In death, Hart brought something to wrestling that, to that point, fans had virtually never seen in the form: true, unadorned humanity.
When millions of wrestling fans tuned into Raw is War on May 24, 1999—two decades ago this week—they surely knew they would not find a typical episode. There was little precedent for the show’s circumstances: the previous night, longtime WWE (then WWF) stalwart Owen Hart had fallen to his death, off-camera, during a pay-per-view event while preparing to make a stunt entrance from the arena rafters. Active wrestlers had died before; just 19 months earlier, WWE’s Brian Pillman was found dead in a hotel room of an apparent heart attack at age 35. Wrestlers too had died from incidents during shows, though mostly outside the U.S. or at least the modern mainstream spotlight. Yet the combination of Hart’s status, the unusual nature of his death, and wrestling’s white-hot popularity at perhaps the peak of its late-90s boom produced a wholly distinct context for the proceedings. Clearly a departure from WWE’s increasingly outlandish and transgressive product was in order. Owen Hart’s death demanded something rarer, realer.
Raw began that night in St. Louis not with pyrotechnics but with nearly the entire WWE roster collected silently on the entrance ramp for a 10-bell salute. The camera zoomed in on grieving faces: heavy tears sliding down Mark Henry’s cheeks, Jeff Jarrett choked with emotion behind reflective red shades, so many normally eccentric performers looking somber and blank. After a video tribute to Hart, play-by-play announcer Jim Ross welcomed viewers to “what we truly believe will be one of the most unique broadcasts ever in the genre of sports entertainment.” Along with 10 matches, Ross promised “the candid and very, very real sentiments” of Hart’s colleagues, “who will share with us their feelings about Owen Hart and what he meant to them.”
A night earlier, at a pay-per-view event held in Kansas City and dubbed Over the Edge, it was Ross who narrated news of Hart’s accident to the home audience. Under his secondary persona of the Blue Blazer, Hart had been due to descend on a cable from a catwalk to the ring for his match, a stunt he had reluctantly done before, though never with that night’s new addition—a quick-release harness. While the arena was darkened during the airing of a video package before his match, Hart’s harness accidentally released, sending him on a 78-foot plummet to the ring, where he struck the ropes and wound up on his back on the mat.
When the camera returned to Ross after the showing of a pre-taped Hart interview, he explained that “something went terribly wrong” with Hart’s planned entrance. “This is not part of the entertainment here tonight,” Ross said. “This is as real as real can be here.” He stalled until throwing it to another video package, after which he haltingly described the EMTs working on Hart in the ring as cameras panned a mostly still crowd. Eventually his broadcast partner, Jerry “The King” Lawler, returned to his side from helping attend to Hart. The typically excitable Lawler looked grave. “It doesn’t look good at all,” he said with a faraway stare.
Hart was eventually removed from the ring on a gurney and the show went on, blood-stained mat and all. In the stands, a previously raucous crowd was subdued and confused, many unsure whether Hart’s plummet had been part of the show. “We thought it was a doll at first,” one attendee would tell the AP. There was precedent: six months earlier, WWE had staged an on-screen suicide attempt wherein Road Warrior Hawk purportedly leaped off the TitanTron video screen.
Official reports concluded Hart was dead within minutes, the impact having severed his aorta, which filled his lungs with blood. About an hour after telling home viewers about Hart’s fall, Ross—who later said he had just 10 seconds’ notice beforehand—was charged with announcing to them his death. “I have the unfortunate responsibility to let everyone know that Owen Hart has died,” Ross said solemnly. “Owen Hart has tragically died from that accident here tonight.” Ross would later call it the toughest thing he’s ever done.
Still, infamously, the rest of the show proceeded as scheduled. A video recap aired showing the Rock first locked in a metal casket as Triple H pounded it with a sledgehammer, then bleeding on a stretcher. In the night’s main event, the world title was won by the Undertaker.
With more time to plan, the next night’s Raw was changed to be “a celebration” of Hart and his life. Unlike the episode following Pillman’s death in October 1997 (mostly typical, outside of a 10-bell salute and uncomfortable satellite interview with Pillman's widow), on this night the show would feature only straightforward, storyline-free matches were bookended by prerecorded video testimonials from out-of-character wrestlers, many of whom struggled to compose themselves. At the height of an era in which pro wrestling became defined by its escalating ridiculousness, the eroding wall between wrestling and its audience was completely—temporarily—torn down, so that those on both sides of it could grieve and mourn. A wrestler who had for so long starred as a gleefully obnoxious pest was thus outed for his true nature. “He was more than just one of the boys,” WWE czar Vince McMahon said in his narration of a tribute package. “Owen Hart was a friend and a brother to all.”
In death, Hart brought something to wrestling that, to that point, fans had virtually never seen in the form: true, unadorned humanity.
Within the current era of social media, straight-talking books and documentaries, and seemingly endless podcasts and shoot interviews (not to mention Raw tributes after the subsequent deaths of active WWE stars Eddie Guerrero and, regrettably, Chris Benoit), it is easy to take for granted just how well the wrestling public can feel they know the performers they cheer and boo in the ring. Spiteful sociopath Kevin Owens is also publicly a zoo-loving father; brooding occultist Aleister Black dotes adorably on his cats; Xavier Woods is a celebrated gamer and cosplayer. Even the Undertaker hawks supplements on Instagram.
But 20 years ago, even as wrestling increasingly let its kayfabe mask slip, knowledge that wrestlers were performers did not often mean getting to glimpse them as people. Before the Raw dedicated to Hart—known as Raw is Owen—the rare nakedly human portraits of wrestlers (such as the acclaimed 1998 documentary on Owen’s brother Bret) were separate from the wrestling product itself. When truthful, real-life elements were included (like Mick Foley’s gripping interviews with Ross, or the histories of the Hart and Von Erich families) they were typically used in service of (or at least accordance with) an angle or character. Raw’s emotional outpouring did nothing of the sort. It was heartbreaking reality in a pure form, advancing nothing.
What made much of Raw is Owen’s most brutally honest content all the realer was how counter it ran to the image of Hart that fans had been watching for the better part of the 90s, during which he so dependably portrayed a grating, delusional heel. In his tribute, Foley declared Hart “the nicest, funniest person that I think I’ve ever met.” Henry, a hulking ex-powerlifter then nicknamed Sexual Chocolate, cried reciting a poem he had penned in Hart’s honor. Triple H, who had served as Hart’s primary on-screen antagonist the previous 18 months, was red-faced and breathing heavily while he choked out, “You’ll always be my friend, and I love you.” Others told stories of Hart’s legendary backstage pranks. Jarrett, Hart’s good friend and tag-team partner at the time, repeatedly praised Hart’s integrity. “In this business, it’s cold, it’s callous, it’s selfish, it’s self-serving, it’s unrealistic, it’s a fantasy world,” Jarrett said. “But Owen was real.”
Hart’s wrestling identity, however fictionally maleficent, had long been grounded in reality. The basics of his actual biography (the youngest of 12 siblings in the storied Hart family, alumnus of dad Stu’s fabled Dungeon) doubled as the basis of his character. In truth he had been reluctant to enter the family business, but was such a natural—combining his legitimate amateur wrestling background with years of informal study of the diverse talents passing through his father’s Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling—that his entry and success proved inevitable.
Early success in Japan and Europe landed him a spot in WWE at the age of 23, in 1988. Rather than play upon his connection with Bret, then one of WWE’s burgeoning talents, Owen was put under a mask as the caped Blue Blazer. His ring work was impressive but the company did little with him, prompting him to leave to work internationally. He returned in 1991 under his real name and was placed in bright-pantsed, short-lived tag teams with brother-in-law Jim Neidhart and Koko B. Ware, but was dissatisfied with the wrestling life in general. He unsuccessfully sought careers as a Calgary firefighter and U.S. Customs agent. In his application to the latter, Hart wrote he “desire(d) a career with a future.”
Finally, beginning in late 1993, Owen was placed into the storyline that would transform his career: increasingly jealous of the adoration heaped on a now-superstar Bret and hungry for recognition of his own, Owen would snap and attack his older brother, then goad a reluctant Bret into a match. The two committed fully to the illusion of their animosity, making sure to never be spotted together while traveling or dining out; even at large family dinners, if outsiders were present, the two would keep their distance. Their meeting at WrestleMania X, in which Owen was booked to pull off a shocking and star-making upset, was an instant classic, and at Summerslam five months later the two met again in a widely acclaimed steel cage match. For most of ’94, a year after nearly quitting the business as a low-card afterthought, Owen was WWE’s top villain, a role he relished and thrived in thanks to the same comic instincts that made him so beloved away from the ring. By embracing the perception he was stuck in his superstar brother’s shadow and inverting his natural charm, Owen finally discovered his wrestling self.
Over the next few years Hart became a steady presence in WWE’s mid- and upper-midcard. His enthusiasm and sense of humor elevated a misfit pairing with Yokozuna into a successful tag-team run and the throwaway awarding of a Slammy Award into a yearslong gimmick. At the same time, he endeared himself to the locker room, where he was teased for his frugality (eschewing nightlife, befriending fans to hitch rides in lieu of rental cars) and admired for his devotion to his wife, Martha, and young children Oje and Athena. As much as anything, Hart was also renowned for his practical jokes—prank phone calls to colleagues’ hotel rooms, filling McMahon’s office with pigs, smearing Bret’s face with a concealed stash of sardines during a match. His intentionally goofy in-ring performances during untelevised shows often drew his fellow wrestlers to the curtain to watch in delight.
Yet however embraced Hart was by his contemporaries, he had a harder time fitting into WWE’s programming when it became more adult-oriented. After Bret’s controversial and contentious departure from the company in 1997, Owen was briefly refashioned as a sympathetic hero seeking vengeance. “This is real life, Vince,” he told McMahon, who had legitimately conspired against Bret, while jabbing his finger in his boss’ chest. “Real life. My life.” It was the version of Owen’s character seemingly closest to his true human self, drawn directly from sincere tensions between the Harts and McMahon. But despite fans’ quick embrace of this new attitude, management’s half-hearted push fizzled out by spring.
Hart returned to villainy but resisted involvement in WWE’s increasingly common risqué plots. Famously, he declined an angle that would have seen him pursue an affair with the valet Debra, who was managing his team with Jarrett, because of the effect it might have on his children. Here Owen the human most directly steered his character’s course. It was commonly known that Hart was uncomfortable with WWE’s creative direction; those close to him have said he was considering retiring when his contract ended in two years. But for the time being the 34-year-old Hart, who had once told a Canadian magazine writer he didn’t want to wrestle past 30, trudged on. He and Martha had plans to put their kids through private school. The week after Over the Edge, they were supposed to move into a dream house they had built on the outskirts of Calgary.
The adultery angle nixed, WWE higher-ups instead had Hart revive his dormant Blue Blazer identity, this time playing it as a winkingly obvious alter-ego of himself whose earnest do-goodery stretched to parody. Seen by many (including Hart) as punishment for refusing the Debra storyline, the gimmick mocked WWE’s enemies: rival WCW stars Hulk Hogan (the Blazer aped his old “eat your vitamins” spiel) and Sting (via the Blazer’s clumsy imitation of his signature descents from the ceiling) and detractors who—like Hart himself—objected to WWE’s racy content. Once again, Hart brought to the part such zeal that the act was better than it had any right to be. At Over the Edge he was scheduled to defeat the Godfather, a fan-favorite pimp who became the Blazer’s natural foil, to claim the company’s secondary Intercontinental Championship.
Hart had been apprehensive about his stunt entrance to that match all weekend. As late as moments before leaving the locker room he is said to have confided in a colleague that he was nervous. He was dangling beside the catwalk awaiting his cue when, as the rigging crew continued to set up, his quick-release harness, which required very little pressure, suddenly unclasped. The subsequent investigation concluded it may have been triggered by a movement as subtle as Hart adjusting his cape.
“Nobody killed Owen Hart,” journalist Dave Meltzer wrote in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “He died due to an idea derived from the lowest form of pettiness and an accident, which in some form was due to negligence and bad judgement, possibly on many people’s part.”
When McMahon and Bret met privately a short time later, according to Bret’s autobiography, McMahon called Owen’s death “the worst thing to ever happen in the business, to the nicest guy who ever was in the business.”
McMahon’s initial response to the accident, at least in a practical sense—continuing with the Over the Edge show after not only Hart’s fall but also confirmation of his death—was widely seen as less compassionate. Some fans leaving the arena that night, who unlike the TV audience were not informed of Hart’s death (and who, without the omnipresence of cell phones, had little way of finding out themselves), told reporters it was “disgusting” and “messed up” to finish out the show. McMahon was pilloried in the media for his perceived callousness; Bret said to The New York Times that continuing the show “was very cold-blooded.”
In the Observer, Meltzer reported that many wrestling promoters understood McMahon’s decision given the refunds calling off the show would have required—a reasoning supported by many wrestling fans, some of whom invoked the mantra that “the show must go on.” Wrote Melzer, “In the real world, just the idea that fans would think that there was even a decision to be made emphasized [outsiders’] view of just how sick a profession this must be.” In an interview on the Canadian talk show Off the Record two months later, McMahon said, “At the time, we didn’t think of not continuing.”
Even Raw is Owen drew a backlash. Owen’s brother Bruce publicly called it “sanctimonious crap,” saying that while many wrestlers seemed heartfelt, the show’s purpose was McMahon “trying to absolve his own conscience.” Owen’s widow Martha would later write that it was “a sick way to profit from Owen’s death.” Said Bret: “I think everyone meant well by it. In truth, it’s not the right place to express that. You don’t do stuff like that for ratings... It reeked of pro wrestling.”
Bret suggested a better tribute might have been to simply air a collection of Owen’s matches. There was an irony that between its personal tributes Raw instead featured the kind of content with which both actual Owen and the fictional Blue Blazer might have taken issue: the Godfather parading his “hos,” the porn star character Val Venis, “Mr. Ass” Billy Gunn leading a call-and-response that saw the live crowd shout, “Suck it!” The show would earn a 7.14 Nielsen rating, Raw’s highest ever when going up against WCW Monday Nitro. Later, Foley would say of the night’s effect on an emotionally reeling locker room that it “was a big step on the road to healing.”
As is its wont, the reality beyond the screen remained less harmonious. Martha soon launched a wrongful death suit against WWE. McMahon tried to publicly portray her as being manipulated by Bret, with whom he at the time still harbored a deeply personal animosity stemming from Bret’s WWE exit. A cascade of Hart family infighting and finger-pointing ensued over where to place blame and suspected ulterior motives. (The suit would eventually reach an $18 million settlement.)
“None of us were even allowed to really grieve,” Owen’s brother Bruce Hart would later say. “Unfortunately, after Owen died, it was all of a sudden all the crossfire and the fighting.” Said Keith, another Hart brother: “It completely fractured the family.”
Memorializing Owen—both wrestler and person—has become a regular, if complicated, component of modern wrestling culture. What are your Owen stories? is practically a required question of his contemporaries in the cottage industry of online shoot interviews, a universal source of fawning and tales of mischievous hijinx. (As Sean Waltman, aka X-Pac, once told an interviewer: “I honest to God could write a f---in’ book just on Owen Hart ribs.”) Certainly more than any wrestler before him, and arguably since, Hart has become a beloved human, not just wrestler, among the wrestling public. Raw is Owen set the tone for Hart’s legacy, adding another layer of retrospective appreciation to his brilliance as a performer, and portended a new age in which fans began to know wrestlers as more than just that.
The rift between Martha and WWE has made honoring Owen formally more difficult. Through its library of matches, WWE essentially owns Owen Hart the wrestler, but Martha, his widow, has reportedly stifled efforts that would have paid tribute to Owen while also, more relevantly, allowing the company she holds responsible for her husband’s death to further benefit financially from his image. A long-demanded DVD set chronicling his career was finally released in 2015, though some found it inadequate, for which Bret publicly blamed limitations imposed by Martha. (According to former WWE announcer Kevin Kelly, footage of Hart’s fall itself, which was recorded by running cameras inside the arena, is shelved in WWE’s tape library with “instructions never to destroy, view or duplicate.” Fake videos of the accident are prevalent online.) Owen remains the most obvious and widely clamored-for omission from the WWE Hall of Fame; in his own 2018 induction speech, Henry made a public, tearful plea to Martha to allow Owen’s enshrinement.
I miss you every day Owen, and I vow to keep your memory alive despite the efforts to let you fade away.— Bret Hart (@BretHart) May 24, 2018
“I think she has done more to erase my brother Owen’s memory than she ever did to remember him,” Bret, an inductee himself, told CBS Sports last year—though, notably, Martha runs a charity helping students and low-income homeowners in Owen’s name. “It really bothers me,” Bret continued, “that the fans that love Owen so much don’t get a chance to remember him.”
Yet we do. However cathartic and deserving a Hall of Fame induction would be, it would serve as an extension and expansion, not genesis, of a celebration that has been underway for two decades now. In that same interview, Bret himself put it best: “He’s not remembered for his high-flying, and he may be remembered for his practical jokes,” he said of Owen. “But more important he is remembered for the kind of guy he was.”