Even before Bret Hart had decided whether or not he would sign a new contract and come back to the World Wrestling Federation in late 1996, Steve Austin was already running down The Hitman and his legacy on WWF television. (I have no idea what the backup plan was for Austin if Bret had signed with WCW, but I think it’s safe to say that the wrestling industry would look very different than it does today if that had happened.) In any event, Bret Hart did return to face (and defeat) Steve Austin at Survivor Series ’96 in a classic wrestling match. However, instead of the feud being over and Austin shutting his big yap, he just became more of a thorn in the side of Bret. The Rattlesnake cheated to win the 1997 Royal Rumble (screwing over rightful winner Bret Hart in the process) and so things got even more heated. After participating in a unique fatal four way elimination match for the vacant WWF world title at the “Final Four” pay per view, Austin interfered in Bret’s first title match the following evening on Monday Night Raw, costing him the title he had just won. To say that Bret was royally pissed off at Steve Austin would be a gross understatement. Bret was becoming more and more embittered and vocal about the injustices he perceived he was suffering through (and not just at the hands of Steve Austin, either). The fans that had so long supported pretty much anything Bret Hart did were slowly starting to turn away. He was seen as being paranoid and a bit of a whiner while Steve Austin’s stone cold attitude towards everybody was actually beginning to win over the fans. With things reaching a boiling point, it was only natural to book the two foes in a brutal contest to take place at the biggest show of the year - Wrestlemania. While the overall show will go down as one of the worst Wrestlemanias of all time, one match stood out like a diamond in the rough. Gee, can you guess which one?
The special guest referee is the UFC’s Ken Shamrock, in his WWF debut, I believe. He gets a pretty big pop, oddly enough. Austin tackles Bret and starts punching before the bell even starts. They jockey for position, roll out of the ring and keep punching. Austin gets sent into the ring post via Bret. Austin recovers and crotches Bret onto the guardrail then clotheslines him over and into the crowd. The cameras almost lose them as they continue to brawl further back. Austin snatches some drinks from a concession guy and dumps them on Hart. He follows up the beverages by dropping Bret throat first on another guardrail while we see a bunch of idiot fans mug for the camera. Bret slams Austin into the guardrail and they go back another whole section of seats. They brawl right past someone wearing a nWo T-shirt in a funny moment. Austin tries for a piledriver, but Bret reverses to a backdrop as security is now slyly blocking nWo guy from getting his shirt on WWF programming. You can see a huge RF Video banner as Bret and Austin head back towards the ring. Austin gets tossed over the metal guardrail and Bret comes off the top with a fist. Bret takes a sweet bump into the stairs. Moving them about two feet from the ring post in the process. Austin shoots a dazed Bret the double bird before he nails him with a running clothesline off the ring apron. Austin grabs the ring steps, but Bret kicks him and he falls over with them. Bret tries to follow up but gets sent into the ring post. Shamrock keeps getting in the way of the cameraman thus annoying me. We get back into the ring with Austin in control. That doesn’t last long as Bret hits a swinging neckbreaker. He follows up with the second rope FU elbow to the back of the head. The crowd is mildly booing The Hitman’s offense. Bret starts working on Austin’s injured (both in storyline and reality) left knee. Bret misses a move and Austin hits a stunner (with no kick to the gut first!) out of the blue. Both men are down, but Hart recovers first and goes back to kicking the leg like a good technician. Bret drags Austin to the corner and goes out and hits the ring post figure-four – one of the coolest moves ever in wrestling and real smart strategy for a submission match. Naturally, Austin won’t submit, so Bret breaks the hold, tosses him back in the ring and grabs the ring bell from the timekeeper. Bret wants more hardware though, so he doubles back and gets a steel chair. Bret sets up Austin’s ankle for the Pillmanizer spot, but goes up top and Austin recovers and smacks him with the chair. Another chair shot to the back and Stone Cold starts building momentum. He hits a vertical suplex and his own second rope FU elbowdrop. A second one also hits as the crowd is digging Austin. Bret’s daughter is shown with her hands covering her eyes – poor kid. Austin hits a Russian legsweep and then slaps on a cross armbreaker to no avail. Austin tries a Boston crab next as the crowd is getting hot. Bret makes the ropes. Austin tries to apply the Sharpshooter but the Hitman stops that with an excellently executed eye rake. Bret starts slugging away, but gets tossed to the floor. Austin polls the crowd and gets booed for that one. Wild stuff. Bret reverses an Irish whip and sends him crashing into the timekeeper’s table. Austin blades on screen, but Shamrock getting in the way of the cameraman again this time at least serves a purpose. Bret opens up the cut with punches, the steel steps and the ring post. Back into the ring and Austin blades again, just because he rules. Bret starts beating the hell out of Austin with an elbow smash and punches. Backbreaker followed up with another FU elbow. Bret grabs the chair and rams it into Austin’s kneebraced leg repeatedly as the crowd starts to turn on him. Austin stops a sharpshooter attempt with an eye rake of his own. Bret pounds on a bloody Austin in the corner, but gets hit with a low blow. Bret takes his wicked sternum first bump into the turnbuckle. Austin stomps a mudhole and the crowd pops huge. Austin hits a superplex and he’s got the crimson mask on now. He tosses Bret to the ring apron, grabs a microphone cable, and starts choking Bret out with it. The Hitman grabs the ring bell that he’d gotten earlier in the match and clocks Austin with it. Big pop for that. Bret slaps on the sharpshooter as the crowd is going insane. Steve Austin does the famous “bloody man that won’t give up” pose as he completes his babyface turn to the biggest pop of the match. He manages to power out of the sharpshooter for a second, but Bret recovers and leans back into it and Austin finally passes out in a pool of his own blood. Bret gets a tepid response to his victory. Bret looks pissed at the fans disrespecting his greatness, so he goes back to beating on the unconscious Austin. Shamrock tries to talk him out of it, but Bret won’t stop, so Shamrock takes him down with a waistlock slam to a huge pop. I think the roof was ready to come off the joint if they had come to blows. Bret backs down from Shamrock and leaves the ring to huge boos. The look on Bret’s face here totally makes the heel turn. Another ref comes down to help Austin out, and receives a stunner for his troubles. Austin staggers out of the ring and to the back with the crowd chanting his name. That was unreal.
What the hell do you think this match gets? *****, of course, and I’d give it more if I could. Austin and Bret both brought their A game with them, and it showed. With that one takedown, Ken Shamrock also established himself instantly to WWF fans as someone who you shouldn’t mess with.
This match was definitely one of the most historically significant ones ever in pro wrestling. During the course of the match, Bret Hart turned heel for the first time in 9 years and Steve Austin became a huge babyface and main event superstar. The Austin-Hart feud carried the WWF on it’s shoulders for most of the rest of 1997 and helped set up perhaps the biggest money drawing angle of all time – Austin vs. McMahon.
Some more on the backstory of one of the classic angles that heralded the end of "The New Generation" and the start of "Attitude"...
February 17, 1997 - With most of the WWF roster to be in Europe the following week, Vince McMahon and Paul Heyman of ECW strike a deal, punctuated by one of the most unique moments in wrestling television (and one of the most shocking since Scott Hall's WCW debut Memorial Day 1995). Paul Heyman "calls into" Raw and is challenged by Jerry Lawler to have ECW talent wrestle on a national stage after Lawler spots an ECW sign in the crowd on Raw.
February 24 - At the Manhattan Center (now the Hammerstein Ballroom), one of ECW's trademark moves, The Eliminators' Total Elimination signals ECW's arrival to Raw. ECW has three matches on Raw (which happens to be Paul Heyman's first appearance on WWF programming) featuring Little Guido vs. Big Stevie Cool (Steven Richards in his bWo gimmick), Taz vs. Mikey Whipwreck, and D-Von Dudley vs. Tommy Dreamer.
Also of note on this show was the WWF on-camera debut of Ken Shamrock, who was interviewed (and whom he ignored) by Jerry Lawler and then Todd Pettingill. ALSO, The Legion of Doom returned to the WWF to get a double countout draw with the Headbangers. Insert your own LOD joke here.
March 17 - On the final Raw before Wrestlemania 13, Bret Hart faced Sid in a steel cage match to resolve the disputed title change. One of the unique unmentioned stipulations about this match was that each wrestler's prior commitments would be maintained, since there was no specific #1 contender to the WWF title. That meant, if Bret Hart won the title, he'd still face Steve Austin at WM13, but in a WWF Title match, instead of the old tradition of maintaining the champion's obligations and facing The Undertaker instead. This led to the in-match story of The Undertaker and Steve Austin both coming out and interfering in the cage match, UT to help Sid win and Austin to help Bret Hart win. This was also the night of the infamous "bullsh!t" speech by Bret Hart after the match (which also gave us another memorable Sid quote, "I don't know sh!t!").
Also on this edition of Raw, Ken Shamrock provided color commentary for a Billy Gunn match, which Billy Gunn won with an ankle pick, a move made somewhat famous by Shamrock in UFC. Gunn challenged Shamrock to come into the ring for some "shootfighting". Shamrock made Gunn tap out twice in the span of about 90 seconds, the WWF debut of tapping out. Just think, six years ago people had to actually verbalize or make a head motion to tell the referee that they were giving up. Archaic, huh?
Oh, and Marlena got revenge against the very masculine woman we would come to know as Chyna on this edition of Raw by keeping her away from Goldust with a laughable attempt at a sleeperhold. We got a good panty shot of Marlena from it, though. This has no bearing on anything else, but it reminds me of when Triple H had good music and wasn't a hulking roid monster.