Prodigies and Underdogs: Owen Hart’s Legacy Lives on in AEW Performers

On May 11, All Elite Wrestling kicked off its Owen Hart Cup Tournament. The tournament is a collaboration between AEW and the Owen Hart Foundation, a charitable organization founded by Hart’s wife Dr. Martha Hart. The weeks prior to kickoff night on May 11’s episode of All Elite Wrestling: Dynamite saw a series of qualifying matches to determine the tournament’s contestants. The tournament honors both the spirit of AEW itself, and of the legendary Owen Hart.

Owen Hart’s Legacy

Owen Hart was considered one of WWF’s (now WWE’s) best in-ring performers. He achieved the Intercontinental Championship, European Championship, and won the tag team championship multiple times. He was known for a high-flying in ring style, but was also adept at the submission wrestling style perfected by his family, the Harts, under the tutelage of patriarch Stu Hart. Despite his obvious and recognized gift for pro wrestling, Hart’s time with WWF saw many changes to his gimmick. From the tag team High Energy alongside Koko B. Ware, to the “Blue Blazer” superhero gimmick, stints with the New Hart Foundation and the Nation of Domination, Hart saw many variations in his presentation, shifting from babyface to heel and back as the wind shifted. 

His feud with brother Bret Hart for the WWF Championship  in 1994 was a career high for Owen Hart. In a heel turn driven by furious, resentful sibling rivalry, Hart sabotaged his brother in matches against foes like Diesel and Bob Backlund. He won the 1994 King of the Ring tournament, and faced his brother in a legendary steel cage match at 1994’s SummerSlam. Hart’s professional wrestling legacy is that of a capable, naturally gifted, disciplined performer who delivered professionally excellent and engaging matches, but was sadly not always used to the level his abilities deserved in WWF’s storylines.

AEW’s Identity

This strikes a chord with AEW’s aesthetic and ethos. From it’s inception, All Elite Wrestling has provided a home for performers like Hart was: poised between prodigy and underdog. Performers who are excellent in-ring but whose careers have been subject to fits and starts, disappointments and hard left turns, but still have the loyalty and interest of the crowd have made their home in AEW. Many such performers have come to AEW from World Wrestling Entertainment, like Cup contestants Toni Storm and Jeff Hardy.

Parallels to Owen Hart

Both Storm and Hardy share parallels with Hart. Like Hart early in his days with the World Wrestling Federation, Storm struggled to find a gimmick that translated her raw energy and skill. She flourished in NXT while it was under the helm of Triple H, as a gutsy and snarky heel who went all out on her opponents with a brutal technical style. On Friday Night SmackDown, she was briefly repackaged into a vulnerable babyface. Since her AEW debut, Storm is slowly recovering her footing, in a feud with Jamie Hayter.

As for Hardy, when his brother Matt Hardy departed WWE to join AEW fortunes changed for him, much as they did for Hart when fellow New Hart Foundation members Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, and Davey Boy Smith departed for WCW. In AEW, Hardy is experiencing a rebirth whose zenith was capped by May 11’s ‘dream match’ against fellow hardcore high-flier Darby Allin.

Conclusion

AEW has paved a niche in pro wrestling. Performers familiar to crowds, recognized and beloved for their talents, have been able to find a rebirth there. It emphasizes  the technical craft of pro wrestling, at which Hart exceled, and  it embraces underdog performers and gives their talents a generous stage. The Owen Hart Cup Tournament is a showcase of performers whose careers mirror Hart’s, and of AEW’s own unique identity in the world of pro wrestling. 

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