The greatest fight in WWE history did not take place on pay-per-view. Despite a wrestling ring sitting only a hundred yards away, the match took place in the visitor’s locker room at the Molson Center in Montreal. Bret Hart defeated Vince McMahon in under a minute, knocking out the WWE’s chairman and CEO with a vicious uppercut.
By now you've heard about the Montreal Screwjob. Hart was leaving WWE for WCW and McMahon conspired to have him drop the belt with a phantom tapout to Shawn Michaels' sharpshooter. A livid Hart punched out McMahon backstage and didn't appear in a WWE ring again for 12 years.
In a strange quirk, particularly in the tight-lipped world of pro wrestling, there is behind-the-scenes video footage from Survivor Series. Hart’s previous contract allowed for a documentary to be made about his career, and the production company filmed throughout 1997, ultimately wrapping in September. Yet the producers realized there was a major issue – while some great footage existed, they did not know what to use for an ending to the documentary.
“I said to the camera crew, ‘I want you to film my last match in Canada next week,’” said Hart. “So they scrambled to see if their passes from WWE were still effective – and it turned out they were good for the whole year. So that whole camera crew shows up through the back door with me at the Survivor Series, and it totally caught Vince off-guard. He didn’t know they were still shooting or that they’d even be there.”
Set-ups and double crosses are common in the world of professional wrestling, but this was one of the rare cases where the documentary – Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows – actually caught the backstage manipulation during a meeting between McMahon and Hart. McMahon, once again, stated that the match would end in a disqualification. The title, he said, would not be changing hands.
“It was a pretty close-knit group who knew about the screw job,” said Hart. “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.”
If Hebner had somehow found a way to tip him off, Hart knows exactly what he would have done.
“I would have choked Shawn out in the middle of the ring,” he said. “I would have front-face locked him and ended the match.”
McMahon did not want to risk even the idea of Hart showing up in WCW with the WWE championship, so he forced (referee Earl) Hebner’s hand.
“I always felt bad for Earl,” said Hart. “I think in his heart he would have told me, but when they cornered him, he rolled over. It’s hard to watch the match because of the spot they put Earl in – he’s terrified.”
Just over twelve minutes into the match, Michaels locked Hart – as planned – in the sharpshooter. McMahon – who was ringside at the match, he told Hart, to make the storyline seem more realistic – frantically called for the timekeeper to ring the bell before Hart could reverse the move. Hebner scurried off to a running car waiting for him outside the building, Michaels was awarded the belt, and Hart was furious.
“Before I went in the ring, I told myself I’d never let them put a submission hold on me,” Hart explained. “But because I had Earl as the referee, and I trusted that he wouldn’t screw me, I wasn’t too worried about that any more. That was my big mistake.”
As soon as Hart was backstage, he went directly for McMahon’s office. Hart laid his shoulder into the cast-iron steel door, but realized the attempt was futile after seeing it was bolted into the ground. He then walked into his own dressing room, and was greeted by the new WWE champion, Shawn Michaels.
“When I saw Shawn, he started pleading, praying to God that he never knew,” said Hart. “I knew he wasn’t innocent, but I was pretty calm by then. After I tried to knock down Vince’s door, I calmed right down. The show was over and the fans were leaving. There was nothing else I could do about it, and I thought I would never see Vince again.”
Hart then jumped in the shower, and even in the midst of such a low point in his career, smiled a little as he washed off all his frustration. He had realized he didn’t have a towel – brother-in-law “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith used to always steal Hart’s towel and use it before Hart’s matches, and Hart realized Smith had done it again.
While Hart was in the shower, Smith and “Ravishing” Rick Rude poked their heads in to tell him that Vince was waiting for Hart in the dressing room and wasn’t leaving until he came out.
“I told them, ‘Please tell Vince to leave me alone. It is not a safe environment for him,’” said Hart. “They came back two or three times to tell me that Vince wasn’t leaving. He wanted to set things straight with me.”
Hart came out of the shower sopping wet ready to finish Vince off.
“I was pretty angry that Vince wanted to test me out and prove something,” he said. “I had calmed down, I had my son in the dressing room, and this was not something I had expected.”
Then Hart walked naked out of the shower, without a towel, right past McMahon.
“The first time I walked past Vince,” he said, “there was a part of me that wanted to take him out right then and there. But the thought of me getting into a scrap with him while naked seemed ridiculous.”
Hart found a clean towel and then voiced his complaints to McMahon.
“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.’”
So Hart slowly got dressed.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wish he would just leave,’” said Hart. “But he seemed to want to prove some kind of a point.
“The last thing I tied was my shoelaces, and I remember thinking there was nothing else to put on. So I stood up and started to realize that Vince had this all planned out. He wanted to put on a good showing to all of the wrestlers, showing he wasn’t this conniving little chickenshit guy that everyone thought he was. He wanted to show everyone he was this courageous Vince McMahon who stood Bret Hart down.”
That’s when it happened. Bret Hart, the five-time WWE champion, and Vince McMahon, the WWE CEO, stood face-to-face. Each waited for the other to blink.
“When we walked towards each other, it was a lot like a wrestling match,” explained Hart. “On one side of the room was Vince, and he had Sgt. Slaughter, Shane McMahon, and Jerry Brisco with their arms crossed behind him. On my side of the room was Owen, Davey, Rick Rude, and Neidhart all in the corner to my left.
“On my right was the Undertaker, and Shawn was on his right. Shawn was sitting in the corner holding his head in his hands balling his eyes out. He cried like a baby the whole time. I always knew Shawn was guilty, but I wanted to find out for sure before I did something about it.”
Hart and McMahon then locked up. With his left hand, Hart could feel the shoulder pad on McMahon’s suit.
“I got a good grip in with my left hand,” said Hart. “I think everyone in the room – including Vince – was expecting me to throw an overhand punch. That would be my one shot, but then a bunch of guys would grab my arm, they’d grab Vince, and then we’d have a little pull-apart like they do in wrestling. It would end with me yelling at Vince, calling him a bunch of names, and Vince would have left having backed me down. I knew as we grabbed each other that this was not going to be a long scuffle. Everyone in the room was ready to pounce on us. No one in the room wanted to see us fight.
Hart’s father, the legendary Stu Hart, taught his son an amazing array of submission maneuvers. But “The Hitman” delivered an uppercut in the defining moment of his wrestling career.
“It was the most beautiful uppercut punch you could ever imagine,” said Hart. “I actually thought it would miss and go right up the side of his head, but I popped him right up like a cork was under his jaw and lifted him right off the hand. I broke my right hand just beneath the knuckle, and knocked Vince out cold.
“He thought he would come out of that OK, but he didn’t plan on an upper cut. They dragged Vince out of the room and it was pretty much done.”
Hart then focused his attention on “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels.
“All I could see was Shawn blubbering on his knees crying,” said Hart. “I remember thinking I should kick him. He was bent over and his head was in his hands, and I remember thinking I should go for a 50-yard field goal right now. But I walked over and the professionalism in me took over. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Thanks for the match.’ I shook his hand, then he burst into tears crying.”
Hart was McMahon’s most loyal soldier for nearly 15 years. He still wishes his exit ended in a much different manner.
“I made so many sacrifices for the company that what I was asking him should have been all fair,” said Hart. “Guys like Hogan, Warrior, and even Shawn called their own shots with Vince. I never did that. And Vince was the guy who told me I could leave with my head up, any way I wanted. I think Vince got it in his head that he needed to get even with me before I left, which shows the vindictive side of Vince McMahon. He’s always been a pretty ruthless businessman when he needs to be.”
The aftermath of the “Montreal Screwjob” was not pretty for Hart.
McMahon harnessed the buzz from his fight and created the evil “Mr. McMahon” character, which was one of the major reasons the WWE was able to regain popularity and topple WCW. Hart, meanwhile, struggled with the transition to a new company, literally from his first day.
“The big problem in WCW that I was unaware of was my problem with Hulk Hogan,” said Hart. “I never even knew I had a problem with Hulk Hogan, but he made sure, from the day I started to the day I finished, that they never did anything with me. I didn’t found out until years later that the reason all my storyline ideas were shot down all came down to Hulk Hogan running a pencil through my name every show.”
Personal differences aside, Hart knew WCW was in desperate need of someone like Vince McMahon to run their operation.
“I remember Steve Austin telling me before I left that he’d never go back to WCW,” said Hart. “He said it was the most disorganized, chaotic place and you couldn’t get a clear answer out of anyone.
“I knew from day one with Eric Bischoff – especially that I was coming in with so much momentum – that these guys didn’t know what they were doing.”
Hart’s first night in WCW was in December at Starrcade ’97. He was used as the special guest referee in a match between Eric Bischoff and Larry Zbyszko, then interfered in the main event between Hogan, the WCW champion, and Sting. The referee was supposed to cheat, giving a blatant fast count to allow Hogan to retain the title, and the plan was for Hart to interfere and ensure this “screwjob” was averted.
But there was one major problem. The referee – possibly because Hogan got into his ear – counted a regular one, two, three pinfall. Hart’s interference made little sense.
“I knew it was a dumb idea before I even went out,” said Hart. “Behind the scenes, Bischoff pretended he was Vince McMahon. But he was really a puppet for Kevin Nash, Hulk Hogan, and a handful of other guys who were telling him what to do.
“He was just a clueless idiot who never should have been in wrestling. He was as much of a liar as Vince ever was, but Vince was a very smart liar. Bischoff was just a clueless guy with no backbone and no brains.”
As the 2014 Survivor Series approaches this Sunday, the WWE continues to control the world of sports entertainment. That dominance all stems back from a night seventeen years ago in Montreal.
“A lot of things changed forever because of that night,” said Hart. “Back in 1997, that was one of the only times in wrestling where wrestlers had leverage with the business doing so well and two different companies where you could go back and forth. It was a really amazing time.
“Eric Bischoff squandered that and drove the company into the ditch by misusing wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Big Show and Rey Mysterio. He even misused Hogan. Bret Hart-Hogan should have made all kinds of money for them.”
Even though Vince McMahon may have lost the battle that night in Montreal, he eventually won the war.
“Vince took away all that leverage,” said Hart. “All of that opportunity is now gone.”