Owen Hart was one of the best in-ring performers in professional wrestling history. Starting in his father’s legendary “dungeon,” Hart became a star in Canada and Japan before making his way to WWE in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, he took part in some of the best storylines and matches in the company, including feuds with brother Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the DX duo of Shawn Michaels and Triple H.
On May 23, 1999, Hart tragically passed away after a stunt at a pay-per-view event in Kansas City went horribly wrong. Hart was one of the most beloved wrestlers in the industry and was known for being quite the prankster and practical joker. The night after his death, the entire episode of “Monday Night RAW” was dedicated to his memory.
So on this Canada Day, let’s take a look back at the life of one of the country’s greatest exports, the late, great Owen Hart.
Owen Hart initially didn’t want to be a professional wrestler
The youngest of 12 children born to Stu and Helen Hart, Owen Hart originally wasn’t crazy about joining the family business, trying on numerous occasions to find another way to earn a living. But he obviously found his way back to his father’s legendary “dungeon” and became one of the best wrestlers in the world. He debuted for Stu’s Stampede Wrestling promotion in the mid-1980s and was named Pro Wrestling Illustrated Rookie of the Year in 1987, the same year he made his debut for New Japan Pro Wrestling. In 1988, he became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, defeating Hiroshi Hase.
In June 1988, Owen Hart signed with WWE, making his debut under a mask as The Blue Blazer, a gimmick he continued to use when he returned to Stampede and New Japan when he left WWE in 1989. He wrestled a few matches in WCW in 1991 but returned to WWE later that same year.
He won nearly every title in WWE
Owen Hart returned to WWE in 1991 sans mask and formed a tag team with his real-life brother-in-law, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, who had teamed with Bret for years as The Hart Foundation. Owen and Neidhart called themselves The New Foundation but when “The Anvil” left the company in 1992, Hart was part of a short-lived tag team with Koko B. Ware before embarking on a singles career in 1993.
Owen got involved in Bret’s feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler in ’93 but then the focus became Bret and Owen themselves. Owen turned heel in 1994, taking out Bret’s knee following a tag match at the Royal Rumble, which led to an epic series of matches between the brothers, including matches at both WrestleMania and SummerSlam, WWE’s two biggest events of the year.
Owen Hart later tagged with Bret’s former rival, Yokozuna, and then with his other brother-in-law, The British Bulldog, and won the WWE tag titles on multiple occasions. He also won the Intercontinental Championship and European Championship. The only big title he never won was the WWE Championship. He later joined back up with his brother in the new version of The Hart Foundation, which dismantled after Bret left for WCW. Owen later joined The Rock in the Nation of Domination and then teamed with Jeff Jarrett, at which point he returned to the Blue Blazer gimmick.
The tragic death of Owen Hart
A short time after Owen Hart “quit” WWE, The Blue Blazer character made his return after nearly a decade. It was a comedic storyline in which Hart was made out to be somewhat of a buffoon. At the Over the Edge pay-per-view in Kansas City on May 23, 1999, Owen was booked in an Intercontinental Championship match with The Godfather.
An elaborate entrance was planned as Owen was set to be lowered from the rafters via a harness. The plan was for him to be lowered just a few feet above the ring, at which point he would release himself, falling to the squared circle to get a few chuckles. But the stunt did not go as planned and Owen Hart fell some 80 feet, crashing into the ring below. He died a short time later due to internal bleeding from blunt force trauma. He was just 34 years old.
The stunt was not shown on the broadcast but WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross explained to viewers what had happened and later announced his death. In a highly controversial move, Vince McMahon decided to continue the show, a move that still does not sit well with the Hart family, especially Owen’s widow, Martha, who later sued WWE and was awarded $18 million in an out-of-court settlement. She again sued the company in the early 2010s over the matter of likeness rights, again resulting in a settlement.
The year following his tragic and unnecessary death, Martha announced the opening of the Owen Hart Foundation, a charity designed to award scholarships to children in need that also provides housing for low-income families, ensuring that the legacy of her husband will live on. She still refuses to allow Owen Hart to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.