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Thursday Night Tanders (5/26/16): In Memory of Owen Hart (1965-1999)


I've been planning this for weeks, and even months—a tribute to one of my favorite wrestlers from my teenage years, and the younger brother of a WWE legend whom I have looked up to since childhood, and featured in past editions of Thursday Night Tanders.

May 23 marked the 17th death anniversary of Owen Hart, who was tragically killed in an in-ring accident at the then-WWF's Over the Edge pay-per-view at the Kemper Arena in St. Louis. At the time, he was expressing his real-life frustration with the WWF's edgy Attitude Era product, but also doing so in kayfabe as his old masked persona, The Blue Blazer. He was, as usual, playing his heel role to the hilt as he had mostly done since memorably turning on big brother Bret at Royal Rumble 1994.

This week on Thursday Night Tanders, we shall pay tribute to the Rocket, Owen Hart, looking back at his most memorable (and controversial) moments in the WWF and exploring the sad aftermath of his untimely passing.



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The Least Likely Heel In The World


Owen James Hart was the youngest of Stu and Helen Hart's 12 children, and while he initially didn't initially want to become a professional wrestler, he did join his brothers in Stampede Wrestling, eventually joining the WWF roster in 1988. But instead of debuting as himself, Owen was asked to compete as The Blue Blazer, a masked superhero-type character who mostly wrestled in the opening slot against the likes of Barry Horowitz or Boris Zhukov.


After a brief run in the lower midcard, Owen returned to the independent circuit in 1989, but was back in the WWF in 1991, this time using his real name and being billed accordingly as Bret Hart's younger brother.

Upon his return/debut as himself, there was nothing really special about Owen. He wasn't the type to yell and scream in his promos, and he didn't have an exciting or interesting gimmick, or even a gimmick to begin with. He was Bret's baby brother, and he was still mostly a preliminary guy, tagging with Jim Neidhart as the New Foundation until the Anvil's "personal demons" forced him out of the WWF in 1992. He then had a run as a singles wrestler, then as one-half of High Energy with Koko B Ware. That too was a preliminary tag team, albeit one with goofy, neon-colored costumes that prevented anyone from taking them seriously. And, now that I look back and re-watch those old matches, it's easy to see in Owen an up-and-coming star with some great in-ring talent, itching to move up in the card and ditch the goofy costumes.


Though High Energy was quietly disbanded at the start of 1993, it wasn't until the fall of that year when Owen started hinting at great things to come. Believing that Bret had caused him to be the Hart Family's only elimination in a four-on-four Survivor Series match against Shawn Michaels and what should have been Jerry "The King" Lawler's Knights, he started teasing a heel turn, accusing Bret of holding him down. The two brothers patched up their differences over the Christmas holidays, only for Owen to finally turn heel at Royal Rumble 1994. Incensed that Bret wouldn't (actually couldn't, in storyline) tag him in, Owen worked the Hitman's kayfabe-injured knee after the match, kicking off an intense year-long family feud which I had covered earlier this year in more detail. And as we learned in that feud, the quiet, soft-spoken baby boy of the Hart family could show some angst, cut a great heel promo and work a vindictive, jealous heel gimmick like few others could, even declaring himself as the "King of Harts" after successfully winning the 1994 King of the Ring tournament over the highly-favored Razor Ramon.




Owen 3:16 Says I Just Broke Your Neck!


After the Bret vs. Owen feud ended in 1995, Owen remained a viable upper midcard heel, teaming with Yokozuna and being managed by Jim Cornette. The Owen/Yoko duo won the WWF World Tag Team titles twice in 1995, and when Owen's brother-in-law "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith turned heel and Yoko's weight was becoming more and more of an issue in real life, it was Owen/Bulldog for most of 1996 through the first quarter of 1997. They too became Tag Team Champions, but a feud for the newly-created European Championship threatened to break the team apart—until Bret Hart, now a heel, convinced Owen and Bulldog to patch things up, while patching things up himself with his estranged little brother. With that, the all-new Hart Foundation was reborn, and the threesome would become a five-man stable in a few weeks' time, as Brian Pillman and Jim Neidhart joined the Foundation.


As part of The Hart Foundation, Owen won his first Intercontinental title, pinning a young, squeaky-clean blue-chipper named Rocky Maivia (you probably know him better for his more ELECTRIFYING persona) for the belt. But as Intercontinental Champion, Owen was also involved in what turned out to be the darkest, most questionable moment of his wrestling career. Facing Stone Cold Steve Austin in an IC title match at SummerSlam 1997, Owen botched a piledriver, causing Austin to land on his head. Austin won the match, but suffered a severe neck injury that ultimately led to his early retirement some years later.


And while Owen lost the proverbial battle, he still felt as if he won the on-camera war, briefly using a riff on Austin's catchphrase for his own—"Owen 3:16 says I just broke your neck!"

Now here's where things get "questionable" for the Rocket, as mentioned above. Despite being a beloved competitor backstage, known for his devotion to his family and clever practical jokes (or "ribs"), Owen allegedly did not apologize to Austin for accidentally injuring him in the ring. This was detailed in the Texas Rattlesnake's autobiography The Stone Cold Truth, and it may explain why, according to Bret's own autobiography, Austin was the most notable absence at Owen's funeral in 1999. As Owen is no longer with us, we may never know why he never apologized for accidentally and legitimately breaking Stone Cold's neck.


Enough is Enough, It's Time For A Change!


The fallout of the Montreal Screwjob resulted in Bret Hart leaving the WWF on extremely bad terms with Vince McMahon and the company, and in support of their brother-in-law, Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith also left for WCW in the weeks that followed. The fifth Hart Foundation member, and the only one not related by blood or marriage, Brian Pillman, had tragically died of a heart attack in October, which left Owen as the last man standing in the Foundation.


Now all Hart-related books except Bret's claim that this caused a rift between the brothers, due to the Hitman understandably being very bitter over the Screwjob; Bret claims he and Owen were just kayfabing everybody, and remained close despite the latter's decision to stay in the WWF and remain gainfully employed for his family's sake. Regardless of whether the brothers were estranged in real life or not, the bottom line was that Owen decided to stick it out in the WWF, and actually continued to thrive.

At first, Owen was an angry babyface feuding with D-Generation X and accusing the Kliq-led in-ring faction of driving Bret away from the WWF. But since he was so good as a smarmy, occasionally hammy heel character, Creative thought it would be better if his face run would be a short one, and that he turn heel again once the post-Screwjob furor died down.

In early 1998, about four weeks after WrestleMania XIV, the so-called "Black Hart" turned on Ken Shamrock in a match against Nation of Domination members Mark Henry and The Rock, effectively becoming the Nation's first and only white member at a time when their black militant angle was being phased out. He also got himself a new, memorable catchphrase that's still one of this writer's personal favorites—"Enough is enough, it's time for a change!"




And, considering he was the last Hart family member in WWF at that time, the now-face/tweener DX referred to Owen as the "Nugget"—no, not a member of Denver's (or Cagayan de Oro's) basketball team, but a nugget of shit, a turd that stays in the toilet bowl no matter how often you try to flush it down.

As co-leader of the Nation, Owen continued his success in the upper midcard, and when the Nation quietly disbanded, he teamed up with Jeff Jarrett, who had just ditched the country singer gimmick, with Debra serving as their manager and distracting opponents by flashing her "puppies." This tag team gave Owen yet another run as World Tag Team Champion, meaning he had been tag champion with three different partners at this point in his career. Yes, it seemed as if he was running in place, seeming to be perennially on the cusp of cracking the main event since 1994, but never getting there. But he was at a good place, even as he quit the WWF in storyline, feeling "guilt" over a kayfabe accidental injury inflicted on Dan Severn. At 33, he was far from being old or over-the-hill, and unlike Bret, who was criminally misused in his WCW run, Owen wasn't put in any major storyline that made him look weak and/or incompetent.


The Death of a Future Main Eventer


Soon after briefly quitting the WWF in kayfabe, Owen would return under the guise of his old Blue Blazer gimmick, denying to the world that it was him behind the mask, even if it was very obvious—the high-pitched, Canadian-accented voice claiming to be The Blue Blazer was 100% Owen. He also went to great lengths to prove that he wasn't the Blazer, having Jarrett wear the Blazer mask, and even having the African-American Koko B. Ware wear it as he stood next to Jarrett and Owen. Unlike the generic, nameless Blazer of old, the "new" Blazer whom we all knew was Owen Hart was entertaining as fuck, pulling the above shenanigans and being a comedy-heel caricature of the stereotypical Hulkamania-era milk-and-cookies babyface. Back then, I felt that it would be a matter of time before Owen would receive a WWF Championship push; the Blazer return was comedy, but it was comedy gold, and it was getting over.


Unfortunately, that never came to be. On May 23, 1999, at the Over the Edge PPV, Owen was preparing to pull off an extremely dangerous stunt, where he'd "fly" down into the ring at Kemper Arena while wearing his Blue Blazer costume, get tangled up as part of his goofy superhero gimmick, but untangle himself and descend safely to the ring. In other words, it was like Sting's WCW entrance, only with more comedy.

What happened was sadly as real and as shocking as you can get—as a cable in the mechanism used to lower Owen down had disengaged from his safety vest, he had fallen 78 feet down to the ring, landing chest-first on one of the turnbuckles. Only the fans watching at the Kemper Arena saw this, but those watching on TV had to be informed by a somber Jim Ross that Owen Hart was involved in an accident that wasn't "a part of the entertainment," and an hour later, that he had died at a St. Louis hospital. Owen had just turned 34 a couple weeks earlier.



The Aftermath


While most of us remember the aftermath of Owen Hart's tragic death by the tribute edition of RAW a day after the event, many might not be aware of the behind-the-scenes goings-on. WWF's decision to continue Over the Edge despite Owen's injury and eventual death, and the company's decision to hold the RAW is Owen tribute a day later, were both criticized by mainstream media as callous and exploitative, giving wrestling's many detractors in the press more ammunition against the business in general. 

Over at Hart House in Calgary, the Hart family was divided into two camps. One side, led by Owen's widow Martha and big brother Bret, wanted to (and actually did) sue WWF for everything they could give. Bret would even go as far as to accuse WWF of murdering his brother as retribution for what happened at Montreal in the fall of 1997. Then there was the side led by Bret's siblings Diana, Ellie, and Bruce, who seemingly viewed the whole thing as nothing more than an accident and were not interested in suing for such a large amount of money. According to Bret, Diana and Ellie wanted to play nice with WWF so their husbands Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart, respectively, could return to the company after their failed post-Screwjob runs with WCW. Bruce, on the other hand, appears to have helped their cause because he had a dozen axes to grind with Bret, dating back to their days in Stampede, where Bret was not a fan of Bruce's chaotic overbooking.

What ensued was a bitter, real-life family feud that took years for the Harts to heal from. But the eventual $18 million settlement in favor of Owen's family wasn't the end of all the ugliness and acrimony. Once the case was resolved, Martha distanced herself from everyone in the Hart family, even poor Stu and Helen, who wanted nothing more but to put Owen's tragic death behind them, and for their surviving children to get along despite the tragedy. Never a fan of wrestling, she remained bitter toward WWF/WWE in the years that followed, suing the company in 2010 for including Owen in the Hart & Soul DVD honoring the family. On a positive note, though, she did successfully write to the producers of known wrestling detractor Nancy Grace's show, which, in 2014, incorrectly included Owen Hart as one of the many wrestlers who died at a young age due to current or past substance abuse problems. Grace would quickly respond to the letter by issuing an on-air apology for the mistake.

On this 17th anniversary of Owen's passing—and I am actually writing this on May 23—I don't just remember him as a great in-ring and on-mic performer, and not just as a part of many unforgettable angles and storylines. While definitely on the mischievous side with his ribs, Owen was never on the malicious side; he didn't seem to have a mean bone in his body. He was devoted to his wife and children, which the likes of Jeff Jarrett, Mick Foley, and others can attest to, He also didn't have any ego, attitude, or substance abuse problems to speak of. And while we can't bring him back or answer the "what if" questions had he not fallen to his death at Over the Edge, we can definitely agree that the locker room of that big wrestling promotion in the sky is better for having Owen around.

Owen James Hart, you are still missed.



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How do you like to remember the late Owen Hart? Any favorite matches or storylines that stand out in his short, yet memorable career? What do you think he could have achieved had he survived and had a long WWF/E career? Let us know in the comments section!

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The Throwback Tito is Enzo Tanos, a freelance writer and the drummer/manager for garage rock band The Myopics, where he hopes to debut his masked lucha drummer persona “Sin Verguenza” in future gigs. A wrestling fan since childhood, he’s old enough to remember watching Outback Jack’s pointless vignettes, and One Man Gang’s transformation to Akeem.

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