The world of professional wrestling is rife with tragedy, and a seemingly unending tragedy in the wrestling world is the untimely early deaths of many former icons. Whether a wrestler achieved great fame or not, their attempts to do so can often adversely affect their health and lead to their bodies deteriorating at a rapid pace once they live the business, and things only get worse from there if the wrestler failed to properly prepare themselves for life outside of the ring. WWE instilled their Wellness Policy to battle this ongoing trend, but it was too little too late for many wrestlers of the 90s.
WCW didn’t have a Wellness Policy of any kind. Drug use was discouraged, like it is at any business, but wrestlers weren’t highly scrutinized for their addictions by any means. WCW was criticized for having a main event scene consisting mostly of people in their 40s, but that hasn’t changed the fact many WCW wrestlers didn’t even live to see 50. Whether due to drug problems, tragedies in their personal lives, or just the seemingly random whims of the Grim Reaper, countless wrestlers were taken from this world far too soon. Read on to discover 20 wrestlers who competed for WCW and didn’t live to see their 50s.
15. The Public Enemy – 49 and 39, Respectively
Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge didn’t make a huge splash in WCW, but they did stay in the company for the better part of three years, and they managed to win the WCW Tag Team titles for a brief spell in 1996. They were better known as arguably the first true homegrown main event stars of ECW, gaining the fan’s support with their energetic promos and proud declaration they were the first generation more afraid of living than they were of dying. Rocco Rock died of a heart attack in 2002 aged 49, and Johnny Grunge died aged 39 in 2006 due to complications related to sleep apnea. Grunge also had a variety of drugs in his system prescribed to him by the same doctor who had been prescribing drugs to Chris Benoit.
14. Chris Kanyon – Suicide at 40
Chris Kanyon was known as the Alliance MVP during his brief tenure in WWE, and although he was never quite a main eventer, in many ways that was true of his efforts during the dying days of WCW. Kanyon never broke through to the top of the card, but he always offered solid matches and interesting storylines even when that company was spiraling into disarray. He was a former WCW Tag Team and United States Champion, but a series of injuries quickly ended his career in WWE and he spiraled into a depression after being released from the company in 2004. After years of controversy in his retirement, Kanyon finally succumbed to his demons and tragically committed suicide in 2010. He was 40 years old.
13. Brian Pillman – Heart Attack at 35
People remember Brian Pillman as “The Loose Cannon,” and although it was WCW where he started to cultivate that persona, fans of his early work never would have seen it coming. Pillman debuted in 1989 as Flyin’ Brian, a name he used to stake his claim as one of the first mainstream American wrestlers to adapt a style influenced by Mexican and Japanese wrestlers. Pillman was the first ever WCW Light Heavyweight Champion, and later held the WCW Tag Team titles with Steve Austin as The Hollywood Blondes. After the dissolution of the Blondes, Pillman jumped to ECW and then WWE, presenting a character as an unpredictable wild man, but he tragically met his end at the height of his fame. Pillman had apparently suffered heart disease his entire life, and a sudden heart attack killed him in 1997. He was 35 years old.
12. Héctor Garza – Lung Cancer at 43
Héctor Garza was one of many low-key luchadores who stuck around in WCW for several years without ever making too much of a splash. He had one noteworthy win over Scott Hall on Nitro in 1997, but it didn’t exactly go anywhere, and Garza was mostly ignored in America. Garza was a member of the short-lived lWo, but even then he was just one of a cavalcade of talented cruiserweights getting lost in the WCW shuffle. He started to make a name for himself in his native Mexico in his 40s, but unfortunately Garza was diagnosed with lung cancer while the reigning Mexican National Heavyweight Champion in AAA. Garza succumbed to the disease in 2013 at the age of 43 while still holding the title.
11. Sean O’Haire – Suicide at 43
Sean O’Haire hit the wrestling scene during the dying days of WCW, and seemed liked he may have been the greatest true prospect of the WCW Power Plant. O’Haire was big and tough, but could fly off the top rope and engage fans with his intensity, making him arguably the standout star of the Natural Born Thrillers. He won the WCW Tag Team titles on three separate occasions and was named the Wrestling Observer’s Rookie of the Year, but sadly O’Haire’s career essentially peaked at the start. After WCW went out of business, O’Haire began a popular devil’s advocate gimmick in WWE, but it was quickly stopped and O’Haire left the company. He suffered depression and drug addiction for several years before committing suicide by hanging in 2014. O’Haire was 43 years old.
10. Davey Boy Smith – Heart Attack at 39
Davey Boy Smith is best known to fans as The British Bulldog, but they couldn’t officially call him that the first time he appeared in WCW due to legal issues with WWE. Bulldog had two big WCW runs, first in the early 90s feuding with Vader and Sid, and then again in the late 90s teaming with his brother-in-law, Jim Neidhart. It was during Davey’s second WCW run that he would suffer the back injury that in many ways lead to his death. Davey took a bump and landed on a trap door in the ring, which lead to an addiction to painkillers and a short lifetime’s worth of substance abuse. Smith was also a known steroid abuser, and in May of 2002 he died of a massive heart attack. He was 39.
9. Road Warrior Hawk – Heart Attack at 46
The Road Warriors were the fiercest tag team in history at the point when they dominated every wrestling company that existed during the 80s and 90s, and that of course includes WCW. They never officially won the WCW Tag Team titles, but they held the NWA versions that served as a precursor, and made a lasting impact on the company despite never holding the belts. Hawk in particular had a fairly extended solo career in WCW while Animal was recovering from a back injury in the mid 90s. He helped Sting in various battles before eventually turning on him when Animal returned, but the duo left the company shortly thereafter. Hawk died in October of 2003 after a massive heart attack at the age of 46.
8. Terry Gordy
Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy, one of the original Fabulous Freebirds, actually has a rare distinction that either classes him amongst the luckiest or unluckiest people ever to live—he died more than once. First, Gordy suffered a drug overdose in 1993 that left him clinically dead for a few minutes, but doctors were eventually able to revive him and he resumed his career for an additional eight years. In July of 2001, a blood clot would cause a heart attack that ultimately took his life on a more permanent basis, and Gordy died at the age of 40. In addition to being one of the Fabulous Freebirds, Gordy was also a member of a tag team unofficially named The Miracle Violence Combination with “Dr. Death” Steve Williams.
7. Bam Bam Bigelow – Cocaine Overdose at 45
Bam Bam Bigelow developed his reputation as one of the most talented and agile “big men” in wrestling history by dominating every company he showed up in. He made a big splash in WWE main eventing WrestleMania XI, and in ECW he managed to become both World and Television Champion. His success in WCW was lower key, but he still managed to have a bombastic debut, bursting on the scene to challenge Goldberg at the height of his fame in 1998. Bigelow was quickly shunted down the card in WCW for the same political reasons that held him back in WWE, and a tragic life followed him after WCW went out of business. Bigelow lost large amounts of money through bad business ventures including a restaurant that quickly shut down, and eventually died of a cocaine overdose in 2007. He was 45 years old.
6. Rick Rude – Drug Overdose at 40
“Ravishing” Rick Rude is often pointed to as one of the very few wrestlers who actually was a bigger success in WCW than he was in WWE. Rude’s charisma and incredible wrestling ability meant he made a huge impact wherever he went, but indeed, in WCW he reached higher levels than he ever seemed to elsewhere. Rude was a 3-time WCW International World Champion, and he held the WCW United States title for over a full year. After becoming a member of the nWo, Rude also offered his talents as a color commentator, often stepping in as the heel voice of Nitro and various Pay-Per-Views. The circumstances of Rude’s death have been slightly controversial, but the plain fact is that he died due to drug related heart failure in 1999. He was 40 years old.
5. Bobby Duncum, Jr. – Drug Overdose at 34
While all of these wrestlers passed far too young, Duncum is actually the only person on this list who died while still an active wrestler with WCW. Perhaps “active” is a little bit much, as he had previously been a member of The West Texas Rednecks, but was taking time off from WCW to heal a rotator cuff injury. Like so many wrestlers, he became addicted to the painkillers prescribed to him after that injury. While most wrestlers gradually worsen their addictions over the years, Duncum didn’t have the time, as he overdosed in February of 2000 while only 34 years old.
4. The Renegade – Suicide at 33
Rick Wilson, better known as The Renegade, is one of the least fair and most tragic stories in wrestling history. In 1995, WCW had backed themselves into a corner (a mistake they’d go on to repeat dozens of times over the next six years), all but promising that The Ultimate Warrior would be debuting with the company in the near future. The Renegade debuted as the most blatant “ultimate rip off” in wrestling history, and was quickly rejected by the crowd. He managed to win the WCW Television Championship, but on top of the bad idea that introduced him to the world, Renegade just wasn’t that great of a wrestler, and his career fizzled out almost immediately. He was fired from the company in late 1998 making him extremely depressed, and a few months later he committed suicide at the age of 33.
3. Brian Adams – Drug Overdose at 43
Brian Adams was a moderately important deal in WWE during the mid 90s as the third member of Demolition, Crush. After Demolition fell apart for the final time, Crush experienced a brief solo career, which saw him jump around the card too quickly to ever really catch on with fans. He jumped to WCW in 1998 and quickly joined the nWo. Despite debuting in a big moment and attacking Bret Hart, Adams quickly became an afterthought in WCW as well, and wallowed in the midcard. He finally experienced some fame as half of the tag team Kronik, winning the WCW Tag Team titles twice. Once WCW went out of business, Kronik appeared in WWE to wrestle one of the worst matches of all time against The Undertaker and Kane. His career ended on that down note, as he retired soon thereafter. Adams died in 2007 after mixing a deadly combination of muscle relaxers and painkillers. He was 43 years old.
2. Eddie Guerrero – Heart Attack at 38
Eddie Guerrero was one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, and whether or not he ever made it to the main event, anyone who watched WCW knew it every time he stepped in the ring. Eddie was controversial throughout his entire career, and that was certainly true in WCW, where he won the Cruiserweight and United States titles. Locker room politicians like Kevin Nash regularly held Eddie down, but he always managed to get the crowd to either love him or hate him depending on what the story called for. Eddie famously made the jump from WCW to WWE along with several of his friends in 2000, and eventually made his way to the top of that company, as well. In one of the biggest tragedies in wrestling history, Eddie was set to challenge for the World Heavyweight Title in November of 2005 when he suddenly passed away due to a massive heart attack while only 38 years old.
1. Chris Benoit – Suicide at 40
The only bigger tragedy than the sudden death of Eddie Guerrero came two short years later, with the shocking crimes and suicide of Chris Benoit. Benoit was like Guerrero in that he managed to deeply connect with fans through his incredible wrestling talent, despite the fact he never quite received the support of management while he was in WCW. Benoit did achieve a small modicum of success, winning the WCW Television, United States, and Tag Team titles, and became the WCW World Heavyweight Champion the day he decided to quit the company, but it was too little too late. The tragedy of his career trajectory in no way compares to the true tragedy of his life, which occurred in 2007 when Benoit murdered his wife and 7-year-old son. Benoit committed suicide the next day. He was 40 years old.