Contrary to popular belief, wrestling fans have long memories. Case in point, for years subsequent to the contentious Survivor Series 1997 finish, fans in Canada vociferously boos Shawn Michaels and chants for Bret Hart.
Since his emotional return from a career-ending back injury in 2002, Michaels has been easily one of the most beloved babyfaces in the wrestling industry. Yet, Michaels' role in the Montreal Screwjob is not easily forgiven by many fans.
"Through the Looking Glass" has explored the perspectives of Bret "Hitman" Hart and Vince McMahon.
The final installment is the vantage point of Shawn Michaels.
One person has ultimate authority in the World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment. Vince McMahon determines the creative and business direction for the company he built from a territory to a global phenomenon. November 9, 1997 saw McMahon make a contentious decision to screw Bret Hart in Montreal.
While McMahon made the decision, he could not be the wrestler in the ring who executed the orders. That role was left to be borne by Shawn Michaels.
Michaels and Hart had an extensive history. While never friends, relations between the two wrestlers degenerated from cordial to antagonistic over a period of time beginning in 1996. Best described as a lightning rod, Michaels was an angry, immature young man. Unseen by the public, however, he was hurting emotionally.
There is a subculture of the wrestling industry that thrives on gossip and rumors. Termed the "dirt sheets" and comprised of newsletters and internet sites, both fans and wrestlers use it as a source of information and an outlet to drive public perception.
From the beginning of his career, Michaels made a crucial choice not to use the dirt sheets against his fellow wrestlers. Nor would he respond to allegations made against him. As a result, Michaels suffered with a terrible reputation in the eyes of a community who loved having access to insider tidbits.
One prominent example is the planned storyline for Wrestlemania XIII, wherein Hart and Michaels were scheduled for a rematch of their epic encounter the previous year. The roles would be reversed; Michaels as champion would lose the title to Hart. This never came to pass as Michaels was forced to vacate the title shortly after winning it at the Royal Rumble.
Rumors immediately began flying that Michaels was not truly injured, but that he abdicated the title in order to evade losing to Bret Hart. In Michaels' autobiography, he admits that he had expressed his hesitation at working with Hart.
The first of several columns penned by Hart had not only been derogatory towards Michaels, but attacked Michaels' parents. McMahon had explained the situation with Hart's contract to Michaels, which further aggravated the rapidly imploding tensions between the two stars. As far as Shawn was concerned, Bret put himself before the company.
Both on promos and in his off-screen interviews and columns, Hart decried Michaels' announced retirement as a lie. On the advice of a doctor who understood athletes, Dr. James Andrews, Michaels underwent an extensive rehab program for his knee. Though he essentially had no ACL, Dr. Andrews believed that Michaels could wrestle again with hard work and training.
Three months later, Michaels returned to the ring. Intent on sending a message to his detractors, he put on a stellar show. Michaels always believed that he would prove his worth as a wrestler and performer, not through the dirt sheets, but through his electrifying performances.
Michaels began hearing the rumors that he refused to lose to Hart. Angry that his reputation was again on the pyre, he walked around the locker room teasing that he would refuse to do any jobs. Not long after, it was reported by the dirt sheets that he was bragging about repudiating any instructions to do jobs.
According to Michaels, he lost to and bumped for everyone Vince required. His antics in the locker room were his method of retribution.
Issues arose, not only on televised promos, but in the locker room. Many times, the two men would speak about their differences and resolve to be better in the future. Hart continued to write his columns, denigrating Michaels at every opportunity, and Michaels continued to respond in heated promos or not at all.
A fight broke out backstage. Not only did this put Michaels' career in jeopardy, but McMahon was uncertain whether or not he would be able to carry through with his plans for SummerSlam. Both Hart and Michaels were wary of working with each other, but agreed by the time of the title match between Hart and The Undertaker.
The office very deliberately used the real-life animosity between Hart and Michaels to heighten the drama of the programming. After SummerSlam, Hart had won the title and Michaels and The Undertaker went on to a series of matches to determine who would contend for the championship at Survivor Series.
October of 1997 saw the advent of Degeneration X, a stable of wrestlers intent on bucking authority. In tandem with Steve Austin, it is widely thought that DX was responsible for ushering in the Attitude Era. Michaels was thoroughly enjoying his position in the company and did not hesitate to say yes when McMahon asked him to work with Hart for Survivor Series.
One week before Survivor Series, McMahon told Michaels about the precarious circumstance of Hart holding the title while on his way to WCW, the competition. McMahon expressed his solemn concerns about the negative ramifications to his business should Hart continue to hold the title following Survivor Series.
However, he also explained that he was in between a rock and a hard place. Michaels reveals in his autobiography and several subsequent interviews that McMahon believed that his hands were firmly tied and that his company would suffer as a result. Hunter, known today as Triple H, pointed out in a weekly conference call that refusing to lose prior to November 12, and in Canada, could not qualify as reasonable.
The creative control clause in Hart's contract was specifically a measure of "reasonable creative control" for 30 days. With the precedent of Alundra Blayze and the tactics Bischoff had employed thus far, there was no way that Hart could guarantee that WCW would not capitalize on the champion leaving the WWF on the first day possible—November 10.
During that conference call, Michaels offered to do whatever was necessary to protect the business. He was willing to have someone take his place in the match, but Hart's refusal to lose extended to the entirety of Canada. Michaels reiterated that he would do whatever Vince needed him to do to preserve the integrity of the World Wrestling Federation.
Ultimately, McMahon determined that if Shawn was willing to be the man pulling the trigger of his decision, that he was comfortable issuing the orders. The four men who knew what was going to happen going into Survivor Series was Vince McMahon, Gerald Brisco, Hunter Helmsley (Triple H), and Shawn Michaels.
On the day of the event, Michaels clued in Earl Hebner, the referee for the match. He was nervous and nothing seemed to be progressing as normal for a pay-per-view. Hart did not arrive at the building until nearly 5pm, where the normal time to show up at the building was 2 pm. He had private meetings with McMahon and with Michaels.
Though the Wrestling With Shadows documentary crew was present, no wire was worn during Hart's conversation with Michaels. During the first talk, Hart explained to Michaels that he could not lose in Canada and that McMahon and the office simply did not understand the impact it would have on Canadian fans.
One thing that Michaels had prided himself on was never deliberately lying to the boys or the fans. Now, however, McMahon had ordered Michaels to deny any knowledge of the plan. Before, during, and after the event, his wishes as Michaels' employer were clear. Deny everything.
Between Hart, Pat Patterson, and Michaels, the match was laid out. After Hart suggested a spot where Michaels put the former in his signature Sharpshooter, the Heartbreak Kid stopped paying attention. He knew that would be the perfect place to ring the bell. In Hart's autobiography, he claims that Patterson recommended the spot to him.
Everything transpired the way that McMahon wanted. The bell was rung, Michaels was the official champion, and his business was protected. For Michaels, he was both relieved and anxious. It was done, but at what cost?
He broke his silence and first told the truth on WWE Confidential. Later, Michaels would go into more detail in his autobiography. What ate him up the most was that he lied for the first time in his career. He lied to the fans with his post match performance of being angry at the result, he lied to the boys when the subject came up, and he lied to Bret Hart.
Michaels believes in his heart that it was the absolute correct decision for the company. He has stated in interviews that he is sorry that the situation had such a negative impact on Hart, but that he would do it again for the man who gave him everything.
Eleven years following the Montreal Screwjob, it is still the most discordant day in the history of the wrestling industry. Does it say something that, despite the radical and beneficial changes of Michaels as a person, he maintains his position that it was the right thing to do?
The best conclusion that can be drawn is that the situation is not as black and white as some would portray. Shades of grey abound and none of the men involved should be wholly vilified.
Not Bret Hart, who stayed rooted in his principles to the possible detriment of the World Wrestling Federation.
Not Vince McMahon, who made a brutal decision to protect the integrity of his business to the possible detriment of his relationship with Bret.
Not Shawn Michaels, who believed in doing the right thing for business out of loyalty to McMahon to the possible detriment of his personal values.
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