The number one way to make money in pro wrestling is with a great feud. Nothing draws bigger at the box office than an exciting rivalry pitting good vs. evil. Some rivalries are based on hatred, some are based on championships, and some are based on nothing more than a motivation to be the best. Today I spotlight one of professional wrestling’s greatest feuds.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. Bret “Hitman” Hart
1996 was an interesting time for the WWE. Some would argue that the action outside of the ring was more exciting than what the WWE produced inside of the squared circle. WCW had begun their quest to become the number one pro wrestling company with the birth of the New World Order while ECW was creating a revolution on the east coast. The WWE needed to regroup and come up with an answer to these outside challenges and that answer was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
[adinserter block=”2″]Austin slowly developed into must-see television on WWE programming. The Ringmaster morphed into the tough guy “Stone Cold” persona who talked a big game and backed up every word of it. Austin was brilliant and it didn’t take long for fans to get on board with the 3:16 and the beginning of the Attitude Era.
However, as great as Austin was in his role he needed a rival. Shawn Michaels was in and out of the WWE with personal issues and The Undertaker just didn’t seem to fit the bill. Ironically Austin’s best bet was a WWE wrestler who may never wrestle in a WWE ring again. Bret “Hitman” Hart watched from the sidelines with a WWE contract in one hand and a WCW contract in the other as Austin began to call him out with insults and threats that had fans anxiously to see these two athletes finally clash.
Steve Austin told the story on my radio show, Pro Wrestling Radio about how this feud came about behind the scenes. According to the former WWE champion, it was Bret Hart’s idea to tangle with the Texas Rattlesnake.
“I remember I was working with Shawn Michaels when I first came in as, “The Ringmaster.” I was not marquee or headline material, but they just wanted Shawn to have a good match and they knew I was a good mechanic. So I was going around wrestling the Heartbreak Kid. We were in Houston, Texas one night and Bret “The Hitman” Hart watched my match with Shawn. I basically worked a headlock series with him where he would just keep going back to the headlock, and getting it again. After the match, of course Shawn beat me, kicked me in the chin (laughs), after the match is over and I am walking backstage, and Bret goes to me, “Hey man good match. I’ll work with you anytime.” So, I guess he is the one that told the office, “Hey, I can work with Austin.” He kept watching my matches, and I was hand picked by Bret for his comeback, because that was his comeback. Man, it was a blast. I don’t refer to that match a whole lot because I do not think a lot of people just in general don’t remember that match, but if you are a wrestling fan you do remember that match, and I have watched that match just as much as the Wrestlemania XIII match, and some of the other matches that I have had that were my favorites. We put in some time, it was a great story, there was nothing haywire, I just kept staying on Bret, kept staying on him, kept staying on him, I’d say, “Hey,” just to check on his wind. But Bret was Bret. He was methodical, he told a story, and he would get you every single time, and it was a real pleasure to work with him. I remember the Survivor Series match just as much as I remember the other one.”
The feud made sense on a lot of levels in and out of the ring. Yet the WWE took a huge risk here in starting to hype a match that may never happen. As a backup plan, Austin got into a confrontation with “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig on WWE Superstars. If Bret signed with WCW, Hennig would get the call to step up to the WWE’s biggest bully. As fun of a match as that would have been, Austin vs. Hart is what the fans wanted to see. After months of taunts, Bret finally accepted the match during a dramatic interview on the October 21, 1996 edition of Monday Night RAW.
Madison Square Garden would get the call to host the first-ever Austin vs. Hart matchup at Survivor Series 1996. “It’s not a church” as Hart would say in the buildup in the match. What made this feud so intense to me was Austin constantly reminding fans in promos that the feud wouldn’t end at the Survivor Series. Austin continually told Hart that “it would never end.”
The match exceeded expectations in my opinion and the two rivals had immediate chemistry. This was a much different match from their later more famous matches. Their Survivor Series match was more technical, really showcasing the greatness of both men. In the end, Hart won a phenomenal match but it was only the beginning of a feud that would last over a year and it probably would have went even longer if Bret didn’t leave the WWE in November 1997.
Over the next year these two rivals engaged in one of the most exciting feuds in the history of professional wrestling. Their match several months later at WrestleMania 13 is considered by many to be the greatest match in WrestleMania history. Both guys turned in the match and without even missing a beat, continued the feud with a new twist. The heel Hart vs. babyface Austin presented a whole new twist to this thrilling rivalry.
Austin on their WrestleMania 13 match, “One of my classic matches of all time, and one of my favorite guys to work with is Bret “The Hit Man” Hart. The match we had at Wrestlemania XIII in Chicago, IL when I passed out with the blood. That was a deal where I was sitting on my couch at the house with a busted knee and I am watching Monday Night Raw, and I am hearing Vince McMahon saying, “Yeah, at Wrestlemania XIII in a Submissions Match, Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin.” And I am thinking, “What the hell! I ‘m not a submission wrestle, and I am in this match?” And we went out there and we talked briefly and we had a skeleton of a match. We had a start, mid point like a heat point, one other spot, and pretty much the go home, that was it. We thought that we were going to stink the joint out, and we went out there and tore the place down. I guess in some of those deals it was called, “Match Of The Year,” it was one of my favorite matches of my life, you know?”
The next several months saw the WWE luck into some favorable scheduling with several RAW tapings in Canada. It presented one of the most unique dynamics in WWE history as the number one babyface in pro wrestling was the heel while the number one heel in the company was greeted as Canada’s greatest hero. The Canadian WWE shows during the Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin were some of the most fun you’ll ever see as a pro wrestling fan. This all culminated with one of the most heated matches of the rivalry at the Canadian Stampede which saw Austin and Hart captain five-man teams in a memorable headliner.
Injuries and contract situations would get in the way of delivering a payoff to this great feud. Bret Hart injured his knee shortly before he was scheduled to wrestle Austin at the King of the Ring, while Austin injured his neck just a few months before Bret left the WWE. Ironically while timing was the key to making this feud work, timing would be the determining factor that left fans without a conclusive ending.
[adinserter block=”1″]Most fans would point to Austin vs. McMahon as the start of the Attitude Era and the beginning of the turnaround in the Monday Night Wars. While I would agree, I think it is fair to point out that there probably wouldn’t have been an Austin vs. McMahon without an Austin vs. Hart for a lot of different reasons. Unfortunately Austin vs. Hart often gets overlooked for its impact on the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars. Could Austin have become the worldwide sensation without Hart? Maybe, but fortunately for “Stone Cold” the “Hitman” made it much easier.
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