November 9th marked the 20th anniversary of one of the most infamous and impactful moments in wrestling history, The Montreal Screwjob. If you were a wrestling fan growing up in the 90s like I was, you know that this was a seminal moment in both WWE’s history and the history of the wrestling business. As you will note, this controversial incident marked the end of Bret Hart’s run in the company, it launched the “Mr. McMahon” character, and it was a key step in the development of the famed Attitude Era. With Survivor Series on tap for this Sunday and this recent anniversary, it only makes sense that we look back at a number of the main characters involved in this incident and reflect on how it impacted them and then the business as a whole.
So let’s just do a quick rundown of what happened. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had been in an on again off again feud from roughly 1996 through 1997. At SummerSlam 1997, Shawn was the referee for a match between Bret and Undertaker for the WWF championship. Shawn accidentally hit Taker with a chair and Bret won the title.
The Michaels interference led to the first ever Hell in a Cell match at the Badd Blood: In Your House ppv in October of the same year. The match was between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker for the number one contender spot to Bret’s WWF championship. If you don’t know the story go look it up, but, the long and short of the match was that Kane (Undertaker’s kayfabe brother) interfered in the match allowing Shawn to win and go on to face Bret at Survivor Series.
Also notable during this time frame was that the formation of D-Generation X took place in the aftermath of SummerSlam and was a key component to the Bret vs Shawn feud. Of particular note was that Bret thought Shawn, Triple H and the rest of their backstage group “The Kliq” had too much sway over Vince McMahon and were able to just about anything they wanted.
The last piece of background, and arguably the most important part, was that Bret signed a contract with WCW to begin in December of ’97 a week before Survivor Series took place. Also, Bret did not want to lose the title to Shawn, at least not in Montreal at Survivor Series. He claimed a willingness to drop the belt to Shawn anywhere other than Canada in the time between Survivor Series and the start of his contract, but Vince had visions of Medusa on WCW Nitro dumping the WWF Women’s championship belt in the trash. In those moments, a plot was hatched.
Main event, Survivor Series, 1997. The continuation of an on-screen and off-screen feud takes place between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart for the WWF championship. The match for the most part lives up to the hype of their previous matches and it seems like we’re all set to have a classic on our hands. As the match begins to draw into what any wrestling fan would assume was its final sequence, Shawn locks Bret in Bret’s own signature hold, the Sharpshooter (pardon me as I think about the nomenclature of this hold and the reference to Bret being the ‘Hitman’ literally for the first time ever). As Bret appears to begin reversing the hold, referee Earl Hebner calls for the bell signaling that Bret had tapped out, the timekeeper rings the bell and the title is awarded to Shawn Michaels. Everyone in the ring manages to look absolutely confused. Bret, assumingly aware of what Vince has done, spits in Vince’s face in the ring in front of the live crowd and thousands, if not millions, of viewers at home. Shawn quickly exits the ring with the title in hand and the show awkwardly fades to black.
This man spit in the face of his boss on live television in an unscripted moment and then punched him in the face in the locker room afterwards. Needless to say, this ended Bret Hart’s relationship with the WWE was done – and at the time it seemed like this would be over forever. Bret moved on to WCW where he had an underwhelming run. While he did capture the U.S. title, WCW tag titles and the WCW title during his three-year run, Bret’s time in WCW was marked by injury, lackluster booking and a leave of absence to mourn the untimely death of his brother Owen who was still employed at WWE. His run culminated with was ultimately a career-ending concussion at the hands of Bill Goldberg at Starrcade ’99 – Hart stuck around for just about a year after this event, but was unseen for most of that time and ultimately retired near the end of 2000. Though Bret’s career culminated with him having earned the triple crown in both WWE and WCW, there are a hell of a lot of “what ifs?” surrounding his career and this incident in particular. What if he had decided to lay down for Shawn? What if he hadn’t flipped out on Vince? What if he hadn’t suffered multiple concussions in a short space of time in WCW? How much greater could his legacy have been. While historically Bret will always be remembered as a legend, one does wonder how much he lost (and how much Shawn gained) after the incident in Montreal.
When you look back at this event, Shawn Michaels walks away almost completely unscathed by what happened. D-Generation X continues to blossom under Michaels. Michaels basically gave HHH the European championship while cycling back to his Undertaker feud post Survivor Series. This led to a severe back injury at the Royal Rumble in 1998 during his casket match against Undertaker. Shawn held on to the title which led to his WWE title match vs Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 14. Shawn lost to Austin, which was the culmination of Austin’s rise in WWE – which oddly enough started with him winning the 1996 King of the Ring tournament instead of HHH due to Hunter’s involvement in the ‘Curtain Call’ incident at MSG (safe to say there was a lot of behind the scenes issues in wrestling in the 90s).
Shawn retires from WWE as an active wrestler as a result of the injury and moves into various onscreen roles over the next few years in the company. Eventually he stepped fully out of WWE to begin his wrestling school. I’m going to go out on a limb here – if the Montreal Screwjob never happened maybe Shawn doesn’t get injured, maybe Stone Cold isn’t primed for the big time at Wrestlemania 14 and maybe Shawn never leaves WWE to start his wrestling school. If he never starts the school, maybe we never get Daniel Bryan’s triumphant moment at Wrestlemania 30. Needless to say, the ripple effects from the screwjob run deep.
Back to Shawn, he eventually heals up and is cleared to wrestle again. Shawn returned to WWE in 2002 and became embroiled in a blood feud with his former protege, HHH. This feud, along with Shawn’s WM matches against John Cena, Ric Flair and The Undertaker, came to define his second run as a main event level star in WWE. For as much as Shawn was a forever-heel in Canada, his post Screwjob legacy is remarkable. He had multiple feud of the year candidates, multiple match of the year candidates, won multiple championships, retired Ric Flair from WWE, and put on two of the most classic Wrestlemania matches you could ever imagine against The Undertaker. No matter his part in the events of Survivor Series 1997, Shawn Michaels came out #winning.
In researching this article, it amazed me how quickly Vince went from onscreen commentator and behind the scenes real-life owner, to onscreen villain and visible evil authority figure. The Screwjob happened in November of 1997. By the time we got to the build for Wrestlemania 14, which really started two and a half months later at the Royal Rumble, Vince was a full-fledged onscreen maniacal, scheming, dastardly villain.
This one component of the Montreal Screwjob lends credence to the thought among some writers and fans that the whole incident was one big work. Either way it means one of two things, either Vince was extremely reactive and quick-thinking and saw an opportunity to propel the business forward (which is possible because we had Eric Bischoff’s onscreen alignment with the NWO in WCW a year earlier) or Vince had a planned the whole thing out as a way to move the company in a new, bolder direction. For wrestling fans, we can look at both statements and see both the feasibility and the ridiculousness of either option.
Nonetheless, a week after the incident, Vince cut the infamous promo on Raw in an interview with Jim Ross saying – in the most earnest voice ever – “I truly believe that Bret Hard screwed Bret Hart.” Fam, let me tell you, this promo was ultimate heeling it up. It was a sign of things to come for the evil chairman. This put Vince in the position as evil authority figure and foil for a great number of wrestlers over the years that followed. Stone Cold Steve Austin, D-X, John Cena, Daniel Bryan, The Rock – all of these superstars had their time of being opposed by or in opposition to Vince McMahon – and in some cases, aligned as his enforcers. This incident, the rise of D-X, the rise of Stone Cold and others was the impetus for the Attitude Era that we all know and love.
It’s easy to wonder if the Attitude Era would have hit as strongly as it did if it did not have the evil Mr. McMahon character as a cornerstone heel. Would we have loved Austin as much if he wasn’t opposite Vince? Would The Rock have elevated in the same way without the alignment wit Vince’s Corporation? Would all of the stories of underdog wrestlers going up against the evil empire have been as memorable if it was not Vince on the other side? It is hard to say, which again lends credence to the idea that this whole thing was a work. One thing is clear, no matter how you slice it, Vince – and the company overall – also won big time in the aftermath of the Montreal Screwjob. (To be fair, those with deeper pockets, more exposure and with control over the archives and the footage will always win in the long run.)
Stone Cold Steve Austin
I know I said we would discuss those involved in the incident, but it is hard not to pull out Stone Cold in the examination of what happened after Bret left. Quick backtrack – in May 1996 Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), Diesel (Kevin Nash), HHH, and Shawn Michaels shared an unscripted embrace at a house show in Madison Square Garden. At the time, in-story, Hall and Michaels were face and Nash and HHH were heels so this went against Vince’s mandate that there be no blurring or breaking of kayfabe. Hall and Nash were leaving and couldn’t be punished, Michaels was WWF champion at the time and couldn’t truly be punished so punishment fell to HHH. He was slotted to win that year’s King of the Ring but due to the Curtain Call issue, that honor instead went to Steve Austin. Austin cut the “Austin 3:16 says ‘I just whipped your ass'” promo and we were off to the races.
Oddly enough, Austin ended up in a Wrestlemania feud and match with Bret Hart in early 1997. I say “oddly enough” because Austin got the feud apparently due to Shawn’s unwillingness to lose to Bret at Mania. Austin got the match and his first Wrestlemania moment and continued to climb the ranks. Fast forward a year and now Hall and Nash are gone, Bret is gone, Shawn is injured and WWE needs an injection of life into its main event scene. Just a reminder about that WM 13 match though.
Who was the lucky recipient of that push – none other than good old Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin more than capably filled the main event void left by departed and injured stars as it became clear that he was certainly up to the task. He was also the perfect type of character to be placed opposite Vince McMahon. Where Vince was an aristocrat, rich, entitled, pain in the ass of a boss, Austin was the everyman, beer-drinking, cussing, blue collar guy. They were the perfect point and counterpoint and their feud led one of the most prosperous and fondly remembered eras in wrestling. But therein lies the question again, does Stone Cold have the same type of career-arc if Vince didn’t become the evil Mr. McMahon character?
Hunter Hearst Helmsley
Do you want to know why I put HHH of all people last? Unequivocally, HHH is the undisputed greatest winner from the events of the Montreal Screwjob. His victory is even bigger if you believe the story that he was actively involved in the planning of the events of November 9, 1997.
As has been mentioned twice, HHH ended up taking the brunt of the punishment for the Curtain Call incident in ’96. He started to bounce back onscreen as he became a founding member of the original incarnation of D-Generation X. He is on screen ushering Shawn to the back in the Survivor Series footage. So far so good.
Jump to March 30, 1998. Shawn has lost the title to Austin and is headed into a four-year retirement as a result of injury. Hunter comes out to talk about D-Generation X and recruits three new members to the group under his new leadership – Bad Ass Billy Gunn and Road Dogg Jesse James (collectively known as the New Age Outlaws) and X-Pac (formerly the 123 Kid). This is arguably the most influential iteration of D-X if we are being fair. As much as HHH and Shawn accomplished individually in their careers and as much as they were the founders of the group, most people remember and hold closer the five-some of HHH, Chyna, Billy, Road Dogg, and X-Pac than they do the original.
Nonetheless, HHH goes on to lead D-X, then The Corporation, then the McMahon-Helmsley Faction, then Evolution, then The Authority. Not sure if there is any one man in WWE history that led at least five different stables/authority groups. That’s all without mentioning the Two-Man Power Trip with Austin and whatever his run with Angle was called.
The biggest move for Triple H would obviously be marrying the boss’ daughter. His onscreen and offscreen romance with Stephanie McMahon in some ways was the equivalent of having a rocket strapped to his back and shot to the moon.
He became the second Grand Slam champion behind Shawn Michaels. He won the Royal Rumble twice. He won King of the Ring in ’97. He held some version of the WWE tag belts three times. He held the IC championship five times and the European championship twice. He held the World and/or WWE championship 14 times. Now, one might say that Triple H was destined to be a main event talent going back to him being penciled in as the winner of King of The Ring in ’96 – back when that meant something – but would he have become what he became if it wasn’t for the series of events that happened from Survivor Series through Wrestlemania 14? That becomes a question.
When you think about it, Triple H is probably second only to John Cena in terms of consistent in-ring longevity at a main event level and loyalty to the company. Triple H has feuded with almost everyone of importance in the last twenty years. You name ’em, he’s fought ’em. Austin, Rock, Shawn, Taker, Kane, Angle, Benoit, Booker T, Cena, Batista, Orton, Punk, Bryan, Reigns, Rollins, etc. He was an active member of the wrestling roster for 16 years with 12 years being at a main event level. Even though he has wrestled a definitively part-time/legends type of contract in the past six years, Triple H has never been far from a WWE screen or ring.
Think about this, I’ve spent roughly 600 words on Triple H without even mentioning his baby, NXT. That is how much of an impact he’s had on the business and how much success he has had since November 9, 1997. NXT and its development of new stars and refinement of indie talent has become such a critical component of the current success of WWE. NXT, as currently formatted, has been fully sold as a Triple H vehicle and it has produced many of the top stars on both Raw and SDL right now.
Now, am I saying that had Bret Hart not been screwed out of the WWE title 20 years ago that we wouldn’t be enjoying Samoa Joe, Seth Rollins, Shinsuke and others in WWE today, but I’m not not saying it. But no matter what, it’s almost inarguable that one Paul Levesque was the absolute biggest benefactor from the Montreal Screwjob.
Maybe we had it wrong all along – Bret didn’t screw Bret; Shawn didn’t screw Bret; Vince McMahon certainly did not screw Bret – maybe it was Hunter all along that screwed Bret Hart.