There are few things in this world that are certain. One of those certainties is none of us will live forever. Although that is a fact, many of the wrestlers that grabbed fans' attention and suspended our disbelief will continue to live on.Thanks to the WWE Network, wrestling podcasts and websites like The Sportster, wrestling memories and performers' legacies can live on for future generations.
The year 2017 hasn't been kind to the wrestling fraternity. A number of performers, commentators and personalities have been taken from us this year. Many of those that left did so too soon, while others had a lifetime of injuries that just caught up with them in the end. While several major names passed away this year, there were many more who never reached the heights of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka or Bobby "The Brain" Heenan. Their passing may not have been felt quite like those stars that worked for the WWE and WCW, but nevertheless, their losses are still felt throughout wrestling.
From Starrcade performers to WrestleMania main event talent, the world lost several great performers this year. Although it is a sad time to lose the greats that graced the squared circle, their memories live on in the matches, shows and events they worked.
Smith Hart was the oldest of the Hart children, born in New York City in 1948. Unlike his two most famous wrestling brothers, Bret and Owen, Smith's career was far more modest in the ring. His career began in the early 1970s in his father's Stampede Wrestling company. Smith worked as both a referee and wrestler before making trips to Puerto Rico and Japan. After winning titles in the Far East, Smith embarked on trips to Europe and grew his reputation as a wrestler. He also helped build relationships between his father's promotion and other companies. In 1986, Smith hung up his tights and began training wrestlers. Along with his brother Keith, he helped to train some of the 1990s best junior heavyweights like Chris Benoit and Jushin Thunder Liger. In January 2016, doctors discovered Smith had developed prostate and bone cancer. He passed on June 2, 2017 at the age of 68.
By the end of his life, a lot had been written and said about Jimmy Snuka. In recent years, much of it was extremely negative as the alleged murder of his ex-girlfriend re-surfaced. In the ring, Snuka was a wrestler ahead of his time. Outside it, Snuka was a man that had demons. Born in Fiji, Snuka got into bodybuilding at an early age, which led him into the world of professional wrestling in the early 1970s. In 1982, Snuka moved to the WWE and began feuding with champion Bob Backlund. In June of that year, the two wrestled in one of the greatest WWE cage matches of all-time. The ending came when a bloodied Snuka leapt off the top of the cage to perform his Superfly Splash. Snuka would leave the WWE in 1985 before returning in 1989. By the end of the decade, Snuka's best years in the ring were over. After leaving the company again in 1992, "Superfly" made sporadic WWE appearances. Snuka's later years were marred by a trial for murder. However, Judge Kelly Banach declared Snuka to be unfit to stand trial in 2016. Just days after his case being dismissed, Snuka passed away from stomach cancer on January 15, 2017.
George Steele was an icon of late 1980s wrestling. For many his hairy back, green tongue and turnbuckle chewing defined their childhoods. Steele experienced a steady, successful career. The rest of his time was spent teaching high school and coaching football in Michigan. Despite the short schedule, he still managed to have major runs in Madison Square Garden with Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund. Now a face, he sided with Ricky Steamboat in the latter's feud with "Macho Man" Randy Savage. His infatuation with Miss Elizabeth led to plenty of dramatic Saturday Night's Main Event moments. In 1988, Steele was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease and transitioned into being a WWE road agent. Over the next two decades, Steele would see his Crohn's Disease go into remission, however, his body had taken a toll. On February 16, 2017, suffering from kidney failure, Steele passed at the age of 79.
Modern wrestling fans may have never heard the name Otto Wanz, but the Austrian was a legendary wrestler and promoter in Germany and Austria. Wanz's biggest claim to fame in North America came in 1982 when he defeated AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel for the title. According to wrestling folklore, Wanz paid AWA owner Verne Gagne to win the belt. It has never been confirmed, but Bockwinkel's manager Bobby Heenan was unaware a title change was going to happen until it occurred in the ring. As a promoter in Germany and Austria, Wanz ran the Catch Wrestling Association. The company hosted a number of big stars over the years, including Andre The Giant, Big John Stud, Antonio Inoki and many more. The tournaments would attract some of the best grapplers in the world, including Fit Finlay, Chris Benoit, Steve Regal and Lance Storm. Wanz retired from the ring in 1990, and he ran the CWA until it folded in 1999. According to the Austrian media, Wanz suffered a "very serious, short illness".
Mr. Pogo was a Japanese wrestling legend and a hardcore icon. Although he debuted in 1972 with New Japan, he soon left on a wrestling excursion to North America. Although Pogo wrestled against some of the business's biggest legends, it was his barb wire matches in FMW that caught the world's attention. Tape traders from all over the globe scrambled to get their hands on cassettes featuring Pogo, Terry Funk and Atushi Onita. His career spanned 45 years, and he reinvented himself several times. In 2001, Pogo began running his own wrestling promotion called World W*ING Spirit to great success. Unfortunately, Pogo's wrestling career took a major toll on his body, and the pain he suffered due to back injuries lead to his death in 2017. In May of this year, Pogo underwent surgery on his spinal canal to alleviate pain. Due to blood loss, the surgery was halted. Weeks later, doctors again attempted the surgery, and again it was stopped due to complications. He passed away the next day at the age of 66.
By the time "Outlaw" Ron Bass arrived in the WWE, he had been wrestling for over a decade. A veteran of the NWA territories, Bass carved out a niche for himself in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. In the build-up to the very first SummerSlam in 1988, "Outlaw" shredded Beefcake's forehead with his spurs, causing Beefcake to miss his Intercontinental title match. In January 1989, Beefcake finally got his revenge, as he defeated Bass in a hair match on Saturday Night's Main Event. Following the blow off, Bass shrunk into the WWE's background, and left the WWE soon after. With injuries accumulating and territories folding, he retired in 1991. From there, he earned a bachelor's degree from Arkansas State University and worked in construction equipment sales. In March 2017, Bass was admitted to hospital due to a burst appendix. Complications with the surgery resulted in Bass passing on March 7th. He was just 68-years old.
To say Bob Sweetan was a hated figure would be an understatement. Of course, fans didn't like the big "Bruiser", but neither did the other wrestlers that worked with Sweetan. The Canadian was a bully inside and outside the ring and it caused many to fear him. Despite the industry exploding, Sweetan's body couldn't take the rigors of the road. Sweetan went on to train future WWE star Bob "Hardcore" Holly after his career ended. Holly has not spoken well of Sweetan, nor have others including "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan and Jim Ross. In 1990, he was arrested for assaulting his 15-year-old daughter. Although he had been a believable worker and tough bad guy in the ring, it is Sweetan's life away from the crowds that dominates people's memories of him. The former territory star died on February 10, 2017 after suffering from diabetes and memory issues most likely brought on from substance abuse and shots to the head.
Any wrestling fan that has seen the film Beyond the Mat will recognize the name Dennis Stamp. However, his work in the wrestling ring is most likely far more unrecognizable to many. The Minnesotan had a 20-year wrestling career that saw him compete mostly as a journeyman wrestler. Stamp held various tag team titles during the 70s, but as the business changed in the 80s, so did his career. Stamp became an enhancement talent with the AWA and WWE as the territories folded. The wrestling jobs dried up, and Stamp found himself unable to get booked. Due to wrestling's transformation, Stamp began a pest control company in his adopted home of Amarillo, Texas. On Colt Cabana's Art of Wrestling podcast, Stamp spoke about the chemicals he used being the cause of the cancer he would be diagnosed with in 2011. He beat the disease the first time around, but it returned in 2016. On March 13, 2017, Stamp succumbed to the cancer. Stamp may not have been well-known for his in-ring work, but his iconic part in Beyond the Mat has left an indelible mark on the sport.
Doug Somers worked hard to become a top wrestler in the AWA. He started out as many kids did decades ago by setting up the ring and taking tickets during the promotion's shows in Minneapolis. He debuted in 1971, and worked territories around the world honing his craft. Back home, Somers became the tag team partner of Buddy Rose. The Duo wrestled some of the company's best matches of the 1980s, and those came against The Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty). Somers and Rose put the future WWE tag team, and Michaels in particular, on the map. He continued to work into the 2000s before finally hanging up his boots. Somers had been fighting health problems for years prior to his death on May 16, 2017. In a lawsuit filed against the WWE a few years prior (a case ruled in favor of the WWE), it was claimed Somers had suffered over 400 concussions during his career.
Larry Sharpe was a well-known wrestler, but it was his time as a trainer that really made the late grappler stand out. In 1983 along with "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, Sharpe opened The Monster Factory wrestling school in New Jersey. He trained some of the biggest names in the sport such as Bam Bam Bigelow, Chris Candido, King Kong Bundy, and many more. As a wrestler, Sharpe was brought into the business by Gorilla Monsoon. At the time, Monsoon was a co-owner of the WWWF along with Vince McMahon's father. His ability to teach coupled with his career opportunities shrinking, influenced him to start The Monster Factory. Thanks to the eye-catching name and large wrestlers he produced, Sharpe received plenty of publicity from major television networks, magazines and syndicated shows.Sharpe died on April 11, 2017 at the age of 66. He had been suffering from liver disease.
Diane Von Hoffman was one of the last trainees churned out by the Great Moolah in the early 1980s. Von Hoffman may not have worked for the WWE or been characterized as a diva, but she was a consistent performer for the USWA and LPWA during her career. Von Hoffman's passing was sudden and reports indicate it occurred during knee surgery on July 6, 2017. She was just 55-years-old. Her two most well-known gimmicks were the Teutonic Terror and Moondog Fifi. Her full-time career ended in 1994 due to a car accident, but she stayed active in wrestling on a part-time basis for the next two decades. Her loss may have gone unnoticed by some, but she was a women's wrestler who deserved more acknowledgement for what she did in the ring. Before the current crop of women's wrestlers, Von Hoffman and others built the foundation for what those females today perform on.
Ion Croitoru was a scary looking individual. His handlebar moustache, prison tattoos, bald head and muscles made him an intimidating character to say the least. Known mostly by the wrestling names Johnny K-9 and Bruiser Bedlam, the former wrestler had well-known gang affiliations and was accused of murdering two individuals in 1998. In the wrestling ring, Croitoru broke into the business as an enhancement talent for the WWE in the 1980s. Croitoru later moved to Jim Cornette's Smoky Mountain Wrestling 1994. It was there that the Bruiser Bedlam name was coined. Despite working in wrestling consistently, he was in constant trouble with the law. In 2013, he was convicted for his part in a murder and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 2016, Croitoru moved into a Toronto halfway house, and it was there he was found on February 21, 2017. He was 53.
Oreal Perras lived his gimmick. As Ivan Koloff, he made every red-blooded American believe he was a Soviet Union supporting wrestler sent to the United States to take over the sport. Originally from Canada, Perras donned the "Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff name in 1967. In 1971, Koloff did the unthinkable when he defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight title. It was the most shocking event to occur in Madison Square Garden history. Koloff wasn't even given the belt in the ring. The "Russian Bear" went on to lose the belt 21 days later, but his legacy was already forming. Koloff retired in 1994 while in his early 50s. On February 18, 2017, suffering from liver cancer, Koloff died aged 74. Following his death, he was remembered fondly by fans and fellow wrestlers. Today, he lives on in some of the best 1980s NWA-JCP promos ever shot.
Lance Russell wasn't just a wrestling announcer. He was the voice of an entire territory, and a man wrestling fans trusted when he appeared on their television screens every Saturday morning. Without Russell, Memphis wrestling may not have existed as it did; or as long as it did. It was Russell who discovered the territory's biggest star for all-time, Jerry "The King" Lawler, and with him in tow, the company was a hot-bed of action. Although Russell spent the vast majority of his career with the Memphis promotion, he did venture away from it in 1989. That year, Russell joined WCW and gained the first national exposure of his career. His reactions were priceless, and occasionally he was part of the angle. On Oct 3, 2017, just days after the passing of his daughter, Russell left us due to complications from a broken hip. The icon of wrestling commentary was 91.
As a wrestler, Heenan was one of the best to ever lace up boots, and as a manager, he could talk people into the building to see him get beaten and bloodied. Heenan was not only a great heel, but he was funny too. He seamlessly moved into commentary in the late 1980, and along with Gorilla Monsoon, became the voice of a generation of wrestling fans. His move to WCW in the mid-1990s helped a whole new fan base discover his wit and humour. Unfortunately, it was the thing that made him such a great wrestling personality that was taken away from him. In 2002, Heenan was diagnosed with throat cancer. Two year later, his jaw had to be reconstructed, and communicating became difficult for Heenan. Although his cancer had been in remission for a decade, Heenan faced further health problems. On September 17, 2017, he succumbed to organ failure. In the wake of his passing, some called Heenan the greatest worker of all-time: wrestler and manager. No matter where he managed, wrestled or commented, he was over and drew money. From Chicago to Minneapolis, New York to Atlanta, Heenan was a main event star wherever he went. The wrestling world truly lost someone it will never replace when Bobby "The Brain" Heenan passed away.