Wrestling promotions are serious when they say, “Don’t try this at home.” Although most wrestlers leave shows without serious injuries, it isn’t uncommon for them to occur. In the rarest of cases, wrestlers have sacrificed everything they had in the ring, including their lives.
Wrestlers go through rigorous training to not just entertain, but to do so in a safe matter. Regardless, wrestlers are human and accidents happen. Major wrestling companies – most notably the WWE – have also been performing more intense physicals in order to prevent wrestlers from dying in the ring due to an undiagnosed health condition. For some, such as Brian Pillman, this happened outside of the ring. Yet for others on this list, they collapsed in the ring without being aware that something was abnormal with their body.
While wrestling deaths are extremely rare, there have also been a number of scary close calls. One slight degree of improper movement could have cost the wrestlers subject to these close calls their lives. Yet despite this risk of injury, wrestlers continue to enter arenas four to five times a week — and sometimes even more — to entertain fans across the world. In the face of danger, that takes an overwhelming amount of courage.
Thanks to modern prevention programs and advances in science, most of these incidents aren’t too recent. However, you will still recognize some of the wrestlers (including multiple WWE Hall of Famers) that appear on this list. Now, without further ado, here are eight wrestlers who died doing what they love, and eight close calls.
16. Passed Away: Perro Aguayo Jr.
Perro Aguayo Jr.’s name may not sound too familiar to wrestling fans. However, some people may know who he is due to Rey Mysterio’s involvement in Aguayo’s last match in 2015.
During the match, Mysterio delivered a dropkick to Aguayo to set Aguayo up for Mysterio’s signature 619. When Mysterio went to deliver the 619, Aguayo laid motionless on the middle rope. Multiple people would check on Aguayo before the match concluded – including Mysterio. After the match was over, Aguayo was carried out on plywood instead of a stretcher. He would die in the hospital early the next morning at the age of 35. His death was ruled as the result of cardiac arrest due to a cervical stroke involving three fractured vertebrae.
15. CLOSE CALL: Steve Austin
One of the greatest (and most popular) wrestlers of all-time, Steve Austin almost didn’t blow up as much as he could have. At Summerslam 1997, he faced off against Owen Hart. At one point, Owen Hart went to deliver a modified piledriver to Austin. However, when Hart delivered the move, Austin’s head was positioned lower than Owen’s thighs.
As a result, when Owen hit the mat, he broke Austin’s neck. Austin also experienced temporary paralysis, and the finish of the match had to be rushed. Hart went to distract the special guest referee, Ken Shamrock, and Austin went for the rollup after he recovered. Austin would eventually get surgery on his neck two years later. In 2003, Austin’s career would prematurely end, less than two years after the conclusion of the Attitude Era that he became the figurehead for.
14. Passed Away: Plum Mariko
Women’s wrestling in Japan is notorious for being as hard-hitting, intense and physical as men’s wrestling. Wrestlers in the area work much more stiff than in other regions of world, and Plum Mariko holds the distinction of being the first wrestler to die in Japan as a result of injuries sustained in a wrestling match.
Mariko had numerous concussions throughout her career, which resulted in her developing a brain abscess. In the weeks prior to her death, she had forgotten some of the finishes for her matches, leading some to think that something may be wrong. In her final match, she took a Liger Bomb, and started snoring – a sign that one’s brain is bleeding. She was rushed to the hospital, where she died a few hours later. The next night, a show that was supposed to celebrate her eleventh year in the business, was turned into a memorial show.
13. CLOSE CALL: Mick Foley
Before many wrestling fans were exposed to ECW, they likely were first exposed to hardcore wrestling through Mick Foley. It’s no secret that Foley is well-known for his toughness and grit. He even wrestled a match after Vader ripped his ear off! Yet in 1998, he almost died during his Hell in a Cell match against The Undertaker.
Foley sustained a significant number of injuries during this match. He lost multiple teeth and dislocated his jaw. However, one of the match’s most iconic moments occurred when Foley fell through the top of the cage. That moment was not supposed to happen, unlike the other major bump that Foley took, where he was thrown off the cell and onto the Spanish announcer’s table. Yet Foley was knocked unconscious with the bump. It looked like Foley was dead. Luckily, he’s still with us today, but that was a genuinely horrifying match to watch.
12. Passed Away: Mike DiBiase
The father of the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, Mike DiBiase wrestled throughout many notable territories throughout the 1940s through the 1960s. In 1969, however, his wrestling career – and his life – would come to an abrupt end.
During a match in Lubbock, Texas, DiBiase was competing in a match against Man Mountain Mike when he had a heart attack. Harley Race, who was near the ring, went to perform CPR on DiBiase after realizing what was going on. DiBiase, accompanied by Race, was rushed to the hospital but was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived. An autopsy performed after his death confirmed that he suffered from coronary artery disease. These days, cardiovascular testing is a part of the WWE’s Talent Wellness Program, therefore making deaths like these much less common.
11. CLOSE CALL: X-Pac
X-Pac, or Sean Waltman has said that the incident sounds a little funny looking back at it, but it was a very serious matter. While going for his Bronco Buster move, X-Pac hit the turnbuckle too hard and wound up suffering from rectal bleeding. Waltman didn’t realize the severity of the injury and finished the match, but at an afterparty in his hotel room, he noticed a large amount of blood in his tights and immediately rushed to the hospital. He then had to undergo emergency sphincteroplasty due to his torn anus. He was able to make a full recovery but had he not noticed the injury or didn’t take it seriously, he would have bled to death that same night. Thankfully he was okay following surgery.
10. Passed Away: Jeanette Wolfe
In the 1950s, women’s wrestling was beginning to grow in popularity. However, its top star, Mildred Burke, was starting to get older. She realized that new talent needed to be groomed to replace her in her retirement. She found Jeanette Wolfe, an 18-year-old from Minnesota, and began to train her. Many expected her to be the next big thing.
Six months into her career, her momentum would stop. She wrestled two matches on July 28, 1951. After the first match, she complained of a headache. She would then go out for her second match, which was a tag team match that included Mae Young. However, Wolfe would make an unexpected tag out and collapse on the ring apron. She would fall unconscious and eventually died at the hospital.
9. CLOSE CALL: Sabu
Like Mick Foley, Sabu is known for being one of North America’s most recognizable hardcore wrestlers of all time. Yet even the most hardcore of wrestlers crack sometimes. This close call would also be the birth of “The Crippler,” Chris Benoit.
In a match from ECW’s earlier days, it appeared that Benoit went for a flapjack bump of some sort. Sabu didn’t get enough air and landed flat on his neck. Despite the gruesome nature of the injury, Paul Heyman decided to push Benoit in subsequent matches and use the incident to get him over with the crowd. As for Sabu, he would recover from this injury. However, that didn’t stop his neck from breaking again four years later during a match with Taz.
8. Passed Away: Mitshuaru Misawa
Much like Hayabusa, Mitsuharu Misawa is regarded as one of the best wrestlers Japan has ever produced. While he wrestled a much different style than Hayabusa. Misawa was still influential to a whole generation of performers that followed him. Despite all of the contributions that Misawa gave to the business, it would be a relatively minor bump that would be his last.
In a 2009 tag team match, Misawa took a belly to back suplex from Akitoshi Saito and lost consciousness. He was quickly taken to a local hospital but was pronounced dead before the end of the night. While his death has been speculated to be the result of cardiac arrest, Misawa’s family invoked a Japanese legal clause that prevents the cause of his death being officially released.
7. CLOSE CALL: Hayabusa
Hayabusa is a name that should have been everywhere. One of the greatest high-flyers of all-time, Hayabusa was not afraid to take risks and to put on a great show. Yet all it took to stop his career was for his feet to slip off from a rope.
During a match in Japan, Hayabusa went for a middle rope moonsault, a move that we commonly see performed by Chris Jericho in the WWE. However, after losing footing on the second rope, he slipped and cracked two vertebrae in the process. The match was immediately stopped, and Hayabusa was rushed to the hospital. For years, he remained paralyzed after the incident. By the mid-2010s, he was able to regain the use of his legs and walk with a cane. However, in 2016, Hayabusa passed away due to a hemorrhage.
6. Passed Away: Oro
A second-generation wrestler, Oro had the potential to shine in professional wrestling. Yet at the age of 21, his career would come to an unexpected end. After taking a clothesline bump, Oro landed on his hand. It’s said that he did this to make the match more dramatic, but in the minutes that followed, Oro became weak and eventually collapsed. His brother tried to make sure that Oro didn’t fall asleep, but Oro would die before reaching an ambulance.
It’s suspected that Oro died from a brain aneurysm. However, Oro’s family requested that an autopsy not be performed. After his death, multiple lucha libre organizations in Mexico paid tribute to the wrestler. His nephew currently wrestles in the CMLL promotion as Oro, Jr.
5. CLOSE CALL: New Jack
If you’re familiar with New Jack, you’re likely familiar with why he is on this list. Along with Mick Foley and Sabu, New Jack is considered to be one of the most recognizable faces associated with western hardcore wrestling in the 1990s. In 2000, he would face Vic Grimes in a scaffold match, yet when Jack fell off the scaffold, it would be far from pretty.
Jack and Grimes were supposed to land on multiple tables to help cushion the 15-foot fall. Instead, Jack landed on the concrete floor, and Grimes landed on Jack’s head. As a result. Jack was permanently blinded in his right eye and suffered brain damage as a result. The two would face off in a scaffold match again two years later, with Jack pushing Grimes off of a scaffold, resulting in Grimes’ ankle being dislocated.
4. Passed Away: Emiko Kado
Emiko Kado’s wrestling career lasted for less than two months. That’s how short her career was. Two years after Plum Mariko’s passing, she was hit in the head, in what was determined to be a sprained acute membrane in her brain. A week later, she died from intracerebral bleeding in the brain.
Kado’s death was only the second wrestling-related death to occur in Japan, despite the country’s notorious hard-hitting style. Kado’s injury occurred in her 15 month, and she was 22 minutes into that match. How many wrestlers wrestle a match that long, let along during their 15th match in their rookie year? There’s a reason why matches seldom go that long. Mistakes are much more likely to happen as a wrestler is more fatigued. This fatigue only increases as matches get longer. It’s a shame that Kado’s career ended the way it did, especially since her first match was against the legendary Aja Kong.
3. CLOSE CALL: Big Show
Before there was The Big Show, there was The Giant. And for some reason. Kevin Nash felt that he could deliver his signature Jackknife Powerbomb to The Giant. Don’t get me wrong – Kevin Nash is one big, strong dude. But there’s barely anyone that is strong enough to deliver a Jackknife Powerbomb to a wrestler that weighs more than 500 pounds.
Regardless, Nash did anyway, and The Giant landed right on his neck, injuring the future Big Show. This would be worked into a storyline, where it was said that Nash intentionally dropped The Giant on his head to cause the injury. It was a scary sight to see, but it’s definitely not a storyline that the concussion-aware WWE would ever want to pull off in this day and age.
2. Passed Away: Owen Hart
This list started off with Owen Hart being tied to Stone Cold’s scary injury. It’s unfortunate that this list comes to him, yet Hart’s passing may be the most notable wrestling-related death of all time. Unlike all the other deaths on this list, however, Hart’s death was not the result of a botched wrestling move, but an entrance gone wrong.
Hart, performing as The Blue Blazer, was supposed to be lowered to the ring. However, 78 feet above the ring, he fell onto the top rope and was thrown back into the ring. It was similar to a stunt that had been performed before. Luckily, the fall was not shown on live television, as a pre-taped vignette was being played. Despite multiple attempts to revive Owen, he passed away as a result of internal bleeding from blunt force trauma.
1. CLOSE CALL: Darren Drozdov
This may be the most well-known close call in professional wrestling history. Drozdov, better known as Droz, was in a match against D’Lo Brown. Brown went for a powerbomb on Droz but was not able to obtain a proper grip. Droz was not able to properly jump for the move either. When the move was complete, Droz landed on his head, fractured two discs in his neck and was rushed to the hospital.
After hours of surgery, the injury left him a quadriplegic. Since the injury, Droz has regained some movement in his upper body. He also holds no animosity or grudge towards D’Lo Brown regarding the injury, which just goes to show how strong and admirable of a person Drozdov is and he should be commended for that.
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