“These people are standing, can you imagine the pain that is racing through Austin’s body? Austin’s losing blood, Austin may be losing consciousness. One more rush of adrenaline. Nobody’s ever done this! Nobody’s ever broken the sharpshooter…or did he?”
Narrator: He did not break the sharpshooter
On 23rd March, 1997 a tectonic shift in the history of professional wrestling occurred inside the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, Illinois. Stone Cold Steve Austin, his face and torso drenched in his own blood, hobbled away from the ring and up the entrance aisle. Defeated but a hero. His opponent that night, then four-time WWF (now WWE) Champion Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, longtime beloved babyface, had been jeered from ringside only moments earlier, despite cleanly and decisively winning the pair’s brutal submission match at WrestleMania 13.
Hart’s sharpshooter submission hold had been enough to vanquish ‘The Texas Rattlesnake’, who famously passed out from a combination of pain and blood loss rather than giving his Canadian nemesis the satisfaction of making him tap out or quit.
In defeat, Austin was cemented as an icon. The tide that had been turning over the previous few months towards the middle finger saluting, beer swilling native of Victoria, Texas, was now a tsunami of approval from an audience desperate for an edgier idol to counteract the waves being made by the Hulk Hogan helmed New World Order in rival promotion WCW.
‘The Hitman’ meanwhile, was now projected as a jaded, disillusioned former favourite, disheartened by an industry that had evolved without him during his post-WrestleMania 12 sabbatical in 1996, when new WWF Champion Shawn Michaels was positioned as ‘the guy’. ‘The Excellence of Execution’ had only a few weeks previously physically attacked Vince McMahon and torn into an expletive laden rant on an episode of Monday Night Raw, following his loss inside a steel cage to then WWF Champion Sycho Sid. Thanks to Austin and The Undertaker’s involvement in said title match, Hart failed in regaining the championship he had recently dropped to Sid and promptly lost the plot, breaking away from the heroic act that had won the hearts and minds of millions across the world during the early-mid ‘90s and replacing it with a bitter persona who, inadvertently foreshadowing his departure from the company eight months later, believed himself to have been ‘screwed’ out of the WWF Title.
Brilliant though he may have still been in the ring, Hart was viewed as part of the old guard by a newer generation of fans, who now leant heavily towards the heels following over a decade of clean cut crusaders dominating the top of the card. Hogan, along with Kevin Nash and the late, great Scott Hall, had turned the wrestling world on its head in the summer of 1996 when they formed the nWo who, though positioned as villains, became wildly popular to the point where their merchandise was outselling every other member of the roster, an unheard of phenomena at the time. The success of the group’s formation led to the Ted Turner backed company obliterating Vince McMahon’s Monday Night Raw in the weekly Nielsen TV ratings for 83 straight weeks with their own Monday night primetime show, Nitro. WWF fans, meanwhile, latched onto Austin as their saving grace, rather than the ‘Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels, shunned by male fans, regarded as little more than a pretty boy, even if he was churning out some of the most seminal in-ring performances of the decade.
It has to be said that Hart played his role to a tee. When he dropped the WWF Title to Michaels in their hour-long Ironman Match at WrestleMania 12 in Anaheim, California, the ‘Pink and Black Attack’ stepped back from the spotlight to allow HBK to shine, citing, on-screen at least, that he no longer held the same passion for wrestling and didn’t know whether he would ever step foot inside the squared circle again. Of course, this was all part of the story arc, which would be exacerbated in his absence by newly crowned King of The Ring Austin, who goaded Hart later in the summer until the Hitman returned to challenge the Rattlesnake at Survivor Series ’96 in Madison Square Garden. Hart was now the returning hero with a point to prove. Was he still the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be, or was his time at the top over? That night in New York City, Hart scored a pinfall victory over Austin, albeit narrowly, countering his opponent’s Million Dollar Dream sleeper hold with a clever roll up for the one, two, three. The win made Hart still appear to be the savvy, technical ring general he was before his absence, but also protected Austin and gave him cause for a rematch. He’d slipped on a banana peel once, he was determined not to do it again.
With the Hitman eyeing a return to the top of the table, Austin blocked his progress at every move. Every week, the Texan’s tactics elicited more and more rapturous responses from the crowd, while Hart slowly deserted those who had had his back for years. Bret’s dedication to his craft meant that his slow burning turn worked a treat, yet behind the scenes he was anything but convinced that it would work.
Writing in his best selling memoir, ‘Hitman’, Hart wrote;
“Before the start of the show in Springfield on March 9, I sat with Vince in an empty dressing room as he outlined a year-and-a-half-long program that would revolve around Stone Cold turning babyface at WrestleMania XIII. He pulled out a sheet of paper with two lists of names on it and handed it to me. The list compared whom I could work with as a face as opposed to who I could work with as a heel. I had to admit that the heel list appealed to me more. But actually turning heel? I wasn’t sold on the idea.”
McMahon’s brainwave was unique in that he only wanted Hart to be a heel in America, but a hero to the rest of the world. Working on the (very accurate) premise that “everyone around the world loves to hate Americans”, the WWF Chairman proposed to Hart that he could stand up to America in his interviews, deriding everything about the US’ superiority complex over everyone else. While Hart admired the creative behind the pitch, he was still skeptical.
“Once upon a time I enjoyed being a heel, at least in the ring, but I had no desire to alienate my audience” Hart wrote back in 2006, “I admit I’d become accustomed to the adulation. Having a lot of young kids cheering their hearts out for me eased my loneliness, stroked my ego and made it tolerable to get up every morning and go to the next town. I told Vince I’d think it over.”
The only issue for Hart was that the same kids cheering their hearts out for him were no longer the vocal majority. Wrestling fandom was a demographic skewing older due to the more provocative nature of the product, influenced by the wider world and trends developing in pop culture, with shows such as Jerry Springer scoring mammoth ratings via a constant deluge of profanity, violence and women being presented as sex objects. If anything, it was a reflection of everything that McMahon wanted Hart’s new on-screen character to despise. And it worked a treat, providing the vehicle that would drive the Hitman’s finest ever character work, with the world premiere taking place on 23rd March, 1997 in Chicago.
“On March 23, I arrived at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago at about 10am for WrestleMania XIII. Vince had just let Stone Cold in on my heel turn and our role reversal, and he and I sat on the ring apron blankly staring at each other. Steve appeared anxious about how we’d go about telling our respective stories. I told him if my new heel turn was going to seem for real, we had to go toe-to-toe right off the bell, onto the floor, over the barricade and up into the stands. Such an approach would make it all feel real.
“As I came out like a lion, Steve was pacing the ring like a pissed off hyena. I really felt like I was going out to have a fight after school with a kid I hated. I got a strong cheer, but there were enough angry signs and boos for me to see that my days as a babyface were truly over.”
On commentary, McMahon lends more weight to Hart’s impending alignment shift, referencing how the Hitman’s legacy has taken a turn on the road to WrestleMania with his increasingly erratic behaviour. The stage is set and within a nanosecond Hart’s plan is sprung into dramatic effect.
Austin tackles Hart to the canvas and before you can blink the fight is ringside bound. The Rattlesnake rather unceremoniously dumps Hart crotch first on the metal guardrail and the duo crash into the crowd, exactly as the Hitman laid out earlier that morning.
The early stages of the match are symbolic of what Hart has become as a character by this point. Whereas his previous outing with Stone Cold had been more on his own level, where technical craftsmanship was key, now the rulebook hadn’t been so much as torn up as it had been shot out of a canon in a ball of flames. The ‘Excellence of Execution’ isn’t dropping his trademark backbreakers and Russian leg sweeps. He’s throwing haymakers to the dome of his redneck rival in the midst of 18,000 rabid fans. This couldn’t be further from pro wrestling. It’s a fight, pure and simple.
Whereas a submission match may, on paper at least, sound like the sort of bout that would favour Hart’s much lauded in-ring stylings, this particular outing was rather a pre-cursor to the more commonly used ‘I Quit’ match that has been regularly booked to settle scores in WWE rings over the last 20 years or so. There’s very little trading of holds and more blunt force brutality. Austin is in his element, wild eyed and reckless, sensing that, by dragging Bret Hart out of his comfort zone and into a straight brawl, he holds the advantage on this spring night in Chicago.
Instead, Austin is confronted by a Bret Hart who is ravenous. Ravenous to silence his newfound naysayers, ravenous to reclaim his seat as the head of the table, WWF Title in tow, and ravenous to shut the mouth that Steve Austin has been running for the last six months. In dragging the Hitman to his level, the ‘Bionic Redneck’ has awakened an evolved enemy who has witnessed enough hockey fights in his time to know how to throw hands effectively enough. This is a scrap, pure and simple. Every moment is soaked in believability and hatred. Austin whips Hart into the steel ring steps, Hart introduces the ring bell to Austin’s forehead before the Rattlesnake returns the favour with a sickening steel chair shot while Hart is perched atop the turnbuckle. A camera cut to Hart’s youngest daughter, Alexandra and his father Stu sum up the attitudes of an entire fan base. Their hero is engulfed in the fight of his life, yet he’s approaching it with all the calculated menace of a masterful villain, taking advantage of Austin’s bum knees with a gruesome cavalcade of chair shots, a receipt for the Texan deforming the steel around Hart’s skull only a few minutes prior.
Symbolically (though it wasn’t symbolic at the time) Austin attempts to wrap Bret’s legs into a sharpshooter, in an effort to claim the ultimate humiliation and defeat him with his own signature move. Eight months later Hart will replicate this spot with Shawn Michaels in Montreal in what would become the most infamous match in WWE history (not to mention the last time Bret would stand inside a WWE ring for 12 years) This time, however, there are no early calls for the bell from Earl Hebner. No screw jobs. No launching an industrial sized phlegm wad at Vince McMahon before knocking him spark out backstage. Instead, Bret reverses Austin’s efforts, although as the Rattlesnake attempts to save face with a s**t talking session towards the crowd, a ‘BRET WHO?’ sign fills the frame. A once unthinkable scrawling now taking pride of place during one of WrestleMania’s marquee match ups. It was only adding fuel to the fire.
Moments later and the beginning of the end is signalled, as Austin is sent flailing into the security railing behind the timekeeper’s table. When he emerges, the 1996 King of The Ring is a bloody mess. Somehow, with claret escaping his forehead at an alarming rate, Austin attempts a rally. A low blow a desperate last kick to delay the inevitable. Hart crashes to the canvas and Austin barely stands, instead utilising the ring ropes to prop himself up, every stumble another stutter step closer to defeat. The selling of Bret’s beating to his knees another nuance of the bout that often goes unnoticed but lends so much authenticity to proceedings. Even in the ascendancy Austin looks a second away from his legs buckling beneath him. His last stand before the blood pulsing down his face weakens him beyond the bluster of a second wind. Before the brief flourish of adrenaline departs his battered legs.
Austin’s comeback, while admirable, is also increasingly desperate, as he looks to finish the job by wrapping a length of electrical cord round the Hitman’s throat, hanging him from the ring apron. The strength sapped from his muscles and his legs now akin to a pair of twiglets attempting to prop up a wardrobe, Austin attempts to drain the final throes of energy from Hart, only to be roundly trounced with a last gasp ring bell shot to the head.
Like a shark smelling blood, Hart pounces, once more battering Austin’s knees with a steel chair as Jim Ross, putting forth a classically herculean effort on commentary screams himself hoarse with the line “Bret Hart is like an animal, out of control”. Indeed, Hart’s descent into callous, bloodthirsty madness is complete. Special guest referee ‘World’s Most Dangerous Man’ Ken Shamrock, fresh off a few years of dominance in the UFC, watches on as the sharpshooter is finally, successfully cinched in.
Ordinarily, this is where the bout will end. The hold has done for the majority of Hart’s opponents in relatively rapid fashion up until this point. But Steve Austin isn’t just some other schmuck who’s about to tap out. Instead, the former Hollywood Blonde grinds his fists into the blood soaked canvas, rising from the mat to reveal the now iconic visual of his claret drenched cranium. The juice cascades past Austin’s eyes, dripping onto his teeth, then off his chin, looking like Dracula if he’d spent his formative years putting boots in arses of drunken pretenders in every dive bar in Dallas instead of murking poor sods in Transylvania (FAO Hollywood: Cast Stone Cold Steve Austin as the next Dracula. Please and thank you).
Briefly, it appears that Austin has managed the unthinkable and escaped the sharpshooter, only for his legs to finally fail him for the final time in the bout. Hart goes back to business and the toughest SOB in WWF history establishes his reputation by going to the canvas unconscious, without an ounce of quit in his body. He is beaten but not defeated. His notoriety only increased by withstanding the punishment inflicted upon him. The finish was one that captured the imagination of fans everywhere, unaccustomed as they were at seeing a character depicted as a villain losing in such a heroic manner.
As Ken Shamrock calls for the bell, the pre-match words of Jim Ross begin to resonate even more profoundly, “Steve Austin says there isn’t a human being walking the face of the earth who can make him say ‘I Quit’ and I for one believe him.” Austin’s declaration has been realised, even if it didn’t bring with it the victory he so desperately craved.
Not content with his victory, however, Hart begins to lay waste to a motionless Austin, only ceasing when former UFC Superfight Champion Shamrock waist locks him to the canvas to a white hot pop from the 18,000 strong Chicago faithful. Hart, once a fearless champion, now cowers from a confrontation with the MMA legend.
The two battle weary warriors make their respective exits a few minutes apart, their careers now on trajectories that would shape the future of pro wrestling forever. Hart was en route to the greatest few months of his career in terms of character work, ceaselessly lambasting the United States and forming the Hart Foundation with his brother Owen, Brian Pillman and brother-in-laws Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart and ‘British bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith. His feuds with the Undertaker and, most infamously, Shawn Michaels would become the stuff of legend as Canadians regularly received him with deafening welcomes until his chaotic exit in Montreal on 9th November, 1997. Austin, meanwhile, was now in the midst of a meteoric rise the likes of which had not been seen since Hulkamania, with a legitimate broken neck, suffered accidentally at the hands of Owen Hart at SummerSlam ’97 unable to slow an ascent which would eventually be coronated at WrestleMania XIV, where he would dethrone Shawn Michaels as WWF Champion. The following three years would be the most profitable in company history until that point, with television ratings and PPV buy rates regularly shattering records with Victoria, Texas’ finest sitting atop the pile.
Without this match, which would be the second-to-last WWF/E bout to be awarded five stars by renowned wrestling journalist and historian Dave Meltzer in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter (the last would be another blood soaked effort; the debut of Hell In A Cell between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels at Badd Blood in October of the same year) until CM Punk and John Cena drew the same plaudits a full 14 years later, the WWE as we have come to know it over the last 25 years simply would not exist. The Austin era drew more money than any other in wrestling history, with the Texas Rattlesnake going head-to-head with Vince McMahon and a plethora of corporate picked villains such as Mick Foley, The Undertaker, Kane, Triple H and, most famously, The Rock.
Hart, of course, would see his career tragically peter out in WCW, where he was no longer treated as a genuine star, but rather just another property for Ted Turner, Eric Bischoff and co. to keep in storage away from the powers-that-be in Titan Towers, Stamford, Connecticut. His final act as an active WWF competitor was undoubtedly his finest, not to mention most selfless, helping strap a rocket to the company’s biggest ever star. Without this match, there is no Stone Cold Steve Austin, which could realistically domino effect into a world where The Rock ceases to exist, without his most storied opponent ever scaling the stratospheric heights that he would reach between 1998 and his retirement in 2003.
A heel or babyface turn can be difficult enough to execute on its own when being put in the hands of a main event player, given their current alignment with the audience is what brought them to the biggest stage in the first place. Many marquee names have wilted under the bright lights when a new character is demanded of them. On 23rd March, 1997 in the Rosemont Horizon, Chicago, however, two of the greatest to ever do it pulled off one of pro wrestling’s most demanding asks and did it with an almost effortless grace that it is hard to imagine anyone being able to replicate in the quarter of a century since.
It is perhaps fitting to conclude this wander down memory lane with the inspiration for that most memorable of finishes, laid out by Bret Hart to an anxious Steve Austin just a few hours before bell time.
“Have you ever seen that scene in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ where Jack Nicholson’s character tries to pull that heavy, bolted-down sink out of the floor and throw it out the window so he can escape the nut house 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.”
Bret Hart didn’t just make Stone Cold Steve Austin that night. He made pro wrestling’s entire future.
Watch WrestleMania 38 emanating from Dallas on Saturday April 2nd and Sunday April 3rd live on WWE Network https://www.wwe.com/wwenetwork