By Liam Byrne @tvtimelimit
Bret Hart © vs Shawn Michaels 11/9/97
WWF World Heavyweight Title Match
There are some moments that transcend time and place, even the very sport of wrestling in their impact and resonation throughout the years. People only have to mention Montreal to shorthand a screwjob finish, one that is now more often played for heat rather than a real life conflict being acted out mid-ring. The actions on that night, highlighted superbly in the ‘Beyond The Mat’ documentary and dredged up periodically over a twenty year period ever since, hearkened back to a time when people truly believed in the action they were seeing, and where the fear of a champion being forced to lose by his opponent was a legitimate promotional concern. It certainly seemed out of place in the bright lights of 1997.
The WCW offer, the twenty year contract, the reneging on the deal, Hart signing with WCW, the screwjob – most people know the story of Hart versus Michaels inside out. The period after Summerslam for Hart was akin to his time spent battling Hakushi and Jean Pierre Lafitte in 95; he wasn’t in the spotlight at a time when he really could and arguably should have been. Playing second fiddle to a Michaels and Undertaker feud made it clear as to Hart’s place on the totem pole at this very moment. Whilst this might change in the future, it already felt that McMahon was firmly in the camp of Michaels and Hart wasn’t as important a piece of the puzzle as he might have expected.
For two men who didn’t like each other as much as has been suggested over the years, they kept most of it behind the scenes outside of the odd shoot comment. It never felt as if either wrestler took advantage of the other in a physical sense, though the facial expressions and general character work always felt a little strained when they were around each other. A fake smile by Michaels and a kiss of the title belt by Hart would become significantly more prescient moved towards its conclusion.
Lost within the finish is the match itself. Having fought opposite each other for many years, both as tag wrestlers and singles stars, Hart and Michaels were unsurprisingly able to channel their legitimate heat into an intense brawl that saw the initial stages of the contest take place exclusively at ringside and in the crowd. In an era where the sheets were starting to be assisted by the internet in proliferating fact, gossip and innuendo, Jim Ross mentioned on commentary the possibility of this being Hart’s final match. They couldn’t really avoid it.
As the fighting at ringside continued, Michaels would bump hard on the concrete off of a suplex before a collision with Hart took out one referee and a right hand from the Canadian took out another. The numerous officials that were out worked to sell the hatred between Hart and Michaels; little did we know at the time that they sought to make sure nothing untoward happened after McMahon’s plan had been accomplished.
Almost ten minutes into the ‘match’, the bell officially rung as Hart choked Michaels with a flag of Quebec in the center of the ring. That same flag ended up wrapped around Hart’s neck shortly afterwards as Michaels finally gained a foothold in the contest. A facefirst suplex onto the ringsteps allowed Michaels to break the Canadian flag hanging from the ringpost and stab Hart in the chest with the sharp end. A front facelock kept the champion grounded, whilst eye rakes and desperation Irish whips halted any chance he had of gaining momentum until a trip and a figure four leglock around the ringpost had the challenger screaming in agony.
The submission continued in the ring, with a Russian legsweep afterwards beginning Hart’s methodical finishing stretch like hundreds of other matches. However, a collision with the referee had all three men down and this confusion allowed the most famous sharpshooter in history to be applied.
As with any controversial issue, people see it differently depending on whose side they think is correct. Whether Hart should have used his creative control to block the title change, or McMahon should have stolen the belt back off of Bret on a live pay-per-view, the screwjob was a topic that was mined for many years afterwards, especially when WWF would reference it themselves, almost in the ultimate fuck you to Hart. Over time though, cooler heads both in the promotion and amongst the fans have prevailed, with the distance of time meaning it no longer breeds such polarising opinions in such heated debates.
One thing is for certain though – McMahon’s decision, his exposure on television and eventual heel turn were a catalyst for a sea change that saw the WWF rise to overtake the WCW.