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Thursday Night Tanders (11/5/15): Anatomy of a Double-Cross—The Montreal Screwjob Turns 18


Anatomy of a Screwjob.jpg
The Throwback Tito has something to confess to you all. Not once was I ever invited to anyone’s debut. Being the type who’d turn into a bright red tomato when a pretty girl would talk to me, I was a bigger flop with the girls than Mick Foley was back in his days at Cortland State. So that meant no debut invites for yours truly, though it may have been just as well—up to now, I’m that guy with two left feet, a guy who keeps the rhythm for his band as the drummer, but ironically can’t dance to save his life.

This week on "Thursday Night Tanders" though, I’ll be inviting you to a different kind of debut. And it’s not someone who’s turning 18, but something. And that something is the notorious Montreal Screwjob, which took place on November 9, 1997 at the Survivor Series, as Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels fought for the WWF Championship.


Many say it was the catalyst for a boom period in wrestling. But many also say it was the worst single thing Vince McMahon has ever orchestrated as owner and chairman of the WWF/E.

You know what? They’re both right.


Screw job 101: How it Started

The office can be a hornet’s nest of politics. And it doesn’t matter what your job is—you may work in a call center, in marketing, advertising, engineering, you name it. Politics, like the love Wet Wet Wet sung about in 1994, is all around us. The Throwback Tito can consider himself lucky, as he’s been working from home since mid-2012, but he’s been a victim of politics quite a few times in his days as an office worker. But going back to the original point, you can’t escape politics. And it’s definitely a staple of the “office” professional wrestlers work for, including those in the WWE.

Politics can also change people and turn them into people we no longer know. And that’s what happened to one Michael Shawn Hickenbottom in 1990s WWF. As a hot prospect with The Rockers in his earliest days in the WWF, the wrestler known as Shawn Michaels worked hard and partied even harder, but by all accounts, he was “one of the boys” during his midcard days. And while he wasn’t extremely close to rising main eventer Bret Hart back in the early ‘90s, they had mutual respect for each other, and they would, on occasion, have each other’s backs when it came to the political issues running wild (see what I did there) at the time.

When did the real-life Bret vs Shawn feud really start? Depends on whose autobiography you’re reading. According to Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, the seeds were planted in 1995 when Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sean Waltman formed a backstage faction called the Kliq. Bret talks about how Shawn seemed to have changed around that time, as the Kliq would tend to “walk around like their shit didn’t stink.” Bret’s autobiography and other wrestling books (including but not limited to Bob Holly’s autobiography The Hardcore Truth) talk about how the Kliq would bully and/or bury wrestlers they didn’t like. And almost every account of 1990s WWF talks about how hard those guys partied back in the day. To be fair, Michaels was an excellent performer despite his myriad “personal demons,” but you normally wouldn’t want to show up to work—any kind of work—stoned, drunk, or hungover. That said, Bret does make a good point when he says in his book he began losing trust and respect for Shawn when the Kliq was formed.

HBK sees it differently, though—in his autobiography Heartbreak & Triumph, Michaels says he lost respect for Bret Hart in 1996, when he signed an unprecedented 20-year contract where he’d earn $1.5 million a year as an active wrestler, and a smaller, yet still lucrative amount of money when he’d retire and serve as a WWF company ambassador. For this writer, Heartbreak & Triumph, despite being quite engaging, is a book that needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as Michaels tends to defend his 1990s Kliq-era politicking and other questionable things he did as a younger man. And you can’t help but question his character, even as a born again Christian looking back on his reckless youth in the WWF, when he says he was upset about Bret making more than him when he was merely a “good” wrestler, not a “great” one.

Shots Fired

Lost his smile...or lost his willingness to do the job?
What was mainly mutual feelings of distrust in 1996 turned into hostility in 1997. Again citing Heartbreak & Triumph as a reference, Michaels rants in that book about how he didn’t appreciate Bret hitting below the belt in his newspaper column in Canada, even if they had agreed that the anti-HBK rants would all be in character. But what really pushed his buttons was when Bret was most vocal about what many others also felt—Shawn’s supposedly career-ending knee injury was simply his excuse to get out of dropping his WWF Championship to Bret at WrestleMania XIII. Now we won’t get much into the he said-she said question of which of the two was more unprofessional by refusing to do jobs. Let’s call a spade a spade—Bret and Shawn both had huge egos to match their talent, and when one of them accuses the other on print of refusing to do the job, this writer sees it as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

That out of the way, the spring and summer of 1997 saw Bret and Shawn, now feuding onscreen, cutting loaded promos informed by the mutual hatred they now had for each other. Bret called Shawn out for posing on a “gay magazine” (Playgirl) and for being a poor role model to the WWF’s young fans. Shawn, more pointedly, accused Bret of being a mark for himself, for not knowing when The Hitman ended and Bret Hart began. After all, Shawn Michaels wasn’t The Heartbreak Kid when he went home to San Antonio—he was just plain old Shawn, while Hitman was Hitman in the WWF ring and back home in Calgary. But none of those genuinely hateful promos burned more than Shawn’s comment one May 1997 RAW, where he accused Bret of having his share of “sunny days.” That, of course, was an allusion to the married Hitman purportedly having an affair with the smoking-hot Tammy Sytch, a.k.a. Sunny.

All the in-ring, on-air mudslinging came to a head in the summer of 1997, when Hart and Michaels had a real-life fistfight backstage. Both men had completely had it with each other, and while things were relatively quiet and civil between them after that, it was, as they say, the calm before the storm.

RING THE FUCKING BELL! The Screwjob Takes Place

In the run-up to Survivor Series 1997, the WWF was supposedly in poor financial shape, and Vince McMahon realized he had made a mistake giving Bret Hart so much money in 1996 to lure him away from WCW’s competing offer. After failing to convince Bret to take a pay cut, with the money deferred until later in the contract, Vince pointedly told Bret that he might be better off talking business once again with Eric Bischoff and WCW. All those occupational wrestlers, simplistic storylines, and poor-drawing champions (including Shawn’s Kliq buddy Kevin “Diesel” Nash) had WWF’s finances in terrible shape, and Vince had no choice but to breach the contract. That meant Bret, who had won the WWF Championship at SummerSlam 1997, would have to drop the belt before he headed off to WCW. No way was the WWF going to let any of their champions leave the company while still holding a title; a year earlier, erstwhile WWF Women’s Champion Alundra Blayze showed up on WCW television using her more recognizable ring name Madusa, then threw her WWF belt in the trash can.

You can read wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer’s definitive history of the last month-and-a-half leading to the Montreal Screwjob right here, so we won’t get into the finer points of what happened then. We will, however, fill you in on some quick facts. One, as mentioned above, the WWF wasn’t going to gamble on the chances of Bret Hart pulling a Madusa and desecrating the WWF Championship on a competitor’s television programs. Two, Hart eventually signed with WCW on November 1, 1997, with his start date set for mid-December, thus allowing WWF enough time to get the belt off of the Hitman without requiring him to drop it at Survivor Series. Three, the planned match at Survivor Series included a sequence where Michaels would use Hart’s finisher, the Sharpshooter, on him, only for that move to be reversed. Four, that match was to end as a “schmozz,” wrestling jargon for a wild disqualification finish with run-ins. And as you all know, titles don’t change hands by disqualification unless stipulated.

Fast forward to November 9, 1997. We are at the Molson Centre in Montreal. As WWF Champion Bret Hart makes his way to the ring, he gets a rousing ovation from his fellow Canadians, but scattered “YOU SOLD OUT!” jeers can be heard, suggesting that some people already knew he was headed to WCW. Earlier, Shawn Michaels had entered as a challenger; now a tweener with the recently-formed D-Generation X back home in America, HBK got instant heat for humping the Canadian flag and picking his nose with it.

Cue Screwjob in 3, 2, 1...RING THE FUCKING BELL!
The match is as intense as you can expect it to be; clearly, there is no love lost between the Hitman and the Heartbreak Kid. Everything, at that point, had gone according to plan, a testament to these two amazing workers who were giving the Montreal crowd one helluva show so far. Then, with about 12 minutes into the match, we see Michaels do as scripted and put Bret Hart in the Sharpshooter. He’s barely got the move locked in and we still don’t see Bret tapping out, but there’s referee Earl Hebner looking confused, somebody yelling “RING THE BELL!” repeatedly, then finally Hebner calling for the bell and Michaels seemingly winning the match and the WWF Championship via submission. HBK’s music plays in the background, the announcers don’t know what the heck happened, and Michaels is being hustled out backstage instead of being allowed to celebrate like a new champion, looking disgusted at his victory. And shortly before that, we see Bret spitting at Vince McMahon as Jim Ross reluctantly comments that Hart “gave up on the Sharpshooter.”

Anyare? What the fuck had just happened? I was just as confused as a lot of my WWF-loving friends were, but like them, I didn’t know that there was a legitimate double-cross going on at Montreal.

Where Were You When it Happened—Titos Reminisce

To be honest, I had no idea there was such a thing as the Montreal Screwjob for several years after the fact. It was only in the early 2000s when my dad, a fellow wrestling fan, pointed me to this article he saw on the Internet talking about the Screwjob. And that’s when everything that happened post-Screwjob began to make sense. Jim Neidhart being bait-and-switched into joining DX, then being made to look like a complete patsy as Shawn and company turned on him. The midget dressed like Bret Hart, simply to prove that the Hitman was “short on charisma, short on talent, and short of stature.” Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith suddenly disappearing from WWF TV. And most of all, Vince McMahon’s transformation from goody-goody announcer to evil corporate executive. Yes, I knew something was amiss at Survivor Series 1997, but it took me several years—and the Internet finally coming to our household—to get to the bottom of what happened.

As my dad passed away four years ago, I couldn’t ask him for his insights on the Screwjob, but I do know that he was, like me, a Bret Hart fan who also didn’t like Shawn Michaels’ pre-DX pretty boy gimmick. What I did, though, was “interview” a good friend of mine for this article—freelance writer, game show contestant, and fellow WWE/PWR fan JP Abcede. Here’s his recollection of the Montreal Screwjob and the events that transpired beforehand.

On whose side he was on, and why:
“I’m a diehard Bret Hart fan, so you’ll know what angle I’ll be taking when discussing this. Anyway, to answer your question with more detail, back then, I wasn’t aware of dirtsheets and inside info. Although I had an inkling that wrestling is a ‘work’, I was still in my ‘mark’ phase. Despite that, and also being a diehard Bret Hart fan, I was still on the side of the Hart Foundation even though they were being tagged as heels in the “USA vs Canada” angle.”
On whether he knew that something funny was happening at Survivor Series ’97:
“As I said, I wasn’t aware of the behind-the-scenes back then, and I was just relying on what was fed to me by the ringside commentary and this was with Star TV’s three-week lag. I did find it odd though that the PPV was abruptly ended and didn’t show Michaels celebrating after winning the title. My friend and I noticed this, but didn’t think much of it. It was only years later when I discovered Dave Meltzer’s account of what happened backstage did I realize that a ‘screwjob’ occurred that fateful night. It was there my love-hate relationship with the WWE and Vince McMahon started.”
As you can see, this was a time when we Filipinos were largely unaware of the behind-the-scenes life of professional wrestlers, and I might as well ‘fess up—at that time, I knew wrestling was staged to a certain extent, meaning faces and heels didn’t really hate each other and were merely playing roles, but there was only a random possibility the matches’ outcomes were predetermined. And if the outcomes were indeed predetermined, I naively assumed everyone just played along with little to no complaint, like Hollywood actors would go by the scripts on movies and TV series. In the Internet’s infancy, and before Mick Foley kicked the door open for wrestlers to write their own autobiographies, it wasn’t unusual for then-teenaged fans like JP and myself to think like we did, and only discover that there was a Screwjob years after the fact.

Now that we’ve established how many Filipinos circa 1997 didn’t know that somebody was screwing someone at Montreal in a non-sexual way, let’s talk about why the average Pinoy wrestling fan of 1997 tended to sympathize with Bret Hart, even before the Screwjob.

Bret Hart: A Heel in America, a Face to the World

"FRUSTRATED ISN'T THE GODDAMN WORD FOR IT! THIS IS BULLSHIT!"
In his autobiography, Bret Hart talked about how, early in 1997, Vince McMahon sold him on turning heel after all those years as a top babyface. “Everyone around the world loves to hate Americans,” said Vince, making a good point despite the exaggeration. “We come across like we’re better than everyone else. This won’t affect your merchandise sales because you’ll be loved abroad for standing up to us Americans.” In other words, Creative had something very unusual planned for Bret—he was to turn heel, but only in front of U.S. audiences, and would remain a face everywhere else in the world.

And indeed he was loved for standing up to Americans. When Bret turned heel at WrestleMania XIII, cut his famous “Frustrated isn’t the goddamn word for it!” promo on the March 17, 1997 RAW, and made a long, 20-minute promo (part 1 and part 2) a few weeks later where he officially turned his back on American fans, he was definitely made out to be a bitter, hateful individual. But those heel promos and angles, they sure hit home for a Filipino like myself. The angle where he reconciled a feuding Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith, then reconciled with Owen after over three years of kayfabe estrangement? Major feels. Bret was talking about the importance of family values, and reminding Owen and Bulldog about how he was always there for them. And you know how important family is to us Pinoys. He talked about America “glorifying criminals like Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson,” and you had to admit there was a ring of truth to that. Heck, even the comment about Canada having prettier women and better beer was spot-on for me, even if it was meant to be a “cheap heat” moment. Like many a teenage boy of the mid-‘90s, I was a huge Pamela Anderson fan, and when it came to imported beer, I preferred Canada’s Labatt to America’s Budweiser. (Hey, I had just turned 18 at that time!)

A role model to arrogant jocks all over the world.
Meanwhile, you had Shawn Michaels as the supposed good guy in the feud. I knew, even then, that Michaels had been turned face in 1995, when Sycho Sid wasn’t quite pleased with being given the night off as bodyguard. But whenever I think of the Bret vs Shawn feud of 1997, it’s still hard for me to imagine the Heartbreak Kid as the babyface. Now here’s a guy who would pose and preen to the crowd, shaking his tush and even showing it on occasion. He’d be overly cocky in his babyface promos, and even his emotional “I lost my smile” retirement promo from early ’97 came about as insincere. But to me, the main reason I wasn’t a fan of Shawn’s character was the persona he represented onscreen.

As a slight-framed, nerdy kid who was absolutely torpe with the opposite sex, Michaels to me represented the typical good-looking jock whose looks and athleticism helped get him laid a lot. He still came off as an arrogant bully, perhaps not in the stereotypical “gimme all yer lunch money or yer dead” mold, but more in the “I’m better than you losers” kind of way, a bully who’d use words rather than fists to belittle the underdogs. And that brings us to our next point.

The Filipino, in general, tends to root for the underdog. Bret Hart was the epitome of the underdog who took a while to rise to the top, but eventually did. Even with a legendary wrestler for a father, Bret had so many things working against him—he wasn’t a larger-than-life musclehead like Hulk Hogan or The Ultimate Warrior or a monster of a man like Andre the Giant. At 234 pounds tops, he was quite small compared to a lot of his peers. Prior to his transformation into the most improved mic man of 1997, he was average at best in terms of promo skills. And his wrestling style was more deliberate, less explosive, more about substance than style. Combine all these and you’ve got someone whose rise to the top was very quiet, a wrestler who was believable as one who became champion through patience and hard work. In other words, Bret Hart was the kind of hero Filipinos can naturally identify with, though definitely not as popular as Hogan or Warrior.

You should also consider that Filipinos were, at the time, generally behind the curve as wrestling fans. In early 1997, Americans were booing white-bread babyfaces like Rocky Maivia (the future Rock), and even the Hitman himself in his last few months as a good guy. Despite being booked as a heel at the time, Stone Cold Steve Austin was getting over with Americans because he gave zero fucks—he came, he saw, he whooped people’s asses regardless of alignment. We, on the other hand, didn’t care yet for such moral ambiguity in our wrestling. White was white, black was black, there was no room for shades of gray.

The 1997 version of The Hart Foundation. (L-R) Owen Hart, Brian Pillman, Bret "The Hitman" Hart, Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart, "The British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith. Only Bret and the Anvil remain with us today.
Bret Hart was as good a good guy as you can get. Even in his initial heel run in the ‘80s, he still came about as the nice, honorable guy merely playing along with his fast-talking, smarmy manager (Jimmy Hart) and burly brother-in-law with the malicious chuckle (Jim Neidhart). And when he became a face, he didn’t talk about his 24-inch pythons or loading up the spaceship with rocket fuel. He talked about working hard to reach the top, about the invaluable help and training he received from his father, about how much he loved his family. Even Bret’s eventual heel turn in 1997 seemed justified to us—while he may have snapped, there was a reason for his snapping, and it was those decadent, immoral American fans who started booing the good guys and cheering the bad guys. As far as my late-teen self was concerned, Steve Austin’s face turn didn’t happen at WrestleMania XIII, as it actually did. It happened during his feud with Mr. McMahon, when Owen Hart was the only remaining Hart Foundation member left in the WWF. As one of the many American wrestlers feuding with the Harts in 1997, Stone Cold was, for me, a rude, ornery, foul-mouthed Texan with a chip on his shoulder, barely more tolerable than HBK. Boy, did that change by the time 1997 was almost over.

(As a side note: The Hitman autobiography features a few paragraphs on WWF’s Manila visit in 1994. Apparently, Bret hated it in Manila due to the huge gap between how our rich and our homeless live, but he had some nice things to say about Filipino wrestling fans. Hopefully no city official reads this article and demands that the Hitman make a public apology in the name of #PinoyPride.)

Final Thoughts

We can close out by saying how the Montreal Screwjob got the Attitude Era up and running, but so many people have done that before, and I’ve always believed it was more of a combination of things and months of transition that turned the WWF from family-friendly to edgy and often raunchy. The Screwjob, for me, kicked Attitude into high gear, but the wheels were turning in the months prior. So instead, I’ll close out by relating my experiences as a wrestling fan post-Screwjob.

The first incarnation of D-Generation X. Shawn Michaels and Triple H are in front, Chyna and Rick Rude are in the back. Rude was one of the few wrestlers who legitimately left WWF over the Montreal Screwjob.


With Brian Pillman having recently passed away and Bret Hart, Davey Boy Smith, and Jim Neidhart all having moved to WCW, The Hart Foundation was no more as of December 1997. Owen Hart, fortunately, remained in the WWF, and I was also a big fan of his. Davey Boy and Neidhart, I could have probably lived without due to their midcard status, but Bret leaving the WWF left a big void for me as a fan. But as I kept watching WWF programming in the weeks that followed the Screwjob, DX began to grow on me. I was beginning to get their irreverent humor, and while some of it was meant to troll Bret Hart and The Hart Foundation, a lot of it was directed at authority figures. And speaking of authority figures, Vince McMahon turned bad PR into good storytelling, transforming into the evil Mr. McMahon after the Screwjob. I had finally gotten behind the Stone Cold character, as he represented anyone, and everyone fed up with their bosses or their teachers and wanting to take matters into their own hands. And you can’t forget The Undertaker and Kane and their epic brother-vs-brother feud, the Three Faces of Foley, The Nation of Domination, future DX members The New Age Outlaws, and other mostly entertaining Attitude Era mainstays.

In hindsight, I still believe there should have been a better way to get the WWF Championship belt off of Bret Hart than screwing him out of the title. Everyone involved should have had an honest-to-God compromise and maybe swallowed a little pride to come up with a more ethical solution. But what Vince McMahon and Creative did in the aftermath of the Montreal Screwjob helped give us some of the most entertaining WWF shows ever, as the company successfully changed its product to cater to the children of the ‘80s who had become the teens and young adults of the mid-late ‘90s. These were people who knew part of, or the whole score about wrestling, people who were tired of the same old-same old kiddie product. These were people like myself, and by and large, we loved the Attitude Era product. So, with all that being said, the Montreal Screwjob ultimately was “best for business,” albeit in a perverse way.

What are your memories of the Montreal Screwjob? If you were watching then, or if you did your research on the classic Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels feud to get caught up on it, whose side were/are you on? How do you think the Montreal Screwjob affected the broader wrestling business? Let us know in the comments section!

*****


The Throwback Tito is Enzo Tanos, a freelance writer and the drummer/manager for garage rock band The Myopics, where he hopes to debut his masked lucha drummer persona “Sin Verguenza” in future gigs. A wrestling fan since childhood, he’s old enough to remember watching Outback Jack’s pointless vignettes, and One Man Gang’s transformation to Akeem.



PHOTO CREDITS - Shawn Michaels "lost his smile" c/o YouTube, Shawn vs Bret at Survivor Series 1997 c/o All Pro Wrestling Reviews, Shawn Michaels posing c/o ComputerGameForum.com, Hart Foundation c/o Cageside Seats, Bret Hart "frustrated" and DX c/o SportsKeeda

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