Every time I talk about this situation, I always preface it with this – I understand that the story-lines in professional wrestling are not real! They are not really punching each other – they are not really kicking each other, for the most part they don’t even dislike each other. Professional wrestling is better described as sports entertainment with an emphasis on entertainment.
This, however, is about the night where wrestling got real.
Most of you who are reading this know what happened on that fateful November evening north of the border. But I’m sure there are some that think something called the “Montreal Screwjob” would not be appropriate for this website. Here is a bit of an overview of the events that led up to the 1997 Survivor Series –
Bret Hart was the top name in Vince McMahon’s WWF in the mid-90s leading what was called “The New Generation” after the likes of Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage left for Ted Turner’s WCW. In 1997, Hart also signed with Turner for what was at the time the largest contract ever for a wrestler. At the time he signed with WCW, Hart was the WWF Champion, so plans were laid out as to how Hart would lose the title before leaving the company.
The main event of the Survivor Series that November was a rematch of WrestleMania 12 with Hart taking on Shawn Michaels. The rivalry between Hart and Michaels didn’t stop when the cameras were turned off. The two had a very heated rivalry backstage – so much so that real fights broke out between the two. Losing the title cleanly to Michaels was something that Hart just did not want to do.
The Survivor Series in ‘97 took place in Canada (Montreal to be exact) where Hart was/is a bit of a national hero. What Hart had wanted to do, to save face in his country, was to end the title match with Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series with a disqualification, or no contest – something that would see Bret leave that night with the belt. He would then walk on to Raw the following night, thank the WWF fans for everything, and hand the belt over.
McMahon, however, was very weary of that idea. WCW had been beating the WWF in the ratings war for over a year at that point. The war between the two companies was intense. On an episode of WCW’s Monday night show “Monday Nitro” Medusa, who at the time was the WWF Women’s Champion wrestling as Alundra Blayze, walked on to the Nitro set and dropped the WWF Women’s belt into the trash live on national television. Allowing Hart to leave the Survivor Series as champion, while NOT under contract, created a déjà vu situation that McMahon wanted to avoid…at ALL costs.
Hart wouldn’t budge though. In a final meeting to go over what would happen in the match, McMahon agreed to Bret that the match would end how he wanted and he would make his last appearance with the WWF the following night to hand the belt over.
At least that is what Vince told Bret.
After Bret left the meeting, Vince sat with Michaels and Triple H, who were also in the meeting, in a silence that said everybody was thinking the same thing. It was Triple H who made the initial statement, “F*** it! If he won’t do business, we’ll make him do business!” The match was supposed to end with Michaels putting Hart in his own finishing move, the SharpShooter, which Bret would reverse and lead to allies of both Michaels and Hart to come out and the match would end in a no-contest.
Unbeknownst to Hart though, McMahon had instructed the referee to call for the bell as soon as Michaels had Hart in the SharpShooter and awarded the match and the title to Shawn Michaels. Hart spat in McMahon’s face in the arena, went to the backstage area and punched him in the eye, and proceeded to head down south to WCW. With the exception of a Hall of Fame induction in 2006 and a quick interview spot in 2007, the WWF would not see Bret Hart again until hatchets were finally buried in 2010.
So that’s the story behind wrestling’s most controversial night. Everyone has questioned the events of that night and pointed the finger at each side. For the sake of discussion, I would like to throw out a couple simple “WHAT IF” scenarios.
WHAT IF Bret never signed with WCW and stayed with WWF?
Quite honestly, I think Bret leaving the WWF would be inevitable. The WWF was going through the transition from “The Next Generation,” a time where the show was almost completely made for children to the “Attitude Era,” a time where the show was something that some parents were trying to keep their children from watching.
Hart showed a little attitude during his run as a heel before he left the WWF in 1997, but I get the sense that Bret Hart the man would want nothing to do with the antics that were happening during the Attitude Era. In no way is that a shot at Bret though – guys like Bruno Sammartino disassociated themselves completely from the WWF during this time and they’re still considered to be amongst the greatest of all time. It’s just a clash of styles. Bret was great for the mid 90s, may not have been as great for the late 90s.
WHAT IF McMahon stuck to the original match plan and allowed Bret to leave Survivor Series with the title.
To me, this would have been a near fatal blow to the WWF, and it has nothing to do with what would happen the next night. Whether Bret would simply drop the belt the next night on Raw or if he would drop the belt…in a trash can…the next night on Nitro is irrelevant.
Without the events of that night and the one-on-one sit down interview that aired on Raw eight days later that gave us the infamous “Bret screwed Bret” line, we may not have been introduced to the biggest villain character of the attitude era – Mr. McMahon. With no Mr. McMahon, there would be no Austin/McMahon rivalry which ruled 1998 and basically saved the company.
Although he probably wasn’t thinking about it at the time, Vince needed the heat that was generated from the Montreal Screwjob to create the character that would give the WWF fans someone they were longing to see be stopped. In one of the DVD documentaries, Vince said that his reaction to the heat was “you hate me – ok, let’s go with that then.”
And go with it he did.
A few months after the Montreal Screwjob, a Monday Night Raw main event of Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Mr. McMahon gave the WWF their first win over WCW’s Monday Nitro in the ratings in over 85 weeks and they never looked back. I am sure that the Vince Russo, Ed Ferrara and the rest of the writing staff for the WWF would have come up with other ideas for 1998, but it’s hard to imagine they would have come up with something that had the success that the Austin/McMahon feud did.
If you think about it, the real culprit in this situation was WCW and the Monday Night War. If WCW Executive Producer Eric Bischoff hadn’t played several underhanded tricks against his competitor (such as giving away Raw results and the aforementioned championship belt trashing) McMahon would probably have no issue with allowing his company’s most prestigious prize, the championship belt, to be in the hands of a wrestler who was under contract to another organization.
Simply put, McMahon had his back against the wall and needed to make a difficult decision. The decision he made was the right one. In the infamous “Bret screwed Bret” interview, Vince also made reference to the “time honored tradition” that Bret didn’t follow. It’s simple – to put it in the terms of the old territory days, Vince was the promoter. It is the wrestlers job to perform based on what is laid out by the promoter.
It’s not the way that Hart, McMahon, and even Shawn Michaels should be remembered. Shawn said it best that night in 2010 when hell froze over and Bret Hart was back on Raw. When you think of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, you shouldn’t think of Montreal, you should think of Anaheim and the two putting on an unprecedented WrestleMania performance in the 60-minute Iron Man Match at WrestleMania XII.
Montreal is not how they should be remembered, but it was a night that will forever be etched in the stone of wrestling history.
Professional Wrestling is scripted – but life isn’t.