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Bob Magee
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets

It’s already eleven years ago last week, and it seems that not that many remembered. But it was, in fact, eleven years ago last week, on May 23, 1999, at the Over The Edge PPV, that Owen Hart died in a tragic accident in Kansas City.

Here’s a reminder of that column…on a Memorial Day where perhaps we can remember some of those in wrestling from past columns .. and more importantly, remember those who have died in military service to the United States.


First, remembering Owen Hart.

Real men do cry.

If there were any doubts of that fact before, there were none after May 23rd, a night which will be remembered for one of the worst tragedies in the history of the wrestling business. Along with millions, I watched the Over the Edge pay-per-view that night at home. It was a pay-per-view starting out pretty much like many WWF pay-per-views, with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler trading their usual entertaining banter.

Then, as a video package promoting the match between “The Godfather” and Owen Hart for the Intercontinental Title began, I could hear Jim Ross say “something’s gone wrong…”. When the video package finished, the camera was showing a crowd shot. At first, I didn’t understand what had happened. Then the faces and the words of Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross made it clear that something had gone horribly, tragically wrong.

Ross, stunned, said over and over again that what had happened was “not part of the storyline” and not “a wrestling angle”; trying to communicate to the world-wide PPV audience what had just happened: Owen Hart, while attempting a ring entrance in his “Blue Blazer” character descending on a wire from the ceiling, had fallen approximately 50 feet to the ring, hitting his head on a turnbuckle, breaking his neck. Hart was given CPR in the ring in front of the live audience at Kemper Arena and then taken to Truman Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Shortly afterwards, Jim Ross made the announcement of Hart’s death to the PPV audience.

On Tuesday, there were reports from a local Kansas City radio station and the Kansas City Police Department stating that the apparent cause of the fatal accident was that Owen Hart was reaching up to grab onto the harness; but instead accidentally hit the release, causing his fall.

In the “show must go on” spirit that wrestling has, taken from the “carnys” that wrestling’s roots are born in, the Over The Edge PPV continued until its conclusion. But the toll on the people who had to perform for the remainder of the evening had to be beyond measure, and was very obvious to the viewing audience, which saw Jeff Jarrett, Debra McMichael, Brian (Jesse James Armstrong) James, and Duane (Rocky Maivia) Johnson barely keeping their composure through scheduled promos during the PPV. I have to say I felt numb for most of Monday. I noticed that Dave Scherer of 1wrestling.com described much the same feeling. I’m sure we weren’t the only people who felt that way.

Because on May 23rd, a man known for tremendous talent… for a sense of humor legendary within the wrestling business… and known for his great love for his wife Martha and his children Oje and Athena… was taken from this world far, far too soon. I think I had this feeling so strongly because I’ve had the privilege of seeing the human side of the business and writing about it. These are very real people that work as professional wrestlers. They aren’t just characters to me….

Indeed, real men do cry. On May 24th, many of them did. That night, the staff and workers of the World Wrestling Federation dedicated their two hour Monday Night RAW to their fallen friend and co-worker in a moving tribute at the Kiel Center in St. Louis. The irony of the location had to be painful for the entire Titan crew, as only 18 months previously, Brian Pillman was mourned by the WWF and the fans after his death earlier that day alone in a hotel room hundreds of miles away in Minneapolis. The ten bell count was sounded as the entire Titan staff came out under a picture of Owen Hart on the Titantron. Many of those there were openly weeping for Hart, most notably Brian (Road Dog) James, Mark Henry, and Paul (Hunter Hearst Helmsley) Levesque.

Monday Night RAW had numerous segments, with wrestlers and office personnel expressing their feelings about Owen….many of which were humorous, telling of Hart’s legendary “ribs” in the locker room and on the road. Other reminiscences were deeply felt, by friends like Paul Levesque, Jeff Jarrett, Debra McMichael, and Brian James, repeatedly breaking down while sharing their feelings with the TV and live audiences. Inbetween these segments were matches dedicated to Owen Hart, devoid of existing storylines, so that as many wrestlers as possible could work matches to pay tribute to their friend. Special mentions of Hart were done all night by the boys, using special forms of all the traditional tag lines of most of the wrestlers.

The RAW tribute ended with Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross saying their last goodbyes, finally being able to let go after keeping it together for a pay-per-view and international TV/cable broadcast over a 24 hour period. Ross said, sobbing, that “…he hoped he could be as good a man as Owen had been, so he could see him again (in Heaven) some day.” But the remark that got me crying was Jerry Lawler…the same Jerry Lawler who in real life can seem so hard-boiled and old school. He said: “I learned a valuable lesson from Owen Hart last night. As I got into the ring, and held…lifted up Owen’s head in the ring…if he could have had one more thing…he would have asked for one more day to tell the people he loved what he thought of them. Never leave home without letting the people in your life know that.”

The show then ended with Steve Austin coming out to the ring, with his house show tradition of bringing out two beers, often handed to referee Earl Hebner. In a silent tribute that spoke louder than any words, as a graphic of Owen Hart was shown on the Titantron…with tears in his eyes, Steve Austin opened up his beer…toasted the picture of his friend, then quietly laid down a lone beer on the mat.

In a welcome touch, even rival company WCW paid tribute to Owen on WCW’s Monday Nitro; where a brief memorial was done for Hart, with Tony Schiavone and Bobby Heenan speaking briefly, having a hard time keeping their composure while doing so…

…Real men do cry…and on the night of May 23rd, 1999, the entire wrestling world cried.

Then, there’s Brian Hildebrand:

…Today will make it nine years ago… on September 8, 1999, when Brian Hildebrand died after fighting a two year battle against cancer.

There are few people within wrestling who were held in such universally high regard at the time of their passing. When people eulogized Brian, the words they used weren’t the kind that social obligation or courtesy often require. The words used by all who knew him, worked with him, and were fans of him, were deep and heartfelt, epitomized by Mick Foley, when he said about Brian in his best-selling book Mankind: Have A Nice Day: “Brian brought out all the better angels of our nature”. Back at the time of his death, it was said that there were only two people in the entire wrestling business without enemies: Brian Hildebrand and Owen Hart. Neither are with us today.

He was such a special person that he inspired everyone who knew him…whether friends, family, fans, or co-workers… to frequently share our feelings on such a funny, dedicated, committed individual who was and always will be an inspiration to live each day of our lives to their fullest… and to follow our dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem…The events since then involving Chris Benoit have given several of the memories I’m about to share more than a little added poignancy.

As I said in the 1999 column right after Brian’s death…it was almost eerie, yet at the same time totally expected, when I got the news while in a funeral home at a wake for the uncle of a friend, after being called by a family member via cell phone.

I’ll always remember Brian Hildebrand as a man who lived for and loved the wrestling business more than anything else on this earth, except for his beloved wife Pamela. He got to live his dream of making a living in wrestling as referee “Mark Curtis” for Smoky Mountain Wrestling and World Championship Wrestling. Brian Hildebrand was a man who lived to the last day of his life with more courage than anyone I’ve ever had the privilege to know. As most longtime readers know, Brian fought stomach cancer for nearly two years, after being initially diagnosed in October 1997. But he refused to allow cancer to stop his incredible spirit and his wonderful sense of humor. He seemed amazed and somewhat embarrassed at all the attention his battle with cancer received.

I saw Brian for the first time in 1990 during a combined Dennis Coraluzzo-Joel Goodhart benefit show for Philadelphia area wrestling fan Tom Robinson, with Brian doing his manager’s gimmick of “Dr. Mark Curtis”. Years later, I got the privilege of finally getting to know him, meeting him just before Smoky Mountain Wrestling’s Fanweek 1993. Brian became responsible for two of the most special experiences of my life, Fanweek 1993 and 1994. For those who aren’t familiar with them, SMW Fanweek was held for three years: 1993 through 1995. Fanweeks were a combination traveling road show, along with barbecues, shoot Q&As, and marathon videotape parties… a chance to experience Southern wrestling and mark out with other wrestling fans.

Brian was the reason these yearly Fanweek celebrations were possible, because of his non-stop organizational work during the weeks leading up to them; and during the moment to moment problems that occur (as just one example, I’ll someday tell the story of the infamous tour bus to Johnson City that was outraced by the Mongolian Stomper), when one is trying to please 55 human beings, please Jim Cornette and Sandy Scott, AND work as referee “Mark Curtis” all at the same time. He always did this with such unfailing patience, good humor, never forgetting to still be a fan of the very business he worked in. That’s the reason why he always used the word “Mark” in his ring name.

My frequently-told and favorite Fanweek story involves the time in August 1994 at Fanweek that I had to go with Brian to Knoxville’s West Town Mall to get Jim Cornette a new tennis racquet (a local fan had taken it upon himself to steal Jim’s racquet at a SMW house show the night before). Brian and I went to a sporting goods store and got the racquet. The clerk fell all over himself meeting “Mark Curtis”. I stood and watched. As the clerk rang up the purchase, he asked me “Can I help you, sir?”. I replied, in full kayfabe mode, “I’m just here with Mr. Curtis”. We walked away into the Mall to grab lunch, and Brian asked me, “How in hell did you just do that?” My reply was “Because you and Jimmy taught us to remember that your folks down here ‘still believe’.” It can safely be said that Brian Hildebrand did that very thing for his entire career in the wrestling industry….

Finally, even sadder…the passing of Eddie Guerrero:

…Today, there’s only one subject to talk about…the passing of Eddie Guerrero.

I first met Eddie Guerrero when he came into ECW in April 1994. There have been few within wrestling who’ve ever been genuinely nicer, or more approachable to fans than the Guerrero I got to know.

To this day…one of my most vivid ECW memories was the farewell show for Dean Malenko and Eddie on August 26, 1995. This may well have been the best match I’ve ever seen for the overall emotional experience combined with the actual match itself anywhere in wrestling. While Dean and Eddie worked better matches in ECW and in Japan, the sheer emotion of the toughest crowd in North America, with the “Please Don’t Go” chants; not to mention the fans, locker room, and Dean and Eddie themselves in tears, accompanied by Joey Styles doing the match call of his life as Guerrero and Malenko worked their last ECW match. If you ever get the chance to get a tape of the ECW TV August 29, 1995 show that featured this match, it is a classic and an absolute keeper. But I wish any of you reading this could have been there in person; because, as good a job as Styles’s call and Heyman’s editing did in communicating the feeling one had being there at the Arena that night, it could never do it justice entirely.

Eddie was a kind, decent man who remembered his friends. The most notable example I was able to see was that of Brian Hildebrand, who was remembered and supported on more than one occasion by Guerrero.

I remember being the post-show bar scene at a WCW house show, when I saw Guerrero saying a prayer over his post-show meal…thought it was odd, and then later that night found out about Brian’s cancer.

I also remember the night in 1998 when WCW honored Hildebrand with a night dedicated to him in Knoxville, TN, with a classic match of Chris Jericho/ Eddie Guerrero against Dean Malenko/Chris Benoit… and with Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen presenting Brian with a championship belt, then getting Brian involved in the finish. That Knoxville show was an event reported all over the wrestling world.

Then, in 1999, there was the ‘Curtis Comes Home’ show in Rostraver, PA. Jim Cornette, Shane Douglas, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Mick Foley, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Tracy Smothers, Chris Candido, Tammy Sytch, Public Enemy, Dominic DeNucci, Al Snow, D-Lo Brown, Terry Taylor, Les Thatcher, and Sandy Scott took part in this tribute in Brian’s hometown.

Others will go over Eddie Guerrero’s career, but I wanted to spend this column briefly dealing with the human side of Guerrero. The following story explains how I feel in a nutshell. As I rode with my brother to an independent wrestling show yesterday afternoon, he said pretty much what I felt…that he felt like he’d been kicked square in the balls and for someone like him who can talk about anything to do with wrestling…all he wanted to do was drive to the show. He didn’t want to talk about Eddie at all.

For my brother and myself…and undoubtedly for many, many others; the fact that Eddie was clean and sober…and had been so for some time makes Guerrero’s passing that much harder to deal with. Guerrero was a man who’d found God, dealt with his demons, worked on his addictions to alcohol and other drugs being taken by God with so much to live for. As stated by Chavo Guerrero in WWE’s press conference yesterday, Eddie had just celebrated his fourth anniversary of sobriety.

That makes it hurt all the more to see someone so talented…and such a fundamentally decent person leave this world far too soon….

Until next time…

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