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The show that quite a number of people will argue featured the best wrestling match of all time, and to think that said match almost never happened. Less than two months prior to the show the top two matches on the bill for Wrestlemania 13 were Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels (probably not for the WWF Title) and The Undertaker vs Sid. Steve Austin likely would’ve been put in the #3 spot on the card – against whom it’s not particularly obvious.
The build ahead to the show was strange, probably a phrase that well explains the eventual buyrate. There was plenty going on, but not actually that much of it hugely positive. At the beginning of February the WWF started what would (a month later) formally become the two hour era of Raw. The decision, seemingly last minute, threw their existing taping plans out of whack and for about four weeks or so created some very weird two hour programming.
None better illustrated than the Raw at the end of February from, of all places, the Manhatten Center where Raw famously was home for the first year or so on and off. Running from a 1,500 seat venue while Nitro was doing live arena shows was a big problem, even if it was for one show. Even worse was the crowbarred taping coincided with an existing tour of Germany, meaning much of the WWF crew were in Europe. So the WWF did what anyone would’ve done in that situation, they turned to ECW.
The show was bizarre to watch, with regular matches featuring ECW talent like Taz and Mikey Whipwreck aired on an episode of WWF Raw. Just trying to imagine the 2017 equivalent… Having an hours’ worth of matches dedicated to Evolve, billed under that banner and including Evolve wrestlers. Maybe it’s not the best example given the WWF’s door opening to indies now, but in 1997 it was bizarre.
It was also reflective of a company struggling for consistency at the time. They had hot angles, but the undercard was really, really erratic and when Shawn Michaels went on hiatus it threw everything off base. The natural response to that was to sign Ken Shamrock, probably the most widely known MMA fighter in the United States at the time on a big contract. Again, weird actions having weird consequences was becoming the norm. As the WWF did a Raw from Germany at the beginning of March, a second show within the space of a month with lighting so bad 1983 might have baulked at it, Sid’s brief run as champion was all but condemned as a title match with Mankind drew a 1.5 rating, being outdrawn by three entire ratings points by a barmy Roddy Piper segment on Nitro. And to top it off, the show ended with a match between Owen Hart and the British Bulldog that was arguably the best match in the history Raw to that point.
(Again, you may be wondering where the actual build to Wrestlemania is in all of this, you’re wondering correctly). Raw returned from Germany with a new outlook, “Raw is War”, with a new entrance video and perhaps more importantly the introduction of the “Titantron” a giant video wall that has become synonymous with WWF/E television since. But in the midst of trying to make things happen on the Monday there was scant build to the pay per view as it was – Wrestlemania was a two match show and six days before Mania they did Bret vs Sid in a steel cage match for the WWF Title. The Mania card wasn’t up for change, but the possibility of Bret vs Austin being for the title was on the line, with the bizarre sight of interference from both Austin (attacking Sid) and Undertaker (attacking Bret) in an attempt to ensure their match would be for the title. It was a memorable segment, polished off by a foul mouthed tirade by Bret that was basically day 1 of his heel turn, but if you ever wondered why this Wrestlemania bombed so badly at the box office (relative to shows in the 2-3 years prior with arguably comparable cards), the lack of proper build was definitely a factor.
The Headbangers vs The Godwinns vs Furnas and Lafon vs The New Blackjacks in a four-team elimination match
Well... it wasn't as bad as the last four corners elimination match – but it was hardly much better. Quite what Furnas and Lafon had done not to be defending the tag titles on this card remains a mystery, but not even they could save this. After a while the New Blackjacks get eliminated for pushing the ref, I think, and I believe Furnas and Lafon got eliminated by being counted out. That leaves us with the Godwinns and the Headbangers... it doesn't really improve until Mosh hits a nice seated leg-drop from the top to pick up the win.
The Sultan (w/ Iron Shiekh and, randomly, Bob Backlund) vs Rocky Maivia for the WWF Intercontinental Title
I mean, you're being killed on pay per view every month by WCW's undercard, and this is your response? Sure, this wasn't as bad as Rocky vs Hunter Hearst Helmsley last month (although that match was genuinely awful), but there was just so little to this. If I'm being polite this was a nice back and forth match, Rocky is generally OK at what he's trained at, and Sultan is DOA as a character. Sultan did hit a nice side kick which generated a crowd gasp when Rocky kicked out. Rocky wins it with a roll up before there's a post match attack by the heels before Rocky Johnson comes out and sees them off. Nice moment, but I'm not sure the crowd cared enough about Maivia or knew who Johnson was for it to stick.
Hunter Hearst Helmsley (w/ Chyna) vs Goldust (w/ Marlene)
This was almost shockingly good. Without wishing to go overboard, this was easily the best outing for both guys in the company. Goldust opened up with some fire and both men seemed motivated – which was just as well as for the first 90% of the match Chyna and Marlene were unmoved on the outside. Goldust even got some response from the crowd, which has been a rare thing since his face turn a couple of months back.
But Chyna's lack of movement was always prelude for something, in this case she walked around towards Marlene, who was saved when Goldust hoisted her onto the apron. Hunter ended up crashing into both of them, knocking Marlene into Chyna's clutches – who ragdolled her side to side in a great exchange. Hunter hit the pedigree to win the match, and the match finished with Goldust tending to his fallen valet. I don't want to overstate this match, it was certainly no more than good, but far better than I was expecting.
Vader and Mankind (w/ Paul Bearer) vs The British Bulldog and Owen Hart for the WWF Tag Team Titles
It may not be the best sign, but my main recollection of this match was just how giddy Lawler was when, about two thirds of the way through the match, he found out that Stu and Helen Hart were sat in the front row. Lawler, like the pro that he was, got to work like he not only had to get in the quota of old jokes for the remainer of the match, but also in an attempt to make up the quota for the ten minutes he'd missed.
That is, to say, this match was a bit flat. Owen and Bulldog are still arguing, but still together, which is fine but it's a bit of a broken record. Vader and Mankind feels like a bizarre pairing (which in many ways is the point, despite their mutual connection w/ Bearer). The in ring action was fine, all four guys are good enough, but the action didn't feel consequential and the finish (a double count out) quite rightly put the deflation point on the match. Doesn't help that all four, really, are heels.
Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Bret Hart in a Submission Match with Special Guest Referee Ken Shamrock
Much like what happened with Sid and Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series six months prior, take note of the largely even reaction to both of these guys when they came out. This spills to the outside straight away and deep into the crowd – they climb up the stairs and Austin takes a backdrop on the steps which given how little we could see of it was actually a strong bump. Given how many fans there are around, Shamrock doubles up as a luxury security man as well as the ref.
The middle phase of the match sees them return to the ring as Bret takes control going after Austin's knee – which in the six weeks leading up to the show was legit injured – Austin in this match is wearing the knee-brace that would become as much a part of his trademark look as it was a necessity in the future. Bret's work is such that the crowd begins their first explicitly pro-Austin chants, Austin buys some time with a stunner out of nowhere. Bret does the Figure Four spot around the ring post and the reaction continues to shift.
We spill to the outside, Austin gets whipped into the Spanish announcers table and gets cut. Bret grabs a chair back in the ring and repeatedly goes after Austin's knee, Austin low blows Bret and finds a second wind, stomping on him in the corner and flipping the bird at Bret. Bret hits Austin with the ring bell, then puts Austin in the sharpshooter. Austin writhes, then fades, then rallies along with the crowd. Shamrock asks Austin if he gives up, there's no response as Austin goes limp, passing out. After the match, Bret goes to lock the sharpshooter in again but Shamrock throws him to the mat, Sharmock shapes for a fight but Bret doesn't want it, which gets some big boos. Austin eventually comes to, hitting a stunner on a ref before making his way to the back under his own steam. The aftermath probably made the match, Bret got a pop after winning but after he backed down from Shamrock the place properly turned on him. Austin stunnering the ref was a big moment also.
A fantastic match. Three lovely, defined phases of the match that equaled the intensity of the feud going in, and slowly swung the crowd from a mixed reaction to one that was anti-Bret and pro-Austin. You just don't see enough matches like this in the modern era, ones that prioritise storytelling over big spots, character development over getting your stuff in. This match didn't have a great amount of big action, yet it built wonderfully to the ending. Bret had all but turned heel on Raw six days previously, but this cemented it and, more importantly, got Austin over as a big face in the process.
The Nation Of Domination (Farooq, Crush, Savio Vega et al) vs Ahmed Johnson and the Legion of Doom (Hawk & Animal) in a Chicago Street Fight
Is it OK to be completely indifferent to a match while admittedly it perfectly served the purpose it set out to? Get six guys on the card? Check. Get the Road Warriors on the card in Chicago? Check. Calm the crowd down after Bret vs Austin? Check. This had everything in a wild, ECW style brawl that took longer than it needed to but was otherwise fine. I really can't get into the Nation, at all, so this one was a miss for me. After a Doomsday Device, Crush get's whack by Hacksaw Ahmed Johnson's 2x4 for the win. We get a nice stereo Doomsday Device after the match. Fine but nothing particularly memorable.
The Undertaker vs Sid for the WWF Title in a No DQ Match
I mean... nothing says important match quite like them only announcing the stipulation five minutes after it started. Making this match a No DQ was an obvious decision given the limitations of both guys in relation to each other and the importance of the match, but given the violence in both of the previous two matches – it was perhaps a mistake.
But, more the point, it barely felt like a no DQ match. Vince mentioned the stipulation after Undertaker went tumbling over the Spanish announcers table, but the action otherwise was fairly tepid. More crucially, mind, was the role the stipulation played in the finish – we'll get to it. The match itself was fine for what these two should've expected, Sid attempted to wear Taker down, who played the peril role for large parts of the match.
Still – it had to end with something. Bret came out right before the first bell rang bemoaning everyone, seemingly, before getting powerbombed by Sid. The one memorable spot during the match, one that we've seen many times since but I'm fairly certain was a first for an Undertaker match, was Sid reversing the tombstone piledriver into one of his own for a nice near fall. Bret came out, hit Sid with a chair, then came back out (which Shawn Michaels, on commentary, quite rightly reacted to by saying "jeeesus" - that may have been a shoot), Sid fights Bret off but Undertaker hits Sid with a tombstone for the win.
There was enough going on to save this, just about, but with Sid you have to set a pretty low bar sometimes and hope he eclipses it. It was really flat at times, and will likely go down as one of the worst Wrestlemania main events ever (although was probably better than the one 20 years later!) – but for its time it was perfectly fine, well booked and with a logical conclusion and the right guy won.
Score Rating: 7.5/10
Go Back And Watch: Bret vs Austin, obviously, but call me an idiot but I didn't even mind the main event, or any of the matches barring the first two.