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The death of the wrestler known as the Blue Blazer spells big trouble for pro wrestling. Just when the sport, or whatever you want to call it, seemed at ease with its phoniness, reality spoiled the party.

Fans thought the Blazer’s fall from the ceiling of the Kemper Arena on May 23 was part of a story line, or, in wrestling parlance, an angle. They booed the 15-minute delay between the fatal plunge and the next match. WWF’s announcers attempted to make the live crowd and the pay-per-view audience realize that something horrific had taken place, that the costumed clump that had come down from the rafters was indeed a real human being, and that all those people dressed like paramedics were indeed real paramedics, struggling to save the real life of a Canadian wrestler named Owen Hart.

“This isn’t part of any angle,” said emcee Jim Ross. “This is as real as real can be.”

But within a very few minutes, Ross and color commentator Jerry “the King” Lawler jumped back into character, in time to pump up the crowd for a match between former porn star Val Venis and Jeff Jarrett, Hart’s best buddy in wrestling and occasional tag-team partner. Jarrett, in tears, ended his brief pre-match interview by yelling at the interviewer: “Shut up!” He then ran to the ring and smashed a guitar on another wrestler’s head. Everybody copes with tragedy in a different way.

You can’t blame the fans for suspending belief. The serious-injury angle isn’t new in wrestling: Lawler, a former wrestler of note, was involved in one of the most famous faked wounding incidents in wrestling history. He’s the guy who pile-drove Andy Kaufman in Memphis way back in April 1982, allegedly breaking the performance artist’s neck and certainly generating a lot of publicity for everybody involved—most of all for wrestling itself. But it was WWF genius Vince McMahon—who, much like the late Kaufman, is either absolutely nuts or an actor so gifted that Olivier could have learned from him—who was the first promoter to make big hurts, along with T&A and a cable-friendly dialect, staples of wrestling broadcasts.

McMahon had to do something. During a steroid-related prosecution of WWF brass about a decade ago, he had been forced to admit under oath that the group’s matches were fake. Fallout from that investigation had left the WWF on the brink of bankruptcy and made the rival promotional group, the Ted Turner-founded WCW, the king of the ring. When Turner’s group stole most of his superstars, McMahon de-emphasized the body slam and other athletic wrestling moves and began focusing on outside-the-ring shenanigans. McMahon’s broadcasts evolved into the raciest, most violent soap operas on television. A typical WWF story line this year had McMahon, immobilized and in traction in a hospital bed after being beaten by renegade wrestlers, taking a brutal pounding from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Dressed as a medic, Austin hammered the defenseless boss into unconsciousness with a bedpan.

Just as Jerry Springer was taking over the talk show realm, McMahon again began dominating wrestling: The WWF’s Raw Is War is now, week after week, the most watched program on cable television, and despite being a cable-only offering, the show even outdrew ABC’s Monday Night Football in the 18-to-35 male demographic last season. Even during the fateful pay-per-view telecast, as Hart lay dying in the ring, viewers were shown a tape of McMahon being loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher, his leg faux-broken during yet another faux beating.

Rappelling from an arena ceiling is hardly suicidal—G Wiz, the Wizards’ mascot, performed the same trick during MCI Center’s opening-night festivities. Kansas City police suspect that Hart died because feathers in his Blue Blazer costume accidentally triggered the release mechanism on his guide wire, sending him on an 80-foot free fall into the ring. But McMahon spent the days after the incident publicly apologizing for what happened. He canceled several shows and even took the bizarre step of letting his individual wrestlers go out of character on the air to express condolences.

None of those moves protected him or WWF from taking its heaviest hits since the steroid trials. And this time, the heaviest hitters weren’t wrestling outsiders. Last week, a busty blond former WWF ladies champ known as Sable resigned from the group and filed a $110 million suit against the organization in federal court in Bridgeport, Ct., saying that its wrestling had gotten “obscene, titillating, and unsafe.” In the complaint, Sable, whose real name is Rena Moro, alleges that after she refused the boss’s order to get involved in a lesbian angle and strip in the ring, McMahon stripped her of her championship belt and had his heavies smear feces on her belongings in the locker room. WWF lawyers counter that Moro, who recently posed nude in Playboy, timed the filing to capitalize on the Blue Blazer tragedy.

Also last week, Bret Hart, a longtime mat man and the best-known of Owen Hart’s wrestling brothers, went on Larry King’s show with Owen’s widow to hint that his family will soon sue McMahon, too. Bret Hart, who is scheduled to appear with other WCW wrestlers at MCI Center on Monday for a live broadcast of TNT’s Monday Nitro, blamed the Blue Blazer’s demise on the competition between WWF and WCW. Hart isn’t exactly an objective source, however. In late 1997, McMahon told Hart, who’d been in the WWF camp for about 15 years and was the reigning heavyweight champ at the time, to seek work elsewhere because the group didn’t have the money to pay up on the wrestler’s 20-year, multi-million-dollar contract. McMahon then took the title from Hart in a poorly fixed match—Hart, by all accounts, wasn’t in on the fix. Before exiting the ring for the last time as a WWF wrestler, Hart spat on McMahon’s face. (He still swears that the loogie was real, and, figuratively speaking, from the heart.) That spit-take gave the acclaimed wrestling documentary Hitman Hart, Wrestling With Shadows its most powerful scene. It also served as the flash point in what became an increasingly ugly feud between McMahon’s group and the WCW, the squabble Hart now says led to his brother’s death.

McMahon has said that WWF wrestlers will no longer rappel into the ring before matches, but no other policy changes are planned. Acclaim, the company that produces WWF Attitude, a line of licensed computer games, has announced that the Blue Blazer costume is being removed from the newest generation of Playstation software. According to the company, McMahon’s bedpan will remain on the game’s list of available foreign objects.—Dave McKenna