Sports Illustrated published an interesting piece the other day that had Bret “The Hitman” Hart revisiting one of the most controversial events in pro wrestling history, the “Montreal Screwjob.” This was a pivotal moment in the history of the industry, which integrally shaped the five years that followed, and, arguably, even dictated the course of professional wrestling all the way to its present decline. I’ve always thought that this particular story could be the basis for a great film, on account of how much it reveals about the sickening truth of pro wrestling (such as there is to be had). Indeed, when Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler released in 2008, garnering widespread critical acclaim and accolades for Mickey Rourke’s performance, all I could think was that a more honest and more relevant pro wrestling picture should instead have focused on the Montreal Screwjob. It should have delved into what a truly dirty business pro wrestling is, defined over the last four decades by a behind-the-curtain megalomania that has always dwarfed any of the on-screen personalities.
To summarize, in 1997, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Bret Hart’s employer of more than a decade, was not able financially to fulfill the remainder of his long-term contract, and so he was preparing to pack up and take his talents to World Championship Wrestling (WCW), WWF’s longstanding arch-rival, which had finally overtaken it over the preceding year of competition. There was one problem, however: within the scripted universe of pro wrestling storylines, Bret Hart was the reigning WWF Champion.
With the “Monday Night Wars” between WWF and WCW growing increasingly spiteful and cutthroat, WWF owner Vince McMahon did not want Hart “taking the belt with him” to WCW. Wishing to part amicably, Hart agreed to vacate the title during a farewell show for WWF. But that wasn’t good enough for McMahon, who knew that WCW would jump at any chance to boast that they had gotten the reigning WWF Champion to defect. McMahon needed Hart to lose the title in a match to another WWF wrestler.
From McMahon’s perspective, the obvious venue was Survivor Series, as it was the only remaining pay-per-view event that Hart was contracted for. Hart had two problems with this: 1) Survivor Series was taking place in Montreal in Hart’s home nation of Canada, and 2) Hart’s scheduled opponent was Shawn Michaels, with whom he was in the midst of a scripted (but truly ugly) “U.S. vs. Canada” feud. Hart did not want to lose in Canada to a guy who had spent the preceding weeks and months dissing Canada. Thus, in order for McMahon to get his way, he conspired with a select handful of his employees to go behind Hart’s back and plot a “screwjob.”
Heading into the Survivor Series match against Michaels, Hart received one script, which was supposed to end in his victory. Meanwhile, the other key actors in the ring—Michaels and referee Earl Hebner—would secretly be working from a different script. At one point in the match, Michaels would catch Hart in Hart’s own signature submission hold, the Sharpshooter. Hart understood that he would then reverse the hold, but, before he could get the chance, Hebner immediately rang the bell to signify that Hart had “tapped out” to the Sharpshooter, even though Hart had given no such indication of surrender.
An irate Hart stood up and spat in Vince McMahon’s face at ringside. Shawn Michaels grabbed the belt and was quickly ushered out of the arena, foregoing the traditional in-ring victory celebration. The pay-per-view broadcast cut off right there, and anybody watching could tell that something peculiar had happened, but the result was in the books now.
(Video uploaded by illusive255)
I wonder if Vince McMahon ever considered the possible negative repercussions of the Montreal Screwjob. Yes, he had prevented Bret Hart from taking the WWF Championship to WCW, but the manner in which he had handled it actually created more fodder for his rival and other critics to paint the WWF as a disgrace. I suppose the scheme was only as ridiculous as one would expect coming from people who made their living plotting pro wrestling storylines.
In any case, the biggest story in pro wrestling became, in the immediate aftermath and for months following, not any of the scripted feuds at all, but the controversy over the Montreal Screwjob. Discussion among fans was far less concerned with who held which belts in either WWF or WCW, and far more interested in whatever real-life animus might exist between the involved parties. And, in an industry that has never known what it is to sink too low, both WWF and WCW were eager to capitalize by integrating this real-life dirty laundry into their scripts.
WCW responded by getting “Ravishing” Rick Rude to directly reference the incident and call out both Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon on an episode of WCW Monday Nitro. This sort of explicit trash-talking across competing programs was unprecedented (not to mention risky, since WCW may have been inadvertently encouraging its viewers to watch WWF in order to catch the other side of an unintended “crossover”), but the moment was especially memorable because Rick Rude also appeared on WWF Raw Is War that same night.
In the WWF storyline, Rude was a member of Shawn Michaels’s gang. But, in real life, Rude was a personal friend of Bret Hart. So, when the Montreal Screwjob happened, Rude hatched a scheme of his own together with WCW. With his contract with WWF coincidentally due to expire right after the Montreal Screwjob, Rude made a verbal agreement to extend his stay, only to then go behind Vince McMahon’s back to sign with WCW instead. He then taped his final episode of WWF Raw Is War, where he appeared with a full beard. Then, on the very night that the episode was to premiere, Rude also appeared on live television on WCW Monday Nitro, but with his beard shaved! On the West Coast, WCW Monday Nitro aired hours before WWF Raw Is War, so Rude’s appearances completely exposed that WWF’s program, although always advertised as live, was actually taped days in advance.
(Video uploaded by WWE)
In the moment, this must have seemed quite the coup for WCW. Of course, nobody could have known it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end for WCW, and it was really WWF that would come out far ahead.
WCW tried to run with its own this-time-totally-scripted “sequel” to the Montreal Screwjob, in which a different corrupt referee was supposed to screw over a good guy wrestler, only to have Bret Hart intervene on the side of justice. Unfortunately, the intervention was so unconvincingly executed that it became a fiasco unto itself, which, naturally, also became integrated into the ongoing plot. Afterward, Hart had no other memorable storylines in WCW, where he effectively ended his career with a whimper due to health issues. Rick Rude’s tenure there was even less remarkable; he never was able to get into ring-ready condition before dying suddenly of heart failure.
Meanwhile, Vince McMahon recognized that the best move he could make was to fully embrace the image that the fans now had of him as the corrupt owner of the WWF. Originally, “Vince McMahon” the character had been only a ringside announcer. Most viewers who only followed the action on TV and nothing behind the scenes wouldn’t even have known that McMahon was actually the head honcho, which was how McMahon had preferred it. But now that he had been fully “outed” by the Montreal Screwjob spotlighting him as this tyrannical mastermind, and finding that the vitriol that fans felt for him was the biggest reaction of any kind that the WWF had gotten in a long time, McMahon shrewdly recast himself as his promotion’s chief antagonist, whom fans loved to hate. McMahon’s scripted feuds with his wrestlers proved wildly successful, as well as increasingly ridiculous, as McMahon began to wrestle himself, and also brought in his real-life wife and children as characters, who, yes, also wrestled.
WWF (later WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment)) was also, no doubt, helped financially by being able to jettison Bret Hart’s massive contract. With the departure of Hart, nearly all of the “old guard” superstars were now gone, which actually freed up WWF to cultivate and thrive off a new generation of edgier characters, while WCW began to flounder off the diminishing returns of the many aging has-been egos still headlining its shows. Less than four years after the Montreal Screwjob, McMahon was able to purchase his ailing competitor, effectively achieving a monopoly, which, in the long term, has been a victory for nobody, as pro wrestling’s cultural currency has continually declined under his absolute control. That's not a subjective qualitative assessment; WWE's stock has also been tanking over the past half-year.
Reading Hart’s thoughts on the Montreal Screwjob now, one of the weirder things, at least for anyone not immersed in the fiction of professional wrestling, might be whom he accuses of having been behind the plot. McMahon was obviously in charge of everything, but Hart believes that the other two key conspirators were Shawn Michaels and Paul Michael Levesque (AKA “Triple H”). This is surreal because Michaels and Triple H were, at the time, not executives or creative directors in charge of storylines, but were, like Hart, mere performers (in other words, actors), so why would they have been calling shots alongside McMahon? Moreover, not only were Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels bitter rivals in the fiction, but the two did not like one another in real life. As for Triple H, he was Michaels’s friend, both in the story and in real life, and, again, someone Hart did not get along with in either. So the lines between reality and pro wrestling fiction get very blurred, and you almost wonder if Bret Hart was the one having a hard time keeping things straight. Maybe he started out only being pretend enemies with Michaels and Triple H, but then he got so method into his performance that he came to despise them off camera as well. Then, when he got screwed in real life (and also in the story, I suppose), he named his pretend nemeses as the culprits only on account of their fictional enmity.
In fact, all parties’ accounts, Michaels’s included, have corroborated Hart’s suspicions, so evidently he’s not paranoid. But isn’t that even crazier? That the heel characters always scheming against him in the storyline turned out to be scheming against him in real life also? And in precisely such an underhanded manner and for precisely the same reasons (i.e. to take his belt) as in nearly all pro wrestling storylines?
Actually, I have always had a suspicion that the Montreal Screwjob was a total fiction—that is, a multi-level angle—and that all the actors, including Bret Hart and maybe even those running things in WCW, were in on it (and still are). There’s almost no way to ever know for sure, but, frankly, every aspect of it strikes me as ridiculous. But maybe that’s the point. If the Montreal Screwjob did not begin as an angle, both WWF and WCW certainly turned it into one. So maybe “real or fake” has never been the proper question when it comes to pro wrestling, and everything instead just exists in this bizarre gray area in between, where every character is but a version of the actor playing them—heightened or fictionalized, perhaps, but still that person at core. And the really insane, disturbing, and frequently tragic part is that the actors themselves cannot clearly separate fiction from reality. That includes all the wrestlers, who are sincerely competitive, even if none of the fighting is real. And it includes Vince McMahon, the principal man behind the curtain, who got swept up in his own stories and onto the stage, where his real-life business decisions, working relationships, and even family members bled into the scripted delusions.