We’re in the midst of an incredible time period for wrestling. Every other month it seems there’s another epic, five-star match. And in some cases, a six-star, a six and a quarter and with the latest Okada/Omega match, even a seven-star match. As great as these modern matches are — and they are amazing — none will ever top Hart/Austin from Wrestlemania 13. Here’s why.
As I’m watching more and more classic wrestling, the matches are almost secondary to the characters and logical progression of angles. I don’t doubt for one second Magnum T.A. would break every bone in Tully Blanchard’s body to get his U.S. title back, Ric Flair thought he really was the best wrestler on the planet, Hulk Hogan believed Hulkamania was the strongest force in the world, etc.
What made Hart/Austin work was it was long-term storytelling at its best. From November 1996 to March 1997, their paths were linked and the bookers/writers creatively came up with ways to evolve this feud beyond an endless series of matches.
By the time of their Wrestlemania showdown, the fans had witnessed various twists and turns in this rivalry. Looking to make his mark to the upper echelon, Austin kept calling out Hart. The Hitman final agreed to a match at Survivor Series 1996. Hart knew Austin was a rising star, but had to dip far into his arsenal to hold back Austin’s challenge.
Somewhat foolishly thinking Austin would go away after being defeated, Hart began setting his sights back on the WWF championship that he lost at Wrestlemania 12 in very controversial fashion. But Austin wouldn’t go away.
In Hart’s first shot at regaining the title he felt he never lost, The Hitman faced off against the powerful Sycho Sid at In Your House 12. Overcoming Sid’s brute force attack would be too much for most competitors, but The Hitman also had to contend with another venomous ambush from Austin. In the end it was a collision with longtime rival Shawn Michaels that led to Hart’s defeat.
Forced to wait his turn in line again, Hart knew his next best shot was winning the Royal Rumble, which he did. Unfortunately for The Hitman, the refs missed Hart eliminating Austin, who stole the Rumble victory.
After the Wrestlemania 12 controversy, the In Your House shenanigans and a third slight from WWF officials at the Rumble, Hart was frustrated. Seeing the WWF increasingly becoming an outlaw country, he wanted little to do with it. If he wanted to be around cowboys and lawless rebels with no respect for authority, he’d return to his guest spot on Lonesome Dove.
The Hitman was ready to do something Bob Backlund could never make him do — quit. This was a side to The Hitman the fans had never seen before. Even if they understood his position, heroes don’t just take their ball and go home, do they?
Shawn Michaels was quitting as well after ‘losing his smile’ and needing to rehab his knee, requiring him to forfeit his WWF title. In a span of weeks, WWF fans saw their two biggest heroes quit. All the while, Austin’s single-minded focus and intensity was starting to earn their respect. Austin didn’t seem like the quitting type even if there was no way out…
At In Your House: Final Four, Bret won the vacated WWF title and was ready to restore his slightly tarnished legacy and become the WWF’s hero again. But like a bad virus, Austin popped up again and the very next night, cost Hart his WWF title against Sycho Sid. A rematch against Sid in a steel cage intended to prevent outside interference from Austin still saw The Hitman foiled thanks to The Undertaker’s self interest in ensuring Sid retained the title.
Broken, frustrated and tired of feeling conspired against, The Hitman viciously lashed out at Vince McMahon. As the head commentator, McMahon was overcome with emotion when Hart agreed to return to the WWF back in November. But in Hart’s eyes, he’d done nothing to call out the injustices he’d faced since what he expected to be a triumphant return.
There was no turning back now. Hart was going to have to go that dark place one more time. To remember all the lessons Jimmy Hart taught him. He had to tap into the ruthlessness he used to wage war for a summer with his brother, Owen, and brother-in-law, The British Bulldog, over the WWF title. Only after vanquishing Austin could Hart become the hero this increasingly toxic WWF so desperately needed.
With all these elements in place, there were greater stakes in this match than the WWF title. It was a battle for the heart of the WWF fans. The elements were in place. Now it was time to deliver.
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Over the last decade, we’ve seen arguably two feuds with so much intensity and dimensions — Gargano/Ciampa and Jericho/Michaels. Athletic rivalries are great, but the storytelling in a feud between hated rivals takes it to the next level. In the era of three hour Monday Night Raws there’s little chance of a story getting the kind of attention and care to reach this point of interest and development.
More than a match
Wrestlemania 13 marked the pinnacle of the character Steve Austin was honing since his arrival in World Class feuding with Chris Adams. He had an edge, swagger and a desire to prove his doubters wrong. Michaels was stealing his thunder, but Hart was 1B in the discussion of best North American wrestlers.
There’s a short list of matches where the competitors were perfectly in their primes for their big confrontation: Steamboat/Savage, Steamboat/Flair, Flair/Funk, War Games 92, Angle/Benoit, Okada/Omega, Guerrero/Mysterio and Ciampa/Gargano. Austin hadn’t broken his neck yet and Hart’s knees hadn’t started betraying him.
The other matches mentioned are great. There’s no flaws in them, but think of how few tell a great story within a great match. A lot of the times we get a great match and the story resumes after it. The story that began in Survivor Series 96 continues throughout the match with various callbacks and the mounting intensity. Funk and Flair deliver a classic I Quit brawl yet Hart/Austin feels even more desperate to convey the hatred these two have for each other.
It’s so much that Hart isn’t ready to stop after winning the match. It’s the key here. He’s been pushed so far past the edge he can’t see it any more. All he sees is Austin still clinging and fighting. Deep down, Bret knows failing to take him out in this moment of his highest vulnerability will cost him everything later. There’s no release and satisfaction knowing the dragon is defeated. The Hitman knows he’s the hero that eventually became a villain and he’s OK with it if he can take out Austin.
Austin/Hart provided one of the most iconic images in wrestling history with Austin bleeding out and the blood streaming down his face, past his teeth and onto the mat. It’s the defining image of the Attitude Era in a way that few wrestling moments can compare.
Surprise! The Attitude Era didn’t start when Triple H and four jabronies stormed the gates of WCW on a tank. What would eventually evolve into the Attitude Era had slowly gestated over the course of late 96 into early 97. Bret’s RAW tirade was just foreshadowing what was to come. In the wake of Austin/Hart, the WWF treated the fans with a newfound level of respect allowing them to cheer who they wanted. It was no longer the shining knight come to slay evil kings, jesters, pirates and dentists. It was the foul-mouthed, apologize for nothing anti-authority figure.
And for the ex-hero? He was a nuanced villain in that he was loathed in the United States and cheered in his hometown of Canada and throughout the world. This was the first sign the WWF fans would accept a more daring presentation of the characters and storylines as the Attitude Era officially got underway.
There’s other great match that can lay claim to sparking wrestling’s most popular and profitable era. Hogan vs Iron Sheik, the only other match that could be tied to a major era was entertaining, but hardly great. The Omega/Okada series has drawn more attention to New Japan, but hasn’t led to some significant challenge to the WWE’s near monopoly.
That’s the Bottom Line
If you want to give Okada/Omega 11 billion stars, that’s your prerogative. Or if Garagon/Ciampa is your new standard bearer, more power to you. But in terms of the storyline, match excellence, influence and genre-impacting, nothing comes close to Hart/Austin.
Photo Credit: WWE.com