How and Why Owen Hart Became a Wrestling Icon

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
When we think of pro wrestling, theatrics and exaggerated rivalries often come to mind. But there's a long history of tragedy in the wrestling world as well. FOTOKITA / Shutterstock

Owen Hart, a member of the legendary Hart wrestling family, was known for his exceptional in-ring skills, charismatic personality and high-flying style in professional wrestling. Competing primarily in the WWF (now WWE), he won multiple championships and was celebrated for his technical prowess and entertaining matches.

But in 1999, Hart's career was cut tragically short during a stunt gone wrong at a live pay-per-view event. Decades after his untimely death, fans and peers alike continue to remember Hart's contributions to wrestling, as well as the sportsmanship and joy he brought to the ring.


Early Life

Owen James Hart was born on May 7, 1965, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He was the youngest member of the legendary Hart wrestling family and the twelfth child of Stu and Helen Hart.

His early life was deeply embedded in the wrestling world due to the influence of his father, a promoter and founder of Stampede Wrestling and owner of the infamous training facility known as the "Dungeon."


The future WWF star was naturally athletic from a young age, engaging in various sports, and initially wanted to pursue a career outside the ring. He attended the University of Calgary on a wrestling scholarship but wanted to become a physical education teacher, according to his widow, Martha Hart.

Stampede Wrestling

However, the allure of the professional wrestling world and his father's wishes eventually drew him in. Hart began working as a wrestler in 1986 as part of his father's Stampede Wrestling promotion, where his talent quickly became evident.

Owen developed a high-flying style that was somewhat atypical for a member of the Hart family, known more for their technical, mat-based wrestling.


His career took a significant turn when he started competing internationally. In 1987, he began wrestling for New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), where he further developed his style and gained a reputation for his athleticism and high-flying maneuvers.

His time in Japan shaped his in-ring persona and style, making him a well-rounded performer.


In 1988, Hart went to the World Wrestling Federation, where he performed under a masked persona, The Blue Blazer. This character allowed Owen to showcase his aerial skills and athleticism without the immediate pressure of living up to the Hart family legacy.

However, he eventually shed the masked persona and began wrestling under his real name, embracing his heritage and becoming an integral part of the WWF's roster.

Throughout his career in the WWF, Hart achieved considerable success, winning multiple championships and engaging in memorable feuds and matches, particularly with his brother, Bret Hart.


Brotherly Love

Owen's bond with Bret was deeply influenced by their upbringing and rigorous training in their father's "Dungeon" in Calgary. This challenging environment was known for producing wrestlers of exceptional skill and technical acumen, setting a strong foundation for both brothers' careers in professional wrestling.

Bret entered the WWF in 1984, quickly ascending the ranks due to his technical prowess and in-ring psychology. By the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, Bret had established himself as one of the WWF's premier talents, capturing multiple championships and headlining major events, cementing his status as a leading wrestling star in the industry.


Despite sharing a similar training background and undeniable talent, Owen struggled to step out from under the considerable shadow of Bret's achievements. His early years in the WWF were marked by a search for a distinct identity as he navigated through various personas and storylines, endeavoring to carve out his unique space within the wrestling world.

This period was instrumental in showcasing Owen's resilience and versatility, qualities that would later define his successful career in the industry.

The Hart Foundation

The Hart family's impact on professional wrestling is monumental, with the Hart Foundation serving as a prime example of their enduring legacy.

Initially formed by Bret "The Hitman" Hart and Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart (his brother-in-law) in 1985, the Hart Foundation was more than just a tag team; it was a symbol of the Hart family's wrestling dynasty. This formidable duo, managed by Jimmy Hart (no relation), captured the WWF Tag Team Championships twice.

While Owen was not a part of the original duo, the group's ethos and the excellence it represented profoundly influenced his career. Owen's journey in wrestling was intertwined with the legacy left by his brother Bret and the Hart Foundation. This connection was evident in the intense rivalry between the Hart brothers in the WWF during the early 1990s.

But Bret wasn't initially on board with the brothers' being pitted against each other.

"I remember I didn't want to do it. They came to me with the idea... and I said, 'First of all, I can only do it with Owen if I do this. And, I want to think about it overnight because I don't know if I want to fight my own brother,'" Bret said in an episode of "Confessions of a Hitman." "I needed to do this for Owen, so he could show everybody that he's better than they give him credit for... they didn't understand how good of a talent Owen was."

Professional Sibling Rivalry

Owen's character, often portrayed as living in the shadow of his brother Bret's success, struck a chord with pro wrestling fans worldwide. This narrative of sibling rivalry added a deeply personal layer to their professional feud, resonating with audiences and making their encounters in the ring all the more compelling.

The apex of this rivalry was reached at SummerSlam 1994 in a Steel Cage match for the WWF Championship. This match was a technical showcase and a narrative masterpiece, capturing the essence of their complex relationship.

While Bret had the official victory, the match elevated Owen in the eyes of fans, cementing his status as a top-tier talent within the industry.

Despite their intense on-screen rivalry, Owen and Bret shared a strong off-screen bond, emblematic of their ability to distinguish their personal relationship from their professional personas. Their matches, characterized by mutual understanding and technical prowess, were lauded for their storytelling and athleticism, underscoring the deep connection and respect between the two brothers.

They were known to share laughs and maintain a close relationship outside the ring, with Owen often described as the prankster of the family, bringing lighthearted moments to their interactions.


Tragedy in the Ring

On May 23, 1999, the WWF's "Over the Edge" pay-per-view event at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, took a tragic turn during one of its scheduled features. Owen, performing under his superhero-like persona "The Blue Blazer," was part of the night's lineup.

The highlight of his appearance was meant to be a spectacular entrance, descending from the arena's rafters directly into the ring, a stunt aimed at thrilling the audience with its daring and theatricality.


For this high-flying entrance, Hart was equipped with a harness and grapple line designed to safely lower him to the ring. However, the event took a catastrophic turn when the harness's quick-release mechanism unexpectedly engaged while the wrestler was still high above the ring.

This malfunction led to Hart falling approximately 78 feet (24 meters), landing chest-first on the top rope before collapsing inside the ring, all in full view of a live audience and television viewers.

Staff provided immediate medical intervention in the ring and swiftly transported the wrestler to a hospital. Despite these efforts, he was pronounced dead due to the blunt force trauma sustained from the fall. The cause of his death was attributed to a severe chest injury, specifically a transection of the aorta, which is the main artery of the body.

The decision to continue the event after such a distressing incident has been a point of contention and criticism ever since.


The Wrestling World Mourns

The loss of such a beloved figure in professional wrestling deeply affected his family, fans and fellow wrestlers, marking a somber moment in the sport's history and leading to lasting changes in how wrestling entertainment prioritizes performer safety.

“In this business, it’s cold, it’s callous, it’s selfish, it’s self-serving, it’s unrealistic, it’s a fantasy world,” said Jeff Jarrett, Owen's close friend and tag-team partner. “But Owen was real.”


Hart's funeral was held on May 31, 1999, in Calgary. It was a deeply moving event, drawing family, friends, fans and a significant contingent from the wrestling community to pay their respects.

Alongside his WWF peers, fellow wrestlers from rival organizations ECW and WCW were also in attendance, underscoring the widespread admiration and affection for Hart within the industry.

The service was marked by emotional tributes, with Bret offering a poignant eulogy. He reflected on his brother's life — inside and outside the ring — highlighting Owen's humor and kindness.


Breaking Character in Memoriam

In the wrestling world, the response to Hart's death was notable not just for its depth of feeling but for how it momentarily pulled back the curtain on the industry's highly scripted nature.

The WWF's tribute show, "Raw is Owen," held the night after his passing, was an extraordinary event where wrestlers openly expressed their grief and shared personal anecdotes about Hart, often breaking character to do so.


This departure from the norm was significant in the context of professional wrestling, where maintaining kayfabe — the portrayal of staged events within the industry as "real" or "true," particularly with respect to the information concerning the scripted aspects of the storylines — is traditionally seen as sacrosanct.

The decision by wrestlers and the WWF to set aside their in-ring personas and storylines to honor Owen's memory was a rare and impactful gesture, demonstrating the deep respect and love they had for him.

Following Owen's death, the wrestling industry engaged in introspection regarding the physical risks associated with the profession and the necessity of enhancing safety protocols to better protect wrestlers.


The Owen Hart Foundation

Following the wrestler's untimely death, his widow, Martha Hart, established this charitable organization to honor his legacy. Its mission is to support and assist various philanthropic initiatives, focusing on offering scholarships, bursaries and aid for education and housing to make meaningful differences in the lives of those in need.

This initiative has played a pivotal role in preserving Hart's legacy, celebrating his contributions to professional wrestling while reflecting his compassionate nature.


The organization hosts fundraising events, including an annual gala featuring renowned guest speakers and performers. These events generate funds for its charitable efforts and honor Hart's life and his lasting influence on acquaintances and fans alike.

Through its endeavors, the Owen Hart Foundation ensures the late wrestler's legacy continues to resonate, embodying his generous and kind-hearted spirit.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.