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The Montreal Screwjob is one of the most important events in the history of Professional Wrestling.
In 1997, the WWF was facing its most heated competition ever in the form of WCW. The Monday Night Wars were in full swing and the New World Order angle was giving WCW better ratings than the WWF. Vince McMahon's promotion was looking at some seriously hard times, and Vince himself was being forced to make some tough decisions. One of these decisions involved Bret "The Hitman" Hart.
In 1996, Bret had signed an unprecedented twenty-year deal with the WWF for a considerable amount of money — but with Vince losing his shirt thanks to WCW, he felt that he would have to breach Bret's contract in order to keep the company alive; McMahon has been accused by Hart and others of exaggerating his financial situation at the time. Backstage tension between Hart and fellow performer Shawn Michaels were also reaching a boiling point around this time, and the fiscal security that the WCW contract offered was enough to get Bret to jump ship: in November 1997, Hart — then the reigning WWF Champion — signed a contract with WCW for a guaranteed three million dollars per year.
Hart's last appearance on WWF programming would be Survivor Series 1997 (taking place in Montreal), where he faced Shawn Michaels in the main event for the WWF Championship. The event was not scheduled to be Bret's last booking with the WWF, as his working agreement ran for three weeks after the pay-per-view, and he had received verbal approval from WCW to work another PPV in early December where he likely would have dropped the title in a four-way match to either Shawn Michaels (if Michaels agreed to lose at Montreal) or another wrestler who would later lose to Shawn (if Michaels refused to job). Michaels refused to lose the Survivor Series match to Hart under any circumstances, and Bret made it clear that he would not lose to Michaels in Montreal. The exit clause in Hart's aforementioned contract required that Bret and Vince come to an agreement regarding any booking decisions regarding Hart, leaving him with all the cards. The pair's mutual stubbornness placed Vince between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
The original plan for the match's finish (according to Bret) was for Shawn to use Bret's famous Sharpshooter submission hold against him while the referee was down. After Shawn applied the hold, Bret would reverse it, and feuding factions D-Generation X (which Michaels was a part of) and the Hart Foundation (which Bret led) would run in and cause the match to be tossed out, leaving Bret open to drop the title at the four-way match the next month (Bret briefly discussed simply giving up the title on TV, but at that point, Vince was committed to the Screwjob, and he agreed to nearly anything Bret said in order to get Hart to perform at Survivor Series).
Vince was still angry over then-WWF Women's Champion Alundra Blayze tossing the WWF Women's Championship belt in the trash live on WCW's Nitro, and he was afraid Bret would show up on WCW programming with the WWF Championship and toss that belt in the trash (or worse) — despite the fact that multiple lawsuits had been filed regarding the Blayze incident (and an earlier incident with Ric Flair taking WCW's world championship belt with him to the WWF). Since Bret refused to drop the belt to Shawn in Canada, Vince was worried about the possibility of Bret jumping ship with the championship belt.
Well, that was Vince's story, anyway. More recent analyses by wrestling critics/historians says that the people pressuring Bischoff to sign Hart didn't want him to get over — Bret was kept on the WCW shelf for over a month before popping a buyrate with the then-considered-washed-up Flair and being buried in pointless US Title feuds — and the real reason for the Screwjob on Vince's end was the fact Bret was earning just shy of two million dollars per year [compared to Shawn's $750,000 per year]. Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Undertaker were negotiating new contracts at this point; when they compared themselves to the highest paid guy — Bret Hart — Vince got really scared.
A plot was hatched and carried out the night of Survivor Series: when Bret was caught in the Sharpshooter by Michaels, Vince ran down to the ring and ordered the referee (Earl Hebner) to ring the bell as if Bret had submitted to the hold (despite Bret clearly not submitting in any fashion). This singular moment — known today as the "Montreal Screwjob" — was one of the most controversial and shocking events in the history of the entire pro wrestling industry. The Screwjob not only sent Bret packing to WCW without a real sendoff, but it also had a hand in destroying Kayfabe for many fans around the world, and it served as the launching pad for the "Mr. McMahon" character, which was played full hilt by Vince — who famously said the next night on Raw that "Bret screwed Bret" — as he feuded with Stone Cold Steve Austin during the Attitude Era.
Bret left the WWF and spent three years floundering around in WCW thanks to crappy booking and nobody really knowing what to do with someone who was — at the time — the hottest free agent in Professional Wrestling (something that Vince himself predicted would happen). Thanks to an errant kick by Goldberg during a match, Hart suffered a career-ending concussion and has been retired from in-ring action ever since (a stroke suffered after his retirement has ensured that, save for special circumstances where he doesn't have to take a bump, he'll never be able to perform in the ring again). Following his retirement, Bret had very little love lost for WWE — thanks both to the Screwjob and the death of his brother Owen in 1999 — but managed to put his animosity aside to help preserve his legacy, working with WWE to produce a DVD set that was widely acclaimed as being a great retrospective on his career (it was initially going to be a smearjob set called "Screwed" until Bret heard about the plans). In 2006, Bret accepted induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, making his first appearance on WWE programming of any kind in nearly a decade to accept the honor. A few years later, Bret signed up again with the WWE to ensure that he got a proper and honorable exit from the business (see below).
Shawn spent the next few months as the WWF Champion, but back injuries suffered during a Casket Match with The Undertaker at Royal Rumble 1998 eventually caught up to him. Following his loss to Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 14 (where he performed despite his injury causing him severe pain), Michaels spent the next four years on the shelf, making sporadic appearances for WWE while he slowly healed up. In this interim, Shawn not only admitted that he was aware of the plan to screw over Bret, but he became a born-again Christian. Shawn made his return to active competition in 2002; he remained one of WWE's most popular and skilled performers until his retirement at WrestleMania 26.
In December 2009, Bret confirmed that he would return to WWE in 2010 to guest host the first Raw of the year (his first appearance on Raw in over twelve years), and during that show's opening segment, Bret made his peace with Shawn in the middle of the ring in one of the most surreal moments in wrestling history. He was (kayfabe) attacked by Vince at the end of the show, which set up an angle that led up to Wrestlemania 26, where Vince faced Bret in a "No Holds Barred" Match. Although Vince tried to bribe the rest of the Hart family into screwing Bret over again, they knew it was coming and double-crossed Mc Mahon, allowing Bret to finally make Vince pay for Montreal (via thirteen chairshots and The Sharpshooter) and get the full closure he'd been looking for. (As part of the angle, Bret's father — legendary Canadian wrestling promoter/trainer and patriarch of the Hart family, the late Stu Hart — was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.) After WrestleMania, he appeared sporadically to help put over The Hart Dynasty (David Hart Smith, Tyson Kidd, and Natalya) and serve as Raw's General Manager for a brief period (he was eventually taken out by The Nexus). Both Bret and Shawn continue to make special "cameo" appearances at WWE events to this day.
In late 2011, WWE released Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart on DVD and Blu-ray; the set — a first-of-its-kind release for WWE — was dedicated to the long rivalry between Hart and Michaels, which stretched back all the way to the feud between The Rockers and The Hart Foundation. The real meat of the DVD was Jim Ross' sitdown interview with both Hart and Michaels, who discussed their careers and their rivalry — including the Screwjob — at length. The DVD pretty firmly backs Bret Hart's side of the story, with Ross conceding that no one in the WWE had any fear of Bret pulling a Ric Flair with the belt, and that he had acted reasonably regarding the Survivor Series finish. The set was generally regarded as being one of WWE's best in years.
Tropes associated with the Montreal Screwjob include:
- Continuity Nod: It became almost an annual tradition for the Survivor Series event to feature one high-profile screwjob, and several other companies have used the Screwjob as a template for screwy endings:
- The main event of WCW's Starrcade 1997 - Sting was pinned by WCW Champion "Hollywood" Hogan via a "fast" three-count, but before the bell could be rung, Bret Hart (a special referee during an earlier match) stopped the timekeeper from ringing it, knocked out the ref, and tossed Hogan back into the ring, where he eventually tapped to the Scorpion Deathlock (which coincidentally is Sting's version of the Sharpshooter) while Bret acted as the ref. (This was made worse by the fact that the "fast" three-count wasn't really "fast", and it's long rumored that Hogan called for the screwy finish so as not to lose clean to Sting.)
- The Rock vs Mankind at Survivor Series 1998 was the original Screwjob copycat with Rock playing Michaels, Mankind playing Bret and Vince betraying Mankind.
- On the May 28, 2001 edition of Raw is War held in Calgary, Alberta (Bret Hart's hometown), Stone Cold Steve Austin (the then-WWF Champion) put Chris Benoit (a long-time friend of the Hart family) in the Crippler Crossface, and Vince ordered the bell rung. As if recreating the Screwjob in Bret's hometown wasn't bad enough, Bret's father Stu was sitting at ringside.
- Backlash 2004 played with the Screwjob by having Michaels put fellow Hart's fellow Canadian (and then-World Heavyweight Champion) Chris Benoit in the Sharpshooter, then having Earl Hebner rush down to the ring to call the submission (the first ref had been knocked out). This time, Earl plays the referee job straight, and Benoit never taps; in fact, he later wins by making Michaels tap out to the Sharpshooter, WWE offering up a symbolic apology for the Screwjob.
- Earl Hebner made his TNA debut at Against All Odds 2006, and was about to call for the bell when Jeff Jarrett had Christian Cage in the Sharpshooter, but Cage stopped him and went on to win the match.
- Shane McMahon defeated Shawn Michaels the the March 18, 2006 Saturday Night's Main Event when he put an unconscious Michaels in the Sharpshooter, and Vince ordered the bell to be rung, and Shane to be announced as winner by submission.
- Breaking Point 2009 had CM Punk lock The Undertaker in the Anaconda Vice. Despite Undertaker escaping the hold, Theodore Long rang the bell and declared Punk the winner by submission. This match was actually a double screwjob. A few minutes earlier, Undertaker made Punk tap out with Hell's Gate, but Theodore declared that it didn't count and ordered the match to continue.
- The January 21, 2010 edition of TNA Impact featured a damn-near recreation of the Screwjob; this time, however, the screwjob was in favor of the champion (AJ Styles) rather than the challenger (Kurt Angle).
- The July 17, 2011 match between CM Punk VS John Cena was eerily similar till Cena, who locked Punk in a STF, knocks out John Laurinaitis, who was gonna ring the bell! Cena then tells Vince that this match is his match and that he finishes it his way, comes back to the ring and gets hit with a GTS by Punk! CM Punk wins the WWE Championship belt with the stipulation that he leaves WWE and Cena gets fired if he loses.
- Daniel Bryan locked The Big Show in the Yes Lock on the May 11, 2012 edition of Smackdown and John Laurinaitis immediately rang the bell and declared Bryan the winner by submission.
- Iconic Moment
- Memetic Mutation: "Bret screwed Bret".
- "Ring the fucking bell!"
- Real Life Writes the Plot
- Shoot the Dog: How Vince McMahon views the Montreal Screwjob, he had to do what he had to do.
- Shawn Michaels feels this way as well.
- Worked Shoot: Subverted, as the Montreal Screwjob is very well known to be a legitimate shoot (despite some people believing otherwise).