With two huge WWE shows hitting the city (well, Rosemont), this week we feel inclined at WARR to look back on eventful moments from the past involving the premier wrestling promotion and its storied history in Chicago. Each day this week catch a classic
wrestling Sports Entertainment video with a little of our commentary.
In modern wrestling, there are technicians and there are the Harts, possibly the WWF/E’s equivalent to the Skywalker family in Star Wars.
The Hart family has a lineage of family involvement in pro wrestling that stretches back to their older than old school matriarch Stu and continues today with wrestlers like Natalya Neidhart, who among her qualifications as current WWE superstar is that she is the lone female graduate of the infamous “Hart Dungeon,” in the family’s home of Calgary, Alberta, Canada where dozens of notable wrestlers and quite a few hall of famers have trained.
Among those hall of famers were Bret and Owen Hart, who were among a set of eight sons of Stu who would perform as professional wrestlers. In 1994 Bret and Owen were at the top of their craft, atop the card at most events, Bret as either a WWF champion or a top contender and Owen then as a constant tormentor of his big brother.
Throughout the 1990s Vince McMahon made use of the Hart family’s large size and out-sized reputation to make compelling storylines, sometimes with the Harts standing as one against (often anti-Canadian) agitators but maybe at their best when the family was all split to hell, much like it was at Summerslam 1994.
Summerslam ’94 was a rare WWE Chicago event held outside Rosemont, at least since the mid-1980s, taking place at the then brand-new United Center on Madison Street in the heart of the West Side of the city. Of course the UC would become famous for being the home of the Bulls and Hawks, which it remains along with being the city’s best arena for world class events. Summerslam ’94 would be literally the first worldwide broadcast from the stadium, which was only open for 11 days at that point.
Beyond being a shiny new toy that Vince McMahon could try out for his show, it makes sense that the UC was used for a show in the summer of ’94 as opposed to the then-Rosemont Horizon, as business was far from usual for the company at the time.
Summerslam ’94 took place only one month after McMahon was acquitted from federal charges that he intentionally distributed steroids to WWF performers, that multi-year legal entanglement literally forced Vince McMahon out of the operations of the company for months while his wife Linda and trusted collaborators ran the company.
Surrounding the controversy was also a changing of the guard in the company from its Hulked-out era of mammoth competitors (Hulk Hogan himself was in rival WCW by 1994 after his falling out with McMahon) to smaller, more agile performers like the Harts and Shawn Michaels.
Aside from the Hart family fracture, Summerslam ’94 was mostly about another clash of lookalikes, the emerging icon Undertaker had to face an imitator, finishing a storyline that ran from late ’93 due to Taker sitting out with a back injury. The more fantastic storytelling surrounding Undertaker provided enough of the kind of carny showmanship that McMahon felt more comfortable with at the time, but the Hart match carried the evening.
Even though it was the second to last match, the Hart steel cage battle lasted over 32 minutes to the Taker main event, which was done in 8:57. The Hart match was based in pure emotion and jealousy from Owen to Bret, who earlier that year lost in a brother vs. brother match at Wrestlemania X but later won the WWF championship that same night.
With the title on the line again in Chicago they put on another performance that shined like the lights of the UC against that beautiful blue cage. Bret got the better of Owen this time but little brother and fellow Hart family member Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart (Natayla’s dad) put more sauce on the rivalry by beating down Bret to the point that the other Harts in the house had to intervene.
Bret Hart holds a special place in an entire generation of wrestling fans who came just short of seeing Hulk Hogan live in his prime as well as those who weren’t too impressed by his overall cartoonish persona and low-intensity work rate in the ring. Bret was intense, skillful and his sharpshooter submission was impossible to overcome unless you were within arms length of the bottom rope.
But there are many who say Owen was even better as an all around performer.
Of course, Owen’s legacy is tinged with what could have been, as he died tragically during an accident live during a WWF show in 1999. Prior to that, the younger Hart showed plenty of versatility and grit and liveliness as both a heel and babyface and even with Bret’s bitter defection from WWF after the “Montreal Screwjob,” Owen stayed in place with a can-do, positive attitude that helped uplift his co-workers day-to-day but also may have played a role in putting him in the position that led to his death.
Regardless of the bittersweet nature of the Hart family’s involvement in the WWF/E, there were times when they exemplified what great pro wrestling should be in that company and Bret and Owen managed to do just that in a new building in Chicago 24 years ago. The UC may have been the house that Michael Jordan built, but the Harts helped open the doors.
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