Now granted, not all of these wrestlers died on the job (though a couple surely did), but they all died, in one way or another, because of the job. Whether directly in the ring, falling from far above the ring, severe heart attacks, or overwhelming drug use, these once great wrestlers, have gone off the rails (or zip-line) thanks to the pressures and follies of the WWF/WWE (depending on the era).
So if ever one thought that the WWE was a place of safety, of support and love, of rules and regulations, simply an organization for the promotion of the soap-opera-in-spandex that ensues week after week, then one would be wrong. There was a time when the WWE had few rules, relied on their drugged out superstars, and cared little about either the mechanical workings of shows, or the aftermath of a career of being smashed through tables, ladders, and chairs, on top of a 30ft steel cage with the ring on fire, or a bed of tacks and barbed wire waiting in the centre.
There was a time when the organization (WWF/WCW/ECW/TNA/WWE) only cared about superstars going full tilt until they physically couldn’t anymore… and then it only cared about getting them out to make room for the stars who could: a vicious cycle of drugs, disease, depravity, and death.
One of the biggest names in the WWF circa the early ’90s, Yokozuna, the first Samoan wrestler to ever win the Royal Rumble, and to ever hold the championship belt, got his ticket to the world of wrestling due to his incredible size, weighing in at over 500lbs when he debuted. His size was key to his character, but also an eventual concern for WWF owner Vince McMahon, though perhaps too late a concern to make a difference. It was played that Yokozuna had broken his leg in a match (removed via forklift), so that he could take time and lose weight, at the time having reached over 600lbs. Though losing at least 100lbs, Yoko was still not cleared to wrestle, and was dropped by the WWF. Out of spite, hitting the independent circuits, Yoko decided to become the largest wrestler to hit the ring, reaching upward of near 800lbs.
Only eight years after his WWF debut, Yoko was found in his hotel room having died of a pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs— likely brought on by a heart condition); despite having dropped his weight, in attempt to become healthy, to 580lbs by the time of his death. He may have eaten his way there, but the WWF only cared about him being big and able to wrestle, and ultimately sent him on his way, alone. He was 34.
14. The Ultimate Warrior
This, craziest of all wrestlers, hailing from “parts unknown”, lived a decent time after his steroid-using, bridge-burning, likely drug-induced mania during his stint in WWF in the ’90s. He lived to be 54, and even made some sort of peace with Vince McMahon, getting himself inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, appearing in one of the WWE video games, and making one last appearance on Monday Night RAW, the day before he died. Dying of a fatal heart attack brought on by cardiovascular disease (a very common theme in professional wrestlers), The Ultimate Warrior was hinted to have caused the incident thanks to continued drug use by reporter Nancy Grace; though these allegations were quickly stomped down by several professional wrestlers after Grace also insinuated Owen Hart’s death to have involved drug use. Of course, it can’t be proven that the heart disease was directly caused by his time in the WWF, but there are so many cases of developed heart disease in professional wrestlers that it cannot be avoided, and mixed with his steroid use during his time in professional wrestling. I think the business did more harm than good to The Ultimate Warrior.
This young go-getter, story-boarded as a former body guard for Motley Crue, and scripted to have an engagement with Stephanie McMahon (sorry, Triple H), had a good career in the world of professional wrestling, winning the hardcore championship, as well as the tag championship, alongside Booker T. Though hailed as one of the top wrestlers in the WWE, Test never really advanced, or took off as a household name. As with many of his former, present, and future colleagues, Test struggled with drug abuse, was incarcerated several times, and failed the finally instated mandatory drug testing done by the ‘cleaned-up’ WWE.
Dismissed from WWE, and shortly thereafter, fired from TNA, Test retired from professional wrestling, leading to an overdose weeks later, just before turning 34. A confirmed overdose of Oxycodone being the direct culprit, Dr. Bennet Omalu examined the wrestler’s brain, as he had done with Chris Benoit, concluding that not only use of anabolic steroids, but also confirmed brain damage caused by working in professional wrestling was to blame for the depression and subsequent drug use of the deceased Test. This is a Test that Vince McMahon surely failed.
12. Rick Rude
Another heart failure, the Ravishing Rick Rude, legendary womanizer and philanderer died at the age of forty after his heart gave out due to a conflict in medications. Just what these medications were for is not confirmed, but given the prevalence of both drug use and heart conditions within the ring of professional wrestling, it’s no surprise that this is how such a master of the mic would meet his end.
Leaving WWE for WCW, eventually bringing his friend Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart with him, Rude would have to give up wrestling due to a neck injury during a match against Sting, thanks to the incredibly inept electrical setup of the show. In the time following his official departure from wrestling, Rick Rude still made appearances, and was one of the original members of DX, but he would never wrestle again, though, just prior to his death, he was training to be ring ready once again. Whether trying to enhance his performance to ready himself, or simply trying to keep the pain at bay, it’s clear the job killed him.
11. Mr. Perfect
Mr. Perfect met his end in a less than perfect way, which surely must have been the way the headlines read the day after his death. Set to fight The Iron Britt at the Florida State Fair, Perfect never made it, found dead in his hotel room. The cause was revealed to be an accidental overdose of cocaine. Drug abuse an incredibly common theme in professional wrestling at the time, it was no big wonder when Perfect’s father, himself a wrestler, revealed that Mr. Perfect had also been abusing prescription pain pills and using steroids in an attempt to add to the already supposedly perfect frame he boasted. Never determined to be due to a brain issue like Test or Chris Benoit, it’s still clear that Perfect’s drug abuse and desire to become even greater than he already was is a result of the pressures of the job, the adulation of the fans, and the lacking systems to protect and aid the wrestling staff of the WWE.
10. Miss Elizabeth
Camera operator with a degree in communications, turned manager for Macho Man Randy Savage, turned manager for Ric Flair, turned sidekick of Lex Luger, Miss Elizabeth had a successful career in and out of the ring, but not such a successful love life. Marrying and divorcing Randy Savage, as well as a Florida attorney before ending up with Lex Luger; a relationship that proved to be fatal. Having both been terminated from WCW at the end of their contracts, the tumultuous pair huddled away from others, getting into substance abuse (no surprise), with police being called for domestic disturbances, and Luger being arrested for driving under the influence, it should not have come as a shock to anyone that Miss Elizabeth, once the darling of professional wrestling, should fall into such a downward spiral that ended with her mixing too many painkillers and too much vodka, leading to toxicity and death. Though Lex was suspected, due to previous domestic violence, the cause was clear, though never confirmed if on purpose or not.
9. ‘Iron’ Mike DiBiase
Nothing to do with being overweight, or with drug use and/or abuse, Iron Mike DiBiase died, in the middle of the ring from a severe heart attack. To be fair, he likely didn’t die there in the ring, as wrestler Harley Race, diagnosing the heart attack, quickly took to DiBiase’s side, where he attempted to save him, even riding the ambulance with the dying man. Upon arrival to the hospital though, Iron Mike was officially pronounced dead.
Coming from a family of wrestlers, Mike was never sure if he should make wrestling his career, though while he pondered his future, he did compete in high school. Perhaps making the choice to go all the way was the wrong one, but no on will ever know. Getting fed fists by the famous Archie Moore (Moore’s last ever KO), DiBiase’s brain may not have been doing all too well, but his heart, so far as anyone else knew, was just fine. Given what is known now about the correlation between heart conditions and wrestling however, it may be no surprise that this occurred, but a shocked 1969 audience would likely have had no inkling.
8. Luna Vachon
Luna Vachon may have been one frightening character in the WWF; not the typical damsel at the arm of a big, burly man, but she could fight— and viciously. Known for some great promos and some fantastic, as well as incredibly demeaning, confrontations with Sable, Luna really came into her own as an actual wrestler. Unfortunately, her life was not an easy one. Struggling with bipolar disorder, Luna tried turning to religion, but her newfound Christian faith caused her more stress than salvation. To fan the flames into a torrent of fire, Luna’s house burned to the ground, taking almost everything Luna owned with it. A year later, Luna was found at home, by her mother. There was drug paraphernalia to be found about the place, but the official cause of death was a likely accidental overdose due to the mixing of benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety meds), and the all too familiar Oxycodone. True, there were a lot of outside issues with regards to Luna’s death, but without support from the organization that benefited from her bipolar manner, Luna had no chance.
7. Owen Hart
Avoiding puns about this being a ‘Hart-failure’, since no aspect of this death was in any way Owen’s fault, Owen Hart died tragically, ironically at an Over The Edge pay-per-view due to an all too quick, quick release system set up for his zip-line entrance, causing him to fall from the rafters, impacting the turnbuckle, and passing from blunt force trauma and internal bleeding. There is no mistaking this mishap as entirely the fault of the WWE for its shoddy technical set-up and mechanical ineptitude. One of the ever-rising stars of World Wrestling Entertainment, Owen Hart always found a way into the spotlight, and the ratings. Thankfully, the event during which Hart died was broadcast pre-taped, so the general public only got notification of the death and only those focused on the ring, and not the monitors, caught a glimpse of the fatal fall that abruptly ended the career and life of one of the greatest heels to stomp a name for himself in WWE history. He was 34.
6. Road Warrior Hawk
One of the members of the famed Legion of Doom tag team, Road Warrior Hawk was a hard-hitting and engaging entertainer with his partner, Animal. With a bit of art imitating life, the WWF sought to run a storyline where Hawk was going off the rails with drugs to make room for Darren ‘Puke’ Drozdov to take over the L.O.D. But Hawk and Animal were offended by the storyline, given Hawk’s actual drug problems in reality. Unwilling to change the story to suit the tag team, both men left the WWF to work on writing a book about their time in professional wrestling (Drozdov went on to become a quadriplegic thanks to a gravely messed up wrestling move). Turning in early one night from packing for a prospective move, Hawk said goodnight to his wife, feeling more tired than usual, and never woke up. His heart giving out in the middle of the night, many speculated that his intense drug use during his time in the WWF weakened his heart and eventually led to his death.
5. Eddie Guerrero
Eddie Guerrero, following suit with the rest of his wrestling family, really came into his own once he left WCW’s mid-card spot to hit WWF main events. Injuring himself before his WWF debut in a car accident, Eddie was already on painkillers when he injured his elbow in his WWF debut match. On his return, the infamous “Latino Heat’ came into being, and then was promptly sent to rehab for his addiction to pain medication, after which Eddie was also arrested for driving under the influence. Accepted back, Eddie won the WWE championship against Brock Lesnar! Having overcome his addictions and at the peak of health, Eddie was found one morning by his nephew, wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr., on the floor of the bathroom, toothbrush in his mouth. He was meant to tape RAW that day. Many suspected drugs and alcohol, but the truth was, due to his time in wrestling mixed with his former addictions, Eddie had developed cardiovascular disease and died of acute heart failure.
4. Doink The Clown
Leaving the unfortunate name to stand for itself, Doink the Clown started off in the WWF as a great heel, though he seems absolutely ridiculous as a character today. Doink is the perfect storm in terms of his death: he encapsulates all of the problems (apart from falling from the rafters) that have been so far discussed. Fired from the WWF in 1993 for drug abuse, the last time Doink saw the ring was in the ‘Legends Battles Royal’ in 2007.
Overweight and struggling to overcome his substance abuse, Doink was very open with his issues and, in spite of that, received no aid from the organization that had fired, then briefly re-hired the troubled man. Found dead, due to a supposed accidental overdose of morphine and hydrocodone (his heart problems likely increasing the risk of overdose), his family filed a suit against the WWE for keeping hidden the effects of the violence done in the ring, which likely led to Doink’s depression and substance abuse. The suit is on-going with the joint ‘class action concussion case’.
The first woman to enter the Royal Rumble and the first and only woman to hold the Intercontinental Championship, Chyna was a force to be reckoned with. Regularly facing off against men, rather than being pigeon-holed into the realm of the ‘Divas’, Chyna could match most of the male wrestlers with a ferocity that often lacked in her male counterparts. Plagued by substance abuse, her departure from the WWE did not leave her and the company on good terms by any means.
Wrestling briefly in Japan, hitting reality TV with Celebrity Rehab and The Surreal Life, as well as shooting several adult films, most notably the one in which she gets taken in the ring by several men, dressed as wrestlers of old (Doink the Clown and Iron Sheik as examples), Chyna collapsed at an adult film convention, giving hints to her declining health. Given her death was just this year, found by her manager two days after her time of death, it has not come out yet whether or not she committed suicide, but pill bottles were found at the scene and it seems drug overdose, whether purposeful or not, was the cause. Dr. Omalu is examining her brain to further bolster the claims of the horrible effects of wrestling on the superstars.
2. Chris Benoit
The original case for Dr. Omalu to look at, discovering incredible brain damage due to high impact wrestling, Chris Benoit was one of the greatest Canadian wrestlers, alongside Owen Hart, who left us too soon and tragically so. His second marriage, plagued with domestic abuse, Benoit, close friends with Eddie Guerrero, was shattered by his friend’s death and took it out on his loved ones.
Missing some weekend house shows with the WWE, Benoit claimed his wife and son had food poisoning. If only that were the case. Instead, upon investigation, both Chris’ wife and son had been drugged, strangled, and then had Bibles placed by their bodies, while Chris himself had taken drugs, placed a Bible by his weight machine, and then hung himself from it. Many speculated marriage trouble, ‘roid rage, and stress from the loss of Eddie, but the true reason, discovered by Dr. Omalu, was the severe brain damage Benoit sustained while wrestling for the WWE. Because of the organization’s nonchalance in the face of substance abuse, steroid use, depression, and death, a wife and child died along with a superstar.
1. Bam Bam Bigelow
Another mix of drugs and heart disease, Bam Bam Bigelow, a hard-working, family-loving, saviour to three children (saving them from a fire, sustaining 2nd degree burns on 40% of his body in the process) was indeed a superhero. Suffering from seizures, unbeknownst to many, and constantly under pressure to perform to the best of his ability, there’s no shock that this man, like so many before and after him, was addicted to drugs. When he was found dead in his home in Florida, had both cocaine and anti-anxiety drugs in his system, which caused toxicity, not unlike a number of other wrestlers. Also, like most wrestlers, it would seem, there was clear evidence of cardiovascular disease and, while his brain was not put under the microscope, it’s likely safe to assume there was damage there too; damage that the WWE has purposely overlooked for far too many years. So in the words of Goldberg: “Who’s next!?”