AS I SEE IT 5/3: Approaching a tragic anniversary...
by: Bob Magee
As we go into May, we approach the fifth anniversary of what was likely the most tragic moment in wrestling history, the accidental death of Owen Hart at the Over The Edge PPV at Kansas City's Kemper Arena on May 23, 1999 after the harness on his device, designed to bring him down from the ceiling, broke... causing his death after a 50 foot fall.
In the five years since that horrible accident, tragedy after tragedy has happened to the Hart family, including:
The death of Hart family matriarch Helen Hart, from complications due to diabetes on November 4, 2001..
The death of Stu Hart on October 16, 2003 from a combination of pneumonia and diabetic complications at age 88 years.
The death of Davey Boy Smith from a heart attack in Fairmont, BC, on May 18, 2002...
The stroke suffered by Bret Hart on June 24, 2003, the effects of which he is still recovering from...
More tragedies than can be remembered have happened within the wrestling industry over that period of time....with countless wrestling performers and personalities leaving this world too soon by accidents, by their own carelessness, and by their own hand.
Countless tragedies have happened to the world at large....with terrorism and war now a part of our everyday lives, no matter where we live.
But for wrestling fans, this anniversary always stands out, especially as the fifth anniversary approaches.
Here is my AS I SEE IT column, as originally written on May 30, 1999.
Real men do cry.
If there were any doubts of that fact before, there were none after May 23rd, 1999, a night which will be remembered for one of the worst tragedies in the history of the wrestling business.
Along with millions, I watched the Over the Edge pay-per-view that night at home. It was a pay-per-view starting out pretty much like many WWF pay-per-views, with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler trading their usual entertaining banter.
Then, as a video package promoting the match between "The Godfather" and Owen Hart for the Intercontinental Title began, I could hear Jim Ross say "something's gone wrong...". When the video package finished, the camera was showing a crowd shot. At first, I didn't understand what had happened. Then the faces and the words of Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross made it clear that something had gone horribly, tragically wrong.
Ross, stunned, said over and over again that what had happened was "not part of the storyline" and not "a wrestling angle"; trying to communicate to the world-wide PPV audience what had just happened: Owen Hart, while attempting a ring entrance in his "Blue Blazer" character descending on a wire from the ceiling, had fallen approximately 50 feet to the ring, hitting his head on a turnbuckle, breaking his neck.
Hart was given CPR in the ring in front of the live audience at Kemper Arena and then taken to Truman Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Shortly afterwards, Jim Ross made the announcement of Hart's death to the PPV audience.
On Tuesday, there were reports from a local Kansas City radio station and the Kansas City Police Department stating that the apparent cause of the fatal accident was that Owen Hart was reaching up to grab onto the harness; but instead accidentally hit the release, causing his fall.
In the "show must go on" spirit that wrestling has, taken from the "carnys" that wrestling's roots are born in, the Over The Edge PPV continued until its conclusion. But the toll on the people who had to perform for the remainder of the evening had to be beyond measure, and was very obvious to the viewing audience, which saw Jeff Jarrett, Debra McMichael, Brian (Jesse James Armstrong) James, and Duane (Rocky Maivia) Johnson barely keeping their composure through scheduled promos during the PPV.
I have to say I felt numb for most of Monday. I noticed that Dave Scherer of 1wrestling.com described much the same feeling. I'm sure we weren't the only people who felt that way.
Because on May 23rd, a man known for tremendous talent... for a sense of humor legendary within the wrestling business... and known for his great love for his wife Martha and his children Oje and Athena... was taken from this world far, far too soon. I think I had this feeling so strongly because I've had the privilege of seeing the human side of the business and writing about it. These are very real people that work as professional wrestlers. They aren't just characters to me.
I've been blessed to have built acquaintances and friendships with many within WCW, ECW, and the WWF through introductions by friend Kathy Fitzpatrick. From those, there have come other friendships, all of which have been a source of great joy. I've gotten to know how much these performers give to entertain people all over the world, both physically and emotionally. That's what made it so strangely personal a loss.
Indeed, real men do cry.
On May 24th, many of them did.
That night, the staff and workers of the World Wrestling Federation dedicated their two hour Monday Night RAW to their fallen friend and co-worker in a moving tribute at the Kiel Center in St. Louis. The irony of the location had to be painful for the entire Titan crew, as only 18 months previously, Brian Pillman was mourned by the WWF and the fans after his death earlier that day alone in a hotel room hundreds of miles away in Minneapolis.
The ten bell count was sounded as the entire Titan staff came out under a picture of Owen Hart on the Titantron. Many of those there were openly weeping for Hart, most notably Brian (Road Dog) James, Mark Henry, and Paul (Hunter Hearst Helmsley) Levesque.
Monday Night RAW had numerous segments, with wrestlers and office personnel expressing their feelings about Owen....many of which were humorous, telling of Hart's legendary "ribs" in the locker room and on the road. Other reminiscences were deeply felt, by friends like Paul Levesque, Jeff Jarrett, Debra McMichael, and Brian James, repeatedly breaking down while sharing their feelings with the TV and live audiences.
In between these segments were matches dedicated to Owen Hart, devoid of existing storylines, so that as many wrestlers as possible could work matches to pay tribute to their friend. Special mentions of Hart were done all night by the boys, using special forms of all the traditional tag lines of most of the wrestlers.
The RAW tribute ended with Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross saying their last goodbyes, finally being able to let go after keeping it together for a pay-per-view and international TV/cable broadcast over a 24 hour period. Ross said, sobbing, that "...he hoped he could be as good a man as Owen had been, so he could see him again (in Heaven) some day."
But the remark that got me crying was Jerry Lawler...the same Jerry Lawler who in real life can seem so hard-boiled and old school. He said: "I learned a valuable lesson from Owen Hart last night. As I got into the ring, and held...lifted up Owen's head in the ring...if he could have had one more thing...he would have asked for one more day to tell the people he loved what he thought of them. Never leave home without letting the people in your life know that."
The show then ended with Steve Austin coming out to the ring, with his house show tradition of bringing out two beers, often handed to referee Earl Hebner. In a silent tribute that spoke louder than any words, as a graphic of Owen Hart was shown on the Titantron...with tears in his eyes, Steve Austin opened up his beer...toasted the picture of his friend, then quietly laid down a lone beer on the mat.
In a welcome touch, even rival company WCW paid tribute to Owen on WCW's Monday Nitro; where a brief memorial was done for Hart, with Tony Schiavone and Bobby Heenan speaking briefly, having a hard time keeping their composure while doing so. Several workers wore black armbands, most notably Chris Benoit.
I hope that this tragedy teaches us some lessons.
First, as fans...we need to respect how much these performers give to entertain people all over the world, both physically and emotionally. Next time you get ready to give a catcall after a wrestler "blows a spot", stop and think about the price he and she has paid to entertain you that day or night. Stop and think about the travel, the strain on their personal relationships, the drugs used to deal with the physical and emotional pain. Then think again if you need to make that comment.
Second, as human beings...We need to listen to the point that Jerry Lawler made while in those last moments of Monday night's tribute. In the time we have on this Earth, we need to tell our friends and loved ones what we feel about them. We need to be there for them in their times of joy and times of need. For when all is said and done, we are not promised tomorrow.
Real men do cry...and on the night of May 23rd, 1999, the entire wrestling world cried.
Until next time...
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