Death in Wrestling
Why does it seem that the Grim Reaper has a ringside seat?
With the recent and completely unexpected death of Eddie “Umaga” Fatu rocking the wrestling business, a familiar series of events unfolded. The usual fingers were pointed and the usual questions were asked; was it steroids? Was it recreational drugs? Is Vince McMahon to blame? Why is it just wrestlers who die before their time? And so on and on and on.
I found myself asking if it really is just pro-wrestling that seems to have a high mortality rate, if it’s only the sport I’ve dedicated twenty years as a fan and around half that as a (part-time) performer. Perhaps it’s because I follow wrestling so closely as opposed to other sports that I don’t hear about tragedies in those pursuits. Now, I’m not claiming to know all the answers and I’m not claiming to be correct in everything I say in this piece. I’m speaking (writing?) from my own personal opinions on certain aspects, some of them more informed than others. I’m not accusing any wrestler of using steroids (who hasn’t come out and admitted it themselves) or other banned substances, just making educated observations and commenting on the epidemic of death plaguing the sport that I love. With that in mind, please remember that this is just one man’s opinion on a heavy subject with no easy answers.
The sad truth is, that even though other sports do have those who die young, Hollywood suffers from the occasional drug overdose fatality, the amount of wrestlers who have passed at a young age due to the effects of either current or former drug use is astounding. You only have to look at the respective reactions to River Phoenix and Heath Ledger overdosing to the reactions garnered by the more recent passing of those associated with the squared-circle. Headlines around the world for the former, abject apathy and a sense of “Oh, no, not another one” with the latter. As I sit here writing this article, the wrestling and acting communities had death cast its dark shadow once again. “Dr. Death” Steve Williams died of cancer and Brittany Murphy died under (at present time) unknown circumstances. Add to that the shocking news of Tony Halme passing on and you can see that it’s an ongoing situation that shows little to no signs of coming to an end.
Of course, not all wrestling-related deaths are connected with drugs, recreational or prescription. There have been tragic accidents like the one that took Owen Hart’s life, car accidents like the ones that ended the lives of Adrian Adonis, Vivian Vachon, Joey Marella (referee and son of Gorilla Monsoon), Brady Boone and The Junkyard Dog. Sometimes illness takes away our heroes like John Tenta, Ernie Ladd, André the Giant and The Missing Link. After cleaning up his life, it was a blood clot that caused the death of Chris Candido at the age of 33.
The death of Mitsuharu Misawa was a major incident and one that garnered extensive worldwide press; the Japanese legend died in the ring after taking a move called, in a twist of dark irony, the Death Landing (a stiff belly-to-back suplex) by Akitoshi Saito. The scenes of a hushed crowd watching on as their hero passed away in front of their eyes was one of the most heart-wrenching sights I’ve ever seen in a wrestling arena. The ceremony to celebrate Misawa’s life was a world away from the quick on-screen graphic most wrestlers get when they pass… normally because anything more would shed light on why they died.
But why is wrestling so blighted by the spectre of death? What causes these young, at least aesthetically fit and able young men to cease living? Was the wrestling lifestyle to blame for Chris Adams being shot and killed by someone considered his friend? Did the way he was treated by those in charge lead to Mike Awesome killing himself? What about Crash Holly? We have to assume that the business played its part.
Drug-related deaths, be it steroids/growth hormones, painkillers and/or recreational drugs, are the most common cause, or so it seems, among pro-wrestlers, especially with the ones who were wrestling when I first became a fan. Brian Adams, Rick Rude, Curt Hennig, Bam Bam Bigelow, Big Bossman, Hercules, “Road Warrior” Hawk, Miss Elizabeth (possibly the one that shocked me the most), British Bulldog, Terry Gordy and many, many more.
More recent performers to pass on include Eddie Guerrero (which caused more emotion than any US performer I can remember), whose death actually caused WWE to implement a Wellness Policy that randomly tests for drug use among its performers. A lot of people remain sceptical to the validity of the testing, especially as it relates to those higher up the cards, but there have been named failures, including a few high-profile talents (Rey Mysterio, Mr. Kennedy, Jeff Hardy and Umaga to name a few) that give it some legitimacy.
Eddie attempts the Frogsplash on Rey
Without a doubt, the most high-profile death in professional wrestling, possibly in all of sports, is the murder/suicide perpetrated by Chris Benoit. For those who have just woken up from a five-year hibernation, Benoit murdered his wife and son before hanging himself from a weight machine. The deaths happened over a period of three days and Benoit sent cryptic texts to his friends, advising them of where the dogs were, that the back gates were open, etc.
These events happened over the Vengeance: Night of Champions PPV weekend and it was on this broadcast that the first signs of trouble were evident. Chris was scheduled to wrestle CM Punk for the vacant ECW Championship. He sent a message to WWE officials saying there was trouble at home (his wife and son were ill with food poisoning). Less than 24hrs later, he and his family were discovered dead at the family home and that night (although the cause was unknown), instead of the normal RAW broadcast, WWE put on a special tribute show. His colleagues spoke about Benoit and segments of his profile DVD were shown as WWE, and the fans, mourned the loss of another hero.
The next day, the causes of death were discovered and a numbness came over the wrestling industry. WWE got a lot of flack for the previous night’s tribute show, but in their defence, all they knew at the time was that three people had died. On the ECW show broadcast on the night it was revealed Benoit had killed his family, Vince McMahon gave a very brief speech on what had transpired and then vowed never to have Benoit’s name mentioned again.
It’s been over two years and that vow has remained virtually intact, Benoit basically being wiped from history, all mention of him on TV, on home releases and in print removed (even Summerslam 2004, where he lost the World Championship to Randy Orton, making the new champ the youngest in company history, has been reduced to having a “Special appearance by Randy Orton” rather than the match on the cover).
But what caused Benoit to go homicidal? It’s been reported by friends and family that he never got over the death of Eddie Guerrero, legitimately one of his closest friends. The punishment he took in the ring, emulating his hero, The Dynamite Kid, obviously took its toll too, hurling himself from the top rope and from the top of 15′ high cages to deliver (and sometimes miss) his signature headbutt. The unprotected chairshots to the skull, some to the back of his head (which even stunned his co-workers) left Benoit with a brain compared to that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. We may never know exactly what went wrong, but this case put wrestling under the microscope like never before… and nothing would be the same again.
I could spend all day listing names, ages and the given causes of death, but I’d rather look at ways to possibly eliminate the deaths of wrestlers before their time.
As derided as it is in some circles, the WWE Wellness Policy is, at the very least, a step in the right direction. The fact that the company have been open with the policy and details of violations have been a breath of fresh air, but what about the problems that lead wrestlers to these failures?
Aesthetics are a big part of pro-wrestling, especially in US promotions, and to get the “right physique” takes a lot of hard work, time and dedication. But to really stand out, you need to have a more impressive body than the next guy, meaning that, more often than not, muscle-enhancing drugs are used to reach that level of definition and size.
Now, steroid abuse isn’t solely the domain of professional wrestling (for example, MLB have had a lot of steroid-related scandals over the years), but due to the nature of the sport and the visual way it’s represented, the abuse of these types of enhancers has always been, quite literally, in our face.
It’s also not a recent phenomenon either. During the 70s and (especially) the 80s, there were a litany of huge, muscular wrestlers with physiques comparable to images of the Greek gods standing atop Olympus. Men like “Superstar” Billy Graham (who was an inspiration to many power wrestlers falling under this category, including, but not limited to, Jesse Ventura, Hulk Hogan and Scott Steiner when he became Big Poppa Pump), Hercules Hernandez, The British Bulldog, The Warlord, Rick Rude, Ultimate Warrior, The Road Warriors and many more dazzled us with their huge, larger-than-life muscles.
The Road Warriors
Of course, back then, wrestling was almost a secret society, a world unto itself, where fans were given virtually no access to how the business worked and the ruler of the landscape was King Kayfabe. The fans had little idea of what these gargantuan men were doing to their bodies, sometimes on a nightly basis, to achieve and maintain their visually impressive physiques. Today, in the open-arms world of professional wrestling, we know how many sausages Big Show had for his breakfast, but back in the mid-to-early eighties, very few people had any idea of the inner workings of professional wrestling and even less of an idea of those who competed in the sport. Nowadays, with drug-related offences being reported almost the minute they occur, you have to wonder why wrestlers still do what they do.
Internet reports of scandals involving wrestlers do the rounds with alarming regularity. Tales of wrestlers who worked for WWE, but left before being sacked for a third wellness violation (Booker T being a big-name example) or leaving rather than going to a rehab facility. Both Umaga and Jeff Hardy, at differing points in time, decided to quit the company rather than seek help (although Hardy did return). Today, the death of one inspires this article and the impending prison sentence of the other for, among other things, drug trafficking, is the talk of the wrestling community. Perhaps, in hindsight, WWE knows what its doing after all.
Now, it’s easy to comment on the deaths, it’s easy to talk about the tragedies of those wrestlers who haven’t died, but are in serious trouble with their health due to the abuse to their bodies in the past and it’s easy to judge those who transgress the rules, but how easy is it to come up with a solution to the biggest problem professional wrestling has, at least from a mainstream media viewpoint?
To find answers, we need to look at the factors leading to wrestlers going that illegal extra mile. The first is also the most obvious; aesthetics. Having the right look can be the difference between working as a wrestler and working as a main-event “Sports Entertainment” star. Whether we want to admit it or not, a massively muscled man or a giant will always turn our head more than a fantastic cruiserweight-sized wrestler. It’s ingrained in us to gaze in awe at something we rarely see and, rightly or wrongly, that’s usually the bigger men. CM Punk cracked the main-event scene with a physique that’s not the WWE norm, but he appears to be the exception to the rule.
The thing is, if everyone we believe to be using “something” stopped using “something”, it stands to reason that physiques would shrink, but there would still be wrestlers more muscular than their peers, so the illusion could still be maintained. Guys like Batista would (allegedly) be smaller than they are now, but they’d still dwarf the smaller wrestlers like Jeff Hardy and Shawn Michaels, so nothing would actually be lost.
Another major issue is prescription drug use, most specifically painkiller addiction. Again, the reason for this is very easy to understand; pro-wrestling, regardless of the worked aspect, hurts. To combat pain, you take painkillers, but what happens when you are constantly in pain? You constantly take painkillers. One of the most obvious issues is that, unless you are in the top 0.01%, pro-wrestlers don’t make a great deal of money. On the indy scene, this is an even more important situation because if they don’t work, they don’t get paid, so the guys (and girls) work through injuries that, in reality, should have them benched for weeks or months at a time. To get through this, pain pills are sometimes the only answer.
But what about those not working the independents? Generally speaking, wrestlers working for WWE or TNA are on guaranteed contracts, meaning that they get paid a minimum amount every two weeks for the term of that agreement, regardless of whether they actually work or not. So why, in those circumstances, would a wrestler continue to work through injury when he would be paid anyway? The answer to that is one of job security. If a wrestler isn’t on TV, he isn’t in the public consciousness. If he isn’t in the public consciousness, he isn’t as valuable an asset to the company. If he isn’t as valuable an asset to the company, then he slips down the card. If he slips down the card, he’s a step closer to being future endeavoured… the nice way to say he’s been sacked.
Wrestlers are scared to lose their position on the card and, as such, work through injuries that, in reality, should have them sidelined. When a wrestler has no choice but to take a leave of absence, more often than not, they return too early and not fully healed, sometimes to the effect they re-injure themselves and have to take even more time out.
One of the most infamous cases of painkiller addiction was Kurt Angle, a man many consider to be the greatest complete professional wrestler in the history of the business, regardless of what they think of him away from the ring. WWE actually sacked Kurt Angle due to the man’s inability to see he had a problem, thinking that time away from wrestling would help him recover. So sure were they that Angle would take time away from the squared circle, WWE didn’t even have a no-compete clause in his contract (the standard situation is a 90-day clause prohibiting them from going to another major US promotion, particularly TNA, so as to, in theory, limit the competition’s ability capitalise on their WWE aura).
To the shock of almost everyone in the wrestling community, Angle signed with TNA mere weeks after being released from his WWE contract. A lot of people, including myself, derided TNA for this decision, theorising that the company was taking advantage of someone not in a clear state of mind. From the moment Kurt first appeared, to a stunning reaction from the live crowd, at No Surrender 2006, he’s performed in “Match of the Year” candidates time and time again, surprising everyone with his continued abilities between the ropes. On the other side of the coin, he has looked in terrible shape at times and seems to be always nursing some kind of injury, so it’s not all sweet in the hexagonal landscape.
Another major factor, in my opinion, is that wrestling, by its nature, has no off-season. Almost every major sport has a period of time where the athletes get time to recover and just take a break from their chosen profession. Even those sports where there isn’t really an off-season, like tennis or golf, the competitors can choose not to take part in certain tournaments and give themselves a break that way. Pro-wrestling has nothing like that and because of the lack of a break, the wrestlers don’t get a chance to just relax away from the sport and recover from even minor injuries.
Certain superstars are allowed to work part-time schedules (basically being televised events only), but to achieve that status, they need to have been around forever and have their place on the card secured for life. Undertaker and Shawn Michaels have a vastly reduced schedule in comparison to others on the WWE roster. By the same token, both men can take time off and come back to the same position they were in when they left (as an example, both men took a few months off after WrestleMania XXV and returned to the top of the card straight away). Not everyone can have that luxury, so not everyone gets time to recuperate.
The travel schedule is another problem. One of the attractions for working in TNA is that, for the most part, all of their televised events emanate from a single location, so travel is at a minimum. WWE, on the other hand, travel the globe year after year on a constant cycle, with the wrestlers (and other staff) spending their time going from airport to hotel to arena to hotel to airport on an almost daily basis.
During the territory days, travel was basically four or five guys sharing a car and then driving from city to city. Sure, there were a lot of miles involved, but for anyone who has ever been on a wrestling road trip can tell you, the experience can be an amazing one if you get the right travel partners. In the territorial days, wrestlers would relocate to an area in the US and work there for a number of months before moving on, so the travel was more centrally located. With that system gone, the travel for WWE is all across the US and in more recent years, Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and pretty much every other stop across the planet.
Travel schedules like this mess up eating habits, sleeping patterns, work-out routines and pretty much everything else you can think of. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that some wrestlers fall prey to recreational drugs and prescription pills to help them cope.
So what’s the answers? Truth is, there’s probably no answers that everyone could, or would, agree on. Allowing the talent some time off would be a start and would, if handled correctly, keep them from being overexposed. WWE and TNA have close to 100 performers on their rosters, so it’s not like giving people time off is going to suddenly leave gaps in the card that can’t be filled.
This would also give newer talents the chance to step up and, if they work, the company would have a new upper-midcard or main event talent to utilise for the future. Write the wrestlers out in the storyline and you give them a ready-made feud to return with, giving them an assurance that they won’t suddenly find themselves with the dreaded “creative have nothing for you” line. Say, for example, Kane wanted a couple of months off. Have someone “injure” him in the storyline, perhaps an up-and-comer to give them the rub of having put Kane on the shelf and building from there. This would help three-fold. Firstly, it gives Kane his requested time off, secondly, it gives a young talent something to brag about and build his character and thirdly, it gives Kane something to slot right back into when he does return.
That’s just one (very simple) scenario, but it would benefit everyone if done correctly. There’s twelve months in a year, so a talent missing one or two of them, isn’t going to hurt. Obviously, come WrestleMania time, no-one is going to want to be MIA, but in the quieter months, what’ve we got to lose?
The Wellness Policy, as I said earlier, is a step in the right direction, but does it go far enough? I honestly don’t know because I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the situation. It has flagged up violations and those found guilty have been named and punished for their transgressions. There is a feeling, however, that certain wrestlers appear to be exempt from this policy (although no-one really knows for sure), so perhaps instead of making the tests random, make them mandatory for everyone. That way, there can be no complaints from anyone about bias or selective testing.
Changing the mentality of those in power is another thing that could be done to better the health of wrestlers. A great example of this is what happened to Chris Masters. He had an amazing physique and was eventually caught via the Wellness Policy and suspended. Masters actually stopped using whatever it was he was using and came back smaller than he was, but still muscular. How did WWE repay their employee following the company line and actually doing what was asked of him? The ridiculed him on both RAW and Smackdown for losing so much in a short space of time. Both Triple H (himself the main target for internet fans who say the Wellness Policy is a fraud) and JBL made comments that drew attention in a negative fashion to his altered physique. The result? Masters went back onto his banned enhancers, got back to his original size, failed another test and was released. Now, I ask you, what kind of example is that to set for anyone?
One final idea is that we, as fans, may have played a part in all of this. I mean, are the years on the road, toiling night after night, to blame as much as the wrestlers themselves? In effect, are we, the wrestling fans, partly to blame for expecting more and more from the people we tune in to watch? It’s a sobering thought, but maybe if we as fans weren’t so demanding, the wrestlers wouldn’t push themselves so hard to meet those demands.
So why does Death seem to have a ringside seat at the wrestling show? The answers seem so simple, but are they really? Surely, you would think, if they were that easy, then the solutions would already have been implemented, but still wrestlers die at a young age and every time they do, the wrestling business makes all the right noises before shrugging their shoulders and continuing on the same path it has for generations.
When we hear that a wrestler has died, unless it’s a case like Steve Williams where an illness is already common knowledge, we automatically assume it’s going to be drug related. Perhaps, that’s the biggest problem we’ve got to overcome; expectation of the inevitable.
Thanks for reading.