Death In The Ring

If there is any small consolation to be taken from the death last week of World Wrestling Federation star Owen Hart, who fell from the rafters of Kansas City, Mo.'s Kemper Arena in an aborted stunt, it is that he died like a true wrestler: pissed off at the world. "I know he hated dying this way," his brother Bret--also a wrestler, like the six other Hart brothers and their four brothers-in-law--told NEWSWEEK. "I'm sure when he was 30 feet from the mat he was thinking, Here I am falling in this stupid outfit, in front of all these fans that don't give a s--t about me or my family, and this is the way I'm going to go. It's just so cruel." He probably wouldn't have been surprised, either, that his demise in front of 16,300 fans failed to stop the show. According to WWF spokesman Jim Byrne, "The performers wanted to continue the show. It was the highest tribute they could have paid Owen." But Bret Hart's explanation is simpler: "Pay-per-view comes first." To cancel the remaining matches might have entailed giving people their money back.

Hart's death, at the age of 33, presented a rare opportunity for the world of pro wrestling to reflect on its values, message and contribution to society, which it seemed only too happy to pass up. At a lachrymose tribute on the following night's "Raw Is War" broadcast, reigning superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin gave the crowd the finger in Hart's honor, then movingly smashed together a couple of beer cans. The WWF Web site solicited fans for contributions to Hart's favorite charity--a children's hospital in his native Calgary--but Byrne said he didn't know if the organization itself would make a donation, and refused to comment on whether the federation provides wrestlers with life insurance. He also said it was premature to consider a suggestion by wrestler turned governor Jesse Ventura that the WWF performers should enlist in the stuntman's union, which would give them leverage in improving safety. "We just want to make sure that appropriate tribute is given to Owen this week," Byrne said.

The accident occurred as the debris from the previous match was still being swept from the ring, in preparation for Hart's match against "The Godfather," a burly, cornrowed figure who poses as a pimp and surrounds himself with an entourage of "ho's." Hart, 5 feet 11 and a muscular 227 pounds, was in his Blue Blazer costume--mask, cape and sky-blue feathers--a character meant to be sinister and enigmatic. Few spectators were even aware of him dangling high above the ring, hanging from a catwalk by a cable and harness. Suddenly, according to police, a stagehand on the catwalk heard the "ping" of the mechanism that was supposed to release the cable once Hart reached the ground. A second later, he tumbled 90 feet to the ring, striking a turnbuckle with his head and landing on his back. Since this was the WWF, "a lot of people thought it was a stunt," says Alan Schmelzle, the arena's general manager. "There was kind of a buzz in the crowd. They thought the show had started again." Then came a sobering announcement by WWF emcee Jim Ross: "Folks, we've got a problem here."

The police say they have found no signs of tampering or foul play, and speculate that Hart might have triggered the release accidentally, perhaps by catching part of his costume in it. His family, though, wonders why Owen had to trust his life to a single cable. "Where's the backup?" asked his oldest brother, Smith Hart. "You should have two or three backups. Even circus performers have safety nets." The WWF's Byrne counters that there was nothing especially risky in the stunt Hart was attempting when he died; it's done all the time on the stage.

Hart was the youngest of his parents' 12 children, and the only one still up on that stage, although Bret, a.k.a. The Hitman, has not formally retired. His father, Stu, was Canadian amateur wrestling champion in 1940 and later a promoter in the western United States and Canada, before the WWF bought out most of the regional circuits. Owen, who learned his trade in Stu's legendary basement gym, also became a top-ranked amateur wrestler. But there's no career in wrestling as a sport, of course. As a professional, Owen was a proficient acrobat with plausibly bulging biceps, handsome enough to be a hero but willing to take the heat of being a villain if that's what the script demanded. He worked up a ferocious--although phony--rivalry with his brother, which their mother was happy to promote by sobbing for the cameras. "This is a vicious, backstabbing, ass-kissing industry on its best day," said one person close to the WWF's rival league, World Championship Wrestling. "But nobody ever said a bad thing about Owen Hart."

Along the way, his brother says, Owen developed a deep loathing for the WWF and its president, Vince McMahon Jr. This is an attitude McMahon, who likes to insert himself as a character in the ongoing drama of his cast, has been known to encourage. Feuds make good box office. But Bret insists his brother was genuinely horrified at the WWF's descent from the blithe, goofy mayhem of Hulk Hogan, its 1980s-era hero, to the volcanic, 360-degree hostility emanating from Austin. "Almost overnight," says Hart, himself a five-time WWF champion, "Vince turned it into strippers and this rabid-dog mentality, like 'Let's see who can hit the other guy harder with a metal chair'." Suddenly, wrestlers began acknowledging their fans by pointing at their crotches and bellowing "suck it." When it came to his own children--a boy, 7, and a girl, 3--Owen refused to let them watch the WWF.

But the money was good--high six figures for a mid-card performer like Hart--and, after all, someone whose expertise is in flinging himself around a ring in a blue feathered cape doesn't exactly have a lot of career options. When the WWF says jump, wrestlers jump, even if it's 90 feet to the ground. "We were just two guys who wanted to pay off our houses and come home," Bret says. In fact, last Friday was the day Owen and his wife, Martha, were set to move into their long-anticipated Calgary dream house, and he was looking ahead a couple of years to when he could hang up his spangles and sequins for good. "It's really very sad," says Bret. "He was in the home stretch."