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This Day in Wrestling History (May 7): Owen Hart's Birthday

Today would have been the 51st birthday of Owen James Hart.

Born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Owen was the youngest of twelve children of Stu and Helen Hart. He had dual citizenship by birth (his mother Helen was born in New York).

Owen began wrestling in high school, which was where he met his future wife Martha. Owen didn't want to get into the family business, but after numerous attempts to make a living outside of wrestling failed, he finally turned to pro grappling. He trained in his father's Hart Dungeon and competed for Stampede Wrestling and Joint Promotions. He would win the Stampede International Tag Team Championship with Ben Bassarab in 1986; their success led to Owen being named Pro Wrestling Illustrated's Rookie of the Year in 1987.

The same year, he wrestled for New Japan Pro Wrestling. He wrestled Keiichi Yamada, both before and after his famous Jushin Liger gimmick. In May 1988, he defeated Hiroshi Hase to become the first gaijin IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. He would lose the title after just four weeks to Shiro Koshinaka.

His successes in Canada and Japan eventually led him to the WWF in the summer of 1988. Instead of being promoted as the younger brother of Bret Hart, Owen played the masked superhero The Blue Angel, later The Blue Blazer. He wrestled primarily in the midcard, defeating enhancement talent such as Terry Gibbs, Steve Lombardi, and Barry Horowitz, but losing to bigger name talent, such as Greg Valentine at Survivor Series in November 1988, Ted DiBiase at Saturday Night's Main Event in March 1989, and Mr. Perfect at Wrestlemania V.

Owen left the WWF shortly after Wrestlemania V and returned to the independent circuit. He also competed for Stampede Wrestling in its final days, most notably losing to Mexican wrestler El Canek in a mask versus mask match. Owen also had a brief stint in WCW in 1991, but the two sides never came to an agreement on a long-term deal (moving he and his family to Atlanta was a dealbreaker for Owen). Owen instead opted for a second run in the WWF.

Owen spent most of his early second run in tag teams, first teaming with his brother-in-law Jim Neidhart as the New Foundation, then the next year as one-half of High Energy with Koko B. Ware. He did have a brief singles push after Neidhart left the WWF, highlighted by a quick win at Wrestlemania VIII over Skinner. High Energy was quietly disbanded in early 1993.

Owen stood by his brother Bret in his long-term feud with Jerry Lawler in the United States Wrestling Association. While there, he won their Unified World Heavyweight Championship from Papa Shango. Owen's part in the WWF-USWA feud was cut short when he was sidelined with a knee injury.

Hart returned to the WWF when Bret's feud with Lawler was sidetracked. His first high-profile match came at Survivor Series in 1993 when Owen joined his brothers Bruce, Keith, and Bret against Jerry Lawler and his Knights. With Lawler unable to make the show, Owen's (and Bret's) future rival Shawn Michaels took his place. During the bout, Owen and Bret inadvertently collided with one another, causing Owen's elimination. The confrontation resulted in the crowd turning on Owen, while his brothers and father watched and mother Helen cried. Owen would soon adopt Bret's ring gear and finishing maneuver, the Sharpshooter. Owen then challenged Bret to a match, but Bret declined, stating he had no desire to fight his brother.

The two made amends and eventually challenged the Quebecers for the WWF Tag Team Championship at the 1994 Royal Rumble. Bret would hurt his knee during the bout, leaving him unable to tag in his younger brother. The frustration grew for Owen the longer he waited in the corner. When the match ended due to a referee stoppage (Bret was deemed unable to continue on account of his injured knee), Owen kicked at Bret's injured knee, or in his words in a post-match interview, he "kicked his leg out of his leg", and he felt good doing it. The act established him as a heel. The two brothers met at Wrestlemania X, with Owen getting a clean victory over his older brother. But it would be the elder Bret that stood tall when the night ended; he won the WWF Championship from Yokozuna. The show ended with Bret celebrating in the ring with fellow wrestlers as brother Owen watched in jealousy on the walkway. Two months later, Owen followed in Bret's footsteps by winning the King of the Ring tournament, after which he declared himself "The King of Harts".

The two met continued to feud throughout the summer; with Owen actually defeating Bret for the WWF title in a lumberjack match in mid-August. The match was ordered to restart due to interference, and Bret went on to win the match. He also defeated Owen in a steel cage match at Summerslam about two weeks later. The cage match received a five-star rating from Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Dave Meltzer. At Survivor Series, Owen convinced his mother Helen to throw in the towel on behalf of Bret Hart, costing him the WWF title to Bob Backlund. Owen cost Bret the title again two months later at the Royal Rumble event. The feud concluded a few weeks later with Bret soundly defeating Owen.

Owen would soon rebound at Wrestlemania XI when he and mystery partner Yokozuna defeated The Smoking Gunns for the WWF Tag Team Championship. Following the win, Owen took on Jim Cornette and Mr. Fuji as his managers. The odd couple held the titles for five months before being defeated by Shawn Michaels and Diesel at In Your House 3: Triple Header. The belts were handed back to Yokozuna and Hart the next night, but were beaten for them by The Smoking Gunns that evening. Owen and Yokozuna would continue to team until the end of the year.

The next year, Owen began teaming with his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith, The British Bulldog. He would also team with Vader as a member of Camp Cornette. At In Your House 10: Mind Games in September 1996, the brothers-in-law defeated the Smoking Gunns for the WWF Tag Team Championship. They also left with a new manager, Clarence Mason, who conned Jim Cornette to signing over the contracts of the new champions. Soon after, cracks began to form between the two, especially following Bulldog firing Mason following a loss to Crush, and the two making it to the finals of the tournament to crown the first ever WWF European Champion (Bulldog would win the bout). After the two were disqualified in a tag title match against the Headbangers on RAW in March 1997, the brothers-in-law exploded, with Owen challenging Bulldog to a European title match the next week. The bout was so intense, there looked to be no reconciliation between Owen and Bulldog, and there probably wouldn't have been had Bret not stepped in. They agreed to drop their beef and reform the Hart Foundation, with an anti-American tweak.

28/4/97 Rocky Maivia vs. Owen Hart by nawabrocks

Shortly after the group formed, Owen found singles gold, winning the Intercontinental title from Rocky Maivia. The win gave the stable every championship in the company but the WWF Championship (held at the time by The Undertaker). That wouldn't last though, as Owen and Bulldog were defeated by Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels in May. That began a feud between Owen and Steve.

Michaels had to vacate his half of the titles due to injury. In July, Owen and Bulldog won a tournament for the right to challenge for the tag titles, but in a bit of irony, Owen and Bulldog would lose to Austin and a mystery partner; that partner turned out to be Dude Love.

At Summerslam, Owen and Austin met in a "Kiss My Ass" match for the Intercontinental title, where Austin pledged to kiss Owen's ass if he lost. During the bout, Hart botched a piledriver, dropping Austin on the top of his head and injuring his neck. The bout went to a quick finish, with Austin winning the Intercontinental title. The botch was accidental; nonetheless, it was turned into a storyline, with Owen having a shirt created for him: "Owen 3:16 Says I Just Broke Your Neck." The neck injury forced Austin to forfeit the Intercontinental title; Owen would win it back at Survivor Series in November with help from the returning Austin.

The same night Owen won the Intercontinental title, the infamous Montreal Screwjob took place. Owen's older brother Bret left the company following the event, as his contract was set to expire. Owen's brothers-in-law Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith soon followed, as they were granted their release. Owen would have joined them, but he wasn't granted a release due to contractual obligations. Owen was also skeptical about how he would be used in WCW; in addition, according to Bret, WCW was unwilling to match what Owen was getting in the WWF.

Owen took a sabbatical from the company, returning after Shawn Michaels retained his WWF Championship at In Your House: D-Generation X, attacking the champion after Michaels retained following a disqualification loss to Ken Shamrock. Owen, now known as "The Black Hart" or "The Lone Hart", became a fan favorite and had an antisocial attitude. He entered into a feud with D-Generation X, challenging Shawn for the WWF title on the last RAW of 1997. Hart had Michaels in the Sharpshooter when Triple H interfered.

Owen Hart vs. Triple-H European Title by Stinger1981

The next month, Owen won the European title from Triple H...sort of. Goldust dressed as Triple H in an effort to swerve Hart, but then-Commissioner Sgt. Slaughter deemed Goldust to be a suitable replacement for Triple H, meaning Owen's win over the fake Triple H for the title stood. Hart would be taken out by an ankle injury (kayfabe) during a bout with Barry Windham. Later Triple H drew Owen to an impromptu Intercontinental title match, with Helmsley winning the title following Owen being attacked by the injured ankle with a bat by Chyna. Triple H would put Owen in a reverse ankle lock and win the European title back via referee stoppage. Triple H would go on to retain the title defeating Owen in a return bout at Wrestlemania XIV.

About a month after the event, Hart turned on Ken Shamrock in a tag match against D'Lo Brown and Rocky "The Rock" Maivia. Owen snapped Shamrock's ankle and bit his ear. Hart would become the co-leader of the Nation of Domination. In explaining his actions, Owen said "enough is enough, and it's time for a change". The Nation would feud with D-Generation X in the spring and summer of 1998. In the early stages of the feud, DX parodied The Nation, with actor Jason Sensation dressing as Owen, saying "I am not a nugget!" (this was in reference to a comment made by Shawn Michaels comparing Owen to a nugget of feces in a toilet bowl; the nugget that stuck around no matter how many times he tried to flush it down". The "nugget" term would follow Owen for the remainder of his life. Owen would be sidetracked from the DX-Nation feud when Ken Shamrock returned from injury. The two split a pair of PPV bouts that summer (Owen won at Fully Loaded; Shamrock at Summerslam), but nothing would be conclusively settled between the two.

After the Nation dissolved following Summerslam, he began teaming with Jeff Jarrett. The partnership was to lead to Owen having an affair with Jarrett's manager Debra, but Owen turned it down.

In September 1998, Owen accidentally injured (kayfabe) Dan Severn's neck; the story was a callback to Owen accidentally injuring Steve Austin a year earlier. Owen "quit" the WWF in response to the injury, but just as soon as he'd quit, his old persona returned to the company: The Blue Blazer, this time as a self-righteous, overbearing heel who had disdain for what the WWF had become. Owen repeatedly attempted to prove that neither he nor Jeff Jarrett was the Blue Blazer (in one scenario, Hart's former tag partner Koko B. Ware wore the Blazer outfit). In January 1999, Owen and Jeff won the WWF Tag Team Championship from Ken Shamrock and The Big Boss Man. They held the titles until two days after Wrestlemania XV when they were defeated at a RAW taping by Kane and X-Pac.

On May 23, 1999, Owen as The Blue Blazer was set to challenge The Godfather for the WWF Intercontinental Championship. In keeping with the buffoonish superhero gimmick, Owen was to be lowered to the ring via a harness, but he would become entangled and release from a safety harness, falling flat on his face for comedic effect. The same stunt was performed on Sunday Night Heat prior to Survivor Series the previous November. However the release triggered far too early, sending Hart 78 feet down, landing chest first on the top rope, throwing him into the ring. At the time of the fall, a pre-match vignette aired, meaning the actual fall never aired on the event. Jim Ross emphasized that it was not a wrestling angle or storyline, conveying the seriousness of the situation. Hart was transported to Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, but he could not be revived. Owen died of internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma at just age 34. Ross announced the death of Hart to the home viewers watching on PPV, but not to those in attendance.

Controversially, the Over the Edge PPV went to its conclusion, but the event would not be replayed, nor released commercially on home video. In fact, the first commercial release of the event was the launch of WWE Network in February 2014; however, all references to Owen Hart had been edited out of the broadcast, save for a memorial graphic at the beginning of the show and a statement of what had happened that evening.

The next night, a tribute show was done in his honor. Loosely titled RAW is Owen, all storylines were put on hold, and WWF management gave the option for the wrestlers to work or not. The show, opening with a ten-bell salute, featured ten one-off matches and anecdotes from fellow wrestlers through shoot interviews.  The show garned a 7.2 rating, the third highest Nielsen-rated episode in the show's history, and the highest for any special episode.

Just over a week after his passing, Jeff Jarrett would defeat the Godfather for the Intercontinental title, the championship Owen was set to win that night. As he was handed the title, Jeff screwed Owen's name.

The Hart family sued the WWF and the manufacturer of the harness just a month after Owen's death; they would settle with the WWF in November 2000 for $18 million. The money was used to establish the Owen Hart Foundation.

In an interview with Bret Hart on his DVD set Bret "Hitman" Hart: The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be, Bret laments that he wishes he was with Owen on the night of his death, as he would have discouraged him from performing the stunt.

Owen's death caused a rift in the Hart family. Diana Hart released a book in 2001, Under the Mat, partially in response to Owen's death. Owen's widow Martha pursued legal action against Diana. Martha herself would write a book in 2002, Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart.

Martha filed a lawsuit against WWE in June 2010, alleging WWE did have the right to use Owen's name and likeness, as well as personal photos, specifically on the Hart & Soul DVD. She also claimed owed royalty payments. In April 2013, Martha settled with the WWE for an undisclosed amount, two months before the matter was set to go to trial.

Despite playing a heel for much of his career, Owen was well liked by his peers. He was very frugal with his money, saving for a comfortable retirement and eschewing parties with fellow wrestlers for staying in his hotel room. He was also a notorious prankster behind the scenes; in one instance, he convinced Tony Norris, aka Ahmed Johnson, that he was a guest on The Tonight Show. In another instance, he pranked his father Stu on the weekend of Wrestlemania IV, nearly getting into a fight with bodybuilder/wrestler Reg Park until revealing that Owen was in on the prank the entire time.

Owen had performed in 22 of the 28 In Your House events, more than any other in the company. He had main evented three of those shows. In December 2015, WWE released a DVD retrospective of Owen's career, Owen: Hart of Gold.

Owen's accomplishments:

  • 2-time WWF Intercontinental Champion
  • WWF European Champion
  • 4-time WWF Champion
  • 1994 King of the Ring
  • 3-time Slammy Award Winner (he also won one in 1994 for Biggest Rat)
  • IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion
  • Stampede British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight Champion
  • Stampede International Tag Team Champion
  • 2-time Stampede North American Heavyweight Champion
  • Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame
  • 1994 PWI Feud of the Year (with Bret Hart)
  • 1987 PWI Rookie of the Year
  • 1999 Editor's Award
  • #10 ranked singles wrestler in the world in 1994
  • #66 singles wrestler of the PWI Years
  • #84 (with Davey Boy Smith) tag team of the PWI Years
  • 2-time Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Flying Wrestler (1987, 1988)
  • 1997 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Feud of the Year (with Stone Cold Steve Austin)
  • 5-Star Match (vs. Bret Hart, Summerslam 1994)

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