The Montreal Screwjob is, without hyperbole, one of the most important events in the history of the entire professional wrestling industry.
In 1997, the World Wrestling Federation was facing its most heated competition ever in the form of World Championship Wrestling. The Monday Night Wars had hit full swing, and the New World Order angle helped give WCW better ratings than the WWF. Vince McMahon saw some seriously hard times ahead for his promotion, which forced him to make some tough decisions. One of these decisions involved a wrestler named Bret "The Hitman" Hart.
Hart had signed an unprecedented twenty-year deal with the WWF in 1996 that would've seen him collect a considerable amount of money for his services. McMahon felt he would have to breach Hart's contract in order to keep the company alive as WCW ran roughshod over the WWF. Backstage tension between Hart and fellow performer Shawn Michaels had also reaching a boiling point around this time. The two men infamously didn't get along, and backstage tensions between Hart Michaels were becoming a common sight. Between the desire to get away from Shawn and the promised fiscal security of the WCW contract, Bret saw no other choice but to jump ship to WCW. In November 1997, Hart (the then-reigning WWF Champion) signed a contract with WCW for a guaranteed three million dollars per year.
Hart's last contractually-obligated appearance on WWF programming would take place at Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal. Hart would face off against Shawn Michaels in the main event with the WWF Championship on the line. The WWF hadn't scheduled the show as Hart's last with the company, as his working agreement ran for three weeks after the pay-per-view, and WCW gave him verbal approval to work another PPV in early December. This December PPV would have likely seen Bret drop the title in a four-way match to either Michaels (if Michaels agreed to lose at Montreal) or another wrestler who would later lose to Michaels (if Michaels refused to job). Shawn refused to lose the Survivor Series match to Hart under any circumstances. Hart made it clear that he would not lose to Michaels in Montreal. The exit clause in Hart's aforementioned contract required Bret and Vince come to an agreement on any booking decisions regarding Hart, which left Bret holding all the cards. Michaels and Hart's mutual stubbornness placed McMahon between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
The original plan for the match's finish (according to Hart) would have seen Michaels use Hart's Sharpshooter submission hold against Hart himself after a ref bump. Once Michaels applied the hold, Hart would reverse it, leading to a few more near-falls. Then, feuding factions D-Generation X (to which Michaels belonged) and the Hart Foundation (to which Hart belonged) would run in, start a huge brawl between the groups, and cause the match to be tossed out on a double-DQ. This ending would leave Hart open to drop the title in the aforementioned four-way match. (Hart briefly discussed simply giving up the title on TV, but at that point, McMahon had committed to the Screwjob, so he agreed to nearly anything Hart said in order to get Bret to perform at Survivor Series.)
However, McMahon was nervous about sending Hart out of the company as the champion. McMahon still had some leftover anger concerning then-WWF Women's Champion Alundra Blayze tossing the WWF Women's Championship belt in the trash live on WCW Monday Nitro. McMahon reportedly feared Hart would show up on WCW programming with the WWF Championship and toss that belt in the trash (or worse), even though the WWF had filed multiple lawsuits regarding the Blayze incident against WCW. Since Hart had refused to drop the belt to Michaels in Canada, McMahon had to worry about the possibility of Bret jumping ship with the championship belt.
Well, that's the story McMahon will tell you, anyway. Wrestling critics/historians say the people pressuring Eric Bischoff, the head of WCW creative at the time, didn't want Hart to get over if he jumped ship. WCW kept Bret on the shelf for over a month before popping a buyrate with the then-considered-washed-up Flair and being buried in pointless United States Title feuds. The real reason for the Screwjob on McMahon's end had to do with Hart earning just shy of two million dollars per year (compared to Michaels' $750,000 per year). At the time, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Undertaker had new contracts under negotiation. When Austin and Taker compared themselves to Hart — the highest paid guy in the WWF — that's when McMahon got really scared.
And so, Vince hatched a plot on the night of Survivor Series. When Michaels caught Hart in the Sharpshooter submission hold as planned, McMahon ordered referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell as if Hart had submitted to the hold, despite Hart clearly having done no such thing. This ended the match, made Michaels the champion, and screwed Hart on his way out of the WWF without a proper send-off.
This singular moment became one of the most controversial, shocking, and altogether important events in the history of pro wrestling. The Screwjob sent Hart packing to WCW on very bad terms with the WWF, and destroyed kayfabe for many fans around the world. Vince — who had hoped the whole thing would blow over with time — suddenly found himself as the most hated man in all of pro wrestling once people found out what had really happened. The next night on Raw, McMahon famously said that "Bret screwed Bret." This served as the launching pad for the "Mr. McMahon" character, an evil boss heel who would handpick his own champions while screwing babyface wrestlers out of matches. McMahon ended up having a much bigger on-screen role than he could ever imagined, playing the role of "evil boss" to the hilt as he feuded with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin during the Attitude Era. That feud would come to define both the Era itself and the Corrupt Corporate Executive role in pro wrestling for years to come.
The Screwjob actually qualifies as Hilarious in Hindsight when you consider how Hart won his first title in the WWF. The Hart Foundation (Hart and brother-in-law Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart, w/non-relative manager "The Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart) defeated the British Bulldogs (The Dynamite Kid and cousin Davey Boy Smith — another brother-in-law, though not acknowledged as such at the time) for the WWF World Tag Team Titles on the 7 February 1987 (taped 26 January) episode of WWF Superstars. Bret and "The Anvil" won due to referee Danny Davis generally ignoring the Harts' constant double-teaming and spending most of the time checking on the injured Dynamite Kid. After the Harts won the match, Davis left with them.
Even before the Screwjob became a running gag, other promotions had already started to parody it. At ECW's November to Remember '97 PPV (held a mere three weeks later), Al Snow — in the early months of his carrying around a mannequin head gimmick — cut a promo where he said, "I didn't screw the Head. The HEAD SCREWED THE HEAD!" Even Scott Keith called it funny.
Bret Hart left the WWF and spent three years floundering around in WCW thanks to crappy booking and nobody really knowing what to do with him. This is despite Hart being — at the time — the hottest free agent in professional wrestling (something that McMahon himself predicted would happen). Thanks to an errant kick by Bill Goldberg during a match in 2000, Hart suffered a career-ending concussion and retired from in-ring action. A stroke suffered after Hart's retirement has ensured that, save for special circumstances where he doesn't have to take a bump, he'll never perform in the ring again. Following his retirement, Hart had very little love lost for WWF — thanks both to the Screwjob and the death of his brother Owen in 1999 — but managed to put his animosity aside to help preserve his legacy. He worked with WWE to produce a DVD set that became widely acclaimed as a great retrospective on his career (one that WWE initially planned as a smearjob set called ''Screwed'' until Hart heard about the plans). In 2006, Hart accepted induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, making his first appearance on WWE programming of any kind in nearly a decade to accept the honor. A few years later, Hart signed up again with WWE to ensure a proper and honorable exit from the business (see below).
Shawn Michaels spent the next few months as the WWF Champion, but back injuries suffered during a Casket Match with The Undertaker at Royal Rumble 1998 eventually caught up to him. Following his loss to Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIV (where he performed despite his injury causing him severe pain), Michaels spent the next four years on the shelf, making sporadic appearances for WWE while he slowly healed up. In this interim, Michaels not only admitted that he knew of the plan to screw over Hart, but he became a born-again Christian. Michaels made his return to active competition in 2002, and he remained one of WWE's most popular and skilled performers until his retirement at WrestleMania 26.
In December 2009, Hart confirmed that he would return to WWE in 2010 to guest host the first Raw of the year (his first appearance on Raw in over twelve years), and during that show's opening segment, Hart made his peace with Michaels in the middle of the ring in one of the most surreal moments in wrestling history. He was (kayfabe) attacked by McMahon at the end of the show, which set up an angle that led up to WrestleMania 26, where McMahon faced Hart in a "No Holds Barred" Match. Although McMahon tried to bribe the rest of the Hart family into screwing Hart over again, they saw through Vince's scheme and double-crossed him, which allowed Hart to finally make McMahon pay for Montreal (via thirteen chairshots and the Sharpshooter) and receive the full closure he'd been looking for. (As part of the angle, Hart's father — legendary Canadian wrestling promoter/trainer and patriarch of the Hart family, the late Stu Hart — received a posthumous induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.) After WrestleMania, Bret appeared sporadically to help put over The Hart Dynasty (David Hart Smith, Tyson Kidd, and Natalya) and serve as Raw's General Manager for a brief period (The Nexus would eventually take him out). Both Hart and Michaels continue to make special "cameo" appearances at WWE events to this day.
In late 2011, WWE released Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart on DVD and Blu-ray. As the title suggests, WWE dedicated the set — a first-of-its-kind release for the company — to the long rivalry between Hart and Michaels, which stretched back all the way to the feud between The Rockers and The Hart Foundation. The real meat of the DVD came from Jim Ross' sitdown interview with both Hart and Michaels, who discussed their careers and their rivalry — including the Screwjob — at length. The DVD appeared to back Bret Hart's side of the story, as Ross conceded that no WWE employee had any fear of Bret pulling a Ric Flair or Madusa with the belt (and that Bret had acted reasonably regarding the Survivor Series finish). Fans, critics, and wrestling historians generally regard the set as one of WWE's best home video releases.
Tropes associated with the Montreal Screwjob include:
- Big Damn Heroes: (The Undertaker) put his career on the line to force McMahon to apologize, likely saving the WWF from imploding and the number of wrestlers upset from walking out.
- Blatant Lies: Michael Cole interviewed McMahon before the event and when asked who will win, he replied, "I don't know." Michaels suggested a screwjob to McMahon when Hart refused to lose several weeks before, and McMahon had said they needed to do it because he couldn't talk Hart around.
- Continuity Nod:
- The ending was recycled a year later for the purpose of turning the Rock heel, and several other companies have used the Screwjob as a template for screwy endings:
- When Rick Rude jumped to WCW he called out McMahon for the screwjob and used it as his reasoning why Hart and other wrestlers should jump ship.
- Documentary: Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows and The Montreal Theory.
- Fleeting Demographic Rule: The Montreal Screwjob had such a massive effect on wrestling history that it has been rehashed numerous times with no less than three different companies (WWE, WCW, and TNA), with gradually diminishing returns. It's to the point that newer fans actually learn about the event from said rehashes.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Even after Michaels' Real Life HeelFaith Turn, this has been his stance regarding the screwjob. Both in kayfabe and in real life, Michaels feels like he did what was necessary to save the WWF, even if he didn't like doing it. Vince feels very much the same.
- Kick the Dog: The camera just had to show Bret's face in total right after the bell rang, didn't it?
- My God, What Have I Done?: According to Bret's autobiography, Shawn broke down crying in the locker room after the match. Shawn himself would also later confirm that the screwjob would haunt him in the years afterwards. Even so, Shawn felt that what he did was ultimately necessary.
- Running Gag:
- The main event of WCW's Starrcade 1997, one month later - Sting was pinned by WCW World Heavyweight Champion "Hollywood" Hogan via a "fast" three-count, but before the bell could be rung, Hart (a special referee during an earlier match) stopped the timekeeper from ringing it, knocked out the ref, and tossed Hogan back into the ring, where he eventually tapped to the Scorpion Deathlock (which coincidentally is Sting's version of the Sharpshooter) while Bret acted as the ref (this was made worse by the fact that the "fast" three-count wasn't really "fast", and it's long rumored that Hogan called for the screwy finish so as not to lose clean to Sting).
- During the first World Wrestling All-Stars show, Bret, serving as the WWA Commissioner, refused to ring the bell with the referee down and one of the combatants locked in a Sharpshooter. In a subversion, however, the screwiness was Bret refusing to ring the bell, as both Road Dogg and Jeff Jarrett, who were competing, tapped with the referee down, and Bret not only refused to count either of them, but tried to walk out with the belt himself.
- The Screwjob became a running gag on parody wrestling news site ScoopThis, as "Shootin' Vince McMahon" was said to call for screwy finishes at wildly inappropriate times; one such article had a submission victory due to a "devastating pre-match handshake", at McMahon's behest.
- The Rock vs. Mankind at Survivor Series 1998 was the original Screwjob copycat with Rock playing Michaels, Mankind playing Hart and McMahon betraying Mankind.
- On the May 28, 2001 edition of Raw is War held in Calgary, Alberta (Hart's hometown), "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (the then-WWF Champion) put Chris Benoit (a long-time friend of the Hart family) in the Crippler Crossface, and McMahon ordered the bell rung. As if recreating the Screwjob in Hart's hometown wasn't bad enough, Hart's father Stu was sitting at ringside.
- Backlash 2004 played with the Screwjob by having Michaels put fellow Hart's fellow Canadian (and then-WWE World Heavyweight Champion) Chris Benoit in the Sharpshooter, then having Earl Hebner rush down to the ring to call the submission (the first ref had been knocked out). This time, Hebner plays the referee job straight, and Benoit never taps; in fact, he later wins by making Michaels tap out to the Sharpshooter, WWE offering up a symbolic apology for the Screwjob.
- Hebner made his TNA debut at Against All Odds 2006, and was about to call for the bell when Jeff Jarrett had Christian Cage in the Sharpshooter, but Cage stopped him and went on to win the match.
- Shane McMahon defeated Michaels on the March 18, 2006 Saturday Night's Main Event when he put an unconscious Michaels in the Sharpshooter, and Vince ordered the bell to be rung, and Shane to be announced as winner by submission.
- Breaking Point 2009 (oh so coincidentally held in Montreal)note had CM Punk lock The Undertaker in the Anaconda Vice. Despite Undertaker escaping the hold, Theodore Long rang the bell and declared Punk the winner by submission. This match was actually a double screwjob. A few minutes earlier, Undertaker made Punk tap out with Hell's Gate, but Long declared that it didn't count and ordered the match to continue.
- The January 21, 2010 edition of TNA Impact featured a damn-near recreation of the Screwjob; this time, however, the screwjob was in favor of the TNA World Heavyweight Champion (AJ Styles) rather than the challenger (Kurt Angle).
- The July 17, 2011 match between CM Punk vs. John Cena was eerily similar till Cena, who locked Punk in a STF, knocks out John Laurinaitis, who was gonna ring the bell! Cena then tells McMahon that this match is his match and that he finishes it his way, comes back to the ring and gets hit with a GTS by Punk! CM Punk wins the WWE Championship belt with the stipulation that he leaves WWE and Cena gets fired if he loses.
- On the July 18, 2011 edition of RAW, Cena outright calls McMahon out on trying to recreate this incident and on what it had done to Michaels' career as part of "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
- Daniel Bryan locked The Big Show in the Yes Lock on the May 11, 2012 edition of SmackDown and John Laurinaitis immediately rang the bell and declared Bryan the winner by submission.
- In 2013, seconds after Daniel Bryan won the championship from John Cena at SummerSlam 2013, special guest referee Triple H attacked Bryan with a Pedigree, and Randy Orton cashed in his Money in the Bank contract against Bryan, winning the WWE Championship. Bryan would be branded a "B-list wrestler" struggling to regain the championship as Orton joined forces with The Shield, and after regaining the belt at Night of Champions (2013), he was stripped of the belt a night later when referee Scott Armstrong was accused of making a fast count and conspiring with Bryan, and the feud with Orton would continue into 2014 at WrestleMania, defeating Triple H to qualify for a triple threat match against Randy Orton and Batista, later forfeiting the championship after sustaining injuries at the hands of Kane.
- The Screwjob was replicated on Payback 2016, when Charlotte puts Natayla in the Sharpshooter and the referee immediately calls for the bell. Bonus point for Bret Hart being there for his niece that night.
- Sadistic Choice: Right before the match, Gerald Brisco forced referee Earl Hebner into taking part in the screwjob, or else he'd be fired from the WWF.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Undertaker straight up confronted Vince backstage and Mick Foley quit for a day in protest. In his perspective, this is how Vince feels about the event.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: A number of wrestlers attempted to walk out from the company in protest (Mick Foley actually did for a day). Bret talked them out of it.
- Secret Keeper: Triple H also knew of what was going to happen in the main event, but there have been conflicting accounts as to the extent of his involvement. Some of them say that HHH suggested the screwjob in the first place, while others say HHH knew what would happen but did nothing about it. All that said, HHH admitted he still thinks it was the right call years later.
- Shoot the Dog: McMahon views the Montreal Screwjob as an I Did What I Had to Do moment. Ditto for Michaels.
- Spiteful Spit: Bret spits on Vince out of disgust once Bret realized what was going on. There's even multiple angles of Bret doing it, along with Vince wiping it off his face.
- Talk to the Fist: Backstage footage of Bret afterwards showed Bret saying that "Vince ran into [his] fist."
- Trash the Set: Bret destroyed several things around the ring after the cameras went off-air. He apparently did the same thing backstage.
- Unbuilt Trope: The Montreal Screwjob shows what would really happen if a wrestler ever got screwed out of the title. Forget winning the belt back or beating his opponent; Hart was so angry that he attacked McMahon, destroyed WWF equipment in rage, and left the company for decades before he came back. Plus, other people backstage almost quit out of anger at management. And yet, it's the Montreal Screwjob that shaped pretty much every similar story that came afterwards.
- An inversion had happened over a decade earlier. On the November 21, 1985 episode of WWF on PRISM Network, there was a match between David Sammartino and Ron Shaw that David had been booked to win. Unexpectedly, David ran off the ropes and jumped into Shaw's arms and "submitted" to a Bear Hug. It has become known as the "Phantom Submission Match."
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Jim Cornette has stated that he was the first one to suggest a double cross on Bret during a booking meeting. He later said that he meant it jokingly and had no actual hand in the ending, all he asked Vince was if he had a finish. Vince said he did, and that was all Cornette wanted to know; he didn't want to know any details.
- Wham Episode: For many fans of pro wrestling, this was the first point that Kayfabe was irrevocably broken. If nothing else, the screwjob forever changed the careers of everyone involved.
- Wham Line: "Ring the (fucking) bell!"
- What the Hell, Hero?: The backlash Vince, Earl Hebner, and HBK got from this event are huge.
- The immediate aftermath saw Mick Foley almost quit, and Undertaker telling McMahon that he needed to face Hart like a man, or he "wouldn't have a company" the next day.
- The chants of "You screwed Bret!" follow McMahon, Michaels, and even referee Earl Hebner in Canada to this day, more than two decades after the event had passed.