Montreal Screwjob

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The "Screwjob"—Earl Hebner, under orders from Vince McMahon, calls for the bell as Shawn Michaels holds Bret Hart in the Sharpshooter finishing move, although Hart did not submit.

The Montreal Screwjob (also called The Montreal Incident) was a controversial, real-life professional wrestling incident in which World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) owner Vince McMahon and other WWF employees covertly manipulated the pre-determined outcome of the main event match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series pay-per-view event held on November 9, 1997 at the Molson Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The manipulation – a "shoot screwjob" in professional wrestling parlance – occurred without Hart's knowledge and resulted in Hart, the reigning WWF Champion, losing the title to Michaels in Hart's last match with the WWF before departing for rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The "screwjob" is generally believed to be an off-screen betrayal of Hart, who was one of the WWF's longest-tenured and most popular performers at the time.

Hart won the WWF Championship at SummerSlam in August 1997. A week prior to Survivor Series, Hart, who had performed for the WWF since 1984, signed a contract to perform with WCW beginning in December 1997. McMahon sought to prevent Hart from leaving the company as the champion, but Hart was unwilling to lose the title to Michaels – with whom he had a long feud both on-screen and off – at Survivor Series in his home country. Hart, Michaels, and McMahon came to an agreement where the Survivor Series match would end with a disqualification, which under normal rules would result in Hart retaining the title. Hart would then lose or forfeit the title at a later date. However, McMahon decided without Hart's knowledge that Michaels would win the title at Survivor Series. Accounts differ as to who exactly was involved in the plan and the extent of their involvement. The plan was executed when match referee Earl Hebner, on direct order from McMahon, ended the match as Michaels held Hart in the Sharpshooter submission hold, Hart's signature finishing move, even though Hart had not submitted. Michaels was declared the victor by submission and crowned as the new WWF Champion.

The Montreal Screwjob has garnered a notorious legacy both on-screen and off, and was partly chronicled in the documentary film Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998). The far-reaching impact of the incident led to its adoption as a theme in matches and storylines of the WWF's "Attitude Era" and the creation of the character, "Mr. McMahon", the evil boss. It has been suggested by some that the entire incident may have been a work created by McMahon and Hart.[1][2] Nonetheless, Hart was ostracized from the WWF while McMahon and Michaels continued to receive angry responses from audiences for many years. Hart and McMahon later reconciled, and Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on April 1, 2006. On the January 4, 2010 episode of WWE Raw, Hart, in his first appearance on live WWE television since the Montreal Screwjob, had a lengthy on-screen discussion with Michaels about the Montreal Screwjob and other events in their past, and agreed to call a truce, bringing closure to the incident after more than 12 years.[3][4] Both men sat side-by-side to discuss the Montreal Screwjob in detail on the WWE Home Video release, Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart (2011).

Hart's departure from the WWF[edit]

At the time of the screwjob, Bret Hart was a 14-year veteran of the WWF, having started his career in the 1980s as one-half of the popular Hart Foundation tag team. Hart achieved tremendous success as a singles performer in the 1990s, twice taking the Intercontinental Title, and then winning the WWF Championship five times. Hart took a seven-month leave of absence from the company after WrestleMania XII, during which he negotiated both a new contract with the WWF and an offer from its rival, World Championship Wrestling. In October 1996, Hart declined a three-year, $8.4 million offer from WCW, opting to sign an unprecedented 20-year deal that he had been offered by McMahon, which promised to make him the highest-paid wrestler in the company and secure him a major role with the company management following his retirement. Both Hart and the WWF saw the contract as an expression of mutual loyalty.[5][6]

By mid-1997, the WWF was facing financial difficulties due to stiff competition from WCW, which had become the largest professional wrestling promotion in the United States. At the same time McMahon was planning to make the WWF a publicly traded company, a move which required him to minimize any long-term financial commitments.[7]

For several months prior to Survivor Series, Hart and Shawn Michaels had several backstage arguments including a fight before a house show in Hartford, Connecticut (after Michaels had publicly accused Hart of having an affair with Sunny), which saw Michaels suspended for 2 months. After a show in San Jose, California on October 12, 1997, Hart claimed he spoke to Michaels about being professional and trusting one another in the ring. Hart allegedly said he would have no problem losing to Michaels if McMahon requested. Hart also claimed that when Michaels replied that he would never lose to Hart, Bret was shocked and became angry.[8] This led to Hart's outright refusal to lose the WWF Championship to Michaels at the pay-per-view event in Montreal, although in Hart's documentary, Hart states to McMahon that he would happily drop the belt but not in Canada. However, in his own autobiography, Michaels refuted Hart's claim, saying that he would have cleanly lost to Hart had storylines demanded so. Michaels also pointed out that he had lost cleanly to Hart several times in the past, most notably in the WWF's first-ever ladder match at a Wrestling Challenge taping on July 21, 1992, which would subsequently be made available on multiple Coliseum/WWE Home Video releases[9] and in the main event of Survivor Series 1992. Michaels also lost to Hart in a Steel Cage match in December 1993.[10]

McMahon believed he made the right choice in fighting for Hart to return, which kept him from joining rival WCW in 1996. However, by late 1997 the WWF's monetary problems were at an all-time high. McMahon began to defer payments to Hart, claiming that the WWF was in "financial peril." At this time, McMahon reviewed the WWF's plans for the future, and saw the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and D-Generation X leading what was to become "The Attitude Era". His plans included many stars, but not Hart; as such McMahon encouraged Hart to reopen negotiations with WCW.[5]

While Hart considered an offer from then-WCW President Eric Bischoff, McMahon informed Hart that the WWF would honor his contract if he chose to stay. However when Hart talked to McMahon about future plans and storylines, he was disappointed by McMahon's response and what he considered lackluster suggestions. As seen in the documentary, Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, Hart acknowledged around this time that his career had been sabotaged by his nationalist character, invented by McMahon. Throughout 1997, "The Hitman" regularly criticized America and deemed it inferior to Canada, drawing the ire of American audiences and yet winning him the respect of WWF's sizable Canadian fan-base; this rendered Hart neither a definite hero nor a villain, even outside the United States, and left him unable to properly enter into feuds with other wrestlers. Hart had also been unhappy about McMahon's move towards more controversial subject matter, which the World Wrestling Federation would later call "The Attitude Era." Convinced that McMahon's future plans did not include him, Hart resigned from the WWF. He signed an agreement with WCW, which had just offered him a large $3 million per annum contract on November 1, 1997. McMahon was worried about the possibility of him entering WCW as the WWF Champion. Hart asked McMahon if he would be mocked after leaving for WCW, as had occurred with other wrestlers who had transferred to WCW from the WWF; for example, in the previous year the WWF had made fun of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage in vignettes referring to them as "The Huckster" and "The Nacho Man", in addition to having Glenn Jacobs and Rick Bognar portray "Diesel" and "Razor Ramon", characters that Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had made famous before their 1996 departure from the WWF. McMahon assured him that nothing of the sort would happen.[5]

Title transition[edit]

Hart's imminent move to WCW created a tense situation, as he had won the WWF Championship at SummerSlam 1997 from The Undertaker. Hart's WCW contract was scheduled to begin on December 5, one month after the WWF's annual Survivor Series event, which was to be held in Montreal.[11] Shawn Michaels, the leader of the emerging stable D-Generation X had been booked into a main event title match with Hart. McMahon, anxious for Hart to give up the title, sought Hart's consent to job to Michaels. Hart didn't want to give up the title to a member of The Kliq, apparently standing up for the rest of the locker room. As part of their rivalry storyline, Michaels had repeatedly performed acts insulting the Canadian flag and Canadian fans, which had also upset Hart. Wrestling fans also knew of Hart's long-standing personal difficulty with Michaels—Hart had been angered at Michaels' forfeiture of the WWF Championship on Monday Night Raw, which ruined plans for a Hart-Michaels rematch at WrestleMania 13, where Hart claims that Michaels was expected to lose the title to him.[11] Hart also believed that Michaels had faked a knee injury and talked about major surgery just to get out of their planned match.[12][13] While Michaels denied rumors that he did not want to lose to Hart,[14] Hart felt certain that Michaels would not have offered a loss in return if he had been staying with the WWF.[15] The two had been involved in a real fight after Michaels implied that Hart was having an affair with WWF valet Sunny.[7] The recent storyline rivalry had also seen Michaels make insulting remarks about Hart's father Stu Hart, which had left Bret and others in the Hart family upset.[5] McMahon's offering of an estimated $3 million contract to Hart in 1996 had reportedly also upset Michaels.[16]

McMahon remained insistent about Hart dropping the title. The WWF owner was anxious over a possible reenactment of then-reigning WWF Women's Champion Alundra Blayze's defection to WCW in 1995, which resulted in her dropping the WWF Women’s Championship belt in a trash can before a live audience on WCW Monday Nitro, despite claims from Bischoff (according to Hart's DVD biography)[17] that legal issues between the WWF and WCW would prevent such a thing, and that he would rather have Hart join WCW with a "clean slate." Hart continued to refuse to drop the title to Michaels, offering to lose the title anywhere in the U.S. prior to Survivor Series or to surrender the title to McMahon on the episode of Monday Night Raw the day after Survivor Series, in Ottawa.[5][15] After several disagreements, McMahon, Michaels and Hart agreed to a proposal of a disqualification finish, which would be the result of a brawl between Hart's allies Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart, and Davey Boy Smith with Michaels's allies Triple H and Chyna, who would interfere in the match to aid Michaels.[18] Hart would then lose or forfeit the title at a later date. Hart also asked for and obtained McMahon's permission for an opportunity to explain his actions, his heel character, praise McMahon and the WWF and thus leave on good terms with the company and the fans.[5][19]

Setup and execution[edit]

The day before the Survivor Series (which was to be held on Sunday), McMahon met with Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, Pat Patterson, and Michaels in a hotel room in Montreal and planned the screwjob.[5] It is unclear how many people knew of the impending screwjob, but McMahon's close aides Gerald Brisco and Robert "Sgt. Slaughter" Remus had been involved in the planning. Ross has insisted that he did not know the screwjob would take place.[20] Hart and Michaels had met with Pat Patterson to discuss the match setup and plan, during which Hart agreed to allow Michaels to put him into the Sharpshooter hold at a time when the referee would be unconscious, as Patterson suggested.[21] The rest of the match was planned to proceed thus: Hart would grab Michaels' foot and reverse the hold, putting him in the Sharpshooter. Michaels would submit to the hold, but the referee would still be unconscious. Hart would let go of the hold to try to revive the referee, but Michaels would hit Hart with his finisher, Sweet Chin Music, and make the pin. A second referee would then run to the ring with Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart, and Davey Boy Smith following close behind. The second referee would start the count, but Owen and Davey Boy would break the pin. The original referee would then recover and start to make the count, but Hart would kick out, setting up about five more minutes of brawling that would result in a disqualification.

In his 1998 documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, Hart said that his fears were largely assuaged because he was close friends with referee Earl Hebner and trusted him implicitly. Asked by Hart, Hebner swore by his children that he would never double-cross Hart and that he would rather quit his job than participate in a screwjob.[5][22] However, according to Michaels' account of the events in his 2005 autobiography, Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story, Michaels himself informed Hebner of the plan only on Sunday evening, just as Survivor Series was about to commence.[23] This contradicted what Hebner said on a 2003 edition of WWE Confidential, claiming that he first knew of McMahon's plan only ten minutes before the match finished, and out of panic following the bell ringing, he ran out of the ring, through the crowd and remained in his hotel room for the night, refusing to speak to anyone.

Tensions and excitement were high as the wrestlers and officials congregated for Survivor Series. Hart was anxious over the match finish and had been warned of the prospect of a screwjob by his brother-in-law and Hart Foundation member Davey Boy Smith as well as Vader, who had experienced similar situations while wrestling in Japan. They advised Hart to be alert, not lie on his back for too long, kick out from pinfall counts immediately so as to avoid a fast count, and not allow himself to be placed in submission holds.

The Molson Centre in Montreal was sold out, with more than 20,000 fans in attendance. Rumors of Hart's imminent departure from WWF had leaked and consequently heightened the fan interest in the match. The mixed signals and a war of words between Hart, McMahon, Michaels and WCW further heightened anticipation.[5] Emotions were also running high due to the Hart-Michaels rivalry and the "U.S. vs. Canada" storyline. While both men had been cordial with each other backstage, WWF officials ordered the deployment of a large number of company agents around the ring as a precaution if Hart decided to attack Michaels or McMahon in reaction to the double-cross. Highly unusual for any wrestling match, the deployment was explained on television as a necessary precaution in wake of the intense animosity between Hart's and Michaels' characters.[5] There was also some legitimate concern that Michaels could be attacked during the planned in-crowd brawl, by fans angered at his actions of demeaning the Canadian flag. Michaels' entrance was greeted by loud booing and upon entering the ring, he proceeded to rub the Canadian flag against his crotch, picked his nose with it and later humped it—Michaels maintains that this flag desecration was actually suggested by Hart as an effective way to draw heat and emotion.[24] The palpable anger of the fans was converted into raucous cheering as Hart entered the ring carrying the Canadian flag and wearing the championship belt. Hart, however, was visibly disturbed when segments of the crowd that were aware of his move to WCW jeered him with chants of "You sold out!" as the match progressed.[5]

Once the match began, Hart and Michaels brought their performance outside the ring and into the crowd, while being followed by McMahon and WWF officials. As the climax of the match approached, the two wrestlers returned to the ring while WWF officials continued to order more personnel to ringside. Hart first became suspicious as to why Vince McMahon was not at the announcers table to perform commentary, and why the on-screen commissioner Sgt. Slaughter was also standing at ringside with Vince McMahon. Nevertheless, the match continued. As planned, Michaels pushed Hebner in front of him as Hart jumped from the top turnbuckle, sending all three men to the canvas. Michaels and Hart both got up, but Michaels performed a rake on Hart's eye, sending Hart back to the mat. Michaels then proceeded to grab Hart's legs to execute the Sharpshooter maneuver. At this point, the match director was heard shouting instructions into his headset for Hebner to get up, but Hart did not notice anything amiss. Mike Chioda, the referee who was supposed to run in after Hebner went down, began yelling back that Hebner was not supposed to be up yet. Pat Patterson reacted in a similar way, and Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith, who were waiting for their cues to run in, remained backstage in a state of confusion. Michaels was then seen by many viewers as having glanced at Hebner as he put Hart in the sharpshooter, which some saw as proof that he was in on the scheme.[5] Contrary to their agreed plan, Michaels tightened the hold and refused to offer his own leg to Hart for the latter to break out of the hold.[25] At that moment, Hebner got to his feet, looked toward the timekeeper, and shouted, "Ring the bell!" McMahon then elbowed the timekeeper hard and yelled, "Ring the fucking bell!" The timekeeper rang the bell just as Hart reached forward and grabbed Michaels' leg, which broke the hold and caused Michaels to fall.[5][22] Michaels' theme music then began playing and the ring announcer declared him the winner and the new WWF Champion. Hebner had already exited the ring and the arena for the hotel. After an initial moment of shock, Hart got to his feet, approached the apron where McMahon was standing and spat directly in his face, while Michaels feigned confusion.[22][25] Michaels was ordered by McMahon to "pick up the damn belt and get the hell out of here!" Michaels left the arena with Brisco and Triple H. McMahon and most other WWF officials also quickly made their way backstage as an angry Hart smashed cameras, monitors, and ringside equipment.[26] Fans in attendance also began to vent their fury on McMahon and WWF officials; a few even heaped garbage on them and some who were close enough pushed Michaels as he hurried backstage. Owen Hart, Neidhart and Davey Boy came out to the ring and had a conversation with Bret calming him down. Hart proceeded to finger trace "W-C-W" and "I love you" to the cheering fans before returning backstage.[5]

Reactions[edit]

While much of the live Montreal audience immediately understood what had happened and responded angrily, television viewers had been left largely confused as Jim Ross promptly wrapped up the event on commentary and Survivor Series went off the air four minutes ahead of schedule with the parting image of Michaels holding the belt aloft as he disappeared backstage.[27] Rumors and expressions of surprise and shock pervaded the Internet almost immediately after the match ended. Many fans and observers considered it a creative and all-time great match finish.[5] Subsequent WWF shows saw large numbers of fans loudly chanting "We want Bret," holding up pro-Hart signs and booing Michaels, McMahon and others believed to be responsible for the screwjob.[28] Observers of professional wrestling speculated whether the entire episode would result in WCW becoming the dominant brand in Canada, where a large majority of fans had remained loyal to WWF, especially as the Hart family was working with the company.[5]

As seen on Hart's documentary, Hart proceeded to the dressing rooms and questioned Michaels, who pleaded that he knew nothing about what had taken place and was equally outraged.[26] McMahon locked himself in his office with Pat Patterson and other agents. Mark Calaway, known as The Undertaker, furious with McMahon, banged on the door. McMahon opened and was told he had to apologize to Hart.[5] As recounted in Michaels' autobiography, he was told by McMahon not to say anything about the screwjob to anybody, because McMahon needed to have everyone think that it was only him involved. Michaels offered his assurance that he would not carry the title out the next day on Raw and would refuse to say anything derogatory about Hart.[25] Hart proceeded to the dressing room to shower and change after discovering that McMahon, Brisco, and Remus had locked themselves in McMahon's office. When McMahon went to Hart's dressing room and tried to explain himself, Hart angrily rebuffed him and warned him to leave immediately or risk being punched.[5][29] An altercation ensued, with Hart giving McMahon a single punch, dropping him to the floor. Although Vince's son Shane McMahon and Brisco struggled briefly with Hart and Davey Boy Smith, Hart told them to take McMahon and leave or risk similar consequences.[30] Hart angrily asked McMahon if he was going to screw him on the pay he was still owed, to which a groggy McMahon replied in the negative.[5] In the hallway outside the dressing rooms, Hart's then-wife Julie angrily confronted Triple H and others about the finish, but was escorted away by Owen Hart.[21] McMahon had a black eye and a sprained ankle, which according to Bret Hart, was a result of his punch lifting Vince off the floor and Vince rolling his ankle once he landed. McMahon and Brisco however have since stated on WWE Confidential that Brisco accidentally stepped on Vince's foot, which as he tried to get back to his feet immediately sprained his ankle and sent him back to the floor, from which he suffered a concussion, and referred to Brisco's action as a 'comedy.' Michaels and Triple H were later confronted and assailed by angry fans outside the Molson Centre and in the lobby of their hotel.[31]

While Jim Neidhart, Davey Boy Smith, and Owen Hart had flown out of Montreal with Bret, McMahon faced a major revolt in the WWF locker room. Most wrestlers were outraged at him and threatened to boycott Raw or leave the company altogether.[32] McMahon addressed a meeting in an effort to mollify the wrestlers who had been outraged that a WWF veteran had been double-crossed by McMahon—many feared for their own future and were suspicious of McMahon.[5] McMahon sought to explain that Hart had been disregarding the company's interests. By refusing to drop the title in Montreal, McMahon claimed Hart was jeopardizing the company's future by creating a potentially embarrassing situation that could affect its fortunes. The potential revolt was also quelled by Hart's counsel to wrestlers who asked him about boycotting Raw or leaving the company altogether. Hart advised them to fulfill their contractual obligations and not risk their own future over the episode.[5] Mick Foley did not attend the next night's Raw show, but he returned to work after that due to his contract stipulations.[32][33] Hart later commented in his autobiography that if he went to WCW, he'd be committing career-suicide. Rick Rude, who was working there briefly as a story line manager for Michaels and was a real life friend of Hart's, called WCW and informed Eric Bischoff of what had transpired, and also returned to WCW a few weeks later, mostly due to his disgust over Hart's treatment. Rude appeared on both WWF Raw is War and WCW Monday Nitro on November 17, 1997. A mustached Rude appeared on Nitro, which was live, and proceeded to criticize Michaels, DX, and the WWF, calling the company the "Titanic" (a reference to Titan Enterprises, as WWF's parent company was then known, as the "sinking ship").[34] An hour later on Raw (which had been taped six days earlier), Rude then appeared with the full beard he'd been sporting during his return to the WWF.[34][35] Of the Hart family, only Owen continued to work with the company, being unable to terminate his contract.[36][37]

At the next night's Raw in Ottawa, Michaels appeared carrying the WWF title and performing a segment where he boasted before the audience of how he beat Hart with his own trademark move in his own country. McMahon gave a televised interview to commentator Jim Ross, explaining his version of events and making the now-infamous statement "Vince McMahon didn't screw Bret Hart. Bret screwed Bret."[5] Michaels continued his mocking of Hart in the coming weeks, performed a skit badgering a midget dressed up as Hart.

Meanwhile, WCW chose to address the incident on the November 10 Nitro broadcast in Memphis. The Screwjob was referred to by broadcasters Mike Tenay and Tony Schiavone on-air, as they strongly criticized McMahon and Michaels for their actions, as well as by Eric Bischoff, who used his on-air persona as the mouthpiece for the New World Order to claim (kayfabe) that Hart was to join the nWo as soon as he could be signed to WCW. Hollywood Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and the rest of the nWo members stood with Canadian flags and sang the Canadian national anthem.[5]

WCW invoked the Screwjob again at Starrcade 1997, as Hart prevented Hogan from leaving with the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. He claimed that the referee Nick Patrick gave a fast count and that he would not allow Sting to be screwed.[38] The result was what critics called an anti-climax as most had expected Sting to win cleanly on skill alone. At Starrcade 1999, the finish of the match between Goldberg and Hart was for guest referee Roddy Piper to "ring the bell" once Hart placed Goldberg in the Sharpshooter despite Goldberg not submitting.[39]

Legacy[edit]

The "Montreal Screwjob" remains one of the most high-profile double-crosses in the history of the business and the first heavily publicized professional wrestling double-cross since Wendi Richter lost the WWF Women's Championship to a masked Fabulous Moolah following a money dispute on November 25, 1985. It is undoubtedly the most controversial match in the history of the WWF, with the effects of its outcome being felt for over a decade later due to its notoriety and the infamous legacy it left in the company.[40] Hart was ostracized by McMahon and refused offers of induction to the WWF Hall of Fame. The Hart family expressed outrage with McMahon and WWF for their neglect and the lack of safety precautions that could have prevented Owen Hart's later accident and eventual death.[41] The documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows included footage of McMahon's conversations with Hart in which he affirmed the planned disqualification finish and expressed determination for Hart to exit "the right way" and as amicably as possible—McMahon did not know that the conversation was being recorded. In the recordings, Hart refused to drop the title to Michaels.[7]

The Montreal Screwjob's impact defined later storylines and rivalries. The WWF successfully tapped fan outrage at McMahon over the incident by creating the persona of "Mr. McMahon" — an authoritarian and arrogant heel boss who imposed his own will and authority on rebellious characters such as Stone Cold Steve Austin.[42] Within the storylines, McMahon "screwed" such wrestlers in order to hand the title to the performer of his choice. The "Bret screwed Bret" line inspired promos that McMahon made during his feud with Austin. At Unforgiven: In Your House, McMahon sat at ringside, placed strategically near the timekeeper, during Austin's title defense against Dude Love, which caused Austin to allude to the Montreal Screwjob during a promotional interview. At Survivor Series 1998—the first anniversary of the screwjob—McMahon's son Shane, a match referee, abandoned his on-screen rebellion against his father and allowed his father to screw Austin, by refusing to count Austin's pinfall against Mankind. The McMahons then double-crossed Mankind in his main event title match against The Rock later that night. Just as The Rock put the Sharpshooter hold on Mankind, McMahon called for the bell to be rung, even though Mankind did not submit. The Rock was declared the winner by submission and the new WWF Champion, fully re-enacting the Hart double-cross, this time with a switch between the respective face and heel characters.[43]

Since then, professional wrestling storylines, including some storylines written by WWE, continue to refer to the screwjob whenever a title match ends under controversial circumstances.[44]

Resolution[edit]

With its "Attitude Era" programming and the popularity of its wrestlers such as The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, Triple H, Edge & Christian, the Dudley Boyz and Kurt Angle, the WWF surpassed its arch-rival WCW. With its business steadily declining and a corporate takeover of its parent company (Time Warner) by America Online, WCW was put up for sale and purchased by Vince McMahon in 2001, once again making WWF the single-largest wrestling company in North America. Bret Hart's entry into WCW had been hailed at the time as a major coup for the company, but it subsequently failed to utilize his popular appeal.[45] Hart's active wrestling career ended in 2000 after he suffered a serious concussion during a match with Goldberg. After dropping the WWF title to Austin at WrestleMania XIV in 1998, Michaels was forced into retirement for four years due to a serious back injury. After a long period of rehabilitation, Michaels returned to the ring in 2002.[7]

Many fans and wrestling observers believed WWF had been making overtures to Hart since 2004. Canadian wrestler and long-time Hart family friend Chris Benoit's victory over Triple H and Michaels at WrestleMania XX that won him the World Heavyweight Championship and again at Backlash 2004 in Edmonton, Alberta, were considered by several wrestling observers and fans as a symbolic apology to Hart and Canadian fans. In the later match in Edmonton, Michaels submitted to Benoit's application of the Sharpshooter hold.[46] After weeks of speculation, WWE.com announced in late August 2005 that Hart and WWE had agreed to collaborate on a DVD project chronicling Hart's wrestling career. In subsequent interviews, Hart attributed his decision to his desire to be remembered for his storied career that spanned two decades.[47] The project, which had been given the working title of Screwed: The Bret Hart Story, was renamed Bret "Hit Man" Hart: The Best There Is, the Best There Was, the Best There Ever Will Be.[7] In the 2005 DVD chronicling his career, both Hart and Bischoff denied that his holding the WWF title was a factor in WCW's desire to sign him. While McMahon claimed that there was mutual regret, Hart defended his actions and asserted that he stood by what he did. Hart was interviewed about the DVD and his career by Todd Grisham on the November 16, 2005 edition of Byte This!, marking Hart's first appearance on WWE programming since the Montreal Screwjob.[48]

Hart's refusal to lose to Michaels in Montreal has been criticized by others such as Ric Flair, who asserted that it was Hart's responsibility to drop the title belt of a company he was leaving[49] (Flair himself was WCW champion when he left the company and signed with the WWF in 1991, even appearing on TV with the NWA/WCW belt, but also dropped the WWF Title to Hart on October 12, 1992 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at a house show). Hart, however, maintains that he was prepared to lose the title anywhere and to anyone, except to Michaels in Canada given that, during 1997, his "Hitman" character had been built up as a great Canadian hero. As his contract with WWF did not expire for four more weeks, Hart asserts that there was plenty of time and several other opportunities for him to drop the title. Several accounts claim that McMahon had originally proposed that Hart drop the title at December's In Your House pay-per-view in Springfield, Massachusetts, or at January's Royal Rumble in San Jose, California.[13]

Although Michaels expressed happiness at Hart's 2006 induction into the Hall of Fame, the Hart-Michaels relationship remained laced with antagonism.[7] Michaels criticized Hart's behavior and conduct during his days in WWF in his 2005 autobiography, comparing the Screwjob to a "mafia hit,"[50] and Hart has stated in his 2007 autobiography that he would "never forgive" Michaels.[8] In interviews prior to the induction ceremony, Hart asserted that he would walk out from the ceremony if he saw Michaels anywhere on the WrestleMania 22 weekend. Michaels decided to leave the Hall of Fame ceremony early to avoid a possible scene. Hart did not appear at the WrestleMania show in a mini-ceremony with the other inductees, explaining in an interview that he had never intended to attend or appear at the show.[13] Hart would later return to WWE television on the June 11, 2007 edition of Raw, where he appeared in a taped promo spot mocking Mr. McMahon's "appreciation night."[51] While he was able to reconcile to a small degree with McMahon, Hart had never reconciled with Michaels. In a November 17, 2008 radio interview, Hart mocked Michaels' version of the incident, saying, "And Shawn’s this Christian today; and in his book, he wrote that Vince took a dive and that I never even hit him and I thought, ‘This guy is such a liar.’ I wonder what kind of Christian he is." Asked if he had seen or spoken to Michaels since 1997, Hart said, "No. And I hope I never do...for his sake."[52]

However, in 2009 Bret Hart stated in an interview with Sky Sports that he will forgive Michaels, if Shawn apologizes first, saying "For me I don't really have much issue with it anymore. If you asked me that up until probably about a year ago I'd have probably said something different. But I've cooled off a bit now. I don't want to carry it around anymore. If he wanted to apologize I would accept it. I'd move on but I wouldn't forget it." He also put over the Michaels-Undertaker match at WrestleMania XXV, saying he was proud of both men's efforts and that despite his personal feelings towards Michaels, he always had the utmost respect for his abilities.[53] Similarly, Michaels has commended Hart's abilities, calling him a "sheer joy" to work with in the ring.[54]

Bret Hart's WWE return[edit]

Hart and Michaels reconcile on the January 4, 2010 episode of WWE Raw.

On the December 14, 2009 episode of Raw, Vince McMahon came out to announce the nominees for Guest Host of the Year during the Slammy Awards. After announcing Bob Barker as the recipient of the award, McMahon asked guest host Dennis Miller who he would like to see as a Raw guest host. Miller said he would like to see his long-time favorite, Bret Hart. McMahon dismissed Miller's suggestion, reminding him that the last time Hart was in the WWE was when "Bret screwed Bret," and that he likely would have no interest in hosting the show. Miller then asked the audience if they would like to see Hart as a guest host, to applause, but McMahon simply walked away.[55] On December 16, Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported that Hart had signed a four-month contract with WWE, and would debut as the guest host of Raw on January 4, 2010.[56] On December 28, WWE.com confirmed that McMahon would be at Raw that night to address the rumors about Hart hosting the show. That night, McMahon confirmed that Hart will indeed be guest host on the January 4 episode of Raw. A WWE.com article published shortly after the December 28 edition of Raw alluded to an "almost guaranteed encounter between the WWE Chairman and the Hit Man."[57]

Bret returned on the January 4, 2010 episode of Raw, and promptly called out Michaels in order to bury the hatchet. Hart and Michaels then aired their grievances with one another while recognizing that their 62 minute match at Wrestlemania XII ought to be the highlight of their relationship rather than the Montreal screwjob. The pair shook hands and Michaels turned as if to deliver a super kick but instead chose to embrace Hart. While many cast doubts on the sincerity of their reconciliation, Hart has confirmed that it was indeed genuine, as did Michaels,[4] and acknowledged that he felt that Michaels changed as a person, for the better. Later in the night, a storyline between Hart and McMahon began with the two appearing to have their own reconciliation only to have McMahon subsequently kick Hart in the gut: in real life, Hart and McMahon have been on speaking terms since 2002, when McMahon called Hart during his recovery from a stroke. Hart said of the ongoing storyline with McMahon, "I hate to tell you what's going to happen... I don't want to ruin it for anybody."[3] The feud culminated in an encounter at WrestleMania 26, which saw Hart defeat McMahon in a match that involved the Hart family.[58] After the match, Hart would continue to periodically work televised events for WWE.[59][60]

Most recently, Hart appeared on the September 10, 2012 episode of Raw at the Bell Centre in Montreal, marking the return of Hart for the first time to the same building where the Screwjob occurred, where he took part in an interview segment featuring John Cena and WWE Champion CM Punk. However, the episode was overshadowed by Jerry Lawler's real on-air heart attack earlier in the evening, from which he eventually made a full recovery. He also briefly appeared during the 2013 Royal Rumble, giving a pep talk to Alberto Del Rio before his World Heavyweight Champion title bout with Big Show. On the May 27th 2013 episode of Raw, it was named 'Bret Hart Appreciation Night'. Bret was pictured in the evening speaking to the likes of Kane, Daniel Bryan and Cena among others. At the end of the show, Michaels and Lawler handed him a plaque commemorating his career. The following week, Bret took part in 'WWE Inbox', a webshow held by WWE on its YouTube channel where Bret answered fans' Twitter questions.

Discrepancies[edit]

There are at least three discrepancies between the various versions of the lead-up to the Montreal Screwjob:

  1. Who came up with the "Sharpshooter" spot and bell ring?
  2. Who told Earl Hebner?
  3. Was Pat Patterson in on the screwjob or not?

Regarding the first discrepancy, conflicting and contradictory testimony has been given at various points by various different people. For years, general consensus amongst insiders and the internet-based wrestling fan community was that Triple H had proposed calling for the bell whilst Michaels had Hart in the Sharpshooter. In his 2005 autobiography Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story, Michaels stated that it was indeed Levesque's idea,[61] whilst the sharpshooter spot had been suggested by Hart. "We were talking things through, and Bret came up with this spot where I get him in the Sharpshooter and then he reverses it by pulling on my leg,".[62] Indirectly corroborating this assertion is Hart's own testimony in his autobiography Hitman, that "Pat Patterson told me that he thought it would be a heckuva spot to let Shawn put me in the Sharpshooter and then reverse it on him," which would indicate that Patterson had initially proposed the "Sharpshooter" spot to Bret.[63] However, in the same work, Hart also states, "I found myself jostling with Jerry Brisco, who I would find out later was the one who had designed the whole Screwjob for Vince."[64]

Adding to this confusion, Vince Russo states in his book Forgiven that it was he who proposed the match's ending to McMahon: "'Vince - we're making this way too difficult,' I said. 'Why don't we just do this? During the course of the match, let's have a spot where Shawn puts Bret in his own hold - the Sharpshooter. As soon as Shawn clamps it on, have the referee call for the bell as if Bret quit...'".[65] Conversely, Jim Cornette, in his 2010 YouShoot Shoot Interview, stated that Vince Russo was not part of the meetings planning the screwjob at any time, appeared totally oblivious as to what had occurred whilst watching the event on a television backstage, and had to have the entire concept of a 'screwjob' explained to him.

Regarding the second discrepancy, Michaels states in Heartbreak & Triumph, "It was about seven o'clock when I walked into the locker room. There were only a few people in there and none were close to Earl. He was putting on his referee garb and I started to put my boots on. 'Earl, I need you to listen to me very carefully.' I was speaking very softly. 'We are doing a big swerve tonight. I am going to get Bret in the Sharpshooter and I need you to ring the bell.'"[66] However, in the DVD Shoot Interview with...Dave & Earl Hebner, Hebner states that Brisco was the person to tell him of the plan.[67]

Regarding the third question, Patterson's involvement, Michaels states in Heartbreak & Triumph that during planning he was told "'This cannot be discussed with anyone. Pat can't know, nobody can know about this but the three of us right now'",[68] "We had the meeting, and as everyone was leaving, Vince asked me, Hunter, and Jerry Brisco, a longtime agent and close confidant of Vince's, to stay. We sat down and talked",[69] and "Pat was in the room with us, and he had no idea what was going to happen. He had a strong relationship with Bret. He wouldn't have done it, and Vince knew that. That's why he didn't tell Pat...".[70] However, in Dave Meltzer's online account of events before, during, and after the Screwjob, he states "Vince McMahon held a meeting at the hotel with Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, Pat Patterson and Michaels. Reports are that at least two of the aforementioned names looked extremely uncomfortable leaving the meeting"[71] which suggests that Patterson may in fact have been in on the Screwjob. This is corroborated by a Pro Wrestling Torch article from November 15, 1997 by Wade Keller which states, "However, a two-hour meeting was held on the second floor of the Montreal Marriott on Saturday night with McMahon, Jim Ross, Pat Patterson, Jim Cornette, and Michaels. Bret was wrestling that night in Detroit. There is some belief that at this meeting McMahon proposed the idea of the finish to whoever of that group wasn't already in on it. Ross and Patterson entered the meeting in a good mood and when they were seen in the hotel lobby afterwards, were said to be irritable, forlorn, and shaken."[72]

In addition, Hart states in Hitman, that while conversing with Michaels: "I added, 'I also want you to know that I have no problem dropping the belt to you if that's what Vince wants.' He glared back at me. 'I appreciate that, but I want you to know that I'm not willing to do the same for you.' And then he left. Jim [Neidhart] snorted, 'I can't believe that he just said that.' There was no way I could ever drop the belt to him now: he'd just shown complete disrespect not only to me, but to the position of champion..."[73] This exchange is confirmed in Dave Meltzer's account: "During the meeting, Hart told Michaels that he'd be happy to put him over at the end of the run, but Michaels told Hart flat-out that he wouldn't return the favor. Michaels and Hart spoke again on the subject on 10/12 in San Jose, when once again Michaels told Hart that he wasn't going to do a job for him."[71] Additionally, in Forgiven Vince Russo stated, "Well - no surprise here - Bret refused to do the job (get pinned) for Shawn in Canada. Not because he was being unprofessional - but because according to Bret, Michaels had said that he wouldn't do business with him (the right thing for the company in the ring), due to the way he felt about him."[74] However, there is no mention of this exchange in Michaels' Heartbreak & Triumph.

References[edit]

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External links[edit]