Princess Diana was the first person I didn’t know whose death resonated with me in any way. I wasn’t distraught or particularly concerned about what happened, or who was to blame, but I distinctly remember coming back from riding bikes with my cousin, finding out and being some unidentifiable type of less than happy. I was made aware quickly that people were going to be sad even if they didn’t know her directly, that loss is tragic pretty much always, and exactly how deep news networks were willing to dive going to go to get the “best” angle on a story, even before cable news poisoned the water to the point where you couldn’t drink it any more.
I wasn’t sad, though.
It was less a tragedy to me, than a tragedy for other people that I watched happen on loop for weeks. Diana existed entirely outside my areas of interest, mostly striking me — even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time — as someone who was famous for being famous, and being a fundamentally good person while doing so. Based entirely on the laws of big numbers, I’m sure that other famous people died before and after her, but none really resonated with me the way hers did. Until May 23rd, 1999. When Jim Ross told me what happened to Owen, and how it wasn’t part of that night’s entertainment.
That made me sad.
Owen, like many of his fellow performers, was more than someone I watched on television every week. He was someone I grew up with. I lived for the twists and turns of the WWE soap opera, and there was nothing that twisted or turned me harder than the Hart family saga. It was the first feud that filled me with genuine angst, and fear. Fear for my favorite wrestler, Bret Hart, but also fear for the Hart family, and especially the boys’ mother, Helen.
Having grown up in an extended family where most of my uncles did not see eye to eye with my father put the dissolution of the Hart family over jealousy and misguided rage squarely in my living room. In the feud, while he was vicious and callous, caring significantly less about members of his own family than his own stardom, Owen didn’t play the villain as much as the misguided hero of another story. The things that Owen could do in the ring, and the arc he was given by the brass at the time gave him the rarest of wrestling storylines: sympathetic villain.
At least for me, his bellyaching, while overstated, made sense. A supremely gifted athlete who grew up eyeball deep in the sport, as an in-ring performer he was able to mix nearly perfectly the technical and storytelling aspects of the craft. Owen’s style functioned in its own space, separate from the mainstream of the sport, but still grounded entirely in the same physical world. Logically, and as a natural extension of the storytelling, Owen’s gripes seemed legitimate if entirely misdirected.
That angst would continue through things like his tag team championship runs with Yokozuna and British Bulldog with Camp Cornette, before it was turned into the same brand of righteously self-righteous anger that propelled him and his adopted brothers in the Hart Foundation to some of the best work that anyone would ever produce. But the aftermath of that run would come with a considerable amount of consternation, as more often than not, Owen would find himself having to reject angles he didn’t agree with morally, or put up with the backstage politicking which was slowly but surely being pushed into the main event position it finds itself now, as part of the Daniel Bryan-Authority storyline. Surviving in a company that had kicked out your family after figuratively spitting in their faces on the way out was no small feat, but Owen was, according to nearly everyone who knew him, special.
His matches, like the ones at WrestleMania X and SummerSlam ‘94 made it clear that Owen could handle more as a singles competitor, and it’s likely, but ultimately hard to say that he would have gotten back there if given the time. He was also a ribber of the highest order, pulling elaborate pranks on nearly everyone who he worked with, none of him ever seemed to have a bad word to say about him. A consummate professional, even when accidentally “jacking up” Austin’s neck, Owen’s story was one of perseverance, but also genuine enjoyment of one’s chosen career path. Or at least we thought it was the path he chose.
With tag team after tag team that mostly served as cannon fodder for Shawn Michaels and faction feuds, and after years of paying his dues, the lifestyle was something that weighed heavily on him, especially after seeing what happened to his brother in Montreal. It’s why he was always looking for a way out, more often than not as a firefighter, according to Bret’s autobiography. But he stayed in wrestling, and in the WWE specifically because of an inability to find a job that would pay him enough to support his family the way that performing did.
Owen’s death wasn’t about how much left to give the audience, but how much he still had left to give to his family.
And that should make everyone sad.