A Tribute to Owen James Hart - 1966-1999
Owen Hart seemed destined to be long remembered for his accomplishments in the ring. It is unfortunate that it took the tragic events of Sunday night, May 23, 1999, to make Owen the most-talked-about wrestler in the world and ensure his place in wrestling's colorful history.
Owen's one of the most decorated stars of the 1990's WWE, a former King of the Ring, two-time Slammy winner, three-time tag team champion, two-time Intercontinental Champion, and a former European champ ,and was widely considered one of the company's most technically proficient wrestlers, as well as one of wrestling's bona fide good guys. Despite the feeling that Owen's career may have peaked with his stint as a main event heel in 1994, hardcore "smart" wrestling fans continued to appreciate Owen's obvious talents to this day while using the internet and newsletters to demand more TV time and more high-profile storylines for the "King of Harts."
Whether it's Owen's crisp matches or his often hilarious interviews (especially since returning to the Blue Blazer gimmick), any wrestling fan who's spent any significant amount of time observing the business had to appreciate Owen as a big time talent. And now, following his tragic death following an in-ring accident, it's as good a time as any to go over some of Owen's superlative career, it'll help those of us who were his fans to relive positive memories during these trying times, while serving to provide information to those fans who might not be as familiar with Owen's tremendous work.
EARLY CAREER: CALGARY AND JAPAN
Owen, the youngest son of the legendary Hart wrestling family, was probably destined to be a pro wrestler from the start. Born in 1966, Owen began training to wrestle shortly after completing high school. He was trained in the Dungeon by his father, Stu Hart, and made his pro wrestling debut in 1986 in Stu's Stampede Wrestling territory.
However, by 1986, Stampede Wrestling was a dying territory. Owen only had about a year or so to shine in Stampede (where he feuded memorably with Mike Shaw and Makhan Singh), winning titles during his rookie year and impressing everyone with his high-flying skill and techical prowess. Owen would hold the International Tag Titles (with Ben Bassarab), the British Commonwealth Midheavyweight Title, and the North American Heavyweight Title (twice) during his first year or so in the sport.
But with the Stampede territory in its last legs, it was Owen's tours of Japan that eventually brought him to the attention of wrestling fans worldwide. Fitting into the fast-paced and high-flying style of the New Japan lightweights, Owen wowed the Japanese fans, and became the first North American wrestler to hold the prestigious IWGP Junior Heavyweight title in May 1988. He held the title for about a month.
To this day, matches from Owen's Japanese tours are a hot commodity among tape traders, as they are widely considered to be among the best ever matches featuring a North American wrestler.
OWEN'S BIG BREAK
When that 1988 Japanese tour was up, Owen returned to North America to find that the WWE had grown interested in his immense in-ring skills. In an era when the WWE was dominated by super-heavyweights and often brutal bodybuilders, Owen was brought in as a masked lightweight with incredible moves. His name: the Blue Blazer.
The Blue Blazer displayed a style of wrestling that was totally unique and innovative to 1988 WWE fans, and didn't really catch on with a crowd that was more interested in the bulk and physiques of the existing WWE heros. Blazer quickly became a mid-carder, and disappeared from the WWE in late 1989. At no point during that initial tenure was it revealed that the Blue Blazer was the brother of then WWE superstar Bret "The Hitman" Hart.
Owen spent the next two years bouncing between many organizations, again with much of his success coming in Japan. Owen was also briefly a part of World Championship Wrestling. But Bischoff didn't recognize Owen's potential.
In October, 1991, Owen finally caught the break that would make him a superstar: the WWE decided to bring him back, this time without the mask and using his real name. Owen was acknolwedged as the brother of then InterContinental champ Bret Hart, and was presented in storylines as coming to the WWE to aid his brother-in-law Jim "the Anvil" Neidhart after Neidhart was brutalized by Ric Flair.
Because Neidhart and Bret Hart had been hugely successful as the Hart Foundation, the new Owen/Neidhart team was dubbed the New Foundation. However, they never really got off the ground in part because Neidhart left the WWE in early 1992. Owen, now nicknamed "the Rocket," was still a prized commodity as far as the WWE was concerned, and was given a singles win at WrestleMania 8 by defeating Mr. Perfect.
Owen was quickly placed back into a tag team situation, however, as he was paired off with Koko B. Ware to form High Energy. This team didn't last much long than the New Foundation did. By early 1993, the duo was pretty well dissolved as Koko evaporated from the WWE scene.
Owen was being positioned to work as a singles wrestler in mid-1993, he was sent down to Jerry Lawler's USWA in Memphis, and had a run as USWA champ, as a means of getting seasoned for a WWE run, but once again, circumstances prevented Owen from breaking through just yet. A serious knee injury sidelined Owen for several months.
However, when Owen returned to WWE, all the pieces were in place for the ultra-talented youngest Hart to finally make a huge impact on the business.
At Survivor Series 1993, Bret Hart assembled a team of his brothers to face Shawn Michaels and his masked "Knights" (originally, the storyline called for Jerry Lawler and his knights to face the Harts,) in addition to dragging Keith and Bruce Hart out of retirement, Bret reserved a spot on the Hart team for Owen. During the course of the match, Owen accidently collided with Bret, and was eliminated from the match by Michaels. Owen would be the only member of the Hart team eliminated, and returned to the ring after the match to confront his brother for contributing to his elimination.
Things were smoothed over, however, and Bret and Owen decided to dedicate themselves to winning the tag team titles, together. Their shot came at the 1994 Royal Rumble, where the Harts faced the Quebecers. The story in that match was that Bret's knee was seriously injured. Bret had the opportunity to tag out to Owen, but instead tried to apply a Sharpshooter. In applying the move, his knee buckled, and the ref decided to stop the match due to Bret's injury. Owen, incensed that his brother decided to "steal the glory" for himself rather than tag out to the uninjured member of the team, turned on brother Bret, attacking the already injured knee, and becoming a top heel in the process.
Owen and Bret faced off in the opening match of the WrestleMania 10 PPV. it was a classic 20-plus minute bout, possibly Owen's best from his 10 year WWE career. Owen shocked the world by pinning his brother with a victory-roll-type manuever. Bret went on to win the WWE Title later on the PPV by defeating then Champion Yokozuna, setting up a brother vs. brother title feud.
However, Bret did not want to cause any further trauma to his family by fighting Owen. so to earn a SummerSlam '94 title shot, Owen had to battle through the 1994 King of the Ring tournament. Owen beat Adam Bomb, Tatanka, the 1-2-3 Kid (X-Pac), and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) to win the tournament, and get his title shot. The 1994 King of the Ring was Owen's first WWE title.
At SummerSlam, Owen and Bret had a memorable title match, with many dramatic near-escapes. Finally, with Owen's legs trapped in the steel cage, Bret was able to escape first to retain his title. In the crowd, Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart were at ringside to watch their brothers-in-law do battle; following Bret's wins, Smith began celebrating, but Neidhart attacked him. Owen and the Anvil formed an alliance following the event, and feuded briefly with Bret and Bulldog.
Owen's quest to relieve his brother Bret of the WWE Title eventually led to Owen allying himself with Bob Backlund. At Survivor Series '94, Backlund and Bret battled in a submissions-only match. with Bret locked in a painful cross-face chicken wing, Owen seemed to have a change of heart, showing compassion for his brother. With tears in his eyes as his brother struggled in the submission hold, Owen begged his mother to throw in the towel for Bret. Helen Hart finally relented, and submitted on Bret's behalf. Owen's demeanor immediately changed, as he celebrated his effective ruse and took pleasure in seeing Bret dethroned.
With the family feud finally starting to lose steam, Owen found himself aligned with Jim Cornette's heel stable as 1995 began. At WrestleMania 11, Owen teamed up with Yokozuna to defeat the Smoking Gunns for the WWE Tag Team titles. Owen and Yoko were unstoppable for much of 1995, until a controversial match against Shawn Michaels and Diesel on PPV. Because of the British Bulldog's involvement in the match, Owen and Yoko were forced to defend the titles again, the next night on RAW. Spent from the previous night's PPV main event, Owen and Yoko lost the titles to the Smoking Gunns.
Owen once again embarked upon a solo stint, this time stealing headlines following one of Monday Night RAW's most memorable moments: playing off a real-life incident in which Shawn Michaels received a concussion in a parking lot brawl, Owen blasted Michaels in the back of the head with his trademark enziguiri; Michaels collapsed in the ring, as many initially thought Owen's kick caused a relapse. It was merely an incredibly well-worked angle.
In 1996, Owen was awarded a pair of Slammy awards (he won another in 1997), and also found himself back in the thick of the tag team title chase, this time with his other brother-in-law, the British Bulldog. Under the management of Jim Cornette, the Owen/Bulldog duo quickly won the tag straps. Despite a change of management as Clarence Mason took over those duties from Cornette, Owen and Bulldog continued strong into 1997.
However, dissension began to seep in as miscommunications between the two grew, and the brothers-in-law were forced to do battle in a tournament final to crown the first WWE European Champion. Owen lost the tourney final to Bulldog, and the seeds appeared to be sown for a violent break-up of the tag champs.
Owen and Bulldog were doing battle again on an edition of RAW in spring '97, when Bret Hart came out and asked the two to stop and listen to him. Bret finalized his heel status here, asked Owen and Bulldog to join him in reforming a more-powerful-than-ever Hart Foundation. Their goals would be to vanquish foes like Steve Austin and to show that American Wrestling Fans who real heros acted. The group soon added Jim Neidhart and the late Brian Pillman, and became the most hated stable of wrestlers in the United States while remaining HUGELY popular in Canada and Europe.
As part of the Hart Foundation, Owen found his stock on the rise in the WWE. In May 1997, Owen won the WWE IC Title from Rocky Maivia, and soon found himself feuding with Steve Austin. In July, at a PPV event held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Owen pinned Austin in a 10-man tag match main event, setting up a SummerSlam IC Title match between the two stars. The SummerSlam match saw Owen temporarily paralyze Austin with a piledriver; Austin did recover enough to conclude the match (winning the title from Owen), and would be back at 100% following the injury by year's end.
Because of his neck injuries stemming from the piledriver, Austin had to give up the IC belt, which was rapidly regained by Owen in a tournament, defeating Faarooq in the finals. Austin defeated Owen for the title in his first match back from injury, at Survivor Series '97. It was also at that year's Survivor Series that Owen's brother Bret was the subject of the biggest "screwjob" in wrestling history: with Bret planning to leave the WWE for WCW, Vince McMahon conspired to "steal" the WWE title from Bret at that show despite promising Bret that he'd walk out of the PPV as the champ.
BACK OUT ON HIS OWN
Many were sure Owen would follow Bret, Bulldog, and Neidhart to WCW following the screwjob, but instead, Owen came back to the WWE bigger than ever, as a babyface trying to avenge his brother by going after new WWE Champ Shawn Michaels. Quickly, Owen found himself shunted into a feud with Michaels' DX partner, Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Owen won the WWE European Title held by HHH, but lost it back after about a month, in a pair of bizarre title switches tainted by injuries hobbling both men.
As DX became babyfaces by mid-1998, Owen was left with little choice but to return to the heel status that had served him so well for about 4 years. He "snapped" on a live edition of RAW, and joined the Nation led by The Rock where he continued to demand that it's "Enough is Enough and its Time for a change." The Nation would feud with DX for the Summer months, with Owen playing an important part in storylines.
However, the Nation was on its last legs. As The Rock became more popular, it became apparent that he'd be spun off as a solo babyface. D-Lo Brown and Mark Henry remained as a tag team, but Owen was now a man without a country. Though there was no official ceremony that marked the end of the Nation, Owen distanced himself from the group by moving onto feud with Ken Shamrock and later Dan Severn.
In an "art imitates life" twist, the WWE ran a storyline in which Severn's neck was "broken" following an Owen Hart piledriver. The distraught Owen Hart then "retired" the next week, saying that he never meant to hurt anyone, and couldn't live with himself if he crippled anyone again. Despite Owen's retirement speech, the Blue Blazer made a return to the WWE, and many fans put the pieces together and realized Owen wasn't exactly serious about retiring.
Unmasking the Blue Blazer became a favorite past-time of Steve Blackman (who was trying to defend the honor of fellow "shooter" Severn). Jeff Jarrett got involved in the feud, often helping make sure the Blazer wasn't unmasked, and even wrestling as the Blazer on some occassions to "prove" that Owen wasn't the Blazer. Eventually, Blackman was able to unmask Jarrett and Owen as Blazers on separate occasions, and the Blue Blazer faded into the background.
However, the Owen/Jarrett tag team wasn't fading away anytime soon. as 1999 began, the duo started teaming up full time, and in January, won the WWE Tag Team titles from the Big Bossman and Ken Shamrock. This marked the third different partner Owen held the tag titles with. It appeared as though it might be another long tag title reign for Owen, as the team was really clicking, and was over with fans. However, the duo lost the straps in April to the mis-matched team of X-Pac and Kane.
As Jeff Jarrett segued into a feud with the Godfather, the Blue Blazer (this time, obviously protrayed by Owen) returned again, cutting interviews in which he ran down the "deplorable" state of the WWE, and insisting that we need a superhero to clean things up. He was scheduled for an InterContinental Title match against his "arch-enemy" the Godfather on the night he died.
THE ACCIDENT AND OWEN'S LEGACY
The Blue Blazer was going to make a "superhero" entrance from the ceiling of the Kemper Arena Sunday night at the Over the Edge PPV, but whatever harness device Owen was using to make his descent either was never correctly attached or malfunctioned. The end result had Owen plunging 80 feet to the ring, where his head impacted a turnbuckle, causing massive head and neck trauma. Fans in attendence quickly realized the serious nature of the accident, and stood around in stunned silence as medics worked on Owen. Owen was admitted to Truman Medical Center in critical condition, and was pronounced dead soon thereafter.
Though Owen wasn't pronounced dead until at the hospital, in fans' minds, this will obviously be an unshakable memory, as it marks the closest thing to an "in-ring" death at a televised event that any of us would ever want to see. It guarantees Owen a certain infamous place in wrestling history. A place that I can't help think will somehow diminish the remarkable memories we should all share of Owen Hart's stupendous career.
As fans, what we should remember are the great matches, compelling stories, and entertaining interviews as caring human beings, we should all remember that among those in the business, very few are as universally liked and respected as Owen Hart was. He was a genuine good guy and family man.
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