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SLAM! WRESTLING: Guest Columnist

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SLAM! Wrestling







Thursday, June 3, 1999

SLAM! Wrestling Guest Column

Ratings game turns lethal

HART Owen Hart on his way to the ring for his match against Bad Ass Billy Gunn at Raw Is War in Toronto on February 8, 1999. -- Stan Behal, Toronto Sun.
By MICHAEL TAUBE -- For SLAM! Wrestling

This was not the column that I intended to write before the start of the Victoria Day weekend. However, the tragic death of professional wrestler Owen Hart during this holiday has had an important effect on my thoughts as well as our culture.

Owen was the youngest of 12 sons of a legendary wrestling family based out of Calgary, Alberta. He was trained early in his career by his father Stu Hart in the basement of the family house, known affectionately as "The Dungeon."

Although small in stature, Owen had the heart of a lion and the agility of a trapeze artist. He had a successful run in the Hart family's Stampede Wrestling company, and held the federation's heavyweight title. He also honed his skills in Japan, earning high marks for his agility and finesse.

He followed in the footsteps of his well-known brother, Bret Hart, and moved on to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). At first, he was known as the Blue Blazer, but the gimmick didn't catch on. WWF owner Vincent McMahon Jr. realized that Owen needed to wrestle as himself to display his many homegrown talents.

It turned out to be a brilliant move. Owen began to feud with Bret, and even took his older brother's finishing move, the Sharpshooter, as his own. He won numerous titles, including the Intercontinental title on two occasions, the European title, and the world tag team titles on four occasions with different partners (including his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith and Jeff Jarrett).

He played both the hero and the villain in the squared circle. Fans across the world admired his skills in the wrestling ring. He was incredibly well respected by his peers, always upbeat and a well-meaning practical joker outside the arena. He was a loving husband to his childhood sweetheart Martha, and a doting father to his two young children.

But there was another side to this talented performer. As noted in the February 1993 issue of Saturday Night magazine, Owen wanted to teach physical education, and only wrestled to appease his father. However, once he "started there was the pressure of having the Hart name - I was expected to be good."

In fact, he was planning to leave professional wrestling for good in a few scant years. In a recent interview with Slam! Magazine, he stated that he had been careful with his finances, and was saving for his retirement. As he put it, "I think at that point my family, my wife and kids, have been compromised enough. I need to start focusing on my family and letting go of wrestling."

But a freak accident on May 23 at the WWF pay-per-view special Over The Edge in Kansas City ended this dream. Owen was supposed to be lowered from the rafters in his Blue Blazer costume before the start of his match. However, something went dreadfully wrong when he came down from the ceiling of the Kemper Arena. He fell 90 feet, hit a turnbuckle (which is made of metal, but has a small amount of padding), and his head snapped backwards.

The crowd of 16,200 watched on in disbelief as paramedics gave Owen CPR for 15 minutes in the ring. Viewers at home were not able to see the accident as the cameras were kept on the crowd. Popular WWF announcer Jim Ross repeated time and time again that this accident was not a planned event. An hour later, Ross informed the television audience that Owen had died.

The cause of this accident has not been determined as of yet. Stagehands claim that the cable did not break, and detectives think that Owen's harness might have been hitched improperly. A visibly shaken McMahon stated that an investigation would be immediately launched, but also mentioned that Owen may have accidentally pulled a release mechanism on his way down.

Yet, one thing seems certain to me - this fall will leave a black mark on the history of professional wrestling. As his sister Ellie Hart recently said, "We figured sooner or later somebody was going to end up with a tragedy because of the direction wrestling was taking."

The two major wrestling federations, the WWF and World Championship Wrestling (WCW), have been following a popular trend of abandoning mat wrestling skills for staged theatrics such as sex, violence, and the wrestler as a super hero.

To their credit, the WWF dedicated its weekly two-hour program Monday Night Raw to the memory of Owen. Wrestlers, referees and officials paid tribute to this young man for his friendship, good sense of humour, and devotion to his family. Even the federation's most popular wrestler, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin - who was nearly paralyzed in a 1997 match against Owen when a move called the Tombstone Piledriver was improperly executed - came out and saluted his legacy.

But look at what has happened.

The world of sports entertainment has lost a great performer. A young family has been left without a father. All this for ratings and crowd support. Shame on us.


Michael Taube is a Toronto-based political analyst and commentator. His column, Our Culture, appears every second Wednesday in the Times & Transcript. He can be reached at miketaube@hotmail.com. He wrote a column about Bill Goldberg back in July 1998 for the Toronto Sun, Taking pride in Goldberg's Jewish heritage.

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