I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling since I first saw it around early 1992, in the build up to WWF’s SummerSlam show at Wembley Arena. As with all these things trends and styles come and go and, as the so-called Attitude Era dawned in late 1996 I stopped watching.
In early 1999 I caught up with the WWF and one of the faces who was still there (and there weren’t many) was Owen Hart. His feud with his brother Bret (The Hitman) had been one of the high points of my years of loving wrestling as a kid so having him as a touchstone into the new era was great.
Then in May 1999 I saw in a national UK newspaper that he had died the night before. The first thing that struck me about this was that a UK newspaper was carrying the story (UK newspapers even today are highly unlikely to mention pro-wrestling) then it started to sink in what had happened, surrounded by the rumours flying around the internet and between the few wrestling fans at school.
Luckily I was able to catch that week’s Raw, then broadcast on a few days delay on Sky, and it was and remains one of the most moving episodes of it I’ve ever seen where all the wrestlers broke character to pay tribute to the man I knew as ‘The Rocket’.
After that a lot of controversy has surrounded the relationship of the Hart family and the WWF (now WWE) so its taken 16 years for any further chance to relive and celebrate Owen’s life and work to happen in any kind of official way, and that is a new DVD/Blu-ray set, Owen Hart: Hart Of Gold – though it seems these legal wranglings are far from over.
Along with a fine selection of matches, including some rarely seen examples from the Hart owned and run Calgary Stampede Wrestling and tracing his entire career up to his match with Edge in September 1998, the centre piece of the set is a new documentary.
As with most new WWE documentaries I can’t help but find it a bit short. At just over an hour it’s clearly designed to fit in with WWE Network programming, but, none-the-less a lot is packed in.
The basic structure is to chart Owen’s life and career so it starts with his being born as, famously, the youngest of the 12 Hart siblings. This is all particularly interesting as there are new interviews with a number of his brothers and sisters which, if I’m honest, I wasn’t really expecting, as well as archive clips of the late British Bulldog, Davey-Boy Smith, Owen’s brother-in-law.
If you’ve read Bret Hart’s autobiography there won’t be too much here that’s a surprise or particularly new, but hearing it from the horse’s mouth so to speak, adds more detail and nuance and makes it clear that Owen had a great mind for pro-wrestling from a very young age.
The early sections of the documentary are also made extra interesting thanks to the inclusion of footage from the Stampede Wrestling TV shows where Owen was the top star in the late 1980s before his move to WWF. As we track his first run in WWF the documentary is surprisingly candid with Bret Hart commenting about the fact WWF didn’t seem to know what they had, something echoed by Jim Ross about Owen’s short run in WCW (which I had no prior knowledge of) and Daniel Bryan speaking as a fan of Owen.
A fair chunk is taken up going into detail of the brother vs brother feud I mentioned earlier and we get some clips of some of the best wrestling matches I’ve ever seen, including Owen vs Bret at Wrestlemania X which opened and, arguably, stole the show.
Interspersed between all the main sections of the documentary are a series of ‘Owen tales’ where wrestlers from across Owen’s career recount stories of some of the backstage antics for which he was well-known. These add a real extra depth both in showing the much remarked upon fun-loving real life side of Owen, as well as offering a window into the world of pro-wrestling that had its roots in carnivals, fairs and side shows that I can’t help but feel has been a bit lost in recent years.
The story continues through Owen’s time as a tag partner of both Yokozuna and the British Bulldog (sadly of course there is no comment from either really) and his time as the highly entertaining ‘Slammy Award Winning…’ character.
The reinvigorated Hart Foundation gets a nice examination, but then we reach the still controversial events of Survivor Series 1997 and, arguably, well-known WWE politics rears its (ugly) head. A lot of Owen’s career after that is glossed over, including feuds with Shawn Michaels and his partnership with current WWE persona-non-grata Jeff Jarrett. Also skipped is the incident where Owen accidentally broke Steve Austin’s neck at SummerSlam.
While I didn’t feel there was a big gap here as the running time of the documentary is short, it is a shame these things weren’t covered for completeness and its sad that politics and legal issues clearly still have a troubling place in this story (particularly as it is obvious that these have created a rift in the Hart family themselves and Owen’s widow and children are conspicuous in their absence here).
And then things come to May 1999.
Obviously no detail is given, and I wouldn’t want there to be, but this is a genuinely effecting section hearing from Owen’s colleagues and some of the wrestlers he inspired about their feelings at the time and thoughts now.
In the final moments of the documentary it is particularly interesting to hear from Chris Jericho and then Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens as wrestlers who, in their own ways, have really taken influence from Owen Hart and have paid tribute to him – in the case of Kevin Owens both through his WWE/NXT ring name and in naming his son Owen.
Along with the documentary and the selection of great matches, there are a number of bonus stories which are, in many ways, more of the same but are all very entertaining and offer that glimpse into the behind the scenes of the world of pro-wrestling that is always so fascinating – especially when it comes with no agenda as seems to be the case here. These also show a genuine sense of feeling and emotion from the wrestlers who knew Owen who come across as genuinely happy when recounting the stories and, contrastingly, still devastated about Owen’s death.
It may have taken 16 years but its great to finally have something to celebrate the great and innovative work Owen Hart did in pro-wrestling. Within that I think it even has a lesson for pro-wrestling (particularly the WWE) today that when wrestlers are allowed to have ‘gimmicks’ that are extensions of themselves is when they are most compelling and Owen is a perfect case study for this.
Following this release I hope Owen Hart can be recognized with a spot in WWE Hall of Fame next April as, like Warrior and Randy Savage in recent years, he has been something of a lost soul to WWE who deserves the recognition and respect that is long overdue. Though it seems ongoing legal issues may mean this won’t be happening.