In Defense Of… Earl Hebner Screwing Bret Hart
A version of this article originally appeared on 411mania.com and was updated for the book IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED. Learn more at https://www.jpprag.com
Certain people, events, organizations, and storylines in wrestling history have gotten a bum rap. Some writers have presented overtly critical comments and outright lies as fact, and others have followed suit. Well no more! “In Defense of…” has one reason: to bring the truth to the wrestling fan!
Some dame walked into my office and said…
It all started when I got an e-mail from the promo-man himself, Tim Hamilton:
Some ideas I have thought of that would work well for your column include… the Montreal Screwjob and how Vince did what he had to do (obvious choice).
That was soon followed up when my number one detractor MATTHEW Roberts suggested a number of topics he felt were better than some upcoming cases I shared with him:
Defending McMahon, Michaels, Hebner, and Triple H against the Montreal [Screwjob.] Yes, Bret screwed [Bret]. [Bret] should have done business the right way instead of being a mark for himself. It actually helped [Bret]’s failing career. [Bret] should stop being bitter.
And even very recently I heard from Gino who had this to say:
I don’t know if you have done it yet, but can you defend Vince for screwing Bret? If nothing else, it’s a challenge.
And the answer to all of them is this:
Well, actually, to MATTHEW Roberts it is “kind of”.
You see, I will not defend Vince for screwing Bret. Don’t get me wrong, it has nothing to do with what happened in the ring.
When Vince and Bret were backstage, Vince lied straight to Bret’s face and said Bret could have it his way, and that was the end of it. Right there, Vince lost any ground he would have had. I do not defend lies on this scale, despite intentions. He had the option to refuse Bret, to say he’d think about it, or to not give him any answer. Instead, he said Bret was right, and that it was fine and dandy. For that reason, Vince McMahon will not be defended here.
But don’t read into this too much; I am not anti-Vince. As you will see at the end of this case, he is defendable in many other circumstances, and I’ll be glad to defend him then.
Now, this case is NOT about whether or not the Montreal Screwjob should have happened. Vince should not have lied to Bret to his face, this is true. Bret should not have tried to leave with the title. Leaving with the title hurts a promotion (see Ric Flair: Real World Champion or Medusa and a trash can). Both of these parties were in the wrong for their wants and actions. But one man was stuck in the middle… literally. And one man still gets blamed for it all across the great white north.
You Screwed Bret
Until a few days before this was originally published, Earl Heber was employed by World Wrestling Entertainment as a referee on RAW. As part of the WWE circuit, the RAW crew found themselves in Canada three or four times a year. And every time they went there, Earl would hear this chant:
“You screwed Bret! You Screwed Bret!”
On November 9, 1997 at Survivor Series, Shawn Michaels had Bret Hart locked in his own finishing move — the Sharp Shooter — and Hebner called for the bell. Shawn Michaels was declared the winner and new WWF Champion, and Heber was raced out of the ring.
He ran through the locker room and straight into a waiting car running in the parking lot that was set to drive him to the hotel to grab his things and then straight to the airport. Hebner would have the next two days of RAW tapings off. Unfortunately, Hebner was not quick enough at the hotel and some wrestlers made it back there while he was still collecting his possessions. A good friend of Bret Hart’s confronted Hebner and asked him how he could screw over his friend like that. Fearing for his safety, Hebner said he was so mad about it he would quit the company. This, of course, would not happen. But this was not some backstage dealings we are talking about, but the man’s safety. Hebner needed to get out the country, and he did.
Yes, Hebner was definitely in on the plot to screw Bret Hart, someone Hart considered one of his closest friends in the industry. Why would Hebner screw over his friend like that? Why would Hebner put himself at great personal physical risk for this? Why would he take the chance that he’d be ostracized from every other worker in the company?
Try thinking for yourselves before you pelt an innocent man with cigarettes!
Because Earl Hebner was doing his job.
And this is where people get confused. I think the best example comes from the film Clerks:
LISTENER 1: It’s not that easy to quit [smoking].
ACTIVIST: Of course it’s not; not when you have people like this mindless cretin so happy and willing to sell you nails for your coffin!
DANTE: Hey, now wait a sec…
ACTIVIST: Now he’s going to launch into his rap about how he’s just doing his job; following orders. Friends, let me tell you about another bunch of hate mongers that were just following orders: they were called Nazis, and they practically wiped a nation of people from the Earth… just like cigarettes are doing now! Cigarette smoking is the new Holocaust, and those that partake in the practice of smoking or sell the wares that promote it are the Nazis of the nineties! He doesn’t care how many people die from it! He smiles as you pay for your cancer sticks and says, “Have a nice day.”
DANTE: I think you’d better leave now.
ACTIVIST: You want me to leave? Why? Because somebody is telling it like it is? Somebody’s giving these fine people a wake-up call?!
DANTE: You’re loitering in here, and causing a disturbance.
ACTIVIST: You’re the disturbance, pal! And here… (slaps a dollar on the counter) I’m buying some… what’s this? … Chewlie’s Gum. There. I’m no longer loitering. I’m a customer, a customer engaged in a discussion with other customers.
LISTENER 2: (to DANTE) Yeah, now shut up so he can speak!
ACTIVIST: Oh, he’s scared now! He sees the threat we present! He smells the changes coming, and the loss of sales when the nonsmokers finally demand satisfaction. We demand the right to breathe cleaner air!
LISTENER 3: Yeah!
ACTIVIST: We’d rather chew our gum than embrace slow death! Let’s abolish this heinous practice of sucking poison, and if it means ruffling the feathers of a convenience store idiot, then so be it!
DANTE: That’s it, everybody out.
ACTIVIST: We’re not moving! We have a right, a constitutional right, to assemble and be heard!
DANTE: Yeah, but not in here.
ACTIVIST: What better place than this? To stamp it out, you gotta start at the source!
DANTE: Like I’m responsible for all the smokers!
ACTIVIST: The ones in this town, yes! You encourage their growth, their habit. You’re the source in this area, and we’re going to shut you down for good! For good, cancer-merchant!
(The small crowd begins to chant and jeer in DANTE’s face.)
CROWD: Cancer merchant! Cancer merchant! Cancer merchant!
In the grand scheme of things, the fact that Hebner was in on the screwjob and part of it does not make him one of the worst people on Earth. Yes, always following orders is not the smart or ethical thing to do, and you should stand up for your beliefs. I was not backstage, but I am sure Hebner expressed his disappointment in what he was going to be a part of. Still, when you weigh your options, and you look at your choices, just because you choose the path of the bad guy it does not mean you are always bad.
Standing by and doing nothing is an atrocity, but no one’s lives were on the line. No nations were going to be overrun, no people oppressed and killed, and no years of war were going to follow. There was going to be backlash and regret, but at no point was Hebner putting anyone but himself at physical risk.
Dante was just selling cigarettes; it was people’s choice whether or not to buy them. He personally did not agree with them but was not about to force his opinions down their throat. He’d be out of a job with nothing to show for it. No one would stop smoking from listening to him. Even the Chewlie’s Gum representative couldn’t do it, as one of the pelting parties bought a package of cigarettes immediately following this scene.
If Earl Hebner had made a moral stand, what would have happened? He would have been fired. I turn you to Week Forty-Two of Fact or Fiction:
6. Earl Hebner should not have been fired by WWE after the loyalty he showed in the Montreal Screwjob.
Stephen Randle: FICTION. Hell, the Montreal Screwjob actually sets the precedent. Nobody (except Vince’s family, and I wouldn’t hold him to it) is untouchable. Loyalty, friendship, they don’t mean anything if you do things like [publicly embarrass] the company, get in the way of company plans, or, in this case, apparently steal from the company. Steal a car, go to jail. Steal from Vince (or any boss, really), go to the unemployment line and be thankful you aren’t in the spoon position with Jimmy Hoffa.
Randle has it right. Hebner would have been fired on the spot for not doing his job. And two things would have happened. One, the screwjob would still happen because some other ref would be in there who would listen to Vince. Two, Hebner would have nowhere to go. WCW was full of referees at the time. Being fired means he would not have been part of the angle, so there would be no interest from that perspective to bring him in. Referees are not like wrestling personalities, and although they play an important role in the pace and layout of a match, they do not add enough that a company would just hire more. Even though WCW was making money hand over fist at the time, they still would not just hire anyone. Maybe Bret could have pulled some strings, but that was not a guarantee, and he might have been upset with Hebner for not telling him in the first place. There was simply too much risk.
On the same note, Earl could not go back to the independents. He had worked for years on the independent scene to get to the WWF, but there was no guarantee of work there either. There were plenty of young refs out there already who worked cheap enough part time that Earl would never find any work. Also backstage, his brother Dave worked in a management capacity. Dave, too, would feel the backlash effect of Earl’s actions, just like he has now with the merchandizing scandal.
But why should we listen to another outsider? Let’s ask Referee Scott Dickinson his thoughts:
Question 11: Earl Hebner: Loyal company employee, or backstabbing two-faced phony?
Scott Dickinson: Earl did what he had to do under very tough circumstances.
Question 31: If you were in Earl Hebner’s position and had a family to support and your career on the line, would you have gone through with the double-cross, knowing you’d lose your best friend?
Scott Dickinson: Since I was never full time [it’s] hard to answer but I would [probably] be a company guy.
Just because you are doing a job, it does not make you responsible for everything. Earl Hebner was told to do something, and it was going to happen with or without him. He weighed his options and saw what he was doing was not the worst thing in the world. Even the man he was hurting, Bret Hart, was going to be fine. Bret already had a $3 million a year guaranteed contract at WCW waiting for him. There really was not that much to worry about aside from his own personal health.
In an interview with Alan Wojcik, Dennis “Mideon” Knight had this to say about the Montreal Screwjob:
The only bad thing that no one talks about is Earl Hebner who refereed that match, he almost quit the business. He took tons of heat but he did what the boss told him to do. How did Bret get screwed when he left and went… to the highest contract in wrestling history?
The seeds were planted 10 years beforehand
What is even more amazing, though, is that this type of action is not out of the nature of Earl Hebner the character. I refer you to Saturday Sentinel with Professor Newton Gimmick (which was lifted from 1wrestling which in turn lifted it from Wikipedia):
Hebner debuted as a referee during a WWF World Heavyweight Championship match pitting champion Hulk Hogan against challenger André the Giant, which aired live on February 5, 1988, on NBC’s The Main Event. Hebner’s twin brother, Dave, was the assigned official, but unbeknownst to Hogan, André’s manager, Ted DiBiase, had bribed Earl to take his brother’s place. Earl then counted André’s pin against Hogan, even though Hogan’s shoulders were clearly off the mat. As André and DiBiase were celebrating (with André quickly “selling” his title to an overjoyed DiBiase), Dave Hebner — whom DiBiase had locked in a closet prior to the match — ran to the ring and confronted Earl. Hogan turned around just in time to see the two brothers arguing and Earl knock down his brother.
And I had almost forgotten this! Earl Hebner the character debuted in a screwjob, that is his MO. Not only that, Earl was such a successful con artist that over time he convinced us that he was the good referee and that Dave was actually the evil one that DiBiase had paid off. We had been fooled for almost ten years into believing that Earl was actually a good man looking out for the best interests of the faces. But he often chose interesting methods to get there.
Let us not forget that he later intentionally screwed over Triple H in favor of the Rock. Or that he was often seen “toasting” in the ring with Steve Austin. Hebner the character definitely had personal biases and never hid them. He would kick a heel’s hand off the rope who was using it for leverage instead of making them break the hold. That goes far beyond refereeing, and straight into full blown personal interference.
The character of Earl Hebner was definitely the type to do the screwjob. He had done it before, and would do it again.
A case without talking about buyrates?
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Hebner the person was rewarded for his actions and for protecting the company. As we have recently learned, Earl was making upwards of $500,000 a year, even more than Johnny Ace, head of talent relations. Earl could not have known this was going to happen, as he just wanted to protect his initial paycheck and his family. But the rewards were there for him proving that he at least did the right thing for his own personal life.
Yes, he did lose a good friend in the process, but even Bret Hart has forgiven Hebner for his role in the Montreal Screwjob. In an interview with Steve Gerweck, the Hitman had this to say:
SG: Are you still friends with referee Earl Hebner?
BH: No, I’m not friends with any of them. At the same time, I don’t carry around a lot of anger. Earl Hebner is really just a victim.
If Bret Hart isn’t bothered that Hebner screwed him, then why are any of us?
The old 1–2–3
Earl Hebner was a man with one of the best jobs in the world: a referee for the WWE. He did not want to jeopardize his career or his family in 1997, and knew nothing was going to stop the oncoming storm. So he weighed his options, saw that everyone was going to be safe and monetarily secure in the end, took a big personal physical risk, and then screwed Bret Hart.
But in the end, Hart forgave Earl, and knew Earl had to do what he had to do. The character of Earl Hebner also knew that this is what he had always done and would do again. Everything made sense on the camera, and the world was safe backstage.
Earl Hebner screwed Bret Hart. No one is denying that. But for Earl Hebner the person and character, it was the correct choice to make, and he was justified in his decision.
Hebner may have lost his way over time with his large paycheck, but that does not change history. What happened in 1997 occurred just as it was supposed to: with Earl Hebner as the ref that screwed Bret.
The defense rests.
After the Trial
IN THE CASE OF THE IWC VERSUS EARL HEBNER SCREWING BRET HART, HEBNER HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING JUST LIKE A NAZI FOR FOLLOWING ORDERS TO END THE MATCH IN MONTREAL AND NOT DOING THE RIGHT THING FOR BRET HART AND THE WRESTLING WORLD.
And with some decidedly split decisions, having just 59.8% of the vote, Earl Hebner Screwing Bret Hart was found:
I feel like I could have converted about 10% more of the people if I had addressed one issue: According to Dave Meltzer, Bret Hart said that Earl Hebner said, “I swear on my kids lives that I’d quit my job before double-crossing you.” And many of you called me out on this and asked how I could defend Earl Hebner for lying to Bret Hart but not Vince? Well, here’s my answer:
I knew about this statement well beforehand but chose not to include it because I do not believe it is corroborated evidence. Look at what I wrote: Dave Meltzer said that Bret Hart said that Earl Hebner said. That’s third hand evidence, what I would call hearsay at best. We do not know enough about what was really said, if those even were Earl’s words, or just the words Bret wanted to hear (i.e., as time went on, Bret believed what he thought he heard in his head until he was positive it was exactly what he heard). We also do not know if Earl knew about the plan at this point or if he did not find out until the next morning. I personally believe Earl said something to the effect of “I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you” meaning that he’d make sure Bret was not physically hurt. And that’s exactly what Earl Hebner did; he kept Bret Hart physically safe and sent him on his way.
Since this isn’t a speculation piece, though, I did not want to address it. I do not believe it is firm evidence of anything Earl may have said, and I do not have any evidence to attack it, only opinion. Therefore, those of you who voted guilty, I’d ask you to rethink your position since you are basing it off of a most likely false statement.
Of course, my response was not the end of the controversy. Among the many responses was:
Hey[,] I just wanted to comment on what you said about Dave Meltzer saying Bret said Earl said etc.
I know the case is closed and all that jazz but just so you know, I watched Wrestling with Shadows for the first time last week, and there is a scene where Earl Hebner says to Bret “I swear on my kids I’m not going to screw you.”
It wasn’t hearsay, the words came out of his mouth on camera.
Just wanted to pass that on. Thanks for your time.
- Jed Winter
To which I replied:
Did Earl really say it or did Bret say Earl said it? I’ll have to watch it again when I get home, I am having no recollection what-so-ever of this scene!
I’m sure I’m not the only one that is going to e mail you but here goes: On Wrestling with Shadows Bret says himself that Earl swears on his kids that he [wouldn’t] let anything happen. Dave Meltzer might have said that Bret said it because it is true. If I remember correctly it shows Earl in black in white while Bret says this. I think it’s right after Bret talks to Vince.
Thank you for your time,
And at the time I said:
I haven’t seen it for a while, so I’m not sure about this scene. That said, if Bret is the one who said it, I’m still not convinced that those were Earl’s exact words, or what Bret believes he heard.
Due to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to re-watch the scene in question. At about the 1 hour | 14 minute mark, Bret Hart is talking to his wife and she is asking him what if something goes wrong. Suddenly, it cuts to a black and white image of Earl Hebner in the ring, ominous music starts, and Bret says:
Well I don’t have to worry about the referee tomorrow because I talked to Earl. He swore on his kids that he’s not going to let anything happen… and I can trust Earl.
So here again we don’t have Earl Hebner saying anything; we have Bret Hart’s impression of what he allegedly said. But as noted above: I was able to view this with modern technology and was able to separate out the audio. These words are not from the conversation Bret was having with his wife; they are directly mic’d in a clear method without the background and quality of the recording in the seconds just beforehand. That means that this audio comes from some other conversation. Did it come before the screwjob, or afterwards? Editing put it in a place to make us think this is what he was saying this to his wife, but it seems more like he was telling a present-tense story or telling the thoughts in his head after-the-fact. Perhaps the experience of the event tainted his view of what happened? Or perhaps, more so, Bret was casting his own version of history for his own purposes — whether it was conscious or not?
Other than addressing this scene, there is one other thing I could have done better:
If we are asking if Earl was justified in the decision to “screw” Bret, then I’d happily change my vote to Not Guilty.
Brian K. Eason
I would like to have said that I lost only one vote due to semantics, but it was a lot more than that!