I'll never forget what it felt like sitting inside Illinois' Rosemont Horizon on a cool night in March. The date was March 23, 1997. When Bret Hart and Steve Austin captured the hearts of everyone in attendance at WrestleMania 13. I was an eight-year-old sitting with his father, wearing an oversized black wrestling T-shirt, getting ready to witness the greatest match in WrestleMania history.
Without a proper understanding of what facing competition meant, I couldn't fathom that Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment, known then as the World Wrestling Federation, was struggling to find its identity. Rival promotion World Championship Wrestling and its white-hot New World Order faction had McMahon's company against the ropes. The competitive Nielsen ratings of Raw and Nitro—each brand's marquee program—reflected this change in public opinion, as ProWrestling.com detailed.
The hopes of generating a profitable gate prior to WrestleMania 13—the company's Super Bowl—centered around two marquee matches. The first was Sycho Sid vs. The Undertaker for the WWE championship—a dreary in-ring showdown that in the grand scheme of Taker's career was forgettable but important for his championship-crowning moment.
The other, an intricate tale of good versus evil between Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin in an old-school submission match. In retrospect, both contests were a sign of where the company was at the time and the direction it was headed.
Hart had already established himself as a cornerstone of WWE by the time his grudge match with Austin took place. A highly skilled technical wrestler and a guy McMahon could rely on for quality, the Hitman spent the decade reaching the pinnacle of sports entertainment. Hart's feuds with Yokozuna, Owen Hart, the British Bulldog and Shawn Michaels—not to mention Austin—remain pillars of wrestling lore and in-ring storytelling.
Stone Cold was a man on the rise. He had the gift of gab and a distinct ability to turn a crowd upside down whenever the camera's red light flickered. Austin oozed this James Dean-like, rebellious charisma. Working with the WWE, he transcended sports entertainment in a way few have done since.
Riding high thanks to his King of the Ring win the year before and the controversial Royal Rumble finish the following January, Austin was taking on a prominent role within the company. Watching him operate in the squared-circle was a unique, visceral experience. There wasn't a superstar in the locker room who could mesh with Austin's sense of realism—minus the late Brian Pillman.
The heated rivalry with Hart changed that perception. It felt authentic. Almost as if these two men were the only working component WWE had at a time when WCW was nearing its apex.
Below is an oral history as told by some of the men who experienced the epic WrestleMania 13 showdown between Hart and Austin.
The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't
Dave Meltzer: To me, the Bret-Austin match was the greatest match in WrestleMania because of what it meant.
It's hard to imagine now, but this masterpiece almost didn't happen. Hart explained how the original plan for WrestleMania 13 was going to be a rematch between him and Shawn Michaels, running back a bout from the year before.
Bret Hart: My understanding was when I left that meeting that day was that I was gonna come back, and I was gonna have a bit of a chip on my shoulder towards Shawn and I was gonna start ragging on him for not being a good role model.
Meltzer: Originally it was going to be Shawn vs. Bret at Mania, and Bret was going to regain the title.
Tentative plans for a Rocky II-like showdown were abandoned due to Michaels' injuries, forcing WWE's creative branch to shift back to Austin. Had Michaels stayed healthy and focused, odds are Hart would have remained a babyface and the final act of his WWE career never would have panned out the way it did—not to mention how it could have altered Austin's path.
Meltzer: It was not the planned match at all. It was because Shawn Michaels had the knee injury.
Building a Feud
Before the WrestleMania 13 match between Hart and Austin could be delivered on a WWE canvas, the build had to be there. For all of WWE's pitfalls in '97, the storytelling and payoffs remained crisp and concise. The decision to put Hart and Austin back together after their initial Survivor Series '96 match felt off to the Hitman.
Hart: I thought we took it to the edge and then all of the sudden the way I remember how we got worked at WrestleMania 13 it was kind of last minute, kind of like, "OK, we're going to slap Bret Hart and Steve Austin together again."
Meltzer: The whole Bret Hart, Steve Austin thing was luck.
Six months after taking an extended absence from the company, Hart returned to the WWE. He demanded a champion's welcome. When he came back, Hart was instead greeted with abuse and physical assault at the hands of the Texas Rattlesnake, who had no idea the match was even happening.
Austin: I hear the guy and hear Vince say, "Yeah, in a submission match it'll be Bret 'The Hitman' Hart versus 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin." And that was news to be me because I was watching the broadcast and didn't know a damn thing about it.
Ken Shamrock had an up-close seat for it all. The MMA pioneer became a pivotal part of Hart and Austin's war, and he was contracted to help sensationalize the brutality.
Ken Shamrock: Vince came up with the idea. He brought me in because he looked at the landscape about what was going on in the world. MMA was becoming this underground hit. It was no-holds-barred. The bad asses of the bad asses.
Bruce Prichard: Vince wanted real. He wanted legitimacy. He wanted real.
Jim Cornette: The reason why Shamrock was the referee is because he was a submission specialist.
Stone Cold Steve Austin: Ken Shamrock coming in from the UFC was the perfect guy to ref this match.
Meltzer: So with Shamrock they made it the "I quit match," or else it would have been just a normal match.
The Hitman found passion in the confines of darkness. The once hyper-charismatic world champion, routinely placing his reflective pink shades over the star-struck faces of adoring fans, began to fade. Anger overcame humility. Hart mirrored Anakin Skywalker's descent into madness.
Despite his antics, the feud caught fire because of the Excellence of Execution, Hart. His instinctive ability to engage the WWE Universe was now stamped with a sense of aggression. This ensured fans would turn against Hart during the WrestleMania 13 encounter.
Shamrock: When it comes to angles and different scenarios in the pro wrestling world, Vince is a genius.
Reliving Hart vs. Austin
Shamrock: The only way this match could work was if they—Hart and Austin—apologized before because they were going to hit each other. And they did. They literally beat the hell out of each other. It was a fight.
Austin: Chicago fans really bought into me. They believed in Stone Cold Steve Austin.
It started with a full-on attack on Hart from Austin. A brawl the local fans could sink their teeth into as it went from inside the ring to over the guard rail and into the crowd, using weapons as props for their madness. The match then shifted to Hart dismantling a defiant Austin, shredding his knee to pieces. The attack was calculated and played to the Hitman's in-ring strengths.
Austin: It was basically, by and large, for the most part, called in the ring.
Prichard: Bret's a master at painting a picture in the ring.
Meltzer: I know Bret had a big hand in putting that match together. Including the blood, which of course they couldn't do now.
Austin: That was a special added ingredient.
As the match progressed, Austin went on the offensive without a strategy, while Hart continued to punish his mistakes.
Pritchard: He was going to beat the hell out of Bret until he quit.
In the middle of this controlled carnage, Shamrock began to notice the crowd was becoming more pro-Austin with each passing minute.
Shamrock: The fans started to turn on Bret as the match progressed. It was unbelievable.
By the time the end came around, Austin was left on the mat, covered in a pool of his own blood. Hart had strapped in his signature move, the Sharpshooter. There was no escape in sight. Stone Cold refused to give up. It wasn't in his nature. Rather than utter the words "I quit," Austin passed out, forcing Shamrock to call for the bell.
Shamrock: I felt like I wanted more. It was a good spot, but it was almost like we just need more. This is too good to end now.
For as freely as the match was called in the ring, it was the trio of Hart, Austin and McMahon who conceived the famous ending sequence, despite Austin's insecurities.
Austin: We left the finish room. I kind of walked around the arena for a little bit, came back and talked to Vince about 15 minutes later. I said, "Hey Vince, are you sure this finish is going to work?" And he goes, "Steve, I'm telling you it'll work."
The match ended with the destruction of a decade's worth of babyface work for Hart as he stomped away at Austin's unconscious body until Shamrock was forced to intervene, slamming Hart to the canvas. This sealed Hart's fate as a villain, Austin's as the face of the company and Shamrock's as a future WWE star.
Shamrock: When I belly-to-bellied Bret, it was huge. It was almost like at that point it turned. It was one of those good feelings. A true wow, "this is electric" moment.
Prichard: When you go back and you watch this at the very end when Shamrock pulls Bret off and Bret starts to come in at Shamrock. Bret just suddenly takes that one step back, showing that respect to Shamrock. And right there, everything he had done up until that point, that made your heel. Cause he backed up.
Memories of a Classic
Cornette: That was my favorite match because it felt like an old-school NWA wrestling match. It wasn't a sports entertainment match.
Cornette's sentiment was spot-on. The wrestling community as a whole remains in awe of what Hart and Austin achieved on a March night just outside of Chicago.
Chris Jericho: One of my favorite matches in WrestleMania history, if not my favorite.
Prichard: Loved it. Loved every bit of it.
It's a match that went beyond the bounds of great storytelling and execution. It signified WWE's acceptance of the antihero role. A role the company needed to survive. Austin's face turn—which had been brewing for nearly a year—was complete. He would help carry the torch and eventually help dismantle WCW's ratings push.
Shamrock: I feel blessed that I was able to be part of that. It was one of the best matches I've ever seen to this day. It was just perfect.
Austin: It was the greatest match of my career.
As a kid sitting there in the Rosemont, I was fortunate enough to witness greatness. Everything we love about professional wrestling was encapsulated in one commanding performance. Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin remains the Citizen Kane of WrestleMania matches. A feud most of us never wanted to end.
Meltzer: If Brett had stayed, he certainly would have had another run with Austin when he was champion.
All Ken Shamrock quotes were obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise. All Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer quotes courtesy of The Lapsed Fan podcast. Bret Hart quotes courtesy of Inside the Ropes and the Steve Austin Show. All Bruce Prichard quotes courtesy of Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard. All Steve Austin and Chris Jericho quotes courtesy of the WWE Hall of Fame and Talk Is Jericho. All Jim Cornette quotes courtesy of Shoot Interviews.