The complicated saga of the “Montreal Screwjob”

John Pollock details the facts behind the Montreal Screwjob and what was not addressed in the episode of WWE Rivals on A&E this past Sunday.

Photo Courtesy: WWE, A&E

The complicated saga of the “Montreal Screwjob”

By: John Pollock

“The story of Bret leaving WWE is actually pretty complicated”

– Glenn Jacobs a.k.a. Kane on A&E’s WWE Rivals

The most famous match in WWE history was re-examined yet again on the premiere edition of its new WWE Rivals series on A&E.

Despite countless reporting, an in-depth third-party documentary, and even audio recordings of meetings, the nature of Bret Hart’s exit from the World Wrestling Federation in 1997 continues to be mired in fantasy and outright manipulation when the company is tasked with authoring its own history.

Sunday’s edition of WWE Rivals – a 60-minute examination of famous rivalries – kicked off with a look at the feud between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels that began as two professional allies fighting upstream in the “land of giants” that were driven by the same goal to be the best, and realized each was competition for the other.

The saga of the November 1997 “Montreal Screwjob” has become laborious by now that one cannot imagine any other reaction than an eye roll and exasperated sigh when either of the two subjects is approached about re-telling their side.

Sunday’s version had all the makings of a simplistic re-telling of the events that was condensed to roughly ten minutes of the sixty-minute special.

Whether it’s a case of limited time, bad memories, lack of understanding of the facts, or simply manipulating from one’s point of view, Sunday’s version would leave a new viewer with a completely distorted view of the facts.

For one, Hart’s contract expiring with WWF in 1996 and negotiations with WCW are conflated with the events a year later that led to his departure to WCW, not of his choosing but at the request of Vince McMahon. The portrayal in the piece suggests Hart, as champion, had a contract expiration in 1997 and was seeking employment elsewhere, which was not accurate.

During Hart’s hiatus in 1996, he met with Eric Bischoff in September and according to Hart’s own book, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling(of which he kept extensive notes and records during his career), was offered $2.8 million over three years. Two weeks later, McMahon flew to Calgary with an unprecedented twenty-year contract offer worth $10.5 million over the life of the deal and front-loaded with an annual salary of $1.5 million that would de-escalate into the six figures to coincide with Hart winding down his in-ring career as he would be turning 40 the next year.

Worked into the deal, through the assistance of Hart’s lawyer Gord Kirke, is a provision that if the contract came to an end, Hart would be allowed “reasonable creative control” of his character for the final thirty days. Why this detail was added for a 20-year pact that would expire when Hart would have been nearing sixty years of age is a great question but is another pivotal detail.

Hart stayed with the WWF and famously announced his decision on an October 1996 edition of Raw, while also acknowledging the WCW offer and refusing to say anything derogatory toward the competitor, that put together a hefty offer for his services.

This is happening while Michaels is presented as the new star of the company, amid his first championship run, which hasn’t lit business on fire but is generally considered among, if not the top performer in the country. While Michaels believes he is the top star in the company, he is making $750,000 on a deal signed earlier that year. According to Michaels’ 2005 book, Heartbreak & Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story, he signed with the proviso that only The Undertaker could be paid more. Fast-forward several months and Hart has usurped that figure and had to be an underlying source of resentment that sets the table for the year that followed.

The bad blood between the warring promotions was at a fever pitch as WCW had assumed dominance in the Monday night cable battle in the wake of Hulk Hogan’s alignment with ex-WWF stars Kevin Nash & Scott Hall with the formation of the New World Order. The introduction of Hall & Nash earlier that year ignited WCW by presenting the two as invading forces from “up north”, a distinction that was forced on the promotion to clarify and acknowledge no existing links to the WWF or a storyline between the two companies. The presentation of the two and resemblance to the characters of “Razor Ramon” and “Diesel” were the basis for a lawsuit filed by the WWF that year and is a key aspect of understanding the flaws in WWF’s argument about Hart leaving the WWF.

One year later, the WWF is producing gripping programming on the back of real-life tensions between Hart and Michaels, several stars are finding their legs on television and ascending the ladder between Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and The Rock. While attendance is up roughly 19 percent from 1996, the company posted a loss of $6.5 million in 1996-97 (per the Wrestling Observer Newsletter) and was not detecting the light at the end of the tunnel that the next years would provide.

On September 22, 1997, prior to an episode of Raw at Madison Square Garden, McMahon comes to Hart and explains the promotion could not afford his deal and would be breaching the agreement. McMahon could not pay his top star the rate that was negotiated a year prior and allowed Hart permission to re-engage talks with WCW with a limited window granted to Hart through the end of October.

One month later, McMahon reneges on the “out” telling Hart he can pay him. This is likely a result of the returns on WWF’s experiment to expand its “In Your House” pay-per-view offerings to three-hour events and more importantly, raising the price from $19.95 to $29.95 and was found revenue for the company that did not affect its base audience willing to pay for its monthly events.

Hart was caught in the middle and his window to negotiate with WCW would end on November 1st. According to Hart, he tasked Vince with mapping out the direction of his character if he stayed. Hart had turned heel earlier in the year, but now was battling Michaels for that spot as well in the wake of DX emerging as heels. It would be a hard switch for the anti-American character Hart had portrayed to snap his fingers and be back as a top babyface. In Hart’s book, he said McMahon laid out plans for the next several months that would be Hart lose not once but three times to Michaels over the next few months before Hart got his victory.

WCW didn’t finalize its offer to Bret until the last day on October 31st, getting the deal up to $2.5 million per year for 125 dates on the table. With the lack of assurance Hart received from McMahon, he signed the deal while still WWF champion and just over a week prior to the Survivor Series.

One of the major “what ifs?” happens on October 12th, nearly one month before the Survivor Series when it’s established that the two are set for the match. Hart approaches Michaels in San Jose and tells Michaels that he will be safe in the ring with him and is willing to put Michaels over. If that was the extent of the conversation and Michaels shook hands with Hart, history is drastically different. Instead, Michaels responded that he appreciated those words but would not be willing to do the same for Hart. This was the last straw and the crux of Hart’s refusal to lose to Michaels in Montreal. It is a major part of the story and one that Hart consistently brings up while Michaels stated he didn’t remember it while conceding he was the villain and seems to have assumed most of the responsibility for how this went down.

This timeline is important because one of the largest talking points among fans and wrestlers defending the decisions by McMahon at Survivor Series points to the threat of Hart showing up on WCW programming as champion or being announced by Eric Bischoff.

The biggest hole is the trademark lawsuit filed by the WWF that ends any potential of WCW serving a ruling to a judge on a silver platter by utilizing WWF’s intellectual property, its championship belt, onto its television.

Hart never appeared on WCW programming in November – because he was legally under contract to WWF through the end of the month and even after the events of Montreal, Hart and WCW didn’t violate that pact with Hart left off WCW television until mid-December.

Could Bischoff have gone on Nitro the next night after Montreal and proclaimed, “we have signed the WWF’s champion”? Yes. He also could have delivered that exact statement one week prior on the November 3, 1997, edition of Nitro when Hart was technically signed by WCW – Bischoff didn’t do that. If it was such a threat, WWF should have taken the title off Hart prior to Survivor Series. Instead, Bischoff allowed Hart to finish up with WWF however he chose, even agreeing to extend Hart’s time at WWF so he could work the December 7thIn Your House pay-per-view.

If ever there is a story that captures the imbalance of power between the company and the performer, it is this one. Hart accrued enough leverage in 1996 to allow for a great salary and a provision regarding “reasonable creative control” and in a pattern throughout McMahon’s career, when the contract wasn’t advantageous to his current needs, he felt no obligation to honor a signed contract – whether it be buyer’s remorse one year later when he speaks to Hart in New York about wanting out of the deal, or the reasonable creative control clause. It is justified all these years later as McMahon having to go to these means for the good of the company, and it is pure fantasy and fear-mongering of non-existent scenarios or threats to the company.

The finish itself has been claimed by many as their own, but the clearest one appears to be Jim Cornette’s. During this era, Cornette was reading about the original Montreal Screwjob forty years earlier, between Henri DeGlane and Ed “Strangler” Lewis. On November 5th, Cornette pitched the finish that was ultimately used, to McMahon but was unsure if it registered with McMahon or not. It was a small circle aware of what was going down but when it did, Cornette felt he contributed to the idea and his pitch did land with McMahon, who made the call.

The irony is that no one benefited more from Montreal than the WWF which took the real-life anger towards McMahon and played out Hart’s revenge by instilling his martyrdom as fuel for the Steve Austin character over the next three years.

The “Montreal Screwjob” is going to be the most-discussed match in the history of the WWE. One of the reasons it has endured is a series of actions in the aftermath from Hart’s willingness to speak publicly in the media on his side and carrying a large amount of credibility with his audience, the luck of Paul Jay’s High Road Production documentary filming everything and even getting the audio of Hart and McMahon’s meeting recorded, and the WWF’s obsession with this match that has permeated stories and angles all these years later.

The facts are out there, documentaries have been produced, books have been written, and yet, there will still be confusion. That is a by-product of the winners writing their own history and having the largest stage to share their history.

For that reason, the “Montreal Screwjob” will always remain “complicated”.

In 2010, John Pollock co-produced the “Survival of the Hitman” documentary featuring original interviews with Bret Hart and others involved in the Montreal Screwjob. It is available on the IMPACT Plus streaming service.

About John Pollock 5522 Articles
Born on a Friday, John Pollock is a reporter, editor & podcaster at POST Wrestling. He runs and owns POST Wrestling alongside Wai Ting.