Professional wrestling is built on the stories told in and out of the ring. These often come in the form of rivalries, pitting opposing forces against one another in pursuit of bragging rights, championships, and successes. This edition of Rivalry Rewind sees the roles of good and evil become hazy as we take a deep dive into the feud between Bret Hart and Steve Austin.
Once upon a time, in professional wrestling, the roles of heroes and villains were easily defined. To the average fan, it was easy to determine who to root for, as well as who was deserving of jeers. However, as time went on, the aforementioned roles grew hazy. Simply put, what made a “good guy” or a “bad guy” wasn’t so clear-cut. In professional wrestling, this development truly took root during the mid-to-late 1990s. One of the clearest examples of this was the rivalry between “The Hitman” Bret Hart and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
This isn’t to say that Hart vs. Austin was the only instance of lines being blurred during this period. In World Championship Wrestling, the New World Order was a band of nefarious characters that, despite their antics, became beloved by crowds the world over. In the World Wrestling Federation, where edgier storytelling took longer to become the norm, the rivalry between Bret Hart and Steve Austin was a prime example of the company’s changing tone. Let’s take a closer look.
Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin – A Look Back
The Emergence of a Rattlesnake
On March 31, 1996, WrestleMania XII took place. The main event was a historic Iron Man Match pitting Shawn Michaels against WWF Champion Bret Hart. The story of this match has been recounted time and time again, though it must be noted that this was Hart’s final appearance on WWF television for several months. Having held the title for 133 days, with this being his second reign with said title no less, Hart took a break. Before long, rumors circulated about his future in the company and professional wrestling itself.
Around the same time, a trash-talking Texan by the name of Steve Austin was beginning to gain traction. This wasn’t planned by the company, as he had been slotted at a specific spot. However, with each match and appearance, Austin’s success grew. His biggest accomplishment. by that point, took place in June 1996, when he won that year’s King of the Ring tournament. Following his finals victory over Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Austin mocked his opponent’s religious faith by cutting the history-making “Austin 3:16” promo. Though this didn’t immediately catapult him into superstardom, it was a sizable lily pad to help him traverse the proverbial pond.
The Hitman Returns
By the time August 1996 rolled around, Steve Austin shifted his focus to Bret Hart, who was still absent from WWF programming. Austin verbally lambasted “The Hitman,” even threatening physical violence on his father, Stu Hart, at one point. Simply put, Austin wanted to fight Hart and the challenge was laid down for Survivor Series. Once Hart returned later that fall, said challenge was accepted. Along the way, Brian Pillman was caught in the figurative wildfire, drawing the ire of Austin both in the ring and at Pillman’s home; the latter may be best known by fans as the “Pillman’s Got a Gun” segment, though this is a story for another time.
Hart and Austin met at Survivor Series 1996, with number one contendership for the WWF Championship at stake. This was the longest contest on the card, clocking in shy of 29 minutes. Reminiscent of his match with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at WrestleMania VII years prior, Hart caught Austin with a surprise pinfall victory while attempting to be submitted. After failing to best Sycho Sid for the title at In Your House 12: It’s Time the month after, Hart set his sights on the Royal Rumble in January 1997. This was where matters between Hart and Austin intensified.
The Heist at the Rumble
Austin entered the Royal Rumble at #5 and to say he was dominant would be an understatement. From Bart Gunn to Goldust to former King of the Ring opponent Jake Roberts, Austin spared no one. Alone in the ring, Austin sat atop a nearby turnbuckle, waiting for entrant #21. To his surprise, it was Hart, who marched down to the ring with a purpose. It didn’t take long for the two to engage in fisticuffs before other entrants filed in. Slowly, but surely, the final five whittled down to Hart, Austin, “Diesel,” Vader, and The Undertaker. Austin was thrown over the top rope by Hart, though the elimination was never called, as the officials were attempting to resolve a nearby brawl between Mankind and Terry Funk.
Like the snake that wrestling fans perceived him to be, Austin slid back into the ring, never officially eliminated. Austin dumped both Vader and The Undertaker, who had been involved in their own brawl, over the top rope. Meanwhile, Hart disposed of “Diesel.” Believing he had won, Hart celebrated prematurely before finding himself eliminated by Austin. As mentioned earlier, the officials didn’t see Austin eliminated earlier. Thus, he was declared the winner of that year’s Royal Rumble.
Austin would go on to win the Royal Rumble a record-setting 3 times through his career; once again, a story for another time. This loss disgusted Hart to such an extent that, the following evening on Monday Night Raw, he aired his grievances in the middle of the ring. Believing he had been cheated out of the WWF Championship time and time again, Hart quit, at least for a brief period, before exiting through the crowd.
Immediately thereafter, Austin stormed to the ring to sound off. He accused Hart of constant complaining since “The Hitman” made his return. Austin dug the knife deeper with the verbal barb, “when the going gets tough, the Harts get going back home.” Nonetheless, WWF recognized that the result of the Royal Rumble was rife with controversy. Thus, at In Your House 13: Final Four, appropriately enough, a Fatal Four-Way Match was set between Austin, Hart, Vader, and The Undertaker. Though the match was originally designed to crown a new number one contender, it would soon be for the WWF title itself when then-champion Shawn Michaels relinquished the title days before the event, infamously claiming he “lost” his “smile.” At In Your House 13, Hart claimed his fourth WWF Championship. However, this reign wouldn’t last.
The Rattlesnake Strikes Again
The night after In Your House 13, on Raw, Bret Hart defended the WWF title against Sycho Sid. Hart cinched the Sharpshooter, and just as it appeared that “The Hitman” was on the cusp of retaining his championship, Steve Austin hit the ring, greeting Hart’s skull with a steel chair shot that went unnoticed by the official. Sid followed up with a Powerbomb to win his second WWF Championship. To say that Hart was irate would be an understatement, but he had one more chance to claim the gold. This time, it was on the March 17, 1997 edition of Raw. Hart challenged Sid for the WWF Championship, this time within the confines of a steel cage. This match, which featured interference from Austin and The Undertaker, saw Sid retain his title. What most fans remember, however, was the moment the once clean-cut “Hitman” snapped.
Vince McMahon, the play-by-play commentator, stepped into the ring to hear from Hart following this devastating loss. Hart had one chance, before WrestleMania 13 that weekend, to recapture the WWF Championship. Furthermore, despite being in a rivalry, Austin attempted to help Hart claim the prize so that their WrestleMania match would be for the championship. Upon the first statement McMahon made, he was shoved to the canvas by Hart, who unloaded with a profanity-laced promo. Hart lambasted the company, believing that he was screwed time and time again and that he should have been the WWF Champion. This was, without question, one of the edgiest promos in the company at the time. It was all the more shocking that it came from arguably the company’s top babyface.
This episode of Raw ended in pandemonium featuring The Undertaker, Sid, Hart, and Austin. The latter two wrestlers brawled outside of the ring while the two towering powerhouses fought inside of it. WrestleMania 13 was days away and the tension between Hart and Austin couldn’t have been greater. To ensure that their Submission Match was contained – or as contained as could be, given their animosity toward one another – Ultimate Fighting Championship star Ken Shamrock served as the special guest referee. As history has shown, this encounter was equal parts violent, legendary, and game-changing.
Bret Hart and Steve Austin Make History
The Submission Match pitting Bret Hart against Steve Austin, at WrestleMania 13, has been well-documented. In fact, in March of 2020, I took a deeper dive into the match, detailing what made it so memorable. Heading into this encounter, the World Wrestling Federation was in the middle of a shift regarding this match’s competitors. Though this shift had been ongoing prior to this evening, it was during, and after, the match at hand that the change had fully taken place.
Hart made his exit following WrestleMania XII a fan favorite, but when he returned, it was evident that fan response wasn’t nearly as strong. The pink-and-black heroic figure of the WWF returned to a company that, in his eyes, didn’t reward the upstanding values he prided himself on having. Meanwhile, the foul-mouthed Austin, despite his villainous persona and blatant disregard for the system, was seeing more favorable reactions from audiences around the world. The WWF was on the cusp of a culture shock and “Stone Cold” was nothing short of emblematic of this.
The WrestleMania showdown between Hart and Austin lasted over 22 minutes, both competitors setting aside their standard technical wrestling approaches in favor of brawling. The match in question reached its iconic conclusion when Austin, donning the proverbial crimson mask, writhed in Hart’s Sharpshooter. Despite this, Austin defiantly refused to surrender. It was only when exhaustion set in, as Austin passed out from the pain, that Hart was declared the winner. Following unsportsmanlike conduct from “The Hitman,” Hart left Rosemont Horizon less favored by the fans while Austin, due to his gutsy performance, continued to approach the superstardom he would enjoy in the years to come. If any match defined the “double-turn” in wrestling, it would be Hart vs. Austin at WrestleMania 13.
Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin – In Closing
Historically speaking, the feud between Bret Hart and Steve Austin reached its apex at WrestleMania 13. However, it was far from the conclusion of Austin’s dealings with Hart and, later on, the newly-formed Hart Foundation. Alongside “The Hitman,” Brian Pillman and Bret’s younger brother and brothers-in-law, Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart, and The British Bulldog respectively, raised the ire of wrestling fans across the United States while being revered as heroes internationally. This marked an interesting time in Bret’s career that would ultimately conclude on November 9, 1997 at Survivor Series following what has since been dubbed The Montreal Screwjob.
Meanwhile, “The Texas Rattlesnake’s” star continued to rise in the World Wrestling Federation. By 1998, he solidified himself as the most popular star in the company, his brazen, anti-authority persona resonating with fans that had become disenchanted with the company’s prior focus on family-friendly programming. During the company’s Attitude Era, Austin was its figurehead. By the time Austin retired from in-ring competition in March 2003, he was not only a 6x WWE Champion and 3x Royal Rumble winner but one of the top box office draws the company hadn’t seen before and perhaps even since.
It can be argued that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s ascent to the top of the professional wrestling world wouldn’t have taken place without his history-making feud with Bret Hart. The up-and-coming Texas-born antagonist needed the perfect protagonist, the latter role being one Hart was more than capable of filling. However, as the months went on, their roles, and their dynamic by proxy, shifted. This feud will go down as one that allowed a long-standing star to evolve and a platform for the other to reach the precipice of the industry.
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