For the last two weeks, I have counted down my five favorite Wrestlemania matches of all time, from how they came about to what impression they left on the show, the company, and the business. Today, I will finish the countdown with my favorite Wrestlemania match of all time, Bret Hart’s star-making effort against Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIII
In the months before Wrestlemania 13, the seeds for the Hart-Austin double turn had been planted and already started to grow. Hart repeatedly voiced his displeasure with his poor treatment in wrestling, both from the company and the fans. Meanwhile, Austin garnered tremendous popular support for that very same vulgarity that angered Hart, which became a rallying cry for blue collar fans who appreciated his attitude.
They had a personal rivalry to go with the professional positions they represented. Austin repeatedly taunted Hart after he won the King of the Ring in 1996 and their paths crossed repeatedly over the following months- Hart won a singles match at Survivor Series, then eliminated Austin from the Royal Rumble. The referees did not see the elimination and Austin went on to win. Due to the disputed finish, Austin got a title shot in a four-way match at the Final Four PPV, but Hart won the match. Out of retaliation, Austin cost Hart the title in his defense against Sycho Sid on Raw with a chair shot.
As Hart grew more frustrated, Austin grew more popular. Hart’s frustration led to a No DQ Submission Match at Wrestlemania with Ken Shamrock serving as the guest referee. The stipulation seemed to tell a story on its own since Hart was known for his Sharpshooter and Austin had never established a submission hold in his WWF career. Nonetheless, the booking was a huge step up for Austin, who went from facing Savio Vega a year earlier to this non-title match that would eclipse the nominal main event.
Even before the opening bell, Vince McMahon laid the groundwork for the phenomenal double turn that would take place when he said that Hart’s reputation has been diminished through his actions leading up to the match. It is interesting that McMahon called the match just months before his legendary falling out with Hart at Survivor Series. As the lead play-by-play announcer in the match, he played a key role in helping the wrestlers tell their story.
As many of Austin’s WWF-era matches did, the bout immediately became a brawl. Austin has acknowledged that the damage to his knees before he came to WWF forced him to abandon his mechanical roots and become more of a slugger. He executed a double-leg takedown on Hart and the fight immediately spilled onto the floor. Hart stiffly rammed Austin into the ring post and Austin answered by crotching Hart on the metal barricade (while Captain Lou Albano conspicuously kept fans at bay).
They continued the scrum through the crowd and into the Rosemont Horizon’s elevated seating. The cameras struggled to follow them into the crowd, which added to the feeling of anarchy and genuine ill-will between the wrestlers. When Austin tried to lift Hart on the concrete steps, Hart performed a back body drop that looked as painful as just about any spot in wrestling.
Hart continued to ragdoll Austin as he led him back to the ring. When they finally made their way back to ringside, Austin hurled Hart into the ring steps, gave him the double middle fingers, and tried to smash him with the steps. Though Hart avoided that danger, Austin dragged him into the ring post to repay some of the punishment he had already accumulated.
They finally returned to the ring where Hart delivered a swinging neckbreaker and a second-rope elbow. Appropriately, as the match started to adhere to traditional rules, Hart asserted his dominance. He started to work Austin’s heavily-braced knee with leg whips and elbows. A desperate Austin pulled a Stunner out of nowhere, but the high-impact move did not cause a submission and Hart resumed his attack on Austin’s leg as soon as he recovered.
Hart dragged Austin to the corner for the figure four around the ring post. The hold was well-established as a dirty and devastating move over the previous months, so the crowd went crazy when he used it legally in this situation. When Austin withstood the pain to outlast the hold, it only reaffirmed his toughness.
Immediately after Austin freed himself, Hart found a steel chair and continued to work on Austin’s leg. He wrapped it around Austin’s ankle to another major pop from the crowd since the eponymous Pillmanizing was fresh in their memories and heavily protected as a dangerous move. Austin wriggled free as Hart climbed to the top rope and smashed Hart with the chair.
As Austin continued his attack, the camera focused on one of Hart’s daughters covering her eyes in the crowd. Similarly, Stu Hart sat in the front row with a shocked expression on his face. Austin locked in an arm bar to answer the question of how he would try to make Hart submit. When that hold didn’t achieve the goal, he put Hart in a Boston Crab. Finally, Austin tried to apply Hart’s Sharpshooter, but a thumb to the eye broke his momentum.
Austin threw Hart back to the floor and Hart responded with an Irish Whip through the timekeeper and into the barricade to cause the famous cut that would cover his face with blood as the match continued. Hart opened the cut further when he smashed Austin into the ring steps and the ring post.
Hart brought Austin back in the ring and cracked him with a chair as Austin’s blood stained the mat. Austin fought his way out of an attempted Sharpshooter for a brief respite. Hart went to work with fists in the corner, but Austin countered with a kick below the belt. That response gave Austin his second wind and he started to stomp a mud hole in Hart. It was at that exact moment that the fans reversed course and started to cheer Austin. He took advantage with a superplex on Hart, but he hurt himself as much as he hurt Hart.
Finding no success with submission holds, Austin retrieved an extension cord from outside the ring. He wrapped it around Hart’s neck to try to choke him out and Hart freed himself by smashing Austin with the nearby ring bell.
Hart dragged Austin into the center of the ring and locked him into the Sharpshooter. Austin refused to submit and screamed while he tried to lift himself free of the hold. The fans cheered his name while he briefly loosened the hold, but Hart immediately reapplied it. Shamrock told Austin that if he could not respond, he would end the match. Austin laid face down in the ring in a pool of his own blood to give Hart the win by knockout.
Other than possibly Hart’s Survivor Series match later that year, this match did more to change the landscape of pro wrestling in the US than any other in the 31 years of Wretlemania. The double turn positioned Austin as a main event fan favorite even though he openly defied the traditional babyface persona. Due to a broken neck and several other factors, it would take a full year for Austin to finally beat Shawn Michaels and claim the WWF Title. Nonetheless, he became the star who carried the company that night and it laid the groundwork for a momentum swing in the Monday Night Wars.
Hart’s heel turn led to some tremendous work with the pro-Canada Hart Foundation in the summer of ’97 and his eventual separation from WWF. As much as Hart meant to the company, his departure signaled a philosophical change that helped WWE overcome WCW and recapture control of the wrestling world. This match ranks alongside his Ironman Match with Michaels at Wrestlemania XII, his cage match with his brother Owen at Wrestlemania X, and his Intercontinental Title match with the British Bulldog at SummerSlam ’92 as one of his most memorable. It is also notable that it is arguably Hart’s last truly great and memorable match.
Why It Worked
This match was the closest anyone has come at Wrestlemania to the perfect union between physical performance and dramatic storytelling. Each wrestler’s in-ring behavior reinforced Hart’s calculated villainy and Austin’s defiant toughness. Austin’s meteoric rise was a confluence of many events- his King of the Ring speech, his broken neck, and his synchronicity with the culture-, but Austin simply would not have become the star he was without this match.
There were so many elements of the match that felt fresh at the time even though they became iconic over time. Wrestlers routinely use the ring steps as a weapon now, but it was innovative in this match. As overused as blood became in wrestling, it massively enhanced the drama here and the finish would not have made sense without it. Even the production was essential to the outcome- the camera work that captured Hart’s family and Austin’s face in close-up augmented the humanity, and all of the announcers helped convey the story that the wrestlers told in the ring.