Was Owen Hart Really That Good?
It's been a while but we're back! Asking that question that we're known for - Were they really that good?
Sunday May 23rd marked the 22nd anniversary of Owen Hart’s death, I’m not releasing this on the anniversary, as it could be construed as something of a quick boost in readership.
However, it is only fitting that we cover Owen’s career and body of work. I want to point out that I will not be covering his death, I will only be looking at his body of work, his ability and a brief history of his 16-year, storied career.
Known as a keen ribber backstage, Owen was responsible for some of the most legendary ribs in the history of pro wrestling, he had such an impact on wrestling that there are still people to this day honouring him such as Kevin Owens (ever wonder where Owens came from?), and his son, who was named after Owen Hart. Whether he was part of High Energy, The Rocket or the original Black Hart (Sorry Ciampa, Owen did it first), you paid attention to him. So, in his memory let’s ask that question we love so much; Was Owen Hart really that good?
Born Owen James Hart in 1965, he was part of wrestling royalty from the moment he came into this world. The youngest child of the legendary Stu Hart, Owen grew up with 11 siblings; Bruce, Smith, Wayne, Keith, Ellie, Georgia, Allison, Bret, Diana, Dean, and Ross, the most notable of the bunch being Bret Hart.
Owen was a wrestler in high school just as his older brothers were, and it was during this time that he met his high school sweetheart and love of his life, Martha. Owen wasn’t sold on pro wrestling as a career, but after failing to secure the kind of money he wanted, he dipped his toes in pro wrestling waters, something that is considered by many as a blessing to the sport.
After a couple of failed attempts of making it on his own in the graps world, he wrestled as a masked wrestler known as the original ”British Bulldog” during his time at university, and then afterwards as “Bronco” Owen Hart in London. Owen went back to his roots and trained at the infamous Hart Family Dungeon and competed in Stampede Wrestling whilst also working in the UK for Alex Crabtree’s Joint Promotions and having televised matches on ITV’s World of Sport.
It was these years that sculpted Owen into the performer we came to know and love. Showcasing his aerial affinity as well as his technical prowess, Owen was able to snag PWI’s Rookie of the Year award in 1987 which led him to feuds with the Dynamite Kid and working in Japan against huge names such as Jushin Thunder Liger. On the 27th May, 1988, Owen would face Hiroshi Hase for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship and would walk away the first Gaijin (non-Japanese) wrestler to win the title! A huge badge of honour!
Owen’s success in both Stampede Wrestling and New Japan piqued the interest of the WWF and Vince McMahon, bringing in Owen under a mask and naming him the Blue Angel, but later renamed as the Blue Blazer, a gimmick that would come back to bite him on the arse at the latter end of his career. During this early stint with WWF, he would beat names such as Barry Horowitz and Steve Lombardi, but never quite got the win against “attraction” names like Mr. Perfect, The Warlord and Akeem. He was however part of Team Ultimate Warrior at Survivor Series 1988 against Team Honky Tonk Man, although he did get eliminated, his team still won. This coincidentally was also Owen’s WWF PPV debut. He would then work a programme with Curt Hennig leading into a match on the Grandest Stage of ‘em All, WrestleMania V, in a losing effort.
After WrestleMania V, Owen left the WWF and toured Mexico and Japan taking the Blue Blazer with him and performing under the mantle as well as performing as himself. He would also return to Stampede Wrestling during this time until it’s closure in 1989. He would later return to Mexico after the closure of the Hart family promotion and in 1991 would lose his Blue Blazer mask in a Mask Vs Mask match against El Canek, signalling that was it for the Blue Blazer, for now. At least it wasn’t his salon quality blonde locks that he lost, eh?
After his trips he wound up in WCW, who literally did nothing with him except have some preliminary matches against no name talent and a match teaming with Ricky Morton. Piss poor booking from a piss poor product at the time. He was however, in contract negotiations but was unwilling to move his family to Atlanta so the deal never happened. Idiotic move by WCW. Stupid is as stupid does comes to mind.
In 1991 after this excursion to WCW and through Canada, Japan and Mexico, Hart found himself back in the Land of the Giants and under McMahon employment once more. Forming the New Foundation with brother-in-law Jim “Anvil” Neidhart, trying to capitalise on the success of the former Hart Foundation after Bret went on his singles run. The New foundation were fun and Owen brought a lot of speed and fast paced action to the table, they also had one of my favourite tag team finishers as a kid, the Rocket Launcher, which was essentially an assisted big splash off the top, but back in 1991 this was thrilling stuff and held up against moves such as the Doomsday Device, these days though it’s not as impressive as it once was.
The New Foundation unfortunately didn’t last very long and Owen was then teamed with Koko B. Ware, the parrot toting wrestler who wore as many colours as humanly possible, as the team known as High Energy and they genuinely lived up to that moniker in the ring. Again, this was a short lived team, only having one PPV match in a losing effort against the Headshrinkers. Owen then went into a singles career, but injured his knee in a match against Bam Bam Bigelow and was out for two months. When Owen came back, that’s when things really took off for the Rocket.
So, whilst Owen was nursing his injured knee, Bret had entered a feud with Jerry Lawler and the USWA. Upon returning, Owen stood side-by-side with Bret to take on Lawler and his cronies, this was a very interesting concept on mainstream WWF TV at the time, as USWA were heels in the WWF, and the WWF guys were heels in the USWA, this concept would be used to great effect multiple times with ECW and to some extent, the Invasion angle.
Anyways, Owen would venture into USWA to take on their Unified World Heavyweight Champion, Papa Shango. That's right, Papa pissing Shango of all characters. Owen would be victorious in this bout, however, his run with the title and his involvement in the feud would be cut short as once again, Owen suffered a knee injury and was out from summer until the autumn.
Come Survivor series 1994, Owen was teaming with Bret, Bruce and Keith Hart, taking on Shawn Michaels and his Knights. I know what you’re thinking, “Why the f*ck does HBK have knights?” Well, it was originally supposed to be Jerry Lawler but due to unexpected legal troubles at the last minute, Lawler had to be replaced and Shawn was a trusted hand. This match however set off one of my favourite feuds of all time. Bret Hart vs Owen Hart, brother vs brother, The Hitman, vs The Rocket.
During the clash with Michaels and the "Definitely-His-Knights", Owen eliminates the Black Knight, followed by Bret eliminating the Red Knight and then Owen takes out the last Knight, the Blue one.
It's down to the Hart Family against a lonesome HBK. Bret tags in Owen and he goes to work on Michaels, he throws Owen to the ropes and Owen and Bret collide, sending Bret off the apron and into the barricade. Bruce and Keith would rush to see if Bret was ok, Shawn gets the roll up for the three and Owen is eliminated. Owen would spend weeks bitching in promo’s calling out Bret, calling out the Hart family, making wild accusations of Bret being the favourite child and so on leading in to what I consider the greatest opening match in WrestleMania history, a reluctant Bret Hart facing off against his vengeful brother, Owen Hart at WrestleMania X!
There isn’t a dull moment in this beautiful display of technical wrestling, and much to everyone’s shock, Owen walked away victorious after Bret attempted a victory roll but Owen sat down halfway through and won cleanly! Bret would go on to beat Yokozuna later that night in the main event for the WWF Championship, and while the roster would hoist Bret on their shoulders in celebration of his win, Owen would watch on from the entrance way with a look of utter jealousy on his face.
Bret’s win only fuelled the feud and after Owen won the 1994 King of The Ring (God I miss King of The Ring), the pot boiled over, finally resulting in a steel cage match between the brothers for the WWF Championship which brought the house down and was the first time I had ever seen anyone reverse a Sharpshooter into another Sharpshooter. What a spot that was for the time!
The match even got a 5-Star rating from Mr. Stars himself, Dave Meltzer. It would have been 6 but it wasn’t held in the Tokyo Dome. Owen would later cost Bret the WWF Championship at the 1994 Survivor Series against Bob Backlund, when Owen convinced his mother to throw in the towel for Bret, he later cost Bret an opportunity at the 1995 Royal Rumble against the Master of Quads, Kevin Nash under the Diesel character. In the weeks after the Rumble, they finally put to bed the feud with Owen putting Bret over and making him look like a million dollars, and Bret doing the same for Owen in defeat. Truly shit hot stuff.
Fast forward a little bit and Owen would be facing off against the Smoking Gunn’s, Billy and Bart Gunn for the WWF Tag Team Championships. Owen has a mystery partner who turned out to be the 500lb Yokozuna, putting the snivelling Owen Hart character with Yokozuna, played into the “little bitch has a big henchman that does his dirty work” trope and was a stroke of genius from a character standpoint. In reality, it was because Yoko couldn’t work how he used to, so WWF put him with Owen who was widely regarded as a safe pair of hands in the ring and he could carry the match until Yoko could knock out the finish. They held the tag titles twice in their short time together before eventually dropping them back to the Gunns.
Owen wasn’t done with tag team wrestling, not yet at least. The newly heel British Bulldog would join Jim Cornette’s “Camp Cornette” stable and Owen & Bulldog would team together. Bulldog would win the European Title shortly after forming the team with Owen and the two would successfully capture the tag team gold as well.
After retaining the titles against the Headbangers by DQ, tensions hit boiling point between the team with Owen straight up calling out Bulldog for a shot at the European Championship. They would do battle for the title on 24th March edition of Monday Night RAW. The match was so intense and hard hitting that the fans genuinely thought they hated each other in real life. The match would come to a no contest (Steady on James, calm down), as Bret would come to the ring as a newly minted heel and gave both Bulldog and Owen a speech about family, appealing to the both of them to join him, which they did, reforming the Hart Foundation along with Brian Pillman, who was a long time Hart family friend, and original member Jim Neidhart.
They would come up against Team USA, who were comprised of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Goldust, Ken Shamrock and the Legion of Doom. The crowd was so hot, and I have never seen a crowd behind anyone and be so loud then at In Your House: Canadian Stampede. (The only thing that comes to mind is CM Punk at Money in the Bank.)
The fans were so loud and raucous that the hard camera was visibly shaking. During the match, Owen was worked over pretty well but in the end, it was the Rocket who got the pin on Austin for the win.
This was quite possibly the best run Owen had, and was truly something unique to be involved in as the Hart Foundation was heel in the U.S. but babyface in Canada, something that I have never seen repeated to the same effect. The group had huge success and at one point held all the gold in the WWF at the time with Owen quickly winning singles gold by defeating Rocky Maivia, you know The Rock, for the Intercontinental Championship, as well as tag team gold with Bulldog.
Owen would defend his IC title against Austin at the 1997 SummerSlam, a match that is now infamous for the sit out Tombstone Piledriver that Owen gave to Austin that broke his neck, Austin would finish the match resulting in Owen dropping the strap to Austin. It was purely an accident, but in classic WWF fashion, they turned it into a storyline with Owen wearing an “Owen 3:16 I just Broke your neck” t-shirt. There are a few stories about this, but the most prominent one comes from Martha, Owen’s wife, who said that Owen was uncomfortable with this angle and didn’t want to wear the shirt as he felt so bad for what he did.
With Austin injured, the Intercontinental Title was vacated and Owen was entered into a tournament to once again attempt to capture the gold.
Then we hit the Montreal Screw Job. This is where the Hart’s become a little derailed.
We all know the story of how Vince screwed Bret at Survivor Series 1997 when Bret was leaving for WCW. In solidarity, Bulldog and Anvil left with him but Owen couldn’t get out of his contract, and for the first time ever in his career, he was in the WWF with no family around him.
He had a stint in The Nation, which didn’t do very much aside from an angle with Ken Shamrock and Owen making him look like something King Midas touched. He had a short stint with the European Championship and he very much wasn’t a nugget! He would then enter a team with Jeff Jarrett, having reasonable success and capturing tag team gold before once again donning that old blue mask! (In hindsight, a move that the wrestling world, both fans and wrestlers alike, wished never happened).
Now, I’m not going to go into much detail about his death or what happened at Over the Edge 1999, it’s been covered a million times. I will say that it was a tremendous tragedy and one that should never have happened as Owen’s career and life were over way before they had any right to be.
I will also say that everyone has their own opinion on the aftermath and I respectfully ask people to keep that opinion to themselves as this is to celebrate Owen’s career, and not mar his legacy or tarnish his name.
So, moving on, let’s take a look at Owen’s in ring work; Owen was light-years ahead of his time. He took a lot of what he learned in Japan as a junior heavyweight and blended the style he learned out there seamlessly with the Hart Family style. He was almost as technically sound and as ring savvy as Bret, but sometimes his positioning was a little off, albeit rarely.
He was able to wrestle a smart, calculated and entertaining match, whilst being able to utilize that faster, more athletic, Japanese junior heavyweight style for some truly impressive sequences. Owen brought spots to the North American wrestling scene that were so alien to the US audiences that he might as well have learnt them on Blargon 7 whilst in search of alternative fuels.
Owen was able to put on a show with just about anyone and as a highly trusted hand was able to carry people through their matches too. For proof of this I look to his matches tagging with Yokozuna, who at the time wasn’t at his best and Owen carried that team entirely.
On the other hand, he could keep with up with the best, names like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, British Bulldog, Steve Austin and Curt Hennig to name just a few, and he could make anyone look a million dollars when putting guys over, take a look at his Ken Shamrock feud and tell me Owen didn’t make Shamrock look like the dog’s bollocks!
If you watch Owen as part of High Energy with Koko B. Ware, a lot of what Owen was doing in the ring during this time is what I’m talking about here. He was also a very smart worker too. As the years went on in his career, you can see a slow shift in his style from the high-flying manoeuvres to a faster paced technical style, this was all done with career longevity in mind, and the blend of Owen’s two styles really played into help the transition, as I said, smart worker.
Owen was an ok promo too, I wouldn’t say he was fantastic, but he could carry a promo and was by far the best promo in the Hart family. Some of the best examples of Owens promo work are the ones during his angle with Bret, with his promos about stepping out of Bret’s shadow and playing second fiddle to him, these promos are genuinely passionate and well thought out. However, Owen could sound a little cheesy with extra cheese, but that was just the era he grew up in, and never had time to fully adjust to the “attitude” way of cutting a promo.
Not only was Owen a great ring technician and a decent promo, he was genuinely funny too and had comedic timing that many strive to possess, look at his “I am NOT a nugget” stuff from 1998, it had me in stitches every time he got upset with the chants. Genuinely funny stuff.
In the current wrestling climate, Owen’s comedic chops would have made him a formidable heel to rival the likes of who I consider one of the funniest wrestlers, Chris Jericho.
So, to wrap up, was Owen Hart really that good? Obviously, he was! It’s hard not to be good with his pedigree, training and world travelled experiences. Owen was a truly underrated performer and never really got the push that he deserved, never the less, he left us with a plethora of fun, fast paced and technical master classes that were light-years ahead of his time. Thank you for entertaining us and thank you for everything you gave to us. You have been sorely missed Owen, rest in peace. We love you.