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I start this piece from a position of weakness, and one of ignorance: at the time I writing, I have never actually sat down and watched the Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart match from Survivor Series 1997. I write that knowing at least 50% of people have already closed this piece and the rest of you are already very skeptical about it. For once, though, my ignorance is not an accident – as I write this nearly 20 years to the day of the event I want to approach this from a slightly different angle.
The “Montreal Screwjob” has taken on a bit of a mythical presence in the annals of WWE history – full of lies and misinformation, and facts that seem to make almost everyone look bad. It was undeniably an event that had consequences both good and bad for the industry. It’s placed Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart as a feud that sits at the very top of the top rivalries in the WWE and, indeed, wrestling history. But much like many things viewed through the WWE’s filter, it’s not quite what it seems.
The definition of a great feud, like most things in wrestling, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. If you enjoy WWE’s current product, if you’re a fan of Roman Reigns then you are entitled to hold that opinion – however unpopular. But there are certain objective things that most would agree define a great wrestling feud: great matches, great moments and its impact on the business. Did Michaels and Hart have even any of these things?
Looking at the matches, to begin with. If you exclude house shows, according to ProFightDB the pair actually only wrestled five televised/to-video singles matches in their time in the company. Once in 1990, twice in 1992, and their matches in 1996 and of course 1997. Focussing first one the pair of matches in 1992, both are extremely well received – the first a bizarre taped for Wrestling Challenge match that was actually the first ever ladder match in the WWE. While like most ladder matches from the nineties it’s hard to really appreciate 20 years on, it’s undeniably a very strong and innovative if, as I say, a little basic compared to what would follow.
The second was their WWF Championship match at Survivor Series in 1992, one seemingly universally praised for its standard, a 25-minute main-event that showcased the best that the two have to offer. Was it a "great" match? I'd argue not, it lacked drama and excitement to put it into those annals (although, no doubt, being 25 years removed from it doesn't help). In that sense, both of these matches cement and seal the case that Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels have had very good matches together. Were they "great"? I'd argue against.
Look hard enough and you’ll find plenty of pairings who managed to string a couple of good matches together – Michaels and Scott Hall had two great matches in 1994-5, Bret and Owen probably had two in the space of four months in 1994. It’s not to attempt to deride 1992, or to simply ignore it for the sake of the piece, but when people talk about Bret vs Shawn being one of the great rivalries – the pair of matches in 1992 are merely an introduction as part of a larger backstory surrounding the pair that began in the 1980s with their tag team run against each other.
And between 1992 and 1996, again according to ProFight DB (which I believe excludes House Shows unless they were released on video tape) the only time the pair stepped in the ring together was at Survivor Series in 1993 where at the last minute (following Jerry Lawler falling into legal troubles) Shawn Michaels stepped in to oppose a team of Hart brothers. That match went 30 minutes, it was not a classic. But given the nature of the circumstances, and the fact it included Bruce Hart, it would be wrong to hold it against either guy.
As for why the never faced off in 1994 and 1995 – it’s more just illustrative of Vince McMahon’s priorities at the time. Even when Champion in 1994, Bret often wasn’t the focus as firstly Lex Luger and later Diesel were given top billing, and Michaels at the time still wasn’t really seen as a headline act – stuck in a tag team with Diesel. Even with that he was still involved in a classic with Scott Hall and a typical litany of other very watchable matches.
1995 was a different story – Bret’s run as Champion in 1994 ended at the hands of all people Bob Backlund – although Backlund’s run was just a few days to get the title onto Diesel (I’ve written about the topic to death here). Shawn got his big shot at Wrestlemania against Diesel but it just didn’t really click (if you’ll pardon a pun) and realising the fans were just dying to cheer Shawn they turned him and all of a sudden Bret, Diesel, Undertaker and Michaels were all babyfaces (as also, inexplicably, was Bam Bam Bigelow) – which not only left Diesel with no opponents but also both Michaels and Hart with no upward mobility.
That all solved itself when Vince finally gave up on Diesel, giving the title back to Bret and (after a well-done collapse angle involving Michaels) putting him on a collision course with Michaels at Wrestlemania in 1996. This match was different – even though they’d headlined at Survivor Series four years before that was still a promotion that carried Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and even Ric Flair. In 1996, and with Luger and Diesel both busted flushes (and funnily enough both about to become significantly bigger babyfaces in WCW than the WWF ever could make them), this was 1 and 1a on the most important show of the year. You can fight over which one was which.
The build I’ll talk about later, the match itself though was chosen to be a one hour “Iron Man” match, a bizarre idea but one in theory a perfect fit for the two best in ring performers in the company. But the execution was bizarre and, of all the possible outcomes, an almost shockingly-average, completely unmemorable 62 minutes of action seemed almost like the worst of all worlds. The pair wrestled with a sedate pace with very little drama or big moments as Bret bemoaned a lack of impact finisher and Shawn bizarrely never even attempting to go for a superkick. Fans left in quite significant numbers throughout as the pair couldn't hold their attention. It’s no surprise that no Iron Man match since has ever dared to go for a 0-0 – Shawn eventually picked it up with a superkick in overtime. You can’t help but feel that they denied themselves the chance at an all-time match.
Bret, in his own words “fucked off for a while”, creating space for Shawn as champion. That run was a mixed bag: Shawn wrestled a series of show saving main events throughout the summer but seemingly became isolated without his friends and wore himself out. Indeed, by the time it came to Survivor Series 1996, not only was Sid’s title win not a surprise the New York fans were actually cheering him against the babyface Michaels.
That was all a bit of a reset and a stopgap, Shawn won the title back at the Royal Rumble in front of a drought-defying 60,000 fans in San Antonio. Bret… almost won the Rumble, being eliminated last by the already eliminated Austin setting up what was in theory a number one contender’s match at February’s pay-per-view. But by the time they’d got there Shawn had relinquished his title after “losing his smile”. And the natural Wrestlemania rematch was over.
The “great moments” one, is a real interesting question. That probably starts in 1996 – the pair had crossed paths before but never really on the same level as singles acts. Had Shawn had stayed heel in 1995 it’s not inconceivable they’d have been paired off then, but once Shawn turned it let them both out of pocket. It was the road to Wrestlemania XII where they first faced off as what you might call contemporaries.
The segment, which must’ve looked a little bit odd at the time, looks absolutely ridiculous with the benefit of even 12 months of hindsight, let alone 20 years. Shawn and Bret did a promo exchange mid-ring, talked about their respect for each other, about how their match would be about who had the best conditioning and about how it was about the biggest prize in wrestling. By the time Survivor Series 1997 came around the pair had properly legitimate backstage heat between each other but at this stage it barely seemed to show. Bret was getting ready to leave (with his contract actually about to expire) and seemingly was happy to put Shawn over on the way out to setup for the rematch and, presumably Shawn returning the favour, at a later time.
At the conclusion of the Wrestlemania main event Shawn whined and moaned for Bret to get out of the ring so he could have his moment. What seemed like typical Shawn reportedly was the pair trying to make it seem like there was some legitimate beef between the two. Bret aided that cause by bee-lining it straight for his car and uttering the famous “I think I’m just going to fuck off for a while” line that appeared bleeped on Raw.
For the rest of 1996 they didn’t really cross paths. Bret entertained a contract with WCW before signing a 20-year deal with the WWF and, initially putting himself with a program with Steve Austin. By the time 1997 had come around all seemed set for the rematch between Bret and Shawn at Wrestlemania. Bret would get his win back, regain the title then setup a likely summer program with Steve Austin. Of course, that never happened – once again the pair never really got that close.
Instead Michaels arrived on a Thursday edition of Raw with his tail tucked between his legs and a tear in his eye. The segment has gained a lot of notoriety but really didn’t make much sense. Shawn in theory was ducking out thanks to a knee injury (that was legit but many suspected he could’ve worked through) but also cited “losing his smile” – whatever that was supposed to mean. It says a lot that as Michaels tearfully left the ring the fans were chanting for Sid.
The cynic though, would suggest that Shawn’s primary reason for handing back the title was as a way to avoid having to lose to Bret. There seemed to be a lot of possible causes for Michaels’ hiatus but if he was knackered after a brutal road schedule he could’ve worked through the next 5-6 weeks then taken a period of absence – it’s not like he legimitately wouldn’t have deserved one and nor was it all that unusual. In fact, one thing that had become quite the coincidence was Michael’s inability to actually lose titles – since we’ve started this timeline he was stripped of the tag titles and forfeited the Intercontinental Title – one suspects the only reason he was willing to drop the WWF title to Sid was a guarantee he’d have it back two months later.
It really killed Wrestlemania dead in its tracks. Three nights later at the February per-per-view Bret won the run off against Vader, Undertaker and Austin as planned – but this one was for the WWF Title. Bret, then more randomly still, lost the title on Raw the next night to Sid as the Wrestlemania reshuffle was complete as the main event was now Sid vs Taker and Bret vs Steve Austin was given a second outing. Michaels, for all of his problems and talks of “losing his smile” was back bloody quickly once he worked out he wasn’t going to be losing. The change did at least give us the all-timer of Bret against Steve Austin that cemented Bret's heel turn and takes me nicely to the next chapter in this piece.
It was really from Wrestlemania onwards which is the only time you could formally consider the pair in a feud for any length of time. With Bret now an anti-American heel, it was left to Shawn to seemingly play the voice of reason, running his mouth on Bret in a way that he never had before – and in 1997, the era where everyone was shooting, seemingly nothing was off limits. Shawn accused Bret of deliberatly leaving in 1996 to ensure he failed on top.
The newly turned Bret on the newly two-hour Raw created an interesting dynamic. Everyone seemingly was expected to talk and, while Bret's promos had improved a lot over previous years, he was still hideously out of his depth when asked to talk for any length of time. Hideously so, unless the subject was Shawn Michaels. One of the things that's revered so much about the rivarly was how true to life it was, hatred built on genuine, person dislike, and that seemed to bring the best (or the worst) out in both of them.
Two of hours of Raw and an undercard barely willing of the name meant that Bret, Shawn and Steve Austin were on television a lot, and they were talking *a lot*. That left a lot of time for shooting, something that there seemed to be an unspoken agreement about but, as we'll see later in the year, never underestimate Shawn Michaels' ability to be a right prick if he needs to be. In May 1997, Michaels famously said that Bret had been experiencing "Sunny days", something that – like many shoots at the time – seemed to fly over most people's heads. Also, a reminder that Michaels at this point was still a face.
Still, that promo was a setup for the first match between Bret and Shawn in over a year, slated for King of the Ring in June. Bret offered up a challenge to Shawn that he could beat him ten minutes or he'd never wrestle in the US again – which was obviously the setup for an absolute cluster fuck of a finish but one that we'd never get to see, although at least this time the injury was Bret's and we're more inclined to believe his was real. Michaels paired off against Austin in a match that nobody really wanted to see and, shockingly, didn't really go anywhere. Michaels fighting Austin made no sense and the crowd knew it too.
The dividing line between all of this is really one thing: most of the interaction between Shawn and Bret was compelling if you were tuned in enough to understand what they were saying, but it's really hard to tell whether it was actually any good. During a promo on Raw at one stage, Bret went on so long ranting about Shawn that the show went off the air before Shawn had a chance to superkick Bret out of his wheelchair.
Again though, if you were tuned it was thrill a minute, the night after King Of The Ring Michaels and Bret got into a fight that at one point looked like it might be Michaels' last involvement in the company. It did, however, provide Michaels with another opportunity for some time off to sulk and Bret the opportunity to face-off against Austin in a ten-man tag in Calgary in July. Suffice to say, that was one bloody well received pay-per-view.
Michaels' hiatus bought him back with some apologising to do, as he did in-ring with Vince McMahon during July. July bought about four very interesting weeks of promos from him and Bret – not that they ever crossed paths but given that two of the shows were in Canada and two in America, it gave both of them a chance to cut a home promo, and an away promo.
Bret, unsurprisingly, thrived in home territory. Shawn wasn't quite as strong even in Texas, but his interaction with Vince who was conducting the interview illustrated a lot about his position and autonomy within the company at the time. There really was a growing perception at the time that Michaels could say and do whatever he wanted, such was the concern that he might down tools or worse attempt to appear on Nitro – even if his contract would've made this an impossibility. In truth, the WWF hadn't have worried about Michaels joining WCW at the time, the second he'd have left them it may have killed them dead anyway. That's what they were worried about.
It was the away promos that really illustrated the difference between them. Michaels was absolutely in his element in enemy territory, cutting a heat filled promo just stoking the crowd and their anger against him. Bret in American territory was... a bit different. Given nearly ten minutes on the mic, other than a nice line about the home city Bret's promo fell a long way short.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this was leading to a match. I mean, it was, but the match is was leading to was Bret against The Undertaker – Michaels' back and forth with McMahon was enough to get him made special guest referee for the match, but will certain stipulations. Bret offered that if he couldn't win the title he'd never wrestle in America again, something that Shawn also had to agree to if he didn't call the match down the middle.
The match at Summerslam was very enjoyable. It probably denied us a chance of a great Undertaker/Bret match (not that I'm convinced those two were capable – they'd had chances before). Plus, Bret really only knew one way to wrestle as a heel – some say he's still working the leg to this day. The match, while not an in-ring classic, was certainly one of the company's better storytelling efforts – Michaels' desperate attempts to be impartial were great to watch, as it was to watch them slowly unravel as Bret increasingly took liberties and Shawn innocently made mistakes. It ended with Bret goading Shawn by spitting in his face, Shawn finally snapping by swinging a chair only for it to hit Undertaker, not Bret, who'd ducked. The story was complete with Shawn's reluctant, stare-Bret-directly-in-the-eye three count that would seal his fifth and ultimately final WWF title win.
It was with that Michaels' heel turn was complete. I think they bought him out the next night on Raw in an attempt to finish the job but in all honesty they needn't have bothered – Shawn was booed before he even started talking. But with both Michaels and Bret now heel, there was only one place they could do the match – only one place where you could guarantee one would be cheered and one would be booed. Fortunately, they had the perfect location – and three months to build it...
If there's a parallel to draw at this point, it would be one down in Atlanta. They were building to their own mega match in Hulk Hogan vs Sting. It didn’t always necessarily feel like they were doing a great job of it: Hogan would lose and it wouldn’t matter, people faking being Sting was being done to death and WCW’s inability to plan more than a few weeks ahead meaning that their idea of doing the match in December felt suicidal. And Hulk Hogan, much like Shawn Michaels, had a reputation of a guy traditionally difficult to work and compromise with.
The WWF had a long term plan too, in the summer reports came out that Bret vs Shawn was being slated for Wrestlemania 14, or at least that Bret had been asked about doing the match. Bret, perhaps quite rightly, was non-committal – why commit to a match where (presumably) he would be relying on Shawn to “return the favour”?
Which is something, perhaps, that Michaels had in common with Hogan. Hogan was a bit more overt about it – no need to be a dick about putting someone over when you just have the power to veto it. And perhaps the one major difference between the pair at the time was their primary goal: you sensed Michaels was about glory, Hogan’s was more about money. And while there were a lot of things that Hulk Hogan certainly wasn’t, Hulk Hogan knew to put country before party. And the one thing you could absolutely say about watching WCW in 1997: you absolutely knew they were building to a big match. In fact, they were building to it so hard that a planned 2 month expedition of having Sting being offered different members of the NWO for his return match, only to reject each on in turn before *finally* getting to Hogan had to be cut short as fans basically tied WCW’s hands and kept chanting Hogan’s name during the segments.
Which isn’t something that you can quite so easily say about the WWF and the build to their big match. Sure, in WCW’s case the three month build of their big show could involve Hogan skipping two of those shows and Sting all three – a luxury that the WWF couldn’t afford. Between Summerslam and Suvivor Series they had two months of PPVs and with Steve Austin out (possibly permanently) with a neck injury both Bret and the returning Michaels were required to fill and often save shows. Michaels had some unfinished business with Undertaker to deal with and Bret had a slightly crowbarred feud with The Patriot for his new title.
But, that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from interacting on TV, right? And interact they did, the newly turned Michaels now aligning himself with bestie Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Chyna and (somewhat randomly) Rick Rude in a group that would soon become known as Degenaration-X. That is text speak, of course, for Michaels being able to act like an absolutely massive dick and nobody being able to stop him.
That being said though, despite the petty comments there was never any really direction about building towards a big match. DX occupied themselves with Undertaker, Bret with just about everyone but largely Vader and The Patriot. It’d be a weird criticism to point that the WWF were too focussed on building to the next pay-per-view, and not enough on the bigger picture, but it’s hard to make a case that they weren’t. Never mind the fact that now with both Michaels and Bret heels it made it quite difficult to pair them off anywhere without the segment falling flat. Meanwhile, even with an injured neck and an uncertain future, Steve Austin was enjoying a run competing with no other top babyface and being able to attack whoever he liked without fear of retaliation.
Eventually though the WWF got the message. September’s pay per view was largely a non-event, October’s (which looked flat going in) was completely overshadowed by the passing of Brian Pillman earlier in the day, but was still a memorable one as Michaels and Undertaker had a 30 minute classic in the first ever Hell in a Cell match that is near to perfection as wrestling may ever produce. With Undertaker now occupied with Kane and Bret clear of Patriot and Vader – there was nothing stopping them.
Again though, while the heel vs heel dynamic setup perfectly for the Canadian backdrop – it didn’t really help them with the build on American soil. With Shawn just starting to act like a bit of a cunt, Bret couldn’t really do anything (in part because Shawn didn’t really let him) but also because he was also still the heel. The WWF’s solution to all of this, was a bit bizarre.
On a Raw during October they cut the Michael Cole in the Nation of Domination locker-room. The locker-room had been absolutely done in, bags emptied, the whole room ram-shacked and walls sprayed with increasingly xenophobic and racist statements. The Nation, quite rightly, were pretty pissed off about it, and complained to Vince McMahon about the overt racism in the WWF. Not exactly idea #1 when it comes to “things we can make a storyline about”. Farooq essentially accused the Hart Foundation or Steve Austin of doing it and…
Well… in politics there’s a term called a “non-denial denial”, essentially where being asked a question the person answers it by skirting around the issue and broading saying the right things without actually saying anything. So when Bret Hart was asked about what happened to the locker-room, his response of “Where I’m from, we treat everyone equally” – which was meant to tie into the anti-American thing but wildly missed the mark. Bret couldn't denounce it, seemingly, as it would cause sympathy. In some ways Bret summed it up best when he just mouthed "stupid" during the segment.
As if that wasn’t bad enough Michaels butted in on the Titantron and this complete dead end of a story continued. He called Bret the “Grand Wizard” and the Hart Foundation “The rest of the KKK” before Helmsley butted in and said that while they were destroying the Nation’s locker-room someone had overheard them using the “N” word. This, if anything, was a reminder that not-all-things-can-be-settled-in-the-ring.
Which is where things were headed but honestly, watching Raw in the lead-up to Survivor Series it wasn’t exactly that obvious. The WWF title was barely mentioned, and when it was at one point it was Michaels calling it a “piece of tin” – the matchup wasn’t really talked about all that heavily, certainly not one befitting of one a decade in the making. Come the episode of Raw six days before the show (which Bret didn’t appear on) it was like someone remembered that they actually needed to promote a match as a five minute long preview clip (using footage mostly from the year before) was put in during the middle of the show. The only thing that seemed certain leading into the show was something Jim Ross said: “Enjoy it on Sunday, because this match will never happen again”.
He, of course, was right. Stories had broken about Bret’s decision to sign with WCW. But it’s a testament to the builds of Hogan vs Sting and Michaels vs Hart about how well they did at the box-office. Michaels and Hart managed around 250,000 buys – whereas Starrcade 1997 did nearly 3x time. While it wasn’t exactly an apples for apples comparison – WWF’s big showdown match for one of their “great” rivalries had failed to produce where it mattered.
And maybe that’s what makes it so great. Hogan might have been a twat but he knew when to show some give to fill his own pockets. What if the greatest rivalry in wrestling is the one that’s so intense and heated that the pair literally cannot work together for their own benefit? Bret and Shawn can look back on that night in Montreal and know that whatever the circumstances that the pair cemented their legacies in the history books. It was probably a piece of good fortune that it ended that way, as nothing they did before that particularly lived up to the moniker that history has given them since. Iconic feud? Very possibly. But 20 years on, I’d question whether a feud between two of the best performers of their generation that didn’t produce any great matches, any great moments or any great impact at the box office should be given that billing.