101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die
June 2013 COTM - 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die
Jul 16, 2013 - 3:00:30 PM
Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
November 9th, 1997
Some would say I screwed Bret Hart. Bret Hart would definitely tell you I screwed him.
I look at it from a different stand point.
I look at it from the standpoint of, the referee did not screw Bret Hart.
Shawn Michaels certainly did not screw Bret Hart.
Nor did Vince McMahon screw Bret Hart.
I truly believe that Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart.
And he can look in the mirror and know that.
As a word, it conjures up memories, feelings, emotions. Everyone has an opinion on Montreal. Everyone has a stance on who screwed Bret. Some believe it was a work. Some believe it was real. All of us ask ourselves the same question.
What is the truth of Montreal?
In a list of must see matches, there can be no doubt that the single most famous double cross in perhaps all professional wrestling history must take its place in the upper echelon of that list. The one occasion when wrestling, perhaps, became too real is, in isolation, a curiosity. What that curiosity created was, undeniably, a phenomenon.
When it came time for the review of Montreal, I was forced to make a decision; do I cover an emotive subject from the extremely personal standpoint I have of it, or do I instead opt for the objective and critical outlook, as I so often strive to do? I chose the latter. As a result, the match becomes must see because of its purpose as a historical artefact, as a means to try and figure out the truth behind events once and for all.
As a man of history, I know all too well the importance of historical truth. As grand a concept as it is, and perhaps as unattainable a state as it may be, the struggle to obtain historical truth is a necessary one. For a subject as powerful, as definitive and as emotional as Montreal, never has that perennial strive been more relevant in the world of wrestling.
Calling upon the skills I learned when studying for my degree in history, I knew that I had a wide array of source material available for me to scrutinise in an attempt to try and definitively determine what happened in 1997, in the lead up to and aftermath of Match 20. Before studying any of them, however, it was important to first of all try and gain a grand view of events.
We know, first off, that there are a number of glaring inconsistencies when it comes to the retelling of the story. A brief glance at Wikipedia (admittedly a questionable starting point, albeit a well-sourced one) highlights three of the more obvious ones – who created the Sharpshooter spot from which the opportunity arose to ring the bell?; who told Earl Hebner?; was Pat Patterson involved in the screwjob or not? Some of those issues are more pressing than others, though all play an important role if we are to ascribe a specific series of events as “having happened”.
At the same time, however, in reviewing the material available to us we also know there are a number of extremely important consistencies as well. The majority of these can be found in the description of events throughout that specific calendar year. These include, but are not limited to: the flaws in Shawn's retelling of his February knee injury, along with the clear indications that said injury was widely doubted; consistent recollections of conversations between Shawn and Bret determined to put an end to bad feeling; Shawn's “Sunny Days” comment being a turning point in relations, spoken in retaliation to a perceived slight from Bret the previous week in which Raw went off the air before Shawn could Superkick him; Bret's dealings with WCW, and Vince's exacerbation of them; and, perhaps most interestingly, Vince's own haggling between the two individuals as a middle-man being a large cause of friction.
The problem in identifying both consistencies and inconsistencies alike lies in the reliability of the sources available to us. Those sources are practically innumerable, so I opted to focus on a select few.
Bret Hart's own autobiography, Hitman, was published outside of the WWE and, as a result, free of any of their propagandistic restrictions. It is apparently based on audio recordings made by Bret himself during his years on the road, but there are glaring historical errors. Also, there is no sense of accountability for the information it presents. No references are given, nor are any primary sources provided. We are simply asked to assume his word is gospel, and we have a responsibility to question the clear level of prejudice in his writing.
Shawn's Heartbreak and Triumph was notably published in-house by the WWE, and as a result we must account for the possibility of a certain level of outside control over what is and is not stated. There is a far more positive portrayal of Vince McMahon here, one that is strikingly at odds with other information. Shawn's own book also suffers from the same problem of expecting its word to be taken as fact. Shawn is more unwilling with the facts he presents, with situations and scenarios recalled in far more general terms. His story does remain consistent throughout all source material however.
The captivating Greatest Rivalries interviews are an intriguing watch, but its relationship with the aforementioned sources has to be realised – all three rely solely on the word of the two combatants in the match itself, and as a result are likely to be extremely similar. Importantly, all three should be taken with a requisite amount of reasonable doubt.
Wrestling With Shadows is an invaluable presentation of fact. In it, we see Bret's side of events. We hear raw audio footage of the conversation between Bret and Vince on the day of the Survivor Series, we see Bret's mood upon having faxed over his contract to WCW and the entire documentary has a pervasive and unsettling tension throughout.
Survival of the Hitman, a 2010 documentary that can be seen to function as an unrelated sequel to Shadows, gives us a look at Bret's mood immediately following his return to the WWE in January of that year and serves to further cement Bret's version of events throughout 1997. It does present us with another number of contradictions, not least of which being Bret's claim that the infamous Border Wars angle was created to purposefully sabotage his career – an unwelcome example of Bret's intermittent paranoia.
There are a pair of interviews with Bret courtesy of Off the Record that took place either side of Montreal that can substantiate the feelings Bret had at the time. Most of those expressed by Bret do remain consistent with his claims in more contemporary material.
Finally, there is an incredibly in-depth account of events courtesy of Dave Meltzer, a copy of which can be found on numerous websites online. The document is most notable for implementing both Pat Patterson and Jim Ross as being involved in the plan to screw Bret. He also makes the powerful point that a number of individuals had to be aware of the plan due to the pay-per-view going off air four minutes early, as well as for Shawn's music to be cued up ready for his victory. Neither of these facets are explained in other material available to us.
One thing becomes increasingly clear: upon assessing the reliability of each source, only the match itself can provide our most honest and unprejudiced clues as to what happened that night. The sources above provide us with a number of consistencies, certainly, but overall the scene they paint is a confusing one. As a result, the match needs to be a prism through which to focus our haze of information, hopefully clarifying some degree of truth in the process.
We know the personal animosity between Bret and Shawn was at an all time high in 1997, involving a number of tense conversations and at lease one physical altercation.
We know that Bret's contract negotiations with WCW had been aided by Vince McMahon, who we know had willingly backed out of the contract he had pushed for Bret to sign the preceding year. The details of the contract remain tricky to define – in Shadows Bret states nine million over three years, though elsewhere only three million is claimed. We know that Bret's window of negotiation expired before he could get a promise from Eric Bischoff that his departure from the WWF would not be officially announced on WCW until after he had dropped the WWF Championship.
We know that Earl Hebner was asked, by Bret, if he had heard anything regarding the screwjob on the afternoon of November 8th. While accounts of this come only from Bret, no conflicting information has been provided to counteract it. We cannot be sure as to who informed Earl on the night itself – the most likely case is Shawn, who takes the credit and is only rebuked by information found in the second hand facts delivered to Bret.
We know that Triple H was the one responsible for overtly suggesting Bret get screwed – this is agreed upon in most sources, and even relayed by Triple H himself in a video interview. The quote attributed remains consistent throughout. We also know that Shawn simply agreed to do whatever he was told, and has since relied on this as his primary defence for having been involved in the hit.
We know that Jerry Brisco was definitely involved in the planning. Not only is he noted as being part of the conversation the night before in every source, but he is also visibly seen escorting Shawn quickly from ringside following the end of the match itself, seemingly corroborating he had a specific role to undertake in the design of the screwjob.
We know that Bret went into his match at Survivor Series feeling comfortable. He has, in numerous sources, reiterated that he and Earl were long-time friends and having him in the ring made him feel safe. We can also be certain, thanks to the audio footage aired in Shadows, that Bret had been led to believe the match would end in a schmazz – a large brawl between the factions of both participants. Bret and Shawn also agree in their separate books that they had a conversation on the day of the screwjob agreeing to put their differences aside.
We know that Shawn denied his involvement in events. This is clear from the scenes in Shadows, in which Shawn can be clearly heard speaking from off camera. We also know Bret punched Vince out – Vince is captured on camera leaving the locker room with a limp and looking flustered, while an unidentifiable colleague is clearly heard telling him not to look at the camera. Whether Vince “allowed” Bret to punch him or not remains unclear.
In lieu of these, our most likely facts, what does the match itself tell us? What does it clarify? Most importantly, does it indeed answer the question of what the truth behind Montreal was?
First off, we have the video promo airing before the match itself. It serves to remind us of an undeniable fact: the company did an outstanding job of making this match look like a shoot. At every opportunity it becomes clear in this video that the company was actively pushing Bret and Shawn to wear away the fourth wall and let us catch glimpses of their real animosity, all designed specifically to build anticipation for this confrontation. Not only does this then verify the tales regaled by both individuals in their various recollections of their conflicts, but it also seems to lend credence to the idea Vince was manipulating, at least in part, the events that led to Bret refusing to drop the belt to Shawn. This is, after all, damn good television.
Even the fact you see Shawn and Bret walk from the backstage area to the ring is designed to amp up tension and increase the realism factor. Shawn doesn't seem nervous; he does a great job of acting as if everything was normal. If he was in two minds as he claims, it's hard to read it on his face here. Though that said, he does move down to the ring with a great deal more restraint than usual. He doesn't dance, he doesn't play, he just walks. Shawn claimed in his book to be filled with nervous excitement – is this evidence to support nervousness?
The crowd seem to know something was about to go down. Michaels gets hit in the face with a beer before anything has even happened. Trashing the Canadian flag simply incites them further. The fact there is clearly huge amounts of tension would substantiate claims from Meltzer that word had leaked out to the internet and the press of the difficulties at play backstage.
Bret's own walk to the ring is similarly hard to read. Compared to Shawn his pace is faster and his face is sterner, though some of it may be down solely to his more stoic nature. Like with Michaels, there's less than the usual energy from Bret as he heads to the ring; is this a sign of the day, or of a year of politics having worn them both down to exhaustion?
JR's commentary has a finality to it. It's clear this was intended by the company to be Bret's last match, which would seem to fall in line with the strongest theory of Bret simply forfiting the title the next night on Raw. Also, the commentary itself almost seems to carry a fatalistic awareness. Whether or not JR was involved in the planning of the screwjob is muddy, but his commentary during the match could easily be angled to suggest such.
Seeing Bret stand and wait for Shawn on the inside of the ring seems somehow otherworldly at this stage. Shawn does his usual cocky stuff on the outside, again not seeming nervous, and nor are there any signs from Earl. There's a genuine disdain in Bret's eyes though.
The action starts with the famous brawl around the arena, and the strikes definitely are worked to look stiff. It's possible some could have thought of at least part of this as a shoot fight.
It's hard to account for whoever is milling around, due to the claustrophobic camera work, a lot of which is shakier than usual. Most referees are there. Vince and Slaughter are both clear as day, as are Brisco and Patterson. As JR comments on this being rumoured as Bret's last match, we clearly see present, according to some, all those involved in the conversation the night before; in fact, as far as I can tell, they're the only officials down there.
There's a long stare between Bret and Vince at one stage that chills, though there are no signs of anything other than a show being performed.
Bret does, indeed, strangle Shawn with a Quebec flag as he accurately recalls in his book. Officials disappear backstage, but notably there's little footage of the commentary side of the ring. Cameras stay fixed looking out to the entrance, or down on the ring itself. As a result, it's difficult to pinpoint Vince's current location. We do, though, catch a glimpse of him and Slaughter sat at ringside during an odd camera angle when Shawn chokes Bret with the flag. Vince seems to be watching, with intensity, what is happening, leaning forwards in his chair and hardly blinking.
As they settle into the match, the feeling of shoot seems to disappear as we transition into a more traditional wrestling match, albeit with that growing Attitudinal edge. They're clearly working together, seemingly proving that they must have had some kind of a working agreement arranged prior to the night. There are zero signs from Earl and Shawn throughout, so who can blame Bret for performing with a deal of confidence and comfort? Yet while there are no signs of something amiss, bar Vince's ringside presence, there is a horrible impending doom to the tone of this entire affair, the kind of quiet tension that runs through Wrestling With Shadows as well.
As Earl bumps, we see Shawn roll to his front. He casts a glance to the outside; the angle makes it hard to know where but it seems to be in Vince's direction. They get up, as does Earl at the same time, and Shawn locks in the Sharpshooter. There's a split second glance from Shawn to Earl as Earl charges for the bell to be rung. Lawler's natural sounding reaction to this is, "What?" The fans are on their feet in a second. A second later Bret spits in Vince's face. Shawn puts on a convincing performance of not knowing what happened, while Vince barks at him to leave. That would certainly clarify Vince had told Shawn to act dumb. It's also noteworthy that suddenly Triple H springs up out of nowhere. Brisco is soon ushering Shawn out swiftly, incriminating himself as well. The organisation of what occurs is clear amongst those we believe to be involved in the planning.
As a primary source, the video footage of this match is vital. It has its limitations, but those limitations tell us something themselves. The camera work, as noted, gives us little clarity as to what was occurring on the commentary side of the ring. We can just about determine where Vince was sat, but conveniently placing himself off camera means it's impossible to track his movements beyond the early happenings of the bout. Certainly we can't see how he acts when the time comes for the bell to be rung. It's also vital to note he is in no rush to immediately leave ringside as Earl, Shawn or Brisco were. The fact that, like Heartbreak and Triumph, the match is a WWE product of its own limits its ability to give us an accurate and unbiased account of events, but it does highlight concerns raised by Meltzer – how was the music ready to hit when it was?; why were they so quickly capable of going off air early?; how did Vince know where to place himself to avoid being seen by all except the eagle-eyed, avoiding raised suspicions? The match result would indicate that knowledge of the event was perhaps not quite as limited as certain accounts would make you believe. There's definitely enough to help incriminate JR and Patterson for those who would seek to.
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, this is exactly why the match is must see. It doesn't show us a quickly cobbled together swerve designed as a last ditch effort to save face. It was a tight-knit, accurately planned operation. Coupled with Wrestling With Shadows, the match is the only primary source available to us that accurately portrays the truth of Montreal we are seeking. All our other sources help create a framework leading up to it, but only parts of those sources can be seen as confirmed by the match itself. The rest, alas, seems doomed to remain largely conjecture.
But there is another piece of video footage linked to all this: the clearly worked interview performed by Vince McMahon on Raw in the weeks following the event, the interview from which the opening quotes were derived. While the interview itself is largely useless as a source, it does have another interesting quote in it, one that struck me after I'd opted to treat today's match as must see because of its importance as a piece of historical information.
I regret that Bret didn't do the right thing, for the business and for himself. Because it wouldn't have cost him one dollar less with his deal with Turner.
We started by asking what is the truth of Montreal. That quote made me realise that the best answer to that question is what we should really be asking: what exactly did Bret, a man with nothing left to gain from his actions, do?
It wasn't just about refusing to job to a guy he didn't like. That's the literal version of events. The answer to both our questions is the same. No amount of historical analysis or critical detective work would have led me to it.
The truth of Montreal, what Bret did, was risk legacies. Not just his, but Shawn's, Vince's and the WWF's.
That's when Montreal becomes a must see match for a second and completely different reason altogether, one exceeding the realm of mere history.
Stay tuned for #20 (2), coming your way in seven days.
Click here to watch the Montreal Screwjob