For wrestling fans around the world, May 23 is a sad day of remembrance for the loss of one of the industry’s most unheralded Superstars. It was on this date, 20 years ago in 1999, that the world shuddered into silence following the tragic death of Owen Hart, the youngest member of the fabled Hart Family, following an equipment malfunction with the harness that was lowering Hart – in his revived Blue Blazer gimmick – gave way. Owen Hart was only 34 years old.
The Life and Death of Owen Hart
Owen Hart started out in 1986 with his father’s Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, following a successful collegiate amateur wrestling career. In 1987, he was sent to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in an excursion exchange, heading to Japan with NJPW Young Lion Keiichi Yamada, who had spent the past year with Stampede. Yamada would fight great success back in Japan as the masked superstar Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger. Owen Hart would spend the next three years with NJPW, becoming the first gaijin to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, while splitting duties with Stampede and the WWF as The Blue Blazer. He departed the WWF in 1989 and headed overseas, splitting his time between NJPW and Austria’s highly competitive Catch Wrestling Association (CWA). He also did small stints with Universal Wrestling Association (UWA) in Mexico.
He returned to North America in 1991 but opted for World Championship Wrestling (WCW) instead of the WWF, where his older brother Bret “Hitman” Hart was starting out on his own singles career. But his WCW run only lasted two months, and only four televised appearances, before he left for the WWF (sad we missed out on the tag team of Owen Hart and fellow Dungeon graduate and future Hart Foundation member Brian Pillman, who worked WCW Live Events in that time). He returned to the WWF in November of that year, paired with brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart in The New Foundation.
The New Foundation was short lived and Owen was paired with someone more athletically inclined like himself – and thus, High Energy with Koko B. Ware was formed. High Energy lasted only briefly longer than the New Foundation – one feud with The Headshrinkers(Fatu & Samu). It was becoming too obvious that Owen Hart was too talented to keep down with a tag team gimmick. But it was a slow build, starting his WWF singles career in feuds with the likes of Bastion Booger, Papa Shango and Adam Bomb. But he would progress quickly, building to feuds with his other brother-in-law “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith and Intercontinental Champion Razor Ramon.
In early 1994, Owen once again found himself in tag team action, but this time with his brother and main eventer Bret “Hitman” Hart. During this time, Owen turned on his brother, leading to one of the greatest WrestleMania opening matches of all time, when he defeated his brother in the opening contest of WrestleMania X. In the main event of the same WrestleMania, his brother would defeat Yokozuna for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Owen was immediately thrust into the main event, with a program against his brother around the world. That summer, he won the 1994 King of the Ring tournament.
Owen was now a top tier star in the WWF during the New Generation Era. He was constantly in the top of the mid-card and worked well no matter what spot he was put in. In 1995, he joined Jim Cornette‘s stable, pairing with Yokozuna to become WWF World Tag Team Champions. By the end of the year, he began a new team with the British Bulldog. The two brothers-in-law remained a team for over a year together, capturing the WWF World Tag Team titles and holding them for 246 days.
In the spring of 1997, the two reunited with family members Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart – as well as fellow Hart trainee Brian Pillman – to form a new Hart Foundation. The stable was one of the most successful factions of all time and set new territory for character development – the anti-American family unit was the most hated heels in the US, but enormous faces throughout the rest of the world, especially in Canada. The stable was short-lived, however, plagued first by the sudden death of Pillman, and then the Montreal Screwjob, that saw Bret, Neidhart, and Bulldog all leave for WCW.
Owen Hart remained loyal to the WWF and continued to work for them for another two years, first as a member of the Nation of Domination – “The Black Hart” – and then in a successful Tag Team Championship team with Jeff Jarrett. By the time he was tragically killed in 1999 in St. Louis, Owen Hart was a 2x WWF Intercontinental Champion, WWF European Champion, and 3x WWF World Tag Team Champion. One of his final matches, at a WWF Live Event, was a dark match against a rising newcomer, former US Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Angle (Kurt would make his televised debut six months later at Survivor Series).
Owen Hart’s tragic passing caused an irreparable rift between Owen Hart’s wife and WWE that remains to this day, nearly wiping Owen’s memory from the WWE Universe. But Owen’s spirit and legacy are stronger today that it was during his in-ring career – a perennial heel, he was one of the most despised men on the WWE roster throughout much of the 1990s. It’s only been since his passing that scores of new fans have found the brilliance in his work – both in-ring and character – and through the stories of Owen Hart’s person away from the lights, camera, and action of a WWE ring.
Much of this article has been previously published in an article here on Last Word on Pro Wrestling from Owen Hart’s 2018 induction into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa.
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