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On This Day in Pro Wrestling History... The WWE Screws Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1997
By Mr. Tito
Nov 9, 2013 - 3:35:20 PM
ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... Quite possibly the most important moment in modern pro wrestling history occurred in Motreal, Canada at Survivor Series on November 9th, 1997. In the thick of the Monday Night Wars, Vince McMahon was desperate to defeat his rival, World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Since mid-1996, WCW's show Monday Nitro defeated World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) for consecutive weeks and WWE was getting thin on revenues. Vince McMahon dominated the pro wrestling industry since he bought the company during the early 1980's and one could imagine that his own ego was getting bruised by losing.
The biggest shot to the WWE was during 1996 when they lost both Kevin Nash (Diesel) and Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) to WCW as free agents with the real threat of Bret "the Hitman" Hart jumping as well. After Bret Hart lost the WWE Title to Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 12, he became a free agent and became a real threat to either become the 3rd mystery man of the New World Order (NWO) stable that Kevin Nash and Scott Hall formed (acting like WWE invaders) or eventually joining the NWO stable later in the year. The threat of losing Bret Hart was real and the WWE needed his star power. In a bold move to keep Bret Hart, the WWE offered him a 20 year contract that was front loaded at about $2 million per year. It was assumed that Bret would retire with the WWE and possibly help manage the company in some capacity afterward.
But there was an escape clause in the contract that the WWE could exercise within the 1st year of the contract.
Bret Hart signed with the WWE just before Survivor Series 1996 and he wrestled the guy who may have given the WWE courage to cut Bret Hart loose one year later. At Survivor Series 1996, Bret Hart wrestled "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the rising star of the WWE ever since his character cut the awesome Austin 3:16 speech at King of the Ring 1996. When fans saw that Steve Austin could hang in the ring with the likes of Bret Hart, Austin's star grew in leaps and bounds. Making matters worse for Bret is that he liked Austin and worked hard in the ring to make Austin look like an equal counterpart. Then, at Wrestlemania 13, the WWE pulled the double switch by having Bret Hart attack Steve Austin to effectively turn Austin into a babyface and Bret Hart as a heel. Helping to turn Austin babyface was possibly the worst thing Bret could have done for his WWE career. Bret just made himself expendable because the WWE now had a babyface Steve Austin that could draw more fans than Bret could imagine.
For several times during 1997, the WWE wanted to run the Wrestlemania 12 rematch between Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart. One of the agreed upon conditions of Bret losing at Wrestlemania 12 was for Bret to redeem himself in the second match to set up a third and final match. However, Shawn Michaels "retired" citing a career ending knee injury and needing to "find his smile". He handed over the WWE title before Wrestlemania 13 which was originally scheduled to be Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels, the rematch. Instead, the WWE went with the rematch between Bret Hart and Steve Austin. Michaels returned soon thereafter but returned to a locker room with a furious Bret Hart about the Wrestlemania 13 match being called off and Bret claimed that Shawn faked his knee injury to avoid losing. Rumor had it that the WWE also wanted to do Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels in some capacity at King of the Ring 1997 during June 1997, but that didn't happen. Also during June 1997, Bret and Shawn got into a real life backstage fight and it led to some time off for Shawn probably as punishment.
Shawn would return later during the year and soon form the Degeneration X stable which not only cemented him as a full blown heel, but gave him a new controversial angle that was custom fit for the new adult themed storylines also known as the WWE "Attitude Era". WWE and its lead writer Vince Russo saw how successful adult themed storylines were in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and decided to bring it to national television. With USA Network's blessing, the WWE began pushing colorful language and controversial storylines to not only attract adult fans, but many teenagers who weren't watching wrestling yet during the Monday Night Wars. Shawn Michaels knew how to push the envelop but Bret Hart didn't. Bret was stuck in the old WWE model of good guys versus bad guys whereas Shawn, like his NWO buddies in WCW, knew how to play a cool heel that could get over with all fans. With Steve Austin being the top babyface, the WWE had to choose between 2 veteran heels on the roster with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels.
Shawn fit the Attitude Era better than Bret and Bret's contract that one year escape clause. The WWE wheels went into motion before Survivor Series 1997. Many thought the plans to get rid of Bret Hart were in place by September 1997 when Shawn Michaels defeated "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith, Bret's brother-in-law, at the England event "One Night Only" on September 20, 1997 for the European Title. Why on earth did Shawn Michaels need to win a midcard title for, many fans wonder in hindsight. Regardless, word about Bret Hart possibly leaving the WWE began leaking during October 1997 and it was quite a story to follow during the early days of wrestling news being online. Several hints by both WWE and Bret Hart helped to confirm that Bret Hart was indeed leaving with the WWE exercising the 1 year escape clause to get out of the 20 year deal and also the front loaded $2 million payments. The WWE could invest in younger talent that would help thicken up the WWE midcard for years to come while also helping to free up cash for the Mike Tyson payment for participating through Wrestlemania 14 (reportedly $3 million).
Problem for Bret Hart heading into Survivor Series 1997 was that he was WWE Champion and Vince/WWE Creative Team wanted him to wrestle Shawn Michaels. The WWE desired for Bret to drop the WWE Title to Shawn Michaels but Bret Hart refused. In addition to personal problems with Shawn Michaels, which were made worse by the on-air insults Shawn Michaels made towards Bret ("Sunny Days"), Bret had a Creative Control clause in his contract for the last 30 days of his WWE tenure. When the WWE exercised the 1 year out clause, Survivor Series 1997 was within the 30 days and Bret elected to do a finish where the match would end in a No Contest or Disqualification and then hand over the WWE Title the following night on RAW. WWE management fought him on this booking idea but Bret Hart held firm and wouldn't budge. After all, he had the right contractually to determine the creative direction of the character.
Vince McMahon began to sweat. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of what Madusa did during 1995 when she, formerly as Alundra Blayze in the WWE, jumped to WCW and dropped the WWE Women's Title in the trash can LIVE on WCW Nitro. The last thing Vince McMahon wanted was for Bret to do something that bold, even if he didn't take the WWE Title with him. Eric Bischoff would have had a field day mocking the WWE for stealing its WWE Champion. It would be much like the WWE mocking WCW during 1991 when they had Ric Flair bring the big gold NWA/WCW belt to the WWE after WCW had fired Flair. Vince wanted to win the Monday Night Wars and felt he had to act. Thus, the conspiring began with his tight circle of close wrestling associates and Shawn Michaels. Right before the Survivor Series 1997 match began, Vince threatened referee Earl Hebner with his job to perform the screwjob finish. After the finish, Hebner got the hell out of the ring to avoid any rabid Montreal fans.
On this day in pro wrestling history, Survivor Series 1997 was about to end with a controversial finish that was about to change pro wrestling forever. The match was much different than their Wrestlemania 12 encounter. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels mostly brawled throughout the match. Then again, they weren't wrestling a 60 minute match, so thus they could go a lot harder in a shorter period of time. Bret and Shawn agreed upon a spot in the match where Shawn would attempt a Sharpshooter, Bret's own submission hold, only for Bret Hart to reverse it into a Sharpshooter himself. Bret had done this with other wrestlers during 1997 and Shawn (with Vince conspiring with him) probably used Bret's habit of wanting to use the same moveset in each match against him. The cue given to Earl Hebner, as threatened by Vince, was to call the match when Shawn applied the Sharpshooter. And that he did...
Shawn Michaels was the new WWE Champion after Earl Hebner called for the bell and Michaels acted pissed off as if he wasn't in on the screwjob. The REAL finish appeared to be a DX run-in as Triple H was there at ringside to meet a "disgusted" Shawn Michaels as he won the WWE Title. For the match, Vince McMahon was there ringside to observe and Bret immediately turned to Vince and spit on him. Shortly thereafter, Bret drew the letters "WCW" with his hand in the ring for Montreal fans to see. Backstage, it became heated. Bret went for Vince and delivered righthand punch to Vince that caused a black eye. As seen in the Bret Hart: Wrestling with Shadows documentary, Bret's wife at the time was reaming Triple H for being in on the fix and Triple H flat out denied it.
The controversial finish received mixed reviews backstage in the WWE. Some agreed with Vince and thought it was necessary for business. Others, notably the more older school wrestlers, were furious. Mick Foley and Ron Simmons were visibly upset and probably had to be talked into remaining with the WWE. It broke the trust that wrestlers have with their promoters. "Ravishing" Rick Rude, who was a member of Degeneration X at the time, was upset at what Vince did to his old friend Bret and immediately bolted to WCW. Rude has the distinction to be the only man to ever be participating in both RAW and Nitro, given that RAW was taped for the week he debuted with WCW. WWE probably should have had a contract with that guy... Bret's brother-in-laws, "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith and Jim "the Anvil" Neidhart were able to somehow get out of their WWE deals and join Bret Hart in WCW. Bret's real life brother Owen Hart, however, was unable to get out of his WWE contract and was stuck in midcard hell until his death during 1999. Why the WWE couldn't just agree to let Owen go after the damage done, we'll never know... Certainly didn't push him like he was that important.
With time, many of the wrestlers forgave Vince McMahon because they probably realized that something drastic had to be done in order for the WWE to begin legitimately challenging WCW again. With a few weeks until Bret could debut with WCW, the WWE began firing shots. Degeneration X had a segment where Shawn called out Bret Hart and a midget version of Bret showed up for Michaels to easily dispose. Vince McMahon held multiple sitdown interviews in which he famously spoke of "Bret screwing Bret". On the internet, lots of inside stories were leaked which reported Bret Hart as being very inflexible to "do business" for Survivor Series 1997. WWE was winning the early Public Relations battle even before Bret Hart set foot in WCW. Bret's debut with WCW was underwhelming and made worse by the lame Starrcade 1997 participation when referee Nick Patrick "botched" the slow count during the Sting vs. Hulk Hogan WCW Title match. Bret was damaged goods.
Meanwhile in the WWE, Bret's absence allowed for new stars to rise. In particular, Steve Austin, the Rock, Mick Foley, and newcomer Kane were all allowed to take on increased roles for 1998 while the Undertaker could get a lot more serious with his character. For much of the 1990's, the WWE was all about Bret Hart. Now, it as all about an assortment of talent at the top of the card and each were uniquely talented. Steve Austin, in particular, was ready to take off and was about to be crowned WWE Champion at Wrestlemania 14. With Bret Hart out of the way, Austin could grow exponentially as the top star of the WWE. After Wrestlemania 14, Shawn Michaels was gone from the WWE with a back injury. Austin would need a major heel to feud with...
The major bi-product of the Survivor Series 1997 screwjob, on this day in pro wrestling history, was the exposure of Vince McMahon as the WWE's owner. For years, many wrestling fans just saw him as a ring announcer who would shout "WHAT A MANEUVER" throughout matches. Many didn't know that he was actually the WWE's owner. During the last few months of Bret Hart's career, the WWE began to actually allude to Vince as the company's owner. In fact, several angles where the heel Bret Hart was frustrated about match outcomes had him yelling at Vince. Then, the screwjob happened and the Vince McMahon interviews followed. He was completely exposed as the company's owner. Little did the WWE realize how this event would give Vince McMahon, the character, major credibility as the heel boss that he'd become for 1998. When Vince McMahon brought out Mike Tyson on RAW and Steve Austin confronted Tyson, Vince was furious at Austin. Vince and WWE Creative no doubt saw the fan reactions to Vince and realized what they had. After Wrestlemania 14, Vince tried to mold Steve Austin into a Corporate Champion but Austin refused. Vince would then send every heel he could (Mick Foley, Kane, Undertaker, Rock, etc.) at Austin for the next year and a half and draw incredible money.
Meanwhile in WCW, Bret Hart was just another overpaid former WWE wrestler in their early 40's. When the NWO ran out of steam, the roster suddenly looked like 1980's WWE while the real WWE had fresh, new stars at the top. After WCW hit its ratings peak during 1998, business declined while the many contracts signed of former WWE stars, including Bret, still had multiple years on them. WWE kept growing and growing with Steve Austin on top and became a publicly traded company during October 1999. By March 2001, the WWE bought WCW for under $5 million.
Survivor Series 1997's finish was a bold move by Vince McMahon that, in hindsight, had to be done. WCW was pounding on WWE through November 1997 and WWE not only needed a spark, but possibly breathing room from Bret Hart's spot in the company. It was time for the WWE to move on and begin pushing other stars who could actually grow the business. In doing so, it was humiliating to Bret Hart, a wrestler who worked hard for the WWE for many years. Bret wouldn't do business with the WWE until mid-2005 when he added commentary to his DVD and then during 2006 when he was inducted in to the WWE Hall of Fame. He joined the WWE for regular appearances during early 2010. Bret's Survivor Series 1997 opponent, Shawn Michaels, would also be gone from the WWE soon thereafter. Shawn Michaels destroyed his back at Royal Rumble 1998 in his match against the Undertaker and an early retirement was forced upon him. Without Bret and Shawn, the decks were clear for many other wrestlers to step up. By luck, Vince McMahon was over as a heel after the Montreal incident and the WWE ran with it. The controversial finish and the chain reactions after that changed pro wrestling forever... On this day in pro wrestling history!
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