The Montreal Screwjob: 20 Years On From Wrestling's Most Controversial Match
"It will go down in history as the single most famous finish of a pro wrestling match in the modern era. Twenty or 30 years from now this story, more than any famous wrestler jumping promotions, more than any prominent death, and more than any record setting house, will be remembered vividly by all who watched it live, and remembered as legendary from all who hear about it later. Through the magic of videotape, the last minute of this match will live forever, and be replayed literally millions of times by tens of thousands of people all looking for the most minute pieces of detail to this strange puzzle."
This passage, written by well renowned wrestling and MMA writer and historian Dave Meltzer, served as the introduction to the 17th November, 1997 Wrestling Observer newsletter. It would be the first half of an immersive two-part insight into one of the most controversial moments in professional wrestling history. And just consider how much ground that covers.
The Montreal Screwjob has been discussed ad nauseam in the 20 years that have passed since the night of 9th November, 1997, proving Meltzer's prediction to be accurate. Although anyone who witnessed what occurred at the Molson Centre instantly knew that the business would never be the same again after that night.
Bret 'The Hitman' Hart had been the World Wrestling Federation's post-Hulk Hogan franchise player since 1993. There were few workers in North America in the 1990's who could come close to keeping up with 'The Excellence Of Execution' inside the squared circle and one of those few just so happened to become his most despised rival - 'The Heartbreak Kid' Shawn Michaels.
But this rivalry wasn't a scripted, predetermined affair. In fact, all the bullshit that went down between Hart and Michaels over the course of 1996 and 1997 would have been nigh on impossible to script, given how fucked up HBK was at the time and how little patience Hart had with his 'boy toy' adversary.
For all his qualities as a performer, Shawn Michaels was also a complete and utter pain in the arse for anyone who had to deal with him in the 1990's, especially once he enjoyed his first taste of world championship gold (Michaels defeated Hart for the WWF Title in a 60 minute Ironman Match in the main event of WrestleMania 12 and promptly yelled at referee Earl Hebner, "Tell him to get the fuck out of the ring! This is my moment!").
Michaels' rampant egotism, coupled with his much publicized, extra-curricular imbibements, are what undoubtedly led to the situation in Montreal transpiring in the manner it did. San Antonio's favourite wrestling son was supposed to drop the belt back to Bret in a rematch down the line, with WrestleMania 13 in Chicago the most likely destination for the title change, before their series would be decided with Michaels emerging victorious and Bret endorsing him as the future of the company.
When Hart laid this plan out for 'The Heartbreak Kid' on a flight back from New York, he remarked in his autobiography Hitman, that he 'saw the colour drain from Shawn's face' as Michaels was clearly expecting a lengthy run with the strap.
Instead, at 'Mania, Michaels was nowhere to be seen as he had vacated his WWF Title due to a fictional knee injury or, as it was put across on television, he'd 'lost his smile'. In other words, he didn't want to job to Hart, which a few months later, would be the same problem that would eventually lead to Michaels receiving the title back in the most controversial circumstances possible.
Over the last two decades, the problems between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels have been well documented, as has every backstage quarrel and fistfight between the pair, yet even with so much hatred existing between the WWF's then two top stars, on Sunday 9th November, 1997, everything seemed like business as usual to Hall Of Fame commentator, the legendary Jim Ross, who explained to me that nothing appeared untoward in Montreal, that day.
"I never saw the screwjob coming and I was shocked that it occured.
" There was no added tension that I felt. Just another big event for Lawler and I despite the backstage interactions that were ongoing. Nonetheless, talents not pleased with one of the two C's; cash or creative, unfortunately wasn't a new issue."
The Survivor Series clash was due to end in a disqualification when members of D-Generation X and The Hart Foundation interfered. The next night on Raw, Bret would vacate his title and then move, as planned, to WCW, who, with the blank chequebook backing of billionaire Ted Turner, had signed him to a contract that Vince McMahon could simply not match.
20 years ago today...#MontrealScrewjob pic.twitter.com/10SkxfxJ8K
- Bleacher Report WWE (@BR_WWE) November 9, 2017
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Hart had refused to do the honours for Michaels in retaliation for Michaels' refusal to job to anyone (although Bret did at one point propose a scenario where he won the Survivor Series match, then lost a rematch the following night on Raw) and with the match being in Canada, where Bret was, and still is, so revered, there was added incentive for him to stick to his guns.
Hart had even offered McMahon alternate scenarios where he would lose the title in the weeks following the show, as he would still be under contract for a few dates before moving to WCW. Hart said he'd happily drop the belt to Steve Austin or even perennial jobber the Brooklyn Brawler, but not Michaels and not in Canada.
Despite Leon 'Vader' White warning Bret, "Be careful out there, brother. Vince is known for fucking people in these kinds of situations" Hart believed he'd be fine and that everything would go according to plan. Or at least, the plan he'd been told.
Michaels, McMahon and referee Earl Hebner had, as we all know, very different plans and, when Michaels locked Bret in the Hitman's patented sharpshooter, Vince, who had made his way to ringside, screamed at timekeeper Mark Yeaton to 'ring the fucking bell!' instead of allowing DX and the Hart Foundation to run interference, as planned.
Over 20,000 people in the Molson Centre were stunned. Bret began a mutiny on camera, launching a monstrous spitwad right into Vince's face, while backstage, the locker room was being torn apart by an irate roster who had just seen one of their best friends and most loyal WWF soldiers screwed in front of his adoring Canadian public.
Again, what happened backstage has become the stuff of legend, with Bret, backed by a frankly terrifying crew including the Undertaker, Ken Shamrock and Vader, lamping Vince in the jaw and knocking him out. But what was the atmosphere like once the dust had begun to settle? Once again, 'Good Ol JR' provided me with the answers.
" It was tense for a few days but not long term as I recall. Some talents supported Bret but then they had to resume focus on their own careers and go on with the chore of caring for their families. By the next set of TV's it seemed as if if things were pretty much back to normal.
#OnThisDay in 1997: Vince McMahon leaving after being knocked out by Bret Hart after the Montreal Screwjob. pic.twitter.com/IqbJFfGsP7
- Allan (@allan_cheapshot) November 9, 2017
"I never spoke to Shawn or Bret after the event but spent time with Vince who told me that he did not want me incriminated with this matter so as to not lose the confidence and trust within our roster. I've always respected Vince for that. That was a very wise move, in my opinion, because if I had known it certainly would have affected my work that night. "
Then WCW President Eric Bischoff was rubbing his hands together after Montreal. Not only had he signed another of Vince's top stars, having taken Kevin Nash and Scott Hall from him the year before, but now Bret had more momentum than ever, having just been ripped off live on pay-per-view.
Yet capitalising on momentum in late 1997 wasn't exactly WCW's strong point and within a few short months of Bret making the jump to the Atlanta based promotion, he was already meandering in a directionless company while his previous employer was hotter than ever, thanks to the Mr McMahon character his screwing helped create.
With Vince now positioned on television as the nefarious Mr. McMahon, he had given himself the perfect foil to the company's next top star, Stone Cold Steve Austin in what would become one of the greatest and most profitable rivalries professional wrestling has ever seen and one which fired the WWE to victory over WCW in the Monday Night Wars between Raw and Nitro.
"I'd suggest that the Montreal matter helped create immense awareness to the brand but to say that it was a major factor in winning the Monday Night Wars might be a stretch. Although the best villain of the Attitude Era was born that night in Montreal in Mr McMahon" Ross explained when I asked him about how much the outcome of the Survivor Series main event affected the battle between McMahon and Ted Turner's respective promotions.
But how was The Hitman, a five time world champion and one of the most beloved superstars of all time affected? Having given 14 years of his life to a company only to be humiliated and betrayed on his way out on his way to a career move he didn't have high hopes for, it seemed as though Bret Hart was never the same up until his injury enforced retirement in 2000.
In the last 11 years, Bret has since been inducted into the WWE's Hall of Fame and has made numerous appearance on WWE television, including a 2010 feud with Vince, which culminated in a match at WrestleMania 26 in Phoenix, Arizona, although that's one Bret Hart match I would advise against going out of your way to see.
Time even appears to have healed the wounds between Hart and Michaels, who embraced on screen during Hart's return to the company at the back end of 2009, with Michaels a much changed man following a return to the ring after a four year hiatus between 1998 and 2002.
Yet there is always the lingering resentment that Bret Hart, one of the most naturally gifted superstars ever to step between the ropes, missed out on the success and the enormity of 'The Attitude Era' by just a few short months. Had he been able to wait on negotiations with WCW a bit longer, Bret would have no doubt received a bigger offer from Vince, whose company was turning the corner after a rough few years, in late 1997.
But even though we never got to see Hart lock up with Steve Austin again, or The Rock or Chris Jericho or Kurt Angle, the Montreal Screwjob still did nothing to alter wrestling fan's perceptions of the fact that, 20 years later, Calgary, Alberta's finest will always remain The Best There Is, The Best There Was And The Best There Ever Will Be.
Featured Image Credit: WWE