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Bret Hart - Survivor Series 97
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This was written by Dave Meltzer for the November 17th 1997 issue of the Observer newsletter about the 'Montreal Incident' at Survivor Series 1997:
It will go down in history as the single most famous finish of a pro wrestling match in the modern era. Twenty or thirty years from now this story, more than any famous wrestler jumping promotions, more than and prominent death, and more than any record setting house, will be remembered vividly by all who watched it live, and remembered as legendary from all who hear about it later. Through the magic of video tape, the last minute of this match will live forever and be replayed literally millions of times But the story of what led to those few seconds starts more than one year ago, far more reminiscent of the dirty con man past of the industry than the current attempted facade of a multi-million dollar corporate above board image those in the industry like to portray outwardly that it has evolved into..
October 20, 1996: Bret Hart was in a hotel room in San Jose, Ca, hours from making the biggest decision of his life - who would win the biggest bidding war in the history of pro wrestling. He had pretty well leaned toward staying with the World Wrestling Federation despite a much larger offer from World Championship Wrestling, but had changed his mind a few times over the previous two weeks as each side presented new offers. In the waning hours, Eric Bishoff and Kevin Nash were trying to convince him to change his mind and how great life was with an easier schedule. Bischoff was offering big money and a shot at becoming a movie star, a goal Hart had been pursuing while in semi-retirement. McMahon was offering him, in the now immortal words of Arn Anderson, not just a spot but the top spot in the company, and almost literally to be WWF 4-life.
Many close advisers of Hart’s tried to tell him going to WCW was the best move for his present, and more importantly his future after wrestling. But largely out of loyalty, and that obviously wasn’t the only factor involved, he declined the offer. McMahon, not to lose a very public fight, offered him the famous 20-year contract where he’d, after retirement in about three years, become almost a first lieutenant when it came to the booking process. Hart would earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million per year as an active wrestler, and a healthy but far lesser figure working in the front office for the 17 years after retirement as an active wrestler. As part of McMahon’s offer, he also was going to allow Hart to explain live on television his decision making process, should he sign with WCW.
Hart flew to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the WWF was holding it’s live Raw taping after having already verbally agreed to the deal, signed the contract, and gave the interview saying basically that he would be in the WWF forever, figuring to be positioned as the top babyface and perennial champion until he finished his active career riding off into the sunset in a blaze of glory, like Hogan and Savage and the rest of the Superstars before him didn’t. As is the case in wrestling, not all the promised scenarios that everyone believed were going to happen transpire as originally planned. And just over one year later, the feelings between McMahon and Bret Hart had taken a 180 degree turn, to the degree nobody would have ever believed.
March 10, 1997: Top babyface didn’t last long as McMahon asked him to turn heel. At first Hart balked at the idea but after three days, McMahon presented him with two lists. One list was his prospective opponents as a babyface - Vader, Mankind, and Steve Austin. the other list was his prospective opponents as a heel, Undertaker, Michaels, and Austin. Hart agreed for drawing money his opponents as a heel made up a better list and he and McMahon agreed that he would turn back babyface over the last few months of his contract and end his career on a positive note.
He and Steve Austin did the double-turn at Wrestlemania. Hart himself then came up with the Anti-American angle, where he would remain a babyface in Canada and Europe and do interviews that would for the most part speak the truth, so he could, when the time came to turn back in the U.S., have a reasonable explanation.
September 8, 1997: Vince McMahon and Bret Hart had their first meeting where McMahon seriously approached Hart about his contract. About three months earlier, McMahon had told Hart that the company was in bad financial straights and that they might have to defer some of the money until later in the contract. This time his approach was more than point blank.
He wanted to cut Hart’s regular salary, around $30,000 per week, more than in half and defer the rest of the money until later in the contract period when hopefully the company would be in better shape financially. Hart declined the suggestion, because he didn’t want to risk not getting the money in the future after he was through taking all the bumps.
September 20, 1997: About one hour before the beginning of the PPV show in Birmingham, England, McMahon approached Davey Boy Smith and asked him to put over Shawn Michaels that night for the European title. Smith was apparently shocked, having been told all along in the build-up of the show, that Michaels was going to do a job for him, since Europe was promised to be “his territory”. the explanation, which made and still makes logical business sense, is that they wanted to build for a bigger show - a second PPV show from Manchester, England, Smith’s former home town, where Smith would regain the title - the same scenario the WWF did to draw 60,000 fans in San Antonio with Michaels in the other role working a program with Sycho Sid. So while it all made sense, it was rather strange he wasn't approached with this idea until just before the start of the show. At around this same time period, McMahon approached Hart about working with Michaels. Hart said that he had a problem with that since Michaels had still never really apologized to him for the Sunny days comment and said it would be hard to trust somebody like that in the ring and due to their past, and told McMahon that he would figure that Michaels would have the same concerns, since a few weeks earlier, after first making it clear he would never work with anyone in the Hart Foundation, Michaels had finally agreed to work with only Smith, saying he still couldn’t trust Bret or Owen.
September 22, 1997: On the day of the Raw taping at Madison Square Garden, McMahon told Bret Hart flat out that they were going to intentionally breach his contract because they couldn’t afford the deal. He told a shocked Hart that he should go to World Championship Wrestling and make whatever deal he could with that group. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing it, “Hart said of the suggestion. “I feel like an old prisoner in a prison where I know all the guards and all the inmates and I have the best cell. Why would I want to move to a new prison where I don’t know the guards and the inmates and I no longer have the best cell? I felt really bad after all the years of working for the WCW.” Hart had an escape clause in his contract since he had so much negotiating leverage when making his WWF deal 11 months earlier, in that he could leave the company giving 30 days notice and that he would have what the contract called “reasonable creative control” of his character during that lame duck period so that he couldn’t be unreasonably buried on the way out. There was a window period for giving that notice and negotiating elsewhere that hadn’t begun yet, so McMahon, showing he was serious, gave Hart written permission to begin negotiating with WCW and Hart contacted Eric Bischoff.
The same day, during a meeting with Hart, Michaels and McMahon - Michaels told both of them point blank that he wouldn't do any jobs for anyone in the territory, word that when it got out made most of the other top wrestlers feel even more warmly than usual toward Michaels. Michaels later reiterated that statement to Hart on 10/4, in St. Paul, when the two agreed that for the good of the business that they’d work together. At a meeting, McMahon proposed a scenario where the two would have their first singles match in Montreal, where Undertaker would interfere causing a non-finish. This would lead to Hart wrestling Undertaker on the 12/7 PPV in Springfield, Ma., where Michaels would interfere causing Bret to win the title, which was poetic justice since it was his interference that caused Bret to win the title in the first place, and that Royal Rumble on 1/8, in San Jose, would be headlined by Undertaker vs. Michaels. During the meeting, Hart told Michaels that he’d be happy to put him over at the end of the run, but Michaels told Hart flat out that he wouldn't return the favor to him. Michaels and Hart spoke again on the subject on 10/12 in San Jose, when once again Michaels told Hart that he wasn’t going to do a job for him.
October 21, 1997: McMahon approached Hart with the idea of losing the title to Michaels in Montreal but promised that he would win it back on 12/7. Hart, remembering his conversations where Michaels was adamant about not doing any more jobs in the territory, was reluctant, saying after the way the angle had been done with him representing Canada and it becoming a big patriotic deal, that he didn’t want to lose the title in Canada. He was then asked to lose to Michaels on 12/7 in Springfield, Ma. Hart told McMahon that since Michaels had told both of them that he wasn't doing any more jobs in the territory, that he had a problem doing a job for somebody who wouldn’t do a job back. He told McMahon that he didn’t want to drop the title in Montreal. Later, McMahon, Pat Patterson, Michaels, and Hart had another meeting where Michaels, teary eyes, said that he was looking forward to returning the favor to Bret and once again talked about his mouth saying the stupidest things. Hart still refused to lose the title in Montreal. The night before, he had been asked to put Hunter Heart Helmseley over in Oklahoma City via pin fall due to Michaels’ interference, but changed the finish to a count out. On this night he was asked to tap out to Ken Shamrock, before the DQ ending involving Michaels, which he had no problem doing because he liked and respected Shamrock and wanted to help elevate him.
The personal problems with himself and Michaels, which had become legendary in the business, resurfaced once again when the two and McMahon made an agreement to work together but to leave their respective families out of their interviews. It took just one week before Michaels did the interview talking about Stu Hart being dead but walking around Calgary because his body and brain hadn’t figured it out yet. By this point, Hart had already stopped watching Raw because he had problems with the content of the show because he has four children that were wrestling fans that he didn’t want seeing the direction it was going, so he was reacting to the remark based on the fact that his father and brother Owen heard the remarks and were upset about them.
October 24, 1997: McMahon, before the show at Nassau Coliseum, told Hart that the money situation in the company had changed and they would have no problems paying him everything promised in his contract. Hart told McMahon that WCW really hadn’t made him a serious offer and that he really didn’t want to leave but that he was still uncomfortable doing the job for Michaels in that situation. He left the country for the tour of Oman with the idea that he was staying with the WWF, but knowing due to his window in his contract, he had to make the decision to give notice by midnight on 11/1.
October 31, 1997: Never one to work without a flair for the dramatics, Bischoff finally caught up with Hart who was basically incommunicado in a foreign land most of the week. Just one day before Hart had to either give notice or stay for another year, Bischoff made a huge concrete offer. We don’t know the exact terms of the offer, only that Hart said of the $3 million per year figure that both Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler talked about on the 11/10 Raw, that “they don’t have any idea what I was offered”, but other sources close to the situation say that figure is “close enough that you couldn’t call it wrong”. Hart neither agreed nor turned down the deal, but gave the impression to WCW that they had a great shot at getting him.
November 1, 1997: Hart had until midnight to make up his mind. He called McMahon and told him about the WCW offer and said that he wasn’t asking for any more money to stay, but that he wanted to know what his future in the WWF would be over the next two years as an active wrestler and that at this point he was leaning toward accepting the WCW offer. McMahon said he’d think about it and call him back in an hour with some scenarios. Before McMahon called back, Bischoff called again trying to solidify the deal. McMahon ended up calling back four hours later from his barber shop and told Hart he didn’t know what he was going to do with him but that he should trust his judgment because of their past relationship. That he had made him into a superstar and he wanted him to stay and that he should trust him and asked Hart to give him ideas of where he wanted to go. During the conversation, McMahon still brought up the scenario of wanting Hart to drop the title in Montreal, but promised that he would get it back in Springfield. “I realized he had given the top heel spot to Shawn, but to turn back babyface it was too soon,” Hart said. Like in the negotiations one year earlier, it was going down to the wire and he had until midnight to make up his mind. When he was talking to McMahon, McMahon told him he could extend the deadline for giving notice. Hart asked for the permission in writing but McMahon told him that he was going out to a movie that night wit his wife and said he was verbally giving permission to extend it and get written permission from the chief financial officer of the company. When Hart called to get the written notice he wasn't given it because he was told he couldn’t get it in writing in such short notice. At 7pm Bischoff called again and presented a deal that, according to Hart, “ would have been insane not to be taken”.
At that point Hart was really having mixed emotions. He somehow felt bad about leaving the WCW and was hoping McMahon would lay out a good set of sceneries for him and convince him to stay, At 9pm, McMahon called and, reversing fields once again, urged him to take the WCW offer. Hart told him that his heart was with the company and it would break his heart to leave, and that he appreciated everything McMahon and the company had done for him. McMahon told Hart that he wanted him back as a babyface, and had been wanting him to turn babyface for two or three months but just hadn’t brought it up until this point. He then presented a scenario to Hart, presenting it as a way to get Hart to stay, but obviously designed to get Hart to take the WCW offer. He wanted Michaels to win the title in Montreal. For Springfield, they would do a final four match with he, Michaels, Undertaker, and Ken Shamrock, that Michaels would again win. At the Royal Rumble, the two would have a ladder match, which Michaels would win. On Raw, on 1/19 in Fresno, Ca., Hart would open the show and say that if he couldn’t beat Michaels and win the title that night. That he would retire from wrestling, and in that match he would regain the title. And then in Boston at Wrestlemania he’d drop the strap to Austin.
Hart looked at the scenario of four major losses with only one win and before his midnight deadline, gave official notice to the WWF and signed the contract WCW had sent over, with the agreement from all parties that the word wouldn’t leak out until 11/10 to protect the Survivor Series PPV. Hart went so far as to have his few confidants sign written confidentiality letters to make sure word of his negotiations and signing with WCW didn’t get out until 11/10.
November 2, 1997: Hart and McMahon started a very amicable conversation with the pressure finally off and the decision for Hart to leave having been made. He again suggested that Michaels win the title in Montreal and in what will go down as perhaps the ultimate irony, said they could do a screw job ending to steal the title from him, and that the next night, on Raw, McMahon suggested the two get into a mock argument where Hart would punch him, blaming him for the screw job. McMahon even suggested to hardway him to make it look legit. Hart again refused to do the job in Montreal, saying that he had never refused to do a job but he wasn’t going to lose on Sunday or Monday (at Raw in Ottawa). He agreed to put Michaels over in Madison Square Garden on 11/15, Springfield or anywhere else and said he’d put over Vader,Shamrock, Mankind, Undertaker or even Steve Lombardi. McMahon then made legal threats to Hart if he wouldn’t lose in Montreal. Hart talked about the clause in his contract giving him “reasonable creative control” but McMahon claimed that refusing to drop the strap in Montreal wasn’t “reasonable”. The two argued about the finish in Montreal and the legalities of their respective positions all day Sunday and well into the night before finally agreeing to do a DQ finish in Montreal. Then in Springfield, in the final four match, Michaels would win the title. Bret would then go out on Raw on 12/8 in Portland, Me. and give a farewell interview as a babyface to the WWF fans and put the company and McMahon over as big as possible. He would apologize to the American fans and try to reasonably explain his actions in a way to end his 14-year association with the WWF on the highest note possible, something largely unheard of in pro wrestling, so that all parties and the fans could come out if it and his legacy with the company with a good feeling. Technically there was a problem, in that his WCW contract began on 12/1 so Hart called Bishoff, who when presented the scenario, agreed to allow him to work through 12/8 with Titan. Hart asked an associate who monitors news for him if he thought it was possible to keep the secret from the public until 11/10. Hart specifically asked about being able to keep it secret from one person until after the show and the associated laughed and said they would bet a million dollars that person already knew.
November 4, 1997: McMahon called Hart and said that he had changed his mind. He suggested now that Michaels should lose clean in Montreal, then he'd "steal" the title with a controversial finish in Springfield and Hart would get to do his farewell speech in Portland. He said he was going to call Michaels and present the scenario to him. By this point word that Hart had signed with WCW had actually been reported the previous night on the Observer and Torch hotlines and it was only about one hour later before the folks who call those hotlines for much of their news started breaking the latest "biggest story in the history of wrestling" as their "exclusives". In response, WWF Canada released a press statement originally totally denying the story, claiming it was simply propaganda being spread by WCW. However, as the word got out Titan Sports in Connecticut, a few hours later, contradicted that story saying simply that Bret Hart was exploring all his options but not going any further, with the feeling that they wanted to protect the PPV show. Hart wouldn't publicly talk to anyone.
November 5, 1997: The internet had paved the way for stories in the Calgary Sun, the Toronto Sun and one line in the Montreal Gazette in a PPV preview story about Steve Austin a line which resulted in the paper getting an incredible switchboard-blowing response of phone calls. McMahon called Hart and said that Michaels had agreed to the previous day's scenario, but that now he had changed his mind. He said the news was out everywhere and that Bret had to drop the belt before Monday because he couldn't have Bishoff go on television on 11/10 and announce the signing of his world champion while he still had the belt. Hart said that he would get Bishoff to postpone the announcement, but with Bishoff on a hunting trip all week in Wyoming Hart couldn't get a hold of him. McMahon then asked Hart to drop the title on 11/8 at the house show in Detroit. Hart again refused, feeling the way everything had been built up, he wanted the match with Michaels, which in the wake of all the insider publicity was building up a life of its own like no match in the recent history of wrestling, to not come off as anti-climatic and for that to happen he needed to go into Montreal as champion. He said that he would drop the title any time after 11/12 suggesting he'd do it at the house shows in Youngstown, OH, on 11/13, Pittsburgh on 11/14, or in Madison Square Garden if they wanted it that soon rather than waiting for 12/7. Jim Ross on the company's 900 line acknowledged the statement that Hart was exploring other options and said that nobody knows the real story, and in hyping the big match tossed in the phrase they'd be pushing in the final days leading up to the match--it will be their first meeting in 18 months, and most likely the final match between the two ever.
November 6,1997: In a story in the Toronto Sun, Tiger Ali Singh, at a press conference promoting the WWF house show the next night in Toronto said of Hart's leaving. "It's very disheartening. He's not only been a mentor, but I've been a great admirer of him since I was a kid, and if he leaves you're going to see a whole bunch of other people leaving. And I'm not going to mention any names but WCW has been approaching a lot of people".
November 7, 1997: There is no question that the power of on-line services when it comes to influence of pro wrestling was established this past week. It was generally portrayed that it was a power struggle between Hart and Michaels, that Michaels had won out, and to a lesser extent Hart was leaving over the direction of the product. While there was some truth to all of this, probably the greatest truth of all is it was simply a manipulation by McMahon to get out of a contract that in hindsight he wished he'd never offered. Whether Michaels who the wrestlers feel has McMahon's ear right now and has convinced him that what turned around WCW is Kevin Nash and Scott Hall and not Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper, and that he should and the company should do what they do to get WCW over. There is also a feeling amongst WWF wrestlers that Michaels pushed McMahon in the direction to rid the company of his hated rival who had apparently one-upped him when signing the new deal that made him so much higher paid. Maybe it was simply economics because the company is in financial straights. Hart did have a lot of problems over the direction of the company and his own decision was partially made based on that, but it's clear in hindsight that McMahon had a strong hand in manipulating Hart’s decision to get out of the contract. In the vast majority opinion on-line from people who really had no clue as to what was really going on, Titan, McMahon and Michaels were coming off as major heels. The WWF's own on-line site, said to be the domain of young kids with no clue about wrestling, was besieged with reports about Hart leaving and the so-called marks were reacting very negatively toward Titan to the point Titan pulled all it’s folders by the early afternoon which caused another outcry of censorship of opinions from wrestling fans. Finally McMahon responded publicly on-line with a letter of his own stating- "Over the past few days I have read certain comments on the internet concerning Bret Hart and his "alleged" reasons for wanting to pursue other avenues than the World Wrestling Federation to earn his livelihood. While I respect the "opinions" of others, as owner of the World Wrestling Federation I felt that it was time to set the record straight. As it has been reported recently on line, part of Bret Hart's decision to pursue other options is allegedly due to his concerns with the "direction” of the World Wrestling Federation. Whereby each and every individual is entitled to his, or her, opinion, I take great offense when the issue of the direction of the World Wrestling Federation is raised. In the age of sports entertainment, the World Wrestling Federation refuses to insult it’s audience in terms of "Baby Faces" and "Heels". In 1997, how many people do you truly know that are strictly "good" guys or "bad" guys? World Wrestling Federation programming reflects more of a reality based product in which life, as well as World Wrestling Federation superstars are portrayed as they truly are--in shades of gray...not black or white. From what I am reading it has been reported that Bret may be concerned about the morality issues in the World Wrestling Federation. Questionable language. Questionable gestures. Questionable sexuality. Questionable racial issues. Questionable? All of the issues mentioned above are issues that every human being must deal with every day of their lives. Also, with that in mind, please be aware that Bret Hart has been cautioned--on "numerous" occasions--to alter his language by not using expletives or God's name in vain. He was also told--on numerous occasions--not to use certain hand gestures some might find offensive. My point is, regardless of what some are reporting, Bret's decision to pursue other career options IS NOT genuinely a Shawn Michaels direction issue, as they would like you to believe! In the personification of DeGeneration X, Shawn Michaels character is expected to be living on the edge--which I might add Mr. Michaels portrays extremely well. The issue here is that the "direction" of the World Wrestling Federation is not determined by Shawn Michaels, OR Bret Hart for that matter. It is determined by you--the fans of the World Wrestling Federation. You demand a more sophisticated approach! You DEMAND to be intellectually challenged! You demand a product with attitude and as owner of this company--it is my responsibility to give you exactly what you want! Personally, I regret the animosity that has built up between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, but in the end, it is the World Wrestling Federation that is solely responsible for the content of this product--NOT Bret Hart --NOT Shawn Michaels--NOT Vince McMahon for that matter. May the best man win at the Survivor Series!..”
This only made the situation worse in regard to how fans were viewing McMahon and the company even worse. "You demand to be intellectually challenged?" By doing racial angles. The fans chose that direction? The asked to see Michaels pull his pants down and jump up and down on television? Hart was booked for his first public appearance before the house show that night at the Sky Dome in Toronto. It was on a half hour TSN (The Sports Network, the Canadian version of ESPN) talk show called "Off the Record" Host Michael Landsberg opened the show saying the show had received more than 1000 calls to ask Hart if he was leaving for WCW. Despite the word being out everywhere by this point Hart would only go so far as to say that he had given his 30 day notice to the WWF, that he's reviewing offers from both groups and is strongly leaning going one way. "I'd like to really come more clean on this as I can, you know, that I have, but I have to do this thing by the book kind of thing'. Hart categorized the split as not being a money issue but said that he and the WWF had "reached" kind of a crisis or we've reached professional differences as to what direction that the wrestling shows are taking. You know, I'm not saying I'm always right, but I feel that some of the content of the shows goes against my belief in what wrestling should be and can be.
Later in the show he criticized Michaels and then stated that "wrestling is often scoffed at as a form of entertainment sometimes. or it used to be. I believe it came way up and I was very proud in the direction which has a lot to do with where I am right now today-Wrestling was cleaned up and it became something families could watch. He talked about inner workings of the business having to trust the guy you are working with because you give them your body and said the real animosities and hatred that exists have to be set aside. He said that everything he has said about Shawn Michaels is about the Shawn Michaels character, but said that Michaels has said things that have hit a raw nerve with him to the point it unprofessional. The show aired the footage of the Shawn Michaels interview where he blamed the Hart Foundation for trashing the NOD dressing room and insinuating that Hart was a racist. Hart said that he doesn't blame Michaels for that, That's obviously a promotional direction and that's a poor concept. I think that racial tension is something to be very very careful with. When you start messing around with racial things that I don't like. Hart said that he stopped watching Raw about five weeks earlier because he didn't like the direction and agreed when the host brought up Michaels calling him the Grand Wizard (a KKK reference, not a reference to a famous wrestling manager of the 70s) and then brought up what Michaels said about his father that he didn't see. You know I don't mind if anyone pokes fun at my dad. Jerry Lawler's made a living the last two or three years saying comments about my mom and dad but he's always fairly humorous about it. Actually I used to get offended at some of the things he used to say about my mother--until I realized that my mother thought they were humorous and this it was kind of OK with me. He then spoke at length about Brian Pillman. By this point in certain circles and particularly within the industry, interest in the match on Sunday due to all the uncertainty some of which was known and most of which actually wasn't had reached a level not seen in years. For all of Hart and McMahon's wanting to keep the story quiet, word getting out was the greatest thing for the buy rate. There were 14,374 fans paying $496,674 at the Sky Dome one night before the show. To credit the huge house to the interest in Canada since Hart leaving had been reported in the local newspapers would be incorrect as WWF officials a week before the event had figured on a crowd of 15,000. Obviously some fans knew and there were chants of "you sold out" directed at Hart. Although this should have been expected and Hart had been a pro wrestler for 21 years and been around the business a lot longer than that, the chants in his home country, knowing what he was going through, did get to him.
The main event was a six-man tag with Undertaker & Mankind & Austin vs. Bret & Smith & Neidhart, subbing for brother Owen who was supposed to start back but wasn't ready to return after a severe concussion from a few weeks earlier. Bret was asked to do the job for the stone cold stunner, debated the question for a while then refused figuring he was the only Canadian in the main event in the U.S. vs Canada type match with the big nationalistic angle and Austin ended up using the stunner on Neidhart instead.
November 8, 1997: The WWF ran a house show in Detroit at Cobo Arena for what would turn out to be Bret Hart's final match in the United States as a wrestler for the World Wrestling Federation. Tensions were really high and the prospect of a double-cross were looming by this time in many of the more paranoid types. By really this was 1997 and this was the World Wrestling Federation. That's stuff from the 20's where the real bad guy low-lifes were running the business. The days of making Lou Thesz world champion because you needed someone who could handle himself in the case of a double-cross had been over for more than three decades. That day Hart went to the one member of the front office he knew he could trust, Earl Hebner.
While there are what you call a lot of good acquaintances in this business Hart and Hebner were genuine close friends for years. Hart said he'd use his influence to get Hebner to referee the match because he wanted someone in the ring that he could trust. Hebner said he understood the situation and told Hart "I swear on my kids lives that I'd quit my job before double-crossing you" On a personal basis a little more than 24 hours later, remembrance of that conversation crushed him more than anything. At about the same time the WWF braintrust was in Montreal one day early. Vince McMahon held a meeting at the hotel with Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, Pat Patterson and Michaels. Reports are that at least two of the aforementioned names looked extremely uncomfortable leaving the meeting. Ross on the WWF 900 line filed a report saying due to the tension between Hart and Michaels that there would be armed security backstage and the two would dress as far apart from each other as possible. That was a total work since Michaels and Hart actually dressed together and were on professional terms the next afternoon. He also said that McMahon was not going to announce the show and instead would be handling any last minute problems backstage. Ross also hinted that it could be Harts final match in the world Wrestling Federation, something Hart, at that point, wasn't aware of.
November 9, 1997: The Prelude-Imagine going into the most anticipated match on the inside of pro wrestling in years and on the day of the show not having any semblance of a finish? McMahon and Hart met that afternoon and McMahon said something to the effect of "What do you want me to do,You've got me by the balls" Hart said that he just wants to leave the building with his head up. Hart said to McMahon "let me hand you the belt on Raw (the next night in Ottawa). Everyone knows I'm leaving I'd like to tell the truth on Raw Monday. At this point the "truth" wouldn't include talking about finances, contract breaches, arguments about finishes, or anything that would make McMahon or the company look bad publicly. McMahon said he agreed., that it was the right thing to do and the two shook hands on it. Hart and Michaels were dressing together putting together a match. Both were professional with one another and talking about putting on the best match possible in Harts last hurrah. agreeing to a DQ finish in about 17:00 after a lengthy brawl before the bell would even sound to start the match. As they were putting their spots together Patterson came in. He had a suggestion for a high spot in the match as a false finish. There would be a referee bump. Michaels would put Hart in his own sharpshooter. Hart would reverse the hold .
Hebner would still be down at this point and not see Michaels tap out, Hart would release the hold to revive Hebner. Michaels would hit him when he turned around with the sweet chin music. A second ref. Mike Ciota would haul ass to the ring and begin the count. A few paces behind Owen Hart and Smith and possibly Neidhart as well would run down to the ring. Ciota would count 1-2, and whomever got to the ring first likely Owen would drag Ciota out of the ring. While they think they've saved the day on the pin on Bret suddenly Hebner would recover 1,2 and Bret would kick out. That would set the pace for about five more minutes of near falls before it would end up in a disqualification ending. Before the show started both Vader with his Japanese experiences and Smith told Hart to watch himself. He was warned not to lay down and not to allow himself to be put in a compromising position. He was told to kick out at one, not two and not to allow himself into any submission holds. Hart recognized the possibility of the situation but his thoughts regarding a double-cross were more along the lines of always protecting himself in case Michaels tried to hit him with a sucker punch when he left himself open.
The idea that being put in a submission or one of the near falls while working spots would be dangerous for him would be something to worry about normally, but he put it out of his mind because he had Hebner in the ring as the referee.
The Match: People on the inside were watching this as close as on the outside. Would Bret do the job? Would Shawn do the job? Would Bret give Shawn a real beating before putting him over? The Molson Center was packed with more than 20,000 rabid fans, who up to that point had seen a largely lackluster undercard. While the fear going in about the word getting out of Hart leaving hurting the PPV most likely turned out to be just the opposite, the sellout was not indicative of that either or it was well known by the advance that the show was going to sellout one or two days early. It appeared that about 10 to 20 percent of the crowd knew Hart was leaving and there were negative signs regarding his decision and negative signs toward the promotion for picking Michaels above him or the direction that seemingly forced him to leave. Some things were also strange and not just the absence of McMahon from the broadcast. Hart, the champion in the main event, wasn't scheduled for an interview building up the match. When his name was announced early in the show there were many boos from fans who knew he signed with the opposition. Once he got in the ring for the introduction, Michaels wiped his but, blew his nose and then picked his nose with the Canadian flag. He then put the flag on the ground and began humping it. Hart was immediately established as a babyface. The two began the match as a brawl all around ringside and into the stands. The crowd was so rabid that it appeared there was genuine danger they'd attack Michaels. As one point they were brawling near the entrance knocking down refs as planned, knocking down Patterson as planned and as planned Hart and McMahon had an argument almost teasing the idea of a spot later in the match where Hart would deck McMahon. Yet it was also clear that everything going on was 100% professional and the only curiosity left at that point was how good the match was going to be (it appeared to be very good) and how would they get "out" of the match (with something nobody will ever forget) But one thing was strange. Why were so many agents circling the ring and why was McMahon right there and acting so intense? About eight minutes before the show was "supposed" to end, Bruce Prichard in the "Gorilla" position (kind of the on-deck circle for the wrestlers) was screaming into his headset that we need more security at the ring, Why? They had already done the brawl in the crowd. The finish was going to be a DQ and it was still several minutes away.
The Double-Cross: Hart climbed the top rope for a double sledge on Michaels. Michaels pulled Hebner in the way and Hart crashed on him. Just as planned. Michaels for a split second looked at McMahon and put Hart in the sharpshooter, just as planned. The next split seconds were the story. Ciota listening to his headpiece for his cue to run in heard the backstage director scream to Hebner it was time to get up. Hebner, listening himself, immediately got up. Ciota started screaming that he wasn't supposed to get up. Owen Hart and Smith readying their run in were equally perplexed seeing him get up. Prichard was freaking out backstage saying that wasn't supposed to happen. Bret still not realizing anything was wrong laid in the hold for only a few seconds to build up some heat before the reversal. Michaels cinched down hard on the hold and glanced at Hebner and then looked away which more than one wrestler in the promotion upon viewing the tape saw as proof he was in on it, but then fed Bret his leg for the reversal. Hebner quickly looked at the timekeeper and screamed "ring the bell." At the same moment McMahon sitting next to the timekeeper elbowed him hard and screamed "ring the ****ing bell".
The bell rang at about the same moment Bret grabbed the leg for the reversal and Michaels fell down on his face on the mat. Michaels music played immediately and was immediately announced as the winner and new champion. Hebner sprinted out of the ring on the other side, into the dressing room through the dressing room and into an awaiting car in the parking lot that already had the motor running and was going to take him to the hotel where he'd be rushed out of town with his ticket home instead of staying to work the two Raw tapings. Michaels and Hart both leaped to their feet looking equally mad, cursing in McMahon's direction and glaring at him. Hart spit right in McMahon's face. The cameras immediately pulled away from Hart and to Michaels. Vince screamed at Michaels to “pick the ****ing belt up and get the **** out of there.” Michaels still looking mad was ordered to the back by Jerry Brisco who told him to hold the belt up high and get to the back. The show abruptly went off the air about four minutes early.
The Aftermath: The officials left the ring immediatley, McMahon went into his private office in the building with Patterson and a few others and locked the door behind him. Hart in the ring flipped out on the realization of what happened and began smashing the television monitors left behind until Owen, Smith and Neidhart hit the ring to calm him down. The four had an animated discussion in the ring all looking perturbed. Finally Hart thanked his fans who for the most part left with the air let out of their sails, gave the I love you sign to the fans and finger painted "WCW" to all four corners of the ring, which got a surprisingly big pop, and went back to the dressing room. He first confronted Michaels who swore that he had nothing to do with it. Michaels obviously afraid Hart would punch him out right there told Hart that he gets heat for everything that happened but this time it wasn't his fault and he was as mad as Hart about the finish. He said he didn't want to win the belt that way, was disgusted by what happened and to prove it would refuse to bring the belt out or say anything bad about Hart on Raw the next night. Hart said that Michaels could prove whether he was in on it or not by his actions on television the next night. The entire dressing room was furious at McMahon by this point. The feeling was that if Hart having worked for the company for 14 years and not missing shots due to injuries the entire time and having made McMahon millions of dollars throughout the years could get double-crossed this bad, then how could any of them trust anything he would say or do? People were saying that how could anyone trust anyone ever again and that it was an unsafe working environment.
For three years after the steroid trial and all the bad publicity McMahon had worked feverably to change his legacy in the industry as not the man who ran all the other promoters out of business not the man who marketed pro wrestling to young children while pushing steroid freaks and the man who tried to destroy wrestling history and create his own, not his worked Harvard MBA, worked billion dollar company, a man who was so vain as to give himself a huge award in Madison Square Garden as "the genius who created Wrestlemania" not the man who at one time tried to monopolize every aspect of the business for himself but instead as the working man's hero, coming from humble beginnings, fighting those ruthless rich regional promoters and through nothing but guts,gusto and vision became the dominant force in this industry and taking it to a new level.
And now against all odds the generous friend trying to keep all the small regional promoters acknowledging the past history of the business, fighting against Billionaires Ted, the man who was selling all his self-made creations while wasting his stockholders money because of some alleged petty vendetta because the WWF would never be for sale, stealing his patented ideas of Monday night wrestling, was hanging to there and would outlast his enemy again and outshow in the end coming out on top.
Three years of a facade that was largely working to a new generation of wrestling fans who saw him as their underdog hero. The man who to a generation that didn't know better created pro wrestling, Hulk Hogan and localized interviews and rose this grimy little industry from carnival tents to major non-smoking arenas and who was the friendly face in the Father Flanagan collar who every Monday night epitomized the world of pro wrestling was flushed down the commode. Even though he was so good at hiding who the old Vince McMahon was to the point only those who had dealt with him for many years remembered about not letting your guard down when the pressure was on the old Vince returned. Only this time it was in a situation where those who didn't "know" him were truly "introduced" to him for the first time.
Undertaker was furious, pounding on the locked door and when he came out to talk with him Undertaker told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to apologize to Hart. He went to Hart's dressing room where Hart had just come out of the shower. Smith answered the door and Hart said he didn't want to see him. Vince and son Shane McMahon came in with Sg. Slaughter and Brisco anyway. Vince started to apologize saying that he had to do it because he couldn't take the chance of Hart going to WCW without giving back the belt and he couldn't let Bishoff go on television the next night and announce Hart was coming while he was still his champion and said how it would kill his business. Hart shot back that he had no problem losing the belt and told McMahon that he was going to dry off and get his clothes on and told McMahon "If you're still here I'm going to punch you out." Hart called McMahon a liar and an piece of **** and talked about having worked for him for 14 years only missing 2 shots the entire time and being a role model for the company and the industry and this was his payback. McMahon tried to say that in 14 years this was the first time he'd ever lied to him and Hart rattled off 15 lies over the last year alone without even thinking about it. Those in the dressing room watching were stunned listening to Hart rattle those off and McMahon not offering a comeback. Hart got dressed and twice told McMahon to get out. Hart got up and a scuffle started with them locking up like in a wrestling match, Hart breaking free and throwing a punch to the jaw that would have knocked down a rhino. One punch Ko in 40 seconds. McMahon growled like he was going to get up but he had no legs. Shane McMahon jumped on Harts back and Smith jumped on Shane's back pulling him off. Not realizing there would be trouble Smith had already taken off his knee brace and hyperextened his knee in the process of pulling Shane off. Hart nearly broke his hand from the punch.
McMahon's jaw was thought to be fractured or broken. Hart asked Vince if he was now going to screw him on all the money he owed him and a groggy Vince said "No". He told Shane and Brisco to get that "piece of ****" out of here and glaring at both of them told them if they tried anything they'd suffer the same results. In dragging McMahon out someone accidentally stepped on his ankle injuring it as well.
And later: Hebner, at the hotel and on his way out of town was confronted by one of the wrestlers who asked how he could do that to one of his best friends. Hebner claimed ignorance and swore that he knew nothing about it and was so mad about it he was going to quit. Jack Lanza likely as part of another facade was begging him not to. Patterson, Michaels and Prichard all denied any knowledge to the boys. Everyone denied it, but it was clear everyone had to know from the production truck to go off the air several minutes early, to the director to get the shot perfect of the sharpshooter where you couldn't see Bret's face not quit, to Hebner in particular to the ring announcer to get the announcement so quickly to the man handling the music to have Michaels music all cued up to the agents who were surrounding the ring knowing the possibility of something unpredictable happening. When Hart got back to his hotel room in a total daze he was furious at McMahon because he knew he was screaming at the timekeeper to ring the bell but almost recognizing it as a reality of the business that he should have known better than anyone. But when he had a tape of the finish played to him he clearly heard that it was Hebners voice screaming "ring the bell" and at that point was personally crushed. Phone lines were ringing off the hook around wrestling land that night. People closest to the inside of the business were thinking double-cross, although the big question was whether Michaels, since he looked so pissed at the finish, was in on it. Some more skeptical types, remembering Brian Pillman and Kevin Sullivan, thought it because of the prominence of the match and the interest, that it had to be a very well acted work. Virtually all the wrestlers back stage thought it was a double-cross, but a few not wanting to be marks were weary of fully committing to the idea. Some people who were close to inside thought it was the greatest worked finish in the history of wrestling because it got everyone talking. Others particularly people who had casual fans watching with them or those attending the show live saw how the finish to a casual fan came off looking so badly thought it was either a poorly conceived angle that was well acted by a company trying to hard to fool smart fans or maybe a double-cross. But by the morning the true story had become obvious.
November10,1997: When the wrestlers fully realized what had happened, Hart turned into almost a cult hero and McMahon's image took an incredible tumble. Hart himself remarked that while he had his problems with McMahon in the late 80's that when Phil Mushnick wrote all those scathing articles about him during the 90's he defended McMahon even thought he deep down knew most of what was written about him to be true. According to two WWF wrestlers roughly 95% of the wrestlers on the company were planning on boycotting the Raw taping that night over what happened. But as the day went on the talk simmered down, Hart told those who asked him that since they had children and mortgages that they shouldn't risk breaching their contract and should go. However Owen Hart, Smith, Neidhart and Mick Foley were so upset that all flew home, missing the tapings both this night and also in Cornwall Ont. the next night. Many were saying they could no longer work for someone who would do something like that. While rumors abound about Hart, Smith and Foley all quitting at press time it appeared none of the three truly knew their future but that hey all had a bitter taste in their mouth for the company. They weren't the only ones.
Most of the wrestlers were there and with none of the Hart family around McMahon gave his side of the story. He portrayed it as if Hart had agreed to drop the title in Montreal but when he got to the building he said he was a Canadian hero and an ICON and refused to drop the title and said hart said he would give the belt to McMahon Raw the next night and refused to ever drop it. Reports were that by this time few if anyone in the dressing room believed a word of it.
Most of the wrestlers by this time knew Hart was more forced out than voluntary leaving over money, although knowing he had signed a great money deal. Most of the heat was on Michaels with the belief that Michaels was younger and more in Vince's ear and there was a lot of bitterness because it wasn't a secret by this point that Michaels had told people on several occasions that he would never do a job in the territory. The show went on in Ottawa but not before Bishoff had already announced on Nitro one hour earlier in what was the same angle he's done so many times to tease and deliver the opposite that Bret hart had signed with the NWO. Bishoff opened the show with the entire NWO holding Canadian flags and badly mockingly singing "Oh Canada". WCW announcers Tony Schiavonne,Mike Teneay and Larry Zybysko talked for most of the first hour about the announcement, with Schiavonne and Teneay, likely on orders from Bishoff acting stunned describing Hart as a second generation wrestler who stands for tradition. In other words positioning him as another Curt Henning or Jeff Jarrett, rather than the level of a Hulk Hogan to justify a nearly $3 million per year salary. Zybysko was the one who acted as if he didn't believe it. In the first commercial break Gene Okerlund did a 900 line tease saying how Bret Hart punched out a prominent official and he'd have the story on his hotline, which did huge business. During the hotline because of fear of legal repercussions the story wasn't told until late in the report only a sketchy version told. and McMahon's name was never mentioned. With more curiosity than anything in recent memory the WWF drew its strongest Raw rating since the early days of the Monday Night War- a 3.39 rating and 5.16 share-largely due to curiosity stemming from the publicity, the match, and from the announcement about Hart earlier in the event on WCW and amidst all the chaos and confusion presented one of its all time worst show. Nitro did a phenomenal 4.33 rating and 6.39 share. Michaels opened the show Yes, he was carrying the belt. And what did he say about Hart? He said he beat the man in his own country with his own hold and that he ran him out of the WWF to be with all the other dinosaurs down South. And said that the few down there who weren't dinosaurs are his good friends and some day they'd kick his ass too. Those who were on the fence on the Michaels issue waiting for his interview to prove himself were give there final answer. McMahon never showed his face on camera. The fight with Hart was never acknowledged in the commentary although Michaels couldn't resist in his interview saying how hart beat up a 52-year-old man after the show. In the commentary nobody tried to bury Hart but Ross who had never used this figure before on both Sunday and Monday used the phrase 21-year veteran perhaps as subtle acknowledgement of Harts age and Lawler did bring up the $3 million per year figure as a way to encourage the mindless "You sold out: chants. It was acknowledged that it was Harts final match in the WWF although the reasons for it being the case were never even hinted at. The replay was pushed harder than ever and why not as it was the most bizarre finish in modern wrestling history complete with a commercial clearing showing Hart spitting in McMahon's face and destroying the monitors which took place after the show itself had gone off the air. The show dragged on and the efforts to push the new stars, Merro as a heel, Goldust back as a heel, Interrogator, Blackjack Bradshaw and Road Dog & Billy Gunn all came off lame. You could almost hear the crowd groan when it was Rocky Maivia positioned as the next challenger for Steve Austin's IC title. With all the special effects the Kane gimmick still came across as a sure winner. And Ken Shamrock was thrust into the spotlight as Michael's first challenger on 12/7 after all. However there was another screw up. Shamrock's main event with Helmsley was suppose to end with Michaels interfering and then Shamrock pinning him and the ref counting to three, perhaps to take heat off Michaels rep for not doing jobs and perhaps as a way to convince Shamrock to return the favor for such an unpopular wrester on PPV.
However the show went off the air with Shamrock down apparently being pinned after Michaels nailed him with the briefcase, however he kicked out just as the show went off the air. The crowd in Ottawa largely pro-Hart finally figured out about 15 minutes before the show was going off the air that none of the Hart Foundation was there and that Bret Hart situation was no angle. The Shamrock-Helmsley main event heat was nonconsistant drowned out by adamant changes of "We Want Bret". Ross went on his hotline and did nothing but praise Hart for all his work even to the point of saying that he himself being right there never heard a submission but that the referee claimed that he heard it.
November 11, 1997: The Calgary Sun ran an article about the double-cross reporting that Hart's leaving for WCW was actually requested by the WWF due to the WWF claiming financial hardship.
And Where Does It Go From Here: Its hard to make sense out of all that happened. While Harts contract with the WWF was much higher than anyone else's to dismiss him as being paid above marked value is raising a potential valuable point. What is the Canadian wrestling market worth? Far more than $1.5 million per year. At the Calgary Stampede PPV show alone the marked was worth about $400,000 on PPV and another $200,000 in live gate, granted those are Canadian money and he was being paid in American money but you get the drift. While WWF has lost its foothold in the United States to WCW it owned Canada. WCW with TBS getting moved from premium cable to basic cable nationwide and with TSN picking up Nitro every week was going to get strong television exposure in the country. NO matter what he did or didn't mean elsewhere and there is no denying he was a major draw in the United States and probably more so in Europe, Germany in particular, he was the wrestling star in Canada. Beating him will mean from a Canadian standpoint every bit as much as Hulk Hogan joining with WCW and we've all seen what the long term effects of that turned out to be. It's hard to reclaim fan reaction. Fans are more loyal these days to brand names than ever before more than to wrestlers themselves. When in a similar situation only he didn't get into the ring and was fired before "not" doing the job, Ric Flair came out of a situation with Jim Herd in 1991 recognized by more fans as the real world champion the WCW belt became largely meaningless, Flair went to WWF and did big business in what was never called unification matches but many thought of them as such against Hulk Hogan. For nearly two years before Flair retired as the cult hero the small crowds attending WCW matches never stopped the "We Want Flair" chants There are many similarities here and if anything times being different mean more people than ever will be aware of it making similar chants perhaps more likely. But a lot of the newer fans also for the most park have less respect for the wrestlers as people and more as animals to perform stunts to mesmerize them. Like in other sports have more loyalties to the "home team" than its players who come and go for the bigger buck. And while everyone will put their different spin on what happened and like with Hogan and Bruno and nearly every other wrestler of the WWF beforehand, Bret Hart failed one of the things he wanted most out of his career and that was to walk away from the company without the bitterness and with many good memories. Both Bret Hart and Vince McMahon wanted their legacies to be tied together and represented all that can be good about pro wrestling.
But the fact it is no matter how great the match with Smith at Wembley Stadium or at at the In Your House in Hershey were or the Wrestlemania match and SummerSlam matches with Owen were or the SummerSlam match with Hennig or the Survivor Series match with Michaels or any of the rest his legacy and Vince McMahon legacy will forever be tied together in wrestling history. The defining moment of both a Hall of Fame wrestler and the man who for a decade was the prominent promoter in the industry will be the moment that the world realized right in front of their eyes with no apologies and with no turning back to rewrite history just how truly deceitful to the core this business can be and just how much 14 years of being one of the great performers in the history of the industry truly meant on the inside to the company that benefited from it. Only the future can determine whether this was a definitive moment in the hallmark of business when it comes to pro wrestling. Did McMahon really hand over the keys to Canada to WCW? Will fans really hate McMahon four weeks later when Michaels headlines a PPV show with a four star match? Will Hart be a huge success keeping WCW at it current level or even taking them to a higher level by having main events on PPV shows that can live up to the quality or the preliminary matches? Or are his best years really behind him and McMahon will have the last laugh as how much Bishoff paid for him? How long will Hart remail a cult hero to wrestlers for doing what none of them had the guts to do? Will McMahon file criminal charges for assault and will someday and stranger things have happened although in this case it would be hard today to believe it is possible will the two get back together in a few years for a final triumphant run??
I remember when I first read this about a year ago - I was pretty new to the internet/smark/thing and was well impressed by it.
Speaking of subscribing to Meltzer's Observer: has he learned to use "F7" yet? And has he got himself a proofreader cause some of the grammer and spelling in there tortured the hell out of the English language (and out of my brain while I try to decipher it!)
Speaking of subscribing to Meltzer's Observer: has he learned to use "F7" yet? And has he got himself a proofreader cause some of the grammer and spelling in there tortured the hell out of the English language (and out of my brain while I try to decipher it!)
yeah, ive read it before but it was still interesting second time round
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