It was November 9, 1997. Vince McMahon, owner of the World Wrestling Federation, was as nervous as he’d ever been in his life. He was about to fuck over his World Champion on live television and shatter the casual fan’s belief in professional wrestling in an event that would be known decades later as “The Montreal Screwjob.”
The 90s were a huge boom period for the wrestling business. Every Monday night, the WWF and WCW competed for fan attention as they went head-to-head with their television shows “Raw” and “Nitro.” Both promotions regularly used underhanded tactics in an attempt to drive their rival out of business, and a favorite of WCW President Eric Bischoff was talent poaching.
Bischoff wanted Bret “The Hitman” Hart, the WWF Champion, in WCW. With Ted Turner’s blessing — and checkbook — Eric floated an offer to Bret Hart. Since Hart was the top guy for the WWF and a career loyalist to the McMahon family, Bret tried to get Vince McMahon to beat the offer by one dollar.
Unfortunately, the WWF was in a financial bind at this point. As much as McMahon wanted to keep his Canadian star, the money wasn’t there, so Hart was set to finish his contract at the “Survivor Series,” the WWF’s November event.
Two problems weighed on McMahon’s mind. First was the venue. Survivor Series would be held in Montreal, where Bret Hart commanded a hero’s welcome. The second, larger problem, was Bret’s refusal to lose the championship title to McMahon’s chosen successor, Shawn Michaels.
The grapplers worked well in the ring, but tensions in the locker room had reached a boiling point where Hart only saw Michaels as a disrespectful jackass. Both men couldn’t stand the other to the point where a locker room brawl ended with Michaels leaving a clump of hair torn from his scalp on a table during a WWF booking meeting, declaring his surroundings a “hostile work environment.”
As the event drew near, McMahon was on the phone with Bret and Shawn daily attempting to find some compromise. “Goddammit Vince,” Jim Cornette told his boss after one failed phone call during a writers’ meeting, “You shouldn’t have let things get this far. You’ve got to double cross Bret.”
“How would you do it, pal?” McMahon asked the veteran manager and booker.
Cornette’s plan was to tell Bret Hart that Shawn would put “The Hitman” in his finishing hold, “The Sharpshooter.” Then Hart’s friends would rush the ring causing the referee to declare the match a disqualification and Hart could surrender the WWF Championship title belt the next night on Raw.
In reality, the moment Michaels locked Bret Hart in his own submission hold, the referee would call for the bell, hand Shawn the belt, and everyone would get the hell out of town. Cornette reasoned Hart’s ego would stop him from talking to the press, and McMahon would keep his mouth shut since he was a wrestling promoter.
Watching from a monitor backstage, Jim Cornette’s stomach hit the floor when he saw Vince McMahon, accompanied by a trusted lieutenant, stride to the ring and tell referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell. The boss actually used Cornette’s double cross idea on a wrestler Jim respected.
Cornette beat it out of the building as soon as the bell signaled a new World Champion.
The Montreal fans knew Bret Hart, their Canadian hero, had been screwed. Hart, furious at getting shafted by colleagues he’d worked with for fourteen years, trashed ringside video and audio equipment. He even punched McMahon on his way out of the arena.
Worse yet, egos got the better of Hart and McMahon. Hart went to the Canadian sports press and told anyone who would listened how he’d been screwed out of a win by his former boss.
McMahon, in an attempt to respond, staged an interview where he attempted to paint Bret Hart as someone who didn’t respect the “time honored tradition” of dropping a championship before leaving a wrestling promotion. By refusing to do his job, Hart forced McMahon’s hand.
“Bret screwed Bret,” McMahon would quip.
No one bought McMahon as the good guy. He just stabbed one of his top talents, and someone the fans adored, in the back on live TV. Chants of “YOU SCREWED BRET” erupted when Vince McMahon was spotted in Canada for years after the incident.
The Montreal Screwjob is still talked about twenty-five years later because it exposed the wrestling business in a way few other events had. Prior to the Screwjob even the most educated fan hadn’t seen the inner workings of the business play out on live TV. Here was the guy who ran the show telling the world what most just whispered–if you didn’t do what the boss said, your career was finished.
Strangely, Vince would embrace the negative fan reaction and become “Mr. McMahon,” an archetype of everything the working man hated in their bosses. This would lead to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin drawing record crowds to WWF shows as the blue collar foil to Vince every week.
But there’s no denying wrestling forever lost a piece of its innocence one November night in Montreal.