Friday, April 13, 2007

Pro wrestlers drop like flies

... or like fake punches were being thrown at them. It's a sad truth.

I was a wrestling fan as a kid. I'll always be a wrestling fan at heart. I stopped really paying attention to it when Ted Turner's WCW folded in 2001, but after the World Wrestling Federation got sued by the World Wildlife Fund (fucking pandas!) and changed its name to the "WWE", it just wasn't the same. Sometimes, when I'm left with nothing to do on a Monday night but click through channels, I might stop at RAW for a quick few seconds to see if anyone I remember from back in the day is still working, but other than that, I just can't get into it anymore nowadays. Last I heard, Donald Trump shaved Vince McMahon's head, then got a Stone Cold Stunner from Steve Austin... yeah, sounds about right.

Though I had a lot of friends in school who shared this interest, there were just as many who scoffed at the idea of watching and (*gasp*) enjoying pro wrestling. "You know it's fake, right?" Yeah, and bears are Catholic, and the Pope shits in the woods. I might have mixed those up. Whatever. Anyways, people didn't watch wrestling because they thought those dudes were really hitting each other. It wasn't fake -- it was staged. Big difference. People didn't watch Scarface and run to the phone to call 9-1-1 when they see dude tied up in the shower getting a chainsaw put to him. Everyone knew that the match outcomes were pre-determined, except in the rare occasion of a "screwjob" (the infamous example being Bret Hart in Montreal) (no homo). Everyone knew that the the storylines were written, though sometimes they may imitate real life, or vice versa (for example, Triple H is actually married to Stephanie McMahon, who was his "wife" and "ex-wife" on TV for years).

Pro wrestling was like a weekly, poorly-acted movie with a bad script and cool fight scenes. It was like a comic book for kids who couldn't read (not that I was one or anything). It was like a live-action episode of the old Batman series with Adam West, except with better costumes and, unfortunately, no visual sound effects.

I was listening to Howard Stern on Monday and got wrapped up in a wrestling quiz between Wack-Packer and admittedly-obsessed wrestling fan "Eric the Midget" and a listener. I played along and got the opportunity to flex some of my wrestling knowledge, to myself at least. Who was Goldust's dad? Dusty "the American Dream" Rhodes. Got it. Who donated money to the campaigns of both Bush Sr. and George Dubya? Ric Flair. Got it. Who did Lawrence Taylor pin at Wrestlemania XI? The "recently deceased" Bam Bam Bigelow. Got... wait, did he just say "recently deceased"?

I checked Wikipedia, and sure enough, Bam Bam was found dead at his home back in January, and it was discovered in March that he had "toxic levels of cocaine" in his system. In this article on Bam Bam's death, famed wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer mentions some other recently-deceased wrestlers, and his short list doesn't even cover the half of it. For various reasons -- heart problems and drugs amongst them -- the lifestyle of a professional wrestler just doesn't lead to a long, healthy life. Looking back at my childhood and watching people I used to idolize now dying in their 30s and 40s, I wonder if I wouldn't have been better off choosing comic books over pro wrestling -- sure, Superman died, but at least he didn't die a drug-related death. Or maybe he did. Like I said, I wasn't much into comics.

As I cope with learning of yet another wrestler dying too young, I'll take this moment to remember some of pro wrestling's most notable losses...

Owen Hart (5/7/65 - 5/23/99; accident)

Perhaps the most tragic of all wrestling-related deaths, Owen died during a pay-per-view event during a botched stunt. At the time, Owen was making appearances in the WWF as the "Blue Blazer", a superhero-type character with a cape and mask that concealed his identity, because the "real" Owen had "quit" the WWF after accidentally "injuring" another wrestler. [It's almost as if quotation marks were created solely for the purpose of discussing pro wrestling.] Owen would vehemently deny that he was the Blue Blazer, despite the fact that his signature mannerisms (i.e. holding both fists in the air and screaming "WOO!") while wearing the Blazer costume were ever so obvious. In one of the funnier moments in pro wrestling, Owen attempted to prove that he wasn't the Blue Blazer by coming to the ring with the "real" Blue Blazer -- a black dude in the Blazer costume (Owen's white, that's why it's funny).

At the pay-per-view in question, in Kansas City, Owen, as the Blue Blazer, was to be lowered into the ring from the Kemper Arena ceiling in a harness, but something caused the harness to be released early, causing Owen to plummet 78 feet, chest-first into a turnbuckle. Owen's injuries and internal bleeding from the fall led to his death less than an hour later. Considering the safety precautions that were overlooked (WCW had pulled off a similar stunt with wrestler Sting numerous times with no problems), and the fact that the pay-per-view continued as planned despite the announcement of Owen's death to the home viewers (not to mention Owen's tragic fall being witnessed by the thousands in attendance), the WWF had lots of questions to answer, to the tune of $18 million awarded to Owen's family in an out-of-court settlement. Considering further the animosity held towards Vince McMahon by Owen's brother Bret "The Hitman" Hart over the "Montreal screwjob" incident, it appears like the differences held between Vince and the Harts will likely never be resolved.

Ever the "company man", Owen stuck with the WWF despite the Montreal incident involving Bret and the subsequent release of he and Bret's brothers-in-law the "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith (unfortunately also deceased) and Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart. He likely gained this attitude from older brother Bret, who unselfishly helped propel his younger brother to stardom by taking a loss to Owen in their match at Wrestlemania X, in the midst of their famous "Brother vs. Brother" feud. Sadly, this attitude turned out costly for Owen, who went ahead with the Blue Blazer stunt despite being worried about performing it, as well as being afraid of heights.

Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig (3/28/58 - 2/10/03; drug overdose)

Along with Scott "Razor Ramon" Hall and Kevin "Diesel" Nash, Hennig was one of the many WWF stars who made an exodus to WCW but couldn't keep his WWF-owned wrestling name. It didn't matter much, though, as Hennig never lost the smugness that made his "Mr. Perfect" character so hated with fans (and thus, so popular in the wrestling business). One of my favorite things about Hennig was how, on his walk to the ring, he'd always spit his piece of chewing gum up in the air, and on its way down, he'd smack it into the crowd -- living up to his claims of perfection, he literally never missed. I've always wondered how many unsuspecting wrestling spectators have had to get haircuts as a result of Hennig's piece of Wrigley's landing in their hair.

I remember when the WCW writers decided to split the nWo into 2 enemy factions -- the "good guy" nWo Wolfpac, who wore black and red, and the "bad guy" nWo Hollywood, who wore black and white. Hennig started out as a member of the Wolfpac, but he just never looked comfortable trying to get cheers instead of boos, and eventually jumped ship to the other nWo. Hennig may have been a great guy in real life, but on TV, he came across as the type of guy who would shove an old lady if she were in his way... just so long as it was the most perfect shove that had ever been done.

Eddie Guerrero (10/9/67 - 11/13/05; heart failure)

Eddie Guerrero's American wrestling career began in Extreme Championship Wrestling, the most well-known of independent wrestling circuits, and, unlike majors WWF and WCW, a place where wrestlers could get over with fans based on talent rather than a gimmick. Eddie certainly didn't need the latter because he had plenty of the former. His classic matches in ECW with Dean Malenko showcased the more artistic, technical aspect of pro wrestling that often got overlooked by people in the media who talk shit about wrestling. [Eddie's final match with Dean before they both left for WCW -- hence the "please don't go" chants -- can be seen here in its entirety. And it's a long entirety.]

Eddie was never that big physically, and that served to hold him back in WCW, where, other than winning the United States Championship in '96, he mainly wrestled within the lower-echelon Cruiserweight Division. After joining the WWF, he was given the nickname "Latino Heat", groomed as some sleazy Don Juan DeMarco "ladies man" character, typically cheated to win matches, and at times drove to the ring in a lowrider -- not exactly the most racially sensitive of gimmicks, but it won him popularity, and many title reigns. It wasn't hard to tell that in his WWF days, Eddie looked much bigger than he ever had before, so to hear that his death was partially caused by "enlargement of the heart as a result of prior anabolic steroid abuse" was shocking, but not surprising. Eddie also had past troubles with alcohol and painkillers which attributed to his heart failure, although his death came just 2 days before what would have been four consecutive years of sobriety.

Following Guerrero's death, Vince McMahon implemented stricter drug testing rules, and earlier this year, Sports Illustrated took pro wrestling to task in its ongoing reports on steroid distribution and use in sports. Hopefully these are steps in the right direction, though it's a shame that Eddie's death had to set the precedent.

R.I.P., as well, to Chris Candido, Crash Holly, Mike Awesome, Brian Pillman, Hawk from Legion of Doom, Ravishing Rick Rude, Yokozuna, Big Boss Man, Louie Spicolli and Anthony "Pitbull #2" Durante.