Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Screwjob

After so many years, I finally got some background on the Montreal Screwjob, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon. I'd heard tell of this hushed myth, this moment in time that was summarized by its name, but never really explained. And I guess, even after watching 'Wrestling with Shadows', it's still not fully explained, but at least I now know what they've been talking about all those years.

I actually never really knew Bret Hart, he was before I became a fan, so while he was mentioned frequently, I never knew his character. To me 'The Hitman' Hart sounded like a heel, but I guess I was wrong. Hart aimed to be and was the superhero good guy, a cool hero the kids could look up to, almost like the Hulkster (without the steroids, I mean, vitamins). The WWF at the time was treading the same classic path of clear-cut good guys and bad guys, black and white morality plays.

And then of course, WCW came along, and raised the stakes. Their show was different, edgy, with dancing girls and a plethora of pilfered WWF personalities. Vince decided to shake things up, countering the nWo with DX, letting Shawn Michaels and Hunter Helmsley run amok, crotch-chopping all over the world. Enter Stone Cold Steve Austin, the would-be heel who became the ultimate finger-flipping, beer swilling hardcore redneck anti-hero. These changes helped bring the WWF back from the brink in the ratings war, and people seemed pleased all around, except apparently Bret.

According to Bret, he didn't like the creative direction the company was going, especially since he couldn't enjoy the programming with his kids, feeling it was too risque and inappropriate. He had qualms about the changing structure of heroes and foes - it was no longer black and white, but shades of grey, as Bret experienced with the crowds cheering Austin, the booked heel, but booing Bret, the booked face. Eventually, in their Wrestlemania Submission match, a magnificently built match culminated in the double-turn of the two, with Austin officially becoming a fan favorite by passing out instead of submitting to the Sharpshooter and Bret settling into the role of heel that had been building for him, by kicking Austin while he was down after the match.

Bret didn't want to be heel, he wanted to be the hero. But the WWF's heroes at the time were guys like Austin, and that just didn't sit well with Bret. Eventually he decided to accept a lucrative offer from WCW, and tried to organize a fitting departure for his character as he and Vince agreed. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Vince wanted Hart to drop the title to Michaels at Survivor Series in Montreal, but then agreed to Bret's request that he later forfeit the title and leave the WWF not as a defeated champion, but by 'graciously' stepping down.

Well, that may have been the plan. Or maybe Vince really was worried that Bret would take the WWF belt with him onto WCW tv, as a few others had already done. But either way, instead of Bret retaining the belt via disqualification, as Michaels held Hart in his own Sharpshooter, Vince had them ring the bell as if he had submitted, when he clearly had not. It's painfully obvious that they just pulled a fast one, and speaking of fast, Sean Michaels grabbed that belt and booked it out of there. It's unclear how much he actually knows about the circumstances of that night.

Vince broke his word to Bret, and gave him a crappy exit from the company that he had served so loyally for so long. So I think that hearty spit in the face and punch in the eye was well deserved. Why did Vince _really_ do it? Was he just flexing his power, showing Bret who's boss? Was he diabolically scheming his own momentous heel turn down the road, cemented during the interview where he stated that "Bret screwed Bret"? We may never know. But that incident, that Screwjob, fueled the rage against Vince for years, and did allow him to use it and become a pivotal heel character to Austin's anti-hero, establishing one of the most successful and profitable feuds in wrestling history. Whether he planned that way or not, Vince did screw Bret out of his graceful departure, and used his humiliated carcass as a step over WCW and toward phenomenal success for the WWF/E.


Carolina said...

Sweet take on "The Screwjob." Sometime between 2002 and 2003 though, Shawn came forward and said that he was, in fact, in on all of it. I think it was on WWE Confidential when they interviewed him and he finally came forth and said that yes, he did in fact know. This of course sparked new life into the story of the Montreal Screwjob, since by the looks of Wrestling with Shadows and Bret's accounts since, Shawn swore to him (the night it happened) that he had no idea what Vince was thinking. If you saw, he seemed angry and upset himself when he was walking back with his championship, but now he's openly admitted screwing Bret... and if he "got the chance, he'd do it again" by his own admission. I bought his autobiography last year and was particularly interested in his take, since Bret's and Vince's are very well known. It was a good read, I'd even say a great read, but sometimes I wonder if one should just take his word with a grain of salt...

Sam Ford said...

A lot of people point out that WWE, even more than the fans, seem like they can't let Montreal go and always do storylines that make some kind of reference back to the 1997 Survivor Series. However, I think it's hard to understate how much fuel this added to the fire that led to WWE toppling WCW in the Monday Night Wars. This happened in November 1997, still several months before WWE overtook WCW in the ratings. At the time, Steve Austin was just coming back from the injured list, having been hurt due to a piledriver-gone-wrong from Owen Hart a few months earlier.

In addition to being the night Bret got screwed, Survivor Series was the night Austin returned to the ring to wrestle Owen. Austin had already given McMahon the Stunner in Madison Square Garden, but McMahon had been positioned as the man of authority but not a full-blown powerful heel, rather the head of the system holding Austin down.

Post-Montreal, though, Vince takes his subtle heel turn with "Bret screwed Bret," as Mick Foley claims in The Monday Night War. And it wasn't long before Mr. McMahon was born. Leading up to Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin from Wrestlemania XIV, McMahon is interviewed, again uncharacteristically, about who he would rather win the main event of the biggest show of the year, and he shows his clear displeasure at Steve Austin, who had been a thorn in the company's side for some time, being the champ.

At the time, I could already see where they were going, and the foreshadowing was exciting in itself. Here we have the longtime voice of the WWE, who only openly acknowledged himself as owner on camera in the past year-and-a-half or so, and who had positioned himself as a rival to Austin's anti-authority but now also a powerful heel who didn't care to screw someone over. Austin wins the title at Wrestlemania, and then we get the "easy way or the hard way" speech, followed by Austin coming out in a suit and tie, only to rip them off and attack McMahon, announcing he would never be the corporate champ.

These were the events that led up to Raw finally overtaking Nitro for the first time in 83 weeks in the ratings on the night McMahon first entered the ring to face Austin. Truth is, Austin had been around and hot for some time, but it took the birth of Mr. McMahon to put WWE back at the top of the ratings war. While WCW sadly never capitalized on what should have been strong momentum in getting Bret Hart, WWE used bad P.R. to its advantage and came out on top.

Luis Tenorio said...

I never really saw Bret's side of the situation save for the fact that Vince went back on what he told Bret he would do. Of course watching this video makes it seem like Bret Hart was the real victim. But watching the documentary makes me think twice. Some of the reasons he was giving for his displeasure did not make sense. The WCW was not going in a morally sound direction either. The nWo and the Nitro Girls were not exactly wholesome. And what did he expect to become in the WCW? He was not necessarily going to become the top heel or hero in WCW. So what would he gain from leaving? Also, he never considered Vince's position. He could not take a chance on Bret leaving with the belt. Also he was being stubborn and not willing to lose at the Pay-Per-View. I suppose he faced what had happened to Hulk-Hogan and was not willing to pass the torch.
I think the best way to look at it is from Mick Foley's and most every other wrestler in the WWF at the time. If there was any chance that Bret would show up with the title belt on WCW, then who knows what would have happened. Would the WWF have suffered more and maybe lost out completely? That would put those wrestlers out of work and if there was any chance that would happen if Bret didn't drop the belt, then there was no chance in hell they would have let Vince take that chance.

Sam Ford said...

Some good points, Luis. It might interest you to know that, the night after all, Mick Foley, Ron Simmons, and some other wrestlers boycotted Raw because they were so angry with what Vince had done to Bret, though. Mick says in The Monday Night War that he thinks there's no way that Vince really thinks "Bret screwed Bret" and that what Vince does isn't right, even if you can understand why he did it.

Ismael said...

There is no question that Bret had every right to exercise his creative control during his final days in the WWF. I'm curious as to what was the result of Vince breaching the contract. It appears that Vince has total control despite what the contracts say. Bret might've been better off leaving the WWF without notice as so many others had done before him. Bret, however, wanted to do things the right way. He gave fair notice to Vince and fulfilled his contractual obligations. As a final attempt to flex his power over Bret before he left, all of Bret's requests were denied. It's possible that Vince wanted to do to Bret what so many wrestlers had done to him in the past...renege on his word.

Sam Ford said...

Well, Ismael, the key word here is "reasonable" creative control. By having that word before creative control, it potentially renders it legally meaningless because who decides what is "reasonable." Certainly, Vince could make an argument that losing the world title in a PPV main event match would be going out with a bang. In 1996, Kevin Nash's last televised match with WWE was the No Holds Barred match with Shawn Michaels which main evented a PPV. Similarly, Bret was pushed right up to the end.

I'm by no means arguing that what Vince did was just, but in the eyes of the law, he would probably be able to construct a pretty compelling argument that Bret's demands not to lose in his big final PPV match was unreasonable.

Think about it from the fans' perspective, not that the Bret/Shawn match we got was any good, but you plunk down $30 for a PPV, only to have the main event end in a double DQ.