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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Owen Hart's 50th Birthday

A few nights ago, during ESPN's comprehensive E:60 piece on the WWE Performance Center, wrestling fans and non-fans alike found a mutual love for a wrestler that was previously dismissed as a one-note filler vessel: Adam Rose. The images of Ray Leppan being a tender and doting father to his son, Maverick, who was born with visceral birth defects, supersedes his double-life as Rose, a lollipop-sucking Russell Brand caricature who once argued with an anthropomorphic rabbit. There are no 'feels' in that, but the heart swells when you see precisely why Leppan does what he does.

Watching Leppan's fatherly struggle play out reminded me of the disconnect in wrestling between the viewer and the cartoon characters. It's also why Daniel Bryan and Sami Zayn are among the most beloved wrestlers on the planet, because we can identify with their underdog struggles. I'd wager anything that more societal outcasts or genuinely shy persons watch wrestling than better-adjusted folks, for reasons too numerous to mention. As such, that fanbase is the one that pulls for a Bryan or a Zayn to overcome the odds, rather than goad Cena onto turning back another futile challenge. Cena, for all of his charity work, fails to tap into human resolve as a performer the way organic fan favorites have.

Seeing Leppan be 'Daddy' also reminded me of Owen Hart, whose fiftieth birthday is today. Owen, in death, became a bigger babyface than he could possibly have been when he and Koko B Ware were throwing dropkicks in parachute pants. The circumstances of Owen's death are grisly, and were bound to elicit sympathy, sure, but the damage-control Raw the following night affirmed to the audience who Owen really was: the lovable rascal who would prank you into oblivion, and was also the most loving father you would ever know.

That image contrasts with Owen's WWF run, where characters quite obviously don't tell the story of their puppeteers. This is especially true in Owen's final year, where he hastily joined a black militant faction, adopted a surlier attitude, tormented good guys in his old Blue Blazer get-up, and was the third wheel in a faction with equally-surly Jeff Jarrett and a barely-dressed Debra McMichael. It's not exactly a proud resume, and in the increasingly-raucous WWF Attitude Era, sad to say but Owen was fading into obscurity beneath the crushing waves of Anything Goes TV.

Probably just as well that Owen is less identified with that era, for as much as I enjoyed it as a teenager. That tribute show, the likes of Dustin Runnels and Bob Holly and Edge and Triple H, among others, either choked back tears or mumbled like human mannequins from the utter shock as they relayed to the audience who Owen truly was.

In the WrestleMania era of WWF/E, Owen was merely the second wrestler to be so thoroughly humanized for the benefit of the ticket-paying audience. Prior to him, the revelation of Mick Foley's undying quest to be a wrestler was laid bare for the home viewer. Coincidentally, they may be the two wrestlers, more than any other from that time frame, whom fans spanning several generations hold with the warmest regards.

While Owen gets those regards partially for the fact that his horrible death left two small children without a father, it was the revelation that he had two children that magnetically pulled fans toward him. Long before Wikipedia, it was rare that you knew the names of a wrestler's immediate family. As Foley raced for the WWF Title in 1998, we were well aware of Dewey and Noelle watching from his home. As such, in Owen's death, fans remembered the names of Oje and Athena, because the wrestlers paying tribute made sure to mention them more than once. That obvious admission crystallized the fact that yes, Owen Hart was a real father that would fold up the tights, fly home to Calgary, and spend off days with his adoring family.

It seems so elementary now, thanks to social media and InstaGram, we feel like we know the wrestlers much more intimately. Shoot interviews and Total Divas and WWE Network specials have actually kind of saturated things, because now wrestlers are too human. Sometimes that humanity drowns out the surreality that wrestling is supposed to provide in droves.

That's where Owen's brilliance gets its credit. As a performer, he was beyond antagonistic, the most capable villain in a desert of sports-entertainment decline. A viewer could actually believe he hated Bret, and buy into him being a sociopathic coward, thanks to the gusto he put into the role. That's where the fatherhood revelations caused the most shock: you could then marvel at just how well Owen had played his role.

In death, Owen Hart was an inadvertent pioneer in laying the distinct line between character and human, between fiend and father. We as fans began to appreciate the people beneath the costumes as, well, people.

The mere fact that Adam Rose's struggle to be Superdad reminded me of Owen Hart really speaks volumes to Owen's impact on the wrestling world, but moreso beyond wrestling itself. If we talk about wrestlers being crossover stars in film and sport, Owen qualifies as a crossover star in the field of explicit reality. The peeled-back curtain that once obscured feel-good moments was tugged wide by his deft hand.

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