WWE has long been the leading promotion in professional wrestling, but in recent years, fans have begun to grow tired of the company’s brand of Sports Entertainment. How did professional wrestling evolve from the days of Harley Race, Verne Gagne, Gorgeous George, Dusty Rhodes, and Ric Flair, when wrestlers were tough guys and the matches were “real,” to Screwjobs, Mr. McMahon, and the XFL? And, how did professional wrestling change from talented performers fighting for gold and glory in the squared circle to the disgusting display the WWE presented on RAW on February 1, 2010?
The final descent from professional wrestling into the era of Sports Entertainment can probably be traced to The Kliq’s infamous “Curtain Call” on May 19, 1996, when Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, and Triple H all embraced in the ring after Michaels defeated Diesel to retain the WWF title. When two faces and two heels hugged it out in front of a sold-out house in Madison Square Garden, Kayfabe was effectively dead, and the man behind the curtain was finally and forever exposed.
That man behind the curtain is billionaire business genius and WWE majority shareholder Vince McMahon Jr., the son of legendary wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Sr., a hard-edged character from the territory days of early to mid-20th Century. Vince Jr. took over the WWF from his dad with the ambition of building a national promotion, and after a lawsuit by the World Wildlife Fund over the company’s initials, the WWF became the WWE in 2002.
Legend has it that Vince Sr. wanted to preserve the territory system, in which different promotions carved out different sections of the United States as their domain, and although they occasionally shared talent, each company had their own group of featured wrestlers. Vince Jr. had a global vision for the company, and after the death of Vince Sr., he slowly expanded the WWE into a Sports Entertainment conglomerate. As a result, the vast majority of superstar wrestlers work for the WWE, and most of the original promotions are out of business.
There is one other thread that ties our tale together, and that is the strange insistence of a billionaire businessman to regularly perform as a professional wrestler. While Vince Jr. has spent his entire adult life working out in the gym, and he still has a bodybuilder’s physique in his early 70’s, it is well-known in wrestling circles that Vince Sr. refused to allow his son to wrestle. Vince Jr. was welcome to help run the business, but that was to be his only role.
Fast forward to 2010, and as wrestling fans everywhere know, Vince Jr. certainly did not obey his father’s wishes. The Mr. McMahon character was now running roughshod over the WWE, and Vince’s muscle-bound alter ego had even won the ECW and WWF World Championships.
Fans witnessed his many feuds with Stone Cold Steve Austin, and in the “Battle of the Billionaires” against Donald Trump at WrestleMania XXIII, Vince, the loser, had his head shaved as the fans screamed in approval. There were many episodes of “You’re Fired,” in which Vince terminated one of his hapless employees, and fans were also treated to Mr. McMahon forcing wrestlers to “Kiss My Ass” in the middle of the ring to keep their jobs.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, fans were already beginning to grumble about the lack of focus on actual wrestling in the WWE, and television ratings were beginning to suffer. Then, an incident occurred on Raw on February 1, 2010, that highlighted just how far the world of WWE wrestling had fallen into depravity and utter vileness.
On this particular episode of Raw, hosted by Star Trek’s William Shatner, there was a major segment that featured Bret Hart. As wrestling fans will certainly remember, Bret, who is considered one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the sport, was the victim of a legitimate screwjob when on November 9, 1997, at the Molson Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the referee changed the finish of the match and gave the victory to Shawn Michaels.
In 1997, Bret Hart was the WWF World Heavyweight Champion, and he had recently signed a contract to leave the company for the rival WCW. There has always been a tradition in professional wrestling that when a champion leaves a promotion, he or she loses the title before they depart. Although Bret was allegedly willing to drop the title, he claimed that he didn’t want to do it in front of his Canadian home crowd.
Vince was afraid Bret wouldn’t keep his word, so he came up with a plan to take the belt from Bret on the sly. After an incident in which former WWF Women’s Champion Medusa threw her WWF belt in the trash on a WCW program, Vince was afraid that Bret Hart would also do likewise.
The match was supposed to end in a disqualification, and Bret would then lose the title the following week in the United States, but in the end, Bret was screwed in front of a hometown crowd and all hell broke loose. Bret spit in Vince’s face at ringside after the bell, and he later knocked McMahon unconscious with one punch in the locker room. This very ugly and real incident was to be a disturbing feature of the encounter between Vince and Bret on RAW in 2010.
Hart, for reasons only known to himself and the WWE, had decided to do another storyline with the WWE in 2010. Bret had seemingly made peace with Vince in 2006 to become a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, and he said he just wanted an opportunity to tell his side of the story to the fans on RAW.
On the night of February 1, 2010, Bret was introduced to a cheering crowd by fellow Canadian, William Shatner, and he made a brief speech to express his feelings about the situation with the WWE. He then demanded that Vince come to the ring and face him.
Always the tough guy, Vince appeared, did his evil boss bit, and then tore into Bret, belittling his career, his personality, and his appearance. Vince then proceeded to insult Bret Hart’s father, the late Stu Hart, a beloved, legendary wrestling promoter and trainer that Vince had promised to induct into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.
In typical WWE fashion, Vince ended his rant by informing Bret that he would not be inducting his dad into the WWE Hall of Fame “because he doesn’t deserve it.” As usual in these situations, Bret began to stomp the stuffing out of Vince, and as he was about to apply his finishing move, the Sharpshooter, on Vince, Bret was attacked from behind by Batista, a 300-pound muscular monster.
At this point, things got ugly and crossed the line from professional wrestling into what can only be described as an atrocious display that helped taint the image of professional wrestling forever. As Batista held up a now defenseless Bret Hart, Vince proceeded to scream that he was “VINCE MCMAHON,” and then, in a reversal of Montreal, Vince spit a huge wad of saliva in Bret’s face. For his part, Bret played it up as if he was now crushed and beyond repair with a look on his face that either said “I’m a beaten man” or “Why the hell did I ever agree to allow this disgusting degradation of my life, my career, and even my family.”
There are two factors that elevate this incident from another WWE scripted event into the realm of truly awful behavior. While we do understand that there are legitimate storylines in professional wrestling, and they often involve people being insulted and attacked unfairly, both verbally and physically, Bret Hart suffered a very real, life-threatening stoke on June 24, 2002. And as wrestling fans know, tragically, on May 23, 1999, Bret’s younger brother, WWE superstar Owen Hart, died in the ring at a WWE PPV after falling 78 feet to his death in front of 16, 472 horrified fans.
Why Bret Hart ever agreed to the February 1, 2010 segment and his subsequent humiliation, we may never know. Bret did eventually get his storyline revenge by crushing Vince McMahon in their bout at WrestleMania XXVI, but for many fans, including this writer, the incident on Raw was one of the lowest points in the history of the WWE.
As I watched Vince spit in Hart’s face, and I saw Bret’s look of utter defeat, I could only think of Stu Hart, one of the proudest men who ever walked the face of this good earth. I thought of Owen falling to his death in the Kemper Arena, breathing his last breath in the middle of the ring as paramedics worked frantically to save him. I remembered the photographs of a broken Bret Hart in a wheelchair after a stroke, wondering if he would ever walk again. I remembered the WWE sponsoring national anti-bullying campaigns. I then turned off my television, and I didn’t watch WWE wrestling again for two full years.
Almost a decade has passed since 2010, and the image of Bret Hart’s abuse by Vince McMahon still remains, burned forever in the memory of this writer and millions of other disgusted wrestling fans. Bret Hart was one of the biggest stars in the history of professional wrestling, and he deserved better from Vince McMahon and the WWE. The Montreal Screwjob and February 1, 2010’s RAW will forever remain black marks on the history of professional wrestling.