This week’s episode of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring covered the tragic death of Owen Hart.
Owen was born into a legendary wrestling dynasty, the Hart family, but he was not a wrestling lifer. He didn’t intend to pursue a career in wrestling, but he entered the business in the mid 80’s to help out his father’s promotion in Calgary. It was immediately clear that Owen was a prodigy and pioneer in the ring whose physical talents and acrobatics were unmatched. He worked in Japan in 1987 before moving on to WWF in 1988, where he wrestled under a mask as The Blue Blazer.
Hart rose to widescale fame in WWF throughout 1994 by playing the bratty little brother who was jealous of the iconic Bret Hart, who Owen beat at WrestleMania 10 at Madison Square Garden. Owen went on to win the King of the Ring tournament later that year.
Owen’s goal was to save up enough money so that he could leave the wrestling business by around 40 years old, and then move on to the next phase of his life together with his wife, Martha, and their two children, Oje and Athena. But those plans tragically never came to fruition, because Owen Hart died on May 23, 1999, due to WWE’s negligence in having him perform a horribly ill-advised stunt at Over The Edge in Kansas Ciy, Missouri. He had just turned 34 years old a couple weeks prior to this terrible incident.
Bret Hart departed WWF right after the infamous Montreal Screwjob in late 1997, and Owen asked for his release from WWF due to the real-life double cross that his brother endured. WWF didn’t let him go, and instead gave him more money on a new contract to stick around.
When WWE ushered in the Attitude Era in 1998, the focus of the show became geared more towards sleazy and shocking storylines. The WWF creative team couldn’t figure out how to effectively make use of Owen’s natural talents in this seedier environment. He rejected several storyline pitches, including one where he would be cheating on his wife with Debra McMichael. Owen finally accepted a return of the masked Blue Blazer persona, in a campy superhero parody gimmick that was meant to be laughed at.
The Blue Blazer once spoofed the famous entrance of WCW’s top star Sting, in November 1998, by descending from the rafters of the arena on a harness. The idea is that he would get stuck in the air just before reaching the ground and look like an incompetent buffoon. Owen was securely rigged with a locking carabiner by a top rigging company that did similar previous work for Elton John, Rolling Stones, Disney, etc. Everything went fine with that stunt.
This aerial stunt was revisited six month later at WWF’s Over The Edge on May 23, 1999. The stunt was written into the show late in the week, and Martha Hart was reassured by WWF that it was totally safe because they were bringing in the top riggers from Los Angeles. Martha goes on to say the following:
“He never questioned, ever, his safety, because he assumed that this billion dollar company was certainly going to make sure that they hired the best in the business. Which they did not.”
On the day of the event, Jim Ross said that Owen was not his typical exuberant self, and expressed to Ross that he didn’t like heights. Ross surmised that Hart was concerned with the stunt.
During the show, Owen was up in the rafters waiting for his cue to descend. A pre-taped promo from the Blue Blazer was playing on the Titantron, and it was about time for him to make his entrance. But something went horribly wrong, and Owen fell nearly 80 feet to his death. It appears that he may have screamed “Look out!”, before he impacted either the turnbuckle or ringpost. Referee Jimmy Korderas described his own experience in the ring when this happened:
“I thought I heard screaming, and then I felt something brush against the side of my head and my shoulder, and at the same time, the top rope that I was holding pulled out of my hand and came back and jammed my fingers. I’m thinking in my head, what the heck was that? When I turned and looked, there was Owen. He was laying in the ring, face up, and I just started screaming for help.”
Jim Ross filled time on live television for 15 minutes while Owen was lying in the ring being worked on by EMTs. His broadcast partner Jerry Lawler got a closer look at what happened, and turned white as a ghost after seeing Owen’s condition. Other wrestlers like The Godfather and D-Lo Brown saw what Owen looked like after the fall, and it’s an image that they don’t want to ever think about again. After Owen’s body was removed from the ring, the show continued, even though it was potentially a crime scene, and ring boards were damaged and the mat was stained with his blood. Martha says that the police should have stopped the show and investigated immediately.
Later in the show, Jim Ross was informed by Kevin Dunn that Owen was dead, and he was given a 10 second notice to convey that information to the viewers at home:
“And I have the unfortunate responsibility to let everyone know that Owen Hart has died. Owen Hart has tragically died from that accident here tonight.”
Martha received the tragic news on a phone call with the doctor, and her whole world turned upside down. In addition to coming to terms with her own grief and loss, she then had to explain to her seven year old son Oje, and her three year old daughter Athena, that their father was dead. Martha said she clearly saw two paths in front of her - one of total destruction, and one of reconstruction. All she could think about was her children and how she was all they had now, and she needed to make sure to keep things from falling apart for their sake.
Owen’s funeral took place about a week later, and there were over 1,000 people outside the funeral home. D-Lo Brown offered his recollection of the procession:
“We were riding in the funeral procession, and there were Canadians pulled off on the side of the road, letting us pass, like Owen was a head of state. It was amazing to see how revered he was in that town, in that country, and in our business.”
Martha said there was a day of reckoning coming. She was determined to find out the circumstances that led to Owen’s death. She traveled to the site of Owen’s death with her children to put the pieces together. The three of them went up to the catwalk to the exact spot where Owen fell from. Here is how Oje described that view:
“When I looked over that cliff, into the abyss down below, I saw distance between where we were and the ground, and knowing that he went out there. I can’t even imagine the fear that he would’ve been feeling in those final minutes, those seconds. But still not forfeiting the opportunity to bring us the life that we had.”
The Kansas City police showed Martha the clip that was used to hold Owen, and this was her reaction to seeing it:
“It’s a clip meant for the sole use of sailboats. It’s designed to release on load, so when you have a load on it, and then when you just click it, then it just opens. It opens immediately, because the design is to let the mast down on a sailboat. It’s this quick release right here, six pounds of pressure to release it...This is what was holding him, this little thing right there. That’s it. When I first saw the clip, the very first time, I gasped, and I was so upset. It was just appalling.”
Martha explains that WWF thought the Blue Blazer’s descent six months earlier looked too clumsy and sloppy, and what they wanted was a quick release from the harness as soon as he reached the ground. Those of you who watched Sting in WCW in 1997 might recall that once in a while there was a delay where had to take a couple seconds to unlock himself from his harness after landing. Martha says that WWF severely compromised Owen’s safety just to shave a few seconds off the stunt, which is completely negligent and irresponsible:
“That’s what they wanted. It was to save like two seconds of the setup. Bobby Talbert should have never been in charge of rigging anybody. He had no experience.”
Oje said the following:
“I do think that the measurable neglect that had to go into something so catastrophic cannot be overlooked. This tragedy...was completely preventable. This was a guy who was 240 pounds. There could have been a rigging team that knew what they were doing. And they didn’t because it was more expensive.”
To follow up on this with something that was not mentioned in the documentary, David Bixenspan recently highlighted an investigative file from 1999 that included Bobby Talbert’s claim that WWF told him the previous stunt team that they worked with was “not good enough for the camera shots because they performed the stunts too slow.”
You can go find video of Owen’s descent on Sunday Night Heat before Survivor Series 1998 and see just how safe it looks. But it seems that safety was not the number one priority for WWF in organizing the stunt at Over the Edge 1999; they instead wanted to work with a different team that would perform the stunt with a quicker release and give them better camera shots.
Martha claimed in another interview that the previous stunt team told WWF that the way they wanted to do the stunt with the quicker release was not safe.
Martha Hart filed a wrongful death lawsuit against WWF and Vince McMahon. She was suing WWF in Kansas City, but said McMahon wanted the case moved to Connecticut, because there were some very high verdicts awarded in Missouri, whereas there were no punitive damages in Connecticut. So McMahon sued Owen’s widow for breach of Owen’s contract in an attempt to make that happen.
She explains that McMahon manipulated members of the Hart family to work against her in the legal battle. Jim Cornette said it’s natural to assume there was great trepidation among members of the Hart family about suing the most powerful man in wrestling, because their lives were so centered around professional wrestling. Here is Martha’s perspective on the Hart family’s behavior during this time:
“The Hart family, they were not supportive of my lawsuit against WWF. Some members were silent. Then other ones actively worked against me, stealing my legal documents, giving them to the defense. So they basically had our playbook. That was very heart-breaking for me.”
Over one year later, a settlement for 18 million dollars was reached. Martha didn’t care about the money. She wanted the case to go to trial. She wanted justice and accountability. But her lawyers explained to her that in a legal battle like this against a giant corporation, it was always going to end up being about money, that’s just how it is. I wish the documentary had significantly more time to spend on this legal battle, but it was only quickly addressed during a three minute section towards the end.
Martha Hart (and her children) will never allow WWE to financially benefit off Owen Hart if she can help it, because she finds the company responsible for his death. It’s a completely reasonable and understandable point of view. She is not the bad guy for standing up to WWE in this manner, and more people need to come around and recognize that she’s doing the right thing by her husband’s memory and legacy with her actions.
Her husband, the father of her children, and the love of her life, was needlessly taken away from her due to a poorly conceived and implemented stunt. His tragic fall never should have happened, and it was entirely preventable. Owen died before he could reach the peak of his career, before he could raise his children, and before he could get off the road and make up for all the time he spent away from his family. Owen Hart should be alive today, enjoying that next chapter in his life and spending more time with his family.
Martha chooses to honor Owen’s legacy through the Owen Hart Foundation, as Oje explains:
“We have built a foundation that helps put people in homes, that helps single moms, like my mom was, that let kids go to school. This is all done in his namesake. This has all got Owen Hart written all over it...and that’s how we want it to be done.”
Owen Hart’s death is one of the darkest days in the history of professional wrestling. It’s frustrating to see how WWF creative couldn’t figure out how to book one of the most talented wrestlers in the world, leading to a goofy superhero gimmick that opened the door for this stunt to happen. It’s painfully obvious how easily Owen’s fall could have been avoided with proper precautions and resources in place. It’s disgusting to see a billion dollar corporation taking shortcuts and compromising a wrestler’s safety for the sake of time and better camera shots. But more than anything else, it’s heart-breaking to see Owen Hart’s children talk about him 21 years after his death, because they didn’t get to spend much time with their father. Athena in particular only has fleeting memories of her father, and it’s so sad to see.
Martha Hart says that Owen greatly appreciated his fans, and she hopes people will remember him for all the deeply admirable human qualities he possessed - a family man, a loving father, a humble and kind-hearted person, someone who always tried to do right by others, and an insatiable prankster. Pro wrestling fans will also remember him as one of the best they’ve ever seen between the ropes.