Throwback Thursday: Thoughts on The Montreal Screwjob

If you're a wrestling fan, you're likely keenly aware that today is the anniversary of arguably the most important event in wrestling history: The Montreal Screwjob.  And no, I don't mean that as hyperbole. It not only capped off one of the greatest rivalries in professional wrestling (Hart versus Michaels), but it also gave birth to wrestling's greatest villain (Mr. McMahon), it helped reinvigorate one company (the WWE), and was perhaps the high-water mark of another (WCW). And depending on who you ask, it served as the moment that "pulled back the curtain" on kayfabe and made "reality in wrestling" a reality. 

But in another sense, I think the real importance of the Montreal Screwjob is not its importance to wrestling history: it's that it actually interests people who aren't wrestling fans.

The last couple years, I've taught an introductory course on performance studies to first-year college students. Over the course of fifteen weeks, we examined norms of social performance, we discussed Judith Butler's writing on gender and performance, and we covered the importance of "theatre" in everything from politics to work.

Right around the end of term, I tried to teach a lesson on professional wrestling. One year, I used promos from figures like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and CM Punk to illustrate how wrestlers play to the regional and social ideologies of their audiences; the next year, I focused my energies on the importance of Lucha Libre to Mexican culture, emphasizing the mythologies wrestlers present to their audiences.

And each time, my students just stared at me throughout the class periods, their eyes projecting to me a sense of torture and pain I can barely describe.

In hindsight, I probably should have seen these reactions coming. I used to simply chalk my students' ambivalence as a result of semester fatigue, but in a larger sense, I think it was borne out their skepticism about wrestling (or the fact I was wearing a New Japan Pro Wrestling t-shirt under a blazer). Non-wrestling fans do tend to view wrestling fans -- and wrestling itself -- with some degree of suspicion, and to be fair, a great deal of that is justified. 

Despite all this, I think we as wrestling fans do a really poor job of communicating to people why we like wrestling. We sometimes might assert that we are really invested in the narratives being told to us by the wrestlers and the company; or we might say we find the blend of theatre and sport intriguing; we also may note the communal experience of being a fan with people around the world; we could even say it's simply something that has to be experienced live. Heck, I even tried all these arguments with my classes -- and with people in my life --- and it usually doesn't work. 

But a few months ago, I was walking around Milwaukee with my daughter and my girlfriend -- neither of whom are wrestling fans. For whatever reason -- okay, I was trying to embarrass both of them with some wrestling knowledge because they do love making fun of me whenever I pontificate about anything -- I briefly talked about the Montreal Screwjob.  After explaining it a broad sense, my girlfriend said "I can't believe I'm saying this, but that's actually really interesting."

And it IS interesting. And it appeals to a plethora of people because the story of the Montreal Screwjob connects to their interests. They may not like the Tupelo Concession Brawl or Brawn Stroman tipping over an ambulance, but they will enjoy hearing about an employer taking revenge on an employee, of two stars bickering with each other and then putting on a show, the war between corporate giants, and a moment that happened but wasn't supposed to happen -- and how wrestlers, promoters, and fans knew it at the time. And how it impacted a form of entertainment for years afterward and has even sparked its own "truther" movement.

**I really wish I would have done a piece on the Montreal Screwjob Truther Movement now**

The lasting gift of the Montreal Screwjob is that it can provide a gateway for people to maybe not love wrestling, but at least understand some of the elements that makes us enjoy it. And perhaps instead of saying "Here's why I love wrestling!" we, as fans, need to focus on a particular story that shows people why we love wrestling: the stories, the personalities, the context, and the unexpected.


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