The date March 23rd means a lot to me because it was the day one of my favorite professional wrestling matches ever. In 2017, I wrote a list of the 33 greatest matches in WWE WrestleMania history. The series included detailed reviews of every match, information about how the match was built up, my thoughts on the match all these years later and what was next for the superstars. The #2 match in that ranking took place in 1997 when Bret Hart faced Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13. If you’re wondering what #1 was, it was The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25. Deciding between those two matches was a difficult task.
Some of you may have read this full column when I posted it four years ago or maybe you have read the WrestleMania 13 review. It’s one of my favorite articles that I have ever written on the subject of pro wrestling. That’s coming from a guy that has written about this business for over 20 years now. I’ve left it unchanged. Let’s get to it.
Who: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin @ WrestleMania 13
When: March 23, 1997
Where: Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont (Chicago), Illinois
The feud started in 1996 after Steve Austin had won the King of the Ring and uttered his famous “Austin 3:16” catchphrase after the win. Bret Hart left WWE on a schedule break after losing the WWE title to Shawn Michaels at WM12, so he could do some acting and ponder his future. Throughout the summer of 1996, Austin would come on TV and say that Bret was afraid to wrestle him. This was his way to coax him into returning. Bret returned for a match against Austin at Survivor Series 1996. It was a great match with Bret winning thanks to a creative counter of the Million Dollar Dream sleeper. One of the best matches of the 1990s.
At Royal Rumble 1997, Austin won in controversial fashion because he was eliminated in the match, but the refs were on the other side of the ring dealing with a fight on the floor. Austin went back in the ring, dumped out Undertaker, Vader and Bret to win the match. That only added to the rivalry.
At the February ’97 “Final Four” PPV, Bret won the vacant WWE Title after he defeated Austin, Vader and the Undertaker in a fatal four-way match. The title was vacated because Shawn Michaels claimed he had a serious knee injury, lost his smile and forfeited it. The original plan for WrestleMania 13 was Hart vs. Michaels just like the year before, but it got changed due to Michaels’ injury. Bret had the WWE Title, but it only lasted for one night. Bret lost the WWE Title on Raw to Sid after Austin interfered to set up their showdown at WrestleMania.
In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania, the babyface pops for Austin began to increase even though he was acting like a traditional heel. People were becoming tired of Bret Hart’s character and his whining about things not being fair.
On the Raw prior to WrestleMania, Bret faced Sid in a cage match that ended up in a DQ after interference from Undertaker, Austin and Shawn Michaels prevented Bret from winning the title. After the match, Bret yelled at WWE boss Vince McMahon (who was just an announcer on television at that point) saying he was screwed again. Hart even swore on television with WWE getting permission from USA Network to air his expletive-filled promo.
It was also announced that former UFC star Ken Shamrock would be the referee of the Submission Match at WrestleMania.
What I Thought Back Then
My excitement level was very high. I had become a “smart” fan so to speak a few years earlier and that helped with understanding a complicated storyline like this. The reason it was complicated is because Austin acted like most heels we grew up watching our entire lives, yet he was winning over the fans due to how entertaining he was on a consistent basis.
Everybody was on the Austin bandwagon by this point. He was the most captivating wrestler in any promotion because you never know what he might say or do. Plus, his matches were very good. Remember, this was a few months before his serious neck injury, so he could take every bump. That changed a bit for a few years after the injury.
It was also a different side of Bret Hart. We were so used to seeing him as the good guy hero that people loved. However, he changed his attitude so much that you didn’t know what he was going to do either.
I remember wanting Austin to win just because it would have been the biggest win of his career at that point. I loved both guys, though, so I was just happy to see a rematch from their Survivor Series classic.
Here’s my full review of the match, which was written in 2001 and later edited in 2012.
Submission Match: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin – Ken Shamrock is Guest Referee
They aired a video package about the Bret Hart/Steve Austin feud. The idea was that after Bret left post WM12, things changed in the company and so did his attitude. Austin challenged Hart at Survivor Series 1996, which was a fantastic match that hart won. The feud continued into the Royal Rumble leading to this Submission Match at WrestleMania 13. Even though Austin acted like a heel, people were starting to cheer him. It was also the point when Bret was yelling at Vince McMahon, which was when they were beginning to acknowledge that Vince was the owner of the company.
It’s time for Hart vs. Austin. This was a Submission match (or “I Quit” match) meaning that there were no DQ’s, no countouts, no pinfalls, no submissions and the only way to win the match was to make your opponent submit. The special referee for this match was Ken Shamrock who signed a WWF contract about a month earlier. Ken hadn’t wrestled on TV at this point, but they did put over that he was a tough guy from the UFC that would make sure it’s a fair fight. Steve Austin came out to a good pop. Vince tried telling us that Austin got a really huge reaction, but it wasn’t that big. Vince made sure to point out that Austin got a “positive” response. There were a lot of “Austin 3:16” signs in the crowd. Bret came out to a slightly bigger pop that Vince said was mixed. If you really paid attention to the commentary you could figure out where this whole thing was headed.
Austin charged at Bret with a double leg takedown and they brawled out to the floor. They did the “I punch you, you punch me back” routine and the crowd popped for it. Bret tossed Austin into the ring post headfirst and set him up for a suplex. Austin countered and crotched Bret over the guardrail. Austin nailed Bret with a clothesline sending him to the floor as Vince unleashed his “forgetaboutit” one more time. Austin climbed the guardrail and threw Bret into it again. They brawled into the crowd going up several levels as Shamrock followed because matches like this ALWAYS end in three minutes. Austin went for a piledriver in the crowd, but Bret reversed it and Steve landed back first on the steps although we couldn’t see it from the angle they showed. As they came back to ringside they threw fists because it was a realistic type brawl that did not slow down. Bret hurled Austin over the guardrail. Austin got up with the advantage and whipped Bret shoulder first into the ring steps, which Bret took like a man. The crowd liked that because they could appreciate a good bump. Austin gave Bret the double middle finger and hit a clothesline off the ring apron. Austin picked up the ring steps, Bret kicked him in the gut, so Austin whipped Bret into the ring post. After about five minutes of brawling, they finally rolled into the ring. In the ring, Bret hit a swinging neckbreaker. Here’s an ACTUAL quote from Vince: “If Bret loses this match you have to wonder what kind of excuse he will come up with.” The irony is scary isn’t it? Bret hit an elbow off the middle rope to keep Austin down again. Bret worked on Austin’s left knee for a few moments. That’s the same knee that was legitimately injured six weeks prior to this match, but Austin worked through it because he’s a tough SOB. Bret used several different moves (knee smash, kicks to the knee, the hamstring puller) to work over the knee. Notice how none of them are rest holds. Also, according to JR, Austin and Hart are: “two finely tuned athletes who are not worried about covering their bald spots.” That comment was directed to WCW top guys like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, among others. Shamrock asked Austin if he gave up, but Austin showed Shamrock the two middle fingers salute so that he could understand that one plus one is two. Austin was so great. Bret went for a butt splash on the knee, but Austin moved. Austin got up quickly and hit an old school Stunner (no lead in with the kick) while JR reminded us that there were no pinfalls. Both men were down for a few seconds. Bret had the advantage and kicked him in the knee a few times. He pulled Austin to the corner and puts on the FIGURE FOUR AROUND THE POST! Man, I sure loved that move. It looked liked the most painful submission move. The crowd was going absolutely berserk. Austin would not give up because he is a tough bastard.
Bret rolled him in the ring and grabbed the ring bell placing it on the apron. Bret grabbed a chair, placed it on Austin’s ankle just like Austin did to Brian Pillman several months earlier. It’s called “Pillmanizing” now because of that incident where Austin “broke” Pillman’s ankle. Bret climbed the top rope, but Austin got up with chair in hand and he absolutely drilled Bret across the back with the chair to a nice pop. Bret’s down, so Austin drilled him in the back with the chair again. Body slam followed by an Irish whip into the buckle put Bret down again. Suplex by Austin followed by the “f-u” elbow off the middle rope to a nice pop again. Kick to the groin (the astute Mr. McMahon informs us everything is legal), Russian leg sweep and Austin puts him in a painful looking arm submission. Bret would not submit. Close-up of Bret’s dad Stu. Lawler: “Even Stu woke up for this.” The first part of the show was crap, so I don’t blame anyone for sleeping. Austin applied a Boston Crab and sat down low as Bret said “no” a few times. Bret reached the ropes so the hold was broken. Austin went for a sharpshooter, which Bret countered by poking him in the eyes. Vince said “it could happen” to the possibility of Bret giving up to the sharpshooter leaving viewers at home to wonder about THAT statement. He could have said “it will happen on November 9, 1997 in Montreal” although I guess he didn’t want to go into details. Austin tosses Bret outside again, but Bret reversed an Irish whip sending Austin headfirst into the guardrail by the announcers and timekeeper. Bret followed him in as we saw that Austin was busted open. Now the match really turns into another gear. Bret rammed Austin’s head into the guardrail, as Austin’s blood was everywhere, literally. To say Austin was bleeding profusely would be an understatement. Bret punched Austin in the head several times. See, if a guy loses blood he will be more likely to give up if he were put in a submission hold. That’s psychology. Austin was thrown into the ring post, the steel steps, the guardrail and everything else that could possibly open up the wound more. Austin crawled in the ring while a close-up of Austin’s face showed us the nasty blade job as the crowd went ballistic. Elbow to the head by Bret, then a kick to the head followed up by rapid punches on the head. Bret with the backbreaker and elbow off the middle ropes kept Austin grounded. Bret hit him with the chair to the left knee four times as JR went ballistic saying Bret was sadistic, evil and everything else to convince you he was becoming a heel. Bret went for the Sharpshooter as the crowd roared in anticipation, but Austin raked the eyes to the approval of the crowd. They had the crowd going back and forth. I love that. Bret punched Austin in the head a few more times. Bret stepped back about a foot and Austin kicked Bret in the nuts. The crowd liked that. Vince said that Bret deserved a shot in the nuts.
Austin pulled himself up as he whipped Bret into the turnbuckle sternum first, which was Bret’s signature bump. Austin delivered the kicks to Bret’s chest (now known as “stomping a mudhole” by JR) and threw in a middle finger just for fun. The crowd popped big time for all those kicks. Austin gave Bret a superplex to an even bigger pop. Austin left the ring to get an extension cord as Bret headed towards the bell that he placed on the ring apron ten minutes earlier. Austin put the extension cord around Bret’s neck, but Bret grabbed the ring bell and drilled Austin in the head with it. JR: “Bret Hart just rang Austin’s bell!” The crowd pops again as Austin was motionless in the ring. Bret put Austin in the Sharpshooter and sat on it pretty good. Austin shook his head in the “Oh hell no” manner as Shamrock asked him if he submits. Close-up on Austin showed the blood dripping down his face. The crowd was on its feet the entire time popping huge while Austin tried to fight it. Austin was in a push up position as the blood dripped on his teeth and into his mouth. Bret fell face first as the crowd popped and the announcers believed he had broken the hold. However, Bret still had a hold of him so he cranked on the Sharpshooter again as Austin reached for the ropes and failed in an attempt to break free. Austin went for one last push, but he could not find the strength so he passed out. Shamrock asked very loudly: “Steve, do you give up?” Kenny, being the genius that he was (sarcasm), realized that Austin was out so he stopped the match and Bret won at 22:05.
Winner: Bret Hart
Post match, Bret refused to relinquish the hold so Shamrock pulled him off. In case you were wondering, Austin was in the Sharpshooter for 1:45. The crowd popped for Bret and he posed on the turnbuckles. Bret attacked again as Austin was lying in a pool of his own blood. Bret grabbed the left leg and kicked it some more to some jeers from the crowd. Bret went to apply the Sharpshooter again, but Shamrock gave him the belly to back takedown to a big pop. Shamrock wanted to fight. Instead, Bret just walked away because he was a cowardly heel. Bret looked at the crowd giving them a “you make me sick” face that led to them booing him out of the building.
Austin pulled himself up and Stone Cold Stunner’d referee Mike Chioda because he tried to help him up. The crowd gave him a nice ovation for that. Austin stumbled out of the ring by himself to put over how tough he was. He hobbled to the back as the crowd gave him a standing ovation chanting “Austin, Austin, Austin.” A very memorable ending to a fantastic match.
Analysis: ***** My favorite match ever. It was also the match that I considered the best match ever for a very long time although that’s a debate for another time. For the first 90 minutes of this show, the crowd was dead. You wondered if they would care about anything that took place at WrestleMania 13. Then Hart vs. Austin happened. They put on a clinic in wrestling, storytelling, and how to use the emotions of the fans to your advantage. There was not a point in the match where the action slowed down. It was 20 minutes of pure action. It never got boring. Every move they did made sense. Hart was incredible as the aggressive veteran that took it to Austin and showed no remorse doing so. They really got over the idea that Bret didn’t care about what the fans thought about his tactics. All he wanted to do was win. Austin showed the kind of heart you want to see out of any babyface even though he wasn’t a traditional kind of babyface. When he made his comeback the crowd was totally behind him because they saw him take a tremendous beating and he kept on coming back. It was a simple story of a guy showing a lot of heart, that kept on fighting and earned the respect of everybody watching the match. I know for myself I started liking Austin earlier than this, but I can remember a lot of my friends loving him after this match. We were 16-17 years old. We were that demographic that thought he was the coolest guy in the world because of how much punishment he took and he kept fighting. That was the kind of guy we wanted to cheer. The “never say die” attitude of Stone Cold is what made him the huge draw he would become. Without this match at WrestleMania 13 who knows if he would have ever reached that level. That’s why I always say this was one of the most important matches in the history of WWE. The “Austin” chant was something we would hear many times over the years, but this is the time when it mattered most because it was a harbinger of things to come.
This match was wrestling perfection. Two great competitors, a terrific storyline, an extremely high workrate, plenty of crowd heat, one of the greatest blade jobs ever, a vicious heel, a courageous babyface and the greatest double turn in the history of the business. Everything that makes wrestling great was present in this match.
Thee announcing work of Jim Ross was incredible. Vince did a decent job of putting over the story, but Ross took it to another level by talking about the heart, the guts and fortitude of Austin. He made sure to point out that at the end of the match, the fans were chanting or Austin. That’s the story they wanted to get over. It worked. I’d put this match up there as one of Ross’ best performances ever too.
You can read my full recap of WrestleMania 13 right here.
What They Said
Both men have been talking about this match for 20 years. They’ve also written books about it, there are countless DVDs and podcasts as well.
I had Bret Hart on our TJRWrestling Radio show in 2014 and of course, I asked him about this match, so here’s his reply:
“I remember we got to the building and started talking about what we were going to do. The submission match kind of limits you with no pinfalls. It changes a lot of the dynamics of the pace of the match. You have to use submission holds for the highlights of the match. We just went in there not knowing what they wanted. I thought the way we started it was perfect like gun fighters staring each other down. Steve was great with how he tackled me right off the bat. There are so many things I love in the match that stand out today. There’s no comedy or laughing, it’s dead serious. It’s like a school fight with two guys fighting in the back of the school. It was a hell of a fight. The psychology of the match was just perfect.”
Here’s Bret talking about the ring bell usage in the match from Wrestlezone:
“Wrestling is overcomplicated today. These guys are doing so much and it’s so over done some of the stuff. When you look at that match and you watch me roll out of the ring and grab the bell and then decide, “No, the bell’s not good enough.” I walk over and I look at it and you see this look on my face like, “Ah, the bell’s not good enough.” Then I set the bell on the apron, on the side of the ring and then I go and get a chair. The psychology of all of that, you forget all about that bell for the rest of the match. That bell is the story of the match. It plays a big part in the ending. It’s so simple how it’s done. You could just follow the whole path of the match. There’s just things in that match that I just love.”
Bret also spoke about how they set the match up:
“The one thing that we had permission to do in that match and the only thing we got any input on is that Vince said to somebody that it’s ok if me and Steve Austin fight through the crowd and in to the stands. They said they would have security around us. He thought we could do that and were allowed to do that. Normally you aren’t allowed to do that. That was the only thing I got from Vince or the office that was ok to do. Either than that they said, “The rest is up to you guys.” So me and Steve sat there and we pieced together that match.”
Austin is very fond of Bret and spoke about what it was like to work with him to WWE.com:
“Man, working with Bret Hart was some of the most fun matches I’ve ever had in my life. There was Chicago and WrestleMania 13, over in South Africa, in Germany — and Bret had a pretty good stronghold over in Germany. I loved working with Bret. I’ve got a lot of respect for Bret as a person, and everything he did as a pro wrestler. Hell, I remember one time we were working a show somewhere and Bret was in the main event. [Bret] got a flat tire on his Lincoln Towncar, and I changed his tire while he was in the ring working. Every day you work with Bret, you could learn something. We had 100 percent trust in each other, and 100 percent respect for each other. He’s a badass guy, and I just — every night was a good night with Hart. That’s the damn truth.”
Austin has talked about the match on his podcast a lot. Here’s an excerpt from 2016:
“I remember in the match where I wrestled Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13 in Chicago, I was going to pass out in the Sharpshooter in a pool of blood and we go into the finish room and that’s all we get. ‘Hey Steve, you’re going to do the honors today and you’re going to pass out in the Sharpshooter.’ Didn’t say anything about blood. That was to come later. So, we listen to the orders from our leader and I said, ‘okay’ and of course Bret was over. And Bret was a great business man and a guy I have a lot of respect for. So we walked out of the room. And so, my point is, me and Bret were going to discuss different parts of the match and a little bit of color. And I would cycle back into Vince’s room and say, ‘hey Vince, are you sure about this finish?’ He goes, ‘God dang, Steve. I’m telling you it’ll work.’ I said, ‘okay. Good enough.’ And so, my point is, he gave us a directive, he gave us the finish, and he trusted us to go out there and execute everything. No agent, nobody helped Bret and I with that match. We went out there, we had a little conversation. There was a fishbone of events and the rest was called on the fly and we executed with extreme precision, probably the only real double turn done in the history of WWE that I know of at that high of a level. And there was work on the backend for both of us, but it was trust.”
Here’s Austin doing a podcast about the match in detail. It’s really cool.
What I Think Now
Since I covered it a lot in the analysis part, I figured I would break it down by talking about specific aspects of the match as well.
Match Importance – This was one of the most important matches to ever take place in WWE history. In early 1997 business was not good in WWE while WCW was doing its best business ever. That’s why WWE needed something to bring back their fans and it was this match that led to their success in the Attitude Era. Prior to this match, Austin was slowly starting to win over the fans. By the time it was over, he had won over every type of fan there is. Smarts and marks agreed that Stone Cold’s time had come. Bret Hart went from being a top babyface in November 1996 to the WWE’s top heel following this match. Both men have said that this is the best match of their WWF careers and they are absolutely right. This match made the career of Steve Austin and revived Bret Hart’s WWE career even though it ended eight months later.
Bret Hart’s Cheap Tactics – Austin came into this match with a minor knee injury that kept him out of action for several weeks. Working on the knee was Bret’s way of transforming himself to a heel in the middle of the match. He would kick Austin’s knee several times, scoff at the crowd and have a smile on his face while he hurt this man. His altercation with Shamrock after the match was excellent because it solidified his spot as a heel while making Shamrock a big time face in the process. Using the ring bell was a great spot. It was something he had to do to win, but also a cheap heel move as well. Bret played the role of the crafty, veteran heel perfectly in this match.
Steve Austin’s Blood Loss – As I am sure you have all seen, Austin’s blade job from this match is one of the best. It was a very bad, cut but it is one that suited this match perfectly because it helped to tell a story. The blade job was a necessity because it helped Bret become a sadistic heel while cementing Austin’s place in history as a tough guy. They made us believe that Austin passed out because of the blood loss, not because he gave up. By not giving up, Austin proved to the world that he is the “toughest S.O.B. in the WWF” as they told us many times. Without the blood, it may not have made the match as memorable.
The Double Turn – For those wondering, a double turn is when a heel turns face and a face turns heel. It is not an easy thing to accomplish, but it worked perfectly in the match. Afterwards, the only thing people were talking about was Bret’s cowardly act and Austin’s toughness, not the fact that Bret won the match. Listen to the crowd. Austin went from getting a mild reaction at the start of the match to getting the biggest pop of the night at the end of his match. It was probably the first time the entire arena was chanting “Austin, Austin” and it was a match that he lost. Completing a double turn is not an easy thing, which is why we rarely see it.
Austin’s face turn was not planned until WWE realized how popular he had become after his excellent performance in the Royal Rumble. The fans, for the most part, are the ones that make or break a career. Just ask Steve Austin and Vince McMahon if you do not believe me.
I will never be tired of seeing this match nor will I ever be tired of talking about it. This match had everything that is good about the wrestling business. Two great competitors, a terrific storyline, an extremely high workrate, plenty of crowd heat, one of the greatest blade jobs ever and the greatest double turn in the history of the business.
What Happened Next
I wrote most of this in 2001 when I did a column about the match.
The feud picked up after the memorable WrestleMania match with a return match at the April 1997 PPV, Revenge of the ‘Taker. Austin had the advantage in the match as he had Bret locked in the sharpshooter. Just as Austin was set to get the victory, Owen and Bulldog (who were two members of the Bret Hart led “Hart Foundation) ran in to cause a DQ and give Austin the victory.
The next night on Raw (April 21, 1997) they had a memorable segment. It started with Austin delivering a classic line: “If you put an ‘S’ in from Hitman then you’ll have my opinion of Bret Hart.” They had a street fight that saw Austin viciously attack Hart with a steel chair crippling the Hitman. Austin used the steel chair to injure Bret’s leg while the crowd popped with every chair shot. Bret was put on a stretcher and was on his way to the hospital. However, Austin had other plans. Just as Bret was being loaded onto the ambulance, Austin attacked him while he was on the stretcher. People were going crazy for it. Fantastic angle.
For the next month, Bret was in a wheelchair to sell the attack from Raw (he had legit minor knee surgery). Austin had his hands full trying to deal with the other members of the Hart Foundation. Bret’s injury helped give Austin a WWE Title shot against the Undertaker at the May PPV, Cold Day in Hell. During this match, Austin hit a Stunner, but before referee Earl Hebner could count the pinfall, Hart Foundation member Brian Pillman rang the bell to piss off Stone Cold. Taker hit The Tombstone and won the match. When the Hart Foundation guys attacked Undertaker, Austin went over to Bret in his wheelchair, stole his crutches and took out the Hart Foundation with the help of Taker. After the match, Austin hit a Stunner on Taker (both were faces) because he doesn’t trust anyone and the crowd loved every minute of it. Typical Austin behavior again and the people loved it.
Austin didn’t wrestle Bret in a singles PPV match again. They took part in a fantastic 10 man tag at the Canadian Stampede PPV in July. Austin had a minor feud with Brian Pillman, a rift with his tag partner Shawn Michaels and a feud with Owen Hart to keep him busy throughout the summer. Austin also had a major neck injury in August of 1997 (the botched Tombstone from Owen) that sidelined him for three months and would change his wrestling style forever.
Bret won the World Title at SummerSlam 1997 from Taker and went on to have feuds with The Patriot and Shawn Michaels. As you all know, Bret left WWE after Survivor Series 1997, so Austin and the Hitman did not get the chance to wrestle again on a PPV. Austin, meanwhile, became the top guy in WWE when he won the WWE Title from Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 14 in 1998.
They had three one on one PPV encounters with Bret winning two and Austin getting a DQ victory in the other one. Austin never pinned Hart to win the feud, but you could say both guys left that rivalry as winners. If Bret was still in WWE past Survivor Series 1997 would he have put Austin over? Most likely yes. It’s still one of the greatest feuds in WWE history, but it didn’t have the conclusion that most people wanted.
This is my favorite match in the history of wrestling. It’s also the match that I’ve probably watched more than anything else in my life. It used to be the #1 match on a list like this, but a certain match from 2009 topped them.
Hart and Austin did something special on this night 20 years ago. It may not have been the original plan, but they damn sure delivered a match we’re never going to forget.
If you want even more thoughts on this match, check out Alex Podgorski’s review here on TJRWrestling as well. He calls it possibly the best match in WWE history.
WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches archives are here.
Thanks for reading. My contact info is below.
John Canton – [email protected]