This dissertation was written and finished between March and May 2011, so some statistics may be out of date. A big thank you to Neil Stacey, Chris Harrington, Michael Manna, Dean Ayass, John Lister and Dave Meltzer for their help with organisation, statistics, and interviews. I haven’t uploaded my appendixes because they’re a bugger to upload onto the web, but if anybody would like a copy of them, feel free to email.
Untimely deaths in professional wrestling in comparison to other sports – why is it happening, and what can be done about it?
Professional wrestling is a multi-million pound industry, that is followed and supported all over the world. The première wrestling organisation is the WWE, an American based company owned by Vince McMahon.
The company offers television shows, pay-per-view events, feature films, and music albums. This is supported by constant touring of their wrestling product, which travels all over the world, filling up arenas 52 weeks a year.
Despite this success, the corporation – and professional wrestling in general, has been beset with controversy, tragedy, and cynicism for many years. The death rate for professional wrestlers is high, especially in comparison to other sports, and other forms of entertainment.
Wrestling is a worked sport, with any competitive element taken out of the equation. So why, especially in comparison with legitimate sports, do more wrestlers die young than any other group of people associated with sports or entertainment?
This study aims to understand, explain and explore the reasons for wrestlers dying at a young age, and what can be done to stop it.
In this, I aim to collate, analyse, and study statistics on wrestler deaths, the way of death and their lives leading up to their demise. There are many facets to being a professional wrestler, from being an athlete, to being an actor, and I feel that fully understanding the mindset of a wrestler will enable me to gauge exactly what makes the wrestling business such a unique business.
I also aim to understand the cause and effects of performance enhancing drugs, including, but not limited to anabolic steroids. In this field, I also hope to examine the damage caused by painkillers taken over a prolonged period of time when used to mask injury and pain, rather than curing them.
There is also the matter of wrestlers taking their own lives, and I hope to research and understand the rise in suicides of professional wrestlers, and what causes them to take their own lives.
I feel that there is a comparison to be made between wrestling, and not just competitive sports, but also all forms of entertainment, including the music and film industries, and I hope to see how they correlate with wrestling in terms of untimely deaths.
My main intention is to to see what wrestling companies, especially WWE are doing to stop the deaths, and if their current techniques are working or not, and ultimately, to see why a fake, scripted sport has so many dark secrets – what is there to hide?
The idea of professional wrestling has existed for just over one hundred years, but it is still treated with caution by a large percentage of people in regards of it being something that is really worth taking seriously. The sport has always been on the edge of the mainstream, occasionally getting noticed, but always looking in.
Because of that, or perhaps in spite, wrestling has often proved itself to be a very closeted world, in terms of letting outsiders in. For much of the twentieth century wrestling was still marketed – and accepted, as a genuine sport, but as the century began to end, it became more roundly understood to be sports entertainment, and so the secrets began to emerge, slowly at first, but then increasingly so.
My reading list reflects this, with the majority of books I have read being fairly new. One invaluable resource however, has been The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which has been written by Dave Meltzer since 1980, a time in which wrestling was still strongly adhering to what it calls kayfabe – pretending the sport is real.
Since 1980, the newsletter has been a weekly insight into the world of wrestling, with its word count ranging from 25,000 – 50,000 words every single week. The newsletter has covered wrestling from all around the world, and has looked in depth at every scandal, event, or news that the sport has encountered over the last thirty years. With such a plethora of data, all written by Meltzer, who has been described as “the most accomplished reporter in sports journalism,” by Sports Illustrated senior writer Frank Deford, I have been able to understand first hand some of the darker sides of wrestling.
Many books have helped me, most notably Pure Dynamite, by Tom Billington, AKA The Dynamite Kid. Billington was widely regarded as the finest wrestler in the world during the early 1980s, but his hard hitting style, combined with his heavy use of steroids, painkillers and recreational drugs left him in a wheelchair before he was forty years old. There are many sad stories in wrestling, but the people the stories are about rarely live to tell their tale. Billington’s open and honest frankness about his own failings proved to be remarkably insightful, considering the closed nature of the wrestling business.
Sex Lies and Headlocks, by Shaun Assael, Mike Mooneyham, is an account of how the WWE came to rule the wrestling world, led by its highly controversial owner Vince McMahon. The book gave a historical insight into wrestling, and discussed how wrestling changed from smoky halls and limited action, to the larger than life world we see today.
Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, by Bret Hart is perhaps the most well written wrestling autobiography, by one of the most famous wrestlers of all time. Hart was born into a wrestling family, with father Stu a promoter, and his seven brothers all becoming involved in the wrestling business, with his four sisters all marrying professional wrestlers. The book speaks eloquently about how hard the life of a wrestler can be, and is perhaps the most honest account that can be found in the world of wrestling books.
I was surprised to find in my research, an essay by the French literary theorist, philosopher, and critic, Roland Barthes, entitled The World of Wrestling, found in his book Mythologies. The essay, written in the 1950s is a highly intellectual account of Barthes’ love of wrestling. In the essay, he writes:
“Wrestling is an immediate pantomime, infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime”
The essay also gave a description of how wrestlers looked in the 1950s, which I found interesting:
“The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight”
This quote in particular stood out to me. Before the 1980s, the physiques of professional wrestlers were nothing like they are today. Wrestlers were often well built, but not especially defined. They looked tough and strong, but not chiseled and muscled. I established that Barthes’ was significantly impressed enough to write about the way wrestlers looked in the 1950s, which made the current wrestling phenomenon of giant muscles and rippling six-packs seem unnecessary.
While the essay did not give me much grounding into the way wrestling is today, the very fact it exists encouraged me to write this, as it made me understand that wrestling can be academic, and if portrayed correctly, it can be construed as art.
In order to fully understand the wrestling industry, I will conduct interviews with people involved in the wrestling business in different ways. These will include:
Dean Ayass (2011). Ayass is a semi-retired British wrestling manager and commentator, who offers perspectives from obtaining injuries despite never having been a professional wrestler, plus he offers first-hand knowledge on the darker side of the sport.
John Lister (2011). Lister is a wrestling writer, having written two books on the sport (Turning the Table and Slamathology), as well as writing hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines.
Michael Manna (2011). Manna has wrestled for twenty years as Stevie Richards, including a nine year stint in the WWE from 1999-2008. While a wrestler, he suffered numerous injuries, including two broken necks. In 2003, fellow wrestler Michael “Crash Holly” Lockwood committed suicide at Manna’s Florida home.
Dave Meltzer (2011) – Author of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter which has ran for almost thirty years. Universally recognised as the voice of wrestling.
The Public (2011) I conducted a poll of over 300 wrestling fans on the state of the current wrestling industry. Their answers proved illuminating, and made me further understand the severity of the death rate of professional wrestling, and what can be done to combat it.
I also hope to use statistics to help me understand the severity of wrestling deaths in comparison to other entertainment fields, to help me spot links between certain wrestlers and the way they have died, and to see how wrestling deaths have been affected by lifestyle, and time-scale.
In addition, I aim to use the internet to its full potential, with the use of videos from websites such as YouTube, in addition to findings on social networking, such as Twitter. The proliferation of websites such as Twitter into public consciousness had proven beneficial to journalists in the quest to obtain quotes and stories, and the amount of wrestling personalities using the website will give me more context into the mind-set of wrestling.
In terms of media, the documentaries Beyond The Mat (1999) and Bigger Stronger Faster (2008) both detail the lives of wrestlers, with Beyond The Mat focusing on the many different characters and the struggles they face, and Bigger Stronger Faster an investigation into the use of steroids in American culture, including professional wrestling.
The Oscar nominated feature film The Wrestler (2008) starring Mickey Rourke was about the tribulations of a drug addicted, fifty year old wrestler. The film was praised for his accurate depiction of wrestling, drawing praise from WWE owner Vince McMahon, as recalled by the director Darren Aronofsky:
“Vince McMahon saw the film and he called both me and Mickey (Rourke) and he was really, really touched by it. It happened a week ago. We were very nervous wondering what he would think, but he really, really felt the film was special.”
A Guide To Professional Wrestling
Professional wrestling has existed as a form of sports entertainment for over one hundred years. The matches are pre-determined, with the winners and losers decided before a match has started, and the manoeuvres are taught and practised to avoid genuine injury. What was once highly secretive has evolved into a business where the secrets are now widely known.
However, wrestling is portrayed as a genuine competitive sport within the professional wrestling companies, in order to sustain and promote the willing suspension of disbelief for the audience by maintaining an aura of truth.
Wrestling originated at the dawn of the twentieth century, as a sideshow exhibition in North American travelling carnivals and vaudeville halls. As the sport grew in popularity, it’s with early spectacles consisted of long matches, with minimal action, often playing in front of thousands of people all over America.
The sport exploded into national consciousness in the 1950s, finding a home on television, which was in its infancy at the time. Wrestling only required one camera faced onto the ring, which was cheap enough for networks to put wrestling on at prime time, making stars of competitors such as Lou Thesz, and Gorgeous George, who quickly became household names.
All across America wrestling proved popular, with wrestlers competing in what was known as ‘territories’, the most famous of which were situated in areas such as Dallas, Georgia, The Carolinas, Chicago, which was home to the AWA (American Wrestling Alliance, owned by Verne Gagne) and New York, which had the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) and was owned by Vince McMahon Sr, who after suffering ill health, sold the company to his son, Vince Jr, at the start of 1982.
The territory system had been a success in wrestling for years, largely thanks to the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) which acted as a governing body for most of professional wrestling, operating as a talent and brand name franchiser for the inter-regional “territory” system, which included the WWF (who had changed their name to the World Wrestling Federation in 1979)
Vince Jr however, had different ideas about professional wrestling, and seeing the rise of nationally syndicated cable television, and the infancy of Pay-Per-View television, began to take on the territories, by offering their biggest stars inflated contracts, and running WWF television programming, which at the time was far slicker and more entertaining than other wrestling shows at that time in markets which already had wrestling television. McMahon eventually became the most successful promoter in the world, and to this day the WWE are the biggest wrestling company in the world.
It is important to be clear that the majority of spectators of wrestling know all of this, and that the performers know that they know. In the last few decades, spectator understanding has come to be accepted, acknowledged and ultimately manipulated by the producers of pro-wrestling, resulting in the development of a sophisticated form of audience reception, which Sharon Mazer describes thus:
“Professional wrestling fans are always in the process of becoming insiders.They are self-conscious about coming to see what they see and to know what they know, which is always more than they saw or knew in the past. They look to see the fake and to see through the fake to the real.” (Mazer 1998)
Despite the success, wrestling has always been a contentious subject, both in the world of wrestling, and in the media. The sport has been haunted by legions of untimely deaths, of wrestlers, promoters, and managers. In spite this, wrestling has only recently began to clean up its act, in regards to looking after its performers, to ensure that such statistic do not happen again.
Professional wrestlers can be on the road for up to 300 days a year, while wrestling 200 nights. A documentary, made in 1999 entitled Pro Wrestling’s Hold on America, spoke that:
“the toll exacted on their bodies can be frightening, and deadly.”
Unlike other ‘real’ sports, wrestling has no off season. With television shows every week, plus up to five non-televised events throughout a week, wrestlers have little time to themselves to recuperate from injuries, and to see their families. Often, the time they do have off, is spent travelling to the next city, for the next match.
The physical wrestling takes its toll too. While wrestlers are taught how to land safely in the ring, and how to engage in physical contact without causing legitimate damage to their opponent, the wrestling ring is a very unforgiving structure. According to Mick Foley in his autobiography ‘Have A Nice Day’, rings built for the World Wrestling Federation before approximately 1998 were particularly “stiff”. A newer style of ring construction utilizes a “flexi-beam” system instead of a spring, where the steel beams used to construct the ring stage absorb much of the impact.
Statistics and analysis
The statistics for the deaths of top performers in WWF/WWE over the last thirty years are telling. My research found that in a study compiled of over 500 wrestlers, collated by Chris Harrington, and drawing from sources including Gary Wills’ Deceased Wrestler List, and The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, that 89% of the wrestlers who featured prominently in the WWF/WWE between 1980 and 2010 are still alive.
“Featured prominently” indicates that for a given year, they were one of the top fifty wrestlers with the most matches in WWF/WWE that year.
The 89% amounts to 470 out of 529 wrestlers who are still alive, with sixty wrestlers having passed away.
Of the sixty wrestlers that passed away, here are some statistics:
17 wrestlers were under 40 years old (28%) – 15 were prominent wrestlers
25 wrestlers were 40 to 49 years old (41%) – 22 were prominent wrestlers
5 wrestlers were 50 to 59 years old (8%) – 3 were prominent wrestlers
9 wrestlers were 60 to 69 years old (15%) – 8 were prominent wrestler
4 wrestlers were 70 years old or older when they died (7%) – 4 were prominent wrestlers
70% of the WWF/WWE wrestlers that have died passed away before they reached 50 years old.
Causes of deaths included:
52%: Heart Problems/Drug Overdoses (Louie Spicolli, Lance Cade, Rick McGraw, Test, Eddie Gilbert, Yokozuna, Brian Pillman, Umaga, Eddie Guerrero, Davey Boy Smith, Rick Rude, Big Bossman, Billy Travis, Curt Hennig, Brian “Crush” Adams, Road Warrior Hawk, Bam Bam Bigelow, Steve King, Andre the Giant, Hercules, Luna, Moondog Cujo, Sherri Martel, Dick Murdoch, Moondog Spot, Pez Whatley, Ray Stevens, Sapphire, Badnews Brown, Spoiler, Tony Altimore)
17%: Age/Disease/Illness (John Tenta, Big John Studd, Uncle Elmer, Buddy Rose, Bulldog Brower, Swede Hanson, Missing Link, Tor Kamata, Lou Albano, Baron Mikel Scicluna)
15%: Deaths not classified: Bertha Faye (possible drugs, possible suicide), Chris Candido (blood clot), Chris Duffy (seizure), Mike Bell (died in a rehab center), Dino Bravo (murdered), Steven Dunn (blood clot), Frankie Williams (unknown), SD Jones (stroke), Jerry Valiant (unknown).
10%: Suicides (Crash Holly, Kerry Von Erich, Chris Benoit, Chris Kanyon, Mike Awesome, Ludvig Borga)
7%: Accidents (Owen Hart, Adrian Adonis, Brady Boone, Junkyard Dog)
From these percentages, over half of the wrestlers who have died, passed away as a result of heart problems or drug overdoses. The number of wrestlers who died in these conditions did not surprise me, although the percentage did, as I expected it to be higher.
The reasons for the heart issues and drug overdoses are clearly linked to the life of a professional wrestler. Steroids are estimated to be taken by a large percentage of wrestlers, and excessive use can cause heart damage, as noted by the Dynamite Kid, Tom Billington, in his autobiography, Pure Dynamite (1999)
“When the doctor came to see me, he told me I was lucky to be alive. He said, “have you ever taken steroids?”. I said, “Yes I have, why?”. He said, “when we x-rayed your chest, we found some black scars on your heart. You see, when you were taking steroids and working out, it wasn’t just your biceps and triceps that got bigger. Your heart got bigger, because that’s a muscle as well. I would advise you never to take steroids again, otherwise you will be putting your life at risk”.
Over the last few years, the notion of steroids as the only danger to wrestlers has been changed. Now, the abuse of drugs – both recreational, and painkillers, are now known to cause heart damage – and overdoses.
Billington recalled further the cocktail of drugs which consumed his day.
“Physically I was anything but right, I couldn’t wrestlers without taking painkillers, and I was on percocets, which are a very strong narcotic painkiller. A normal working day for me was: speed to wake me up in the morning to catch an early flight, valium to make me sleep on the plane, Percocet just before the match, then we’d wrestle, hit the beer, and the cocaine, until the early hours, before taking another valium to put me to sleep at night”
The use of painkillers for wrestlers is excessive – and like all drugs, the more that are taken, the less their effects are, which means more and more are required to have any impact on the body. And abuse of any drugs – including painkillers, can weaken the heart, eventually leading to serious issues with the heart in later life.
Lance Cade, who wrestled in the WWE for five years, died at the age of just 29. The cause was attributed, according to Ed Stannard of The New Haven Register (2010) to:
“intoxication from mixed drugs complicated a cardiomyopathy and caused his death.”
In regards to age/diseases and illnesses, the wrestlers on that list all died of causes unrelated to wrestling.
The suicide list is completely different, as all of the deceased on that list died directly, or indirectly as a result of their lives in wrestling.
Crash Holly died at fellow wrestler Stevie Richards’ house, after overdosing on prescription medication in 2003.
He was 32, and had been released from WWE earlier in the year.
Stevie Richard’s recalled his death:
“That’s an example of the business where a lot guys let this business wear down on them. There was a lot of personal stuff going on with Crash, but the business really weights on you physically and mentally. I knew early on that when I won titles and beat people, it wasn’t real because I’m not really a tough guy. A lot of people take stuff to heart. Your human value in the business is determined by their push, and I think that’s what Crash struggled with.”
Kerry Von Erich was one of the most popular wrestlers in the world during the 1980s, until a motorcycle accident left him without a foot. He continued to wrestle into the 1990s, but drug problems, plus an impending spell in prison led him to shooting himself in the heart, aged 34. Four of his brothers, all of whom had been involved in wrestling had died before him, two by suicide, and one of an overdose.
John Lister believes that Kerry Von Erich is a tragic example of how the business can affect people.
“The Von Erich’s are a good example of the psychological side of wrestling — both the dependency on drugs and the way the fantasy world of pro wrestling allows people to get into such a state. “
Mike Awesome and Chris Kanyon both killed themselves at the age of 40, with Kanyon suffering from depression, stemming from his unhappiness at not being accepted as a homosexual in wrestling. A 2011 article on news website The Awl, by Thomas Golianopoulos, recalled how Kanyon may have been suffering from brain damage:
“He contacted Christopher Nowinski, a retired former professional wrestler and now co-director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. Klucsarits claimed that he suffered at least twelve concussions during his career and believed they contributed to his depression.
“There is a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy where depression can be a symptom,” Nowinski said. “We’ve diagnosed [people] post mortem with CTE who were [originally] diagnosed with bipolar [disorder]. Considering the rate at which we are diagnosing athletes with CTE who have had similar brain trauma exposure, I would not be surprised if Chris was suffering from CTE when he passed away.”
Chris Benoit killed himself, his wife, and his seven year old son over a three day period in June 2007. The murders attracted widespread interest within the mainstream media. In a 2010 interview with ABC News, Benoit’s father admitted that he believed his son had commited the crimes due to brain damage.
“Tables, ladders, chairs … the props they were using when they were getting hit in the head. It’s a real chair, it’s a steel chair,”
The WWE responded in turn, claiming:
“It is natural that a father would try to come up with a reason why his son would tragically murder his wife and child, and then commit suicide. Based on the study by the Sports Legacy Institute that claimed Chris Benoit had the brain of an 85-year-old with dementia, Mr. Benoit asserts that head trauma was the cause of his son’s aberrant, criminal behaviour. However, common sense would dictate that this is impossible. Someone with the brain of an 85-year-old with dementia would be unable to keep a travelling work schedule, drive himself to arenas, and perform intricate manoeuvres in the ring much less commit a methodical murder-suicide over a 48 hour period.”
This retort to me was an indication of the lengths the company go to in regards to defending their product. To an extent, the company have avoided mainstream attention regarding the death rate. Dave Meltzer believes that the image of wrestling in the United States has caused this.
“I think in the United States wrestlers are seen as fakes, so when a wrestler has a problem, they think of it like a cartoon character having a problem, not like a baseball player having a problem. There are a lot of football players with a lot of issues, but the media cares, and that’s why football is quicker at making changes.”
The accidents mainly involved car crashes, although the death of Owen Hart, who fell 78ft from the ceiling of the Kemper Arena during an entrance for a wrestling match in 1999, resulted in a lawsuit against the WWE from his family, with 18 million dollars awarded to them, proof that Hart was another victim of the wrestling business.
As a point of reference in determining the severity of the amount of wrestling deaths, I decided to chart all of the WWE PPV shows from 1984-1996 (see appendix 11.1 page 44), which was the peak of the drug era in wrestling, to determine how many of the wrestlers had deceased. This list only contains wrestlers on each show, rather than managers, or announcers, which would have made the statistics even higher
The list shows that the lowest percentage the company manage, is King Of The Ring 96, with only 10% of the then-current talent now deceased. Royal Rumble 94 has the lowest numbers, with only four out of forty dead, but those two PPVs are the exceptions, rather than the rules. Taking the average of the percentages, we see that the average amount of dead wrestlers per PPV, is 17.86%, which translates to almost a fifth of the wrestlers who competed in PPVs between 1984 and 1996, are now dead.
These statistics showed me that the sheer number of wrestlers who have passed away can not be excused as a case of coincidence. Many of the deaths linked, and I decided to examine if there was any cases in other forms of sport and entertainment of a similar death rate.
Comparisons with other sports, and entertainment industries
Despite the physical requirements of wrestling, the company of WWE have always sought to be seen as more than just a wrestling organisation, as this quote concerning Linda McMahon, the former C.E.O of the company proves.
“And she elevated her role as a lobbyist, appearing before the New Jersey legislature in late 1989, for instance, to make the once unthinkable admission that wrestling was fake so she could get the WWF exempted from a 10 percent tax on tickets that were sold to legitimate sporting events.” – (Assael, Mooneyham 2002)
Now, in 2011, the WWE are distancing themselves from the word ‘wrestling’, portraying themselves as an ‘entertainment’ company.
In March 2011, The US Based ‘TV Week’ magazine posted a story online concerning a celebrity comedian, Drew Carey, being inducted into what the magazine described as a “Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame.”.
The statement prompted a response from Kellie Baldyga, a publicist for WWE, who wrote in her email complaint:
“We are no longer a wrestling company but rather a global entertainment company with a movie studio, international licensing deals, publisher of three magazines, consumer good distributor and more.” –
This was followed on April 7th, 2011, when the company announced a name change, as reported by HeadlinePlanet.com:
“The company previously known as World Wrestling Entertainment formally announced Thursday that it has changed its business name to WWE, Inc. These initials now carry no meaning, similar to a move Kentucky Fried Chicken once did when formally becoming KFC.”
These changes – plus Linda McMahon’s statement in 1989, led me to some research. If the WWE had always seen themselves as a wrestling AND entertainment company, then what were the death tolls like concerning sporting and entertainment twenty years ago, in 1991.
One of the biggest WWE PPV’s that year was Summerslam, which was held in front of 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden. Of the 27 performers who competed that night, 9 are dead and only one from causes unrelated to wrestler, that of John Tenta/Earthquake, who died of cancer. Of the eight who died following the event:
Davey Boy Smith, The British Bulldog, died in 2002, aged 39 of a heart attack.
Kerry Von Erich, The Texas Tornado, committed suicide in 1993, aged 33
Ray Fernandez, Hercules, died in his sleep, with his death attributed to heart disease, in 2004, aged 47.
Curt Hennig, Mr Perfect, died of acute cocaine intoxication in 2003, aged 44.
Ray Traylor, The Big Boss Man, died of a heart attack in 2004, aged 41.
Michael James Hegstrand, Hawk, died of a heart attack in 2003, aged 46.
Sherri Martel, Sensational Sherrie, died of an accidental overdose in 2007, with multiple drugs in her system. She was 49.
Andre Roussimoff, Andre The Giant, died of heart failure, in 1993, aged 46 years old.
When comparing with other major American sporting events from 1991, there is only one case of an untimely death, and that death had nothing to do with sport.
1991 Super Bowl XXV – 0 deaths
1991 Ice Hockey Stanley Cup Finals – 0 deaths
1991 Basketball NBA Finals – 0 deaths
1991 Baseball World Series – 1 death (Kirby Puckett, died at age 45 of a cerebral haemorrhage. Had already retired from baseball.)
But if the WWE want to distance themselves from the world of sport and wrestling and into the field of entertainment, then perhaps it is only fair to distinguish if there is a similar statistic of untimely deaths in the realm of film and music. I researched the highest grossing films of 1991, and the top selling albums, to determine whether there was any correlation between them, and wrestling.
Of the 15 Billboard number one albums in America in 1991, (see appendix 11.2 page 49) there was 35 solo artists or members of bands involved in the making of the records. Of those 35, since 1991, only one person has died, Michael Jackson, who died of a heart attack, aged 50. The list included heavy metal acts Skid Row, Gun’s N Roses, Metallica, and Van Halen, but not a single member of those bands has died since the release of their albums, and many members of those bands were known to have drug problems.
Regarding the top 15 grossing films of the year (see appendix 11.3 page 50), there is not one case of untimely deaths of actors, or any deaths in unusual circumstances.
Dave Meltzer believes that the WWE are wrong about not promoting themselves as a sport, believing it disingenuous to the reality of the situation.
“They say “we’re entertainment so there’s no competition”, but that’s rubbish because you have guys competing for spots, and they’re judged on how they look, and they give jobs based on physiques. As long as they judge you on your physique, it tells you that they’re encouraging the situation, while at the same time saying that they’re not.”
Stevie Richards believes that wrestling – and other aspects of entertainment often take advantage of the people involved in the entertainment business:
“It seems that in all entertainment, they don’t want clean living people on television, they want train-wrecks, because it makes for better entertainment”
After I examined these statistics, I feel that you cannot portray wrestling, or WWE as simply an entertainment company. While wrestling shares many similarities with the acting and music world, they also have the in ring action, which makes them more comparable to sport – even if the actual wrestling matches are pre-determined.
I believe that the WWE, and wrestling in general, cannot successfully compare themselves to any sports or entertainment companies, until their death rate statistics fall in line to a level which is normal comparable to the sport, film, and music industries.
Causes for deaths
The WWE classify their employees – both the wrestlers, and production staff as ‘independent contractors’, as opposed to employees. This classification ensures that the company are not liable for medical fees.
An article by The UK Sun newspaper in October 2010 reported that:
“It also gives WWE tax breaks and some protection from lawsuits in the event of a performer’s death.”
This ruling can cause tension within the wrestling fraternity. With no allowances for travel and hotel fees for the majority of talent, plus the added worry of medical bills, it can result in wrestlers ignoring injuries, for fear of not being able to pay medical bills, in addition to the fear of banishment from the company should they ask for a break. Ignoring injuries can cause long term effects, most notably the case of The Dynamite Kid, whose back injuries, caused by his wrestling style, eventually left him disabled.
There is also the idea that concussions may cause brain damage, leading to depression, and ultimately suicide. Christopher Nowinski, a Harvard graduate wrestled for WWE in for two years, before having to retire in 2003 due to post-concussion syndrome. Since then, he has written and researched concussions in wrestling, and all sport, winning numerous awards for his book ‘Head Games’.
Nowinski alerted police and the coroner of Chris Benoit, asking them to do a brain exam on Benoit’s brain to see if concussions had any part in his rage or depression at the time of the double-homicide of his family and his suicide. In June 2007, Nowinski co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to furthering awareness of and research on sports-related head injuries, and increasing the safety of contact and collision sports worldwide. Nowinski’s work was documented on ESPN’s Outside the Lines on September 5, 2007. On the same day, Benoit’s brain examination report showed extensive damage due to concussions that could have led to dementia.
Dean Ayass, a wrestling manager in England for over ten years, admitted to having received four concussions from the sport, despite never having wrestled a match.
“I am a manager, so the amount of bumps I’ve taken are minimal, yet I have had four concussions in wrestling, and apparently after your third one you begin to get permanent brain damage. My first one, I was hit with a chair, and it knocked me silly. To this day I have an awful short term memory, because of the concussions.”
What seems to make wrestling so different to other sports, and forms of entertainment, is that the majority of wrestlers who die young, do so for a multitude of different reasons. It is rare for a wrestler to be addicted to one single narcotic. Instead, a cocktail, of steroids, recreational drugs, painkillers, and alcohol all combine to cause effect on their bodies.
Using steroids gives human beings extra testosterone to grow muscles. The dangers of steroid use were described in Sex, Lies, and Headlocks.
“The average male produces 2.5 to 10.0 milligrams of testosterone a day – enough to keep bone, muscle, skin and hair growing. Load up the body with extra testosterone and the muscles grow before your eyes. But other things happen as well; namely, the body stops making the hormone when it senses a flood of it coming in from the outside. This leads to several side effects, including testicular atrophy, low sperm counts, and feminization. Longer term, steroids alter cholesterol counts (raising the bad, lowering the good) and pump up the blood pressure, causing hypertension, or what’s commonly known as roid rage” – (Assael, Mooneyham 2002)
In addition to this, steroids have been attributed to heart attacks, a common cause of wrestling deaths. Heart attacks are caused by a build-up of cholesterol on the artery walls, which leaves the heart unable to pump blood through the body. Steroids speed up this process and when combined with Human Growth Hormone, the use of which enlarges the heart and makes it works harder to do its normal job, and thus a destruction of the heart is a possibility.
The possibility increases, with the misuse of other drugs. Wrestling has always been known for its recreational drug use, to the extent that Bret Hart, a man known for his relatively clean-cut persona, wrote about his own cocaine use within his time with the WWE, but he described it as a way to keep himself from causing more problems.
“We ran out of beer, out of coke, but never out of stories. It was funny how we all did this as a way of keeping out of trouble” – (Hart, 2008)
Excessive recreational drug use, especially that of cocaine, can lead to overdosing, but also to trouble with the heart.
A 1999 study, known as the Determinants of Myocardial Infarction Onset Study, led by researcher Dr Murray Mittleman indicated that:
“Cocaine significantly increases the risk of heart attack in individuals who are otherwise at low risk.”
The average age of people in the study who suffered heart attacks soon after using cocaine was only 44 – approximately 17 years younger than the average heart attack patient.
In addition to recreational drugs, and the use of steroids, another danger to wrestlers, is that of painkillers.
Zach Gowen, found fame in the WWE in the early 2000’s as the company’s first ever one-legged wrestler; however he soon succumbed to a dangerous addiction to painkillers.
“My problem was with pills, with painkillers and Vicodin and the like. Just over the years of abusing your body, looking the quick fix and trying to get to the next town and going to the gym. It just became a habit that spiraled out of control”
The most famous British wrestler of all time was The British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith, who passed away at the age of 39. His wife, Diana, wrote about his struggles with drugs and painkillers, in her autobiography, Under The Mat.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, concerned.
“I’m okay. Get outta the house. Go to the party.”
“I’m not going without you!” I protested. “You’re sick!”
His teeth were chattering. “I’ll be all right. Just leave me alone for a couple of hours.”
I absolutely refused to budge. After half an hour of his trying to get rid of me he finally broke down. “This is the longest I’ve gone without taking anything and I’m Jonesing.” He began crying. “I don’t think I can quit, Di.”
I presumed he was talking about Percocet, a painkiller he’d been taking since 1985 for back pain, or the steroids he used for bodybuilding.
“Well take your back medication, Davey,” I said. “You need that for back pain.” Of course, I didn’t’ realize he was taking 30 Percocet a day, a huge amount. I also didn’t know he was addicted to morphine, Xanax (a tranquilizer), Toradol (an anti-inflammatory,) the opiate painkillers Vicodine (the drug of choice for many Hollywood addicts) and Talwin, and pain relievers Soma and Dilaudid. He was a walking pharmacy!” – (Hart, D 2001)
Dave Meltzer believes that the use of steroids and cocaine are linked in wrestling, and together they form a potent combination for untimely deaths.
“It was the increased use of cocaine and steroids, and other recreational drugs. The wrestlers since the 80s have died at a much faster rate, and at much younger ages generally. If you look at those that died, the majority were heavy steroid users, and often heavy cocaine users.”
Meltzer also believes that the use of steroids and other drugs can be managed in small doses.
“If you’re doing drugs in low moderate levels it’s probably not that bad for you, it’s the ones that are out of control that seem to suffer the consequences. If you look at the people who have died, most of them were out of control, and if you look back you could see it coming. When you become a full blown addict and a wild partier, that’s when it becomes dangerous.”
The use of these drugs has long existed in wrestling. In 2006, the WWE introduced The Talent Wellness Programme, a comprehensive drug, alcohol, and cardiac screening program. According to the official WWE website, the policy tests for:
“recreational drug use and abuse of prescription medication, including anabolic steroids.”
Meltzer believes that the policy will help halt the death rate, but he has misgivings.
“I think it will lower the death rate to an extent. The problem with the wellness policy is that it may lower the death rate for wrestlers under contract, but once they leave the company, it will be different. The drug testing is a benefit to a degree, but if the guys want to do drugs, they’re going to figure out a way to beat the test.”
Since its inception in 2006, the policy has seen over 15 wrestlers suspended or fired for positive tests. The policy has also saved lives. In August 2007, then-reigning United States Champion Montel Vontavious Porter (real name Alvin Burke, Jr.) was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which if gone undiagnosed can be potentially fatal.
According to a 2007 Sports Illustrated article:
“Under the Talent Wellness Program, an initial positive test triggers to a 30-day suspension and a second positive leads to a 60-day suspension. A third positive yields a termination.”
Overall, I believe that the policy has the potential to be fully successful, but the WWE send a mixed message. The introduction and implementation of the programme is a step in the right direction, but when the wrestlers they showcase on television are of a muscular build that is difficult to enhance and keep naturally, then it is an unrealistic expectation for the wrestlers to pass drug tests, when they need drugs to maintain not only their bodies, but their mental health as well, in the cut-throat world of professional wrestling.
Wrestling around the world
For over fifty years wrestling in Japan has been considered a national sport, with a multitude of organisations selling out buildings from sumo halls to baseball stadiums. Wrestling, or Puroresu as it is known in the country involves a style that originated from the traditional American style of wrestling, to one that has become its own entity.
Wrestling is treated as a legitimate sport, with showmanship and the glitz of American wrestling put aside in favour of a strong sense of psychology, with hard hitting moves and submissions a speciality for the country. Puroresu is known for its “fighting spirit” and the wrestlers are known for their full contact strikes, as opposed to the more choreographed style as seen in organisations such as WWE.
Despite wrestling’s huge popularity in Japan, there are far fewer instances of untimely deaths within the business, nor are there many recorded cases of any trouble at all within the sport.
In contrast to America, steroids are legal in Japan, yet the North American culture is the one where men die young with enlarged hearts.
The predominate reason is that Japan’s wrestling culture does not rely as much on how a body looks as it does in America. The majority of Japanese wrestlers are well built, but are not overly muscled, with bodies built for endurance rather than how well it looks on a t-shirt. This means that the wrestlers in Japan are not forced into taking steroids to generate muscle mass, because the demand is not on them to do so. Steroids are often thought of as a gateway in terms of narcotic abuse in wrestling, with painkillers and recreational drugs soon following.
There is the theory that using steroids by themselves and not over doing it are pretty safe. There have been many studies that proved that and many doctors have said the same. Like anything, they are not 100% safe, but when used in moderation they are not very harmful. Anything gin large doses could prove harmful and could kill you.
The majority of wrestlers who have died from the use of steroids were shown to have used a huge amount that would kill the majority of animals on the planet. Most American death are caused by a combination of multiple drugs, but many people just lay blame on the steroids when really it was the drug cocktail these people do on a daily basis.
Dave Meltzer believes that it’s the excessive drug use in America that causes the issues.
“In Japan they wrestle a much more physical style, and in Mexico they wrestle a much more acrobatic style. So it’s not the style of wrestling, but the drug use in Japan and Mexico is extremely different, so I believe the drug use is the signifying factor.”
The lifestyle of a wrestler is completely different in America than it is to other wrestling cultures, as noted by John Lister:
“A difference in Japan seems to be the schedule: wrestlers have traditionally done 2-3 week tours and then had a couple of weeks’ complete break.”
This is a far different case than the majority of North American wrestling, which sees competitors on the road for far longer.
Former wrestler and WWE Champion Bret Hart wrote in his autobiography Hitman Hart (2008) a memory he had in 1993 concerning the amount of time wrestlers were away from their families.
“Vince called a meeting at TVs at the end of April 1993. If anyone had anything they wanted to say, Vince offered, we should feel free to speak up. Steroids had aided a lot of wrestlers in recuperating from injuries, I said, and now that we were all clean, maybe Vince could consider giving us a lighter schedule. Many of us were on the road over 300 days a year. Vince got annoyed at me and said “If you can’t handle it, then maybe you should consider doing something else”
“You told us to speak our minds, so that’s what I’m doing”
Vince scowled across the room. “You’re the only one complaining” he said.
I looked around and asked, “Okay, everybody, who has a complaint about the schedule?” and raised my hand. Only two others raised their in support. The rest of the boys stared at their feet in fear of reprisal.“
Wrestling in Mexico is also hugely popular, and the wrestlers tend to be even smaller in size than the Japanese wrestlers, and especially so in comparison with American wrestlers.
The style of wrestling in Mexico is called Lucha-Libre, which involves a rapid sequences of holds and manoeuvres, as well as plenty of flying moves.
Mexican Wrestlers take a lot less flat back bumps –moves that involve falling hard onto a back, which are the bumps that reek more havoc on the body, and often require painkillers to numb the pain.
John Lister also noted that there is less time spent wrestling in Mexico.
“In Mexico, most of the main events (and longest matches) are six man tags where you work less overall and get more time during the match to recover.”
Based on this evidence, I believe that if the American wrestling culture took more influences from the Japanese and Mexican industries, then it would enable their own wrestling mortality rate to lower, and for their overall product to improve.
Poll of wrestling fans and their perceptions of the sport
To understand the mind-set of wrestling fans, I conducted a poll of 304 people who use internet wrestling websites on a regular basis. Of those surveyed, 84.5% had been wrestling fans for over ten years (see appendix 11.4 page 51), which made my research worthwhile, as they was a good deal of knowledge and authority in those polled.
The first question pertained to whether the respondents had ever stopped watching wrestling. 56.1% (see appendix 11.5 page 51) had, and their reasons why were often mixed, but three particular reasons appeared regularly. These were:
- The respondent simply lost interest in wrestling, with boredom of the product, and becoming interested in different things
- The respondent had lost the use of satellite or cable television (most wrestling is shown on pay channels across the world,) and, especially in a pre-internet age, had been unable to follow the product regularly, and so stopped.
- The respondents had found a particular wrestling storyline unpleasant, or were unhappy with the way certain wrestlers were portrayed.
I felt that these responses were interesting. Very few of the reasons given mentioned the more unsavoury aspects of the wrestling business, and the numbers of untimely deaths. The responses were pragmatic which I had expected, so the second question I asked dealt more with the personal side of a wrestling fan.
The question asked if they respondent would still watch wrestling if their favourite wrestler died unnaturally at a relatively young age. I also asked if it had already happened, which wrestler it was, and how it affected their wrestling viewer-ship. The response to the question surprised me, especially in relation to the amount of people in the former question who had stopped watching wrestling for a myriad of reasons.
77.1% answered that yes, they still would watch wrestling if their favourite wrestler died, with a lot of answers explaining that Chris Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero – both recognised as great in ring competitors during their prime, and both strong fan-favourites had both passed away, and they still watched on, grudgingly in some cases, but they still watched.
Of the 22.9% who stated that they would not continue watching, most again responded with talk of Benoit and Guerrero. The Benoit situation and his actions left a huge black mark on the wrestling world. Guerrero’s death was different. He was a man who had been through serious drug addiction, car crashes, and a career that was beginning to unravel, until he became hugely popular in the WWE playing a shady Mexican character. He died in 2006 of a heart attack, with the post-mortem revealing that his previous drug use, and steroid abuse had led to his death.
Months after he died, the WWE instigated a storyline where Eddie’s name was bought up in a negative light; with one wrestler threatening another that he would ‘send him to hell with Eddie’. This crass storyline would have been castigated had Eddie been alive, but his death – which had touched millions of fans around the world, made the storyline seem even more despicable, and many of the people who answered this question bought up that topic.
I was still surprised that the majority of people polled had stopped watching wrestling at some point, but for over 75% the idea of their favourite wrestler dying would not make them stop. I asked Dave Meltzer his opinion on the subject:
“We’ve seen a lot of tragedies but there has never really been a fan reaction. To the vast majority of fans wrestling is just a diversion for a couple of hours, and I don’t think they care about it that much. Even though the hardcore fans care a lot, wrestling becomes an addiction, so they can’t get away from it.
My next question concerned the reasoning for the amount of untimely deaths within wrestling. 59.6% (see appendix 11.6, page 52) of people polled felt that it was a combination of steroid, drug and painkiller abuse, teamed with the road schedule and the physical act of wrestling that caused the deaths. I feel that this is a key point, and a reason that wrestling suffers more than ‘real’ sports. The main point is that wrestling has no ‘off’ season, they are on the road 300 days a year, wrestling close to 150 times, and with that comes dependency on steroids to keep your physique, painkillers to numb the pain, recreational drugs to wake you up and make you feel something, and then painkillers again to help you sleep at night.
My final question gave a list of wrestlers (with the option to name their own choice) and asked the respondent to establish, in their opinion, which name on the list defined the idea of a ‘wrestler’ to them. I asked the question deliberately vague, without my opinion on what encapsulated the idea of a ‘wrestler’. Of the eleven names I placed on the poll, plus the countless other options, 29.3% (see appendix 11.7, page 52) of those polled, picked Shawn Michaels. Michaels, at five foot ten, and 205 pounds (see, appendix 11.8, page 53) hardly fits the giant, muscular stereotype of a wrestler. His nearest rival was the now 62 year old Ric Flair – another man known for his ability in the ring, rather than his physique.
Michaels being picked by over of a quarter of those polled, proved to me that in the eyes of true wrestling fans, it’s not how somebody looks that is impressive, it’s how they perform, and Michaels, who in 2010 was voted the number one wrestler of all time on the WWE produced WWE Top 50 Superstars DVD, is an example of that fact.
The responses to my poll indicated to me that wrestling fans are incredibly loyal to the product, to the extent that they see wrestlers dying as just another part of the business. Despite this, they are fully aware of who, and what they like within the wrestling world, and I think it is telling, that they seem to view more realistic looking wrestlers, to the overly-muscled superhuman look favoured by WWE.
While the death toll of wrestlers has slowed somewhat, there are still problems within the wrestling industry which have to be solved. I feel that the main issue regarding wrestling deaths throughout the years has been the amount of time wrestlers spend on the road away from families and friends. Every single sport and the majority of entertainment avenues have periods of downtime, whether they last weeks, or months. Because the WWE schedule runs year round, there are few opportunities for mental and physical rest, which I feel would hugely benefit both the wrestlers themselves, and the product.
More time at home would ensure a happier work-force, who would be able to safely – and legally, maintain their physiques without the aid of steroids or human growth hormone. Wrestling less would mean fewer injuries, and more time to recuperate from the injuries, and daily wear and tear that exists. This would mean less reliance on painkillers, as wrestlers would be able to rehabilitate themselves naturally, without the need to mask, or numb pain. Wrestlers being able to perform with more confidence due to a reduced amount of injuries and pain should make for a more entertaining product.
A well-adjusted home life would mean less recreational drug taking, and would allow wrestlers to distance themselves from the routine of life on the road. The ground-hog day scenario that wrestlers frequently find themselves in, of waking early, driving many miles or having to catch a plane, then finding enough time to get to a gym to maintain their physiques, would be gone, which I feel would lead to healthier, more mentally focused competitors.
If WWE’s independent contractors would create a union with WWE’s top talent leading it, then the workers ought to be in a position to make decisions to improve worker’s condition, and subsequently, those who live the life-style will probably make the best, well-informed decisions.
I feel that the paradigm needs to be shifted to foster natural physiques to change the drug culture wrestling has. I also would advocate stronger psychological intervention on the part of bigger companies, because, considering the amount of suicides, and self-harm from drug and alcohol abuse, it could be construed that the mental side is often worse than the physical.
Dave Meltzer believes that a key issue is for injured wrestlers to stay away for the ring for the entire duration of their injury:
“You don’t want wrestlers beat up too bad, because if they’re beat up too bad and think they need painkillers, that’s when things go wrong. When someone is hurt and they ‘re supposed to be out for six months, you don’t ring them up at four months and ask them to come back as a favour, which they do all the time. If a wrestler wants time out and you’re a top guy, you can get away with it, but if you’re a middle guy, you know full well, if you leave you’re risking your career.
I’ve seen guys who are clean, and they can do just as much as guys who aren’t. I think people use drugs as a crutch, I can see the argument and the logic of using painkillers, but I’ve seen many guys who don’t use them who have done very well for themselves.”
Wrestling is popular all over the world, but I think the WWE have a moral obligation to set the standard. They have indirectly set a standard for people to (a) get big (b) work a tough schedule and (c) resort to drugs. The mind-set that overly muscular physiques are favoured by most wrestling management is unfortunate, not to mention outdated in a world in which trim, and fit MMA fighters are admired.
I emailed current WWE commentator, and former Head of Relations, Jim Ross on his opinions of the amount of untimely deaths in professional wrestling. His reply was curt:
“I have no interest or desire to discuss this matter with anyone. I’ve lived through enough of this sort of thing and prefer to move on. I find it embarrassingly ignorant when some people ‘blame the business’ for the stupid, costly decisions of adults.”
Another to defend the WWE was Bret Hart, who wrote:
“And the crippling accusations that Vince “pushed” steroids on his wrestlers seemed opportunistic. Vince made it clear that he liked his wrestlers to have good physiques, but that how you went about achieving that was your own decision. It seemed to be that all Vince was guilty of was looking the other way, but in that regard he didn’t seem any different than the owner of any major sports franchise, or the Olympic committee for that matter.” (Hart, 2008)
I feel that both these quotes show the problem within the wrestling world, especially the WWE. Instead of admitting that there is a problem, both quotes infer that the company – despite evidence to the contrary, do not push performance enhancing drugs onto their talent, or that the drug problem within wrestling is anything to do with the business. My research has shown, that sixty professional wrestlers who wrestled for the WWE have died in the last thirty years. But the worry in my eyes is, what will it take for the company to completely clean up their business?
Just over the last five years, two of the most popular wrestlers of all time, Chris Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero died. Neither death changed much, the same wrestlers before the deaths are still pushed by the company, still with the same physiques they had before. If one of their most popular wrestlers killing himself, his wife, and his child, with reasons for the homicide attributed to his wrestling career did not change matters within the WWE, will anything?
While wrestling needs its performers to look like stars in order to attract attention from fans, the need for wrestlers to have physiques unattainable without heavy steroid use should cease to be in vogue.
When Roland Barthes described wrestling in the 1950s as
“A real Human Comedy – what the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself”
You have to consider if even a man with such remarkable intellect could not have foreseen how his words would have impacted greatly many years on. Wrestling is now characterised as a comedy, especially in the way its portrayed in the mainstream. However, the key quote is the latter one. The public watch wrestling for entertainment. With the exception of children, the viewing audience are aware that the battles in the ring are pre-determined. They know that the competitors are playing a role.
I conclude this with the idea that if the people who watch and enjoy wrestling can do so with the knowledge that it’s all make believe, then the companies who present the wrestling should stop trying to portray their competitors as legitimate superheroes. The world of wrestling can produce genuine heroes without the need for lies, drugs and fakers, it’s as easy as one-two-three.