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Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels: Behind One of WWE’s Greatest Rivalries

A new DVD explores the wrestlers' epic feud and the infamous "Montreal Screwjob."

Around the halfway point of WWE’s Greatest Rivalries: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels, Jim Ross says, “We’ve just seen some clips of things between you two guys that … became very personal.” Released in late October, the DVD recounts the two iconic wrestlers’ late-1990s feud. Ross’ quote comes just after a segment that details how the Bret Hart-Shawn Michaels relationship turned sour. This is a no-holds-barred dual interview — that’s how it’s billed, anyway — but nonetheless Ross had to choose his words carefully.

They were discussing the WWF in 1997. For months, Bret and Shawn had traded personal and pointed barbs. Bret had recently been reborn as an anti-American baddie, his turn built on a feeling that the WWF had become too crass and bawdy in its storylines. When rebellious cads like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin began to win over the U.S. audience, Bret turned on the fans. He needled American viewers by preaching the good-hearted virtues of his fellow Canadians, and Canadian fans (for whatever reason) went along with the shtick and lauded Bret whenever he returned home. It wasn’t long before Bret shifted his attention to old foe Shawn Michaels, who replaced Austin as the fan favorite despite a shocking level of bawdiness in his interview style. Bret and Shawn went back and forth on the air, with Bret saying Shawn wasn’t fit to be champion, calling him a disgrace, calling him trash. Shawn countered by saying Bret was old and out of touch.

It was compelling television, not just because it was fresh but also because it felt like Bret and Shawn really meant the awful things they said about each other (they did) and truly didn’t like each other (by then, they didn’t).

In the DVD, Ross continues: “I think a lot of people couldn’t separate fact from fiction in the Attitude Era.”

Well, yeah. That was the point.

Bret and Shawn were both products of the territorial era of pro wrestling, and after that, of a 1990s-era WWF that was more Hulkamania than mania. But ever since the ’90s started and pop culture went all postmodern, the WWF had been adrift. In an entertainment world dominated by action-movie antiheroes and grunge music, the WWF product was still driven by traditional superheroes, outsize characters drawn more or less from the same playbook as the 1980s Wrestlemania era. Remember, before the WCW’s mid-’90s rise, the WWF had no national competition to spur innovation in their on-screen product.1 All of a sudden WCW’s edgier style was gaining the upper hand in TV ratings, and several WWF stars switched sides. Vince McMahon had to adapt or die. What did he do? He absorbed the naughtiest tendencies of smaller rival ECW, along with the WCW’s reality-inspired storylines, to revitalize his product. So what if it left the heroes of the old guard — Bret Hart chief among them — floundering.

Fans, by and large, were energized by the new era. It wasn’t just the ramped-up sex and violence — though that was a big part of it — but the rawness, the realness of wrestling’s new movement. Fans always knew what was coming next in the old wrestling world. Now they had no idea what to expect. When Vince suggested that Bret turn heel — he hadn’t played a villain since his tag-team days with the Hart Foundation — Bret grudgingly assented. In the 1998 documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, Bret was at once forlorn about turning heel and discomfited by the audience’s shifting tastes. “People seem to be sick of good guys,” he said with unsubtle bewilderment. “I don’t see the fans’ side of it.”

The history of pro wrestling is built upon the tension between reality and wrestling’s peculiar unreality. It’s a handshake deal between the promoters and the fans, an agreement that we’ll all suspend disbelief in the name of entertainment. “Kayfabe” is the insider term for wrestlers’ adherence to the big lie, for the insistence that the unreal is real. For decades, this was the dogma of the pro wrestling industry. But in the 1990s Kayfabe seemed to be cracking. For fans, this was energizing. For wrestlers like Shawn, who felt hemmed in by the old style, it was a move in the right direction.2

For Bret, however, the change didn’t compute. Throughout Greatest Rivalries, we see Bret’s attempts to rationalize these feelings: “Why mess with a good thing?” he seems to be asking, over and over. Eventually, we realize there’s no logic underpinning his angst — it was simply an internalization of Kayfabe. Bret had been raised in the world of wrestling and spent his entire life within its imaginary borders.3 For Bret, the wrestling status quo was reality. He truly believed that the WWF was headed down a dangerous path — the self-righteous Canadian hero he had been playing wasn’t a put-on at all, but he couldn’t wrap his mind around a world in which playing that role made him a villain. In the Greatest Rivalries interview, Bret may seem deceptively peaceful and rational. But in Wrestling with Shadows, which was shot while these events unfolded, we see a man unmoored. For all his understandable complaints about being screwed by Vince or shunted aside by the fans, we’re really left with the image of a man attached to a world that has left him behind. The non-Kayfabe world is unimaginable to him. Suffice it to say that, although he’s older and wiser, there’s nothing in Greatest Rivalries that contests this image.

Overall, the new DVD — although entertaining, not least for the hours of footage from classic matches — is frustratingly repetitive. A video package airs, Ross asks the expected questions, Bret lays out his grievances, and Shawn shrugs in apology. There aren’t any follow-up questions. But then again, why should there be? There’s no further ground to cover when one man is still stuck in unreality and the other man is so far removed from those days that he admits to everything he’s accused of but says he can’t entirely remember doing it all. Shawn was known as a hard partier in those days, so his petulance was a blur. He has since found God, thanks to his wife,4 and his memories of those days are honest, but more often than not they amount to little more than Shawn shaking his head at himself.

What remains for viewers isn’t so much a conversation — despite the fact that they’re sitting side by side, the two men rarely address one another — as it is a series of plaintiff testimonials that don’t lead to any form of engagement or resolution. In covering the early years, Bret and Shawn exchange mash notes about their respect for the other’s in-ring skills. When the wrestlers discuss the later years, their interviews are so guarded and unconvincing that they sound like congressional depositions.

The real revelation of Greatest Rivalries is that both Bret and Shawn trace much of their shared animosity to the promos they cut on each other in the months following Bret’s heel turn. Bret complains about Shawn making veiled reference to an affair he apparently didn’t have with Sunny, the WWF’s sexy female du jour, and Shawn acknowledges how tweaked he had felt when Bret said his parents should be embarrassed of him.5 Both of them remember sitting backstage and planning out these hits, each agreeing to the other’s line of assault, and yet both admit to being seriously offended when the spiels were delivered on-screen. So here’s the real question, which unfortunately goes largely unanswered in Greatest Rivalries: Why were they so insulted?

Was it the way the gibes were voiced? In Wrestling with Shadows, Bret complains that when he throws a perfect (fake) punch, people say “You’re a phony” instead of “You’re a great actor.” If anything, the Bret-Shawn feud makes it clear that, even in “real life,” wrestlers don’t — or can’t — see themselves as actors. Had they been so fully absorbed by unreality that their backstage conversations were somehow less significant — less real — than their in-ring behavior?

If their war of words had amounted to nothing more than emotional scarring, it’s safe to assume that there wouldn’t be a DVD issued to commemorate their feud. But their rivalry ended with one of the defining moments in modern WWF history: the Montreal Screwjob.

It was the 1997 Survivor Series. The year before, WCW tried to lure Bret away from the WWF with a three-year, $9 million offer. He chose to stay with the WWF, which signed him to a 20-year deal. A year later, however, the WWF was in financial shambles and the company’s lowbrow turn had cast Bret as the odd man out. Vince pleaded financial distress to Bret, telling him he couldn’t afford to live up to the deal he’d agreed to just a year before, and suggested he contact WCW to see if he could still get a big contract from them. Bret did — WCW head Eric Bischoff had no idea McMahon was orchestrating the deal from behind the scenes — and agreed to decamp for WCW in the coming weeks. The only problem was that Bret was the champion, and the last week of his tenure took them on a tour through his home country of Canada.

The facts here aren’t so much unclear as they are itchily contradictory. McMahon wanted Bret to drop the belt to Shawn at Survivor Series in Montreal. Bret didn’t want to drop the belt to Shawn — he was perturbed by an array of grievances, but in Greatest Rivalries, he hones in on a perceived lack of respect from Shawn6 — and he definitely didn’t want to lose in his last big WWF match in his home country. McMahon apparently took Bret’s reluctance as his creed, and instead of working for another solution, McMahon decided to sneak the championship away from Bret. He conspired with Shawn and referee Earl Hebner so that when Shawn locked Bret in his own finisher (a submission hold called the Sharpshooter), which was a part of the script Bret had agreed to, Hebner would call for the bell as if Bret had tapped out.

It should come as little surprise that when this transpired, Bret did not take kindly to it. He stood up, spat expertly in the face of McMahon, who was standing ringside, and proceeded to wreck the announcers’ tables. Backstage, he punched McMahon in the face.7

This is why we’re here. This is why the DVD exists. It doesn’t matter that Shawn went on Raw the next night with his Degeneration X cronies and introduced a midget dressed like Hart to further defile Hart’s legacy; it doesn’t matter that Bret showed up in WCW a few weeks later and was immediately more out of place there than he ever was in the WWF. It doesn’t matter that Shawn went on to a legendary career in the WWF, that he found God and stopped being a dick; it doesn’t matter that Bret had his career ended when Goldberg kicked him in the head, resulting in a concussion, or that he had a stroke in 2002 while riding his motorcycle mountain bike, when Shawn was still wrestling 5-star matches. What matters is the Montreal Screwjob.

It matters because it’s the one night where reality indisputably reigned in the WWF. For wrestling fans, unreality is our passion but reality is our drug. The most important thing that happened in either Bret’s or Shawn’s lives, as far as we’re concerned, is a fake wrestling bit that shockingly jumped into the realm of reality.

Bret was suddenly a real, tragic figure; Shawn was either an honest scoundrel or a dupe (or both).
But the wrestling world did not implode. Instead, at the moment when these men first became fully human to us, Kayfabe evolved, and the next night a newly evil Vince McMahon (presumably a character closer to reality than his previous one) explained to the WWF audience that “Bret screwed Bret.” Reality was being written into wresting’s revisionist history. If you’re looking for the moment that set the stage for the Reality Era, look no further.

Throughout the interview in Greatest Rivalries, Bret seems oddly detached. He speaks of emotional impulse but doesn’t evoke much actual emotion. He’s unaffected by “real” matters — he doesn’t buy Shawn’s knee injury and he displays hardly any feeling while discussing the deaths of his brother Owen and brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith. The only physical harm that evokes a real reaction from Bret is his own: He’s reduced to tears while talking about his concussion and the stroke he subsequently suffered while riding his motorcycle bike.8 This is the only time he reacts indisputably like a human being; this is the only time when reality actually reaches out and pinches him; and this is when he cries.

Bret looks at the storylines he was placed in through his own self-serving logic. Although he constantly proclaims to be looking out for the business, he’s indignant about the possibility of “good business” existing outside his particular view of wrestling how-to. And although he persistently falls back on the reaction of fans (when it suits his argument), he’s befuddled by their rejection of him. At one point in the interview, Bret tells of how he was supposed to go against Shawn at Wrestlemania, but was instead put into a program with Austin, whom he had just fought. Why should he wrestle Austin again? he asked. Shawn interjected: “To tear the house down?” Bret chuckled and nodded, as if it hadn’t occurred to him that having a good match was an end in itself.

At several moments in Greatest Rivalries, Bret references some elusive future showdown with Shawn that he’d been promised. There were several of these I-was-under-the-impression-we-were-working-toward-a-rematch moments. Shawn reacted to at least one of them with utter bewilderment. The surprising thing isn’t that such things had been suggested to Bret — it’s likely that multiple outcomes were discussed before the path was chosen — but that he blindly believed them all to be fact. Further, at every turn he seemed to think that the best business decision was to put him back against Shawn.

Over time, Bret has revised history to suit his better-business philosophy. A couple of years ago he said that if McMahon had come to him before the Screwjob and said that they were doing it so that, after his WCW run, Bret could come back and feud with Shawn again, he would have agreed to the plan. Regardless of the incredible time-bending logic it would take to make that scenario plausible, I think it’s safe to say that since Bret didn’t want to lose to Shawn and didn’t want to lose in Canada, he would not have been all for it.

But this is Bret Hart — the True Believer, the wrestler’s wrestler. This is why we love him. He tried so hard that he made his fantasy reality. Certainly, in the early going of his singles career, when he said he was “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” it sounded like he was trying to convince himself. He never gave up on a storyline, never gave up on his character, and never made us regret cheering for him (or booing him).

Shawn is different. Shawn is beloved because of everything that happened after the Screwjob — because of Degeneration X, because of the laurels strewn upon him when a bad back forced him into retirement, because he fought back from that injury at age 36 and put on nine more years of elite-level matches. But much of Shawn’s power came from his realness, from the raw DX days to the integration of his injuries and, later, his family life, into his character. Yes, this is why we love Shawn, but it’s also why he was such a contemptible character in Montreal. “Real” Shawn played the real-life accomplice to the real-life dicking-over of a colleague.

In Greatest Rivalries, we see a fully contrite Michaels, but he’s sorry not in the way of a man who regrets that one action, but rather a man who has seen the error of his ways. Even when Shawn says Montreal was the lowest moment of his professional career, it’s within the context of him apologizing for a decade of transgressions. One doesn’t doubt his penitence, one just wishes he would turn up the volume and put on a show for his fans, that he would let us feel his pain. He doesn’t give us that, however, because this is the “real” Shawn, and the “real” Shawn can’t apologize because the “real” Shawn doesn’t really care.

He doesn’t care because Shawn is born again. Shawn is at peace.He knows there’s a world outside pro wrestling. Meanwhile, Bret is still living wholly in that world. Bret’s memory is shockingly powerful — he recalls every match he has wrestled, every backstage conversation he has had, and every city they’ve occurred in. Every time Shawn is confronted with the lowlights of his career, he basically shrugs and says “OK.” And as Bret discusses his reality and goes into harrowing detail about the trials he’s been through, Shawn sits next to him, nonplussed by the gravity of it all. Ultimately, this is why Shawn is the villain of Montreal: because it’s not real to him, and it never really was.

The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the “Dead Wrestler of the Week” column. You can follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan.

Previously from The Masked Man:

The Worked Tweet Era
WWE and Organized Labor
A Brief History of Hell (In a Cell)
WWE Conspiracy Theories
Night of Champions Preview

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Filed Under: Art, General topics, Sports, WWE

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan