25 years ago on November 9th, 1997, the WWE held its November based Pay Per View Survivor Series in Montreal, Quebec, Canada… If you are a newer or younger wrestling fan and have yet to see that show, please do so immediately on your WWE Network or Peacock streaming service. In addition to that, check out Bret Hart’s Wrestling With Shadows documentary to see tons of behind the scenes footage leading up to and also being at that very event. That show, or at least the finish of the Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels WWF Title match, is arguably the most ground shaking moment in pro wrestling history.
What happened? In short, Bret Hart’s contract was set to expire (WWE exercised the option) and he was supposed to have “creative control” for the last 30 days of his WWE tenure. Within that 30 days, he was set to wrestle Shawn Michaels at WWE Survivor Series 1997 and Bret was refusing to put over Shawn Michaels and especially not lose to him in Canada. Vince McMahon initially agreed to a run-in finish for that match, with DX and the Hart Foundation causing a disqualification or no contest. However, where Bret was going after this match caused concern for Vince, particularly if Bret wasn’t doing to lose the WWF Title on the way out. Thus, a plan was hatched to create a finish that Bret was totally unaware of and when Shawn Michaels applied Bret’s Sharpshooter submission hold (which Bret was supposed to reverse), referee Earl Hebner called for the bell as if Bret Hart actually submitted. Shawn Michaels was the new WWF Champion and Bret Hart spent the rest of his healthy wrestling career in WCW.
Did you get all of that?
There’s much more to the story, which we’ll discuss in this column but we’ll also discuss the ramifications of this MAJOR decision by Vince McMahon and the WWE to screw over a very loyal and big wrestling star.
Through 1994, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) got their finances in order and made a major signing. Hulk Hogan left the WWF during 1993 and attempted to do movies & television full-time. While he had moderate success, the world wasn’t exactly going to see his films and his TNT show did alright. With Hogan already working for Turner, the question of “would you want to work for WCW” was posed and Hogan said “yes” or more like “YE$$$$$” in honor of the lavish contract that Bischoff gave the Hulkster. WWF’s biggest star was now in WCW and he’d start to lure other former WWF stars to WCW such as Honky Tonk Man, Brutus Beefcake, Jim Duggan, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Then, in 1995, WCW got bold and created WCW Monday Nitro to debut during September 1995 and go head to head with WWE Monday Night RAW. Many laughed initially at this, but when Lex Luger appeared on the first ever show, jaws dropped. WCW has risen to the occasion, finally, after many years of being a laughing stock. WCW, though, had some bumps in the road and ran babyface Hulk Hogan into the ground. This all came to a head during Uncensored 1996 with that embarrassing Doomsday Cage Match in its main event. Eric Bischoff took stronger charge of the Creative and wanted more “reality based” storylines. Thus, wrestlers fought with their real names and WCW was pushing to appeal more towards adult fans.
As luck would have it, Kevin Nash (Diesel) and Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) both had their contracts coming up after Wrestlemania 12. With WCW invested in WCW Nitro and wanting to become the #1 company, they threw a ridiculously generous financial number that was fully guaranteed with less dates at Scott Hall. Hall showed the number to Kevin Nash and he was shocked… Hall took the irresistible deal, as he was battling WWE on payouts, creative, and testing at the time. For Kevin Nash, it made him think and after a few disappointing creative moments himself, he inquired Vince McMahon for a bigger payout. Vince couldn’t match that fully guaranteed money, worried that all of the WWE talent would ask for it as well. As you may know, Nash and Hall would “invade” WCW and eventually form the New World Order (NWO) stable to help WCW achieve becoming the #1 wrestling promotion in the world.
But there was another guy whose contract expired after Wrestlemania 12. His name was Bret “the Hitman” Hart. After dropping the WWF Title to Shawn Michaels, Bret took a break from wrestling for his family and a few Hollywood opportunities. Reportedly, and this is in Bret’s book and other subsequent interviews, he was made a serious offer by WCW and Eric Bischoff to join WCW. If true, he could have joined Hall and Nash as the 3rd man of the NWO or later join the NWO to really make it a heavy “former WWF” star faction. Bret, however, is a loyal guy and he heard of bad experiences of other wrestlers who went to WCW. Instead, he just enjoyed his time off and during October 1996, he opted to sign a new deal with WWE instead.
Here’s the kicker about that new WWE contract for Bret Hart… In order for him to remain loyal and not jump to WCW, it was a 20 year deal for Bret that was front-loaded with higher guaranteed payouts (between $1 to $3 million for the first few years) and then for the later years as he got older, he’d possibly join WWE’s management team in some capacity. WCW reportedly offered Bret around $2-$3 million to join (or as Bret says), and so thus WWE offered Vince something very competitive to keep him. However, there was a clause in that contract that would spice things up for the Fall of 1997… Should the WWE desire to get OUT of his Bret Hart contract within 1 year, they may execute an “escape clause”. If the WWE used this clause, however, Bret had full “creative control” over the last 30 days of his contract.
1997 proved to be tough times for the WWE, as they were hitting their absolute low rock bottoms through the Spring of that year with TV ratings, attendance, Pay Per View buys, and merchandise. While many LOVE Wrestlemania 13, it was a poorly viewed and attended show. However, that show elevated “Stone Cold” Steve Austin significantly and WWE started to realize that they had a major star on their hands. The Undertaker also got significantly better inside the ring, too. In addition, many of Jim Ross‘s developmental talents were beginning to join the WWE and a serious youth movement was on their hands. Someone like Rocky Maivia who was struggling as a babyface but was very crisp inside the ring… WWE would start to see this kid move mountains later in 1997 when he returned from an injury and joined the Nation of Domination as a heel.
While Bret Hart was actually having the best time of his career with the revived Hart Foundation during 1997, the demand to keep an overpriced veteran was starting to decline. With Austin, a revived Undertaker, the Rock, Mick Foley making strides with his multiple characters, Triple H showing promise, and many other Jim Ross developmental talents about to be unleashed, the WWE started thinking about that out-clause in Bret’s contract. Bret just turned 40 in July 1997, too… If WWE lets him go, that would free-up around $2-$3 million in salary annually that could go to other talent investments or bring in Mike Tyson for early 1998 and Wrestlemania 14. Plus, Bret had major backstage issues with Shawn Michaels who was locked-in with his WWF contract. Furthermore, WCW was becoming a bit too crowded with their roster decisions and Vince McMahon probably remembers Hogan refusing to work with Bret during 1993.
Through October 1997, WWF and Vince McMahon executed their out-clause on Bret Hart‘s contract. The big mistake is that the WWE did so while Bret was still WWF Champion. Oh, and Bret had “creative control” over his last 30 days, too, which he could use to protect himself as champion.
With the out-clause executed, WWE also had another problem… They really wanted Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels to headline WWF Survivor Series 1997 and it was set in stone, in Vince’s eyes. And Vince wanted Shawn to become champion at that event. However, Bret had that 30 day creative clause and vetoed dropping the title to Shawn. “Anyone but Shawn” is what he’d later say, but that was contrary to what Vince McMahon wanted. There were talks about dropping the title at houseshows before Survivor Series 1997, but that continued to cause friction because Vince wanted Shawn to become champion and Bret said “no” to any shows in Canada or near its borders (according to Jim Cornette).
So, the Surivivor Series 1997 match was set and the agreed finish, at least to Bret’s face, was to have the match end in a disqualification or no contest due to Degeneration X and/or the Hart Foundation running into the match. Then, on the RAW following Survivor Series, Bret Hart would hand over the WWF Title and say goodbye…
But you see, this was November of 1997 and the WWE was deep into the woods of getting their arse kicked by World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in the Monday ratings, on Pay Per View business, merchandise, and attendance. WCW was #1 and WWE was about to hand them their World Champion. If Bret doesn’t get defeated by a WWF wrestler, then Bret technically remains WWF Champion in wrestling fans’ eyes and whomever become WWF Champion will be a paper champion. Vince couldn’t let that happen…
As discovered in the Dark Side of the Ring series on Vice, it was in a meeting with Jim Cornette, Vince Russo, and Vince McMahon where Cornette reportedly came up with the idea to screw Bret out of the title with an unknown finish to him (Russo refutes or just doesn’t remember Jim saying this, FYI). Jim even came up with the idea of the Sharpshooter reversal spot, which Bret has used repeatedly on previous other matches. When Shawn Michaels had Bret in the Sharpshooter, the referee could call the bell as if Bret really submitted and then everybody runs to the back to avoid complete hell from the fans. Vince McMahon reportedly thought about this idea and then hatched it into motion with only Gerald Brisco, Shawn Michaels (who probably told Triple H & Chyna), and a few others very close to Vince (Sgt. Slaughter?). Jim Ross insists that he never knew. Gerald Brisco even reportedly showed a few “shoot” holds to Shawn, should Bret get upset at the finish and attack Shawn.
On the day of the event, Bret Hart had assurances from Vince McMahon that their agreed upon finish, the DX/Hart Foundation no-contest finish, was going to be what happens at Survivor Series 1997. Bret even had assurances from senior referee Earl Hebner that nothing screwy would happen. Hebner didn’t know of the screwjob plan until just before the Bret vs. Shawn match, where he was literally threatened termination of his WWE job if he didn’t call for the bell when Shawn Michaels applied the Sharpshooter on Bret. With a family to support, Hebner complied and would later call for the bell to screw Bret. When Hebner did that, he immediately ran out of the ring.
The big difference between the plan that Jim Cornette proposed, where everybody runs away after the Sharpshooter screwjob finish to what was actually executed was that Vince McMahon decided to be ringside for this match. This was a smart move by Vince because it likely protected Shawn Michaels from serious harm. After the match happens, Shawn acts like he’s throwing a temper tantrum over winning the belt and grabs it in anger to head to the backstage area. Meanwhile, Vince McMahon is there to own his decision to screw Bret.
The Survivor Series 1997 match was peculiar, as the two wrestlers started off brawling through the crowd and outside the ring. Then, when they got to the ring, it was your usual crisp stuff between 2 great workers. It’s really a shame that we were denied more matches between these two, as the are in their peaks in terms of in-ring work. But they hated each other and it created so much drama backstage. Shawn Michaels played politics and was on several substances while Bret Hart was rigid on creative, despite the WWE desiring to turn their creative into something that resembles Crash TV or what was seen on Jerry Springer. They should have had more matches, but Wrestlemania 12 and Survivor Series 1997 was the only real opportunities we saw both men as Main Eventers (they wrestled previously when Bret was IC Champ, I know).
Here comes the spot where Shawn Michaels applies the Sharpshooter and Bret would then reverse it to apply his own version of the Sharpshooter, which he’s done lately with other wrestlers. Once HBK was locked into the Sharpshooter, Degeneration X (Chyna, Rick Rude, Triple H) were supposed to run in and stop it while the Hart Foundation would run-in to counter them. Show should have ended with a big brawl between the 2 factions… But it didn’t. Referee Earl Hebner, who previously in the night “swore on his kids” to not screw Bret, called for the ring bell as Shawn Michaels locked in the Sharpshooter on Bret Hart, creating the appearance that Bret submitted.
Shawn Michaels grabs the title, as if he’s pissed off, and gets the hell out of dodge. Meanwhile, Vince McMahon is ringside and is standing up, looking right at Bret Hart. Bret immediately realizes what has happened and quickly sees Vince. Bret Hart spits in Vince McMahon’s face and that’s it for Survivor Series 1997. Later, off-camera (Wrestling with Shadows may have captured it?), Bret writes the letters “WCW” with his hands to the fans in Montreal.
Backstage, it became a different story… It was pure chaos, as the promoter just betrayed the wrestlers’ trust. You just didn’t force an unscripted moment without BOTH in-ring competitors knowing ahead of time. Things can change on the fly, but both wrestlers knew. However for Bret, he was clearly screwed and betrayed by WWE. Several wrestlers would not appear on RAW during the night after, with Mick Foley wanting to quit over the deal. Meanwhile, Rick Rude (who protected Bret on that night and informed Eric Bischoff on what happened) actually left WWE to join WCW because he didn’t have a deal in place. Undertaker demanded a closed door meeting with Vince McMahon immediately after it happened for answers and respected Vince’s explanation (he’d later talk with HBK, too).
But then, came the meeting between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon. By Bret already spitting on him, he could get accused of assault and lose any implications of what that 30 day creative clause could have mattered. Then, Bret slugged Vince McMahon backstage in their meeting. Bret insists that he hit Vince with an uppercut but Vince was selling a black eye for weeks. Regardless, Bret Hart punched Vince and that punch plus spitting would doom any courtroom battle Bret could have over his contract. Instead, he would just go on to WCW to work for around $2.5 million per year…
Unfortunately for Bret Hart, he had to wait out of the full final 30 days of his WWF contract. He wouldn’t appear on WCW Nitro until December 15th, 1997. Thus, it gave WWE weeks to capitalize on the “Montreal Screwjob” in which Degeneration X mocked him (famous “midget” Bret Hart segment) and Vince McMahon did weeks of on-screen interviews during RAW to explain his side while sporting a black eye. “Bret Screwed Bret” is what Vince McMahon insisted. However, what Vince didn’t realize is that he was planting the seeds of his famous heel corporate character who would harass Stone Cold Steve Austin throughout 1998 and 1999 that would draw serious money.
Bret Hart’s WCW run was a complete DUD. After weeks of hype, he appeared to just be a “special ring enforcer” for the Hulk Hogan vs. Sting match at Starrcade 1997. That match was supposed to be the blowoff match for Hogan and NWO’s run and to crown the homegrown Sting the WCW Champion. Well, it didn’t happen that way… The Hogan/Sting match SUCKED, as Hogan dominated most of the match against what appeared to be a weaker Sting than we saw who dropped from the rafters throughout 1997. Then, Nick Patrick counts a regular 1, 2, and 3 on the spot that was supposed to be a fast count. Bret Hart looked foolish insisting that it wa s a “fast count” and took over as referee. Sting then defeats Hulk Hogan in the most botched biggest match ever and Bret acted as the referee for that restarted match. Bret’s career in WCW was already off to a humiliating start.
Meanwhile in the WWE, they announced a major signing of Mike Tyson, who was fresh off his boxing suspension for biting off Evander Holyfield. He appeared in the skybox at Royal Rumble 1997 and was going to appear on Monday Night RAW afterward with a special presentation with Vince McMahon. However, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin appeared, talked some smack on Tyson to his face, and then gave him the double bird middle fingers to set off complete chaos in the ring when Tyson shoved him. This segment played EVERYWHERE on Sports channels and segments! The best part was the pure ANGER that Vince McMahon had for Steve Austin about “blowing” the segment. The Austin vs. McMahon feud was officially hatched that night and Austin was the one who would slay the dastardly Vince McMahon who screwed Bret Hart. WWE did nothing but explode from growth from here and eventually overtook WCW in the Monday Night Ratings in the weeks after Wrestlemania 14 when Austin became WWE Champion.
Meanwhile, Bret Hart was just there… He didn’t matter in a bloated WCW who still had Hulk Hogan hogging the spotlight and a highly impaired Eric Bischoff who cared more about his on-screen character than backstage matters. Bret had some success when Vince Russo took over creative duties during the Fall of 1999, but then a couple of bad spots at Starrcade 1999 (Figure 4 on the ring post, kick from Goldberg) gave Bret a severe concussion that probably got worse as Bret kept wrestling weeks after this injury. Then, he was done and has had some bad medical luck for the past 2 decades. What a shame, as WCW really botched his entrance and did nothing with him throughout 1998 to even remotely capitalize on the real victim of Survivor Series 1997.
WWE flourished. With Bret Hart gone and with Shawn Michaels exiting due to injury, guys like Steve Austin, Mick Foley, the Rock, Undertaker, Triple H, and Kane could all step and everyone fit within heel boss Vince McMahon’s schemes. Shane and Stephanie would soon join their father, as would many free agents trying to jump off the sinking WCW ship like Big Show, Chris Jericho, the Radicalz (Guerrero, Malenko, Benoit, Saturn), and others… ECW signings like Tazz and the Dudley Boyz were huge, too. Meanwhile, Jim Ross’s developmental system was pumping in new talent like Kurt Angle to thicken up the roster with young, quality stars. WWE was so successful that they became public in 1999 and that cemented them with liquidity to invest for many years to come.
WCW, meanwhile, peaked with their Hogan vs. Goldberg match during July 1998 but it was all downhill after that. NWO storyline was on fumes, Goldberg was struggling with match quality as WCW Champ, Sting was already irrelevant (he joined an NWO faction), and nobody new, besides Goldberg, was pushed as a top guy under the age of 35. WCW packed on too much high priced talent through 1997 and Eric Bischoff impaired himself when he became an on-screen talent. As the viewers, merchandise sales, attendance, and Pay Per View buys started to decline, the revenue just wasn’t there to justify the higher talent and production costs. Meanwhile, Time Warner kept revising itself and then merged with AOL during 2000, right when the dot com bust was about to cause a 2001 economic recession. With WCW losing a reported $70 to $80 Million during the year 2000, the new AOL/Time Warner executives wanted to pull the plug. That they did, and sold WCW to WWE for less than $4 million during March 2001.
WWE is still the #1 company, to this very day. Bret Hart and Vince McMahon/Shawn Michaels would later make-up, even with WWE killing Owen Hart during 1999. That said, Bret has harsh feelings of 1997 and he has often taken them out on Triple H. If you watch Wrestling with Shadows, there exists footage of Bret’s then-wife asking Triple H and Chyna if they knew anything and Triple H denied everything. In later years, Triple H has come up with a story that insisted that he came up with the idea of “screwing Bret” if he didn’t want to drop the title to Shawn Michaels. Bret has been constantly bashing Triple H as a worker ever since and that will probably limit Bret appearing in WWE with Triple H now fully in charge.
For WWE, it created on-screen persona of Vince McMahon and he ran that character into the ground and was a big part of Austin Theory’s character through Wrestlemania 38. It makes me wonder, though, if Vince McMahon became his own victim of his own success. If Montreal Screwjob 1997 didn’t happen and WWE didn’t explode in growth afterward, would the success have gone to Vince McMahon’s head? Granted, he did admit to cheating on Linda McMahon for years during the 1990s, so the horndog Vince was still around… But money always amplifies the worst habits in people.
The biggest part, in my mind, was “changing the guard” for the WWE Main Event scene. In 1997, it was Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels clearly at the top with an emerging and improving Undertaker joining them. Fast forward to the end of 1998, and it was Steve Austin, the Rock, Mick Foley, Kane, and the Undertaker with Triple H on his way up. Then, Jim Ross’s developmental system would unleash by adding all kinds of younger talents like Edge/Christian, Hardy Boys, Test, Val Venis, Kurt Angle, and others would freshen up the roster. Then, without traditional Bret, the WWE could run wild with adult themes and that’s where Vince Russo thrived. They could push sex, language, and violence and that drew eyeballs in both from WCW fans and also brand new fans who didn’t mind checking out Sable’s Playboy body. With Bret out of the way, WWE could do a lot more with other talent and the money once promised to him. Mostly, though, it created the on-screen heel boss character of Vince McMahon.
25 years ago, the “Montreal Screwjob” finish of Survivor Series 1997 is still talked about. It’s legendary on what happened that night and took pure balls from Vince McMahon to risk trying to screw on of the most beloved wrestlers in Bret Hart, both by fans and talent. Many documentaries, online discussions, and allusions on other wrestling shows have been made about this event. The sad part is that you can still see that it personally hurts Bret Hart, to this day, even if he had improved relations with Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon in the later years. His trust was betrayed and he never wanted to join WCW.
The scary part is that we’ve never seen a screwjob like this ever tried since. Yes, we’ve seen a few storyline based “screwjobs”, but those weren’t for real. While we have seen a few wrestlers break character or walk out of a match, it’s nothing in comparison to a promoter screwing a Main Event talent out of a match or championship. Vince could have started a full-scale riot in Montreal had things happened differently. For example, what if Bret Hart punched Vince instead of spitting on him in the arena? What if Bret encouraged fans to “get him” to Vince? I commend the Montreal fans attending that Survivor Series 1997 show for behaving despite the major event that just transpired on a fellow Canadian. Seriously.
What Survivor Series 1997 tells me is that CM Punk won’t work for AEW ever again, particularly as long as the EVPs (Omega & Bucks) and their clique remain employed. There are daggers everywhere and I would imagine Tony Khan would want to seek revenge, too, for being humiliated during that media scrum.
Furthermore, Triple H, the new WWE boss, lived through the Montreal Screwjob and had a front row seat to much of it. I’d be very careful crossing him, if I were any disgruntled WWE talent. As you can see, most wrestlers are very obedient in the WWE when it comes to Vince or Triple H. Even CM Punk, who had his issues with them backstage behind closed doors and kept silent about his WWE tenure for 10 months before doing the Colt Cabana Podcast.
The main thing is that the Montreal Screwjob was the turning point in the WWE vs. WCW Monday Night War. The move allowed WWE’s roster to get younger, fresher, and allowed their content to evolve. WCW was acquiring a 40 year old Bret to join a bunch of other 40+ year old former WWE veterans in a promotion that hit its peak. By not having Bret for weeks and then botching his WCW debut, it gave the WWE the momentum of the Montreal Screwjob by creating the heel Vince McMahon boss. Vince tried to act like the “good guy” in the situation, but what he didn’t realize is that his interviews pissed off fans more and created a demand to see anyone get revenge on the guy. Enter Steve Austin as his foil, the rest is history. Without Bret, the WWE could afford Mike Tyson and then start pushing newer names at the top for 1998.
What a major night in wrestling… Survivor Series 1997, holy cow. Wrestling hasn’t been the same since.
If you are a younger wrestling fan, go watch WWF Survivor Series 1997 and then go find Wrestling with Shadows. Bret’s book is a great read, as is Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer coverage. There are several other YouTube documentaries that explain it well, along with a few WWE produced shows on it it too. Lots of shoot interviews out there as well from wrestlers or personalities who were around it at the time.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane… 25 year ago, my gosh, where did time go?!?
For my money, 1996-1998 are the best years in Pro Wrestling as you had 2 companies battling and making major talent decisions in the heat of the moment. HUGE rolls of the dice by Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon during this era and we got to enjoy it weekly as viewers. Bischoff signing Hall and Nash was freakin’ huge and then nailing creative on how to use them… Then, Vince McMahon making the bold decision to use the out-clause on Bret Hart and then completely screwing him over on his exit. If only the Eric Bischoff of June 1996 was managing WCW during November/December 1997. As I keep saying, when he joined the NWO as an on-screen character during November 1996, that began to impair him as a manager of the WCW company. More eggs went into the basket of what his on-screen character could do instead of the visionary or pioneer that he once was during June 1996. THAT is what Bret Hart inherited when he joined WCW during late 1997 and had to deal with throughout 1998-1999.
What a great time to be a wrestling fan! The beauty of the WWE Network is that you can relive most of this excitement, so go watch it!
So just chill ’til the next episode…