The Montreal Screwjob was 25 years ago last month. Looking back on the event, after reading and hearing about it for over two decades, I can say the biggest victim was pro wrestling fans.
That’s a rough roll considering all that happened to Bret Hart following Survivor Series 1997. But the Screwjob cemented the idea that pro wrestling fans had to take sides on every piece of news, roster move, show review, ratings news, locker room or wrestler depending on how they lean as a fan.
Wrestling has always been about two opposing sides in the ring, but the concept has been carried far beyond that outside of it. While social media, Reddit and the major companies are always trying to manipulate fans into thinking one thing or another, the truth is it’s fine to not have an opinion on something. This may be a new concept to those who suffer through the asylum that is Twitter, but it’s an actual legit position to have.
The Screwjob was such a shock to the business, it took well over a decade for the creative side of the wrestling to recover. Both the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) and World Championship Wrestling couldn’t escape the moment. The Screwjob finish was a favorite for every booker from Vince Russo to Vince McMahon, to Joe and his local backyard fed. Ten years after the Screwjob, when Hart made his on-screen return to WWE TV in 2010, the only fan or industry employee who was over it was Hart himself.
Fans also began to judge the Screwjob based on their fandom, not on their opinion of the event. Some of the criticisms aimed at Hart were legit. Yes, he had a creative control clause in his contract, but if he just lost, then the entire event doesn’t happen. At the same time, Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels had pushed Hart to a breaking point as far as pride, and Hart did have contingencies to handover the belt that made sense. The biggest criticism should be laid at the feet of McMahon, who had a history of leaving titles on wrestlers who weren’t under contract or whose contracts were about to expire.
Fans viewed Hart through two lenses – his diehard fans along with WCW fans saw him as the victim of McMahon’s failure to manage his roster properly. If he didn’t want Hart with the company, why give him a 20-year contract a year earlier. Why keep he belt on him after you tell him you plan to release him. These are great questions, but their validity – in 1997 and even now – depended much on who you were cheering for as a fan.
WWF fans believed Hart forced McMahon to take the belt off him by any means possible. Hart was constantly harangued online in the late 90s and early 2000s by the the WWF-loyal online wrestling fanbase. Even after his brother, Owen, died in a WWF ring in 1999, fans still hammered Hart as a bad guy in the event, even claiming he was bitter over the Screwjob after dealing with the biggest tragedy of his life, one of many he dealt with in the immediate years following the end of his WWF career.
Why a figure like Hart became such a divisive figure was by design. Despite the supposed death of kayfabe, wrestling is always about two sides and its the default for wrestlers, fans and even owners. Witness how smoothly WWE has managed to slip away from Vince McMahon’s history with certain members of wrestling media and fans, with little to no questions asked about his serial sexual harassment and allegations of assault, payoffs and an investigation that would still scandalize any other company.
All Out Fallout
The most obvious and bizarre example of the bi-polar affectations of wrestling fans – the press conference from hell following All Out. Fans began lining up behind Punk and the Elite almost immediately, depending on who they preferred as a fan. Egging this on are veteran wrestlers and personalities and their podcasts, who are throwing heat like Aroldis Chapman in an effort to stay relevant and to stay in the black with clicks and advertisers.
After a two-and-a-half month suspension, Kenny Omega, Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson returned two weeks ago. After failing to trademark “Wayward Sons,” the group still used the Kansas hit as their entrance music along with an intro that combined clock graphics.
“Carry On My Wayward Son” was a song the Young Bucks had used as entrance music back to their days in their backyard. Their dad, a longtime musician and rock keyboardist with a taste for 70s rock, was obviously an influence on his kids.
The idea that the song is a shot at CM Punk, who is out with an injury and has been threatening legal action while requesting a buyout of his contract, has been floating since The Elite returned to AEW TV two weeks ago. But is there really anything there? More obvious was Omega using Punk’s finisher during its Trios match in front of a hostile Chicago crowd last week, even biting PAC (referencing the bite Omega suffered from former AEW producer Ace Steel).
Not everything is about Punk, whether he or his fans believe that or not, and not everything is more than just getting heat from the crowd. But it’s another case of fans taking sides based on their fandom and not on the evidence or what’s out there. There’s a case to make that Punk had a right to be upset and unhappy with AEW creative, or that he felt threatened when AEW legal, the Elite and others came into his locker room.
There’s also a case to be made The Elite and Adam Page are the victims of Punk going into business for himself in a way that should have had him fired on the spot. Many people in AEW believed Punk should have been fired or his promo burying Page when he returned to AEW TV after his heel injury.
In other words, these issues are complicated. And pro wrestling isn’t the only subject where people fall into rows – anyone who made the mistake of bringing up politics at Thanksgiving this past weekend, or sports, or religion … need I go on?
But wrestling and the cult-like sensibilities it creates are leave its fans more susceptible than other areas. Given how internet heavy wrestling media and how important it is as far as news and fan discourse, the chances of getting dragged into one camp or the other is even worse, despite whatever nuanced information is available.
What’s brutal about this attitude is how poisonous it is for fans. It wears fans out and makes following the sport a job, not fun. Pro wrestling should be more enjoyable – online and off. Doing that is in the power of fans. Watch who you are following. Look for people who are smart on Twitter, not echoing what you’re saying. Or worse, the fans/stans who populate social media and bring nothing to the discussion but noise.