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The WWE WrestleMania Match That Vaulted Stone Cold Steve Austin to Superstardom

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMarch 23, 2017

Credit: WWE.com

Blood slid past Steve Austin's eyes as he howled in pain. It stuck to one of his front teeth and dotted the canvas with viscous, red drips.

Unable to escape from Bret "The Hitman" Hart's Sharpshooter hold, Austin passed out. His arms lay flat on the mat. His blood-soaked bald head went still.

And this was how WWE's greatest antihero was born: in defeat, in a pool of blood, in front of a buzzing Chicago crowd at WrestleMania 13.

A bloody Steve Austin suffers through Bret Hart's Sharpshooter.
A bloody Steve Austin suffers through Bret Hart's Sharpshooter.Credit: WWE.com

A number of moments contributed to the rise of Stone Cold. A series of images built his mythos: his famous "Austin 3:16" speech at the 1996 King of the Ring, ousting Hart to win the Royal Rumble in 1997, giving Mike Tyson a close-up view of his middle fingers the next year.

But no match was as instrumental to Austin's career soaring as his clash with The Hitman at WrestleMania 13.

On March 23, 1997, two enemies delivered an instant classic. More than just a thriller of a grudge match, Austin vs. Hart was the launch pad for Stone Cold as WWE's top star. The quality of his performance and the pathos he generated that night in the Rosemont Horizon altered his career trajectory in dramatic fashion.

  

The Build

Leading up to WrestleMania 13, Hart was still higher on the food chain than Austin. He had headlined major events, been world champion four times and was the face of the company during the mid-90s.

The Hitman was long a beloved, gutsy hero who outwitted his stronger and larger opponents. 

Austin, meanwhile, was an ornery badass with no regard for anything. He said and did what he wanted. He was John McClane in wrestling boots.

Technically, Stone Cold was the heel and Hart played the babyface role during their rivalry. But tectonic plates were shifting under both characters. The audience was changing how it viewed both men. 

WWE began to realize that despite Austin's unscrupulous nature, fans were beginning to pull for him.

Blame his charisma or the appeal of his take-no-prisoners act, but the rising tide couldn't be ignored. The company had to make a switch.

"It wasn't deliberate," Austin explained to Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver for The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes & Icons. I was trying to be a heel, and that's just the way the world took me. We never did change what Stone Cold Steve Austin was."

Hart's character grew less likable en route to WrestleMania. 

He began griping more often. He was angry and frustrated, and those emotions led to his unraveling. After Austin eliminated him at the 1997 Royal Rumble, The Hitman had the kind of tantrum that would embarrass a preschooler.

When he lost the WWF Championship later that year to Sycho Sid, in a match where both Austin and Undertaker interfered, Hart had another meltdown. This one featured a stockpile of cursing.  

Austin encouraged and accelerated Hart's descent. He had antagonized his enemy for months, regularly issuing challenges and insults. 

Stone Cold followed up his verbal attacks with swift kicks to the ribs and cheap shots to the back of the head. He was the bully and the antagonist but was so fun to watch that fans rooted for him anyway.

   

The Match

The way the Chicago crowd welcomed each man was telling.

Hart, supposedly the hero in this tale, earned a mixed reaction, with boos and cheers intertwined. One fan told The Hitman to screw himself via a cardboard sign he held above his head.

Meanwhile, when Stone Cold entered, the crowd bubbled with excitement. It felt as if an explosion was about to shake the building.

Animosity spilled over early during the submission match.

Hart and Austin clobbered each other at ringside before moving their brawl into the stands. The rivals drummed their fists on to flesh, pounding each other with rapid-fire strikes. There was little wrestling here and fewer rules.

This was Austin's territory. He was the rabid dog at home in the back alley. 

The chaos of the early part of the match played up his status as a badass. 

The Excellence of Execution eventually took over, though. Hart withstood the whirlwind opening chapters before taking advantage by focusing on Austin's knees. He picked Stone Cold apart, abusing his body.

A figure-four leglock around the ring post created one of the match's most lasting images.

All of the punishment Austin took was designed to showcase his toughness. He hobbled around the ring on one leg. Hart wrenched and hammered his bad wheel, but Austin never gave up.

Then came the blood.

Hart flung Austin into the guardrail and inconspicuously sliced into Stone Cold's brow. Blood soon flowed out. It dripped on to the mat and smeared into the crease of his elbow.

When Hart then locked Austin in his trademark Sharpshooter, The Texas Rattlesnake seemed doomed.

He survived in that submission hold for a long stretch. He nearly escaped but couldn't break free. Even with his blood staining the canvas and his damaged leg in a knot behind him, Austin never tapped out. 

Bret Hart clams the Sharpshooter on Steve Austin.
Bret Hart clams the Sharpshooter on Steve Austin.Credit: WWE.com

Instead, he slipped into unconsciousness, his body unable to fight anymore.

WWE crafted an image that changed the perception around him. Austin was no longer the villain but a man one had to admire. In that moment, he was John Wayne toughing out a gunshot to the chest. He was a limping warrior dragging himself to the center of the arena. 

Hart, meanwhile, had shown a savage side. He went after Austin's knee after the bell before marching away in disgust.

Bret Hart.
Bret Hart.Credit: WWE.com

The double turn worked to perfection. Hart slid into a heel role. Austin would soon become the company's top fan favorite.

The Hitman and Austin had created something special. 

Hart told Chris Broom of Portsmouth News: "It was a very violent struggle, and it tells the story of a good guy and a bad guy, but it tells this beautiful struggle of a battle of two people fighting for everything they believe in, and it's a very magical thing that you can have that kind of match and that kind of performance."

And that story resonated in a big way.

  

The Aftermath

Stone Cold knew he and Hart had a hit on their hands. On his podcast, The Steve Austin Show, he broke down the bout and recalled: "In my heart, I felt like we knocked the ball out of the park with the bases loaded."

The wrestling world agreed.

Wade Keller of PWTorch gave the match 4.75 stars. Dave Meltzer awarded the bout a rare five-star rating in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (h/t the Internet Wrestling Database).

Years later, many are still singing the match's praises. Justin Henry, co-author of Titan Screwed: Lost Smiles, Stunners and Screwjobs, called it the best match ever:

Justin Henry @JRHWriting

1. Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin (13) ***** - Forget WrestleMania, greatest match ever period, making Austin into a megastar

But more than being a virtuoso performance, the bout was a major momentum-builder for Austin.

WWE had sold him as the toughest guy in the locker room. Fans bought in. The company used that match to kick off his run as a babyface, and it was the foundation on which Stone Cold built his legacy from that point.

Steve Austin before his WrestleMania 13 match.
Steve Austin before his WrestleMania 13 match.Credit: WWE.com

Austin won the Intercontinental Championship before eventually feuding with The Rock and WWE owner Vince McMahon.

The Mr. McMahon character began to emerge during Austin and Hart's rivalry. Rather than be a background figure, he was beginning to be an iron-fisted ruler. Tangling with The Hitman created the sparks; the controversy surrounding Hart's exit from the company in November fanned them into flames.

Propelled by the Austin 3:16 speech and the clash with Hart, Stone Cold truly shot skyward when he found the ideal foil in the tyrannical Mr. McMahon.

In the years to come, Austin claimed the WWE Championship six times. He main-evented three WrestleManias. And when the Attitude Era erupted and pro wrestling became a red-hot entity, Austin was at its epicenter.

WWE had tapped into Austin's appeal as an antihero. He was the perfect top dog in a period marked by crassness, defiance and pushing the limits.

Stone Cold was the energy stored inside a champagne bottle, just waiting to shoot out. WrestleMania 13 popped the cork.

That's when a mudhole-stomping, beer-drinking superhero emerged from a blood-smeared mat in Chicago on his way to superstardom.

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