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KELLER: The inside story on Bret Hart Screwjob in Montreal - our original in-depth cover story the week it happened

Sep 14, 2009 - 4:16:19 PM
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The following is the cover story of the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter #466 (cover-dated Nov. 15, 1997)...

TorchCover466_333.jpg


McMahon double-crosses Bret in title match

Bret punches McMahon backstage afterward; did Michaels know the plot? How will Owen respond?

By Wade Keller, Torch editor


Bret Hart walked into the ring Sunday night at Survivor Series in Montreal expecting to walk out with the WWF Title. Instead, Shawn Michaels did.

Vince McMahon, frustrated with his inability to convince Bret to drop the WWF Title before WCW announced their acquisition of Bret on national television, devised a plot to wrest the belt from Bret without his consent. Afterward, because of his anger, Bret punched McMahon in the locker room minutes after the match, giving McMahon a black eye and a sore jaw.

The double-cross led to major unrest in the WWF locker room. Family members Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, and Jim Neidhart wanted to quit. They no-showed Raw on Monday and the Raw taping on Tuesday. Their status is up in the air. Mick Foley (Mankind) flew home and no-showed Raw on Monday apparently in protest of McMahon's actions, but did fly back for the Tuesday taping.

There is also controversy regarding whether Michaels was in on it. He is claiming vociferously that he wasn't in on it. Very few are believing his story.

There are very few instances in the modern history of wrestling -- the last few decades -- where a promoter double-crossed a wrestler in the finish to get a title belt off of him. Bob Backlund lost the WWF Title to Iron Sheik when Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel. Backlund knew he was going to be asked to drop the title soon, but the promoters didn't trust him to do it, so they had his manager toss in the towel. Backlund for years has claimed he wasn't in on the finish, but some were skeptical of his claim. Backlund called Bret a few days ago and asked him, "Now do you believe me?"

The closest parallel in Vince McMahon's promoting history to what happened Sunday night in Montreal happened Nov. 25, 1985 when Fabulous Moolah, under a mask as Spider Lady, pinned Wendi Richter to capture the WWF Title at Madison Square Garden. Richter's ego had been running out of control in McMahon's eyes and she wasn't willing to drop the title, so McMahon instructed the referee to make a rapid fire three count when Richter wasn't expecting it and award the belt to Moolah.

Just over a week after the news broke that Bret Hart planned to leave the WWF for WCW, the WWF's motivation for that was in question. Did the WWF encourage him to leave purely for financial reasons because they felt they were overpaying him? Did they encourage him to leave because they wanted to invest in Shawn Michaels as their top star and since he and Bret couldn't get along, they had to get rid of Bret? Did they need to improve the profitability of the WWF in case McMahon decided to sell a minority interest in the WWF to several private investors or in a public stock offering? Or was McMahon clearing away obstacles (financial and ego) for an eventual return of Hulk Hogan?

No matter what the motivation, it was indisputable that the WWF wasn't disappointed Bret left, and Bret was eager to leave the WWF. In other words, the splitting of the two sides was mutual. In fact, it was cordial to a degree.

It was cordial until McMahon and Bret butted heads over the finish at Survivor Series. With the news getting out of Bret's departure, and WCW's plans to announce on Nitro that he was headed their way, McMahon had to get the belt off of Bret quickly in order to avoid the embarrassment of having a lame-duck champion headlining cards. All along the WWF planned to ask Bret to lose the belt to Michaels. All along, Bret planned to say no.

Thursday and Friday, just days before Survivor Series, McMahon and Bret began discussing the finish in depth. Bret gave McMahon a list of a handful of wrestlers he was willing to drop the belt to before he left (Ken Shamrock, Undertaker, Steve Austin, and Jeff Jarrett), but Michaels wasn't one of them. McMahon wanted the belt off of Bret before the entire nation knew of him joining WCW, which meant it had to happen Sunday night. A storyline could have been devised where Michaels suffered an injury and couldn't wrestle, or a convoluted finish where a third party defeated Bret and the ref awarded the belt to him, but McMahon felt there would be a backlash against all of those alternatives. Whatever the options were, McMahon felt strongly Bret should drop the belt to Michaels, despite their personal animosity toward each other.

Bret finally compromised. He agreed to lose to Michaels, but not in Canada. At one point the plan was for Bret to drop the belt to Michaels on the Dec. 7 pay-per-view and Bret would make an official farewell statement to the WWF viewers on Raw the next day. Bret argued that as long as he told the media that he had opted for a 30 day out clause, but he had not signed with WCW officially and might change his mind, that there would still be suspense going into the Dec. 7 title match. McMahon disagreed. There was talk of Bret dropping the title later in the week at one of the house shows, perhaps at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

It wasn't good enough for McMahon. Then the negotiations broke down into pure butting of heads, clashing of egos, and a struggle for power. Talks were no longer cordial. Lawyers were brought in. Some sources say that as part of the escape clause in his contract, Bret gained creative control of his finishes for 30 days. Bret would have added that clause to his contract last year to prevent exactly what was happening -- being forced to do a job he didn't want to do before leaving. If Bret had that legal power, McMahon didn't have ground to stand on. If Bret didn't have that power, then McMahon was the boss and Bret should have to do what he instructed him to do. Lawyers were brought in to the conference call to debate the situation.

Eventually, some sort of alternate plan was reached where the title match would end in a DQ, likely a DQ win for Bret so the Canadian fans would leave satisfied. Then he would drop the title, perhaps to Michaels, later in the month. McMahon, though, made the compromise with Bret apparently with an alternate plan in mind.

On Friday, McMahon issued a statement through his AOL site that defended himself against Bret's critical comments on the WWF. It was the first public sign of the growing animosity between Bret and McMahon. McMahon said Bret may complain about the "adult content" of the WWF programming, but that Bret himself had been warned to tone down his language and gestures in the past. He basically called Bret a hypocrite two days before Bret was supposedly planning to do a job to Michaels in Canada.

Bret Hart was interviewed on Canada's all-sports station, TSN, on Friday. "Legally, I can't say a lot right now," Bret said. "Wherever I go and whatever I do, I hope the fans understand. I'm not greedy for money, I'm greedy for respect." Bret especially seemed concerned with the racism angle. Bret said it was bad enough Americans hated him, but now he had to be worried about blacks overturning his car. (It was Bret's idea to do the anti-American, pro-Canada angle, by the way. The WWF was hesitant of going that direction with the angle at first.) Bret said Michaels is an incredible athlete, but he doesn't trust him. He said he was guilty of saying things to Shawn that incited him, but they were always aimed at Shawn's on-air character. He said Shawn broke their pact when he brought family into it. Bret was especially upset recently when Michaels said his dad had died years ago and was a walking zombie. He said that there are "codes" in wrestling and you have to trust your opponent.

It's not known whether the double-cross was Vince McMahon's idea, or if someone else first proposed it. However, a two-hour meeting was held on the second floor of the Montreal Marriot on Saturday night with McMahon, Jim Ross, Pat Patterson, Jim Cornette, and Michaels. Bret was wrestling that night in Detroit. There is some belief that at this meeting McMahon proposed the idea of the finish to whoever of that group wasn't already in on it. Ross and Patterson entered the meeting in a good mood and when they were seen in the hotel lobby afterwards, were said to be irritable, forlorn, and shaken. Right after the meeting, in the lobby, a fan asked McMahon if Bret was really leaving the WWF. A dismissive McMahon responded, "I couldn't care less."

The night before, Bret had asked longtime friend Earl Hebner to be the referee for his match against Michaels at the Survivor Series. He told Hebner he didn't trust McMahon and wanted a referee he could trust to work the match. Bret already had in the back of his mind the possibility of a double-cross. Hebner, apparently unaware of the planned double-cross, agreed that he would ref the match for Bret.

When Sunday came and Bret arrived in Montreal, there continued to be tweaking of the content and finish of the match. Pat Patterson came up with a lot of the details, including working out the spot where Bret would reverse the sharpshooter with about five minutes left in the match. With the referee down, Bret would reverse the hold and Michaels would tap out, but the ref wouldn't see it. Then Hunter Hearst Helmsley would interfere and the match would continue, eventually ending with run-ins by DX and the Hart Foundation. Bret would have made Michaels tapout in front of his hometown fans, but he wouldn't leave with the title.

As it happened, after the ref bump, Bret did apply the sharpshooter. But referee Earl Hebner got up quicker than planned and looked at Bret. He jumped up and down and shook his arms, asking frantically if Bret gave up. Bret clearly didn't signal that he gave up, but Hebner turned to the timekeeper's table and signaled for the bell to ring. When the bell rang, Michaels looked up in shock, and Bret struggled to get out of the sharpshooter. Michaels, in keeping with the storyline of the match as it had been planned ahead of time, fed Bret his support leg. Bret reversed the hold, but didn't apply it totally. Instead, with a grip on Michaels's ankle and both men lying on the mat, he began to realize what happened. The look on his face was that of utter amazement -- he had been double-crossed. Referee Earl Hebner leaped out of the ring and quickly returned to the back.

McMahon was standing at ringside. He had created a storyline as part of the match that security had been hired to keep Bret and Michaels apart. The storyline seemed totally reasonable. He was simply playing into the fans' knowledge that Bret and Michaels hated each other for real. He and "WWF commissioner" Sgt. Slaughter were at ringside to ensure things didn't get out of hand. Five minutes before the finish of the match, additional security began walking to the ring. Perhaps he feared the fans in the arena might riot, especially if incited by Bret. He also wanted to be present to be sure nobody backed out of the plan to double-cross Bret and that everything went smoothly. Not everyone who was part of the double-cross was happy about it. But with McMahon right there at ringside, the chances of someone backing out were much slimmer. Plus, he could be there to settle any major problems that might result.

With McMahon standing at ringside, both Michaels and Bret immediately looked at him. Bret glanced quickly at Michaels, then McMahon, then Michaels, then McMahon. Bret was clearly looking for a sign out of Michaels that he knew about the double-cross. Had Michaels celebrated his win, or had Michaels smirked at Bret, Bret probably would have pounced on him right there on live TV. Instead, after two quick glances at Michaels, Bret could see Michaels looked as surprised and angry as he was. Bret glared at McMahon, spit in his face, and then turned around and walked to the opposite side of the ring. He leaned on the top turnbuckle, shook his head, and looked into the crowd.

As Bret gathered his thoughts, Michaels yelled at McMahon, "What the g--damn f---! What the f---!" He hit the mat in frustration, rolled out of the ring, and began showing obvious disgust that McMahon had thrown the match. McMahon yelled, "Give him (Michaels) the belt! Give him the belt." Michaels walked over, grabbed the belt, and walked away, showing incredible frustration and anger with what McMahon had pulled off. Hunter followed closely behind Michaels. As Michaels began his walk down the aisle, road agent Jerry Brisco caught up to him. He said a few things to him, including an instruction to hold the belt in the air. Michaels did so, half-heartedly, just a second before entering the tunnel and disappearing in the back. The PPV then went off the air, rather abruptly.

When the finish occurred, Jerry Lawler didn't say another word. Jim Ross acted shocked and confused, saying that apparently Michaels had won the title as the screen went dark.

After the PPV went off the air, at about 10:48 p.m., the ringside area cleared. McMahon and other WWF officials returned to the back. They left Bret alone. Bret's brother Owen and his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith stormed to the ring. They exchanged heated words at Bret, obviously aimed at McMahon and referee Earl Hebner. They managed to calm Bret down to the point that they felt comfortable leaving. When they returned to the back, Bret left the ring. He began circling the ringside area, shaking hands with fans. When he got to the second side of the arena, the side where the announcing tables were, a fan held up a sign that read "Benedict Bret."

Bret had to deal with media inquiries all week. His planned departure from the WWF was big news in several major Canadian cities, being reported on daily in the Calgary Sun. On Friday he was interviewed on TSN and stopped just short of saying he was headed to WCW. He was trying to get his side of the story out, that being that he didn't plan to jump to WCW for more money. He wanted to establish two things: that the WWF was the first to suggest he negotiate with WCW and that he was leaving mainly because he was unhappy with the content of the storylines lately.

When he saw a Canadian fan holding up a sign that accused him of turning on them, he snapped. He began throwing monitors, equipment, and pieces of the broken Spanish announcing table. One WWF camera continued to film his tantrum, a portion of which the WWF used on Raw the next day to hype the PPV replay on Tuesday night. He then returned to the ring and began drawing the letters "W-C-W" with his index finger, signaling to fans his new allegiance -- and what he hoped would be theirs.

Less than ten minutes after the finish of the match, Bret returned to the locker room. He demanded to see Vince McMahon. Michaels was meeting with McMahon at the time, ostensibly to confront him about the double-cross. Bret interrupted, at which point Michaels personally assured Bret he didn't know about the finish ahead of time. He said he wasn't in on it. Bret turned his attention to McMahon. They exchanged a few words. Bret told McMahon that he was going to go take a shower, but if he was still around when he got out of his locker room, he didn't know what he would do.

Bret left and showered. When he came out, McMahon was still around. Bret approached him, more heated words were exchanged, he shoved McMahon, they wrestled for a second or two, and then Bret landed a punch to McMahon's jaw and a punch to one of his eyes. McMahon went down quickly. He tried to get up, but couldn't get his bearings. Shane McMahon, Vince's 27 year old son, jumped onto Bret's back to hold him off. Davey Boy Smith was the first to intervene, followed by several others. Bret yelled in a rage, "Get this mother f---- out of here or I'll hurt him." A groggy McMahon was helped up and literally dragged away from the scene. While being dragged, his ankle was stepped on. He was unable to put full weight on it the next day. He didn't appear on Raw the next night in part because he sported a very visible black eye. Also, he knew he would have been a major distraction as Canadian fans surely would have booed him for screwing Bret. Before leaving and right after he punched him, Bret sardonically asked McMahon, "Am I still going to get my pay-per-view payoff?"

Bret then stormed out of the arena, never to return to the WWF. He went to his hotel room and answered some media inquiries. "I'm on my way home and the WWF can go to hell," he told the Calgary Sun. "This is the ultimate, final slap in the face and I'm washing my hands of the whole damned organization. He gave me his word and then he ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell." Bret told the reporter that McMahon promised him before the match there would be no chicanery.

As it stands now, Bret obviously will not be working any more dates between now and Dec. 7 as originally planned. He no-showed Raw on Monday and the tapings on Tuesday. He may debut next week on Nitro, although sources say the most likely start date would be at the Dec. 1 Nitro. Eric Bischoff announced, as expected, on the Nov. 10 Nitro that Bret Hart had agreed to join the NWO. "I get to spend a billionaire's money because I can," Bischoff said. "I spend that money to surround myself with the biggest, most impressive names in the sport today. Now the announcement I've been waiting to make because I've been working on this for a long time, the newest edition of the NWO -- and Bret Hart, because you are such a knock out kind of guy, we have a special, special gift for you." The entire NWO then sang the Canadian National Anthem. They did a terrible job of it, and in fact Bischoff had to hand the mic to Curt Hennig to be the primary singer since he didn't wear his glasses and couldn't read the words.

The WWF acknowledged Bret's departure on Raw, saying he had fought his last WWF match. They pushed very hard the replay of Survivor Series the next night. Owen and Davey Boy were not at Raw. They had talked of wanting to quit the WWF out of family unity. Both, though, had signed long-term contracts with the WWF earlier this year. Owen had talked about having the ability to give 90 day notice, but that would mean being buried for three months before getting to jump to WCW. Owen, Davey Boy, and Neidhart huddled in the Montreal Marriot lobby after the show and talked about how Bret "had given 15 years of his life to the WWF and this is how McMahon repays him." Plans are for Owen, Davey Boy, and their representatives to meet with Vince McMahon and WWF officials later this week to work out a situation that everyone can live with.

When the WWF decided to, in effect, drive Bret Hart out of the WWF in order to save his $1.44 million annual salary the next two years, they didn't want to also lose Owen and Davey Boy, who each have downside guarantees in the $300-350,000 range. If the WWF loses Owen and Davey Boy, there is no Hart Foundation and they would in essence lose Canada as a market -- a market that as of now has become tremendously lucrative. If the WWF retains Owen and Davey Boy, they can use the Bret situation to generate more anti-WWF, pro-Hart Foundation heat. Already Shamrock is using the idea that Bret Hart got screwed out of the title by the WWF as part of the storyline in his feud with new champ Michaels.

Other wrestlers talked about joining Owen and Davey Boy in protesting McMahon's double-cross of Bret. The one wrestler who went further than anyone was Mick Foley, who flew home from Montreal and missed the live Raw apparently in disgust with how the situation was handled. He was back for the Nov. 11 Raw tapings, though.

At the Nov. 10 Raw, McMahon addressed the wrestlers. He had to explain to a largely disgruntled and disenchanted crew his motivation for breaking his word to Bret and initiating the ultimate betrayal of the promoter-wrestler relationship. McMahon said he did what he did for the sake of the WWF, himself, and the current WWF wrestlers he was speaking to. He said that Bret played hardball on Sunday by changing his mind about the agreed upon finish and instead said all he was willing to do was to appear on Raw the next day and hand over the title and announce his decision to leave the WWF. McMahon said Bret referred to himself as a "Canadian national treasure" and there was no way he would lose the belt to Michaels in Canada. McMahon explained that if Bret handed over the title, he would forever lay claim to being the champ who never lost the belt. And whoever held the belt would be part of a title that had a break in its legacy. McMahon said Bret did what he thought he had to do, and he did what he had to do for the WWF. McMahon said he expected the worst and said in essence he took the punch from Bret "for the boys." Many wrestlers bought into McMahon's explanation. For those who needed a plausible explanation which they could cling to as a defense for not walking out on McMahon, McMahon provided it for them. Many believed part or all of his explanation, and others thought he was lying to cover himself since he didn't anticipate the backlash that resulted.

In any case, it was largely back to business as usual as the WWF broadcast Raw live and taped the Nov. 17 Raw the next night, shifting the focus away from Bret and Owen. They started new feuds of Michaels vs. Shamrock and Austin vs. Rocky Maivia for the Dec. 7 pay-per-view.

One lingering issue is whether Michaels knew about the plan ahead of time. He was in on the meeting on Saturday night where the finish of the Survivor Series match was logically discussed. If McMahon is telling the truth when he said he came up with that finish on Sunday when Bret refused at the last second to go along with the agreed upon plans, then perhaps Michaels didn't know. Most wrestlers in the WWF are skeptical, to say the least.

Skeptics believe Michaels put on a show because he had to. Michaels knew that if word got out he was privy to the double-cross that he would be ostracized by a locker room of wrestlers in which he is already not especially popular. He acted shocked and dismayed on camera, and in the locker room he literally broke into tears and cried. He said aloud that no one would believe he didn't know of McMahon's plans. After talking to McMahon backstage just after the PPV went off the air, he along with Hunter returned to the hotel without changing out of their wrestling gear, wanting to be away from Bret should he decide to confront them.

On tape there is strong evidence that suggests Michaels knew of the finish ahead of time. His body language gives him away. When ref Earl Hebner began to raise his arm to signal for the bell, Michaels looked his direction. As soon as he noticed Hebner signaling for the bell, he snapped his head away, tilted it back, closed his eyes, grimaced, and applied the sharpshooter tighter. He waited until the bell rang before reacting in apparent shock. Had he not been in on the finish, his eyes would have bugged out when he saw the ref already on his feet, earlier than expected, especially since the ref was signaling toward the timekeeper's table. But instead, he unmistakably looked away and waited for the bell to ring before reacting. Bret, with his face on the mat, didn't know of the conclusion until the bell rang.

Michaels told Bret in the locker room afterward that he wasn't in on it and that he didn't even want the WWF Title. He said that in order to show he meant what he was saying, the next night on Raw he wouldn't bring the WWF Title belt out with him and he wouldn't gloat about winning given the circumstances. However, the next night he brought the belt out with him and gloated. That convinced those in Bret's camp that Michaels was lying all along. Michaels, though, qualified his comments on Raw by saying he planned to come out and be "politically correct," but changed his mind since others had thrown the first punch. He was referring to Hogan saying on Nitro that Bret "passed the initiation" when Bischoff joked about Bret being a "knock out kind of guy." If Michaels didn't plan to gloat, but changed his mind, he was saying that those comments on Nitro were his reasons.

Bret is said to be most upset and personally disappointed with longtime friend, Earl Hebner. Hebner may not have known of the double-cross until a minute before the match began. A source says that Hebner, right before going to the ring, was told of the plan. He refused at first. He was told that if he didn't do what he was told, he would be fired and they would find another referee to take his place. Bret would have known something was up if a different referee came out, so it was important the WWF play hardball with Hebner in order to pull off their double-cross. Hebner reluctantly agreed, but didn't appear to be happy with himself or the situation in the second or two it took him to dart out of the ring after he called for the bell.

The WWF had been anticipating Bret's departure for months. Bret cited in his TSN interview that the WWF didn't include him on the box cover of the video or the poster for "One Night Only" from England even though he was in the co-main event. He was relegated to second-from-the-top matches on recent PPVs. The WWF pushed hard for Austin to wrestle at Survivor Series in part because they knew how important it was to get the Intercontinental Title belt off of Owen before the Bret situation occurred. They had already gotten the European Title off of Bulldog at the UK PPV. The Hart family believes the title changes and his placement on PPVs were all loose ends that McMahon was fixing before Bret's departure.

Last week's cover story has stood the test of time, with sources saying both Bret and the WWF concur with it on all vital points. Within the industry there is still amazement, though, that the WWF would be willing to give up Bret just to save $1.5 million for two years. Hogan is already showing signs of discontent with Bret's pending arrival. There continue to be differing views on whether Hogan's contract expires in January, or at the end of 1998. If it expires in January, there is a chance McMahon pushed the exit of Bret to make ego and money room for Hogan and that he plans to make a major offer to Hogan come January. Bret apparently believes there is a plan of some type on McMahon's part and that Michaels may be driven out next. McMahon could more easily afford to pay Hogan if he sold part of his company. He would more easily be able to find investors if he had Hogan on his roster. McMahon knows Hogan would not agree to rejoin the WWF if Bret were still in the WWF. Rather than clearing salary from the books to make the company more profitable, he may have been clearing Bret from the roster to make his run at signing Hogan again more palatable. WCW sources, though, insist that Hogan has agreed to four PPV dates in 1998.

The double-cross finish in Montreal will be talked about for years. It will also take years for McMahon to regain many people's trust.

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