March 23 was the fifteenth anniversary of a match that would change the direction of Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire forever.
WrestleMania XIII, emanating from the historic Rosemont Horizon in suburban Chicago, Ill., featured a submission match between longtime babyface and hero to millions, Bret “Hitman” Hart, and rebel, outlaw villain “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
The match had been built up for months, dating all the way back to the sabbatical Hart took following WrestleMania XII, where Austin would call him out on a weekly basis.
At Survivor Series 1996, Hart and Austin competed in one of the great wrestling matches of the last twenty years, which saw the “Hitman” outwrestle Austin for the hard-fought victory.
While the rivalry progressed, however, fans began to voice their support for Austin. His anti-authority, take-no-prisoners way of life struck a chord with the evolving audience.
As a result, Hart found himself on the receiving end of boos for the first time since he and Jim Neidhart dominated the tag team division as the villainous Hart Foundation.
The landscape of wrestling was changing.
Gone were the days where vanilla babyfaces told you to workout and take your vitamins. It worked when the fans in the audience were children, but now that they had grown into teens, teens who did not want to be told what to do, how to dress, and how to act by “The Man.”
They wanted an anti-hero to cheer for who reflected their viewpoints.
Steve Austin was that guy.
Bret Hart was, to paraphrase The Dark Knight, “the hero they deserved but not the one they needed” at that point. So just as Bruce Wayne does at the conclusion of that film, Hart sacrificed himself. He gave up his status as top “good guy” and embraced the role of the villain.
At WrestleMania XIII, fans would be treated to the rare “double-turn.”
The conclusion of the “I Quit” match saw Bret lock Austin in the Sharpshooter submission hold. “Stone Cold” was a bloody mess, the proverbial crimson mask caked on his face, running over his nose, down across his teeth to his chin and, finally, to the mat below as he screamed in pain.
But, as he vowed to do leading up to the sports-entertainment extravaganza, Austin refused to quit. Instead of pounding the mat in submission, Austin passed out from the pain.
Hart was declared the winner as special referee Ken Shamrock raising his hand in victory while Austin laid just a few feet away, unconscious from profuse blood loss.
Frustrated and angry, his appetite for revenge against “Stone Cold” not yet filled, Hart attacked the unresponsive Austin. To the dismay of announcers Jerry Lawler, Jim Ross and Vince McMahon, the "Hitman” showed a side of himself no one had ever seen before.
After being taken to the mat by Shamrock, who was attempting to prevent any further damage to Austin, Hart stomped out of the arena, stopping to flip off a fan and spew venomous insults at others booing and jeering him.
In one match and one night in Chicago, it became clear that the same Bret Hart that once served as the role model for so many fans across the globe, was gone.
In his place was a selfish and vengeful warrior, driven to the edge by new, hungrier, more ruthless competition.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin became the biggest star in the sport almost instantly when he walked out of the Rosemont Horizon on his own, shoving away any official attempting to help him.
Blood pouring down his face, an intense limp as he felt the effects of the Sharpshooter, Steve Austin had earned the fans’ respect by refusing to give up. He fought, quite literally, until his body would have no more.
After WrestleMania, Steve Austin would become the most popular performer in the history of professional wrestling. He would take a company in such financial peril that water coolers in company offices were repossessed and turn it into one of the most visible brands in the world.
For years, there was not a single wrestling fan that did not own an Austin 3:16 shirt and, for the first time since the boom of the 1980s, it was cool to be a wrestling fan.
Had the match not been as perfectly crafted and excellently executed as it was, there is no telling if we would be gearing up for Wrestle in just a few days.
Austin was the attitudinal star the company needed at the time to overcome Eric Bischoff, the nWo and the thriving, excelling WCW.
The thirteenth edition of WrestleMania is considered one of the lesser shows in the history of the event.
It is ironic, then, that the most important match in the history of professional wrestling, the match that was responsible for the rise of the greatest Superstar in the history of the sport and the eventual shift of power in the Monday Night Wars, took place on its card.
Had Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels II taken place at that year’s event, as was intended, I would not be writing this article and there may very well not be a wrestling section of Bleacher Report for you to be reading it on.