In the last installment of our exploration of the weird and wonderful world of pro wrestling, we brought you the story of the sumo baby born from an egg, parented by the Great Muta and his erotic terrorist baby mama. While no one is having anything blown into their nether regions this time (you should really, really read that first article for context), it’s still…special, in the way that only pro wrestling can be.
Today we look at how the Montreal Screwjob – one of the most infamous matches in pro wrestling history – led to Shawn Michaels wrestling in a tag team match with God as his partner.
Yes, this is a real thing that happened in real life.
Where It All Began: The AmeriCanadian WrestleWars
Our journey doesn’t begin with a handful of shows leading up to Backlash 2006, but rather nine years before in the moose-filled country of my birth. Explaining things people have never heard of, or have simply chosen to forget is the easy part. Talking about something so synonymous with not just the players involved, but the whole of wrestling is another task entirely. But we’ll give an abridged version a go, and I’ll keep my maple leaf-drenched biases out of it (I won’t).
Back in 1997, Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997 tribute to the departed Princess Diana was No. 1 on the Billboard charts, but I’ll Be Missing You was heavily requested at my middle school’s monthly dance. It’s such a weird song for a bunch of 12-year-olds to dance to, but nothing better sums up the pubescent experience than, “I miss my dead rapper friend/husband and also Ma$e is around here somewhere,” I guess. But, of course, things that did not involve being subjected to various tracks from Mariah Carey’s Butterfly were happening. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels are two of the greatest wrestlers of all-time, and their feud is just as legendary as anything they’ve done individually. Like looking at pictures of The Undertaker in an airport, it’s a thing people never seem to get sick of, and the most important parts went down in that same year. In August 1997, Bret Hart won the WWF Championship at SummerSlam from The Undertaker after swearing that, if he did not win, he would never wrestle on American soil again. This was all part of an intense Canada vs. America feud because Canucks rule, Yanks drool, OWEN HART 4EVER. The build-up also included the In Your House: Canadian Stampede PPV, which I could probably write a few thousand words about on its own (please see 4EVER, OWEN HART). All of this was part of the transition in focus from Austin/Bret to Shawn/Bret: Austin would move into a program with Owen Hart, and we would then head back into Canada for Survivor Series.
While this was all happening onscreen, things we just as torrid behind the scenes. A week prior to Survivor Series, Bret Hart signed a contract with storied rival WCW. The tensions between Michaels and Bret extended well past what happened in the ring, causing Bret to outright refuse to drop the belt to Michaels during their main-event title match. But, as we all know, Bret wasn’t really given much of a choice. Vince McMahon, fearing another “Madusa” incident, was going to make sure that come hell or high water or Eric Bischoff, Bret was not leaving with the belt.
Years later, this whole thing is still a mess. There are many different versions to many different aspects of the story, just like any part of the nebulous oral history of pro wrestling. This one just features me still getting secretly pissy at Shawn Michaels humping the Canadian flag, and 20,000 Quebecois out for blood. Going into the pay-per-view, Hart was supposedly warned by both Vader and Davey Boy Smith that a screwjob was coming, having seen the same sorts of things during their time in Japan. An unusually large contingent of company agents were placed around the ring, which, you know, isn’t totally suspicious at all. There was supposedly also some concern about fans reacting violently towards Michaels because he had done super gross things to the Canadian flag, and Montreal doesn’t have a super great track record when it comes to non-violent reactions to sports stuff. It was also feared that, because the animosity between Shawn and Bret ran so deep, Bret could have reacted violently after the finish. Wrestlers may play at fighting, but you never, ever want to get for-real punched by one. Brian Cage unexpectedly put his gigantic hand on my shoulder once, and he may be the nicest dude, but that was terrifying enough, y’dig?
Sure enough, in front of a red-hot Montreal audience, the screwjob went down. Michaels had Bret locked into a Sharpshooter, and referee on record Earl Hebner called for the bell. The only problem? The bell was ringing as Bret was reaching for Michaels’ leg to break the hold, and not submitting. Michaels’ music hit, and the rest is 18 years of rumors, articles, books, documentaries, and a legacy that leaves everyone involved looking like an asshole.
So, now that we’ve firmly established that Owen Hart is the best, and the bad blood between Vince, Bret, and Shawn is more complicated than the casting process for Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video, how do we get from the the infancy of the Attitude Era to a sh*tty mid-aughts PPV?
My God, How Did We Get Here?
As I’m looking back at the build-ups and blow-offs and everything that was happening in 1997, I honestly can’t stop thinking about how much I love pro wrestling. It’s weird and dumb, and the storylines can be complicated and convoluted, and not always in a great way, but when you look at the simplicity of the motivating factors behind these stories, and then you watch people who are so technically gifted beautifully compliment and continue the storytelling through the physicality of wrestling, it makes you feel something deep down in your guts. Unless someone else knows that feeling, it’s nearly impossible to explain. I can watch Shawn Michaels rub a flag on his dick and be instantaneously livid 18 years later. I can watch Owen Hart do anything and be filled with such an immediate joy, and know that guy was truly something special. I can look at the Montreal Screwjob and acknowledge that everyone involved was a solid prick, but the act of making actual history is completely fascinating. The kind of reaction any of these things engender makes pro wrestling stand up against any other artform, and if that doesn’t make you emotional, I don’t know what will.
What happened in 2006 is… maybe not quite that.
While it may not elicit the same kinds of feelings, a lot of the reason I love writing this column is because it’s not those things. Wrestling can make you passionate and angry and give you these grand feelings, but it’s also super stupid the best way. Most of the time, what gets a match or a show or even an entire company (side-eyeing like five of them right now) down is trying to grab at all of those super serious concepts and forgetting that wrestling is fun. And sometimes, like in this case, wrestling just makes no damn sense. This may not culminate in a comedy match of epic proportions, but when you say it out loud, you have no choice but to follow it up with a good, guttural “uhhhh… what?”
In December of 2005, a day after Christmas (we lost the right to recognition of Boxing Day in the AmeriCanadian WrestleWars, remember), Vince McMahon took up the mic to promote the release of Bret’s first on-camera collaboration with WWE since 1997, The Bret Hart Story DVD. He did this by mentioning the DVD, and then praising Shawn Michaels for his role in the Montreal Screwjob. By now, Michaels had left behind his hard-partying, bad boy ways, clearly disappointing his fellow Christian brother Ma$e, who, despite his calling from God, remains a Bad Boy for life. Michaels took umbrage to this, saying that he was merely a loyal employee just doing his job. He was over it, and Vince McMahon should just let it go and move on. Vince admitted that he had screwed Bret Hart, adding ominously, “Shawn, do not make me screw you.”
In January, Shawn Michaels entered the 2006 Royal Rumble — or, “the Mysterio and Triple H lay in the corners for a while until Mysterio wins for his dead friend Eddie” Royal Rumble — in the 25th spot. Michaels was distracted when Vince McMahon’s music hit. As Vince came down the ramp, son Shane (not an official participant) attacked from behind and eliminated Michaels. This set up a match between Shane and Shawn on the rebooted version of Saturday Night’s Main-Event, wherein the McMahons reenacted the screwjob, with Vince calling for the bell while Shane had Shawn in a Sharpshooter (down by the seashore). You would think that their feud would have come to a head at WrestleMania 22, when Vince booked himself into a no holds barred match against Michaels. Despite interference from Shane and The Spirit Squad, Shawn and fans of alliteration everywhere came out the victors. The next night on Raw, Vince McMahon insisted that Michael’s win had to have been “an act of God.”
Here’s Where It Gets Weird
Logic dictates that Shawn Michaels defeating a trust-fund baby with a penchant for baseball jerseys, a squad of male cheerleaders, and the evil figurehead of a corporation who will do (and has done) everything he can to get his way would be the end of the argument. Pro Wrestling Logic dictates that if someone pulls off a miraculous win, well then by golly you better wrestle the God that made it happen. I… really shouldn’t have to tell you that this is where things get weird.
On the Heartbreak and Triumph DVD, Chris Jericho’s thoughts on the match are summed up pretty succinctly: “I think that was probably the dumbest match in the history of the WWE.” And it… well, it’s definitely up there. When you try to take things from the world of wrestling and break them down to their very basics, not a lot of it translates into any sensical thought. In this case, we start out with “an old man aggressively instructs a beam of light to get jiggy with it.” If we hadn’t already gone off the rails before, that sentence is the wide shot that shows said train plummeting into a gorge.
The match itself was another no holds barred match, this time with Shane and Vince tagging against Shawn Michaels and God. If you ever feel bad about the placement of your favorite wrestler on a WWE card, remember that not even God himself could get into the main-event.
Personally, my favorite part of the match is the dude front row in a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. football jersey:
I mean, what’s more American than watching a pro wrestling match that involves God while wearing the red, white, and black of No. 8?
Shawn fought valiantly, but that darn numbers game got the best of him. Though he had a spotlight representing his creator on his side, Vince had Shane, KENNY! JOHNNY! MITCH! NICKY! and MIKEY! on his. The Spirit Squad put Michaels through a table, and a maniacal-looking Vince pinned Shawn for the win.
God is dead in the hearts of modern men, killed by Vince McMahon.
I mean, okay. Just for a second, imagine the kinds of conversations Vince McMahon has had in his life. He wakes up in his old man mansion, goes downstairs, and sits at the breakfast table with Linda. “What are you going to do today, dear?” she asks, never looking up from her copy of Women’s Republican Weekly. “Well!” Vince says, “I think I’m gonna go over on God today.” “That’s nice, dear,” says Linda, enraptured in an article entitled “Barbara Bush Haircuts For The Modern Day Woman.” “Just don’t forget, we have lunch with the Crestwells at the club on Wednesday when you get back from Toledo.”
I guess it could be said that there was a lot of WWE BACKLASH after this show. I mean, Vince literally said he beat God. There are a few things I’ve learned about America in this post-wrestlewar era: Arnold Palmer Pink Lemonade Half & Half is one of the greatest American contributions of this or any century, Old Glory Zubaz is The Best Zubaz, and you don’t mess with Texas, finite regional opinions on BBQ, or someone’s belief a Christian god. Shawn, perhaps one of the most outspoken wrestlers when it comes to religion, didn’t take any offense, however. In an interview with Newsday back in February of this year, he said:
…it never really bothered me. I guess, from my standpoint, it was so far over the top that it was absurd. I laugh at a lot of stuff. Humor and joy are a big part of our life. We, as a family, laugh a lot. We have a lot of fun. We poke fun at each other a lot. There were a lot of people who were offended by it. I’d never argue with people who thought it was stupid. Of course it was stupid. I’d also argue that there’s a lot of stuff in wrestling that we’d consider stupid. It can be a pretty silly job. I get it from the Christian standpoint. It’s one of those things that I still get in trouble from what I’d consider some purists or hoity toity Christians. But then there were others who thought just the fact that we were talking about it was pretty amazing. Who’da thunk it? I chose to look at it from that perspective.
I like that. I mean, I’d be pretty surprised if a dude who married a lady named Whisper thought something he was involved in was just too silly.
Now, show of hands: Who wants to go watch some Owen matches?