Volume Four, Chapter One: Montreal
The key to wrestling’s longevity is that it combines numerous facets of all popular entertainment. The promos resemble TBN sermons. It has the glitz and glamor of a pop concert. It has some sex appeal for everybody. And pantomime as it is, it has the contact of sports. The most important part of wrestling, and all serial programs, is the predetermined story line. It’s the most socially adapted aspect of professional wrestling.
The civil unrest in America is due to everybody not keeping to the story line. People really do believe that others should act solely in accordance to what will please them. When people don’t comply, social media explodes. But story lines can only work if every single person involved “does their part”. With 300M people in the U.S., and an equal amount of possible conclusions, that “part” will never be officially defined.
Story lines only work in fiction, and sometimes not even then. I remember the most infamous meltdown in professional wrestling history. Ironically, it came from my all-time favorite wrestler. From Bret The Hit Man Hart, I learned to imitate his ring entrance and walk again. I learned how to celebrate a win, and survive a loss. Yet it was the one time he didn’t rebound from a loss that always stands out in my mind.
On November 9, 1997, the World Wrestling Federation held its annual Survivor Series pay-per-view. The show aired from Montreal’s Molson Centre. Unbeknownst to fans, the main event had no official finish until the show even started. The end of the match began a decade of turmoil.
WWF Chairman Vince McMahon wanted Bret to lose the WWF Championship belt to The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels. The title change would segue into the new, adult-oriented direction Vince wanted the WWF to go. In protest, Bret refused to lose to Shawn. Both agreed that Bret should leave the WWF, and he signed onto Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling.
Bret’s publicized imminent departure made losing to Shawn a foregone conclusion to fans. Citing a creative control clause in his contract, and his iconic status in his native Canada, Bret still refused to lose. Two hours before the actual match, Vince told Bret he could go to a draw with Shawn, and forfeit the belt in a farewell speech later. Bret Hart just knew he had forced his employer, and by extrapolation, Shawn Michaels, to give him the sendoff he wanted.
Vince soon admitted he had already planned the night before the match to ensure that Bret lost the belt. He and Shawn told the match’s referee, Earl Hebner, the plan right as the match began. Bret wound up losing when Shawn got him in his own Sharpshooter leg lock, and Hebner (and Vince at ringside and off-camera) called for the bell. At first, people sympathized with Bret. Most people can relate to being humiliated on the job.
As the details of what led up to the now-infamous Montreal Screw Job emerged, public opinion changed. Hulk Hogan lost the WWF Title to Yokozuna before he went to WCW. In addition, it was the fans that showed, through the Nielsen ratings, that they enjoyed the new direction. He had been a moralistic hero at a time when fans wanted to cheer unrepentant guys like the cussing Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Shawn Michaels went on to lose the WWF Title to Austin at WrestleMania XIV on March 29, 1998. He retired from wrestling right after the match. Vince McMahon took the real-life hatred fans and even WWF wrestlers felt for him and created a new antagonist for Austin: Vince himself. Their outrageous on-screen feud would lead the WWF to Wall Street and eventually to Vince buying WCW for a mere $3M in 2001.
Bret Hart was already retired when Vince bought the company. Between horrible creative decisions on the part of WCW, the accidental death of his brother Owen at a WWF pay-per-view, and the success of the Vince/Austin story line based on Montreal, he, perhaps rightfully, became very bitter. In 2002, the same year Shawn returned to the now WWE, Bret suffered a stroke. Only when Vince called him in the hospital did the healing process begin.
In 2010, Shawn and Bret finally made peace. At WrestleMania XXVI, Bret beat Vince in one match, and Shawn retired in another. Shawn wanted to go out with a loss to the Undertaker, and did. At last, it seemed to be all over.
Bret Hart’s Hit Man persona was built around rising up from the pain of defeat over and again. To build such a legend, Bret had to lose. Yet the one time he confused fact with fiction, all hell broke loose. The entire wrestling industry changed when a departing wrestler thought others should follow his script. Reality, as usual, threw a wrench in things. And it took years to make peace with it.
Story lines only work in fiction, and sometimes not even then.
Posted on October 13, 2014, in 1997 Survivor Series, Bret The Hit Man Hart, Montreal Screw Job, Professional Wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels, Vince McMahon, World Championship Wrestling, World Wrestling Federation, WWE and tagged Montreal Screw Job. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.