An early death seems to go hand in hand with a career in the squared circle, with very few performers from pro-wrestling’s boom era making it to old age. For some, it was the head bumps and constant injuries which wore them down until they just didn't have any fight left in them. For others – and this is the disturbing majority – it was the alcohol and the drugs and the incessant partying which sent them to an early grave.
Last year alone, wrestling legends and WWE Hall of Famers “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes died within one month of each other, leaving a void in the business which can never be filled. Both men were too young to die and not nearly done having fun. However, at least Hot Rod and Dusty had long and colorful careers behind them. They had held championships, made millions, and performed all over the world. It is small consolation to their friends and families, I know, but Piper and Rhodes will forever be remembered as two of the greatest of all time.
Other wrestlers, however, have not been so lucky. Many have passed away in their forties, thirties, and even their twenties, way before they had lived up to their full potential. A lot of modern wrestling fans may be unaware of the superstars who died before reaching stardom; and in many cases, those of us who do know who their names only remember them as “that guy who died young,” which is the greatest tragedy of all.
Here are 15 WWE superstars who died before their prime.
15. Art Barr
Despite the fact his early career was plagued by allegations of the sexual assault of a 19-year-old girl, Art Barr managed to become one of the most popular up and comers in professional wrestling during the early nineties. Obviously, it is a testament to just how talented the man was that he could become so over with wrestling fans despite the accusations (he always maintained his innocence).
It was in AAA that Barr did the work which he is today remembered for by the majority of wrestling fans. Here, he formed a tag team with future WWE Champion and Hall of Famer Eddie Guerrero. Guerrero and Barr, who were great singles stars in their own right, proved to be an even better tag team and reinvigorated tag team wrestling in the eyes of many.
It was actually Art Barr who gave Eddie Guerrero the Frog Splash finishing move that Eddie would use to become WWE Champion a decade after his former tag team partner’s death.
Art Barr died in his sleep at the age of 28, and it is believed the dependance on alcohol and drugs which he developed in the final years of his life contributed to his early passing. At the time of his death, both ECW and the World Wrestling Federation where said to be interested in signing Barr and Guerrero as a tag team.
During his time in WWE, Andrew Martin, otherwise known as Test, was one of those guys who always seemed to be on the verge of being pushed to the moon. He had everything Vince McMahon looked for in a top guy; he was six-foot-six, 285 pounds, and the women loved him. Most people figured it was only a matter of time before the guy became WWE Champion.
But Test’s inability to control his demons proved to be his undoing. Frequent problems with drugs and alcohol resulted in management losing trust in him, and he spent some time floundering in the mid-card before requesting and being granted his release from the company in 2007.
From there, Test competed in TNA for a brief period before announcing his retirement from professional wrestling. This took a lot of people by surprise as Martin had barely cracked 30 and still seemed destined for greatness - if he could just get himself under together. It’s likely Test would have stepped out of retirement at some point, possibly for another shot at WWE glory, but he passed away from a drug overdose on March 13, 2009, just four days shy of 34.
10 Adrian Adonis
Adrian Adonis was one of the WWF’s most colorful characters during its global expansion back in the eighties. In fact, even today Adonis remains one of the most memorable wrestling characters of all time. Introducing a whole new generation of wrestling fans to that exótico style so familiar in lucha libre, Adrian Adonis stood out on any card, no matter who he was facing or how long the match lasted.
However, a lot of people felt his gimmick killed any chances he had of being taken seriously by American wrestling fans. He fell on hard times after an injury kept him from returning to Japan, where he had been a huge star prior to his flamboyant gimmick.
According to those close to Adonis, he had been training for a return to the ring at the time of his death, determined to once again make a decent living to support his wife and young children. He had been going to the gym twice a day for six months and had managed to shed 127 pounds in anticipation of his comeback.
However, on July 4, 1988, Adonis was in a devastating car crash in Newfoundland, in which he and several other wrestlers were killed. He died at just 33 years of age, having never made his grand return.
9 The Grand Wizard of Wrestling
Ernie Roth made a name for himself as “The Grand Wizard of Wrestling,” and is considered by many wrestling historians to be the greatest pro-wrestling manager of all time. Clad in a turban and wraparound shades, The Grand Wizard was one of those managers who was just as important to the match as the guy he was managing, on many occasions even out-drawing the actual wrestlers. Throughout his career, the over the top, flamboyant character managed wrestling legends such as Stan Stasiak, “Superstar” Billy Graham, and Sgt. Slaughter.
The Grand Wizard was 57 when he passed away on October 12, 1983, but he makes this list due to the fact he died mere months before the wrestling boom which saw his friends and co-workers become international stars. We can only imagine how popular a character as loud and as colorful as The Grand Wizard of Wrestling would have become with the exposure brought by Hulk Hogan and the Rock n’ Wrestling connection, but it’s safe to say he would have left an indelible mark on popular culture.
8 Crash Holly
Michael Lockwood first arrived in the WWF as Crash Holly, the kayfabe cousin of Bob Hardcore Holly. Less than a year later, Crash Holly won the WWF Hardcore Championship, beginning the first of what would be a total of 22 Hardcore Championship reigns.
After the Hardcore Championship was retired, Holly found himself drifting from storyline to storyline, rarely being anything more than filler between more important matches and segments. Holly was released from his WWE contract in the summer of 2003, which was a devastating blow to him. In order to keep his head above water, Crash took a number of independent bookings and spent some time wrestling in an early incarnation of what is now Impact Wrestling.
Not long after making his TNA debut, Holly was found dead in the home of his friend and fellow pro-wrestler Stevie Richards. His lifeless body was surrounded by numerous empty bottles of prescription drugs and alcohol. His death was ruled as a suicide, and it was later revealed that Holly had recently received divorce papers from his wife. He was 32.
10. Big Dick Dudley
A lot of wrestling fans are unfamiliar with Spike Dudley, also known as Brother Runt, who spent some time as a member of The Dudley Boyz. Even more are unfamiliar with Big Dick Dudley, who was the leader of the team during their time in ECW.
Big Dick Dudley, real name Alex Rizzo, made his in-ring debut in 1986 and quickly established himself as a legitimate tough guy whose badassery easily translated to the ring. Rizzo seemed like a natural fit for Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling, so it didn’t surprise those familiar with his work when he signed with the company in 1994.
It was in ECW that Rizzo teamed up with Jeff Bradley to form the original Dudley Boyz tag team. Rizzo and Bradley eventually added Buh Buh Ray and D-Von Dudley to the family team, who quickly became the most popular members of the group. Despite this, Rizzo remained the leader of the Dudleys, though he rarely performed in title matches.
Big Dick Dudley left ECW in 1999 after a number of disagreements with management and hit the independent scene to support himself. He passed away from kidney failure in 2002, never rejoining The Dudely Boyz, who had signed contracts with WWE the same year he left ECW.
7 Chris Candido
Chris Candido first appeared on WWF television in 1995 as part of The Bodydonnas, alongside his real-life girlfriend Tammy “Sunny” Sytch. Wrestling as Skip, Candido had a pretty underwhelming career in WWF and left the company in 1996.
After leaving, Candido spent time in ECW, WCW, and NJPW. However, many fans believe it was only in ECW that Candido was booked in a suitable role for his talents. In 2005, just a couple of months prior to his death, Candido began wrestling for TNA, hoping he could finally establish himself as a main event player. However, when competing at that year’s Lockdown pay-per-view, he suffered a number of injuries to his leg and was brought to hospital.
Four days later, on April 28, Candido took a turn for the worse and died at the age of 33. His cause of death was determined to be acute pneumonia, though his brother originally reported it to be a blood clot as a result of complications from surgery.
6 Louie Spicolli
Louie Spicolli made his debut in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation 10 years before his death. For the majority of that time, Spicolli worked as an enhancement talent, being beaten with ease by top stars in order to further establish their dominance. WWF repackaged Spicolli in 1995, giving him the name Rad Radford and putting him in a tag team with, coincidentally, Chris Candido. Despite his new name and gimmick, Spicolli, now Radford, experienced little success and was released in 1996 due to his issues with substance abuse.
Like a lot of former WWF wrestlers in the mid-nineties, Spicolli found his way to ECW, but his drug problems proved too much for even that company to handle. Spicolli was signed with WCW at the time of his death and was in the middle of a rivalry with heel commentator Larry Zbyszko. The two were scheduled to face off at WCW’s SuperBrawl VIII, but Spicolli died one week before the event.
In 1998, at just 27 years of age, Louis Spicolli was found dead after overdosing on a mixture of painkillers and alcohol. Tributes to the fallen superstar continue to this day, with many of his friends incorporating the Death Valley Driver, which he popularized, into their move sets.
Eddie Fatu first appeared in WWE as Jamal, teaming with his real-life cousin Rosey under the team name 3-Minute Warning. Fatu left the company in 2003 to begin a career in Japan, leaving Rosey to compete alongside The Hurricane as a superhero in training.
When he returned to WWE television in April of 2006, Fatu adopted the gimmick of a Samoan wild man and competed under the name Umaga. It was as Umaga that Fatu experienced his greatest success. As a classic monster heel, Umaga bulldozed over the competition, which included Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and Ric Flair.
In 2007, he entered into a feud with John Cena for the WWE Championship, marking just how far he had come since his initial WWE run several years prior. Of course, Umage was defeated by Cena on a number of occasions and lost quite a bit of his drawing power as a result.
Despite this, WWE were still quite high on Umaga and continued to book him as an almost unstoppable heel. The company had big plans for Fatu heading into the summer of 2009, but a violation of the company’s wellness policy brought all talk of another main event push to an end. Though it was only his second violation, Fatu was released from his contract as he refused to seek help for his addictions.
Had Eddie Fatu entered into rehab, not only would he have beaten his demons, but he could have gone on to become a world champion and major player in WWE for years to come. Unfortunately, Fatu died from a heart attack brought on by years of drug abuse on December 4, 2009. He was 36.
4 Kerry Von Erich
Most wrestling fans are familiar with the Von Erich family, not for their contributions to professional wrestling, but due to the tragedies which plagued them during the eighties and nineties. Kerry Von Erich was considered by many to be the cream of the crop of the Von Erich family, and it was of no surprise to anyone when he was scouted by the World Wrestling Federation in 1990.
Though he competed under the ring name The Texas Tornado, it was impossible to ignore Von Erich’s lineage and commentators frequently referred to him by his family name. While in WWF, Von Erich put on a number of stellar matches and held the Intercontinental Championship before being relegated to jobber status.
Kerry Von Erich left the WWF in 1992 and took his own life by shooting himself in the head in February of 1993. In his autobiography, Von Erich’s friend Bret Hart claims that the Tornado told him of his plans to commit suicide several months before his death, telling him he wanted to follow his four brothers who had died before him.
5. Brian Ong
There are a couple of wrestlers on this list who you may not recognize, but it is a safe (million dollar) bet that you have never heard of Brian Ong. This is because Brian Ong passed away before he ever made his in-ring debut. In 2001, Brian Ong was training with All Pro Wrestling, a struggling wrestling promotion in California. In the early stages of a training camp, Ong suffered a concussion, which should have meant his training was stopped immediately. That didn’t happen, however, and the trainers at APW ruled he was fit to continue training.
Things turned from bad to worse for Brian Ong, as he was then put in the ring to run spots with a young man by the name of Dalip Singh. Several years later, Singh made his WWE debut as The Great Khali. In the ring, Khali sent Ong into the air for a flapjack, but a miscommunication lead to Ong crashing against the canvas, worsening his concussion.
It soon became clear that something was wrong and Ong was brought to a nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead shortly after. After Ong’s death, his family sued the owners of All Pro Wrestling and were awarded $1.3 million in damages. While this obviously could not replace their son, it made wrestling trainers the world over a little bit more cautious, and probably saved a life or two along the way.
3 Lance Cade
Lance Cade’s career in WWE lasted longer than a lot of people realize, with his original contract being signed 2001. Despite this, Cade did not begin to establish himself as a star until 2005, when he joined forces with Trevor Murdoch and captured the WWE World Tag Team Championships. Cade and Murdoch had a number of highs and lows from 2005 to 2008, and eventually went their separate ways after Cade turned on Murdoch on Monday Night Raw.
Cade seemed bound for the main event in late 2008 after Chris Jericho took him under his wing. As Jericho’s protégé, Cade scored victories over a number of top stars, including “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. However, towards the end of the year, Cade was released for what Jim Ross described as “a major league mistake.”
Cade died on August 13th, 2010, from heart failure brought on by a cocktail of drugs in his system. Several months prior, Cade had been re-signed by WWE before being released once again.
Oro, real name Jesús Javier Hernández Silva, seemed bound for great things from the moment he started his training in lucha libre. The son of Calavera II, a popular tag team in Mexico, Oro had lucha in his blood and seemed to have everything necessary to become a major star in the sport.
By the time he was 21, Oro had already had some of the most impressive matches of the era and had added a whole new dimension to the Mexican wrestling style. Unfortunately, Oro never got the chance to perform in front of an international audience, as he died in the ring on October 26, 1993.
While competing in a match alongside his tag partners La Fiera and Brazo de Plata, Oro wanted to do something really special. Something which the Mexican audience had never seen before. This was a bump which Oro had seen Kenta Kobashi perform in Japan, in which he appeared to land on his neck. When performed correctly, the bump would convince the onlookers that the performer had broken his neck and would add even more drama to a match. When performed wrong, a broken neck was a legitimate possibility.
Oro, perhaps because he was still so young, did not take a bump as Kobashi had taken it and passed out while trying to get back to his feet. Medics did not immediately realize something had gone wrong, and Oro was pronounced dead before hd was placed in an ambulance waiting outside the arena.
2 Brian Pillman
Despite only spending a short period of time in the WWF during the late nineties, Brian Pillman is considered by many to be one of the most important figures in the development of the Attitude Era. With one previous stint in the WWF, along with time in WCW and ECW under his belt when he returned to WWE in 1996, Pillman was considered a veteran, though he had still to reach his full potential.
In one of the most iconic storylines in the history of professional wrestling, Pillman entered into a feud with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, his former tag team partner. At the height of the angle, Austin gathered a camera crew and travelled to Pillman’s house to confront his rival while he was out on injury.
After Austin had broken into Pillman’s home and found him in his living room, Pillman produced a handgun with which to protect himself. Chaos ensued and the feed faded to black while Pillman, Austin, and other residents of the home screamed at each other.
At the 1997 instalment of Badd Blood, Pillman was booked to face Dude Love, but never arrived at the arena. Further investigation from WWF officials revealed that he had been found dead in his hotel room by some maids earlier in the day. According to the postmortem, Pillman fell victim to an undetected heart condition which had also taken his father’s life years before. Pillman, who was 35 at the time of his death, seemed destined for great things. He likely would have been a key player during the Attitude Era had he survived, but will we never know for sure.
1 Owen Hart
The younger brother of Bret Hart and considered by many to be the best pure athlete to ever come out of Hart House, Owen Hart came close to glory on a number of occasions.
According to multiple sources, Owen was due for a push to the main event in the mid-nineties during his feud with his elder brother and was scheduled to win the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. In fact, Vince McMahon was so set on making Hart champion that he arranged a photoshoot during which multiple shots of Owen holding the championship were taken. For whatever reason, Vince McMahon changed his mind and Owen Hart’s championship reign became nothing more than a legend.
Owen’s 1999 death is perhaps the greatest tragedy in professional wrestling history, and certainly the most infamous. At that year’s Over the Edge pay-per-view, a stunt in which Hart was to descend from the ceiling of the Kansas City Kemper Arena went horribly wrong and resulted in him falling 70 feet to his death.
Owen was just 34 at the time and had been planning to leave the WWF once his contract was up. According to Hart’s family, he had bought himself a house by the lake where he could be free from fans and the press. It has also been said that he intended to keep himself active in the wrestling business by booking a couple of dates in Japan each year.