November 9, 1997, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
The Montreal Screwjob was the most famous double-cross in professional wrestling history. The aftermath of it left one wrestler’s career in a tailspin and one promotion on the way to dominate the sport. The incident prompted speculation from all corners of the business on whether it was a legitimate incident or an arranged work. What is certain is that it all came down to a question of money and loyalty.
Bret Hart was in the midst of a Hall of Fame career, one of the top professional wrestlers in the sport and one of the highest paid. He had been the cornerstone of the World Wrestling Federation’s pivot from the steroid infused monsters of the 1980’s to the more athletic, mat-technicians of the 1990’s. Unfortunately for Hart, the professional wrestling industry was in one of its most contentious periods, the Monday Night Wars, and the WWF was, at that point, on the losing end of the battle. As such, the promotion was hemorrhaging money and losing in the ratings. For the WWF owner, Vince McMahon, Jr., he had to make a number of tough decisions, and the one at the forefront was to get out of Hart’s 20 year contract, which had been signed just a year prior and initially paid $1.5 million dollar per year. With Hart possibly departing the company, McMahon also had to wonder whether he would be able to push Shawn Michaels as the face of the promotion. In less than 30 days, all of these decisions had to be made and scenarios woven to pull it off in order for all parties to be happy.
There were many elements to this story which made it a near impossibility to pull off. First was the money issue, which McMahon argued was necessary because the promotion was in dire straights. But McMahon flip-flopped several times, first asking Hart to accept a cut in pay and then to defer a portion of the money to the backside of the contract. Then McMahon told Hart he was going to break his contract and not pay him and urged Bret strongly to negotiate a deal with rival promotion Word Championship Wrestling. While Hart reached out to WCW chief Eric Bischoff, McMahon changed his mind several times, at once tell Bret he could stay and be paid his full deal and then days later telling him to make the deal with Bischoff. The WWF was certainly in difficult financial straights, but Hart’s contacting WCW was completely because of McMahon’s encouragement to do so. Bret almost begged McMahon to let him stay, pointing to his 14 year tenure with the company and a desire to retire in the WWF.
A second problem was Hart’s concern with the direction of the company. The WWF, which had for years targeted young kids as its audience, was turning the corner and providing a more risqué product, including sexuality, violence and language that was have seemed completely out of character for the promotion just two years prior. Hart wouldn’t even allow his young children to watch the product anymore and wondered where his Canadian-hero character would be featured in the changing landscape of the WWF. He had, under McMahon’s suggestion turned into a heel in the United States by transitioning into a Pro-Canada, Anti-American wrestler. He now worried that he would be minimized and overshadowed by the push of more outlandish and controversial characters. and thus questioned McMahon about what his role would be with the company if he were to stay.
The third issue at hand was Hart’s relationship with Shawn Michaels. The two, who had been close friends in the past, were barely on speaking terms behind the scenes. Michaels, considered by many as one of the most disliked wrestlers in the WWF locker room had taken particular delight in taking shots at Bret and his family on-screen, particularly with comments about his parents, Stu and Helen Hart, and even making an on-air reference to an alleged affair between Bret and top WWF personality Sunny (Tammy Sytch). Hart and Michaels had also engaged in legitimate backstage fights on several occasions with Bret ripping out a patch of Michaels hair in one of them. Thus, in the middle of all of the considerations of Bret leaving the promotion, things were made more difficult because McMahon wanted Bret to drop the belt to Michaels. Bret, realizing that this was the direction Vince wanted to head, graciously told Michaels that despite their differences, he would be happy to drop the belt to him. Michaels, as if to stoke the fires or to throw a wrench into McMahon’s negotiations with Hart, told Bret that while he appreciated Bret’s sentiments, that put in the same situation, he would refuse to do the job for Bret. This infuriated Hart and he told McMahon that he would not lose to someone who would not do the same for him.
Going forward in the negotiations, Bret was within a 30 day window in which he had to notify the WWF if was was to leave the company. As the days counted down, McMahon proposed various manners in which Bret could drop the belt and leave the company in a dignified manner. He wanted Bret to drop the belt to Shawn at the November 9, 1997 Survivors Series pay-per-view in Montreal, Canada. Bret, feeling himself to be a hero in Canada, did not want to lose the belt in his home country and offered to put Michaels over after the pay-per-view in Youngstown, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Springfield, Massachusetts or even in Madison Square Garden to Michaels. He also said he would be willing to drop the belt to any number of WWF superstars, including Vader, Ken Shamrock, the Undertaker, and Mankind. He even jokingly offered to drop the belt to perennial jobber Steve Lombardi (the Brooklyn Brawler). Still, Vince kept insisting on him dropping the belt to Shawn, so Bret agreed, but only within the United States, after the Survivors Series. Many of these scenarios were discussed during a private meeting between Hart and McMahon with Bret recording the conversation, unbeknownst to Vince. At the time, Bret was filming a documentary about his career and a film crew videotaped much of the negotiations and the planning of the Survivor Series match. The WWF consented to the film crew being around and accommodated it very generously. Eventually, the clock ran out and seeing that the WWF seemed to be headed in a direction without him in a featured position, Bret signed with WCW on November 1, 1997.
With so many scenarios being considered, Hart and McMahon were bound to run into a lot of snags. One of these centered around Bret’s first dates working with WCW. Eric Bischoff accommodated Bret several times in adjusting his dates so as to allow him to drop the belt before leaving the WWF. Bischoff also promised to stay quiet about Hart’s impending departure until November the 10th. Thus going into the PPV, the only thing to be considered was how the match would be laid out and how it would end. Knowing that Bret would be leaving the promotion and that Shawn would become its top star, Michaels tried to make amends, to a point, as they worked to lay out the match. Pat Patterson, McMahon’s right hand man and the top man in the business for laying out matches and finishes, stopped by the room. Patterson offered up a few suggestions including a moment where Shawn would secure Bret in his own finisher (the Sharpshooter) to tease the audience before Bret reversed it on Michaels. The referee for the match would be down after being inadvertently struck and a new referee would come running to the ring, followed by Bret’s brother Owen, and brothers-in-law Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart, who would interfere, with the match resulting in a disqualification. Smith and Vader, whom had both wrestled in Japan and witnessed shady behavior by promotions, warned Bret not to let himself get put into a compromising hold or to have his shoulders near the mat. This paranoia caused Bret to speak in private to his friend Earl Hebner who would be refereeing the match. Bret expressed his concerns and Hebner promised on the life of his children that he would quit before he allowed Bret to be screwed over.
With the match set, nothing lurked in the background that might cause a problem, except that the Wrestling Observer and Pro Wrestling Torch newsletters revealed the news that Bret was leaving the WWF for WCW. Thus on the day of the PPV, a large segment of the live audience was aware of Bret’s impending departure. As the match began, it was noteworthy that McMahon was not a participant at the broadcasting table and was instead at ringside, along with an unusual number of WWF agents.
The match started out with Shawn and Bret battling through the crowd. When they eventually made it into the ring they began what looked to be another classic match between the two. As laid out, when Bret jumped off of the ropes to deliver a double-sledgehammer, Shawn pulled Hebner in the way, with Bret inadvertently knocking the referee out. Michaels put Bret in the sharpshooter and Hart briefly sold the hold. When Shawn pulled tighter Bret grabbed Michaels leg and began to reverse it.
Hebner suddenly jumped up and yelled at the timekeeper to ring the bell. Vince, standing at ringside also screamed at him to ring the bell. At that point bedlam took place in the ring with both Michaels and Hart appearing furious at what happened as Michaels signature music blared. Hebner jumped out of the ring and sprinted for the back and ran out to a waiting car and was hustled out of the arena. McMahon screamed at Michaels to take the belt and leave. Vince then turned to face Bret who realized what had happened. Bret, then, spit directly in McMahon’s face and then began smashing television monitors at ringside. By this time Owen, Davey Boy and Neidhart had rushed to the ring to calm Bret down. Bret faced each side of the ring and drew the letters W-C-W in the air, to a big applause from the audience.
After leaving ringside, McMahon rushed to the back with Patterson and other WWF officials. Many of the wrestlers in the back were furious about what happened to Hart, who was well respected behind the scenes. The Undertaker stormed down the hallway to Vince’s private office and demanded that he come to the locker room to apologize to Bret for what he had done. Bret had already returned to the locker room and was getting undressed when he asked Shawn directly whether he was a part in the double-cross. Michaels swore that he had no idea and that “as God as my witness, I’m clean of this one. I swear to God.” Bret told him that his actions the next day on Monday Night Raw would show whether he was involved. Bret then went and showered and when he emerged from the shower, Vince had arrived at the locker room with his son Shane, and agents Sgt. Slaughter and Gerald Brisco. Vince said he did what he had to do because he couldn’t take the chance of Bret showing up on WCW with the WWF title belt. Bret told Vince that he was going to dry off and “If you’re still here I’m going to punch you out.”
McMahon then told Bret that this was the first time in 14 years that he had lied to Bret, but Hart quickly rattled off 15 lies that Vince had told him in that year alone. He warned Vince again to leave the locker room two more times and when he didn’t the two began scuffling before Bret connected with an uppercut. Vince fell to the floor unconscious and Shane jumped on Hart’s back before Smith pulled him off. In the scrum somebody stepped on Vince’s ankle, with the result that when McMahon was led from the locker room, he looked woozy, disheveled and was limping.
The next day at Raw, most of the workers wanted to boycott the show, angered that a loyal employee of 14 years who had worked through injuries and only missed two spots could be treated like this and figuring that the same could happen to them. Bret told those who asked him that they should go ahead and work to provide for their family and all of them worked the show except for Owen, Neidhart, Davey Boy and Mick Foley. Bischoff would lead several WCW wrestlers in singing the Canadian national anthem and saying that Bret would be joining the NWO faction. On Raw, Michaels ran Bret down, stating that he beat Bret in front of his own countrymen and ran him out of the WWF. A week later, McMahon appeared in an interview Jim Ross in which he blamed Bret for the screwjob, declaring that he was selfish and failed to do the time honored tradition (of dropping the belt before leaving a promotion) and that in essence “Bret screwed Bret.”
In the aftermath, for the next several years people debated the merits of each sides position. Vince argued that he wasn’t concerned that Bret would volunteer to wear the WWF belt on Monday Night Nitro, but that Eric Bischoff might force him to (It should be noted that Bischoff once had Madusa Micelli drop the WWF Women’s belt into a trash can on Nitro. It should also be pointed out that McMahon had no problem showcasing the NWA title belt on WWF programs when Ric Flair jumped from WCW and brought the belt with him). However, Hart was known for his loyalty to the WWF and his appreciation for wrestling tradition so it was highly doubtful that he would have taken the belt with him to WCW. They also argue that Bret should, in fact, have dropped the belt, as Vince had implied on Raw that he had refused to. But Vince didn’t realize, or forgot, that he was on a recording with Bret, where Bret offered numerous scenarios in which said he would gladly drop it. Also, Bret had reasonable creative control in his contract, just so he could leave the promotion in a dignified fashion.
Others argued for years as to whether whole incident was a work, with Vince, Shawn and Bret all being in on it. But after twenty years, Vince and Shawn finally admitted that it was a real screwjob that they participated in. Shawn Michaels was an exceptional wrestling talent and despite the less than desirable behaviors he exhibited in the ring, backstage and in his private life, it was he upon whom McMahon chose to hitch his wagon. Thus the 14 years of loyalty and hard work that Bret had brought to the WWF was tossed in the trash bin. His time in WCW was wasted and his career was ended when he suffered a devastating concussion from a kick to the head by Goldberg.
Vince McMahon, on the other hand, saw the WWF’s fortunes turn as he created the evil wrestling promoter persona “Mr. McMahon” and created new stars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the Rock. As the WWF ratings soared, WCW’s floundered and on March 23, 2001, Vince McMahon bought WCW for the obscenely low price of about $2 million and the WWF ruled the wrestling world for the next 18 years. Hart eventually returned to McMahon’s promotion 12 years later and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. But decades after the Montreal Screwjob went down, it still served as a reality check for professional wrestling fans.
As Dave Meltzer wrote in the Wrestling Observer newsletter, regarding Hart and McMahon, “the defining moment of both a Hall of Fame wrestler and the man who for a decade was the prominent 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 rewrite 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 benefited from it.“