The showdown between Steve Austin and Bret Hart, at WrestleMania 13, took place at an interesting time. It was the spring of 1997 and the World Wrestling Federation was going through something of a development. Having adopted a child-friendly tone for years, the company started to pivot. World Championship Wrestling was gaining steam and, for a time, was the promotion that was the talk of the town. While this match wasn’t wholly responsible for turning the tide in Vince McMahon and company’s favor, it played a pivotal role.
Having been the company hero for years, Bret “Hitman” Hart found the changing landscape of the WWF perplexing. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the less child-friendly image the company had been developing. Furthermore, he expressed that he had offers given to him by other companies, meaning that his wrestling future remained uncertain. Loyal to the WWF, Hitman re-signed. However, he would find that being beloved in a more counterculture environment was easier said than done.
Few encompassed said counterculture environment like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. He was foulmouthed and antagonistic, picking a fight with anyone and never shy about playing dirty. Austin had just won the 1996 King of the Ring tournament, cutting the famous “Austin 3:16” promo after winning the crown. He wanted more, however, which led him to Hart. Austin taunted the multi-time WWF Champion at every opportunity. Hart returned from an eight-month break for what would become a historic feud.
Initially, Austin and Hart feuded over the WWF Championship, held by Sycho Sid at the time.
Austin and Hart met at Survivor Series, in November of 1996, to determine a new number one contender. After a hard-fought battle, Hart used the turnbuckle to kick off and surprise pin Austin; this was reminiscent of how he defeated “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at WrestleMania VIII four years earlier. Despite this first showdown between “Stone Cold” and “The Hitman” being solid, it would not be the match most fans associated with them.
As the months went on, not only did Hart’s demeanor change but the crowd’s response to him shifted. He went from simply being disgruntled with his position to lashing out at anyone that even remotely opposed him. Following numerous failed attempts to win the WWF Championship, Hart snapped at McMahon; keep in mind that the wrestling promoter simply portrayed a play-by-play announcer at the time. What followed was Hart shoving McMahon to the mat, cursing him out in a profanity-laced rant that remains one of the most memorable promos of “The Hitman.” This was another indicator that the World Wrestling Federation was embracing attitude.
Meanwhile, Austin was building a following for himself in the federation, despite being a heel. Fans gravitated to his trash-talking persona and disregard for authority. While he wasn’t stunning McMahon – fans would have to wait a few months for this – Austin had little difficulty getting the crowd on his side. He also accused Hart of being whiny, goading “The Excellence of Execution” to fight him in the process. This would lead to their submission match at WrestleMania 13, on March 23, 1997, at the Rosemont Horizon in Illinois.
On the surface, a submission match at WrestleMania 13 would benefit Hart. He was known for his technical style and, more famously, the Sharpshooter. He would have little trouble cinching in his finisher after wearing down his opponent. Meanwhile, Austin focused more on a hard-hitting style, though his style was technical in a sense as well. This was prior to his neck injury that led him to incorporate a brawling style. Throw in Ken Shamrock, who was well-known in UFC at the time, as the guest referee and this match had the makings of a fight.
Once Austin and Hart were in the ring, it didn’t take long for fists to fly. A tackle by Austin led to him and Hart rolling to the outside, where the fight escalated. They found themselves brawling through the crowd, the fans in the venue raucous. Brawling may have become Austin’s wrestling style, but Hart held his own when delivering his attacks. All the while, Shamrock allowed these opponents to fight, serving as more of an enforcer when necessary.
While Austin worked on the hands of Hart, stepping on his digits, the former WWF Champion relied on his technical wit to keep up with “Stone Cold.”
He focused on Austin’s knee, stabilized by his signature brace. Though Austin was gutsy, even able to deliver the Stone Cold Stunner, Hart meticulously focused on his opponent’s injured knee. Hart even cinched in a figure-four from the ring post, perhaps setting up for the Sharpshooter. Despite the pain he was in, Austin didn’t surrender.
Soon, a steel chair was brought into the ring. While Hart intended to use it to further injure his opponent’s knee, Austin was able to turn around and use said weapon to his advantage. Austin would even use his own submission game, wrenching back on Hart’s arm. Austin would follow up with the Boston crab and even attempted his own version of the Sharpshooter. The fight spilled to the outside, where Austin was busted open. It didn’t take long for “Stone Cold” to don the proverbial crimson mask.
With Austin’s vision hindered by his wound, Hart stayed on him.
He continued to focus on the knee on Austin, who would start to fight back. “Stone Cold” wasn’t short on heart, as he stomped away on the fallen Hart in the corner. The match would start to wind down as Austin grabbed an extension cord on the outside. As he went to choke Hart with the cord, Austin was met with a ring bell to the forehead. With Austin in prime position, Hart locked in the Sharpshooter.
Though the Sharpshooter put away many opponents in quick fashion, Hart found that Austin wouldn’t surrender easily. Despite the blood continuing to pour down his face, Austin was all heart. Even as it appeared Hart broke the hold, he kept pressure on Austin’s back. Valiantly, the “Texas Rattlesnake” pushed himself toward the ropes again. That was until he slowly passed out. With no other choice, Shamrock called for the bell, awarding the match to “The Hitman.”
Despite emerging victorious, Hart wasn’t done. He continued to attack Austin, which led to Shamrock tossing Hart with a belly-to-back flip. Shamrock held his ground while Hart slowly made his way out of the ring, the crowd booing him all the while. It was clear that the fans made up their minds on “The Hitman.” Meanwhile, Austin made his way out of the ring to the same fans chanting his name. On this night, not only did we see a great match with an engaging story, but arguably the greatest double turn in wrestling history.
Their clash at WrestleMania 13 was legendary, to be certain, but the follow-up was just as important to wrestling. On one side, Hart fully embraced the role of a unique villain. He ran down crowds in the United States for their mistreatment, in his mind, of him. Meanwhile, whenever he traveled to Canada, the United Kingdom, or any other international region, he was received as a hero. This was one of the most interesting heel turns in wrestling. He was later joined by his brother Owen Hart, brothers-in-law Jim Neidhart and British Bulldog, and Brian Pillman. Together, they formed a new The Hart Foundation.
Meanwhile, Austin’s popularity was still growing. It’s important to note that he didn’t immediately become a mega star after WrestleMania 13. His feud with Hart didn’t end, as he would not only incur the wrath of “The Hitman” but the rest of the Foundation. Austin would also find unique partners in Shawn Michaels and later Dude Love. Far from a wrestler that played well with others, Austin often found himself at odds with his partners. At that year’s SummerSlam, Austin faced Owen Hart for the latter’s Intercontinental Championship. The match reached a dangerous apex when Austin suffered a broken neck due to a botched Tombstone Piledriver. Though Austin finished the match, winning the title with a sloppy roll-up, he would be out of in-ring action for an extended period. One could argue that his future promos and segments only made his popularity skyrocket.
The trajectories of these men can be discussed at great length.
We can talk about how Hart left the World Wrestling Federation after Survivor Series in November before joining World Championship Wrestling. We can also recall Austin’s future program with McMahon, one of the hottest wrestling feuds, and how it helped with turning WWF’s fortunes amid the Monday Night Wars. However, this piece was meant to look at Austin and Hart’s clash at WrestleMania 13, a match with indisputable importance.
When discussing the best part of Austin versus Hart at WrestleMania 13, realistically any moment can be deemed one’s favorite. Many people believe the build-up to be the most effective, with Austin becoming more beloved while Hart developed into more of a villain. Others will look at the match itself as a master class in storytelling. The double turn, which is difficult to pull off in wrestling, is still talked about. Regardless, this match should be remembered by long-time fans and experienced by newcomers alike.