Hard men with muscled bodies and macho nicknames were rendered powerless, while thousands of fans wondered if the shocking spectacle they had just witnessed was real or part of pro wrestling's over-the-top melodramatics. And in the ring at the Kansas City, Mo., Kemper Arena, Owen Hart—an athlete, a husband, a father—lay dying.

On May 23, Hart, known as the Blue Blazer, was set to be lowered by cable from high above the ring for a match in an event billed, with unintended prescience, as "Over the Edge." But Hart, 34, became unhooked from his cable (a release mechanism may have been triggered prematurely) and plummeted some 75 feet, hitting his head on one of the ring's padded turnbuckles. "A lot of people thought it was a joke, a dummy," says Dennis Roberts, one of more than 16,000 fans on hand. "It was really sickening."

Paramedics tried to revive Hart, who was later pronounced dead of internal bleeding. "The wrestlers have taken it very, very hard," said World Wrestling Federation chairman Vince McMahon, who nevertheless chose not to cancel the pay-per-view event after the accident. The youngest of eight wrestling brothers, Hart took to the mat "from the time he was a toddler," says his father, ex-wrestler and promoter Stu Hart, 83, who trained his sons out of the basement of his Calgary, Alta., home. "Owen had a great outlook and really enjoyed life."

But Hart, who signed on with the WWF in 1988, had been building a stock portfolio so he could quit wrestling and spend more time with wife Martha, son Oje, 7, and daughter Athena, 3. On the day he died, Hart donned his mask and told an interviewer, "The Blue Blazer will always triumph over evil forces." Sadly, he could not survive his sport's increasingly surreal showbiz excesses.