The wrestling business can be a tough one. Although we can thank the wrestling gods that we still have 81-year-old Bruno Sammartino and 74-year-old Harley Race, for instance, and recall that Freddie Blassie lived until the age of 85, the hard lifestyle lived by many a wrestler has resulted in a lot of premature deaths. Oftentimes, these wrestlers leave us due to natural causes, but there was a point when it was all too common for wrestlers to die as a consequence, direct or indirect, of substance abuse. And that was true in the ’90s, not only in the WWE, but also in its two top rivals at the time – WCW and ECW. Who are those dead wrestlers from those two companies whom some, or a lot of us may not realize have already passed on?
As a qualifier for this list, we are eliminating any wrestler deaths that took place in 2016 or 2017. That means we won’t be listing Axl Rotten and Balls Mahoney, as their deaths may still be fresh in the minds of many ECW fans, and even Jimmy Snuka, whom many might not realize was the promotion’s first-ever world champion. And speaking of Snuka, we’ve deliberately left out anyone with name recall, even among the casuals – that’s why we won’t include Mr. Perfect, Randy Savage, and other well-known WCW wrestlers who have since passed on.
15. The Renegade (WCW, 1965-1999)
Back when the company was doing its darnedest to bleed the WWE dry of talent, there was one man WCW couldn’t get their hands on (at least not yet), and that was The Ultimate Warrior. As a consolation, the company took a muscular youngster named Rick Wilson, had him wear similar tassels and facepaint to the Warrior and come out to similar music, and billed him as the “Ultimate Surprise” ahead of his spring 1995 debut. Nobody was fooled when Wilson, now called The Renegade, finally arrived.
Ultimately, nothing much came out of this gimmick, except the TV Championship, where the green-as-grass Renegade inexplicably won the title from Arn Anderson. And by the time he lost the facepaint and tassels, he was a lost cause, spending most of 1997 and 1998 in job duty. Wilson was released toward the end of 1998, a move that sent him spiraling into depression, and committing suicide in February of 1999. He was just 33 years old.
14. Big Dick Dudley (ECW, 1968-2002)
New Jersey wrestler Alex Rizzo was a big man who plied his trade in the East Coast and Puerto Rico independent scenes, before ECW snapped him up in 1994. And it was perfect timing; as this took place after Shane Douglas threw down the NWA belt to mark the era of Extreme Championship Wrestling, Rizzo became the not-so-subtly-named Big Dick Dudley, and together with kayfabe half-brothers Snot and Dudley, they became ECW’s first incarnation of The Dudley Boyz.
Ultimately, the original Dudleyz became afterthoughts in their own family stable, as younger “half-brothers” D-Von and Buh Buh Ray (later Bubba Ray) were pushed hard as top heels. Big Dick Dudley left ECW in 1999 and returned to Puerto Rico, working for Carlos Colon’s WWC, and competing back home in XPW soon after leaving ECW. He was still actively working in the indies in May 2002, when he unexpectedly died at 34 from kidney failure.
13. Louie Spicolli (WCW, 1971-1998)
A rarity in this list, Louie “Spicolli” Mucciolo competed in all three major American promotions in the 1990s – WWE, ECW, and finally, in WCW – never lasting long on account of his nasty drug habit. But it was in WCW where Spicolli, who started out as a local jobber in WWE as a teenager, arguably had the most success, trolling ECW’s Tommy Dreamer by calling himself “The Real Innovator,” and kissing up to nWo mainstay Scott Hall, even if he was never made an official member of the iconic faction.
It’s sadly ironic to note that Spicolli, who had a brief run in WWE as the “Grunge Rocker,” Rad Radford, is a wrestling entry in the “27 Club,” just like his kayfabe idol, Kurt Cobain. Upset over his mother’s cancer diagnosis, Spicolli relapsed after initially getting clean for a short while, and on February 15, 1998, just two weeks after turning 27, he had overdosed on Somas, choking on his own vomit as he slept.
12. John Kronus (ECW, 1969-2007)
Originally a bouncer in a Boston nightclub, George Caiazzo became acquainted with the club’s manager, one Perry Satullo, as both young men would start training wrestling under Killer Kowalski soon after meeting in the late-‘80s. Of course, we now know them as The Eliminators — John Kronus and Perry Saturn — and as a tag team, they were among the original ECW’s most dominant forces, living up to their name. When Saturn joined WCW in 1997, Kronus began teaming up with the notorious New Jack, experiencing further tag team success as one-half of The Gangstanators.
Despite his muscular 250-pound build, Kronus was a great athlete for his size, with his 450 Splash being a key part of his arsenal. But like many of his ECW contemporaries, he struggled with substance abuse issues that would eventually contribute to his cause of death. Kronus died of heart failure on July 18, 2007 at 38, not long after undergoing knee surgery.
11. The Wall (WCW, 1966-2003)
“It’s The Wall, brother!” For most fans, it’s Hulk Hogan overselling the surprising presence of The Wall that stands out as the most memorable moment in Jerry Tuite’s underwhelming WCW run. A massive physical specimen at nearly 7-feet-tall and 340 pounds, Tuite’s ring name was a reference to the Berlin Wall, as he debuted as Alex Wright’s bodyguard during his ill-fated gimmick change to Berlyn. The Wall then became another generic big guy who had feuds with the likes of Bam Bam Bigelow and, of all people, David Flair. Oh, and he also joined the Misfits in Action as “Sgt. AWOL.” AWOL, A-Wall, yes, we get it.
After WCW folded, Tuite was signed, then released by WWE due to personal issues, and had a brief run in TNA as Malice. And while he didn’t test positive for any drugs at the time, they may have played a part, as Tuite passed away in December 2003, dead from a heart attack just three weeks shy of his 37th birthday.
10. Pitbull #2 (ECW, 1967-2003)
You might not have recognized the name Anthony Durante when it was reported in 2003 that this former ECW wrestler died at the age of 36. But you may have been more familiar with his ring name, Pitbull #2. The Pitbulls (Durante and Pitbull #1, aka Gary Wolfe) made their name in the land of Extreme, winning the ECW World Tag Team Championship once. And as a singles wrestler, Pitbull #2 (the taller, bald Pitbull) enjoyed some midcard success as well, beating Shane Douglas for the ECW TV Championship in June 1996, then losing it weeks later to Chris Jericho. Now that’s pretty good company.
Durante’s substance abuse as an ECW star were well-documented, just like so many other of his colleagues in this list. And it was just tragic when he and his girlfriend both died of drug-related heart attacks in September 2003, with their two infant children at home, not realizing that their parents had OD’d at almost the same time.
9. Jeep Swenson (WCW, 1957-1997)
Earlier, we featured an Ultimate Warrior knockoff called The Renegade. Now, we’ve got a wrestler called The Ultimate Solution, for the simple reason that his original ring name, The Final Solution, was obviously offensive to Jews, as that’s what the Nazis called their planned Holocaust. Otherwise, he was known as Robert “Jeep” Swenson, a 6’4″-400 beast who got his ring name as a member of the coalition of stables known as the Alliance to End Hulkamania. He also had an acting career on the side, and by 1997, he was cast as Bane in the best-forgotten fourth chapter of the original Batman film series, Batman & Robin.
Sadly, Swenson’s life would end just two months after the premiere of Batman & Robin. He was only 40 when he died of heart failure on August 18, 1997, and due to his dual careers in wrestling and acting, he was eulogized by two seemingly disparate men – onscreen rival Hulk Hogan, and former co-star (in the 1996 film Bulletproof) James Caan.
8. Bam Bam Bigelow (ECW, 1961-2007)
Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow enjoyed decent success in two WWE runs, one in the late-’80s as a miscast smiling, happy babyface managed by Oliver Humperdink, and one in the mid-’90s, where he was a solid midcard heel whose biggest claim to fame is losing to NFL legend Lawrence Taylor at WrestleMania XI‘s main event. Yup, it’s pretty hard to recover from such a travesty. Fortunately, Bam Bam’s career did recover, as he moved to ECW in 1996, and eventually won one ECW World Heavyweight Championship and one TV title. He also spent some time in WCW in its final years, but as someone who competed for all three major companies in the ’90s, Bigelow’s ECW run was the best of the three.
Though Bigelow tried to live a productive life after his wrestling career ended, running a restaurant and a car customization business, among other endeavors, he also had numerous legal issues, and was involved in a car crash that nearly killed his girlfriend at the time. And like many others in this list, Bam Bam lost his battle with his personal demons, fatally overdosing on cocaine in January 2007, at the age of 45.
7. Bobby Duncum Jr. (WCW, 1965-2000)
A second-generation college football star and pro wrestler, Bobby Duncum Jr. had his earliest success in the indies as Johnny Hawk’s teammate – you may know the latter man as one John Bradshaw Layfield. But Duncum would never cross paths again with the future WWE World Champion, as he was soon off to ECW, and later on to WCW, where he tasted his most big-league success. You probably know him best as the lead guitarist of the West Texas Rednecks, an actual band/WCW faction whose thing was that they hated rap, and rapper Master P’s babyface faction, the No Limit Soldiers. Only for them to be cheered by WCW’s largely Southern, country-loving fanbase.
You weren’t going to confuse Duncum with Jimi Hendrix, nor were you going to confuse him with Ric Flair – he was a solid hand in the midcard who didn’t have much notoriety behind the scenes. But friends were growing concerned over his escalating Percocet abuse, and that was what ultimately killed him in January 2000, at the young age of 34. At that time, Duncum was still on WCW’s payroll, and recovering from rotator cuff surgery.
6. Doug Furnas (ECW, 1959-2012)
Looking back, it’s good that American Alpha broke up, because at the lowest point of their main roster run, they were looking more like a modern-day Furnas and LaFon – two gifted tag team specialists wasted because WWE didn’t know how to make good use of their strengths and hide their weaknesses.
After their uninspiring WWE run, Doug Furnas and Phil LaFon rejoined ECW toward the end of 1997, and it was there where they would be fully appreciated, with both men’s styles and backgrounds complementing each other – Furnas was the long-haired American power guy, while LaFon was the short-haired Canadian technical specialist. The duo would win ECW’s Tag Team Championships in 1998, but as a singles wrestler, Furnas floundered a bit, usually jobbing to ECW’s bigger stars such as Rob Van Dam.
5. Emory Hale (WCW, 1969-2006)
Emory Hale (or Hail, if you want to use his actual surname) was such an obscure name in WCW that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. And we’re guessing you don’t even remember his more notorious gimmick of The Machine, where WCW was hoping to make the 6’9″-350 Hale into their game-changing, company-saving monster heel. Instead, his early-2000 debut match against Diamond Dallas Page turned out to be his only one as The Machine, as he committed a comical botch by accidentally crotching himself on the ropes.
Just like the aforementioned Jerry “The Wall” Tuite, Hale/The Machine was an example of WCW’s desperation in its dying years, hiring big guys who had the size, but were simply lacking in star qualities, may it be wrestling or mic skills, charisma, or all of the above. And unlike many of the other wrestlers in this list, Hale’s death in January 2006 at the age of 36 had nothing to do with past or present drug use, as far as we know – instead, it was a result of years battling with kidney problems.
4. Hack Meyers (ECW, 1973-2015)
Donald Havilland joined ECW in 1993 while still in his teens, and under the ring name Hack Meyers, would become a cult favorite among fans as the “Shah of ECW.” While he never got beyond the midcard, and never won any individual titles for the company, it was still entertaining to watch fans yell “Shah!” whenever Meyers would connect, and “Sh*t!” when opponents would fight back.
ECW was still at its peak of popularity when Meyers left in 1996, after 2 Cold Scorpio defeated him in a Loser Leaves Town match. He would then embark on a journeyman career of sorts, bouncing from promotion to promotion, and training the likes of Travis “Tyson” Tomko ahead of his WWE debut. Meyers was essentially forgotten by most fans, until Axl Rotten, who himself would pass away months later, confirmed in November 2015 that Meyers was to undergo brain surgery. Meyers died a month later, only two days before his 42nd birthday, due to complications from that surgery.
3. Brad Armstrong (WCW, 1962-2012)
When people hear the name “Brad Armstrong,” they think of many things. Road Dogg’s older brother, and onetime impersonator as part of the awful latter-era WCW gimmick “Buzzkill.” Guy who, as “Arachniman,” looked EXACTLY like Spider-man, if only his suit was purple and yellow, and not red and blue. Talented second-generation wrestler who was perpetually stuck in the lower midcard for WCW, never coming close to his little brother Brian’s accomplishment as Road Dogg.
To his credit, Armstrong never complained much, despite his in-ring achievements never coming close to his talent. After a brief hiatus post-WCW, he wrestled in the indies, before working for WWE in a backstage role until his death in November 2012. Only 50 years old at the time of his death, it’s believed that Armstrong suffered a heart attack, though his cause of death has not been fully confirmed.
2. Public Enemy (ECW: Johnny Grunge, 1966-2006, Rocco Rock, 1953-2002)
We’re listing them together in one entry, as both members of Public Enemy – Johnny Grunge and “Flyboy” Rocco Rock – are now wrestling in that big ring up in the sky. And while they could equally qualify as a WCW or ECW example, due to their success with both companies, we’re associating them more with the latter promotion. And why not – they used tables in matches before the Dudleyz made it cool, and it’s not everyday that you see two men buried in a pile of chairs, just like what happened in 1995! They were proud of their violent reputation, and it’s a shame WWE threw them under the bus so quickly during their brief 1999 run with the company.
Sadly, both of these hardcore legends died less than four years of each other. Ted Petty, aka Rocco Rock, was 49 when he died of a heart attack in September 2002, while on his way to a Pro-Pain Pro Wrestling show. In February 2006, Mike Durham, aka Johnny Grunge, died at the age of 39 due to sleep apnea complications.
1. Sean O’Haire (WCW, 1971-2014)
Although WWE fans may recall him best for his fantastic, yet short-lived “Devil’s Advocate” gimmick, Sean O’Haire was a late-era WCW product of the company’s Power Plant, where he honed his chops alongside the likes of Mark Jindrak, Mike Sanders, Chuck Palumbo, and other young hopefuls WCW was grooming for the future. He debuted in the summer of 2000 alongside Jindrak, but due to WCW being an aimless mess at that time, they weren’t able to capitalize on O’Haire, who combined a great look with well-above-average mat skills for a man his size (6’6″-270).
Due to that, you probably wouldn’t be able to remember his and Jindrak’s brief WCW World Tag Team Championship reign, just like he was a forgettable lower-carder when WWE inexplicably switched him from Devil’s Advocate to Roddy Piper’s muscle. O’Haire battled substance abuse in the years following his time in WWE, on top of several run-ins with the law, and it was only when he committed suicide in September 2014, aged only 43, that many fans had their memories jogged about this once-promising prospect.
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