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On the Apron: The Owen voice

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Every Tuesday, Heave features editor Dominick Mayer brings you On The Apron, a closer analysis of the latest goings-on in WWE.

Last week I tried to take a more positive approach to WWE, and will do so again in the future, but that’s getting laid to rest for today. The combination of Extreme Rules and last night’s Raw dredged up something rather unpleasant, something that both runs counter to the whole idea of professional wrestling and draws the viewer’s attention away from the show and into the worst possible flashbacks.

I’m talking about what’s known in Internet parlance as the “Owen voice.”

On May 23, 1999, at the Over the Edge PPV (the name really was ironic in the most awful way possible), all-time great Owen Hart was being lowered to the ring from the rafters of Kemper Arena in Kansas City, when his cable snapped. Hart fell from the top of the arena to the ring, where he broke his neck. Despite being rushed to the hospital, most in attendance have said that Hart was clearly dead the minute he hit the ring. It was then up to Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross to make the call, and notify the home audience of what had happened; a pre-taped promo was airing on TV while this happened in front of the live audience.

Ross’ call, courtesy of Bleacher Report:

“Ladies and gentlemen, earlier tonight here in Kansas City, tragedy befell the World Wrestling Federation and all of us. Owen Hart was set to make an entrance from the ceiling, and he fell from the ceiling. I have the unfortunate responsibility to let everyone know that Owen Hart has died. Owen Hart has tragically died from that accident here tonight.”

Everybody was in shock. I was 10 years old at the time, and because I was born to young parents, I’d not yet encountered the concept of death. All of my relatives were still alive, and I hadn’t been to a wake since my great grandmother’s, which happened when I was so young that I can barely recall it now. I remember my mother getting cross with me when I tried to wrap my head around how sad it was that the Blue Blazer (Hart’s character at the time) wouldn’t be able to challenge The Godfather for the Intercontinental Championship as previously planned. She then had to explain death to me, about how eventually something happens to all people and they go away and never come back.

Fast forward eight years. It’s June 2007, and Vince McMahon has decided to write himself into a limo explosion storyline, in which he would “die” as an on-camera character. A week after that, tragedy again beset WWE when Chris Benoit was found dead in his Georgia home. As became custom after Owen’s death, a clip package was aired chronicling the best moments from his career. A day later, when the full story came out and Benoit had killed his wife and son before himself, WWE rescinded both the death story and any ownership of Benoit’s career, for good.

Guess what voice was used by many of the talking heads during the Benoit special? You guessed it. The Owen voice.

A year later came the first moment when I realized what WWE was about to do with the Owen voice, the voice used by the announcing team when God’s-honest tragedy had struck. To conclude the “Million Dollar Mania” storyline, McMahon had a giant wheel of prizes collapse on him. For the sake of authenticity, he referred to Triple H by his real name (“Paul! I can’t feel my legs, Paul!”) while the announcers solemnly wondered if McMahon was in fact paralyzed. So, to recap: A company that had a star die in the middle of the ring, another be paralyzed during an episode of Smackdown! (remember Darren Drozdov?) and only a year earlier had a current star stage a double homicide/suicide because of head injuries sustained during his years as a wrestler decided that it was prudent to treat a prop wheel-induced fake calamity with the same gravity as a very real fatality.

This past week, WWE used Owen voice twice in roughly 24 hours. On Sunday, at Extreme Rules, Ryback and John Cena went flying through what looked like a gigantic Lite Brite set, ending their Last Man Standing match under dubious circumstances. In order to sell what was clearly a storyline development, Cena was loaded into an ambulance under the care of EMTs as Lawler and Michael Cole spoke in the solemnest possible tones to sell the moment. Don’t get me wrong, the ambulance bit is fine. Wrestling’s all about suspension of disbelief, and to say otherwise is imposing standards onto it that it neither courts nor needs. But again, to treat a John Cena storyline with the gravity usually reserved for the deceased is just disingenuous, and for a certain sect of the viewing public it might even trigger recall of some of wrestling’s darkest hours.

Then, last night on Raw, Owen voice was again employed for when Triple H developed a “concussion” that led to the match being stopped, as he tried mightily to return to the ring and finish the match. The show ended with him flopping around ringside as Lawler assessed his injuries. Here is a brief list of reasons this is super fucked up:

-Right now, World Heavyweight Champion Dolph Ziggler is out hurt with an actual concussion.
-For all WWE’s steps taken to lower the risk of such things happening (which is a good thing, misguided purists be damned), having one of your longest-running active wrestlers attempt to refuse medical attention for the sake of valor as part of a storyline is pretty reckless.
-Triple H actually knocked out Brock Lesnar at this year’s WrestleMania, mid-match. Where was the legion of EMTs and mass panic then?
-Long-term injuries have become a huge problem for ex-wrestlers beyond just the Benoit tragedy. The amount of former WWE employees who died before 50 is genuinely unsettling.
-Not that this really matters given I’m trying to make a serious point this week, but Triple H just can’t retire without The Most Elaborate Farewell of All Time, can he?

It’s not like wrestling hasn’t harnessed real-life events as storylines on a regular basis throughout history. It’s just that it’s rarely this tasteless. There’s a seedy underbelly to wrestling, one which WWE would do well to avoid invoking by way of using an announcing style once meant for genuine gravitas in times of necessity to drum up sympathy for a bad retirement storyline. All it does is make sure that the next time something bad truly does happen, viewers will be left to wonder if it’s all just part of the show. And that’s not a show anybody wants to watch.