”
“I hated the circumstances, but what came out in the wash was not bad news across the board. Including Bret, to a degree. I'm sure he still regrets that it happened, but he ended up making a lot of money and he made his money in his mid-30s. Everybody gained something from it. I'm certainly not saying 'well damn the cost, you have to get somebody over.' I'm not saying that at all. But you can go down the list and check off a lot of guys who got rich and famous off that incident,” said Ross.
The people who profit off the transparency of wrestling today include Ross himself, who can double dip as an announcer, a podcaster and bestselling author with his new book Slobberknocker. They also include Thompson and Prichard, whose podcast together has exceeded a million downloads in a week, and even authors of articles like this one.
In standing his ground that night in Montreal, Hart was ostensibly trying to protect the wrestling industry, to ensure that a level of respect was maintained between employer and employee, and between fellow workers. In suffering that indignity, he forced everyone involved to fess up, to reveal how the business actually works.
By questioning authority that night, Hart ensured that wrestling fans would have questions about absolutely everything for the rest of time.
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