When millions of wrestling fans tuned into Raw is War on May 24, 1999—two decades ago this week—they surely knew they would not find a typical episode. There was little precedent for the show’s circumstances: the previous night, longtime WWE (then WWF) stalwart Owen Hart had fallen to his death, off-camera, during a pay-per-view event while preparing to make a stunt entrance from the arena rafters. Active wrestlers had died before; just 19 months earlier, WWE’s Brian Pillman was found dead in a hotel room of an apparent heart attack at age 35. Wrestlers too had died from incidents during shows, though mostly outside the U.S. or at least the modern mainstream spotlight. Yet the combination of Hart’s status, the unusual nature of his death, and wrestling’s white-hot popularity at perhaps the peak of its late-90s boom produced a wholly distinct context for the proceedings. Clearly a departure from WWE’s increasingly outlandish and transgressive product was in order. Owen Hart’s death demanded something rarer, realer.
Raw began that night in St. Louis not with pyrotechnics but with nearly the entire WWE roster collected silently on the entrance ramp for a 10-bell salute. The camera zoomed in on grieving faces: heavy tears sliding down Mark Henry’s cheeks, Jeff Jarrett choked with emotion behind reflective red shades, so many normally eccentric performers looking somber and blank. After a video tribute to Hart, play-by-play announcer Jim Ross welcomed viewers to “what we truly believe will be one of the most unique broadcasts ever in the genre of sports entertainment.” Along with 10 matches, Ross promised “the candid and very, very real sentiments” of Hart’s colleagues, “who will share with us their feelings about Owen Hart and what he meant to them.”