Fourteen years ago today — May 23, 1999 — professional wrestler Owen Hart died in a WWE ring when an aerial stunt went tragically wrong.
Performing as the masked Blue Blazer, Hart was supposed to descend slowly by a cable from the rafters of Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, but his harness failed, sending him into a fatal plummet to the ring 78 feet below.
It was a shocking tragedy that cast a gloomy pall over the wrestling world, which was darkly ironic, considering that Owen Hart, perhaps more than any other wrestler in history, was so devoted to brightening the world around him.
Owen was one of wrestling’s most notorious pranksters — a master of the “ribs” that helped wrestlers break the tedium of an endless life on the road. While some wrestlers were feared for their nasty ribs (the old poop in the duffelbag trick, for example), Owen’s ribs were almost always harmless fun, if a tad annoying.
Given the passage of time and the nature of wrestling lore, some of these yarns might have become embellished after multiple re-tellings. But that’s the nature of a good prank: it becomes the stuff of legend. The legendary Owen Hart would surely be proud.
10. Michael Cola
Commentator Michael Cole has essentially become “the voice of WWE,” over the past decade, but it took him some time to rise to prominence. It’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t quit after his first day on the job. At a live event in the late 1990s, Cole was nervously preparing to do his very first on-air interview, and it was a big one — with the WWF Champion (and Owen’s brother), Bret Hart.
“I was all nervous, I was in my tuxedo, my hands were shaking, we were only a few minutes from the live shoot,” Cole later recalled.
“Right before we went to the interview, Owen and the British Bulldog took a liter of Coke and poured it down the back of my tuxedo pants. I have to stay in character, so I did the interview with an entire liter of Coke in my pants. That was my ‘Hello and welcome to the World Wrestling Federation’ from Owen.”
9. Tagging with the cops
Owen Hart and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith were notorious partners in pranking. One time, they befriended a couple of undercover cops and convinced them to pull over Lex Luger, who was driving the car in which Owen and Smith were passengers. Everything went fine until, as the cops were walking away, Smith hollered (as pre-arranged), “Oh, blow it out your arse!” The cops, as scripted, charged back to the car and demanded that Luger step out of the car. They handcuffed Luger and refused to listen to his pleas of innocence. Only after Luger was sufficiently terrified did Owen and Smith, along with the cops, reveal the ruse. Apparently, Vince McMahon chuckled in amusement at the whole thing from the comfort of his nearby limo.
8. Hotel Shenanigans
Owen found another partner in crime in the 1-2-3 Kid (later known as X-Pac and a half-dozen other names). While on a tour in Japan, they decided to have some fun tormenting a fellow wrestler. When he was away from his hotel room, they put all his clothes in the bathtub and filled it with water. They ordered every pay-per-view movie available on the TV. And, for good measure, they removed every single light bulb from the room. According to the story, the wrestler was seen the next day wearing ill-fitting clothes borrowed from someone else, looking bewildered.
7. The World’s Strongest Prank
Owen was good friends with “The World’s Strongest Man” Mark Henry. During long car journeys and tedious hotel stays, they’d pass the time by making prank phone calls. One one occasion, Owen targeted Henry’s longtime manager, Terry Todd, who had recently moved to a ranch and was having trouble with cows escaping through a broken fence. Hart called Todd pretending to be one of his neighbors, furious that escaped cows were tromping on his property.
“I’m going to go out there and start shooting them,” Owen reportedly hollered. The call escalated with threats of both human and bovine violence, with Todd falling for the prank hook, line and sinker.
6. Old McMahon had a farm
The Godwinns were a redneck tag team who came to the ring in denim overalls and were known for dumping pig slop — ostensibly for the live pigs that often accompanied them — over their opponents. Owen couldn’t resist the allure of pulling off a prank with live pigs. Although he never officially claimed responsibility, all eyes turned to Owen when a gaggle of snorting pigs ended up in the office of WWE honcho Vince McMahon. Davey Boy Smith adamantly denied any involvement with that one.
Owen was also the likely culprit when Matilda, the squat canine that would accompany The British Bulldogs to the ring, was apparently fed some laxatives, resulting in a disgusting mess.
5. Popcorn Angels
Owen believed he could make anyone break character and laugh in the ring. The toughest nut to crack might have been “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, whose entire persona was built around being a no-nonsense badass.
In his bestselling memoirs, Have a Nice Day, Mick Foley recalls a match in which Austin was a “Special Enforcer” referee, and Owen was on a mission to make him laugh. Success came when a fan threw a bag of popcorn in the ring, hitting Owen, who reacted as if he had been clobbered with an anvil. He dropped to the mat in mock agony, and then proceeded to make “popcorn angels.” Stone Cold melted, unable to keep the grin from his face.
4. Harley and the Hot Sauce
It’s a WWE tradition that, whenever the show rolls through Kansas City, the superstars pay a visit to the legendary Harley Race for a barbecue. On one such evening, Owen thought it would be a lark to dump three bottles of mouth-burning hot sauce into a pot of chili when nobody was looking. He then sat back and enjoyed the show as big, burly wrestlers turned red-faced and panted like dogs. According to the lore, Harley Race repaid the favor the following night by zapping Owen with a stun gun.
3. Dead-assing Lex
No matter how strong a wrestler is, he can’t hoist a 250-pound opponent over his head unless the opponent is helping. In one match with the uber-muscular Lex Luger, Owen decided not to help. Instead of assisting with a press slam, Owen “dead-assed” Luger, making himself as limp and ungainly as a 250-pound water balloon.
Later in the match, though, Owen happily allowed himself to be easily hoisted overhead by Luger’s partner, Davey Boy Smith, much to Luger’s consternation. Smith rubbed it in by hollering “I’m the strongest! I’m the strongest!” Wrestlers watching on a monitor backstage were reportedly rolling with laughter.
2. Venis Envy
Val Venis attracted more than his share of attention and controversy, given that his on-air persona was a well-hung porn star. At one autograph signing in St. Louis, a fan approached Venis with a large stack of glossy photos to sign. Knowing that the guy would just turn around and sell them, Venis refused.
Noticing this conversation, Owen hatched a rib. When Venis was sleeping in his hotel room later, Owen called and claimed to be the autograph seeker. He demanded that Venis come down to the lobby and sign them, getting more and more agitated when Venis refused. Fed up, Venis stormed down to the lobby with the intention of pummeling the man, only to find Owen and Jeff Jarrett, who insisted that the autographed hound had just left. Venis spent the better part of the night looking around the hotel for the guy before eventually figuring out he’d been duped.
1. The Foreign Object
Several wrestlers fondly recall one match in which Owen pulled a classic heel move — attacking opponents with a “foreign object,” but concealing it before the referee could notice. “He kept hitting us with something, and then putting it in his armpit to hide it,” recalled Edge.
This went on for quite a while, with Owen coming up with increasingly amusing ways to prevent the referee from seeing the illegal object with which he had been pummeling his opponents.
Finally, after noticeably concealing something in his armpit, the referee demanded that Owen raise his arms. When he did, rumpled white napkin flitted gracefully to the mat.
This is only a sampling of Owen Hart’s legendary ribs. There’s also the tormenting of Clarence Mason, the unmatched boots, the Reg Parks prank. Got a favorite? Leave it in the comments below.