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How the Montreal Screwjob Could Have Been Avoided

A lifelong fan of professional wrestling, Koriander takes a look at the lighter side of the squared circle.

While this 1997 wrestling match has both entertained and infuriated wrestling fans for decades, it didn't have to happen.

While this 1997 wrestling match has both entertained and infuriated wrestling fans for decades, it didn't have to happen.

Did This Really Have to Happen?

It's the most talked-about Survivor Series match in WWE history. This match has been discussed so much that by the time it reached its 25th anniversary in 2022, even the men involved were tired of talking about it.

For those unaware, it all started when veteran and repeat World Heavyweight Champion Bret "The Hitman" Hart began looking at his options. At the time, the WWE (then WWF) and the WCW were locked in a bitter war over TV ratings.

Between 1995 and 1996, Hart would take sabbaticals from the WWE. Future AEW ring announcer Jim "J.R." Ross made announcements during commentary whenever Hart couldn't appear.

In October of 1996, Hart would initially reject an offer from the WCW by staying loyal to his boss, Vince McMahon. He would re-sign with the WWE.

Fast-forward to September of 1997. Vince McMahon started deferring payments to Hart, and he had gone back on a promise to ensure an office position for the then 14-year veteran.

McMahon's claims of financial troubles conflicted with a wave of new merchandise, newer weekend programs such as Shotgun Saturday Night, a move to monthly pay-per-views, and a slow and steady rise in popularity.

Realizing the bigger issue was that creative plans for Bret Hart's typically noble character had disappeared with the onset of the edgier Attitude Era. The fact that the only plans available involved Hart acting out an anti-American persona made him feel uncomfortable. With a family he had to take care of, Hart took a major risk in backing out of the WWE and signing a contract with WCW on November 1, 1997, after McMahon himself had already suggested to Hart that entertaining options from alternative brands wouldn't be a bad idea.

Realizing too late that Hart would take his advice on entertaining deals from his competitor, McMahon panicked over how to handle Hart's departure, as Hart was still the World Heavyweight Champion.

Hart, who had been faithful to McMahon up to this point, offered to drop the belt to longtime rival Shawn Michaels anywhere but in Canada.

Rather than book Hart to drop the title before the Survivor Series PPV or risk booking Hart to drop the belt on a one-time appearance post-contract, (since Hart would not debut on WCW programming until December 15, 1997) McMahon initiated a screwjob finish to the Survivor Series match. He showed up to ringside and ordered referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell against the rules of the match, even though Hart had never submitted.

The event led to a bitter exit by Hart and many years of hostilities between Hart and the WWE. This animosity would eventually end in a resolution that would bring the now-retired Hart back to the WWE off and on from 2004 through the 2020s in various projects. Hart, Michaels, and McMahon would even rebuild their friendship.

It was a happy ending, but did the screwjob really have to happen?

Here are some options Vince McMahon had on the table.

At the time of the screwjob, Bret Hart was still an active member of The New Hart Foundation, whose story never got a proper ending.

At the time of the screwjob, Bret Hart was still an active member of The New Hart Foundation, whose story never got a proper ending.

Option A: Keep Bret Hart Out Of Title Contention

From March 31, 1997, until the screwjob, Hart was in the newly rebooted Hart Foundation, alongside Brian Pillman, younger brother Owen Hart, and brothers-in-law Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart and British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith.

In the weeks leading up to the Survivor Series, Pillman had passed away, after mostly being consumed in a feud with future AEW star Goldust/Dustin Rhodes over Dustin's then-wife Marlena/Terri and their daughter.

Beyond this, the focus had already been shifted away from The Hart Foundation, and their anti-American shenanigans had taken a backseat to Shawn Michaels's feud with Bret Hart.

The group would dissolve quietly with no fanfare in the hours after the PPV, with Owen Hart being the last to remain with the WWE.

But if the creative team really had this little consideration for The Hart Foundation for much of the year, then why not have the group disband much earlier and feud with each other?

Bret and Owen had already had several amazing matches in a feud years prior to the event. Bret wouldn't have balked at the opportunity to help his brother reach the next level of his career, and had this had gone down, Owen could have easily been in title contention by the following year's Wrestlemania PPV.

1997 was a hot year for shows like The Jerry Springer Show, which made a fortune off of family feuding stories, so this would have fit in perfectly with the WWE's leaning towards "crash television" throughout the Attitude Era.

Bret could have spent all of 1997 out of the title picture, feuded with his brother, and the screwjob would have been avoided.

Owen Hart, Ken Shamrock and Stone Cold Steve Austin each had a background with Bret Hart.

Owen Hart, Ken Shamrock and Stone Cold Steve Austin each had a background with Bret Hart.

Option B: Have Hart Drop the Title to Anyone but Shawn Michaels

If Bret Hart had dropped the title to younger brother Owen in Canada, it would have been the ultimate win for the King of Harts and a beautiful passing of the torch. But Owen wasn't the only choice the WWE had.

Earlier that year, Bret Hart had wrestled in a violent match at Wrestlemania against Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose star was rising fast. With a built-in history already on the table, a rematch with the belt on the line would have jump-started the legendary career Stone Cold was about to have much sooner.

But often left out of the conversation is "The World's Most Dangerous Man" Ken Shamrock, an MMA fighter and pro wrestler who also had a very recent history with "The Hitman" and who never got his full chance to shine. With his chiseled physique and quick strikes, if Shamrock had finally gotten a title victory over Hart, it could have cemented Shamrock an early contention for a WWE Hall of Fame spot.

Any of these three men could have taken the title off of "The Hitman" in Canada, and the WWE could have raked in the revenue.

If Vince McMahon had a little more patience and a lot more faith in Bret Hart, none of this could have happened.

If Vince McMahon had a little more patience and a lot more faith in Bret Hart, none of this could have happened.

Option C: Have Hart Drop the Title on November 3, 1997

While not as beautiful nor as traditional as a title win on a major PPV like Survivor Series, the WWE had already had Heavyweight title victories on regular television before, with Sycho Sid even winning the same belt earlier that year on February 17 on Monday Night Raw.

The November 3, 1997, edition of Raw took place in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in America, which is Shawn Michaels's home country, albeit not his home state.

If McMahon badly needed the belt on The Heartbreak Kid, he could have had Hart lose the belt to HBK and even had brought Michaels's stable D-Generation-X into the match. D-X's Triple H could have easily helped HBK cheat to win, or HBK could have even gotten a clean win out of nowhere, the title would have gone to McMahon's chosen wrestler, and again, the screwjob could have been avoided.

While it's all in the past now for all involved, it's still astonishing how such a simple title change could have been fumbled so badly.

© 2022 Koriander Bullard