Sunday, 3 January 2016

Owen Hart (2007)

Previously published by The Oratory in 2007.

It might be rather out of date, but it does profess my love for the tragic pro-wrestler well, and is a good example of my writing from a decade ago. A decade ago? Bloody hell, tempus fugit. 

Owen Hart died, of that there was little doubt. An unenviable few witnessed it; countless others felt the effects of this moment. On the 23rd May 1999, at roughly 9pm ET, the youngest of the Hart brothers was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital in Kansas. The facts are simple enough. His character of The Blue Blazer was supposed to make a superhero like entrance from the rafters, but something went horribly wrong. The harness failed. The man fell 50ft to the ring. The PPV was held up. Jim Ross assured everyone that what was going on in the ring (not shown to television audiences) was not a kayfabed incident, that this was real and Owen Hart was in serious danger. Nevertheless, this was wrestling! Surely, no matter how bad the situation looked, Hart would be on RAW laughing at everyone with Jeff Jarrett and Debra McMichaels as usual. Only it was not to be.

The PPV audience was informed of the tragedy shortly after a Corporate Ministry/Union match, the people backstage just before.

“Earlier tonight, tragedy befell the World Wrestling Federation as Owen Hart fell from the ceiling. It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that Owen Hart has died, Owen Hart has tragically died from his injuries received earlier.”
Jim Ross

The PPV became insignificant. What did it matter if Stone Cold Steve Austin lost the WWF Championship in controversial circumstances, or Al Snow had retained his Hardcore title in a bloody good brawl before the tragedy? None of it mattered, certainly least of all to new Champion and “personification of evil” The Undertaker, who could barely conceal his tears for his fallen friend. A wrestler, beloved by his family, respected by his peers and acknowledged by the fans, was no more. It was senseless. The WWF choose to continue the PPV broadcast that night after word of Owen’s death, but the ethics of that will not be covered here.

The night after, 24th May, was one rarely repeated in wrestling. On Nitro, the death of a rival’s star was acknowledged. The likes of Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero wore black armbands in tribute. RAW was completely turned over to a night of tributes to the man. Wrestlers opened wept, some performed in the ring, and others gave eulogy tributes, each man and woman doing the best they felt they could. The Rock poignantly broke off his usual crowd catching spiel by exclaiming, “And dammit, Owen, you know The Rock loved you like no other” which had more tears from the audience, regardless of people’s knowledge about Owen and Bret being mentors for a young Dwayne Johnson in the wrestling world. The show was emotional. Whatever anyone can throw at it, and some people have tried, the one thing people have to respect about the Owen is RAW show is that its heart was definitely in the right place. It would be insensitivity of the highest order to say, “Owen died” and then dive into the storyline of The Greater Power.  Time for reflection was needed.

Unfortunately, this is where we reach the crux of this article. For now, nine years after the tragedy that robbed wrestling of its greatest practical joker, Owen Hart seems to have different opinion camps in his name. There is the first, who claim he was the greatest wrestler to never be World Champion, and surely would have had he not died. Then there is the second, who use this as the basis for stating the man was highly overrated, and downgrade his achievements and quality as a result. The truth is somewhere in between these two extremes.

To find the underlying cause of the Owen Hart myth, the following questions have to be answered.

  1. What was the story of Owen’s career?
  2. What was Owen like as a performer?
  3. Should he have become WWF Champion?
  4. Would he have become WWF Champion?
  5. In answer to these questions, what should his legacy be?

  1. What was Owen like as a performer?

Owen Hart was born to be a wrestler. Never mind his aspirations to be a fireman, it was wrestling that was in his blood and was to consume him. Born the youngest of eleven siblings, he was the son of Stu Hart and the youngest in a long line from the most famous wrestling family in Canada. Trained by his father in the Dungeon and showing promise with a flair for amateur wrestling, he was wrestling under a hood (mask) at various house shows for his father by the time he was sixteen. Allen Coage (Badnews Allen) referred to him as “the most talented of the Hart brothers, if he’d put his mind to it.” Moreover, that seemed to sum up Owen for the first part of his career, stretching from the age of sixteen to his Japanese journey in the early 1990s. If he put his mind to it, he would excel. Too often, as Coage complained, the boy would coast along, hoping his name value would suffice any real talent. Too many wrestlers come in with that attitude now, Lacey Von Erich the latest in a long line, but thankfully for us Owen Hart grew in maturity and found himself in a wrestling sense.

Spells in his early twenties in Stampede Wrestling and New Japan led to the chance to follow his brother Bret’s example: the WWF came calling. Owen signed for them. In an effort to differentiate himself from his brother, he suggested working under a hood. And so the Blue Blazer was born. The masked wrestler wowed crowds with an aerial offence rarely seen in 1980s WWF, and had a good short match with Curt Hennig at that years WrestleMania, but other than that, nothing really happened. Disillusioned with the federation at their lack of willingness to give him any sort of push, Owen quit in the summer of 89.

Thereafter was the most important time of Owen Hart’s learning career as a wrestler. He travelled the world. He wrestled in Japan, he wrestled in Mexico, and he wrestled in Europe: anywhere he could get to he would go and wrestle. In addition, whilst there he learned more about the art of wrestling. From then on after the world tour of 1990, Owen’s repertoire group to include tricks moves and sequences he would spot from pros around the world. Also important in this part of his life was a Mask v Mask match he had in 1990 against El Canek of Mexico, where he lost the rights to The Blue Blazer mask. From then on, for good or bad, he was Owen Hart, inside and outside the ring.

Realising that he needed the money to finance his growing immediate family (he married his childhood sweetheart Martha in 1989), and having been rejected by the fire brigade he longed to join, Owen rejoined the WWF in late 1991. It was an option not taken lightly, but he thought the money he could earn would suit his family in the end. And almost immediately, he found himself in the ever-increasing shadow of his brother. Owen was paired with Jim Neidhart as The New Foundation, but continual references to the original Foundation ended the gimmick before it started. Neidhart was sacked, but Owen was kept on, having impressed with stellar performances such as the tag win against The Orient Express at the 1992 Royal Rumble. He was next put into a tag team with Koko B Ware, which was as short lived as his first. Koko was fired, Owen landed badly being eliminated from the 1993 Royal Rumble and was injured for a significant part of the rest of the year. During his recuperation time, he actual won the USWA Heavyweight title (then the feeder camp) for a fortnight, winning it off Papa Shango on June 21st and losing it to Jerry Lawler on July 5th. His career, however, was at a crossroads.

And this is where brother Bret changed his fortunes. Owen Hart and Vince McMahon were, in late 1993, perilously close to another parting of the ways. Exasperated, Owen suggested a feud with his brother and McMahon loved the idea. Bret was less enamoured with the idea, but Owen’s persistent and willingness brought him around to the storyline. It was the biggest storyline of 1993/4: Owen Hart turning his back on his brother, Bret. It took the problems of exposure Owen had in the past and made a storyline out of it. In great matches at the Rumble, WrestleMania, King of the Ring and Summerslam Owen proved not only that he could step out of his brothers shadow and in many aspects equal him, but also his worth to the company. Owen won the WrestleMania showdown with his brother, and the King of the Ring title, but when it came to the title defence at Summerslam, Bret retained. (Owen was terrified of heights, Bret recalls in his DVD, and the champion felt it was of empirical importance to protect his younger sibling during the bumps in this match.)

And yet, Owen cost his brother the WWF Championship at the Survivor Series that year. It became a case of Bret having won the fight, but Owen won the war. He who laughs last laughs best. Owen Hart then claimed that, having stepped out of the shadow, he was now going to do everything Bret did, but better. He would become Tag Team Champion. He would become Intercontinental Champion. And then, he would become World Wrestling Federation Champion. It was his calling.

The tag titles came and went four times, with three different partners. (Yokozuna, Bulldog, Jeff Jarrett). The Intercontinental title was gained also. The WWF Championship, however, was not to be. Fate, circumstance and effort had other things in mind.

  1. What was Owen like as a performer?

Owen Hart the performer was highly talented. Capable of aerial manoeuvres, hard hitting pseudo-martial arts kicks and groundwork submission, he could work a large variety of matches with a large variety of opponents. Compare, for example, the difference between his matches with Bret Hart and the 123 Kid in 1994.

He was a wrestler of two halves, so to speak. He could drag a watchable performance out of people less talented than the ring posts, or he could ham it up like no one else. It often depended on his mood. His bad matches, thanks to Mick Foley and the late Davey Boy Smith, are legendary. It is incredible today to think of anyone who could go out in front of a live audience and deliberately have a bad match to amuse the wrestlers backstage. Everyone is too smart these days. They would shit on it. However, Owen got away with it, spectacularly sometimes. The Rock once told the anecdote about Owen Hart relaxing in Bret’s Sharpshooter, refusing to sell until Bret legitimately cranked it right back, at which point Owen uttered a sudden shriek of pain. It may have hurt, but his target audience appreciated it: Bulldog and Austin in the heel corner were having a hard time controlling their laughter. It was just part of his way of trying to cheer everyone up. “Owen wanted everyone to be happy…,” noted Bret, “…whether he was scrawling, “lets be friends” in big sappy letter over your autograph, or pulling the accelerator in the middle of the motorway to see what would happen.”

However, he could also work with the rookies. The Rock went on to tell of one of his earlier matches, with Owen, where after Hart told the upper brass the rookie Flex Kavanna was better than half the current roster. In addition, when Kurt Angle wrestled his first dark match, it was against Owen he faced. The nervous Olympian was calmed through a surprisingly efficient match by the veteran Canadian, who apparently controlled the match with his own versions of bad jokes.

The influence his career has had is long stretching. A long list of wrestlers, including CM Punk, Paul London and Brian Kendrick – have repeatedly cited him a chief influence in their own careers. Indeed, I once counted it up that the number of people citing Owen Hart as the chief influence for them becoming wrestlers in the 1990s was second only to Shawn Michaels. That, alone, is impressive.

  1. Should he have become WWF Champion?

Loads of people should have been WWF Champion, and were not. My main man Curt. Bam Bam Bigelow. Vader. Bulldog. Giant Gonzalez. Scratch the last one.

Owen Hart was not the only deserving man to never receive top honours. Becoming Champion in the WWF requires talent, charisma, and a hell of a lot of luck. Owen had the first two, certainly, but lacked the third. Various opportunities arose. 1994 was deemed too soon. The “ending Shawn’s career” gimmick struck too close to WrestleMania 12. The Clique refused to work with him after The Montreal Incident, and the new Champion, Steve Austin, was bitter about an errant piledriver at Summerslam 1997, which led to time off and a curtailing of the Rattlesnakes career. He refused to work with Owen, let alone do a title programme. Beyond that, he was dead.

One major complaint people have is Owen’s promos. Unconventional and unconvincing are two words used to describe them. Anyone can give an Owen Hart promo. The key is to use copious amounts of “Woo!” several “I am a winner!”s and repeat the facts. Muddling up phrases and metaphors is also a must. An Owen Hart promo would go something like this:

“Woo! I am a winner, and you are a loser! Loser! Woo! I won the title, because I am the greatest, because I am like an elephant, I never sleep, and you slept Bret..woo! That’s why I am a winner, and that’s why I kicked your leg out of your leg! Woo!”

Placed on the screen like that, and it doesn’t seem too impressive. But it worked in Owen’s character. And that is what people forget. Owen’s promo’s came across like the words of an overexcited spoiled brat because, in character, that is what he primarily was most of the time. Certainly they were a damned sight better than half of those “I will beat you up while I shake my fist at the camera and shout” promos of the 1980s. However, one can see the point in expecting a 20-minute promo out of the man. It would have, however, been interesting to see.

Should Owen have been Champion? That depends. I am of the opinion that if you think Owen Hart should have been champion, then you should believe the merit of Hennig and co to have held the accolade also. Either everyone deserving should have held the strap or they could not. The problem with Owen and Curt is that they did not have the drawing power to be champion. In the case of Owen, he also did not possess the main event talking ability required of him. He could have had a Foleyesque reign at some point, but other than that, there was little chance of it in the 1998/9 world.

4        Would he have become WWF Champion?

Now to answer the other half of the argument, those who fawn about going “Oh, Owen would have been Champion if he hadn’t died.” We are delving into the realms of the counterfactual here, and have to be careful, but let us assume for a second that Owen Hart was not killed on May 23rd 1999. a fanciful notion, but lets assume that the stunt passed without incident, and without focusing on the difference in wrestling as a whole – for, as a counterfactual, that is a whole different article – lets look at how Owen would have developed.

He would have been Intercontinental Champion, for sure. That much is definite. But then where? It has been suggested that his career path would have followed the route Jarrett’s took that year, but even if that had a shred of truth to it, I could certainly see Owen nixing the “woman beating” run before it started. True to his principles, he was.

The idea of Owen as WWF Champion after May 1999 is based on two things.

  1. The rumour brought about in the summer of 1999 on news boards such as Rajah that Owen was going to be the Undertaker’s Greater Power, and his death led it to being Vince. Now, the evidence for this is almost non-existent. So let us consign it as tosh.
  2. Triple H mentioning that his nickname “The Game” was original to be used for Owen.

But that could have meant anything. For all we know The Blue Blazer could have tested people in games of monopoly for the Intercontinental title!

The truth is that if Owen Hart did not carry through his decision to retire at some point in 2000, he may have very well become a World champion during the Brand Split. Countless others have, Owen could have easily fitted in. Nevertheless, more than likely, he would have been retired by that point. Therefore, the answer is most likely a no: Owen Hart would not have been WWF Champion had he lived.

5        In answer to these questions, what should his legacy be?

The legacy of Owen Hart can only be a positive one. I recently read an online post where someone said, “If you let Owen Hart into the Hall of Fame, you may as well let the One Man Gangs in.” Let us get serious for a moment. How many people did the Gang inspire to be wrestlers? Now, what about Owen? If we are talking legacy, and surely that is the greatest thing a wrestler can have, then the legacy of Owen Hart burns brightly. It exists in matches still enjoyable today, in rookies given the support to grow and becomes legends in their own right, in newcomers who joined pro-wrestling because the man inspired them. A legacy is formed by these things, and not by who won the most belts, had the most star-studded career or who talked the best.

Owen died, roughly nine years ago to this point. But his memory and legacy will live on, as they have done this decade. In addition, the man is probably sitting in a higher seat than us, watching the likes of Paul London profess their undying respect and adulation of him, and laughing at the attention. It would, after all, be just like Owen.

Michael S. Collins

(With thanks to Online World of Wrestling, Kirsty Quested’s “Tribute to the King of Hearts”, the audio shoot by Badnews Allen, and books by Mick Foley, The Rock and Kurt Angle.)