By Dan Lewis
NOW I KNOW
Bret “The Hitman” Hart, pictured above, was a wrestling icon in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s. Born to a pro wrestler, Hart’s DNA and training made him a natural performer in the “squared circle,” to use the parlance of the industry. He signed on with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF, but now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE) in 1984 and quickly became a star. Hart -- branded "the best there is, there best there was, and the best there ever will be" -- was beloved by fans, especially those in his native Canada. He won the WWF heavyweight title belt five times and, in many ways, was the face of the WWF for much of the 1990s. To many, he was a hero -- one to whom no lasting harm could ever befall. After all, that’s how it was scripted.
Until the day the script changed -- and no one told him.
In the mid-1990s the WWF was, for all intents and purposes, the only wrestling franchise that mattered. Seeing a chance to get in on the action, TV mogul Ted Turner decided to start a wrestling company of his own, called World Championship Wrestling or WCW. Turner’s strategy was to buy himself some champions, offering buckets of money to WWF’s wrestlers if they left McMahon-owned company and joined WCW. Many WWF icons took the payday.
In 1996 through 1997, WCW targeted Bret Hart, offering him more than $2.5 million to leave the WWF. Hart waffled between staying with McMahon -- his mentor -- and making more money than he’d ever think he’d make. Ultimately, the dollars won out, and Hart informed McMahon of his plans to leave for the green. The split was amicable, but there was a logistical problem: Hart was the reigning WWF champion, and leaving for WCW with that designation could harm the WWF franchise. Both he and McMahon agreed that he’d have to lose the title belt before leaving -- both men had respect for one another, and for the story line.
McMahon proposed that Hart face the obvious top contender, a flamboyant wrestler named Shawn Michaels. The title bout would take place in Montreal on November 9, 1997, during a pay-per-view special called the Survivor Series. Under McMahon’s plan, Michaels would beat Hart, claiming the title, and allowing Hart to walk away from the WWF without anything seeming amiss. Hart understood that something would have to go wrong for him to lose the belt, but as Radiolab discussed, he didn’t want to lose to Michaels (whom, even in the unscripted world, he didn’t like), and he certainly did not want to lose a title match in front of his home country’s fans. Instead, Hart proposed that the match break down into a melee, with Michaels’ and Hart’s allies entering the ring uninvited. Hart, under his plan, would be disqualified during the match and forfeit the title later on. McMahon agreed.
The match went roughly as planned -- Hart and Michael entered the ring and started throwing punches at one another, somehow ended up outside the right and into the first rows of the crowd, and then came back into the ring for the first big move of the match. With Michaels in the middle of the ring, seemingly incapacitated, Hart climbed the ropes and flung himself through the air at his opponent. Michaels -- and this was scripted -- pulled the referee between him and the airborne Hart at the last moment. All three men ended up on the mat, barely moving, setting up the perfect opening for the parade of others and ultimately, the planned-for disqualification.
But that’s not what happened. Michaels popped up and pinned Hart, using Hart’s “trademark” submission move, no less. Michaels didn’t immediately offer Hart a way out of the hold, and Hart didn’t see any reason to break out of the move quickly -- this wasn’t how the match was supposed to end -- but the ref came to, counted Hart out, and instructed the ring side official to ring the bell. Michaels had won. And Hart had no idea what had just happened.