As a youngster of seventeen at the time, I hated Shawn Michaels with a passion, even before he became a great heel in 1997. His good guy routine just didn’t wash with me, and I hated that he beat Bret Hart for the title in 1996 at Wrestlemania in the first ever iron man match. His run as champion was a bit of a flop, second only to Diesel, he was the lowest drawing world champion. So when my man Bret Hart returned, I was elated as it meant Bret was back to reclaim the throne, a throne that Shawn Michaels had not been able to fill it seemed. Naturally, it felt entirely organic that Shawn and Bret would wrestle for the belt at Wrestlemania XIII, and yours truly couldn’t wait for that to happen...
It would be like Rocky II in my head. The Iron Man match had ended on a really dumb note. Not only were there no falls throughout the match, it technically only ended as a draw. This meant that the match had to go into sudden death overtime, and Shawn went on to win it a minute or so later. The whole thing seemed too long and drawn out to me, but I was sure that the rematch would be different. Both Shawn and Bret’s characters had evolved somewhat in the space of that year, Bret had more of a chip on his shoulder and Shawn was less of a traditional white meat Babyface and had become more bodacious. The two had traded barbs back and forth, many of which seemed rooted in realism. It seemed more personal this time, where the Iron Man match had felt more sportsmanlike, feeling like the first Rocky/Apollo Creed fight. This one felt personal. The storyline saw Bret feeling that he had left Shawn as the champion, and in his absence Shawn hadn’t been a very good role model for the company. Shawn had failed to live up to the standards Bret had set for the title and the role as champion. There was a slight realism added to the whole thing, as Shawn hadn’t been the draw the company had banked on, and Bret had flirted with an offer from the rival wrestling company WCW before choosing to stick with the WWF.
But then things went a bit awry. Shawn had a knee injury that put him out of the match, a time that also saw him “lose his smile”, and thus Bret and Shawn part two wouldn’t be on the cards. That meant Vince and the WWF needed a replacement match.
The Build Up.
Enter Steve Austin. Austin had become a rising star ever since the summer of ’96, and just needed something, or someone to proper cement him as a top performer in the business. The usual claim is that his “King of the Ring” speech set him atop the card, but truth be told, he treaded water for a long time before getting anything significant to do. A returning Bret Hart needed someone to wrestle in his return match at Survivor Series ’96, and the two went on to wrestle a very solid match, albeit one that served more to get the returning Bret Hart over, as opposed to a match that would get both men over as top performers. After a series of TV matches, six man tags, multi-man matches (including the impressive Fatal Fourway at the In your House PPV,) the two were set to duel once again. Only this time it felt different, it had a big match feel about it and the build-up was legendary.
Steve Austin and Bret had continued to conflict over several things, including Steve Austin and Bret going at it throughout the Royal Rumble match. At the end of the match, when it came to only a handful of people, Bret eliminated Steve. However, the referees were distracted by Vader and the Undertaker brawling ringside after being eliminated, and thus didn’t see Bret eliminate Steve. Steve returned to the ring, and the referees did see Steve Austin throw Bret Hart over the top rope for the win. This of course began the first of many instances of Bret Hart’s character being “screwed.” Shawn Michaels vacated the title and Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Big Van Vader and the Undertaker all competed in a four person Elimination Match at the WWF In your House PPV on the 16th February. A match that Bret Hart would win by last eliminating the Undertaker. Bret then celebrated his fourth WWF title reign, a reign that sadly only last one night. Bret defended the title in a match against Psycho Sid, during which Steve Austin interfered, costing Bret the match, and the Title. Sid captured the WWF championship for the second and final time.
Naturally this didn’t sit well with Hart.
The week before, on Monday Night Raw on the 17th of March, Bret Hart would wrestle for the WWF Championship in a cage match against Psycho Sid. Bret Hart had never previously lost a cage match, and thus it felt like Bret had it in the bag. The match was changed to be a world title match. The alternative was Psycho Sid versus the Undertaker. Psycho Sid always felt like a caretaker champion and the Undertaker never really felt like he needed to be the World Champion. The Undertaker’s feuds had him as a supernatural character, and titles always felt beneath him in favour of whatever monster was trying to slay him.
However that match didn’t end with Bret Hart winning the world title for a record fifth time (tying with Hulk Hogan as the only man to do that.) No, they actually went with Sid winning, as Bret had a cage door slammed in his face courtesy of the Undertaker. Taker wanted Sid to retain and thus to keep the world title on him for their upcoming match. Now, the post-match shenanigans were a thing of rare beauty that still stand up to this day. Bret was being interviewed by Vince McMahon (who, at this point, was the secretive owner of the company posing as a straight laced commentator and announcer), and after Vince asked him if he was frustrated by his loss, Bret pushed Vince McMahon down, which was something of a no-no as announcers rarely got physical. Bret unleashed his best microphone work of his career as he proclaimed himself the best in the locker room, and how he had been screwed over yet again and everyone takes a blind eye too it. This prompted Steve Austin to arrive and brawl with the Hitman, Shawn Michaels arrived, and did nothing but tease his involvement in the upcoming match. So intense and so believable was the post-match brawling that Pat Patterson himself got slugged for his efforts by the Hitman during the pull apart.
It was majestic, Bret had turned somewhat nasty it seemed, and a new found attitude was added to his character, and this attitude would follow over to the match.
Wrestlemania might not have been the spectacle it is now, but it was still the WWF’s premiere PPV event and thus the grandest stage of them all. The match between Bret and Steve was aiming for realism and thus needed a little some extra to sell the match.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship was on the rise in the United States at the time, and one of its top stars was Ken Shamrock, dubbed by ABC news as the World’s most dangerous man. On February 24th Shamrock was introduced to WWF television, and would eventually figure into the match as the referee. His involvement added an element of realism, as the UFC had gained so much traction for its brutality. So much so, that it was originally banned in many states in the early to mid 90’s. Thus, adding Ken Shamrock to the match was an act of rare genius at the time.
"The world most dangerous man is involved as the peacekeeper then these two guys must really want to kill one another”, was my thinking at the time.
Ken Shamrock had a look of a killer before the bell rang and sadly got a subdued reaction, possibly due to wrestling fans not being privy to MMA at the time. Steve Austin soon arrived and we got the first “Glass Shatters” entrance that I’m aware of, as he turned up and immediately began arguing with Ken Shamrock, continuing the theme of realism. Bret arrived and got a slightly quieter reaction, due to the semi-turn the week before. Within seconds of being in the ring, Steve Austin went for a double leg takedown and the brawling began. The match just felt somewhat realer than usual as both men were just seemingly hit harder and we got some serious brawling. A far cry from Bret Hart’s usual technical wrestling forte. Within moments they were brawling in the crowd, which wasn’t something seen often in the WWF at this time. As Steve took the early lead, proclaimed Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross, giving some of the best vocal work of his career shouted: “This resembles a bar fight more than a wrestling match”, which summed up the tone perfectly. Austin had one of the only comedy spots in the match as he toppled backwards trying to lift the ring steps. Back in the ring Bret hit a neckbreaker and his signature 2nd Rope elbow, and went to work on Steve’s leg, setting him up later for the sharpshooter. Even in a no holds barred match Bret’s storytelling had a sound logic to it that wrestling often lacks today. After Bret missed an attack on the leg, Steve hit a stone cold stunner with little fanfare to even the odds somewhat, before Bret was back to working the leg, including the figure four round the ring post. Austin was relentless as he used a chair on Hart twice and regained control. Jim Ross, again on form, proclaimed it “Wasn’t a match about talking about the past, or posing, or covering a bald spot”. This served as a not so subtle dig at the rival wrestling company WCW, who at the time was winning the Monday Night War with its use of established names like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Usually these digs felt cheap and unnecessary, but for this one match they felt really on point as WCW’s main events were never this strong or compelling. Steve Austin attempted a sharpshooter that was blocked. Bret moved out of the ring, allowing Steve to work the crowd, and he got his last heel reaction for years. The two returned to brawling out of the ring and Steve was busted wide open. At the time the company had an anti-blood policy and thus blading wasn’t allowed as such, so it had to be hard way, but it was planned by the two. Steve was bleeding heavily, and Bret being the experienced pro knew just how to emphasise the drama from here on in, as he went to work on the legs of Steve Austin with a chair. From a storytelling perspective it was amazing, as we the audience were now able to feel sympathy for the villain as he hobbled around the ring limping and covered in blood. Bret, who was meant to be the hero of the piece, went to work on Steve and by the time Austin hit a low blow and regained control we as an audience weren’t sure who were supposed to be pulling for. By this point they had our attention perfectly, a superplex from Austin would be the last big piece of offence as we went to the finale. And what a finale it was.
The image of Steve Austin covered in blood and passing out rather than tapping is entrenched in the mind of wrestling fans forever. It was seen on posters, books, magazines, t-shirts for years to come and used in highlight packages for the rest of his career. If there is one defining moment of the pre-attitude era, it’s probably this one. They told a hell of a story on this night. Bret Hart had the win, but as far as I’m concerned everyone won that night. Bret Hart cemented himself as a heel, Steve Austin sold himself as the toughest S.O.B by not giving up but still losing and Ken Shamrock the new signee got off to a strong start as being a real fighter. The stare-down between Bret Hart and Ken Shamrock was a perfect display of respect between the two. To sell Steve Austin further as a tough guy, he refused the referee’s help and left of his own accord to the still mixed reaction of the crowd and a brief Austin chant.
The announcers would put over both men’s toughness and this would set us up for the next few months to come.
The following night on RAW, Bret Hart would make his way ringside as he was promised a chance to apologise for his actions to his fans. He promptly apologised to his fans in Germany, The UK, Europe, Japan and the Far East, Middle East, South Africa and especially those in Canada. But not to the American fans, as they didn’t deserve it. He said they don’t respect heroes, and preferred to cheer a gutless creep like Steve Austin, who the fans had treated like the winner of the match the night prior.
From a storyline standpoint this was engrossing. Seemingly, Bret Hart the consummate hero, had turned evil. He had turned in a way that also maintained his dignity and morals, as he was only a heel in America, but still a hero elsewhere. Bret saw himself as the hero of old crusading against the system, the system was the American wrestling fans and their ever changing wants for a new hero or in this case an anti-hero.
Steve Austin was presented as the toughest man alive after surviving the Wrestlemania match without quitting. The British Bulldog, Bret Hart’s brother in law, and Owen Hart, Bret’s real life brother, had continued their teased break-up with a match on RAW the week after Wrestlemania. After a brief yet enjoyable match, Bret Hart entered to stop the match and used his new found hatred of American fans to convince the two to join up and put aside their issues. It was cleverly done of course as it was seen as Bret healing old wounds to his fan base, but to his haters it was simply a divine need to have back-up, this allowed them to stack the deck against Steve Austin during their summer feud. That led of course to Steve Austin and Bret wrestling again on PPV in April 20th at In your House; Revenge of the ‘Taker. Austin had cemented himself as the babyface perfectly now and the fans were in no doubt as to who to cheer for, (which was the only fault in the Wrestlemania match if there indeed was one). It was a DQ ending of course as Owen Hart and the British Bulldog did a run in for the DQ finish as Steve Austin had Bret beat in the sharpshooter. The course was now set from here on in as it was Steve Austin versus the Harts. The following night Steve Austin and Bret had a segment that ended later on in a street fight, with Austin viciously attacking Hart with a steel chair. He injured Bret’s leg while the crowd ate it all up. Bret was stretchered out and was on his way to the hospital before Austin would attack him again, which is the sort of thing you would see all the time now, but back then it was fresh and original. For the next month Bret was confined to a wheelchair and the other members of the Hart Foundation would do battle with Steve , until Steve Austin would wrestle the Undertaker at the May PPV In your House; Cold Day in Hell. Steve Austin looked set to win his first WWF Championship that night as he had the Undertaker beat, but Brian Pillman who had joined the Harts rang the bell to distract Austin and then the Undertaker put his away with the Tombstone. The Harts then attacked the Undertaker after the match, with Steve Austin making a beeline for Bret Hart who was wheelchair bound and helpless. Steve stole Bret’s crutches and then went onto assault the Hart family. He then hit a Stunner on the Undertaker, both of which were babyfaces, which added an interesting dynamic to Steve Austin’s character that other babyface’s previously lacked: the fact he didn’t trust people. This would become typical Austin behaviour and was what made him a top star. Steve Austin and Bret Hart never wrestled on PPV against each other one on one again which would be unheard of in today’s WWE landscape. They did tangle in the incredible Ten Man Tag at the In Your House; Canadian Stampede. The match that saw the role reversal of the Hart Foundation being the Babyface’s in Canada and Heels in the US. Steve Austin would then have a brief feud with Brian Pillman that never resulted in a PPV match, then a rift with his tag partner Shawn Michaels who was later replaced by Mick Foley, (who debuted his Dude Love persona in hilarious fashion). And of course, Steve Austin would wrestle Owen hart in a match at Summerslam where he would capture his first singles title and get the neck injury that side-lined him for three months, and changed his in ring style forever to the more brawling based style that the Wrestlemania match had now made famous.
Bret Hart of course would pick up his fifth world title in a match against the Undertaker at Summerslam 1997. He would go on to wrestle the Patriot Del Wilkes, Big Van Vader and of course Shawn Michaels on PPV for the rest of the year. He was also involved in some solid TV matches with Ken Shamrock, Goldust, and Farooq. He also wrestled Terry Funk in his retirement match at Terry Funk’s Wrestlefest in September 11th in Amarillo Texas, Retiring Terry Funk for about six months, From there on in for Bret we know the rest of the story for his WWF run and it doesn’t need repeating here. And we certainly know what happened next with Steve Austin.
But concentrating on the match and feud, Steve Austin and Bret Hart never wrestled one on one again on PPV or TV after The Canadian Stampede. Bret Hart and Steve Austin only wrestled one another three times on PPV, each with their own individual story and not once for a world title. All three matches are quality, and much like the Godfather trilogy the second one is regarded as the finest, some might argue that Steve Austin never beating Bret Hart on PPV tainted the rivalry and by today’s standards things might’ve been different. But you don’t need to beat your opponent to be put over, and all three matches proved that. I like to think if Bret Hart had not left in November like he did, then we would’ve definitely have gotten more matches from the two and I’m sure in 1998 Bret Hart would’ve lost to Steve Austin along the way in a high profile match or two. Maybe the two would have even traded belts with one another. But I think it’s best we only got what we did, it adds to the magic and gives the Wrestlemania match more of an aura for the classic it is, and the feud itself and it’s interviews, build up, turns, run in’s and narrative was a precursor for how the WWE has done many a feud ever since There is no denying it’s a classic all the way and truly one of the standard bearer’s for the quality of professional wrestling’s matches of any era.
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