Every week or so, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: Owen Hart, who fell to his death in 1999 during a WWE pay-per-view event.
On May 23, 1999, at the WWE's Over the Edge pay-per-view event, Owen Hart died in a wrestling ring. He was playing a character called the Blue Blazer, a farcical masked superhero, though it can more accurately be stated that Owen Hart — who had long exploited wrestling's interplay between reality and unreality — was portraying "Owen Hart" masquerading as the Blue Blazer. On this night, Owen was being lowered to the ring in a harness to approximate flight. The harness malfunctioned; a clasp gave way, and he fell 70 feet onto the ring ropes, severing his aorta and killing him almost instantly. At that moment, the difference between Owen, "Owen," and the Blue Blazer was rendered tragically immaterial. Wrestling had lost one of its greats.
In the modern world of pro wrestling, even when you're ostensibly playing yourself, you're really playing a character. On screen, "Owen" always denied that he and the Blazer were the same person, even though it was comically obvious that they were one and the same. (His buddy Jeff Jarrett wrestled in the Blazer garb while Owen sat by on commentary to "prove" they were separate, and Koko B. Ware even took a turn under the blue mask for a similar gag; the ruse was more than obvious, and the audience was happily in on the joke.) Owen had played the Blue Blazer character earnestly early in his career, mostly in Japan and Mexico, where such masked personas are customary. Such a character from his past was an ideal vessel for what would be, in its 1999 iteration, an anti-modern crusade. The Blue Blazer was at once a masked alter-ego and a manifestation of Owen's superego — the Blue Blazer stood opposed to the excesses of the WWE's Attitude Era, the crass sex- and violence-obsessed style that took over WWE programming in the late '90s. Owen the person had long been quietly uncomfortable with the direction the company was heading — he notably refused to work a storyline that had him in an affair with Jarret's on-screen companion, Debra McMichael, for fear that his children would watch and believe it was true — and now Owen the character was exorcising the demons of his own discomfort and deconstructing such depravities within the context of Attitude Era programming. It was a winning ploy; many wrestlers were at that point playing outsize versions of themselves to great success, and Owen joining the fray as the movement's antihero was borderline-inspired storytelling. That he was playing it for comic effect didn't necessarily undermine its agenda (championship-level feuds in those days were often marked by dick jokes), and neither did the audience's heckling subjugate the message (Owen was playing the heel, a pariah railing about integrity and moral rectitude, so the jeers were part of the routine; and besides, the good guy-bad guy continuum had been turned on its head by the ascent of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and other ideological "tweeners"). Owen's popularity was unequivocal. When he ran to the ring with his arms outstretched, like a kid imitating his favorite cartoon character. When he was lowered from the rafters, arms flailing, the crowd laughed in unison.
It would have been a conceivable punchline to send the beleaguered superhero — or a mannequin dressed to look like him — crashing down from the rafters into the ring. Such attention-grabbing stunts were common in those days. Wrestling is based on the premise of fake injury, of course, but pro wrestling in the modern age has been intent on pushing the boundaries in such a way as to simultaneously shock viewers and yet underline the ridiculousness of it all. It was clear from the crowd reaction that when Owen fell, at least briefly, they thought the fall was part of the act.
And why shouldn't they? The boundary between real life and fake life was irreparably blurred by that point thanks to any number of storylines, but the Blue Blazer angle — Real Owen playing Fake Owen playing a masked avenger fighting for Real Owen's honor — was surely the pinnacle of such multilayered unrealism.
Owen's storyline wasn't always pitched at such a meta level. He was born into wrestling, as the youngest child in the legendary Hart family, son of Stu Hart and brother to Bret (and five other brothers who would wrestle to less acclaim), and he was by many accounts the most naturally gifted grappler of the bunch. But despite his best efforts to find a career outside the ring — supposedly to keep his new family away from the wrestler's life that he grew up with — he soon decided that wrestling was his only lucrative path. He started off as a golden boy in his father's Canadian promotion, Stampede Wrestling. Brother Bret was then entrenched in the WWF as half of the Hart Foundation (along with Jim "the Anvil" Neidhart); Bret was a star, but certainly nobody would have predicted his future as a longterm heavyweight champion, as he was several inches too short and several degrees too plain next to the likes of Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage. And Owen was, if anything, smaller and less flamboyant than his brother — he was unaffected, Real Owen playing himself — and despite his popularity in Stampede, he wasn't offered a job with one of the major American shops. He wrestled through Japan and Mexico, where his size wasn't a deterrent and his high-flying style was more acceptable. His success there would eventually lead to a job with the WWF, but rather than capitalize on his relationship with Bret, they put him in a mask and called him the Blue Angel. (That beatific moniker was soon corrupted into "The Blue Blazer.") There was very little affectation; this was Real Owen with a mask. He wowed the more attentive fans with his seemingly revolutionary mix of aerial maneuvers and old-school grappling, but he was a gimmick without a backstory, form without substance, and the audience at large was unsure what to make of him.
After only a brief run, he went back to the global circuit — Stampede, Mexico, and a cup of coffee in WCW. He landed back in the WWF, forming the New Foundation with Neidhart after Bret embarked upon his singles career, and later teamed up with the unspectacular Koko B. Ware to form the team High Energy. Neither team was much of a success — the neon parachute pants probably had something to do with that.
After High Energy disbanded, Owen aligned himself with Bret in a beef against Jerry "the King" Lawler, and from there, through various feuds, the brothers' relationship took center stage. Over the ensuing months, their partnership evolved into a competition and then into an all-out rivalry, with Owen playing the angsty, underappreciated second banana — Owen finally coming into his own by playing "Owen." The sibling rivalry was Jacob and Esau shined up with baby oil. It was presumably based to some degree on real life; the angle began when Real Owen asked Real Bret why he never got the chance to fight against his brother and share in the main event spotlight. That backstage conversation evolved into a monthslong on-screen campaign.
The matches they shared were always the best of the night — and among the best of the era, to be sure — but the arch familial interplay was at the forefront.
Owen had come into his own as a personality as well. Real Owen was a mild-mannered and high-spirited jokester (his backstage "ribs" are the stuff of legend), but Fake Owen was a sarcastic, silver-tongued jerk. When he sat in at the commentary table, he was a droll instigator of virtuoso status, especially when contrasted with Bret and the rest of the wooden Hart clan. The Harts were so soaked in tradition that they were nearly inert; Owen seemed to be the only Hart who was in on the joke — the joy — that is pro wrestling.
A number of the other Hart family members, including brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith and the family matriarch Helen Hart, floated in and out of the storylines; the latter tearfully threw in the towel for her son Bret in a match against Bob Backlund upon Owen's maniacal urging.
When Bret thereafter defeated Owen to functionally put their rivalry to an end, Owen teamed with Yokozuna, and the duo held the tag team championships for five months. He then joined forces with Davey Boy Smith and the two had an uneasy alliance —- which mirrored to some degree Owen's partnership-cum-rivalry with Bret —- for a number of months. Both men subsequently joined up with Bret (and Neidhart and Brian Pillman) to form a new Hart Foundation. This iteration was a nationalist outfit that proclaimed Canadian superiority and virtue in opposition to the sleazily American WWE, much to the dismay of the audience. (Except, of course, in Canada, where they were hailed as returning conquerors.) The most notorious incident in this period was Owen nearly ending the career of Steve Austin. Owen's "piledriver" — wherein one man puts the other's head between his thighs and then drops it forcefully into the mat — actually accomplished what the move normally only insinuated, and Austin was temporarily paralyzed in the ring. The match ended clumsily, with a groggy and weak Austin unimpressively pinning Owen so as to keep with the planned outcome. Fans could plainly see that the finish was forced, but — tellingly — most chose to suspend disbelief. It suggested the distance from reality at which the fanbase was willing to situate itself, and as such it was a painful foreshadowing of Owen's own demise.
The Hart Foundation ended when Bret accepted a contract offer with rival WCW. Just before his departure, Bret held the WWE championship belt and was unwilling to drop the title in his home country, where the company was then touring. McMahon furtively intervened, forcing the referee to stop the match midway through, claiming that Bret had submitted to his opponent, Shawn Michaels. (Needless to say, this was not how Bret had planned the match with Michaels.) This bizarre incident was Bret's unfortunate farewell to the WWE (until recently, when he returned as a special attraction) and also the start of McMahon's role as an on-screen villain. After the "Montreal Screwjob," as it's called, McMahon gave an on-air interview "explaining" his actions. He admitted his backstage role in the company and in the Bret debacle. On one hand, it was the inception of "reality" invading WWE storylines, but it outlined how the WWE would maintain the suspension of disbelief in the postmodern era: By acknowledging reality in that interview McMahon functionally absorbed reality into the canvas of the WWE's storyline and so was able to bend truth to fantasy. If this bizarre bit of stagecraft didn't directly assault the fourth wall, it was certainly nudging it from within the confines of the product — just as Hamlet winked at the audience during his soliloquy. ("Bret screwed Bret" was certainly the WWE's "To be or not to be".).
After the match, Hart Foundation members Neidhart and Smith were allowed to follow Bret to WCW, but Owen was retained. He briefly carried his brother's torch against Michaels, but soon Michaels and his Degeneration X cohorts became full-fledged fan favorites, leading an increasingly unstable Owen to join the Nation of Domination faction (the WWE's Black Pride outfit) alongside burgeoning superstar The Rock, as the Nation feuded against Michaels and company. (It was during this period that he was hamstrung with the nickname "Nugget," a moniker that drove Fake Owen apoplectic.) As the Nation dissolved, Owen began teaming with Jeff Jarrett, and eventually morphed (back) into the bizarro Blue Blazer persona: Now doubly removed from his real identity, Owen was no longer himself at all.
Perhaps more so than any other star of his vintage other than Mick Foley, Owen's relationship with "real life" — Owen's relationship with "Owen" — was written in such a way as to call into question the very nature of wrestling reality. His relationship with his brother was inflated into an epic conflict. His accidental injury of Austin was turned into a later storyline in which Owen supposedly made the same error in "maiming" Dan Severn. And then there was the Blue Blazer angle: They took an act that he had worked years before and turned it on its head, shoehorning in his qualms with the wrestling industry at large. (It should be said that the parody was aiming to encompass more than just the WWE — the very act that led to Owen's death was partly a reference to Sting, a star for the competing WCW, who entered the ring from the rafters in similar fashion.) That his death would initially be misinterpreted as a scripted pratfall — that it would undermine the very legitimacy of wrestling reality — is a devastating metaphor for his career as a whole.
But, of course, it wasn't fake. According to CNN, "Hart was given CPR inside the ring as the ring announcer haltingly told the audience that the incident was not scripted, as professional wrestling matches openly are." The fans watching at home got the bad news from Jim Ross, who, as the lead announcer of the show, was charged with narrating the tragic event in real time during the pay-per-view telecast: "This is not a part of the entertainment here tonight. This is as real as real can be here."
When Ross first comes on screen, he is visibly shaken and uncertain — at this point, it isn't official that Owen is dead. But more than that, Ross seems unclear about what his message is supposed to be. To acknowledge that Owen's fall is real is to implicitly acknowledge wrestling's falsehood, and for Ross — and certainly for the McMahon — such a statement would threaten the heart of wrestling's peculiar unreality.
The Blue Blazer storyline was of course over, but in some small way it proved successful: In his death, Owen laid bare the culture of debauchery and one-upsmanship that dominated the wrestling scene. The stunts had grown bigger and bigger, the quest for ratings and cheers had become more and more dogged; certainly there was a feeling that something like this was bound to happen. If they broke the fourth wall in telling the fans that the accident was real, it's notable that it was necessary to tell them at all.
The show went on. This was a source of great animosity toward Vince McMahon and the WWE for anyone looking to demonize them in the wake of Owen's death, but it's something of a non-starter. Owen had himself performed immediately after Brian Pillman's untimely passing, either because he thought that's what Pillman would have wanted or because that was the only way he knew to handle it. Moreover, though, it's the nature of the beast: If acts like the Blue Blazer are built on the distance between the real world and the unreality of scripted wrestling, then it follows that the intervention of real life is a prospect but not a deterrent. (And to be fair, McMahon would have been demonized anyway had he stopped the card.)
Reality did intervene the next night on Monday Night RAW, as they did away with storylines for an Owen Hart tribute show. (The matches were interspersed with eulogies from other wrestlers, and they were legitimately distraught. Owen was beloved and it showed.) Here the reality-versus-unreality paradox was turned on its head. It was still pro wrestling — fake combat — but rendered pure by a unique sheen of self-awareness. When Jim Ross, on commentary, observed that Jarrett employed Owen's Sharpshooter finisher to win his match, he said "Jeff Jarrett's gotta be doing this for his former tag team partner" — acknowledging Jarrett's tribute, but edging back from the precipice of reality by focusing only on their in-ring relationship, referencing life outside the ring only by gesturing at its in-ring shadow. When Steve Austin closed the show by guzzling beers and pointing toward the sky, it was a minor variation on the routine he ran to close almost every WWE telecast of that period: a heartfelt acknowledgement, sure, but not exactly a divorce from the routine product. Even if only slightly, though, they were deconstructing the medium to honor of one of the last remaining purists.
There have been other wrestlers to die in the ring: Mike DiBiase ("Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase's stepfather) may have been the only other wrestler that mainstream American fans have heard of; he had a heart attack mid-match at the age of 46. Larry Booker (aka Moondog Spot) likewise died of a heart attack in the ring. Gary Albright died after a "bulldog" — his head forcibly driven into the mat by his opponent — at a local show in Pennsylvania. Indie wrestler Daniel "Spider" Quirk died when his opponent fell from the ring onto Quirk's head against the concrete floor. Japanese standout Mitsuharu Misawa died after a suplex dropped him hard onto his neck, and female wrestlers Emiko Kado and Plum Mariko both suffered life-ending accidents in the ring. Mexican wrestler Jesús Javier Hernández Solís — know as "Oro"— reacted too dramatically to a clothesline and landed on his head, ending his life. British behemoth Malcolm "King Kong" Kirk had a heart attack after receiving a "splash" from his opponent. Ray Gunkel died in the locker room after an in-ring punch to the chest apparently gave him a heart attack. (Separate but significant: Bruiser Brody was stabbed backstage when working a show in Puerto Rico.)
These tragedies — all of them nebulous incidences to the average wrestling fan — are balanced by a handful of storylines in which death, or near-death, was scripted: Ric Flair's mid-monologue heart attack, Road Warrior Hawk's leaping off the TitanTron, referee Tim White's (numerous) suicide attempts. The list could go on to include lesser offenses: Brian Pillman pulling a gun on Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan sending the Giant (Paul Wight) off a rooftop, and, less seriously, the Undertaker's innumerable "buried alive" and casket matches.
If wrestling fans are inured to the untimely deaths of their idols, is it fair to ask if it's as much because of these plots as it is for the proliferation of actual deaths? It isn't so much an issue of taste or apathy; it's an issue of reality versus illusion. Wrestling, with its frequently upended and discarded plotlines and the regular movement of performers between companies, has at its core an element of confusion — an inherent inanity that viewers take for granted. Finding out that a character like Yokozuna died isn't so much a tragedy as it is the next (and last) chapter in his already disjointed narrative. And that it occurs off-camera renders it somehow less real. When Owen died, it was the antithesis of this: Ross may have broken the rules of kayfabe, but Owen's death had already taken them off script. It wasn't just an instance of a wrestler dying in front of thousands of wrestling fans; it was the death of a real human being in front of thousands of other real people. As with McMahon's Montreal Screwjob interview, the curtain was pulled back to expose reality; this time, however, reality couldn't be wedged into a storyline.
Owen's widow, Martha, recently sued the WWE over the federation's use of footage from Owen's old matches. Apparently McMahon had promised her that he wouldn't seek to profit off Owen's death, and Martha took that to mean that he wouldn't seek to capitalize off anything Owen had ever been involved in. Her immediate objection is with Owen's inclusion on a DVD about the Hart family. Recently, Bret — who, sadly, hasn't had any contact with Martha or Owen's children in years — wrote, "Just because Owen died doesn't mean the Hart legacy from Stu down to his wrestling sons and grandchildren has to die too." I think that's right. But if I may be so bold as to restate that from a fan's perspective: To write Owen out of wrestling history is to deny what he meant to all of us.
He wasn't as famous as his brother Bret; he wasn't famous as he might have become. But when he died, millions of fans the world over were heartbroken. Maybe that's little solace for Owen's family, but that's something. Owen taught us that real life lay just beyond the ring. He succeeded within the parameters of wrestling's pretend world, and that alone was enough to make him a star. What made him something greater was that all the while he helped us measure the distance between that pretend world and reality. Owen acknowledged the quotation marks and thrived between them. He could wink without destroying the illusion. His death allowed us to see how indelicately we had been treating reality — this is as real as real can be here — how McMahon and the WWE and all its fans had become cynical and callous, and that in doing so we were missing the point. We weren't traditionalists like the Hart clan, but we were guilty of the same misapprehension: We had forgotten the joy that is pro wrestling.
Bret's right: we'll watch the Hart family DVD, and we'll remember just how great Owen was. And we'll think about how a lot of wrestlers have died in the past 10 years, but how Owen was different, how he didn't die of a heart attack in a hotel room or a car wreck or a self-inflicted gunshot or a drug-assisted brain aneurysm. We'll think that Owen's death really meant something. That Owen meant something.
Farewell, Owen. You reminded us how good we had it.
The Masked Man works in publishing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find the rest of the Dead Wrestler series at #deadwrestleroftheweek.