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Matt Spaulding




It still puzzles me how I recognized him right away.

When I started watching wrestling again in 1998, it was WCW that I watched more often than not, mostly because of the name recognition of the wrestlers I had watched while I was a kid. I started turning over to the WWF early last year because I was curious: Who were these guys? The federation I grew up watching was now full of people who, for the most part, I'd never really heard of before. Oh, sure, there were the big names - Austin, Undertaker, DX - but the majority of the WWF's talent was completely new to me.

But I knew Owen Hart almost as soon as I saw him.

I don't quite remember what night it was, but most likely he was teaming with Jeff Jarrett at the time. I think my brain made a connection to some nebulous piece of news I'd read about or heard about, and somehow I recognized the guy in the black singlet tights with the yellow trim and his initials on them as Owen. Or maybe I just figured that "OH" couldn't stand for anything else.

I noticed how cool he looked in the ring; how skilled he looked compared to some of the other performers I'd seen that night. I also noticed that although he and Jarrett were supposed to be a heel team, I found myself liking Owen's character more for some strange reason. And I don't mean in the sense that I thought he played a better role than Jarrett did; I mean that I liked Owen Hart as if he was a babyface.

When Owen, as the Blue Blazer, appeared on the SmackDown! pilot last April and did his interview, I was laughing out loud. I'd done some research and found out about Owen's previous Blue Blazer past, and I was pleasantly surprised at the versatility he had in playing the two different character. Owen's plainclothes persona came off to me as stoic. But the Blazer gimmick was so entertainingly cheesy I couldn't contain myself. It was the first time in a long time I'd seen a wrestler change gimmicks, and Owen moved back and forth between them so well, it was as if the Blue Blazer was a completely different person.

Getting the News

A little bit of background first: I work at The Trentonian, a tabloid-style daily newspaper in Trenton, NJ, USA, as a sports copy editor. Every Sunday for over two years now, we've run a pro wrestling column by "The Trenton Strangler," which was an idea that originated approximately six sports editors ago. So when the events of May 23, 1999 unfolded, we had a little more interest in it than most legitimate mainstream news outlets. (Granted, those familiar with The Trentonian would say that it hasn't been a legitimate mainstream news outlet for years, but you didn't hear that from me.)

I was working that night when the story came across the Associated Press newswire. "Professional wrestler involved in accident during event." A few minutes later, we got a call from the Strangler giving us the tragic details, including the news that the pay-per-view had continued.

This was all too much for me to handle at once, and I basically shut down for a few minutes to try and make sense of all the jumbled thoughts running through my head. He's... he's dead? He's dead. Owen Hart is dead.

Owen Hart is dead.

It was the first I'd ever heard of a wrestler dying in the ring at a live show. Up until that moment, I never truly understood the risks these men and women took every time they laced up their boots.

Owen Hart is dead and they continued with the show. They kept going? Why did they keep going? Did they not know that he was dead? Would it have made a difference?

Would I have stopped the show?

That last question was tumbling through my mind throughout the whole drive home after work. I don't know why I kept asking myself that... maybe part of me saw it as a parallel to the tough, potentially life-changing decisions that we all have to make at some point in our lives. But this... this was way over my head. Why was I even thinking about it?

Would I have stopped the show?

I never did come up with an answer to that question. Not that night, not the next night, and not now, a year later. And I don't think I ever will. It is an absolute worst-case scenario that no one ever expects to have to face, and on top of that, you have to make that call, make it decisively, and then be prepared to justify it afterwards. Whether it was the right decision or not will be debated for all time, but I, for one, did not envy Vince McMahon that night for having to make it.

Knowing myself, I don't think I could have made that decision.

The Stars Come Out

The first thing I did when I got home from work the next night was to watch my tape of the tribute show.

This was a revelation all its own.

It was the first time I had ever seen, if only for a few moments, the men and women behind the characters they played. I found myself chuckling as Andrew Martin told the story of a practical joke Owen had played on him. I smiled when Bob Howard related the story of how Owen put him over in a match in Bob's hometown of Mobile, Alabama. I felt the same honor Adam Copeland did as he talked about being a part of Owen's last match, having had the opportunity, if only for a short time, to see Owen in action.

I admired the courage of the men and women who toughed it out during those interview sessions; those who tried not to let their grief get the best of them. But I admired even more the ones who didn't; the ones who simply let the tears flow. I'll probably never forget seeing Jean-Paul Levesque break down and struggle to speak when his time came. He seemed light-years away from the person who, as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, I saw smash a cast on The Rock's arm with a sledgehammer on TV not two weeks earlier.

Just as touching were the tributes given by the in-character wrestlers. While the words and actions of the Road Dogg, The Godfather, The Rock, and Stone Cold Steve Austin were delivered in their own signature styles, I never doubted the sincerity of the men behind the gimmicks. What was said - and in some cases, what wasn't said - by Brian James, Charles Wright, Dwayne Johnson, and Steve Williams spoke volumes about their fallen comrade.

And more and more, as I watched the tape, one thought kept crossing my mind:

Why did it have to be Owen?

One Year Later

When Owen Hart died, the ten-year-old mark that was still dominating my thought process as a wrestling fan died along with him. Real life caught up to him at last, and he was replaced by a young man of 24 who was a little world-weary and a lot more cynical, but also a little "smarter," a little wiser, and a lot more appreciative of what these people do in the ring four or five nights a week.

And really, that's what's gotten me thinking about Owen recently: the return of honest-to-goodness wrestling to the WWF - the company he loved, the company he stayed with when it wasn't exactly fashionable for a Hart to be associated with the WWF. Frankly, I'm missing him a little bit more these days, and not just because of what day this is.

What wrestling fan wouldn't want to watch an Owen-Jericho match? Or an Owen-Guerrero match? Or see the Blue Blazer team up with Kurt Angle to spread their message of sugary goodness and strict morality? If Owen was here today, he'd probably be a bigger part of the WWF than ever, and would probably be over solely on his ring work.

Let me leave you with one final thought:

It's commonly accepted that the Blue Blazer was scheduled to defeat the Godfather for the Intercontinental Championship at that pay-per-view. Two weeks later on Raw, Jarrett beat the Godfather for that very same title.

If the accident had never happened, would Jeff Jarrett now be a three-time WCW World Champion?

Matt Spaulding

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Guest column text copyright (C) 2000 by the individual author and used with permission