For far too long now, the professional wrestling industry has been showing a terrifying trend where former sports entertainers are dying young at a rapid rate. Just about every sport these days is starting to realize that the suffering athletes put their bodies through might not always be worth it in the long run, and the ones who added drugs and alcohol to the mix were practically tempting death. Unfortunately, old school professional wrestlers apparently put their bodies to the test on such a level almost all of them developed addictions to one drug or another, and it’s lead to a tragic number of early deaths.
Obviously, the nature of life means that all wrestlers, and indeed all living creatures, will one day die regardless of what sort of lifestyles they lead. Given this industry has been around well over 100 years, this means countless legendary grapplers have met their fate of natural causes, maybe even more so than those who suffered from substance abuse issues. It can occasionally be hard for fans to think about their idols being gone, but death is no more than the final chapter of life, and refusing to talk about it does society no favors. Add in that a recent study claims wrestlers are dying at rates 2.9 times greater than the national average, and maybe a quiz on the reasons why could actually help solve the problem by better understanding it. Can you name how these famous pro wrestlers passed away?
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper
Just when you thought you had all the answers…well, we’re not changing the question, but we aren’t “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Taking the idea of bad guys being funny to its fullest potential, the Hot Rod was without question one of the greatest wrestling villains in history. On top of that, his talk show Piper’s Pit has become the archetype for whenever a superstar wants to interview their co-workers. Somehow, Piper never managed to win a World Championship despite headlining both WrestleMania and Starrcade, and yet fans will never forget him as one of the greatest wrestlers in history.
The Big Bossman
As one of wrestling’s rare giants who lost significant amounts of weight without losing his step, it would probably be fair to call Big Bossman one of the most underrated in-ring workers of his generation. Fans were so used to him as a hulking monster his later turn as a more run-of-the-mill vicious prison guard felt a little bit out of place. Bossman’s wrestling ability never slagged, though, earning him the Hardcore and Tag Team Championship simultaneously during the Attitude Era.
Despite every manager in wrestling vying to take him as a client, Randy Savage instead picked his real life wife Miss Elizabeth to do the job, and not a single person could possibly blame him. What Ms. Liz lacked in experience, she more than made up for with her beauty and charm, turning the Savage couple into one of WWE’s most indelible and unforgettable acts. No fan could ever forget their break up, reunion, or in-ring marriage, nor Elizabeth’s sudden turn to evil in the nWo near the end of her career.
Calling oneself perfect is a heavy order than not many can live up to, and yet almost no one questioned Curt Hennig when he took the word as his name in WWE. Somehow, an incredible winning streak wherein he Hennig constantly executives his every move to perfection made the moniker entirely appropriate. While he never won the WWE Championship, Hennig did manage to reach the peak of the AWA with their World Championship, and his lengthy reigns with the Intercontinental and United States belts are nothing short of, well, you know.
Regardless of the fact promoters nearly ignored Eddie Guerrero’s talents until it was too late, fans of Latino Heat were taking notice from the day he debuted. Granted, it was pretty hard not too, as Eddie’s incredibly charisma plus the tricks taught to him by his famous brothers and father made him a serious force to be reckoned with inside the squared circle. The biggest tragedy of Guerrero’s short life is that he reached the peak of the mountain just before it ended, winning his first WWE Championship barely over a year prior to his death.
By deciding to defend his WWE Hardcore Championship 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Crash Holly unknowingly was starting one of the Attitude Era’s most controversial jokes. On the plus side, he was also making it pretty definite that people would remember him for a long time to come, as this joke was pretty hilarious when it landed. The same could be said about most of Crash’s career, as Hardcore’s younger cousin had a natural understanding of comedy that could have made him a star for a long time to come.
Laughing hysterically and bouncing around like a madman, John Kronus somehow managed to be even crazier than Perry Saturn when they were teaming up as The Eliminators. That said, he may well have been crazy like a fox, since this insanity turned the Eliminators into one of the most viciously feared units of their day. Their Total Elimination is one of the finest double team maneuvers any tag team has created to this day, and though Kronus didn’t succeed much once Saturn left him behind, the team was more than enough to bring him to the history books.
Flying off a steel cage could still make a wrestler a superstar today, so back when Jimmy Snuka did pulled off the stunt, it really must have been something else. In fact, wrestlers weren’t jumping off much at all in the 1970s up through the 1980s, which is how Snuka’s propensity to do so gave him a reputation as the “Superfly.” In his later years, Snuka became more known for potentially evading the law than any of his antics in the ring, though this hasn’t taken away his legendary status in the eyes of WWE or his many fans.
Not many industries are fit for Loose Cannons, which is why Brian Pillman had few options other than become a pro wrestler. That Pillman possessed a uniquely wild charisma and remarkable skills in the ring helped him out considerably, making him stand out from his early days as a lightweight in WCW to his later years wrecking pure havoc in ECW and WWE. Way ahead of his time in more ways than one, Pillman was a trendsetter who could have been a World Champion if only he survived a few more years.
In the post sports entertainment era, it takes an incredible amount of skill mixed with the right touch of courage for a grappler to claim his brand of wrestling comes “No Gimmicks Needed.” Whether in the WWE Universe or any competing promotion, character has become arguably the most important aspect of wrestling, and a performer like Chris Candido claiming his talents should speak for themselves would only work if they can back it up in the ring. Lucky for Candido, he was more than capable in that regard.
Road Warrior Hawk
The Road Warriors didn’t need one another to look menacing, and yet with their powers combined, it would take a fool not to run in fear whenever they were nearby. That was true before they won Tag Team Championships all over the country, including the belts promoted by WWE, NWA, WCW, IWGP, AWA, and countless others. Unlike the classic trope of a technician and a powerhouse, the Road Warriors were both pure instruments of destruction, both Hawk and Animal causing equal chaos. These days, though, its just Animal, having lost his partner some years ago.
Big Dick Dudley
Every member of the Dudley family was menacing in their own way, whether through Little Snot Dudley’s disgusting nature or Bubba and D-Von’s more traditional ass kicking qualities. That said, the true powerhouse of the Dudley clan was Big Dick, a hulking monster who barely had to move before he struck fear in all challengers to his family. For as big and scary as he was, the sad truth about Big Dick is that he was borderline immobile in the ring, so there wasn’t much solo success when his brothers jumped ship to WWE.
Everyone has heard that looks aren’t everything, and believe it or not, that even applies to professional wrestling. Take for instance Dusty Rhodes, a man who admitted his belly was a little too big, and maybe his arms weren’t particularly buff, either. However, what Dusty did have was a second-to-none charisma that made him a hero to millions before Vince McMahon even took sports entertainment mainstream. With three NWA World Championships to his name, Rhodes defied all expectation of what a successful wrestler was, and he stayed funky as a monkey the whole time he did so.
Davey Boy Smith
Possibly the most successful WWE superstar to hail from across the pond, Davey Boy Smith was so synonymous with his homeland he eventually changed his name to The British Bulldog. This can be a little confusing in retrospect, though, as that was also the name of his tag team with The Dynamite Kid, which earned both their first championship gold in WWE. However, Smith’s success greatly surpassed his erstwhile companion, arguably making it appropriate he alone is associated with the moniker.
André The Giant
Easily the most legendary performer in WWE history, André The Giant has transcended the concept of mere professional wrestling and become a pop culture icon. Despite the fact he died almost three decades ago, more non-wrestling fans could probably recognize André as a former WWE Champion than some active giants still wrestling today—and he only held the belt for all of a couple minutes. Of course, it wasn’t that brief title reign that mattered, but rather André’s incredible presence up until the day he tragically passed.
Ghastly and ghostly by nature, Paul Bearer made his WWE Universe debut at The Undertaker’s side, shortly after the Dead Man himself had entered the company. Prior to this excursion into the Dark Side, Bearer had spent several years on the territorial scene working as a rich jerk character named Percy Pringle III. Chances are people resonated with Bearer more as a funeral director because that’s what he actually trained to do in real life, plus the role felt more original regardless of how well suited he was for it.
Screaming her way into the Hall of Fame, Sherri Martel was as Sensation as she was Scary. These arguably dichotomous qualities are what Martel such a strong manager, able to look glamorous and menacing to her charge’s enemies all at once. Martel was also a notable grappler in her own right, winning a number of Women’s Championships throughout her career. Still, she will be best known for her time legends like Randy Savage or Harlem Heat, both of whom she help get some gold of their own.
Hired by WCW in no uncertain terms to imitate The Ultimate Warrior, it should have been clear from day one that The Renegade had very little chance of genuinely making a name for himself in wrestling. His only chance of survival would have been unique microphone skills and/or talent inside the ring, and unfortunate he possessed neither. This didn’t exactly make WCW give up entirely, though, as Renegade did at least earn one reign as Television Champion. On the other hand, it was this reign that had fans demanding he get the axe.
“Macho Man” Randy Savage was without a doubt one of the greatest sports entertainers the WWE Universe has ever seen. From Savage’s early days working for his father in ICW to his multiple runs as WWE and WCW World Champion, he always knew how to entertain at a level worthy of macho madness both in and out of the ring. Until the very end of his career, it was almost impossible for Savage to have a bad match, and it’s a huge loss to the industry that he isn’t around to pass on his knowledge.
Given the dramatic cause of his death, most readers will probably be able to answer what happened to Chris Benoit with or without a brief backstory. In fact, it’s almost impossible to talk about the man once known as a Rabid Wolverine without making some references to his exit from earth, which goes to show just how controversial he was. Looking back to mere days before his death, however, it could be said Benoit was at once the most respected in-ring performer of his day, making it all the more surprising he could lose his status in a single instant.
While pro wrestling’s Youngblood family occasionally gets some guff for having one of the more dubious legacies in the sport, that would probably be a whole lot different had Jay lived long enough to right the wrong. In the little time he was alive, Jay was easily a greater talent than either of his brothers, and perhaps even his father, branching away from them to instead team with the legendary Ricky Steamboat. This union brought the duo the NWA Tag Team Championships at the inaugural Starrcade, and could have accomplished much more were circumstances less tragic.
Don’t treat her like a woman, don’t treat her like a man, treat her for what she was—arguably the most dominant female wrestler sports entertainment has ever seen. Not only is Chyna thus far the only woman to win the WWE Intercontinental Championship, but she did it twice. Chyna was also the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble or King of the Ring tournament, on top of getting involved in numerous main event storylines throughout her career. Sadly, she may never make the WWE Hall of Fame because of a certain ex.
In a manner of speaking, the best referees are the ones who fans barely even notice. That said, every now and a while a ref comes along and manages to add immeasurable amounts of entertainment to their matches with unique facial expressions and madcap pin fall attempts. One of the last men to truly excel at this unique skillset was Brian Hildebrand, first a referee for SMW, then ECW, and finally WCW before his unfortunate early death. So beloved was Hildebrand that a series of tribute shows benefited his family after he passed away.
For every mistake WCW made in their dying days, one can’t accuse them of not trying, like they did when it came to turning The Wall into a star. It didn’t quite take, of course, but the sudden arrival and success of the formerly unknown Jerry Tuite inspired small amounts of hope in an otherwise decaying company. Unfortunately, neither The Wall nor any other late period WCW prospects had much chance of fixing the sinking ship, and his prospects in TNA may have been a sign a lack of time wasn’t his sole weakness.
Doink The Clown
Yukking it up at the expense of fans, Doink the Clown was more terrifying than he was hilarious. Well, at least that’s how it was when Doink was originated, and many fans feel he rapidly went downhill when he went from laughing at the crowd to laughing with them. Another part of the problem is that the role kept getting shifted around to various performers, and none could live up to the original, Matt Borne. Sadly, Borne was also the first Doink to pass away, ending the joke once and for all.
Modern society has been shockingly forgiven to certain high profile sex offenders, and yet back in Art Barr’s day, or at least in his circumstances, things were appropriately much different. Just as it looked like Barr was ready to take over the world of WCW, and old rape accusation basically saw him blackballed from America. Down in Mexico, Barr formed Los Gringos Locos with Eddie Guerrero, building his profile back up to a point promoters were forgetting about his past transgressions. Not that he was able to capitalize on it, though, as he was found dead before ECW officially came calling.
Had “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert only been patient enough to stay in one place longer than a few months, he could have been ten times the legend he already was. A consummate performer in every sense of the word, Gilbert had it all. His in-ring skills were impeccable, ability to rock a microphone second-to-none, and behind the scenes, he was one of the most original and inventive bookers the industry has ever seen. The downside is that whenever the going got good, Gilbert flew the coop to spread his wings elsewhere, ultimately shooting off of this mortal coil entirely.
Sometimes considered the most talented technical wrestler of the entire legendary Hart family, the irony of youngest brother Owen is that he took wrestling, and life in general, on a much lighter tone than the rest of his family. Were Owen never to step into the ring, that probably would have been entirely fine with him, preferring to spend time with his wife and kids. That said, the results when he did step in the ring were too good for him to ignore, leading to a long career of chasing after big brother Bret’s footsteps.
The Junkyard Dog
Charismatic beyond words and strong as an ox, The Junkyard Dog was arguably the most popular man ever to work for Mid-South Wrestling. JYD also became a considerable star when he jumped to the WWE Universe in the late ‘80s, though he wouldn’t stick around quite long enough to win any championships or make a serious impact. The same was true when The Dog popped up in WCW during the early ‘90s. However, none of this changed his impact on the industry’s territorial days, when fans around the South were all begging to see his THUMP.
Not many wrestlers can let their weight balloon out of control and get rewarded for it, not to mention use the body transformation to start calling themselves “Adorable.” Somehow, though, Adrian Adonis had the perfect charisma to make the transition possible. The downside was that his in-ring work suffered considerably, and once his money match at WrestleMania III against Roddy Piper played it’s course, there wasn’t much left for Adonis to do. In the very least, he left behind a legacy as Tag Team Champion before the fall from grace, reigning with Dick Murdoch in the early ‘80s.
Not many tough guys would willingly call themselves a “hooker,” and yet no one would question Lou Thesz when he named his autobiography just that. Back in Thesz’s day, hooking was just another word for grappling, or at least the legitimate version thereof—because kayfabe was still a secret, some wrestlers legitimately needed to beat their opponents to maintain their championships and storylines, and Thesz was the best in the business when it came to legitimate technical skills. He used his prowess to reign as NWA Champion for record lengths, competing across five decades.
Well, how about that, a quiz about how the Test ended. Pardon the pun, although it’s probably appropriate, considering the first several months of Test’s career were loaded with them, as he was Shane McMahon’s friend, bodyguard, and first line of defense. Quite frankly, once Test was free of the McMahon connection and his punny quips, his career suffered horribly for it. Despite at times approaching the main event and winning the Intercontinental Championship quite young, Test faded away from WWE shortly after turning 30.
Who a wrestler picks as their trainer can speak volumes about what they want to achieve in the industry, and like all of Shawn Michaels’s students, Lance Cade was sending the message he wanted to be something big. Sadly, he never quite got the chance, his only true run in the sun a handful of runs as WWE Tag Team Champion in a derivative redneck stereotype tag team with Trevor Murdoch. At the very end, Cade almost had a chance of rising up the card as a solo star, but it fell apart all too quickly.
Fans were a bit skeptical when WWE announced that ECW would be revived as a brand on the Syfy Network, wondering whether or not any otherworldly elements might slip into the wrestling action. While they were luckily spared from aliens abductions, the first episode of ECW On Syfy did indeed feature a bizarre wrestling Zombie, who was quickly caned by the Sandman and disappeared almost immediately. The man really named Tim Roberts found far more success in Puerto Rico using similar gimmicks, although his true potential was cut off with an early death.
One solace modern day fans can take when a superstar dies unfortunately young is that their work will live on forever through the WWE Network. Unfortunately, fans of Gino Hernandez don’t have this luxury, as his time in the business predated Vince McMahon taking over the business. Gino’s greatest achievements were in the less archived World Class Championship Wrestling promotion, more than once making his climb up the roster and becoming the top heel in the company. His last act in wrestling was “blinding” Chris Adams in an innovative angle, though he never lived to see the results.
A hardcore chair swinging freak in every sense of the expression, Axl Rotten was tailor made to become an ECW original long before that term even existed. Although Rotten never participated in any main events nor won a title of any major significance, his hardcore spirit permeated through his every match and made him a beloved figure amongst Paul Heyman’s most faithful fans. The downside was that Rotten’s style made him a tough fit anywhere except the hardcore heaven, leaving him without many options when ECW closed its doors.
Captain Lou Albano
With a motor mouth and more legendary clients than he could shake his stick at, Captain Lou Albano is easily one of the greatest managers the WWE Universe has ever seen. It all began when Albano was a wrestler himself, and his rival Bruno Sammartino realized Lou would be better behind the microphone than trying to get things done himself. That advice would later come to haunt Sammartino when Albano lead Ivan Koloff to ending his seven year reign as WWE Champion, though countless future wrestlers would definitely thank him for it when Albano advanced their careers.
Bad News Brown
Ahead of his time in every sense of the world, Bad News Brown was the sort of bad ass who would have been perfect in the Attitude Era. Unfortunately, his day was a bit earlier than that, having reached the peak of his fame in the late 1980s. During this time, Brown was one of the most unique heels in the WWE Universe, hated by just about everyone for his don’t trust anyone loner attitude. This didn’t translate to many championships, but the success similar characters would find not much after Brown’s retirement prove just how effective he could have been.
Calling himself both sweet and sour, what Larry Sweeney really should have been called was a man out of time. Flamboyant, charismatic, and ready to lead his men into battle, Sweeney was one of the more visible managers in Ring of Honor history, and he could have been a whole lot more. Unfortunately for Sweeney, managers simply don’t have much use in wrestling outside of the independent scene, and he was never able to become a true star because of it.
It’s always tragic when a wrestler dies young, and yet Louie Spicolli has an especially unfortunate story. Days after he received the biggest promotion of his life, calling nearly a full hour of WCW Monday Nitro on the commentary booth, he was found dead in his apartment. Spicolli’s biggest Pay-Per-View match was also just around the corner, and he never would make it to the ring. This was after several years of standing out in ECW and proving he had a hilarious personality backstage, solidifying Spicolli as one of the saddest early losses in the business.
The younger half of the first tag team in wrestling that was more afraid of living than they were of dying, Johnny Grunge was arguably more fitting of the role than his partner Rocco Rock. No offense to the Flyboy, of course, but the man was pushing 40 when he was supposed to represent the new generation, while his partner actually fit the bill. Granted, this was the one area Grunge could one up his partner, as otherwise The Public Enemy were neck and neck in terms of being the craziest two hoodies ever to hit the ring.
With all due respect to Marianna Komlos, fans shouldn’t feel too bad if they don’t immediately recognize her name. The reality is Komlos was involved in two of WWE’s most controversial angles, first as Beaver Cleavage’s incestuous mother and then a woman faking abuse from her boyfriend. Both of these stories were written entirely free from the bounds of taste, and probably explain why WWE never acknowledged Komlos after her death. On the other hand, she was definitely a trooper for putting it up with it all, and it’s hardly her fault the company made her do something so offensive.
Terrifying things can come in fairly small packages, and this was definitely true in the chaotically violent ECW Arena. Case in point, one of Philadelphia’s most violent tag teams, The Pitbulls. Neither #1 nor #2 were exactly giants in the traditional sense, and yet their muscled appearance overshadowed a shorter frame to make both popular and feared during their reigns as ECW Tag Team Championships. Unfortunately, this success couldn’t be replicated anywhere else, and in fact, neither WWE nor WCW would even let them try.
One of the most important grapplers ever to step inside a ring, Rikidözan is often considered the father of puroresu, Japan’s brand of pro wrestling. Rikidözan also bridged the gap between Japanese and American wrestling by facing off against names like Lou Thesz and The Destroyer, earning some of the highest ratings in Japanese television history. The industry would truly be a different animal entirely without his influence, and WWE finally acknowledged this by posthumously inducting him to the Hall of Fame in 2017.
The Fabulous Moolah
The Fabulous Moolah was the face of female wrestling for at least the three decades she reigns as WWE Women’s Champion, and probably a pretty long while before and after that. Sure, Moolah wasn’t the best in the ring, especially compared to ladies of today. However, she at least possessed a strong stage presence and mastery of the microphone, turning her into a leading villain for the whole time her belt was ensconced around her waist. There were downsides to her life and career, but focusing solely on what made the cameras, Moolah was a true legend in the sport.
David Von Erich
The eldest son of sports entertainment legend and World Class Championship Wrestling promoter Fritz Von Erich, the “Yellow Rose of Texas” David Von Erich had big shoes to fill from the very start. Things only seemed to get harder for him when brothers Kerry and Kevin joined him as partners, and he sadly wouldn’t even get to see the younger Mike and Chris join the fray down the line. Arguably worse than any of that, David could have been the biggest star of them all, but was stricken down at a young age kicking off a family curse.
The Ultimate Warrior
Hailing from parts unknown and begging unseen Gods for the powers of destrucity, the Ultimate Warrior was a unique figure within sports entertainment, to say the least. Of course, it was his commitment to this sheer insanity that made Warrior such a massive hit in his day, leading to him unifying the WWE World and Intercontinental Championships at WrestleMania 6. While his victory over Hulk Hogan wasn’t the torch passing moment it should have been, Warrior still became a legend in his own right, and an unforgettable part of WWE history.
Big John Studd
When Bobby “The Brain” Heenan couldn’t procure the services of André The Giant, he went and got Big John Studd instead. Obviously, this particular angle is but one of many Studd participated in over his long and storied career, and yet there’s a reason we chose it as an introduction to his time in the ring. It takes a true monster to stand next to André and look unafraid, such to the extent doing that made Studd’s challenge to a Body Slam Match one of the most anticipated matches at the first WrestleMania.
Given the timeframe Umaga wrestled, his gimmick as a Samoan savage could have gone one of two ways. In lesser hands, the idea easily might have become a racist caricature, reviving decades old stereotypes without any true purpose. Because Umaga actually understood subtlety and wrestling culture, he turned what on paper looked like a bad idea into one that nearly saved his career, bringing him straight to the main event after the total dud that was 3 Minute Warning. Far more destruction may have followed, were it not for his tragic end.
In the WWE history books, there are countless run-of-the-mill monsters who made little impact, and then there are true giants like Yokozuna. Coming out of nowhere, Yoko very quickly dominated his way through the 1993 Royal Rumble to two runs as WWE Champion. His second reign was one of the longer villainous runs the company has ever seen, and made him a true stand out of the early Raw era. On the other hand, it could easily be argued Yoko’s size contributed to his early demise.