Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin
This review is going to lose me some fans, I fear. Ken Shamrock is the guest referee, because he is the only man who can keep order, such is the level of intensity of this rivalry. The WWF has actually done a tremendous job building the heat for these two, though you have to assume much of the good work is down to the players involved rather than micro-managed scripting. It is interesting to note the crowd reactions when both come out, with Austin getting a mixed response and Bret getting mostly cheered. In recent weeks the previously always clean-cut Hitman has been showing more aggression and, dare I say it, attitude, displaying a rarely seen ferocity and anger in his actions. He has also been whining about being “screwed” out of the WWF Title the night after Final Four, which watched in hindsight is shockingly prophetic and on the button, given what happens six months later. When people point to Montreal being the ultimate payoff to a yearlong angle and give evidence of it being a work, this is why. I happen to think it is merely incredibly fortuitous (for the WWF, Vince McMahon and Bret’s movie Wrestling With Shadows) and fully legitimate, because you just can’t keep something that big kayfabed for so long these days. The start for me is the weakest part of this match, with Austin shooting for Bret’s leg to take him down, and then they end up brawling through the crowd. The highlights are Austin taking a big backdrop down the stairs (!) but the camera doesn’t catch much of it due to the mass of bodies surrounding them, one of whom appears to be dressed as Nailz. Excellent! Bret shows his superiority over Austin for much of the opening minutes, battering him from pillar-to-post, with the crowd fully behind him. He mercilessly targets Austin’s knee-brace covered leg, which is a tactic he always uses, but here it starts to get him heat, due to the sheer intensity and level of violence that Hitman brings. One such moment is when Hart brings a chair into the ring and places Austin’s ankle in it with the intention of crushing it. It is a spot that Austin made famous when he did it to Brian Pillman in 1996, so really turnabout is fair play. The crowd doesn’t think so and starts to audibly support Austin, clearly thinking Bret has gone too far. The subsequent pop for Austin when he escapes the predicament and belts Bret hard across the back with the same chair is thunderous. Finally Austin is able to get a foothold in this match, and he works over Hitman before putting on an inverted Gamma stretch (though what it was called then, I have no idea). When that doesn’t work, Austin tries a Boston crab, but Bret escapes. To the outside again and Austin takes a mighty bump into the guardrail and gets busted, then starts gushing blood instantly. Thankfully for the sake of the drama and all-out nature of the contest, there are no trainers here to patch over the cut and stop the bleeding, and the cameras don’t shy away from Austin’s blood-covered face either. Vince apologises and says this kind of thing doesn’t happen often and is unfortunate, but ultimately it is actually one of the best uses of blood in a match that you are likely to see, given the visuals it creates later on. I am a firm believer that wrestling should feature blood when the situation or occasion calls for it, and this is definitely one of those. The ring is absolutely covered and the crowd are like sharks, popping like crazy at the sight of claret. Austin is motivated by it and chokes Bret with an electric cable, but Bret belts him in the head with the ring bell in a delightful nod to his WrestleMania VIII match with Roddy Piper. In that (similarly bloody and epic) contest, Piper had the chance to use the bell and defeat the Hitman, but took the moral high ground and didn’t do it. Here Bret is happy to use it, showing that he is no longer bound by his own usual strong moral core. It is a subtle yet brilliant reference, and anyone watching who picked up on that will have smiled. The blood loss eventually becomes too much for Austin and he gets caught in the Sharpshooter, and having nearly escaped the first time, he passes out the second, never giving up despite the blood gushing down his face. It is a legendary and eternal visual, one that has since been dubbed “blood from a stone”, which I think is excellent. Shamrock calls it for the Hitman and he gets a fairly positive reaction from Chicago. The crowd certainly doesn’t do a complete 180 degree turn as others might have you believe, though the shift in response is certainly evident when Bret starts pounding a helpless Austin in the leg, over and over again with the chair. Ken Shamrock grabs him and removes him with a takedown, and Bret leaves the ring to a chorus of boos. Austin pushes away referees who try to help him and walks to the back himself, with the crowd cheering him and some chanting “Austin”, but again the response is not as loud as revisionist sound sweetening and over-excitable internet scribes might suggest. This match has almost everything going for it, with the major league stage and the rowdy crowd setting the scene nicely for one of the finest all-out brawls you will ever see. Many have given this the full monty in regards to the rating, and I can absolutely see why, but I don’t agree. I actually prefer their Survivor Series clash, which I think better represents both guys’ skill-set strong points and is a more well-crafted match. This features almost no actual wrestling, it is just a fight. A damn GREAT fight, but a fight nonetheless. I also can’t get on board with the crowd brawl at the start, because to me it is a shortcut and an excuse to fill some time, and certainly far less exciting to watch on television than for the live crowd. Of course on the other hand the match has a load going in its favour, from the palpable feeling of hatred to the expertly worked double alignment switch to the world class visual. As I have wrote elsewhere, the bout is the match that made Steve Austin and took him from superstar to ultrastar, and ultimately helped the WWF become the global conglomerate it became. So yeah, a fairly important match then. Unfortunately it was also influential in setting up the Attitude era, which alone should probably lose it some points. I know everyone loves Attitude for some reason, but I thought it was a horrible period for wrestling. Read on for more on that, I guess. Should you go out of your way to see this? Yes. Does it hold up as one of the finest ’Mania matches ever? Sure it does. Is it as good as the very greatest matches in history. No, though not by much.
Final Rating: ****¾