July 23, 2005
Charles Williams

Bret Hart vs. The Undertaker
One Night Only
September 20, 1997
Birmingham, England

Atmosphere alone doesn't make a match, but it certainly goes a long way. Here, it adds an extra dimension to the work in the ring, an alternative way to interpret the actions of each man. What makes this match unique isn't the fact that the crowd is divided - we've seen that in many major matches. What makes this unique is that in most cases, a divided crowd results in a somewhat dull match with no established roles with everything getting cheered. In this case, a course of boos acts as a background vocal for the loud cheers both men receive - it's simply amazing that each man has so much hardcore support from the audience. They do a great job catering to the whims of both sets of fans, each guy gets plenty of offense, plenty of time to stay in control, and his opponent does everything he can to sell it brilliantly. This took place amidst Bret Hart's brilliant 1997, a year that saw him play the hero to his international fans, all the while showing contempt for the American fans. He won the championship 47 days before this event from the Undertaker and this was Taker's rematch, a match that would truly take place on neutral ground.

Unlike even some of the better matches in WWE history, this doesn't take place in a vacuum. The announcers acknowledge the strategies that were successful for Bret at Summerslam that he recycles here -- he was able to gain control for the Summerslam match by taking 'Taker off of his feet and he steps it up a notch here. In this case, UT has learned a few things, but Bret is too good and it only gets him so far. 'Taker may know to put his foot up to block the ringpost figure four, but Bret has no problem adjusting to that by getting in a cheapshot by slamming his knee into the ringpost. In other cases, the Undertaker knows that he can't defeat Bret through brawling and mind games alone in the way he can many of his other opponents. He works over Bret's chest for much of the match, pulling out a few heart punches, stomping on Bret's chest, dropping some great elbow and legdrops, and even standing on his chest.

The opening few minutes are largely a stalemate, with both briefly obtaining an advantage through brawling. Bret knows he can't do this for long, and in fact, he does a nice job of putting 'Taker over as the better brawler - his openings come through his opponent's missed elbowdrop attempts and by catching him off guard. He takes the pad off of the top turnbuckle, which would become important later, when Taker expanded his game beyond Bret's chest and also started working over his back; it was Bret who exposed the turnbuckle, but it was also Bret who paid the price for doing so, as he was Irish whipped into it. Bret also does everything he can to create space between himself and his larger opponent, which doesn't really work, as 'Taker is tenacious enough to follow him wherever he goes, even bodyslamming him on the entrance ramp outside the ring.

The theme continues that the only time Bret is able to obtain any type of control is when the challenger misses a move -- ducking too soon for a back bodydrop allows him to land a great DDT and moving out of the way of an attempted jumping knee into the corner allows him to take Undertaker to the mat and keep him there. While Bret shines here on offense, Undertaker's selling is excellent as well, and he does it in the context of his gimmick. He continues the sit-up-and-rise-from-the-dead act, but he struggles to do it every time and he shows agony while doing it. He hobbles even when he is in control, but Bret takes so many shots at his knee that it's hard for him to forget to sell anything. In fact, Bret is the one who makes an error at one point, working over the wrong limb briefly, which the announcers even notice.

Even on the mat, the Undertaker is far from out of his element, as he works his share of holds -- working a backbreaker submission, pulling Bret's arms behind his back while kneeing his spine, and even doing an amateur rollup out of that into a crucifix-style pin attempt when it looks like Bret is about to find a counter. He hits on all the right points to nicely put over the holds he's working; he doesn't just cinch in the backbreaker submission, he grinds his forearm across Bret's face in the process. He knows how to sell from underneath as well, and Bret knows how to give him openings where he can remain strong - Bret locks in a figure four and instead of Taker struggling to reach the ropes, he reverses the hold until Bret can reach the ropes. He even tries a crossface to get out of Bret's leg grapevine.

On his comeback, he thinks he's taken more out of Bret than he really has though, as he makes the mistake of going for a big boot with his good leg, leaving his bad leg privy to Bret clipping it. That's not enough to keep the Undertaker down for long, so Bret headbutts his back three times in a row and attempts a pin after both a Russian legsweep and a snap suplex, an impressive move considering Undertaker's size. He comes back again, but misses a lariat, and they clothesline each other, which sees Taker rise to his feet first. That makes perfect sense, as one would assume Taker would have the far more effective lariat. Bret never stops thinking though; one legdrop to Hart's abdomen works, but a second allows Bret to counter the move into a sharpshooter, which UT powers out of. Bret immediately tries another, and Taker chokes his way out and attempts a chokeslam, only for Bret to kick his knee out from under him yet again. Wisely, he drops a half dozen rapid fire punches in Bret's chest and stomach while on his knees, and now *he's* the one trying to create space between himself and his opponent.

That ultimately works against him though, as it gives Bret time to go outside and get the ring bell, which misses. 'Taker gets the bell and attempts to use it, but the referee takes it away, distracting him long enough for Bret to clip him yet again from behind. He drops his weight on Taker's leg once, but tries a second time and ends up catapulted over the top rope and to the floor. He's brought back in, and Taker attempts an Irish whip into the same exposed turnbuckle, but Bret ducks to avoid it and ends up sliding across the mat and going back first into the ringpost. When Taker attempts a ropewalk, Bret quickly pulls him down and then has everyone in the building thinking that he's retaining his title when he gets in a reverse rollup for a very close two-count. He then tries to tombstone the Undertaker, which sees Taker reverse the move, only for Bret to grab onto the ropes with all his might and end up tangled in those ropes in a neck vice as a result. At this point, Taker refuses to let up and is disqualified for it.

This is easily the best performance of the Undertaker's life, for several reasons. The first of which is that he shows his ability to work holds, both doing them and having them done to him. There is a struggle for all of his offense, and he makes Bret struggle for all of his offense as well. The second reason is that he shows how great of a seller he can be when he chooses to be, and he tows the line far better than you'd expect, as he remembers his stature as a big guy without sacrificing the credibility of his opponent. Finally, he pulls it all together by staying consistent with his character -- he still does his trademark zombie sit ups and comebacks, but he doesn't stop selling while he's doing them, and they're far more believable and engaging as a result. Bret is the same great Bret Hart he almost always was, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent and crafting a match that caters to the style of the Undertaker.

Watching this match, it's fascinating how much Bret Hart has influenced the current style, but the more frustrating aspect of that is how some of the great spots have been overdone now. I can't count the number of WWE matches I've seen where the turnbuckle is exposed, or where someone goes crashing into the steel steps at ringside. Had those spots not been used to the point of overkill since, I probably would have enjoyed them more here. It was also slightly frustrating watching 'Taker show that while he's better than he often lets on, he's also very much a product of the WWF working style, as a large part of his comeback centers around choking and big, loose punches. That said, they both accomplished more within that style than almost anyone has, and this is the last classic match Bret Hart ever had in the promotion that was truly his for much of the 1990s.

****1/4

wordpress stats plugin