Given the grueling nature of the travel schedule endured by professional wrestlers, it’s somewhat amazing that this list isn’t miles longer. Particularly during the territory days of professional wrestling, wrestlers logged thousands of miles in a single week of their schedule making sure to they made it to the next arena and their advertised appearance. In territories like Mid-South under Bill Watts, wrestlers could be fined if they were even late to arrive, let alone miss the date because of some nature of travel emergency or delay. Despite poor weather, bad roads and mechanical difficulties, those men and women advertised on the poster needed to be in the ring. In the era before guaranteed contracts, it was a matter of getting paid or not. Tales are numerous of wrestlers whose careers and long term health were impacted by a close call while traveling the roads and in some rare cases, those accidents resulted in death.
The following list shares twenty fatalities that have occurred to wrestlers resulting from vehicle accidents – whether they perished at the scene or succumbed to the injuries that they suffered shortly thereafter. Some of these fatalities occurred as the wrestlers were out on the road trying to make their next match, while others occurred after the men and women had retired.
20 Adrian Adonis
It wasn’t only the wrestling world that was stunned to learn of the passing of Adrian Adonis. Just a year earlier, “Adorable” Adrian had been featured in one of the featured matches at WrestleMania III before 93,000 fans in Pontiac, Michigan against Roddy Piper. After losing the match and having his blonde locks shaved, Adonis was on hiatus from the WWE and was making appearances on the independents when his travels took him to Newfoundland.
Near the town of Lewisporte, Adonis swerved to miss a moose on the highway and the vehicle ended up at the bottom of a deep embankment in the water. The accident on July 4, 1988 made immediate headline news across North America with many top outlets picking up the story. That year, Adonis was posthumously awarded the Stanley Weston award by Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine. Though much of the spotlight was attributed to Adonis’ star power, he wasn’t the only one to perish in the accident that day.
19 Dave McKigney
When Adrian Adonis became a free agent, he was snapped up by Ontario promoter Dave “The Bearman” McKigney for an Atlantic Canada tour. McKigney had enjoyed a storied career not only as a wrestler, but also as the promoter behind Big Bear Promotions that ran as an outlaw promotion throughout Ontario and Quebec from the 1960s to '80s. His notoriety came from often traveling with and wrestling against one of two bears that he kept at his home and took with him on the road.
McKigney was in the car with Adonis on July 4, 1988 when their vehicle left the roadway and ended up submerged at the bottom of a deep embankment near Lewisporte, Newfoundland. Also in the vehicle were the Kelly Twins – Pat and Mike. Though Mike survived, his twin brother Pat died in the crash as well. There was no wrestling in Lewisporte for close to twenty years after that terrible tragedy.
18 Bruce Swan
Winnipeg promoter Tony Condello still gets chills when he thinks about his brief association with native Canadian wrestler Bruce Swan. The sturdy heavyweight from Dog Creek, Manitoba had contacted Condello about becoming a wrestler, knowing his reputation for producing stars such as Roddy Piper. After learning the ropes in a training center that was situated in the basement of a salon owned by Condello, Swan made his debut in 1986. From his first days in training, though, he foretold of his demise – telling his trainer that he could never be a big star as his fate was that he would die by age 30. Not long after his debut, Condello grew concerned when Swan had failed to turn up for a training session. Later that night, he received word from Swan’s family that he had been involved in a car accident en route to training and had perished at 30 years old.
17 Danno O’Mahoney
Long before Finn Balor and Sheamus, the greatest professional wrestler star from Ireland was Ballydehob native Danno O’Mahoney. The pioneering wrestler that debuted in 1934 laid claim to American wrestling’s “original” World heavyweight title as well as the American Wrestling Association (Boston version) championship and the NWA World title. His foes during his career included legendary headliners such as Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Ed Don George and Yvon Robert. Headed into World War II, O’Mahoney enlisted to serve with the U.S., putting his career on hold as a restaurateur in Los Angeles.
Sadly, just five weeks after returning home permanently to Ireland in September of 1950, O’Mahoney was injured in an automobile accident near Portaloise, succumbing to injuries suffered in that accident on November 5 of that year. O’Mahoney is credited with inventing the Irish Whip – a move that is still commonly used today. A statue commemorating the former world champion now stands in Danno’s home town.
16 Billy Redwood
Perhaps the most obscure wrestler to appear on this list, William Crumpton was active on the independent scene in the American northeast, known by the names Billy Redwood and Billy Beater at different times during his career. Trained by Jimmy Cicero, Corporal Punishment and The Bruiser, the Baltimore native debuted in 2001. During his short career, Redwood held the Hardway Wrestling tag team titles in Pennsylvania on two occasions and the MCW Pro Wrestling Television title. Among Redwood’s opponents included former ECW stars Chris Chetti, Axl Rotten and Rockin’ Rebel and former WWE Light Heavyweight champion Gillberg.
Sadly, Redwood’s career was cut short as he perished in a vehicle accident on July 3, 2004. For the 6’5”, 275 pounder, his demise leaves many questions about what could have been ahead for the 38-year-old that had gotten a late start to a career between the ropes.
15 Ernie Holmes
Many may forget Ernie Holmes’ career as a professional wrestler, owing to his most high profile appearance in the wrestler vs. football player battle royal at WrestleMania II. While Holmes is best remembered for his career on the gridiron during seven seasons in the NFL for both the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, he did in fact make more wrestling appearances than just a lone battle royale. A two-time Super Bowl champion with the Steelers, Holmes appeared in 84 professional games in the NFL. Following his sports career, Holmes became an ordained minister and lived in a small town in Texas where he operated his own church.
Holmes was involved in a single vehicle accident near Beaumont, Texas on January 17, 2008, when his car veered off the road and flipped several times. Holmes had not been wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
14 Sam Bass
Wrestling trivia experts might recognize wrestling manager Sam Bass as being the individual responsible for dubbing Jerry Lawler “The King of Wrestling,” sparking one of the most enduring wrestling personas of all time. Bass was a manager in the Memphis wrestling territory, and served as a corner man for Lawler and partner Jim White early in their careers. Bass had been travelling with a tag team known as The Dominos – Frank Hester and Pepe Lopez – on July 27, 1976 when the trio was involved in a single vehicle accident that ended the lives of all three.
After his passing, Sam Bass continued to factor into storylines in the Memphis territory. In fact, one heated feud was sparked over the ownership of a ring jacket that Bass had given to Lawler, which became a very emotional issue for the King. It was largely through the efforts of Jerry Lawler that the professional career and contributions of Sam Bass were not forgotten in Memphis.
13 Jerry Blackwell
Reviewing the career of Jerry Blackwell, it would seem that 474-pound grappler billed from Stone Mountain, Georgia was indestructible. The wrestler who also appeared in strong man competitions garnered the attention of wrestling fans by driving nails into a 2x4 with his forehead. He would hear both the cheers and jeers of the fans at different points during his career, but achieved his greatest success as a villain alongside Ken Patera, managed by Adnan Al-Kaissie, winning the AWA World tag team titles. He was vaulted to a top fan favorite spot in the company after Hulk Hogan departed for the WWE and became a popular challenger to World champions Nick Bockwinkel and later Curt Hennig.
The “Mountain from Stone Mountain” was involved in a automobile accident in December 1994 and died on January 22, 1995. The cause of death was specifically identified as complications stemming from his injuries. Blackwell was 45 years old at the time of his passing.
12 Sailor White
Considering his tumultuous life, it’s almost disappointing to learn that the legend of Sailor White ended after a lengthy hospital stay due to injuries suffered during a motor vehicle accident. The former WWE World tag team champion, under the name Moondog King, enjoyed an international career as a villain in South Africa, Japan, Malaysia as well as coast to coast in Canada. With his U.S. career cut short due to work visa issues, in the middle of his reign as WWE tag team champion, Sailor fell into a life of drugs, alcohol, and even time in prison during the 1980s. He made a comeback from his earlier trials and returned home to his native Newfoundland where he even made a bid for government office, starting his own political party.
After a globetrotting career, he spent his final years driving a taxi cab in St. John’s. When his taxi crashed on December 2, 2004, he broke two bones in his neck and pinched a nerve in his spinal cord. He remained in hospital for eight months until succumbing to injuries on August 26, 2005.
11 D.J. Peterson
D.J. Peterson was on the ascent of his career when he lost his life. From St. Joseph, Missouri, Peterson was trained by midget wrestling legend Lord Littlebrook and hit the road in 1984. He secured a number of regional championships including the World Class Television title and two reigns as Central States Heavyweight champion in Kansas. His career also included brief stays in the WWE and Stampede Wrestling. Signed by the AWA, Peterson’s biggest career achievement came in tag team action, paired with “The Trooper” Del Wilkes to become the AWA World tag team champions in 1990-91.
Peterson died in a motorcycle crash on May 25, 1993 at age 33. His partner, Wilkes, would go on to success in WCW and WWE as The Patriot during the 1990s. The questions about the career that could have been still linger for Midwest wrestling fans who were rooting for D.J. Peterson to realize his full potential.
10 Ilio DiPaolo
From the time that he arrived in Buffalo, New York, Ilio DiPaolo became not only a well-known professional wrestler, but also an outstanding member of the community. A native of Italy, DiPaolo was popular in the American northeast as well as north of the border for Toronto promoter Frank Tunney, where he held the Canadian Open tag team titles on five occasions. DiPaolo parlayed his fame into other business opportunities, becoming a restaurateur in the 1970s. His restaurant “Ilio DiPaolo’s” in Blasdell, New York became a popular destination for diners.
Ironically, it was while DiPaolo himself was treating his wife to a night out to dinner that he was struck by a car on May 10, 1995 in Hamburg, New York. Recognizing his star power and significance to Buffalo, World Championship Wrestling held an annual “Ilio DiPaolo Memorial Show” over three years. The fund has raised more than $750,000 for the DiPaolo scholarship fund.
9 Brady Boone
It didn’t take long for the stocky Brady Boone to capture the attention of the WWE after debuting in 1984. Within two years, he found himself a spot on the roster in the WWE, appearing on the undercard of house shows and regularly on television. While not a major star in the company, the WWE did assign him a role as “Battle Kat” in 1990 with plans to give him a higher profile. After a 10-year career as a wrestler, Boone had taken on a role with WCW as a referee in the late 1990s.
He was actually returning home from television tapings in Orlando, Florida to his home in Tampa when he perished in an automobile accident on December 15, 1998. Boone’s greatest achievement in the industry was as a mentor/advisor for Rob Van Dam, helping to open the doors for the future star with All Japan Pro Wrestling, which led to greater opportunities in the following years.
8 Pierre Lefebvre
In the 1980s, as Vince McMahon was scouring the territories for the best talent from each circuit, many peers of Pierre “Mad Dog” Lefebvre agree that he would have been one of the guaranteed emerging stars in the WWE. Lefebvre had started his career at age 17, and despite standing only 5’10 and weighing 233 pounds, he earned respect for his ferocity in the ring. While he did have some exposure in the U.S. with time spent in Georgia Championship Wrestling, his greatest successes were at home in Quebec, where he won the International tag team championships on seven occasions.
Lefebvre was only 30 years old at the time of the automobile accident that took his life, while he was returning home to Montreal after performing in Chicoutimi, Quebec. Along with Lefebvre was referee Adrien Desbois, and a third passenger, who was a local wrestling legend with a place in the history books – Tarzan Tyler.
7 Tarzan Tyler
It was no doubt a difficult Christmas for the family of Tarzan Tyler in 1985, as the Quebecois wrestling legend perished in an automobile accident on Christmas Eve on his way home after plying his trade between the ropes. Born Camille Tourville in Montreal, the barrel-chested heavyweight made a name for himself as a touring star all across North America including a career highlight as the first WWE tag team champion with partner Luke Graham. He would also challenge Bruno Sammartino for the World title while in the WWE. In the 1980s, Tyler was one of the established veterans on the International Wrestling roster, an antagonist that raised the ire of the fans and aggravated fan favorites of the day.
Tyler and his companions were discovered by fellow wrestlers who were traveling the same road back to Montreal after the event in Chicoutimi. The news of their deaths shook up the roster of the local circuit.
6 Buddy Landell
Ironically, Buddy Landell’s career took a wrong turn in 1985 when he had been earmarked to succeed Ric Flair for the NWA World championship, but he had departed from the company after a falling out with management before his place in history could be cemented. Still, Landell was awarded by the State of Kentucky Governor’s office in 1990 as the most influential professional wrestler from the State.
Word of Landell’s automobile accident on June 21, 2015 immediately hit the public via social media, but it looked as though he might be okay. After being seen at hospital, he was sent home, where he was found dead by his wife the next day, presumably from injuries suffered in the accident. Landell was 53 years old. Recognized as one of wrestling’s “Nature Boys,” Landell would face off against Ric Flair in a showdown of wrestlers carrying the same title and had been slated to face off against Buddy Rogers prior to Rogers’ death.
5 Vivian Vachon
The baby sister of Mad Dog and Butcher Vachon was inspired to pursue a career in the wrestling game after seeing the world championship success of her brothers as AWA World tag team champions. At the recommendation of Mad Dog, she traveled to South Carolina to train with the Fabulous Moolah and made her debut in 1969. Her 17 year career included a reign as AWA Women’s champion and included tours of the United States, Canada and Japan. Her last matches took place in 1986 as part of Mad Dog’s retirement tour.
Tragically, Vivian and her daughter Julie were killed in an automobile accident on August 24, 1991 in St. Jean, Quebec when their vehicle was struck by an impaired driver who had run a stop sign. Vivian is credited as the inspiration for her niece, Luna Vachon, to pursue a career of her own between the ropes – which was equally successful.
4 Hercules Cortez
Alfonso Chicarro debuted in 1952 and the massive heavyweight looked to have a bright future. The 6’3, 320 pounder turned heads wherever he appeared and was thrust to the main event spot in many wrestling territories. At the time of his passing, Cortez was wrestling for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association and was teamed with Red Bastein as AWA World tag team champions. The pair had just wrestled earlier that night in Winnipeg, Manitoba and were making their way overnight back to Minneapolis where they were scheduled to appear the following day.
Wrestling lore holds that an excessive rate of speed and weariness contributed to the accident near St. Cloud, Minnesota, which sent Cortez to hospital where he died as a result of injury. His tag team partner Red Bastein avoided serious injury in the crash. The AWA was a territory particularly known for long drives between nightly towns on their schedule.
3 Joey Marella
When long time fans consider how visible a figure Joey Marella was in the WWE during his referee career, it’s hard to believe that he was only 31 years old at the time of his death. Marella was the son of WWE Legend Gorilla Monsoon and joined the ranks of the company at 20 years old in 1983. Marella was assigned to some of the biggest matches of the era including the historic showdown between Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant at WrestleMania III.
Marella had been returning home after refereeing matches in Ocean City, Maryland when he fell asleep at the wheel. Manager Harvey Wippleman was in the same car and survived as he was wearing a seatbelt – it is reported that Marella was not. Sadly, Marella had followed his father into the sport and perished five years prior to his father. Both father and son are interred next to one another at Cinnaminson, New Jersey.
2 Junkyard Dog
During the WWE’s national (and international) expansion in the mid 1980s, Hulk Hogan may have been the face of the company, but it was because of the colorful characters that flanked him that made the expansion a success. One of the wrestlers in the thick of the action was the Junkyard Dog – who was immortalized in an action figure, featured on lunch boxes, and even developed as a character on the short lived “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling” cartoon program. The JYD debuted in 1977 and was still active in the sport up until the time of his death on June 2, 1998.
He had fallen asleep at the wheel while returning home from his daughter’s graduation ceremony. This Hall of Famer is arguably one of the most successful WWE Superstars of all time to have never won a single championship during his WWE career, though he did hold several regional titles during the ascent of his career.
1 Randy Savage
When his WCW contract ended, Randy Savage, one of the biggest wrestling stars of the 1980s and 90s became a bit of a recluse. Aside from spot appearances in TNA, nobody really saw a lot of the “Macho Man.” However, after more than a decade of estrangement from the WWE, fans were excited to see a video featuring Savage at the San Diego Comic Con promoting an action figure in his likeness, hinting that maybe Randy had signed a legends deal like so many of his peers and that we might soon see him on television again in some capacity.
His sudden death on May 20, 2011 hit like his patented flying elbow drop on the hearts of fans. It was later determined that Savage had suffered cardiac arrest while driving, leading to him crashing his vehicle into a tree along the roadside. Savage was inducted posthumously into the WWE Hall of Fame by his brother, Lanny Poffo.