It’s not as bad as it was in 2016, but we’ve sure lost a lot of great celebrities this year – Adam West, Chris Cornell, and Chester Bennington, to name a few, and that’s only counting the worlds of showbiz and music. Wrestlers can definitely be filed under the celebrity category, and this year has seen its share of losses – knock on wood, there may be more to come in the three and a half months before 2017 makes way for 2018.
The Grim Reaper may be taking it easier on younger wrestlers these days, what with drug and alcohol abuse among pro wrestlers not as prevalent as it was in decades prior. But that doesn’t mean that great big wrestling ring in the sky hasn’t been filling up with entrants for the next big battle royal. At this point of the year, we’ve read our share of bad news about one wrestler or another passing on, and we shall be looking back on these late wrestlers in the list below.
With that said, let’s look back at 15 wrestlers who left us in 2017, how they left us, and what they did to make a name in the wrestling business.
15. Jimmy Snuka
We shall start the list off with the first noteworthy wrestling death of 2017, and one of the most bizarre, in terms of the circumstances leading up to it. At the time he died on January 15 of this year at the age of 73, “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka just had some serious charges of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter against him dismissed, both relating to the 1983 death of his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino. Snuka was arrested in 2015, more than three decades after he allegedly killed Argentino during a violent argument, but in June of 2016, he was declared unfit to stand trial, due to his rapidly declining mental and physical health at the time.
Six months later, it was announced that Snuka only had a few more months to live, due to a “terminal illness” many assumed to be connected to his 2015 stomach cancer diagnosis. A month later, the Superfly was gone, leaving behind a legacy of in-ring greatness, and so many unanswered questions about what actually happened between him and Nancy Argentino on the night of May 10, 1983.
14. George “The Animal” Steele
In the late-1960s, Jim Myers was a high school teacher and football coach in Michigan who also wrestled under a mask to augment his income. But when Bruno Sammartino recruited him to join the old WWWF, the young educator thought it would be better if he hid his identity as a now-unmasked pro wrestler, taking the name of a rival coach and calling himself George Steele. Years later, he evolved into an unhinged, gibberish-speaking lunatic of a monster heel, and thanks to the breath mints he ate before matches, he had a green tongue to match his bald head and hairy body as he now called himself George “The Animal” Steele.
Steele would remain active in WWE’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling Era, even in his late-40s and early-50s. At this time, he was a babyface who mostly put over younger heels. He retired in 1988 due to Crohn’s disease, and worked on-and-off for WWE as a road agent, also making occasional in-ring appearances. Steele passed away on February 16 of this year, just two days before fellow Hall of Fame Ivan Koloff, due to kidney failure. He was 79 years old.
13. Chavo Guerrero Sr.
The oldest son of Mexican wrestling legend Gory Guerrero, Salvador “Chavo” Guerrero III, otherwise known as Chavo Sr. or Chavo Classic, had a legendary grappling career of his own. He would make his name in Japan, and later on in Los Angeles, as he teamed up with his younger brothers, future GLOW trainer Mando, and future Gobbledygooker Hector, and became a 15-time NWA Americas Heavyweight Champion. He also had a brief stint in the WWE, working alongside his son, Chavo Jr., and even defeating his own son (and Spike Dudley) in a Triple Threat Match for the Cruiserweight Championship. Yes, it did happen, though he would soon drop the belt to Rey Mysterio, and get fired by WWE for missing several dates.
Just last year, Chavo Classic was still involved in pro wrestling, and had helped his son beat Rey Mysterio on a Lucha Underground “Loser Leaves Lucha” match, only for Rey to beat Chavo Jr. via Dusty Finish. That’s why it was a shock to many that on February 11 of this year, it was reported that Chavo Classic had died at the age of 68, just a month after being diagnosed with liver cancer.
12. Dennis Stamp
Those who watched Barry Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat will recognize the name Dennis Stamp – he’s the longtime journeyman wrestler who became a cult favorite for that one oft-repeated line of his, “I’m not booked!” Of course, Stamp was eventually booked to referee Terry Funk’s retirement match (one of gazillions) against Bret Hart in 1997, and when wrestling memes began to make traction on the internet, his “I’m not booked!” line made him prime fodder for some of those memes. And so did that image of him training by jumping up and down on a trampoline. In his underwear.
In the years that followed, Stamp wrote The Stamp Collection: A Collection of Short Stories from the World’s Most Famous Unknown Wrestler, an autobiography noteworthy for its long, yet clever title, but his health became a concern in the 2010s, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. After initially beating the cancer, it came back in 2016, and on March 13, 2017, Stamp passed away at the age of 70.
11. Nicole Bass
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way – Nicole Bass was meant to be the antithesis to the young, beautiful, and sexy ladies WWE was starting to push as women’s wrestlers during the Attitude Era. At 6’2″ and 250 pounds, Bass was a multi-titled bodybuilder who joined WWE in 1999 as Sable’s bodyguard. But she wasn’t long for the WWE, as she would leave the company and accuse them of sexual harassment, specifically naming Steve “Brooklyn Brawler” Lombardi as the alleged culprit. Considering the long-running rumors of Lombardi being Pat Patterson’s secret lover, stranger things have happened.
Like many a Howard Stern “Wack Pack” regular, which she was before and after her wrestling career, Bass’ personal life would be filled with struggles. Her health also suffered as a consequence of her past steroid use. And on February 17 of this year, Bass’ short and troubled life ended at the age of 52, one day after she was hospitalized following an apparent stroke.
10. “Outlaw” Ron Bass
Back in the 1980s, “Outlaw” Ron Bass (no relation to Nicole, as his real name was Ronald Heard) was ostensibly another one of those generic heel cowboys, a precursor to JBL’s old Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw gimmick. And while he was generally limited to the midcard, Bass was nonetheless memorable, due to his feud with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. So intense was this feud that it resulted in WWE censoring one of their matches, where the Outlaw ripped the Barber’s face open with his spurs. That would have been nothing in the Attitude Era, but hey, it was the ’80s.
Bass would be reduced to a less prominent role after the Beefcake feud, and after he left WWE in 1989, he spent a couple years in the indies before retiring in 1991. He died on March 7, 2017 at the age of 68, due to complications from surgery for a burst appendix.
9. Mr. Pogo
You can refer to Mick Foley as the Hardcore Legend, and you can also argue that Terry Funk is more deserving of that moniker. But Japanese wrestler Tetsuo “Mr. Pogo” Sekigawa is yet another man who can be considered the be-all and end-all of hardcore wrestling. A grizzled veteran pushing 40 at the start of the ‘90s, Pogo joined Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW), and would go on to popularize the death match over the next several years. He was also involved in a notable incident during a Double Hell Death Match against Funk in 1996, where Pogo’s American opponent kept blowing fire at him, even if he was laying on barbed wire with a broken neck.
Pogo survived that career-threatening injury, and despite escalating health problems, he was still wrestling occasionally in the 2010s, even as a man now in his 60s. However, the end came somewhat unexpectedly for Pogo on June 23 of this year, as he died at 66 due to complications from spinal canal surgery.
8. Ivan Koloff
During Bruno Sammartino’s heyday in the old WWWF, heel champions were basically there for transitional purposes. You had Stan Stasiak, for instance, who reigned for nine days so that the company could move the World Heavyweight Championship from Pedro Morales back to Bruno. But “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff was the first man to win the title from the Italian Strongman, having done so in January 1971, before dropping the belt to Morales just three weeks later.
Of course, Koloff was not really a Russian Communist super-villain in real life, but rather a big Canadian wrestler named Oreal Perras, who had previously worked as kayfabe Irishman Red McNulty before taking on the Koloff ring name/gimmick. And that’s the name people knew him by, as he enjoyed a long and fruitful ring career that lasted up until the early-’90s. Koloff died on February 18, 2017 at the age of 74, following a battle with liver cancer.
7. Smith Hart
The best way to describe Smith Hart is that he was a character. The oldest of Stu and Helen Hart’s 12 children, Smith was more about the shenanigans and shady deals, as younger brother Bret Hart recalled in his autobiography. For instance, he used to piss off German fans by goose-stepping in the ring and wearing a fake Hitler mustache. He was also bad for his dad’s business, due to the shady characters he associated himself with, including one who ran off with the take from a Stampede Wrestling show. And among all his many wives and baby mamas, he was once married to a woman with mental health issues, with the couple naming their daughter Satanic Ecstasy. (Fortunately, she goes by the nickname Tanya.)
Like Bret was in recent years, Smith was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but in his case, the cancer was caught too late, as it had spread to other parts of his body. He was given less than a year to live in February of this year, and on July 2, he passed away at the age of 68. Making this even more tragic was the fact that Smith died on the same day as Bret Hart’s 60th birthday.
This list is mainly heavy on wrestlers who made their name in the United States and Canada, but the world of Mexican wrestling lost a few legendary names in 2017, including longtime rudo (heel) Fishman. Growing up, Jose Najera always rooted for the rudos, most notably Black Shadow and Blue Demon, and when he began his wrestling career, he distinguished himself with his green-and-yellow mask and physical in-ring style, becoming a prominent bad guy in Mexico’s EMLL and winning the company’s National Welterweight Championship three times.
Fishman’s career ended up lasting almost three decades, starting in the early-’70s and ending at the turn of the 21st century. In recent years, he had mostly supported his sons as they began lucha libre careers of their own, while making occasional in-ring appearances, including one as recently as 2012. Fishman died of a heart attack on April 8 of this year, aged 66, though for fans, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, as reports suggested he wasn’t looking well in his more recent appearances.
5. Wayne Van Dyke
The name Wayne Van Dyke might not be a familiar one to a lot of wrestling fans, but he makes this list because he was so shockingly young at the time of his death. Known by the ring name Richard Delicious, Van Dyke was working a tag team match for Florida-based indie promotion Ronin Pro Wrestling on May 13, 2017, and had reportedly tagged out of the match after suffering a heart attack. He was then rushed to the hospital, where he suffered another two heart attacks and died, only 29 years old.
What’s worse is that Van Dyke’s condition may have actually been aggravated during what should have been a life-saving effort. According to Wrestling News, the young indie wrestler had suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung as he was being given CPR. As such, who knows if Van Dyke would still be alive, if not for this unforeseen complication?
4. Larry Sharpe
Larry Weil, aka “Pretty Boy” Larry Sharpe, never made it past the midcard in 1970s-era WWE (including the WWWF days), but the former NCAA amateur wrestling standout made a bigger mark in the business as a trainer and the man behind the Monster Factory wrestling school in his hometown of Paulsboro, New Jersey. Sharpe teamed up with the legendary, original “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers when he opened the school in 1983, and its first notable graduate was a Garden State youngster named Scott Bigelow, whom you may recognize better as Bam Bam. Other Monster Factory graduates include Sheamus, Chris Candido, D’Lo Brown, Balls Mahoney, King Kong Bundy, and even the Big Show, who honed his chops at the school prior to his WCW debut as The Giant.
Sharpe continued running the Monster Factory up until his 60s, when health problems forced him to retire. He died on April 10, 2017 at the age of 66, though the Monster Factory did not announce a cause of death in the statement announcing its founder’s passing.
3. Bruiser Bedlam/Johnny K-9
Typically, 1980s jobbers in the WWE wrestled under their real names, but since Ion Croitoru isn’t really the most announcer-friendly name out there, the beefy Canadian youngster instead went by the name Johnny K-9 as a WWE enhancement talent. He was more prominent, however, as Bruiser Bedlam in Smoky Mountain Wrestling in the 1990s, where he worked as SMW owner Jim Cornette’s protege. He also spent some time wrestling in Japan, as well as in his native Canada for a good chunk of the ’80s and ’90s.
Sadly, Croitoru’s day job was anything but an honest, law-abiding one – when away from the ring, he led a biker gang, and racked up numerous arrests for drug trafficking, assault, and bombing a police station. And in 2005 and 2011, he was charged for two separate murders, as he spent the last few years of his life incarcerated in one way or another. Croitoru was only 53 when he died on February 21 of this year, still serving time in a federal halfway house in Toronto.
2. Rex King/Timothy Well
If you knew Timothy Smith for his work in the indies, you recognize him better as Rex King, who, together with Steve Doll, competed as the Southern Rockers in the early-’90s, and won three USWA World Tag Team Championships. That could have given them solid midcard promise in the WWE, but instead, they were hired in 1993 on the basis of bad puns and bad in-ring costumes – Rex King became Timothy Well, while Steve Doll changed his last name to Dunn, because WWE just needed to have a Chippendale-inspired tag team called Well Dunn.
King/Well would continue wrestling up until the early-2000s, and like many ex-WWE Superstars, had sued the company for concealing the risks of the brain injuries they allegedly suffered in the ring. He was also misreported as having died in 2012, with King himself debunking the report a week later, but he sadly passed away for real on January 9, 2017, aged 55, due to kidney failure.
As one-half of Eric Bischoff’s hired goons 3 Minute Warning, Matt Anoa’i made quite a name for himself in WWE’s Ruthless Aggression Era under the ring name Rosey. And while Jamal (Matt’s cousin Edward Fatu) would have to wait a few years before becoming a singles star as Umaga, Rosey would remain in tag team competition after 3 Minute Warning broke up, becoming The Hurricane’s sidekick. Or should we say, his Super Hero In Training. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what WWE was trying to do there, but despite all that, Rosey and The Hurricane made for a fairly entertaining partnership.
Rosey left the WWE in 2006, and would wrestle in Japan, before scaling back big-time and co-running Epic Championship Wrestling with his dad, Wild Samoan Sika. His weight problems also began to lead to health problems once the 2010s hit, and on April 17, 2017, he died at the age of 47 due to congestive heart failure. And how cold could the WWE Universe get, as they didn’t even give Rosey’s kid brother, Roman Reigns, a respite from the boos, even if they knew he’d taken some time off to mourn his brother’s death.
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