Even if you’re new to wrestling, you probably know the name Owen Hart, undoubtedly due to the tragic circumstances of his death. You might not know how great of a wrestler he was, though—that tragedy has largely overwhelmed consideration of his career, turning him into one of the more unheralded and least talked about world class workers in pro wrestling when it comes to talent and match history. As a new fan, it wasn’t until I heard How2Wrestling’s #How2OwenHart episode that I really learned much about the Rocket. I had a number of great friends offering me up older matches and events to watch on a regular basis, but Owen surprisingly never came up.
A year out from my first introduction to pro wrestling, Owen Hart now easily tops the list of my favorite wrestlers any time I’m asked. Hart was a skilled technical wrestler and incredible high-flyer with an impeccable sense of comic timing who played the weaselly heel and jealous younger brother to perfection. He is often remembered by his peers not just as one of the greatest wrestlers in history, but as one of the kindest, a dedicated and caring family man who wanted nothing more than to provide for his family, and maybe pull a few pranks along the way.
This year, to celebrate his birthday, which was yesterday, Paste has put together a list of five great Owen Hart matches, heavily featuring his years outside the WWF. Here’s to the Rocket, the Black Hart, the man who did what the Bulldog never could with his two Slammy wins: Owen Hart.
Jushin Thunder Liger vs. Owen Hart, NJPW Explosion Tour, 1991
Owen Hart plays the evil foreign heel against New Japan legend Jushin Liger, but that doesn’t stop him from hitting some incredible high flying offense. Liger and Hart don’t cut a quick pace straight off the bat, but blend breath-taking top rope moves with comedic beats that make the match a delight from start to finish. Liger makes even a chinlock from Owen look incredibly painful, and Hart sells Liger’s offense with not just startling flips but displays of sheer physical exhaustion that make it clear his efforts to best Liger are taking a real physical toll. Being a heel doesn’t stop Hart from hitting moves that draw gasps from the New Japan crowd, but despite his impressive displays he and Liger tell a clear and compelling story throughout the match. The devastating drops Owen Hart hits to work over Liger’s arm and the tricks he pulls to get in a few quick jabs make him look like a petty villain, fully deserving of the brutal surfboard stretch Liger puts him in. By the end of the match both men are visibly exhausted and the previously quiet cloud is erupting into chants for Liger with each near-fall. It’s a heart-pounding match featuring two legendary wrestlers, and one of Hart’s greatest matches, in or out of the WWF.
Owen Hart & Steve Williams vs. Antonio Inoki & Nobuhiko Takada, NJPW, 1988
This match is a treat, kicking off with “The Shining Star” Hart and the man the Brawl for All forgot, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, entering the ring to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” The Colorado-born Williams and Calgary-born Hart team up to take on Japanese wrestling icons Antonio Inoki and Nobuhiko Takada in a perfectly paced tag team match showcasing the varied styles of all four men involved. Nobuhiko and Hart trade high flying moves and build up an incredible pace when tagged into the ring together, as Williams and Inoki use their stockier builds to full effect with vicious holds and powerful slams. The teams are in sync and play perfectly off each other, with Nobuhiko deftly sliding in to take over a submission hold for Inoki while Inoki goes to fuss at the ref while Williams yells from the outside. Keep an eye out for Hart’s beautifully bridged German suplex, and be ready to cheer with the crowd when Inoki ends the match with an absolutely stunning dropkick.
Owen Hart & Ross Hart vs. Fit Finlay & Rocky Moran, World of Sport
Here’s a match-up for you: Owen Hart and Fit Finlay, teamed up with Ross Hart and Rocky Moran respectively as part of a tag team tournament for World of Sport. This is an incredibly early match in Owen’s career—he’s only eighteen years old here and looks it, an actual baby in the ring squaring off against then-World Mid-Heavyweight Champion Finlay in an impressive match for someone so young. This match lacks the big moves Owen added to his repertoire later in his career, but the moves he does pull out, almost out of nowhere, make it clear Hart is a star in the making. It’s a fun match featuring the Hart brothers as young underdog babyfaces against big mean heels, and the crowd is so firmly on their side throughout that it’s hard not to get swept up in rooting for the young buckaroos (or broncos, technically) as they desperately try to claw their way into the next round of the tournament.
Owen Hart vs. Razor Ramon, Stampede Wrestling, Stu Hart 50th Anniversary Show, 1995
This is a rare interpromotional showdown, featuring wrestlers from WWF, WCW and Stampede Wrestling alumni to celebrate Stu Hart and raise funds for a Calgary children’s charity. This match-up found Ramon defending the WWF Intercontinental Championship against Owen Hart in a short match featuring vicious heel work from the Black Hart as he dominates Ramon for most of the match. The match is brief but exciting to watch, featuring a beautiful missile dropkick and great leaping kicks by Owen to the much taller Razor Ramon’s head. Hart even takes advantage of a broken turnbuckle with a dastardly move that gets the Calgary crowd booing their hometown boy. Though Ramon narrowly gets the win to retain his title after the 1-2-3 Kid tries to interfere on Owen’s behalf, Owen Hart puts on an excellent match that perfectly demonstrates his athletic skill and his heel cleverness.
Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart, WrestleMania X
You can’t have a list of Owen Hart matches without featuring his best-known match of all time: his match versus his older brother, Bret, at WrestleMania X. This match is an exemplary demonstration of not only both brothers’ technical skill but of their storytelling ability: in the opening moments, Owen is grim and determined to prove his worth as the better Hart, as Bret looks reluctant to lock up despite the clear support of the crowd. Bret looks on exasperated as Owen celebrates his every move and escape. Owen is as desperate to prove himself as Bret is to end the match against his brother as quickly as possible, until Owen slaps Bret across the face and Bret visibly snaps, finally seeming to understand how serious Owen is about proving himself. The two blend mat wrestling with flashy moves to rile up the crowd, working up to an emotional intensity and frenetic pace unusual in wrestling even today. In the end, when Owen steals the pin, he celebrates as Bret simply looks on, resigned, both aware that their relationship seems irrevocably changed. Together, the Hart brothers deliver one of the best matches in WrestleMania history, and certainly one of the highlight matches of both of their careers.
For those looking for more ways to celebrate Owen Hart’s legacy, consider supporting the Owen Hart Foundation, a fund managed by the Calgary Foundation and founded by Dr. Martha Hart to honor her husband’s memory. The fund has given more than $3 million in gifts and endowments since Dr. Hart launched it in 2000, offering scholarships, home building assistance, and support for disaster rebuilding efforts around the world.
Donations can be made to the Owen Hart Foundation Fund through the Calgary Foundation website; for those outside Canada, the amount in the donation form will be in Canadian dollars.
C.K. Stewart is a freelance writer with a lot of opinions about comics, wrestling and wrestling comics. He can also be found at Newsarama or livetweeting terrible pay-per-views on Twitter @ckayfabe.