It isn’t pleasant to think about, but there’s no way around the fact professional wrestlers have a tendency to die younger than people in almost any other industry. Fans of sports entertainment have been well aware of this tragic trend for some time now, since just about everyone can name at least one personal favorite superstar who passed away well before his or her time. Even when a retired wrestler passes away in their 50s or early 60s, this is still younger than the national average, a fact that should cause great concern to WWE and all other wrestling companies.
Whether or not the industry will actually do anything about this trend remains to be seen. The fact of the matter is, while some of the early wrestling deaths we’ve seen have indeed been entirely out of left field, many of them weren’t all that surprising. Another trend wrestlers are known for is bad behavior, in general, from rampant drug and steroid abuse to the incredible danger that exists every time they step inside the ring. This isn’t to say every single living wrestler is standing on the brink of death, but some of them definitely are, and their fans are usually aware of it.
WWE is doing it’s best to curtail these problems with the Wellness Program and by paying for past employee’s rehab, and in some respects, they’ve probably saved a few lives in doing so. However, the idea of wrestlers dying young is hardly over — even if WWE did find the magical solution to addiction, some wrestlers would continue to die suddenly and unexpectedly when things go wrong in the ring. Keep reading for 8 wrestling deaths no one saw coming and 7 we all secretly expected.
15 Total Shock: Louie Spicolli
Chances are, some people reading this list aren’t all that familiar with Louie Spicolli, and quite frankly, this isn’t very surprising. That said, if the poor kid lived just a few short months longer than he did, that all may have changed in a major way. Rumor has it, Eric Bischoff was planning to make Spicolli “the Chris Farley of wrestling,” and Spicolli’s humorous relationship with the nWo would suggest he would’ve been pretty good at it. To test the waters, Spicolli provided commentary on several episodes of Nitro and Thunder, his final starring performance coming mere days before he died. The week after his death, Spicolli was also set to wrestle Larry Zbyszko at SuperBrawl VIII, which would have been the biggest match of his career thus far. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t make it to the ring that night, having overdosed on a mixture of soma and wine shortly before it took place.
14 Saw It Coming: Luna Vachon
Wild, fast, and out of control, Luna Vachon was a true original even in an era when women in wrestling weren’t treated all too seriously. She never won any WWE Championships, though not for lack of trying, as she challenged for the gold multiple times throughout the '90s. Screeching her way through attacks at her rivals, Luna always turned the intensity up to 11, and apparently, this was also true in her real life. According to sources close to Luna, including WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley, she was struggling with a variety of drug problems throughout most of her career. After her death, Foley posted a long, heart-felt blog about how the worst part of it all was that he saw her death coming, and many of Luna’s fans who knew about her life away from the ring likely felt the same way.
13 Total Shock: Chris Candido
Having spent most of his career overshadowed by his longtime girlfriend Sunny, it could be said Chris Candido never got the respect he deserved from the wrestling industry. In the ring and on the microphone, Candido was prodigiously talented, winning the NWA World Championship when he was only 22 years old. Of course, that was a little bit after the NWA meant what it once did, and Candido’s stints in WWE and WCW weren’t quite as successful. His career was finally experiencing a mild resurgence at the onset of NWA: TNA, where he wrestled highly acclaimed matches against AJ Styles and Elix Skipper. Near the end of his life, Candido broke his leg in a match against Sonny Siaki, transitioning to a managerial role and bringing The Naturals the NWA Tag Team Championships. Unfortunately, the same week he helped his team win the gold, he suddenly collapsed and died from pneumonia at the young age of 33.
12 Saw It Coming: Road Warrior Hawk
To this day, many wrestling fans believe the legacy The Road Warriors built in tag-team wrestling will never be eclipsed. They were the only duo to win the AWA, WWE, and NWA Tag Team Championships, and were one of the very few tag teams in the 1980s who regularly competed in main events. For this reason, it could be said the two primary members of the team, Hawk and Animal, were as close as any two wrestlers could be. Therefore, the fact that Animal himself had to admit he wasn’t terribly surprised by Hawk’s death should say it all about how he was viewed in the industry. Speaking after his friend and partner’s passing, Animal said he thought “it was only a matter of time” with Hawk, especially after he was diagnosed with a heart condition in 2001. Throw in Hawk’s propensity for drinking alcohol and using pills, sending his heart on a veritable rollercoaster each time he mixed them, it was a sad reality that an early death was almost inevitable.
11 Total Shock: Brian Pillman
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment wrestling fans started realizing their heroes were dying young, but the death of Brian Pillman was definitely a pivotal moment. Pillman was the first active wrestler to die while under contract to WWE, and in fact, he was supposed to wrestle in a highly promoted Pay-Per-View match against Goldust the very night he was found dead. Pillman’s character was presented as an insane “loose cannon,” leading to some assuming drugs was the culprit, and yet it turned out this wasn’t the case. Pillman died of a heart attack caused by an undiagnosed prior condition. At the time, his death was so shocking and unexpected, WWE genuinely had no idea how to respond to it, making the questionable move of allowing Pillman’s widow Melanie to appear on Monday Night Raw to discuss what happened. Luckily, they never made that mistake again, as many accused the company of exploiting her emotional state for ratings.
10 Saw It Coming: Chyna
Quite frankly, knowing what Chyna experienced throughout her life, it was inevitable she was going to wind up at least a little bit screwed up pretty much from the beginning. Her autobiography detailed tales of parental abuse from an early age, which lead to the requisite drug problems later in life. What she went through at the end of her WWE career didn’t help, either — after years of dating her boyfriend, Triple H suddenly left her for their boss’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon. Less than a year later, the McMahon family told Chyna they no longer needed her services, and her life only continued to spiral out of control from there. Stints in the adult film industry and various celebrity rehabs came next, and it finally became clear the latter wasn’t working when Chyna passed away from a drug overdose with no less than five separate painkillers in her system.
9 Total Shock: Owen Hart
Take absolutely any death on this list and put it on live Pay-Per-View, and it the terror and shock of the situation will intensify immeasurably. Almost 20 years after the fact, it’s still hard for many wrestling fans to think back to the night such a horrible occurrence actually happened, when Owen Hart fell to his death at Over The Edge 1999. That night, Hart was set to wrestle The Godfather for the WWE Intercontinental Championship, with most reports indicating he was going to win the match and the title. Only it wasn’t “Owen Hart” challenging for the belt, it was “The Blue Blazer,” a comedic superhero gimmick that saw Owen “fly” to the ring from the rafters. Hart had successfully done so a handful of times already, but something went wrong on that fateful night, causing Owen’s harness to come loose and send him falling chest first into the turnbuckle. Thankfully, cameras were backstage at the time, but there was no way for WWE to ignore what happened, announcing Hart’s accident and death moments later to the great shock of everyone watching.
8 Saw It Coming: Kerry Von Erich
Of all the deaths people within the wrestling industry saw coming, the hardest may be Kerry Von Erich’s, knowing it came from suicide. On the other hand, given the curse connected to the Von Erich family, following the trend set by his brothers David, Chris, and Mike, Kerry had done an incredible amount of drugs in his life and made dozens of bad decisions after doing so. None of the boys wanted to be wrestlers, but were forced into the industry by their domineering father, Fritz Von Erich, and so they turned to substance abuse to escape from the lifestyle. After his brothers died, Kerry had apparently begun telling other wrestlers, including Bret Hart, that he believed he was next, an assessment the Hitman sadly agreed with. Throw in two arrests and the threat of long-term jail time, and Kerry likely felt he had no other option than to end his life.
7 Total Shock: Mitsuharu Misawa
For as high octane and dangerous as the job looks, the whole point of professional wrestling is to put on a great show without anyone getting seriously hurt. Obviously, mistakes are made and people get hurt anyway, but the biggest injuries are still a huge surprise to everyone involved. Should the wrestler getting injured be especially talented, it’s an even bigger shock, as was the case when Japanese wrestling icon Mitsuharu Misawa was left unconscious in the ring after a tag-team match with Go Shiozaki against Akitoshi Saito and Bison Smith. Misawa was one of the biggest stars in his country, having won five AJPW Triple Crown Championships and three GHC Heavyweight Championships in Pro Wrestling NOAH, a company he also owned. When the news later broke that Misawa wasn’t just injured in the match, but he had in fact died due to a move gone wrong, fans were stunned, shocked, and saddened that one of the all-time greats could make that severe a mistake.
6 Saw It Coming: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
Surviving until the age of 61, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper lived longer than anyone else on this list. However, this is still 4 years younger than what is considered retirement age, and over 20 years younger than the average life expectancy in a first-world country. Despite this, Piper himself was probably surprised he lasted so long, having predicted to a number of newspapers prior to his death he would never make it to 65. Inside the ring, few wrestlers were more violently heated than the Hot Rod, who never once ran out of his unbridled energy. Outside of the ring, Piper was much the same, if not even crazier, bolstered by the unnatural power of cocaine and various other drugs. When Piper owned up to this behavior on Bryant Gumbel’s HBO talk show, WWE basically fired him for admitting he wasn’t going to live forever. Unfortunately, Piper was right, and either way, fans always believed him over his past employers.
5 Total Shock: Perro Aguayo Jr.
In many respects, the sudden death of Perro Aguayo Jr. was a mirror to that of Mitsuharu Misawa less than six years earlier. Like Misawa, Aguayo was wrestling in a tag-team match when something went horribly wrong and took his life. Apparently, a dropkick to the back from Aguayo’s opponent, Rey Mysterio, Jr. severed several vertebrae in his spine and caused a heart attack and snapped his neck. This time around, the shock wasn’t limited to the fact everyone involved was a respected athlete known for their mastery of the craft, but also how simple the lethal move happened to be. Virtually every single wrestling match in the past six decades has included a handful of dropkicks, and everyone generally turns out just fine after the bell rings. Unfortunately, if the move is mistimed or hits at just the wrong spot, it can actually end lives, much like almost every other maneuver used in a wrestling ring.
4 Saw It Coming: Yokozuna
Ironically, even though they're in great shape, a high number of wrestlers have died young, often because of drug abuse. One of the largest athletes in WWE history, Yokozuna obviously didn’t have this problem, but his alternative solution was no better. Having earned two WWE Championships basically on his size alone, Yoko didn’t take his release from the company very well, and apparently decided the one way to get his job back would be to get even bigger. At one point, it was reported Yokozuna’s goal was to weigh 900 pounds, in order to set a new record as the heaviest wrestler in history. The downside, of course, would be that living life at that size is shockingly unhealthy, and even trying to lose it could put his life at risk. Unsurprisingly, when Yoko underwent a crash diet and lost nearly 200 pounds in a year, his lungs collapsed under the pressure.
3 Total Shock: Eddie Guerrero
Truth be told, sadly, had Eddie Guerrero suddenly died about five years earlier than he did, it wouldn’t have been all that big a shock. At that point, Guerrero had one of the most notorious drug and alcohol problems in wrestling. However, his redemption from the demons of addiction that played a huge role in Guerrero’s gradual rise as one of the most popular WWE superstars of the early Ruthless Aggression era. After years of struggle, it seemed like Eddie was finally clean of all drugs and experiencing the greatest heights of his career because of it. Then, completely out of nowhere, he died due to heart failure while at the peak of his fame. Guerrero’s death was a sad reminder that just because a former addict has cleaned up their act, it hardly means the damage to their body can be undone.
2 Saw It Coming: The Ultimate Warrior
Forget about the whitewashing of The Ultimate Warrior that WWE has strangely attempted in the wake of his death, and think back to the two decades or so before he passed. For all that time, everyone in the wrestling world, WWE executives included, knew the guy was an insane drug addict with a limited amount of time on this planet. While Warrior rallied against drugs as well, he was clearly abusing steroids and other PEDs during virtually every public appearance he made. Warrior’s face was almost always bright red, his veins bulging out of his neck, and sweat flying off his face if he so much as walked five steps. It wasn’t the condition of a man with the power of a Warrior, but rather a maniac who couldn’t accept his aging body’s limitations. The mere fact Vince McMahon decided WWE should forgive him didn’t undo years of damage to his body, and while it was surprising that his death from a heart attack occurred the day after his return to the company, under any other circumstances, no one would have called it at all odd.
1 Total Shock: Chris Benoit
To put it bluntly, the word “shock” barely begins to cover how many fans reacted to the sudden suicide of Chris Benoit. Well, actually, the fact Benoit killed himself wasn’t even the most terrible part of it all — Benoit also took the lives of his wife and 7-year-old son. Given the extent of Benoit’s crimes, what he did would be shocking under just about any circumstances. That said, Benoit’s standing and reputation without the wrestling industry genuinely made the cliché about him being the last person anyone would ever expect could do such a thing entirely accurate. Not only was Benoit an incredibly talented athlete inside the ring, but he was also lauded for being a loving family man free of the usual drug problems seen in wrestling. From top to bottom, his crimes and subsequent death were the most unexpectedly shocking event sports entertainment had ever experienced.
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