Bret Hart made his long awaited return to the WWE as guest host. He spoke of the 1997 Survivor Series Montreal screwjob, his desire to move past it, and wanting to make ammends with Shawn Michaels. Shawn entered the ring at Hart’s request, where both men spoke their minds and ended the segment with a firm handshake. This was significant. To fully realize the magnitude of this moment, you have to understand that these men have quite a history.
Paralleled careers were matured throughout the year, with Shawn shedding his Rockers day-glo wrestling gear, tag team partner, and good guy image for a John Morrison style egomaniacal “pretty boy” persona, complete with heart shaped sunglasses, mirror Bedazzled clothes and Sherri Martel, who stood in his corner, interfered in his matches, and screached throughout his new obnoxious entrance theme. Then there was Bret Hart, who, like Shawn was still getting accustomed to singles competition for pretty much the first time in his WWF career – although Bret had at least a three year headstart as a singles competitor by this time. That’s where the similarities end, however, as Bret Hart was an old school, pure wrestler’s wrestler who was accused over the years of taking himself too seriously.
By the time Summerslam 1992 came to Wembley Stadium in London, England, both men were on their way to main event status. Shawn was in a mid-card match, while Bret had a classic with brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith for the intercontinental title, which England’s own Smith won. This left the Hitman open for a world title run, which started a month later, with a victory over Ric Flair in Hart’s home country of Canada. Survivor Series that November saw Bret Hart defeat Shawn Michaels via submission with the Sharpshooter.
In 1994, Bret and Shawn continued to shine in the ranks of a struggling WWF. Hulk Hogan left the company for WCW and brought with him some of WWF’s old guard, such as Randy Savage and Jim Duggan. The time had been long overdue to develop new stars in the WWF. Shawn Michaels, along with Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and Sean Waltman, by this point known as the Kliq, started to gain major influence in the locker room. They had Vince McMahon’s ear, and this lead to political and creative control. Bret Hart, however, was in the middle of some upper mid card feuds with the likes of Yokozuna, Jerry Lawler and his brother Owen Hart.
Wrestlemania X saw Bret win the world title after an almost year long reign of Yokozuna, while Shawn and Scott Hall brought down the house with a contest that revolutionized the ladder match. Bret’s seat atop the WWF was only being kept warm for Kevin Nash, who defeated transition champion Bob Backlund after Backlund’s Survivor Series upset of Hart several days prior. Wrestlemania XI in 1995 saw Bret defeat Backlund in an I Quit match, while Shawn headlined against champion Kevin Nash. Hart defeated Kevin Nash later that year to win the world title.
That same year, Shawn and the Kliq were in an altercation with (depending on who you ask) with civilians, and the civilians beat them up, especially Michaels. Shawn “lost his smile” and forfeited the intercontinental title. 1996 saw Shawn Michaels win the world title by defeating Bret Hart in a 60 minute Iron Man match at Wrestlemania XII. This is where things began to get interesting. Triple H entered the WWF, and quickly became a Kliq member, which meant he received a push, almost immediately. Bret Hart decided to take time off after WM XII. He started to think about his future, and was offered a contract by WCW, who had just managed to steal Hall and Nash, and later, Waltman, in what was the beginning of one of the angles that changed the business forever: The New World Order.
Vince McMahon made a promise to his father when he took over the WWF that he would not go after the regional territories, allowing them to survive, and not monopolizing the industry. Against his father’s wishes, Vince practically absorbed the AWA, and all but eliminated the territories throughout the 80’s, giving lots of guys their first big paydays. There was always a #2. It was the NWA, which was purchased by Ted Turner in 1988. Turner called Vince McMahon, and told him that he was now in the ‘rasslin’ business, to which McMahon laughed off. WCW started Monday Nitro – a live program that competed directly with WWF’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw – in 1995, and within a year, started to raid some of the WWF’s top names. WCW also did something that no one else was able to do: defeat WWF in the ratings.
The NWO was huge. Wrestling became the thing to watch. WCW was really on the cutting edge. They went live when WWF was pretaped for weeks at a time, and would go on the air and give away the Raw results. The had wrestlers such as Lex Luger jump, and even had WWF Women’s champion Alundra “Madusa” Blayze show up, with the title belt, and drop it right in the garbage live on TNT. Vince McMahon was nervous, but did little to make any necessary changes. He had the wrong people in his ear. His regular safe circle of yes men. The business was passing him by. Vince was also nervous that Bret Hart, someone who was in his company since 1984, was going to jump during his time away. After much coaxing, McMahon managed to ink a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with Bret Hart, that would ensure him a powerful office deal many years after he retired from the ring.
H(art) Immitating Life
Bret Hart returned to WWF, and began, at first, an anti-McMahon, anti WWF persona. It was around this time that Jim Ross began on on air character. He had been promising for weeks the return to the WWF of Razor Ramon and Diesel. On the night they were to return, Ross took the mic in center ring, and gave a shocking (at the time) worked shoot, complaining of mistreatment by the WWF, speciifically the owner Vince McMahon. This was huge because it marked the first time that McMahon was acknowledged as the owner, as up until now, he always played the innocent voice of the WWF as one of its lead announcers.
Ross went on a tirade, citing two previous uncalled for terminations. He mentioned working in the front office, and took responsibility for the grand exodus of the last couple years of many of the old stars to the WCW, and for bringing in such newer names as Steve Austin, Mick Foley and Marc Merro. He then introduced “Razor Ramon” who was clearly a poor impersonation – the point of which was that anyone could adopt the personas, but Hall and Nash could not do so in WCW. The fake Razor and Diesel storyline was dropped quickly, but it showed that WWF was desperate.
A few weeks later, Jim Ross conducted the first interview with the returning Bret Hart. A few months later, Bret and Psycho Sid played hot potato with the world title, and Bret threw a fit, ranting about Austin cheating to win the Royal Rumble, and how the WWF had pretty much become a lawless land. He got Vince into the ring and shoved him around. Hart went on to have a phenomenal program with Steve Austin. Bret was then slated to win the WWF title at that year’s Wrestlemania over Shawn Michaels. Months before WM, Michaels forfeited the title, not doing business in refusing to lose to Bret. Michaels stated behind the scenes that he had lost to Bret numerous times in the past, and thus felt that he didn’t have to return the favor from the Iron Man match. Bret had a classic I Quit match with Steve Austin at WM instead, establishing Steve Austin as the toughest SOB in the WWF, and Bret as a pissed off heel – that one match told a tremendous story, and both men traded places heel/face at once.
Later in 1997, Bret formed the anti-American/pro-Canadian Hart Foundation with Jim Neidhart, Davey Boy Smith, Owen Hart and Brian Pillman. Bret also legit beat up Shawn Michaels in the locker room one night after Shawn was talking about Bret’s affair with Tammy “Sunny” Sytch. Bret already hated Shawn Michaels. He hated Shawn’s attitude, personality, and his overall influence in the locker room. Shawn had since formed the controversial DX, which was WWF’s answer to the NWO, with Shawn, Triple H and Chyna. They took this full throttle. WWF started to change, thanks to new creative member Vince Russo. They did controversial things such as DX trashing Nation of Domination’s locker room, littering it with racial epithets, all the while framing The New Hart Foundation for it.
That sort of thing, combined with the anti-American storylines, Hart would later go on to say was harming his pure reputation and marketability. Meanwhile, Vince Russo was successful in convincing McMahon that the old style of booking was why WCW was killing them in the ratings. It had gotten so bad financially, that McMahon gave Bret an option out of his contract, and encouraged him to explore his other options. That summer would prove to be a pre-emptive farewell to the Hitman, as the Calgary Stampede PPV saw the Hart family together in celebration of a victory over the Ne’er do well Americans. By Summerslam 1997, Bret could really see the writing on the wall. There was Michaels, Hunter, Austin, and Undertaker on top, with not much room for him. He couldn’t go back to being a face after the past year, and there were already too many top level heels.
After Calgary Stampede, the New Hart Foundation had reached their peak. They remained friends and started to split up and get into individual programs. Summerslam 1997, Owen Hart lost the intercontinental title in a match where he almost cost Steve Austin his mobility, let alone his career during a botched reverse tombstone piledriver. Bret Hart defeated Undertaker for the world title in the main event where Shawn Michaels served as the special guest referee. Bret continued his anti-American stance, and began a short program with the Patriot. Shortly thereafter, the controversial Brian Pillman was found dead in his hotel room on the morning of the Bad Blood ppv. That night, Shawn Michaels defeated Undertaker in the first ever Hell in a Cell match for the world title’s number one contendership status.
It was around this time that Bret Hart decided to take Vince up on his offer, and talk with WCW, and he managed to get a 3 year contract offer. He gave Vince about a month’s notice. There was only one problem: Bret Hart was the champion, and he had some creative control in his contract. Vince wanted Bret to lose the title to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in Montreal, Quebec Canada. Bret was very much against the idea, agreeing upon an outside interference/disqualification loss. He didn’t want to lose to Shawn Michaels. He didn’t want to lose to a man he despised. A man who went out of his way to blow his nose with the Canadian flag. A man who Bret disagreed with philosophically as well as professionally. And he definitely didn’t want to do so in Canada.
Bret agreed to drop the title to anyone Vince wanted once they were back in the United States. He even said he would forfeit the title the very night after Survivor Series. McMahon assured him that they would do whatever Bret wanted. McMahon also knew he was on the verge of losing his company thanks to WCW’s overall dominance. He also remembered the Alundra Blayze incident where she dropped the women’s title in the garbage live on Nitro. He also remembered Lex Luger, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and others who jumped ship as soon as they could. He also knew Bret had been disgruntled for a while, and he had just let Bret out of his contract, and he was on his way to WCW. McMahon was desperate once again.
The match was set. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels for the WWF world heavyweight title. The tension building up to this match was obvious on both sides of the curtain. McMahon took pre-emptive action by having all his players in position. Vince McMahon, his inner circle, and Shawn Michaels had a plan. There was a spot set up where Shawn would have Bret in a sharpshooter and Bret would reverse it. Only, they weren’t going to give him a chance to reverse it. The moment it was locked in, Vince physically alerted the time keeper to ring the bell as the referee Earl Hebner called for it at McMahon’s behest. Both Bret and Shawn looked in shock, and the shock immediately became anger. Bret’s look was legit. Shawn’s was carrying on the facade. This was the most famous shoot in the history of the business. This was the very moment that would forever be called “The Montreal Screwjob”
Bret stood up and spit right in Vince McMahon’s face. Shawn grabbed the belt and was quickly escorted out of the building by Patterson and Briscoe. The show abruptly went off the air. After the show ended, Bret wrecked the announce tables, monitors and other equipment. Bret knew what had happened to him. He knew that after more than a decade of loyalty, pain, sweat, tears, loss, and life, he was stabbed in the back. He re-entered the ring and to the hard camera, wrote “W-C-W” in the air as he mouthed it. In the back, Vince caught up with Bret in the locker room, and tried to explain. Bret warned him to get away. Vince gave Bret a free punch later on in his office as Bret’s wife confronted a few of the boys who denied knowing anything about this. The Mr. McMahon character was born serendipidously, and it changed his life, the lives of others and the life of his company forever. Imediately following Bret’s departure, Degenaration X, consisting of Shawn Michaels, Triple H and Chyna, went on to humiliate Hart. Disrespect the legacy of the Hitman, by beating up a midget dressed up as Bret, and involving Jim Neidhart in Dx, only to beat him up and make a spectacle of him, all on Monday Night Raw, and all contrary to the previous agreement made between McMahon and Hart. This was also the time that Vince McMahon was interviewed by Jim Ross, where Vince had said that, regardless of what happened, “Bret screwed Bret” – and that particular interview went on to be the stuff of legend, much like the Montreal Screwjob itself. It was after Steve Austin’s defeat of Michaels for the world title at Wrestlemania in 1998, that the Heartbreak Kid left the WWF for the next few years.
Bret and Davey Boy were granted their releases per request, but Owen was not – although some have said that Owen wanted to stay in the WWF to avoid buying out his contract. Throughout 1998, Bret Hart spent a meaningless year in WCW, while Shawn Michaels lost the WWF title to the biggest star in the history of the business, Stone Cold Steve Austin, at Wrestlemania, and left the business for at least the next four years.
It has been reported as being anywhere from a 50-80 foot drop, but regardless of how high it was, on May 23, 1998, in Kansas City, Missouri, Owen Hart tragically passed when he was in the middle of rapelling into the ring with a harness and cord, a la Sting had done in the past, and Owen had done himself while doing the Blue Blazer gimmick. The quick release mechanism detached, and Owen plummeted to the ring. Conflicting reports state that Owen screamed for the referee in the ring to move. Owen landed on the top rope, chest first. If he didn’t die in the ring, he did so on the way to the hospital. Months later, Bret Hart wrestled Chris Benoit in a tribute to Owen on Nitro from Kansas City.
The Best There Was…
After a solid year of the highest ratings in cable history for Monday Night Raw, underappreciation from McMahon, and pure burnout, the minds behind the greatness that was the Attitude Era, Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara left WWF for WCW. This was a shocking development that no one saw coming. They immediately went on to push Bret Hart, giving him the tiitle, and even giving him “the last laugh” with a similar screwjob finish over Goldberg, who inadvertantly put him out of action, not to mention concussion status, with a stiff boot to the head. Bret, soon thereafter, announced his retirement. He participated in some angles, but his in ring career was over. By 2004, Chris Benoit defeated Triple H and Shawn Michaels in a triple threat match, once at Wrestlemania XX an next at Backlash in Edmonton – was an homage to Bret? The world may never know, but, the discerning fan might think that this was an obvious apology to not only Hart, but to Canada itself.
WWE Hall Of Fame – 2006
Out of nowhere, Bret Hart was inducted in the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2006, By Steve Austin. Bret respectfully accepted, but refused to appear the next night on Monday Night Raw. This was the last time Bret was to appear on WWE television, until…
January 4, 2010
Previous guests hosts mentioned the fans desire to see Bret Hart as guest host. Vince McMahon initially denied if not ignored the suggestion, but eventually announced that Bret “Hitman” Hart would in fact be the guest host on January 4, 2010. Vince even went so far as to have the “New Hart Foundation” on Raw backstage to appease him. On a night where TNA aired their very first live iMPACT! to compete with Raw, Bret and Shawn shook hands. It was the handshake heard ’round the world. Then, later in the night, Vince McMahon delivered a kick to Bret after the chairman announced that Bret’s dad, the late Stu Hart, would be inducted in the Hall Of Fame. Bret Hart has signed a short term contract, but everyone, including Hart himself, should realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same…and those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.