Welcome to this week's Slammer Jabber, which is normally your look back at all the news in the past seven days within the world of professional wrestling. In the past week we had Brock Lesnar returning at Money in the Bank, Ashley Massaro sadly passed away, and there were busy episodes of Raw and Smackdown. AEW also have Double or Nothing on Saturday. However, despite all that news, I have taken the decision to focus on the twentieth anniversary of the biggest tragedy in wrestling history, the passing of Owen Hart.
Twenty years ago today, as the wrestling industry was riding the crest of a wave, with the popularity of WCW and WWF on a record high, disaster struck. At the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Kansas on May 23rd 1999 at the WWF Over the Edge pay-per-view, something dreadful happened as Owen Hart walked off a gangway high in the rafters above the arena to complete a stunt he had performed at least once before under the guise of his Blue Blazer character, something went tragically wrong. Although the exact details of the moment the accident happened will always remain unclear, Hart’s harness for the stunt somehow released him prematurely, leaving Hart to plummet to the ring below. He would be attended to by medical professionals but would be pronounced dead before reaching the hospital. He was 34 years old and left behind a wife and two young children.
Owen Hart was the youngest of the fabled Hart family from Calgary, Alberta in Canada. Of course, the Hart family headed up by Stampede promoter and former wrestler Stu Hart is legendary within the industry. Owen’s brothers and sisters mostly ended up involved within the wrestling business, either by direct involvement or by marriage. A successful amateur wrestler, and a university graduate, Hart would go on to join the family business, although according to Martha Hart in her book, Broken Harts, he had sought to go into non-wrestling employment. However, it feels as though he was always destined for professional wrestling, and while he might still be alive had he chosen an alternative occupation, we would have been denied one of the all-time greats.
Hart, of course, ended up training as a wrestler, and arguably he was the most naturally gifted of all the Hart children. His early career included working in Stampede before heading off to our very own shores and working some memorable bouts on the old World of Sport scene against Marty Jones. Hart would even venture to Japan and continue his wrestling education with a brief run in NJPW, even winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, before being snapped up by the World Wrestling Federation and placed under the hood of the Blue Blazer. Now I was very young when Hart first appeared in the (then) WWF, so I don’t remember it from that time, but I do recall watching his match at Wrestlemania 5 on tape repeatedly years later and knowing that even though it was brief, Hart had something incredibly special. However, the gimmick would go nowhere and Hart would leave the company embarking on another run in NJPW (including a famous match with Jushin “Thunder” Liger), as well as back at Stampede. He would even go on to wrestle very briefly for WCW before he got the call to return to McMahon-land, where he would remain for the rest of his days.
I started watching wrestling in 1992, and that pretty much coincided with Owen Hart’s rise to prominence within WWE (to save confusion I’ll call it WWE instead of WWF from here on out). His tag team with Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart as The New Foundation (complete with digging sound effects in their entrance music) in early ‘92 was a pale imitation of the original incarnation of The Hart Foundation, but it was clear even then that Hart was the standout of the unit as Neidhart looked distinctly past his prime. His match against Skinner at Wrestlemania 8 was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stuff, and his run through the rest of 1992 alongside Koko B Ware as part of High Energy was another waste of Owen’s abilities, using him to carry another lumbering veteran whose best days were long gone. Oh, and the MC Hammer-style “parachute pants” didn’t help his credibility. Again, even as a kid, I recall thinking that Owen was so much better than his partners in 1992. It was an awkward fit with Koko and honestly, by the time 1993 rolled around you would be forgiven for believing that Hart would never get a break, but his best work and his ascension to main event status was just around the corner.
While Owen Hart was presented as the smiley, white meat babyface throughout the early part of his tenure it never seemed apparent that he could be the best heel in the whole company. He just seemed like Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s younger, very talented, but ultimately very bland brother. However, a simple bit of storytelling in the feud between Jerry Lawler and Bret, with Owen getting upset after Bret caused him to accidentally be eliminated from the 5-on-5 Survivor Series match pitting The Hart Brothers against Shawn Michaels (subbing in for Lawler, who was, ahem, off TV due to some legal issues). As a youngster I was gobsmacked, but this would lead to the greatest run of Owen’s career. The full turn at Royal Rumble complete with the infamous “I kicked your leg out of your leg” was a masterstroke, and set up arguably the greatest Wrestlemania opener of all time. Hart vs Hart, brother vs brother, it was superb and with Owen getting the win it elevated him massively especially with Bret capturing the world title later in the night. Owen Hart had gone from obscurity to the main heel challenger in the company all within six months.
I hated Owen Hart in 1994. I don’t mean on a personal level, but just because he was such a dislikeable heel. He had the bratty, self-entitled little brother character down to a tee. However, he could also go in the ring and he was a legitimate challenger and antagonist to his brother. Winning the 1994 King of the Ring further legitimised him, and bolstered his credentials as a genuine challenger to his brother’s world title. Just look at their classic cage match at Summerslam 1994, an otherwise abysmal show, which was tremendous fun. His character work alongside his parents and Bob Backlund at Survivor Series 1994 in costing Bret his titles was amazing. It was the little things that he did brilliantly.
For the next two years, Owen Hart would continue to be a thorn in the side of his brother, but also the other major babyfaces on the roster including Shawn Michaels, Diesel and Razor Ramon. His tag team with Yokozuna helped extend the ever-ballooning Yoko extend his run with the company, but it would be alongside his brother-in-law, the late British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith that Hart would do some of his best work. You have to remember this was during a time where the tag division was at its lowest ebb both in terms of star power and wrestling ability, and Hart and Smith were a revelation compared to the likes of The Godwinns or The Blu Brothers. They brought a sense of legitimacy and prestige to titles that previously had become an afterthought. It was such a smooth, proficient pairing that it elevated both men again without having to push them as singles stars on a consistent basis. They could both dip in and out of the main event scene as needed but neither was damaged by putting over the absolute top guys nor was beating them an insignificant moment for a babyface main eventer.
In 1997 everything changed for Owen Hart. The reconciliation with a newly heel Bret, as well as the formation of The Hart Foundation as a faction, breathed new life into Owen and he would feature heavily in the Intercontinental title picture throughout the year. Of course, his infamous match at Summerslam 1997 against Stone Cold Steve Austin would provide a single black mark against Hart’s legacy, but the accident in that bout is far from his defining moment as a competitor. A more serious, focused performer he seemed to come into his own and began building momentum which you have to imagine might have played out differently if it wasn’t for the events of Survivor Series 1997. There’s no need to cover the Montreal Screwjob here, it’s one of the most well-trodden moments in WWE history. However, with Owen the only remaining Hart left in the company he seemed poised for big things, but that failed to materialise and his mooted programme with Shawn Michaels would quickly morph into a mid-card feud with Triple H, which seemed like a huge missed opportunity at the time.
Unfortunately for Owen Hart, his twelve months would be blighted by poor booking and a lack of exciting feuds. Whether it was joining The Nation, getting caught up in a dreadful programme with Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn and Steve Blackman or returning to the Blue Blazer outfit it would be a rough time all round. The one bright spot would come with his tag team alongside Jeff Jarrett which would provide one final title run before his untimely passing.
If you want to hear about Owen Hart’s passing, the story behind his final day and whole heap of detail on what actually went on I would highly recommend Listening to John Pollock’s audio documentary Owen Hart’s Final Day: A Post Profile for PostWrestling.com which does a far better job than I could ever hope to of looking at the events of that day and what actually occurred. Obviously, there are those who were in favour of the show continuing, as it did, and more who believe the show should have been stopped. I fall into the latter category because as much as I love wrestling no-one would have been even remotely bemused had the show been rightfully stopped.
When you talk about legacy, there are two sides of Owen Hart. The person, and the performer. By all accounts as a person, Owen was one of the most beloved men in the industry. A committed family man, he was both frugal and sensible, but also one of the most notorious pranksters of all time. Countless wrestlers from Bret Hart to Mick Foley to Steve Austin have outlined his hijinks and fun, even in matches where he would be doing things just to pop the boys in the back, but in a way that was so subtle that the audience was oblivious that anything was even happening.
As a performer, few can ever claim to be on the level that Hart reached as an in-ring talent. He could have a great match with anyone. You can look back at his classics with Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Diesel, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and a massive list of other outstanding superstars, but he could also get a great match out of guys whose styles didn’t necessarily appear to mesh with his own on paper. Perhaps the best example of this comes from his match with Vader at One Night Only in October 1997 from the NEC Arena in Birmingham, which provided a great David vs Goliath scenario and showed just how versatile and capable Owen really was. He also provided that blueprint for how to have a great sub-five minute match as he took on Sean “123 Kid” Waltman (AKA X-Pac) at King of the Ring 1994 in one of the true hidden gems of that era. I could go on and on, but this would just descend into a list of great matches from one of the true pioneers of the 1990s.
It is hard to believe that twenty years have passed since Owen Hart sadly left us. At the time I was still just a kid, obsessed with wrestling. I remember very clearly setting a tape to record the show overnight and when I walked down to breakfast in the morning I heard the tragic news on the radio over breakfast. I was horrified, and confused. At school, it was the talk of the town, including one fellow pupil who claimed they showed footage of Hart’s fall on breakfast TV here in the UK (suffice to say that was nonsense). As I arrived home later that day I found the odd sight of my mother fast forwarding her way through the VHS of the show in order to check that nothing was on the tape that I shouldn’t be exposed to, and thankfully there was nothing graphic. However, those moments on the show with Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler having to announce the news of the accident, and later Owen’s passing, will live on with me forever.
On a personal level, I find it tremendously difficult to pick out the top moments from his career, simply because there are so many highlights. His match with Shawn Michaels at In Your House 6 has long been one of my favourites, and perhaps a bout that doesn't get the love it deserves. It goes without saying the matches with Bret at Wrestlemania X and Summerslam 1994 are classics, but one of the things I will always remember fondly about Owen Hart was his run on commentary in 1996 while suffering with a broken wrist. He was a surprisingly adept heel commentator, but would occasionally throw in lines that would make me chuckle. Thsi was especially the case during a Goldust match at King of the Ring 1996 when he mentioned that in a big match situation he "wouldn't have time for fondling" in response to Goldust's antics. Genius.
Owen Hart was easily one of the best of his generation. His in-ring work, his character work, all of it. On top of that, he seems to have been universally liked and missed by his family, friends, co-workers and fans. Owen is as missed now as when he passed away, and his legacy will live on forever. RIP King of Harts.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week when normal service resumes and we take a look back at Double or Nothing, Raw, Smackdown and whatever else breaks in the meantime. Until then, keep it locked here at Screenjabber for all the best movie, Blu-ray, DVD and video game reviews, as well as all the latest news, podcasts and more. Until next time, so long folks.