The year 2016 wasted no time in proving it would be a year where entertainment suffered some major losses, starting with the January 10th death of David Bowie. Since then, it has felt like no celebrity was safe from an unexpected demise, be they in the worlds of music, sports, film, or yes, even professional wrestling. The past and present superstars of the WWE Universe and other sports entertainment companies have long held the unfortunate reputation of dying young and en masse, with the funeral dirge of 2016 constantly ringing to prove it.
If there’s any solace to be taken in the string of losses 2016 left behind, it’s that not all of these luminaries passed away at a young age. Several of the people who died in 2016 did so after living long lives and enjoying successful careers, slipping away from this Earth due to natural causes after years of retirement. Of course, the true tragedies of this list are those who passed young, which many did, be it from drug problems, terminal diseases, or simply the pressures and damages caused by life as a pro wrestler.
Just as the whole of entertainment has been suffering, so has every genre of pro wrestling, both new and old. Managers, brawlers, high fliers, traditionalists, female, and even specialty wrestlers all passed away over the last year, and with wrestlers dropping at rates typically reserved for flies, some of these legends have already been forgotten in death. To ensure no legacies are lost, keep reading to discover 15 pro wrestlers you didn’t realize passed away in 2016.
15 Mr. Fuji
Having learned the finer points of deviousness from his trainer Nick Bockwinkel, Mr. Fuji started wrestling for independent wrestling promotions around the west coast in the mid 1960s. Fuji jumped to WWE in 1972 and formed a legendary team with Professor Toru Tanaka, winning the WWE Tag Team Championships three times and feuding Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino in a number of main events. He later formed a second tag team with Mr. Saito, with whom he would win another two WWE Tag Team Championships. For all of Fuji’s successes as a wrestler, he was arguably even more famous for his time as a manager, leading superstars like Demolition, Don Muraco, and Yokozuna to the ring during the peaks of their own legendary careers. He faded away from WWE and the wrestling community altogether in 1996, only occasionally showing up in pictures highlighting his progressively ailing health. He passed away on August 28 at the age of 82, with no official cause of death listed.
14 Frenchy Martin
Fans who only know Frenchy Martin from his short tenure in WWE probably think all he did was wear a monocle and wear a sign that read, “USA is not OK.” With all due respect, that is about all he did while working for Vince McMahon, but the man really named Jean Gagné was actually a considerable star throughout both his native Canada and the more hardcore wrestling promotions popular in Puerto Rico throughout the 1970s. He wrestled under a handful of different names, including his birth name, Martin, Pierre Martel, Masked Cyclops, Don Gagné, Mad Dog Martin, and half of a tag team with Michel Martel known as The Mercenaries. In one of his highest profile encounters, Martin survived a 60-minute time limit draw with then NWA World Champion Ric Flair. He retired from wrestling in 1990 and began suffering the effects of bladder cancer in 2015. The disease spread to include bone cancer, as well, and he succumbed to the combination on October 21. He was 69 years old.
13 Kris Travis
Being the lowest profile wrestler on our list in no way makes the death of Kris Travis any less of a tragedy, especially when one considers he’s also the youngest person unfortunate enough to appear on it. Travis made his wrestling debut in 2002 for Grand Pro Wrestling, spending almost his entire career in his native England and forming a popular group known as Project Ego. He also wrestled for the German promotion Westside Xtreme Wrestling and the American TNA, albeit during the company’s British Boot Camp series. Travis had to take a leave of absence from wrestling in 2014 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Wrestlers big and small voiced their support for his battle, including WWE superstars like CM Punk and Chris Jericho. Travis recovered enough to return to the ring in August of 2015, but his cancer returned the next month and he was forced to retire. He passed away on March 31 at the age of 32. Though he never competed in WWE, his death was a black mark on the WrestleMania weekend festivities, with superstars like Kevin Owens, Paige, and Fínn Balor all offering varying levels of tribute.
12 Lord Littlebrook
The world being a much different place today than it was in the late 1940s, chances are a wrestler like Lord Littlebrook would never stand a chance in the modern WWE Universe. This is because Littlebrook was one of the world’s most famous midget wrestlers, pardon the expression, standing tall at 4 foot 4 inches and weighing only 108 pounds. His small stature was made up for with his explosive high flying presence, predating wrestlers like Jimmy Snuka and The Rockers in regularly jumping off the ropes and relying on aerial attacks to overpower his opponents. He competed all over the world, becoming especially popular in Australia, Japan, Thailand, his native England, and the United States, where he worked for all of the top companies around, including the AWA, WCW, NWA, and WWE. Littlebrook’s highest profile match was without a doubt his 6-man tag encounter at WrestleMania III, when he teamed with Little Tokyo and King Kong Bundy against the triumvirate of Hillbilly Jim, The Haiti Kid, and Little Beaver. After a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, Littlebrook passed away on September 9 at the age of 87.
11 Harley Saito
One of the many reminders the women’s revolution is nothing new in Japan, Harley Saito made her wrestling debut in August of 1986 when she was 18. Named after her love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and American wrestling legend Harley Race, Saito was one of the top stars of Ladies Legend Pro-Wrestling, where she twice enjoyed year long reigns as the LLPW World Champion. She also wrestled in the American Ladies Pro Wrestling Association, winning a tournament and becoming the only Japanese Women’s Champion for that promotion. Saito was best known for her lengthy feud against Shinobu Kandori, and also wrestled famous superstars like Shark Tsuchiya, Lioness Asuka, and Kyoko Inoue. She was first forced into early retirement when diagnosed with uterine fibroids in 2010. Saito underwent surgery and returned to the ring after two years of recovery, but soon retired again in December of 2012. She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer earlier this year, and succumbed to the disease on December 15. Saito died six days shy of her 49th birthday.
10 Lord James Blears
Working around his service in the UK Merchant Navy, Lord James Blears made his wrestling debut in 1940. Once his military career was over, he traveled to the United States to start his wrestling career proper, developing a character as a snooty aristocrat with a cape, monocle, cane, and tuxedo wearing manager Captain Leslie Holmes. Prior to Blears' matches, Holmes would get on the microphone and instruct fans to lower their caps and pay him the proper respect, making him one of the most hated heels of the ‘50s. After retiring from the ring, Blears enjoyed long commentary careers with Hawaiian Championship Wrestling and the AWA, and was the father of four children who all became world famous surfers. He was a huge fan of surfing himself, appearing in surfing based films like The Endless Summer and North Shore and spending the final years of his life in Honolulu. Having lived a long and joyous life, Blears passed away on March 3 at the Kuakini Medical Center at the age of 92.
9 The Mongolian Stomper
Although he was born in Canada and spent large amounts of his professional life in the Southern United States, Archie Gould was nonetheless best known in America as The Mongolian Stomper. He also wrestled under his real name throughout Canada, though his trademark generally remained stomping on his victim’s chests regardless of his moniker. The Stomper’s greatest successes came as the top heel of Stampede Wrestling, where he was the North American Champion a record 14 times. He wrestled world famous superstars like former NWA Champion Pat O’Connor, former AWA British Champion Billy Robinson, and Canadian legend Stu Hart. His feud with Hart got so intense it caused Hart’s son, Bret, who would of course become a legend himself, to refer to the Stomper as one of his favorite wrestlers of the era. Stomper kept wrestling into his 50s, heading to Memphis for a feud with Jerry Lawler and then Smoky Mountain Wrestling to feud Kevin Sullivan, ultimately retiring in 1995. Stomper began suffering Alzheimer’s sometime around 2011, and ultimately passed away on January 23rd this year after complications from a fall, aged 78.
8 Axl Rotten
In naming himself after rock stars Axl Rose and Johnny Rotten, Brian Knighton was setting a high standard of outlandish behavior that he more than lived up to as Axl Rotten. Axl trained a wrestler named John Williams, who then adapted a persona as Axl’s brother Ian and the two formed a tag team called The Bad Breed. The team broke up after a match at ECW November To Remember 1994 and engaged in a feud against one another in a series of increasingly violent matches over the next year. Rotten went on to form another tag team with Balls Mahoney known as The Hardcore Chair Swinging Freaks, and though they never achieved any championship success, they nonetheless became one of the most popular duos in ECW at the time they were around. Rotten appeared at WWE One Night Stand in 2005 and wrestled a number of dark matches for the company that year, though it never turned into a full time deal. Late in his career, Rotten suffered a spinal injury that forced him into retirement. He was found dead on February 4th after overdosing on heroin. He was 44.
7 Balls Mahoney
Jonathan Rechner started his career in 1987 under the name Abbudah Singh. He went by names like Boo Bradley, his birth name, and the would-be career killing gimmick of Xanta Claus, somehow recovering with a run in ECW as a hardcore chair swinging freak named Balls Mahoney. He started as a solo power wrestler, but found far more success when he earned his reputation by literally and constantly swinging chairs like a hardcore freak with his partner Axl Rotten. Though he and Rotten never won any gold, Mahoney later teamed up with Masato Tanaka and briefly won the ECW Tag Team Championships from The Dudley Boyz. Another team with Spike Dudley would net Mahoney two more runs with the belts. After ECW went out of business, Mahoney kept competing on the independent scene until Vince McMahon revived the brand in 2005. Mahoney would experience a moderately high profile angle with the various female superstars of ECW over the next few years, though he never would win another championship or wrestle in a particularly notable match. He died suddenly on April 12 after suffering a heart attack while watching Jeopardy.
6 Gypsy Joe
Having long held the reputation as the world’s oldest active hardcore wrestler, forgive us for treating Gypsy Joe’s death as less of a shock than some of the others on the list. That isn’t to say his style didn’t make him tough as nails for the 82 years he lived and kept competing, though. Joe started wrestling way back in 1951 throughout his native Puerto Rico, learning the finer aspects of the sport with future legends like Pedro Morales and Carlos Colón, Sr. He only occasionally wrestled in America, and never became much of a star when he did, though he was able to gather a cult following in Japan for his hardcore death match style. Joe finally made headlines in American wrestling when he was 69 years old, after New Jack legitimately attacked him during an independent match. Vicious though the assault was, it didn’t stop Joe from wrestling nine more years, at which point he retired at 77 years old. He died on June 15th, aged 82, after suffering a long illness.
5 Blackjack Mulligan
The patriarch of the Windham-Wyatt wrestling family, Robert Windham started his career as Big Bob Windham in 1967. He competed for the AWA until 1971, when he jumped to WWE and earned his more famous nickname, Blackjack Mulligan. He was so hated as a top heel that a fan once jumped the rails to stab him in the leg, which had the side effect of slowing him down and making him take a few years off. On the plus side, when he returned he linked up with a second Blackjack, John Lanza. The Blackjacks held a number of regional NWA tag team championships throughout the country, in addition to the WWE World Tag Team Championships. Mulligan in particular would bounce back and forth between WWE and a number of NWA affiliates, also forming a successful championship winning team with “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. On top of his own sterling career, Mulligan’s true legacy may come from his family, being the father of Kendall and Barry Windham, and the father-in-law of Mike Rotunda. This also makes him the grandfather of Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas. Mulligan suffered a heart attack in late 2015 and never fully recovered, ultimately passing away on April 7th at the age 73.
4 Iron Mike Sharpe
Though he would ultimately become one of the standout jobbers of the 1980s, “Iron” Mike Sharpe was actually born with wrestling in his blood, as he was the son of wrestler Mike Sharpe, Sr. The elder Sharpe was famous throughout Canada for a tag team with his brother, and Iron Mike made the decision to follow in his father’s footsteps by training with The Missing Link in 1973. Calling Sharpe a career jobber wouldn’t be entirely fair, as he made his 1983 WWE debut as a top level heel, proclaiming himself “Canada’s Greatest Athlete” and acquiring the services of legendary manager Captain Lou Albano. Sharpe came up short in his one shot at WWE Champion Bob Backlund and soon started his descent to the bottom of the card, where he stayed until he left WWE in 1995. Sharpe still managed to participate in a few high profile bouts along the way, including a run as Hulk Hogan’s tag team partner in Japan. He later became a successful trainer, having a hand in melding the legacies of future stars like Nova, Charlie Haas, and Crowbar. Sharpe passed away due to undisclosed causes on January 17th. He was 64.
While never a particularly big star in America, the wrestler best known as Hayabusa was a huge star in Japan, particularly the hardcore promotion Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling. Born Eiji Ezaki, he made his debut for All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1987 and found little success, jumping to the nascent FMW for the first time in 1991. At the suggestion of FMW founder Atsushi Onita, Ezaki went to Mexico and studied lucha libre from 1993 to 1995, developing a more aerial style and creating the Hayabusa name and character. He returned to FMW and soon became the top star of the promotion by wrestling in highly dangerous barbed wire, explosion, and cage matches. During this period, he would occasionally wrestle without a mask using the simplistic moniker H. In addition to his many FMW classics, Hayabusa made at least one appearance in ECW, teaming with Jinsei Shinsaki (aka Hakushi) against then ECW Tag Team Champions Sabu and Rob Van Dam. Hayabusa’s career came crashing to a halt after a horrible in-ring accident in 2001 left him paralyzed from the neck down. Though he appeared to be gradually recovering, Ezaki suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage on March 3rd, causing his death at the age of 47.
Typically, women in WWE are hired for only one of two reasons, which is why a woman like Joanie Laurer made history virtually instantaneously upon her debut. She caught the eye of Triple H and Shawn Michaels shortly after training with Killer Kowalski, soon getting signed by WWE to be HHH’s bodyguard. The three bound together to form D-Generation X with Rick Rude, with Chyna and Triple H remaining the backbones of the group after Rude and Michaels left. Outside of DX, Chyna made history as one of the most dominant female wrestlers in history, becoming the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble or King of the Ring, plus the only woman to win the Intercontinental Championship. Her high profile relationship with Triple H fell to pieces when he started dating Stephanie McMahon in 2000, and Chyna’s career in WWE came to an end a few months later. She made a handful of appearances for TNA and NJPW, but would unfortunately become better known for her appearances on reality shows like The Surreal Life and Celebrity Rehab in her post-wrestling life, not to mention a brief attempt at a career in adult entertainment. Chyna suffered substance abuse issues most of her life and passed away on April 20, having overdosed on alcohol and a cocktail of painkillers, anxiety medications, and sleep aids. She was 46.
1 Muhammad Ali
The Greatest Of All Time wherever he went, it goes without saying that Muhammad Ali was significantly more famous for his boxing career than anything he did in wrestling. However, that doesn’t mean his contributions to sports entertainment weren’t absolutely vital to the industry, and the few wrestling matches Ali did participate in brought mainstream attention to WWE like never before. Ali was arguably amongst the first celebrity wrestlers when he attacked Gorilla Monsoon in 1976, and though his feud with Japanese legend Antonio Inoki was highly controversial, it nonetheless was one of the most memorable of Inoki’s long and storied career. Ali had also long been on the record it was pro wrestling that inspired his bombastic persona, specifically the legendary Gorgeous George. Ali’s career in both the boxing and wrestling rings were forced to come to a permanent end in 1984 when he contracted Parkinson’s Disease. From then on, he gradually reduced his role in the public eye until he contracted a respiratory illness and succumbed to septic shock on June 3rd. Ali was 74 years old.
Sources: WWE, Slam! Sports, Daily Sports Online, Hawaii News Now
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