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My favorite WrestleMania match: Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart

Stone Cold. Hitman. Not a match. A war. In 1997, two men helped reignite the sputtering fire of a teetering WWE. 22 of the most important minutes in wrestling history and the match that may well have built the set for the most lucrative superstar run we've ever seen.

What makes a great wrestling match? Your answer may be vastly different from mine, and honestly I hope that’s the case. That’s why this week’s "My Favorite WrestleMania Match" series is so interesting, because the Why is far more interesting than the What.

For my entry, I have no interest in discussing the angle that led to the match or the storyline or the go-home promos or anything WWE did prior to that night. With that said, the reason Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart from WrestleMania 13 in 1997 is atop my list is multi-layered, but all the components occur within that 22 glorious minutes.

You know the match, so there’s no need to rehash the action move-for-move, but suffice to say if by some miracle you haven’t seen it, stop reading and view it immediately. Austin and Hart begin and get to the floor quickly, then battle into the stands, which in 1997, was still somewhat rare for WWE bouts. Everything in the match was on an accelerated timeline, with the main tent-poles occurring several minutes before a usual WWE pattern would have placed those moments. It’s decisions like the one that sped up the expected, making the entire spectacle feel completely unique and immensely dramatic, that allowed this one to stand out above all the rest.

Almost all of the first four minutes are on the floor and in the stands, indicating to anyone - even those who had seen none of the build-up, missed Survivor Series 1996, and knew virtually nothing about these two men - that they hated each other and wanted to beat the piss out of one another. Approximately five minutes after the bell, Bret goes to work on Austin’s injured hamstring, which had kept him out of action for nearly two months. The assault is relentless, with Austin fighting back with anything he can find, including stealing a chair from Bret and knocking him off the top rope. The Stone Cold Stunner drops the Hitman seven minutes into the match.

Yes, that's right, SEVEN MINUTES into the match.

There wouldn't be a second one.

We see submissions throughout, but they’re placed between epic fighting sequences and high impact segments. Austin focuses on the back and the neck. Bret focuses on the leg. Very few wrestling moves occur, but those that do are both crisp and impeccably spaced to break the long stretches of carnage. Both men raise the level of violence. Austin uses an electric cord to choke Bret, who gets out of it with a ring bell to the back of the head. It's almost uncomfortable to watch, which had to be the intention. They needed the audience to cringe, and due to that requirement, nothing was out of bounds. Every twist in this conflict, within this strikingly sadistic playground, simply made complete sense.

Pacing means nothing without talent; luckily, these two gentlemen had that trait in spades. This was one of the final big matches Austin would have prior to the neck injury at SummerSlam less than six months later. This was the reckless, much more refined brawling style of Austin we loved when he teamed with Pillman in WCW and when he was merely "Stunning" before he "tossed it out the window" in ECW. Many fans that discovered the magic of the pro wrestling business thanks to the nWo and the Attitude Era missed the reality of Steve Austin as one of the best wrestlers on the planet. Watts and Bischoff did their best to keep this information from us, but somehow Steve found a way, because he wanted it so badly. Austin's talent was an under-appreciated fact for years, long before light beer became the key component of his gimmick. Bret, well we all know just how good Bret Hart is as an in-ring performer.

But, this was a night where WWE made every right choice, whether intentional or not. Two crowd shots, used at perfect times, helped to tell the story. The first showed a small girl with her face in her hands, frightened of the spectacle she finally had to turn away from in order to protect her innocence and youth. The second cut-away occurred as Bret was trapped in a painful submission hold, and it was a gravely concerned Stu Hart. The director and the cameras found the ideal images to illustrate the tenor of the audience, who had seen a subpar and hugely forgettable show up to that point. Even the three instances where Austin or Hart were thrown into or bounced off of a ring post were awesome. Those spots looked good, but go back and LISTEN to them. I have no idea where the microphones were, but it sounded like these men's skulls were cracking open. It was crazy great. It will never be duplicated.

It was also a night where the Pay Per View audience was treated to one of the best three man booths it had ever heard. It isn’t that we hadn’t experienced Jim Ross, Vince McMahon, and Jerry Lawler before, but on this Sunday, during this match, everything was in sync. Here’s just one exchange:

And, if Bret Hart loses this match, you wonder what he’s going to come up with as an excuse, because he’ll have one, in my view. (Vince McMahon, selling the angle and WWE direction.)

Who? Bret Hart? Sure he will, he’s a whiner. (Jerry Lawler, playing the heel, but also enhancing Vince’s narrative, which would set Bret’s path for the future. Also, not saying too much.)

I don’t necessarily agree with that wholeheartedly, but be that as it may, Bret Hart now ripping that hamstring, perhaps setting that injured knee of Steve Austin’s up for the Sharpshooter. You know it’s bound to come, sooner or later. Steve Austin’s been out of action for several weeks. He’s cleared to go. He’s virtually 100 percent, but he might not be 100 percent for long! (Jim Ross, selling the match and giving the reason to sympathize with Austin’s pain.)

Vince understood what he needed to sell for the company, and he pushed the broader bullet points and allowed Jim Ross to be the play-by-play savant he’s always been. Lawler was engaged and attempted to stay on Austin’s side, playing the heel, while the story was gradually shifting from Steve Austin the asshole to Steve Austin the tough SOB worthy of ultimate respect. Ross was so good in painting a verbal picture of sheer war between two world-class athletes. Vince sold the company and provided the mainstream side of things. Lawler talked in terms of character and continued to proclaim that Austin would never quit, even if Bret severed his leg from his body. Here’s King’s reaction to Bret’s figure four around the ring post:

I’m going to tell you this right now. Bret Hart can twist Stone Cold’s leg until it looks like the Chicago White Sox’ Robin Ventura. It can be turned around backwards and Stone Cold is still not going to give up. He will not submit to the Hitman. That’s the bottom line.

So, on top of this ridiculous match, the commentary was just magnificent, and not once did any of the trio mention anything outside of the action in the ring or the two combatants. It’s the only time I can remember in WrestleMania history, with the exception of Shawn and Taker (incidentally, Geno's pick from yesterday, a choice I endorse whole-heartedly), that a non-main event made everyone forget there was anything else on the card. It was as if WrestleMania 13 was literally a one-match show. The building felt different. The camerawork, even though it wasn’t, looked different. These two men killed each other in front of our eyes and all of a sudden, it was hard to remember wrestling was predetermined entertainment.

This was a world-class submission match where nothing was left to chance. Austin, being the stellar wrestling mind that he was, knew what he needed to do to make it work. Bret, every bit as intelligent, was keenly aware of the platform and the stage and was willing to bring the Hitman persona to levels he’d never taken a WWE match before in his career. Everything was pitch perfect. The story in the ring was a thing of beauty, showcasing the massive respect Bret and Steve had for one another’s skills.

Then came the blood.

Color isn’t necessary, but once in a while, it can really enhance the product. Buckets every night doesn’t work, but in the right moment - think Spud/ECIII from Impact two weeks ago - it’s a major positive. Austin did an amazing blade job and then knew how to get the blood flowing. Whereas many pop aspirin in the back or drink a beer to help thin the blood and make a crimson mask easier, Austin did the other stuff, just straining the eyes and the temples and forcing the liquid out after a good gig. He was leaving gigantic deep red puddles everywhere his forehead touched, including a middle turnbuckle he used to clear blood from his eyes. When it was time for the Sharpshooter, he had painted a personal moment of color so well done that it actually became a popular shirt design in 1998 and 1999. That one shot of Austin pushing up, screaming in agony, trying to escape Bret’s signature hold, is an iconic, unforgettable wrinkle in time.

Austin’s attempted counter, where he does halfway push Bret off, only for Hart to hang on and regain his superior position for good, is a classic. It wasn’t some convoluted or complicated spot that seemed rigged. This was one guy trying, with every ounce of energy he had left, to relieve the pressure. It looked completely real. Austin lived up to King’s prophecy that he wouldn’t give up, instead passing out from blood loss and pain.

A submission match ended in a knockout.

How fitting, because the entire performance was a knockout.

In the afterbirth, WWE made Stone Cold Steve Austin its first crossover heel star for the mainstream fan. WCW had Hall, Nash, and Hogan, but Austin would be Vince's first true "tweener," because it was impossible to deny his heart and his "intestinal fortitude." When Bret went back to the attack after Ken Shamrock stopped the match, we had a flawlessly executed double turn. Bret was already on that path to villainy, and Austin's journey, born at King of the Ring 1996, was increasingly off-roading through the Victoria, Texas backwoods. Hell, even Shamrock began a pretty successful career after his waist lock takeover on Bret to get him away from the fallen Austin. Everybody imaginable benefited from this thing. This one submission match was a monumental sea change in where WWE was headed, as it was the company's sojourn that mattered most. Hart’s interference in the main event solidified the swap, but no one remembers much of anything from the show OTHER than Austin/Bret.

Why is this one my favorite WrestleMania match? At that time in 1997, WWE was nearly dead in the water overall and very few people I knew cared what the company was doing. I was atop that list. With the exception of Shawn Michaels and Mankind in 1996, I had basically bailed on Vince. Growing up in the southeast, that was much easier to do. But, on a grander fan scale, WrestleMania 13 wasn’t even a sell-out. WCW was in the honeymoon phase of the nWo and Vince was in dire straits. On that night in the Windy City, his company put forth the second most important match in its history, only behind Hogan and Andre. Incidentally, I’d put HBK/Taker and Foley/Taker HIAC matches on that list as well. People talked about it and those who missed it saw it on tape and took notice. WWE was on the radar again.

Anyone who watched the bout, even those who had never seen a professional wrestling match, followed, understood, and cared about that story. Simultaneously, the most seasoned wrestling fan couldn’t believe how wonderfully it was presented. The match was its own angle. It was a game changer. It erased every boundary. In that somehow timeless 22 minutes and five seconds, we were all one audience watching something astonishingly special. We felt Austin’s pain. We felt the shift in attitude. We felt Bret’s intensity. We absorbed every punch, every kick, every move, every stretch, every chair shot. We were there. And, it was in Chicago. Nothing could have made it better.

The pro wrestling business was built on the idea of two men having a reason to beat years off the career of the other, whether for competition, for a title, for pride, or for pure, unadulterated vitriol. When two iconic performers coalesce at the right time and understand the one goal of captivating a crowd with their story inside a wrestling ring, the finished product becomes more than just a match. It becomes a crystal clear, breathtaking work of art, coated in brutality and malice. Every brush stroke and blood stain on the ruined canvas of Steve Austin and Bret Hart was another bright, shining, undeniable triumph of that one jaw-dropping masterpiece. These men took 22 minutes and built an impervious diamond frame around their moment in time together. In the process, they preserved that gigantic slice of the industry for eternity.

Before that Sunday evening in March of 1997, Stone Cold Steve Austin was a budding star. On that night, he became the blue-collar red-ass that everyone began to identify with, and by WrestleMania XIV, just one year later, he was the biggest professional wrestling attraction on Earth. Both men’s ring performances - combined with sublime announcing and simple, brilliant camerawork - worked in unison to spin one solitary and unbelievable tale of hatred and pride. As a result, it was historic in a way none other has arguably been since. In many ways, that match helped save the World Wrestling Federation. It certainly helped reignite the company in the minds of the larger audience, raised the bar, and molded the infancy of the foundation for the biggest boom period of our lifetime.

On March 23, 1997, we all remembered why we loved watching this stuff, and why when it’s that good, we’ll gladly suspend all disbelief, erase every last morsel of knowledge we have, and become kids again.

Ignorance is bliss. And my God, were we all grinning imbeciles that night.

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