Dark Side of the Ring Concludes the Season with the Tragic Story of Owen Hart
The much-acclaimed second season of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring began with a look at one of WWE/WWF’s very darkest days, the Chris Benoit murder/suicide of 2007. The season ended Tuesday with a look at the other one, the in-ring death of Owen Hart in May of 1999. Hart, the youngest member of the famous Hart wrestling family, was just 33 years old when died in the stunt gone wrong, and left behind his wife and two young children.
There’s a lot of competition, but the Hart episode, titled “The Final Days of Owen Hart,” may be the one that makes Vince McMahon and the WWF/WWE come off the worst. And since the recent Jimmy Snuka episode heavily implied that Vince carried out a murder coverup, that’s saying something.
The Hart episode of Dark Side of the Ring is nothing less than chilling, especially in the segment around the tragic events in Kansas City. It really drives home how horrifically unprecedented it was that a respected WWF star fell to his death, in front of a live crowd during a pay-per-view event, in a stunt executed with amateurish carelessness. And, after it happened, it fell to announcers Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler to announce Hart’s death on TV- and afterward, the wrestling event continued, even with Hart’s blood visible on the canvas of the ring.
The hourlong doc breezes through Hart’s upbringing, his place in the Hart family, and his early WWF career, before reaching the events of Over the Edge ’99, prior to the half hour mark.
As with many episodes of Dark Side of the Ring, this could very easily have been a feature-length documentary- and like all of that, it would have been better off ditching the reenactments. This is especially apparent having just watched ESPN’s The Last Dance, which had ten hours to play with and devoted significant amounts of time to footage from actual games. There are likely rights considerations in play, but it would have been great to see, say, more than 30 seconds of Bret and Owen’s Wrestlemania X match.
Martha Hart, Owen’s widow, serves as the main talking head. She and the film, despite the limited time, accurately convey what Owen was like as a person, while also getting into the story of how she sued the WWF and settled for millions, even against the wishes of Owen’s other relatives. We also hear from Hart’s son and daughter, who appear to have grown into well-adjusted adults- something that, as we’ve seen throughout the Dark Side series, has not always been the case with children of the wrestling business.
You can sort of tell the death of Owen Hart is an extremely fraught subject in wrestling circles. When Bruce Prichard, a frequent talking head in the first season of Dark Side, hosted a 2017 episode of his “Something to Wrestle With” podcast that dealt with Owen Hart’s life and career, he went for nearly three hours before conspicuously skipping past the death part.
In the doc, the normally hard-nosed Jim Cornette is driven to tears when talking about that day, while Jim Ross – who had to announce Hart’s death live on the air with about 10 seconds’ notice- doesn’t have much of an easier time. And the Hart episode really shows just how negligent WWF/WWE has long been when it comes to the safety of its in-ring performers- especially borne out now, with the company using a shady “essential business” designation in Florida to make wrestlers continue to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Through two seasons, Dark Side of the Ring remains an entertaining and valuable show, one that challenges WWE and WWE Network’s near-hegemony when it comes to using documentaries to tell stories about wrestling history.
The Benoit and Hart episodes were probably the best of the season, while it also took useful dives into such non-WWF-related stories as the life of New Jack and Herb Abrams’ UWF. I’m not certain, though, that the David Schultz/John Stossel incident was substantial enough to sustain an entire documentary.
The show is said to be a huge hit, and more seasons are coming. The tragic beauty is, when it comes to tragic stories about wrestlers embroiled in controversy or dying way too young, they’re not likely to run out of material.