For 20 years, three words have been synonymous in wrestling language with the ultimate sin: The Montreal Screwjob.
For some, it’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the night of Nov. 9, 1997, when referee Earl Hebner order for the bell to be rung and to gift Shawn Michaels the WWF Championship, costing Bret Hart in the process. Afterwards, there was spit in the face of Vince McMahon and nearly fights galore behind the curtain, but the scene on camera was Michaels walking out with the belt and the crowd in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, voicing their displeasure and a stunned state of disbelief.
As legend has it, Hart wanted nothing to do with dropping the belt in Canada. Instead, he proposed to lose it the following night on Monday Night Raw, before he would depart the WWF for WCW. But whether or not McMahon felt the need to stick it to Hart or simply wanted his way (there are disputed accounts on all sides), that simply wasn’t going to work, which put all men involved — and especially Michaels — in a bind.
It wasn’t just that Michaels defeated Bret that made the moment uncomfortable, it was that he did it with the Sharpshooter, Hart’s own finishing maneuver. The events of 20 years ago today have been dissected by hardcore and mild wrestling fans alike, but one thing is undeniable: immediately after the bell is called for, nobody looks more peeved than Michaels, who begrudgingly snatches the title and gets out of dodge.
The Heartbreak Kid and his relationship with the country of Canada never really recovered. Could everyone involved have handled things better after the fact? Certainly, but that was part of the aura. Michaels showing up in any Canadian city was like giving sharks blood and the ravenous fan bases went bananas on HBK whenever he arrived, booing and hurling insults as if he threw Hart down a mountain.
What gets lost in the shuffle is an interesting tidbit of semantics. To open the show, the video package focuses on Michaels defeating Hart at WrestleMania XII in 1996, winning the Ironman Match in sudden death overtime. Hart thought he had won that night via a Sharpshooter, before the match was restarted, leading to Hart’s claim that he had been “screwed.”
The transcendence of the moment was something of a mathematical equation: it was magnitude + deed equating to history. The pure shock value of seeing the events unfold are part of the mystic; it’s wrestling’s version of “Where were you when man first walked on the moon?” or “Where were you when O.J. was in his Bronco?” Instead, wrestling fans can denote time and location simply by asking, “Where where you when Shawn screwed Bret?”
Shawn and Bret. Bret and Shawn. Both were Hall of Fame performers that had legendary careers in their own right. By being linked through one of the sport’s biggest black eyes, they were bonded for decades to come, as is evident by the fact that we’re here exactly two decades later still talking about a title change that led to a wrestler leaving for a now defunct promotion.
Their rivalry was an old school one, make no mistake about that. This match simmered and boiled for nearly two years, with major keystones such as the WrestleMania Ironman Match sprinkled in to wet the palate. There seemed to be genuine disdain; Hart, the technically gifted in-ring performer, matching up with Michaels, the flamboyant showman who wanted the title and all the amenities that come along with it.
The hatchet was buried in 2010. In typical McMahon fashion, he managed to make a storyline out of the whole scenario, although it came nearly a decade after the fact and lost the authentic touch that could have resonated if it had happened half a decade or eight years earlier.
Since the incident, Vince has unabashedly attempted to continue to profit from the incident, re-working it into numerous storylines, even trying the same method on countless occasions. It was at WrestleMania XXVI in 2010 that Hart defeated McMahon in a No Holds Barred Match. It was hell freezing over, it was the moment wrestling fans thought that they would never see. But it was also an extra layer that most likely never needed to happen; sometimes things are better left untold.
There are very few moments in the history of wrestling that remain as raw and real as the moment when Hart lost the belt without submitting, gifting the belt to Michaels and forever cementing the place in history of all involved.