On November 9, 1997, the element of kayfabe in professional wrestling completely flipped upside down. In an era where faces and heels mattered, and each character was protected for the sake of maintaining the “suspension of reality” element that pro wrestling is supposed to bring, something very different happened on this night. To the spectator, it felt as if something occurred that was not supposed to. This left many in shock, because the character-driven sport of professional wrestling now was riddled with on-air tension to a level that was rarely expressed like this before, and perhaps never on a level of exposure as this night brought.
The event was Survivor Series, and it was being held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The competitors were WWE Champion Bret Hart defending against the challenger, Shawn Michaels. Michaels’ faction, D-Generation X, were still in their infancy, but already generating major heat both in the ring and backstage. For Bret, he was also going through some character adjustments to more properly fit in the “Attitude Era” theme. Although he is from Calgary, Alberta – which is over 2,220 miles away from Montreal, and on the other side of Canada – he was still viewed as the hometown hero, proudly defending his Maple Leaf country.
There was no doubt that Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart could put on a clinic against each other in the ring, as they were, and still are, two of the best wrestlers in WWE history. As proof, the two had a near 62-minute showdown at WrestleMania XII in Anaheim, California, just a year and a half prior to Survivor Series. The Ironman Match is still felt by many as being the greatest match that ever occurred on WWE soil. At Survivor Series, the scenario was carved out similarly, as Michaels was vying for the WWE Championship once again.
During this match, the amazing in-ring arsenal of both competitors were still exhibited. All of a sudden, Michaels makes the attempt to lock in Hart’s Sharpshooter finisher into a version of his own, and Vince McMahon had referee Earl Hebner ring the bell. Michaels acted upset as if he did not know what was going on, and scurried out of the ring. Hart, however, was in utter shock. Not only did he feel as if he let his home country down, but he was just the victim of the biggest screwjob in WWE history. Hart was quick to show his anger, as he spit in McMahon’s face and drew the initials “WCW” in the air. McMahon also admitted in a later interview that he allowed Hart to punch him in the face backstage for what occurred.
The tension between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart was brewing way before Survivor Series. In a face-to-face interview which aired on the WWE Network, both Bret and Shawn admitted that while there was a time when they both greatly admired each other, the pressure of being the top guy in the WWE, and both of them jockeying for that position, caused a rift between their relationship, and it actually turned quite bitter. Bret shared his thoughts on feeling undervalued.
“I felt that all the hard work I was doing didn’t matter for anything. [WWE] already had their champion and their star. I was just carrying the belt for the sake of carrying it. I thought I should get a little more respect, and that if this thing was being built the way it should be, it should mean something at WrestleMania. I felt like I was just going to WrestleMania to say, ‘Have it; this [WWE Championship] is yours. See ya later.’… I think that’s where the underlying tension started.”
Bret would also explain in the interview that he felt like he was “yesterday’s news,” and that Michaels started to gather his friends – The Kliq – to acquire backstage political power. This was a proverbial stake in the heart of Bret, and caused an seemingly-impenetrable wedge between him and Michaels for over a dozen years.
On the January 4, 2010 episode of Monday Night Raw, Bret Hart made his first return to Raw since leaving the company following the Montreal Screwjob, although he did appear to give a speech for his 2006 WWE Hall of Fame induction. The first order of business Hart did was call out Michaels, and inform him that he wanted to bury the hatchet.
Michaels shockingly responded, “You deserve what happened 12 years ago in Montreal. You disrespected me, and you disrespected this business. And, yes, I did have a hand in what Vince McMahon did that night. There’s a big part of me that doesn’t regret a bit of it. There’s another part of me that knows within the last 12 years, a lot of things have changed. A lot of things in my life has changed. When I think of Bret Hart, I think of the Excellence of Execution. You’re not the only one that wants to bury the hatchet.” The two would eventually shake hands and hug, officially calling a truce.
There is a lot that can be learned from this 20th anniversary of the Montreal Screwjob. I think Bret Hart summed it up perfectly. Both the WWE Hall of Fame careers of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels should not be shrouded by what occurred on that dark day of November 9. Both competitors were trendsetters, and provided a platform for wrestlers smaller in stature, but oftentimes bigger in heart, to enter the WWE and not feel as if they were going to be toppled over in ranking by a giant, just like the “larger than life” image presented in the days of WWE yesteryear.
Although wrestlers such as The Undertaker, Kane, Braun Strowman, and The Big Show still have a very important place in the circus called professional wrestling, names such as AJ Styles, Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, and Dolph Ziggler all have an equal place in the company. As a result of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels paving the way, all of the aforementioned “smaller” talent have been world champions in the WWE. If anything, The Montreal Screwjob showed how valuable Bret and Shawn is to the business, and how the world of pro wrestling just would not be the same if either of them did not decide to chase their dream of becoming the top wrestler in the WWE. Both of them were able to achieve that feat, and inspire others to so the same.
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