4/25/16 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
Throughout 1994, Owen Hart feuded with his brother Bret in what would go down as the most important program of his wrestling career. The high-water mark of their rivalry was a cage match for the WWF Title that main evented SummerSlam. It was one of the best matches of either wrestler’s career and it earned five stars from Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Although Bret ultimately won the match, Owen got some heat back when Jim Neidhart helped him attack Bret after his escape. Their feud went on throughout the year before it concluded at the following Royal Rumble.
Although Owen ultimately came out as the loser in the feud, he had many high points where he got cheap wins or beat down his brother to draw heat. Owen was a tremendous worker through his entire career, but if ever there was a moment when he could have become a WWF Champion, SummerSlam 1994 was that moment. What would it have taken for him to get to that point? What effect would it have had on the rest of his career?
Climbing the Card
Owen isn’t the only HOF-caliber wrestler who never held the WWF Title. Jake Roberts, Ted Dibiase, Curt Hennig, and Jimmy Snuka are often cited as main-event stars who never held the gold. While Owen’s career lasted into an era when title changes became more common, his peak in the WWF came in an era when they were still fairly scarce.
Owen also came into WWF without the same resume as guys like Dibiase and Hennig, who had won world titles in large territorial promotions. Owen’s unprecedented success in NJPW’s Junior Heavyweight division did not help him much in an era when Japanese wrestling meant little to Vince McMahon and the WWF. In fact, Owen came in as the Blue Blazer as a way to anonymize him and distance himself from the Hart family name.
Of course, Owen’s talent eventually shined through. He got his name back and worked his way up the card throughout 1991 and 1992. He tagged frequently with Neidhart in a move that mirrored his brother’s rise in WWF. He even started to work alongside Bret when Jerry Lawler attacked the entire Hart family on commentary week in and week out.
It was that teamwork and friendship that eventually led to their falling out and Owen’s ascent to the top of the card. Their tenuous alliance gave way at the 1994 Royal Rumble, when they lost a tag team match to the Quebecers. Owen attacked Bret and their rivalry was underway. Owen even beat Bret in the kickoff match to Wrestlemania X before Bret went on to beat Yokozuna and leave Madison Square Garden as WWF Champion. Shortly thereafter, Owen cheated his way to a win in the King of the Ring Tournament and the stage was perfectly set for the brother vs. brother main event with the Title on the line.
Near Miss in the Cage
Bret once said in an interview that he and Owen did not wrestle one of their best matches at Wrestlemania X because they had not worked with one another much lately. Instead, he said that they redeveloped their chemistry over the following six months as they built up to their classic at SummerSlam.
Indeed, the cage match was one of the best either ever wrestled. Bret’s great strength was that his matches were always real and snug. Even though he worked very safely, he presented his matches in a way that looked dangerous. Owen had a flashier offensive arsenal, but he was also at his best when he simplified the psychology of a match to make it easy to follow.
With no pins or submissions in the cage, the strategy of the match was straightforward. From the very beginning, both wrestlers tried to escape over the top and through the door. The match didn’t feature much playing to the crowd or anything else that distracted from the goal of getting out of the cage. Even the trademark submission holds were absent until close to the very finish. Owen finally used a Sharpshooter to try to neutralize Bret’s climbing ability and Bret countered into the same hold in the opposite direction. At last, they both climbed over the top. Bret was able to ensnare Owen in the cage and fall to the floor.
After the match, Niedhart left his seat at ringside, clobbered the British Bulldog, and beat down Bret. The rest of the Hart family came to Bret’s aid and helped chase Owen and Neidhart away from the ring. The attack from Neidhart and Owen’s escape ensured that he kept plenty of heat on himself in spite of the loss. As such, the rivalry continued for almost another half year.
The match was so competitive that it’s not hard to imagine a way for Owen to win the Title. In fact, it would have made plenty of sense in the storyline, both in the short-term and long-term. The way that Neidhart interfered could have allowed Owen to win if he helped Owen escape, either by pulling him through the door or preventing Bret from reaching the floor in a similar finish. Such a heelish start to a title run would have only turned the fans against Owen even more than when he entered.
A title win for Owen would have fit into WWF’s bigger picture, as well. Just two months after Bret beat Owen, Bret dropped the Title to Bob Backlund when Owen convinced their mother to throw in the towel in their submission match. Backlund quickly lost the belt to Diesel, who held it all the way through to Wrestlemania, where he faced Royal Rumble winner Shawn Michaels. Owen could have easily won the Title from Bret and lost it to Diesel at Survivor Series, which would have been a more sensible way to transition the belt, anyway. Alternately, he could have held the Title to Wrestlemania and lost to Diesel at that point in a scenario where Diesel would have won the Royal Rumble.
Altogether, Wrestlemania XI was one of the weakest shows in Wrestlemania history. Owen Hart won the Tag Team Titles alongside Yokozuna, but he certainly would have been more memorable in a WWF Title match. That scenario would have freed up Michaels to work on the undercard and might have avoided a pointless Bret-Backlund rematch. Would that scenario have sidetracked Michaels’s development? There’s no way to know, but I would argue that a mediocre loss to Diesel was not the key to his success.
Even if a two or six-month Title reign was the only one Owen ever had, it would have significantly changed his future with the company. When he was at his absolutely physical peak in 1995, he meandered around WWF’s mid-card despite a relatively weak talent roster. He remained friendly with Yokozuna, Vader, and the British Bulldog, and often wrestled tag matches against the likes of the Smoking Gunns and Doug Furnas and Phil Lafon. He could have easily spent that time working with Diesel, Michaels, Razor Ramon, Faarooq, Undertaker, or Mankind in more meaningful matches.
Owen would go on to an outstanding run as part of the reformed Hart Foundation through 1997. The pro-Canada storyline caught fire and featured some of Bret’s best character work. That angle would have been helped, not hurt, by having a second former World Champion in the fold. Bret had an antagonistic history with British Bulldog, Owen and Neidhart when the group formed, so it wouldn’t be a stretch for Owen to return to his roots despite a short Title reign.
Meanwhile, the WWF was in need of more main even wrestlers than ever due to an expanded PPV schedule. The annual PPV load doubled to 12 with the addition of the In Your House shows. Owen appeared in main events of three IYH PPVs, but never as a singles wrestler. Instead, Bulldog, Ken Shamrock, Goldust, and Sid wrestled main events that easily could have featured Owen instead. With wrestlers like Goldust, Shamrock, Austin, and Rocky Maivia on the rise, Owen would have been an even more credible foil to help them reach their potential earlier. Even without the ex-champion label, Owen was an indispensable foil for future-HOFers Rock, Austin, and Triple H.
Finally, the status as a former Champion might have helped keep Owen out of the mid-card purgatory that doomed him for most of 1998 and 1999. He drifted into a lame version of the Nation of Domination and started to regularly team with Jeff Jarrett. His character strayed so far from the snug, tough in-ring persona with which he started that it became part of the Blue Blazer meta-joke. The character was not just a parody of WWF’s digression from competitive wrestling, it was a wink toward Owen’s reluctance to be part of that farce. In the end, that gimmick tragically cost him his career and his life by way of a malfunctioning harness from the rafters. It would be overly simplistic to say that a Title reign would have saved his life, but it’s hard to imagine him in such a preposterous situation under more favorable circumstances.
All told, Owen will go down as one of the all-time greats, with or without a WWF Title on his resume. He won the King of the Ring when it was still an important hallmark. He won the Intercontinental Title twice, the European Title once, and the Tag Team Titles four times. He won a variety of awards, from the Slammys, to Pro Wrestling Illustrated, to Wrestling Observer. Someday, WWE will bridge the gap with his family and he will be inducted to the WWE HOF. Even with all of these accolades, there was one deserved moniker he never received- the title of WWF Champion.