5-Star Match Reviews: Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart - Steel Cage Match at WWE SummerSlam 1994, by Alex Podgorski

5-Star Match Reviews: Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart - Steel Cage Match at WWE SummerSlam 1994, by Alex Podgorski

Five-star rated matches are rare as it is. Five star WWE matches are even rarer still. I don’t know if that’s due to a bias from the rating source or if it’s due to an inherent flaw in how WWE matches are structured. Either way, when a WWE matches does get rated five-stars, that means it’s a true epic for the ages.

Today we revisit one such an acclaimed classic from over twenty-five years ago. It’s the legendary steel cage match between Bret and Owen Hart from SummerSlam 1994.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

When TJRWrestling’s Owner John Canton reviewed this match in his SummerSlam 1994 review, he also rated it five stars.

The story

This match is the culmination of almost a year’s worth of storyline. Bret Hart was the WWF/E Champion and considered the best out of his entire (extensive) family. Most if not all of his siblings were either wrestlers themselves or married to wrestlers. They all achieved varying degrees of success, but none was more successful than Bret. That bothered all of them in different ways, but the one that really got mad was Owen. Owen was the youngest Hart, yet many people believed he was on his way to surpassing all of them, even Bret. And while we’ll never know to what heights he could’ve reached (for extremely tragic and unnecessary reasons), he had flashes of greatness throughout the 1990s. So he wanted to prove himself by breaking away from simply being ‘Bret Hart’s baby brother’.

Their feud was first teased at Survivor Series, in a match in which Owen was the only man eliminated. They had back-and-forth arguments for months, leading to a regular match at WrestleMania X. That contest has since been dubbed the greatest opening match in WrestleMania history. But even though Owen won that match, Bret was the one that ended the evening with the main event win and the WWF Championship.

The rivalry between Bret and Owen continued to grow throughout the spring of 1994. Then it was decided that it would culminate at SummerSlam 1994 in a Steel Cage match. As if that weren’t enough, most of the Hart Family was live in attendance, with different members wanting a different person to win this scheduled match.

The match

This match took place at The United Center in Chicago, Illinois on August 29, 1994.

This is for the WWF/E Championship. The crowd is absolutely wild as this match gets underway. Owen attacks Bret as soon as he enters the cage. He hammers away for a good forty seconds until Bret fires back with an atomic drop and a clothesline. Bret wins their second exchange with a DDT. The video I found is clipped so the next thing we see is Bret reaching the top of the cage. Owen cuts him off and lands an enzuigiri. He reaches the top of the cage but Bret grabs his leg, ending his escape. Bret drops Owen with a back suplex. Owen heads for the cage door but Owen pulls him back in. Bret cuts Owen’s charge off and drops him with a running bulldog.

Both men take turns diving for the cage door, but each gets cut off. Bret applies a facelock on Owen, who escapes by biting Bret’s finger. Bret climbs the cage, but Owen intervenes and throws Bret across the ring. Owen climbs the cage and makes it outside but Bret catches him at the last possible second and pulls him back in by the head. They fight in the corner until Owen knocks Bret down then lands a missile dropkick. Owen climbs and Bret cuts him off once more, and again they hammer away at each other.  The fans haven’t quieted down at all through all of this.

Back in the ring, Bret reverses a piledriver attempt into a back body drop and lands a clothesline to take Owen down. Owen crawls to the door but yet again Bret pulls him away. Bret lands a forearm and climbs the cage, but Owen pulls him down and Bret lands hard on one of his legs. Owen crawls to the door again but Bret grabs his ankle and pulls him back in. Bret lands a head-butt to the groin but misses a diving elbow drop. Again Owen climbs and again Bret pulls him down. Bret throws Owen and goes to climb as Owen grabs him and lands some sort of crucifix slam.

Owen climbs but Bret pulls him in once more and both are down. Bret climbs but Owen drops him with a back suplex from the rope. Piledriver by Owen. Bret tries to bring Owen down but Owen punches him away. But Owen slips and falls to the mat. Bret crawls to the door but Owen stops him. Bret writhes his way to the door but Owen just won’t let go. Not even a barrage of fists can make Owen release his grip.

Eventually, Bret pulls Owen back in and slingshots him into the cage wall. Bret goes for the door but Owen jumps onto Bret’s leg at the last possible second. Owen gets up and tries to smash Bret into the cage, but Bret ducks and Owen hits it instead. Bret stays down as his left knee’s giving him problems. He reaches the top of the cage and climbs outside but Owen grabs him by the arm and then by the hair to stop him.

Bret goes up again but Owen catches him and they start fighting on the top rope again. Bret wins the fight and Owen falls. But Owen pulls him back into the ring. Owen ducks a clothesline and lands one of his own to Bret. Both are down again. Owen climbs up first, but Bret catches him. Superplex from the top of the cage! Bret crawls to the door but Owen grabs him. Sharpshooter by Owen. Owen screams that he’s gonna break Bret’s legs. Well, why didn’t he do this earlier? Now Bret reverses it. Sharpshooter by Bret!

Bret climbs the cage, Owen grabs him, and they both go down. Owen crawls over Bret and climbs the cage wall. Then Bret catches up with him. Both men straddle the cage. They’re both outside the cage. Owen hammers away on Bret. Bret smashes Owen’s head into the cage wall and Owen’s legs go through the cell wall. He’s hung upside down. He can’t move. Bret jumps down. Bret has won. The crowd is going absolutely apeshit.

Winner and STILL WWF Champion after 32:17: Bret Hart

Analysis

Let’s get the positives out of the way first here.

The crowd was absolutely crazy. They cheered from the opening seconds and didn’t go quiet at all for thirty minutes. They were heavily invested in this match. Each time either wrestler neared escape, they got deafeningly loud. They cheered both wrestlers equally and helped give this match a big fight atmosphere.

Secondly, Bret and Owen did a great job selling their exhaustion. With each subsequent escape attempt, both Owen and Bret had less energy to expend. Given that lingering issue, each big fall, hard landing and signature move have the match a greater sense of urgency. And when both men collapsed side by side, it made the match so much more compelling. Even though Owen entered this match as an underdog fighting his older, more experienced champion brother, he was very much Bret’s equal at many points throughout the match.

All that being said, I didn’t really find this to be a genuinely epic match, and here’s why.

On paper, two brothers engaged in a bitter feud with each other settling the score once and for all in a cage makes perfect sense. But in execution, a lot was off with this match. The stipulation of winning via escaping the cage narrowed the options both Bret and Owen had to make this match work. That’s why the opening parts were filled with repetitive escape attempts which didn’t really further the story. For a good twelve to fifteen minutes, the match was composed of constant escape-block sequences. And none of these sequences really differed from one another nor were they layered on top of one another to tell a deeper story. Owen stomped on Bret’s hand early on but never capitalized on this to make it harder for Bret to climb, nor did Bret really sell pain in his wrist or use it to add drama to his many climb attempts.

Furthermore, both Bret and Owen were known technical wrestling masters, yet none of that was displayed here. While it’s true that a cage match has its own parameters as a stipulation, this match was begging for one or ideally both men to use their knowledge of wrestling psychology and technical know-how to make this match better. If both of them knew that the only way to win was to escape, why didn’t either man try to weaken the other’s arms or legs? You can’t escape the cage if you can’t climb due to weakened legs. Nor can you reach the door if your arms are too weak to pull your own body weight forward. Knowing those parameters, it didn’t make sense for both of Stu Hart’s best trainees to not weaken the other knowing what kind of restrictions they were working with.

This match would’ve been on another level of greatness if they applied some concepts of limb targeting to the match. It could’ve been something subtle, like Bret using knee breakers, smashing Owen’s legs into the cage, or twisting his ankles as he pulled him away from the cage door. Or it could’ve been something overt yet significant, like Owen applying the Sharpshooter right away, granting himself a critical advantage and forcing Bret to fight from underneath. Then imagine if, for example, Owen had all but destroyed Bret’s legs and Bret had attacked Owen’s arms. Both men would be at a disadvantage, yet both would struggle to escape the cage in different ways. Since they had limitations on what they could do, adding that sort of psychology would’ve made this contest much, much better.

Plus, the whole notion of winning via escape betrayed both the rivalry’s narrative and Bret’s persona as a wrestler. Bret was this fighting champion that went toe-to-toe with his opponent, whosoever that might be, and never backed down. For him to try and win by escaping that opponent was such a stark contrast to that persona and didn’t fit with him at all. Secondly, this match was part of an incredibly personal war between two real-life brothers. They were masters at convincing people that they had genuine animosity towards one another. To that end, if you have two opposing forces that are itching to destroy one another, you’d want to see them FIGHT. You want a brawl, a struggle, a series of personal attacks such as Owen hitting Bret in his knee knowing full well Bret has knee problems, or something of that nature. For something that was hyped up as being so deep and personal, it really didn’t feel that way in their actions.

Final Rating: ***3/4

I really wanted to like this match, but I didn’t. I had high expectations for this knowing who was involved. Reading Bret’s autobiography, he knew Vince wanted the match to be as violence-free as possible to keep the anti-TV violence crowd off his back. Bret and Owen could’ve taken those restrictions and made this into something that combined the steel cage stipulation with their respective deep understandings of pro wrestling. They could’ve made up for those restrictions by using logic and psychology and attacking each other’s limbs to make escaping harder. They could’ve made each escape more difficult than the one before it and could’ve used realistic selling to make each climb and door escape a true struggle and battle of wills.

What they did instead was something that felt a bit too repetitive and silly. Over half the match featured escape attempts that were almost carbon copies of each other. While that might’ve made the match great when it first happened, it really hurts the match on a repeat viewing. I really think both of these wrestlers could’ve done so much more here to make this into a historical epic. Instead, this match was hamstrung by the limitations imposed on both wrestlers through the stipulation, and that really shows over twenty-five years later.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.