Friday, September 19, 2014
I was watching the latest episode of the Monday Night Wars, where they dealt with the Montreal Screwjob. For those who don't know, the Montreal Screwjob is when Vince McMahon conspired with several of his top aides to change the ending of a title match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels at the 1997 Survivor Series. Bret was WWE (then WWF) Champion going into that match, and was headed to rival organization WCW in the middle of a ratings war between the two companies. Bret didn't want to go, but Vince McMahon more or less told him to go because he couldn't afford him anymore. The reality was that Bret didn't fit in to the budding Attitude Era, and was making too much money for a guy who didn't fit in to the plans going forward. So it made sense for Vince to let him go. But then there was the matter of Bret being the champion; they had to get the belt off of Bret one way or another. Now usually, when a guy is leaving a company and is champion he drops the belt and moves on. But Vince wanted to Bret to drop the title to Michaels, a man he despised and a man who opted to take a break rather than lose the title to Bret when he was supposed to earlier that year. Shawn was the polar opposite of Bret, both personally and professionally, and the presonal animus between the two was real and not just a storyline.
So Bret stuck to his guns and made it clear that he had no problem dropping the belt, but he just didn't want to drop it to Shawn. And Vince pretended to play along and told him fine, they'd do a DQ finish and Bret could surrender the belt on television the next night. In reality, Vince had no intention of letting that happen. He'd already seen Madusa MiCelli show up on a live WCW television show and throw a WWF belt in a trash can. No way he was going to take that chance again, and he wasn't going to gamble on Bret's integrity and overall good character ruling the day. So the plan was set in motion, and when Shawn caught Bret in a submission hold (Bret's own sharpshooter) the bell rang and the match was over. Bret had been screwed out of the title on his last night in the company. Vince took a lot of heat for it, but the next night on television he came out and made it clear that he didn't give a damn. Bret didn't want to do what everyone else in his situation had done throughout wrestling history, so he brought it on himself. The infamous phrase 'Bret screwed Bret' was coined here, and the event was used a springboard for the Mr. McMahon character that would because a mainstay onscreen for years afterward.
So was it the right move? At the time it happened, I was firmly in Bret's corner. Bret wasn't some snake like, say, Shawn Michaels and was known as a man of his word. He likely would have shown up the next night on RAW with the belt and handed it over. But over time, I've shifted my opinion. Vince was right to do what he did. Wrestling is a TV show. You don't see actors and actresses who are written out of their shows going to the producer and asking for a different ending to their characters' stories than the ones they're given. When a player gets released from a sports team they don't get to run out on the field one last time in uniform to go out the way they want to. Bret was the classic case of the guy who was a mark for his own work. (I think CM Punk has the same problem) He seemingly felt that losing to a guy like Shawn was rewarding bad behavior, and didn't want to do that. He should have realized that with the way the Monday Night Wars were going, his boss could not take any kind of risk that his champion would show up on Nitro the next night and throw the title in a trashcan. And he should have swallowed his pride, taken the loss, and moved on.
His career was never the same after that. WCW never figured out how to use him right, and by the time they went under in 2001 Bret had sustained a career ending concussion and was no longer working. The Attitude Era went om without him, as planned, and continued through 2002. Vince's Mr. McMahon character, born from the ashes of the Screwjob became a perpetual antagonist of both faces on heels on the roster, depending on what the storyline called for. Shawn's career would seemingly end months later from a back injury, but would resume five years later in 2003. Free and clear of the personal demons that were dogging him, Shawn would go on to close his career out a much better man than he'd been before. He and Bret would eventually make peace over the incident, as would Bret and Vince. And the Screwjob would become a plot device for future matches and angles involving various WWE wrestlers. But Bret could have avoided it all by doing what he knew he was supposed to do.