The rivalry between WWE legends Bret Hart and Steve Austin is one of the best feuds of all time that produced only a handful of televised matches. Though they faced each other many times at live events and on various tours, there are two main singles matches that fans are always going to remember.
One of them isn’t just iconic; it’s considered by many to be the best match in WrestleMania history, possibly ever. But because that second match is so well-known, most people tend to forget about the first one. It was also considered incredible for its time, especially since it was Bret’s first match after being away for six months.
I’ve already sung the praises of the Bret/Austin WrestleMania 13 epic, and now it’s time to review the match that led us there. Thus today we look back at the singles match between them from Survivor Series 1996.
(Editor’s Note: There is a third Hart-Austin PPV that headlined Revenge of the Taker in April 1997 that is a pretty good match with a non-finish, but it’s not as good as their two more famous matches.)
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-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.
After losing the WWE Championship to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII, Bret decided to take some time away from the ring. He was weary and riddled with injuries and his body was in dire need of time to heal. Bret appeared on some international tours but remained off TV and out of WWE storylines for six months. While he was off, WWE tried pushing Shawn Michaels as its new guy but that endeavor yielded mixed results at best. While Bret was off, his WWE contract was coming up for renewal and he wasn’t too keen on signing a new one. And even though this was largely the pre-internet era, there was enough speculation running wild on whether Bret would re-sign with WWE or go to WCW. It came down to the wire but eventually, Bret signed a big WWE contract. Soon afterwards, Bret’s return match was announced and in his first promo upon returning he announced this:
“I’ve accepted the challenge to face the best wrestler in the WWF, Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
Thus the stage was set for arguably the biggest match of the year for WWE. Despite being away for so long, Bret was still adored by fans wherever he went. Meanwhile, Austin had become one of the biggest stars in the company. He excelled as a villain but fans loved him so much that he started to turn babyface. Thus to keep him from losing steam, Austin was thrust back into the villain’s role against the company’s biggest hero returning to prove he hadn’t lost a step.
This match originally took place on November 17th, 1996 at that year’s Survivor Series event. It was rated ****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and the full ***** by TJR’s John Canton.
The winner of this match will become the #1 contender for the WWF/E Championship. Austin gets right in Bret’s face and flips him the bird. They eventually lock-up and Austin gets control in a corner. Bret shoves him in response to more trash-talking but Austin gets to another corner to force a break on a waistlock. Austin escapes another rear waistlock via an armlock and starts wrenching Bret’s left arm. Bret counters into a hammerlock, which leads to an excellent chain grappling sequence. Bret switches to a double wristlock but Austin wrestles out and lands a drop toehold and goes for a headlock but Bret wrestles out of that back into the wristlock. Austin escapes with a back elbow and hits a short-range clothesline. Austin goes for a camel clutch but Bret throws him off and goes back to working Austin’s arm. Austin fights to his feet and shoots Bret into the ropes but Bret shoulder tackles Austin to them at. Bret ducks a clothesline but runs into a stungun on the top rope. Austin targets Bret’s neck by pushing it into any rope he can find. Austin catapults Bret’s throat into the bottom rope and chokes him until the ref’s warning count reaches four. He follows with a running elbow to Bret’s head and snaps his neck on the rope once more.
Austin lands a snapmare into a reverse chinlock and drops several knees into Bret’s head for some one-counts. The crowd chants for Bret as he fights to his feet to escape another chinlock. Bret and Austin trade punches until Austin gets the upper hand. Austin goes for a corner whip but Bret reverses it and clotheslines Austin down. Bret lands a Manhattan drop followed by another clothesline, followed by a punch to the gut and a roll-up that gets a two-count. Austin kicks out at two again off a Russian leg sweep and then avoids a bulldog by pushing Bret into the turnbuckle. Bret does his classic forward corner bump. The two trade suplex attempts until Austin gets Bret on the top rope. He tries a superplex but Bret blocks and throws Austin down. Diving elbow by Bret. Austin kicks out. Bret goes for a backbreaker. Austin escapes by raking Bret’s eye. An Irish whip by Austin sends Bret to the floor. Austin recovers in the ring, lands some hammer fists ringside and drives Bret back-first into the steel ringpost. Austin has control when suddenly Bret gets a surge of adrenaline and pushes Austin into and over the barricade. Bret smashes Austin’s face into another barricade piece and then tosses him into the ring to pin but Austin wisely rolls out on the opposite side. Back ringside, Bret hits more elbows but Austin counters into a catapult toss that sends Bret over the Spanish announce table. Austin goes after Bret and lands another flurry of punches. Then he breaks the ref’s ring-out count and places Bret on top of what’s left of the announce table and lands an elbow into Bret’s chest.
Bret manages to get onto the apron but Austin strikes first with a suplex over the rope and into the ring. Austin lands a second-rope elbow and pins for another two-count. He tries another elbow drop but Bret kicks out again. Austin sends Bret careening into a corner and then chokes him on the ropes as the crowd boos loudly. Austin lands a running press into Bret against the ropes and pins but gets yet another two-count. Austin applies an abdominal stretch and uses the ropes for extra leverage which the ref doesn’t see. The ref finally notices it and forces a break. Austin gets in the ref’s face and then goes back to Bret but Bret starts fighting back. The two start trading punches again, but this time Bret gets the upper hand. Irish whip by Bret, Austin counters, and then Bret counters that and lands a stungun of his own. Austin’s own weapon gets used against him. Bret cradles Austin with an Oklahoma roll but only gets a two-count. Piledriver by Bret. Another two-count. Bret lands a backbreaker and goes to the top rope but Austin cuts him off. Austin hits a barrage of strikes followed by a top-rope superplex. Both men are down right next to each other, still hooked in the suplex, when suddenly Bret traps Austin in a pin. One, two, Austin kicks out. Bret gets up first but walks into a Stunner from Austin! One, two, and – Bret kicks out! Austin covers two more times but Bret still kicks out.
Austin lands more punches and covers yet again. Bret keeps kicking out. Texas cloverleaf hold by Austin. Bret gets a ropebreak but Austin takes his time letting go. Austin hits more stomps and corner punches and sends Bret into the opposite corner. Bret’s leg gives out from the cloverleaf, causing him to crumple and hits the turnbuckle ribs-first. Austin drags Bret to the middle of the ring for a pin but Bret kicks out yet again. Bow-and-arrow hold by Austin. Bret escapes and tries the sharpshooter. Austin grabs the ropes first so Bret punches Austin’s face this time. Sleeper hold by Bret. Austin pushes him into the corner and then escapes via Stunner. Both wrestlers go down. Austin gets up first and applies the Million Dollar dream/cobra clutch. Bret does the corner flip counter from his match with Roddy Piper from WrestleMania VIII. One, two, and three! Bret beats Austin!
Winner and NEW #1 Contender for the WWF/E Championship after 28:36: Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart
This lived up to the hype. It was awesome. There was something about it that just screamed ‘classic wrestling match’. These two had excellent chemistry together. I’ve heard some people call this the best match in Survivor Series history. And after seeing it for myself, I can’t help but agree.
There was a great story here with Austin doing everything possible to soften Bret’s neck for the Stunner. He kept going back to Bret’s neck over and over whenever he could. But when Bret survived Austin’s Stunner, he became desperate. He tried everything he could to win, including a Million Dollar dream that Bret knew how to escape. That sudden counter was too much for Austin to escape, both because it caught him by surprise and because he was desperate to make Bret the submission specialist tap out. The story couldn’t’ve had a better ending. Austin got beat by a mix of inexperience and his own arrogance. Bret was a better technical wrestler and had more tools at his disposal whereas Austin put too many eggs in one basket and became desperate when that basket couldn’t get the job done.
At first, seeing Austin doing technical wrestling and mat grappling was surreal. Most of us remember him for his promos, finishers out of nowhere, and tendency for wild brawling. But this was pre-neck injury Austin and he was far more dynamic and interesting in the ring. He actually did different things to try and weaken Bret and didn’t just do the same old shtick. It might not’ve been the most character-driven match but it was still exciting. Austin tried besting Bret at his own game and came quite close.
But is it a top-tier historic classic? Close, but not quite.
The match lacked a certain something to really bring it to that top level. The crowd was a bit subdued for parts of the match and Austin did a bit too much random taunting and playing to the crowd instead of focusing on beating Bret. The action was great but there were also too many dead moments and an overall lack of tension. But the biggest problem with this match was that the extended armwork segment during the first several minutes was completely inconsequential. It led to absolutely nothing: no extended selling, no weakened moves, no struggle of any kind for either wrestler. It was as if both guys just did that technical stuff just because they could instead of giving that stuff any sort of importance. Because of that, this reminded me of Bret’s match with Owen at WrestleMania X: strong but stretched unnecessarily courtesy of some action in the opening moments that had no purpose whatsoever.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Even though it’s not perfect, this is still an awesome match. It holds up very well after over twenty-five years and is actually a lot better than many matches that’ve come since. I’m not sure if it’s the best match in Survivor Series history (there might be one or two more recent matches that give it a run for its money), but it’s up there.
This is a once-and-done match that is only worth seeing once. It lacks the replay value that the Austin/Bret WM13 has and just isn’t as exciting. Even though it has slightly better technical wrestling, the WM13’s atmosphere, tension, and more personal edge make it way better. Normally i think that technical wrestling > brawling, but the two big singles matches between Bret and Austin prove that the opposite can also be true.