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20 years ago wrestling had its biggest controversy: The Montreal Screwjob

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One moment changed how I looked at wrestling forever.

He didn’t tap! Dude, he didn’t tap! Bret didn’t tap!

Stephen and I sat on couch cushions, removed from their frame and strewn across the floor as close to the TV as possible. It was a Monday morning — the time WWF pay-per-views aired in Australia — and we were playing hookie from school. Among half-eaten bags of Doritos and melted Slurpees formed into weird icebergs, two 12-year-old boys learned that even heroes can get dragged down by bullshit.

Nov. 9, 1997 was the date of Survivor Series ‘97, an event better known for a moment that has gone down in wrestling history: The Montreal Screwjob. The business of wrestling bled into its performance and reached a crescendo when paranoid WWF owner Vince McMahon enacted a hidden plan to take the WWF World Championship away from one of wrestling’s biggest stars, Bret Hart — all without his knowledge. He then handed it to company man Shawn Michaels, who for years people thought was an enthusiastic co-conspirator. He’d had backstage problems with Hart, and taking his belt was the ultimate parting shot.

Dozens of articles have been written about the Montreal Screwjob in the last 20 years, with the backstory and intrigue of how it came to pass — but the short version is, like most great controversies, fueled by money.

Ted Turner, owner of rival WCW, decided in 1995 to focus on wrestling as a vehicle for his flagship entertainment cable channel, TNT. This was the first real competition at a national level WWF had faced, and this was exacerbated by Turner’s outfit paying superstars vastly more money than they’d make anywhere else. This caused a schism in wrestling with Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair leaving WWF, notably followed by Scott Hall and Kevin Nash — and dozens of other wrestlers who wanted to get paid what they felt they were worth.

This reached its zenith in 1997 when Hart informed McMahon that he was going to leave the company after his contract was up, also choosing to move to WCW. McMahon had one big problem: Hart was his world champion at the time. Terrified Hart could seriously damage the status of his belt, he brokered a deal with the champion that Hart would lose the title before switching companies. Hart agreed under one stipulation: He would not lose the belt at Survivor Series ‘97, because he did not want to lose in his home country of Canada. McMahon agreed, and he would be scheduled to lose it the next night on WWF’s weekly TV show, Monday Night RAW.

A confluence of factors made McMahon paranoid following the deal, and terrified that Hart would renege on their agreement he took matters into his own hands. In a secret pre-match meeting with Michaels and referee Earl Hebner, McMahon mapped out the end to the match: Michaels would put Hart in his own finishing move, “The Sharpshooter,” at which time Hebner would ring the bell, say that Hart tapped out and Michaels would be given the title. All of this happened without Hart’s knowledge.

The referee f**cked up bad dude! They gotta fire him for this ...

We sat gobsmacked in front of the TV. Michaels was the new WWF Champion. We didn’t know that Hart was going to WCW, or that he’d been screwed over — we sure as heck didn’t understand why Hart spat at McMahon. The business of wrestling was a foggy construct to us, partially known and understood, but buried under childhood glee and belief. We refused to believe things were staged. What we saw on TV looked so real, especially moments like this one.

Talking through the conclusion there was only one way for a heartbroken sports fan to process it: The ref screwed up. It’s a rite of passage for any young fan of any sport — it’s always the ref’s fault.

The screwjob hadn’t just taken the title away from Hart. It took away our wrestling innocence.

After the broadcast ended Hart stood fuming in the ring. He traced out the letters W-C-W, and said “I love you” to the adoring crowd, on their feet for their countryman. He then went backstage to find Michaels and McMahon. First finding his competitor, Michaels lied and said he had no idea what happened either — feigning innocence. McMahon had locked himself in his office and refused to come out, finally emerging to try and explain himself to Hart. Hart dropped McMahon with a single punch, giving him a black eye and storming out of the arena.

You know Hart is going to win it back on RAW. Michaels is in trouble.

Stephen and I sat in the corner booth of the chicken shop just up the road eating healthy portions of thick-cut chips covered in chicken salt and brown gravy. Still reeling from the match, Stephen, a die-hard Hart believer, thought he’d get the belt back the next night.

We had to know what was happening in Montreal. Had the ref gotten fired? Was there going to be a rematch? The 56k modem screeched into life as we waited to find out.

“is bret hart going to get a rematch,” he typed into Altavista. The search took us to, a wrestling insider site that’s been alive as long as the internet itself. I don’t remember who wrote the story, or what the headline was — but I remember what he learned.

Hart was going to WCW. McMahon screwed him over (we didn’t know McMahon owned WWF in the first place) and this was all a giant plot. Like pulling open the blinds in a darkened room, suddenly we’d realized the dark side of wrestling that wasn’t in a plot line or performed in the ring. We learned that the nastiest part of wrestling wasn’t 400-pound giants squeezing the life out of foes, but the men writing the checks in the back.

For years Hart wouldn’t talk about the Montreal Screwjob. It wasn’t until 2010 that he agreed to return to WWE for “Bret Hart Appreciation Night,” when he and McMahon would finally bury the hatchet after they apologized to each other away from the cameras. Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and by all appearances everyone has made peace with that moment in time.

The Montreal Screwjob is remembered as the biggest controversy in wrestling history. I remember it as a moment part of my childhood innocence died.