An All-Too-Real Reminder

I'm a wrestling fan. Yeah, I said it. I'm a wrestling fan and have been for as long as I can remember. It's such a unique combination of soap opera, morality play, unbelievable athleticism, and (as someone suggested on Twitter last night) Broadway musical. The energy of a live crowd at a wrestling card — especially at an event like the annual WrestleMania pay-per-view — is unlike almost anything you'll ever experience.

Last night, the "fake" world of wrestling was pierced in a very real way when WWE colour commentator Jerry Lawler suffered what's believed to be a heart attack during the live broadcast of Monday Night Raw. Because the show is broadcast on a one-hour tape delay here in Canada and I was recording it to watch even later than that, I learned about this happening through Twitter, and had seen most of the important developments reported already by the time I got to see it myself.

By the way, if Jerry Lawler's name seems familiar to you, it's likely because you associate him with Andy Kaufman's forays into wrestling in his act, including the famous incident on Late Night with David Letterman. Context is good…

Luckily, it appears as though there's a good chance that Lawler will be okay. The WWE's medical team and EMTs on-site were able to work on him long enough to get him to a Montreal-area hospital. Reports are that he's already had or is having surgery today to insert a stent, although it's likely that's not all he'll need done.

But as this all developed last night, I was immediately brought back to the last time a situation of this magnitude happened on a live WWE broadcast. On May 23, 1999, during a pay-per-view event, a rigging malfunction occurred as Canadian wrestler Owen Hart was rappelling into the ring from the rafters during a stunt. Hart fell 78 feet to the ring, and died shortly thereafter due to internal bleeding resulting from the blunt force trauma of the fall.

At the time, I was writing a very infrequent column for a long-since-defunct wrestling website called I hadn't written anything for several months at that point, but Hart's death motivated me the next morning. In the wake of last night, I couldn't help but go back and look at that column; although nothing ever disappears on the internet, it hasn't seen the light of day in many years, so I hope you'll indulge me here:

I Had To Write…
It's 6 pm on Monday. The day's pretty much over, but if you asked me what I did today, I'm really not sure that I could tell you. All I know is that I've spent the last several hours thinking about what I wanted to say here. It's been a while, after all, since I last wrote a column. I could have written columns about how WCW sucks but, after a while, they'd get to be… oh, I don't know, self evident? Don't get me wrong; I write all the time. It's a large part of what I do for a living. But this is different. I haven't had a lot of time lately… I haven't had a lot to say lately. But "enough is enough (thanks Owen)". I have some things to get off my chest.
There's just too much death… far too much death. Giant Baba… the Renegade… Rick Rude… Jos Leduc, whose passing probably slipped right by most of you… now Owen Hart. All since I last wrote a column… last October, nearly seven months ago to the day. Was Brady Boone in there too? I can't keep track. Seven months, five men, three of them still active on a regular basis in this business. Do you see? Do you "get it"?
IRONY, PART 1: Last column, I listed a whole bunch of wrestlers who I wished had lived to a ripe old age. I have a few names to add now.
I wanted to write when Rick Rude died, but I couldn't. It hit too close to home. Oh, it's not like he was ever my favorite wrestler, but he was a key player for a long time. It was more of an emotional tie than an appreciation for his talent — it often works that way, I think. I've been a fan for as long as I can remember. When I got married (well, when we were starting to date seriously), I tried to bring my wife into this world, to help her find an appreciation for this sport that I loved. And it worked — in time she was going to the house shows with me, calling the moves toward the end of Hulk Hogan's matches, developing her own favorite wrestlers. Rick Rude was her #1, from the airbrushed tights to the hip swivel, from the "what I'd like to have right now…" to the washboard abs. Just as the marriage ended before its time, so too did Rick Rude's life. The day he passed away was right around the second anniversary of my divorce, and I'm not sure which was hurting me more right then.
IRONY, PART 2a: One of Owen Hart's most recent angles involved him "retiring" from wrestling due to "injuries" he'd caused enough wrestler. If only…
"Freak accident kills wrestler." There it was, right in black and white on the front page of my newspaper this morning. It doesn't get much more real than that at 6:30 in the morning. It's a holiday in Canada today, you know, the kind of day where lots of people who don't usually fly flags are doing so. I wish I had one to fly at half-mast. There's no reason for me to be up this early. Maybe in some parallel universe, if I'd been sleeping until a decent hour on a holiday, it wouldn't have happened… like I was that Early Edition guy. But that's television, and this is real life. Last night, the two intersected with horrifying results. "… plummeted 50 feet, his head snapping against the turnbuckle as he crashed to the mat", the paper said.
IRONY, PART 2b: Bret Hart's current angle involves him quitting WCW, ostensibly "retiring" from wrestling.
FIRST MORBID THOUGHT: 'Geez, I thought this sort of thing only happened to the von Erichs.'
Okay, it's sick. I'm not proud of it, but it's a coping mechanism. It seemed like every time one of the von Erich boys died, the Apter mags would interview Helen Hart, and she'd express her sympathy for the matriarch of that other great wrestling family. I always wondered why they never bothered to talk to Mrs. Rougeau.
See, it's always the deaths that seem to stick out when I look back. I think the first one was Tarzan "the Boot" Tyler. That was back when I was younger, watching International Championship Wrestling out of Montreal. The first break of kayfabe I ever witnessed, them acknowledging the car crash that took away their top heel manager, their top referee, and a stocky young good guy wrestler with his whole career ahead of him… it's awful, but I can't even remember his name now. I was young enough that I couldn't figure out why they were all in the same car. Then it was Adrian Adonis, in another car crash in Canada. With all the crashes up here, I'm surprised we have any wrestling left in Canada. Chris von Erich's suicide stuck out, mostly because the Apter mags had been profiling his recent entry into the business in the months before his death. Dino Bravo, in a gangland-style execution, sitting in his living room chair. Bruiser Brody, stabbed to death by another wrestler in the dressing room, his killer getting away with the crime.
After a while, they started to blend together, especially in recent years… Art Barr, Joey Morella, Eddie Gilbert, Kerry von Erich, Bobo Brazil, Larry Cameron, Dick Murdoch, Andre the Giant, Junkyard Dog, Louie Spicolli, Brian Pillman… did Brian Pillman die only a year-and-a-half ago? It seems like an eternity now, yet at the same time it seems amazing that there's already been two Pillman memorial cards.
HART FOUNDATION, WE HARDLY KNEW YE: Distressingly, this is turning into wrestling's version of the Sports Illustrated jinx. Brian Pillman… dead in his hotel room, the day of a pay-per-view telecast. Owen Hart… dead in the ring, making his entrance for his match on a pay-per-view telecast. Davey Boy Smith… plagued by injuries since he left the WWF, the most recent of which occured in the ring and left his career, if not his life if you believe some reports, in jeopardy.
You see, I cried. I've never met the man, but I cried. I didn't see the accident, but I cried. I cried for Stu and Helen, who outlived their youngest child. I cried for his wife, who's lost her best friend and partner, and his children, who lost their father. I cried for his brothers, who love this business that's taken away their sibling, and for his sisters, many of whom married men in this business. I cried for his co-workers, who "went on with the show" again in the face of overwhelming sorrow. I cried because it takes a tragedy of this proportion for the mainstream media to treat this business with respect. I cried for last night's audience in Kansas City, who watched a man die right before their eyes.
SECOND MORBID THOUGHT: Think Sting's been spending the day thanking his choice of gods? Cripes, the man rapelled into the ring from a helicopter once and spent the better part of a year dropping out of the rafters in arenas all over the country. If it's possible for a historical act to become tasteless, WCW sending that Sting dummy freefalling through the ring has disgusted me in retrospect.
And I cried for this business, that's gone to greater and greater lengths to try to excite the fans. Whatever the cause, wherever the fault lays, are facts only for the lawyers to worry about. It's a senseless death, and there are few things sadder in this world.
WHAT I WANT: A "Best of Owen Hart" compilation from the WWF, all proceeds (not profits, but proceeds) to go to a trust fund for his children. And if they're not going to take my suggestion to rename the King of the Ring the "Sylvester Ritter Memorial Tournament", how about the "Owen Hart Memorial Tournament" instead?
Most of all, I hope against hope that nobody, not Dave Meltzer, not Herb Kunze, not the mainstream media, uses this as an opportunity to bash the WWF. Disagree with the decision to continue the PPV? I don't want to hear it. Think this is a direct result of the WWF "attitude"? Keep it to yourself. If you love this business, if you've derived even an ounce of enjoyment from what these performers do on a day-to-day basis, give it and them your support. As tough as the people in these business are, they're only flesh and bone — today, and for many days to come, they'll never be more aware of their own mortality.
Okay, this is all over the map, I know. That's the way grief works — it's not predictable, it's not ordered. I guess all I'm really trying to express is the same simple thought we're all having today. I'll miss you, Owen — you really were "The King of Harts".

Long post, I know. I really could have used an editor back then (and still could, one might argue). And if you're not a wrestling fan, as most reading this won't be, I'm sure a lot of that won't resonate with you at all. Anyway, I guess this is just about me having to write again. That happens sometimes. Meanwhile, get well, Jerry — the lack of commentary wasn't the only void in the show last night.