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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