Bret Hart & Stone Cold | The Rivalry That Started An Era | Rivalries

In the late 1990s, the World Wrestling Federation looked a lot different than it is today.  Wrestling fans were becoming sick of the “good guy vs. bad guy routine.” Even though that storyline was the foundation for the business since the 1950s, WWF fans craved more. In 1996 the face of the company was the legendary Bret “Hitman” Hart. Hart had brought a sense of athleticism to the WWF that the large monsters of the 1980s could not. At this time, he was a three-time WWF Champion, two-time Intercontinental champion, two-time tag team champion, 1994 Royal Rumble Co-Winner, and 1993 King of the Ring. This is the rivalry of Bret Hart & Stone Cold Steve Austin.

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The Hitman took on all challengers, however on March 31, 1996, at  Wrestlemania XII, he lost the WWF title to The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels in a classic Iron Man Match. After that defeat, he took time off from the ring. Many fans wondered if Bret Hart would ever return. During the Hitmans absence, a newcomer by the name of The Ringmaster arrived.  Wrestling fans knew that this was not just any new prospect. This Ringmaster was also known as Steve Austin. Stunning Steve Austin was a mid-card mainstay in the rival promotion World Championship Wrestling.

Bret Hart & Stone Cold
Photo / Skysports / WWE

Bret Hart & Stone Cold

He was a WCW Tag Team Champion alongside Brian Pillman. He was also a former member of the Dangerous Alliance led by Paul Heyman. Austin was also a former United States Champion and a technical wrestling machine in his own right. Eventually, the Million Dollar Man parted ways with the WWF. Steve Austin was evolving beyond needing a mouthpiece. The Ringmaster was becoming more violent. He changed his name to befit that violent side. The Ringmaster became Stone Cold Steve Austin. WWF fans slowly started to like Austin’s antihero persona.

It was something new and fresh, and it was catching on.  On June 23, 1996, Austin’s career would change forever.  At the King of the Ring pay per view, he defeated Savio Vega, Marc Mero, and the Hall of Famer Jake “ The Snake” Roberts.  It was at this event that Stone Cold Steve Austin gave his first Austin 3:16 promo.  In the weeks that followed, Steve Austin’s popularity grew. Still, Stone Cold refused to accept the fans. However, the fans accepted and idolized him. 

Hitman Accepts a Stone Cold Challenge 

Steve Austin was truly starting to believe that he is the best there is, was, and ever will be. To prove this fact, he challenged Bret Hart, who was still taking his leave. Week after week, Austin would spew derogatory comments about the Excellence of Execution.  Could Stone Cold Steve Austin back up his words against the Hitman? On October 21st, 1996, all questions were answered on Monday Night Raw, when Bret “Hitman” Hart made his return. Bret Hart stated that the WWF has changed,  and it seems like there’s a new rule  “Ill scratch your back, and you stab mine.”

He also stated that at Survivor Series, he would accept the challenge of Stone Cold Steve Austin. What wrestling fans didn’t know at the time is that Bret Hart handpicked Steve Austin to be his first opponent back and that both superstars had great respect for one another.  During this time, Brian Pillman had joined his former WCW tag team partner in the WWF. Pillman, however, was visibly rooting for the Hitman based on the fact the Brian had been trained in the dungeon in Calgary and was very close to the Harts. Austin didn’t like this at all.

On October 27th, he attacked Brian Pillman. He crushed Pillman’s already injured ankle and sent him to the hospital. In Stone Colds’ mind, you were either with him or against him, and he was against everyone. Shortly after that, on Nov 4th, 1996, Austin attacked Brian Pillman in his home during an interview. Unknown to Austin, the Loose Cannon Brian Pillman was waiting with a magnum. The segment faded to black as Austin broke down Pillman’s door. The incident was known as the infamous gun incident and was done for shock value. That part of the storyline was eventually dropped. 

I Accept the Challenge of the Best Wrestler in the World" - CM Punk Lauds Bret Hart for an Iconic Moment - EssentiallySports
Photo / Essentially Sports / WWE

Survivor Series 1997 

On November 17, 1996, The World Wrestling Federation presented Survivor Series from Madison Square Garden in New York City. This was Bret “Hitman” Harts’s first match back in over 8 months. This was also Stone Cold Steve Austin’s time to prove he’s a contender. The match was off the charts. It was a scientific match with a brawling element. Each superstar put on a wrestling clinic. Stone Cold Steve Austin matched move for move with the Excellence of Execution. He looked like he might defeat the Hitman. Both athletes were mirror images of each other. Bret would hit an elbow off the second rope, and Austin would follow that.

Bret would trap Austin in the Sharpshooter, and Austin would counter into the Cloverleaf. They gave everything they had, even a brutal superplex from the top rope. At the end of the match, Stone Cold trapped Bret in the Million Dollar Dream sleeper, but the Hitman reversed it into a turnbuckle cradle pin. Bret “Hitman “Hart defeated Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Hitman had returned to the WWF. However, Steve Austin was never going to let this loss go. Why? Because Stone Cold said so. 

Bret Hart & Stone Cold

In the meantime, because of Bret Harts’s win at Survivor Series, he was guaranteed a shot at the WWF Champion Psycho Sid.  On December 15, 1996, at In Your House its Time, he challenged Sid for the title. Unfortunately for Bret, Shawn Michaels was a special guest commentator for the match. Bret hated HBK, and the feeling was mutual. During a critical moment in the match, Shawn Michaels left his announcing seat, hopped up on the ring apron, and ended up getting knocked down by Bret accidentally. Seeing Bret lost his focus, Sid powerbombed Bret Hart and retained his title. Bret Hart was angry. After the match, he attacked Shawn Michaels. The two future Hall of Famers had to be separated by officials.

Royal Rumble 1997 

Stone Cold Steve Austin continued to stalk Bret Hart.  During a match against Vader, Steve Austin attacked the Hitman. The Next week Bret Hart attacked Stone Cold. Their rivalry was building more and more.  A more aggressive side of The Hitman was becoming apparent. The rivalry led to the  Royal Rumble on January 19, 1997. Stone Cold drew entry number five. He wasted no time in eliminating Jake Roberts, Road dog Jesse James, Bart Gunn, Owen Hart, and several others. After each elimination, he would sit on the turnbuckle, comically looking at his watch.

That is until Bret Harts’s music blasted through the arena. Hart and Austin wasted no time trading blows. Both Legends were focused on winning the 1997 Royal Rumble. Bret Hart wanted to win this match to challenge Shawn Michaels for the WWF title.  Eventually, the ring filled up with more superstars. At around the 30-minute mark, Bret Hart threw Steve Austin over the top rope. Unfortunately, he snuck in before the referee could see it. Austin snuck back in the ring, eliminated The Undertaker and Vader. Then he eliminated Bret Hart. Stone Cold Steve Austin had won the 1997 Royal Rumble.

Bret Hart was livid and rightfully so. The next night on Monday Night Raw, the Hitman grabbed the mic to air his grievances. Bret Hart was becoming unraveled by the rattlesnake. He was no longer calm, cool, and collected. He blamed Vince McMahon for trying to sidetrack him from the WWF Championship intentionally.  Bret Hart stated that he was screwed by Shawn Michaels, screwed by Stone Cold Steve Austin, screwed by the WWF, and screwed by Vince McMahon. Since It doesn’t look like he’s going to get a title shot, he quit. 

As Bret proceeded to leave the arena, Stone Cold grabbed the mic. He said that ever since Bret Hart has come back, he’s done nothing but cry. Later in the program, WWF President Gorilla Monsoon announced that at the next WWF PPV In Your House Final Four, a match will take place between The Undertaker, Vader, Bret “Hitman” Hart, and Stone Cold Steve Austin.  The only way to defeat your opponent is by throwing him over the top rope. The winner of the match would get a title shot at Wrestlemania 13.

Steve Austin returned and began complaining about how unfair it is to go into this match since he already won. Just then, Bret Hart came back through the crowd and accepted Gorilla Monsoons’ offer. Hart and Austin got into a brawl. This rivalry was becoming even more heated.

Tape Machines Are Rolling — The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart, Owen Hart, British...
Photo / Tape Machines Are Rolling / WWE

In Your House Final Four 

Bret “Hitman” Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin were after each other every week. One week Austin would attack Bret. The next week Bret would attack Austin. Something had to give before these two destroyed each other. During this time period, WWF Champion Shawn Michaels was injured in an altercation outside of the ring. Due to this injury, Shawn Michaels claimed he “lost his smile” and relinquished the WWF Championship. Now the fatal four-way match was for the richest prize in the business, the WWF title.

On February 16, 1997, Bret Hart, The Undertaker, Vader, and Stone Cold Steve Austin competed in a viscous four-way match. Vader was so beat up he was bleeding all over the mat. Very similar to their  Royal Rumble chaos,  Bret Hart eliminated Austin. This time the referee saw the elimination. However, Austin was like a hyena. He was just waiting for an opportunity. Austin attempted to interfere several times. At the conclusion of the match, Austin got up on the ring apron but was stopped by Undertaker. As the Undertaker was dealing with Austin, Bret Hart eliminated The Man from the Darkside. Bret “Hitman” Hart had won the WWF Championship for the fourth time. 

Screwed by Stone Cold 

However, the next night on Raw, Bret was ordered to defend the championship against Psycho Sid. After just coming off of that final four human demolition derby,  the Hitman was hurting. Bret appeared to be in control most of the match. When Hart finally caught Sid in the Sharpshooter Stone Cold Steve Austin ran to the ring with a steel chair and whacked the champion across his neck. Sid powerbombed the Hitman and became the new champion. Stone Cold Steve Austin just cost Bret Hart the WWF title. It was announced that at Wrestlemania 13 in Chicago, Il.

Bret ‘Hitman” Hart would challenge Stone Cold Steve Austin in a submission match. As an added bonus to this match, former Ultimate Fighting Champion Ken Shamrock would be the special guest referee. Also, Psycho Sid will defend the WWF Title against The Undertaker. Bret Hart wanted to destroy Stone Cold Steve Austin, but he also wanted the WWF title back.  He received his rematch against Sid inside a steel cage. However, if Bret Hart was to win the WWF title, his match with Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania would be for the title.

Photo / Sportskeeda / WWE

If Sid were to retain, his match with The Undertaker would be for the title. Both Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Undertaker interfered in the match. At one point, Hart and Austin appeared to be working as a team. Bret Hart went to exit the cage in the closing moments of the match, but The Undertaker slammed the door shut on the Hitman’s head. Sid retained his title. As Hart was looking up at the lights, WWF CEO Vince Mcmahon proceeded to interview him. Bret Hart had no had enough. He shoved McMahon to the ground and berated him and the entire locker room.

The Hitman was definitely losing his cool. At that moment, The Undertaker appeared, and Bret Hart attacked him. Austin came out of nowhere and attacked Bret Hart. Sid went after the Undertaker. The go-home show to Wrestlemania 13 ended in a pier six brawl. 

Bret Hart & Stone Cold
WrestleMania 13-Rise of a Rattlesnake 

The day had finally arrived, March 23, 1997. Wrestlemania 13 was the hottest ticket in Chicago. The main event on paper was the WWF Championship match. The Undertaker would be challenging Sid. However, in wrestling fans’ hearts and minds, the real main event was the Submission Match between Bret ‘Hitman” Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin. This was the match that was going to settle this violent rivalry. Every fan expected this match to be awesome, but no one expected what was about to happen. The match itself was the catalyst for much of the future of the business. It had a double turn.

Stone Cold Steve Austin became one of the most popular fan favorites in history. Bret “Hitman” Hart became a heel in the United States and maintained his hero status in every country besides the USA.  It set the tone for what was to become arguably the greatest time to be a wrestling fan ….The attitude era. If you really paid attention to the announcers and commentary leading up to the match, you could see the direction this was headed.  Instead of Jim Ross calling Austin sadistic, he would throw in comments like you may not like Stone Cold, but you have to respect him.

When he made his way down the entrance ramp, Vince McMahon made the comment that Austin received a loud ovation, which was only slightly true. However, when Bret Hart made his entrance, the Chicago crowd went crazy. You could tell he had a lot of convincing to do to make this crowd hate him.  Hart and Austin immediately got into a brawl as soon as the bell rang. Austin tackled the Hitman and threw him into the Chicago crowd.

Both Superstars used anything they could to take each other down. Finally, the match went back to the ring, but the violence did not end. The Hitman continued to punish Austin, but Stone Cold wouldn’t give up. The crowd began to admire his tenacity.  Bret Hart showed even more heel tactics by using a chair to injure Austin’s ankle.

At one point in the match, Vince McMahon would add commentary like

“if Bret loses this match, you have to wonder what kind of excuse he will give.”

Jim Ross would add

“that’s the same knee Austin injured earlier but he worked through it because he’s a tough SOB.”

He also added,

“these are two finely tuned athletes, who are not worried about covering bald spots .”