The following is an article from a recent version of The Observer by Dave Meltzer. For those not familiar with him, Meltzer is a long time sports journalist who has been covering pro wrestling (among other sports) since the mid-80s. If you want to read about his credentials then head over to his Wikipedia page for some background. The following article is a long read, but super interesting - especially if you never knew (or just plain forgot) many of the finer points of this historic event. Incoming wall of text...
Even years later I absolutely love reading about this. It's like the JFK assassination of the pro wrestling world. I've always been a huge Hart fan and felt he got a very raw deal in this scenario. But even Hart himself in recent years has gone on record accepting his share of responsibility for the whole event (not claiming it was entirely his fault, but merely acknowledging how he could've handled things differently). Still, it's refreshing to read about stuff like this from a less biased perspective - especially since the WWE is the only game in town these days and can spin things however they want. After all, "history is written by the victors" is it not?I saw the Monday Night War episode on Bret Hart that aired on 9/16 just because I wanted to see how the thing was portrayed. The funny thing is the real story is far more interesting than the version portrayed. They wanted to portray it simply as Bret Hart was leaving and refused to do the job on the way out, and Vince did what he had to do. In time, that simplistic version has taken over as the reality, since it’s easy to digest and paints McMahon as completely in the right.
I’d seen other episodes and as someone who lived through it and through the entire evolution of the business, the entire narrative of evil Ted vs. undermanned but smarter Vince was annoying just because in a free enterprise world, evil Ted did nothing Vince didn’t do, and really did far less in the 80s. Plus, the overemphasis on Ted Turner, who may have spent five minutes a year thinking about the wrestling business, and underplaying of Eric Bischoff has, if anything, gotten even worse over time. If Turner really wanted to beat Vince McMahon as bad as they said, he could have done so in 1989 by simply raiding every top star Vince had when their deals were up. In reality, WCW was put on a small budget and told to make money.
Every idea, from going live in prime time, or late going head-to-head, were things Jim Herd and Bill Watts wanted to do and were turned down. Their jobs were to balance the budget, and keep in mind, this was a budget where zero revenue was listed for television rights fees, which meant they had to break even on house shows, merch and PPV alone. Watts even came close to pulling it off, but alienated the talent in doing so with all the budget slashing. If they were given in the budget television rights fees of even $8 million a year, Herd would have run a profitable company and Watts would have had an even more profitable company.
Bischoff was given an open checkbook, and the green light to really have a chance to win and all the weapons to do so. He failed because he presented a product that turned off much of his audience, and because he had no understanding that in wrestling, the present doesn’t last forever and playing a pat hand for too long is death. Or at least was in the old business, which didn’t have the guaranteed cushion on television money. Today, the old rules don’t apply.
In addition, every episode has so much repeated material. I can see liking it if you didn’t live through it and were willing to accept a babyface vs. heel portrait of a wrestling war instead of the reality where both sides were trying to cut the others’ throats constantly and one side eventually collapsed because they didn’t prepare for any future and lost complete touch with their fan base, while the other was in touch with theirs.
They attempted to not bury Hart personally, because he’s one of the legends they bring out when needed. But they left out all the details that would give one a perspective of what really happened. They talked about the Michaels’ knee injury and told the story that Hart thought Michaels created the fake knee injury to avoid dropping the title to him. In actuality, Michaels was booked to lose to Sycho Sid on a live TV special in Lowell, MA (which was also the beginning of the Dwayne Johnson backlash when they had him beat HHH for the IC title less than three months after his debut and it was way early and the fans turned on him after being completely behind him as the new young star up to that point), not Hart. He showed up that day, and claimed a career ending knee injury and gave the lost my smile promo and handed Vince the belt and refused to even lose in his “last career match.”
Of course, he was back two months later, without having surgery, and as good as ever. What he also missed was WrestleMania, where he was going to lose to Hart, but the title match by that point was Undertaker beating Sid. Ratings were down and Vince at the time blamed it on pushing smaller guys, so he went with the big guys in the title match, and Mania that year did 237,000 buys. Of course, it also started the turnaround since the Hart vs. Austin I Quit match that turned Austin babyface was on that show.
In the discussion of Montreal, not one talking head was balanced. They were all the idea that Hart was going to leave without dropping the title, which was never the case. McMahon portrayed it as if he was doing Hart a favor and actually swerving Bischoff in allowing Hart to go. And McMahon was the catalyst when he told Hart to see if he could get the Bischoff deal. The simple part of the story is Hart was vocally negative about the direction of the company, and Hart and Michaels had gotten toxic.
Hart was also making $1.5 million a year, about double Undertaker and Michaels and even more than that compared to Austin. Times were still tough for WWF, although they were just starting to break even due to a change in PPV philosophy and upping the price. But at the time, McMahon felt that if Hart was around at $1.5 million a year, that Undertaker, Michaels and eventually Austin would want the same guarantee. McMahon also saw that Hart wasn’t the future. Whether at that point he thought the future was Michaels, or Austin, isn’t clear, although when he laid out booking scenarios to Hart if he were to stay, by that point it was clear he felt it was Austin. Hart got a better deal, even though he didn’t want it because he had no faith in WCW. In hindsight, he was right about that.
But they never mentioned that the contract gave Hart the power that in the last 30 days, it was not a boss/employee relationship, but a collaboration, the creative control clause was that both sides had to agree on all booking. This is where the Paul Heyman talking head of “Vince is the boss,” falls apart, because it was in the contract both had to agree. And it’s not like Heyman, in running a company, didn’t constantly have to negotiate finishes to his talent. That’s just how the business was in that era. It had its good and bad points. It was harder to book shows, but the superstars had an easier time staying larger than life because they protected themselves on finishes, particularly, on television.
Vince wanted Hart to lose the title in Montreal to Michaels. Hart wanted to lose to Austin in the U.S. Neither would agree. Lawyers were involved. They came up with one scenario after another to get Hart to lose to Michaels in Montreal, and he said that with the nature of the feud with Michaels, he was not going to go into Montreal without the belt and would lose the belt outside of Canada. He even agreed to lose to Steve Lombardi in Madison Square Garden, which was a week later. The part that Vince Russo in his talking head piece didn’t mention, and Paul Levesque of course didn’t mention, was that Vince came up with a solution, or at least he thought, where Hart would beat Michaels clean in Montreal and then Hart would drop it clean to Michaels at the following PPV. It was only after Michaels refused that scenario (Michaels never talked about it publicly until once, in an interview with Rob Feinstein, the question was thrown at him, he acted stunned, but admitted that it happened and that HHH insisted to him that he was not to lose to Hart).
At that point, Vince was in a bad position because he’d given Hart a scenario he’d agreed to, and then Michaels nixed it. Hart knew that, which only made him more adamant about not losing to Michaels. The compromise, and this was the scenario the night before that McMahon presented in the production meeting, and that Hart had agreed to, was that there would be a non-finish in Montreal, and on the next PPV, there would be a four-way with Michaels, Hart, Undertaker and Ken Shamrock. It would be an elimination match, so Hart would lose cleanly in his last night in, to either Undertaker or Shamrock. Hart had great respect for Undertaker, and Hart personally recruited Shamrock to WWF. The point being is that Hart considered Shamrock almost a protégé, since Shamrock even trained in Calgary for his WWF debut in Hart’s camp under Leo Burke and he’d have had no problems losing to either one on the way out. Given who the two were, that should have been obvious, but tensions were high and I don’t know that anybody was truly thinking straight. Whoever beat Hart for the fall would have then lost the final fall clean to Michaels. Vince gets Michaels as champion, which was important because Michaels was absolutely the best guy to hold the belt to drop it to Austin at Mania the next year, since Austin was surpassing both Hart and Michaels as the top guy by that time.
The main reason Hart had the problem with Michaels is that when Vince had first told Hart the long-term plan was to get the title to Michaels, which he didn’t oppose at first, and Hart told Michaels he was fine losing to him, Michaels came back and said he was happy he said it but that he wasn’t willing if asked, to return the favor. It’s hard to believe he said that, but he actually said it on two different occasions. This came shortly after Michaels had gotten the finish of the European title match with Davey Boy Smith changed in a U.K. match, as Smith was going to beat Michaels to retain his title. The office booked it that way largely to prove to the locker room Michaels would lose a big match because so many guys were mad, because Michaels had publicly talked in the locker room about how he doesn’t do jobs. Smith had then dedicated the match on television to his sister, who was dying of cancer. Then, the night of the show, they came to Smith and said that they were switching the title, with the idea of building a huge rematch on a U.K. only PPV early the next year where he’d beat Michaels. This came in the dressing room just before the match and he couldn’t even tell his sister beforehand that he was losing, and she did not take it well. I know this sounds silly today over a “fake” wrestling match but it was a different business then. You want to know how much heat Michaels had. In that period, there were two wrestlers I had to talk out of fighting with Michaels (neither of which was Hart, because he and I weren’t on speaking terms at that time), because I told them it wasn’t worth losing your job over, and both were guys who would have been fired in an instant for it. This was well before Hart was leaving.
Most champions of that era under those circumstances would have outright refused to drop the title to a guy who told them to their face twice that they wouldn’t return the favor if asked. Michaels, on the documentary, did say he crossed the line with the “Sunny Days” comment, which was a catalyst for a lot of problems. It was that comment that led to their backstage fight. Michaels, then single, now married, said if someone would have said that on TV about him, he’d have immediately punched them in the mouth.
Levesque’s comments from a 2007 interview were notable because there were all the outright falsehoods in the narrative, the idea Hart’s contract was to expire in Montreal and that he may have gone on Nitro the next day holding the belt if they didn’t beat him that night. He claimed Hart shouldn’t have just vacated the title. And he was right. Given the circumstances of the time, it was imperative to Vince that Hart lose the title in the ring. Hart and his lawyers suggested various options to do so. Not dropping the belt in the ring was never an issue in real life, only one created after the fact to justify the decision.
However, Hart did suggest not dropping the title in the ring hours before the match with Michaels, claiming so much had gotten out in the media, and just handing it over, as Michaels had done the prior February. McMahon agreed, although by that time he’d have agreed to anything Hart said because he was trying to get him to let his guard down. But the wheels were in motion and plan was in place before Hart made that suggestion. At the point the plan was in place, everyone was under the idea that the title change would be in Springfield. But there was a lot of uneasiness just because they were in a wrestling war and their champion had signed a contract with the opposition. Vince wanted it off him immediately and the pressure had caused everyone, from McMahon to Michaels to Hart, to end up at odds with each other. Hart was under contract for more than three weeks after the Montreal match. It only turned out to be his last match because after being double-crossed, he quit. Even though he didn’t come to his bookings the next three weeks, he got paid in full his last $85,000 or so that was still owed.
Bischoff had agreed to let Hart stay an extra week after his contract expired so Hart could drop the title on the following PPV, in Springfield, MA. There was an outstanding lawsuit and it had been established in one case (when Flair used the WCW belt on WWF television in 1991) and there was a legal action going on over a second case (Madusa throwing the WWF women’s belt in a garbage can) to where it was clear a title belt was the company’s intellectual property. There was no possible way at that point in time, that such a scenario could happen. He had a valid WWF contract and the belt was established in court cases as the intellectual property of the promotion, not the temporary property of the champion. Plus, if Hart was to be on Nitro the next day, why wasn’t he on Nitro the next day? If anything, what happened in Montreal should have made it more likely, not less likely, he’d show up there. Even 17 years later, people still use that story that could not have legally happened because if it could have, you think it wouldn’t have?
Even after the contract ended up breached in Montreal, it still didn’t happen, and at that point, you could at least make a legal argument it could have. The reason it didn’t was because he was under WWF contract for several more weeks. Hart didn’t even appear on Nitro until mid-December, even though the quicker he was on Nitro, the better it would have been to capitalize on the Montreal finish. As it played out, it did benefit Hart, except WCW totally dropped the ball on Hart and his value in the Canadian market.
But any study of the Montreal finish that ignores the contract, ignores Michaels refusing to put Hart over, and still pushes the idea that Hart could have showed up with the belt the next night on Nitro is not just showing a WWE bias but being completely dishonest. Vince McMahon was put in a tough situation and as fate would have it, the path he chose benefitted him in the long run, in ways nobody could have ever possibly figured ahead of time. But there were options, and creating the idea that there weren’t any wasn’t true.