In any athletic enterprise, be it sports entertainment, football, or gymnastics, the threat of injury constantly looms overhead. Even the most highly tuned athletes can experience a sudden and catastrophic trauma that could alter the course of their careers--or even end them.
Despite this constant danger, athletes continue to push themselves to be just a little bit better than they were the day before, seeking to break records and establish themselves among the upper echelon of elite sportsmen and women.
Pro wrestlers are no different in this regard than any other athlete. Even though professional wrestling and sports entertainment are scripted, and the winner is known ahead of time, there's a great competitive drive in the locker room. Every wrestler wants to put on a great performance that not only wows the fans but also draws the envy of their peers.
Two men who were well known to be sticklers for great in-ring performances during the Attitude Era were Stone Cold Steve Austin and Owen Hart. Both of these men had spent years mired in the midcard, despite being skilled technical wrestlers and being able to cut promos. They were hungry to move on to the next level, and they got a chance when they got their chance at SummerSlam 1997, where they competed for Owen's Intercontinental championship. During their feud building up to the match, an added stipulation would force Steve Austin to kiss Hart on the rear end if he lost.
This was during Austin's build-up toward main event status, and the crowd was red hot behind the Texas Rattlesnake. If ever there was a time when an injury would be catastrophic, it was right at that point.
Here is the story of the injury, the aftermath, and how people reacted backstage.
Part One: The Angle
When Stone Cold Steve Austin first joined the WWE, he was assigned the short-lived 'Ringmaster' gimmick. Soon enough, he broke out with the Stone Cold character and cemented his superstar status by winning the 1996 King of the Ring Tournament. This is where the infamous "Austin 3:16" catchphrase has its origins.
Afterwards, Austin was a part of the main event scene and feuded with WWE Champion Bret Hart. However, after losing a submission match to Hart at Wrestlemania XIII, Austin switched to feuding with Owen Hart.
Their feud originally involved British Bulldog and HBK, but soon enough, it would break down into just Owen vs. Austin. The match at SummerSlam 1997 for Owen's Intercontinental championship was meant to be the bookend of their feud, with Austin going over and being recognized as a legitimate contender.
The added caveat that Austin would be forced to kiss Owen's behind if he lost just raised the dramatic stakes that much higher. But WWE had written themselves into a corner, and there was no way to go forward without Austin emerging victorious.
The clash was what one would ideally describe as 'mouthwatering'. The two superstars were well in their prime with gifted technical in-ring ability coupled with more than adequate mic skills. They were going to create history considering the magnitude of the feud and all eyes was on Survivor Series.
Part Two: The Piledriver Spot that went wrong.
Stone Cold Steve Austin remains one of the most underrated ring technicians in the history of sports entertainment. He has a deep move set and can utilize a good power game as well as the brawling style which became his trademark.
Owen Hart was one of the best to ever lace up a pair of boots. So when the two men were set to square off, they met backstage and agreed that they would try to steal the show at SummerSlam 1997 just as Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage stole the show at Wrestlemania III.
Their bout leading up to the infamous piledriver botch is nothing short of brilliant. Both Austin and Hart display a ton of technical acumen, utilizing holds and counter holds with equal aplomb.
But then, tragedy struck. During a tilt o whirl slam reversal, Owen Hart put Austin into the piledriver position. Both men were covered in sweat, and Austin slipped a few inches in Owen's grip before he hit the piledriver. Austin's vertebrae was compacted with what is referred to in the sports world as a 'stunner', and suffered immediate pain and partial paralysis.
The show, however, had to go on. Owen Hart baited the live crowd while giving Austin time to recover. However, Austin was unable to do the scripted Stone Cold Stunner spot and instead had to use a sloppy, weak-looking schoolboy to capture the Intercontinental championship from Owen.
It took several referees to support Austin so he could lift the IC strap and pose as the victorious, new champion. But all the fans could tell that Austin had suffered a serious injury.
On television, it looked both clumsy and uncomfortable. Austin clearly looked in pain and one could only have feared the worst.
Part Three: The backstage reaction
A little known fact is that in the WWE, unless the talent is preparing for their own match or doing an interview, they are expected to watch the in-ring action. So when Austin took the botched piledriver from Owen Hart, the reaction was immediate.
The other wrestlers were obviously concerned about Austin's health. Pro wrestlers are part of a brotherhood that transcends race, religion, and even which company they work for. But they were also worried that their greatest hope of defeating WCW in the Monday Night War was potentially out of commission for good.
Jim Ross sums up the locker room's feelings on that fateful night.
"A lot of concern. And it’s gonna sound bad if I don’t say this the right way, but you’ve gotta be first and foremost concerned about a man’s health. But at the same time, you’re looking at the guy that you see is going to be, unless injuries bite him in the a**, is going to be the biggest we’ve ever had. And now that may be over just as he got started. Took him seven years to get to WWE. Territories, missed booking, underutilized in WCW. We all remember all those stories. But you know, you just thought, ‘Well, this poor son of a b***h is not gonna live his dream.'”
The complications resulting from the botch move could ruin careers and there were plenty of superstars backstage who have on more than one occasion experienced similar issues.
Part 4: The injury and the recovery
The WWE had to scramble because suddenly their Intercontinental and tag team champion was on the shelf with an injury. The decision was made to get the belt back on Owen Hart and continue their feud, even if Austin wasn't cleared to wrestle and wouldn't be cleared for months.
WWE came up with the "Owen 3:16" angle, complete with its own t-shirt. Owen 3:16 stood for 'I just broke your neck.' While Owen Hart did subject Austin to a legit neck injury, it should be noted that Stone Cold did not suffer an actual broken neck. He did suffer a stinger and needed months of recovery and rehab. It was still as serious injury, and no doubt shortened Austin's career by years, but a broken neck it was not.
Austin would still take part in WWE broadcasts, often interfering in Owen's matches to make sure he stayed the IC champion. When Stone Cold made his in-ring return at Survivor Series, it was little surprise that he defeated Owen once and for all.
However, the end of the wrestling angle didn't mean the end of the story backstage. There was some lingering heat between Austin and Hart, which we will divulge in the next slide.
Part 5: Owen forgets to apologize
In the world of pro wrestling, it's considered to be very poor form to actually injure your opponent. While it is an occupational hazard, it is also customary for the wrestler who injured their fellow talent to seek them out backstage and apologize, or if that's not possible to visit them in the hospital or at the least call them on the phone.
According to Owen Hart's brother Bret "Hitman" Hart, Owen was told by several people, including himself, that he should seek out Austin and apologize. Owen agreed that he should do this, and apparently either forgot or backed out. Austin acknowledged that Owen did eventually contact him in the hospital and offered an apology. However, Stone Cold believes that a single apology was insufficient.
"Owen almost paralyzed me. He called me only once to apologize while I was in the hospital. If I almost break someone’s neck, I’m calling them 25 times to apologize…”
Fortunately, Austin's personal feelings didn't interfere with his ability to work the angle with Owen Hart, and they remained professionally civil to each other, at least in the ring.
Part 6: Austin pays tribute to the late Owen Hart
Time, so it is said, can heal all wounds. Though Austin felt some animosity towards Owen Hart for years after the infamous piledriver botch, he did eventually manage to find forgiveness in his heart.
During the Over the Edge Pay Per View in 1999, Owen Hart was portraying the Blue Blazer character. As a way to poke fun at their rival WCW, he would descend from the top of the arena on a rope, just as Sting was doing on Nitro.
Tragedy struck when his line wasn't properly secured and he plummeted to his death. Afterwards, WWE dedicated the next episode of Monday Night Raw to Owen Hart. Stone Cold Steve Austin put in an appearance at the end and toasted one of his greatest rivals to give him a proper sendoff.
It was a heartfelt tribute.
There you have it! A peek at pro wrestling behind the scenes after the infamous SummerSlam piledriver botch. Questions or comments? Please leave them after the article, and as always thanks for reading.