ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... The WWE held its annual event, Wrestlemania, on March 23rd, 1997. However, Wrestlemania 13, overall, is considered one of the weaker Wrestlemanias of all time by critics because it occurred during the WWE's lowest point as a wrestling promotion during the 1990's. During 1996, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) began to dominate the pro wrestling industry with the hot New World Order storyline, live Monday Night shows, and debuting new wrestlers from recent talent raids of ECW, Mexico, and WWE past & present stars. WWE, meanwhile, was stuck in an old business model during 1996 and through early 1997. They would tape 3-4 RAW 1 hour shows at a time while pushing the same storyline of top babyface versus everyone. During 1994-1995, the WWE tried Kevin Nash/Diesel as the top babyface and for 1996 through early 1997, it was Shawn Michaels pushed hard as if he were Hulk Hogan.
WWE was in need of a permanent change to its business model. Thus, for 1997, they eventually began to air 2 hour shows, having live RAW shows every other week, and began to push newer wrestlers to the top. Lucky for the WWE, they stole a discarded wrestler named Steve Austin from WCW. Groomed as a possible main eventer through a strong United States title reign for much of 1994, Austin was soon jobbing regularly to Hulk Hogan friend Hacksaw Jim Duggan and was let go from WCW during early 1995. Austin then went to ECW where Paul Heyman's encouragement of letting Austin cut fearless promos helped mold him into the Stone Cold character we'd come to love. WWE would first bring Austin in as the "Ringmaster", a protege for Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase that was declared the new "Million Dollar Champion". However, it just wasn't working even though the in-ring ability that WCW fans knew he had did exist with the Ringmaster.
Austin soon ditched the Ringmaster gimmick, got rid of Dibiase (saying he purposely lost a match where Dibiase's career was on the line), and rebranded himself with a shaved head and goatee as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Then, Steve Austin lucked himself into winning the King of the Ring 1996. Before the event, possibly as a award for jobbing to the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania 12, Triple H was supposed to win King of the Ring 1996. However, as wrestlers Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) and Kevin Nash (Diesel) were departing for WCW to form the NWO, Triple H and Shawn Michaels broke character and Nash/Hall/Triple H/Shawn Michaels saluted fans at a Madison Square Garden houseshow. This incident is known as the "Curtain Call" and was deemed an embarrassment to Vince McMahon for the babyface Shawn Michaels and the heel Triple H to break character in front of thousands of WWE fans. Michaels was WWE champion, so thus no punishment... But Triple H was a mere midcarder back then. No King of the Ring crowning for Triple H in 1996!
WWE frantically looked for a replacement winner and actually gave "Stone Cold" Steve Austin a chance at winning. An uneventful tournament that despite having Yokozuna, Vader, and Owen Hart as entrants, the tournament appeared to be in favor of returning Jake "the Snake" Roberts as the winner. Jake Roberts was clean and sober at the time and on a nostalgia kick. Steve Austin, however, was battling with the likes of Savio Vega through this event. Having disposed of Vega during the tournament, Steve Austin then defeated Marc Mero in the semi-finals. WWE was rather high on Mero at the time especially since he was able to provide the WWE with eye candy named Sable (or Rena Mero, now Brock Lesnar's real life wife Rena Lesnar). But Austin beat him and advanced onto the finals against Jake Roberts (I believe Mero busted Austin's mouth open badly, causing a major stitch job before the match). Austin then beat Roberts with his recently added finisher, the "Stone Cold Stunner". But it was AFTER the match that catapulted Steve Austin into an eventual superstar. At the "crowning" ceremony for Austin at King of the Ring 1996, Austin delivered the most infamous line ever in professional wrestling history:
"Talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16... Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!". "John 3:16" is one of the most famous passages from the Bible, which states (in various translations): For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. At various sporting events, "John 3:16" signs were held by fans. Thus, Steve Austin utilizing one of the most famous passages from the Bible combined with one that is regularly seen at sporting events, Steve Austin was genius in creating Austin 3:16. From the moment he said it, you can just hear the bored King of the Ring 1996 crowd react. On the following RAW tapings, "Austin 3:16" signs were seen throughout the arena. Immediately, the WWE recognized this and "Austin 3:16" shirts were available to purchase by fans. But the WWE took care of Austin, as they didn't instantly push to the WWE Title. That was almost 2 years away... They needed to build up Austin to be credible and they also needed a Main Eventer to put him over...
Bret "the Hitman" Hart took time off after losing the WWE Title to Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 12. He had his existing contract coming up and wanted to consider his options as a free agent. Bret almost took a deal with WCW to become the 3rd "Outsider" with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to form the New World Order. However, Bret opted to sign a reported 20 year deal with the WWE instead (rumored to be worth $20 million, front loaded at $2 million for the first 4 years and negotiable thereafter). Bret Hart returned around Survivor Series 1996 and arrived to see his opponent for that event talking lots of trash. That man was "Stone Cold" Steve Austin:
Bret Hart was barely ridiculed by heels from late 1992 through 1996. Owen Hart and Jerry "the King" Lawler were the closest, but Bret would always end up looking strong against them in the end. But Austin mocked Bret, ridiculing his character, his pink tights, and all other traditions Bret Hart built up over the past few years. Austin might have been saying what many WWE fans thought. After all, Bret Hart was a Main Eventer during the downfall of the WWE from its peak late 1980's years and it's quick dropoff after Wrestlemania 8 in 1992. Bret openly bragged, repeatedly, that he was the "best there was, is and, ever will be"... After hearing that over and over again and then watching a better product on WCW Nitro, fans were wearing thin on Bret. Those Survivor Series 1996 promos set the stage for the eventual heel/face switch that was to occur on this day in professional wrestling at Wrestlemania 13.
The Survivor Series 1996 match, itself, was damn good. Bret Hart won by flipping out of Austin's old submission hold from Ted Dibiase, the Million Dollar Dream, and into a pin. Austin put up a strong "losing effort" and gained credibility that night. By holding his own against a main eventer, it would set the stage for their awesome rematch at Wrestlemania 13. But first, the WWE had to arrive at that match. When Bret signed his 20 year deal, it was understood that Bret Hart would get his WWE Title and loss back against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 13. Thus, Shawn vs. Bret, the rematch, was set in stone. The plans were in place for Shawn to regain the WWE Title at Royal Rumble 1997, which he did against Sycho Sid, and the Royal Rumble controversy with Steve Austin's elimination not seen by referees to allow for Austin to "steal" the Royal Rumble victory. This would set up controversy and initiate a #1 contender's match at the next WWE Pay Per View, In Your House: Final Four - 1997. Austin would have to face up against the 3 guys he illegally eliminated, which were Bret Hart, Undertaker, and Vader.
However, a major bump in the road occurred. Shawn Michaels vacated the WWE Title after sustaining what he and the WWE thought was a career ending knee injury. Michaels cut the promo where he "lost his smile" and was going to attempt to find it, as well, as he vacated the title. Thus, the Wrestlemania 13 Bret vs. Shawn match (with a reported 3rd and final match scheduled at King of the Ring 1997) were canceled. Instead, Wrestlemania 13 was rebooked to now feature Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin, the rematch, and the WWE Title would be shifted to Sycho Sid vs. the Undertaker. The Final Four Pay Per View between Bret, Austin, Undertaker, and Vader was now over the WWE Title. Bret Hart won this match and the WWE Title but actually lost the next night on Monday Night RAW to Sycho Sid. Guess who helped to interfere in that Sid vs. Bret match? You guessed it, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The professional wrestling industry, thanks to new ideas present by WCW and also tried in ECW, was changing. The fan favorite babyface wasn't just about pretty smiles and how much of a superhero one could be. The lines between heels and babyfaces were beginning to blur, especially with the New World Order actually being fan favorites partially. Fans were gravitating towards Steve Austin and away from the traditional Bret Hart. Thankfully, the WWE sensed this trend too and used Wrestlemania 13 as a night of major transition. The WWE would cut Austin loose as a babyface and let Bret begin to answer the boos he started to receive. The booking of the match was simple... Austin again shows a strong effort against the main eventer, Bret Hart... But this time, no pinfall. Instead, Austin passes out in the Sharpshooter and thus showed fans that there was no quit. Bret Hart, possibly wanting a submission and upset at special guest referee Ken Shamrock, for calling the match, began to attack Austin and the boos grew rapidly! Then, Shamrock confronted Hart and slammed him. Shamrock challenged Bret directly but Bret, to complete the turn to the darkside, refused to fight like a pussy heel. Fans in the area cheered Austin as he got up and left the ring. Perfectly booked.
And the match was great. Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart won several "Match of the Year" honors for 1997. In addition to the end result that had the double switch for heel/babyface, resulting for the rest of the year becoming Bret running away from Austin... Bret Hart wrestled in a fashion that made Steve Austin look like his in-ring equal. That's how you put a wrestler over. It's not about winning or losing... It's about selling the perception that your opponent, on any given night, could legitimately beat you in a wrestling match without it being a fluke. Bret's work with Steve Austin was perfect and without it combined with great booking at Wrestlemania 13, Steve Austin might have required another 6 months to a year to become great. Bret's work with Austin is the Hitman's greatest legacy to the business. He helped legitimize Austin as a main eventer, even if helping Austin's star rise faster helped convince the WWE to let him go after Survivor Series 1997.
From Wrestlemania 13, Bret Hart would form a heel stable with his old tag team name: the Hart Foundation. Reuniting with his brother Owen Hart, rejoining with Jim "The Anvil Neidhart, adding his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith, and adding the "Loose Cannon" Brian Pillman as the 5th made for an impressive group. They dominated the summer of 1997 as heels, although they were babyfaces in Bret's homeland in Canada. Meanwhile, Austin and other babyfaces had to deal with the Hart Foundation members before getting to Bret. Austin, in particular, feuded with Owen Hart. At SummerSlam 1997, Owen Hart executed a sitdown tombstone piledriver that destroyed Steve Austin's neck and almost derailed Stone Cold. Austin, for the next 2 years as his star was rising, had to wrestle with a highly damaged neck that he'd ultimately have to repair during late 1999 and possibly helped force him to retire through 2003.
Despite the damaged neck, Austin still became the great star. The WWE compensated for his injured neck by having more non-wrestling segments with Austin going up against the heel WWE boss, Vince McMahon. The WWE could just schedule opening 20 minute segments and the character of Steve Austin was so compelling on the microphone that RAW events weren't reliant on Steve Austin wrestling an actual match to draw fans. Austin vs. McMahon was great and the WWE milked 2 solid years out of that feud during 1998-1999 before Austin's neck injury required surgery by late 1999.
Austin's Wrestlemania 13 opponent, on this day in pro wrestling history, went on to have a solid 1997 as a heel with the Hart Foundation. Slowly, the WWE started gaining on the powerful WCW as the Hart Foundation was a very credible heel stable. However, with strained revenues during 1996 through early 1997, combined with increased production costs of taking RAW to 2 hours and holding live shows, the WWE needed to reduce expenses. Bret Hart's 20 year deal did, in fact, have a 1 year escape clause that the WWE could trigger. With Bret earning a reported $2 million during his first few years of the deal, the WWE could use that "cap space" to acquire a bunch of younger wrestlers to stock in their early developmental systems of the time. Certainly freed up cash to purchase Mike Tyson as a special ring enforcer for Wrestlemania 14.
As you may know by now, Bret's exit from the WWE was not pleasant. Also in Bret's contract was a clause for Bret that gave him "creative control" over the last 30 days of his deal, should the WWE enact that escape clause. Bret refused to drop the WWE Title to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series 1997 and thus Vince McMahon took matters into his own hand by forcing referee Earl Hebner act like Bret Hart submitted to Shawn Michael's version of the Sharpshooter. Read all about it for the 11/10/2012 edition of On This Day in Professional Wrestling History... for further details. Bret would join WCW shortly thereafter where he was lost among the many other former WWE veterans who were overpaid by WCW. Bret would suffer two hard shots to the head at Starrcade 1999 in a match against Bill Goldberg, one during the turnbuckle Figure 4 where Bret hit the concrete floor and then by the Goldberg superkick. Bret never recovered and post-concussion syndrome forced him out.
For the rest of Wrestlemania 13, the show gets a bad rap but possibly for how the show was booked. If you look at the card, you'll be SHOCKED at how many Attitude Era stars are actually on the card. Undertaker became WWE Champion for the 2nd time in his career by defeating Sycho Sid in the Main Event. The Rock, then known as babyface "Rocky Maivia", defended his Intercontinental Title against the Sultan, which was Rikishi's gimmick at the time. Mankind tagged up with Vader to take on Owen Hart/British Bulldog. Bradshaw was a "Blackjack" at the time, teaming up with Barry Windham to wrestle in a 4 way tag match. Billy Gunn, of New Age Outlaws/DX Fame, wrestled in a dark match. Triple H wrestled Goldust on the undercard. Many key players in the WWE for the next 7 years were actually on the Wrestlemania 13 card and yet this show is considered one of the worst Wrestlemanias.
Goes to show you how important intelligent booking is to a wrestling promotion, as Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin thankfully had it on this day in pro wrestling history!