We’re now on to a new year, and looking back at the year that was, wrestling fans mourned the loss of many a legendary performer, including Jimmy Snuka, George Steele, Ivan Koloff, and Bobby Heenan. Even long-forgotten mid-carders like “Outlaw” Ron Bass and names from the international scene such as Mr. Pogo were remembered fondly when they passed away last year. Of course, we’re hoping that 2018 won’t be as harsh as it was to the wrestling business as 2017 was, but that also brings to mind the subject of this article – wrestlers whom you may have thought are dead, but are actually still alive, and in many cases, still in good health.
As is often the case with casual or lapsed fans, it’s not unusual to think that a big name from the past has passed away, even if said wrestler hasn’t. That said, we shall now be listing 15 living wrestlers whom you may, at one point or another, have thought already died. Here’s hoping we don’t lose any of them in the immediate foreseeable future.
Side note: While we shall be including one active WWE wrestler in this list due to the notoriety that surrounded a satire article claiming he was dead, we are NOT going to include John Cena in this list, despite all those death hoaxes he’s been involved in. Even casuals know that while “you can’t see him,” he’s very much alive and active in the WWE.
15. Dory Funk Jr.
In “traditional” sports, you’d likely be retired, or contemplating retirement by the time you turn 40. Then you’ve got the usual retirement ages of 60 to 65 for people like you and me who work regular jobs. Moving on to the world of wrestling, there have been quite a few grapplers who compete till they’re well into their 50s, or even older. In Dory Funk Jr.’s case, the man is almost 80-years-old (turning 77 this February), yet he is still listed as an active wrestler!
In all fairness, Funk hasn’t wrestled since 2015, when he appeared in a few Japanese shows at the ripe young age of 74. But you have to give the man credit – he’s still alive and kicking (butt, that is), and unlike his younger brother Terry, he’s had only one previous retirement. Now that’s what you call dedication to the sport, unconventional as it is, of professional wrestling.
14. Don Muraco
When it comes to wrestlers whom casual fans think have already crossed over to the great beyond, it’s usually those oft-forgotten names that come to mind. Take the example of “Magnificent” Don Muraco, who was a solid mid-carder for the WWE in the 1980s, and took part in an epic feud with the late “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, culminating in that historic cage match in 1983 that inspired a young college freshman named Mick Foley (among others) to embark on a career in pro wrestling. You also may remember him for those hilariously bad “Fuji Vice” skits with Mr. Fuji on WWE’s similarly campy Tuesday Night Titans. Oh, and there was that babyface run toward the end of his time with WWE, where he was billed as “The Rock,” way before Dwayne Johnson was asking fans if they could smell what he’s cooking.
13. Big Show
Anyone who regularly watches WWE programming and follows their favorite Superstars on social media would have called bullcrap on the article the moment they read it. But last year, The Onion thought it would be a good idea to parody the Harambe incident at the Cincinnati Zoo by replacing the late, lamented gorilla with an actual, human wrestler (Big Show) and writing that WWE security shot the World’s Largest Athlete dead when a young kid made his way to the ring. It was a rare slip-up for the otherwise esteemed satire publication, and believe it or not, some fans thought the article was legit.
Ironically, The Onion’s uncharacteristically tasteless Big Show piece came at a time when he was in the best physical shape he’s been, at least since joining the WWE almost two decades ago. Certainly there were many better and more tactful ways to write a satirical article about Harambe, weren’t there?
12. Dynamite Kid
Due to the numerous health issues he’s suffered since prematurely retiring from the ring, it’s hard to blame those who think Dynamite Kid is now competing in God’s squared circle. (Or the devil’s, considering his long track record of alleged and confirmed violent, racist, and/or bullying behavior.) We really do hope Dynamite has been chastened, though, because he’s been through a lot lately, including a stroke that left him hospitalized for over a year, and countless financial problems on account of his health issues and inability to work.
Having just turned 59, Dynamite Kid is younger than most of the wrestlers in this list. Yet it can be argued that years of hard living and later on, years of poor health have made him look like someone who’s at least a decade older. This is certainly not what many had imagined when he was younger, healthier, and one of the most talented workers to ever step foot in the ring.
Although he claims to have had a hand in coming up with the gimmick, “The Ugandan Giant” Kamala is often seen as an example of a racist, stereotypical gimmick that didn’t do much good for the man who played it. But to give credit where it’s due, James Harris made the most out of his role as Kamala, lasting close to a decade on-and-off in the WWE in the ’80s and ’90s, and serving as a prominent monster heel…until the shortsighted decision to turn him face and “humanize” him.
Unfortunately, Kamala has hit some hard times as of late, as he’s had both of his legs amputated due to complications from diabetes. He’s also gone through financial problems, relying on disability checks and sales from handmade wooden chairs to make ends meet. And like many of the wrestlers in this list, he’s had some prominent health issues, having undergone emergency surgery in November 2017 to remove fluid from his heart and lungs.
10. Paul Orndorff
Despite being four years older than Hulk Hogan, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff was often referred to as “Hulk Jr.” due to his bodybuilder-worthy physique, which, of course, created tension between both men and led to Orndorff making an epic heel turn on the Hulkster in the mid 1980s. While he (unbelievably) never won anything more than several mid-card belts during his wrestling career, he was one of the biggest names in the wrestling scene in the 1980s, and rightfully so.
Now 68, Orndorff is in the WWE Hall of Fame, yet is one of those old-time wrestlers casual fans often mistake as having died years ago. He did have a substantial health scare seven years ago after he was diagnosed with cancer, but he’s since recovered, and even competed in an indie match last year! (As is often the case with men his age, it was a six-man tag team match.)
9. Ric Flair
Oh, you horrible internet users, you. Even before he cheated death late last year and made a successful recovery from his emergency surgery, one of the first search suggestions that would come up when searching for Ric Flair’s name on Google was “Ric Flair dead.” Obviously, he’s very much alive at 68-years-old, and since his recent medical problems were apparently a result of too many years living his gimmick, he recently announced that he’s finally quitting drinking.
Last year’s hospitalization was not the first time the Nature Boy had a close call with the Grim Reaper. In 1975, back when Flair was only 26, he was involved in a plane crash that took the life of the pilot, yet spared the lives of the wrestlers who were onboard. With his back broken in three places, Flair was told by doctors that his wrestling career was over, but we all know how that turned out. WOO!
It wasn’t too long ago (November 2016) when Big Van Vader tweeted that doctors advised him he might have only two years to live, due to congestive heart failure that was supposedly a result of his careers in college (and briefly, pro) football and professional wrestling. That sparked a groundswell of support from fans who wanted WWE to induct him into the Hall of Fame while he’s still alive, and while we continue waiting for that induction, the good thing is that Vader, who’s now 62, is still with us.
We will, however, take issue with the fact that despite those stern medical warnings, Vader is still actively wrestling. Last April, Vader had notably collapsed during a Japanese show celebrating Tatsumi Fujinami’s 45th year in the business, and while it appears to have been due to the fact he was dropped on his head during a six-man tag match, it’s definitely worrisome that he remains determined to compete, even with his older age and health issues.
7. Dominic DeNucci
Unless you’ve read Mick Foley’s autobiography Have a Nice Day, Dominic DeNucci will likely be one of the more obscure names on the list. But he also happens to be the oldest, as he will be turning 86-years-old later this month. While it’s mostly the older fans who may recognize him for his time competing in Vince McMahon Sr.’s WWWF in the 1970s, younger fans may recognize him as the man who trained wrestlers such as Foley and Shane Douglas. Foley, in particular, wrote in Have a Nice Day about those long winter drives from New York to Pittsburgh to attend DeNucci’s wrestling school. Talk about dedication.
While he mainly focused on training young wrestlers from the 1980s onward, DeNucci wrestled occasionally even in his older age, and was all of 80-years-old when he wrestled his final match, teaming with former protege Shane Douglas in an independent match in Toronto.
6. Ivan Putski
We’re guessing that some fans might have gotten their Ivans mixed up when WWE Hall of Famer Ivan Koloff died in February of last year. But the Polish Hammer, Ivan Putski, is still with us, and will be turning 77-years-old later this month. And yes, he did feud with Koloff back in the day, which probably wouldn’t be possible in today’s WWE, where it’s no longer common for two wrestlers to share the same first name.
Putski wrestled in the WWE until 1987, and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame eight years later by his son Scott, who inexplicably found himself in WWE’s Light Heavyweight division despite sharing a jacked frame with his old man. He’s been keeping a low profile in recent years, though he cut an interview on the Two-Man Power Trip of Wrestling podcast last year, where he praised Vince McMahon Sr. and shot hard on Vince Jr. for allegedly “not liking him.”
5. Nikolai Volkoff
Not only is Nikolai Volkoff still alive at the age of 70, he also happens to be active up to this very day, competing occasionally in the indies a good 50 years after he made his wrestling debut. And you better believe he’s still more than happy to break out in song and sing the Russian national anthem to rile up any pro-American crowd, just like he did back in his WWE heyday. Oh, how easy it used to be to get legitimate heel heat for being a villainous foreign wrestler.
Although most fans recall Volkoff’s most iconic heel run in the 1980s and his short-lived babyface turn, he was also a mainstay for Vince McMahon Sr. in the 1970s, and played the sad part of an old, washed-up guy willing to do anything for the money as the low man of Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Corporation in the 1990s. Some may say he’s in it for the money as he continues wrestling up to this day, but we beg to disagree.
4. Jake Roberts
Arguably the inspiration for the character Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece of a film The Wrestler, the things Jake “The Snake” Roberts did in his lifetime could easily make you think he should be dead by now. Due to a rough upbringing with a wrestling legend of a dad who allegedly did some horrible things to the women in his life, Roberts lived most of his adult life (and wrestling career) with a chip on his shoulder, abusing drugs and alcohol on a regular basis, and even flaunting his drug use on a documentary.
Thankfully, longtime friend Diamond Dallas Page stepped in to save Roberts’ life, and while he hasn’t always been in the best of health, he is thankfully clean and sober after wasting the prime of his career on, well, getting wasted. Let’s hope he stays that way.
3. Harley Race
I remember the first time I watched “King” Harley Race on WWE TV, thinking, at my very young age, that he must have been well past 50 and old enough to be my grandfather. Apparently, I was quite far off, as he was “only” approaching his mid-40s at that time, but by then, he was already a grizzled, multi-titled veteran of the ring, and one of the oldest wrestlers working under that garish suit-wearing announcer Vince McMahon’s employ.
Despite numerous rumors in recent years that he was close to death, as well as health scares that included a fall last year that broke both of his legs, the 74-year-old legend is still alive, and still one of the toughest S.O.B.s (apologies to Steve Austin) ever to step into a wrestling ring. So unless you’re Kayfabe News, don’t go around making jokes about his name (which is 100 percent his real name) sounding like some sort of big bike competition.
2. “Superstar” Billy Graham
When talking about wrestler health scares and the wrestlers who survive them, one shouldn’t look much further than “Superstar” Billy Graham, who paid the price time and again for his well-documented steroid use. A great talker and charismatic worker who paved the way for the likes of Hulk Hogan, Graham was a heel champ for Vince McMahon Sr. in the old WWWF. But the ’80s saw him saddled with injuries and bad gimmicks (see: 1982 karate fighter gimmick), and a much-hyped comeback in 1987 that ultimately ended in disappointment…and more injuries.
Despite having two successful liver transplants in the last 15 years, Graham has been in and out of the hospital for numerous health issues. But now that he’s 74, we do wish he’d stop acting like a bitter old veteran for once, instead of frequently taking to the internet to make caustic comments about wrestlers, oftentimes younger ones, he doesn’t get along with or respect.
1. Terry Funk
After countless hardcore matches that arguably put both his life and limb at risk, numerous injuries sustained during those matches, and God knows how many retirements and eventual comebacks, Terry Funk is probably the epitome of that oft-used chant “fight forever.” Not even recent surgeries had stopped him in 2016 from attending Tommy Dreamer’s House of Hardcore events, and even if he retired at one of those shows, he was back just one year later, teaming with The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express in a six-man tag match against Doug Gilbert and the father-and-son tandem of Jerry Lawler and Brian Christopher. For those doing the math, that’s an average age of FIFTY-NINE-YEARS-OLD for all six competitors!
We might as well admit it – death may be the only thing that could force Terry Funk, 73, into retirement for good. And it goes without saying that we hope that doesn’t happen anytime soon.
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