Bret Hart, Jeff Jarrett and More Reminisce on Owen Hart 15 Years After His Death

Keith Elliot GreenbergCorrespondent IIMay 23, 2014

Photo: WWE.com

He wasn’t even a teenager when he first climbed the turnbuckles in the ring that stood in his yard like a jungle gym or kiddie pool. Owen James Hart was the youngest of 12, the son of Calgary promoter Stu Hart, patriarch of a family that would include seven wrestling sons—an eighth brother, Dean, had health issues and worked as a referee—and four sisters who married into the business.

He thought he was alone.

But Bret “The Hitman” Hart saw his younger brother peeking over his shoulder, gauging his position, then backflipping from the ring strands to the center of the canvas. “He’d get back on the ropes and he’d do it again and again and again,” the former WWE champion says. “I guess other second-generation wrestlers have had similar experiences. But when Owen started, he was already polished from all those years of practicing by himself.”

If Owen were still alive, Bret imagines him working as a ringside color man, like Jerry “The King” Lawler or John “Bradshaw” Layfield. “I don’t see him as an agent (a backstage liaison to the WWE talent) because I don’t think he’d want to stay on the road that much, away from his kids.”

Instead, Hart is remembered for one of professional wrestling’s most incomprehensible mishaps. On May 23, 1999, dressed as his alter-ego, the masked Blue Blazer, 34-year-old Owen was lowered from the rafters of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.

The goal was making a superhero entrance, albeit a silly one, since the Blazer was portraying an anachronism, a clean-living fan favorite intolerant of the permissiveness he saw in society in general and WWE—then known as the World Wrestling Federation—in particular.

While the lights were out and his entrance video was playing, Owen became detached from his safety harness and fell to his death.

There’d been other public tragedies in the industry before. In 1969, Iron Mike DiBiase, stepfather of the Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase, suffered a fatal heart attack while wrestling Man Mountain Mike in Lubbock, Texas. In 1993, Larry Cameron—who wrestled for the Hart family’s Stampede territory at one point —suffered the same fate in a bout with Tony St. Clair in Bremen, Germany.

In 2009, Mitsuharu Misawa, a founder of Japan’s NOAH promotion, would be suplexed in a tag team match in Hiroshima and never get up. According to the official police report, he died of cardiac arrest caused by a cervical spinal cord injury.

Yet, the bizarre nature of Owen’s demise coupled with the fact that it occurred during a WWE pay-per-view at a time when interest in the organization was high has obscured other aspects of his personality and achievements.

“I didn’t think it was true at first,” recalls Marty Jones, the former British wrestling champion, whose 1987 battle with Owen on ITV has been heralded as a classic. “It would have been tragic if a man that talented had broken his leg and couldn’t wrestle anymore. But this was unbelievable.”

Those who traveled the highways and tussled on the mats with the performer—who alternately labeled himself The Rocket, The Lone Hart and King of Harts—all have their favorite memories. Says Jeff Jarrett, Owen’s WWE tag team championship co-titlist for two months in 1999 and one of his best friends in the company, “Anyone who got to know him was truly blessed. Whether he was doing something in the ring or telling a joke, his timing was perfect. He just had it.”

During his matches, Owen would entertain not only the spectators but his fellow titans. “He’d put on funny holds,” Bret says, “pretend to smoke a cigarette, take funny bumps. I don’t think the fans noticed, but it was the kind of thing the wrestlers loved.”

Older brother Ross Hart describes his youngest sibling as a master mimic. “If you were walking in the street and you passed a dog, he’d make these lunging noises like the dog was attacking you. The Ultimate Warrior was a nervous guy to begin with and when Owen did it to him, the Warrior jumped off the curb.”

To onetime manager Jim Cornette, “Owen crashed the stereotype that Canadians are bland and boring.”

Still, Jarrett prefers reminiscing about the way Owen encouraged his wife to attend graduate school. “She went on to get her Ph.D, and it was very important for him to know that she was working towards something that made her happy. He had his priorities right.

“So when people ask me what I remember about Owen, it isn’t a funny story. It’s his integrity.”

Rising From the Dungeon

Photo: WWE.com

When they were alone in a car or a corner of the arena, Jarrett noticed that Owen tended to talk about non-wrestling topics. “That’s pretty rare,” the former WWE intercontinental champion—as well as world champion in TNA, WCW and Mexico’s AAA promotion—says, “especially for two guys who grew up the way we did.”

Both Owen and Jarrett were raised by fathers who made their livings both wrestling and promoting. “Not only were they dealing with 20 to 25 wrestlers and ring crews at a time, making sure they got to the arena on time and put on a good show,” Jarrett says. “They also had to worry about feeding those families. So you look at the business differently.”

Bret recalls a teenage Owen performing under a mask at a small show at the Rockyford Rodeo, about an hour from Calgary. “He’d work these matches just for the fun of it. But he was reluctant to get into the business full time. He was going to the university. He talked about becoming a fireman. He wanted to do something more normal. But I talked to him, sold him on how big he could be in the business.”

Like Stu’s other sons—as well as athletes like Chris Jericho, Brian Pillman, Chris Benoit, Lance Storm and Roddy Piper—Owen had trained in his father’s notorious “Dungeon,” literally located in the bowels of the family mansion, on a hill overlooking the city.

Below the low-hung ceiling, Stu twisted his students’ limbs on the weathered wrestling mats, teaching them how to choke out adversaries and break bones.

“He operated on the premise that if you were wrestling in Japan or India, and someone there wanted to make an example of you, or if some fan challenged you to prove that wrestlers were phonies, you’d have to be prepared,” Ross says. “If you gave him your arm, he’d master you and control your destiny—for 20 or 30 minutes, going from one hold to another, a double grapevine, a thread-through, a college ride. It wasn’t meant to humiliate you. That’s how you learned if you were meant to be doing this.”

Because Stampede attracted an international blend of headliners, Owen didn’t even have to leave his house to learn Japanese-style submission wrestling as well as stamina and conditioning training. When British wrestlers toured the territory, Owen picked up on their catch-as-catch-can and freestyle techniques. “But he wasn’t a copycat,” Ross points out. “He was coming up with his own repertoire.”

As Stampede’s top wrestlers—notably, Bret, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and the British Bulldogs, Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid—joined the expanding World Wrestling Federation in the mid-1980s, Stu turned to another son, Bruce, and stars like Benoit, Makhan Singh (Mike Shaw, later known as Bastion Booger in WWE), Pillman and Japanese Olympian Hiroshi Hase to keep the promotion alive. But, according to Bret, it was Owen who “saved my father’s business.”

Well aware of the financial strain the promotion put on his family, Owen exceeded expectations. “He’d be trying moonsaults, which no one except Tiger Mask and Gran Hamada (the first Japanese star to make Mexico’s high-flying lucha libre moves the core of his arsenal) were doing in Japan,” Ross says. “I don’t remember anybody picking up the business so quickly.”

World of Sport

“You know the crowd,” Marty Jones begins, describing the fastidious tastes of the British wrestling audience shortly before WWE ventured into the U.K. and eclipsed the local promotions. “They want their money back before the show’s even started. But with Owen, you knew you’d seen a match.

“He was a hell of a grafter—someone who could work as a heel or a babyface, a good workman, like a carpenter.”

In 1987, Owen was supplementing his time in Stampede with tours of Japan and Europe. On April 25, he and Jones wrestled for Joint Promotions’ vacant world mid-heavyweight championship on the popular World of Sport program.

As per British wrestling rules, the wrestlers could go 12 three-minute rounds until one of the combatants either scored two falls or submissions, or was knocked out.

“For any foreign wrestler to be put on the TV, the punters knew it was something special,” Jones says. “They showed the entire match. Usually, they might show Round 6 to Round 8.”

Each wrestler carried his native flag to the ring. Because of Calgary’s western tradition, Owen wore a cowboy hat and was introduced as “Bronco Owen Hart.”

Like Owen’s back-and-forth battle with Bret at WrestleMania X seven years later, the two seemed evenly matched, enabling viewers to suspend disbelief. “I’d wrestled Owen a few times in Calgary,” Jones says, “so we knew each other and it was good. It was technical, pure professional wrestling. No gimmicks. Bless his soul—I know he did go into the Blue Blazer later, but Owen was a wrestler, not a gimmick man.”

In the fifth round, Owen leaped up, hooking his legs around Jones’ shoulders and taking the first fall by rolling him onto the mat with a folding press finish.

“I’d nail him, he’d nail me,” Jones says. “We wanted it to look good. But there was nothing wrong with giving someone a stiff arm or stiff elbow. There was respect.”

Ultimately, Jones, the native son, rallied, winning his second fall in the 10th round. When Marty was handed the belt, Owen got on the microphone and told the crowd that the better man won. Then the two shook hands and Jones raised his opponent’s arm.

“If (play-by-play announcer) Ken Walton said anything on TV, the British public believed it,” Jones relates. “And he said it was the best match he’d commented on, and that’s stuck in people’s minds.”

Too Many Feathers

In 1988, Bret says he had a conversation with WWE head Vince McMahon about talent still working in Stampede. “He wanted Owen and Bad News Allen (rechristened Bad News Brown in WWE). My dad needed Owen, but he didn’t want to hold him back.”

Initially, the youngest Hart was billed as Owen James, as WWE assessed his abilities. One night in Denver, Owen and S.D. Jones were matched against Bret and his “Hart Foundation” partner, Neidhart. Owen was loose—like Davey Boy Smith, the Anvil was married into the Hart family and had worked with his brother-in-law before—executing cartwheels and backflips.

But even Bret was surprised at how “casual” his brother appeared between the ropes.

When they next spoke, Bret made a pitch for McMahon to place Owen on the full-time roster, suggesting a masked high-flyer like Tiger Mask, a Japanese sensation based on the anime character. “I didn’t come up with the Blue Blazer,” Bret says, “but I planted the seed. Vince seemed half sold, but he brought him in.”

According to Bret, the company was supposed to design a costume for its budding star. Instead, Owen’s wife and her aunt “made this cheap stuff that looked like they super-glued some feathers from a pillow onto his cape.”

During a match in Salisbury, Maryland, Bret says Owen slipped on his cape and wiped out the cameraman. “He was all flustered, and when the job guy (the wrestler booked specifically to lose to Owen that night) started calling spots (making match suggestions) for him, he got even madder. At one point, one of the feathers from the cape got stuck on his tongue, and he was trying to blow it off. It was a disastrous night. It was everything he feared.”

On the next show, Owen wrestled Barry Horowitz and redeemed himself.

At WrestleMania V, the Blazer was featured in a match against Mr. Perfect. Although he lost, he was given an opportunity to showcase his flashy moves, including a split-legged moonsault.

At the time, though, there were still a number of international promotions pining for a wrestler of Hart’s aptitude. Hoping to attain a more prominent spot elsewhere, he gave notice shortly after the pay-per-view.

“It might have been his size”—Owen was perceived as more of a lightweight than a heavyweight—“but I felt like they held him back quite a bit,” Ross says. “I didn’t think his work improved there. They limited his high-flying. I think he made a good move by leaving at the time and going back to his roots in Japan and Europe.”

Cain and Abel

Photo: WWE.com

After losing to Mexican legend El Canek in a mask vs. mask match, Owen believed that he’d purged the Blue Blazer from his life. For a period, he worked for WWE’s chief rival, WCW, but was unwilling to move his family near the group’s headquarters in Atlanta to become a full-timer. In 1991, he flew back from a German tour to a WWE event in San Antonio.

“Things had changed,” says Bret, who’d transitioned from being primarily a tag team grappler to a singles star. “I was the intercontinental champion. There was a new breed coming in.”

Incredibly, Owen still occasionally entertained thoughts about leaving the business entirely and becoming a firefighter, like another Hart sibling, Keith. But sometime in 1993, McMahon came to Bret with a concept about creating a villainous Hart brother.

“He wanted Bruce,” Bret says. “But Bruce had had knee surgery and was getting older. I didn’t think he could do it the way Vince wanted. The only brother I could see myself working with was Owen.”

Both McMahon and close advisor Pat Patterson were hesitant. According to Bret, they saw Owen as the sacrificial victim in the angle—the brother who gets brutalized by Bruce in order to provoke The Hitman into a match at WrestleMania X. Over the next several months, in between Bret’s other storylines—he’d won the WWE championship in 1992 but lost it at WrestleMania IX the next year—the subject would periodically emerge.

“I kept insisting on Owen until we did it,” he says.

“It was a jealousy angle, and it revitalized him,” Ross says. “People were surprised that Owen could play such a good heel, but they didn’t know that, when he was still in university, he worked heel for us under a mask. He’d seen so many good workers that he was very adaptive. He understood psychology from both sides.”

Because of Owen’s natural athleticism, there were fears that the fans watching WrestleMania X would side with him. The day before the confrontation, the brothers converged in what Bret terms an “emergency strategy session” to avert this. “We came up with things where he’d bite my fingers and cheap shot me, things that were really dirty, especially for a brother.”

Owen won the match, “getting all his stuff in,” Bret recounts, “but establishing himself as a tough little heel.” Later in the show Bret recaptured his championship and looked down the entrance ramp at a vengeful Owen, who was determined to take the title and validate his claims of being the true “King of Harts.”

“Owen showed that he was a main event guy,” Cornette says. “It’s a shame other things happened, and we didn’t get to see what he could have done later.”

"He'd Even Rib Himself"

If Owen had one compulsion, it was “pulling ribs,” or practical jokes, on fellow wrestlers and even family members. “He was the ultimate prankster,” Ross says. “But he never did destructive ribs. He never put Ex-Lax in someone’s drink or vandalized their property. It was always fun, and it made him fun to be around in a very stressful, very demanding industry.”

A favorite stunt became known as the “pizza rib.” It would begin with a 3 a.m. phone call from a man who appeared to have a thick Indian accent.

“He’d say there was a free pizza for every wrestler in the hotel as a special courtesy,” Bret explains. “You might not even want a pizza at the time. But he’d get you to commit. Then, when he got you to commit to the pizza, he’d start in with the toppings. ‘Do you want mushrooms? Do you want sausage? Do you want pepperoni?’ Once you agreed to three or four toppings, he’d turn things around and start charging you for them. You’d say you never even wanted a pizza, but he’d demand that you owed him money. And now, it’s the middle of the night, and you’re on the phone, arguing with somebody.”

Ross recalls Owen phoning The Iron Sheik, pretending to be a reporter who knew a great deal about the Iranian champion’s amateur background. The Sheik appeared flattered, talking about the way he started in the pro wrestling business, earning respect from other legitimate athletes like Karl Gotch, Danny Hodge and Lou Thesz.

“Then, Owen started disrespecting him,” Ross says, “telling the Sheik he wasn’t that good of a wrestler. The Sheik has a bad temper, and he began threatening the guy. And Owen said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m in your hotel right now. Why don’t you try something, if you’re such a tough guy?’”

With the other wrestlers watching in amusement, the Sheik stormed into the lobby in a T-shirt and shorts, looking all over for the nonexistent scribe.

Stu Hart was a preferred target. Owen would call his father and claim to be Luther Lindsay, a wrestler who’d died in 1972, and ask for a ride. “I remember him getting my dad on the phone and impersonating an old woman, speaking in a low, low voice,” Bret says. “My dad was hard of hearing, and he’d be going, ‘Speak up. Speak up, for chrissakes.’”

But Owen wouldn’t get off the phone until Stu agreed to send a donation to the woman’s fictitious charity.

“He’d even rib himself to make a joke,” Jarrett says. “He’d get one of these young wrestlers in the car with him, and he’d turn on the heat in the summertime and the air conditioning in the winter. Owen was a veteran by this point, so these guys didn’t want to show him any disrespect by saying anything. So they’d keep driving, with Owen sweating or freezing, just to see how long this kid could last.”

Because of Owen’s reputation, even regular conversations with him could be confusing. “Owen and Davey Boy ribbed me one time without ribbing me,” Cornette says. “I just assumed they were ribbing, but they were telling the complete truth.”

The misperception began after WWE started an angle that implied that Davey Boy Smith’s wife—Owen’s sister, Diana Hart Smith—might be having an affair with Shawn Michaels. Cornette then went on television to lambaste the Heartbreak Kid:

“You have tried to make this poor woman violate her sacred vows of marriage. You have tried to place your hands on her innermost private parts. You have forced yourself in an indecent way on this demure flower of womanhood.”

At the next Raw broadcast, Cornette spotted Davey Boy and Owen coming around a corner “with a red phone on a chord that looked like the Bat phone.”

“Stu for you,” Owen said, handing the receiver to his manager.

Cornette knew that Bruce Prichard—a WWE producer best remembered for playing a televangelist type named Brother Love—could do a flawless imitation of Stu’s gravelly, halting voice. So when the person on the other end began questioning the manager for depicting Diana as a “whore” and upsetting her children, Cornette played along.

“It’s all Bruce Prichard’s fault. It was his idea. He’s a sexual deviant. A pervert.”

Just as Cornette hung up, he spotted Prichard walking by, oblivious to the exchange.

Noting Cornette’s bafflement, Owen looked over at his manager and smirked.

“It was Stu.”


Photo: WWE.com

Bret was the champion in 1997 when he signed with rival WCW. But he had issues with the company about the way he should drop the title and—in what became known as the “Montreal Screwjob”—Vince McMahon ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell while Shawn Michaels had The Hitman tangled in the Sharpshooter at that year’s Survivor Series.

Furious that he hadn’t been able to lose the championship on the terms they’d previously discussed, Bret slugged McMahon in the dressing room and departed WWE under the worst possible circumstances. Owen opted to stay behind.

“When Bret left, they told Owen they were going to make him a main event guy and put him in a program with Shawn,” Cornette says. “They upped his money. Vince liked Owen, wanted to keep him and wanted to use him this way. I heard him talk about it. He also wanted to show the guys that there was a better alternative than going to WCW.”

Somewhere along the way, though, Owen fell out of the main event picture. “They didn’t do much with him,” Ross says. “But he was making good money, and he didn’t have a problem doing the honors (losing) to somebody to help business. He was also somewhat vulnerable. There might have been guys who’d had issues with Bret and wanted to take it out on him. But Owen was such a hard worker and had such a positive attitude that it never came to that.”

In Bret’s mind at the time, Owen was working for the enemy, yet the brothers remained close. “Owen couldn’t get out of his contract,” Ross claims. “And I think he was apprehensive about going to WCW. He didn’t think he’d get a push. He thought they’d bring him in just to raid the WWF. He didn’t want to just be tagging along.

As the WWE entered its risque Attitude era, the Blue Blazer was brought back as a foil for the performers pushing the boundaries of traditional taste. “He was doing a parody of Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, wooing and telling kids to take their vitamins and drink their milk,” Ross says. “It was a comical babyface role because everyone knew it was Owen. He was playing an alter-ego, like Mick Foley (who worked as Cactus Jack, Dude Love and Mankind simultaneously).”

On the night he died, Owen was apparently supposed to capture the intercontinental title from a pimp character called The Godfather. For years, Bret was embittered over his brother being asked to descend from the ceiling—as Shawn Michaels and Sting had, without incident, at other events. But today, he’s revised his attitude:

“No one made Owen go up to the catwalk that day. He seemed to know what he was doing. The guy doing the rigging said he knew what he was doing. I don’t hold the company accountable anymore.”

The Unthinkable

By this point, Cornette was no longer managing Owen. In fact, he was home on the night of the fateful Over the Edge pay-per-view, packing for a move from the company’s Connecticut base to his native Kentucky, where he was planning to help run a developmental territory for WWE.

“I was watching the show, but I was half-assed watching,” he says. “Then, I saw a crumby camera shot that you’d never see on a WWE pay-per-view. So I knew something was up.”

The camera had abruptly cut away from the ring.

In Calgary, a number of the Hart children were gathered at the family mansion for one of Stu’s spaghetti dinners. “We knew there was a pay-per-view,” Ross says. “But someone was going to record it, and we were going to watch it later.”

When the house phone rang one of Hart sisters, Allison, picked it up. From the other room, Ross heard something about Owen falling and being badly hurt. “We had no idea this was the ring entrance,” he says. “There was a communication gap. Then, Allison burst into tears and came into the dining room, and told us Owen was dead.”

On television, announcer Jim Ross informed the pay-per-view audience about the calamity in a shaken voice, emphasizing that the news was “not a wrestling angle.”

Back in the Hart home, Stu was on the phone with Owen’s wife, Martha. “My dad was outraged and stunned, asking Martha why Owen had to be lowered into the ring,” Ross says. “Then, she had to go. Vince McMahon was calling.”

Vince was scheduled to play a physical role in the main event, a WWE championship match pitting Stone Cold Steve Austin against The Undertaker. Now, instead of getting ready for the confrontation or supervising the talent backstage, he was passing on condolences and information to Owen’s loved ones. “It must have been hard for Vince,” Ross says. “People say it was insensitive that he didn’t end the show right there, that he should have ceased and desisted. But everything was so surreal to him. I know it was important for him to let us know he was sorry.”

The week after the pay-per-view, Owen and his family were supposed to relocate to a custom-built home in Elbow Springs, Alberta, in the countryside outside Calgary. “I helped Martha move,” Ross says. “We were all doing talk show interviews. Reality hadn’t set in that Owen was gone.”

But when it did, there was frustration and acrimony, as well as a series of lawsuits.

“There were two camps over whether there was negligence, with my parents caught in the middle,” Ross says. “It divided the family so much. Martha said justice was obstructed for carrying on the show and never forgave Vince McMahon. Owen had gotten Davey Boy a job with the WWF and, now, he was in an awkward position with Bret. The relationship between Bret and Bruce was never the same again. Losing Owen was one thing, but the infighting really aged my parents. To this day, some people in my family are not on speaking terms.”

Jeff Jarrett refuses to talk about Owen’s death: “No one could have predicted it. You can second-guess things forever. It was a real tough time that affected everyone in the business. I’ve never watched the footage and I never will.”

But Cornette remains angry. “I’m still pissed they put him on the f----n’ ceiling,” he says. “It didn’t sell any tickets. It didn’t increase the buyrate. It didn’t add anything to Owen as a wrestler. It was just a stupid idea—and this comes from somebody who’s worked scaffold matches.

“Would anyone remember him coming down from the ceiling if this hadn’t happened? The answer is no. It was preposterous.”

Interestingly, Bret—then one of McMahon’s most outspoken detractors—is among the most forgiving: “It’s clear to me it was a horrible accident. There was no malicious intent. It bothered Vince a lot. It was hard for me to realize the anguish that everybody was going through. It was hard for everybody.”

In 2010, McMahon and Bret addressed their previous animosity in a storyline, wrestling each other at WrestleMania 26, as other members of the clan acted as ringside lumberjacks. “Martha hasn’t spoken to the family since then,” Ross says. “I think she feels we shamed Owen’s memory.”

Because of the widow’s sentiments, Bret says, the company has been hesitant to release video compilations of Owen’s matches or induct him into the Hall of Fame. “He really belongs there,” Bret says. “Today’s fans deserve to enjoy his talents. The memories fade every day.”

But never to the people who really knew him. “Yes, he moaned that he was away from home and he missed his family,” Bret continues. “But he loved wrestling. He loved a good match. He had a lot of fun in the ring, and he made the fans have a lot of fun watching him.”