I'm sorry to dwell on the Bret Hart situation, but it served as a major turning point for me in understanding the true business nature of wrestling. I dare say if I had not witnessed this live and paid so close attention to the aftermath, I wouldn't have lasted as long as I did working as an indy promoter, which I started about 18 months after this took place.
I would like to say at one point, I sided with Bret Hart, but I don't think I ever really did. It's the popular stance...the multiple-time champion who had been in the WWF for over 10 years finishing up his time with the company and riding away on his white horse. Except unlike the storylines, we're dealing with very real life issues.
There are two main forces at work here, Vince McMahon: promoter, employer and Bret Hart: wrestler, employee.
And those of us who have ever had a job, especially one with a boss from hell, would love to treat their boss the way Bret Hart or Steve Austin or DX have done on screen. But do you think behind the scenes that anyone lays a hand on McMahon? No, because behind the curtains, it's real life. In real life you don't strike the boss or you find yourself fired and/or arrested. You also follow the the demands of the boss because that is what is expected when you take the job. If you're morally opposed to such demands, quit. This applies for a counter guy at 7-11 and Bret Hart. Imagine working as a UPS driver, delivering packages all over, but telling your boss you won't deliver to the town you live in because they think too much of you. He'd laugh at you.
Bret allegedly had a creative control clause offering his reasonable control. I've never seen the contract, nor have I read in any reliable source that he did. But, let's assume he did. The key word is reasonable. Let's say that I work at the Franklin Mint, coming up with the ideas for their collectable plates with Elvis and Star Trek and Wizard of Oz. I've done so well for so many years, that I'm given "reasonable creative control" in my contract. So to show the horrors of animal abuse in the world, I design a series of plates that show things like seals getting clubbed, tigers that have fallen into pits, and cockfighting. My boss is going to come to me and tell me that line of plates is dead. It's not because he doesn't like me, it's not because he doesn't feel the plight of the animals. It's simply because it's bad for business. They'll lose money and many people will see them in a negative light. The creative direction Bret wanted to end his WWF career with was not the right direction for the company.
Today's WWE is a global operation with hundreds of employees. Yet it's just one or two horrible creative and/or business decisions away from becoming half the size it is, and that's true of all business. From all counts I've heard Vince McMahon and Bret Hart had a good relationship before Montreal. However, with the WWF, Vince McMahon had something that his grandfather has started and something he wanted his kids and grandkids to have. By 2025, the fifth generation of McMahons will be working for the WWE. With WWF, Vince was engaged in a do-or-die scenario with WCW (where Bret was headed) and if he didnt' play his cards right he could have gone out of business. He had to watch his back, his family's back and his employees' backs in booking the ending of Bret's tenure. Vince did what he felt he needed to do to keep the WWF out of as much potential trouble as possible. If I were another wrestler, or ring crew guy, or makeup person, I'd be glad because he was protecting me.
With the indy I ran (EWA) I put the lightweight title on a guy I'll just call MJ. This was at the height of our TV show, which was hitting about 100,000 homes in Maine and NH. I always encouraged the wrestlers to wrestle for other organizations, as much as they could, because they'd get better that way. I knew I was working with a few future WWE guys and thought it was stupid to try and limit where they would work. MJ, by the way, was not one of these guys. Because of our large TV presence and our strong local following in central Maine (particularly Lewiston, where we filmed the show) I simply told our wrestlers to protect their gimmicks. I didn't want our goth guy playing a homosexual in Lewiston or to see two guys feuding be a happy tag team.
After Tony "Mr. USA" Atlas was fired from our organization, he decided to try to put on shows in Lewiston as well. I wasn't worried about his promotional acumen and I thought it would be fine if some our wrestlers worked his show. It would give them additional exposure in the place they're known best, and a good chunk of the fans would probably be familiar with them because of the EWA. I heard that MJ was facing a wrestler we'll call SS. While a nice guy, SS was probably 59 years old at the time, pale as a ghost and frankly losing his skills as a wrestler. The EWA had used him when Atlas was there, but once Atlas was gone, he was gone shortly thereafter. I knew Atlas likely booked him on the show to be nice. The guy didn't need the money, nor was he going to WWE.
The next morning, one of the wrestlers calls me and runs down the card and everything sounded fine until he got to MJ's match. MJ lost to SS cleanly. Our light heavyweight champion, who had a good mix of speed, charisma and toughness lost to somebody with none of those three things in front of our fans.
So realistically, the question becomes "can I keep this title on MJ or do I take it off?" I liked MJ a lot. He was someone I would consider a friend and he was one of my favorites to watch in the ring. If I could play only favorites, I would have let him keep the belt. I wanted him to keep the belt. But then I thought of the company. We can't have a champion that loses to someone almost getting social security. We can't have our champion losing to someone who is inferior in everyone else's eyes. Our storylines will look fake if we have MJ conquering people twice his size when the audience knows he can't beat the pasty old guy SS was. Would you want to still go see the 2007 Red Sox if the 1972 Pittsburgh Pirates reunited and defeated them? Maybe, but they do become less capable in your eyes.
I went to our next (non-televised) show and posted the booking sheet in the lockerroom about 2 hours before the show. I didn't see MJ look at it, but at one point when I was walking around, I heard him tell his girlfriend (why wrestlers feel the need to bring their skanky girlfriends to all the shows I'll never understand) that he was dropping the title and that it wasn't fair or right. I stopped, walked up to him, reassured MJ I was his friend, but told him that I simply couldn't have a champion losing to someone we wouldn't even consider employing, in of all places, the town we film our TV show in. He told me that he was just doing what the promoter said. I told him that was a great trait, one I appreciated, but he needed to carefully pick which promoters he listened to and where he listened to them. For the wrestlers that worked almost exclusively in Mass., I'd book them much more carefully in a show in Newton or New Bedford than in Northern Maine where nobody had heard of them. I told MJ he could lose to SS wherever he wanted, but it hurt our company for him to do it in Lewiston.
I reassured MJ that in a few months, he'd get the title back. I just needed people's memories of that match to disappear. MJ worked another show or two for us, but I think he felt like he got stung by us, and more specifically, me. It's too bad. He would have been an asset and I think with the proper babyface run, could have started to make both of us money with T-shirts and himself money with photos. After all, that's what this BUSINESS is about, making money. There's no arts funding, no grants, no non-profit status. I liked MJ, but I still think I made the ride decision. I liked Bret Hart, but I still think Vince McMahon made the right decision.