This review was commissioned by Lance Garrison over on my Ko-fi account.
Combustible. Everything in the WWF in July 97 feels like it’s ready to explode. History shows us just how close the company is to seismic shifts whose long lasting effects can still be felt to this day. Four months later, in November, the WWF would debut the term “WWF Attitude” as a part of its official onscreen branding. That phrase, along with the scratch logo, would debut on the same night that Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels wrestled their last ever match in Montreal.
Even four months out from the infamous Montreal Screwjob and the official start of WWF Attitude wrestling as a marketing term, the main event scene surrounding Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin feels like it’s building to some remarkable explosion. We’re already a few months out from their WrestleMania classic, a bout whose story and legacy is about the shifting tides of morality within the WWF, the shades of gray that have tinged what used to be clear cut and colorful. Now entering this ten-man tag at Canadian Stampede, the promotional material takes on a different tone. The blurred lines of morality have already settled in, but now there’s a greater sense of violence behind everything. The hype video that precedes this highlights that wild, crazed brawls have run amok in the WWF, and that as crazy as things can get, nothing is more heated or more intense than Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin. In hindsight, it’s really impressive just how aware the company was of its shifting product. It all feels very intentional, not only blurring the lines between heel and face, but also putting over this chaotic sense of unbridled violence that could spill out of control at a moment’s notice.
All these new thematic ideas running through the WWF as a whole make themselves known in this incredibly famous match. It’s pretty great too how much the presentation of the whole thing really drives these themes home, and stokes the emotional flames in the building that night. For example, it’s a brilliant choice to have the Canadian national anthem sung not before the show begins, but right here before the main event, really heating up the patriotic emotions in the Calgary crowd. It works so well, by the time the Hart Foundation starts coming out the entrance, the pops are so loud and deafening that it drowns out Howard Finkel’s ring announcements.
Structurally too, this match foregoes a lot of traditional tag team ideas. Most notably, there’s basically no heat segments at all in this bout. If one really squints, perhaps we could point to some brief bouts of control on Goldust or Shamrock down the stretch that might fill the role, but none of those segments feel nearly lengthy enough to function in that way. Notably too, those moments see the Americans isolated and beaten on, which nobody in this crowd felt any need to boo whatsoever, so they wouldn’t function as a heat segment either.
This gets applied to mixed effect. On the positive side, the controls never really last entirely because there’s such an out of control feel and tone to the entire match. When low blows are being thrown with shocking regularity, multiple weapon spots get snuck in, and ringside interference goes unpunished, it’s hard to expect something as basic as legal men in the ring to be strictly enforced. Both sides regularly charge in to break up any attempts at ganging up on a single worker, and that means that the playing field is mostly kept equal without any one side ever getting an extended control. It also means that there’s a real air of crackling animosity over the whole thing. No one can really keep still and the small saves and character moments allow this to feel like a highly competitive team game.
On the negatives though, I can’t help but think some of the choices made here hurt the match as a whole. In lieu of the heat segments, two key plot points develop instead. The first is Austin bashing in Owen’s knee with a chair, sending the younger Hart hobbling to the back. The second is a revenge spot that sees Bret do the same to Stone Cold with a fire extinguisher, again sending Austin to the back. These are great dramatic twists in the moment, but their longterm effects on the match feel more harmful than anything. It’s especially frustrating when one imagines what could have been. My god, you’re in Canada, the entire arena is living and dying by the Harts, surely Austin doing something extremely dastardly as fucking up Owen’s knee is a perfect transition into the Americans having a heat segment that sees Owen make a big hot tag in the end? Just an idea.
Meanwhile, Austin getting his knee bashed in and sent to the back might be the worst creative decision in the whole bout. The crazed atmosphere in the crowd notably dips when he’s not present. The action in the ring tries to compensate with the Harts upping the violence by sending Shamrock into the announce desk (rocks) and Road Warrior Hawk into the steps (rocks), but this crowd badly wants to boo Austin and taking him out of the match hurts the product as a whole.
Owen’s return too feels a little more limp than it should be. He comes out to make the big save for his brother, but then promptly gets thrashed by Austin who then goes on to antagonize and get swarmed by the Harts sitting at ringside. Owen sneaking in the roll up to close out the match does serve a purpose: they’re setting up the SummerSlam match here, but it does feel like the match never quite regains the energy of the opening moments.
But the great in this match is spectacular, almost singular in its spectacle. The absolute heat of the crowd at the opening bell where Bret basically beats on Austin is a beautiful babyface shine, something that lends credence to the idea that a few more traditional choices would have played extremely well to the crowd. Austin’s just an absolute house of fire, energetic and bombastic in even the smallest movements. He bumps big for Bret early, fights his way out of a four-on-one situation towards the middle, then the sheer hate-filled audacity to try to single-handedly disrupt the Harts’ celebration after the bell. It’s really no shock that that man became the figurehead for the success to come, he feels so much larger and more urgent than anyone else in the ring with him.
At its best, this match is bursting with energy. A roaring crowd, these real urgent in-ring interactions spearheaded by two of the finest to ever do it. At its worst, it lets all that heat leak out before scrambling to reclaim it before the end. A flawed piece of work, but still one that sort of embodies that kind of atmosphere and performance that made a god of Stone Cold Steve Austin.
IS IT BETTER THAN 6/3/94? It probably could have been but the structural issues here feel like unforced errors, whereas 6/3/94 is a much cleaner journey from beginning to end.