101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die
June 2013 COTM - 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die (Part 2)
Jul 23, 2013 - 9:33:31 PM
Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
November 9th, 1997
When I think of Bret Hart, I think of the Excellence of Execution.
You're not the only one, Bret, that's been carrying this around for twelve years.
You're not the only one that's ready to move on.
You're not the only one that wants to bury the hatchet.
I guess all I have to say is, are you sure? And are you ready?
I know I am.
January 4th 2010 is a night that is going to be etched in my memory for the rest of my life. I watched live. When the riff sounded, when the music hit and when he spoke, I sat there shaking. Literally physically shaking.
Try to understand that as a Bret Hart fan, as a huge Bret Hart fan, I had long since come to terms with the fact that the Hitman was never going to be a part of the WWE again, outside of his token Hall of Fame induction. When news broke he was returning, as Shawn Michaels said on the night, a lot of things had changed. A lot of things about Montreal had changed.
When the Hitman refused to do the job to Shawn Michaels, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Bret was a man heavily preoccupied with the legacy his career was going to have when he departed the company. Read any of the source material penned by Bret, or watch any of the documentary footage, videos or interviews in which he offers his opinion, and it becomes abundantly clear that, after years of having watched Vince McMahon tear down any star who wasn't loyal, Bret had developed a certain amount of paranoia about the possible hatchet job McMahon would attempt with him.
When November 9th 1997 rolled around, that's what Bret had to lose. His contract with WCW was guaranteed. His huge financial future was set. As Vince said in the quote you read at the end of part one, Bret could have lost that belt and not lost a penny in doing so. So why did he stand up for himself so vehemently? Why not just do the easy and simple thing, and lose?
Of all the consistencies present in the material we're able to source on Montreal, there was one I failed to mention last time – Bret's personality. In both documentaries I looked at, in Bret's first DVD release under the company – Bret Hart: The Best There Is, The Best There Was and The Best There Ever Will Be – and in his book, we can develop an incredibly in-depth tale of his upbringing, his family and his outlook on life. It's one with little humour and a great deal of principle. The Hitman comes under fire with a lot of criticism, some of which is deserved and some of which is not, but if you take the time to investigate his origins as a man you will find that he was raised in a family that placed a great deal of importance on integrity and on trust.
Both are principles at the very heart of the Montreal Question.
Last time we asked, what is the truth of Montreal? Through tightly controlled investigation and analysis, the only thing that became clear was that the match itself was the only real primary source that could come close to giving us an irrefutable account of events. While all our other material gave us moments of clarity, the overall history remains impossibly convoluted. In that sense, the truth of Montreal may never be discovered.
But there was an important step missing in the first part of this look at wrestling's most infamous moment, a starting point that any history student, current or former, should always kick off from – always question the question. In other words, when we ask ourselves what the truth of Montreal is, we must first ask ourselves what it is we mean by truth.
What we have done so far is assess the literal truth of it. That is to say, we have tried to establish the series of events that took place in order for the incident to occur in the first place, asking who was responsible, who played a part and who did what and why. The quest to discover that is pertinent if the situation is to be revisited accurately. However, it fails monolithically to deal with the status we want to attain. The quest for historical truth is not about what happened. It's about what that happening means. To do that, we have to go beyond source material.
Allow me to begin with a disclaimer. I have only my own opinion to go on. While, like last time, this will not be an emotionally charged rebuke of events at Montreal, an attack on whether or not the action taken was a necessity, it will look at the question I left you with before – what did Bret actually do.
Bret Hart risked legacies.
It's the greatest irony of Montreal that the one thing Bret was most concerned about preventing was the one thing he caused to happen precisely because of his attempts to ensure otherwise. Regardless of whether it is objectively true or not, and regardless about whether you agree or not, Vince felt Bret forced his hand into screwing him. Vince felt he had no choice. The result tarnished a lot of things.
It tarnished Bret Hart. I've already mentioned above that Bret comes under fire frequently from the vocal section of fans that reside on the internet. Some of the bizarre comments he makes often don't help, but the story of Bret's career is one that would cause a lot of bitterness in any man I think. Take a quick look at the series of events that the Hitman endured throughout his tenure as a top star, bearing in mind the WWE's habit to go all for nothing on one guy.
Bret won his first World Championship on an untelevised house show. His first Wrestlemania as champion saw him lose it to Yokozuna simply so Hogan could have a moment to shine. Bret was denied the promise of a win over Hogan thanks to various mitigating circumstances, not least of which was Hogan's politicking. In 1994, Bret was denied his moment in the sun by being forced to relent to co-winning the Rumble that year alongside one of many failed New Generation experiments, Lex Luger. The end result of that was a lacklustre championship win at Wrestlemania X. Later that year, he would be forced to relinquish the title once more, this time to another relic of yesteryear in Bob Backlund, simply so another failed experiment in Diesel could take it himself in mere seconds. Bret languished in the shadow of Diesel's horrible title run and, by the time he had won it back, was all set to aid Vince's next attempt at making a new guy – Shawn Michaels.
Whereas Yokozuna, Diesel and Shawn Michaels all got extremely lengthy runs as top dog, Bret Hart found himself endlessly displaced in favour of Vince's flavour of the year. The Hitman was putting on consistently strong performances, but found himself frustratingly denied his chance to genuinely be the one guy at the top. Most WWE Champions, perhaps barring the frenetic Attitude Era, often got a single definitive run that established them as a main guy. Frequently, that run can last close to, if not longer than an entire calendar year. Hogan, Warrior, Diesel, Michaels, Austin (albeit as a heel in 2001), Triple H, Batista, John Cena and, most recently, CM Punk all benefited at some point from said run. But Bret?
I don't wish to sound like I'm whining. I'm simply trying to convey to you the situations that have perhaps caused the bitterness we can often see in the Hitman today. When you do consider that situation, you find yourself stumbling across another irony, this time a far more beautiful one. Even in the face of constant swapping and changing at the top of the roster, the one thing Bret always provided was consistency. He missed only two shows in his entire career, never injured the man he wrestled and, most importantly, provided a library of complex storytelling in the ring that few can rival. His style may not be your preference, but no one who takes a genuinely, a genuinely objective look at his work can deny the seemingly innumerable four to five star efforts he put in through his years. Often he could give those one-match New Gen shows their one match.
But instead of being remembered as the guy that gave audiences the saving grace of “That One Match” on the show, he is instead remembered for his resentment, for his bitterness and for his unapologetic pessimism. He is remembered for Montreal. After all, that event has become a phenomenon all its own, as we saw in the previous attempts to unravel it, and has over-shadowed for many years the work Bret has put in to becoming a legend. Unfortunately, when you think on Montreal in the context of Bret's career I've provided above, the actual screwjob itself is reduced to the status of one last final disrespect. Bret Hart famously spat in Vince's face that night; I would venture Vince did likewise to Bret.
With that said, though, we must remember that Montreal is an event involving many players. From Jerry Brisco to Triple H, quite possibly even from JR to Pat Patterson, the screwjob is something that has had implications on the lives of men much further afield than Bret Hart himself. Shawn Michaels is also a victim of sorts, albeit to a much different degree.
In Greatest Rivalries, Shawn describes, with a deal of genuine pain in his expressions, how Vince said he would take the heat for the screwjob, but how he knew that the “shit would roll downhill.” Whereas Bret seems quite philosophical when he looks back on events now, Shawn seems almost fatalistic in response. He talks with a sense of inevitability about the situation; in the worst instances, he seems almost to indulge himself dangerously close to the level of martyrdom. But his regret feels, seems and looks genuine. His eyes become glassy as he recounts the match and the events leading up to it. One quote in particular hits home.
It wasn't easy...being that guy.
It is another example of a sentence that strikes at the very heart of that historical truth about Montreal we're seeking. Everyone suffered. It's almost fittingly perverse that only Vince McMahon seemed to gain from it. Where Bret became known as an embittered victim, and Shawn as a willing trigger-man, Vince became known as Mr McMahon, a new on-screen character that helped lead the company in a new direction and generate a return salvo in the war for ratings on Monday nights.
Bret risked legacies when he refused to put over Shawn. It is because of that Montreal positively tore them down. In the wake of that destruction, Vince McMahon rose to the top with a new heel character that would go on to become one half of the reason many claim we are able to watch Monday Night Raw instead of Monday Nitro.
Thus we have come almost organically to the next important question. Was it worth it?
What happened is just one side of events. If the pursuit of historical truth is to be one of worth, it must carry elements of context. Knowing the chronology is useful. Understanding the semantics is imperative. Contextualising both is the only way either gains purpose.
Some of the responses to the first half of this column indicated a belief that Montreal was a necessary evil for the company to transition from the long-stalled New Generation into the trailblazing Attitude Era. It is vital that assumption, like any, is challenged.
It's easy to forget that the transition from the family friendly product had already begun in earnest in the earliest months of 1997. Stone Cold Steve Austin had already made a massive impact on the tone of the WWF's product, with his foul language and middle finger, and Shawn himself, perhaps after his coming-of-age match against Mankind at Mind Games, seemed to be nurturing a steadily growing edge of his own. Bret too was a part of this. His work during Wrestlemania Season in 1997 is among some of his finest character work ever. His promos matured that year and the Border Wars angle evidenced a side of him few thought he had, and even fewer give him credit for today. His discomfort with the direction of the company is well-documented; his participation in it, however, showed the kind of dedication to the WWF many forget when mulling over, dangerously in isolation let it be known, his contract terms with WCW. By the time D-Generation X had been established, with Austin's popularity growing following his double turn, and even with Undertaker's own back story becoming even darker with the advent of his younger half-brother Kane, the WWF was already moving almost irreversibly to the tone known now as Attitude. To simply give Montreal the status of a sole catalyst for said transition is irresponsible.
Another major reason why many would call Montreal a necessity is because of it leading on to the creation of Mr McMahon, the character. Certainly, the aftermath of the incident did allow Vince to run with a certain level of momentum and, in a genius move, transition legitimate heat on him into the usual kayfabe heat in a manner so seamless no one realised it happened. What we must question, however, is whether or not, like the overall tonal transition across the company, this might have happened anyway. Vince Russo became head writer in 1997 – pretty much in synch with the growing adult edge in WWF programming – and his fetish for works and shoots is almost legendary. As early as January we were seeing the company use this approach. Bret would often be sent off on rants against the company management, even going so far as to quit on air and leave through the crowd in an attempt to legitimise his actions. Shawn's forfeiture of his belt, regardless of whether his injury was legit or not, was a seemingly rare occasion of a wrestler actively recognising a less than desirable real life situation, as opposed to simply being written off of television. The shameful use of Brian Pillman's wife following his untimely death, Owen's open recognising of being responsible for breaking Austin's neck in the ring and, most importantly, the constant exploitation of increasingly well-known real life tension between Bret and Shawn are all examples, in their varying degrees, of a company positively enjoying the constant blurring of lines between fact and fiction.
The point being that, through that process, simply by virtue of its very nature, Vince McMahon was becoming increasingly involved in the fictional events on WWF television. Whether it was simply being in the ring as events occurred, direct physical altercations – notably with Bret himself – or actively taking bumps, McMahon was, by the time Montreal happened, well on his way to becoming less of an announcer and more of a character. Ask yourself when the first time McMahon took a Stunner was; 1997 is the answer, and before Montreal.
All of these things, much like in the previous column, are simply scratching the surface though. My ideal here is to simply make it evident to you all that events can't simply be compartmentalised when it comes to our memory of Montreal. The chronology, frankly, is a hot mess. The sources available to us don't do a great deal to clear it up. The semantics of Montreal, what it was Bret really did when he refused to job, become evident through the aftermath of that night – it tarnished the legacies of all involved and damned them for twelve years to being “those guys.” And the context of it isn't even clear as to whether it was an incident necessary to change the fortunes of a company already making large steps towards the eventual era we would come to label Attitude. Certainly Montreal sped up some of those processes, but it is clear they were being put into place long before even Bret himself knew he would leave for Atlanta.
In truth, it's practically impossible to provide any answers to the Montreal Question. We can discuss the countless issues surrounding any attempt to for years, and in doing so come no closer to a viable conclusion. That being said, there is one aspect of it all that is abundantly clear, one aspect that has no complications, no contradictions and no inconsistencies.
There is another legacy that Montreal has a direct impact on.
Shawn was right when he said Bret wasn't the only one who carried Montreal around for twelve years. We all did. The only difference is that most of us didn't move on when they did.
On January 4th 2010 I sat there shaking as Bret and Shawn stood in the same WWE ring for the first time since that fateful night. When they agreed to move on, that shaking never stopped. I was giddy, excitable and unsure. As a Bret Hart fan I felt redeemed. Months later, I wrote a column many people may have forgotten about. In it, I apologised for having gotten Shawn Michaels wrong. I had learned to be a fan of his. Like Bret, like Shawn and perhaps even like Vince, I moved on.
How else would I have been able to try and maintain a level of objectivity in my analysis of Montreal?
A couple of weeks ago, I appeared on Joey Shinobi's podcast, Room 101. In it, one of my picks was this very incident. I wanted to rid it from memory. It was rightfully pointed out to me that to do so would be inappropriate – no matter the personal nature of the match, it's still a landmark moment in which the entire wrestling industry shifted closer to the conservative right of reality. However, it then became clear that it wasn't the event I had a problem with. It was the conversation about it.
Let me expose my process here a little. The last two weeks I somehow managed to find the time, between my columns, to exhaustively research the subject of Montreal. I read well over one hundred pages of both Shawn and Bret's biographies covering the entirety of 1997. I watched two documentaries and a two and a half hour long joint interview. I sourced online material from various sites and references and dug up videos of old contemporary interviews, making notes on the lot. I have gone on to write close to ten thousand words on the subject, the only match in the list being given a two part exploration. And through it all the dialogue has been about one thing – the Montreal Screwjob. The match was even deemed a must see last time because of its priceless value as a primary source in helping us unravel those historical truths I've spoken about.
Doesn't that strike you as perverse?
This is a match. It is a wrestling match between two of the greatest wrestlers to ever lace a pair of boots. We know their work. We do not know them. We know the outcome of what happened that night. We may never know what led to it. And we have allowed ourselves to let this monstrosity, this abhorrence, cloud our responsibility as wrestling fans.
We've carried it around with us too. These columns have been nothing but testament to that. I figure the real historical truth behind it all, the one that really matters, is that the screwjob stands today as a cold hard reminder, not to wrestlers or to promoters, not even to those involved, but to us, to you and I as fans of wrestling, not to allow our memories to splinter into realms of reality we will never truly know about.
This match then becomes a must see for completely different reasons, as I said last time. It's not about history, but rather about responsibility; we have a responsibility to ensure things are remembered for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. The reason you should remember this match isn't because Bret got screwed – whether that be by Vince, by the referee, by Shawn or by himself – but because Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels created an in-ring product that stands apart from any other.
This is a must see match because, like any Shawn and Bret match, it was a blend of showmanship and reality that perfectly complimented one another into creating a match that felt like a fight. Granted, perhaps there was a little too much reality here, but in an ugly way perhaps that presents the zenith of the pioneering and never-repeated creation these two were responsible for; this is wrestling as documentary, a cross-breed of genres that evokes real emotion.
You should have noted by now that I haven't reviewed the match again. Nor am I going to. Instead, remembering that we have a responsibility as fans and remembering that this issue is as much about our legacy as it was about theirs, I want you to watch it again and write for yourself your own review. If you do so in the context of it being a wrestling match and nothing more, you may find, as I did, that instead of a dark, disturbing and definitive event, you'll watch a match possessing a genuinely innovative aesthetic. She's one of a kind.
You do no one a disservice by putting aside the screwjob. In fact, if anything, you do them a service. It's time they stopped being “those guys.” History is about learning from mistakes; those who don't will be doomed to repeat them. History teaches us lessons about life. So did the Montreal Question and our attempts to answer it.
It all revealed to me the real historical truth to all of this.
Click here to watch the Montreal Screwjob