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“I’m laying in a pool of blood. This is the greatest feeling in the world."
You might read that quote and be unsettled, maybe even concerned for the individual who spoke it.
But, if you listen to Stone Cold Steve Austin call his WrestleMania 13 match, and especially if you watch the match while you listen to his call, when it comes time for Austin to speak those powerful words, you will understand that, “I’m laying in a pool of blood…this is the greatest feeling in the world” is nothing more than the satisfaction one experiences when they’ve done their job exceedingly well and accomplished something very few ever could.
Austin explains, "It was something I looked forward to anytime a booker or promoter asked me, because I enjoyed getting color in a match. I'm not condoning cutting or any other silly stuff, but with respect to pro-wrestling back in that time period, I enjoyed bleeding when it was time to bleed. And it was Bret Hart's idea to bring color into the match."
"Getting color" is a time-honored tradition in pro-wrestling where the athletic performers will cut themselves or their fellow performer with hidden razor blades so as to enhance the drama of the fight. In the case of this match, the color not only enhances the drama, it helps elevate the match to a place of violent beauty.
Austin's words, "this is the greatest feeling in the world", come to represent the satisfaction of a group of individuals working together to create a masterpiece; a true work of art that is as worthy of representation in the halls of the most prestigious museums on this planet as any famous sculpture, painting, or art installation.
From the moment Austin enters the arena through a wall of breaking glass to the moment he slowly ambles out of sight, an incredibly complex story is told by a collection of incredibly talented people - all of whom want you to believe in pro-wrestling.
I do not use the word “masterpiece” lightly.
Very simply, it’s the only appropriate word and I mean it in the purest sense. It’s not merely a “masterpiece” within the pro-wrestling world or in pro-wrestling standards. It’s not just “great for what it is”. The greatness of this match transcends the specific medium in which it exists. It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and the various moving parts of this narrative organism become so complex throughout the course of hearing Austin’s call that anyone who has ever discounted wrestling in any way or anyone who regards pro-wrestling as nothing more than mere entertainment (as many fans do) would have to reevaluate their perspective and pay the proper respect.
Even for someone who is "hip to the business" or writes about the business of pro-wrestling, this call is enlightening.
Thanks to Austin’s two calls (he previously broke down his WrestleMania X-7 match against The Rock) my appreciation for the work of professional wrestling, for every incredible component that coalesces into a powerful, violent story, is deeper than it’s ever been, and my respect for the pro-wrestlers, the commentators, the crew, and anyone and everyone who works together to create this intricate, convincing illusion has reached an all-time high.
I intend to convince you, dear reader, that “masterpiece” is the only appropriate word for this WrestleMania match (that it's even better than you might already think it is), and that what Austin, Bret Hart, Jerry Lawler, Jim Ross, Vince McMahon, and Ken Shamrock all did together back on March 23rd, 1997 serves as a testament to the cultural significance of pro-wrestling.
I’ll begin my breakdown of Austin’s breakdown by describing how I experienced this audio visual insight into the business of pro-wrestling.
To fully appreciate the match and Austin’s accompanying words, you’re going to have to watch it twice (and it’s best if you watch it back to back in quick succession so that Austin’s words remain fresh in your mind). The first time you watch it, do so with the video on mute as you listen to the podcast. He tells you where to cue up the video so that you can watch in time with his commentary.
Austin himself advises listeners to go back and watch the match after they’re done listening to his podcast, to watch for the things he mentions and, in particular, to listen to the commentary of Vince McMahon, Jerry Lawler, and Jim Ross.
|An underappreciated aspect of this night that contributed to the "masterpiece" status of this match.|
You might be hesitant to devote that amount of time to seemingly watching the same match in quick succession (even one so good), but if you do so you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the complexity of pro-wrestling storytelling and a deeper appreciation for the performers involved. Also, watching it once with Austin’s commentary and then watching the match a second time with the traditional commentary are almost entirely different experiences; you need to experience the former to fully appreciate the latter.
It’s important to note for those unfamiliar with the match that Bret and Austin (along with commentary) created what is called a “double-turn”, where both performers undergo a transformation in the match and sell a crowd on the idea that they are no longer defined by their previous role of “hero” or “villain”, that they have swapped roles. It is regarded as the most difficult thing to do in professional wrestling (and if you consider that these workers must convince a massive crowd that they are no longer the character that crowd has come to know and love or hate for years, you will start to appreciate what Bret and Austin accomplished). The psychological groundwork had been laid prior to the match for Bret and Austin to both turn, but they still entered the match with Bret as “the baby face” and Austin as “the heel”. Bret enters giving high-fives and ends up leaving giving middle-fingers. Austin enters giving middle-fingers and ends up leaving with a subtle acknowledgement to the crowd.
This result is calculated on all parts, purposeful and delicately designed. The fact that it was designed, and that the desired effect was achieved, is what makes this match masterful. Pro-wrestling fans often feel a sense of ownership of our favorite wrestlers and particularly of our emotions. The skill of the pro-wrestling work (from the wrestlers to commentary) can be so effective that we fans don't realize we're actually being led to think and feel what we believe we're thinking and feeling of our own accord.
Throughout the fight, both men begin their transformations, with Austin taking punishment and then coming back like a “face” and Bret mercilessly attacking Austin like a “heel”.
Much like his WrestleMania X-7 call, Austin discusses what went on behind the scenes, particularly an entertaining discussion with Vince about the proposed finish.
He clues fans into quiet exchanges between he and Bret throughout the match (“calls” as they’re called), and he reveals his state of mind at particular points and occasionally turns a critical eye at himself while simultaneously praising his great work. He doesn't have one criticism for Bret Hart's ring work, and speaks about Bret with the utmost reverence and respect.
One of the most educational moments occurs when, after taking a beating to his injured knee, Austin delivers a Stone Cold Stunner to Bret without giving the customary initial kick to Bret's gut. The reasoning behind this lack of a kick is because the character had endured a great deal of punishment to his knee and, therefore, was protecting his leg.
Another moment informed by logic and realism sees a stunned Austin try to grab the ring ropes to pull himself back up. Viewers see Austin's hand flail in search of the ropes as if he legitimately can't find them when, in fact, this is a purposeful creative decision meant to create the illusion of disorientation.
|"I'm trying to miss the ropes"|
This dedication to logical, athletic action is admirable and something today's younger wrestlers might want to incorporate into their own work-ethic, and it's something fans should appreciate. These are the calculated creative decisions of a great artist.
While fans will simply get caught up in the joy of hearing Austin speak on his podcast, and have fun peaking behind the curtain of pro-wrestling, what Austin’s doing is actually deconstructing pro-wrestling for us. It’s no different than Picasso giving a painting lesson or Stanley Kubrick breaking down 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s seeing “the man behind the curtain” who controls The Wizard of Oz.
But, instead of being disappointed, you’ll be amazed because you’ll see that the man behind the curtain is actually a genius for making you believe in The Wizard of Oz.
Austin even says a few times to pay attention to “the picture everyone is painting”. And that’s exactly what any pro-wrestling match is. A violent painting in motion.
It turns out that this one is the Mona Lisa.
There are a few times in my life when I can remember almost literally feeling my mind open up (Kubrick’s 2001 was one such time), and I experienced that again when I watched the match a second time (based on Austin’s suggestion) and paid particular attention to the commentary of the match.
The basic conceit of professional wrestling is that it is a real sport. That’s the fiction it’s selling (more so in the past than today – today the WWE presents itself less as a sports organization and more as a multi-media philanthropic business that puts on entertaining shows for a general audience). In legitimate sport, the proven commentary dynamic is that there will be a play-by-play man and a color commentator.
In order to successfully sell its fiction, pro-wrestling mimics the structure of legitimate sports, and incorporating a recognizable play-by-play and color commentary dynamic is one such way of doing so.
But, in actuality, it’s not that simple in pro-wrestling. Commentary is not actually about providing color comments or play-by-play calls in pro-wrestling. It’s about helping to tell a larger story, it's about using the established dynamic of play-by-play versus color comments to create tension, to enhance drama, and to enhance believability.
And while that’s still true today to a certain extent in Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler, and JBL, the commentary of this WrestleMania 13 match is a perfect example of greatness, where three distinct personalities unite under a common purpose.
Vince McMahon, Jerry Lawler, and Jim Ross tell the larger story by embracing the real-sport dynamic, ensuring that the movements of the match inform the story and then, finally, hammering home (over the course of the entire match) the idea that Bret is a heel and Austin is a face. These three voices control and embellish the in-ring action in a viewer's mind, working in tandem with Austin, Bret, and Shamrock to create something genuinely moving.
The story of this match is that Bret Hart has become complacent and is slipping into dishonor. He is disgusted with the fans for cheering Austin and he’s disgusted with the company for embracing a more abrasive anti-hero. Meanwhile Austin’s more noble qualities come to the surface in this story, providing fans with a new kind of pro-wrestling hero whose toughness and crassness are admirable assets, with Bret representing a complacent, bygone era.
Remember, technically, Bret Hart is a face and Austin is a heel when they enter that ring, but ever so subtly commentary begins to chip away at this idea right from the start.
“Listen to this crowd. Listen to this response!” McMahon calls out as Austin makes his way down the entrance ramp. “Nothing fancy about this man. You talk about in your face, that’s what this man is all about. Getting a positive response from this crowd.”
Ironically enough, Vince McMahon is resoundingly in Austin’s corner throughout the entire match, singing his praises and reservedly renouncing Bret Hart. The three men banter back and forth throughout, fulfilling their unique roles, occasionally arguing about who is right and who is wrong, all of it slowly contributing to the sale of Austin as the hero and Bret as the villain.
Listening to these three voices, I became more conscious of the brilliance of commentary and the effectiveness of commentary at manipulating (for lack of a better word) the audience. I always just thought of commentary as a byproduct of the in-ring action - important, but ancillary. Now, having paid careful attention to these three voices on this particular night, I understand that good commentary can be as important to the pro-wrestling fiction as the ability to sell in the ring.
Vince, Lawler, and JR function like editors, ensuring that the right moments are understood in the right way. This is no easy feat, considering that there are six men all performing together in a massive arena with a massive television audience, all of them feeding off of one another in a grandiose improvisation.
All of them (from the wrestlers to the commentators) are working so hard to tell you a story, but that story is so difficult to tell given all of the moving parts. This is a reality of the professional wrestling medium that almost no one, save those who actually work in the business, seems to fully appreciate. And the fact that the enormity of this effort is seldom fully appreciated is actually a testament to the skill and effectiveness of the workers; we don’t even think about what’s going into this theatrical performance because we’re just absorbed in it.
JR plays up the realism of the match. Ross is about selling the in-ring action, the effectiveness of moves and the power of the athletes. He occasionally editorializes, but he seldom expresses bias, doing so only when he accentuates the emotionality of the scene. When he breaks from his role as play-by-play man, it's all the more powerful because it's such a strong deviation from his norm.
Jerry Lawler is completely editorial, reacting with “ohs” and “ahs”, passing personal, vindictive or celebratory judgment on the performers, accentuating whatever judgments McMahon passes. He's childlike or fan-like, reacting emotionally to everything he sees.
McMahon plays two roles, and quite possibly the most difficult ones.
He moves between the purposes of the other two commentators, occasionally selling the importance of a particular move and then frequently passing judgment on the moral fiber of each character, offering his biased perspective in the midst of the in-ring action – essentially acting as a play by play man who also gives some color comments on occasion.
McMahon’s second, subtler and even more important purpose is to frame and sell the larger fiction. From the moment the match begins, he’s setting up everything that will transpire at the end like the conductor of an orchestra. He’s planting ideas in your mind without you even realizing it, so that when the time comes for the finish, you are already sold (keep in mind that he made the finish). It’s not much different than what Austin and Bret are doing in the ring for the live audience in the arena, only Vince is doing it with his voice and not his body, and he's doing it for the television audience.
He is hypnotizing you into believing Austin is a hero.
Vince McMahon represents the complete sentence (the verb, the noun, the subject, the predicate), Jim Ross is the grammar check, and Jerry Lawler is the exclamation point.
Together, along with Bret, Austin, and Shamrock, they tell an amazing story.
I’ve identified one particular stretch of commentary that exemplifies this brilliant dynamic.
If you watch this match on the WWE Network, you can hear this section begin at the following time code: 1:29:00
Vince: No Holds Barred, submission match.
Jerry: Oh, oh, oh.
Vince: Look at Bret Hart just hammer away. I don’t know who’s gonna win this match, I don’t think either individual’s gonna be a winner after this, because the toll that’s already been taken on both bodies has already been too much for somebody to come out a winner. Somebody might come out on the losing end, but nobody’s going to be a winner here.
(This comment that “nobody’s going to be a winner here” not only enhances the drama of the moment, raising the stakes of the match, it affects how one experiences the ending of the match. This comment, in a manner akin to reverse psychology, encourages you to regard Austin as the victor)
JR: They’re paying us a great price for this match up. Their bodies are both going to be ravaged with pain now as Austin…trying to break Bret Hart’s hand, stomping on it. Oh what a neckbreaker! What a swinging neckbreaker! And Bret Hart just wrenched and wrenched that neck of Stone Cold Steve Austin!
Vince: And if Bret Hart loses this match you’ll wonder what he’s gonna come up with as an excuse, because he’ll have one, in my view.
Jerry: Bret Hart, sure he will he’s a whiner.
Vince: …it’s on his mind as of late. It’s too bad.
(Where Jerry has no filter, tossing his opinion around as fact, McMahon’s character is a little more reserved and respectful with his opinions, clearly concerned about trying to remain impartial as he calls the match, despite having a very obvious disdain for Bret. This creates dramatic tension even within a particular commentator. It's as though Vince is having an awakening)
JR: It’s too bad, I don’t agree with that wholeheartedly, be that as it may, Bret Hart now ripping at that hamstring, perhaps setting that injured knee of Steve Austin’s up for the sharpshooter. You know it’s bound to come sooner or later.
Vince: And again Bret Hart going for that injured knee. Right down across the brace.
JR: Steve Austin’s been out of action for several weeks, he’s cleared to go, he’s virtually 100%, but he may not be 100% for long.
Vince: And Steve Austin…giving a resounding “No” to Ken Shamrock who asked him whether or not he wanted to quit, whether or not he wanted this to end. There is no quit in Steve Austin!
Jerry: That’s sign language (commenting on the middle-finger salute).
JR: The methodical physical dissection of the lower anatomy by doctor Bret Hart on the brace of Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Vince: And you would hope that maybe after this match that maybe The Hitman, Bret Hart, would settle down and return to the great legacy that he has had here before in the World Wrestling Federation. Maybe something, hopefully, would bring him back to his sense.
(Bret eventually performs a figure four leg lock around the ring post to Austin)
Vince: But Austin won’t give up. Even after that. Austin, imagine the kind of pain Austin was in.
JR: Bone chilling pain, perpetrated by Bret Hart in that unique figure four.
Jerry: I’m gonna tell you this right now. Bret Hart can twist Stone Cold’s leg until it looks like the Chicago White Sox's Robin Ventura. It could be turned around backwards and Stone Cold is still not gonna give up. He will not submit to The Hitman. That’s the bottom line.
JR: Well somebody’s gotta submit.
King: It’s WrestleMania baby! Yes!
JR: This is about athleticism. A hell of a fight between two athletes.
This excellent back and forth, this heightened dramatic tension created by the compliment of in-ring battle and commentary, represents the best pro-wrestling has to offer. Each performer pieces together a narrative puzzle so that, in the end, you can do nothing but believe.
If that’s not great art, I don’t know what is.
If the purposeful combination of these various performances, if the craftsmanship that went into this scene isn’t a masterpiece, I don’t know what is.
Finally, I want to go back to Austin’s call of a specific moment in the match.
There’s a point where Austin has Bret planted on the barricade. Security personnel got in the way of the move and botched the spot somewhat, but the action continues regardless.
Austin goes to give Bret a clotheslines off of the barricade.
Austin describes this moment; as he crashed down on Bret, he could feel that Bret’s arm was trapped between himself and the barricade.
Austin then purposefully falls over the barricade with Bret, so as to prevent any injury.
You can actually see this in the match. You can see Austin make the snap decision that protected his wrestling brother. But it looks like any other believable moment in a fight between two rivals. You would never know this happened unless he told you on his podcast.
This moment, though easily overlooked by many and seemingly insignificant, is the most impressive moment in the match for me.
This moment represents the intelligence, consideration, and the artistry of these performers, two of the best in the history of the business. This moment represents the difference between decent work and sublime work, the difference between mediocrity and timelessness.
If Austin were less of a performer or if he had less respect for his fellow worker, Bret could have walked away with a broken arm. But, like a great artist carefully selecting the right edit to his work and like a great athlete trying to protect his teammate, Austin instinctively course-corrected and protected this masterpiece.
That’s a brilliant performer at work.
This match, and the various components that created it, should be viewed and understood by anyone and everyone who enjoys a great story. Pro-wrestling, when it's at its absolute best (as it is in this match) is one of the greatest, most complex forms of theatrical storytelling in human history.
And that deserves to be celebrated.
Thank you to Austin for this Podcast and this match.
Swig a beer to the masterpiece-makers of the world.
Thank you for reading.
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All photos via WWE Network Screen Capture.