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Can-you-top-this mentality may have cost wrestler his life

By LORI JOHNSTON -- Associated Press

 ATLANTA -- It takes more than a full nelson or a good body slam to impress the rabid pro wrestling fans of the '90s.

Promoters are constantly trying to outdo each other by offering more salacious storylines, more muscle-bound behemoths and more hardcore action -- from guys slamming each other with ladders, barbed wire and trash cans to 225-pound men flying in from the rafters.

The can-you-top-this pursuit of more outrageous stunts may have cost Owen Hart, the Blue Blazer, his life.

"Frankly, wrestling was getting so far out and my poor brother Owen was a sacrifice for the ratings," Ellie Hart said.

Hart, a member of a prominent Canadian wrestling family, plummeted at least 70 feet to his death Sunday at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., as he was being lowered into the ring from the ceiling by cables. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

Hart's family lashed out Tuesday at wrestling officials, saying both the Stamford, Conn.-based World Wrestling Federation and Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling take too many chances with perilous stunts.

"They kept on getting more and more far out with the gimmicks and angles," Ms. Hart said. "We figured sooner or later somebody was going to end up with a tragedy because of the direction wrestling was taking with both WWF and WCW."

The WWF would not comment on safety. In the past, president Vince McMahon has said the violence and sexual innuendo are no worse than other prime-time shows. WCW President Eric Bischoff has blamed the WWF, aaccusing the rival organization of pushing the envelope on inappropriate material.

"Unfortunately accidents like this happen," Bischoff said on CNN on Monday. "They happen on construction sites. They happen in everyday life. And they do happen in our line of work."

The competing Monday night shows from the WWF and the WCF have been the top two cable programs for more than a year, routinely beating out "real" sports like basketball and baseball. Millions also tune in to monthly pay-per-view extravaganzas that cost about $30 a pop and feature even more outrageous and uncensored action.

Wrestling is now so mainstream that a former star, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, was elected governor of Minnesota, and Hulk Hogan is considering a presidential bid.

Dave Meltzer, editor of the weekly Wrestling Observer newsletter, said the competition and the money at stake have led both organizations to become more reckless in the past two years.

"They have to go to greater and greater extremes to get the fans going," he said. "It used to be one guy hitting one guy with a chair. Now you have to set them on fire, you have to throw them off the balcony."

The competition between the two companies heated up in the last few years after Ted Turner took control of WCW -- once a second-tier Southern federation -- and used his money and marketing clout to take on the WWF. The WCW began signing away the WWF's biggest stars, including Hogan.

As the WCW climbed in the ratings, WWF's show became more adult-oriented, with extreme violence and lusty story lines. One character -- Val Venis -- was introduced as a former porn star. He had a particularly lewd finishing move called "The Money Shot," and was involved in a skit in which he was supposedly castrated.

To stay ahead of each other and underdog Extreme Championship Wrestling, both organizations are employing even more wild tactics: dance teams in tight outfits; female managers who wear heels and revealing gowns at ringside; and no-holds-barred -- but scripted -- matches in which men batter each other with wooden planks, road signs and metal pots.

Many of the battles spill out of the ring onto the concrete floor, and even into arena tunnels and locker rooms. Sometimes the wrestlers even go into the parking lot and throw each other through windshields.

Earlier this year, WWF's Mick Foley fell 15 feet from the top of a cage through a table, then was thrown through the cage roof, suffering a broken collarbone and losing some teeth. WCW's Sting has been flying into the ring from the rafters in a stunt similar to Hart's for more than a year.

Bob Lichter, president of Center for Media and Public Affairs, said wrestling has "gone from something laughable to something dangerous."

Hart's brother Bret, a WCW star, told ABC's "Good Morning America" Tuesday that his brother was uneasy about the stunt, "but somehow over the weekend he got talked into doing it again."

"We're professional wrestlers. We take our falls on the mat, inside the ring," Hart said. "I was never a stuntman, and my brother Owen was never a stuntman."

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