Let’s look back at “The Montreal Screwjob” – a pivotal event that changed pro wrestling forever, exactly 21 years ago from today.
Throwing the classic “wrestling is fake” line at present-day wrestling fans is no longer an effective way of trolling them for enjoying a predetermined show that masquerades as a legitimate sport.
These passionate supporters will be the first to tell you that: 1. they know it’s not real fighting, and 2. they are in on the show.
“Wrestling fans are like people going to see Shakespeare,” mixed martial artist-turned-pro wrestler Matt Riddle explained, per MMA Junkie. “They come, they have a favorite character, they’re invested in the story and they know it’s a story. They’re all about how well you play your part, whatever that part is.”
This contemporary view is a vivid contrast to the mindsets of 1960s fans that were hooked to product for the sheer violence and gore present in matches.
But how did fans get “smart” about the business all of a sudden? Let’s look back at “The Montreal Screwjob” – a pivotal event that changed pro wrestling forever, exactly 21 years ago from today.
In 1997, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, then the WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) are in the midst of a ratings battle called the “Monday Night Wars.”
Bret “The Hitman” Hart, WWE’s top champion and one of its biggest stars, was at a standstill with the company’s owner Vince McMahon regarding the status of his contract. Because of this, McMahon allowed Hart to strike a deal with rival company WCW and Eric Bischoff.
With Hart opting to jump ship to WCW and just three weeks remaining in his contract, it was just a matter of time until he needed to drop the WWE title. Enter Shawn Michaels – Hart’s on-screen and real-life blood-rival – who was McMahon’s choice as the new poster boy.
The problem is, Hart refused to lose to Michaels in front of his hometown crowd in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, believing that it would damage his in-ring career. Hart suggested that he could instead lose to Steve Austin or drop the title to Michaels at an event the night before. But McMahon went with none of the above as he, along with Michaels and a few backstage officials, conspired to take the belt off Hart without his knowledge and consent.
Prior to the match, Hart, Michaels, and producer Pat Patterson sat to plan out the main event of Survivor Series 1997. “[It was] probably the most uncomfortable day I’ve ever had in the wrestling business,” Michaels said per ESPN.
The three agreed that the match would end in a disqualification, with Hart’s brother Owen Hart and brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith interfering. This would result to Hart technically losing while allowing him to retain his title at the same time.
Instead, Michaels locked the sharpshooter on Hart, his own finishing move, and referee Earl Hebner called for the bell. Michaels acted as if he too was surprised as he was declared the new champion. Hebner, meanwhile, rushed out of the ring.
The “Screwjob” went down as planned and Hart was steaming with rage.