Meltzer’s Classics: Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin (23/3/97)

Oral History of WWE's Greatest Match: Stone Cold vs. Bret Hart at ...
Time to catch-up with this one. Credit: WWE

Do you want to know a secret? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this match before. Austin vs Bret, widely considered one of the greatest WWE matches of all time and somehow I’ve never taken the time to sit down and watch it. Why? Fuck knows, but I guess now is as good a time as any to fix that flaw in my personality.

You probably all know the background, but I’ll fill it in any way. At the 1996 King of the Ring, Stone Cold Steve Austin cut a promo and became a star. Except, em, this was nearly nine months later, so why is Austin the heel and Bret the face? Is it possible WWE have tried to reshape history, missing the part between Austin cutting said promo and truly establishing himself? That doesn’t sound like them.

Jokes aside, Stone Cold and Bret Hart came into this match off of Austin having twice screwed Hart. First at the Royal Rumble where after being eliminated he snuck back out to get his revenge. Then, secondly, on the Raw after In Your House 14 where some Stone Cold interference saw The Hitman lose his newly won WWE Title. Tensions had long stopped simmering and were boiling over while Austin and Hart prepared to go to war.

It doesn’t take long to flare to life either as Austin starts this match like an animal let loose from its cage for the first time, flying across the ring before taking the fight into the crowd. He’s all curse words and bluster, a flurry of punches and kicks in direct contrast to Hart’s technical prowess. It’s that prowess that eventually turns the tide, though, Bret cutting off Stone Cold’s steam by cutting his leg out from under him, attacking that famous knee brace in an attempt to slow Austin down.

It’s that contrast which sets up perhaps the most famous double turn in wrestling history. For, slowly, Austin’s brawling turns him into a scrappy underdog while Hart’s methodical assault looks cold and vicious. He drives a chair into Stone Cold’s leg before busting him open and raining punches down onto the wound. Stone Cold’s face is stained with blood and a crowd that was already beginning to fall for his charms shifts, coming fully into his corner.

Of course, that leads to perhaps the most iconic image in WWE history, Stone Cold passing out in a pool of his blood, refusing to tap. What we don’t often see is the minute or so before where Austin writhes and rages, desperately doing everything he can to escape. It’s a hell of a moment, the fans screaming him on as he rises, trying everything to pull himself to the ropes but unable to make the crawl.

I hate praising anything connected to WWE, even something that happened twenty-odd years ago, but this match is exceptional. It’s wild and uncontrolled with a story that plays out to perfection. WWE loves to point to the Austin 3:16 promo, but Bret Hart and WrestleMania 13 is the real moment where The Rattlesnake was made.

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