TJR Review: Dark Side of the Ring – The Final Days of Owen Hart

It has been 21 years since Owen Hart died at the WWE Over The Edge pay-per-view on May 23, 1999 at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. I didn’t have to look up the date, arena name or city because I was watching that night and I’m never going to forget it. I’m sure a lot of diehard wrestling fans could say the same thing.

Owen was always one of my favorite wrestlers. There are a few reasons why, but as most of you know, those of us in Canada are always loyal to our fellow Canadians. We are proud of the people that make it in WWE. Another factor that I could relate to is that Owen was the youngest of 12 children and I’m the youngest in a family of four children and I’m the youngest cousin in a big family, so I was beaten up by older relatives a lot. It toughens you up and it made Owen relatable for me. That storyline meant so much to me as an early teen wanting to see Owen beat his brother. I’ll never forget watching WrestleMania 10 when Owen faced off his older, more successful brother Bret and Owen beat Bret clean in one of the greatest upsets in wrestling history. It’s an amazing match too. It was done in a way that showed that Owen could not only hang with his older brother, but he was better than him at least on that night in the biggest match of his life. My support of him grew after that. As a technical wrestler, Owen was one of the best in the world and he was an incredible athlete too. After his death, we learned a lot more about him like how he was so funny and so well-liked by his peers. I was watching Over the Edge when he died and I was miserable for days after. I never met Owen, but he had an impact on my life and I’m grateful that I got to see him wrestle on television as well as in person at television and live events.

The “Dark Side of the Ring” documentary that aired last night on VICE TV (and here on Crave in Canada) told the story about Owen Hart’s life in wrestling from his days before WWE into his WWE career. It also covered his death in 1999 while featuring Owen’s family members including wife Dr. Martha Hart, son Oje (who was 7 when Owen died) and Athena, who was nearly 4 when her dad died and she’s 25 this year. This isn’t going to be a full play by play recap of the documentary, but after watching it I felt compelled to write about it.

They did a nice job of talking about Owen’s wrestling career as a natural athlete that had visions of being a big star in the family business. There was also a lot of attention on Owen’s family he was building with Martha and their two kids Oje and Athena. They didn’t cover it that much in the documentary, but Martha has told stories in the past about how Owen wanted to stop wrestling so that he could be home more and be with his family. It was very touching to see all the home video footage of Owen playing trains with Oje and taking Athena to the zoo.

There was a lot of discussion about how great of a wrestler Owen was. Jim Ross spoke about how his WrestleMania 10 match with Bret Hart stole the show that night. It was a classic match. When the Survivor Series 1997 incident was covered, they talked about how Owen was supportive of brother Bret getting screwed by Vince McMahon in a moment that Bret didn’t know was coming. Owen wanted to quit the company, but he was talked into staying and given a raise. Jim Ross said it was obviously because of what happened at Survivor Series, but the company did value Owen.

Regarding WWE continuing the Over the Edge show, Martha was disgusted by it and thought that there should have been a police investigation right away. Cornette was very emotional about it and criticized WWE for continuing the show. Keep in mind that Cornette was working for WWE at the time too.

There were also comments by former WWE referee Jimmy Korderas talking about Owen’s death because Jimmy was in the ring when Owen landed. Jimmy didn’t see the entire fall, but he felt it when Owen landed. Cornette told the story that people said Owen’s last words were “LOOK OUT!” when he was falling down from the rafters because he didn’t want to harm anybody when he landed. Owen went out thinking about others.

Jim Ross gave his perspective throughout the documentary as a former WWE announcer calling the show that was also the Head of Talent Relations at the time. I can’t imagine being in his shoes when he was sitting there on commentary, his commentary partner Jerry Lawler nudged him and Ross looked up to see the end of Owen’s fall. Moments later, Lawler went into the ring while Ross had to talk on air about what happened. The broadcast showed some crowd shots, they went to a backstage interview and Ross had to inform the audience at home about what happened. It was so sad hearing Ross tell the story of Director Kevin Dunn telling him that Owen died and that Ross had ten seconds to share the news on the broadcast. I’m not sure how JR got through it, but he did even though he said it was one of the worst days of his life.

There were also comments from wrestlers like The Godfather and D-Lo Brown, who were in WWE at the time of Owen’s death and Godfather was actually Owen’s opponent at Over The Edge. While The Godfather was backstage preparing to make his entrance for the match, people were yelling that Owen fell in the ring. Brown talked about how he can still remember the image of Owen getting wheeled on a stretcher with his face looking blue as a moment he’ll never forget. You could tell how emotional he got just thinking about. Chris Jericho wasn’t in WWE yet (that would come a few months later), but he was watching a few months later and noted how big of a fan he was of Owen because he saw him in the Stampede Wrestling days. Perhaps they could have talked to more wrestlers. I think the ones they talked to did provide an interesting perspective on things.

The story that Martha and Oje told the night they found out Owen died was a tearjerker. Vince McMahon was the first person to call her without providing a lot of information about what happened. Shortly after that, a doctor in Kansas City called to confirm that Owen died. Martha was crying in her kitchen and then Oje ran upstairs from the basement to see his mother in tears. Oje said that Martha, Athena and himself all slept in the same bed that night, but he spent the night staring at the ceiling while his mother was weeping. I’m sure it was a night they all wish they could forget.

There were images shown from the funeral with Owen’s family there along with his WWE family. People compared his funeral to that of a head of state because Owen and the Hart Family were so beloved in Calgary. They played clips from Martha’s speech while she let us know how she broke down as soon as she saw Owen in the casket.

Martha shared a lot of info about the legal battle that she had with WWE. We saw Owen’s mask from that night, the harness that was used to hold up Owen that wasn’t strong enough to hold up a man like him and a lot more of the details about what happened. I had read Martha’s book that was published in 2001, so a lot of memories of that came flooding back as I watched this and I do recommend the book if you want more info. I don’t think Martha was a bitter person when she wrote her book, nor do I think she is bitter now. Her husband, who she dated since they were teens, was taken away from her because a stupid stunt that was absolutely unnecessary. As she stated in the documentary, she wanted to find out everything that happened so that she could honor her late husband, who was gone suddenly at the age of 34.

The settlement saw WWE pay $18 million to Martha and she set up the Owen Hart Foundation that helps to put people in homes that are single moms and need help. That’s wonderful that they did that.

A lot of the information that was shared in the documentary has been public knowledge for over 20 years thanks to all the reports about Owen’s death, the info provided in Martha’s book and Bret Hart’s book as well. It wasn’t new information to me because I read so much about it, but I realize for a lot of people watching this that it may have been the first time you heard about these things and a lot of it was likely shocking information. The producers of the documentary interviewed the right people.

Martha and Oje Hart

I was really impressed by Owen’s son Oje, who is a lawyer now. Martha mentioned on Chris Jericho’s podcast that they named their son the unique name Oje because Owen’s middle name was James so Oje was a nickname and then they named their son that. Oje was seven years old when Owen died and he shared a lot of memories he had with his dad. Oje is also a lawyer now, so he’s very well-spoken and I’m sure would be very proud of the man that his son has become.

Wrestling fans know that Martha will never allow WWE to put Owen into the WWE Hall of Fame, but what about Oje? He stands by his mother and made his point clear:

“I would never let WWE put his name on a piece of silver and say that ‘they got that. We have built a foundation that helps put people in homes, that helps single moms like my mom was, that lets kids go to school. This was all done in his namesake. This has all got Owen Hart written all over it. This is how communities, people, society remembers him. That’s how we want it to be done. Yeah, he was a wrestler, but he was bigger than that. That was just part of who he was.”

Even after knowing the perspective of Martha and Oje (as well as Athena most likely), there are still going to be some wrestling fans that hate Martha because of how she feels. I don’t see how you can feel that way after knowing this full story. If it bothers you that Martha won’t let WWE put Owen in the WWE Hall of Fame then my advice is to get over it. Those of us that loved, watched and supported Owen know how great he was. We don’t need WWE to honor him to justify his career and frankly, I can see Martha and Oje’s side of it. If they want it to be this way then it’s their right because that is Owen’s family and it’s up to them to do what they feel is right.

There was some more wrestling discussion towards the end of the documentary with Chris Jericho talking about how Owen could have had a lot more success in WWE in the coming year. He noted the great wrestlers that started in the company within the next year like Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, younger guys like Edge & Christian and Chris didn’t mention himself, but I would include him as well as the late Chris Benoit. The WWE roster improved a lot after Owen passed as they focused more on in-ring action and it would have fit Owen perfectly. With that said, it’s not known how long he would have continued to wrestle.

The final moments focused on Owen’s life and legacy that his family has worked hard to preserve with the Owen Hart Foundation. I’m glad that his family is honoring him by making a positive impact in the world.


Final Thoughts

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear here: Owen Hart should not have died that night in Kansas City. World Wrestling Entertainment did not need to do a stunt and if they did, they should have done it in a safer way just like they have done in the past and like WCW was doing with Sting. The rigging equipment that WWE used that night was not strong enough. They should have known that BEFORE Owen did his stunt. Apparently, the order from the bosses was to get something that would allow Owen as the Blue Blazer to unhook the harness in a fast way. That means they risked a man’s health by making him use an apparatus that would allow him to unhook himself a few seconds faster than if he was wearing a safety harness. I wish Owen said no that day. I wish somebody in WWE had the sense to realize that it was not the right thing to do.

Do I hate WWE for what happened when Owen died? No. It was an accident. They should have prepared better or scrapped the idea altogether. I wish they were smart enough to not do what they did. I believe Vince McMahon when he says he loved Owen. If you asked him the biggest regret of his career, I would hope that the first thing he says is Owen’s death because it’s the one thing I wish he could take back.

My opinion is that the Over the Edge PPV should have ended when WWE knew Owen was dead. I can’t imagine how hard it was for the wrestlers that followed Owen’s death because I doubt any of them wanted to be in there. It was also terrible that WWE didn’t even tell the fans in Kansas City that witnessed Owen’s death that he had passed away.

I thought the documentary was very well done. There were some things that I wish they covered more and it would have been nice to hear from other people that could have definitely provided some insight as well, but I think for something that was 44 minutes long they did a nice job of telling this story.

On a final note, Martha and her family released some Owen Hart t-shirts via Pro Wrestling Tees with all the proceeds going to the Owen Hart Foundation. If you were a fan of Owen and you want to support the Owen Hart Foundation, get a t-shirt. It’s for a great cause.

Thank you Owen. We’ll never forget you.