For three years, the New Generation Project Podcast has delved into the hows and whys of what most would consider the “Dark Age” of the WWE. It was the early 1990’s and the boom of Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair had ended. The end came about when the WWE went under the gun for steroid distribution. Everyone from yesteryear either quit, fled or simply let their contract come to an end, leaving the company a ghost town. From the ashes of this trial came the names Bret “The Hitman” Hart, “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Kevin Nash and a multitude of others. The podcast is an amazing listen, but a Sword of Damocles had been hanging over it for a while. That sword was called “The Montreal Screwjob.”
If you haven’t clicked out and rolled your eyes, I commend you. The reason why is that the Screwjob didn’t just change the WWE as a company, it actually changed wrestling as a whole. It changed me as a fan.
I don’t actually remember watching the Survivor Series match in which Bret Hart was “screwed” out of his title. In a nutshell, Bret wasn’t supposed to lose his title to Shawn Michaels in the way that it happened. It may sound strange, but let’s put it like this: in this play, the ending was changed and no one told the lead actor. If you want to hear the whole thing, I suggest you listen to the podcast that breaks this down. It’s a long one, but it’s for a reason. The events leading up to that match are filled with ego, morality problems and a dilemma that left everyone with proverbial blood on their hands.
I’m writing about this because the aftermath changed the way I saw wrestling. I was about 6 or 7 when this happened and I knew that wrestling wasn’t “real”. My parents told me early on to never try any of the moves because I could hurt myself and that it was all pretend. Even though I knew it was “fake”, it still drew me in because I saw it as a living comic book.
Bret was the Hero. He was the guy that held it all together. With him holding the championship belt, he was someone that never cheated, loved his family and fought until he passed out. Even though he was changing, morphing, into someone that I should have hated, I still loved him. In fact, I still use the phrase “Best there is, best there was and the best that ever will be” when describing my favorite things because it’s a fantastic line. I saw wrestling as an alternate reality where everyone took their problems to the ring and fought it out with honor and dignity. It was an escape for a kid that had a mother that worked all day to support two sons. It was a thing my brother and I could actually agree on watching, despite him becoming a teenager. Every Monday, I would sit down to watch heroes and villains fight it out to become “the man”.
But that all changed after Survivor Series 1997.
I hate that I learned about “The Business”. I hate that I learned what a “booker” was, how writers crafted the story and that thing called “creative control”. I hate that I was seen as a “mark” and that some of those wrestlers could care less that I loved the fake world they worked in. I hate that I learned that Bret got “screwed” because if he didn’t lose the title that night, he would take it to a rival company. I didn’t learn this all in one fell swoop. I learned this as I grew older.
I learned that Bret and Shawn, two people that held my attention for hours of entertainment, hated each others guts. I learned that Vince was stuck between a rock and a hard place because his company was in trouble financially. I learned a lot of things because I had to know. I needed to know why wrestling changed for me. After listening to the podcast, it finally clicked.
The fake world of wrestling suddenly became real. This was no story, there were no gimmicks. What happened that night was as real as me getting up for elementary school and getting on the bus. It was as real as seeing my tired mother walking through the door from work just before I went to bed. It was as real as my father picking me and my brother up for summer vacation because that’s when he could see us. As I said earlier, I knew that wrestling wasn’t real, but to a kid that needed to escape the cold harshness of the reality that surrounded him, I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to go on that safe roller coaster where we all cheer for the hero and boo the villain. But as wrestling changed, I did too. Lines became blurred. It was difficult to tell who was the good guy and who was the bad guy. It was all becoming a grey mash that had too much flavor and overloaded my senses.
I had to stop watching for a while because it was becoming too real. Realities began to collide. It stopped being fun.
I’ve started to get back onto the wagon. Thanks to Lucha Underground and podcasts like The Attitude Era, OSW Review, New Gen and How2Wrestling, I learned why I loved it in the first place. I just want to see people do flipty doos and blow my mind with their ability to tell a story without any words. I’m learning to love wrestling again, despite people rolling their eyes or tuning out whenever I bring it up. As someone who is working on becoming a writer, I now look to wrestling as a way to feed my understanding of telling a story.
I’ve seen a fire demon fight a wraith. I’ve watched a dragon fight a spaceman. I’ve listened to the words of the world’s greatest advocate. I cried when the Dream died and when the Hot Rod stopped running. I cheered when the Snake was brought back to life.
Roll your eyes and give me your sighs. We all know that wrestling isn’t real…
But it’s real to me, damn it.