ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... Pro wrestling fans were actually curious about Monday Night RAW on November 10th, 1997. For much of 1997, WCW Nitro was regularly defeating RAW by a wide margin even with the WWE beginning to improve its product (Hart Foundation Angle, switching to a 2 hour show, more live shows, better production, pushing Steve Austin). But it wasn't until the RAW after Survivor Series 1997 that made the entire wrestling world was actually motivated strongly to watch RAW (rating jump from a 2.6 on 11/3/97 to a 3.4 on 11/10/97).
For Survivor Series 1997 held on the night before, the show was headlined by Shawn Michaels vs. Bret "the Hitman" Hart. This was a rematch from their Wrestlemania 12 60+ minute "Iron Man" match which critics have deemed a classic. After Wrestlemania 12 in 1996, Bret Hart took some time off as his WWF contract expired. Hart considered an offer from World Championship Wrestling (WCW) to join the likes of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall as a stable to "invade" WCW - later becoming the New World Order. Bret Hart, however, turned down WCW's offer in favor of a 20 year WWF contract that was worth a reported $1 million per year.
But there was one catch in the WWF contract with Hart: after 1 year, the WWF could "opt out" of the contract and Bret Hart could instantly become a free agent. Seeing the possible need to free up some cash, Vince McMahon sought to exercise that 1 year out clause of Hart's contract. Provided that Bret Hart officially started on his new contract during November 1996 surrounding that year's Survivor Series, it was expected that Survivor Series 1997 would be Bret Hart's last match with the WWF. But there was a big, big problem... Bret Hart was the WWE Champion at the time and the WWF expected him to drop the title to Shawn Michaels.
During the 1990's WWF, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were competitive rivals. It started off professional, as both knew that together, they could achieve great business together. Hence, Bret Hart dropping the WWF Title to Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 12. Bret's expectation, especially upon returning to the WWF during November 1996, was to continue his work with Shawn Michaels and receive a main event win over Shawn at some point. There have been stories that both Wrestlemania 13 and King of the Ring 1997 were initially booked as the redeption event for Bret over Shawn, but knee injuries and lost smiles later, it never happened. However, the match finally happened at Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal, Canada no less.
There was legitimate tension between Michaels and Hart during 1997. The pressure of the Monday Night Wars was in the air as Shawn's good friends, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sean Waltman (Syxx, later X-Pac) were having fun in WCW as members of the New World Order. With the WWF regularly getting beat in the ratings, Michaels probably didn't appreciate that he received some of the blame for the ratings shortfall after his WWF Title win at Wrestlemania 12 and remaining champion for a large chunk of 1996. Michaels, during several backstage altercations, made threats of "leaving for WCW" several times during 1997, reportedly. Mix that with Bret Hart returning to the WWE with a 20 year contract... The dynamite was in place for BAD relations between Hart and Michaels. 1997 saw tension between Shawn and Hart both in and out of the ring, as the wrestlers argued and even brawled behind the scenes while taking personal shots at each other during live promos ("Sunny Days").
Being unable to make Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart work earlier in the year, the excuses to avoid this match were over by the time Survivor Series 1997 arrived. But then Vince McMahon opted for the 1 year opt out clause... Suddenly, Bret Hart would have to drop the WWF Title, right? WRONG... Another contractual clause in Bret's contract was that Bret had "Creative Power" over his character for the last 30 days of the contract. In other words, he had a say on how Bret Hart could exit the company... Provided his issues with Michaels throughout 1997, Bret Hart used it for Survivor Series 1997 and REFUSED to drop the WWF Title to Shawn and planned on handing the WWF Title over on the Monday Night RAW that followed. With the tension of the Monday Night Wars existing, Vince McMahon would be damned if Bret Hart joined WCW as the defacto WWF Champion for the likes of Eric Bischoff to exploit.
Thus, the plans for the "SCREWJOB" were underway. Vince McMahon met privately with his closest associates and then conspired with Shawn Michaels about the match. The plan was for Shawn Michaels to attempt the Sharpshooter on Bret Hart and the referee would call the match. Bret would think nothing of the move, as the Sharpshooter spot would before Bret to reverse Shawn's Sharpshooter into his own. Bret had no idea what was about to hit him, although several fellow WWF wrestlers backstage warned him NOT to trust Vince. Before the match, Vince McMahon threatened referee Earl Hebner to join the conspiracy or be terminated on the spot. Hebner agreed... The Sharpshooter spot occurred, Hebner called the match, and the rest is history. Shawn Michaels stormed out of the match, acting pissed, as if he had nothing to do with the conspiracy. Bret knew what happened immediately and spit in Vince's face (Bret later punched Vince backstage), while also spelling out the letters "WCW" for his next destination.
The next night on RAW saw Shawn Michaels rubbing it in to the Ottawa, Canada crowd. In the weeks to come, the WWF would run multiple interviews with Vince McMahon. The big effect from these interviews is that it fully removed the mask from Vince McMahon. ALL fans now knew that he was the owner of the WWF and it would set the stage for bigger and better things to come. When 1998 rolled around, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was a full blown face and he began to challenge his corporate boss. Vince McMahon, as the heel boss, would run his Austin vs. Vince feud into the ground for much of 1998-1999 and made the WWF lots of money. By July 1998, RAW never lost again in the Monday Night Ratings.
Without Bret Hart on the roster, that was 1 Main Event spot now open for the taking... Even further, with Bret Hart gone and only Owen Hart actually remaining on the WWF roster after Survivor Series 1997 (Jim Neidhart and British Bulldog jumped to WCW, Brian Pillman unfortunately died), the Hart Foundation angle was now over. Bret and the Hart Foundation took up lots of television time for 1997 but suddenly, that time was freed up. This allowed for Degeneration X to become stronger as a group and allowed for Steve Austin, the Rock, and Mick Foley to step up to the plate. Undertaker could now feud with Shawn Michaels further and also had to contend with his new brother, Kane, who just recently joined the WWF. WWF began to unload it's farm system to introduce many new characters that we'd all come to love for 1998 in the midcard.
Bret Hart would join WCW during late 1997 and was badly misused. However, he was just another aging WWF star that WCW acquired and the lack of breathing room at the top was becoming evident. WWF, in contrast, was pushing new stars to the top and it was exciting. Ultimately, this single Survivor Series 1997 event turned out to be the major pivot point of the pro wrestling industry. WWF would get stronger and stronger while WCW would get too dependent on older WWF stars. By 2001, the WWF would purchase WCW.
In hindsight - this was easily the most gutsy call in pro wrestling history. During late 1997, WWF wrestlers almost revolted against Vince McMahon. Vince broke the trust of the business and the fear existed if this was a one time thing from Vince or not. Several wrestlers left the WWF, notably British Bulldog and Rick Rude, while many other top stars were disgusted, outspoken, and almost left (Ron Simmons, Mick Foley, reportedly). But say what you will, it almost had to be done. WWF needed a "game changer" to fix their roster and put more eyeballs on their product. It absolutely worked.