Dark Side of the Ring Review — “The Montreal Screwjob”

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Hello! Today, I bring you the third edition of a series looking at the TV show Dark Side of the Ring. This time I’ll be reviewing the second episode of the first season, which is labelled the third episode on Vice in the UK. If you have yet to watch “The Montreal Screwjob”, you can see it in the 44-minute video below. And in case you missed previous entries in the series, here are some quick links to those:

“The Killing Of Bruiser Brody”“The Match Made In Heaven”

“The Montreal Screwjob”

Where do I begin? To this day, it remains arguably the most controversial moment in wrestling history. I was a little critical of the choice of speakers in the previous episode, but they got it right this time. And I also watched “Wrestling With Shadows”, a documentary recorded in the weeks leading up to the incident. There’s a lot to go over here, but I’ll do my best to summarize where possible.


Due to the complex nature of the incident and the show’s runtime, there’s understandably some absent information. In the early going, we are repeatedly told that Bret Hart won the WWE Championship in a scripted contest. This ties in to Vince McMahon’s remarks about Bret forgetting “this is sports entertainment”. What I don’t understand about this, is that I don’t think Bret ever forgot, he simply didn’t want to go out on the terms Vince originally prescribed. Bret felt like he had earned more than that, and to lose in your hometown to a guy who admitted he wouldn’t put you over is a double whammy of disrespect. However, I do see it from the other side of the coin.


There’s several reasons Vince McMahon anxiety grew to the point of going in this direction. One of those reasons was Bret Hart’s stubbornness to find a way which suited them both. What Bret perhaps didn’t know, was that WCW was ready to spoil Raw had he showed up to drop the title the night after Survivor Series. Vince knew how likely this was and couldn’t risk it, because it would tarnish the show and give WCW more leverage. The WWF was struggling to survive, and it couldn’t afford anymore cheap shots.

Title Trash

One of the biggest reasons behind Vince’s actions, at least in my opinion, is that he treated the situation based on recent experience. Having released Alundra Blayze in 1995, she soon turned up on WCW Nitro and literally dumped the WWF Women’s Championship in the trash. Bret Hart is a man of integrity, so had the Blayze incident not occurred, I think Vince would have been more willing to negotiate.

Knowing the catastrophic implications of the WWF Championship somehow finding its way on to WCW Nitro, it wasn’t something Vince could afford. The company was already struggling, and it would’ve done considerable damage. What likely hurt Bret more is knowing Vince didn’t trust him enough not to turn up on Nitro with the title. Fourteen years of dedication wasn’t enough it seems, while Alundra Blayze had only been with the company for a couple of years. While Vince should have known he can trust Bret, he couldn’t risk it.


Bret should have known this too, he should have known that Vince wouldn’t let it happen. That’s why he didn’t seem overly shocked when the incident transpired. It was more of an angry response because they screwed him anyway after negotiating something. I believe the Alundra Blayze incident contributed heavily to Vince McMahon’s thought processes, and the fact WCW was ready to spoil any announcement of Bret dropping the title.



The Curtain Call

While the “Curtain Call” incident didn’t directly affect The Montreal Screwjob, I believe it played an indirect part. Not only did Vince know that his loyal, established superstars would leave for more money, it showed how prevalent politicking had become. Shawn Michaels changed his persona to suit the WWF’s new attitude of not “insulting fan’s intelligence”, while Bret kept on portraying the family friendly hero.

Bret knew that Michaels & The Kliq had politicked their way up the ladder to stay on top, and the arrogant manner in which they went about things rubbed him the wrong way. There was definitely a disconnect, not only in the demographics the company was targeting, but in the manner of which they could do business. Vince allowed The Kliq to operate unopposed, and they took hardly any punishment for the Curtain Call. Triple H got buried for a while… but Michaels got away unscathed. HBK was invincible because he was too valuable and up for anything, no matter how degrading.

Hart was looking for respect and family values, but the WWF was suffering with old school philosophies and needed drastic change if it were to survive another year. Michaels knew he didn’t need to put Bret over and Vince would inevitably back the loyal horse over the leaving one. The arrogance and disrespect played an enormous part in Bret’s reluctance to negotiate a deal to drop the title in Montreal. We can say that the Curtain Call exposed the business, but it also proved that Michaels had gained too much stroke. Bret knew this and wasn’t about to roll over like an obedient dog.


Cheap Shots

Another contributing factor to the Montreal Screwjob is the growing animosity between Bret Hart & Shawn Michaels. With Bret insulting Shawn with his “girly magazine” comment, and Shawn firing back with “Sunny days”, it should have been obvious to all that the relationship had broken. They were always professional with each other in the ring, but outside it was damaging to all involved.

They were two of the biggest stars of the WWF, so something should have been sorted between them & Vince McMahon, but for whatever reason they allowed it to fester. This resulted in a backstage “fight” where some of Michael’s hair was pulled out as Bret swung him around the locker room. Why did they have these guys continue working together when it was obvious they had so much heat? It falls to management to sort this out. There’s nothing said about whether officials tried patching things up between them, but it’s safe to assume they didn’t bother when it became clear Bret was leaving for WCW.

And in case anyone was wondering, both Bret & Sunny have both adamantly denied ever having an affair. They were good friends and nothing more. The same can’t be said for Sunny & Shawn Michaels; they were together throughout ’96 and early ’97. HBK mentioning Sunny in his promo could have been paranoia tied to circulating rumors he decided was spicy enough to use for television. Implying a guy with a wife & kids is having an affair on TV is exceptionally underhanded and unnecessary. If given the choice, would you put this guy over?



Creative

This is where the episode goes downhill for me. While I appreciate Vince Russo chiming in with his side, having him & Cornette together will always be disastrous. It quickly devolves in to a slugging match between who is responsible for pitching the idea of screwing Bret to Vince. Cornette claims he told a history lesson of a former Montreal Screwjob, while Russo says he pitched it out of frustration. Of course, both are adamant they came up with it and the other is lying.

My gut tells me Russo would never purposely take responsibility for something so damaging if it weren’t true, and I’m more inclined to believe him. Why? Because Jim will do anything and everything to piss off Russo. Coming up with a history lesson to make his side sound credible just so he can label Russo a liar, is more likely BS than the other way around. Russo openly admits he doesn’t want to be known for coming up with it, while Cornette is more interested in dragging Russo’s name through the mud. I’m not saying Russo is a saint and has never lied, but it’s clear that Jim hates him that much he would go to any lengths to disparage him.


I don’t want that from this episode. It may be interesting to some to see this animosity, but it adds nothing to the Montreal Screwjob. If anything, it makes us question who really came up with it and we’ll likely never know unless McMahon tells us. Meanwhile, I felt sorry for Bruce Prichard that he wasn’t involved and had to clean up some of the mess left by what they had agreed in secret. Had Prichard been smartened up, perhaps they could have worked something out?


The KO Punch

The description of the aftermath between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon seems to differ depending on who tells it. Bret said Undertaker was so pissed he kicked over a steel barrel, but he’s never admitted to that. Hart also claims after he got out of the shower, he & Vince went in for something reminiscent of a wrestling lockup, which transitioned in to a “Mike Tyson-like Uppercut” taking Vince off his feet. But if you listen to The Undertaker’s recollection, he says it was more of a right hook. It happened so fast no one could get to McMahon in time.

When Vince tells his side, he says Brisco had stood on his ankle and broken it; which is why he fell to the floor so easily. This seems to be true because you can see him limping afterwards. Bret claims he complimented Shawn for the match, who started blubbering under the pressure. It’s hard to say if it’s true, but no one else has ever said it is. The Undertaker says he was sitting with Michaels at the other side of the locker room as it went down. Despite making it up to each other many years later, Bret says he has lost sleep regretting not doing more; implying he should have taken Michaels out as well.  Wasn’t knocking out the boss enough?

The Montreal Screwjob

Wrestling With Shadows

Some claim the Montreal Screwjob was a work because of the documentary “Wrestling With Shadows”, but I don’t see it. The recording had been set up many weeks in advance and couldn’t be stopped without someone warning Bret of a potential screwjob. This is where I take us beyond the Dark Side of the Ring episode, because in all honesty, they didn’t have enough time to get everyone’s perspectives. For example, we don’t hear Bret’s take on it from back when he was in WCW, or how his family took it. We hear nothing about what other talents did, like Rick Rude, Davey Boy Smith Jr, etc.

Wrestling With Shadows is long, but it gives us a great outlook in to the way Bret’s philosophy was bestowed to him from who could be considered a borderline abusive father. Stu Hart was from a different time, and his techniques probably wouldn’t fly in today’s world. It taught Bret to pay the utmost respect, and therefore he could not agree on booking suggestions to put Michaels over in the circumstance. It paints Bret as the victim, while again, it doesn’t bring in comments from the other side. It’s definitely a recommended watch if you’ve never seen it.


The Undertaker & WCW’s Reaction

What I love about Undertaker’s retirement (as painful as it is) is him opening up about many stories. And one that he recently touched upon was his perspective of the Montreal Screwjob. As has been suggested in the past, The Undertaker couldn’t understand why Bret couldn’t drop the title to him? If there was such a problem with Bret dropping it to Shawn, why not work around it and have ‘Taker drop the title the next night? He was already involved with them in storylines, and it makes little sense that Vince felt he needed to drop the title to HBK. As the locker room leader, he describes the overall vibe of how everyone was feeling in the aftermath. You can listen to his take on it in the video below.

As for WCW, word spreads fast. Eric Bischoff and the entire New World Order opened Nitro walking to the ring with Canadian flags. By trying to avoid a catastrophe with a screwjob, WCW still used it against them. After welcoming Kevin Nash (fast forward to the six-minute mark), Bischoff takes shots. He brags about all the money he can spend and the company he keeps. Next, Eric comes out with… “And Bret Hart, because you’re such a knock out kind of guy!” (Hogan laughs about him passing “the initiation”), the nWo has a gift for him. They proceed with possibly the worst rendition of the Canadian national anthem in the history of the world. WCW never used Bret properly, but it shows the lengths they were willing to go to discredit their direct competition.

WWE Confidential 2002

WWE touched on the subject of the Montreal Screwjob on an episode of Confidential. Bret Hart and many others were not on hand (except Earl Hebner who is still contracted) to share their side. Michaels seems slightly amused telling it, like it’s still a bit of a joke to him. Gerald Brisco confirmed that Patterson and many others had no idea what was about to happen. They show a clip of the address Vince McMahon gave not long after while still sporting a black eye, talking about giving respect to the company who made you.

HBK looks for sympathy, as he knew he would take the heat and become the bad guy. Shawn admits to straight up lying to Bret in the locker room when asked if he knew anything; he doesn’t come across as sorry about it. Both Vince & Gerald Brisco put Shawn over for being gutsy and courageous for going through with it. They claim to have gone over some protection holds with Michaels, in case Bret tried hurting him; although we heard on Dark Side of the Ring that he’d always be professional in the ring.

Vince says he allowed Bret to get a “free shot”, like he owed him that. Again, it’s painting themselves in a way of doing Bret a favor. McMahon recalls the KO punch incident like it was some kind of comedy, but yet he felt a great deal of relief and sorrow afterwards. Apparently, he doesn’t owe Bret anything. You can tell the wounds are still there, and this episode of Confidential lasts a little over nine minutes. Gerald ends by saying “Shawn became a real man and a real stand up person in my mind”.

Did Bret Screw Bret?

I went a bit off track with this, but it was necessary because the episode missed out so much. Honestly, this should have been a double episode and toned down on the rivalry between Russo & Cornette. In terms of production, I do think it’s better handled than the previous episode, although they wasted a few minutes on things that didn’t matter. What the episode does is encourage us to find out more. And that’s what I did for you guys, I found these extra videos and figured they would compliment Dark Side of the Ring. Once you’ve seen them all, it should give you a much clearer picture of what went down.

How do I see it? Well, that’s a complicated question. On one hand, I lean more towards sympathizing with Bret. His morals, the way he was brought up, the way he does business, he had every right to go about it how he did. However, he should also have known that they would screw him based on what WCW would inevitably counter with. Someone else had to be brought in and act as a go-between (Undertaker, Prichard, Patterson etc), because neither Bret, Shawn or Vince could resolve this between themselves.

I can see it from Vince’s view. He had the pressure of his entire company on his shoulders, they were losing money and he couldn’t risk anything. When someone is put under great stress, sometimes you can make rash decisions and I think he regrets it; as much as he said he didn’t. I don’t think Bret’s really gotten over this, which I find sad. Even though he buried the hatchet with Shawn on TV, he still comes across as a little bitter. Everyone else has moved on, but it still feels like Bret may never truly get over it. He was also the one advocating violence, which isn’t what I’m about, although I totally understand why.

Conclusion

There’s so much wrong going on here on all sides, it’s purely down to a lack of communication and respect. No one is universally to blame, and no one is completely in the right. Bret may have the slight moral high ground because he wasn’t the one doing the screwing, but he put them in a position to feel like they had too. No one wanted to go through with the screwjob and if they could take it back they would. It’s a shame that it had to happen, because it changed the business and not in the right way.

Wrestling has been in a downward spiral since the end of the Attitude Era, and much of it can be attested to the destruction of kayfabe brought on by events like The Montreal Screwjob. Sure, it will be a massive talking point for decades to come, but all it did was show how screwed up wrestling can be with all the backstage politicking. Suddenly the “backstage news” becomes the draw for many fans, rather than who won the title at the PPV. Dirtsheets gained prominence because incidents like the Montreal Screwjob gave fans a desire to get the latest scoops about the real-life drama behind the scenes.

We want to know who is getting buried, who is likely for a push, and who is getting married to who. It’s almost like the product takes a backseat to the backstage drama, and this is the effect the Montreal Screwjob has had on the business. And it can’t be taken back, once the lid was taken off it can’t be put on again. We have the main event of Survivor Series ’97 to thank for that. Bret didn’t screw Bret, the Montreal Screwjob screwed wrestling. And there’s more I could say, but I think this is the right time to wrap things up. Please let me know what you think in the comments, and thanks for reading!

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