One of the most famous and controversial events in wrestling history happened at WWF’s 1997 Survivor Series in Montreal. When the match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship was covertly manipulated and ended on the orders of WWF Chairman Vince McMahon.
The whole thing happened completely without the knowledge of the reigning WWF champion Bret Hart, who lost the match and the championship to Shawn Michaels despite believing he was to retain the title.
At the time Bret Hart was one of the WWF’s longest serving and most loyal employee and the way he was treated left a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people involved with the company.
How Did It Get To This
Bret Hart had won the WWF Championship at SummerSlam and had engaged in a very bitter and personal feud with Shawn Michaels. At the time, the pair legitimately didn’t get along and that boiled over into the on-screen feud. Despite this, the pair put on memorable matches and the feud was one of the greatest in the history of wrestling.
The tide was changing inside the WWF, the fans were wanting more edgy characters as opposed to the longstanding good guys like Bret Hart. Vince McMahon seemingly didn’t know what to do with Hart, and eventually Bret Hart signed with the WWF’s rival company, WCW.
Hart was scheduled to begin performing for WCW the month after Survivor Series and McMahon didn’t want a repeat of the Madusa situation. So he wanted Hart to drop the title to Shawn at Survivor Series.
Although Bret didn’t have a problem in dropping the title to his longstanding rival, he did have an issue with doing it in his own country. So Hart, Michaels and McMahon came to an agreement that would see Bret Hart retain the title via disqualification at Survivor Series and then drop the belt to Shawn Michaels at a future date.
McMahon, however, went against his word and decided that Michaels was indeed going to win the championship at Survivor Series, but it would happen without Hart’s knowledge.
It is still a matter of debate as to who exactly was involved in the plan and to what extent their involvement went.
During the match Shawn Michaels applied Bret Hart’s signature move, the sharpshooter on Bret. Whilst the hold was locked in, Vince McMahon came to ringside and directly ordered referee Earl Hebner to end the match as if Bret Hart had submitted. Hebner followed orders and Shawn Michaels was crowned the winner and new champion.
Bret Hart had been with the WWF for 14 years at the time of the Montreal Screwjob and he had remained loyal to the company throughout his tenure.
In 1996 he turned down an offer to go and work for WCW. The offer would have reportedly earned Hart $8.4 Million over a three year period. Instead he opted to remain loyal to the WWF and signed an unprecedented 20-year contract that guaranteed him to be the highest paid wrestler in the company.
By 1997, the WWF was in financial difficulties due to the success of rival company WCW. It was also around this time that Vince McMahon decided to make the WWF a publicly traded company, which would necessitate the minimization of long-term financial commitments.
In the months leading up to Survivor Series Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels’ rivalry had become very personal and the pair had been involved in several backstage arguments and even a physical altercation after Shawn Michaels had accused Bret Hart of having an affair with Sunny.
It has been reported that although Hart had told Michaels that he respected him in the ring and would have no problem losing to him if Vince asked him; Michaels refused to do the same thing, saying he would never lose to Bret. This has been purported as the straw that broke the camels back in regards to Bret refusing to drop the title to Shawn in Canada.
Shawn Michaels has refuted this, saying that he would have been happy to lose to Bret if the storylines had demanded it. This claim has been refuted by other people backstage, including Jim Cornette, who say that they knew full well that Michaels had no intention of ever jobbing to Bret.
Because of the WWF’s financial struggles, Vince McMahon began to re-evaluate his talent pool and saw the likes of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels’ own D-Generation X as potential company leaders. This led him to encourage Bret to enter negotiations with WCW.
Bret eventually signed a $3 Million a year contract with WCW.
Being that Hart was the champion and was on his way to WCW, Vince was concerned that Hart would appear on WCW TV as the WWF champion, obviously McMahon could not allow this to happen.
The rivalry between Bret and Shawn, coupled with the weeks of derogatory things that Shawn Michaels had done to the Canadian flag led Bret to refuse to lose the title in his home country.
McMahon remained adamant that Hart dropped the title at Survivor Series and Bret continued to refuse, offering instead to lose anywhere in the Unites States instead or even surrender the championship to McMahon the following night on RAW.
After several meetings and disagreements, Hart, McMahon and Micheals agreed on a disqualification ending that would allow Hart to retain the championship. Bret would then surrender the championship to McMahon. Bret also asked for the opportunity to explain his actions to his fans, praise the WWF and leave on good terms.
At some point during the week leading up to Survivor Series, McMahon had a change of heart.
How The Plan Came Together
On the day before Survivor Series, Vince McMahon held a meeting with both Pat Patterson and Shawn Michaels in a hotel room in Montreal. It was at this meeting the Montreal Screwjob was planned out.
It is still up for debate as to who else knew what was happening although Gerald Brisco and Sgt. Slaughter were both in on it. It was reported that Jim Ross was also involved but he rejects the claims, saying he had no idea what was going down.
Bret and Shawn had met with Pat Patterson before the match to go through the specifics. It was here that Hart agreed to let Shawn apply the sharpshooter to him, however when this happened, Hart believed that the referee would be unconsciouss.
The rest of the match was then supposed to unfold like this: Hart would reverse the hold and apply the sharpshooter to Michaels who would submit while the referee was still unconscious. Hart would then release the hold to attempt to revive the referee but would be hit by Michaels’ sweet chin music. As Michaels went for the pin, another referee would run down to make the count but would be interrupted by Owen Hart, the British Bulldog and Jim Neidhart. The original referee would then recover and make the count but Bret would kick-out, setting up the brawl that would enf the match in a disqualification.
The referee for the match was Earl Hebner, who was a close friend of Bret Hart and who had according to the documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, told Bret that he would rather quit his job that screw him. Michaels however, says in his autobiography, Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story, that he himself told Hebner of the plan before Survivor Series began. Hebner did later say in an edition of WWE Confidential in 2003, that he was told about the Screwjob just 10 minutes before the match finished and after it was done he ran through the crowd and locked himself in his hotel room, refusing to speak to anyone.
Hart was seemingly aware of the chances of a screwjob because both his brother-in-law the British Bulldog and Vader had warned him of their personal experiences while working in Japan. They told him not to stay on his back for too long and to kick out of pinfalls immediately to prevent any fast counts.
Before the match tensions were high but both men had acted cordially with each other, however the WWF had ordered the deployment of a high number of company agents at rinside in case Hart decided to go on the offensive after the deed was done.
As the match was underway and the ending was approaching more and more agents were sent out t ringside. Bret became suspicious because McMahon was not seated at the commentary table as he usually was and also Sgt. Slaughter was stood at ringside. Regardless the match continued and Michaels locked in the sharpshooter.
At this point the match director was heard telling Earl Hebner to get up and the second referee, Mike Chioda was heard yelling back that Hebner that he wasn’t supposed to get up yet. At this point Michaels glanced at Hebner and refused to loosen the hold to allow Bret to counter it. Hebner then shouted at timekeeper, Mark Yeaton to ring the bell, this was followed by McMahon elbowing Yeaton and shouting ‘Ring the fucking bell!’
The bell was rung and Michaels was declared the winner. Hebner had already left the arena. Hart got to his feet in shock and approached the ring apron where McMahon was standing, he then spat right in McMahon’s face, while Michaels faked confusion. McMahon ordered Michaels to ‘Pick up the damn belt and get the hell out of here.’ Michaels left the arena with Brisco and Triple H.
Bret Hart then began to smash the monitors and cameras at ringside. Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart and the British Bulldog came to ringside and tried to calm Bret down. Bret then traced the letters WCW and I Love You to his fans in the air with his finger. Then he went to the backstage area.
Backstage, Bret Hart confronted Shawn Michaels, who protested that he nothing about what happened. This was all captured as a part of the Hitman Hart: Wresting With Shadows documentary.
McMahon locked himself in his office with Pat Patterson and other road agents. The Undertaker hammered on McMahon’s door, furious with the nights events, he told McMahon that he had to apologize to Bret.
As Bret was preparing to leave the arena, McMahon approached him and tried to explain himself but Hart warned him to leave before he was hit. An altercation between the pair ensued and Hart punched McMahon, dropping him to the floor and leaving him with a black eye.
After Hart had left, along with Neidhart, Owen and Bulldog, McMahon was left to face an angry locker room. The majority of wrestlers were disgusted in his actions and some even threatened to boycott RAW.
The boycott was quelled by Hart himself, who told the other wrestlers to fulfil their contract requirements and not to risk their futures to support him. Mick Foley did refuse to attend the following RAW but returned the following week due to contract stipulations.
Owen Hart was the only member of the Hart family to remain on the WWF roster because he was unable to terminate his contract.