When I was a little kid, I loved wrestling for the facade. It was purely about whether this guy could beat up that guy and my love for this personality and my hatred of that one and how I wished that someone, anyone, would finally put Hulk Hogan in his place. Sigh.
Like many kids, I fell out of the habit as I left high school and entered college. It wasn’t out of distaste or anything… it’s just that the four color wrestling world didn’t really gel for me anymore. Comics were doing all sorts of wild things (Carnage, and the 2099 universe, and Azrael, and Next Men, and Image, and Vertigo, and and and) and pro wrestling was doing the same old same old. Hulk Hogan was also getting on my nerves.
College came and went and I was visiting a friend on a Monday night for a spaghetti dinner a couple of Mondays after the events depicted here in the documentary Wrestling With Shadows.
This documentary is really, seriously, something quite special.
In 1996, a small Canadian documentary company asked Bret Hart if they could follow him for a year. He was the quintessential Canadian wrestler and if there were going to be a Heritage Moment for wrestling, it would have to be about Bret. Well, at the time in wrestling, there was a lot of turmoil. WCW was winning the so-called “Monday Night War” in the wrestling ratings, they had a bottomless pocketbook with which they were more than willing to hire any and every single wrestler with whom they could get even better ratings (and, barring that, those that the WWF and Vince could use to get better ratings). Bret Hart was doing his best to be a good family man and provide a good family product while, at the same time, the WWF was going in an “edgy” direction.
Additionally, he was being asked to partake in a particularly offensive storyline… not necessarily because of its content, but because of the fans. In the past, if you wanted to get easy cheers, you’d have a guy walk down to the ring with an American flag and have him beat up a guy who just sang the Soviet National Anthem. Fun for the whole family, right?
Well, the wall had come down. The Cold War was won.
And Bret was asked to partake in a Canada vs. the US feud.
It is amazing how eagerly the audience on both sides of the border were willing to engage in cheers for their own particular country… guilt that may have been there for the jingoistic matches against Russia or Iraq was *NOWHERE* to be seen when it came to a match against Canada.
Bret would give a short speech talking about how the United States doesn’t care about its poor or its elderly and how he was proud to come from a country that did and does and the *BOOS* blew the roof off of the joint… and, two nights later, when they were in Montreal instead of NYC or Windsor instead of Detroit or British Columbia instead of Oregon and he’d get a standing ovation. Meanwhile, the guy he was fighting in the US would get cheers to drown out a nuclear explosion on this side of the border, and booed out the building on that side of it. For the exact same speech given by both fellows with the same emphasis, cadence, and pauses.
It was uncanny.
It also made Bret quite uncomfortable.
Well, there was much back and forth about contracts, much back and forth about money, and loyalty, and expectations… and Vince finally asked Bret to take the money that WCW was offering.
This meant, however, that Bret had to drop the title. This by itself was no big deal but Bret’s last night was taking place in Montreal. Bret would have to drop the title in Montreal… and the person they wanted Bret to drop the title to in Montreal was the one person that Bret hated more (seriously! in real life hated!) than anyone else on the planet. Bret was being asked to drop the belt to his most hated enemy in Montreal.
Bret did not want to do this. Anybody else, he said. Or anywhere else. But not like this.
This resulted in The Montreal Screwjob.
Shawn put Bret in a Sharpshooter, the ref said to ring the bell because Bret tapped out… and then everybody got the heck out of there.
Meanwhile, this little Canadian documentary company that everybody had forgotten about still had the same access it enjoyed for the last year and watched everything unravel in the ring, and backstage, and everywhere.
It was the aftermath of this magnificent catastrophe that got me to start watching wrestling on a regular basis again. Not the facade… but the fact that, on one level, wrestling was very, very real indeed.
Check out the documentary. Even if you don’t like wrestling, you will be entranced.
So that’s my recommendation for you this week.
And it took many, many years for Bret and Vince to reconcile.
It’s also available on NetFlix instant watch. I know what I’m watching tonight.
So I just finished watching. I know the conspiracy swirls around who was in on the screw job and who wasn’t. Were Michaels, HHH, and the ref all in on it?
Did you see how fast Michaels left the ring? There was no shocked moment. Just, poof, gone. He knew.
Michaels sat on the apron with a confused look on his face before grabbing the belt and running, but he could have been acting, of course.
I knew a bit of the story going in thanks to y’all, but the part that got me was back in the dressing room. Brett asked Michaels to his face if he knew, and Michaels denied everything. Wow.
So HHH wasn’t in on it?
HHH wasn’t exactly a big fish around then.
“The Clique” was composed of Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels, and HHH.
A few months prior, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had a tag team match against Shawn Michaels and HHH in Madison Square Garden. It was their last match before Kevin Nash and Scott Hall jumped to WCW. After the match, all four friends hugged (still in the ring) and savored the moment (the WWF, you see, had an exclusive contract with MSG… Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had reason to believe that they’d never wrestle in MSG ever again).
This broke kayfabe.
It also may have ticked Vince off that big Kev and big Scott were jumping ship… but the official reason that the back office was ticked was that it broke kayfabe.
Nash and Hall were gone. Shawn Michaels was the long pole in the tent.
There was no one left to punish but HHH.
HHH was still in the doghouse when this happened. He *MAY* have known about it, but only because he was Shawn’s best friend. He didn’t know about it operationally.
Earl was in on it. Michaels was in on it.
For the 12 years that followed, each of them got “you screwed Bret!” chants wherever they went.
(Earl gave our section the finger once!)
That was a great moment when Earl did that. Made me smile.
I was about to put together some of my thoughts on this, when it occurred to me:
This meant, however, that Bret had to drop the title.
This is a title he earned by “winning” scripted matches, right?
Live by the script…
(Very interested in reading the thoughts, for the record)
One way to put this in a way that non-wrestling people ‘get’ it.
Imagine you’re a top salesman at your company. Now, you’ve gotten an offer so great from the other big company in your field that’s so lucrative even the CEO of your company says, “take it.”
But, he wants you to basically endorse the #2 salesman as the new top guy. However, you think the guy is an asshole who has almost ruined the sales department with his cronies and isn’t even a moral person.
However, you’re perfectly willing to endorse another guy as the head of the sales department. You understand you’ve got to do this so people don’t see you leaving the company as a sign it’s a sinking ship. But, the CEO really really wants you to endorse this new guy, despite the fact you believe it would make you look like somebody who has turned his back on his values.
Thus, the problem.
OK, this does clarify what JB meant by “The title was no big deal, but its recipient was.” Thanks.
So, two musings.
First, there is a whole set of things I enjoy being told about more than I enjoy experiencing for myself. For instance, the novels of C.J. Cherryh. People have explained to me all the subtext about determinism vs., free will and what it means to be human, and it’s great stuff that makes me want to try it. Then I open one up, and the situation is dreadful and claustrophobic, and the protagonist has the depression and paranoia you get from going three weeks without sleep, and lots of random shit is happening, all of it bad, and the only relief from the tension is a few scenes of really brutal violence. I think “This sounded much better in capsule form.”
Second, trappings. My Dad would have loved the Beatles, if he had ever gotten past their having long hair and dressing funny. And being a lot louder than pop music was supposed to be. I’m the same way with comic books. There may be some really great writing there, but it’s about guys in costumes having fistfights with other guys in costumes, most of whom have really silly super-powers. I’m not saying it’s all crap, I’m saying that for me, I’m not going to get past the trappings.
When I’ve seen wrestling on TV (because the kids were watching it), it’s guys in costumes emoting to the back row about how mad they are at their opponent. Or it’s two of them in a ring, pretending to beat the crap out of each other in ways that would lead to instant death (or at least crippling.) I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I’m not going to get past the surfaces. So thanks for explaining to me about the Screw Job; I would never have gotten there on my own.
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