Shining a Spotlight 11.22.12: The Montreal…Con Job?
I try to avoid directly copying old columns. It’s a risky thing, an easy way to get your stuff in during a hard week and I’ve certainly repeated various points but tried not to just openly redo an entire piece. However, this week is different. It’s not just that it’s the 15th anniversary of the event in question but in the five years since I wrote the original piece, opinions have shifted along with a few new facts to add to the argument. So here’s an edited version of that old piece with some new notes added and a subject that still is talked about today.
Let’s face it, we all love a good conspiracy theory. Just the idea of mysterious guys conceiving even more mysterious schemes to alter history behind our back just appeals for some reason. Now, the vast majority of conspiracies are mostly believable only to a few such as the moon landings being faked or those guys who think the world has secretly been run by lizard-like aliens. Most conspiracies involve major events such as the JFK assassination and seem born from the idea that it’s impossible a single nutcase could knock off the most powerful man in the world. The most recent major conspiracy theory is that 9/11 was an inside job which does seem unlikely (I mean, honestly, look at Iraq and New Orleans and then tell me this government could pull off something so big without any problems or leaks). Richard Clark probably said it best, that conspiracy lovers make two key mistakes: “First, they assume the government is competent. Second, they think the government can keep a secret.” Come on, Nixon was a hundred times smarter than Bush and he couldn’t keep Watergate quiet in the pre-Internet era. Just look at the Petreaus scandal, the head of the CIA couldn’t hide an extra-marital affair, you really believe a massive operation like 9/11 could have been quiet for a decade?
For the most part, I don’t believe in too many conspiracy theories but I am a devil’s advocate in many ways so I listen to them. How this pertains to the column this week is because I’m going to be talking about the wrestling equivalent of one such theory. A theory that what we know of as the greatest shoot in the modern history of the industry was actually the greatest work.
In short, the theory is that the 1997 Survivor Series Montreal screw-job was all planned out by Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels…and Bret Hart.
I know that sounds crazy but then so do many conspiracy theories. We are dealing with one of the key watershed moments of professional wrestling, the moment that changed everything for both WWF and WCW, not to mention changed the lives of the three men involved in it. Even fifteen years later, when you watch it all unfold, you can feel the raw passion from the moment, the hatred from Bret to Vince and Shawn, Shawn seeming confused and the frustration of Bret.
But was that really what we saw? Or is it possible that this whole thing was conceived by three men known for their cunning ways in order to pave the way for Bret’s exit from WWF with as big a splash as possible? One that would allow WWF to stay on top and still manage to give Bret some good heat for his WCW run with the possibility of a return down the way? Again, it seems hard to believe but the evidence for this can be rather compelling. Now since pretty much everyone knows how it all went down on camera and to the crowd, let’s break down the work theory and examine how it matches up.
The number one thing to accept in order for the entire theory to work is that only Shawn, Vince and Bret knew about it. No one else, not Earl Hebner, not HHH, not Bret’s family, not even Linda McMahon or Jim Ross knew the real deal. Before you say it’s impossible for that to happen, keep in mind how Brian Pillman worked the entire WCW locker room for months for the “Loose Cannon” character, truly convincing everyone he was losing his mind. Likewise, wrestling is filled with stories of men who kept so tightly to kayfabe they conned their own co-workers. Given how Vince can be a bit manipulative, the idea of him coming up with this isn’t that out there.
It is hard to believe that Bret and Shawn could be working together on something given all their problems but then business is business. You have to remember that Bret was always one of Vince’s favorite workers. Back in 1992, it was Vince who thought Bret would be a good choice to be WWF champion and while he was shuffled a bit in favor of Luger and Nash, Bret still remained a prime player with the company and appreciated Vince for those opportunities. For all his backstage politicking, Shawn also had to have some appreciation for Vince for giving him the big shots too. Thus both men felt a bit indebted to Vince and that might have played into it.
Last year’s “Bret vs Shawn” DVD has actually added weight to this argument. One of the big revelations, which rocked quite a few “smart” fans was the two men revealing that so much of their supposed real-life heat in 1996 had all been planned. Think on that, for years, we’ve believed the tales of them having a major beef, of Shawn arrogantly telling Bret to “get out of my ring” at Wrestlemania XII and their issues, was all a work by the two to give the feud more meaning. If they could do that and keep it quiet for so long afterward, it’s not as out of the realm of possibility they could have repeated the trick with Montreal.
One thing many who know Vince McMahon have agreed on is that Vince can be, as Bret himself has put it “the world’s greatest snake oil salesman.” Contrary to what many think, Vince does not surround himself with yes-men; rather, he has a knack for swaying people to his side. Witness a bonus on the McMahon DVD where John Cena says you can go in ready to argue with Vince over how bad an idea is and leave convinced your idea sucked and Vince’s is ten times better. Let’s face it, if Vince McMahon had gone into politics, there’s a very good chance he’d have become President with his conniving abilities. Thus, even with two men as big in the ego as Bret and Shawn, Vince had the ability to sway them to his side.
The fact was at this point in time, WWF was hurting. WCW was on top with ratings and buy rates and a lot of people seriously believed that they might be able to beat down WWF and put Vince out of business within a year. Now, it is possible Vince could see what was becoming more obvious by late 1997, which was that the over-emphasis on the NWO would lead WCW to a fall but also knew something else would be needed to give WWF a push. And this was just the opportunity he would need to give his company a major attention-getting moment.
For the sake of this entire theory, let’s imagine than in October, as WCW makes its big overture to Bret, Bret talks to Vince about it, which we all know happened. But instead of the public version of Vince telling Bret he couldn’t afford the twenty year multi-million contract and letting him go to Bischoff, something else occurred. Vince did tell Bret he could go but also made an offer to Bret to give him a major exit from the WWF. A way for Bret to go out as a sympathetic hero but still hot as hell and give both Shawn and WWF itself a major boost.
Now this is one part of the theory that I have to admit does sway me a bit. If there’s one thing we all know about Vince McMahon, it’s that the man hates to show weakness of any kind. He will fight and put as positive a spin on things as he can thus it was really out of character for him to be so open over not being able to afford this huge contract, knowing it would get back to Bischoff. Indeed, Bischoff was convinced because of it that Vince was in even worse shape than he anticipated and thus stepped up his attempts to get Bret. It just seems so unlike Vince to be open about how bad his company was which makes it more believable it was part of a long-range plan.
Of course, the key flaw in this whole theory is that Bret and Shawn did not get along well and Bret was adamant about not losing the title in Canada. We’ve already learned that much of their hear in ’96 was staged but became real in ’97 after various misunderstandings. But Bret was, above all, a professional and despite his feelings, he did have loyalty to Vince and the WWF after all those years of service. He knew the tradition of a champion dropping the belt before he left and also knew how important it was to not hurt WWF at such a bad time. As much as he and Vince may not have gotten along, Bret had plenty of friends in the company and didn’t want them to go under any more than Vince did. Bret had to know, as Vince did, that Bischoff would be crowing to everyone over signing on the current WWF champion and that would be a massive blow to the company’s future. Bret had seen how his father’s company had fallen apart due to pressure from the outside and didn’t want that to happen to the one that had given so much to him. So, national pride or not, Bret would have been open to the idea of dropping the belt, albeit in a different way than possible.
So after no doubt quite a few hours (if not days or weeks) of discussion, Vince, Bret and Shawn worked out this plan that would give Bret a major way out and engender tons of sympathy for him. They would put out the story of Bret leaving before the show to get more publicity while Shawn and Bret ratched up their already serious backstage heat to get people to think they were ready to kill each other for real. The fact they’d worked everyone so well with Mania XII showed they could pull that off so not out of the realm of possibility they could repeat the trick. Vince would then take in Hebner to tell him the supposed plan while Shawn also let HHH in on it too. Meanwhile, Bret would do stuff like get Hebner to swear to stick to the plan in order to sell the whole thing better. Shawn was no stranger to backstage politics with the Kliq and could see the obvious benefits for him so, before his whole born-again phase, he’d be open to conning everyone into this. That includes good buddy HHH. Just look at how he seems convincing in Wrestling With Shadows saying he knew nothing about it to everyone when he’s on record today as having helped think it all up.
I know some people are going to say it’s impossible all three would keep this so secret but keep in mind who we’re dealing with. Bret was brought up in a land of kayfabe, spending years of his childhood convinced guys like the Stomper were trying to kill his dad and thrown to see them come to dinner. The Wrestling With Shadows documentary shows Bret trying out his heel mannerisms on his wife without her knowing about it so it’s not hard to accept he’d keep something so major so tight. Ditto for Shawn and Vince has a history of playing things close to the vest. A wrestler is, after all, an actor in so many ways so for three men brought up in this business, it’s not impossible to believe that they could be capable of fooling even those close to them that this whole thing for real. Looking back, one can see how Bret was worrying so openly about being screwed over, putting the idea in the heads of many over how Vince might pull something and he wouldn’t let himself get in that position. Thus, it’s a bit surprising how Shawn, in his autobiography, claims it was Bret’s idea to get put in the Sharpshooter when he had to know what an open opportunity that would be for Vince and Shawn. And that bit with him going to Hebner? If that had happened on camera, everyone would know for sure Hebner was going to swerve Bret so the whole thing sounds rather contrived, as does the whole discussion with Vince telling Bret they’re doing the double-DQ run-in.
That’s another part of the theory that I admit is rather compelling, Wrestling With Shadows. It’s a pretty amazing coincidence that at the time this was going down, Bret just happened to have a documentary crew following his every move, almost as if Bret wanted it recorded how he felt about this whole thing. What really intrigues is that the film has several bits of Bret and Vince talking with Bret on a hidden mic, Vince having no idea it was recorded. When the film came out, there was no real complaint from Vince over being taped without permission or knowledge. Come on, this does sound like the Vince McMahon we know? Wouldn’t he be railing and raving about this done without his permission and do everything possible to block the film’s release and sue for the use of him in it? Instead, he simply lets it go which hints that Vince used the crew to sell the idea more on how Bret was screwed over.
It’s obvious what Shawn got out of it, the title. What could Bret’s motivation be? It’s twofold really. The big one is that it let Bret drop the title in a way that got him huge public sympathy and let him maintain a bit of dignity. He showed himself as the victim of a horrible double-cross that left him a hero in Canada, still with his pride without having to actually drop the belt. Also, it gave Bret a major boost in fame, to make his entrance to WCW even bigger for him and that would help out a star, something every wrestler wants. It was a risk for Vince to be certain as the locker room came as close as it ever has to open rebellion which could have been the end. But Vince held true to his guns and cooler heads prevailed as Vince decided to take up the fan heat on himself to forge the “Mr. McMahon” character that would help the company to its massive success. Vince McMahon loves the spotlight, he openly admits to that and he knew this would give him a prime place in the minds of the wrestling fans, which was a real rush for the ego.
So again, the idea is that Bret, Shawn and Vince kept this tight to make Bret’s exit even bigger than it would have been, which was something WCW should have pounced on. Of course, even Vince didn’t expect them to so badly drop the ball with Bret who was lost in the nightmare of WCW’s backstage politics and bad mismanagement. One thing in WCW that does lend credence to the work theory is Starrcade ’99 where they recreated the screw-job with Bret as Shawn Michaels. Would Bret really be that open to recreating the worst moment of his career when he hated it so much? There’s the possibility that they might have thought up the idea of Bret eventually returning to face off against Shawn which would have been a huge moneymaker of a match. But that was changed first due to Shawn’s injury putting him out for several years. Then, of course, Owen’s death where Bret has openly acknowledged loathing Vince with a passion and soon seeing his family torn apart by the fight against him. Then there Bret’s concussion and eventual retirement. But in a way, Montreal did still give all three the big boost they wanted and was really the major turning point for WWF retaking the lead in the Monday Night Wars. As I said before, Vince is a savvy man, savvy enough to see that the NWO would lead to a backlash soon and all WWF needed was something big to help swing the tide. Montreal was it and history has shown that.
Naturally, Bret’s return to the company in 2010 brought so much of this up again but was seen as a way to mend the fences. I still contend that Vince made the initial “Screwed” DVD as biased as he could, knowing Bret’s pride and ego would make him overcome his issues to work with WWF on a more balanced DVD. It was clear how in 2010, Bret was able to exorcise so many of his demons, settle it at last with Shawn and Vince and get it out of his system. But I also remember people expressing surprise at how Bret and Shawn shook hands after all that, no big angle of Bret attacking or anything. Most cite it as just both men realizing it was time to let it go but if you buy into this theory, you can argue that, since that supposed heat was all faked in the first place, it’d be easier for Bret to not hold a grudge anymore. If anything, seeing his family tearing itself apart over the last several years would do more than adjust Bret’s mood to allow him to be more open about his past in the business.
Now the doubters will naturally wonder why, if it was all one major scheme, all three still act like it was a shoot. Well, part of that is the simple fact that if they were to reveal it as a work, pretty much everyone around them would be pissed as hell, especially Bret’s ex-wife and kids, not to mention the Canadian fanbase. After all, the event made Bret an even bigger icon in his nation so having it revealed as a work would mar his image majorly. But also, all three can see how Montreal has become, in so many ways, their legacy, the one night of their careers that fans remember so well. That it’s constantly brought up just shows that and indeed, one would think Bret would be more upset than he seems at how it’s mentioned all the time. It’s probable WWF would still have swung the tide against WCW; after all, the blowing of the Sting-Hogan showdown proved WCW could ruin most anything and the NWO backlash was going to strike eventually. But the Screwjob and, more importantly, its aftermath, were what shot WWF back with massive creative energy and it’d be hard to mar that. Just see the new “Attitude” DVD and how they celebrate what Montreal sparked, be a shame to wreck that myth with the truth of it all being set up. Bret and Shawn kept it quiet until last year how so much of their ’96 heat was faked, that hard to believe they could keep something even bigger a secret?
I’m not saying this is all true, of course or that I really believe it. But the fact is, there are a lot of fans who do and thought I’d put the facts out there with the possibilities and let others judge for themselves. The irony is that the screw-job has become so accepted that all three could go on TV together and admit they planned it and most fans would find it hard to accept. For a decade and a half, we’ve heard Montreal come up time and again and it’s probably going to happen this year too. And for a decade and a half, fans have been used to Vince shoving it down their throats, Shawn trying to shake it off and Bret remaining bitter about it. Even the involvement of Bret in 2010 hasn’t done as much to let Montreal die down. But one has to wonder if it’s possible, just possible that every year, all three men, in private, share a smile and a silent laugh at how they managed to put over all these bright, intelligent, smart fans that one great shoot was really a major scheme. The truth will probably never be known for sure but it’s definitely something to think over, which is what conspiracy theories are born to do.
Happy Thanksgiving to all. For this week, the spotlight is off.