Good ol’ JR takes you inside the ‘Montreal Screwjob’ on its 18th anniversary
It’s been 18 years since the infamous "Montreal Screw Job," involving Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and, seemingly, a cast of thousands went down in Montreal.
The finish of the title bout main event on Nov. 9, 1997, at Molson Centre was decided covertly and without the WWE Champion, The Hitman’s, knowledge resulting in a new champion and the never-ending questions and submissions, like this one, to debate what actually went down and what is fact and what is fiction. Let’s address a few of those:
Misconception: It was said that the finish of the match was discussed in the Saturday night production meeting held at the Montreal Marriott Hotel. That’s not true. We went over the show for approximately three, insufferable hours but only discussed the time that the match would need, who would be introduced first, and other general production elements. The finish was "still being discussed" we were told and that it would be finalized with Bret and Shawn on Sunday at the arena.
I was under the impression that the match was going to end via a disqualification therefore Hart would retain the title, even though he had finalized a contract to take his considerable skills to Atlanta and WCW for a ground-breaking, massive-money contact.
At that time, I was the head of talent relations and managed the talent roster many of whom would need plenty of counsel post-"Screw Job." Dr Drew and Dr. Phil had nothing on me in November 1997, especially.
Bulging biceps can’t fend off paranoia and insecurities that professional athletes and performers are plagued with on multiple fronts. There are as many "Divas" in the NFL as there are on reality TV. But I digress.
Misconception: The plan had been established and finalized long in advance. Not true. Vince McMahon had wrestled with the decision to take the title from Bret without Bret’s knowledge or cooperation to protect the WWE from the title showing up on WCW TV. After the production meeting concluded, we finally got out of there, grabbed some food, had a beverage or two and, for some of us, to partake in the hideous habit of smoking a cigarette. As we exited the room, Vince asked agent and long-time confidant Jerry Brisco to stay behind and that Vince and Brisco needed to talk. I am under the impression that it was at that two-man sit down where the plans were refined as to what had to be done on Sunday night.
Misconception: Fans informed The Wrestling Observer and Pro Wrestling Torch, among many other sites, that when Pat Patterson, who was not told of the dirty deed, and myself appeared from the production meeting that he and I looked troubled, upset and visually "forlorn." We did not talk about anything controversial in the production meeting but it was so damn long that the smokers in the room and those that were in need of a cocktail or were hungry were ready for the meeting to end after an hour much less three. It’s like watching the three-hour, live Monday Night Raw broadcasts on USA Network and that would be "challenging" for many, including yours truly. DVR saves the day.
(P.S. I am proud to say that I quit smoking, cold turkey almost two years ago and it was the best thing that I’ve done for my health but I digress, again.)
So Patterson and I had a "forlorn" look on our faces because we needed a smoke and some alcohol and not because we were conflicted over the Montreal "Screwjob."
Misconception: J.R. and Jerry Lawler knew the finish and what was occurring. They were going to be a party to it as much as it was going to be the soundtrack that would accompany the video of the fateful night for time and memorial. Not so fast my friends. The King and I were working off the Saturday night production meeting finish, which was simply described as going to be a "DQ." Who or why was not discussed and it did not affect Jerry or I in our prep and our presentation of broadcasting the bout. So the truth is neither of us knew what was gong to transpire.
Not knowing the minutiae of a match, including all the nuances of the finish, was commonplace for the King and I. We felt that we did a better job when we called the matches like a sporting event and the less we knew about the endings, the more natural and spontaneous we could make it.
Being the Head of Talent Relations as EVP of the department, I was upset that McMahon had not confided in me of his covert actions.
"I wanted to keep you clean of this matter," he told me then. "You have to continue to communicate and support the talent roster and they have to trust you. You knew nothing on-purpose because you can honestly tell each and every one of them how you feel about what went down and be honest with them and that you did not know. Your role in restoring a productive and professional locker room is going to be a challenge we have to meet," the WWE Chairman told me.
While I understand Vince’s logic and it makes a great deal of sense there were still plenty of issues convincing the talents of that they could trust me and that I was there to listen and to help them. Thank goodness that this was during the pre-smart phone world, which lessened the insanity. Most of my work was done in-person and not via phone, text, etc. There may be a message there we can all use today when it comes to being so dependent on our gadgets and not our ability to look a person in the eye and get to the heart of the matter.
I’m of the mindset that there are still those in the Internet wrestling community that totally believe that I was in on the planning. I hate to disappoint them but I’m clean on this one.
At the end of the day, how many lives did this pro wrestling incident adversely affect to any significant degree? The WWE, with McMahon becoming one of the greatest of any generation and the perfect foil to play opposite the perfect, anti-establishment rebel in Stone Cold Steve Austin, thrived. With Mr. McMahon becoming the straw that stirred the villain’s drinks in WWE, the company got red-hot again thanks to Austin, the leadership of The Undertaker, a young stud named The Rock and a lockerroom full of hungry talents that created an amazingly productive work environment. So out of Montreal seemed to come a win for the WWE.
What about Bret Hart? Well, he signed a purported three-year contract with a $3 million annual salary from deep-pocketed WCW but a concussion and subsequent health issues, including a stroke, ended Bret’s in-ring career. Nonetheless does the biggest contract the Canadian great signed actually count as a loss in the Montreal fall out? That’s a debatable point. There’s no debate that WCW botched the Hitman’s tenure there creatively and never got the Calgary native close to being the star that he was in WWE in the entire three-plus years Bret was in WCW.
A few years ago I had the privilege of talking to both Hart and Michaels in the WWE TV production facility, where we produce a Rivalries DVD that has received excellent reviews and feedback. Both Bret and Shawn were extremely open and honest and certainly took major steps in publically clearing the air of their longtime grievances.
Both men are successful, both are happy and still are dabbling in the wrestling business on a variety of fronts around a schedule that they set. Plus they are able to spend quality time with their families, which might be the greatest "win" of all in this bizarre storyline that became real and affected the lives of several families, inspired a movie, multiple books, "shoot" interviews, endless chat room dialogue, and helped the Internet Wrestling community to have one of their biggest years in 1997, to only be topped by the coverage Chris Benoit murder/suicide years later.
Other winners include: HHH whose affiliation with HBK elevated him immensely. "The Game" ran with the opportunity, Michaels himself, who would end up having to take four years off due to serious back issues but was paid in full every week, allowing him to establish a great quality of life and to start his family.
Before HBK left the WWE he passed to torch to Stone Cold in Boston at WrestleMania. Shawn would return to WWE and he stepped right back in the ring in main events and returned to stealing shows. Austin, with Bret gone, ascended to the top of the WWE fan favorite side of the roster and did box office business and merchandise sales that may never be replicated. The Rock, the young star waiting for his break, and with the WWE going full blown Attitude Era the product of "The U" was the trash-talking, pie-eating, brash but oh so talented, ass-whipping People’s Champion who has gone on to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
I’m often asked why we went off the air so abruptly, which was seemingly planned to perfection. When the deed went down and the new champion was announced and while Bret spat on Mr. McMahon I got a count from the TV truck on my headset that we were going dark in seconds as in 15-14-13 … to give one statement of summary and say good night.
After that I was whisked away by security and sequestered in McMahon’s office with a guard on the door and me not knowing what the hell was going on. No one had explained what had happened, nor had I figured it out.