Welcome to WrestleMania Memories, where we look back at the moments in WrestleMania history, good or bad, that have stayed with us for over three decades.
Some say the Attitude Era began when Vince McMahon told viewers that there was no longer good guys and bad guys but shades of grey. Others point to the moment Stone Cold Steve Austin became WWF World champion, or when Bret Hart was screwed out of that title at Survivor Series 1997. It could even be King of the Ring 96 when Austin 3:16 was born. For me, there’s no moment that kicked off the Attitude Era, the changing times of WWF wrestling fans in the late 90s quite like WrestleMania 13, when Bret Hart faced Stone Cold Steve Austin in a submission match.
The story going into the match was about as organic as one could be. When Bret “The Hitman” Hart returned to the World Wrestling Federation in 1996, he did so accepting the challenge of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin had won the King of the Ring earlier that year and had been verbally berating Bret for weeks to try and get his chance to face him. Austin was a no nonsense Texas asskicker, similar to Stan “The Lariat” Hansen in All Japan Pro Wrestling but less about chaos and more about concentrated hate. Bret may have beaten Austin at Survivor Series 1996, but he certainly couldn’t get him off his back.
After defeating Austin, Bret wondered why the fans weren’t in his corner like they used to be, and if the reign of Shawn Michaels as the face of the company had skewed the audience to be less about entertainment for all ages, and more about PG-13. As the World Wrestling Federation adopted a harder edge and provided less excuses for the actions of its wrestlers, Bret found himself frustrated as an eliminated Steve Austin got to walk back in and throw him out when Bret believed he won the Royal Rumble. After winning the Final Four at In Your House to right the wrong and become WWF World champion again, he lost the title to Sid in a cage match on Raw with plenty of interference from the Undertaker and Austin. Bret, enraged, blamed it on Vince McMahon and the WWF, shoving Vince to the mat and outing him as the owner for the first time ever. Bret brought up the rematch against HBK he never received and the way the company didn’t care about how he was treated. All of this was legitimate. Bret had real gripes. But fans were getting tired of hearing about it, and tired of Bret Hart blaming everyone instead of just doing something about it. They saw Steve Austin as a guy who wasn’t blaming everyone for his issues and instead hitting them head on. Austin might have been a bald son of a bitch, but he was a guy you could respect.
Frustrated with Austin and frustrated with the World Wrestling Federation, Bret found himself not in the main event but a submission match with Austin, hoping that if he tapped out the Texas Rattlesnake, it would be one less distraction in his goal to once again become WWF champion. Due to the animosity of the two, UFC fighter Ken Shamrock was brought in to be the referee and enforcer.
Austin walked in as a heel with fans cheering. He didn’t have the whole crowd, but he had enough of the crowd for McMahon to bring it up and the camera to show signs supporting him. Bret Hart walked over the broken glass of Austin’s entrance to enter to cheers and jeers, McMahon expressing disdain for Bret’s actions to him. The two men wasted no time coming at each other physically, and despite both men being technically sound workers, they went straight fisticuffs.
To present the duality of the two men vying for the support of the audience (Austin really didn’t care about them, but the WWF certainly wanted them to), the two made it right into the crowd for their brawling. Hart and Austin pounded each other with Ken Shamrock clearing fans away. At this point, the match spectacularly showed both men equal to punishment and physical striking, going back and forth quickly.
On commentary, Vince McMahon expresses a hope for Bret to get, “back to his senses and back to his legacy”, presenting that Bret is on the edge of no longer being a hero. One of the greatest wrestling moves I have ever seen was executed in the middle of the match as Bret locked on the corner post figure four to do more damage to Austin’s leg.
Afterwards, Bret Hart could have grabbed a steel chair and “Pillmanized” Austin’s leg (he would grab the chair right after). He could have used the chair to crack his head open. Instead, he reached for a ring bell. In my WrestleMania Memories on WrestleMania VIII’s match between Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, I mentioned how the ring bell in that match would come up again, and that Piper not using it was the crossroads between being a hero and being a villain. Piper decided to take the ring bell and toss it aside, losing the match but staying the hero nobody believed he could be.
After eating chairshots and a Boston Crab from Austin, Bret raked Stone Cold’s eyes when the Rattlesnake attempted a Sharpshooter of his own. The two fought outside again as Austin was now busted open. Despite punches to the open wound and dropping a chair to Austin’s knee brace, Bret had yet to turn. Austin would come back, grabbing extension cords to choke Bret out. It’s at this point that Bret reached to the ring bell and swung it at Austin, breaking the choke to a huge pop from the crowd. But you could hear the cheers slowly dissipate into boos. It wouldn’t take long for Hart to now lock on the Sharpshooter in the middle of the ring. Once again the cheers and boos rained down from the fans in Chicago, with blood streaming down Austin’s face. Instead of cheers for the Sharpshooter ready to finish Austin, the cheers came from Austin struggling out, breaking the Sharpshooter momentarily. Trying to break it again, Austin this time passed out from the loss of blood.
With the double turn completed, Bret Hart decided to try continue attacking Austin as he regained consciousness, only for Shamrock to waistlock suplex Bret off of Stone Cold. As Bret walked away from Ken Shamrock, it was the first time Bret had the entire area booing him. Austin would refuse the help from a referee and even fed the ref a Stone Cold Stunner to walk out on his own volition. It was here the crowd would begin to chant Austin’s name, which they would continue chanting for the next four WrestleMania’s.
This match changed everything for what it meant to be a good guy in the World Wrestling Federation. Austin tried to choke Bret out with an extension cord, but his resilience to the Sharpshooter endured him to fans in Chicago, and America, and soon the entire world. For Bret “The Hitman” Hart, he completed the first heel turn of his singles wrestling career, going for the easy way out with the steel chairs and eventually the ring bell. It may have been attacking Austin after the match and running away from Shamrock that finally turned the crowd against him, but the ring bell symbolized that what Piper decided to avoid doing, Bret was ready to do. Bret “The Hitman” Hart lived long enough to become a villain, and in his turn, the Attitude Era was born.