Monday, March 18, 2024

The History of WWE WrestleMania: 13

A "lost smile" threw a wrench into the WWF's plans for WrestleMania 13, but they managed to make some lemonade.  Mixed metaphors.....

Rosemont Horizon - 3/23/97 

1997 was the WWF's ratings nadir during the Monday Night War with WCW.  They were right in the middle of an 82-week trouncing, and their PPV buyrates reflected that - 'Mania 13 did an abysmal .72 I believe.

But early '97 was also the very beginning of the Attitude era, before the WWF even fully acknowledged that the business was radically changing.  Snow-white babyface characters were no longer cool to cheer for; instead it was a foul-mouthed, beer-swilling, redneck bully named Steve Austin who captured the fans' imagination and became their hero.  The company was about to switch gears in a major way.

The WWF's original plan for WrestleMania 13's centerpiece was a rematch of Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels from the previous year.  Shawn apparently suffered a knee injury just 6 weeks before the big show (which may or may not have faked, to avoid doing the job for Bret) and announced that he'd be taking time off indefinitely, thus relinquishing the WWF Title.  This left the company scrambling for a new main event to build the show around. 

Sucky main event, but this was a nice moment

Two title changes later, and the belt was back around the waist of Sycho Sid, who it was announced would be defending against The Undertaker (marking the first time Taker would challenge for a championship at WrestleMania).  Seemingly Taker and Sid tried to emulate the Taker-Diesel match from 'Mania 12, but unfortunately it failed to live up to that match, and a subpar main event was the result.  This match went too long and, as was often the case, Sid looked lost for much of it.  Taker finally won the WWF Title however, giving the show a feel-good ending.

The other big matchup was the aforementioned Steve Austin vs. an angry, edgier Bret Hart in a no holds barred Submission match, with UFC import Ken Shamrock as the guest referee.  The ensuing battle was nothing short of legendary.  From an action standpoint there have certainly been better matches (including Bret-Austin 1 at Survivor Series '96, IMO), but I can't think of a better example of pure storytelling in a wrestling match (in WWE at least).  Bret went into this match the babyface and left a reviled, vicious heel.  Austin went into the match a nasty bully and emerged as a gallant, tough-as-nails anti-hero.  The visual of Austin being trapped in Bret's Sharpshooter as torrents of blood streamed down his face became one of pro wrestling's iconic images.  Masterful work by both guys.

Is there a more violently iconic image in the history of wrestling?
This show had a pretty solid undercard, including the entertaining Chicago Street Fight between Ahmed Johnson/Legion of Doom and the Nation of Domination; a wild brawl that ranged all over the ringside area and remains one of the best uses of Animal and Hawk under the WWE banner.

Also featured was a rare heel vs. heel Tag Title match - Owen Hart/British Bulldog vs. Vader/Mankind - that featured some strong work by all four men but unfortunately ended in a double countout after Mankind's Mandible Claw pushed Davey Boy through the ropes and out to the floor.  The original plan here was Mankind vs. Vader but sadly we never got that match in WWE.  But this was quite good and very unusual.

The most underrated match on the show (and maybe Goldust's best match in the company) was Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Goldust, a rugged brawl that went about 13 minutes and culminated with their respective valets getting physically involved.  Chyna went after Marlena on the outside, Goldust reached over to pull her up to the apron, and Hunter knocked Goldust into Marlena, sending her straight into Chyna's massive arms.  Chyna bearhugged her, swinging her around like a rag doll, and the distraction allowed Hunter to hit the Pedigree for the win.  I'm not sure why this match got such poor reviews, I liked it.

The only truly forgettable bouts were the opening four-team match of The Headbangers, The Godwinns, The New Blackjacks and Doug Furnas & Phil LaFon (a team whose potential the WWF wasted badly), and the baffling Intercontinental Title match pitting new Champ (and reviled babyface) Rocky Maivia against The Sultan (Fatu with a stupid 80s gimmick).  I'm still confused why they thought this match was a good idea, but the crowd hated it.

Overall WrestleMania 13 was a rare example of a gritty, no-frills WrestleMania card.  No celebrities, no expensive arena decor, just a rabid Chicago crowd and a roster of determined wrestlers hell-bent on showing that the WWF's in-ring product was superior to WCW's.

Best Match: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin
Worst Match: Rocky Maivia vs. The Sultan - Rocky wasn't ready to be the I-C Champ yet, and for Chrissake couldn't they have found a better challenger??
What I'd Change: It's a shame the Bret-HBK rematch couldn't have happened, but then again the Bret-Austin match was the inception of the Stone Cold era.  I certainly would never have put the WWF Title on Sid.
Most Disappointing Match: Sid vs. Undertaker - it's just not worthy of being the main event at the biggest PPV of the year.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The double-turn.
Overall Rating: 7/10

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