Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Dead Wrong - Pro Wrestling's Dirty Little Secret

By John Ellul

Last month, a 56-year-old Floridian man suffered a pre-surgery heart scare when doctors believed they'd discovered an abnormality with his heart.

Nothing too unusual there, you might think, given the winning combination of uber-tanning and tight swimwear that they seem to embrace in that part of the world. For this particular individual, however, there are bigger things to worry about. Professional idiot and occasional wrestler Hulk Hogan was described as "very relieved" to find that, upon closer inspection, nothing was amiss with his EKG - this time.

In truth, sunstroke and a bad wardrobe could turn out to be the least of the Hulkster's worries if he knows what's good for him.

The death rate for professional wrestlers - recently retired ones in particular - is, frankly, shocking; a worrying trend equalled only by the shortage of people who know, or care. And therein lies the essence of my ponder - should we give two hoots about these muscle-bound morons?

In many respects, the reticence of both the British media and the public to get to grips with the trouble befallling the grappling game is to be expected. It's not British, it's not real, and to be honest, it's a bit silly.

That in it itself may render the topic less than newsworthy at first glance, but whether you classify it as sport or entertainment - or neither - it should cause shockwaves. If athletes in any other minor-interest overseas sport started dropping like flies, or the grim reaper started bumping off characters in a cult-status soap opera for no discernible reason, there would rightly be an outcry.

Not so in this lycra clad ghost story.

A conservative estimate puts the number of performers in the wrestling industry to die before the age of 50 since 1990 at nearly 80. Suspect heart attacks and other side-effects of an overreliance on anabolic steroids account for a large percentage of the dead. Another major culprit is the overdoses of painkilling drugs which many rely on to keep up with the punishing rough and tumble..

Deaths "on duty" are rare, but certainly do happen – just ask the fans who watched in horror as Mal "King Kong" Kirk died in the ring after receiving a routine "belly splash" from Big Daddy in Norfolk in 1987. And then there are the suicides...

Without a doubt the most heartbreaking tale in this Dead Wrestlers' Society has to be that of the Von Erich Family - a story in suicide that starts with Jack Adkisson, who wrestled across the United States in the 1950s and 60s under the lazy and exploitative Nazi-sympathiser persona of "Fritz Von Erich".

Never quite hitting the heights as a national star himself, Fritz (as he insist everyone call him) soon transferred his dreams of success to each of his sons, demanding a dedication to a lifetime in the wrestling industry from each of them. It was a psychotic single-mindedness that would have fatal results.

Already a hard and unsympathetic man, Fritz's negative outlook on life took another hit when first son Jack Jr. was accidentally electrocuted and drowned in a puddle at the age of seven.

His desire to create a winning wrestling dynasty initially looked in good hands, and son David Von Erich, proficient, good-looking and wildy popular, was set for greatness. Days before a scheduled world title win which would have catapulted him to international stardom, David was found dead in his hotel room in 1984, victim of a recreational drug overdose.

Without missing a beat, the pressure then shifted to younger brothers Kerry, Mike, and Chris Von Erich. Pushed to return from injury prematurely by his father, Mike suffered toxic shock syndrome, and took an overdose of tranquilisers in 1987. Depressed at his inability to make it as a wrestler, and frustrated with his slight physique, Chris shot himself in 1991, aged just 22. He had, he wrote in his suicide note, "gone to be with David and Michael."

Kerry was the only one to make it to the big leagues of the WWF. Rivalled only by David in his fondness for recreational drugs, Kerry had a long rap list of car crashes, arrests, overdoses, and other close calls. Worried that his latest arrest would result in lengthy imprisonment, Kerry shot himself in the heart in 1993.

Legend has it, when sixth and sole surviving brother Kevin confronted his father about the pain and sorrow he'd inflicted on the family, he was told: "I'm proud of them. You were always too much of a coward to kill yourself."

It would be easy to dismiss these deaths as the product of a harrowing family environment, but the pressures of the crowd clearly weighed too heavily on them and many others. As former WWE champion Robert "Rob Van Dam" Szatkowsky explained in 2009:

"In our world, as big as the news of a wrestler dying can be, we always know it's not going to be the last. Anytime a wrestler dies, we're automatically thinking, 'Okay, who's next?'

And that, in a nutshell, is the life of a wrestler - the life they chose.

Things have improved immeasurably since February 2006 when the company introduced its Talent Wellness Program, a direct reaction to the high-profile drug death of headliner Eddie Guerrero the previous December. Ever since, any violations of the frequent are publicised on WWE's own website, with suspensions and contract terminations for persistent offenders, as well as the option of paid-for rehab.

But it still goes on.

How can you tell? Look out for acne next time you see wresting on TV - especially on the back and shoulder blades. It makes for alarming viewing.

Then again, who cares? No one apparently. Until it happens to a huge, international star, I bet.

Cue, Mr Hogan...

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  1. Didn't want to read the whole of it but I did anyway so now I have to comment...

    Really good ponder and not that I care much for wrestlers and the fact that everyone of a certain age (including myself) remembers Hulk Hogan, this ponder caught my attention and kept it going to the end. Now I will have to keep a look out for news stories about pro wrestlings big fat dirty secret. Acne on the back and shoulder blades you say... interesting.

  2. Is Ravishing Rick Rude still alive? We liked him.

  3. Sadly Rick's been dead 11 years - along with Mr Perfect, The British Bulldog, The Big Bossman, half the Legion of Doom, and many other 80s classics.

  4. Whilst i agree with you that things in the business have improved, there is still a long way to go. 'Superstars' in the business are still expected to work 250 days a year, often through injury, just to please management. Painkiller addiction appears to be rife, and many wrestlers are hooked on recreational drugs. Take Jeff Hardy as an example, currently facing charges on drug trafficking of painkillers, steroids and cocaine,he is reportedly a heavy cannabis user and he has failed multiple wellness tests but has refused WWEs offer of rehab and is now a top star in TNA with Hogan. What sort of message does it send to youngsters when stars such as Hardy remain at the top despite clearly not overcoming his addictions?

    I can also see similarities between Hardy and Chris Benoit. Three years ago yesterday Benoit killed his wife and 7 year old son before committing suicide. Tests performed on his brain after his death showed that multiple concussions suffered during his 20 year career had left him with the brain of an 85 year old alzheimers patient. Jeff Hardy has arguably taken far bigger bumps in his 15 year career than Benoit and has suffered multiple concussions, couple this with his cannabis use and i think the very least we can expect is for him to join the list, i just hope it wont be as tragic Benoit.

    The only solution i can see to this situation is for the wrestlers to form a union. They must come together and insist on changes. The first thing i would do is create a wrestling "season", no other sports run 12 months of the year without a break why should wrestling be any different? The outcomes may be pre-determined but the action you see in the ring is real, and the body needs time to recouperate, no wrestler should be forced to wrestle all year round when injured for fear of losing their spot. For this to be effective all organisations would need to sign up.

    Next i would demand that the wrestling organisations all sign up to WADA. Drug testing should be random and if a positive test is received penalties should be harsh. The only sport with a comparable number of athletes dying at a young age is cycling, it is hardly suprising that cycling too has a drugs problem, however it is taking far bigger steps to reduce the problem. Currently failure of a wellness test will earn you a 30 day suspension, failure of a drugs test in cycling will likely earn you a two year ban. Unfortunately, it appears that north american sport tolerates drug use to some degree. If we look at MLB's drug policy, they will only test players if there is probable cause of drug use. If the test comes back positive the player is banned for 50 matches, less than a third of the MLB season. If the rewards for cheating remain so great, and the punishments for being caught so small then i believe drugs will continue being a problem within wrestling for years to come and we are unlikely to have seen the last of these deaths at a young age.