What If: The Montreal Screwjob Never Happened... Part 1.
In a slightly delayed new "What If" scenario (My fault, sorry! - Paul) Jason looks at would have taken place had the events around Montreal in 1997 happened differently.
The date is Nov 10th 1997.
Last night, in Montreal Quebec, Canada, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart took on long-time nemesis, and charismatic upstart, Shawn Michaels, for the WWF Championship. As most know, Bret Hart was a victim - depending on who you ask - of his ego and/or his vindictive employer, WWF Chairman, Vincent K McMahon.
Where Bret was supposed to defeat Shawn and go on to vacate the prestigious title en route to his new home at World Championship Wrestling, McMahon and Michaels had other ideas. Not willing to leave it to chance, and risk Bret going into business for himself on WCW's flagship broadcast, Monday Nitro, with the WWE's top championship, they took matters into their own and hands and formulated a new finish to the match that would cost Bret the title, and maintain the integrity of the WWF and their championship. Little did anyone know that not only would that moment expose the business like no other, it would also set into motion the birth of one of the most revolutionary, enduring heel characters of all time, Mr McMahon, and bolster the already burgeoning Attitude Era.
Although Hart, Michaels and McMahon would go on to bury the hatchet over a decade later, this tale, thanks in part to the Wrestling with Shadows documentary, would send shockwaves through the wrestling business.
So let's ponder the question - what if McMahon took Hart at his word?
Let's find out...
Bret Hart was a free agent. Coming in hot from the Survivor Series '97 main event, he was now officially free of his WWF contract and waiting to make his debut for Eric Bischoff on Nitro.
It was a given that Eric had approached Bret about bringing the championship to the opposition. At this point, we'd had both companies dipping their toes into the others gold reserve, with Flair bringing his 'Real World Championship' to WWE in '91 and Madusa, formerly Alundra Blayze, famously dropping the WWF Women's Championship in the trash on Nitro. Bret turning up with the iconic Winged Eagle would be a boon that Bischoff couldn't wait to exploit.
Sadly that wouldn't be the case.
Bret, the atypical good guy, returned the belt as planned on Raw in Ottawa Ontario, shaking hands with Shawn and Vince, and cutting a promo about his love for the WWE, their fans, and McMahon, Bret stood between them both, holding their arms up in the middle of the ring basking in a standing ovation from the Canadian audience.
That is until Shawn Janetty'd him in the middle of the ring, rather than through a Barber Shop Window, with a stiff Superkick right on the chin. Michaels would go on to berate Hart, claiming he was an embarrassment to the business and that any self-respecting champion would have taken the belt with them 'wherever they were going', and calling out McMahon for allowing it in the first place. With a complete lack of crotch chopping theatrics and double entendre’s, this felt far more real than most of Michaels' showy antics.
Customary to go out putting someone over, Bret knew this was the way and literally, took it on the chin.
With Bret in a relatively good place in his professional life, despite his misgivings about the move to WCW, he was due to make his debut the following week on Nitro.
Bischoff, acutely aware of how hot the program with Michaels had been, was keen to capitalise. Offering Hart a top rivalry in the world title picture, he hoped to satiate Hart's need to be front and centre, while bridging the politics between Hart and long-time rival - friend of Bischoff, and current WCW World Champion - Hollywood Hogan.
Hart would appear on Nitro on 17th Nov, and came in to a riotous applause. Cutting a promo about how he was essentially an undefeated World Champion, he felt he was owed something, and that something, was the WCW Championship.
He came here to claim the richest, most storied prize in the business – he’d done the rest, now it was time to take the best. After all, he was the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be. Bret was willing and able to go through whoever he needed to get it.
Interrupted by the static that heralded the arrival of the NWO, Bischoff arrives - Hogan couldn't make it - and tells Bret that given the nature of Bret's change of employer, he'd be best served as an addition to the NWO, not an enemy.
Bret has decisions to make, and allegiances to forge, Bischoff tells him. There's no Hart Foundation here, you're on your own, and you're going to need to watch your back.
Bischoff goes on to inform Bret that he'd been booked as a referee for Starrcade and he would get his chance with the victor of the main event between then champion Hollywood Hogan, and number one contender - the white hot Sting; the culmination to a storyline that had been building since 1996.
It was clear that this was, as was usually the case during this time in WCW, nothing more than political maneuvering. With a history reaching back to 1993 and WrestleMania IX, there was no love lost between Hart and Hogan, but Hart was brought in on a huge contract and believed that his place on the card would reflect that.
Hogan had other ideas – and the ear of Eric Bischoff - and the decision was made for Sting to take the title from Hogan and begin a feud with the Hitman.
People say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but for the Hitman, there was certainty too that his heat would be overlooked by WCW. Sadly, even in this alternative account of History, the result would be the same.
Funnelled into a feud with The Man Called Sting, there was no real way for a babyface Bret Hart to walk away from things with anything less than a knock to his heat, and to his character. If Bret defeated Sting, it would be an anti-climax to the masterful build that had revitalised the Sting character and presented a mysterious and viable defence against the invading NWO. If Bret lost, all the momentum that he had moving in would be lost with it, and he’d be relegated to just another face in a crowded landscape.
As it was, he needn’t worry, as he was positioned for the meantime as nothing more than a bystander in the title picture while the decision was made on how to proceed following Starrcade.
With the Montreal Screwjob never having occurred, the finish underwent a subtle change. Hogan would blindside Sting with a world title shot on the outside, throwing Sting back in the ring and hitting the leg drop to get the pin, with a quick count from the referee, Nick Patrick.
Following this, Bret would arrive, have heated words with Nick Patrick, throw him from the ring and indicate to the time keeper that things should continue. From there, Sting attacks Hogan – stinger splash, stinger splash, scorpion death lock, new champ. Rejoice.
This save would set-up a face vs face feud between the Hitman and Sting as Sting grants the Hitman a title shot on a future Nitro in recognition of his support. There was no plan for the Hitman to go over, in fact the finish was a no contest, with an NWO beat down of both men causing the match to be thrown out in a confrontation that would have been best saved for PPV – but it was the Monday Night War, and the WWF were coming in hot in January, with the upcoming Royal Rumble match and a coiled Rattlesnake, ready to strike…
DX are on fire. Their antics and the new ’attitude’ of WWF television are causing heads to turn and wallets to open, ratings are climbing, the buzz was tangible and fans everywhere can feel that big things are on the horizon. The funny thing is, at this point in history, Bret had no influence on anything that was going on in the WWF landscape and things would go on largely undeterred from the History that we know and recognise. Austin goes on to win the Rumble, and gets set to take on Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship.
Meanwhile in WCW, Bret treads water. As the winter turns to spring and the WWF approach WrestleMania season, Bret finds himself wondering where he may be if still under the McMahon umbrella. His feud with Sting, as anticipated, was buried under the politics of NWO shenanigans, with Hogan claiming he had a contractual rematch with Sting because he was the former champion, and because Hart never should have interfered in the first place. Bret had his first match on PPV at Souled Out, against Ric Flair and was subsequently booked into generic matches while Sting and Hogan continued with their conflict over a now vacant WCW title; Hogan complained to authority figure JJ Dillon, who reversed Stings win and booked the definitive finish to the feud in Feb at SuperBrawl.
For the next few years, WCW and WWF/WWE continued as we know it, and sadly, the tragic events that conspired to cause the in-ring death of Bret’s little brother Owen, continued as normal. The reaction however, was slightly different. Though broken by what had happened, Bret wasn’t already poisoned by the events in Montreal and saw things differently enough that although it placed tremendous strain on their relationship, complete blame was not placed at the feet of the chairman of the WWF and instead was attributed to what it was – a terrible, terrible accident that was as avoidable as it was devastating.
Bret’s standing with WCW never improved.
He came in hot and within months was tepid due to awkward booking and frequent heel turns as the focus continued to be the NWO, and Hollywood Hogan. Since History continued as we know it, Bret resurrected the NWO under the pen of Vince Russo, and things continued with the rivalry between himself and Bill Goldberg that sadly spelled the end of Bret Hart’s in ring career.
What ended Bret’s career in WCW, would prove to be the beginning of something completely new for the Hitman.
Of course in this turn of events, Bret and Vince parted company amicably and despite the damage done surrounding the passing of Owen, Vince was one of the first to pay his respects to the end of the Hitman’s career. At this point, unable to wrestle and with little more than months to remain on his contract, Bret was released and by mid-2000 found himself in talks with Vince McMahon about a potential return to the WWF.
Bret knew at the time that the product the WWF was presenting, while ground-breaking, was also not for everyone, and the violent and crass, car-crash antics that were regularly being broadcast couldn’t be further from what he envisioned a good wrestling product to be, and a decision was made for Bret to stay home and work on his health.
But what a difference a year makes, as one year later the WWF had effectively bought up their competition and created a monopoly in the wrestling landscape. But as with anything, often with victory comes the hardest part – answering the question of what you do next. The World Wrestling Federation had a roster at bursting point with the best talent the business had to offer across WWF, WCW and ECW, and a raft of new and hungry talent emerging from feeder group OVW. But, a change of ‘attitude’ in the world of entertainment and diminishing returns from the pro-wrestling high that had engulfed the globe through the late 90’s meant that a change was needed, and, as fate would have it, change was coming…
With the shift from what would be known as the ‘Attitude Era’ into the ‘Ruthless Aggression’ era, the WWE – as it was now known – moved away from the Springer-esque, sensationalist TV and adapted a new status quo with new stars, old stars, a brand split and a more athletic in ring product than ever before; the product was brighter, less dingy looking than it had been and the talent signed to the company was vast and unchallenged in their ability.
Bret would once again be approached by the Chairman, to gauge his interest in a return to the company that he called home, and dedicated so much of his life to. With Bret’s health having improved, and the scandalous nature of WWE programming taking a back seat to the new stars of the Ruthless Aggression era, Bret was on-board and ready to get involved. Despite the career ending injury he sustained at the hands of Bill Goldberg, Bret was eager for a return, even in a managerial, or authority figure, capacity. Something that he’d just seen Ric Flair do in his dramatic return to the company.
So a storyline was pitched. With Flair being a storyline co-owner of the WWE, Vince McMahon had decided that he was going to destroy his own company from the inside, rather than allow it to be shared with the likes of Flair. This is where Bret would come in.
In what would be an ironic turn of events, it would occur that the one thing that held the Hitman back most in World Championship Wrestling, would be the one thing that gave him a new lease of life in the WWE.
The New World Order...
Come back next month for the conclusion of this original "What If" story!