Canadian wrestling legend Owen Hart’s death in 1999 is one of the most harrowing tragedies in the world of sports entertainment. In May 2020 VICE TV’s Dark Side Of The Ring documentary series explored the incident with an episode entitled “The Final Days Of Owen Hart.” And it featured some startling new revelations.
A member of one of professional wrestling’s greatest dynasties, Owen initially resisted becoming involved in the family business. The youngest of 12 siblings and son of famed competitor and Stampede Wrestling promoter Stu Hart, Owen even applied to be a U.S. customs agent and a firefighter. However, his natural aptitude for wrestling won out in the end.
You see, in 1988 Owen joined World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), then known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). And there he wrestled as the masked character “the Blue Blazer.” This wouldn’t lead to much success, so he left the company, before returning in 1991 under his real name. Then, in late 1993, his career truly began to take off when he was placed into a feud with his older brother Bret “Hitman” Hart, already an established talent.
In fact, the brothers executed two iconic matches, facing each other at Wrestlemania X and in a Steel Cage at Summerslam 1994. Owen would go on to become a two-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time European Champion and a four-time Tag Team Champion. However, it is as a backstage practical joker and devoted family man that he is best remembered among his peers.
Now, Owen met his future wife Martha in 1982 while both were high school students. And they later had two children, Oje and Athena. By 1999 Owen was allegedly considering retirement and his family was due to move into a newly-built home in Calgary. But first he had to perform at a pay-per-view event.
Tragically, Owen would die at this event, entitled Over The Edge, on May 23, 1999. It took place in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena. At the time, Owen had returned to portraying the Blue Blazer, and he was scheduled to wrestle The Godfather for the Intercontinental Championship. In fact, he was to make an entrance befitting a superhero, “flying down” to the ring from the rafters.
So the lights were dimmed as a promo video was shown on a giant screen to hype the upcoming match. And Owen waited on his perch. However, something went awry, and he fell 78-feet to the ring below. He hit the ring ropes with tremendous force, and then fell onto his back on the canvas.
As soon as the WWE’s cameras cut back to announcer Jim Ross, the visibly shocked veteran told the audience watching at home that something had gone terribly wrong. “This is not part of the entertainment here tonight,” Ross said. “This is as real as real can be here.”
Over the next several minutes, as medics attended to Owen and the crowd looked on aghast, Ross had to stall. When his co-commentator Jerry “the King” Lawler returned to the commentary booth, he was far from his usual over-the-top, exuberant self. “It doesn’t look good at all,” were some of the few words he could manage.
Weirdly, when Hart was taken away on a gurney, the show continued. It was a decision that would prove controversial, and it also led to a lot of confusion in the arena. Some even believed the incident may have been part of a storyline, with one fan telling Associated Press, “We thought it was a doll at first.”
Owen passed away within a few minutes of his fall, and Ross was the man forced to announce his death. “I have the unfortunate responsibility to let everyone know that Owen Hart has died,” said Ross. “Owen Hart has tragically died from that accident here tonight.” Ross would later claim he was informed that Owen had died a mere ten seconds before going on air.
In Dark Side Of The Ring a new revelation was made about Owen’s last words. You see, referee Jimmy Korderas spoke about how he was in the ring, holding the top rope and watching the wrestler’s video promo as he waited for the match to begin. And he said he heard what sounded to him like screaming, and then a loud thud as something brushed past him.
Then Korderas said the rope lurched violently, hurting his fingers, before he turned to see Owen lying prone in the ring. He would later understand how closely Owen came to landing on him, which would have resulted in his death too. Even so, wrestling personality Jim Cornette would claim in the documentary that Owen purposely tried to warn Korderas as he fell.
Yes, Cornette alleged, “When Owen was falling, everybody that was there said the last thing that he yelled was ‘Look out!’” Cornette spoke of his astonishment at Owen’s apparent selflessness, even in his final moments. To him, it epitomized Owen Hart as a human being. Soon after, though, the documentary turned to what had gone wrong.
Indeed, in the Dark Side Of The Ring and via media interviews, Martha went into detail about the rigging mistake that led to Owen’s death. Now, WWE had performed the stunt beforehand, with Owen being rigged up for his descent from the ceiling by an industry expert. But on this fateful night, a new rigger was brought in, and the equipment had changed.
“Everything was wrong, nothing was done properly,” lamented Martha to Sports Illustrated in the leadup to the documentary airing. “In our lawsuit, we had every single top rigger in the business give us deposition and they all said how egregious and negligent the set-up was and how inappropriate the equipment was.” Apparently, the clip chosen to hook Owen into the harness wasn’t fit for purpose, and it led to catastrophe.
“The clip was meant for the sole use of sailboats,” said Martha. “The whole design of it is to release on load, so they used the worst equipment and there was no redundancy. In the past, the WWE had used quality riggers to rig their stunts.”
Martha told Sports Illustrated who had been responsible for the stunt previously. “The one they used was Joe Branam, who rigged everybody from Elton John to the Rolling Stones to Robbie Williams. He did it the right way and Owen had no control over the stunt.” However, she said WWE wanted to change things up for the Over The Edge event.
Yes, Martha claimed WWE wanted Owen to be able to quickly remove himself from the harness he was wearing as his feet hit the ring canvas. “They didn’t like the way that he was rigging Owen because they wanted him to be able to release when he dropped to the ground, but that isn’t possible when it’s done the right way.”
As Martha continued to explain to Sports Illustrated, “Joe Branam said he would not rig Owen that way, so instead they hired this hacker, Bobby Talbert, who had no business rigging anyone. “Owen never questioned his safety because he assumed the company wouldn’t put him in harm’s way. And after he died in the ring, they scooped him up and went on with the show.”
Furthermore, Owen’s widow reiterated her strong stance regarding WWE. She said, “When fans wonder why I don’t want anything to do with this company, hopefully this Dark Side Of The Ring episode will answer those questions.” Of course, Martha’s take on the company is always likely to be negative after it took legal action against her following Owen’s death.
“A lot of people might not realize that the WWE sued me,” revealed Martha. “We were suing them in Missouri for the wrongful death of Owen, and they sued me for breach of Owen’s contract because it said in Owen’s contract that any lawsuit against them should be in Connecticut.” And Martha believed this is because the company couldn’t be forced to pay any punitive damages in that state.
“When I finished my lawsuit with WWE, I never kept track of wrestling,” continued Martha. “I didn’t know anything about what was happening, but they were selling merchandise since his death. The only time I became aware of that was ten or more years after they put a video out on Owen and his family. My lawyers said there were other videos too.”
As she continued to explain to Sports Illustrated, “If they were putting out merchandise, they had to pay royalties, and I’d never received a penny. “That was another lawsuit, and they fought me for three years until that case settled.” Martha was only supported by one member of the Hart family in her legal battles: Bret. But, unfortunately, even that relationship turned sour.
Days before Owen’s Dark Side Of The Ring episode aired, Martha told The Wrap website, “Unfortunately, I have no relationship with Bret. Bret was supportive throughout the lawsuit, but there were a few things that were a problem with Bret. First of all, when we were going through the lawsuit, he was really hoping that I would be able to get him his wrestling footage.”
You see, at the time of Owen’s death, Bret had cut all ties with WWE following the “Montreal Screwjob.” This was an event in late 1997 which saw the line between wrestling fiction and real life animosity blurred. It ended with Bret inadvertently losing the championship and punching WWE boss Vince McMahon in the face before joining rival promotion WCW.
Having left the company, though, Bret had no claim to the hours of tape of his classic wrestling matches. Therefore, he couldn’t use that footage for his own projects and also had no way of stopping WWE releasing a critical tell-all DVD about the fallout. The company had already done this with the Ultimate Warrior, who departed on similarly bad terms.
Unfortunately, Martha was unable to secure Bret the rights to his videotapes in her settlement. “When that didn’t happen, he was very upset that he didn’t get his footage,” said Owen’s widow. “It prompted him to befriend Vince again so he could have access to his footage. That was the first fracture in our relationship.”
Interestingly, Bret did work with WWE again come 2005. Yes, he recorded interviews and chose matches for his DVD Bret “Hit Man” Hart: The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be. Furthermore, he was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2006. However, Martha said she never wants Owen to be inducted, and this stance caused Bret to get, “really nasty.”
Martha told Forbes, “I would never let a company I held responsible for Owen’s death try to honor him, especially with a fake Hall of Fame that doesn’t even really exist. And there’s not even a hallway of fame. It’s not real. It doesn’t exist. There’s no place you can go and visit and it’s there.”
In a 2016 Forbes interview Bret explained why he wanted Owen in the Hall of Fame. He said, “I wish Owen’s kids could sit here and learn about their dad and learn what a great man he was, and what he really was like. For someone to put a wall up and say ‘nah, that can’t happen. We don’t want that to happen. We’re still mad about what happened…’ I think it’s a real shame.”
WWE responded to Martha’s recent comments through their legal counsel, Jerry McDevitt. “The reality is we’ve never told our side of the story of what happened – at least not outside of court,” said McDevitt in a statement. “We told it in court, but when she talks about the way the lawsuit unfolded over the years, it really isn’t accurate what she’s saying.”
McDevitt continued, “We were basically trying to find out what happened that night. Martha was not even remotely interested in finding out what happened that night. She just wanted to use it as a vehicle to beat up a business that she didn’t like that her husband was in, the wrestling business.”
And the lawyer also responded to comments Martha made on the Talk Is Jericho podcast regarding the $18 million settlement she reached with WWE in 2000. She told Chris Jericho that she decided to settle because she recognized she was unlikely to attain the real justice she wanted for Owen. This was, namely, prison time for those responsible for his death.
“She talked about the $18 million settlement, she didn’t really want to do that, she wanted justice,” said McDevitt. “Again, that’s just not true. There was court-ordered mediation. We went to the mediation, and her lawyers were demanding $35 million and some admission of punitive damages.” McDevitt claimed Vince McMahon then stepped in personally.
“Vince told her right there, ‘Look, Martha. I feel so bad for what happened. I feel responsible because this happened on my watch. I want to take care of you and your family, I loved Owen.’ “He was almost crying. He offered $17 million to take care of her.” However, McDevitt said her lawyers turned this offer down, before later asking for another $1 million and reaching the settlement.
Regardless of the full truth of Martha’s feud with WWE, she did use the settlement money for tremendous good. Indeed, she founded the Owen Hart Foundation, an organization that aids low-income families with housing. The Foundation also facilitates college scholarships for promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Ultimately, Martha told The Wrap, “I’ve forgiven Vince, for everything. I don’t carry any of that with me. But at the same time, you can forgive people, but that doesn’t mean you have to befriend them. If he wanted to donate to the foundation, that would be great – but I would never allow them to honor Owen when they were responsible for his death.”
As for the kind of man Owen Hart was in the wrestling business, Martha told Sports Illustrated that he was dedicated to his fans. “Owen really loved his fans,” she said. “He loved his fans more than the people he worked for, and he spent a lot of quality time with his fans. It wasn’t an ‘us and them’ mentality. He enjoyed getting to know them as people.”
Overall, Martha feels that VICE TV and the documentary makers honored Owen through Dark Side Of The Ring. “They did an exceptional job telling the story, and it’s actually the story I hoped would be told,” she said. “The episode is only 44 minutes and there is so much more to cover. Overall, they could not have done a better job.”