Ringside Shadows #172: Revisiting Montreal
"Ring the damn bell."
It's funny how such a short, emotional sentence can unleash a maelstrom of thoughts, feelings, memories and opinions, isn't it? I'm sure Vince McMahon knew what he was doing that fateful day in Montreal when he first uttered these words on camera. They caused a lot of hurt, ended a lot of careers and directly impacted the industry forever, and I'm sure most of these possibilities rushed through the chairman's mind in the moments leading up to what's become the biggest moment in wrestling history. However, not even Vince, master of hype that he is, could've predicted the ongoing impact of his actions and the reverberations which are still felt today. It's been four years, and a lot of questions remain unanswered. There still remains a fiercely defensive group of fans who believe it was all a work. The ending's been rehashed time and time again, so why does it still wield such an impact on the viewing audience today? Perhaps the most frustrating part of the entire affair is that lack of answers. Perhaps nobody knows the right set of questions.
To call what happened in Montreal between the Harts and the McMahons an important moment would be an understatement... a more appropriate term might be "catalyst." How else could you describe a simple action that eventually ended a handful of careers, launched another handful and shaped the way we'd see wrestling forever? Would Mick Foley be nearly as sympathetic a face if he hadn't been betrayed and abandoned by Mr. McMahon in the infamous main event of that 1998 Survivor Series? Chris Benoit's become an undeniable Canadian hero in the last week, after locking Vince in the crossface in retaliation for the screwjob heard 'round the world. On that same page, would Owen Hart have climbed that catwalk in Kansas City if his brother were still in the federation? Would Davey Boy Smith have landed awkwardly on any trap doors in the WWF? What would've been the finish of the 1999 Starrcade main event if Montreal had never happened? Hell, who would've been the participants?
This past Monday's shameless return to the shaky grounds of "the screwjob" brought back a lot of those memories for me, and also allowed me a chance to rethink my opinion on the matter. A Bret Hart fan since day one, I'm slowly beginning to realize that perhaps I've allowed that to jade my thinking process a bit. It seems every other day I'm seeing less of the Hitman I thought I knew through the airwaves and more of the Bret Hart the fans met at all the conventions and signings. He remains one of the all-time greatest technicians, but his character outside of the ring has been under a heavier fire of late. And, while the wrestlers' personal lives are certainly their own business, Bret milked this incident as a personal assault and thus should see himself come under just as much scrutiny as Mr. McMahon.
When push comes to shove it's a simple matter, really. Bret was leaving the WWF and Vince understandably wanted to get the belt off of him. Despite all the extenuating circumstances, that's what it all boils down to. Regardless of his fifteen-plus years of dedicated service, Bret still knew right from wrong. And, to his credit, he offered a viable solution. When the exchange of his championship gold became more of an issue than "you lie down, and I'll pin you," Bret offered to hand the belt over on his last night in the WWF. But would that have really been enough?
The WWF of 1997 was a vastly different place than the well oiled machine of today. Coming off one of the worst runs in their history, Vince had seen the majority of his stars signed away by Eric Bischoff and the tremendous amount of money at his disposal. They'd lost their iron grip on the industry and were panicking. While Bret, Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin were slowly crafting a magnificent story, Vince was desperately looking for a way to stop the bleeding. With the Hitman leaving the WWF, McMahon needed a new, credible champion to take his place immediately. He needed someone who the fans would accept, someone who'd been a proven draw. But he also needed to get the belt on them in a convincing fashion. Had Bret merely handed the belt over on Raw, it would have been seen as Hart "having done everything he could do" in the WWF and moving on to the new pastures of WCW. His quiet departure would've been a crushing blow to the terribly wounded federation, and fans would've seen any successor as a paper champion at best. He'd never beaten Bret in the ring, and had only taken the title by default. No, Bret needed to lose the belt flat on his back in the ring. However, the most suitable venue was in Canada. Bret had reason to avoid a clean loss in the nation around which his entire gimmick was based.
While McMahon certainly had his own future to think about, he was also obligated to send Hart off in a fashion that wouldn't destroy any hope of future success in other promotions. After all, Bret had signed an unprecedented lifetime contract with the WWF and was honestly doing Vince a favor by allowing him to get out of it. As someone who was built, promoted and over as a Canadian hero, Bret couldn't afford to take a clean loss in his home country. It would be crippling to his heat in WCW, and would all but rule him out of the title picture there in an instant. It's been argued that while a man refusing to job in his home state is understandable, but someone who expects to win every match in his home country is expecting a bit much. To that argument, I merely present a copy of the WWF's travel calendar. You'll see just as many Raw or Smackdown tapings in New York or the west coast as you will in Canada during any given year. Bret has just as much right to claim Canada as a home arena as Steve Austin has in Texas.
Adding fuel to the fire is the man McMahon had pegged as Bret's successor; longtime rival and hated backstage enemy Shawn Michaels. The fireworks both backstage and before the cameras were loud and bright between these two, and if there were ever a man Bret could understandably want no part in elevating, that man would be the Heart Break Kid. Hart had taken a chance in jobbing his World Title to Michaels before at Wrestlemania XII, only to have Shawn refuse to return the favor the next year. Michaels was known to be a prima donna behind the curtains, and Hart wanted no part in giving Shawn one more thing to brag about.
However, as the true stories of fan interactions with Bret are starting to come out into the open, I can't help but wonder what sort of air the Hitman had around him backstage at the time as well. His contract was undoubtedly the largest in the federation. He was beginning to take his fans for granted, treating them with contempt at nearly every occasion. Was Vince using Bret as an example for the others? The answer is a bit hazy. Judging by the sheer mass of wrestlers who failed to show up at the following Raw, Bret was either well liked or merely well respected behind the scenes. He inspired a near-total walkout that night, and the big Raw afterwards was a slim program indeed. However, the opinions of the Dynamite Kid and Bad News Allen, who worked with Hart during his formative years in Stampede as well as in the WWF, paint another picture. Both went out of their way to mention Hart's problems with an ego, both mentioned his tendency to make every spotlight into his own. While Hart's work in the ring may have commanded respect, his personality outside of it didn't earn him many friends.
In addition, when all the crap is cast aside and the matter is seen as a champion refusing to drop his gold, Vince could have understandably meant the screwjob to be a message to anyone else backstage who thought they were more valuable than the WWF's reputation. He'd already seen his Women's title thrown in the trash on Nitro, he did not want to see the scene repeated by any of his other champions. All Bret would have had to do was skip that Survivor Series match and the following Monday's Raw. McMahon couldn't allow the possibility, so he gave Hart the impression that he'd be keeping his title after the main event.
I guess what it all comes down to is two bulls locking horns, two men with a point refusing to budge. One had the final say and used it to his advantage, losing his honor and reputation in the process, while the other refused to move on with his life and wrecked his career and marriage as a result. Why Hart didn't drop the title cleanly the week before the WWF went to Canada is an option that's never been explored. Why the Undertaker wasn't put in the main event instead of Shawn Michaels is another matter... sure, Bret would've lost some of his heat by dropping the belt in Canada, but he wouldn't have done so at the hands of his arch-nemesis. In the same vein, why couldn't Bret have dropped the gold to his brother, Owen, in a surprise turn? There were almost infinite options that should have been explored before going to the drastic measures Vince did. Then again, there were several possibilities that Bret annexed himself along the way, as well. Vince was responsible for the whole ordeal's creation, as he asked Bret to leave the fed in the first place, but Hart was responsible for it dragging out into the prolonged incident it's become.
In hindsight, they say everything's 20-20. I say the Montreal incident proves that theory wrong in a heartbeat.
until next time, i remain...