On Nov. 9, 1997, the professional wrestling industry changed forever.
In the midst of the most heated days of the "Monday Night Wars" between World Wrestling Entertainment (then the WWF) and World Championship Wrestling, money and contract issues led Bret Hart and Vince McMahon to an impasse. McMahon needed to get the title off of Hart before he left for WCW, and Hart refused to lose the title to Shawn Michaels, his most bitter rival, in front of a pay-per-view crowd in Montreal, feeling that a loss in such a Canadian stronghold would be devastating for his on-screen persona.
In the lead-up to Survivor Series, there were several different ideas thrown around as solutions. Hart suggested he could instead lose to Steve Austin, or perhaps drop the title to Michaels at a live event in Detroit the night before. But once it became clear that they couldn't come to terms on a solution, the wheels were set in motion for a moment that would forever alter two companies, countless wrestlers' careers and, ultimately, set the WWE on a path toward becoming a multibillion-dollar brand.
- WWE (@WWE) November 9, 2017
From the moment that the "Montreal Screwjob" occurred, anyone tangentially involved with the industry, plus the millions of fans around the world, have wondered how it all went down. The documentary "Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows" allowed for an overwhelming amount of information from Hart's perspective, and Hart, McMahon and Michaels have each done numerous interviews throughout the years.
The story changed when it finally came out that Michaels, Triple H and a handful of others were fully in on the plan to execute the cloak-and-dagger title change in front of millions. Over the course of 20 years, details have slowly trickled out. Michaels and Hart even had an in-ring reunion in 2010, and did a two-hour sit-down interview with Jim Ross in 2011.
So, 20 years after the "Montreal Screwjob," what comes to mind when Michaels, the man who had to ultimately execute the Sharpshooter and the plan to blindside Hart, thinks back to that fateful night?
"I just recall, up to that point, there being big scuttlebutt all over like 'Dun dun dun -- what's going to happen with Bret leaving?'" Michaels said to ESPN.com, recalling the lead-up to Survivor Series 1997. "And then of course was, I guess, an infamous phone call between myself and Hunter and Vince -- I want to say it was just the week before.
"There was certainly no talk of it, for me, one way or another, until that phone call the week before Survivor Series."
The call, in which the notion of a secret finish to the match that would get the title off of Hart despite him, was the moment when it all became very real for Michaels. By the night before Survivor Series, barring a complete change of heart from Hart, it was as good as done.
After years of being bitter on-screen rivals, and establishing growing tensions backstage, Hart's reluctance to lose had just as much to do with his feeling no respect from Michaels as it did with him losing in Montreal. But once the idea of a referee bump, a melee and either a disqualification or a no-contest outcome was ostensibly agreed upon by everyone, including Hart, there was still the matter of putting the actual match together.
"[It was] probably the most uncomfortable day I've ever had in the wrestling business," Michaels said of having to sit with Hart and plot out the match before the show began. "By the time the day comes, the decision has been made. But no one knows how it's going to get done until Bret and I sit down to start discussing the match -- none of this can actually go into play until we do that. And so it was just an uncomfortable day knowing what you know, [how others] assume it's going to happen, and then you having to be the one to orchestrate it all."
"From a professional standpoint, reputation standpoint, even though I wasn't the most lovable guy back then, it was still just an absolute miserable day, [a] very uncomfortable day." Shawn Michaels
Even in his state of mind and attitude in that stage of his career, which Michaels has been quick to admit was not a pleasant thing for others to deal with at that point, he realized how much of the burden and the blame would fall on his shoulders no matter what McMahon ultimately told the rest of the locker room happened in the aftermath.
"It's one thing to make the decision to do this. It's a whole 'nother thing to actually have to be the person to make it happen and not have any idea about how you're going to go about doing that. And then, even if you are successful, it's absolutely going to be the worst thing that could ever happen to you," Michaels said. "From a professional standpoint, reputation standpoint, even though I wasn't the most lovable guy back then, it was still just an absolute miserable day, [a] very uncomfortable day."
Setting up the match, and then being able to set up the moment of betrayal within it, became even more complicated when Hart showed up to Montreal's Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre) just a few hours before Survivor Series was set to begin.
"Bret came later than usual, and so the process of being able to find out what in heaven's name was going to happen, or how we were going to do this was prolonged even longer because [we didn't know what was] going to happen until he and I sat down."
Michaels, Hart and producer Pat Patterson sat down and set up the match as planned, and then, after the proposal was run by McMahon, a few select players came up with the real plan. After referee Earl Hebner was knocked down, Michaels was supposed to slap on the sharpshooter, a second referee was supposed to come down, and then the Hart Family and D-Generation X were supposed to follow with a melee ensuing.
Instead, Hebner would slowly rise to his feet as Michaels applied the sharpshooter, Hart's signature finishing move, and the moment Michaels locked the move in, Hebner would call for the bell.
But before any of that could happen, there was still more than 10 minutes of a match that had to go down.
"It's sort of a surreal moment," Michaels said. "You made the decision, you've got everything set, and there's still a wrestling match. So you're out there doing your thing, which is again an unbelievably athletic, tough performance -- entertainment and being in character, and things of that nature. And then on top of that, on top of already concealing who you really are in just doing your job, you have to conceal from the person you're working with any hint of what may or may not happen."
The scenario played out exactly as planned and the title changed hands, but the moment the bell rang there was a whole new set of problems to deal with. It didn't take Hart long to figure out what happened and, because of how McMahon wanted everything to play out, Michaels had to play along and act just as shocked as everyone else.
McMahon and a lot of WWE brass were all ringside, soon thereafter joined by Triple H. As the pay-per-view broadcast quickly went off the air, the timeline picks up in "Wrestling with Shadows" as Owen Hart and Jim Neidhart stood alongside Bret in the ring.
Michaels had a brief interaction with Hart backstage, in which he claimed he had "no f---ing idea" what was coming, and then he and Triple H quickly left the building. While McMahon was ultimately the one who received a punch from Hart, Michaels was ready to face the music if Bret, Owen, Neidhart, the British Bulldog or anyone else decided he had it coming.
"You don't go into something like that not understanding [the consequences]," Michaels said. "You may end up having to fight your way out of the building, or getting in a couple fights, or who knows. But one of the biggest things in the wrestling business is when you go out there with guys, you're trusting one another with your bodies.
"With all the differences Bret and I had, they never made their way into the ring. And so -- believe it or not -- that, more than anything, was the thing. Even though you're asked to do it, being obedient to your boss, it isn't fun. Pain, or getting in a fight, or getting beat up, that stuff heals eventually.
"It would've been a lot easier, honestly, to be able to say, 'Yeah, I knew and I did it,' and face whatever happened," Michaels said. "Because at least then, it'd be out in the open and whatever needed to happen would happen right there and then."
Once the adrenaline had worn off and he sat there with Triple H, the scope of the moment finally started to sink in.
"Honestly, the thing that I recall most is in the hotel room afterward, with Hunter, just sort of sitting there and taking in," recalled Michaels. "Having the time to finally slow down and take in what actually happened. Lots of people talk a lot of big stuff in the wrestling business, and 99.9 percent of it never happens. And it's a good thing that it doesn't happen, by the way.
"But this one did happen, and I was right smack dab in the middle of it," Michaels continued. "That just isn't the kind of attention and focus one desires. It just isn't a real enjoyable moment to be part of the absolutely most infamous thing in wrestling. The absolute biggest thing ever in the wrestling business just went down and, holy cow, I can hardly imagine the impact, and the freefall, and the consequences of what's going to happen tomorrow."
For Hart, his WWF career was over. He'd eventually go on to WCW, where he enjoyed some early success, but ultimately had his career cut short after an injury at the hands of Goldberg. Michaels, on the other hand, had to walk through the curtain the next night in front of a Canadian crowd for "Monday Night Raw" the next night.
"You don't go into something like that not understanding [the consequences]. You may end up having to fight your way out of the building, or getting in a couple fights, or who knows." Shawn Michaels
He didn't know what to expect from the locker room, especially those who were close to Bret. McMahon ultimately took all the heat upon himself, which helped create the Mr. McMahon on-screen persona that played a big part in driving some of the biggest rivalries the company would have in the ensuing years.
"Mostly, most people came up and just said, 'That was between you and Bret. Doesn't concern me, and so we're fine going forward.'"
But still, there was at least a little bit of lingering doubt as to what would happen when the cameras went live.
"The biggest thing of that night was knowing that I was going to have to wrestle Ken Shamrock," Michaels said. "Ken was a heavy duty UFC dude and a friend of Bret's. And that was one of the things that I thought, 'Oh my goodness.' If that big son of a gun gets a hold of me there's not much I can do about it. It's going to be a long and enduring punishment at his hands."
There would be lingering moments of awkwardness, both on TV and behind the scenes, but WWF would, by and large, get back to business as usual.
"By the time I went out there it was just about taking that moment and making sure you continue to rise," Michaels said. "You knew it was arguably the most impactful thing that had gone on in the wrestling business, so at that point, you go out there and you capitalize on what just happened.
"That was me just going out there and tactfully trying to do the best job I could. And of course, when you're the bad guy and you've pulled one over on everybody, it was clearly why it was so thick with arrogance and cockiness, and everything else, [and the crowd showed such] disdain. But that's what my role was at the time."
Both Michaels and McMahon turned the infamous moment into a big net positive, at least outside of Canada, and the next couple of months were as good as things would get for Michaels in particular.
"Being the guy that came out on the other end of it, certainly from a television perspective, smelling like a rose, everything, in my opinion, fell into place right then and there."
But even coming off of such a monumental moment, Michaels' career would be derailed in the coming months as well. A devastating back injury during a casket match against The Undertaker at that January's Royal Rumble nearly ended his career entirely, and after just one more match -- his WrestleMania clash with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin -- Michaels stepped away for five years.
There are some regrets about the Montreal Screwjob that linger to this day, and while Michaels still feels he did what had to be done on that night, the moments that happened afterward are the main part of the equation he'd go back and change, given the chance.
"Quite honestly, it was the having to conceal it for all those years that was truthfully, the most uncomfortable for me, personally," Michaels said. "And I think [that's true] for everybody involved.
"I enjoyed darn near every day I was at work for 25 years doing that job, and that certainly was the worst day I can recall in the entire 25 years I was in the wrestling business," Michaels said. "I probably aged more in that one day than I did in the [rest of that] 25 years. And again, you wonder, but nothing really prepares you for how big that moment is, or actually doing it."