Did Vince McMahon deceive his biggest star into signing a contract in 1996 so he could destroy him in 1997?
1997 for the WWF was what many call desperation times. On the STW podcast, Bruce Prichard has said the company had to take out loans in order to pay its bills. If this is true, and he would know, a company must cut its expenses and run “thin.” This is business 101.
Now, what was the most expensive bill the WWF had to pay each month? It would be the labor costs for Bret, “The Hitman,” Hart – the biggest Canadian wrestling star in history, one of the biggest Canadian icons in history, and going into 1997, one of the biggest stars in the world. At $1,500,000 per year, Bret forced Vince McMahon to give him a hefty fee during a tense 1996 contract negotiation. Bret had the leverage to get this, though.
• WCW offered him $3.2 million a year.
• Scott Hall and Kevin Nash both had left at the beginning of the year. It began the nWo and WCW was ahead in the ratings largely due to two WWF stars jumping ship.
• Unlike Hall and Nash, Bret would get to keep his name AND his nickname, The Hitman. It’s his real name and he had registered the trademark on the nickname.
• Also unlike Hall, and to a lesser degree Nash, Hart was second only to Hulk Hogan in star power at this time. It’s arguable in the US, but not when you also consider international appeal.
Bret would have made an impact in 1996 WCW. But Vince offered him an absurd 20-year-deal. He would wrestle for several years at $1.5M – double the next highest paid contracts ($750K for Undertaker and Shawn Michaels).
Then, Bret would take a pay cut and do more backstage. Eventually, he would have been similar to the Gorilla Monsoon role in the backstage. For those who don’t know, Monsoon wrestled and then was an executive for Vince, in addition to being on-air in non-wrestling. Bret showed loyalty to Vince and took the deal. Vince would inarguably exploit this weakness to great lengths, as you’ll see in this article, before he informed Bret he would not be able to meet his deal.
I don’t know what McMahon’s intentions were in late 1996. They may have been good. He may have signed the deal planning for Bret to be around for the next two decades (which would have ended in 2017).
But that never happened.
Instead, a slow-burn heel turn began in late 96 for Bret. It was Vince’s idea, Bret has said in interviews.
Think about this for a second. Of all the successful top babyfaces in WWF/E over the years, how many has Vince been willing to turn heel?
•Refused to turn Hogan
•Refused to turn Cena
•Refused to turn Reigns
•Turned Austin in 2001 to avoid turning Rock. Began phasing Austin out.
•Turned HBK in 1997, but HBK wasn’t getting over as a baby face and was naturally a heel. He screwed up after shenanigans with his smile, which cost Vince his Mania main event: HBK Bret 2.
When Vince believes in his top baby face, he will NOT turn them – even if the audience boos them to death. Sometime after Survivor Series 96, Vince McMahon went sour on Bret. Or…he was sour on him all along and brought him back to big fanfare to lull him into a false sense of security so Vince could begin systemically destroying The Hitman before WCW could get him.
At first, The Hitman upon return at Survivor Series 96 from New York, became the foil of Stone Cold Steve Austin. But slowly, Austin would be the one emerging in heroic fashion. Not only this, but Bret began complaining on the air in a very salty fashion. After he lost at In Your House: It’s Time, Bret started really complaining. Fans didn’t like that but like a friend we’ve known for years who just so happened to have a bad day, most of the audience looked past it.
The Hitman would be set to win the Royal Rumble 97, but by cheating, Austin won. This gave the Hitman a legitimate gripe. His griping continued.
In the build to IYH: Final Four, champion HBK lost his smile. HBK was set to battle Hart at Mania 13, according to every source I’ve found. It’s been said Bret would have won, setting up the rubber match for Bret to lose. Because Shawn had an issue losing and seemed to truly balk, losing Vince’s faith as his top baby face btw, he surrendered the belt. Bret wound up winning the world title at IYH. All evidence supports HBK’s issues being taken at face value (no secret plans).
Bret loses the belt the next night on Raw. Not only that, but he goes off afterward and shoves Vince down in what appeared to be real for many watching (it wasn’t). He insisted that everyone in the goddamn dressing room knew he was best. He continues this unattractive complaining campaign which, by now, has been going for two or three months. Many fans take the bait and turn on him while embracing heel Austin – who is very likable.
Bret would defeat Austin in the greatest Wrestlemania match in history, in this writer’s opinion. Instead of winning valiantly, Bret made Austin pass out. Because he didn’t get his way, and make Austin quit, Bret began attacking the unconscious hero. Ken Shamrock suplexes Bret and Bret then retreats from Shamrock. Adding Shamrock to this moment solidified the heel turn for Bret.
But this wasn’t far enough.
From there, Bret turned on America. He would flip off fans, talk some serious trash about social issues in the States, and wasn’t exactly observing etiquette with the flag.
“You American wrestling fans coast to coast, you don’t respect me. Well the fact is, I don’t respect you. So from here on in, the American wrestling fans – coast to coast – can kiss my ass.” – Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Raw
This is deep heat. It’s not like the people who hated him for saying that went to work to joke about it. He really was insulting America. Bret won matches as a heel – but he won them in ways which made him look like shit and his opponents look great. That’s not uncommon for a heel. It is uncommon for a heel to snap an American flag pole in half and choke the defeated opponent with Old Glory.
During the summer of 97, Bret took a brief hiatus from wrestling to have knee surgery. He continued working with both HBK and Stone Cold and he reformed the Hart Foundation as a heel stable bent on the destruction of America.
Bret would return and eventually, have one of the greatest ovations of all time at IYH: Canadian Stampede. Owen would get the win in the match. Bret would go on to screw the Undertaker out of the title at Summerslam 97. It might seem like a positive but this was all an accumulation of heat being built on Bret to unload/transfer to someone else. Someone who cost half as much and was eight years younger – HBK.
At One Night Stand, HBK took the European belt off of the British Bulldog. Some say this was a last minute change but DX, calling themselves the “Triple Threat,” attacked Bulldog’s knee the previous week on Raw. That same knee was what caused Bulldog to lose. Many have blamed Shawn for throwing a fit and demanding to win that evening but the build shows deliberate efforts to move that direction. Did HBK get the heat for a premeditated booking decision by Vince?
Bret tells DX the week after MSG they’ll pay for crimes against the Hart Foundation. They mock him and no sell the entire interview. One might say that was “just DX,” but this was basically breaking character at the time and going into business for themselves. They were not reprimanded but were given carte blanche to do as they wished with regard to burying the Harts.
Others seemed to miraculously develop a similar freedom/boldness during the next few months.
“The best there is. The best there was. The best there ever will be. Ain’t that a bunch of bullshit?” Vader, IYH: Badd Blood.
Shawn’s burial of Hart in the weeks leading to Survivor Series is brutal. It gets attributed to him doing the DX stuff but I don’t think that’s what this was. Vince, mostly through Shawn, was doing all he could on air to degrade Bret. That’s where the term “Degenerate” came from. Bret called him a degenerate. Bret also calls HHH and HBK “homos,” and has claimed this was a scripted line which was fed to him. You have to wonder who benefits from giving him this line.
On the October 6 Raw, Bret loses to HHH (via count out. I seem to recall plans being different, initially). Chyna interferes and he almost hits her after blocking a punch, but Bret is leveled by Sweet Chin Music (it barely makes contact. HBK didn’t want to push it). This moment will be shown the following week to insinuate Bret beats women.
On October 13, Vince asks Bret about the loss in the opening interview and ignores the count out part.
“Let’s face it you can’t be happy with last week’s loss to Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Would you care to comment on what has happened as of late?” – Vince McMahon
Bret isn’t given a chance to respond. HBK and HHH come on the titantron.
“Oh, hold on. That’s right. We would love to comment on what happened to the Hitman last week. Now before the Hitman puts a sleeper hold on this crowd and puts them all to sleep, we would love to tell the Hitman: I know you’re getting old. I know you’re jerking the curtain – laughs – on my cards. At SS, I know we’re going to be in your neck of the woods…”
Shawn introduces the video of him picking his nose with the Canadian flag. Then, HHH tells Bret he beat him so bad last week, his hands still hurt. Hunter and Shawn, together, say everyone is better than Bret, everyone is younger than Bret, and that HHH has a bigger penis than Bret. The burial here gets so bad, Neidhart looks at Bret, as if to suggest, “Are you really going to take all of this?”
At 6:30 into the show, Bret gets the microphone for the first time by grabbing it from Vince. His lines seem unscripted here. He calls them out to fight and they both say they’ve beaten Bret before. Bret barely gets another word before the match with the Nation begins. The Nation beats Bret up and Vince suggests Bret will get some revenge tonight. He does not.
On October 20, the most racist incident in WWE history happens. The Nation’s locker room is vandalized with graffiti showing racist characters, KFC, Malcom X, watermelons, etc. Also in the locker room? Canadian flags.
I knew Bret Hart was a lot of things but I didn’t know he was a racist. – Shawn Michaels
On October 27, the burial continues with the Nation opening the show. JR says there is speculation the Hart Foundation did this (the previous week’s “vandalism.” Bret comes out and his opening words?
“First of all…brothers,” Hitman says. He hesitates before saying brothers – a line he seemed to remember being instructed to use but had trepidation about.
“Brothers?” Vince mumbles on commentary.
A subtle moment but very interesting because of several reasons. For one, the implication is strong that Bret Hart is a racist going into this interview segment. When Bret uses the word, “brothers,” Vince reacts in a way to draw negative attention to it from the audience. But Bret can’t hear this and unless he went home and watched the show again, he will never hear it.
Finally, Bret says this is all caused by HBK and HHH. It’s the first on-air speculation that DX set up the Hart’s. HBK comes on the screen and calls Bret the “Grand Wizard” twice. Hunter says he knows Bret would rather be wearing sheets instead of his leather jacket. He calls Bret a racist and says Bret used the N word.
This isn’t just building to a pay-per-view event. This is character assassination. It’s subtly done each week and as you can tell, we’ve gone from mild complaining to him trashing America to him now being a homophobe, a racist, and the like.
As we near Montreal’s Survivor Series, let us first review how we got here in brief:
In Your House – Bret loses to Sid
Royal Rumble – Bret loses to Austin, throws tantrum
IYH Final Four – Bret wins the title (1 day)
Wrestlemania 13 – Bret barely beats Austin, doesn’t make him submit, and turns heel, beat up by referee
IYH: Revenge – Bret loses to Austin via DQ.
IYH: Cold Day – Austin loses because Bret interferes
King of the Ring – Bret interview (injury)
IYH: Stampede – In Canada, with constant reminders on commentary, Bret is worshiped by the crowd.
Summerslam – Bret screws Undertaker our of the WWF belt
IYH: Ground Zero – Bret submits the Patriot, who never taps. He breaks the flag and chokes him after. Undercard
IYH: Bad Blood – Bret and Bulldog win a flag match, undercard.
Survivor Series – Bret is supposed to lose the belt to Shawn in Montreal.
Stories in WWF are surrounding big points of significance. Those are usually at PPVs. Even when Bret won, he lost, in every single PPV match after he signed EXCEPT Survivor Series 96, when he pinned Austin in a hard fought match. His wins over The Patriot were more like wins over America (the audience).
Now. If you are about to spend 20 years with a piece of talent, who is the biggest baby face in the world (Hogan was heel by then), why would you spend the entire first year irreparably destroying them?
The only answer possible is because Vince knew he was eventually letting Bret go to WCW and needed to lessen his value before he did.
One detail which makes the case for this is how little of an impact, by everyone’s admission, Bret made when leaving in 1997. He came in as a babyface but no one really liked him because WCW’s prime audience is The South. That’s where they were heavily based (JCP). The South is patriotic. Had Bret left in 1996, even if WCW turned him heel and joined the nWo, his heel turn would have made headlines vs. being a slow burn over the course of four or so months.
If Vince upfront told Bret “I want to sign you for one year and destroy your earning potential in this business,” Bret would have walked.
Character-wise, Bret was still too valuable in 96. He was no where near as valuable by September, 1997 – when Vince informed Bret he was going to breach his contract. He wanted him to go back to WCW and try to get the same deal. Bret got something like $2.8 million a year for three years, this time, and he took it.
Vince’s plan was now complete. Bret had become nuclear-level hated in the states. WCW couldn’t heel-turn him for shock, like with Hogan. WCW could never market him as a baby. He was a valuable star – but he didn’t have a valuable direction (WCW even tried having him apologize once. Didn’t work at all).
Vince just needed Bret to do one last piece of business. Vince needed to kill The Hitman in Canada. If he didn’t, Bret would still be a huge star there. He also needed to kill his heat. So, the plan was for Bret to lose the WWF title to heel-HBK in Montreal. Heels never lose big titles to heels. It’s a terminator for their heat, because heels have to be cowardly. When a bad ass beats them, we expect it. But when someone else cowardly beats them? Ouch.
There was one big issue with this:
In his new contract, Bret had “reasonable creative control” for the final 30 days with the company, should he ever leave. And why did he have this? So he wouldn’t be buried on the way out, losing value in the character he invested his life into.
“I was proud of that Hitman character,” said Bret Hart in Wrestling with Shadows.
Bret refused to lose to HBK. Ironically, it may have been personal differences between Shawn and Bret that made him do this but it was Bret who was thwarting Vince in the attempted assassination of his character.
“From a character standpoint, that’s what he would do. Bret The Hitman Hart would blow his brains out.” – Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Wrestling with Shadows
As captured on secret audio recording in the Wrestling With Shadows documentary, Vince agreed with Bret to let the match end in a double disqualification. A “schmoz.” But that was a lie. Because, despite signing a legal document agreeing to give Bret creative control on how he left the company, McMahon intended to betray his word in both writing and vocally in order to kill the Hitman character in Canada. He had to kill him there so Canada wouldn’t be so loyal to him while also neutralizing the desire to see America get its comeuppance for his trash talk.
So as it has been documented, everyone knew Bret was getting screwed except Bret. HHH, HBK, the creative team, and probably more people than we even know now. It’s not certain when, but there’s an interesting thing to me. In Bret’s last PPV title defense before the screwjob, at Ground Zero, he beats The Patriot by doing a move where he got put in the sharpshooter, then reverses it – the same spot that HBK did when Vince ended the Montreal match. They did a spot with Vader at Badd Blood putting in the sharpshooter, too. Were these to get him comfortable with the Sharpshooter spot?
Whatever the case, Bret sabotaged Vince’s first plan so Vince switched to plan B: screw him. On PPV, the referee would signal that Bret submitted in the Sharpshooter, his own hold, to his heel nemesis in his home country. On TV, everyone would think it happened and to hell with the live crowd. It wasn’t as good as Bret agreeing to kill his character but if it worked well, the end result would be the same.
Vince executed the plan – and it fell apart from the second it happened for several reasons.
• Bret Hart stood up and no sold, killing the impression he was hurt
• Then, Bret spit in Vince’s face.
• Shawn was too afraid of Bret to go along with it and acted like he didn’t know what happened to Vince!
• Vince had been outed as the owner in the month’s prior, especially when Stone Cold stunned him at MSG.
Fans knew something was wrong who watched on TV. That’s the primary issue for Vince. But then, another issue took hold.
Enough people were able to find answers following the Montreal Screw Job that it destroyed McMahon’s plan, entirely. Especially after what happened next.
Having been deceived and knowing his contract was violated on this, the going away event for the most loyal star Vince ever created, Bret was furious. His whole family was there for this and Vince ruined it all.
So Bret knocked Vince out – for real. Not only that, but he did so in legendary fashion. He told him he was going to, he stood up and did it.
Vince’s problems are compounded by the fact that a documentary film crew captured the moments before and the moments after. Practically all of it except the punch was captured in Wrestling with Shadows, which was released and shown on A&E many times, during that era. It’s free on YouTube now.
“It’s almost a fitting end to the Hitman character because he never sold out and he never lost his integrity. Bret Hart came home. He’s fine. What they did was murder this Hitman character.” Hart
True enough, that’s probably when the Hitman died. Not because of Vince, but because of Bret’s own perception of feeling defeated. He never, at the time, and perhaps still to this day, realized that he cemented himself as a hero in the real story. Although his character was killed, the real life man was contractually betrayed by Vince McMahon so as to devalue him as much as possible before he went to his main competitor’s roster. So he kicked his ass, legit.
Although McMahon and the WWE have rewritten history, as they often do, to suggest Vince had to get the title off of Bret before Bret went to WCW, actual events don’t seem to reflect that as the motivation. Bret agreed to drop the belt anywhere except for Montreal and Vince refused. Why did he need that title loss in Montreal? Either because it was a PPV and for business, which is a valid argument, or because he needed to finally destroy Hart before WCW had him. There wouldn’t be another PPV in Canada that year and Bret was to be under contract for several more weeks.
It was the last step in the burial of the Hitman. Bret balked because of his issues with HBK. Vince tried to do it anyway but it blew up in his face. Vince became a heel in real life, something far less distinct from storyline than today, and it worked to his advantage. But in the weeks and months after, it becomes evident Vince has a vendetta. Bret is totally buried on television as screwing himself (he didn’t).
Rick Rude was sick and quit. He went to WCW. For no reason in storyline, other than to further humiliate The Hitman, a small person came out dressed as Bret and recreated the screwjob with Shawn. On the same episode, DX with Harvey Wippleman buried Rick Rude in an impersonation segment.
After taking all of this into consideration, the primary question is, did Vince McMahon know when he signed Bret Hart in 1996 that he was lying about the 20-year-deal, planning on destroying his character, and once he was devalued, letting him go? Or did this become the plan later on.
Either way, the evidence above proves it was the plan.
We just don’t know for how long.
“I think I was sorry when I signed the deal. Bret had leveraged himself against Turner’s operation and bid himself up so much. Everyone around me said ‘Oh, you can’t let Bret go.’ I listened to them. I think I’m sorry I did.” – Vince McMahon, Wrestling with Shadows, 1998.