Molson Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
[cw: sooooooo many gay slurs]
Well, we’re finally here. Nothing left to do but dive right in.
Heading into Free For All we get some quick clips of American fans weighing in on the main event, taken from various shows leading up to the PPV. Pre-show proper starts with Sunny regaling the crowd with her best attempts at French before throwing to Dok Hendrix in the back. He’s waiting outside the DX locker room to get an interview or two but before that we’re shown the Bret Hart/Shawn Michaels hype packages from RAW. After that Chyna and Triple H answer Dok’s knocking and tell him off after running down Bret briefly.
An ad for another Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt takes us to Michael Cole, who recaps the Austin/Owen Hart feud thus far along with a bunch of raucous fans in the lobby of the arena. Sunny interviews Owen out in the aisle along with the rest of the Hart Foundation, asking if tonight is shaping up to be his worst nightmare. Owen disagrees, saying that he’s just going to do what he has to do. Last time he faced Austin he nearly crippled the guy and tonight he plans on finishing the job. The British Bulldog gets some words in about the Team USA vs Team Canada Survivor Series match later and a graphic informs us that Steve Blackman, who has yet to be given a name or even identified as the man who hopped in the ring last week, has entered the match. Austin’s music hits as Owen tries to continue and he pipes in from somewhere else in the arena with a microphone. He makes the usual threats as the Harts stare off into the distance sullenly.
Kevin Kelly (UGH) talks up the AOL chat WWF have set up for the show. Goldust is being interviewed there as Kelly drones on and I just feel so bad for the guy now that he’s entering into the worst part of his WWF run.
What a waste.
After that we get the debut of a cool little bumper video:
I’m pretty sure this only ends up airing twice, with this instance here and another later on tonight, before it’s pulled from the rotation for obvious reasons. More importantly I’m fairly certain that this is the first appearance of both the scratchy WWF logo and the use of the word “attitude” in the company’s branding. Couldn’t debut on a more fitting show.
Michael Cole grabs Paul Bearer for an interview backstage ahead of Kane’s first official match in the WWF. He doesn’t get a word out before they cut to a long recap of Kane’s debut in the company and his reign of terror thus far. When they return to Bearer he says the events that twisted Mankind’s mind were nothing compared to the hell that Kane’s been living for 20 years, nor to what Kane’s going to do to him tonight. Kane can’t be stopped but Bearer invites Mankind to die trying.
Next we return to the ring, where Dok is hyping up the main event. It’s incredibly funny how he promises that things are going to be settled tonight the way they’re meant to. He asks the crowd to weigh in and for the first time we hear some boos directed Bret’s way, though they’re not nearly so strong as the cheers. Dok speculates as to whether Bret’s ever gotten over losing to Shawn at WrestleMania XII and whether or not the rest of DX will get involved tonight. He chats with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler at commentary before Michael Cole runs down the rest of the card backstage to close out Free For All. Notably he now mentions Blackman by name but doesn’t explain who the hell he is or what he was doing last week on RAW, so that’s great.
In the customary PPV-opening spiel, Lawler makes the curious note that the two men in tonight’s main event refuse to lose but one of them is going to have to.
Opener is the first of several Survivor Series tags tonight. During his entrance Road Dogg’s got some words for the New Blackjacks, the Headbangers, and the good people of Montreal:
“Hello all you maple leaf-loving freaks. You’re about to find out the true meaning of southern justice. I see that steers and queers have already made their way to the ring. Well now all you real, true to life Yankee bastards are gonna see what southern justice is all about. Blacktracks and Buttbangers, you are done for.”
I don’t even have words anymore.
The Headbangers (Mosh & Thrasher) & The New Blackjacks (Blackjack Windham & Blackjack Bradshaw) vs Road Dogg, Billy Gunn, & The Godwinns (Henry O. Godwinn & Phineas I. Godwinn)
Survivor Series Tag Team Elimination Match
Blackjacks and Henry Godwinn actually do some good work early on here, clobbering the hell out of each other, so of course two of those three men are eliminated within five minutes. And of course the match continues on for ten minutes after that. Outside of a few spots, the crowd isn’t interested in any of the other guys and take particular joy in booing Billy Gunn, chanting “faggot” and “Billy’s gay” repeatedly. Fun stuff. After doing nothing of value, the unnamed Outlaws win off of Gunn completely wiffing on a legdrop.
Hate this sack of shit so much.
In case you were wondering:
The Truth Commission (The Jackyl, Recon, Sniper, & The Interrogator) vs DOA (Crush, Skull, 8-Ball, & Chainz)
Survivor Series Tag Team Elimination Match
Weirdly the Jackyl’s wrestling in this one instead of managing the Truth Commission as he’s been doing of late. This is vaaaaaguely ok as a big boy slobberknocker but there’s not enough energy here to make it more than a slow-moving collection of decent moves. The DOA remain unbelievably popular but it doesn’t help much. Each team takes turn eliminating guys before the Interrogator stands tall as the lone survivor.
Next we get a bunch of clips of Canadian fans giving their predictions about tonight’s main event. Most of the folks are behind Bret.
Another push for the AOL chat finds Stone Cold being the one interviewed. Kevin Kelly (UGH) catches him for a word and Austin goes off on everyone asking about his neck whether online or otherwise, saying that it’s just something that happens in this business. It’s sink or swim in professional wrestling and he refuses to sink.
Heading into the Team USA/Team Canada match we finally get some more information on Steve Blackman, being that he’s a fan with an extensive martial arts background who decided to take matters into his own hands. Last week Vader was trying to protect him from the Hart Foundation’s attacks and eventually was the one to bail him out of jail after the show and request that he be added to this match. So, cool, just as issues with fans hitting the ring and/or throwing things into the ring is reaching a fever pitch, WWF decides to run an angle where a fan hopped the rail and got a contract out of it. Real smart. WCW also ran a similar story around this time so it’s not just the WWF at fault here but god, what a hare-brained thing.
Michael Cole talks to Team USA in the back. I know that injuries forced this team to get thrown together in a haphazard way but it is so goddamn funny that the team representing America is comprised of two heels and a debuting no-name martial artist. Vader bumbles through a promo where he says he doesn’t like big-mouthed Canadians while Blackman says his fighting experience will make up for his lack of wrestling experience.
Cole also catches up with the opposing Canadians. Bulldog vows to walk out the victor tonight while Doug Furnas runs down all the despicable things about his home country, saying that if it’s “America: love it or leave it” then he’s left.
Even though the Patriot’s not here, Team USA still uses his music for some reason. What a shitshow this match is turning out to be.
Team USA (Vader, Steve Blackman, Goldust, & Marc Mero) vs Team Canada (The British Bulldog, Jim Neidhart, Phil LaFon, & Doug Furnas)
Survivor Series Tag Team Elimination Match
In spite of everything working against this match, it ends up being pretty fun. A lot of that comes from the crowd that wants to cheer on the Canadian crew and boo the hell out of the Americans, but most everyone here also delivers some of their best performances of the year on top of that. In particular Bulldog’s having a lot of fun tossing Vader all over the place early on. Sadly a lot of the eliminations suck, such as Steve Blackman getting counted out five minutes into the most bizarre debut I can think of in wrestling. Goldust, who’s got a cast on his hand due to some recent injury, refuses to tag in and leaves Vader in the lurch as Bulldog and Furnas go to town on him. Eventually he’s forcefully tagged in but just walks out of the match, becoming the second man on his team to be counted out. Fans haaaaaate that spot but pick up for the finish. Vader sends Furnas packing with the Vader Bomb but Bulldog whacks Vader with the ring bell as the ref checks on the eliminated American, winning the match for his adopted home.
Following another ad for Stone Cold’s new shirt, the winner of the Survivor Series Super Supper Sweepstakes is announced. It turns out to be some woman from South Carolina who chooses Steve Austin to be the wrestler she and her friends dine out with. Lawler is quite perturbed that he wasn’t picked.
Mankind cuts a good promo before his match with Kane. He doesn’t want this to be remembered as a wrestling match because it’s really Mankind versus a brick wall. He’s gonna take a running start and crash into that wall and when it doesn’t come tumbling down, well, he’s gonna pick himself back up and do it over and over again. Paul Bearer says he might die trying but then again, maybe he won’t. If that wall goes down, it’ll just be him and Uncle Paul, the man who called him a pebble after a year of service. Later on, when he sinks his two fingers deep into Bearer’s jowls, he’ll ask him one question: do I look like a pebble now?
Mankind vs Kane
Great debut for Kane and quietly one of the better matches of the year. You might recall that last year I was terribly impressed by the atmosphere and intensity of another Mankind match, that being the Boiler Room Brawl with the Undertaker. This reminds me a lot of that and while it’s not quite so good, it’s probably more impressive in some ways. This is Kane’s in-ring debut and he’s got to be put over strong as they build to the eventual showdown between him and Taker. That’s easy enough for Mankind, as he bumps huge in just about every match and doing that is a surefire way to get a monster over. But more than that this match has to establish that Kane can, in some ways, be effected by an opponent’s offense. Clearly the company doesn’t want to keep mindlessly destroying every opponent on the way to his brother so here, when they’ve got to fill ten minutes of PPV time on a show without a lot of other marquee matches, they need to illustrate how far an upper midcarder can get against this new monster. Mankind does an awesome job of that, as his usual stuff is more than desperate and more than aggressive enough to bring anybody down briefly. When he does something like hotshot Kane face-first into the ring steps, it doesn’t diminish the monster’s aura but instead comes across as the last ditch effort of a doomed underdog. In addition Mankind’s now in a place where he can sell the monster’s aura itself, being the unhinged man unsettled by this inexplicable red light and the way Kane doesn’t react to pain. Kane’s reactions to Mankind are themselves great, the sort of thing that made this guy a star before bad booking and laziness took their toll, but Mankind does a lot of the heavy lifting as the more human, more emotive of the two characters.
And yeah, along with all of that, these guys just beat the absolute shit out of each other and it rules. Mankind looks to be gaining momentum toward the end but Kane simply leaps from the floor of the arena up onto the apron to send Mankind toppling back down onto the concrete. From there all it takes is a wild Tombstone for the win.
HOW DOES THIS MATCH COMPARE TO SHAWN MICHAELS VS THE UNDERTAKER FROM WRESTLEMANIA 25: It’s simple, man. This match does a great job of establishing these personas and how they interact with the world around them in a way that Shawn/Taker completely fails to do. Plus the bumps and spots here are cooler. I’m not usually won over on that alone but it means a lot in this case, when Foley’s taking some horrific punishment for the sake of a debuting star.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25
In the back Michael Cole chats with Vince McMahon and Commissioner Slaughter. They just… I dunno man. Slaughter talks about how they’ve beefed up security both backstage and at ringside to help ensure that the main event goes as smoothly as possible. Vince pontificates about the match a little and when Cole asks him who he thinks is going to win, the boss’ flashes a devious smirk and claims he doesn’t know.
To use a familiar coinage, the cruelty is the point.
Backstage, Dok Hendrix talks to the assortment of faces going head to head with the Nation of Domination tonight. Ken Shamrock and the Legion of Doom dip into some dicey rhetoric by referring to their opponents as “the criminal element”. Ahmed Johnson sadly stays quiet throughout this stretch.
Ken Shamrock, Ahmed Johnson, & The Legion of Doom (Road Warrior Hawk & Road Warrior Animal) vs The Nation of Domination (Faarooq, The Rock, D’Lo Brown, & Kama Mustafa)
Survivor Series Tag Team Elimination Match
Shamrock and the LOD get a big pop, the former due to his training with the Hart family and the latter due to the mindless lapdog tendencies of the modern wrestling fan. This match is mostly a showcase for the two young guys. Rock and Shamrock each get two eliminations and last until the end, with Rock in particular sending Hawk packing in two minutes with the unnamed Rock Bottom moments after he no-sold a piledriver from D’Lo. Outside of that there’s not much of note here, as most of these guys are solid wrestlers but they’re just sort of filling time. This ends up being the longest match of the night but doesn’t really accomplish much when given the opportunity. Doesn’t help that most of these guys aren’t being pushed all that hard and some of the ones who are need to be hilariously protected. We see some of that with Animal’s eventual elimination, when he gets himself counted out by chasing after Billy Gunn and the Road Dogg after they appear at ringside only to get a faceful of powder. Rock gets a good amount of heat, which only briefly settles into “Rocky’s gay” chants, so it’s a good sign for a guy who only debuted a year ago. Shamrock struggles in a two-on-one situation but takes advantage of the Nation’s indecision to eliminate D’Lo and kicks out of an illegal chairshot from Rock. The Rock does what he can to put him down but he’s not nearly so explosive as the former fighter, so it’s only a matter of time before Shamrock traps him in the ankle lock and taps him out.
Before the semi-main Cole talks to a bunch of fans up in the cheap seats about who they think is going to win between Bret and Shawn. After that we get an ad for the next PPV, which is D-Generation X: In Your House on December 7th. That ad features the first appearance of the DX theme and tron video, which is a weird choice.
Owen Hart (c) vs Stone Cold Steve Austin
WWF Intercontinental Championship
Even if this is only like four minutes long, man, it feels good to see Austin in action again. He’s so aggressive and energetic the entire time, taunting the more outspoken Canadian fans before Owen’s entrance and going full tilt during the match itself. Between interference from his family or cheap shots behind the ref’s back, Owen’s only able to take control of the Texan with all sorts of illegal activity. At one point he begs the ref to disqualify him as he’s got a TV cord wrapped around Austin’s neck, so he’s clearly scared of where this could go after the Rattlesnake’s sat at home for three months, stewing in his own juices. Before too long a clunky attempt at some form of spot ends with Austin connecting with the stunner for the win, after which he delivers stunners to Furnas and LaFon for good measure.
Pretty big pop for Austin winning the title, indicating that even rabid patriotism can’t overcome the most charismatic personality in wrestling history.
We get long shots following Shawn and Bret from their locker room to the entranceway before the main event. When they’re backstage, DX is with Shawn and Bret’s followed by Bulldog, Neidhart, and his son Blade but both men eventually walk to the ring alone. This is Chyna’s last appearance for the night, so that brings us to 11 shitty jokes thrown her way in 56 onscreen appearances to date.
Facing the hard cam in the front row are a series of signs that do well to illustrate the tone of the fanbase at this time and this crowd in particular: “Shawn is a fag”; “Ass 3:16”; “Why wait, leave now Bret”; “Bret ‘The Sellout’ Hart”.
Bret Hart (c) vs Shawn Michaels
WWF World Heavyweight Championship
What is there left to say about this match? Even commenting on how good it is and saying it’s a shame that the match itself is overshadowed by the controversy of the outcome feels passé. I suppose I could talk about something I don’t hear echoed often, which is how good Shawn is here.
Repeatedly throughout these reviews I’ve complained about Shawn’s selfishness in and out of the ring but he’s quite accommodating before and during this match. I could speculate on how it’s evidence of a guilty conscience about what he’s going to do but I’ll spare you from that and just say it surprises me that he gives Bret so much here. He lets Bret take control of the pre-match brawling and bumps around for whatever he wants to do, which includes a pair of backdrops onto the floor and a vertical suplex onto the exposed concrete of the aisle. Both men get a little gruff in trying to exert their will at times but whenever Bret pushes him, Shawn’s willing to relent in a way he wouldn’t have even a month or two ago.
That trend continues once the match actually gets underway in the ring. Shawn does well to not fly around nearly so much—whether he’s bumping or doing his own offense—and it allows Bret to shine more as the relatively local babyface. He replaces all that with the gruffness from that brawling before the bell, doing things like punting the champ on the top of his head, uncorking fist drops in between taunting the rabid ringside fans, and raking Bret’s eyes. His selling is still fairly dramatic but it’s not exactly self-aggrandizing like we’ve seen before. Aside from maybe the recent match with Bulldog, this is the first time Shawn’s fully embraced an earnest, straightforward heel role in so long and it’s such a refreshing change of pace from his tongue-in-cheek efforts of recent years.
There’s also something really sonically pleasing about this match. Certain spots, like Bret smashing Shawn’s leg against the corner post for example, just sound a lot louder than they have in other matches, a lot more impactful. In addition to that it feels like I can hear the guys in the ring more, especially as Shawn murmurs a few comments to referee Earl Hebner here and there. Lastly the crowd audio is really well rendered, delivering layers of certain pockets of fans chanting “Bret sold out” and “Shawn is gay” while also picking up the larger depths of the Molson Center.
But yeah, the finish. Shawn yanks Hebner in the way of a move off the ropes before applying the sharpshooter. Plan supposedly is that Bret’s meant to reverse the hold and get a visual victory over Shawn before DX and the Hart Foundation hit the ring for a disqualification. Instead, Hebner gets up right away and calls for the bell, taking the belt off Bret before he ever agreed to do so and long before he’d ever be contractually obligated to do so, if at all. You know the drill.
Before I move onto [sigh] everything else, I’d like to note how interesting Jim Ross’ reaction is on commentary. Throughout the match he makes repeated mention of the rumors surrounding Bret Hart’s contractual status, stating several times that people think that if he loses here it’ll be his last match in the company. Clearly he’s laying the ground work for a kayfabe explanation for why Bret’s not gonna be here tomorrow but once the screwjob actually happens, he feigns shock and confusion before remarking “wow, you talk about controversy” as Shawn is shunted backstage. I don’t envy the guy’s position in this moment but it’s odd how much he waffles back and forth on what he’s implying and what he’s stating as the shitshow unfolds.
And now, onto that shitshow. These days I feel people really misunderstand the thing we call the Montreal Screwjob, due to a combination of deliberate obfuscation on WWF’s part as well as some honest to god forgetfulness and the natural haze of learning about an event after the fact. Lots of people have it in their head that Bret was always going to start with WCW the day after Survivor Series, which was never true. Many fans also think the main betrayal here was a double-cross in the ring, which is also missing a bigger picture. To get a better understanding of that bigger picture, let’s run through a quick timeline of events, some of which have already been covered in this review series:
In October 1996, Bret Hart agreed to the most lucrative contract in wrestling history, signing on for another 20 years with WWF in both wrestling and executive capacities. Included in his contract was a clause stating that he was free to leave the company with 30 days notice, during which time he would have “reasonable creative control” over his character’s portrayal. No one dreamt that the clause would come into use, as Bret had stuck with WWF out of loyalty when WCW had offered him more short term money for less work. For better or for worse, he wanted to end his career in this promotion and he wanted to do it on his terms.
By the following June things were far more tumultuous. After Shawn faked an injury to avoid losing to the man in their Mania rematch and made flippant remarks regarding Bret’s supposed impropriety live on television, the relationship between WWF’s two top stars was becoming volatile and violent. Both men spent significant time away from the ring over the spring and summer of 1997, Bret due to injury and Shawn due to playing hardball. At the same time, WWF was reaching the end of its rope after several years of running in the red and putting on the least lucrative WrestleMania in history (something many people in the company blamed Shawn for).
Early in June, Vince McMahon approached Bret with the possibility that, sooner or later, they might have to restructure his contract and defer his salary until more profitable years down the road. In early September 1997 he made the offer outright, which Bret refused, fearing he’d be deferring money that would never come. By the end of the month Vince stated that they simply couldn’t afford Bret’s contract and encouraged him to begin negotiating with WCW again, giving him written permission to do so. The specificity of the contract gave Bret six weeks to hash out a deal with WCW, a period ending on November 2nd. If Bret didn’t announce his intention to leave WWF before then, he’d stay under contract with them for another year.
All through October, Bret negotiated with WCW for a new contract and with WWF on how to relinquish the title he’d won months before. Neither proved all that fruitful, especially as Shawn refused to lose to Bret in any capacity in his final months with the company. During this time Shawn became increasingly unprofessional, refusing to work more than once a week, no-showing events he was scheduled for, and causing all sorts of trouble on TV. Toward the end of the month, Vince revealed that WWF’s financial troubles were miraculously over and they could afford Bret’s contract again. Relieved, Bret made up his mind about staying with the promotion until WCW contacted him again with a much larger money offer and other benefits on the penultimate day of his negotiation period.
Wanting to stay with WWF but being concerned with where his career there was going, Bret wanted to know what plans Vince had for him. When Vince failed to give him an acceptable answer—putting off his phone calls for hours and hours and suggesting outlandish scenarios wherein Bret would lose every major match for months on end—Bret officially signed with WCW, giving his 30 days notice to WWF on November 1st.
With a month left before his WCW contract kicked in, Bret continued to deal with Vince on how best to lose the WWF Championship. Despite Shawn’s repeated refusal to lay down for anyone, Bret made it clear that he was willing to lose to whoever Vince wanted, including Shawn. His only caveat is that he didn’t want to lose the title on any of the upcoming events in Canada, being that he very legitimately was a sports hero in his home country and he didn’t want to end his WWF career by letting down his biggest fans. Critically, he was also legally within his right to demand this due to the clause in the contract he’d signed a year before. Vince argued that such a demand was unreasonable but eventually relented, agreeing on a disqualification finish for the Survivor Series main event.
Word that Bret was leaving got out the week before the PPV and changed everything. Suddenly Vince claimed that he had to get the belt off Bret at the Survivor Series, for fear that WCW would announce the signing of the WWF Champion the next night on Nitro an hour before RAW came on the air. While WCW President Eric Bischoff had agreed to allow Bret to work for WWF after his WCW contract began if need be, he couldn’t be reached to settle this matter due to a hunting trip. The outcome of the match was still up in the air heading into the PPV itself but by the time the match came around, everyone had outwardly agreed on a disqualification. As you’re well aware, that’s not what happened in the end.
Let me contextualize this timeline in another way. The WWF narrative about this event, both in its immediate aftermath and in the decades since, is that Vince felt he and his company were backed into a corner and had to get their title off Bret immediately. To believe that narrative, you’d also have to believe in certain interpretations of various events leading up to Survivor Series. You’d have to believe that Vince decided to put the belt on Bret back in August despite knowing that he probably couldn’t continue paying the man’s salary. You’d have to believe that Vince thought it best to keep the belt on Bret after telling him he couldn’t pay the man’s salary. You’d have to believe that Vince decided to make the months-long push toward a Bret/Shawn rematch despite its increasing volatility. You’d have to believe that Vince decided to stick with that match despite both men making it clear weeks ahead of time that they were unwilling to lose. You’d have to believe that Vince made all these obvious mistakes, month after month, with nothing but good will in his heart. Perhaps worst of all, you’d have to believe that Vince truly thought WWF would go under if Eric Bischoff announced the signing of the WWF Champion live on Nitro.
Vince McMahon is a dumbass but he’s not that dumb.
My argument is that Vince did all this willfully and maliciously. Not just the double-cross in the ring but everything since August or even earlier. After the implosion of the Bret/Shawn situation over the summer and the realization that Bret’s enormous salary is a huge financial problem for the company, there is no real reason for Vince to put the belt on Bret if he doesn’t have something more devious in mind. I think that the next few months of WWF programming provide ample evidence of said deviousness, as Bret quickly cedes the spotlight to Shawn and Taker, loses in ludicrous ways to barely-established midcarders, is painted as a racist and a homophobe, and finds his family members similarly humiliated. Are you telling me this just happened to precede Bret becoming the victim of the bitterest and most high profile double-cross in wrestling history?
I don’t want to paint this elaborate conspiracy theory suggesting that Vince had all this in mind for months, that Vince knew he was always going to screw Bret at Survivor Series. What I’m saying is that Survivor Series merely presented the perfect opportunity to do something he’d been actively working toward for a while, which is forcing the top star out of his company by making it too miserable a place to work.
There’s a few reasons why he does so. Obviously the size of Bret’s salary is a factor, not that I think it was the primary motivator in any of this. (I suspect that the company’s money troubles were never so bad as Vince implied they were to Bret but I don’t have the evidence I’d need to really back that up. In any case I find it fishy that after one month of belt-tightening with the higher PPV prices and taping TV, WWF would suddenly be able to pay Bret’s paychecks again.) Of greater importance is Vince’s motivation to save face, the thing that led him to offering Bret such a lavish contract in the first place. He throws money he doesn’t have at a top star who’s considering jumping ship and when that finally becomes unfeasible, he does everything he can to bury that guy on his way out the door. Afterward, he makes out like he was in the right to do so and when no one buys it, he embraces his newfound unpopularity as a way to undermine it. Think of what Phil Mushnick said about wrestlers being perceived as cartoon characters who can’t really die. “I can’t be a bad guy, pal. I just play one on TV.”
But really, I think the reason Vince screws Bret is a simple one and it’s the idea at the heart of this entire review project. You look at the two guys Vince could’ve sided with in this whole debacle and his eventual decision doesn’t seem to make much sense. Sure, Bret’s getting old and he’s very much the opposite of where wrestling is trending. Still, Shawn is wildly unpopular with the rest of the roster, unwilling to cooperate with even the simplest booking, unpredictable, uncontrollable, unreliable, an unrepentant substance abuser just waiting to blow up like Pillman, and someone who cost the company more money than Bret’s salary ever did by skipping out on WrestleMania. When you compare the two rap sheets, it seems unthinkable that anyone would ever side with Shawn—until you consider what power Shawn actually wields. See, Shawn has already threatened to leave WWF and has already started pushing storylines in certain ways, but he doesn’t have the contractual ability to do so. Thanks to that thorny little clause included in his deal, Bret does. Shawn never actually had the power to do what WWF’s biggest stars can do, so in the end, Vince screws the only guy capable of screwing him.
The only guy for now, at least. There is of course someone waiting in the wings, someone who’s only a few short months from becoming more powerful than anyone Vince has ever dealt with, but sadly those powers aren’t put to good use. With the Montreal Screwjob and other events of 1997, Vince establishes that he cannot be trusted as an employer. In acting on that fact throughout his time in WWF, Austin cements it and Vince’s ability to do whatever he wants in spite of it.
In the wake of Bret’s departure, wrestlers in WWF stood at a crossroads. They could work collectively to ensure fair treatment for themselves and all that followed in their footsteps or they could act irrationally and independently out of frightened self-interest. Without exception they all fail this prisoner’s dilemma and renew the process of WWF swallowing up the entire wrestling industry, worsening standards for all but a select few.
Sometimes I think Austin did what he had to do, whether or not that means he did the right thing. Faced with the opportunity to become the WWF’s next top star immediately after suffering a horrific injury that was undoubtedly going to take years off his career, he claws his way to the top of the mountain and does everything imaginable to stay there as long as he can, regardless of the effects suffered by his own body and those around him. It’s a choice I can’t blame him for making because I can’t imagine being forced to consider it. Unfortunately I still have to live with the consequences.