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The Montreal Screwjob Took Place 20 Years Ago Today, And The Wrestling Business Changed Forever

November 9th, 1997. Montréal, Québec, Canada.

SURVIVOR SERIES.

The main event? Bret “The Hitman” Hart, defending his WWF Championship one last time before leaving for World Championship Wrestling, against rival Shawn Michaels. In the months, and really years leading up to this match, there was tension building between Hart and the WWF due to their treatment of him as World Champion. I could bring up oodles of examples to back up Bret’s frustration (which lasted many years), but the most telling is obviously the finish of the WrestleMania IX main event, which saw Yokozuna defeating Hart only to be dethroned in 22 seconds by Hulk Hogan immediately afterwards. That should tell you all you need to know. Outside of that, it was a lot of unkept promises of legends putting Bret over and “trial runs” of others in the top-dog spot, leaving Bret questioning why he wasn’t good enough to be the true face of the company.

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Bret developed a rivalry with Shawn Michaels both in and out of kayfabe in the mid 90’s, largely due to the formation of “The Kliq”, a collection of guys that’d ride together and look out for one another that consisted of Shawn, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Sean Waltman, and Hunter Hearst Helmsley. The Kliq was liked by The Kliq, and pretty much nobody else, because, well, they were drug addicted party animals that were complete and total assholes to everyone in their path. Shawn and Bret were paired together on-screen as the workhorses who’d deliver a phenomenal match against each other in every city, and the extracurricular habits of Michaels never played a roll in the 20×20, but they always irked Hitman, especially while Shawn was heavily involved in the main event scene. He wrote about it pretty extensively in his book, and detailed his hesitation in seeing the championship around Michaels’ waist due to the way he treated others in the locker room, but still put him over massively in the Iron Man match in the main event of WrestleMania XII. After the pinfall, Michaels told Earl Hebner to “get Bret the fuck out of the ring”, not exactly helping his relationship with Hart.

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By 1996, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Hulk Hogan famously made the jump to WCW, and Vince McMahon was panicking. He offered Bret Hart a “name your price” contract to lock him up for years, but the “name your price” basically had a $700,000 ceiling, being that’s what the WWF’s top talent were making. Eric Bischoff offered Bret a $2.8 million dollar per year deal, and Vince, in his desperation, countered with a $1.5 million dollar per year, TWENTY YEAR contract. Bret accepted, but it was a short lived deal that Vince decided he wouldn’t honor a year into it, when Shawn sat down with him and requested he pay nobody other than The Undertaker more than him. Vince told Bret to get in touch with WCW and see if their offer were still available. Before this, Hart was supposed to beat Michaels for the WWF Championship, but the title was vacated after Shawn walked away and “retired” citing a “lost smile” on screen, and a knee surgery off screen. Obviously, nobody believed his story, and he miraculously wasn’t required to get surgery.

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When Michaels returned, his feud with The Hitman continued and he pretty immediately insinuated Hart was having an affair with WWF Diva Sunny, leading to a backstage fight between the two. Michaels was turned heel at the following SummerSlam, taking over Bret’s role as the main heel in the company, and Bret once again felt betrayed. He didn’t want to leave the WWF, but felt his hand was being forced, and it kind of was. McMahon wanted Hart out so the company could become publicly traded, and part of moving a company public is getting rid of as many long term contracts and obligations as possible. Vince revealed plans to have Michaels beat Bret three times, followed by having “Stone Cold” Steve Austin win the championship off Michaels at WrestleMania, and Bret inked his name on Bischoff’s contract. Now, the WWF had one giant issue: their champion had just signed with WCW, and he wasn’t interested in dropping said championship to Shawn Michaels – his next pay per view opponent. Why wasn’t Bret willing to drop the belt to Michaels? Well, he was, and told Shawn that in front of the entire locker room, and Shawn’s response was, “I appreciate that, but I want you to know I wouldn’t do the same for you”, so the thought of Shawn going over Bret clean in Montreal was now off the table. He offered to lose it on a house show at Madison Square Garden instead, but Vince declined. Survivor Series’ main event was now a puzzle nobody had the pieces to.

Vince McMahon met with Shawn Michaels and Triple H multiple times to discuss options for the finish of the match, and both of them mentioned the possibility of a double cross. Vince was desperate, decided that last resort option would become a reality, telling only Shawn, Hunter, and Gerald Briscoe. Bret was paranoid about a potential double cross, and asked around about it, but was reassured by everyone (including Earl Hebner, the referee of the match) that they’d never let it happen. Vince McMahon then met with Hart, who was wearing a wire secretly for his documentary “Wrestling With Shadows”, and the boss told Hart that D-Generation-X interfering in the match would be the finish. A disqualification. Shawn and Bret had one final meeting before the match, where they agreed to bury the hatchet and let the past be the past, but obviously, the events that followed wouldn’t allow that to happen.

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On Hebner’s way to the ring on the night of November 9th, Briscoe told him to call for the bell as soon as Bret was put in the Sharpshooter, and let him know that if he warned The Hitman of this in any way, he’d be fired. The match went on with Vince at ringside (who was there to “keep the match under control”, actually there to make sure the double cross was executed correctly), and at twelve minutes and fifteen seconds in, a sharpshooter was applied, changing the wrestling business forever.

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Hebner called for the bell, Bret trapped Shawn under his legs, shoot-reversing the hold, and realizing what had just happened. Bret had been screwed. He let Shawn go, and there was mass confusion at the Molson Centre. Bret spit in Vince’s face, drew the letters “W-C-W” in the air with his finger, and caused havoc ringside with the rest of the Hart Foundation. A riot was awfully close to breaking out amongst fans.

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When Bret made his way backstage, he asked Shawn if he were in on it, and the Heartbreak Kid claimed he wasn’t…ADAMANTLY. The Undertaker, WWF’s locker room leader, demanded Vince apologized to Bret immediately, and when McMahon showed up with an entourage in Bret’s locker room, he was met with a knockout blow to the chin. Bret claimed that there was a bit of a tie-up he sent Vince to the floor, but all other accounts suggest Vince let Bret punch him. Hart’s documentary “Wrestling With Shadows” captured the chairman wobbling out of the locker room, clearly concussed.

The fallout of this incident, the “Montreal Screwjob”, resulted in Vince McMahon becoming “Mr. McMahon”, arguably the most iconic character in the history of professional wrestling, and a pivotal role in the Monday Night Wars.

It took about a decade, but Bret was welcomed back to the company and acknowledged as the legend he is when he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, and four years later, Shawn and Bret buried the hatchet publicly, once and for all, on Monday Night RAW.

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Without the Screwjob, there is no on-screen “Mr. McMahon”, and without that, there may not be the World Wrestling Entertainment.