The Montreal Screwjob is, without a shadow nor shroud of a doubt, 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 were brutally engaged in television-ratings combat, and the New World Order angle helped give WCW that bit higher ratings than their most direct rival. 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, at the time, had signed an unprecedented twenty-year contract 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 tensions between Hart and fellow performer Shawn Michaels also didn't help in the Fed's regard. The two men infamously didn't get along, and backstage verbal (and often physical) confrontations between Hart and Michaels were becoming ever-common occurrences. 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 event 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 circumstance. Hart made it clear that he would not lose to Michaels in his native Canada. 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 proceed to do the very same, 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 reason for the Screwjob on McMahon's end was money. At the time of Survivor Series 1997, Hart had been earning just shy of two million dollars per year, making him the highest-paid worker in the WWF (for comparison, Shawn Michaels was earning $750,000 per year). Also at the time, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Undertaker had new contracts under negotiation with the WWF. When Austin and Taker compared themselves to Hart, that's when McMahon got really wary. However, whatever the reason might have been — respect, money, prestige, or something else — McMahon knew he had to get the belt off of Bret by any means necessary.
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 mainstay 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, promptly 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. The event destroyed kayfabe for many fans around the world after what was going on began to be understood by the general audience. 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, "Bret screwed Bret." This served as the launching pad for the "Mr. McMahon" character, an evil Corrupt Corporate Executive 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 have 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 getting bumped about in WCW thanks to the company's notoriously-biased booking and nobody really knowing what to do with him. This was despite Hart being — at the time — the hottest free agent in professional wrestling (something that McMahon himself predicted would happen). 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 Ric Flair and being buried in pointless United States Title feuds. After enduring a mule kick by Goldberg during their World Heavyweight Championship match at Starrcade 1999, 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 at the Over the Edge PPV 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.
In April 2019, wrestling documentary series Dark Side of the Ring focused on the screwjob in its second episode, featuring Hart detailing his side of things, as well as going into what happened backstage after the event was over. It also features Jim Cornette admitting to being an Unwitting Instigator of Doom on the screwjob, with Cornette alledging that he offhandedly suggested such a screwjob to McMahon during a meeting and planting the seed of the forced title change in Vince's mind.
Tropes associated with the Montreal Screwjob include:
- Accidental Misnaming: In the lexicon of pro wrestling the Montreal Screwjob wasn't technically a screwjob, it was a double cross. At the time, a screwjob was an inconclusive ending to a match, where neither wrestler is conclusively defeated. But "Montreal Screwjob" did sound better, and the naming stuck, redefining the term 'screwjob' to mean 'an authority figure conspiring with a heel to deny the babyface the win', most likely thanks to this incident.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Going by kayfabe, that is. Assuming that the screwjob was the first of the evil deeds of the "Mr. McMahon" Corrupt Corporate Executive character (going by his later "Bret screwed Bret" interview), Mr. McMahon got exactly what he wanted out of this and more. This was pretty much the turning point in the Monday Night Wars, the birth of the Attitude Era, and all he had to do was get rid of an expensive wrestler who was already on his way out. Mr. McMahon became the main heel of his own show, and the following year, his company had some of the best matches, angles, and PPVs it ever had, to say nothing of the publicity that came with what he just did. Bret, for his part, was literally screwed, as WCW squandered his talent, a clear symptom of their own inevitable decline.
- Belated Happy Ending: Kayfabe-wise. It took twelve years, but Hart ultimately mended fences with Michaels and avenged Montreal by beating the shit out of McMahon with his family, capped off by Hart forcing McMahon to submit to the very same Sharpshooter that cost him the title.
- Big Damn Heroes: The Undertaker put his career on the line to force McMahon to apologize to Hart, likely saving the WWF from imploding and a number of wrestlers from walking out.
- Blatant Lies:
- Michael Cole interviewed McMahon before the event. When asked who will win, McMahon replied "I don't know", of course, he had been well aware of the plan from several weeks prior.
- When confronted by Hart after the match, Shawn Michaels strongly denied any foreknowledge of the altered finish and claimed he was just as confused and outraged at the result as Hart was. It would later be revealed that not only did Michaels know of the plan the entire time, he had a hand in crafting its execution.
- In the Wrestling With Shadows documentary, Bret claims Vince "somehow ran into [his] hand" after Bret slugged Vince post-screwjob.
- 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. Also, the second episode of Dark Side of the Ring is all about the screwjob.
- 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 though he didn't like doing it.
- Vince McMahon feels very much the same as Michaels, feeling like Hart put him between a rock and a hard place. Because Bret wouldn't do the job, McMahon felt that what he did was necessary to keep his company going.
- Earl Hebner didn't want to participate in the finish on ethical grounds; Gerald Brisco told Hebner he'd be fired if he didn't. Hebner agreed to go with it because he needed the job. When discussing the Screwjob as part of a 2020 interview with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Bret admitted that he would probably have done the same thing in Earl's place and didn't hold it against him.
- 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.
- Jim Cornette has spent years rallying against the death of Kayfabe and feels that pulling back the curtain and exposing the business is what led to the downfall of professional wrestling. He said that it occurred to him much later that the accidental architect of the Montreal Screwjob was himself, after remembering that he had been the first one to suggest a double cross on Bret during a booking meeting, and as such he's indirectly responsible for the death of kayfabe.
- Oh, Crap!: Going by Bret's description of the aftermath during the "Broken Skull Sessions" interview, Shawn Michaels had a huge one of these following the screwjob, after Vince had come to the locker room, been knocked out by Bret with one punch, and carried out again by his supporters. Shawn realized he was practically alone in the locker room with not only the furious Bret (who he'd just seen punch out his boss) but Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, Rick Rude and Jim Neidhart- all family and friends of Bret Hart. Triple H wasn't there, and the most support Shawn could reasonably expect was from the equally-furious Undertaker, who would probably intervene if it looked like Shawn was going to be beaten to death. Then Bret walked over to Shawn, tapped him on the shoulder, offered him his hand and said "Shawn, thank you for the match". (Bret said that when he later found out that Shawn had been in it up to his neck, despite swearing his ignorance, he wished he'd kicked Shawn's head off instead.)
- Rule 34: In 2017, porn company Brazzers announced that they were going to produce a pro wrestling parody film titled The Fuckjob, but it appears that the project has never been released, making this an aversion.
- Running Gag: The Montreal Screwjob had such a massive effect on wrestling history that it became a sort of running gag for it to be rehashed across the wrestling world in several different companies numerous times, as seen on the Referenced By page.
- 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. Making matters even worse for Earl, Bret had caught up with him the day before the match and warned him that the brass were going to try and screw him, only for Earl to swear on the lives of his children that he wouldn't allow that to happen, and that because of this Bret had been hoping that Earl would be the referee for the match, feeling safe when he saw that he was.
- 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." If you look at Vince closely enough during the "Bret Screwed Bret" interview, you can see that he has a black eye.
- 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 beating his opponent and/or winning the belt back; 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 on Dark Side of the Ring that he was the first one to suggest a double cross on Bret during a booking meeting. (Cornette first suggested booking Bret with Ken Shamrock, who with his background in MMA could have legitimately beaten Bret in a fight if he refused to do the job- although given that the entire problem was that Bret was refusing to put over Shawn specifically, had they booked him to lose to Shamrock a double-cross wouldn't have been necessary). In June 2019, Cornette detailed on his podcast that he actually came up with the finish. He says he suggested it hypothetically because Vince McMahon rarely took his suggestions. Cornette didn't know Vince was actually going to use the finish until he saw it live that night. Since he figured his "idea" wasn't going to be used, Cornette never bothered to ask about confirmation about the finish.
- 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!" This was the point in which McMahon deviated from the plan for the match; rather than allow the match to be thrown out by a brawl between Hart's and Michaels' factions, Vince forced the ref to end the match when Hart was put into a submission hold, despite Hart clearly not submitting. This forced Hart to capitulate and give up the belt to Michaels. The Kayfabe illusion at this point was shattered with those four words, and it redefined the careers of everyone involved in the incident, including McMahon himself.
- 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 two decades after the event had passed.