Monday, January 4, 2010

Pro Wrestling Primer: The Hit Man Returns

If you didn’t already know, Bret “Hit Man” Hart is returning to WWE tonight as this week’s guest host on Monday Night Raw. Since I don’t actually have cable TV, I unfortunately won’t be able to see it. But the Hit Man is sticking around for a little bit at least, although it’s safe to say that he probably won’t enter the ring for one more match. Which is fine by me. I don’t necessarily think that stroke victims should be doing physical activity like pro wrestling matches. I’d be happy adding another Bret Hart DVD set to the ol’ collection though.

Because I’m not able to watch Raw tonight, I thought I’d share a classic Bret Hart match that is often referred to as one of the best of all-time. Of course, I’m talking about the I Quit match (or a submission match, if you prefer, but that isn’t what it was really supposed to be) pitting the Hit Man against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13 in March 1997.

I knew this match was going to deliver on all levels when they’d finally announced it. Back in 1989, my favorite match had been established when Ric Flair and Terry Funk wrestled an I Quit match at the Clash of the Champions. A wrestling rivalry had actually reached a level of intensity that called for a stipulation in which one wrestler had to end the punishment by uttering the words “I quit.” And it was with two of the greatest wrestlers ever in the Nature Boy and the bad man from the Double Cross Ranch. As an eleven-year-old wrestling fan, it was hard to predict just who would ultimately win this most epic encounter. Flair came out on top, but it was no easy feat to get there. It had almost everything I wanted as a wrestling fan—except blood. The hatred between the two wrestlers made it necessary to depict bloodshed in the match, but I realize now that the powers-that-be at TBS wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. Despite that, the I Quit match became my favorite match that I saw take place as it happened, as opposed to renting it on video later on. Eight years later, my favorite match had a new candidate.

Bret Hart dubbed himself “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” and it was hard to argue that point. If you watch wrestling for good, solid matches that stand the test of time, Hart’s body of work in the WWF has got to be somewhere in the top five or ten for American pro wrestling’s modern era. But 1996 was a hard year for the Hit Man. Although he regained the WWF Championship from Diesel at the previous year’s Survivor Series, Hart had the next challenger breathing down his neck. Shawn Michaels had been honing his craft for nearly ten years, and it seemed like it was his time to ascend to the WWF champion’s throne. That happened at WrestleMania 12, in which the Heartbreak Kid wrested the title from Bret in a 60-minute Iron Man match that went into sudden death when neither opponent scored a victory. The Hit Man took some time off from the WWF, having been on the road for them since 1984. Citing burnout, Bret decided to try a little bit of acting, playing a part on the short-lived TV Western “Lonesome Dove.” But as fans, we knew that losing to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania was bothering him.

During Hart’s sabbatical, a new entry in the WWF started making waves. Steve Austin had previously wrestled for WCW, but didn’t get a fair enough chance to live up to his potential. His tag team with Brian Pillman, the Hollywood Blondes, was fun to watch but ultimately wasn’t taken seriously enough by management to be pushed as a force to be reckoned with. In 1995, Austin got his pink slip FedExed to him while recuperating from an injury. Madder than hell and not going to take it anymore, he made a brief stop in ECW and began to plant the seeds of what would eventually sprout and become “Stone Cold.” After a rocky start with the WWF, Austin got back on track after beating Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the 1996 King of the Ring tournament final. After his famous misappropriation of John 3:16 during the post-match interview, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was off and running. It was clear that this WCW castaway was hungry for success, possessed with getting to the top of the wrestling mountain. Soon enough, he began to run Bret down in interviews, challenging him to a match despite Hart not being an active wrestler at the moment.

During this time, Bret had also been entertaining a big money offer from WCW to jump ship. Their Monday Nitro program was often beating the WWF’s Raw in the ratings, and were about to pull ahead with Hulk Hogan’s recent heel turn and defection to the nWo. Due to his tenure and consistency for great matches, Bret was considered part of the WWF’s franchise by this time, as much as Hogan or Randy “Macho Man” Savage (who had also signed with WCW) had been in the past. Despite what the critics would say about his drawing power, losing Bret Hart to WCW in 1996 would have been a big blow to the WWF. But Bret decided to stay with the WWF, and his first order of business would be to shut Steve Austin up once and for all. By beating Austin, Hart would re-establish himself in the WWF ranks with regaining the championship as the end goal. Although he won the battle against Austin at the 1996 Survivor Series, the Hit Man/Stone Cold war had only just begun.

Things heated up between Hart and Austin at the Royal Rumble in January 1997. Bret eliminated Austin, but the referees were preoccupied with breaking up a fight between Mankind and Terry Funk on the arena floor, and didn’t see the elimination take place. Stone Cold snuck back into the ring and managed to throw Vader, the Undertaker, and Bret over the top rope to claim the victory—and the right to challenge for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania 13. Whether Bret liked it or not, Austin had now entered the title picture. But upon seeing that Austin had been rightfully eliminated from the Royal Rumble, the WWF allowed a rematch between the final four wrestlers to take place. Since WWF champion Shawn Michaels had forfeited the title (again) after a serious injury, the winner of the Final Four match would become the new titleholder.

Bret Hart beat the Undertaker to win the match and become the new WWF champion at the In Your House 13: Final Four pay-per-view. But his reign only lasted one day, losing the belt to Psycho Sid on Monday Night Raw due to Steve Austin’s interference. From there, the I Quit match was announced. And because he was the Final Four’s runner-up, the Undertaker was named the number-one contender to challenge for Psycho Sid’s title at WrestleMania. That really sucked, because we wanted to see Bret vs. Stone Cold go at it for the title in the main event instead. But the topsy-turvy WWF main event scene finally had a direction en route to WrestleMania, even if the order of matches was a total reversal of what we really wanted to see happen.

But Bret deserved a rematch, and it took place in a steel cage on the last episode of Raw before WrestleMania. The winner would defend the title in the main event, and we held out hope that Bret would regain for an awesome knock-down, drag ‘em out fight with Stone Cold to close out what was sure to be an otherwise lame show. Just as the Hit Man was about to exit the cage and win the match, the Undertaker slammed the door shut, knocking him out for a Psycho Sid victory and destroying our hopes and dreams. During the post-match interview with Vince McMahon, Bret shoved the announcer to the mat and embarked on a profanity-laced tirade about how he’d been getting screwed out of opportunities to become the champion. He had rightfully won the Royal Rumble and the right to face Shawn Michaels for the championship in a WrestleMania rematch. But Austin screwed him, and Michaels threw the title picture into chaos when he hurt his knee and gave up the title. Bret won the vacant championship, but got screwed by Austin again. Vince McMahon and the WWF had also screwed him, and there was a company-wide conspiracy to keep the Hit Man out of the title picture. If Bret got screwed half as many times as he claimed he had, he’d be able to…never mind. If anything, WE got screwed out of the most badass WrestleMania main event ever.

Nevertheless, we weren’t going to miss this shit for the world. It was the most heated rivalry we’d seen take place in the WWF for quite some time. One of the best wrestlers of the 1990s was about to get in the damnedest fight with the guy who wanted to be regarded as one of the decade’s best in the worst way and by golly, it was gonna tear the house down. There was no way on earth this match was going to suck.

Ken Shamrock had recently crossed over to pro wrestling from mixed martial arts, and was involved as a special guest referee for this momentous occasion. The glass breaks, and Stone Cold strides to the ring. Although he’s not a submission wrestler, he’s ready to deliver a vicious beating and force the Hit Man to quit that way. He even gets in Shamrock’s face upon entering the ring. It’s time for Austin to finally live up to the potential that real wrestling fans saw in WCW seven years ago. Bret’s music hits, and he simply steps over Austin’s broken glass before walking towards the ring. The sunglasses are given away to a lucky young fan. Once Bret enters the ring, the fight is on. The fisticuffs spill out of the ring and into the crowd, right in front of WWF Hall of Fame members Tony Atlas and the late Captain Lou Albano. Hart and Austin begin to fight up the lower deck as Vince McMahon lets us know that this is what WrestleMania is about.

The combatants make their way back to ringside. Austin is taking a beating, but reverses an Irish whip that sends Bret crashing into the ring steps. As Jim Ross says on commentary, they’ve spent about thirty seconds in the ring and the rest on the floor. They get back in the ring shortly after that comment, and Bret reminds us that this is his domain by taking back control of the match.

Jim Ross is great while commenting on Bret’s work on Austin’s knee, which is in a brace. Austin hits a Stone Cold Stunner out of desperation, but he can’t win the match on a pinfall. Bret recovers and wraps Austin up in a figure-four leglock around the steel ringpost. Bret was the first person I saw do that, and I loved that move. After grabbing the ring bell and leaving it on the ring apron, he then brings a chair into the ring, folds Austin’s leg in it, and prepares to jump off the top rope for some serious leg damage. But Austin pastes the Hit Man with the chair, sending him crashing to the mat. He nails him with another shot that cracks throughout the arena. Stone Cold takes over on Bret as Jim Ross takes an obvious shot at WCW and Hulk Hogan, saying that it’s not about talking about the past or covering a bald spot. That rules. One of Bret’s daughters gets caught on camera covering her face to avoid seeing her dad getting beaten up. That rules too.

Austin drops Hart with a Russian leg sweep and applies an actual submission hold whose name I can’t remember. But it’s not your typical everyday Boston Crab-type maneuver either. Speaking of which, Austin goes for that one next as we see a shot of Bret’s legendary dad Stu Hart with a look of concern. Bret fights off Austin’s attempt at the Sharpshooter with a rake of the eyes, but gets tossed out of the ring.

Just when you thought this match was good, it’s about to get better. Bret reverses an Irish whip and sends Austin sailing headfirst over the timekeeper’s table and into the guardrail. Hart pummels him with punches and Austin comes up bleeding.

McMahon suggests that maybe Ken Shamrock should stop the match for Austin’s blood loss, and J.R. responds that Stone Cold would try to kill him for that decision. But the blood is spilling and Hart is zeroing in for the win. The backbreaker connects, as does the Hit Man elbow from the second rope. Hart then goes after Austin’s injured knee with the chair and goes for the Sharpshooter. But Austin has a receipt for that rake of the eyes earlier and avoids the hold. A low blow later, and Austin is able to get some breathing room.

Hart is sent chest-first into the turnbuckles and get a mudhole stomped in him while sitting in the corner. Austin puts him on the top rope and takes him right back down with a jarring superplex. He exits the ring to grab an extension cord from ringside and begins to wrap it around Bret’s throat as he tries to recover on the ring apron. But the ring bell is still lying right there, and Bret smashes Austin over the head with it out of desperation. Stone Cold goes down like a ton of bricks upon impact.

Austin begins to get to his feet, but the Hit Man trips him up and successfully applies the Sharpshooter. Hart sits down to maximize the impact, and Stone Cold is trapped with no way to get to the ropes and break the hold. Ken Shamrock repeatedly asks him if he wants to give it up, but Austin refuses. His bloody face is captured on camera in a famous shot that was used in Monday Night Raw’s opening montage for quite some time. By this point, we were screaming at the TV for Austin to reach the ropes and break the hold. Stone Cold begins to fade, but comes back with a valiant effort to bridge out of the Sharpshooter that is almost successful. But Bret re-applies the hold, and we just knew that it was the end for ol’ Stone Cold. Risking a serious back injury, he tries a couple more times to fight his way out, but passes out from the pain. Ken Shamrock stops the match and Bret is the winner by default. But Austin never actually quit and gave up!

At that point, I knew that I’d just seen the best match of all-time. I even said to my friends that this was actually better than Flair vs. Funk in 1989. Better than Savage vs. Steamboat at WrestleMania III. I also knew that Steve Austin would be the WWF champion by next year’s WrestleMania, but that’s another story for another time. Austin lived up to his potential and became the WWF’s next top babyface, and it was now time for the Hit Man to switch his role and become the hated heel.

Stone Cold is still unconscious, with Ken Shamrock looking over him. Vince McMahon asks for medical assistance and all of a sudden, Bret begins to attack Austin’s injured leg. Like a bad guy would, he’s gonna kick Austin when he’s down. Shamrock intervenes and takes matters into his own hands by taking the Hit Man down. Hart and Shamrock face off, planting a seed for a future rivalry, and Bret leaves the ring to a chorus of boos. He caps it off perfectly by flipping the bird right in the fan’s face on his way up the aisle. Awesome!

After a match like that, the following matches—a Chicago Street Fight pitting Ahmed Johnson and the Legion of Doom against the Nation of Domination and Undertaker vs. Sid in the main event—seemed anticlimactic. During the street fight, we couldn’t stop talking about how awesome the I Quit match was. And the championship match was just terrible. WrestleMania 13 was a one-match show, and that one match was the shit.

Bret Hart cemented his heel turn in the coming weeks, turning on American wrestling audiences while praising the fans everywhere else in the world. He would also reform the Hart Foundation with former tag team partner Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, estranged brother Owen Hart, brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith, and family friend Brian Pillman. The rivalry with Steve Austin continued after WrestleMania as well, resulting in a classic match at the Canadian Stampede pay-per-view, in which the Hart Foundation beat the team of Austin, Ken Shamrock, the Legion of Doom, and Goldust. Bret would win his fifth and final WWF Championship at Summerslam 1997, after pinning the Undertaker following an errant chair shot from guest referee Shawn Michaels.

If you plan on watching the Hit Man host Monday Night Raw tonight, hopefully this look back at his best feud got you pumped up for his return. I’m being optimistic and hoping it goes well, looking forward to what role he’ll play on WWE programming. I don’t expect anyone to do this, but if you happen to catch Raw tonight, feel free to let The Evil Eye know what you thought via the comments section.

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