From The Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, IL
March 23, 1997
The WWF in 1997 was reminiscent of Harvey Dent, the mild-mannered moniker of Two-Face, a renowned Batman nemesis. Dent, much like WWF, used to dress with a clean-cut exterior, championing good morals and values and serving as a positive role model for the world’s youth.
However, Dent would eventually fall victim to the dark side, much like Vince McMahon’s empire.
With the WWF gutted by scandal, criminal charges, a talent exodus (with big names like Hulk Hogan going to WCW), and a shift in programming style, the dark side of the World Wrestling Federation became evident through their flesh, which was rapidly becoming transparent.
With WCW having overtaken the ratings war, thanks largely to the proliferation of the renegade New World Order, and ECW influencing a number of fans with their half-fight club/half-Quentin Tarantino style of product, the WWF could no longer afford to wear their tarnished “kids and families” hat. It was time to go into another direction.
Beginning in the fall of 1996, the WWF, uncharacteristic of their usual direction, created a stir with a home invasion vignette involving a gun. Steve Austin, weeks after nearly crippling former friend Brian Pillman, drove to his Kentucky home, and attempted to break in through the back door, unaware that Pillman was waiting with a loaded weapon.
The USA Network was inundated with angry calls from shocked viewers, who demanded to know why their traditional, cartoony, milk-and-cookies WWF was now going this route.
Little did anyone know that this was just the tip of the iceberg.
The WWF Championship situation was more confusing than a Vince Russo flow chart, and was rooted in self-centered politics. Shawn Michaels vacated the championship on February 13, citing a “career ending” knee injury (read: three months), and Bret Hart would win a fatal four way three nights later to claim the title. The following night on Monday Night Raw, Sycho Sid defeated Hart for the title, after Stone Cold Steve Austin bashed Hart, his blood nemesis, with a chair.
The Undertaker was getting a shot at the title at WrestleMania XIII, and Sid was now penciled in as his opponent. Hart and Austin would be signed to wage war in a submission match, with Ken Shamrock, fresh from the UFC, serving as guest referee.
While Undertaker and Sid had very little storyline, due to constant reshuffling of the card with Michaels’ injury and such, but the Hart-Austin encounter had plenty of backstory. In fact, said backstory would be the catalyst for WWF’s reshaping, as well as its eventual breakthrough in the late nineties wrestling wars.
Hart took a sabbatical after WrestleMania XII, and sat out for eight months to be with family, as well as pursue television and movie work. During that time, his WWF contract expired. Despite a generous offer from Eric Bischoff and WCW, he chose to stay with the WWF, re-signing for twenty years, to the tune of $10.5 million (with less money on the back end, to work in an executive capacity).
Late in Hart’s sojourn, Austin began to appear on television with the sole intent of ripping Hart, desecrating his name, and then challenging him to a match. Austin would get his wish fulfilled at Survivor Series 1996, with Hart narrowly winning in his comeback match.
Austin wasn’t finished with Hart, and exacted cruel revenge at the 1997 Royal Rumble, when an already-eliminated Austin (a fact not picked up by a pair of distracted referees) returning to the ring to eliminate the remainder of the entrants, finally tossing Hart out to win the Rumble match.
Although Hart was clearly cheated and should have been the winner (a situation that was somewhat rectified by President Gorilla Monsoon), Hart immediately began to uncharacteristically complain about the entire scenario, while Austin mocked his whining tone.
The fans began to pick up on Austin’s message; that Hart, while hypothetically heroic and honorable, was quick to cry about unfair circumstances. Austin’s brash demeanor, penchant for foul language and gestures, and anti-authority stance made him a cult hero among fans who weren’t used to somebody so R-rated on their normally innocent programming.
Hart soon took his frustrations out on the fans, who he believed had lowered their morals by endorsing a man like Austin. Soon, Bret’s diatribes would take on an anti-American tone, underscored by a change in fan sensibility.
The lines were soon drawn. Many remained loyal to Bret Hart, a reliable soldier with a singles career that spanned six years of excellence, while the number of black “AUSTIN 3:16” shirts that would appear in the crowd rose exponentially.
The era of the cool heel was being felt firsthand in the WWF.
Vince McMahon, Jerry Lawler, and Jim Ross would call the action from ringside with, once again, no celebrity accompaniment of any kind, save for Shamrock’s crossover from the UFC.
Elimination Match: The Headbangers def. The Godwinns, The New Blackjacks, and Doug Furnas/Phil Lafon in 10:39
(Two shocking facts: one is that one person in this throwaway match (JBL) went on to become a World Champion. The other is that my auto-spell checker accepted “Furnas”. Who’da guessed?)
WWF Intercontinental: Rocky Maivia def. The Sultan in 9:45
(Yes, The Rock made his WrestleMania debut as a smiling mamby-pamby, defeating cousin Rikishi, who was playing an Iranian heel akin to The Iron Sheik. I have nothing else to add)
Hunter Hearst Helmsley def. Goldust in 14:28
(The match dragged for fourteen whole minutes before Chyna spiced it up by shaking Marlena like a ragdoll at ringside. When The Rock and Triple H both have bad matches, prepare for the worst)
WWF World Tag Team: Owen Hart/British Bulldog went to a double count out with Vader/Mankind in 16:08
(Sadly, this is the best match of the show so far. Four heels, although Bulldog was leaning toward a face turn, and the fans just weren’t into the disjointed flow. Weird show so far)
Submission Match: Bret Hart def. Stone Cold Steve Austin in 22:05
(For my money, this is the greatest match in the history of WrestleMania, perhaps of all time. You had a bloody brawl where both participants have the skill level to convey guttural hatred toward one another, unparalleled intensity that couldn’t be matched by anyone else in wrestling at that point, and, best of all, the most brilliant double turn that wrestling will ever see. But I’ll explain that a bit further when I get to the afterword)
Chicago Street Fight: Ahmed Johnson/Legion of Doom def. Nation of Domination in 10:45
(Now you’re talking. Just eleven minutes of a well-organized hardcore brawl in the vein of ECW, but without Sabu and The Sandman blowing spots left and right. Good stuff)
WWF World Championship: The Undertaker def. Sycho Sid in 21:19 to win the title
(Possibly the most terminally boring main event in the history of WrestleMania. The pace was slow, and the “no DQ” stipulation did nothing. Bret Hart interfering three times, and Shawn Michaels taunting him on commentary (with the bad knee and all) made it more sour. Anyway, that’s six)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
Forget about the other six matches, because none of them had any relevance after three months (except for Undertaker being champion and preserving his streak). The story of the show was the aftermath of the Hart-Austin match.
But that was secondary to Austin, dragging himself to his feet, taking out an aiding referee, and staggering to the locker room, bleeding and limping, while the crowd chanted “AUS-TIN!” at the top of their lungs.
Vince McMahon gave his greatest commentary endorsement to Austin as he walked out, putting him over as a stubborn fighter that would never give up, and that his pride meant the world to him.
Stone Cold Steve Austin was now a face, and the WWF would never be the same.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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