In the course of the last 25 years, I have had the fortune (and misfortune) of watching literally thousands of wrestling matches, some great, some decent, some downright offensive. I guess you could call it almost a compulsion, a guilty pleasure…its just something I grew up watching through childhood, and by some twist of fate, the faux sport ended up reaching its zenith, its most popular stretch, when I was a junior and senior in high school, the height of high testosterone. And at that point in wrestling, that was the target demographic as it became edgier, raunchier, and more debauched than ever. I kept on watching, and have since, for better or (mostly) worse.
Most people remember the truly great matches, the Flair-Steamboats, the Rock-Austins, the Bossman-Snows. The WWE, in its domination of the US wrestling landscape, has acquired basically all available footage from every US promotion left in its wake, and has put out some high quality DVD’s with some terrific matches. Here, though, are three matches, to my knowledge, not put on WWE releases, three classics forgotten by time.
3. Bret “Hitman” Hart vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Survivor Series 1996
Most fans remember this feud fondly, and with good reason, as it was the catalyst for the then WWF’s resurgence from the depths of the ratings pool. While most people remember their classic WrestleMania submission match, which I for one consider the best match ever, this match has become almost a lost classic. Whereas most of the Hart-Austin feud centered around Austin as the bad ass rebel babyface trying to extract his pund of flesh from the proud, jaded Canadian patriot, this was the match that triggered the feud. You see, the last time anyone has seen or heard from Bret Hart, he was losing his WWF Championship to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12 in an epic Iron Man match. The Hitman’s contract expired shortly after, and he decided to take some time off to lick his wounds and contemplate his future.
Meanwhile, Michaels did not exactly set the world on fire as champion. Sure, he put on epic match after epic match, but the bottom line was on his watch, the WWF slipped in the ratings battle behind WCW with the advent of the NWO. However, one man who was starting to catch a small brush fire was Stone Cold. After his famous King of the Ring speech declaring to one and all the definition of “Austin 3:16”, he became a very interesting guy in the eyes of fans, albeit as a heel. For months afterwards he started making grandstand challenges to the absent Hitman, mocking Bret, his family and his laurels. He even went so far to injure his own friend (and Hart Dungeon graduate) Brian Pillman to prove what a heartless jerk he was.
So Bret comes back in October of 1996, and accepts Austin’s challenge. The result is the match you see above, a true technical masterpiece. Most people think WrestleMania 13 is the match that made Austin a star. I disagree. THIS is the match that made Austin a star. Austin was a mildly hot heel going in against the biggest babyface in the company. What should have resulted was Bret the dutiful good guy vanquishing the rebel Austin before moving on to bigger and better things. That didn’t happen. Instead, the cynical MSG fans in New York started cheering the cool heel Austin and booing the virtuous babyface Hart. It was a true turning point in wrestling, showing fans were ready for something different. This match was a harbinger of things to come, the nascent beginning of the attitude era.
Match Number Two on this list coming tonight or tomorrow. Until then…