When Professional Wrestling Got Real

“Just for the record, the weather today is partly suspicious with chances of betrayal.” —Chuck Palahniuk, “Diary”

In A Nutshell

In 1997, legendary wrestler Bret Hart (left) was legitimately betrayed by WWF owner Vince McMahon (right). The double-cross was known as the “Montreal Screwjob,” and it ended with McMahon on his backside and Hart headed for the WCW. But the infamous screwjob had huge implications and changed the world of professional wrestling forever.

The Whole Bushel

Everybody knows professional wrestling isn’t real. Sure, there’s lots of room for improv, but all the major moves are scripted in advance, story lines are cooked up by writers, and everybody backstage knows who’s winning in advance. It’s like a movie where the good guys (baby faces) and bad guys (heels) slug it out without any boring character development to slow down the action.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. Up until the late ‘90s, promoters tried to keep the outside world at bay, but whenever real life forced its way into the ring, they had to get creative. For example, when Andre the Giant broke his ankle getting out of bed, audiences were told he was injured by his rival Killer Khan.

But on November 9, 1997, the script was chucked straight out the window, leaving wrestling fans and officials shocked, baffled, and unsure what would happen next.

In the 1980s, businessman Vince McMahon was buying up wrestling companies across North America. McMahon was the owner of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation), and he was snatching up all the competition. When McMahon made his way into Canada, he bought out Stampede Wrestling, a Calgary promotion run by the legendary Hart family. After buying out the Harts, McMahon hired some of their best wrestlers, one of whom became his top star.

His name was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. While he occasionally played the heel in the US, Hart was Canada’s most beloved baby face. Hart sported pink spandex and wraparound sunglasses, and after wrestlers like Hulk Hogan were accused of using steroids, Hart became the face of the company. He symbolized simpler times and was often seen as the straight-up good guy with a moral code. He was like a Captain Canada, if you will.

For awhile, WWF was the only wrestling promotion that mattered…until billionaire Ted Turner formed World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Ted was offering bigger paydays and longer contracts and stole several of McMahon’s best fighters. But the ultimate prize was Bret Hart, and the WCW offered the Hitman a multimillion-dollar deal.

Torn between the paycheck and his loyalty to McMahon, Bret asked Vince to offer him a 20-year contract. When McMahon said no, Hart accepted Turner’s offer.

Now the WWF had a problem. Hart was the champion, and McMahon worried the Hitman would take his belt over to the WCW, the ultimate slap in the face. Desperate to keep the title, McMahon told Hart he wanted the wrestler to lose an upcoming “Survival Series” showdown in Montreal against Shawn Michaels.

Bret responded with an emphatic no. He couldn’t lose in Canada where he was worshiped like a god, and he didn’t want to lose to Michaels.

In Hart’s opinion, Michaels represented everything wrong with professional wrestling. He was aggressive and rebellious, cocky and flamboyant. He symbolized a new direction for the WWF that, in Hart’s opinion, was basically “smut TV,” controversial and offensive. Instead of losing to Shawn, Hart suggested the match end in a disqualification, and then the next day, he would hand over the belt on Monday Night Raw, a post-fight talk show.

McMahon agreed, and everything proceeded to plan . . . at first. There were punches and kicks, and Bret tossed Shawn into the crowd. Then, after Hart attempted an unsuccessful body slam, Michaels put Hart into the Sharpshooter. Basically, he smashed Hart’s face into the mat, squatted over his back, and yanked on the Hitman’s legs. (This was actually Bret’s trademark move.)

According to the script, Hart was supposed to break free, but before he could reverse the move, McMahon ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell.

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Unbeknownst to Bret, McMahon and Michaels fixed the fight. They’d stabbed Hart in the back, and the Hitman was furious. He spat in Vince’s face and proceeded to destroy the announcer’s stand. After climbing back into the ring, he wrote the letters “W-C-W” in the air with his finger. Then backstage, Hart punched McMahon in the face, giving the boss a big black eye.

Now WWF officials had a problem. Bret had broken the fourth wall (or broken “kayfabe,” in wrestling terms), and the head honcho had a nasty shiner.

The people running the show were unsure what to do. Should they sweep everything under the rug or address what had happened? Vince McMahon answered that question when he went on Monday Night Raw the next evening and admitted he’d screwed Bret Hart. In one interview, the real-world officially started seeping into professional wrestling.

Ironically, the so-called “Montreal Screwjob” saved the WWF. After McMahon blurred the line between fact and fiction, writers started incorporating real-life events into the show. For example, when Edge actually stole Matt Hardy’s girlfriend, Lita, the writers actually incorporated their feud into the story line.

They also did away with crazy cartoon characters and allowed wrestlers to riff on their own personalities. According to scriptwriter Vince Rousseau, “Every character we had was basically an extension of themselves. You know, Stone Cold Steve Austin was Steve Austin one thousand times magnified.” Even crazier, McMahon himself became a character named Mr. McMahon, the ultimate WWF villain.

Once the WWF incorporated truth into the show, more and more people tuned in, and soon McMahon’s organization totally crushed Ted Turner. Today, the WWF exists as the WWE. As for the WCW, well, it shut down and faded away.

That was bad news for Bret Hart. After signing with the WCW, things started going downhill. The organization was poorly managed, and Hart’s ideas were often ignored. Things took an even worse turn in 1999 when he was kicked in the head and suffered a concussion. That same year, his brother Owen died in the ring. Overwhelmed, the five-time champion retired from professional wrestling. Today, he does a little acting and writing, and he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.

As for Shawn Michaels, he lost the title to Steve Austin and retired. Eventually, he converted to Christianity and returned to the ring in 2002 where he squared off with the Undertaker in two legendary matches. Michaels himself was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, but he always had mixed feelings about the Montreal Screwjob. “It is still the most uncomfortable day of my career,” he once said.

Finally the two rivals met again in 2010 on Monday Night Raw. Only instead of punching Michaels in the face, the two shook hands, finally making peace.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photos via Wikipedia (1, 2)
RadioLab: The Montreal Screwjob
Sports Illustrated: Shawn Michaels on his new book, the Montreal Screwjob and more; Bret Hart opens up about the infamous ‘Montreal Screwjob’
Bret Hart: Bio
WWE Superstars Hall of Fame
Deadspin: Dead Wrestler Of The Week: Andre The Giant
Hitman Hart Wrestling With Shadows 1998

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