I believe that 1997 was one of the best years in wrestling, all around the world. From an in-ring perspective, some of the greatest performances were showcased during that calendar year. There were legendary matches put in in AJPW, NJPW, WCW, ECW, and of course, WWE. But out of all these great matches, one stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s a match that not only demonstrated wrestling perfection from a performance standpoint, but it also changed the course of wrestling history. This is because it served as a critical point in the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin to the top of the entire wrestling industry.
This match was rated five stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and was voted 1997 Pro Wrestling Match of the Year by Observer readers. TJRWrestling’s own John Canton also rated this match five stars out of five and has called it his favorite match of all time.
Today we look at the legendary no-holds-barred submission match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin from WrestleMania 13.
This match is the culmination of a lengthy and complex story that goes back almost a full year. Bret lost the WWE Championship to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII, and the real-life hostilities between them prevented the initially-planned title rematch for WrestleMania 13. While that was going on, Austin was continuing an upward growth as a star that began back in June 1996. Austin won the 1996 King of the Ring tournament and cut his now-famous ‘Austin 3:16’ promo, which is considered the first moment of the Attitude Era.
Austin spent the remainder of 1996 taunting Bret Hart, saying that Hart was afraid of fighting him. After months of time off, Hart returned to WWE in time for the 1996 Survivor Series PPV. At that event, Hart beat Austin in a great match that featured a clever counter to Austin’s then-finisher, the Million Dollar Dream. It was a win for Bret, but it wasn’t decisive.
The rivalry escalated further at the 1997 Royal Rumble. Austin got eliminated, but none of the referees ever saw his elimination. This allowed Austin to sneak back in and eliminate everyone else still in the match, including Bret. Soon afterwards, Bret won his fourth WWE Championship in a Fatal-4-way match, defeating Austin, Vader and the Undertaker in the process. But one night later, Austin interfered in Bret’s WWE title match with Sid, costing Bret the title and officially setting up a singles match between them. Finally, Ken Shamrock, then a major name in the world of Mixed Martial Arts as a UFC legend, was added as the special guest referee to add more legitimacy and gravitas to the match.
This match has no pinfalls, countouts, disqualifications, or tap-out submissions. The only way to win is for one wrestler to say they give up. It took place on March 23rd, 1997.
The second Bret gets into the ring, Austin takes him down. A brawl is underway as soon as the bell rings. The action spills outside quickly and they brawl hard at ringside. The crowd is already extremely loud. Austin tries a headlock and Bret tosses Austin into the ringpost. Bret teases a suplex into the ring barricade, but Austin crotches Bret instead. Talk about a brutal start.
A huge clothesline by Austin sends Bret down into the crowd. Austin stomps on Bret and tosses him face-first into a fan barricade. Suddenly Bret gets a quick reversal and tosses Austin into the barricade instead. Austin gets a quick advantage and teases a piledriver but Bret reverses it into a back body drop. Austin tries to escape but Bret’s right behind him. He tosses Austin over the guardrail and lands a falling forearm smash on a supine Austin. Both are back up and Bret tries to Irish whip Austin but Austin reverses that, sending Bret into the steel ring steps. Then Austin hits a diving punch with a double middle finger salute. Austin lifts the steel stairs but Bret kicks him in the gut making him drop them. Bret tries to pick Austin up again but Austin throws Bret into the ringpost yet again.
The action finally returns to the ring. Austin stomps away on Bret. He whips Bret in preparation for a back body drop, but Bret reverses it into a swinging neckbreaker. Diving elbow smash by Bret followed by a shin breaker and a hip attack on Austin’s left knee. Bret continues to target that left leg with laser precision. Austin can barely stand as Bret hits his first overtly-villainous move by kicking Austin’s leg from behind. He goes for another hip attack but Austin moves out of the way and hits a Stunner out of nowhere. Great escape. Both men are down and Austin gets a critical moment to recover.
Austin gets up first, but Bret kicks the injured leg again like a villain. Austin’s showing more heart than ever (pun intended) and refuses to stay down. Bret continues to target that leg and Austin keeps going down with the slightest touch to that leg. Ringpost Figure-4 leglock! That looks absolutely brutal. The crowd’s going nuts. Austin’s writhing in pain as he shakes his head refusing to give up. What a tough sonofabitch!
Bret tosses Austin back into the ring and grabs the ring bell and a steel chair since weapons are legal. Bret sets the chair on Austin’s injured knee. The fans sense what’s going on and scream in anticipation. But as Bret ascends the top turnbuckle, Austin gets up and hits Bret hard in the head with the steel chair. The crowd explodes as Bret falls to the mat.
Austin gets his revenge and hammers Bret hard in the back with the steel chair. Modified slam by Austin followed by a hard whip into the corner, and a vertical suplex, all targeting the same area of the back. Austin ascends the turnbuckle and hits a diving elbow drop of his own.
Austin grabs both legs and kicks Bret in the abdomen. He follows with a Russian leg sweep into a modified armbar submission hold. Austin wrenches it as hard as he can as the fans chant Austin’s name but Bret doesn’t quit. Austin follows up with a Boston crab that targets the back. Great psychology! The crowd’s cheering loudly again. Bret inches his way to the ropes and the hold gets broken.
Austin drags Bret into the middle of the ring and tries to lock in the sharpshooter (!) but Bret thumbs him in the eye. What a cheap move. Bret starts punching Austin and charges but Austin dodges and sends Bret over the rope and out of the ring. Austin taunts and gets a torrent of boos. Some people still see him as a villain.
Austin exits the ring and tries to whip Bret, but Bret reverses it and sends Austin over one of the announce tables. Austin starts bleeding and Bret smashes him headfirst into the ring steps and one of the ringposts. The fans cheer wildly as the camera zooms in on a bleeding Austin. Bret hammers away on Austin’s bleeding forehead as some people still cheer for him. He follows with a single-knee backbreaker and a diving elbow drop. Bret grabs the chair and smashes the edge of it into Austin’s left leg. Austin’s writing in pain. Bret attempts the Sharpshooter but Austin rakes the eyes out of desperation. Bret punches away on Austin, until Austin hits a low blow. Great escape since it’s legal.
Austin whips Bret hard into the turnbuckle and Bret hits it hard sternum-first. Austin tries getting a second wind by stomping Bret in another corner. The crowd’s getting behind him more and more. Austin sets Bret on the top rope…second rope superplex. Austin tosses Bret onto the apron and grabs an extension cord. Austin’s trying to choke Bret out…but Bret grabs the ring bell and smashes it over Austin’s head. Excellent counter.
Austin’s out cold in the middle of the ring and Bret grabs both legs. SHARPSHOOTER!! Bret has it locked in. Austin’s writhing in pain, nowhere to go! He refuses to tap out. He’s screaming, he’s trying so hard to resist. The camera zooms in on a bloodied Austin, which has since become one of the most recognizable wrestling images ever.
Austin’s in indescribable pain. Fans are chanting ‘Austin!’ He’s trying to force himself up, to overcome the odds! He gets himself up slightly, he’s almost out. NO! Bret still keeps it locked in! Shamrock asks Austin if he’s giving up. Austin passes out after 100 excruciating seconds in the Sharpshooter. Bret won. JR: “AUSTIN NEVER GAVE UP!”
Winner after 22:05: Bret Hart
After the match, some fans cheer Bret and he starts attacking Austin’s leg again. Then, Shamrock takes Bret down pulling him off Austin. The fans explode because they want to see Bret take Shamrock on. Bret leaves and they boo. The heel turn is complete!
Back in the ring, Austin has finally regained consciousness and hits a Stunner on the referee (not Shamrock, a random one that came to help him). He wants to leave on his own, without aid. Austin limps back as people chant ‘Austin’. I doubt there were any people still booing him after that.
That was a professional wrestling masterpiece. It was a perfect example of wrestling as storytelling while still coming across as realistic and almost sports-like. They managed to tell a tremendous story in just over twenty minutes using the rabid crowd to their advantage. It wasn’t the most technically-pure grappling contest, but it didn’t need to be. This match told a story, and it did so beautifully.
Pulling off a ‘double-turn’ – where two wrestlers of opposing allegiance switch sides simultaneously – successfully is very hard, especially with a loud and vocal crowd. Yet Bret and Austin managed to the seemingly-unthinkable and told the story perfectly. Bret entered as the supposed hero that was upset that kept getting screwed by everyone around him and left the match as a villain. Austin entered as the brash, IDGAF-about-you villain and left as the toughest wrestler in the company for having survived so long in the Sharpshooter, which had been made more painful by multiple brutal leg attacks by Bret throughout the match.
The following is an excerpt from Bret Hart’s autobiography, in which he outlines how this match would change Austin’s future:
“I smiled at Steve and said, ‘Have you ever seen the scene in that movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest where Jack Nicholson’s character tries to pull that heavy, bolted-down sink out of the floor an throw it out the window so he can escape the nuthouse and go watch the World Series? You want him to succeed so badly, but as hard as he tries, he simply can’t. That was the scene that made him, and that’s what we’re going to do with you.’” – Hitman Bret Hart: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, page 413
There’s no denying they succeeded in conveying that story. The close-up of Austin screaming in pain as blood poured down his face as he refused to quit is arguably the most iconic image in wrestling history. As the match began, most of us cheered for Bret because we sympathized with him over his plight and previous struggles. But as soon as Bret nailed that first kick to Austin’s leg, things changed. After gradually becoming increasingly villainous, Bret locked Austin in the sharpshooter and then Austin became the underdog, the one to cheer. Because he was locked in a vicious submission hold that targeted his already-weakened legs, you wanted him to overcome the odds and win, or at the very least, escape the hold. But he couldn’t, and didn’t. So he fought for as long as he could and for that one brief moment, he had countless fans cheering for him and his villainous history was just that, history.
After this match ended, Austin became not just a hero, but the hero. He never quit, he flaunted authority, and he exemplified toughness and overcoming seemingly-insurmountable odds. His transformation into a hero couldn’t have come at a better time: The late 1990s was a time when many, MANY people hated their jobs, especially those that had to deal with office politics and horrible bosses. Although Austin wasn’t fighting the evil boss as of yet, the seeds for that character arc were planted. Austin became the hero we needed and the hero we deserved.
Special consideration should also go to Bret for making minor changes to the match on the fly in a good way. As he described in his book, Austin messed up applying the Sharpshooter so Bret improvised by thumbing him in the eye. Not only was this a great way to cover what was an almost-invisible error, but it also furthered Bret’s gradual villainous turn. Small things like this are why Bret was such an excellent wrestler in his prime.
Final Rating: *****
This is quite possibly the best WWE match ever. It was a masterclass in storytelling through a less-is-more approach. Bret showed both tremendous psychology and his gradual evolution into a villain through his move choice. He kicked Austin from behind and when he was down, which was both smart and dirty. He used weapon attacks to brutalize those same limbs, which furthered the story in an incredible way. And all the while, Austin showed incredible power of will. Indeed, Bret and Austin told one of the best wrestling stories ever, and it served as a critical moment in wrestling history.
Without this match happening in the way it did, it’s possible that Austin’s rise to megastardom wouldn’t have happened. This match – with its excellent psychology, masterful storytelling, rabid crowd and perfect pacing – made ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.
I understand that wrestling has evolved considerably over the past twenty-plus years. Modern wrestling has reached a point where wrestlers toss in a thousand moves in quick succession followed by lengthy down periods. It seems like most wrestlers today try to pack thirty minutes’ worth of action into fifteen, while having a lightning-fast pace. While that’s fine in its own way, there’s a reason older matches like this one withstand the test of time more than their modern equivalents. This match stands out in how it’s executed and in the story it tells. This match told a simple story of the hero surviving incredible punishment but with carefully-crafted image and move choice.
Twenty-three years have passed and this match still holds up incredibly well. It’s structured perfectly, the crowd loved it, and the commentary is outstanding. Even Vince McMahon – whose commentary over the years was spotty at best – did a good job here. This really is as good as it gets when it comes to pro wrestling.
You can check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Review series right here. Thanks for reading.