What I’m about to say may alter your perception of professional wrestling. More importantly, it may help expose perhaps one of the biggest swerves in wrestling history that helped save what we know as the modern WWE.
In late 1996, a wrestling documentary was put into production: Wrestling With Shadows. The documentary featured WWE legend and Hall of Famer, Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Over the course of nearly two hours, camera footage from 1996 up until Bret Hart’s WWE departure in November 1997, was perfectly captured by a group of budding filmmakers.
In the documentary, wrestling fans got an insight into what it meant to be a Hart family wrestler. From scenes of Bret Hart in his dad, Stu Hart’s dungeon wrestling basement, to behind-the-scenes at family get togethers. It was an eye-opening glance into the then-secret world of professional wrestler’s personal lives unlike anything that had ever been seen before.
The rather disturbing aspect of the documentary undoubtedly fell, or rather lifted the veil of professional wrestling exposing its backstage scripting, politics, and all the pyro and sleight-of-hand trickery that prior was hidden from fans.
In 1996, Bret Hart’s onscreen WWF character was experiencing personal turmoil. A then 31-year-old Shawn Michaels was finally hitting his stride after an almost decade long tenure with the company.
Bret Hart, up until 1996, had been utilized by WWF chairman Vince McMahon to “keep the company afloat”. Following the WWF’S 1992 steroid scandal, and the subsequent departure of all larger-than-life wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man and more, Vince turned to Bret in late 1992 and quite suddenly made him WWF champion. Not to say Bret Hart was not deserving of the title at that time. Simply stating it was a hasty decision that even Bret Hart was not aware of until a day or two prior to his winning the title.
Four years, and many main event Pay-Per-View matches under his world title belt later, in the “Wrestling With Shadows” documentary, Bret Hart is faced with a startling revelation – WCW is destroying WWF in the Monday night ratings war, and Vince McMahon no longer knows what to do with the Bret Hart character – or so he would let on. Seems the fresh-faced not so pumped with steroids Bret Hart no longer holds the mantel that Vince McMahon once thought he did. Although, Bret Hart claims time and time again that he is an extremely [loyal] WWF company guy. It would seem that Bret Hart would do “anything” for the WWF at the time.
Wrestling with Shadows very conveniently showcases Bret Hart dealing with troubling thoughts concerning his career shortly before and after losing the world title to Shawn Michaels at WWF WrestleMania 12. We are shown Bret discussing the fact he would never want to wrestle for WCW, and Vince pretending as though he’s trying all he can to help Bret stay in the WWF.
I’d like to take a step back for a moment and ponder upon Vince “pretending” he doesn’t know what to do with Bret Hart.
In 1997, the Bret Hart character morphed into perhaps one of the greatest heels in wrestling history. Bret was cheered in Canada, and booed in America. This occurred due to Bret banding together with his brother, the late Owen Hart, brother-in-law, the late British Bulldog, his other late brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, and late friend Brian Pillman. This new Hart Foundation was almost as popular as WCW’s NWO – a far stronger and a greatly more intriguing storyline, and most certainly cleaner presentation than DX. For Vince McMahon to suggest that Bret Hart’s WWF run was over at that time is ludicrous. Something is starting to not make sense. And remember, all this is being caught on camera in the special Wrestling With Shadows documentary.
November 1997 – WWF Survivor Series, Montreal Canada. Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart for the WWF world title (part 2).
The match begins with an extremely eerie presence in the air. Vince McMahon is ringside – but why? And remember, Wrestling with Shadows cameras are rolling.
I won’t get into the details of how the match went, or how it ended, because all you need to do is Google it and you’ll find out. In a nutshell, Bret loses to Shawn, and referee Earl Hebner calls for the bell even though Bret doesn’t give up after Shawn applies the sharpshooter (Bret’s finishing move).
Bret jumps up and dramatically spits in Vince McMahon’s face. This is due to Vince pulling “the rug out” from Bret, and changing the match’s ending after having agreed to an ending behind closed doors – Which, incidentally, was caught on camera and put into the Wrestling with Shadows documentary. Bret writes WCW with his finger at the TV cameras and then storms out of the ring smashing all WWF equipment in sight. Fans are scared, as are those employed by the WWF – or so they would have you believe. So, that’s it. Bret is gone. He is now working for WCW.
Now, you must wonder, why would Vince McMahon, a money-grubbing ego maniac allow Bret Hart, who had so much popularity and wrestling “heat” at the time leave and go work for WWF’S competition WCW – who were destroying WWF in a ratings war at the time? Remember, all this is caught on the Wrestling with Shadows documentary. Vince also mentioned at the time that WCW wouldn’t know what to do with Bret Hart. This is an interesting statement to ponder.
Would Bret’s arrival in WCW cause executives to fumble and spend hours trying to fit Bret into their product – draining attention from bigger and more current storylines? Could it be that Bret Hart [a not so excellent version of the character] was sent to WCW to help in proxy destroy it? Bret did state over and over how loyal he was to Vince McMahon in ’96 and ’97. He would have done anything for the WWF.
One man who is seen on the Wrestling with Shadows documentary is the sneaky, sleazy, and deplorable Vince Russo. Vince Russo was WWF’s head writer for a few years. He is reportedly responsible for creating the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and DX. Vince Russo was a big soap-opera guy who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty to pop a few high TV ratings even though the substance of what was being aired held very little in the way of intellectually stimulating entertainment – which also included extremely sloppy production values.
A little over a year after Bret Hart left the WWF, he was sadly retired due to Bill, I am a sloppy worker, Goldberg accidentally kicking him in the head causing a career-ending injury.
Back to Vince Russo. He joins WCW slightly ahead of Bret Hart’s injury. A little over a year after that, WCW is out of business and its library sold for a mere 5 million dollars.
What I find striking about this series of linear events is that they were documented beginning in 1996 in Wrestling with Shadows – at a time when WWF appeared as though they may go out of business. WCW was the number one wrestling company in the world. Bret was a success in WWF 1996/1997, yet he, like Vince Russo were sent to the competition that ended up going out of business within three years of this happening.
It sounds to me as though everyone in Montreal, including Bret Hart, knew what they were doing, and that by sending Bret Hart, then Vince Russo and several others to WCW, that Vince McMahon knew he would eventually destroy it.
The reason things went south and Bret never returned to the WWF, I believe is due to Owen’s tragic accident and his injury caused by Bill Goldberg. Vince Russo never returned because Vince McMahon saw how terrible of a show runner he was in WCW, and realized he had luckily dodged a could-have-been creative silver bullet in Russo.
Had Bret been healthy and returned to WWF after he, Russo and others caused fatal injury to WCW, who knows… Either way, Wrestling with Shadows changed the wrestling business in far more ways that just exposing the business.
All these years later, I believe we have just exposed the shadows lurking behind Wrestling with Shadows.
Current Impact Wrestling legend, Frankie Kazarian believes otherwise:
“Not everyone involved knew. If so, what was the payoff? No money was made by all parties as a result of the screwjob. Bret was already going off to get paid. WWE at the time was in a financial downturn. The screwjob changed the business and because of it, the WWE especially took advantage of it and went to another level in all aspects. But if you’re asking if I think that everyone knew including Bret, absolutely not.”
Tell us what you think. Did everyone know? Were Bret, Russo and others sent to WCW to “kill it”?