On May 23, 1999, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) experienced a tragedy that would forever change the course of their lucrative history. Legendary performer Owen Hart was set to make a dramatic entrance from the rafters of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, but it wasn’t meant to be. Hart (performing under his “Blue Blazer” gimmick) was being lowered to the ring when his harness released him suddenly. As a result, he fell over four stories to his death. What made matters more hazy, Vincent Kennedy McMahon (Chairman and CEO of WWF/E) and other officials opted to keep the show going and not cancel the remaining airtime during the Over The Edge Pay-Per-View.
Owen James Hart was born on May 7, 1965 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada to Stu and Helen Hart. The youngest of twelve children, alongside older brother Bret, he was classified as one of the more gifted in ring competitors in his generation. Hart won multiple championships throughout his short career. He’s a former one-time USWA Unified World Heavyweight Champion, two-time WWF/E Intercontinental Champion as well as a four-time World Tag Team Champion.
Despite all of his accomplishments, Hart was growing increasingly frustrated with the direction of the company. With tensions coming to a head with rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the WWF decided that a creative face lift would keep them afloat in the ratings during the mid 1990s. Dubbed “The Attitude Era” this style of entertainment was presented as more smash mouth, raunchy and flamboyant than the traditional stars of the 1980s.
In November of 1997, Hart’s brother Bret was set to defend the World Championship against on-screen and backstage nemesis Shawn Michaels. There have been many different accounts as to what happened but according to Owen himself, he, Davey Boy Smith (The British Bulldog) and Jim Neidhart were waiting for a signal to interfere with the match, but the signal never came. Instead, while Bret was locked in the sharpshooter, McMahon ended the match prematurely and awarded the belt to Shawn Michaels. Outraged, Bret alongside The British Bulldog and Neidhart left the WWF for WCW.
Despite the controversy, Owen opted to finish his tenure with the company before jumping ship. After a brief sabbatical, he returned to action but was sporting a darker, more mysterious look. In a YouTube video about the late wrestler, Brian Zane of Wrestling With Wregret stated, “It was a cool take on his character. Right off the bat fans could tell that something within him had changed.” Coined “The Black Hart” this version of Owen was far more focused than that of his jubilant past gimmicks.
After that fateful night in Kansas City, Missouri, many have come forth with their own personal theories as to what happened. Legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette stated in an interview with prowrestlingstories.com, “Vince Russo didn’t think Owen was comfortable with doing the stunt. Owen wasn’t comfortable with it at all.” With this and other accounts from witnesses that include the likes of Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Jimmy Korderas and Steve Austin. With all of the hearsay that’s been passed around for nearly 21 years, the best prediction is that Owen’s death was an unfortunate event that may not have been accidental.
Here’s why, some believe this was done intentionally. During the time of the 90s, wrestling was reaching a fever pitch, and things had to change. Hart and his siblings were philosophically against the changes. After Owen’s contract was set to expire, it was widely believed that he was going to retire or go to WCW like his brothers. Not wanting to lose another gifted worker, McMahon and the company felt the need to retaliate. Popular opinion is that the harness set to lower Owen into the arena was rigged. According to his wife Martha, “He was hooked up to a makeshift contraption that had a quick release meant for the real purpose.”
No one truly knows what happened in the Kemper Arena the night Hart tragically passed, but what we do know is that it was an unnecessary fatality that affected the lives of millions. Was McMahon trying to prove a point against the better judgement of his talent? Was it an honest mistake that could’ve been corrected? Or was it cold blooded murder?