LOP Hall of Fame Class of 2019 – Owen Hart

Owen Hart
Inducted by Maverick

Owen Hart both began and ended his WWF career as The Blue Blazer; in the eleven years in between he put together one of the most complete professional wrestling careers in history. High flier, tag team specialist, main eventer, midcard champion, adored babyface, hated heel – The Rocket really could do it all. As skilled in the ring as anyone ever to run the ropes, an astute character performer, hilarious on the mic at times, and a keystone performer throughout the 1990s, Owen’s untimely and tragic death remains a scar on the collective wrestling consciousness, particularly for those of us who grew up watching him light up the ring on a nightly basis. That he remains outside of WWE’s official Hall of Fame due to his widow Martha’s ongoing legal issues with the company is one of the sadder aspects of the aftermath of his passing; I therefore consider it the greatest of honours to be asked to induct him into the LOP Hall of Fame today.

Younger readers may not quite understand just how much the youngest Hart brother was loved by the wrestling world, both in terms of the boys in the back and in terms of the fans in the arenas and the couches. Owen Hart was one of the good guys, by all accounts, a dressing room joker with one of the most natural and instinctive “heads” for pro wrestling the business has ever seen. The Rocket had all of his older brother’s mat wrestling abilities but none of his awkward personality or tendency to get involved in backstage ructions. The genius of Owen was the way that you never quite realised how good he was, because he made everything look natural, as if it were the easiest thing in the world for him. I remember reading in Kurt Angle’s WWE sponsored autobiography that Owen was one of the guys he worked with in dark matches before his eventual debut, and how the younger Hart introduced him to calling matches. Angle reported that Owen had said to him, “don’t worry, I’ll talk you through everything. I’ll even tell you a joke.” Kurt went on to say that The Black Hart did just that! Even a small anecdote of that sort illustrates how much of a cherished performer Owen was, and the fact that he was partially responsible for Kurt Angle, an all time great, learning the professional wrestling ropes, says everything.

Born into the legendary Hart family, Owen had the same wrestling education as his elder brothers, with Bret noting in his autobiography that Owen picked it up quicker than any of them, and could do things athletically that none of the other brothers could do; in fact, The Hitman considered that in pure talent terms, Owen was superior even to himself. Owen’s career, once his initial training at Stampede was complete, got off to an auspicious start in Japan, where he became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the coveted IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Given that his elder brother Bret and his brother-in-law Jim Neidhart were working for the WWF as one of their top tag teams, it was no surprise that Vince brought Owen into the fold in 1998, with the superhero Blue Blazer gimmick intended to showcase his at the time unprecedented high flying skills; it’s often forgotten how much of a pioneer he was in this regard, given how much of a land of giants the Federation was at this time. His biggest match in this first run was a defeat to Mr Perfect in what is perhaps the greatest five minute match ever to take place, other than another five minute match he was to have with Sean Waltman a half decade later!

Hart would leave the WWF to travel the world, but returned in 1991 to form The New Foundation with The Anvil, and the team’s high water mark was a sadly forgotten barn burner against The Orient Express on the undercard of Royal Rumble 1992, but it was in late 1993, as Owen was beginning a singles career, that his career truly took off. An interpromotional feud between WWF and USWA was supposed to lead to a Team Lawler vs Team Hart match at Survivor Series 1993, but due to some legal trouble, Shawn Michaels subbed in to lead a team of his “knights” (apparently Greg Valentine, Barry Horowitz, and Jeff Gaylord) against the Hart Brothers (Bret, Owen, Bruce and Keith). The Harts comprehensively schooled the Michaels-led team, aside from the fact that Owen was the sole Hart Brother eliminated, a fact he blamed on his main eventing older sibling (Michaels had Irish whipped Owen into an “out of position” Bret and then secured a roll up). As the other Harts celebrated, the man who would soon be known as “The Rocket” walked away in disgust and aggravation. Bret and Owen seemed to have patched things up by the time the Rumble came around, competing in a tag title match together against The Quebecers. A kayfabe knee injury prevented Bret from tagging his brother in, and Owen’s visible frustration boiled over when the ref waved the match off. Snapping, the younger Hart assaulted Bret’s knee, putting his participation in the Rumble match itself in doubt. In the event, The Hitman jointly won the over the top lottery with Lex Luger, but the settling of family business would have to take place before his shot against Yokozuna later in the evening.

What happened was without doubt the greatest curtain jerker in the history of the sport. Bret’s determination to help his brother reach the big time and Owen’s resolution to seize the opportunity presented to him on the grandest stage led to a technical classic which The Rocket won cleanly with a victory roll. A superb heel turn fed into an all time great bout, and the two would follow this with an equally feted contest at Summerslam, an old school, psychologically gripping cage match, where Bret got his win back. However, Owen was not finished and conned Helen Hart into throwing in the towel during a title bout between The Excellence of Execution and Mr Backlund, costing him the title, and then interfering again when Bret took on Diesel at Royal Rumble ‘95. In the aftermath of his feud against his brother, Owen mostly worked the midcard and particularly the tag division, and one can easily see why Vince wanted Owen in that slot; he was fairly much the most consistent in-ring hand in the company, and you could trust him to deliver in any role he was placed in, whether it was fast paced five minute TV matches in the early days of Monday Night Raw, tagging with Yokozuna and then his brother-in-law Davey as a part of Camp Cornette, or putting on a feature length classic to establish the European Title alongside Bulldog.

As the Attitude Era got underway, Owen Hart was in the midst of a potential tag team break up with Bulldog, but the dramatic heel turn of his elder brother would change everything and once again throw The Rocket into the WWF spotlight. One underrated aspect of The New Generation was its long running story threads, and Owen’s fetid jealousy of his brother remained a defining trope of the era right up until the night of March 31st 1997, when big brother Bret unexpectedly came out to stop the vicious tag team break up of Bulldog and Owen and exhort them to join him, because blood was thicker than water, after all. Watching the segment back tonight, as I write this, brought tears to my eyes. It’s honestly electrifying. All the history of the three men – Wembley 1992, Wrestlemania X, Season’s Beatings, the final of the European Championship tournament – suddenly all of that was water under the bridge and the stable version of The Hart Foundation was formed, its ranks soon bolstered by the returning Jim Neidhart and long time friend Brian Pillman. The Hart Foundation would run roughshod over the WWF as top heels through the infamous Border Wars angle, the culmination of which saw Owen pin Steve Austin in the middle of the ring at In Your House: Canadian Stampede during what remains the best multi-man tag ever wrestled. Their singles match at Summerslam 1997 was shaping up to be just as good when a botched piledriver legitimately broke Austin’s neck; despite the potentially devastating implications for a career heading into the stratosphere, Stone Cold never blamed Owen, and they even worked it into the storyline, with the “Owen 3:16 says I just broke your neck” t-shirt.

On the very night Owen dropped the Intercontinental Championship to Austin, his elder brother suffered the Montreal Screwjob and departed the company in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. In the controversial aftermath of Montreal, with his brother off to WCW in acrimonious circumstances, one brother-in-law (Davey) putting himself in for surgery to escape the last months of his WWF contract and the other brother-in-law (Jim) being jobbed out for a couple of humiliating weeks before being released, Owen found himself alone in the WWF locker room, unable to get out of a contract that still had several years to run. There are actually conflicting reports about this; Bret Hart’s autobiography states that Vince spitefully told Bret that he would be keeping Owen under contract and would sue him for a breach if he so much as spoke to The Hitman about leaving. However, other sources cite Owen being deeply dubious about moving to WCW, convinced that they would use him as badly as they ultimately used his more famous sibling. There are also rumours stating that Bischoff would have been unwilling to match the financial terms of The Rocket’s WWF contract anyway. Financial security was important to Owen, who saved diligently for his retirement and for the future of his two children. He was determined to retire young and spend time with his family. When it comes down to it, he seemed content to wrestle for Vince for another couple of years before hanging them up.

Even so, you might have expected Owen to phone it in at least a little bit, but watching the shows back, it’s categorically not the case. He was kept off TV in the aftermath of the Screwjob to dramatically return at the conclusion of D-Generation X: In Your House, making the save for Ken Shamrock, who was being assaulted by Shawn Michaels, Triple H and Chyna. The pop he got was conclusive proof of an instant babyface turn, and a long term programme with Triple H followed, one which was vitally important in getting the future top heel of the company over as a major player. Despite what had gone down between Hunter, Shawn and his brother, Owen was apparently on good terms with Paul Levesque and helped him a great deal in the series that followed. Their match at Wrestlemania XIV is massively overlooked when it comes to the best midcard bouts in the history of the Showcase of the Immortals, and the one that came after at Unforgiven was almost as good (it also featured Chyna above the ring in a cage in one of the more bizarre stips of the early Attitude Era). The outcome of the match actually caused a double turn as the increasingly popular DX Army caused Owen to once again lose to the Degenerate. Leaving the ring, Owen intoned the catchphrase which would be his calling card for the next seven months: “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, AND IT’S TIME FOR A CHANGE!”

Soon after, he joined the Nation of Domination and named himself “The Black Hart”, taking part in the faction warfare between the Nation and DX through that summer of 1998; the legendary DX impersonation of the Nation segment with impressionist Jason Sensation playing Owen with massive prosthetic nose dates from this time. With The Rock turning face after Summerslam 1998, the Nation of Domination gradually dissolved, and Owen began to team with Jeff Jarrett. Managed by Debra, the two men became one of the great forgotten tag teams of any era, putting on weekly clinics on TV and pay-per-view. By 1999, the Attitude Era was increasingly trying to blur the lines of reality and kayfabe, and so in a seeming callback to his legitimate botch on Steve Austin a couple of years before, they had Owen “leave” in shame after injuring Dan Severn, only for the Blue Blazer (very obviously Owen) to show up and deny being Owen Hart. This reboot of The Blue Blazer gimmick was a parody of the “drink your milk and take your vitamins” gimmicks of the 1980s, and Owen, for the brief time he played it, did so with his usual good humour and panache.

Then came the fateful night in the Kemper Arena. As part of his act, the Blazer was due to make a “superhero” like entrance from the rafters in a harness, but unlike Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania XII or Sting in WCW, Owen’s descent was made with a “quick release” mechanism so that he could hover above the ring and then comically fall on his face to fit the goofy gimmick he was establishing. As Owen got ready at the top of the rafters- and he had confided in his wife Martha that he wasn’t confident about performing the stunt, but felt he had to after shooting down a “love triangle” storyline between him, Jeff and Debra- the technicians readied the equipment only for the release to trigger. As horrified technicians turned around, Owen Hart was speeding helplessly towards the ring, a distance of 78 feet. He landed chest first about a metre from the nearest turnbuckle and bounced into the ring, breaking several of the pine planks beneath the ring canvas. EMTs arrived on the scene as the camera cut away (a pre-recorded vignette had, somewhat mercifully, been playing as the descent began, so nobody at home saw the disaster happen) and they worked on Owen for some minutes in the ring, before he was rushed to hospital. It was to no avail, as a severed aorta caused him to die of internal bleeding. He was just 34.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Vince made the controversial and regretful decision to carry on the show. Owen’s friends, men like Jeff Jarrett and The Rock, had to perform knowing that their friend was most likely dead. I remember reading an interview with Jarrett where he describes being shoved through the curtain by McMahon as Owen’s stretcher passed him in the Gorilla position. What the likes of Double J were going through as they wrestled that night I cannot even imagine. Poor Bret Hart found out on a plane of all places, his manager calling the aircraft in the air to deliver the sickening news. In the aftermath of the incident, Bret and Vince met for the first time since Montreal, and by all accounts, they talked quietly on a river bank about Owen until both found some sort of peace and shook hands. Sadly, Martha’s subsequent lawsuit and Bret’s spat with his sisters Diana and Ellie served to estrange them again almost as soon as they had found some common ground in the face of tragedy.

Every wrestling fan of a certain age remembers where they were on that tragic night. Almost twenty years later, I cannot even begin to process it. The impact of Owen’s death was of course profound on the industry. As I alluded to briefly earlier, it initially brought Vince McMahon and Bret Hart back together, which would have been unthinkable on the eve of the pay-per-view. WWF decided to suspend storylines and run a special tribute episode of the flagship show entitled “RAW is Owen” where the superstars shared their memories of Owen and wrestled matches without supporting angles. It’s a heartbreaking show to watch, and Mark Henry’s poem just gets me every time, as does the ten bell salute on the stage, where every performer bar Kane and The Undertaker stood sentry in a show of respect for their fallen comrade. ‘Taker decided to travel to see his good friend Bret Hart rather than participate in the show, and that really tells you a lot about what a loyal friend Mark Calaway is to those he respects. Over on WCW, when Bret came back to work, he took part in a special tribute match with Chris Benoit, who had worked with Owen in their Stampede days up in Calgary. It was an undisputed classic and the best way Bret knew to honour his brother’s memory. The Hitman counts that as one of his only great matches from his time working for Bischoff and Turner.

But let us not dwell on the tragedy of his death; rather, let us celebrate the man that he was, the matches that he gave us, the once in a generation talent that he was. Owen Hart is the co-owner of the greatest curtain jerker in pro-wrestling history, the man who got the winning fall in the greatest multi-man tag in pro wrestling history, a man with a legitimate claim for being the greatest tag wrestler of all time, and a man who wrestled more sleeper hits than basically anyone. In my mind, Owen Hart is, bizarre as it may seem, incredibly underrated. For pure talent, for ring smarts, for comic timing, he was as good as it gets. Watching back his work now, it has a timeless quality to it; you could drop him into any era and he would be as highly thought of, wrestling barnburners with anyone on the roster. You can see his spiritual successors like Daniel Bryan, Sami Zayn and even a youngster like Tyler Bate doing their thing and see some Owen in them.

To my mind, Owen Hart is one of the greatest ever to lace up a pair of boots. It is truly an honour to induct him into the LOP Hall of Fame Class of 2019.

Lords of Pain welcomes Owen Hart into the Hall of Fame Class of 2019

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