This month marks twenty one years since the Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart WWF title match at the Survivor Series, the site of the infamous Montreal incident that became one of the most controversial and most influential events in the history of the industry. Despite being one of the most discussed topics in the past two decades, there are still questions about what happened that night in Montreal. Who knew about the plan to end the match? Was Bret in on it? Was there a plan for him to go to WCW to cash-in on a Ted Turner contract?
The circumstances that led to the infamous incident are almost as controversial as the bout itself. Shawn Michaels has said himself that he was in a much different place with many problems in his life in 1997 before he became a born again Christian a few years later. Still, Michaels had a reputation at that time as one of the best in-ring workers of his generation, and would later add to his resume with an event better run when he returned from injury in 2002.
The late 90s were a boom period for the professional wrestling business, but the WWF had to weather the storm of Ted Turner’s acquisition of several former WWF stars before McMahon took the lead in the Monday Night war for weekly ratings. Eric Bischoff, a former third-tier announcer for Verne Gagne’s AWA, become the executive vice president for Turner’s WCW in 1994, and took a different approach to running the organization than those that made decisions previously. Bischoff knew he needed star power and in the span of just a few years, he used the Turner resources to sign several of the performers that McMahon made stars. Hulk Hogan, who left the McMahon empire under less than stellar circumstances, signed an extremely lucrative contract with WCW in 1994. The terms of that deal would eventually be one of the many factors that contributed to the company’s demise. Randy Savage, another top star for the WWF in the 80s, also inked a Turner contract shortly after that.
The debut of WCW Nitro, a Monday night show to compete against the WWF’s flagship show Raw, added to the pressure of competition of the pro wrestling market. Those factors along with the slump of the industry in the early 90s made it very difficult for Vince McMahon to maintain the top spot in sports entertainment. When McMahon finished in the red for 1996, some of his top stars looked to maximize their market value, and that year both Scott Hall and Kevin Nash opted to jump to WCW when their WWF contracts expired. The Outsiders and the initial run of the New World Order, a stable that saw Hulk Hogan turn heel, gave WCW a drastic lead ahead of the WWF, a situation that put the future of the company in jeopardy.
By late 1997, McMahon had taken the gloves off and was ready to embark on a new philosophy of “Attitude” with programming that pushed the envelope further than the corporate structure of the Turner product. It was a move to attempt to maintain turf in the wrestling war and at the time, there were no guarantees for success. Bischoff, the only figure in the industry to put Vince on the ropes, looked to further expand the Turner acquisitions to try to overwhelm the WWF with the momentum of Nitro that was built throughout the previous year. Bret, the WWF’s longtime champion, was offered a very lucrative deal from Turner, but initially turned it down, agreeing instead to 20-year contract with McMahon that would pay him more money in the later years of the deal. In theory, this gave the WWF a chance to avoid the financial pressure of WCW and keep Hart on the roster. Just months later, Vince realized he can’t afford Bret’s deal, and the future of the company is in doubt. McMahon allowed Bret the opportunity to negotiate with WCW while still under a WWF contract. Reportedly, Hart signed for an astounding $2.5 million a year and it was estimated that he made over $6.5 million during his WCW run, which concluded when he was released in October 2000 after an injury.
However, just three years before his WCW exit, Hart was still the WWF champion, which made it necessary for WWF management to make plans for the belt. It’s well-documented that Michaels made a comment previously that he would refuse to lose to Bret so Hart refused to do the job in Montreal for their scheduled pay-per-view bout. Supposedly, the “scripted” finish to the match was set to be a DQ after outside interference. History showed that as Shawn had Bret in the sharpshooter, McMahon yelled for the time keeper to ring the bell, and in the ring, the referee Earl Hebner called for the bell on-screen. As soon as the music played, a stunned Hart realized the plan was changed without his knowledge and he spit at McMahon. Michaels looked visibly upset in the ring and was hustled backstage for his safety as an irate crowd pelted ringside with trash. Ironically, “Wrestling with Shadows,” a documentary from Canadian filmmakers had chronicled Bret’s journey for most of the previous year and were recording that night at the Survivor Series. After an infuriated Hart went backstage, he found McMahon, who told Bret he deserved a punch so Hart threw one punch that staggered McMahon, who was seen on the documentary as he shuffled down the hall.
Since that infamous night, many people, both fans and wrestlers, speculated that Montreal was a work designed to allow Bret to leave and generate heat for McMahon. While nobody outside of a select few from meetings in 1997 will actually know the real story, I would guess that Bret Hart was legitimately swerved that night.
The reasons for this guess are relatively simple and there’s not some shocking revelation, but rather a look at the scenario at the time. It’s much easier for conspiracy theorists to attempt to piece together a grand plan for Bret’s mega deal to drain WCW’s resources, but that assumption is only a possible theory because WCW folded, and in reality it shutdown for many reasons other than Hart’s contract. Keep in mind, in 1997 WCW had all the momentum in the wrestling war and adding the former WWF champion would’ve theoretically added to that. There was no way to know that WCW would completely botch the use of Bret Hart during his run there, especially after the way it successfully used Hall and Nash in 1997.
There were also no guarantees when the decision was made at Survivor Series that it would contribute to the start of Mr. McMahon as one of the most successful heel personas in the history of the industry. The viewing audience could’ve interpreted the notorious title switch as an indication that the WWF was crumbling while the competition just signed their top star. Again, it can’t be understated that there was no guarantee that the turbulent situation would eventually lead to the biggest feud of the era when Stone Cold vs. McMahon set TV ratings records. As I mentioned, there’s no way to know the actual story, but it speaks volumes about the impact of the Montreal incident that is remained a topic of discussion for more than two decades.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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