Dark Side of the Ring Exposes Chilling Reality of Wrestler Owen Hart’s Death and the Fight for his Legacy
When it comes to things that sound fundamentally inconceivable, the idea of having to carry on business as usual, after your coworker died just moments ago in front of you and millions of viewers across the world, seems particularly hard to swallow. Yet, on the night that WWE wrestler Owen Hart died in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, that is exactly what happened.
Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring has become my new favorite series, simply because wrestling, and especially the WWE, was a staple in my household for many years. I always knew they were a shady company, but the nostalgia kept a slightly warm place for the business in my heart. That place has completely iced over after watching “The Final Days of Owen Hart.”
In 1999, professional wrestler Owen Hart died in a poorly conceived and preventable stunt-rigging accident, leaving behind his wife, Martha Hart, and two children. He was part of the two dozen-strong Hart family, which produced a number of professional wrestlers and wrestling-adjacent people, the most famous being my mother’s second favorite after Rick Flair (ironically): Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
During this period in wrestling, owner Vince McMahon was pushing more soap opera-style/salacious storylines that made Owen uncomfortable, and after WWE very dramatically lost Bret Hart to a competing wrestling company, they were desperate to hold on to Owen’s talent and athleticism.
Unfortunately, they didn’t know what to do with him, because he would push back against cheating storylines. So, they decided to turn him into a comedic character based on a costume he used to wear called The Blue Blazer. Part of The Blue Blazer’s gimmick was being lowered from the ceiling on a harness.
This was a common stunt for Hart, which begs the question of what went wrong that caused his death?
Martha Hart, who has advocated for justice for her husband, has collected all the evidence and police photos from the event (and even walked Bret’s last walk in order to fully understand where his mind was, as well). One of the pieces of evidence that makes your blood chill is the quick release clip that was attached to Bret’s harness. It was different than the usual one and so small that even I knew it could not hold up a 240-pound man.
Changing from the old harness method to this new one was allegedly supposed to make Owen’s drop into the ring more dramatic and less clunky, because it could be released easily. It was also cheaper. When it comes to having one of your employees doing a drop from the top of an area, there is no expense to be spared when making sure it’s happening safely.
Martha Hart channeled her pain and agony into going after Vince McMahon in a wrongful death suit and used the money to start a foundation, The Owen Hart Foundation, that helps homeless populations, gives scholarships, and helps single mothers and young children. She has kept Owen out of the WWE Hall of Fame because she doesn’t want the organization that she sees as responsible for his death to get to have another piece of his legacy or memory.
I watched wrestling almost religiously until the death of Chris Benoit in 2007 really jolted me into the reality of how dangerous wrestling was. Because it’s so scripted, with choreographed stunt work involved, it’s easy to ignore the physical and psychological risks involved. I barely knew anything about Owen Hart and the events surrounding his death, but I certainly thought it was a freak accident, rather than something caused by negligence.
This episode will help people see that, and while there might be some that have doubts about just how culpable the WWE higher-ups are, just knowing that they made their wrestlers perform in the same area that their friend just died in—that makes me believe it.
What Martha went through was incredible, she had so many people against her, including from her husband’s own family. She has been raked over the coals but has stuck to her conviction that the people who caused her husband’s death should not profit off of it.
“I think Martha, Owen’s widow, is a very obtuse, square-headed person,” Bret said on CBS’s In This Corner podcast, via The Daily Beast. “I think she has done more to erase my brother Owen’s memory than she ever did to remember him. I think it really bothers me that the fans that love Owen so much don’t get a chance to remember him. You do these kind of things for the people that are here left to remember them.”
Owen is not a commodity; he was a person. Who cares if strangers don’t remember his matches? He died in the ring because the company that contracted him was lazy and miserly. Fans of Owen Hart should support his widow and his children, who have had to live a life without their loved one, rather than be concerned with old matches or putting him in the WWE Hall of Fame. There are other wrestling halls of fame. There are other accolades.
Owen Hart should be alive, and that is something the WWE should acknowledge more, rather than trying to sue his widow for breach of contract.
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