More so than perhaps any other sport, professional wrestlers have shown a tragic trend towards dying young. Predetermined or not, sports entertainment puts an incredible toll on a performer’s body, and many of them self-medicate with prescription or illegal drugs. That’s not to mention steroids, which though not nearly as prevalent as they once were, are still responsible for long-term damage affecting some old school wrestlers to this day. On top of all that, life has an expiration rate to begin with, and wrestlers are bound to meet that date like everyone else, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all.
None of this is new information to the average wrestling fan, who has been saying goodbye to a shocking number of their favorite athletes at a terrifying rate. That said, it’s still astounding that barely two and a half months into the year, the industry has lost well over a dozen superstars, big and small. It was obvious things were going to be tough when a single week in February took three legends and a third well-known Attitude Era performer all at once, and there’s nothing preventing more devastating weeks like that from coming in the near future.
Hopefully, some medical breakthrough will take place that could save wrestlers and stop this tragic trend in its tracks. We realize that isn’t terribly likely, though, so the best we can do is remember the people we’ve lost and honor their legacies as best we can. As a bonus, perhaps the more sensational stories will always serve to warn younger wrestlers to avoid the mistakes of the past. Keep reading to discover 15 pro wrestlers you won’t believe the year 2017 has already taken away from us.
15 “Outlaw” Ron Bass
Chances are a wide majority of wrestlers would define themselves as outlaws in one way or another, yet only one superstar was committed enough to the idea to make it his nickname. Ron Bass started wrestling in the early 1970s, soon joined by his kayfabe brother Don Bass, who also passed away last year. In addition to his fake family, Ron was known throughout the Southern United States for his many other tag teams with legends like Barry Windham, Stan Hansen, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. The Outlaw went mainstream as a solo act when he jumped to the WWE Universe in 1987, and though he would rarely make his way above the midcard, he did have at least one memorable moment to his name. Predating the concept of hardcore by quite some time, Bass attacked and bloodied Brutus Beefcake with a pair of spurs, preventing The Barber from making a schedule Intercontinental Championship bout. Unfortunately, he was never able to capitalize on the moment, eventually losing the feud against Beefcake and retiring due to injuries. Bass was hospitalized in March because his appendix burst, and he later died due to surgical complications, aged 68.
14 Rex King
Even before he met Steve Doll in the late 1980s, fans in Portland and around the world could always be sure Rex King would give a job well done. King and Doll first formed a team when Rex replaced Scott Peterson in The Southern Rockers, later changing their name to Well Dunn when they joined the WWE Universe in the early 90s. Truth be told, though, King’s talents were never properly utilized by the McMahon family as a tag team wrestler or solo act, the true gems of his time in the ring coming in Portland and the USWA. Outside of the tag team, he also had stints as a jobber in both WWE and WCW using the Rex King moniker. Reports cropped out claiming that he died in 2012 based on the website for the World Wrestling Council, where King had previously wrestled, but they were soon proven false. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case on January 9th, when he passed away for real due to kidney failure. He was 55 years old.
13 Jun Izumida
Given the potentially dangerous girth associated with success in the sport, sumo wrestlers are as prone if not more so to an early demise than their sports entertainment counterparts. Making the transition from sumo to pro can lead to continued success, yet many high profile examples have shown the downside can also exist, most recently in the case of Jun Izumida. Perhaps because of his size (which frankly wasn’t that massive, at least in wrestling), Izumida was mostly confined to a comedy role when he started working for All Japan Pro Wrestling. Though a regular six-man tag team partner of the legendary Giant Baba, Izumida was never able to become much of a star on his own despite a nearly 10 year career working for top Japanese promotions. Izumida retired from the ring in 2012 for reasons that were never publicly disclosed, generally staying out of the news from then on. He was found dead in his home on January 31st, coroners eventually determining that he had passed away several days earlier due to a heart attack. Izumida was 51.
12 Nicole Bass
It takes a certain type of personality to proudly become a member of a group called the Wack Pack, and that has nothing to do with Nicole Bass’s brief foray into the world of pro wrestling. She first came to fame as a bodybuilder, something anybody could have guessed after only one look at her one-of-a-kind massive frame. Her association in Howard Stern started in 1993, bringing her to fame through repeat appearances on his highly rated radio show and The Miss Howard Stern New Year’s Eve Pageant Pay-Per-View special. Bass made her way to wrestling in 1998 by joining Justin Credible’s menagerie of freaks in ECW, aiding him in his feud with Tommy Dreamer. It wasn’t long before the WWE Universe came calling, and Bass jumped ship to be Sable’s bodyguard at, debuting at WrestleMania XV. Her time in WWE was highly controversial, however, lasting but a few months and ending in a lawsuit alleging sexually harassment by The Brooklyn Brawler, though charges were later dismissed. Bass suffered a stroke on February 16th and was declared brain dead, so her family took her off life support and allowed her to pass away the next day, aged 52.
11 Chavo Guerrero, Sr.
Classic in every sense of the word, Chavo Guerrero set a great example for his younger brothers by breaking out of their father Gory’s shadow and becoming a huge star in his own right. Although Chavo, Sr. didn’t make his way to the WWE Universe until an age at which most wrestlers would have retired, he nonetheless became an incredibly popular superstar in Los Angeles and Texas working for various NWA territories. While he often teamed with brothers Mando and Héctor, it could be argued Chavo was the most beloved of the bunch through his antics as a solo act. His popularity was such it eventually inspired the Mountain Goats song “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” detailing his career more succinctly and beautifully than any brief obituary ever could. In his later life, Chavo spent his days supporting his family and especially his son Chavo, Jr., finally making that WWE appearance and even winning the Cruiserweight Championship, thus becoming the oldest wrestler to do so. As of late last year, Chavo was still making occasional wrestling appearances, again helping his son on an episode of Lucha Underground. Guerrero contracted liver cancer soon after, rapidly progressing to his death on February 11th. He was 68.
10 Drax Shadow
Cue the waterworks, gang, because for as sad as this list may be in its very nature, nothing prepares the world for tragedies quite like what happened to Drax Shadow, real name Elijah Mainville. Being diagnosed with cancer at only three years old wasn’t enough to stop Mainville from trying to live his dream of being a wrestler, which he set out to accomplish by sending in an application video to Tough Enough in late 2015. Obviously, Mainville couldn’t actually compete on the show because he was still a child, but hearing his story touched Triple H and Stephanie McMahon so deeply they decided to offer him an honorary contract, making him the youngest WWE superstar ever. Calling himself Drax Shadow, he warned his enemies, “Don’t fear the darkness; fear the shadow.” Young Elijah entered a WWE ring with HHH and Steph to sign the papers, his favorite wrestler, Cody Rhodes, also standing beside him to celebrate the occasion. While it made for a triumphant and unforgettable moment, the story predictably came to a tragic end on January 8th, when Mainville succumbed to his battle with cancer at the age of of 9.
9 Tom Jones
It’s been a long time since Tom Jones excited fans across the Southern United States, making him fairly obscure in his older age as he battled a series of health problems. However, as sometimes happens, the outpouring of love following his passing proves fans still well remember his time in the ring, specifically his many great tag teams with superstars like Billy Red Lyons, Mando Guerrero, Mr. Wrestling, and future WWE mainstay S.D. Jones (no relation in reality or kayfabe). In addition to using his own name, occasionally he would don a mask and wrestle as either The Gladiator or Mr. Ebony. Jones also spent time as a member of Skandor Akbar’s infamous Devastation Incorporated, making him a de facto enemy of the wildly popular Von Erich family. Outside of the ring, however, it was Jones who is remembered as truly being popular with his coworkers, earning respect wherever he tried his craft. After a long battle with dementia and other ailments, Jones passed away on March 4th, aged 77.
8 “Bruiser” Bob Sweetan
Unlike most industries, it can seriously pay off for a professional wrestler to be a naturally rude jerk. Unless, of course, they’re unable to ever turn it off, which is why “Bruiser” Bob Sweetan could never sustain his fortunes despite arguably being a main event level performer almost wherever he wrestled. He started in his native Canada, where he worked for Stu Hart and became recognized as Mr. Piledriver for his distinctive manner in using the maneuver. Sweetan still has a few fans left, including Shawn Michaels, who admired his ability to be such a good heel the loyal regional crowds would gradually start to cheer for him out of respect. Said respect may not have existed had fans known the truth, though, which was that Sweetan was a serious bully in real life, abusing so many of his coworkers he was repeatedly forced out of territories when people stopped agreeing to work with him. Much worse, he was also a convicted child molester, getting him kicked out of the entire United States and deported back to Canada. In his advanced age, Sweetan contracted diabetes, his condition gradually getting worse until February 10th, when he passed away at the age 76.
7 J.J. Carson
Some people simply aren’t meant to work the traditional 9-to-5, and it was that mentality that drove J.J. Carson to the wrestling ring, at least in the opinion of his mentor, Rude Boy Rudy Hill. As Carson’s mentor, Hill would certainly have the inside story, and J.J’s history confirms his dreams took him far away from the office and into combat sports. On top of pro wrestling, he also attempted boxing, MMA, and anything else that let him beat people up. The only problem was, by his own mentor’s admission, Carson was at best “good, not great.” His MMA record was an unfortunate 0-3, and his constant distractions in other athletics made it almost impossible for Carson to build momentum in the wrestling world. That didn’t stop him from earning the respect of Hill and others, who nonetheless praised Carson for always giving it his all and wanting to put on the best show he could. In a bizarre and slightly confusing story, J.J. was murdered on January 27th in a medical marijuana exchange gone horribly wrong. He was 31.
6 “The Cullman Comet” Tom Drake
Now that a WWE Hall of Famer is living in the White House, more politicians than ever may be following in the footsteps of Tom Drake. Known as The Cullman Comet during his time in the ring, Drake was arguably better remembered for his career in politics, ascending to the position of Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives. He kept wrestling well into his time in the Alabama Legislature, once appearing on the game show What’s My Line? billed as an attorney/farmer/legislator/wrestler, perhaps the only person in history to hold all those job titles at once. Though never a huge star outside of his home state, Drake was still able to get in the ring with some of the biggest legends in wrestling history, such as Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, and Lou Thesz. He also became friends with fellow wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura. A sign of the times, Drake’s devastating finishing move was the simple dropkick. He was also notable in other sports outside of wrestling as a friend and mentee of legendary college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Drake passed away on February 2nd, aged 86.
5 Johnny K-9
Whether they called him Johnny K-9, Bruiser Bedlam, Taras Bulba, or any of his other exponentially strange ring names, the fact remained Ion Croitoru was one of the most vile criminals ever to step into the squared circle. He caught the attention of WWE early into his career, using the K-9 name and introduced as one of Slick’s clients. After that failed to take off, Croitoru took a few years to regroup before rematerializing in Smoky Mountain Wrestling, where he performed as Bruiser Bedlam and achieved the biggest victory of his career against “Macho Man” Randy Savage. The real interesting part of Croitoru’s life came after wrestling, albeit it through truly deplorable antics. Outside of the ring, it turns out Croitoru was a career criminal, with ties to organizations like the Satan’s Choice and United Nations motorcycle games and the Gravelle crime family. These associations lead to numerous stints in prison on charges from assault to bombing to multiple murders. Croitoru was release to a federal halfway house last year, where he was found dead on February 21st. He was 53.
4 Dennis Stamp
Proudly calling himself “the world’s most famous unknown wrestler,” chances are most fans today know Dennis Stamp as the guy who begrudged “I’m not booked!” in Barry W. Blaustein’s documentary Beyond the Mat. As seen in the film, Stamp was a long time close friend of Terry Funk, dating back to their days wrestling for various NWA territories throughout the Southwestern United States. Of course, Stamp was never anywhere near the Funker’s star power, but he did hold his own as a tough heel, winning a number of regional championships. By the time Stamp made it to the WWE Universe, he was a bit older and slowing down in the ring, thus his turning into a jobber to the stars. His last high profile gig came as a referee, once again working with Funk by officiating one of his many retirement matches, this time against Bret Hart. Stamp was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2011, and though chemotherapy briefly sent it into remission, the cancer returned to take his life late last year. He passed away on March 13th at the age of 70.
3 Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka
Flying off cages when most wrestlers wouldn’t even climb to the top rope, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka was a true innovator of the sport, albeit one with a tragic dark side not unlike far too many of his contemporaries. Snuka’s might be one of the worst, though, with long lasting suspicions he murdered his girlfriend Nancy Argentino in the early 1980s persisting until his death. Then and now, fans have been able to look past that and honor Snuka as one of the most popular performers of his era, the downside being that could have helped him evade justice for so long. In any event, Snuka was a huge star for the NWA, WWE, and ECW, making him a true journeyman who entertained countless fans while redefining what a wrestling ring was for. Snuka was also a highly influential act outside of the ring, especially in his legendary feud against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, which indirectly got him involved with the main event of WrestleMania I as Hulk Hogan and Mr. T’s corner man. After suffering from dementia and stomach cancer for several years, Snuka died on January 15th, aged 73.
2 George “The Animal” Steele
Turnbuckles around the world can relax, knowing George “The Animal” Steele is no longer around to dig his teeth into them and spit out the stuffing at his opponents. Of course, this hardly makes up for the great loss felt by the rest of the world, to whom Steele was one of the most vicious and bizarre heels of the ‘70s, and then an equally strange yet beloved part of the ‘80s. Though the Animal never won any championships in the WWE Universe, he found great success through landmark feuds with Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, the last of them over a crush he developed on Miss Elizabeth. Crohn’s disease forced him out of the ring full time in the late ‘80s, but Steele kept working for WWE on and off throughout the next decade, popping up again during the Attitude Era as the mentor of the Oddities. In addition to his sterling wrestling career, Steele was an occasional actor, most famously appearing in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood as fellow wrestler Tor Johnson. His health in decline for many years, Steele passed away from kidney failure on February 16th at the age of 79.
1 “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff
Only in the world of wrestling could a rural farmer kid from Ottawa, Canada turn into an Irishman named Red McNulty, and when that didn’t work, let him rebrand again as “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff. So goes the life story of Oreal Perras, and coupled with the fact fans still affectionately know him as Uncle Ivan should solidify it was a perfect match when he found the sport. No matter what they called him or where he was pretending to be from, Koloff managed to become the most hated heel everywhere he went, most famously in the Northeast, where he ended Bruno Sammartino’s seven-year-long reign as WWE Champion. Though Koloff would hold that title a mere three weeks before losing it to Pedro Morales, the victory made him a major star for life, a status he went on to use as a mentor and tag partner to younger talents in the NWA. His “nephew” Nikita was Ivan’s greatest student, though he also found success with Krusher Khruschev, Don Kernodle, and Manny Fernandez, amongst others. He passed away on February 18th after a short battle with liver cancer, aged 74.
Sources: WWE, Slam! Sports, www.f4wonline.com