Published on November 18th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews1
The Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series 1997
November 9, 1997
Right before Bret “the Hitman” Hart walked to the ring for the main event at Survivor Series 1997, fellow wrestler Leon White–better known as Vader–beckoned him over.
“Be careful out there,” White told his friend. “Vince has a tendency to screw people in these types of situations.”
But Hart’s situation was unique in the wrestling business. Although he was the world champion, he’d just signed a lucrative deal with WCW, and planned to forfeit the WWE’s title the next night on Monday Night Raw before jumping ship to Nitro. Hart and WWE owner Vincent K. McMahon had gone back and forth for weeks over whether Hart would drop the title to Shawn Michaels, with Hart maintaining that he wouldn’t lose to Michaels in Canada.
Because Hart had “reasonable creative control” over the finishes to his matches, McMahon felt backed into a corner. Hart had shot down every idea McMahon and his brain trust–Bruce Prichard, Jim Cornette, Vince Russo, and a part-time Pat Patterson–had pitched. But Hart stuck to his guns. He wasn’t going to lose to Shawn Michaels.
“He told us that he would lose it to the (perennial jobber) Brooklyn Brawler in Madison Square Garden, but that he wouldn’t drop the title to Shawn in Canada,” Prichard said on his podcast, Something to Wrestle. But Prichard didn’t buy it. He said that if McMahon had told Bret to lose to the Brawler, Hart would have fought it. “He’d want to know ‘How does that make sense?'”
Hart had become harder to work with, especially as Survivor Series loomed closer.
“It was a situation where Bret didn’t want to lose in Canada,” Cornette said during an interview with WrestleTalkTV. “He didn’t want to lose before the Pay-Per-View because he didn’t want to disappoint his fans because he was advertised as champion. He was also going to leave–because that’s the one thing I faulted Vince McMahon for … why didn’t you take the belt off of him first, so that we wouldn’t have to go through all this?”
In the days leading up to Survivor Series, McMahon was almost constantly on the phone with either Hart or Michaels, enough so that it was disruptive to the creative meetings between McMahon, Cornette, and Russo. The situation was wearing McMahon down. He couldn’t risk the WWE world champion showing up in WCW with the title belt. Nearly two years before that, the WWE Women’s champion, Alundra Blaze–also known as Madusa Miceli–had signed with WCW in 1995, and done exactly that. Miceli appeared on WCW Nitro on Dec. 18, 1995 with the WWE women’s title and threw the championship into a garbage can.
“There was an uneasiness because Bret had been pretty difficult all week,” Prichard told VICE. “It was constant negotiation. Bret would agree, then he’d disagree, he’d agree, then disagree, he’d agree, then call back and say ‘nah, I don’t wanna do that.’ It was a lot of give and take all week, trying to get to the point that we needed to get to.”
The impasse set up a main event that might be the most infamous wrestling moment in the world.
Booking the Match
Longtime McMahon confidante and WWE Hall-of-Famer Pat Patterson was tasked with putting the match together with Hart and Michaels during the day. Patterson, Prichard says, did not know about the plan to take the title off of Bret that evening. However, two wrestling journalists shed a different light on Patterson’s involvement.
“Vince McMahon held a meeting at the hotel with Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, Pat Patterson and Michaels. Reports are that at least two of the aforementioned names looked extremely uncomfortable leaving the meeting,” wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer wrote after the Screwjob, raising the possibility that Patterson may have been informed about what was going to happen.
Pro Wrestling Torch’s Wade Keller offered more details in the November 15, 1997 edition of his newsletter:
“However, a two-hour meeting was held on the second floor of the Montreal Marriott on Saturday night with McMahon, Jim Ross, Pat Patterson, Jim Cornette, and Michaels,” Keller reported. “Bret was wrestling that night in Detroit. There is some belief that at this meeting McMahon proposed the idea of the finish to whoever of that group wasn’t already in on it. Ross and Patterson entered the meeting in a good mood and when they were seen in the hotel lobby afterwards, were said to be irritable, forlorn, and shaken.”
But in his autobiography, Michaels wrote that Patterson didn’t know–that HBK and the WWE brain trust had intentionally kept the Canadian legend in the dark about their plans.
“We had the meeting, and as everyone was leaving, Vince asked me, Hunter, and Jerry Brisco, a longtime agent and close confidant of Vince’s, to stay. We sat down and talked,” Michaels wrote. “Pat was in the room with us [earlier], and he had no idea what was going to happen. He had a strong relationship with Bret. He wouldn’t have done it, and Vince knew that. That’s why he didn’t tell Pat …”
Prichard was more succinct on his podcast. “Pat didn’t know,” he said.
And Jim Ross says he also didn’t know, despite what the dirt sheets reported.
“I didn’t know it was coming. I had nothing in my mind as far as what we were going to say. Thank God for that. I didn’t want to know,” Ross told VICE during an interview for a piece that ran on the Nov. 9 anniversary of the Pay-Per-View. “We never tracked down every little piece of minutia we could get. It just wasn’t important. We felt that we were good enough and knew the game well enough that we could narrate whatever you put on our monitor. We’d been around the block a couple times, so we should be OK there. We didn’t know anything. So when the finish went down and the bell rung, it was like … uh oh, I get it. Then, Kevin Dunn, the executive producer is in my ear like ‘OK JR, we’re out in 10, 9 … ‘ It was a quick out. I didn’t have time in ten seconds to think about anything other than getting off the air.”
Early on, the match was shaping up to be a good one. Hart and Michaels, despite their personal feelings, were professionals when it came to putting on a show for the fans. Hart was comfortable for a couple of reasons: 1) Longtime ally Patterson was the agent in charge of the match; and 2) referee Earl Hebner and Hart were close friends. In Bret’s mind, all he had to do was get through the show and hand the title over the next evening on Raw. And, whether he wanted to admit it or not, Hart enjoyed working with Michaels, saying that he had the “utmost respect” for HBK as a performer. Similarly, Michaels called Hart “sheer joy” to work with in the ring.
But then, after a little more than 12 minutes of action–just past the halfway point of the match Patterson had helped them lay out–Michaels put Hart into the Hitman’s signature finishing maneuver, the Sharpshooter. As soon as Michaels locked in the hold, Hebner called for the bell immediately. Vince McMahon and figurehead WWE president Sgt. Slaughter were ringside for the Screwjob. McMahon can be heard yelling, “Ring the fucking bell!” at timekeeper Mark Yeaton.
And just like that, Bret Hart was no longer the world champion.
That’s the big question when it comes to the Montreal Screwjob: who knew, and when did they know?
Patterson has been exonerated by both Michaels and Prichard. In fact, after Hart had punched out McMahon in the locker room (we’ll get there in a minute), Patterson had tears in his eyes when he approached Hart. Patterson swore he didn’t know, but also offered up his own face, saying “Maybe you want to punch me, too?”
So who was in on it? Here’s the scoop:
Vince McMahon knew. Of course. After weeks of negotiating with one of his top stars, McMahon made the painful decision to screw Bret publicly. McMahon and Hart’s falling out had been a long one. Even though Hart was a five-time world champion for McMahon, issues arose when Vince offered Hart a multi-million-dollar, 20-year contract. Bret, of course, signed the deal. But business tanked for the WWE and WCW was crushing the company in the ratings and PPV buyrates. At one point, the WWE was close to going under. When Vince told Bret that the WWE wouldn’t be able to fulfill his contract as written, Bret began to seriously consider an offer from WCW.
Jerry Brisco knew. Brisco was a gifted amateur wrestler at Oklahoma State, and he’d followed his brother, the legendary NWA world champion Jack Brisco, into the wrestling business. After the Brisco brothers sold their interest in the Georgia wrestling territory, they’d gone to work for McMahon. While Jack was largely out of the business, Jerry had become an influential figure behind the scenes in WWE. In fact, he continues to work for McMahon as a talent scout. Brisco’s purpose here was to help Michaels–who was not a shooter by any stretch of the imagination–figure out how to best defend himself in the ring, should things go wrong with the screwjob.
Shawn Michaels knew. According to his own words, Michaels and McMahon discussed the possibility of an underhanded finish about a week out from the event.
“I just recall, up to that point, there being big scuttlebutt all over like ‘Dun dun dun — what’s going to happen with Bret leaving?'” Michaels told ESPN in a recent interview. “And then of course was, I guess, an infamous phone call between myself and Hunter and Vince — I want to say it was just the week before.
“There was certainly no talk of it, for me, one way or another, until that phone call the week before Survivor Series.”
And so Triple H knew, as well, bringing the total of conspirators to four. As a performer, Hunter had come away from the Kliq’s infamous Curtain Call in Madison Square Garden as the one who bore the brunt of the punishment. He wasn’t banished from television, but he was de-emphasized and made to work lower-card angles against the likes of Henry O. Godwinn. Now, as part of the rising D-Generation X faction, Triple H was getting a renewed push and being brought into the inner circle of the McMahon family’s trust.
Then there’s Earl Hebner, who Hart counted as a close friend. Hebner’s call in the ring was vital to make the finish work. Shortly before match time, Hebner was informed of the finish. He was stunned at what he was being asked to do. But even this moment–and it’s a pivotal one–is disputed by multiple sources close to the story.
“It was about seven o’clock when I walked into the locker room,” Michaels wrote in his autobiography. “There were only a few people in there and none were close to Earl. He was putting on his referee gear and I started to put my boots on. ‘Earl, I need you to listen to me very carefully.’ I was speaking very softly. ‘We are doing a big swerve tonight. I am going to get Bret in the Sharpshooter and I need you to ring the bell.'”
However, Hebner has said that he was informed of the finish by Brisco, shortly before going out for the match. Hebner did what was asked of him, and then left the building immediately, along with his twin brother, Dave, and Blackjack Lanza.
“It was a pretty close-knit group who knew about the screw job,” Hart said during a 2014 interview with Sports Illustrated. “Vince, Triple H, and Shawn were the three who planned it, and they got Jerry Brisco to come up with a plan when to execute the finish.
“I was getting ready to go through the curtain when they circled Earl and basically told him this was how the match was going down. They also reminded him he was mic’d, with a microphone behind his ear, so they could hear everything he said. If he did anything to tip me off, they’d fire him.”
Whose Idea Was It?
As the legend of the Montreal Screwjob grew, multiple people tried to take credit for it. Russo, who was new to writing TV at the time, has often asserted that it was his suggestion, but according to Cornette and Prichard, that’s not true.
Cornette may actually have been the first to voice the option of a screwjob finish, but as Prichard said on his podcast, a lot of people in creative threw the idea around during the days leading up to Survivor Series. Triple H also voiced his opinion, telling Michaels, “Fuck him. If he won’t do business, then you do business for him.”
It’s telling that neither Cornette nor Prichard were in on the final decision of how to take the title off of Hart. Prichard, in fact, was working the Gorilla position for the match. It was his job to cue Davey Boy Smith and Owen Hart on when to run down to the ring to interfere in the supposed DQ finish of the match. When Hebner called for the bell, Prichard was stunned.
“I was watching at Gorilla Position (right behind the entrance curtain) with Davey Boy and Owen Hart. They were the only two people there. Anybody who says they were there weren’t there,” Prichard told VICE. “Watching it, I thought it was a mistake. I’m watching for a spot, and then all of the sudden the bell rings. So I’m trying to talk to the truck, to the timekeeper, I’m trying to find out what’s going on. In the meantime, I’ve got Davey Boy in front of me and he’s going ‘They just fooked him. They fooked Bret. What do we do?’ And I had no clue. I just kind of sat there for a minute and then said, ‘I guess fucking go out? I dunno.'”
Because the stakes for the WWE were so high, it’s pretty easy to see whose idea the whole thing was: Vince McMahon. Other people can claim credit, but the onus falls on McMahon. Following the pay-per-view, Vince even engaged in a sit-down interview with Ross, where he placed the blame squarely on the Hitman’s shoulders. “… Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart,” McMahon said. And with that interview, McMahon began to morph from an announcer into the heel owner character that he would become during the Attitude Era. The impetus of the Montreal Screwjob kicked the WWE into a higher gear. As Ross was fond of saying on commentary: Business was about to pick up. In fact, it was about to boom.
McMahon and the WWE capitalized on the buzz around the match (and the ensuing physical altercation with Hart) to create the evil “Mr. McMahon” character, which was a driving force in the WWE’s financial and popular recovery. Hart went to WCW, where he was a fish out of water–but he was also making $2.6 million per year with his new deal.
Was It All A Work?
There are a lot of people who believe it might have all been a work. Not just fans, either. Wrestlers like Jerry “the King” Lawler, George “the Animal” Steele, and others believe the finish in Montreal was an elaborate work. During an interview with RF Video, Lawler said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Vince and Bret were in on it.”
In an interview with Sean Oliver of Kayfabe Commentaries, Sean Waltman discussed the Screwjob in depth. Waltman, who had spent time around Hart in the WWE, was confused as to how a seasoned professional like the Hitman couldn’t have seen the screwjob coming “a million miles away,” and felt there was a “high possibility” of the incident being a work. Waltman added that Hart would not have told anyone, including his wife, about his involvement. For a second-generation wrestler like Hart, the art of kayfabe was strong.
It was so strong, in fact, that Hart had already kayfabed the locker room after his epic WrestleMania 12 Iron Man match with Michaels. Hart let the locker room think Michaels had heat with him, when in reality, there was no heat at all–at least at that time. When Hart and Michaels feuded in 1996-1997, though, things quickly got heated for real.
“I think [the screwjob] was so compartmentalized that the guys that were in on it don’t even know who else was,” Waltman said.
And the supposed one-punch knockout from Hart, following the match? Well, that didn’t necessarily convince some people.
“[It] was way too quick for Vince to have such a black eye … It was set up beforehand, they knew it was gonna happen and we [Chris Candido and I] always said, ‘We betcha that Vince had his own son punch him in the eye, make it look good, and make it come out, so it would look like Bret did it,” Tammy Sytch–formerly WWE’s Sunny–said during a shoot interview for “Wrestling’s Most…Controversial Moment!” DVD release by Kayfabe Commentaries.
In a shoot for RF Video, Steve Blackman said he would be willing to believe the Screwjob was a work:
It’s possible, that Bret knew – absolutely. That is a working business.
But Prichard, who was there on the scene, believes the moment was real. He witnessed the fight between Hart and McMahon that followed the match. At the time, Prichard was McMahon’s right-hand man. He thinks he would have known if the whole thing had been faked.
“If they were working, they were working me, too,” he said on his podcast.
Not The First Time
And odds are that the whole thing is legit. After all, this isn’t the first time that Vince used a screwjob tactic to get the title off of an upstart talent.
It’s easy to pin all of the WWE’s 1980s success on Hulk Hogan, but don’t underestimate how big a star Wendi Richter was, too. It was her work with Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano that formed the Rock-n-Wrestling connection and got WWE a ton of positive press on the fledgling MTV network. With Hogan leading the way, wrestling was popular. But with Richter and Lauper, wrestling was cool.
Richter knew what she was worth. First, she struck a deal with McMahon so that he would stop paying the Fabulous Moolah a booking fee for using Richter as a talent, which started legitimate heat between Richter and Moolah. And then Richter began to complain about her payoffs and merchandise income. Eventually, McMahon tired of Richter’s complaints and decided to make a change, booking Moolah under a hood to face Richter in Madison Square Garden on November 25, 1985. During the match, The Spider broke from the pre-scripted events and pinned Richter’s shoulders to the mat. The referee—who was in on the plan—counted three, despite the fact that Richter visibly had a shoulder off the mat at the count of one. Richter ignored the bell and continued to legitimately attack the Spider, unmasking her to reveal that it was Moolah.
After the match, an infuriated Richter left the arena in her wrestling gear, took a cab to the airport, and booked herself on a flight out of New York. Afterward, she never spoke to Moolah again.
Once he realized what happened, Bret Hart was livid. Shane McMahon was in the production truck, and as soon as he saw the cue, he hit HBK’s music. On the mat alongside Hart, Michaels sold anger just as much as Hart. Well, almost. Triple H came down to the ring to accompany the Heartbreak Kid to the back, while Hart spit directly in the face of McMahon. He then proceeded to tear apart the ring area, smashing tables and throwing TV monitors. Eventually, after the mics were cut, Hart used hand gestures to spell out ‘W-C-W’ toward the hard cam. He mouthed “I love you” to the fans. And then the Hitman went to the back.
Michaels was still selling shock, anger, and disbelief. Hart, for his own part, didn’t believe Michaels (and rightly so. Even though Michaels claimed for years that he didn’t know about the screwjob, HBK finally came clean about his part in the plot). But at that point, what was there to do? Hart stripped out of his wrestling gear and went to take a shower. What happened next is legendary.
In the production office, Jerry Brisco told McMahon that he needed to see Hart face-to-face. McMahon agreed, even though he knew the situation would likely turn physical.
“He gets one (punch),” McMahon told Brisco. “He gets one. That’s it.”
On the way to the dressing room, McMahon and his entourage met the Undertaker, who was on his way to talk to McMahon. When they arrived at the dressing room, it was Taker who cleared the place out of everyone except Vince’s entourage and the people involved in the match. Bret was in the shower at the time. When he got out, he began to get dressed. That’s when Vince started to explain his position.
“Vince said straight to me, ‘This is the first time I ever had to lie to one of my talent.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Hart. “Then I rattled off on every finger about ten different lies he’d told me in the last week. Vince told me, ‘What I did to you today won’t hurt you. You’ll still get all the money you’re supposed to get from WCW.’
Somewhere in that conversation, I said, ‘If you’re still here after I get dressed, I’m going to punch you out.’”
What happened next gets a little lost in the shuffle. Bret claims he hit McMahon with an uppercut to the jaw, one so perfect that it lifted him off his feet, and that McMahon sprained an ankle when he fell. Footage in the Bret Hart: Wrestling With Shadows documentary shows a bruised McMahon staggering away from the talents’ dressing room and limping.
But Prichard says that Hart’s shot took McMahon in the eye, as evidenced by the swelling and discoloration seen after the altercation. As for McMahon’s ankle? Well, that was sort of a hilarious accident. In trying to help his boss up, Brisco clumsily stepped on McMahon’s leg and injured it.
Bret Hart went to WCW, where he was criminally under-utilized. He never seemed at home in the WCW environment, and for their part, the booking committee there never really seemed to know how to position him. His in-ring career ended after a mule kick from Goldberg, who carelessly drove his blow home as hard as he could, during a match at Starrcade in 1999. Hart’s post-concussion syndrome following the Goldberg match would eventually cause his contract to be terminated by WCW.
As for McMahon and the WWE, things began to take off. Already popular, Stone Cold Steve Austin began his run against the heel Mr. McMahon character, and the Attitude Era was off and running, drawing huge crowds and record-breaking box office money for several years in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Hart and McMahon would eventually reconcile after the Hitman suffered a stroke in 2002 when he struck a pothole while riding his bicycle. Hart flew over the handlebars of his bike and struck his head. The stroke paralyzed the left side of his body, requiring months of physical therapy to regain mobility and function. During that time, McMahon called Hart, and the two were able to make amends.
Michaels and Hart publicly made amends on WWE TV as well, even going so far as to film a sit-down interview segment with Jim Ross.
Bret Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.