Wrestling's greatest tragedy: 20 years later


A few days ago marked the 20th anniversary of the death of professional wrestler Owen Hart.

As a young sports reporter at the Daily Mountain Eagle, I wrote a weekly wrestling column, and the week after his death, I wrote a piece on Hart. I said at that time that his death was something that I would never forget, and that has been a true statement. Reading the information about the death again this past week brought back the memories of the night it happened. 

Remember, many more details have come out about this accident since I originally wrote about it three days after it happened. My thoughts on some of the decisions made concerning the aftermath of the accident have also changed over 20 years, but for any other wrestling fans out there, here is the “Inside the Squared Circle” that ran in the DME on Wednesday, May 26, 1999:

I will never forget what happened Sunday night, May 23, 1999 for the rest of my life.

I may forget the date and I may forget some details, but the shock and sympathy that I felt that night will be something that I will never forget.

I’m sure that wrestling fans will not forget the tragic accident that took the life of 34-year-old wrestler Owen Hart, especially those who were in the arena. Hart fell head first from six stories up in the rafters at Kemper Arena in Kansas City and hit the turnbuckle when he reached the ring. EMTs performed CPR on Hart for 10 minutes, but nothing worked. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Truman Hospital. This is the only time in my life that I can say that I’m thankful for not being in a wrestling arena.

I got the news around 11:30 p.m. Sunday night. I didn’t watch the WWF’s Over the Edge pay-per-view live, but I had gone to pick up a taped copy of it. When I arrived at my friend Eric Detwiler’s house to get the tape, he broke the news to me.

I’m not going to come out and say that Owen was one of my all-time favorite wrestlers, but I did respect his ability in the ring and the news came as a tremendous shock. He was one of the best in-ring performers in the world.

Eric has never lied to me in the past, but while I was driving home, from some reason, I kept thinking it was just some kind of joke or that it was a wrestling angle and he wasn’t telling me the entire story. Deep down, I knew he was telling the truth, and that’s why I immediately said a prayer for the entire Hart family.

When I got home, I watched the tape. I saw what happened was real. After the accident, the wrestlers didn’t care about staying in character. They only wanted to let Owen know that they were praying for him. I also saw the tragedy was on ESPN, CNN and every local network.

To say the least, Sunday was a pretty sleepless night for me. I wanted to gain as much information as I could on the accident because I knew that calls from readers would be coming in to me the next morning, and I also knew that co-workers would be asking for details.

It was also a sleepless night because for some reason this death hit me hard. I have been a wrestling fan for over 20 years, and I have lived through many wrestlers’ deaths, but none have affected me like Owen’s.

I continued to think that Hart’s small children Oje and Athena will have to grow up without a father and his wife Martha will now be without her loving husband. 

I also thought that Hart’s death happened while he was trying to entertain me and other wrestling fans around the world. He wanted us to be entertained and that cost him his life.

The World Wrestling Federation went under fire immediately for continuing with the show, but I think that is how Hart would have wanted it. His co-workers and friends felt that continuing the show would be the best thing to do, and if that is how they felt he would have wanted it, I applaud them.

The WWF also did a fitting tribute to Owen on Monday’s edition of RAW IS WAR. The entire show was dedicated to Owen and his legacy.

The show began with every wrestler and employee of the WWF, except for WWF Champion Undertaker, on the ramp to listen to the bell being tolled 10 times.

Each wrestler wore black armbands with Owen’s name on them. Also before and after each commercial break, candid interviews were done that featured out of character wrestlers giving their memories of Owen. The most touching of which came from Jeff Jarrett, who promised to let Owen’s children know what a great man he was; Mark Henry, who wrote a poem for his friend; and Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who could hardly speak through his weeping.

Some wrestlers also fought the most inspired matches that I have ever seen. Manking, “Road Dogg” and, especially, “The Rock” had superior performances. 

The WWF also canceled five house shows for the remainder of this week and also canceled the replay of Over the Edge.

Rival organization WCW, which Owen’s brother Bret works for, showed class by sending condolences to the Hart Family. Friend of the family Chris Benoit also wore an armband. Bret Hart was supposed to have wrestled Kevin Nash on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” but Leno canceled the match due to the accident.

Details of the accident are still sketchy. No one knows what happened. The WWF’s official word on a pre-RAW press conference was that Owen somehow released himself from his harness.

Hart was the youngest of 12 children and had a tremendous 13-year career. He began wrestling in his father’s Stampede Wrestling organization in Calgary. Hart was a four-time WWF World Tag Team Champion, two-time Intercontinental Champion, King of the Ring in 1994 and European Champion.

My prayers and sympathy will continue to go out to everyone that Owen Hart’s life and death affected.

Vince McMahon summed up Owen Hart’s life and legacy in the video montage at the beginning of RAW IS WAR by saying, “If the legacy of a man’s life can be measured by the lives he touched and how much he loved…then a big piece of Owen Hart will live on in all of us.”

James Phillips is editor and publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He may be reached at 205-221-2840 or james.phillips@mountaineagle.com.