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Remembering Owen Hart:
Five Years Later
May 24, 2004

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com


Craig Kilborn made a joke about it. That's one of the many things I still dwell on when I remember the death of Owen Hart on May 23, 1999.

I'm just like any other fan. I did not know Owen Hart personally. I never met the man. But I know he had a wife and kids, a large extended family, a lot of talent, and a love for goofing around. On May 24, 1999, his untimely death had become the joke of the mainstream media. At least, as far as Craig Kilborn and his writers were concerned.

Just the night before, Owen Hart donned his Blue Blazer gear in preparation for a PPV match against The Godfather, as part of the WWF's "Over the Edge" card. In the arena rafters, Owen strapped into a harness that was to support him as he descended on a wire into the ring, as part of his bumbling superhero character. As the television audience watched a pre-taped Blue Blazer promo, Owen fell from the rafters into the ring.

Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler reappeared on camera, visibly shaken. The cameras showed us a puzzled live audience, a worried announce crew, and not much else. Meanwhile, the fans in attendance at Kemper Arena in Kansas City sat wondering what they'd seen, and whether it was real.

It was. Damn it to hell, it was real. Owen Hart died that night.

We would learn more about the incident in the years that followed. After an investigation and countless appearances in court, it is understood that the accident happened because Owen's equipment malfunctioned, and most certainly not through any fault of Owen's. We've since learned that Owen Hart wasn't particularly fond of portraying the Blue Blazer, nor was he comfortable with heights.

We have been told by Owen's surviving family members that Owen often discussed leaving the wrestling business and wasn't entirely thrilled to be a wrestler - although he was indeed one hell of a wrestler. We know what the courts have ruled. We know WWE paid a large monetary settlement to Martha Hart, and we know that the company that manufactured the rigging device was subsequently ordered to pay a large monetary award to WWE.

What we don't know is where life would have taken Owen if the tragedy hadn't happened. Was WWE ever going to push him in a main event again? Was Owen really considering leaving the business for good? As fans, we think of these things because we love pro wrestling. But none of it matters.

We all know that none of this matters - be it WWE, or another pro sport or career choice or entertainment medium - in the grand scheme of life. We might wait with excitement for the next edition of Raw. But somewhere scattered across the world are wives, husbands and children, waiting with 1,000 times our excitement for their spouses, daddies and mommies to come back from the road. We realize it. But not until a tragedy like Owen's death do we really stop and think about it.

That was magnified on the 5/24/99 edition of Raw, which stands to this day as the most genuinely touching two hours of television ever presented by WWE. It was a necessity as much as it was a kind gesture. There was no place for kayfabe. We all knew Owen was gone, and we all knew how it happened. Moreover, Owen's fellow wrestlers needed catharsis. So they used Raw as a vehicle for that catharsis.

A wide variety of WWF wrestlers paid tribute to Owen in a series of sit-down interview clips shown interspersed with non-kayfabed exhibition matches. One by one, the bulked-up, testosterone-laden superstars we watched every week became very, very human on our television screens. Mark Henry wept as he read a poem he wrote for Owen. Jeff Jarrett repeatedly broke down while trying to explain - without saying too much, and getting too personal in front of the fans - why Owen meant so much to him. Triple H - who had been one of Owen's more frequent opponents in recent years - sobbed as he said goodbye.

Even Jim Ross couldn't make it through the entire broadcast without choking up, expressing that he hoped he could be a fraction of the quality human being Owen Hart was, so that he could see him again someday.

And with that final farewell, and a two-beer salute from Stone Cold Steve Austin, it was done. That was our closure. Owen Hart had died, and as fitting a goodbye as the show might have been, we now had to move on.

You couldn't turn the channel on that night without running into discussion of the Owen Hart tragedy. Wrestling was still big in the mainstream, and this was a huge story even without that added attention. Owen's brother Bret had been scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that night to do an angle on behalf of WCW. After Raw, I eventually flipped to NBC and found Jay Leno asking his TV audience to say a prayer for Bret and his family - Bret, obviously, would no longer be appearing on the program. A nice gesture on a large late-night stage.

And then on CBS, Craig Kilborn used it for comic relief, relating some nonsense about a WWF wrestler named the Blue Blazer dying in the ring, but his partner Blue Sportcoat going unharmed. Poor taste doesn't even do it justice. To have watched Owen perform since the mid-80s, watch him evolve as a wrestler, see grown men break down on television in mourning for one of their own - and then see his death turned into a bad one-liner by some idiot with a talk show - that has remained with me to this day. And I haven't seen more than 30 seconds of his talk show since that night.

At least critics like Phil Mushnick took Owen's death seriously. At least the gravity of the situation was not lost on them, regardless of where they pointed the finger.

It's water under the bridge now. What's done is done, and the death of Owen Hart is by no means the only tragedy that has ever befallen the wrestling industry. Those who knew him best seem to agree that Owen would rather not have us sitting around sobbing about him five years later. But when a guy like Owen is taken from us - equal parts superior mat wrestler, capable aerial artist, amusing jokester, devious heel, and just about anything else a wrestling fan could ask for - and he is taken away in such a senseless, random way, it's hard to shake off.

On the five-year anniversary of his death, let's make it a point to stop wondering what we, the fans, lost when Owen Hart died, and remind ourselves what his family lost. Therein lies the true tragedy. That's not for TV viewers, or for talk show hosts, or for wrestling fans. That's real.

May the Hart family find peace on this somber anniversary.


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