20 years ago Thursday (November 9, 1997), is perhaps one of the most famous nights in professional wrestling. It is certainly one of the most famous and controversial endings fans have ever witnessed, and quite frankly, it lives up to it’s name.
In case you lived under a rock, recently got electricity, or haven’t been a wrestling fan all that long, here’s the recap. Bret Hart went into Survivor Series as WWF Champion. However, he had just agreed to a contract that would see him wrestling for WCW a month after the Montreal PPV. As the story goes, Hart did not want to drop the belt in his home country, and he did not want to lose it to Shawn Michaels, someone with whom he had an intense personal and professional rivalry. All parties involved agreed to a finish (a disqualification), with Hart dropping the belt at a later date, ahead of jumping ship.
Considering Hart’s long tenure with WWF at the time, being one of the most respected veterans in the business and having worked his tail off for McMahon for quite some time, you’d have thought that Vince could have given him that respect. Instead, without Bret’s knowledge, the ending of the match was changed. This lead to a quick bell and a shocking HBK title win, and allowed wrestling fans the world over to see Bret snap like few have ever snapped before. What we saw was pure, raw anger. Knowing he’d been betrayed, publicly and brutally. It was, for many years, Hart’s final act in WWF, and many considered the bridge burned and irreparable.
While many likely wish Vince had done it differently-including Vince himself-I don’t blame Vince one bit for his move. Consider that this was a time when the Monday Night Wars were taking place. Ted Turner was flexing his big bankroll to snatch up any and all talents. And, perhaps most memorable-Vince had already suffered watching one of his former employees take her WWF belt onto WCW television and throw it in the trash. Now, it’s reasonable for us to believe that Bret Hart, coming up in the business as he did, would have never stooped to that level. But Vince clearly did not want anyone at WCW to have the chance to do it again. McMahon even told Bret that it wasn’t a lack of trust with Hart, but with Hart’s new boss Eric Bischoff.
There was clearly fallout, beyond what we saw on camera. Bret gave Vince a nice shiner for the match ending that night in Montreal, and it left virtually all of the locker room stunned, if not upset. Mick Foley actually left WWE over it. The other collateral damage in this was Bret’s younger brother Owen, himself a WWF talent at the time. While Bret had decided to leave, Owen had opted to stay. Needless to say, things were extremely awkward following Survivor Series. But, in true McMahon fashion, he turned a shoot into an angle, and we were given the Black Hart.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Vince McMahon wishes he didn’t do it, and it was never about screwing Bret over. Fans for a time were relentless, to McMahon and HBK, that they screwed Bret. Vince did opine that Bret screwed Bret, and that isn’t entirely off the mark. According to Vince Russo, one third of the Creative team at the time, McMahon and the team had spent many hours bouncing match scenarios off of Bret, in how he could lose the strap before departing, and none made him happy. While that doesn’t truly justify a screw job ending, clearly Bret’s boss at the time had given him ample opportunity to go out of the company with some say in the matter. When Bret opted to be difficult, Vince felt backed into a corner and did what he had to do.
Now we can look back with time having mostly heeled the wounds. Hart came back to WWE in 2009, putting the screw job, and his brother Owen’s tragic in-ring death in the past. He’s buried the hatchet with both Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels. In this case, we can likely say that time did heel all wounds, but it would be more apt to say they could forgive, but never forget. Considering how storied their careers are-both men are WWE Hall of Famers-it’s no doubt a bit sad that this is the incident that they are most often associated with, as opposed to something so much more spectacular like say, the WrestleMania XII Iron Man match from Anaheim which was Shawn’s first WWF Championship win.
In any case, it is always worth remembering one of the most notorious events in professional wrestling history.