The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever: 20 years later (long read)

Sometimes, the years go by faster than you can imagine. 1997, in some ways, doesn’t feel very long ago. It was the year of Titanic, Princess Mononoke, LA Confidential and Boogie Nights. It was the year Oasis asked ‘D’you Know What I Mean’, Blur answered with ‘Song 2’, Radiohead released ‘OK Computer’ and the Prodigy brought out ‘Firestarter’. It was the year Channel 5 and the teletubbies were born and it was just before we knew who Monica Lewinsky was.

It was also the year of WrestleMania 13 and what is widely considered one of the greatest wrestling matches of all time: ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin versus Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart in a submission match. This match and the immediate aftermath lasted just under half an hour, and it changed the wrestling business forever.

Bret Hart (left) and Steve Austin (right) © WWE

It was also more than that. It was two physical artists putting on one of the greatest performances ever. That thirty minutes was packed with intensity, drama and brutality. By many of its fans, wrestling is considered as valid and distinct a form of art as film, theatre or dance. And if that’s so, then this match can be considered a legitimate masterpiece of late-nineties popular culture.

If you don’t know anything about wrestling, some context is needed to appreciate this.

The great work.

The most important thing to understand about wrestling is that it is, absolutely, a performance. It has been for about a century now. And for as long as pretty much anyone who is reading this has been alive, the audience has known it.

It started off in the carnivals, where wrestlers would stage shows with each other, to convince the more gullible members of the audience that they could be beaten in real fights. They’d encourage an audience member (sometimes known as ‘the mark’) to take on the wrestler, promising a cash prize and taking bets if they could last three rounds. The supposedly exhausted and vulnerable wrestler would then absolutely massacre the poor mark.

George Hackenschmidt

This then moved across into real wrestling contests, where wrestlers like George Hackenschmidt realised that if they and their opponent put on a show, they’d not only be less likely to get injured, but could more easily set up lucrative return matches. It also meant that wrestling would be more entertaining for the audience than having to watch one wrestler slowly try to manoeuvre his way out of a headlock.

Matches became ‘worked’. Punches became pulled and moves were applied gently, but sold to the audience as if they were devastating. Some audience members and critics were turned off by the more blatant fakery such as the ‘Irish Whip’ (named for Cork wrestler, Danno O’Mahoney), where one wrestler would grab another’s arm and sort of ‘whip’ him away, so that the wrestler would be unable to stop running until he either hit the turnbuckle or the ring ropes (where he would obviously bounce off and run back towards the opponent, who would hit him, kick him or perform another hold on him). But it turned out most audiences didn’t mind. The entertainment from real wrestling was limited. This new ‘all-in’ wrestling was wild. Even more importantly, they told stories.

The usual story

The most common story was the babyface and the heel. In the UK, this was generally the blue-eye and the villain. In Mexico, it’d be the tecnico and rudo. It’s basically the goodie and the baddie.

Rudos and Tecnicos

The face is generally the young, good looking wrestler. He’s technically gifted and strong, and usually from the area the show is in. His heel opponent is probably older, balder, more foreign and less strong. It’s clear from the beginning that the face is the better wrestler, and he quickly outshines the heel.

But while the face sticks by the rules, the heel cheats while the referee isn’t looking to gain an advantage. He sticks a thumb in the face’s eye, grabs a ring-rope for extra leverage while applying his holds, flat-out kicks the face in the balls, or uses weapons. The rest of the match is then built around the babyface making his comeback, spurred on by the fans’ belief in him. The heel lets him almost come back before cheating again, and when the audience seems ready for it, they go to the final sequence, where the hero overcomes and either pins the heel or forces him to submit like the coward he is.

Of course, in a night of wrestling, you have many matches, so you have to vary that formula up. And there may be more money in the babyface being wronged by the cheating heel, but with a rematch where he’ll get his comeuppance next time they’re in town. But that’s the basic wrestling story that the whole industry is based around.

It’s also the same basic story that almost all drama is based around. The three act structure. Setup. Conflict. Resolution. The hero has an objective, but something gets in the way and has to be overcome. And in the same way that novels, plays, films and TV shows have found an infinite number of ways to play with that basic formula, so has wrestling.

And nobody has had more success with using wrestling to tell stories than the creator of World Wrestling Entertainment, WrestleMania and Hulkamania. Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

Vincent Kennedy McMahon © WWE

The World Wrestling Federation

Throughout most of the twentieth century, wrestling was something of a regional affair. Promoters would run shows in different territories, which spanned the world. Wrestlers would often spend time in different territories, staying until the novelty wore off and the going somewhere else, where they’d be new and exciting.

Some wrestlers were huge attractions, so promoters started working together so they’d all make more money. They could loan out their most popular or hated wrestlers to each other, to add variety and create more exciting shows. By the forties, this partnership was officially known as the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), which still runs in some forms today.

The NWA eventually established a recognised ‘world’ champion, who would travel between territories rather than belong to any single one. This title was held by names like Lou Thesz, Killer Kowalski, The ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers and Ric Flair, and it was always a big deal when the champ was in town.

But the New York territory, owned by Vincent J McMahon, seceded from the NWA and established their own champion. They renamed their organisation the ‘World-Wide Wrestling Federation’ or the WWWF, with Buddy Rogers being crowned the first champion, having supposedly won the final of a fictional tournament in Rio De Janeiro. Eventually, they worked with the NWA again. Everyone did.

Vincent J McMahon © WWE

When Vincent J McMahon died in the early eighties, the company passed onto his son, Vincent K McMahon. Vince Jr had a grand and aggressive plan of expansion, based around television. He seceded from the NWA again and courted the biggest names from each territory, offering them big money contracts, and where he could, he bought out territories. All of this was to establish the first truly national wrestling company. He also dropped the ‘wide’ to make it easier to brand, and it became the World Wrestling Federation.

The WWF was in direct competition with the NWA and, looking back, the NWA wasn’t ready for it. Vince set up TV in as many regions as he could, which effectively acted as advertising for his shows in local areas. Because he preferred bigger than life characters, who were either giants or musclebound, the WWF offered big, colourful wrestlers like Andre The Giant, King Kong Bundy, ‘Mr Wonderful’ Paul Orndorff, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. But none were bigger than Hulk Hogan.

Hulk Hogan was the wrestler Vince built his company around. He was huge, blonde, musclebound and a charisma machine. One of his great talents was to make every heel he fought seemed like they were going to destroy him, selling every big move as if it were death. He’d reach out to his fans — his ‘hulkamaniacs’ — for support, and he’d return that enthusiasm during his comeback by becoming virtually invulnerable (‘hulking up’) and finishing off his opponent in short order. His posedowns after the match were just as popular as the fights themselves.

Hulk Hogan © WWE

There was more money to be made here than just selling out the usual buildings around the country. And with the new technology of Closed Circuit Television (which could show live events in local cinemas) and the burgeoning ‘Pay Per View’ service (which the viewer could watch at home), if a show was big enough, it could make a fortune.

Vince gambled big. He created the biggest show wrestling had ever seen — WrestleMania. With a huge publicity campaign involving MTV (the ‘rock and wrestling connection’, featuring Cyndi Lauper), celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Liberace, and a much-hyped main event pitting Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff against Hulk Hogan and Mr T, WrestleMania was expensive. If the show failed, the company would fail. But the returns could be immense.

And they were. WrestleMania was an enormous success and became an annual event. Hulk Hogan would have his biggest moment two years later, facing Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III in front of a supposedly record-setting crowd of 93,173.

It’s ‘supposedly’ because the figure is seriously disputed. According to some experts, the stadium couldn’t hold more than around 78,000. But in the name of promotion, Vince claimed it was bigger (kind of like Donald Trump and his fortune). He was quoted recently as saying that the numbers announced were “for entertainment purposes only”.

This led to an even stranger situation. The Pope visited the same stadium shortly after, and it was a legitimately bigger crowd than WrestleMania III. But if they announced the real numbers, it wouldn’t be believed to be the record. So the Vatican announced the Pope got an attendance of 93, 682, which beat the WWF by about the number they beat them by. So if the WWF lied, then that led to the Pope lying.

Hogan and Andre © WWE

With Hulkamania and WrestleMania both confirmed successes, and a roster of talent that was wildly popular, the WWF ruled the wrestling world. Even in the UK, British wrestling couldn’t afford to compete with the taped American product the WWF was putting out on Sky television, and we saw the last of Big Daddy and the likes.

The Mid-nineties

Ten years later, though, the WWF wasn’t in such good shape. A steroid trial in the early nineties had tarnished the image of the company and forced them to take a new direction, with noticeably bulked-down wrestlers.

Hulk Hogan ‘retired’ and went to Hollywood, with an eye to transitioning into a movie star with films like Suburban Commando and Mr Nanny. And they struggled to replace him. The Ultimate Warrior didn’t quite work out. Nor did their attempt to build up Lex Luger as the new American hero. Nor did their mid-nineties hope of Diesel (AKA Kevin Nash, most recently seen as Tarzan in the Magic Mike franchise). None of them were quite the hits the WWF had been hoping for.

By 1996, they weren’t even the most exciting wrestling company out there. Out of the NWA, a new competitor started building up — World Championship Wrestling (WCW). And they’d become the biggest thing around, backed by serious money from Turner television. Ted Turner opened the cheque-book to them, seeing wrestling as a project he personally wanted to succeed. They launched a weekly television show ‘Monday Nitro’ which broadcast opposite to the WWF’s Monday Night Raw. They’d even signed Hulk Hogan.

They also signed up WWF wrestlers Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, plugging them into a storyline where it looked like WWF wrestlers were invading WCW. While a lawsuit from the WWF forced WCW to clarify that this wasn’t happening, WCW had an even bigger trick up their sleeve — a turn to the dark side from the now heel ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan. By 1997, the WWF was losing the ratings war consistently.

The WWF was struggling and needed something new. They had popular wrestlers, such as Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker and Bret Hart, but their shows had become less popular. It was ten years since the prime of Hulk Hogan and the colourful characters, and the WWF’s weekly ‘Monday Night Raw’ show seemed more and more aimed at children. Too many wrestlers had silly gimmicks, like baseball player wrestlers, binmen wrestlers and even clown wrestlers. This new generation wasn’t bringing in the money in the same way. WrestleMania had begun to be held in smaller venues and there just wasn’t the buzz about it that there had been.

But there was opportunity. WCW, due to the Turner Network, had to remain family-friendly. The WWF, for the first time, had the opportunity to push the envelope a bit and become more adult-orientated. For all the famous names WCW had purchased, their biggest acts weren’t putting on exciting matches.

And in Bret Hart and Steve Austin, they had two wrestlers who had something to prove.

Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart

Bret Hart © WWE

A mainstay of the WWF for twelve years by 1997, Bret Hart had come from a Canadian promotion (Stampede Wrestling), run by his father. He wasn’t the flashiest of wrestlers, but had become enormously popular by simply being very, very good at what he did.

He worked his way up through the ranks, first in a tag team with his brother in law, Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart, and then as a singles wrestler. He distinguished himself as a technical wrestler, meaning that he concentrated on submission holds, usually building a match by targeting his opponent’s legs, supposedly to weaken them for his ‘sharpshooter’ submission hold. He wasn’t the most overtly charismatic, but audiences tended to get really into his matches as they went on.

Not long after Hulk Hogan left the company in 1992, Bret took part in a European Tour where he was loved by the crowds. Vince McMahon thought that they may be able to replicate this in the US, so Hart quickly became the WWF World Champion.

His run as champion was solid, but not earth-shattering. He was popular, but not great on the microphone (hugely important for wrestlers, as a way to connect with the audience) and wasn’t a big character. So over the next few years, Vince would try other people as the headline acts, but when they inevitably failed, Bret was usually the default second choice. He was popular and dependable, but it was always clear to both fans and Hart himself that the company didn’t have faith in him to take them to the next level. He was, in short, not the next Hulk Hogan.

This was made abundantly clear to him at WrestleMania IX in 1993, where he was booked to lose to Yokozuna (a gargantuan Samoan wrestler pretending to be a Japanese Sumo wrestler), who would then be booked to lose in an immediate ‘impromptu’ match with… a returning Hulk Hogan, who hung around for two more months before leaving again.

Despite having the respect of the fans, Hart felt he didn’t have the respect of the company, so when his contract came up for renewal in 1996, he decided to take a break. It gave him the chance to recharge his batteries, as well as the chance to show Vince how much he was needed. The current champion was ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels, a flamboyant and energetic wrestler, who had beaten Hart in the main event of WrestleMania XII. However, the two of them had a string of personal issues with each other. His pride hurt at Michaels being treated as the golden child, Hart felt the Heartbreak Kid’s reign would only lead to Vince coming back to him, cap in hand. He also took the time to take some acting lessons.

On top of that, he had the opportunity to open negotiations with WCW, who offered him a lot of money to sign with them instead. The war between WCW and the WWF was great for wrestlers, as the more talented and popular ones were able to play one potential employer off the other and raise their value enormously. And Hart was very valuable.

Vince couldn’t compete with the amount of money WCW were offering (nine million for three years), but couldn’t afford to lose Hart when WCW was doing so well. Not least since Shawn Michaels hadn’t entirely clicked with the audience as champion either. So he offered Hart a 20-year contract for twenty million, with a cushy office job in the company once he retired from in-ring performance, and ‘reasonable creative control’ over how he was booked (meaning that he would have a say in how he was presented). Hart decided to take the job for life, and stayed in the WWF.

But when he came back, he felt he was still being treated in much the same way. Shawn Michaels was still getting (what Hart perceived to be) preferential treatment, and the personal issues continued to build between them, as Michaels clearly didn’t want to drop the title to ‘The Hitman’.

As WrestleMania 13 came closer, Michaels went down with a knee injury. He forfeited the WWE championship on an episode of Monday Night Raw, making a speech in which he said that he had ‘lost his smile’ and was going to take some time off. It’s worth pointing out that Bret didn’t believe ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ had really injured himself — he believed it was just a story to get out of having to lose to him. Most of the locker room appeared to agree with him (partly because Michaels was the kind of guy who could start a fight in an empty room). It was also taken as a sign of enormous disrespect, as Bret had shown no problems about being booked to lose to Michaels at the previous WrestleMania.

Shawn Michaels © WWE

Without Michaels as an opponent, Vince decided to go a different direction. The main event would feature The Undertaker finally winning the WWF championship from a musclebound but awkward wrestler called ‘Sycho’ Sid. Bret, meanwhile, would face ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin further down the card.

Also, despite wrestling his entire singles career as a babyface, McMahon wanted Bret to become a heel. Hart was unsure about this, but became convinced it was a good idea. It was a way to invigorate his career. He was at his career best in terms of in-ring skill and on the microphone, so he could finally prove to Vince that he really was the best in the industry.

If he couldn’t main event, he was damn sure going to have the match everyone would remember.

‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin

Despite his clear level of talent, the native Texan had struggled to find his place in the wrestling business. He saw himself at a higher level than the bosses did. By 1997, he was desperate to prove that he belonged in the main event.

He’d first come to national attention in WCW, where he gained a reputation as a really solid hand. He was big, entertaining and could put on good matches as ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin. But he struggled to progress in the company, even when he was put into a tag-team with Brian Pillman, the ‘Hollywood Blondes’ — so called because of their blonde (although in Austin’s case, thinning) hair.

Austin (left) and Pillman (Right), the Hollywood Blondes © WWE

They were an absolute riot to watch, but just as they began to become popular, Pillman was injured. When he returned, despite Austin’s wishes, they were split up. Austin started to become more and more frustrated — he felt that each time he stepped up his game and showed he was worth more, he was held down.

This intensified when Hulk Hogan joined. At the time, despite the enormous popularity of WCW, there was a lot of jealousy and paranoia backstage. The big money contracts created conflicts, and meant that the main event was tied up with the names that WCW believed in — most of which were former WWF wrestlers. Austin moved further and further from the main event, even as he improved in terms of in-ring talent and charisma.

When Austin was injured and recuperating at home, he was fired over the phone, told by the general manager Eric Bischoff that he was not seen as marketable. His termination papers were sent to him the next day by Fed-Ex.

Sat at home and angry, Austin was still injured, but he had name value. He was offered a role in a start-up promotion, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), where he wouldn’t have to wrestle yet — instead, he could ‘cut promos’, being given time each week to talk about whatever he wanted on the show.

Showing a new side of himself, he cut scathing, hilarious promos, mocking Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff, while proclaiming himself ‘Superstar’ Steve Austin. A big fish in a small but violent and entertaining pond, Austin was clearly comfortable in the spotlight. When he was ready to wrestle again, it wasn’t long before the WWF, in need of new talent, got in touch and signed him up.

Vince McMahon thought Austin was clearly a great talent, but didn’t believe he was strong in terms of character or microphone abilities. So he was paired up with a manager to carry that side of things — ‘The Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase. He was given the nickname ‘The Ringmaster’, with the plan that he would be no-nonsense. Without the opportunity to get on the microphone and show character, Austin was worried he wouldn’t progress. But thankfully, it was quickly clear that DiBiase wasn’t needed and was cut loose.

Austin was given permission to overhaul his character and look. He had an idea inspired by a documentary about mafia hitman and serial killer Richard Kuklinski, also known as ‘The Iceman’. Trying to come up with a nickname, the WWF creative department took ‘Iceman’ a little literally and suggested names like ‘Ice Dagger’, Fang McFrost’, ‘Otto von Ruthless’ and ‘Chilly McFreeze’. Trying to work it out, his then wife reminded him to drink his tea, or it would become ‘stone cold’. With the perfect name, Austin shaved his head and grew a goatee to complete the look for his vicious new character.

Stone Cold © WWE

The WWF got behind ‘Stone Cold’ and Austin was steadily pushed up the card, to just below the main event level. The first clear sign of this was the annual ‘King of the Ring’ tournament, which Austin was booked to win. He had a great night, topping off strong performances with a ‘coronation’ speech, just after beating Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts (who was supposedly recently born again). It’s fair to say that the speech changed Austin’s life.

“The first thing I want to be done, is to get that piece of crap out of my ring. Don’t just get him out of the ring, get him out of the WWF because I’ve proved son, without a shadow of a doubt, you ain’t got what it takes anymore. You sit there and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your psalms, talk about ‘John 3:16’… Well, ‘Austin 3:16’ says I just whipped your ass.“

The following week, some fans started to bring ‘Austin 3:16’ signs to shows. The audience was connecting with this loud-mouthed asshole.

Towards the end of 1996, he was selected to wrestle the returning Bret Hart, who had just signed his 20-year contract. Austin spent the month before cutting promos on the Hitman, including the line “If you put the letter ‘s’ in front of Hitman, you have my exact opinion of the man”. Bret won, obviously, but it was a blistering, entertaining match, which achieved exactly what both wrestlers needed — they both came out of it looking better than they went in.

The rematch was set for WrestleMania 13. While it was a potential step-down from where Bret Hart wanted to be, it was a huge match for Austin. And there was something else.

The fans were beginning to cheer for Austin.

With Michaels injured and Bret turning heel, there was a space right at the top of the card for a new babyface. Austin was the obvious choice. If the rest of the audience could connect with him as a good guy, ‘Stone Cold’ would be a main eventer within months.

It was the biggest opportunity of his life.

WrestleMania 13

It was the nineties… © WWE

WrestleMania 13 was a pretty lacklustre show overall. The Chicago venue was decent, but it didn’t feel like the biggest show of the year, either. And most of the matches on the card ranged from ‘okay’ to ‘not great’. There weren’t that many highlights.

One was the ‘Chicago Street Fight’, a fun brawl featuring the awkwardly racist attempt to use black power in wrestling, ‘The Nation of Domination’ taking on the ‘Legion of Doom’ and Ahmed Johnson. Another was The Undertaker winning the title — it wasn’t his first reign, but the last time he held it was six years previously, and that reign only lasted for six days. He was probably the biggest star they had in the company at the time (and is due to wrestle at this year’s WrestleMania with the expectation that he’ll retire soon).

The match that most people were interested in was Austin and Hart. The feud between them had intensified, with Austin costing Bret the WWF title earlier in the year. So the match would be under ‘submission’ rules, which meant only a submission could end the match.

There was a video package shown before the match, which recapped the feud so far and concentrated on the recent frustrated nature of Bret Hart. It was cheesy, but explained the story well. Also explaining the story well were the commentators — Jim Ross, former wrestler Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, and the company’s owner Vince McMahon. For the live audience, the story would be told without words.

The story is an important point here. One of the reasons wrestling can be difficult to get into is that it’s obvious when people are stomping on the mat at the same time they’re punching. But if you’re going to try, don’t try to concentrate on whether it’s real or fake. If you can look past that, look at the story being told. Look at how the audience is reacting and what the wrestlers are encouraging them to do.

To add another element to the match, there was a special guest referee. The ‘most dangerous man in the world’, former UFC champion Ken Shamrock. At this point in time, Ultimate Fighting was still relatively new and controversial. Shamrock was actually ready to debut as a pro-wrestler in WWF, as he’d been trained years before — this was just the way to bring him in. Shamrock was in terrifyingly good shape, wearing a referee’s shirt that was tighter than a headlock, cut off to show his arms. He did a good job with the match, staying out of the way of the wrestlers and the camera until he was needed.

© WWE

Austin’s music hit first, with the sound of glass smashing followed by an aggressive tune. As he walked through the entrance, a rigged glass sheet with “Austin 3:16” written on it smashed in front of him. It was a simple but cool effect. He wore black trunks, boots and a black leather waistcoat. The audience mostly booed, but there were a lot of cheers as well.

Bret came out as fireworks went off at the top of the arena, to his signature guitar wailing theme tune. He was dressed in his usual black and bright pink outfit. He was mostly cheered, and by the time he was in the ring, the audience was hyped up.

Normally, a wrestling match starts fairly slowly. A couple of holds and counter-holds, establishing their characters and styles to the audience. This one started explosively, with Austin tackling Hart immediately, and they rolled around punching each other. In less than a minute, they were brawling around the ring, and then into the audience, using drinks, guardrails and stairs to attack each other.

If you’ve never been to a wrestling show, one of the most fun parts are when wrestlers come out and fight in the audience. It doesn’t happen much, so it’s always a bonus. Everyone shifts around trying to see and get out of the way. It feels like the rules for a show have broken down. A few years ago, a Mexican ‘lucha libre’ wrestling show took place in London’s York Hall. The wrestlers came into the audience at speed, sending chairs flying. At one point, one landed roughly into the lap of an older woman in a wheelchair, very nearly sending her sprawling. As I left the arena, the same woman was excitedly telling everyone else how brilliant it was when they did that.

By the time they got back to the ring, the two wrestlers were slowing the action down. In the same way as a well-written book or film doesn’t cram all the exciting bits into one section of the story, a wrestling match needs to be paced well. If you do all the big, exciting moments one after the other, the audience will either become exhausted or it’ll just make everything seem less important. So you need to slow it down, let the audience breathe, and build up the anticipation for the next big moment.

Some wrestlers plan out their entire matches in advance. But for the pacing to work just right, the wrestlers have to listen to the audience. Wait until they’re ready for the pace to change, so their excitement is higher when it’s paid off. Hart and Austin were both experts at this, so when they slowed down, they did so to make the audience pay more attention. And they didn’t plan out their entire match in advance — they had five or so moments they knew they wanted to do, and otherwise worked together to make it up as they went, feeding off the audience reactions and building them up.

Usually, the heel leads the action in the match. He beats down the face, allowing him to build the comebacks. But in this match, Bret was the aggressor. He led the match, focusing on Austin’s leg, kicking and twisting it. It was a subtle way to lead the audience into cheering for Austin — he was the one making the comebacks, and when he did, he started to play to the crowd a little more than he usually did. Bret was also the one to introduce weapons into the match, including a ring bell and a steel chair. Again, this is usually something the heel does to get an advantage, so the babyface can turn it around, teaching the heel a lesson. This time, the roles were reversed and Austin was the one to turn the tables on Bret and using the chair on him instead.

As Austin started to make his comeback, he threw Hart out of the ring. As Bret landed, he spat out something in his mouth. A small piece of taped-up razor blade.

The way wrestlers bleed is usually very simple. It isn’t a blood pack, corn syrup or paint. It’s blood. As seen in the movie ‘The Wrestler’, they tend to use a small sliver of razor blade to cut their own foreheads. If you get it in the right place, you don’t need a big cut to end up with a ‘crimson mask’ and it usually heals up pretty quickly (although some blade so often, they’re heavily scarred — a wrestler called Abdullah the Butcher cut himself so often, his party trick was to put gambling chips into the large scars and divots in his forehead).

In the WWF, blading was a big no-no. It was still mostly family-friendly, and as such, it wasn’t an overly violent product. Some wrestlers still did it, but being careful to look like they’d genuinely been cut by accident. Hart suggested the idea of blading to Austin in secret, aware that if the match was good enough, nobody would care — but they still did it carefully enough that they could maintain deniability.

After throwing him into the guardrail, Hart used the razor-blade to dig a quarter-inch cut into Austin’s temple. It bled heavily and immediately, dripping blood over the announce table and the area around the ring. When they got back into the ring itself, the audience could see for themselves how heavily Austin was bleeding and they reacted loudly. It was that unusual a sight. And it was gory. Everything Austin touched got blood over it. The mat of the ring was a mess of bloodstains.

© WWE

Again, Bret went on the attack. He used a chair to attack Austin’s leg again. This time, when Austin made his comeback, the crowd were definitely cheering him. Although he wasn’t acting like a true babyface yet — he wrapped an extension cord around Hart’s throat in a set-up that looks much nastier than anything they actually do. But it was a set-up for Bret to hit him with the ring-bell, which had been put in place earlier but not used, like Chekov’s gun. Or Chekov’s bell.

Once Austin was down, the Hitman locked in his ‘Sharpshooter’ submission hold. Usually, a wrestler would submit quickly when it was put on. But Austin fought, trying desperately to reverse it. When he pushed himself off the mat, blood poured down his face and into his mouth, in an iconic moment that the WWF used in video packages for years to come. He almost reversed it, but Hart kept the move locked in. Austin tried again, screaming out before his hands and head slowly faded to the mat. He lay face-down in a pool of his own blood as the commentators screamed that he’d ‘passed out from the pain’. Ken Shamrock ruled that he couldn’t respond any more and ended the match, declaring Bret Hart the winner.

Austin in the Sharpshooter © WWE

Hart’s music hit, but he didn’t look happy. He posed on the turnbuckles, but looked angry and a few moments later, he attacked the unconscious Austin again, kicking his leg over and over. The crowd began to boo him now, disgusted by his actions. Shamrock pulled him away, but Hart went back again, attempting to put the Sharpshooter on one more time. This time, Shamrock grabbed him and threw him across the ring, challenging him to a fight.

Hart looked at Shamrock, then looked out at the audience. And then, for the first time, the Hitman did something he’d never done before — he backed out of a fight. As he did so, the crowd booed heavily. As he walked away, he slapped some hands of fans, but when someone gave him the middle finger, he gave it right back, shouting ‘fuck you too’.

Back in the ring, Austin was slowly trying to get to his feet. Another referee came to try and help, but Austin hit him with his own signature move, the ‘Stone Cold Stunner’. He then slowly rolled out of the ring, standing up and looking out at the audience. This time, he was cheered. One section of the audience started a loud ‘Austin’ chant, and he looked over at them, acknowledging them. The commentators talked about how he’d lost but he’d never quit, and that ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin still had his pride. He made his way to the back as the crowd continued to applaud him.

Including the video package and the actions after the match, the entire thing lasted under half an hour. In that time, they managed to turn the biggest babyface in the company into their biggest heel, and set up Steve Austin as the new face. And that only worked because they had the audience with them for every step of the story the two of them told in the ring.

A new attitude

Steve Austin didn’t just take the ball and run with it as the new babyface of the company. He became the biggest wrestling star there’s ever been. Hulk Hogan, ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, The Undertaker, Bret Hart, The Ultimate Warrior, Ric Flair, John Cena and even The Rock — none of them came close to ‘Stone Cold’ in terms of money made in his peak years.

His character didn’t entirely change. He was still a loudmouthed and foul-mouthed asshole, but he was also brave and never gave up. ‘Austin 3:16’ shirts made millions of dollars in merchandise, to the extent that the entire company changed to become more like Austin. More violent, more over-the-top and more outrageous.

The WWF started to use the brand ‘attitude’ to reflect the new approach to their shows. Blood, far from being a banned idea, flowed regularly in WWF shows. Women (whether wrestlers or managers) started to dress in skimpier outfits, regularly being stripped down to bras and thongs. Characters swore regularly and the entire show started being broadcast as TV-14 instead of TV-PG.

The more outrageous the show became, the higher the ratings grew and the more people came to the shows. And, more importantly, they were specifically coming to WWF shows. From being in second place, with Steve Austin as their main babyface, the WWF soared ahead in the ratings, constantly setting new records. Audiences couldn’t get enough.

WCW, meanwhile, couldn’t keep up. As their ratings declined over the next few years, the bosses started to panic, as the shows became worse and worse. By 2001, WCW went out of business, unable to keep a television deal. The brand, video library and contracted wrestlers were all sold for just a few million dollars — to Vince McMahon.

Not a fairytale ending

It’d be nice if everyone involved had a ‘and they lived happily ever after’, but real life — even professional wrestling — doesn’t work like that.

Bret Hart’s ‘for life’ contract didn’t last another six months, even though he was putting out the best performances of his life. His heel persona reinvigorated him, and he did something nobody else has ever achieved. He was a heel in the US, which he claimed had become degenerate, but still a beloved face overseas (and nowhere more than his home country, Canada). Despite growing business, Vince told him that he couldn’t afford to honour the terms and advised him to see if the offer from WCW was still on the table.

It was, and Hart handed in his notice. But there was a sticking point, in that things between him and Shawn Michaels had become even more heated. Michaels had publicly made references to an affair that Hart was having, and the two of them had ended up fighting backstage for real. And by that point, Bret was once again WWF champion and was required to lose it to Shawn before he left. Because he felt that Michaels would never have done the same for him, he refused, offering to drop the title to anyone else.

Vince, Shawn and Bret eventually agreed to another plan. Bret’s last match would take place in Canada, at the annual ‘Survivor Series’ event, and it would end in a draw. The following night, Hart would forfeit the title and leave the company. However, it was a double-cross. When Bret was put in the ‘Sharpshooter’ by Michaels, Vince ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell, changing the end of the match without Bret’s agreement. This is infamous amongst wrestling fans as ‘The Montreal Screwjob’.

Backstage, Hart knocked out Vince before he left, and debuted soon after in WCW. However, he wasn’t happy, as WCW wasn’t an easy place to be — he ended up lost in the shuffle and rarely anywhere near the main event.

Worse came in 1999, when Bret’s younger brother Owen (who was still a wrestler in WWF) was killed in a freak accident in the middle of a pay-per-view event. He was supposed to be lowered from the ceiling in a harness, but it broke and he fell to his death. His widow, Martha, sued the WWF for wrongful death (as the harness was unsafe) and they settled out of court for $18 million. Bret was devastated. He and Owen had been particularly close, and he blamed McMahon for the death.

A recent picture of Bret Hart with his wife Stephanie © Bret Hart

Later that year, Bret was kicked hard in the side of the head by another wrestler, Bill Goldberg. It gave him a severe concussion. Unaware of the severity, he continued to wrestle for another few weeks, receiving multiple other concussions. The combination of these resulted in post-concussion syndrome, ending his career.

In 2002, he suffered a stroke as a result of a bicycle accident. His recovery was slow and painful, which he recounted in his autobiography, Hitman: My real life in the cartoon world of professional wrestling.

In recent years, he’s reconciled with Vince and appeared sporadically on WWF (now World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) television. He even patched things up with Shawn Michaels and the two became friends. Last year, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but seems to be recovering.

‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin became the biggest star in wrestling, but his career didn’t last long. In the summer of 1997, his neck was broken in a match with Owen Hart, as the result of a botched move. While he returned quickly, the injury continued to bother him.

In October of that year, Austin’s best friend, Brian Pillman (his former tag team partner back in the ‘Hollywood Blondes’ days) died at the age of 35 from complications due to an enlarged heart. Although he didn’t talk about it much publicly, Austin was deeply affected.

Even during all this, he was the most popular wrestler in the world. His biggest feud, oddly, was with Vince McMahon himself. Following the ‘Montreal Screwjob’, Vince became an on-air character — ‘Mr McMahon’, the evil corporate boss. Austin became the underdog, sticking it to the man. They even had a couple of matches with each other. It made millions of dollars.

But even during his career highlights, between the constant pain and the bereavement, Austin went into a spiral. In recent years, he’s talked about how unhappy he was at times, dealing with alcohol and painkiller issues. He went through a divorce in 1999, and married again in 2000. That marriage ended in 2002, when he was charged with domestic violence. He pled ‘no contest’, paid a fine and was sentenced to community service.

He retired as a wrestler in 2003, due to complications from the neck injury in 1997. He stayed around as an on-air character for a couple of years and even ended up giving the ‘Stone Cold Stunner’ to Donald Trump at WrestleMania 23.

No, really. That happened. © WWE

Nowadays, he seems to be in a much better place in terms of both physical and mental health. He owns a ranch and lives with his fourth wife. He acts occasionally and hosts ‘Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge’, an extreme endurance challenge show set on his ranch. He also runs successful podcasts about wrestling, where he’s an engaging and enjoyable host.

© WWE

Taking it home

The match between Steve Austin and Bret Hart was, at the time, something absolutely new in the WWF. Blood wasn’t a regular occurrence, and it was the perfect timing of two wrestlers at the top of their game with something to prove.

Because it was a time of immense change in the wrestling industry, the match influenced the entire industry. But it wasn’t sustainable. As the WWF’s new ‘attitude’ became more popular, the violence and controversy kept growing — eventually, it was all just too much. They had to start toning it down.

Nowadays, World Wrestling Entertainment is once again broadcasting family-friendly television for the most part. This happened for a number of reasons.

As the danger of concussions became better understood, the WWE changed its approach again, totally eliminating unnecessary blows to the head like chairshots. This happened in the wake of the death of Chris Benoit, who murdered his family and killed himself, which some believed had been caused by how many blows he’d taken to his head over his career.

Blood once again became a bad thing. As with anything extreme, once it gets into a game of one-upmanship, it doesn’t go anywhere good. When a wrestler called Eddie Guerrero was cut badly in a match, it resulted in one of the goriest matches ever seen — he actually went into shock as a result of blood loss. Also, when a wrestler called Bob Orton Jr didn’t mention he had hepatitis, it caused a lot of re-evaluating thoughts on the matter, considering he’d been in a match with the Undertaker where both of them had open wounds.

WWE now tends to stop matches if there’s a bad wound. The referees immediately don gloves, and the wrestlers tend to get medical attention immediately to stop the bleeding. Not all wrestlers are happy about this, as although it’s clearly safer, it’s also perceived as less adult.

Also, the style of wrestling has changed. Today, it’s more about technical wrestling and high-flying. While there are still brawls, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen one with the intensity of Austin and Hart.

There are still excellent matches. They’re just different. In the same way that we’ll never be in 1997 again, we’ll never have another match quite like that one Bret Hart and Steve Austin had.


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I’m a freelance writer. If you’re interested in having me write something for your website or magazine, talk to me. I’m on twitter at @chrisbrosnahan and you can find me on LinkedIn.