To celebrate the 25th anniversary of a WrestleMania classic, it’s time to take a look back at the iconic Submission Match between Bret Hart and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.
By the time that March 1997 rolled around, the wrestling world was at war. WCW and the WWF were both gunning to be the number one promotion in North America, while ECW were up for a fight with just about everyone.
History states that WCW were dominating the ratings and ploughing forward with an unstoppable momentum, the real picture was less clear. While the Atlanta-based company were strongly ahead of the WWF in the ratings, WWF house show attendance was strong, and the presence of Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and Hulk Hogan at the top of the card in WCW, and in the locker room, was causing serious problems.
Although, as former WCW President Eric Bischoff would later admit, due to the company’s new found success, no-one was particularly paying attention to the ever-growing issues backstage.
Not that all was well in the WWF camp either. Despite Hall and Nash heading to WCW, the influence of the last remaining members of The Kilq remained strong. Furthermore, the relationship between two of the company’s biggest stars in Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels was about to deteriorate alarmingly.
It was against this backdrop that the WWF arrived at the Rosemont Horizon (Now known as the Allstate Arena) for WrestleMania 13.
The show saw 18,197 fans in attendance, while the event did 237,000 buys, a decrease of more than 50,000 on the year before. The event was headlined by the clash between Sycho Sid and The Undertaker, which saw The Deadman win the WWF Championship for a second time. The chaotic March night also saw the WrestleMania debut of The Rock, who overcame The Sultan, later known as Rikishi.
While much of WrestleMania 13 faded into obscurity, there was one match that ensured it’s place in history. It was a match that would not only be regarded as one of the best WrestleMania match-ups of all-time, but one of the greatest matches in WWE history. The Submission Match between ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Bret Hart.
Austin 3:16 Says, “I Just Whipped Your Ass!”
Steve Austin signed with the WWF in late 1995, after being fired by WCW in June. After being let go by Eric Bischoff, Austin arrived in ECW in September where he enjoyed a fruitful two month stay. Despite only wrestling twice for the promotion, it was there he honed would become his “Stone Cold” persona.
Austin made his WWF television debut on January 8th 1996 as the new Million Dollar Champion under the name The Ringmaster. However, it soon became apparent that the character was heading nowhere, and changes needed to be made. By mid-March the proud Texan was known as “Stone Cold Steve Austin” and sporting his now trademark shaved head and goatee.
That being said, it wasn’t until the 1996 King of The Ring three months later that his WWF career began to take off. After defeating Jake “The Snake” Roberts to win the tournament, Austin cut his now revered “Austin 3:16” promo and his rise to the top of the company began in earnest.
As the wheels on the Austin bandwagon started to turn, it’s leader set his sights on former World Champion Bret Hart. Throughout late Summer and into September, Austin repeatedly called out Hart, finally getting his wish of a match with The Hitman at Survivor Series. The bout earned praise across the board and ended with Hart reversing the Million Dollar Dream submission by pushing off the turnbuckle to pin Austin.
Just prior to Survivor Series, Austin was also involved in the infamous “Pillman’s got a gun” angle with old tag team partner Brian Pillman. In the segment, Stone Cold broke into Pillman’s home, only to have the injured star pull a gun on him. The angle proved highly controversial, with the WWF being forced to apologise.
Back in the ring, Austin and Hart again clashed in the Royal Rumble match. Hart eliminated his rival, but the moment went unseen by officials. As a result, Austin snuck back in and promptly won the match. This set up a Fatal-Four-Way Elimination Match at In Your House 13: Final Four, which Hart won. With victory, Hart claimed the WWF Title after Shawn Michaels vacated the belt just prior to the event.
However, Austin cost Hart the title the very next night on Raw, as the Canadian lost to Sycho Sid. Austin then repeated the trick just prior to WrestleMania where Hart faced Sid in a Cage Match.
The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be
Bret Hart’s journey to his WrestleMania 13 showdown with Steve Austin was paved with twists, turns and backstage politics.
After losing to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania in 1996, Hart took a hiatus from WWF television. Following WrestleMania Hart went on a WWF European tour and wrestled in Kuwait, before taking a break from the ring entirely in May. After returning for a handful of dates in South Africa in September, Hart signed a new contract with the WWF the following month.
The new deal was worth $1.5 million for the first three years, and was set to run for a staggering 20 years in total. It was during the process of this deal coming together that Hart pitched to Vince McMahon the idea of two more matches with Michaels. Hart would get his win back at or around WrestleMania 13, and then HBK would take the spoils in the decider down the line.
However, Michaels was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of losing to Hart and the proposed series was dead in the water. The final nail in the coffin came when Michaels ‘retired’ due to a knee injury, on Thursday Raw Thursday. In his promo relinquishing the belt, Michaels famously said that he’s “lost his smile.”
This conveniently meant Michaels wouldn’t have to lose the title as scheduled to Sycho Sid on the special edition of Raw, and follow up the defeat with a loss to Bret Hart at WrestleMania. The belief from Hart and The Undertaker among others, was that HBK wanted a way out of losing those two matches so found one.
Michaels would return to the ring just three months later.
Interestingly, Hart was also originally scheduled to win the 1997 Royal Rumble match, but there was a late switch to give Stone Cold the win. This, coupled with his proposed match with Michaels at WrestleMania not featuring the WWF Title as originally pitched, (before plans changed again as HBK retired) left Hart feeling like he’d been demoted, and unsure of his footing in the company.
The Double Turn
“I loved it. The Match. Everything. If I ever wanted my fans to remember just one picture of me, it would be that moment, as I am walking back to the dressing room.”
While politics, lost smiles and knee injuries plagued the build-up, by the time Steve Austin and Bret Hart walked to the ring none of that mattered. The bout was set to be a Submission Match, with soon-to-be Mixed Martial Arts legend and WWF Superstar Ken Shamrock serving as the guest referee.
Austin’s entrance on the night has since gone on to become famous in it’s own right, a pane of glass shattering in the entrance way as Austin strode purposefully to the ring. Although the entrance was a little more subdued than would later become traditional, Austin received a good amount of cheers on the way to the ring, despite initially being positioned as the heel.
The match itself was an exercise in perfectly-executed simplicity. In the lead up to the match Hart’s character had become fed up at being repeatedly “screwed” so was edging away from his clean-cut persona. This meant that in the ring he was doing everything he could to win, no matter the cost.
The two men brawled through the crowd, (not a regular occurrence in 1997 WWF) before Austin was thrown into the steel steps. Hart retrieved the ring bell and a steel chair, the latter he attempted to use break his rival’s leg. A call-back to Austin injuring Brian Pillman.
Austin fought back, even attempting to lock in the Sharpshooter, but a rake of the eyes stopped his plans. With both men back on the outside, Austin was launched into the timekeeper, and Hart quietly proved why he was a master of his craft.
At the time, WWF still held a “no-blood” policy, which meant that blading was prohibited. Despite this, with Austin against the guard railing, Hart unloaded a series of right-hands before expertly cutting Austin, just above his left eye. While the cut itself was in the perfect position to get to the desired effect, the fact it had been made just feet from Vince McMahon on commentary who was none-the-wiser, was a testament to the Excellence of Execution.
Furthermore, the addition of “colour” had been Hart’s idea, designed to make his foe look even stronger in defeat.
With the stage set for the finale, Hart went to work on Austin with a chair, as Lawler announced on commentary that “only a coward would use a chair,” edging Hart further towards heel-dom. Again Austin fought back, eventually retrieving an electrical chord to choke is adversary, but he only got drilled with the ring bell instead.
As Austin tried to collect himself, Hart locked in the Sharpshooter. Although Austin wouldn’t escape, he writhed and fought on the now blood-stained canvas refusing to quit. He even got so close to breaking the hold, that Jim Ross on commentary screamed that he had, only to find that Hart hadn’t relinquished his grip. In the end Austin passed out in a pool of his own blood, he was defeated, but he didn’t quit, and that distinction was crucial.
After the bell, Hart attacked Austin again before being taken down by referee Shamrock. With Hart beating a retreat up the ramp, he was serenaded by a chorus of boos, while the ring, Austin climbed to his feet under his own steam, hitting a Stunner on an official who tried to help in the process. Most importantly, the crowd chanted his name as he departed. Austin was now the hero, Hart undoubtedly the villain.
What was perhaps most impressive is that the bout harked back to blood-soaked NWA grudge matches of days gone by, but still felt cutting edge and like a glimpse at the future. This was two men at the absolute peak of their wrestling powers. Austin would become a much bigger star in years to come, but due to injury he would arguably never be this good in the ring again. While Hart was the man who had seen it all and done it all, but was still young enough to push himself to the highest level.
The match was given five stars by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, only the third WWF match to that point to receive the rating. Later being heralded as Match of the Year by the same publication, as well as Pro Wrestling Illustrated.
Stone Cold Steve Austin
“I remember laying there with my eyes closed in a pool of blood, and it was probably the deepest sense of satisfaction I had in the ring. I knew all of the chips were on the line, it was the semi-main, and the task at hand was to do a double turn, and we executed it with perfection.”
The Birth Of A Star, A Broken Neck And A Broken Hart
Although the accepted post-WrestleMania narrative sees Austin immediately shoot to superstardom as the ultimate fan-favourite, the truth is a little more nuanced. While it’s true that Austin was on course to become one of the biggest stars in the WWF, his character remained almost unchanged. He was a highly-strung loner ready to fight for what he believed in at a moments notice.
For his part, Bret Hart assumed leadership of a rejuvenated Hart Foundation consisting of his brother Owen, Jim Neidhart, The British Bulldog and Brian Pillman. The Hitman leaning into his anti-America character, making himself heel in the United States but a babyface everywhere else in the world.
What’s often forgotten is that Hart and Austin continued to feud in the period after WrestleMania, with the pair meeting at In Your House 14: Revenge of the Taker, and again on Raw on April 21st. During the Street Fight on Raw, Austin attacked Hart’s knee with a chair, writing him briefly off television as he required knee surgery.
Austin’s popularity continued to grow and he later won the World Tag Team Titles alongside a very much not retired Shawn Michaels. This partnership also paved the way for the Texas Rattlesnake’s unlikely union with Dude Love after Michaels stepped away due to injury.
However, Austin’s career would change forever at SummerSlam, where he suffered a broken neck, following a botched Tombstone Piledriver from Owen Hart. Despite this, he remained on WWF television, hitting a Stunner on Vince McMahon on the first-ever Monday Night Raw held at Madison Square Garden in the process.
He later returned to the ring, winning the Intercontinental Title from Owen before the year was out.
Meanwhile, the uneasy relationship between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels totally collapsed. Michaels had appeared on commentary at WrestleMania 13 for the match between Undertaker and Sid, breathing new life into the rivalry.
What followed was a series of arguments, fights, paranoia, backstage manoeuvring and allegations of infidelity live on television. Attempts at reconciliation failed and battle lines were drawn.
Hart won his final WWF Championship at SummerSlam, defeating The Undertaker where Michaels served as the special guest referee.
This led to Hart’s last stand in the WWF as an active performer, and the infamous ‘Montreal Screwjob.’ With The Hitman and HBK scheduled to meet at Survivor Series, Hart finally had enough of the backstage chaos and agreed to join WCW. To make sure Hart wouldn’t leave with the WWF Title, Vince McMahon hatched a plan which saw Earl Hebner call for the bell in the match at Survivor Series with Hart locked in the Sharpshooter, despite him never tapping out.
The move sparked near riotous scenes at ringside, before Hart punched McMahon backstage. The incident has gone down in wrestling history, and is still hotly debated to this day.
Michaels reign with the championship ran all of the way until WrestleMania XIV the following year, where he was pinned by none other than Stone Cold Steve Austin. After the match, Michaels did finally retire from in-ring competition, owing to a back injury suffered at the Royal Rumble.
In the space of 12 months, Austin had gone toe-to-toe with Bret Hart and dethroned Shawn Michaels. Both stars were now firmly out of the picture, and Austin was the last man standing, with the WWF Title in hand.
The ‘Austin Era’ had begun, but the seeds for that rise were planted on one bloody March night in Rosemont.