On the night of May 23, 1999, World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Over The Edge” pay-per-view opened with an ominous montage in which The Undertaker – wrestling’s personal Lord of Darkness – promised fans that, “Tonight, darkness will seize the land” and “destroy all you hold dear.”
Little did Mark Calaway vis-a-vis The Undertaker know what an eerie sense of foreshadowing his dreary vignette portrayed. Within an hour of its airing, the lives of wrestlers, fans and members of the Hart family would be changed forever.
At the conclusion of the card’s second match, Owen James Hart plummeted 78 feet from the rafters of Kansas City’s Kemper Arena to the ring below. Thirty-three minutes later, the 34-year-old Hart was pronounced dead at Truman Medical Center.
Owen was survived by his wife Martha, his two children Oje and Athena, his parents, his many brothers and sisters, and of course, numerous wrestling fans around the world.
This Saturday will mark the 10-year anniversary of this catastrophic event – one of the darkest days in the history of professional wrestling.
“Tragic is the only word to describe it,” said Carmen Scordino, who portrays a disgruntled Italian-American wrestler by the name of Primo in the Professional Wrestling Association. “Unfortunately, he was one of the best wrestlers going in the world at the time. Not maybe entertainment-wise, he didn’t ever draw the biggest, but technically in the ring, he could’ve done anything.”
There is no denying that Owen had a gift. In the ring, his arsenal brought the best of two worlds to the forefront. He was technically sound like older brother Bret, but was also a high-flyer, which made him a truly valuable commodity to any wrestling promotion.
“At the time [of his death], he was also smaller than a lot of the guys too, but because of the style that he wrestled, he could’ve pretty much done any type of match,” said Scordino. “He was very entertaining.”
Certainly as an actor, no one did it like Owen. As a fan, you would buy into his gimmick because his delivery was such that you really felt that Owen himself believed in it. That is what made Owen stand out above the rest; he made you buy what he was selling. The Calgary, Alberta native’s most prolific roles were those where he portrayed a goofy heel; he was the bad guy, but his slapstick delivery would make you laugh every time.
Ever the relentless entertainer, Owen would do whatever he could to entertain the fans – as long as it wasn’t too sleazy or derogatory. Wrestling fans rightfully expect to be entertained; unfortunately, this thirst for entertainment was a likely catalyst in the accident that cost Owen his life.
“The wrestlers, the entertainers, are willing to do what we have to do to make people entertained,” said Scordino.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about? Entertaining the fans? Is that not the whole point of the entertainment industry to begin with?
Along the same lines, how far is too far in professional wrestling? How relentless are we in our never-ending need for that next over-the-top moment? How far are we willing to go to be entertained?
On May 23, 1999, someone went too far. It cost Owen Hart his life. And, perhaps just as tragic, it cost the world Owen Hart. And the saddest part of all is that it was completely unnecessary. Had Owen just been wrestling – doing what he was trained to do – this tragic event would have been avoided altogether.
“There was no need for it,” said Scordino. “They [the WWE] were trying to match WCW at the time. So they were trying to pull off something similar to what WCW was doing, and that’s ultimately the act that led to his death.”
In this day and age, the wrestling industry calls for much glitz and glamour to accompany the in-ring product. Music, lights and valets are all ingredients for an effectively polished wrestling promotion.
But why can’t the wrestlers just stick to wrestling? Does it seriously take a genius to figure out that descending 70-some-odd feet should be left to bungee jumpers and sky divers?
“I would say he was a victim,” said Scordino.
A former Tag Team, Intercontinental and European Champion, Owen Hart was without a doubt a victim of an entertainment-thirsty wrestling industry. And for what? A cheap thrill? So the envelope could be pushed just that little extra bit in order to satisfy an incessant desire to be amused and entertained?
“They pushed [the envelope] until somebody died,” said Scordino’s tag team partner Matteo Cintione, better known as “Stickball” Tony Carbonie. “He shouldn’t have even done it in the first place.”
But that was the price to be paid for entertainment.
Now, as we look back, we remember Owen – not for the ill-fated accident of a decade ago – but for all the times he performed for us, displayed his athleticism, gave himself so freely to his character and continually made us laugh.
Thank you Owen, for all the years that you kept us entertained. There will never be another like you.