Perhaps the biggest by product of the success of Dark Side of the Ring, VICE TV’s pro wrestling-themed documentary series, is the degree of sunshine it has brought to the subject matter covered in a given episode.
The life and death of “Gorgeous” Gino Hernandez, for example, would be new to those unfamiliar with ‘80s Texas wrestling, and the implosion of Herb Abrams and his UWF promotion was mostly lore to a specific subset of wrestling fans who tried to watch everything from the genre in the early ‘90s.
But it goes deeper than that, particularly with episodes like tonight’s season finale, which covers the 1999 death of Owen Hart in a stunt-rigging accident. Hart’s death was quite possibly the biggest mainstream news story in the entire history of the wrestling business. That mainstream interest, though, had eroded by the time the how and why of Owen’s plunge from the top of Kansas City’s Kemper Arena became known from the ensuing criminal investigation and wrongful-death lawsuit.
The scope of the negligence on the part of Hart’s employers at what’s now World Wrestling Entertainment is, naturally, one of the key parts of the Dark Side episode, and that’s important to his widow, Martha, who first published those findings in a 2002 book, Broken Harts.
“I honestly could not be happier with the story that Dark Side of the Ring has told,” she told The Daily Beast. “It is a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time, and it’s everything that I wished it would be. And I was really happy that they were able to show the type of person that Owen was behind the curtain, for people to see what an incredible dad and husband he was, and his personality, that really shines through.”
Telling that story has reignited Martha’s long-simmering public feud with WWE. On Tuesday night, shortly before 11:00 p.m. ET, the CBSSports.com article by Brent Brookhouse covering his own interview with Martha was updated to include comments from Jerry McDevitt, WWE’s longtime outside counsel. Most of what McDevitt argued points to facts about the legal proceedings themselves, but there was one comment that raised eyebrows in just how extremely it veered from that course.
“We were basically trying to find out what happened that night,” he told Brookhouse. “Martha was not even remotely interested in finding out what happened that night; she just wanted to use it as a vehicle to beat up a business that she didn't like that her husband was in, the wrestling business.”
Martha, understandably, takes issue with that comment, providing her own written response exclusively to The Daily Beast.
“In response to Jerry McDevitt's recent comments I want to make it very clear, if there was one person on this planet who wanted to get to the bottom of what happened to my husband Owen it was me!,” she wrote.
“The defense on the other hand was doing everything in their power to muddy the waters (as they try to continue to do) in an effort to detract from the case because they didn't have one. I read every single affidavit taken, sat through endless face-to-face depositions, and spent over a year of my life dissecting every solitary fact of this case.
To insinuate for one second that I of all people did not care about the truth behind Owen's death, but instead was more interested in a ridiculous vendetta against the wrestling business, is beyond the pale.”
“Jerry McDevitt's comments are absolutely absurd, reckless, and pathetic,” she continued. “I am not surprised that the WWE would trot out Mr. McDevitt to do damage control. After all, the events surrounding Owen's death and the aftermath that followed are extremely disturbing and do not reflect well on their company.
Not to mention that Linda McMahon was the acting CEO of the WWF (now WWE) at the time of Owen's death, which does not bode well for them either, especially given her ties to President Donald Trump and his administration. At the end of the day truth has always been my defense and for anyone who seeks it regarding this case and the events surrounding Owen's death I suggest they read my book. It is all in there.”
As for the case itself, the condensed version, which is covered in-depth in both Martha’s book and past articles by this reporter, is as follows: With Owen set to rappel from the ceiling during a WWE pay-per-view event, WWE sought out a new stunt rigger, eschewing previous contractor Joe Branam because of his price and his repeated refusal—on safety grounds—to suspend talent with some kind of quick release to speed up the equipment removal for TV purposes.
The new rigger, Bobby Talbert, who was less than honest about his qualifications, was willing to do so. Instead of employing the more standard “locking carabiner” used in mountain climbing and by more qualified riggers like Branam, Talbert fashioned a line for Owen to pull on to open the clip. It had just enough slack that something getting caught in it, like Owen’s cape, could trigger the release. Something like that happened, and Owen fell to his death.
With no media obtaining the longform police file on the case or properly covering her wrongful-death lawsuit as it happened, the real story of the negligence that killed Owen Hart was not really part of any mainstream narrative about his death. Instead, that knowledge was mostly held by the small subset of wrestling fans who had read her book or a handful of articles heavily reliant on it.
“While she didn’t achieve her ultimate goal, which was to have a verdict publicly making it clear there was negligence in her husband’s death, the reported $18 million lawsuit settlement, the largest wrongful death settlement of the year in the U.S., quietly spoke volumes,” wrote veteran wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter upon the release of Broken Harts. “But ultimately, it was so quiet that it also buried her goal. That the truth of Owen’s death would become well known by the public.”
That’s one of the things that makes this particular Dark Side of the Ring episode a big deal: That a healthy-sized (250,000+ in its premiere airing, several times that with replays and on-demand viewing) audience consisting largely of wrestling fans will learn for the first time that Owen Hart didn’t die in a freak accident; that instead, his boss had specifically sought out a more dangerous way to do the descender stunt after repeatedly being warned against it.
“Not everybody is going to read my book,” Martha explained. “So to be able to show it as a visual presentation, it’s more effective. It reaches more people. It has more impact. It has been frustrating [that the full story wasn’t more well-known];
I’m just one individual, but WWE is a powerhouse PR machine, so they can kind of pump out whatever they want to and it will reach more people than one individual...It’s a story about an incident that never should have happened, about egregious negligence, about a corporation’s greed, and their willingness to bulldoze me just for their own personal gains. [After watching the episode], people will become aware of the other side of the story.”
But even if you have read Broken Harts or one of the articles borrowing heavily from it, there’s plenty new to be learned in the Dark Side episode. In addition to the details about the lawsuit and what caused Owen to fall, including some new information, the episode also:
Spends a good bit of time on establishing his personality away from the ring with home movies, delving into the emotions of those affected by the tragedy, something that Dark Side has been particularly good at in this second season.
Explores, in detail, why Martha and her kids refuse to participate in any WWE events that would “honor” Owen, like a Hall of Fame induction.
The latter has become the biggest sticking point in discussions of Martha among wrestling fans, many of whom want the catharsis that would come with Owen being part of the annual Hall of Fame ceremony during WrestleMania weekend. It’s something that WWE could absolutely do of their own volition if they wanted to, but obviously choose not to so as to avoid the negative publicity from Martha and the kids speaking out against them.
(It’s also complicated by Martha having sued WWE again in 2010 when she discovered that WWE had begun exploiting its back catalog during the DVD boom, including footage of Owen, and never paid her royalties; WWE argued that the wrongful-death settlement waived future royalties, and the case was settled out of court.) The WWE Hall of Fame dispute had caused a public war of words between Martha and Bret Hart, Owen’s most famous brother, after fellow wrestler Mark Henry directed a tearful message to Martha during his own 2018 induction speech, asking her to come to a detente with WWE to allow her husband’s induction.
“I think Martha, Owen's widow, is a very obtuse, square-headed person,” Bret said on CBS’s In This Corner podcast. "I think she has done more to erase my brother Owen’s memory than she ever did to remember him. I think it really bothers me that the fans that love Owen so much don’t get a chance to remember him. You do these kind of things for the people that are here left to remember them.”
In a written response, Martha would object to the “erase” comment as “reckless, irresponsible, and clearly untrue,” adding to what she elaborates on in the documentary: that she’s not going to let the company that killed her husband profit from his memory. Bret would double down in a Facebook post addressing her response, but Martha would soon make the arguments against her look particularly foolish by proudly posing for a photo with Owen’s plaque from the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, which is independent of WWE.
While Bret had stood beside Martha publicly and privately throughout the wrongful-death lawsuit, they fell out soon after she agreed to WWE’s $18 million settlement offer. In his book, he framed it as Martha refusing to tell him what caused Owen to fall while also painting the entire family with a negative brush, even though their actions had varied from sabotage to neutrality to outright support.
Martha, however, has a different story. “Bret was supportive throughout my lawsuit,” she explained. “But he also was hoping to get his footage, because he didn’t have a relationship with WWE at the time, so he wanted us to work that in somehow into our settlement agreement.
That we could get his footage, which he writes about in his book. And we weren’t able to do that, because this wasn’t about Bret’s wrestling footage, this was about Owen’s life. So when we didn’t get that, Bret was very upset.” Bret would eventually, after suffering a stroke in June 2002, slowly reconcile with Vince McMahon, including the formal rebuilding of his relationship with WWE, which, naturally, began with them partnering on a DVD project.
Martha’s side is entirely believable: In Bret’s book, he admits to making such overtures earlier in the suit, and really, his entire philosophy on WWE can be traced to his artistic temperament and his long-held fear that fans would not be able to easily view his or Owen’s old matches.
In March, he even admitted in an interview that his decision to forgive WWE CEO Vince McMahon for how he and Owen were treated was rooted in a desire to not let the bad memories poison the good ones. When reached by email, Bret’s agent, Kirk White, chose not to confirm, deny, or elaborate on Martha’s side of the falling out or if Bret knew the story of what caused the accident.
Instead, he asked if he had met this reporter before and didn’t respond to a follow-up email. The Wrap’s Tony Maglio, meanwhile, did manage to get a statement from Bret, with “The Hitman” writing that “our fallout is multifaceted” and that “to say that it only involved being able to access and use my WWE footage and photos for future projects would merely be an oversimplification and inaccurate.”
Even with all that, though, Martha says she holds no ill will anymore toward anyone. “We’ve talked about a lot of dark, negative things, but I want you to know I’ve forgiven all of [the Harts] and wish them well. And that is a sincere statement.
I hope life has been kind to them, because I think my life hasn’t been easy, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. I see the Harts from time to time, and when I do, I’m always nice to them, I always speak to them, I tell my kids to be nice to them. I just don’t have a relationship with them, because they broke the trust [when some of them worked to undermine the lawsuit], and if you don’t have trust, you can’t have a true relationship.”
“I even wish Vince McMahon well; I don’t wish harm on anybody,” she concluded. “I let that go a long time ago. All I wanted was to make sure that people were held accountable and that people know. Bad things were done here, and people should be aware of it.”