Excellence of Execution - The Montreal Screwjob
Every WWE fan would agree that the Attitude Era was the most defining for the industry. All the ratings wars with WCW and ECW made superstars out of many wrestlers. However, it wasn’t all rosy for Vince McMahon. Not only did he have to deal with the competition that WCW was posing in the ratings war, he also had to worry about all his high profile wrestlers leaving his company to join WCW, as there was more money on offer at the Turner Broadcasting-backed promotion. WWF legends like Razor Ramon, Diesel, Macho Man, Lex Luger, etc were all leaving. But above all of them, Vince had to deal with the imminent departure of his greatest superstar yet, Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
Every wrestling fan would have heard of the Montreal Screwjob, which had a seismic change in the direction that the business was going. Not only did it usher in the Attitude Era, freeing up the top dog spot for stars like Steve Austin and The Rock, it also led to the creation of probably the greatest ever character in WWE, the evil boss Mr. McMahon. So, what exactly transpired on that fateful day on November 9th, 1997?
A few months prior to the actual incident, WWF and Bret Hart entered into negotiations to renew Hitman’s contract. However, WCW came up with a big money offer to Bret and he was tempted to make a move to the new promotion. Eric Bischoff had offered Hart a 3 million per year contract that WWF did not have the financial backing to match. Instead, Vince offered him a 20 year contract which was accepted by Hitman. Bret Hart did not really want to leave the World Wrestling Federation as he was grateful for the fame the promotion had given him and wanted to stay back. At the same time, the offer from WCW was too much to refuse. Later, Vince backtracked and said he couldn’t continue with the 20 year contract and would have to defer a large part of the payment to the end of the contract. Not knowing whether he would ever receive the payment, Bret decided to take WCW’s offer.
This left things in a fix. Bret Hart was the reigning WWF champion and Vince McMahon wanted to make Shawn Michaels the champion. However, both the wrestlers had been having problems for quite some time. Previously, Shawn had refused to job for Bret Hart. Now that Vince was asking him to lose to Shawn so that the title could change hands cleanly, Bret refused to do it. He told Vince that he would lose to anybody else apart from Shawn and especially not in Montreal, where he was treated as a hero. A lot of discussions took place but they could not reach a conclusion. And at the 1997 Survivor Series, this is what happened.
Clearly Bret did not tap out and yet referee Earl Hebner rang the bell saying that the Hitman tapped out. Bret Hart was furious and spat on Vince McMahon, who was at ringside. Shawn Michaels appeared shocked too, but he took the belt and ran back to the locker room followed by HHH. Earl Hebner was nowhere to be seen. This was definitely not how Hitman wanted to lose the title, especially in front of his home crowd. Things would turn ugly from there on. After WWF went off the air, Hitman started trashing the commentators’ booth and destroying all the equipment. He was in a fit of rage, and not even the Hart Foundation could control him.
The question remains – who was at fault in the Montreal Screwjob?
As a senior referee, Earl Hebner was very respected in the business and nobody would associate him with such an incident. However, when you look at what transpired, you would have to say that he was in it as well. Later stories emerged which stated that Hebner had got his instructions about what he was supposed to do and when he was supposed to do it. And when he rang the bell, the first thing he did was get out of the ring and run out of the arena to a car that was waiting outside for him. However, to lay the fault on him would be just wrong. What else could you expect him to do when he was told that he would have to ring the bell? If he refused, he would have been fired and probably would not have got a job anywhere else. Ultimately, he was only a pawn in the whole thing and his only fault was to do what he was told.
When the bell rang, Shawn Michaels was shocked and surprised at what had happened. However, he was in show business, and he did what he had to do. He took the belt, raised his hands and got out of there without making a scene. But it later emerged that the whole idea of the Screwjob was Shawn’s. It was Shawn who, in a conference call with Vince and Triple H, suggested they screw Bret. But was he really at fault on this one? It isn’t as if he refused to wrestle Bret. True, he claimed he would never job for Bret and so Bret didn’t want to lose to him. And yes, he did have motive as they were both not getting along well off the air either. But all he was doing was trying to give a solution to a sticky situation to his boss so that the show could go on. Admittedly, when Bret asked him after the match if he was in on it, he denied any knowledge. But that was what Vince had told him to do and that’s what he did.
Everyone blames Vince McMahon for screwing Bret. But what was he supposed to do? He had already seen that Bret was refusing to do the right thing and give away the belt to the next guy, just because he did not want to lose to Shawn, let alone in Montreal. Vince had presented many different scenarios and endings to Bret but he refused all of them for the simple reason that he was not going to be seen losing to Shawn as it would tarnish his legacy before leaving the WWF. In fact, in my opinion, Vince actually did more good than bad. Even though it was Shawn’s idea at first, he clearly told Michaels to act as if he didn’t know anything so that the heat would fall on Vince. Not only was this noble, it also showed the acute business sense of McMachon. He knew that the wrestlers were assets and he had to protect them for his company to survive. As a result, he was willing to take the heat, knowing full well the hate he would get from the fans. In fact, in a later interview, he revealed how he orchestrated things in such a way that Bret Hart could actually get a great deal from WCW while making Turner Broadcasting believe they actually “stole” Bret.
Bret “The Hitman” Hart
In the entire saga, the key had always been with one man and that’s Bret Hart. Just because he had issues with Shawn Michaels did not in any way justify his refusal to lose to him. He said that he was a hero in Canada and he didn’t want to jeopardise his legacy. This was a clear case of him believing the hype surrounding his job. First and foremost, he was a performer and an entertainer. The cardinal rule in the profession, to take Hitman’s own catchphrase, is, was and always will be, “The show must go on.” Forgetting that, he felt he was bigger than the company and the business and refused to job for Shawn, give away the belt and leave the company. If he had lost to Shawn, he could have simply talked to the crowd, bowed out, and still kept his legacy intact.
Hitman was one of the greatest in-ring performers and was fantastic on the mic as well. He called himself the “Excellence of Execution”, but on that night, he failed everyone, including himself.
Vince McMahon was right. Nobody screwed Bret. Bret screwed Bret.