Generally speaking, professional athletes face more danger each time they go to work than people in almost any other career do. At any given moment, something minor could go wrong and lead to a serious injury, thereby changing their lives forever. Sometimes, these mistakes will even end a life altogether, with the athlete dying on whatever field it was he or she was making a living on. The only difference between pro wrestling and other sports, in this regard, is that instead of passing on in a literal field, wrestlers run the risk of losing their lives inside the ring.
Thankfully, it’s an extremely rare situation, but a handful of wrestlers have indeed legitimately died in the middle of a wrestling match. The usual causes are heart attacks suffered by men and women whose bodies weren’t able to keep up with the strenuous activity and broken necks so severe they're described as internal decapitations. Either way, something could go seriously wrong in the course of a match, to the point that one of the participants doesn’t live to tell the tale.
In addition to these rare fatal accidents, sports entertainment has seen even more close calls where in-ring deaths very nearly took place. While most of the wrestlers to die in the ring weren’t all that famous (in America, at least), some of the people who almost died were amongst the biggest names in wrestling history. Had things gone differently, their exits from the mortal plane could've changed WWE forever, both on an immediate scale and in the sense things would've gotten a whole lot safer, ushering in an early PG era. For more information, keep reading, and discover 15 wrestlers you didn’t know came close to dying in the ring.
Look, things were just different in the Attitude Era, alright? No one can really explain why Vince McMahon hired a guy just because he could make himself vomit on command, and there’s no use in trying to figure it out. After all, Darren Drozdov, aka Droz, was a better wrestler than his gimmick would imply, with the look of a superstar and a unique style that helped him stick out in one of the most visible periods in WWE history. Unfortunately, he would nonetheless fail to amount to much in the industry, due to a catastrophic injury suffered during a SmackDown match against D’Lo Brown. Apparently, Droz’s shirt was looser than the average wrestling gear, which caused D’Lo to lose his grip during a running powerbomb and drop Droz on his neck. This led to two fractured discs, in turn, paralyzing Droz and leaving him quadriplegic. Over time, he eventually regained limited use of his arms, but the real miracle is that he even survived in the first place.
14 “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Of all the close calls on this list, it goes without saying none would've changed things as much as WWE and the rest of the wrestling world losing “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the summer of 1997. At this point, the injury Austin suffered at SummerSlam that year is practically equally famous to anything else he did in the ring. To recap anyway, he was wrestling Owen Hart for the WWE Intercontinental Championship, and in the final moments of the match, Hart lost his grip during a sit-out piledriver and legitimately drove Austin headfirst into the mat, jamming and breaking his neck. Austin was temporarily paralyzed from the move, and one of his doctors later claimed he was surprised the damage wasn’t worse, speculating Stone Cold easily could've been “dead on the spot.” Amazingly, Austin not only overcame the injury to become a six-time WWE Champion, but he also got on his feet and finished the match, a feat requiring a superhuman level of resilience to pain.
13 Jerry Lawler
Unlike the other wrestlers on this list, Jerry Lawler’s brush with death had nothing to do with a wrestling move gone wrong or any other sort of in-ring accident. Proving it’s truly only good to be the King sometimes, Lawler’s one mistake was stepping into the ring at all, considering he was 62 years old when he did so. Moments after he wrestled a match with Randy Orton as his partner against CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler, Lawler collapsed at the commentary desk due to what was later diagnosed as cardiac arrest. Thanks to fast-acting WWE medical staff, Lawler was eventually resuscitated and taken to a hospital, where he was treated and has since undergone a full recovery. Amazingly, Lawler didn’t take this as a wake-up call, and he continues getting in the ring for his own companies to this day. While no one wants it to happen, it wouldn’t be totally shocking for Lawler to experience a similar incident, and next time, he may not survive it.
12 Shane McMahon
Now that Shane McMahon’s official role in WWE seems to be jumping off the Hell in a Cell structure and landing on nothing, nearly dying during his matches is pretty much expected. Back in 2001, though, Vince McMahon’s son did something infinitely more dangerous, coming far closer to losing his life than any of his so-called death-defying jumps ever would. From the very beginning, the plan for Shane’s Street Fight against Kurt Angle at the King of the Ring was severely flawed, as the script called for the Olympic Gold Medalist to hurl his boss’s son through a glass partition. Unfortunately, Plexiglas is harder to break than regular glass, so when Angle gave Shane a suplex that was supposed to send him through a window to the other side, he instead bounced off and landed flat on his head against steel concrete. And then, Angle did it again. And then, Angle did it again. Yes, three times in the span of two minutes, Kurt Angle nearly killed Shane McMahon on Pay-Per-View. Any of those suplexes could've ended in a broken neck, brain damage, or death, and yet according to Shane, each time, he was the one who told Kurt not to stop trying.
11 New Jack
Think getting choked out with a rope is hardcore? Well, it is, but don’t bother telling that to New Jack, who stabbed opponents with X-Acto knives for looking at him funny. No, really, Paul Heyman paid this guy to literally cut people open on purpose, and the ECW crowd treated him like he was a hero for doing it. In addition to his own propensity for violence, New Jack also apparently possesses an incredible resilience to pain and near-death experiences, as he came extremely close to losing his life at ECW Living Dangerously 2000. That night, Jack wrestled Vic Grimes in a scaffold match, which was a bad idea from the word go, considering how poorly pieced-together the “scaffold” was. It was also a terrible decision by all those involved to put the structure on top of a concrete floor. No matter what, falling off that thing was going to hurt, and if a 300-pound man were to come crashing down on top of them, driving his skull into said concrete, he might even die on the spot. That’s exactly what happened to Jack when he pulled Grimes to the floor, and though he lived to tell the tale, he suffered permanent brain damage and leaked internal fluids through his skull.
10 Chuck Austin
Aside from sharing his last name with one of the most iconic figures in wrestling, Chuck Austin isn’t a particularly notable figure in sports entertainment. Not that he really had the chance to make it, though, as his career ended a whole six weeks into training. Back in the early ‘90s, six weeks was apparently all enhancement talent needed to earn a shot on WWE TV, as the still relatively untrained Austin was hired for a match taped for the company’s syndicated programming. It never made the air, though, because in Austin’s match teaming with Lanny Poffo against The Rockers, his neck was severely broken by Marty Jannetty’s botched Rocker Dropper. Austin was immediately paralyzed from the neck down, and to this day, almost 27 years later, he remains largely immobile. He took WWE and Jannetty to court over the ordeal and earned a settlement of $10 million, though this hardly makes up for the fact he still can’t walk. On the other hand, at least he’s alive because the move just as easily could've killed him.
9 Jesse Sorensen
No matter what the company calls itself, TNA/Impact Wrestling/GFW/etc. will always have at least one thing in common with more competent promotions like WWE—stepping into their ring can be incredibly dangerous. Overall, TNA’s short existence and lighter schedule meant far fewer injuries have occurred there than in WWE, yet stories like that of Jesse Sorensen nonetheless prove the risks involved in any wrestling organization. During an X Division Championship number-one contender’s match against Zema Ion at Against All Odds 2012, Sorensen suffered a severe neck injury, fracturing his C-1 vertebrae and experiencing spinal edema. The cause was a botched Asai Moonsault from Ion, which ended in him kneeing Sorensen’s skull in a manner that caused the fracture. One thing TNA apparently didn’t have in common with WWE was taking care of its wrestlers, as although Dixie Carter promised Sorensen would have a job for life, he was fired before he made his comeback. There have also been claims they refused to pay for his medical bills, which is legally shady territory at best.
8 Tyson Kidd
Long before he entered the WWE Universe, fans of Samoa Joe chanted “Joe’s gonna kill you” toward countless opponents he indeed went on to destroy inside the ring. There was no chanting in June of 2015 when Joe nearly did just that to Tyson Kidd during one of his first WWE matches, when a Muscle Buster gone wrong shattered the former Tag Team Champion’s neck. Since then, Joe's been using a very different version of the move, ensuring no one would experience the same pain and tragedy Kidd has gone through. Shortly after his treatment, Kidd claimed that only 5% of people who break their spine in the way he did survive, and even those who do usually end up paralyzed or quadriplegic. On the downside, it’s generally believed that Kidd will never wrestle again, forced into retirement at the young age of 35. If nothing else, WWE has kept him around as a producer, and his wife Natalya remains a superstar to this day.
7 Brock Lesnar
One way or another, Brock Lesnar was determined to make his first WrestleMania main event count. Given he was challenging Kurt Angle for the WWE Championship, all Lesnar really needed to accomplish this goal was to win and reclaim the gold he had lost four months earlier. As per usual at the time, Lesnar went the extra mile in putting on a spectacular display while doing so, although his efforts indirectly led to him very nearly losing the match, his career, and perhaps even his life. To finish Angle off for good, Lesnar attempted something he had never before tried while WWE cameras were rolling: the infamous Shooting Star Press, a backflip into a splash from the top rope. Unfortunately, Lesnar slipped when coming off the rope and thus didn’t quite stick the landing, ending up flat on his head rather than on top of Angle in a pinning position. According to Kurt, he genuinely believed Lesnar had either broken his neck or even died on impact, and the blank stares Lesnar gave him after getting to his feet didn’t do much to lessen these fears. Luckily, Lesnar got out of the ordeal without any major bones snapping to pieces, but he did suffer a concussion, which isn’t exactly a good thing.
6 Buff Bagwell
None of the injuries on this list are as personal to those who witnessed them as that of Buff Bagwell, if only because of how much time WCW devoted to covering it. This isn’t to say Buff didn’t deserve the attention, nor that WCW really had any choice in the matter. After a botched bulldog off the top rope from Rick Steiner during a tag team match on the April 22, 1998 episode of Thunder, Bagwell was left unconscious and immobile inside the ring for a solid 20 minutes. Amazingly, due to interference from Scott Steiner, Bagwell managed to pick up the win for himself and partner Scott Norton, but the more pressing issue was that he was completely paralyzed due to a severe neck injury. Rick Steiner failed to get a good grip on Buff as he delivered the bulldog, ultimately causing Bagwell’s head to jam against Rick’s back, damaging his vertebrae and causing spinal shock. However, to fans watching at home, unsure of Buff’s fate, it genuinely looked like he had died in the ring.
During the Attitude Era, WWE took a page out of ECW’s book and started taking hardcore wrestling its most violent extremes. This would even happen during regular non-hardcore matches, like the six-man tag team bout between The Brood (Edge, Christian, and Gangrel) and The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness (Mideon, Viscera, and the Dead Man himself) on the February 1, 1999 episode of Raw. When the Brood gained the slightest leeway in the match, the Acolytes ran into the match with various weapons to ensure further punishment. As part of this onslaught, Bradshaw hanged Gangrel with a rope, leaving his feet dangling from the apron. That wasn’t all, as The Undertaker also pulled Gangrel down, truly giving the illusion he was being hanged. Turns out the effort wasn’t necessary because the rope used wasn’t faked in any way, and Gangrel slipped off the apron for real, so he really could've been choked to death on camera. Thankfully, Mideon noticed something was up and got Bradshaw to stop so Gangrel could catch his breath.
To fans of American wrestling exclusively, the name "Hayabusa" may not mean much, except perhaps a great match at ECW Heatwave 1998. Teaming with Jinsei Shinzaki, who competed in WWE as "Hakushi," Hayabusa challenged Rob Van Dam and Sabu for the ECW Tag Team titles in an unsuccessful effort. The match was considered a highlight by most people who watched the show, which was no surprise to the many fans of Hayabusa’s matches in Japan, primarily working for the company Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling. While Hayabusa was best known for his high flying style, FMW was similar to ECW in its hardcore antics, a fact Hayabusa learned well by competing in more than one exploding ring time-bomb deathmatch. However, it was a completely normal match against Mammoth Sasaki that left Hayabusa paralyzed for over a decade, when he slipped off the ropes during a springboard moonsault and landed directly on his head. The botch broke two of Hayabusa’s vertebrae and easily could've internally decapitated him had things been only slightly worse.
Nicknamed "the homicidal, genocidal, suicidal madman," it may be a valid question to ask if Sabu ever wrestled a single match where either he or his opponents didn’t nearly die. Sure, the guy’s mellowed out just a little bit when necessary, like his short stints in WCW or WWE, but on the other hand, he regularly jumps off of chairs into seas of people without thinking twice about it. Any number of Sabu’s stunts could've gone wrong or, shall we say, worse than they had and resulted in him or someone else dying. In addition to breaking his neck twice against Chris Benoit and Taz, there was indeed an earlier incident which nearly killed every single person in a particular Sabu match, although this time, it wasn’t his fault. Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, basically the ECW of Japan, once held a match where Sabu and his uncle The Sheik teamed up against Atsushi Onita and Tarzan Goto in a “ring of fire.” Unlike WWE’s inferno matches, this turned out to be literal, as the gimmicked flames burned too fast, setting the entire ring ablaze within minutes. Realizing how badly things had gotten out of hand, all four wrestlers immediately jumped out of the ring and ran away, and the arena was soon evacuated.
2 Mick Foley
Quite frankly, anyone to even casually follow the career of Mick Foley shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that he would be on a list like this one. Mankind, Cactus Jack, or Dude Love, whatever you want to call him, Mrs. Foley’s baby boy made a career out of absorbing more pain than any other human could ever withstand and doing it with a smile. With the sheer number of concussions he’s experienced, we really don’t have the space to list every time Foley could've died or caused himself brain damage if things went a little differently, but there are still a few in particular that deserve mention. First up is the infamous series with Vader in 1993, when he was repeatedly powerbombed onto his head against concrete on multiple occasions. Even more infamous was his Hell in a Cell encounter against The Undertaker, where he twice fell more than 20 feet. The second fall was unplanned and caused announcer Jerry Lawler to remark, “That’s it; he’s dead,” a statement he later affirmed was a genuine prediction. Somehow, Foley survived it all, plus another half-dozen close calls that all contributed to his legend.
1 Seth Rollins
The September 8, 2014 episode of Monday Night Raw was supposed to end with a match between Roman Reigns and Randy Orton, yet it nearly ended with Seth Rollins getting killed live on television. Obviously, that wasn’t the plan, as Rollins was supposed to interfere in the match alongside Kane, so they could aide Orton in a beat down on The Big Dog. A steel cage used earlier in the show would also lower from the ceiling, trapping Reigns inside with his enemies. Therein lay the problem, as Rollins mistimed getting out of the ring, nearly trapping himself beneath the cage as it dropped to the ring. Steel spikes used to lock the cage in place were also dangerously close to impaling Rollins, piercing major organs or otherwise killing him immediately. The first person to notice this seemed to be Kane, who screamed in terror and grabbed for Seth to pull him out of the ring, but he was too far away to do anything. Luckily, the Architect noticed just in the nick of time and shoved himself away to safety.