The “Montreal Screw Job” is the most famous match in professional wrestling history. It featured Bret (“Hitman”) Hart and Shawn (“Heartbreak Kid”) Michaels. The match ended unexpectedly when Hart was betrayed by WWF owner Vince McMahon and referee Earl Hebner, who was Hart’s close friend. The championship belt was taken from Hart by his arch enemy Michaels in humiliating fashion in front of Hart’s hometown fans.
It happened at Molson Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The main characters were three. Bret Hart was WWF (now WWE) heavyweight champion and a workhorse who carried the company in the 1990’s. Hart was from Calgary, Alberta, as was his wrestling brother, Owen Hart. Canadians rallied to the Harts and held them as heroes, particularly when Bret Hart derided America and asserted the superiority of all things Canadian. His nationality was an angle used to oppose a group of American wrestlers whose ringleader was Shawn Michaels, the second main character in the Montreal Screw Job drama.
Michaels was a charismatic wrestler with a big personality that made up for his small physical stature. At this point in his career Shawn was temperamental and egocentric. He had an aversion to “doing jobs”, that is, allowing himself to get pinned to “put someone else over” (to make the winner more popular with the fans). Hart and the rest of the wrestlers in the locker room resented Michael’s “me first” attitude, and dismissed him as “being in love with his own gimmick.” The few friends Shawn had were powerful, especially WWF owner Vince McMahon, the third character in the drama.
When McMahon bought the World Wrestling Federation from his father, the WWF was just another of a dozen or so regional American wrestling promotions that had coexisted with each other for decades. McMahon changed the status quo forever when he started stealing away the other promotion’s star wrestlers. He also had the foresight to put the WWF on national television and then cable. McMahon’s ambition and aggression broke the other promotions and changed the entire face of American professional wrestling.
The 1980’s were the WWF’s glory days, with Hulk Hogan and a host of other big name wrestlers, A-list celebrities, and the birth of the annual “Wrestlemania” event that became a worldwide phenomenon.
By the 1990‘s, however, McMahon was being beaten at his own game by southern millionaire Ted Turner. Turner financed a rival wrestling organization, WCW (World Championship Wrestling), whose president, Eric Bischoff, began stealing McMahon’s talent. Each promotion had a wrestling show at the same time on Monday night. It was direct cutthroat competition with big money, lawyers, and egos run amok. By the mid-1990’s WCW had the prime talent and was destroying WWF in the ratings.
Bret Hart was WWF’s highest paid and highest profile wrestler. WCW’s Eric Bischoff offered Hart twice what McMahon was paying him. Hart was frank with McMahon about the situation. McMahon said he couldn’t match Turner’s offer and wished Hart well. They discussed different scenarios for Hart dropping the belt before he left. Hart thought putting Steve Austin over would be good for the company. He was less enthusiastic about dropping the belt to Shawn Michaels, but was willing to put Michael’s over – except not in their upcoming match in Montreal, Hart’s adopted home town.
(Professional wrestling is a "work," that is, the outcome of a match is predetermined and agreed upon by both wrestlers before the match starts. The wrestlers create the impression they are hurting each other in the match. Sometimes wrestlers are injured, and injured seriously, but this is only through mis-communication, or one of the wrestlers being inexperienced or making a mistake. Professional wrestlers are real athletes who are also entertainers. They use their bodies to tell a story in the ring in order to create passion in the audience, because passion sells tickets. Backstage emotions also run high amongst a group of alpha males, many of them highly paid, who all want the spotlight, and the recognition and money holding a championship belt creates).
At this time Hart and McMahon were friends – at least as much as a boss and employee can be friends. Hart’s fourteen year career with WWF had cemented his loyalty to the organization. Behind the scenes it was said McMahon didn’t fight harder to keep Hart because he didn’t see Bret as the future of the company. McMahon saw wrestlers like Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock (Dwayne Johnson), and Triple H as the future of the business, and was willing to get R rated with sex and language on his Monday Night Raw shows if it helped him catch up to WCW. This trend really went against Bret Hart’s grain, but Michaels and the other wrestlers welcomed it.
McMahon did not want Hart to leave the company with the title belt. Bischoff had lured away a champion from another promotion who brought that promotion’s title belt to WCW and on national television threw it in the trash. With the bad blood between WCW and WWF, McMahon was understandably anxious for Hart to drop the belt as soon as possible, to avoid the title belt leaving the WWF when Hart’s contract with WCW began on December 5, 1997.
(Hart had never threatened to take the belt to WCW, and later said he would never have done it. WCW’s Eric Bischoff said that even if Hart had brought the WWF belt with him to WCW, Bischoff would not have repeated misusing another promotion’s title belt because of all the legal consequences that occurred when he did it the first time.)
Hart had an upcoming series of matches with Shawn Michaels in November. Hart said he did not want to drop the belt to Shawn in Montreal but would drop it in their next match on Monday Night RAW.
After extended discussions McMahon, Hart, and Michaels worked out the finish for the match in Montreal. It would end in disqualification, which meant that Hart would retain the belt. Even farther behind the scenes, however, McMahon held another meeting to plan a double cross (“swerve”). It was unclear exactly who was at this meeting, but at least three people knew about the swerve when the match started: McMahon, Michaels, and Hart’s long time friend, referee Earl Hebner.
Montreal’s Molson Centre was sold out. Many of the 20,000 fans heard rumors Hart was jumping ship to WCW. Some of the fans were angered by this and periodically taunted Hart with the chant “You sold out.” Most fans followed the Canada vs. USA gimmick, cheering Hart and expressing flat out hatred towards Michaels. Beyond the nationalism angle, everyone knew Hart and Michaels had serious heat with each other.
(Heat means animosity. In the real fake world of professional wrestling, heat is good because heat is contagious. If two wrestlers bring heat to the ring their match seems more real, the crowd naturally cares more, and usually adopts heat towards the heel wrestler. Michaels and Hart had a long history of heat with each other, in and out of the ring. They headlined Wrestlemania XII where Bret dropped the belt to Shawn after a classic hour long “Ironman” match. The tentative plan was for Shawn to put Bret over in the main event of next year’s Wrestlemania XIII. But Michaels taunted Hart that he would never agree for Hart to pin him.Hart responded by questioning Michael's sexuality on live television Michaels responded by insulting Hart’s father [Stu Hart, legendary wrestler and founder of the Calgary “Stampede” wrestling promotion] in television promos [used to promote upcoming matches]. When Michaels implied Hart was having an affair with valet Sunny in another promo Hart, who was married, went backstage and punched Shawn in the face. Shawn didn’t punch back.)
All these elements resulted in a rowdy, tense crowd expecting fireworks during the main event. Michaels entered the arena playing a gleeful heel, making a show of blowing his nose into a real Canadian flag, then humping it. This not only outraged the fans, it pissed off Hart, who went after Michaels. What followed was a stiff match. Neither wrestler held much back with punches and kicks. The heat between Hart and Michaels made for an entertaining bout.
Then came the finish. Michaels put Hart in Hart’s finishing move, “the Sharpshooter” (a variation of the Boston Crab). Prior to the match the two had talked about having Michaels apply Hart’s finishing move on Hart, and then Hart reversing it. Before this could happen, however, referee Earl Hebner, on express orders from Vince McMahon, signaled for the bell to ring to end the match, even though no one was pinned and Hart had not submitted. Michaels was declared the new champion.
Hebner ran from the ring into a car that took him to his hotel room, which he entered and locked the door. Michaels grabbed the title belt and ran to the dressing room, ducking garbage and wordlessly absorbing shoves and pushes from fans close enough to reach him.
Hart stood in the ring, the reality setting in about what had just happened. McMahon was standing at ringside. Looking down, Hart spat at McMahon and it hit Vince full in the face. They stared at each other with pent up resentment undisguised.
Then Hart, brother Owen, and wrestling allies began wrecking cameras, monitors, and ringside equipment. The fans were furious, booing, screaming obscenities, and throwing garbage and other objects at the ring, which was now a dangerous place to be. McMahon left surrounded by a phalanx of WWF security officers who warded off flying objects as they went.
Backstage was dangerous too. Hart confronted Michaels, who denied knowledge of the Screwjob (he lied). McMahon went up to Hart to attempt to explain what happened. Hart told McMahon to leave or get punched. McMahon stayed and Hart punched Vince in the face so hard Vince’s feet left the ground. When he landed he rolled his ankle. There is film of McMahon staggering and limping around with a black eye. If this was a work by Vince to garner sympathy after the fact, it did not succeed.
Everyone was pissed at McMahon: the crowd, the Hart family, and most of the locker room. The wrestlers were outraged that their champion, a fourteen year veteran of the company, was treated so badly on national television. If the champ could get screwed that badly by the boss, then what could happen to them?
McMahon tried to calm the angry locker room by portraying himself as a victim of circumstance trying to save his company. It didn’t work, but most of the wrestlers decided to stay with the company anyway. Hart had a lot of influence in the locker room. Many of the boys came to him with ideas of boycotting tomorrow night’s Raw episode or simply quitting the WWF. Hart told them not to risk their careers over the Screwjob, but to fulfill their contractual obligations. It was sound advice that virtually all the wrestlers followed.
After the “Screwjob”
Vince McMahon was looked upon with resentment and suspicion by his employees for years. This was nothing compared to fan resentment and downright hatred. What has made McMahon successful over the decades is a shrewd estimation of what his fan base are looking for. In the aftermath of the Montreal Screwjob, fans were looking to hate on McMahon, to vilify him and blame him for everything. So McMahon gave the fans exactly what they wanted.
He developed an alter ego called “Mr. McMahon,” the arrogant, ruthless, psychopathic owner of the WWF who joyed in torturing his wrestlers and humiliating them as publicly as possible whenever he could. This was a brilliant gimmick that galvanized WWF’s base, and also justified extreme, profane, sexualized responses by male and female wrestlers to “Mr. McMahon.” The WWF had off the charts heat that juiced ratings and made superstars out of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Chyna, Trish Stratus, and Lita, among others.
The upshot was that instead of the Montreal Screw Job being the final nail in the coffin of Vince McMahon’s WWF, it became a springboard for the WWF to become competitive in the ratings wars and eventually even surpass WCW.
Bret Hart’s career took a different path. He joined the WCW and wrestled with the company until 2000. In those three years he was not used properly by WCW’s bookers (the men who planned angles and who won matches and why) and generated little reaction with audiences. His most famous gimmick, the anti-American Canadian, left Southern audiences cold. Hart vacillated between a heel and a babyface until 2000, when Goldberg kicked him in the head, giving Bret a serious concussion which effectively retired him.
Then Hart had a stroke that took years to physically recover from. Bret’s brother Owen died in a WWF ring when a stunt went fatally wrong. Hart’s marriage of many years ended. In 2001 the WWF purchased the WCW and absorbed all its talent. The WWF became WWE, which today is the largest (by far) wrestling promotion in North America.
Bret Hart wrote a book about his wrestling career. So did Shawn Michaels. Eventually Hart, McMahon, and Michaels reconciled with each other publicly. Today many wrestling insiders criticize Hart for taking things (especially himself) so seriously. After all, wrestling is a work so championship belts come and go. These same insiders think the Montreal Screw Job itself was a work, a total gimmick dreamed up between Hart and McMahon.
Of course, claiming the Screwjob is a work might be a work itself. In the real fake world of professional wrestling, you can only be sure of two things. First, nothing you see is real. Second, the passions and personalities behind the curtains are real, and are usually more interesting than the angles presented to the audience.
The gold standard for the Montreal Screw Job and all things professional wrestling (and MMA) is Dave Meltzer and his Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
Bret Hart, My Life in the Cartoon World of Professional Wrestling. Random House Canada, 2007.
Shawn Michaels & Aaron Feigenbaum, Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story. WWE Books, 2005.
Film documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, 1998.