Understanding the Screwjob - 16 Years On
by, 11-04-2013 at 08:53 AM (5538 Views)
The Montreal Screwjob is an infamous moment that almost all wrestling fans know. Even those who have never seen the Shawn Michaels/Bret Hart match – which is good, but lacks an exciting finish – will have heard of the moment when Vince McMahon transformed into Mr McMahon and ended The Hitman’s WWF career with a shocking twist.
The back story is convoluted and differs depending on whose account you believe. The basics are: Bret Hart was allowed to move to WCW due to McMahon, who was close to liquidation at one point in 1997, not being able to afford his wages; Hart refused to drop the belt in Canada – although losing the WWF Championship to his arch-nemesis, Shawn Michaels, could also have influenced his decision; and a small group knew of the ‘plan’ prior to the match.
So, five or so minutes into the Survivor Series ’97 main event, Mr McMahon and his Stooges appeared at ringside. From that moment it was clear something was going on. 15 minutes later, Shawn Michaels applied the Sharpshooter, The Hitman’s iconic submission, and Earl Hebner called for the bell to be rung. Michaels acted like he’s in shock – even in the locker room afterwards he claimed he was innocent – and it didn’t take long for Bret to add two and two together.
McMahon almost had a rebellion on his hands. The Hart Foundation members all attempted to escape their contracts and follow Hart to WCW - Owen was the ‘Sole Survivor’. The move, in the end, worked out for all involved – including Bret in some senses – but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The months before and after the PPV were difficult for the Harts. At One Night Only – a UK only PPV – British Bulldog was set to defend his European Championship against Shawn Michaels. The face, in his home nation, against the villainous HBK – seems like an obvious result. Well, Michaels wasn’t so keen on losing to the Bulldog, so, in front of Smith’s cancer-suffering sister – she was sat in the front row – Michaels beat Bulldog for the belt, DX beat him down after the match, and the new champion even made lewd comments at Diana. Later that month, Brian Pillman, who was set to face Goldust at IYH: Badd Blood, was found dead in his hotel room hours before the event. Then the Screwjob and subsequent insurrection left Owen isolated from his best friends and brother. According to Jim Cornette, Owen was promised his long-awaited main event push. At IYH: DX – the next PPV – Owen assaulted Michaels after his title defence and the crowd were in huge support. This incident was never followed up, and Owen ended up battling Triple H for the European Championship. Michaels and Steve Austin, who had heat with Owen over the neck break at SummerSlam, refused to feud with him and he lingered in the mid-card throughout ’98.
The fault lies with two people: Vince McMahon and Bret Hart.
Vince had allowed The Hitman to talk with WCW after SummerSlam – so why did he keep the WWF Championship on him? In 1995, the Women’s Champion, Alundra Blayze, or Madusa as she was known in WCW, appeared on Nitro and dumped the belt on live television. While McMahon cared little for women’s wrestling, imagine if it had been the Intercontinental Champion, or, worse still, the WWF Champion. The image of the WWF Championship on WCW would have been a huge embarrassment – let’s not forget McMahon was pleased to have the World Championship shown on WWF TV when Ric Flair jumped – and it could have been a decisive nail in the proverbial coffin. So, if he was so paranoid about the possibility of the belt appearing on the rival show, did he keep the belt on Bret Hart? Why leave it until the night before?
The Hitman, on the other hand, shouldn’t have been so obsessive about his image that he refused to drop the belt in Canada. It doesn’t matter whether it’s his home nation or if he didn’t want to hurt his reputation among his fans, he should have been professional enough to provide a solution for the situation. I’m surprised Hart and Michaels couldn’t have come up with a cheating heel finish, so HBK wouldn’t have won clean and ‘damaged’ the champion’s reputation.
The fact is that the move worked out for all parties involved. Vince McMahon attracted some attention back to his product and, in doing so, invented a character who could be regarded as the greatest heel ever. Mr McMahon was vital in turning Stone Cold from a main eventer, into a once-in-a-generation star. It also made Shawn Michaels cement his villainous status and it could have led to an interesting feud with Owen Hart.
It did work out for The Hitman. Let’s not act like he’s suffered for his cause. Jim Cornette mentions during one of his shoot interviews that Mick Foley was absent for Raw is War the next evening because he was uncomfortable with the whole incident. Cornette explained that Bret Hart had gone from a $1 million deal to a $2.5 million deal, so the multi-millionaire would survive, while Foley would be losing money staging a morality protest.
In Bret Hart’s book it’s clear he was frustrated with the direction of his character. He wanted to be either the top face or the top heel – despite being almost 40 – but Michaels and Austin had those two spots. He wasn’t a fan of the popular-in-Canada-hated-in-America angle. The Screwjob, as exemplified by the reaction he received on Nitro, made him an instant hero with all fans. It was just a shame that WCW didn’t know what to with him, making him an ethical sheriff for the Sting/Hogan showdown at Starrcade.
There are some arguments surrounding whether it was a work – in which case, it was the best ever – or if it was genuine. We’ll never know all the facts – egos and clashing stories interfere – but it was a defining moment and a shocking end to Hart’s WWF career. The man who had helped bridge the challenging gap between ‘Hulkamania’ and ‘Attitude’ was gone, forgotten until his HOF appearance in 2006.