Twenty-five years after the most famous wrestling match in modern history, a look at Bret Hart’s face practically tells the entire tale. The camera lingers on him at the end of Survivor Series 1997, moments after the bell rang, signaling both the end of his world championship reign and his 14-year tenure with the World Wrestling Federation, creating a divide that exists in the industry to this day between supporters of Hart and partisans who prefer his rival, Shawn Michaels.
At this very moment, somewhere in the vast internet wrestling community, you can find people arguing about the ethical considerations on both sides, about wrestling’s time-honored traditions and, most of all, about who was right. Conspiracy theorists will tell you the whole thing was staged, the most elaborate lie ever told in a business built on them. One thing is certain—people care, and care deeply. Battle lines have been drawn and the war continues to rage. You’re either a Bret person or a Shawn person, but almost never both. And it all started with the ringing of a bell.
In the ring that night, Hart looks equal parts bemused, shocked, and even a little sad. Most of all he looks bone tired, every one of his 40 years weighing on him as he watches his wrestling legacy disappear in front of his countrymen, his wife, and even his children, all witness to the damnedest finish to a wrestling match anyone could remember.
If you stare at poor Bret long enough, as he processes the moment that would change his whole life, you might even see relief etched where anger would soon bloom. Before the spittle and fists flew, before he destroyed monitors and spelled out W-C-W in front of his loyal partisans in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, it seems, if just for a moment, like a great weight has been lifted off Hart’s broad shoulders.
For weeks, he and WWF owner Vince McMahon had attempted to find their way out of a labyrinth of their own making, a twisted maze they could exit only when they figured out a way for Bret to relinquish his title belt before departing for WCW in Atlanta. Hart, who had creative control written into the final two months of his WWF tenure, had been negotiating fiercely, his lawyer sending McMahon a list of potential solutions to their mutual problem. McMahon, for his part, had a preferred path in mind, insisting that Hart lose one final match to archrival Shawn Michaels, a man the Canadian legend detested both on and off camera.
Hart and McMahon met one final time the day of the bout, with Hart secretly wearing a wire for an independent documentary being filmed about his life in wrestling, fortuitously capturing their pre-match agreement to kick the can a little further down the road. Rather than a decisive finish, Hart and McMahon agreed the match in Montreal would culminate with a “schmozz,” with a gaggle of wrestlers brawling and fighting until the referee has no choice but to call off the match. They had another pay-per-view cycle to figure it all out before Hart took his talents to Turner Network Television. They would, both agreed, figure out something everyone involved could live with. Suffice to say, that isn’t quite how things worked out.
Instead, in a planned spot, Michaels put Hart in the Hitman’s own finishing hold, the dreaded Sharpshooter. But rather than reverse his way out of it and slap on his own version of the move, Hart laid on the mat in disbelief as his world came crashing down around him. Positioned oddly at ringside, McMahon called for the bell. Referee Earl Hebner, who had sworn allegiance to Hart just the previous day, signaled wildly that the match was over, just as Bret began to reverse the move. Hart, much to his surprise, had lost the match. It was the end of his WWF career—and of wrestling as we knew it.
The Reality Era had begun.
Everyone in wrestling has an opinion about what has colloquially become known as “the Montreal Screwjob.” The official WWE position has remained etched in stone since the day after the match, when McMahon, eye blackened from a backstage Hart punch, made his case to the locker room (and eventually the public) that Bret had forced his hand. This position, pithily delivered one week later by Vince himself in a television interview with announcer Jim Ross that would transform him from a benign announcer into the hottest heel in the industry, was clear and succinct.
“Bret screwed Bret.”
The premise was, and is, that Bret gave the WWF no choice and that McMahon only did what was necessary to protect his company and the livelihood of every other wrestler in the promotion. He had to, the story goes, prevent Hart from leaving the territory with the title, perhaps even showing up with it the next night on WCW Monday Nitro.
Hart, as you might imagine, disagrees with this parsing of the facts. After all, he rightly points out, he had weeks remaining on his contract and had proposed several solutions to the conundrum they all faced. There would be plenty of opportunities, he believed, to drop his title to someone else, including a scheduled Madison Square Garden event or a subsequent pay-per-view bout in the final week of his time with the company.
“Vince was the one that was dishonest and lying to me and setting me up and playing games,” Hart says. “If you watched that A&E special, you’ll notice that they still try to lie and pretend that they were somehow in the right or they did the right thing. That I was unprofessional and I should have just done as I was told. I’d never refused in my whole life, ever, to lose to another wrestler. Never mattered to me. It doesn’t matter to me now. I never refused. And it wasn’t because I was in Canada or anything like that. I lost many matches in Canada. It was just personal pride between two wrestlers.
“I grew up with my whole life in the wrestling business, just like Vince McMahon did. He understood that this was me standing up for myself in a way. I had it in my contract that for my last 60 days in WWF I had creative control. … They didn’t honor their contract and screwed me.”
Hart remembers vivid flashes of detail about that night, even 25 years later. His bag in the hallway after the match for some reason, a shaken Shawn inside his locker room instead of keeping his distance as he normally did, the nervous energy and testosterone thick enough to cut. Most of all, he remembers the anger, the dawning realization that he’d been played for a fool.
“I’m a pretty easygoing guy. But I do know that I had a lot of dark thoughts, really crazy, dark thoughts about how angry I was when that happened,” he says. “And it’d be a fair warning to them. In those moments when I’m walking to Vince’s door, I don’t care who was standing there, I was a time bomb. But I remember when I got there and it was locked, I was almost calm. It was almost like, ‘I’m so glad there’s nothing I can do.’ That’s the last step that I can try to do is maybe break down Vince’s door and beat the crap out of him.”
In today’s world, where the wrestling industry’s machinations routinely play out publicly in real time, all of this to-do about the result of a single match seems almost surreal and absurd. It felt a little that way at the time, too, until you looked at the broader picture. It was, to be fair, an intense time in the industry. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had already appeared on WCW Monday Nitro as versions of their WWF characters, launching the nWo and a WCW resurgence that sent McMahon’s company reeling into second place. Alundra Blayze had looked directly into the camera, a proxy for Vince’s eyes, and dropped her WWF Women’s title belt into the literal garbage. Whatever norms still remained in the industry—an industry that Vince himself had thrown into chaos with a national expansion that gobbled most of his competitors whole—had clearly disappeared. Anything seemed possible—even a betrayal by the ultimate company man.
For Michaels, the main goal in the aftermath was regaining the fractured trust of the locker room. Wrestling is a business that requires absolute faith in the other person in the ring. You, quite literally, are putting your life and well-being in their hands. Without trust, none of it works.
“That was my biggest concern,” Michaels says. “This business is about taking care of one another’s bodies. Those things were never an issue with me, as far as taking liberties, even in that match. And this wasn’t even holding a guy down, so to speak. But it certainly was real enough and sucked enough at the time. … You knew there were people who already loathed you and would love to kill you. But I think they knew that it was a position I was put in. I did it. They didn’t like it and they might have wanted to do something to me, but no one did.
“The [ill will] did not last as long as I feared, because of Vince doing everything he could to take the responsibility and to try to get everyone to understand that it was his call. … I always go back to him talking to Taker. Mark [Calaway, the Undertaker] had a real big leadership role in that respect after all of it was explained to him. He sort of set the tempo when he came out and said, ‘Look, you and I are cool.’ And then even Owen [Hart] coming to me after to say, ‘That was between you and Bret and has nothing to do with me and you.’ So it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. I mean, it still felt bad, you know what I mean?”
And what about Bret? Would he change anything if he could? After all these years, all the turmoil and grief, does he wish he had just agreed to do the job for Michaels and move on with his life? In retrospect, wouldn’t that have been easier?
“I know I did [the right thing],” Hart says, almost disbelieving that someone could see it another way. “I’d rather have done what I did than anything else. To me, it would be a total sellout of yourself and everything you’ve ever worked for and everything you ever believed in. You’d be totally selling yourself out.
“When Vince came into the room and basically confronted me, I told him it was a dumb move. I warned him before he came in. I said, ‘I’m not in a friendly mood and this is not going to go well and you need to go right now.’ And he stayed. And I always think whatever happened that day defined me as a person. And it was probably the greatest thing I ever did, in the sense that I stood up for myself like no other wrestler ever stood up for themselves.”
It’s important to know that Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were not always mortal enemies. They came up on parallel paths in the tag team division before graduating to the singles scene. In the early ’90s, in the wake of a federal indictment and unprecedented media attention focused on wrestling’s steroid epidemic, the two even combined to point the WWF in a new direction.
“I think we both appreciated the in-ring aspect of the art within the ropes, the wrestling,” says Michaels, who still works for the company as World Wrestling Entertainment’s senior vice president of talent development creative. “Of course the rivalry after that, that always takes all the air out of the room and makes everybody forget that we really were a lot more similar early on and had the same sort of goals, I think. Not just for ourselves, but for the business and the WWE as a whole. At that time we were just worried about having good matches with one another and having the luxury of being in the ring with a guy that can really do anything you ask him to do. I think that’s what we enjoyed more than anything else. And it is kind of a shame that those things are overlooked now because of everything that happened after. …
“I can remember he and I certainly both wanting to help the WWE usher in a new era where the performance in the ring, the wrestling that you did in the ring, was highlighted as much as, or maybe more than, your bigger-than-life character. I think we’re both proud of the fact that the in-ring performance, the in-ring wrestling, has become such a focus of the wrestling landscape today. He and I were a big part of that.”
After almost a decade headlined by immobile, muscle-bound giants like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, the relatively human-sized duo supercharged the card, working together dozens of times in 1992 to set a new standard for what American wrestling looked like at its absolute apex. Michaels took the bumping heel to new levels and Hart, for his part, remembers rave reviews for matches like his Wembley Stadium classic with Davey Boy Smith from veterans like Ric Flair and Randy Savage.
While the two were both at the tip of the spear as WWE attempted a major rebrand, their styles differed in some critical ways. Michaels was focused on showcase displays of athleticism and memorable finishing sequences, his leather chaps emblematic of a flamboyance that made some traditionalists uncomfortable. Hart, resplendent in pink and black, his long dark hair ever wet, represented the traditionalists and conservatives within the business. His commitment to making sure every moment of every match made sense and was believable never wavered.
“I think that’s a fair distinction,” Hart says. “Shawn was a very special and unique talent. He was more of a high flyer. I watched him and it was kind of like, ‘He does not wrestle like me and I don’t do any of those kind of moves and we’re different.’ We were never the same. Shawn liked big moments and I didn’t care about moments so much. To me it was about the whole match.
“I wasn’t good at much else, but I was really good at what I did as a wrestler. I don’t know that anybody ever did it better than I did. You can watch any Bret Hart match and it doesn’t look planned out or plotted out or move-for-move. It flows very naturally like a real match. I don’t know that anybody cared as much as I did about trying to keep the realism in my performances and make it look like a contest and make it look like winning matters and losing matters.”
The minute differences in their acts were actually a net benefit to WWE as it stepped boldly into this new era. Fans were guaranteed at least two great matches a night, each different enough from the other that it didn’t feel like just more of the same. Along the way, the two became tight.
“I remember the old Shawn, the good Shawn before the drug problems,” Hart says. “I considered Shawn one of my best friends. I had him at my home with my kids, my family. I considered Shawn one of my closest friends in the business at one time … I never really changed much. I was the same guy in 1990 as I was in 1997. And I was always respectful of how wrestling works and how the integrity of it is all about trust and two wrestlers trusting each other. And in the end, Shawn and I lost that, and that’s a shame. But Shawn and me also, we had some great times together in the ring and some great memories. And I still think the Iron Man match was one of [the] greatest matches of my whole career. I don’t know anybody I could say was better than Shawn.”
But competition for top spots and world titles is every bit as competitive in wrestling as it is in traditional sports. More so, in some ways, as a dominant wrestler can win every night for a decade if the script says so, no matter how well the competition performs. This makes personal friendships fraught, even in the best of times. Michaels’s descent into drug addiction made the second half of the 1990s anything but the best of times. It was an ace dropped in the river of an already chaotic hand, making a difficult situation feel impossible, especially as the company felt pressure from the outside for the first time in years. Something had to give.
A series of contentious confrontations, both on-screen and off, culminated in what McMahon’s enforcer Gerald Brisco almost contemptuously dismissed as a “hair fight,” the two men locked together in an endless dance, each one’s steely grip on his rival the only thing keeping their long locks intact. By the time Jerry “The King” Lawler went flying off his porcelain throne in the men’s room to call for help and Brisco was able to separate them, Hart had a chunk of Michaels’s hair in his hand and a forever enemy in his rearview. While the fight may have been something less than fierce, the hard feelings certainly were—making doing business even more of a headache for everyone involved.
In the end, McMahon was forced to choose—and he landed on Michaels, a singular performer whose cocky manner and vision for a more risque, adult-themed wrestling business more closely resembled the future Vince envisioned. Hesitant to let a top star go, McMahon had re-signed Hart to a 20-year contract to keep him away from the competition. By the end of 1997, McMahon was second-guessing himself, encouraging his world champion to sign with WCW after all, ridding himself of a heavy contract and the constant burden of keeping Shawn and Bret from destroying each other backstage. All that remained was getting the belt off Bret and onto Michaels, a task made more difficult by Shawn’s growing insistence that he was done with losing matches to anyone.
“When I first found out I was wrestling Shawn, we’d had our history where we had a little scuffle in the dress room in Hartford,” Bret says. “And we weren’t really friends anymore. I went right up to him and I said, ‘Shawn, I just want you to know I have no problem working with you. I have no problem doing anything they want. And if they want you to win the belt, I’m totally cool with that. Whatever they want to do is fine with me. And I just want you to know that whatever bad blood we’ve had between us is not a factor in this match, that I’ve always been a professional and I just want you to know you’re safe in the ring with me and I’m going to give you a good match and I’m looking forward to working with you.’
“And he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, I appreciate that, but I just want you to know that I’m not willing to do the same thing for you.’ That’s exactly what he said. And I don’t know why so many people don’t seem to understand that. But that is a real slap in the face to any wrestler. I don’t know any wrestler in any territory or any business that would ever let somebody say that to him. It’s a total disrespect, especially me being a world champion and offering to drop the belt to him. And that was it. As soon as he said that to me, I remember going, ‘Well, I can’t do the same thing for him then. We’ve got a problem now.’ … We don’t have any faith or trust in each other, so I can’t work with Shawn, I can’t put him over. I would never put over somebody that refused to put me over. And so we had a problem.”
The rest you can see for yourself on Peacock, read about online, or hear broken down in minute detail in excellent podcasts like the two-parter from The Ringer’s own David Shoemaker. It was an honest-to-goodness double-cross in a post-kayfabe world. This wasn’t quite a shoot, per se—the ending was scripted after all, even if the dustup between Hart and McMahon in the locker room afterward wasn’t. But being scripted didn’t make it any less real. It was a burden both Michaels and Hart carried for decades, the weight of their own decisions in a tumultuous time almost drowning the men they were meant to become before religion and the passing of time, respectively, allowed both to finally release the hate, anger, and suffering that bound them to that momentous night.
“Well, look, I continued to stay a drug addict and it only got worse,” Michaels says. “So yeah, I think it weighed on me. It was something we both carried with us, and it was just a fricking shame, to be perfectly honest. When I got married, we started a family, I got saved. That’s when a lot of that was lifted off me. It took us a long time to actually forgive one another and reconcile. I was ready. Then it was just hoping that one day he would stop hating me. And then, to finally get to that day was tremendous. So much of our careers got wrapped up in that, when there was so much more to them. Especially his, and that’s just a huge injustice to everything that he did.”
Most wrestling stars are easily forgotten, replaced as cogs in the machine designed to produce weekly, serialized popcorn entertainment for the masses. So it says plenty that, 25 years later, people don’t just remember Shawn and Bret. They still care. Profoundly.
Even more than they did in their heydays, where the battle between corporate behemoths overshadowed even the deepest of personal grudges, the two have split the wrestling world into competing camps. There are Bret guys and there are Shawn guys, and they are locked in a forever war online to determine whose vision pumps blood into the beating heart of professional wrestling.
“Over the years I have sort of come to understand Bret and I will always be linked,” Michaels says. “I was the Joker to his Batman, or the Lex Luthor to his Superman. I think we were just two very different people who [saw] the wrestling business differently. But I think we were both fricking fantastic in our roles because when you talk about wanting to be out there with a guy, I’d pick him any day of the week [and] twice on Sunday. … If we had 100 Brets come through here, I’d be thrilled. If we had just one Bret, and I could work with him and [WWE developmental trainers] Norman Smiley and Robbie Brookside could make him even better, oh my goodness, I’d give my right arm for something like that. It would be a blessing. …
“It’s the age-old question: ‘Who’s better? Shawn or Bret?’ At some point it dawned on me, ‘Oh my goodness, yeah, Bret was easily a better wrestler than I am. But I think I was a better performer.’ When we came into the age of the sports entertainer, I think that was my space, that was my area. It had to do with more than just the technical wrestling of a match. It had a lot to do with emotion and story. And also, look, the charisma, the entrance, all of it sort of combined. At the end of the day, there’s no defining the best and the greatest and all that kind of stuff in this line of work. Every bit of it is personal preference. And I try to remind everybody like, ‘Hey, just the fact that I’m even in the conversation is fricking fantastic with me.’”
These two camps, you might even call them cults, aren’t just products of nostalgia and good-natured historical debate. This isn’t Wilbon and Kornheiser arguing about whether Barkley outshone Malone in Jordan’s lingering shadow. Michaels and Hart, in fact, are still actively involved in shaping what the industry looks like. Most wrestling legends have little to teach the contemporary stars of the sport in the ring. Like the NBA, which has moved the game out beyond the 3-point line, the current version of wrestling barely resembles anything that came before it. Most icons of the sport can offer sage advice when it comes to working the microphone or presenting yourself to the crowd. But what happens in the ring is almost totally divorced from what they did in their day.
Bret and Shawn? They taught a generation to work.
Today, Michaels’s stamp on the industry is easier to discern. He’s a top executive for the NXT brand, preparing a new crop of young talent to excel in the WWE system. Matches today simply look like the bouts Shawn had upon his return to wrestling in the mid-2000s, when declining health limited his once famous athleticism, forcing the older, battered Michaels to distill wrestling to its essence. Once he borrowed from the great Mr. Perfect, bumping around the ring like a madman to earn the crowd’s attention. With age and wisdom, he made wrestling a mental and emotional pursuit, replacing the movement and motion of his younger days with tortured facial expressions, complicated storytelling, and dramatic false finishes.
“As a performer, you want to be challenged in a different way,” he says. “To me that’s the only thing you can really control. Somebody else controls the wins and the losses, titles or not titles, where you’re at on the card, all those types of things. So to enjoy your craft, I think you continue to try to go to different areas you haven’t been before. And that’s certainly what I did later in my career.
“As you get older, the way in which you perform changes as well. I wanted to see if I could convey these feelings to an audience and make people get lost again. You’ve got all these people caught up in what they feel, and it becomes something else, some kind of personal story between these two people. That’s our version of art, if you ask me.”
While critics of WWE’s style do exist, especially as the anguished facial expressions once reserved for WrestleMania main events became commonplace even during random TV matches, Hart is not among them. The new Michaels was so good, his matches such a tour de force, that even his most fearsome enemies were forced to acknowledge his mastery of the craft and concede he remained one of the best to ever do it.
“We had our issues over the years,” says Hart, whose in-ring career effectively ended in 1999 after he suffered a severe concussion during a WCW world title match against Goldberg. “But I watched Undertaker and Shawn Michaels wrestle at one of the WrestleManias. Even then, I had such a bitterness towards Shawn, but I had to admit it was one of the greatest matches I ever watched. That’s where I ended up deciding to make friends with Shawn and bury the hatchet and all that. It was very truthful, that little story line with me and Vince and Shawn. Me and Shawn making up in the ring (in 2010) and shaking hands and all that, that was all very real and very moving for me. And was not something that was orchestrated. Shawn wanted that off his back and I was in a position to take it off his back and that was the best resolution for both of us. We’ve been friends ever since. And I’m grateful that he’s in a better place today. I wish that none of the bad history that we had had ever happened. I wished I’d never left for WCW because I probably wouldn’t have had a stroke and I probably wouldn’t have had to wrestle Bill Goldberg.”
Cognizant, perhaps, of his own knuckleheaded youth, Michaels isn’t interested in imposing a singular vision on the young wrestlers under his learning tree or looking to re-create the Attitude Era boom. While he’ll talk about his own matches when someone asks or if there is a lesson to learn from them, he isn’t lost in the past. Instead, he walks alongside his young charges through failure and victory alike to discover what works with a new crop of fans in 2022.
“I try not to give them a lot of the old timer’s spiel, because they’ve heard enough of it already and they’ll hear enough of it in the future,” Michaels says. “I’m just someone that feels like the business has to continue to evolve. I think I was considered a flippy guy at one time, and I can’t do half the stuff they all do. The business will continue to change and I’m excited to watch it do that. I’m not going to fight that wave. And I know change is not going to come from a 57-year-old Shawn Michaels, you know what I mean?”
Hart’s impact took longer to materialize. Buried by the WWE machine through years of mutual animosity, he all but disappeared from the scene. Slowly, perhaps inevitably, he eventually found his way home, back to WWE’s tentative embrace. There were DVD deals, Hall of Fame inductions, and even an appearance on Raw where he and Michaels publicly buried the hatchet.
“I was always a WWE guy, always,” he says. “And I almost resent when someone talks about me like I wasn’t. They’re surprised I’m even around today. But I gave everything I had to that company and I’m proud of everything I did in the ring and I’m proud of what I represented.”
Hart’s incredible, detail-focused work in the ring was rediscovered by new fans and workers alike in the past few years. His commitment to logic, pacing, and precision makes his work feel more timeless than ancient as the years passed. In recent months, his matches with the likes of the 1-2-3 Kid, Roddy Piper, and Owen Hart were pilfered in plain sight by prominent wrestlers including FTR, CM Punk, and Britt Baker. National television acts were wearing his colors and publicly thanking him for his service to the industry. It was a lot.
“When I became champion, Vince gave me a lecture on it one time, saying, ‘You’re the champion. You call the shots. No one tells you how to wrestle. You’re the guy that tells everyone else how to wrestle.’ And I made that my new rule,” Hart says. “For a long time up until that, I always had to incorporate some other wrestler’s ideas into my match to make him happy. Now I could tell people, ‘No, we’re not going to do that idea. We’re going to cancel that because it doesn’t make any sense, but we’re going to do this instead.’ And nobody would argue with me anymore. I became a very detailed guy and I think just the passion and the workrate that I brought to wrestling is finally being appreciated today.
“When you go back and you watch these old matches over and over again like people do today, I think my matches hold up better than any wrestlers that I can think of. I was a perfectionist in the ring and I was an innovator. I was not a thief. There’s a lot of thieves out there that steal ideas from other wrestlers. … If you watch my matches back, I think you see a psychology and a logic that’s always there. The matches just seem real. You don’t have to see me wiggle to move into the right place, or if I get knocked over the top rope, I’m always in the right spot at the right time. The timing and the ability to be a great wrestler has often been misunderstood or underappreciated. We don’t get credit for being great athletes and we don’t get credit for being great actors when in fact we’re probably a combination of them both in full motion.”
Just as Hart was willing to concede Michaels’s excellence, the Heartbreak Kid freely admits today that Bret was the better hand in the ring. Both men know they will be tied together through history. They’ve made peace with it, becoming collegial veterans of a shared war only they can truly ever understand, frontline soldiers in a battle of two. But neither, even at their most magnanimous, was quite willing to say the other guy was superior. Michaels, while happy to give Bret his props for technical excellence, wants credit for being the more modern performer, dragging the conservative industry kicking and screaming into the 1990s and beyond.
Hart? Well, his position on his place in history has always been clear. Is, was, and always will be.
“If there was a camera on, I was going to give you a five-star performance or at least I was going to try my hardest,” he says. “And I think it’s started to show now. I appreciate people going, ‘Jesus, this guy always worked hard, always tried hard, always gave the fans a show, always acted like it was real, always showed emotion.’ … And I’m really proud looking back, and I think I have put up no argument about being the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.”
Jonathan Snowden (@JESnowden) is the author of Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man, Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting, The MMA Encyclopedia and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He works for the Department of Defense and lives in Alabama with his wife and two children. He thinks about professional wrestling. A lot.