It’s a depressing fact that we’ve now spent many more years debating how Owen Hart’s legacy should be celebrated than we got to enjoy actually watching it. It seems like every few years something sparks a new round of arguments, be it a book, DVD, interview, or Hall of Fame offer. For a few days the internet buzzes back and forth about who has the moral authority to tell his story and honor him and who doesn’t.
In 2022, Owen’s name is more prominently and frequently featured than it has been in a long time. A deal between his widow, Martha Hart, and AEW, has resulted in a soon-to-conclude tournament that bears his name, a future appearance in an upcoming video game, and frequent televised mentions of him and the charity that Martha runs to honor him.
More Professional Wrestling
- How WWE Reacts When Workers Leave the Job
- Press A+B Together: The Art of Stealing a Finisher
- The Oewn Hart Police Report is a Chilling Reminder of WWE’s History with Worker Safety
With all that attention comes a new round of debates on who should and shouldn’t get to pay tribute and honor his story. I have my own opinions there, but beyond that, looking at all the discussion, I think a lot of people so worried about Owen’s legacy really know what it is. In terms of what made Owen special, what should be most remembered about him, what aspects of him people should try to emulate? I actually don’t think it’s his wrestling.
To start with, there are so many parts of Owen’s wrestling career that simply can’t be emulated. You can’t will yourself to be born into a family like the Harts, one where the father was a promoter, the sons all tried their hand at the family business to varying degrees, and wrestling was a constant topic in the household.
Most wouldn’t be the natural athlete Owen was either. A great amateur wrestler, Owen is considered to be one of the very small elite group of people who were great at pro wrestling basically from day one. It’s said that he had the ability to see a move, practice it once, hit it perfectly in that practice attempt, and have it down from then on. In a family of twelve kids, Owen was the best athlete, even above hall of fame brother Bret. You can’t be Owen Hart, no matter how hard you try. He was a special talent, a natural talent, born and raised in an environment that likely won’t be replicated in our lifetimes.
A lot of Owen’s career is framed by the WWE, and to some degree it should be. He spent the majority of it there and it’s where most fans know him from. Yet, if you just focus on the WWE part of it, you miss a lot of really important context. Many fans think WWE should have the exclusive rights to telling his story because they “made” him. Others don’t get the big deal about him as a talent, seeing him as pretty good but nothing special. But if you know about his entire career, not just the WWE part of it, chances are you see his story in a very different light.
The King of Harts
Owen wrestled for years before he got to the WWE, in his family’s Stampede Wrestling, in Europe, and in Japan. He wasn’t seen as just “pretty good” then, he was special. He was the first non-Japanese wrestler booked to win New Japan’s Junior Heavyweight title, and one of only three foreigners to hold it for its first thirteen years of existence, the other two being Chris Benoit and Sabu. He was Pro Wrestling Illustrated‘s Rookie of the Year for 1985, he was the Wrestling Observer‘s Best Flying Wrestler in both 1987 and 1988. All of this happened before he really got started in the WWE, before he had even turned twenty-four. Before WWE, Owen was seen as an elite talent who hadn’t even peaked yet.
Signed by the WWE in the summer of 1988, Owen had the fortune to be employed by the biggest wrestling promotion in the world, but the misfortune of said promotion being the one that valued height and insane physiques more than any other. At 5’9″ and 210 pounds, the two cards Owen needed to play were two of the only ones he didn’t have in his deck. WWF threw him under a mask, strapped a cape on him, and gave him a mild undercard push as The Blue Blazer, a superhero. The mild push soon ended, as did Owen’s first run in the promotion, with him leaving in 1989.
For the next two years, Owen bounced around the globe, working Canada, Japan, Europe, and Mexico. He even wrestled a handful of matches for WCW and got a contract offer, which he turned down upon learning it would’ve forced him to relocate from his beloved Calgary to Atlanta. (Looking at the career of Owen’s old Stampede running buddy Brian Pillman, a man with a similar size and skillset, it seems likely Owen would’ve been stuck in a similar cruiserweight/midcard malaise had he signed.) Owen even tried to become a fireman like his brother Keith, but was passed over in favor of applicants who had college degrees.
Finally, WWF got in contact with him, expressing renewed interest. Having exhausted his other options, with a six-months pregnant wife, Owen returned, hoping WWF would push him better this second time around. This run lasted eight years, until the end of his life.
It’s this 90s WWF run that most people think of when they think of Owen. But people often cherry-pick the highlights. They focus on 1994, the one year Owen was given a main event singles push in an excellent feud with his brother Bret that resulted in not just some of the best matches of his career, but in the entire promotion for that era. But none of Owen’s three tentpole PPV matches, his classic WrestleMania X win over Bret, his rematch in a cage at Summerslam, and his 1994 King of the Ring victory, were the main event on their respective nights. Even at the peak of his career, Owen was never quite given the true top spot.
What fans forget or gloss over is how Owen was kind of squandered for much of those eight years. He spent so much of it thrown into tag teams; The New Foundation with Jim Neidhart, High Energy with Koko B. Ware, title runs with Davey Boy Smith and Yokozuna. These teams ranged from immediate failures to decent but unspectacular midcard acts, but the pattern behind them all is that apart from 1994, WWF rarely saw fit to give Owen a strong singles push. Most of the time they saw him as just a good hand to help fill out a show. In fact, in 1993 before the Bret feud, Owen was unhappy enough to apply for a job as a U.S. Customs Officer. In his application he listed his reason for seeking a change of career as “lack of stability—desire a career with a future.” It was another position he did not get.
In the final years of his career, things momentarily picked up for Owen again. He got to be a part of the hot Hart Foundation vs. The United States feud, and got a prominent program with rising megastar Steve Austin.
Then Montreal happened.
When Bret Hart was screwed on the way out of the company, Owen was angry enough to ask out of the remaining three years of his contract but was denied a release. Instead, he was somewhat soothed with a significant raise and promises of a major push as the last Hart standing. For a variety of reasons that push never came and he spent his final days mired in the midcard once again.
At the time of his death, Owen Hart found himself in yet another middling tag act with Jeff Jarrett, and under the guise of the gimmick he began with in WWF, the Blue Blazer, albeit a new, puritanical version poking fun at Owen’s objection to proposed risque angles. In his obituary of Hart, Dave Meltzer stated that Owen considered the gimmick “his punishment.” After a decade in WWF, Owen ended right where he started, in his usual position and most common role.
Right Place, Wrong Time
Although WWF deserves the lion’s share of the blame for somewhat squandering Owen’s potential, it’s hard not to view the man’s entire career as snakebitten.
He was always in the right place at the wrong time.
If he wasn’t the youngest Hart, he could’ve worked in Stampede when it was stronger, as opposed to the struggling revival of it post-Vince McMahon crushing the territories. If Owen came along in the mid-90s, maybe WCW would’ve been a fit, and he could’ve followed a career trajectory similar to a Chris Jericho. If he had started in the early 00’s, maybe his story ends up closer to the CM Punks and Bryan Danielsons of the world.
Wrestling has always been an uphill battle for slightly undersized super workers, but there have been little eras where the glass ceiling was easier to break, where there were more options for guys like Owen. He didn’t come up in any of them.
Even Owen’s successes were quickly followed by disappointment. That one great WWF push he received? It had came in 1994, a very down period for WWF, early in their wilderness years as the promotion tried to find its way post-Hulkamania and post-spending a decade teaching their fans that size was the most important thing about a wrestler.
While his initial house show run with Bret actually did better business than WWF had seen on that front in over a year, that time is still seen as a business failure. Likewise, post-Montreal, Owen should’ve been primed for that promised push, with natural main event feuds against Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin. But Michaels within months suffered an injury that would take him out of the ring for years, and in accidentally injuring Steve Austin on a botched piledriver, Owen had made a political enemy of the newly ascended biggest star on the planet. True opportunities never quite lined up right for Owen.
For all of these reasons, I can never have the enthusiasm some other fans have towards revisiting Owen’s career or wishing WWE would get to celebrate it at a hall of fame induction. Don’t get me wrong, there are parts that absolutely should be celebrated, with some great matches and moments. It was a very solid career, one many wrestlers would’ve been happy to have. But Owen’s potential wasn’t to have a solid career, his potential was to have a great one. He was a special talent from the beginning who was never fully appreciated or utilized, and at times was booked so poorly he was looking for a way out of wrestling entirely. The story of Owen’s in-ring career is intensely bittersweet, as much about what he didn’t get to do as what he did.
Owen Hart’s Legacy
Luckily, what is special about Owen isn’t what he did inside the ring, but who he was outside it. After his death Owen received many tributes, but I think what is striking is that the ones that I think most would agree were the most memorable were not about his talent, or even his infamous love of pranks, they were about just how good a person he was, how devoted a family man he was. You remember Jeff Jarrett saying that in an industry with few friends and little integrity, Owen was one of the former who had a lot of the latter. You remember Mick Foley saying his son adored Owen so much that he was so proud to look like him thanks to a haircut. You remember Jim Ross saying that he hoped he could be as good a man as Owen so he could see him again someday.
Rereading Martha Hart’s book Broken Harts, the thing I was struck most by was not the extremely detailed breakdown of Owen’s death in its second half, but her overwhelming love and appreciation of the man in its first. Martha paints a picture of a sweet, devoted husband and father who always fought to put his family first. Owen became a master of rescheduling flights to maximize time with his family, including taking midnight routes rather than evening ones, just so he could put his kids to sleep. He once made a special flight from California to Calgary so he could see his son’s Christmas concert, even though he had to be back in the air an hour later. Martha describes a loyal husband who talked to her on the phone at least an hour a night when he was on the road, a man who wrote her hundreds of love letters.
Understandably, it’s not the part of Owen that fans are most eager to celebrate, and why would it be? They never got to see that Owen, only occasionally hear about him second hand. We only got to see Owen the wrestler. But Owen the wrestler isn’t that special. He was an amazing talent that got somewhat squandered. That story is far too common in this business. But Owen the human is a special story. There are many stars that other wrestlers want to emulate inside the ring, but how many stars do you want to emulate outside of it? The tribute to Owen isn’t when people say they want to work like him, it’s when they say things like they hope their children grow up to be like him.
Surely Owen was not the only good person in wrestling, or the only dedicated family man. But in a business full of temptation, those qualities are rarer than they should be, which is why they stand out so much. They probably hurt his career. Wrestling is a business that rewards sacrificing your family, your health, even your sanity.
If Owen had more of an ego, if he was more career-focused, if he was more willing to play political games, maybe he has a better career, one that is closer to Bret’s. A lot of wrestlers make that choice, but Owen didn’t. Time and time again he made decisions based on his family first, and was willing to walk away on multiple occasions when he thought it could bring them a better life. That is Owen Hart’s legacy, and in a month where so many people are looking back over his life, I hope that’s the message they take away from it. He wasn’t a great wrestler who just happened to be a good person, he was a great person who just happened to be a good wrestler.