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Torch Flashbacks
5 Yrs Ago: Bret Hart to leave WWF - Prelude to Montreal incident

Nov 19, 2002 - 2:55:00 PM
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The following is a reprint of the Torch Newsletter cover story from five years ago this month. We ran some of these Flashbacks out of order in order to run articles on the website of the Montreal Screwjob on the exact five year anniversary. If you want to read about what happened after this story originally ran, just check out the Newsletter Flashback section (click on the left menu bar) for a series of articles on the famous incident.

-Jason Powell, Torch assistant editor

* * *

Torch Newsletter Archive
By Wade Keller, Torch editor
Cover Story: Bret Hart to leave WWF, join WCW next month
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #465
Cover dated: November 8, 1997


Bret Hart's final date in the WWF is Dec. 7. He joins WCW shortly thereafter. Eric Bischoff plans to announce the signing of Bret this Monday on the Nov. 10 Nitro. Vince McMahon, according to two well-informed sources, is considering taking the WWF public. Bret's departure may be directly related to McMahon wanting to increase the profitability of the WWF so when his financials go public, the company will look more attractive to potential investors.

About four months ago McMahon approached Bret Hart about restructuring his contract. Bret, now 40 years old, signed a 20 year contract with the WWF in October 1996, but the first three years of the contract paid Bret substantially more per year than the final 17 years, which included mostly Bret working as a front office representative at six-figures per year (e.g. road agent, consultant, booker). McMahon told Bret he made a mistake in paying him what he did, which is believed to be in the $1.5 to $1.8 million range each year for the first three years. Although McMahon had yet to miss a payment to Bret, he outright told Bret he may have to start missing payments unless they could come to an agreement on spreading the money from the second and third years of his contract more evenly over the remaining nineteen years.

Bret balked at the proposal, saying a "deal is a deal." In fact, Bret's feelings were hurt that his value had dropped in McMahon's eyes in the past year. McMahon and Bret decided together that Bret should explore whether WCW would still be willing to sign him since they pursued him so strongly last year, at one point offering him $2.8 million per year, just short of Hulk Hogan's $3 million guarantee. Even though Bret decided to sign with the WWF, Bret and Bischoff had only positive things to say publicly about their negotiations with each other in the weeks that followed.

With McMahon's blessing, Bret approached Eric Bischoff about six weeks ago and began secret negotiations. They met in person in Los Angeles three weeks ago. Bret made his final decision Friday, Halloween night, at which point Bret informed Bischoff and McMahon of his decision.

Bret's deal with WCW is for two years and a third year as an option if he still wants to wrestle at that time. The estimated per year salary is said to be less than the $2.8 million he was offered last year, but still in the $1.7-2.0 million range per year. Bret, whose years of in-ring abuse is catching up to his body quickly, wants to pursue a second career in acting and he believed he had a better chance to reach that goal by joining WCW given their Time-Warner connection to movie and television studios. Like his WWF deal, Bret's WCW contract guarantees him limited dates of under 150 per year. When Bret and Bischoff reached their agreement, McMahon and Bret agreed to sever their relationship and tear up the contract under as cordial of circumstances as possible.

Bret could have conceivably played hardball, stayed in the WWF, and demanded they fulfill their end of the bargain. McMahon could have gritted his teeth and paid Bret, or he could have stopped payments and faced a lawsuit by Bret. However, Bret had other incentives to leave.

Bret told people as far back as eight months ago that he was second guessing his decision to sign with the WWF. Bret was upset on a lot of levels, including personal disappointment with McMahon. Bret signed the contract with the WWF believing he would have influence over the direction of the company and certainly have more power than his rival Michaels, whom he detests. Instead, the WWF continued to promote their television shows toward a more adult audience with lewdness and brashness that Bret wasn't comfortable with. In fact, Bret now says Raw had become so risqu lately that he didn't allow his children to watch WWF television the last month or so.

Bret had openly complained about the direction of the WWF during an interview on a WWF cruise before he re-signed with them. When he re-signed, he was given assurances they would clean up the content of the program. Instead, the swearing, sexual inuendo, and lewd content in general increased in the last year, including most prominently the Brian Pillman-Marlena angle.

As much as Bret disagreed with the content of the television programs, even more disturbing to him was the way the WWF handled Shawn Michaels. Michaels and Bret hate each other, but Bret was willing to try to be cordial with him. But Michaels kept pushing Bret's buttons and making references to alleged demons. Michaels accused Bret of not being as pure in the way he lived his life as he proclaimed, even insinuating Bret slept with Sunny. After making the comment, he taunted Bret with it behind the scenes to the point that Bret snapped and attacked Michaels in the locker room at a Raw broadcast this past June.

Bret believed the WWF should have stepped in and controlled Michaels rather than promote him in main events. At times it appeared the WWF was even backing Michaels in what he was doing. Michaels may have been privy to the possible split between Bret and the WWF and was doing his best to encourage Bret to make the decision to leave. When the news broke Michaels was patting himself on the back Monday and Tuesday for "running Bret Hart out of the WWF." While Michaels is seen by most everyone as an immature loose cannon who has some growing up to do, in some circles in the locker room he was more popular than Bret. Many wrestlers see Bret as a lone wolf who is too judgemental of others and a mark for the business and himself.

During the period just over a year ago when both groups were bidding for Bret, it appeared Bret could be a major influence in the Monday Night War. McMahon believed losing the bidding war for Bret would end any chance he had of stopping the momentum of WCW and Nitro. He hoped that by signing Bret he could even the ratings between the two shows. When Bret returned to the WWF, though, he didn't spike ratings, buyrates, merchandising, or house show attendance. While the WWF has had a largely successful year in every category except Monday night ratings, Bret's presence alone didn't appear to cause a major shift in any category. Raw's ratings remained well behind Nitro's despite his presence, and the WWF banked on him making more of a difference given the price they were paying him.

The WWF has been preparing for Brets departure for a while. The last two months (and it seemed conspicuous at the time) Michaels had been placed in pay-per-view main events, ahead of Bret Hart. The WWF, to the surprise of many, decided that since Michaels and Bret couldn't co-exist, and because Bret's salary was between two and three times Michaels's, and because Michaels is nearly a decade younger than Bret, they wanted to invest in Michaels over Bret.

Whether or not the WWF actually orchestrated the running of Bret Hart out of the WWF in order to placate Michaels and eliminate Bret's expensive salary, they are not shedding tears over his loss. McMahon and top management simply don't believe that had Bret stayed that they would have had a chance to make a run at being number one on Monday nights. As long as WCW can sustain their momentum with their current star-powered roster, the WWF doesn't see any short-term fix for Raw to become number one again, so they figured why hurt overall profitability by overpaying Bret in the mean time? WCW, on the other hand, is celebrating the pending arrival of Bret.

WCW sees huge money potential in two matches in particular - Bret vs. Hogan and Bret vs. Sting. Bret Hart embodies the identity of the WWF of the '90s just as Hulk Hogan embodies the WWF of the '80s. Like Bret, Sting has remained in one promotion for all but the first couple years of his career. Sting has never wrestled outside of WCW since the merger of the UWF and Jim Crockett Promotions in the late-'80s. The way WCW sees it, a match between those two is as good as an interpromotional dream match; it's as meaningful as if McMahon and Bischoff got together to co-promote a PPV. Bret also has potential big money matches with Roddy Piper, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Dallas Page, Lex Luger, Curt Hennig, Syxx, Giant, and Chris Benoit, to name a few.

It's not known whether Bret will lose the WWF Title to Michaels on Sunday at Survivor Series or if he'll drop the title to someone else in his final few weeks in the WWF. Friends of Bret don't believe he would agree to job to Michaels under any circumstances since the animosity between those two is so great (as opposed to the positive relationship between Nash and Michaels which led to Nash jobbing clean to Michaels before leaving the WWF for WCW in 1996).

The betting line right now is that Bret won't agree to lose to Michaels this Sunday (forcing an inconclusive or DQ finish), but instead he will drop the title to either Undertaker, Ken Shamrock, Jeff Jarrett, or his brother Owen on Raw over the next few weeks or in the main event of the Dec. 7 PPV on his last day. The dilemma the WWF now faces is that word is going to get out about Bret's departure. To book him for a Dec. 7 pay-per-view main event title defense will be anti-climactic; everyone will know Bret has to lose.

Originally Bret and Bischoff wanted to make the announcement this coming Monday, Nov. 10 simultaneously on each show - and surprise the world. On the Nov. 3 Nitro, Bischoff promised a surprise announcement on the Nov. 10 Nitro. Announcing the signing of Bret to the NWO is that announcement. Because word got out despite confidentiality agreements signed by Bret, Bischoff, and all parties privy to the negotiations, all plans may change regarding how the announcement of his departure is handled by both sides. If Bret is brought in by the NWO, expectations are he would immediately dump them and become a lone wolf and feud with all sides.

Word of Bret's departure was slow moving. The TORCH contacted wrestlers in both organizations right before Raw and Nitro went on the air and none had heard about Bret yet. As the night wore on, the buzz regarding Bret's decision did spread. The initial reaction in both locker rooms was shock and a bit of suspicion that the story wasn't true. By the next day, it was all anyone in the wrestling industry was talking about.

Owen Hart didn't find out about Bret's decision until well after many people, including callers of the TORCH 900 Hotline who heard about it Monday night. He first heard Tuesday morning and was livid he wasn't filled in earlier. The fact is, Bret and Bischoff believed they had all potential leaks sealed off and didn't plan to tell anyone until Nov. 10. Owen has over four years left on the five year contract he signed earlier this year and he won't be going anywhere. In fact, the WWF plans to push Owen even harder than they have in the past and likely will be giving him Bret's spot as the leader of the Hart Foundation (expect Doug Furnas & Phil LaFon to be officially added). They believe his recent role in the feud with Steve Austin elevated him to a main event level.

Other top WWF wrestlers aren't pleased with the loss and see it as a sign that the WWF is weakening. An already thin roster is now made thinner. The Big Four (Bret, Undertaker, Austin, Michaels) has been reduced to the Big Three, with Owen, Shamrock, Jeff Jarrett, Mankind, and Hunter Hearst Helmsley trying to fill the gap left by Bret. Bret's jump leaves the WWF with one fewer top name who merely through association helps elevate those second-tier wrestlers to main event status. His departure also means there is one fewer wrestler for main eventers to have good matches with.

On the WCW side, the belief is Hulk Hogan will see the jump of Bret Hart as a threat to his power, whereas already several of the other main eventers have said they are pleased to have one more major name to work with. Immediately Bret moves ahead of everybody but Hogan on the depth chart of clout. Sting and Kevin Nash might argue with that, but the fact is WCW perceives Bret to be the number two man in the company once he arrives. Within six months or a year he may lose ground to Sting or Nash or Savage or Page, but it's his spot to lose.

Nash and Hall have had their differences with Bret while they were in the WWF together and since they joined WCW. However, the differences have been questioning of each other's judgement at times, but they never reached the level of animosity of Bret and Michaels. In fact, early indications are Hall and Nash are glad Bret is coming because it strengthens the company just as they are likely to sign extensions on their contract through 2001.

Bret has had a lot of harsh words to say about Ric Flair over the years, but he softened his stance earlier this year during a radio interview and actually apologized for some of his earlier criticisms. Flair heard about them and chances are those two will be able to shake hands when Bret arrives. Behind the scenes, Roddy Piper and The Steiners will probably end up being Bret's initial allies. Otherwise, he doesn't have any known close friends in WCW.

The latest, ever-changing reports on Hogan's contract is that it expires in February 1998. Whether it's then (according to strong WCW sources), or in December 1998 as Bischoff said in an interview last month, Bret's presence gives WCW extra leverage when negotiating with Hogan. Bischoff feared that Hogan had gained so much leverage in recent months - and especially the last week with the buyrate for Halloween Havoc and the rating for his movie - that Hogan was going to take WCW to the cleaners on his new contract. With Bret Hart added to the roster, Bischoff could conceivably afford to lose Hogan and still have as strong a roster of top tier talent as has ever been under contract to one promotion at one time.

Last year WCW offered Bret early on during negotiations $1.7 million per year on a multi-year contract to join them and not re-sign with the WWF. That was over twice what Hall and Nash signed for when they jumped, although the salary bar had been raised in the previous year. (For perspective, just a few months before Hall and Nash jumped to WCW for $750,000 per year - more than doubling their WWF salary of the previous year - Shawn Michaels signed a long-term contract with a downside of "only" $500,000 per year, which at the time made him the highest paid wrestler in the WWF. Since then, many believe Michaels has negotiated a raise, although that isn't confirmed.)

Of WCW's $1.7 million offer, a solid chunk of it was going to be generated for Bret for projects outside of WCW. Bret had acting aspirations and Turner offered him opportunities in that category. In fact, when Bret made plans late in 1995 to take an indefinite hiatus from wrestling after Wrestlemania in 1996, he was counting on his syndicated television series, "Lonesome Dove," being renewed for another season. With that extra year of first-run shows, it would have meant enough shows were produced for it to be marketed in syndicated reruns. Because the show was cancelled, he had to return to wrestling after all, but he hadn't given up on his acting aspirations

Bret, though, played hardball with both the WWF and WCW. Part of the reason he admitted choosing the WWF is part of the reason fellow wrestlers see him as a "mark for the business." Bret had long talked about his "legacy" in wrestling and he believed that legacies are stronger historically when an athlete spends his entire career with one team. Also, Bret was four-time WWF champion. Hulk Hogan was five-time champion. Bret wanted to at least tie Hogan's record. So Bret turned down a final offer from WCW of $2.8 million per year, including acting opportunities, to return to the WWF for substantially less money per year, where he would likely face a much more rigorous road schedule.

The immediate issue for the WWF to deal with is whether they can get Bret to drop the title Sunday to Michaels, which is their preference.


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