Over 20 years ago, one of the most famous match finishes of all time took place.
The place: Montreal, Quebec. The men: Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. The title: The WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
But there was a third man involved in the match, one who was sitting at ringside calling the action; Vince McMahon. His involvement would forever change the professional wrestling landscape.
The situation boiled down to this; The previous year, McMahon had offered the aging Bret Hart the deal of a lifetime; He would give Hart a twenty million dollar, twenty-year contract, wherein Hart would wrestle for 3-5 years and then make the transition to a trainer or backstage booking agent.
However, Ted Turner's WCW began gobbling up WWE's audience every Monday Night. Vince soon found himself running low on money and in danger of losing his company. He convinced Bret to willingly walk away from his lucrative contract and try to sign with rival WCW, who had previously offered Bret a million dollar contract of their own.
The only problem was Bret Hart still held the WWE Heavyweight title. On November the 10th of that year (1997) WCW would legally be able to mention Bret Hart had been signed to their promotion. McMahon didn't want the bad publicity of his World Champion being under contract to his biggest rival, and also feared a repeat of the Madusa/Alundra Blayze incident, wherein a title belt was thrown in the trash on live TV:
The problem was Vince wanted to put the belt on Shawn Michaels, who Bret Hart hated in real life. Also, Bret didn't want to do the job (lose the match) in Canada, because of his status as a cult Canadian hero.
Vince and Bret reached an agreement whereby the match would end in a no contest, and then Bret would drop the belt on Monday Nitro to either Steve Austin or Ken Shamrock. However, Vince tricked Bret and took matters into his own hands. As Bret moved to reverse a Sharpshooter applied by Michaels during their title match, McMahon stood up from the announce desk and rang the bell prematurely.
The referee quickly awarded the match to Michaels, who seemed as confused as Bret about his new title. HBK was given his belt and practically shoved out of the ring while Bret angrily complained on the house microphone. When his feed was cut, Bret would form the letters WCW with his fingers.
Hart would then confront McMahon in the backstage area, and end up punching him in the face. Thus ended one of the greatest wrestling relationships of all time, and brought the kayfabe era of wrestling to an end.
Or did it? Many critics and fans believe that the Montreal Screwjob may have been a 'work,' or a staged segment no different from any other stunt WWE pulled on television. Here are ten compelling reasons those fans and critics may be right, and the Montreal Screwjob was a work.
1. Vince and Bret were fast friends for over a decade before Montreal
Perhaps the most compelling reason of all that the Montreal Screwjob is a work is the long, deep relationship between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon.
Bret himself has stated that Vince was like 'a second father' to him during his tenure with WWE. Vince believed in Bret when many others in the WWE did not, elevating the Canadian to main event status and awarding him multiple title reigns.
Vince always does what's best for business, but even he would shy away from damaging a lifelong friendship like the one the two men enjoyed.
2. Creating the illusion of friction was good for Bret Hart's career in WCW
Most wrestling insiders were aware of the close friendship between McMahon and Hart, so much so that many WCW officials were worried Bret had been sent as a spy by the WWE, or worse, a saboteur who would try to bring the promotion down from within.
By creating a faux falling out via the Screwjob, Bret had a much smoother career trajectory in WCW, who were eager to make use of his bitterness to lend heat to the Monday Night Wars.
3. The Internet had killed Kayfabe and it was time for a change.
Today it's common knowledge that Vince McMahon is the CEO of WWE, but back in the 1980s and 1990s that was not the case.
Most fans knew Vince only as an on-air commentator and interviewer but had no idea he was pulling the strings backstage. However, the advent of the world wide web changed all of this. The internet put an end to many of the myths surrounding pro wrestling, and McMahon was outed as the ruler of the WWE kingdom.
In order to 'work' this new, 'smart mark' audience, Vince created the Screwjob and turned himself into a villain....or so the theory goes.
4. Bret Hart was a kind of wrestler the WWE no longer needed.
Bret Hart was very much a traditional wrestler, one who played by the old school rules and saw little reason to change.
However, the WWE in the late 1990s had become a fertile breeding ground for a new kind of wrestler; the anti-hero. Men like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock proved that generic, white bread babyface heroes or black hat wearing villains were no longer a viable option.
In fact, Vince even went on the screen to say as much;
In this new "Attitude Era" earnest wrestlers like Hart were an anachronism, a relic of the past. However, WCW was still more of a 'wrestling' company than an entertainment company as WWE was trying to become, and Hart would find fertile ground for his type of wrestling character with McMahon's rival promotion, an arrangement that benefited all involved.
5. The Screwjob may have been conceived to promote Hart's documentary
Right around the time of the Screwjob and the rapidly heating Monday Night War, Bret Hart had agreed to be the subject of a documentary called Wrestling with Shadows. The film was supposed to highlight Bret's long career and somewhat diminishing physical ability as he aged into his forties.
However, the film became an insider's take on the Montreal Screwjob, showing intimate moments between the wrestlers and McMahon which painted the CEO as a dastardly, evil corporate tyrant who used people like disposable resources.
Would McMahon have ever agreed to so much intimate access if the whole Montreal Screwjob hadn't been a work? That's the question that proponents of this theory often ask, and it's a valid question. McMahon has often been terribly protective of his reputation as well as wrestling's reputation in general, as evidenced by the time he sent Dr. Death David Schultz to beat down 20/20 reporter John Stossel. McMahon reportedly told Shultz to "Tear his (Stossel) ass up!"
Would a man so paranoid about his reputation and the sanctity of the business have allowed a documentary crew to film so much revealing footage? The world may never know the full truth, but it does cast aspersions on the Montreal Screwjob being a shoot.
6. The Montreal incident led to the creation of WWE's greatest villain
Who is the WWE's most vile villain of all time? Is it Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase, with his greed and abuse of lower class people? Or is it Roddy Piper, who started a fight with almost the entire NYPD?
The answer is neither of these men; Vince McMahon is the greatest wrestling villain in WWE history, and possibly all other promotions as well.
With corporate greed constantly in the headlines, McMahon knew the time was ripe for an evil CEO character. And with the internet blurring the lines of work and shoot, he could get over with the new kind of 'smart' wrestling fan as well.
The Montreal Screwjob did two things; It ended McMahon's tenure as an announcer, and cemented his status as the evil corporate head of WWE. Critics say it all happened much too smoothly to not have been pre planned.
7. Bret's ranting about the Montreal incident only increased revenue for both companies
Eric Bischoff, former WCW head, has a saying; Controversy creates cash.
What could have been more controversial than an angry, bitter wrestler who had been screwed on his way out the door from his previous employer? Bret's rants on WCW television, as well as news media outlets, fired up the Monday Night War and created a lot of attention and revenue for both WCW and WWE.
Those adherents to the 'work' theory of the Montreal incident propose that Vince and Bret knew this would happen all along, and were eager to fool the fans who thought they were smart to the business because it would create more money for everyone.
8. Bret has since reconciled with WWE
Bret Hart made his return to the WWE in a dramatic fashion, coming out on Raw and demanding to speak to Shawn Michaels immediately.
To the surprise of many, Bret claimed he wanted to 'bury the hatchet' with his old rival. The two spoke to each other, with Michaels heavily leaning in toward the stance that A. he had known about the Screwjob from the beginning and B. he had done the right thing for the business.
From those who adhere to the work theory, this is a smoking gun. Clearly, HBK seemed confused at the end of their famous match and had even been 'feeding' his leg to Bret for a Sharpshooter reversal. For him to claim that he was in on the Screwjob all along smacks of revisionist history, and is just the kind of thing WWE would put on air in hopes to continue the Montreal myth...so the theory goes, anyway.
9. If the Montreal incident were real, it would have been too risky for live TV
Despite many believing that the Montreal Screwjob was a work, all wrestling critics and fans agree that the WWE did actually take the belt off a performer without that performer's prior knowledge.
Wendi Richter was the WWE women's champion at the time and was immensely popular. However, Richter had become disgruntled with her salary, which was much lower than that of her male counterparts. With her contract about to expire, Richter was refusing to drop the championship or sign a new contract unless her demands were met.
Vince entered into a conspiracy with the Fabulous Moolah, one of wrestling's most controversial figures, to get the belt off of Richter without the latter's knowledge.
On November 25th, 1985, Richter was scheduled to successfully defend her title against The Spider Lady, an enhancement talent she'd previously wrestled. However, it was really Moolah under the mask.
The match was awkward and short, ending when Richter was rolled up into a pin by the Spider Lady. Despite Richter kicking out at one, the ref continued to count until three and awarded the match and title to Moolah.
Richter stormed out and never performed for the WWE in a wrestling capacity again. The incident was shown on WWE but was heavily edited, and still, it came across as quite awkward and poorly done.
The WWE, so the theory goes, learned their lesson on this night and would be very unlikely to attempt the same thing with a live Pay Per View feed and millions watching. Too many things could have gone wrong.
10. The Montreal incident brought greater interest to the wrestling business
In 1989, Vince decided to spill the beans on the wrestling business.
Even though a majority of the fans, even diehard fans, knew that wrestling was staged or choreographed, the wrestling companies still put out an effort to make it seem as real as possible. However, masquerading as a legitimate sports competition had its downside; The federations were often required to make huge payments and even percentages of their ticket sales to the state athletic commission.
In order to stop paying these high fees, Vince McMahon came out an admitted under oath that pro wrestling is 'fake,' and that the wrestlers were trained to avoid injuring each other. While the die-hard wrestling fans didn't mind this declaration, as they'd long suspected or known as much, the casual wrestling fan quickly lost interest.
With the Montreal Screwjob, many of those casual fans were drawn back in. Now they were closely watching for signs of another 'real life' incident playing out on television, and eagerly checking the internet news feeds to learn the 'drama' happening backstage. These days most fans are of this ilk, greedily consuming every rumor and tidbit of backstage knowledge they can glean from the internet wrestling community. And it all happened because the Screwjob was a work, so the theory goes.
Here's the Montreal Screwjob in all its glory, so you can draw your own conclusions;
There you have it; Ten reasons the Montreal Screwjob may have been a work.