There’s a lot of risks that come with being a professional athlete. In rare cases, football players could die from a head injury they’ve suffered from helmet-to-helmet contact. The risk of injuries are there for all athletes in basketball, baseball and other sports. When looking at professional wrestling, the risks are even higher.
The evolution of moves and actions in the ring take a physical toll. Sometimes, more than one would think. There has been an even bigger focus in recent years with the list of former and current professional wrestlers passing away before the age of 45. Those outside of the wrestling community – which includes wrestlers, managers, promoters and fans – know that the causes of death vary between different types of situations.
Some wrestlers suffer an injury that might have looked like something minor at first, but became a fatal situation rather quickly. There are also those who have suffered a series of concussions, which causes post-traumatic stress and other brain injuries. Those conditions can often lead to depression and some wrestlers have looked gone into substance abuse to fight it; passing away from an accidental overdose.
There are also deaths in professional wrestling where a freak accident is involved. The best intentions are meant, but something goes wrong that no one expected. Either way, there are hundreds of stories of professional wrestlers passing away while active in their careers. The following are 20 wrestlers who died during their careers; thus leaving us way too soon.
20 Emiko Kado
There are only so many instances of a wrestler dying in the middle of a match in Japan. Emiko Kado was only the second one to die during a match in 1999. The thing was that she was still within a month of her debut. But she was establishing herself as one of the tougher female wrestlers during that time. This was when wrestlers were very stiff and often took legitimate blows from their opponents.
During a tag team match in late March 1999, Kado took a blow to the head during the match. After being rushed to a nearby hospital, it was found that she had suffered a sprained acute membrane in her brain. This led to internal bleeding of the brain, causing her death on April 9.
19 Crash Holly
He might not have had one of the longest professional wrestling careers, but Crash Holly sure had an impact in the WWE. He actually instituted the 24-hour defense rule for the WWE Hardcore Championship during the Attitude Era. He spent some time in TNA Wrestling and other parts of the independent circuit after his release from WWE in 2003, but had been going through a lot of personal struggles.
Another wrestler found him lying in his Florida home unresponsive in a pool of his own vomit and bottles of drugs and alcohol nearby. It was considered a suicide by authorities. It was later released that he had recently received divorce papers from his wife. Combined with his professional struggles, he was obviously trying to cope with severe depression.
18 Louie Spicolli
The self-professed innovator of the Death Valley Driver was someone who had wrestled under various names for different promotions. In Mexico, he was known as Madonna’s Boyfriend, as Rad Radford in the WWE and then Louie Spicolli in the WCW and ECW through the 1990s. While he never won major championships for any of these promotions, he was certainly a memorable talent in his own right.
He did have his vices, like many other professional wrestlers at the time. He attempted to quit due to health concerns. However, there was a relapse upon the news of his mother becoming terminally ill with cancer. He died from an overdose of drugs and alcohol in February 1998. He was only 27 years old at the time of his death and had a long career ahead of him.
Oro was one of the more popular luchadors in Mexico. He came from a family filled with other talented athletes that went into the world of professional wrestling, including brothers and cousins. He was a performer who wanted to make the most of every match, as many wrestlers do. During a six-man tag team match in Mexico City in 1993, he wanted to take what is called a Kobashi bump.
After receiving a clothesline from an opponent, he took a risky style of bump that caused him to land on his head. It was all part of the plan, but he collapsed shortly after the spot. He was being helped to a stretcher and told to stay awake, but he died just before going into an ambulance. While the family didn’t want an autopsy done, many believe his passing was caused by a brain injury from the risky “Kobashi bump.”
16 Lance Cade
Lance Cade was a young WWE superstar who was one of the star pupils of Shawn Michaels’ wrestling academy in Texas. He was a former WWE World Tag Team Champion with Trevor Murdoch and showed a lot of potential. But he was released in 2008 and would try to find work both on the independent circuit and overseas in Japan. He was signed to a developmental contract, but was let go before making a return to the main roster.
He died from heart failure in 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. He had apparently taken too many drugs that had negative effects on his enlarged heart. The media discovered emails between himself and another wrestler about his use of steroids, which was considered a factor in his negative heart condition and the cause of his death.
15 Mal “King Kong” Kirk
Malcolm Kirk established himself as one of the consistent heels through the 1970s and 1980s as he wrestled throughout the United Kingdom. His death in the ring was one of the more shocking and tragic events in British wrestling. During a match in August 1987, he was about to take the signature belly splash move from Shirley “Big Daddy” Crabtree.
But after the impact of the move, King Kong Kirk looked worse for wear, more so than normal when selling a finisher. Kirk was taken to a nearby hospital where he they pronounced him dead on arrival. It wasn’t the move that killed him, but a serious heart problem that Kirk was still wrestling with.
If there is any silver lining, Kirk often told friends that he would hope that he would die in a wrestling ring.
14 Moondog Spot
Larry Booker had a lengthy career as Larry Latham during his wrestling in the southern areas of the country during the l980s and into the 1990s. But he was best known wrestling as Moondog Spot as part of the Moondogs tag team. They held the WWE Tag Team Championship for a brief period of time during the early 1980s and were known for their scraggly hair and beards.
Moondog Spot continued to work into his 50s, but passed away during a 2003 independent show in Memphis, Tennessee. Some of the people involved in the match saw him lying down, thinking he was working part of the match. But someone realized that he had suffered a heart attack during the match. CPR was administered, but he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. The saddest part was that his wife and son were in attendance during the event.
Edward Fatu had some moderate success in the WWE. Under the name Umaga, he had a lengthy reign as the WWE Intercontinental Champion. He also accumulated a number of wins over top names like Triple H and Shawn Michaels. But the Samoan Bulldozer was released and tried to work on the independent circuit in 2009. Part of that was due to not seeking rehab after multiple violations of the WWE Talent Wellness Program.
In December 2009, he was found unable to respond while bleeding from the nose. A heart attack led to his death at a nearby hospital. Coroners later found that he had several different drugs in his system that were linked to his heart failure. These included higher levels of hydrocodone and diazepam.
12 Plum Mariko
Women’s wrestling was filled with plenty of stiff competition in Japan. Plum Mariko was one of those names who had competed for multiple promotions that included JWP Joshi Puroesu until she suddenly passed away in the middle of a match in 1997. She was considered the first Japanese wrestler to die from injuries sustained in a match. During a match August 1997 in Hiroshima, she took the Ligerbomb from Mayumi Ozaki in a tag team match.
No one noticed anything considering other wrestlers were selling similar signature moves. But when it was noticed that Mariko hadn’t moved long after the end of the match, it was believed that she suffered a brain injury and internal bleeding. She passed away only a few hours later and her family requested no autopsy be done afterwards. Many are left to assume she died from head trauma related to the Ligerbomb.
11 El Hijo del Perro Aguayo
Sometimes, even a simple move that has been done thousands of times can lead to severe injury or death. Rey Mysterio has been known to do the 619 move with the ropes as a signature finishing move on television. But during a special match on March 2015 in Mexico, El Hijo del Perro Aguayo was injured during the spot where Mysterio kicked him into the rope.
When Aguayo hit the rope, he broke three of the vertebrae in his neck. Aguayo was motionless on the rope. The others involved in the match realized what was going on and tried to end the match quickly after that so Aguayo could get help. While Konnan was at ringside trying to revive him, as well as medical staff when he arrived at a nearby hospital, it was ruled that he died quickly after the impact from the rope.
10 “Iron” Mike DiBiase
Many wrestling fans may not know that “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase had a stepfather compete in professional wrestling. “Iron” Mike DiBiase was also a wrestler during the 1950s and 1960s with several championships won under the National Wrestling Alliance banner. DiBiase also won the American Wrestling Association’s Midwest Heavyweight Championship late in his career.
However, DiBiase’s death was not related to any accident in the ring. He apparently had problems controlling his cholesterol. That does build up over time and can lead to several types of health problems. In July 1969, DiBiase suffered a heart attack while competing in a match with Man Mountain Mike in Lubbock, Texas. He would die from coronary artery disease at the age of 45. There are actually a number of wrestlers who passed away due to heart issues during that time in wrestling history.
9 Art Barr
Wrestling fans might be surprised that Eddie Guerrero’s signature Frog Splash was actually inspired by a former tag team partner in Art Barr. The two had worked together mostly in Mexico’s AAA promotion and also for a brief period of time in World Championship Wrestling. He was considered a great heel that led him to hold the AAA World Tag Team Championship once with Guerrero.
But he also had his share of demons related to drugs and alcohol. He was found dead lying with his child in his Oregon home in November 1994. The initial reports said the cause of death was a heart attack, but there were questions because he was still young at 28. It’s considered likely that his heart failure was fueled by the excess of drugs and alcohol found in his bloodstream.
8 Chris Candido
Not everything goes according to plan with surgeries. That holds true for Chris Candido after he had surgery for a broken ankle in 2005. Reports show that he was eating dinner before suddenly collapsing. It was known that he was dealing with some post-surgery effects. He also told those close to him that he wasn’t feeling well. But doctors in New Jersey found that he had a blood clot and a lung infection that were considered post-surgery complications.
The death was shocking news for the entire wrestling community. Candido, 33, was just hitting the peak of his wrestling career. It was another sad story for someone who had shown a lot of potential and won championships for bigger promotions like World Championship Wrestling (Cruiserweight) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (three-time tag team champion).
7 Brian Pillman
There are several wrestlers who have been considered underrated and underused during their careers. Brian Pillman is one of those names from the 1990s who often inspired current stars like Dean Ambrose. He was arguably the original Lunatic Fringe as he was known for the infamous segment with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin breaking into his house and Pillman firing a pistol.
But at the age of 35, his death was often blamed on the pressure of trying to improve his physical condition. His wife Melanie King spoke to the media about how he spent money on growth hormones and other supplements that were meant to have a faster effect than steroids. Add the pain killers that he was taking, and his body couldn’t handle it. He was found dead in a hotel room the night of a WWE pay-per-view in 1997. A heart attack was to blame as they also found cocaine in his system during the autopsy.
6 Mitsuharu Misawa
One of Japan’s greatest all-time wrestlers was Mitsuharu Misawa. Many of today’s best wrestlers have been known to cite him as influential in their careers – i.e. Daniel Bryan and Samoa Joe. During a 2009 match at the Hiroshima Green Arena, he was in a tag team match where a belly to back suplex from Akitoshi Saito caused him to lose consciousness.
Fans in attendance watched as doctors attempted to revive Misawa in the ring before he was rushed to a nearby hospital. He would be pronounced dead later that evening. It was speculated that he suffered an injury to his spinal cord that actually put him into cardiac arrest. But his family requested that the official cause of death was never released to the public.
5 Bruiser Brody
The death of Bruiser Brody has a lot of controversy surrounding it. Back in 1988, he was one of the wrestlers who came down to Puerto Rico for a show at a baseball stadium. There was apparently some tension in the locker room and Jose Gonzalez, who wrestled as Invader No. 1, stabbed Brody. He was acquitted of murder charges for his self-defense plea. However, not everyone believes the story.
Dutch Mantel has written about his first-person accounts when he left the locker room for a moment to check the crowd filing in. But he recalls coming back to a chaotic locker room where Brody was lying on the floor with others surrounding him. According to reports, Brody apparently was not on good terms with Gonzalez from previous matches they worked together.
But none of the wrestlers were able to tell their side of the story, either because of fear of retaliation or that they couldn’t before Gonzalez was acquitted.
4 Chris Benoit
Rather than be part of an ECW Championship match with CM Punk that he was scheduled for, Chris Benoit was in his Atlanta, Ga., home back in June 2007. This was where he killed his wife, Nancy, and 7-year-old son Daniel. This was followed by Benoit hanging himself with the use of a cable from one of his weight machines. Each victim had a bible placed next to them.
Both his wife and child were ruled dead by asphyxiation a few hours apart. There is some belief that it might have been fueled by drug use and trauma from concussions he accumulated in his career.
When the details were released by local authorities, the WWE announced there would be no mention of Benoit in future WWE programming.
3 Owen Hart
Wrestlers often train and practice for everything they do in the ring. However, things don’t always go according to plan. In May 1999, Owen Hart was planned for a stunt at the Over the Edge pay-per-view in Kansas City, Mo. As the Blue Blazer, he was going to be lowered to the ring with a cable – a stunt he had done a few times previously. It’s also something that others like Sting had done successfully.
But there was a change in the type of release cord used and it didn’t take much for it to release and for Hart to fall into the corner of the ring, that caused internal injuries. The death was a shock to everyone in the audience and those watching at home. It also created a divide between the WWE and many members of the Hart family.
2 Eddie Guerrero
One of the sadder days in recent WWE history was the sudden passing of Eddie Guerrero on November 13, 2015. The timing couldn’t have been worse considering the WWE was pushing him to a potential run with the World Heavyweight Championship. But he was found having died from heart failure, which was blamed on his past drug and alcohol abuse. The sins of young Eddie caught up to the veteran Eddie.
It was sad because in the years before his death, he was a fun-loving superstar who showed a lot of fire and passion in everything he did. He was also a born-again Christian with a new lease on life. He was training hard for the upcoming push that would have given him his second world championship in the WWE. It was news that everyone in the wrestling community took pretty hard.
1 The Von Erich Family
The Von Erich family, one of the most influential families in wrestling history, has suffered several tragic losses. Four brothers each had their share of personal demons – whether it was drug use or battles with depression – that led to their individual deaths during the highlights of their wrestling career. It started when David, 25, actually suffered from intestinal inflammation, but many believed it was from a self-induced drug overdose in 1984.
Michael, 23, decided to take his own life from a self-inflicted gunshot wound a few years later in 1987. Two other brothers ultimately decided to take their own lives not long after. Chris, 21, died from a drug overdose in 1991, while Kerry, 33, shot himself in 1993 after the failed stint in WWE as the Texas Tornado.
Their father, Fritz, had the unfortunate duty to bury them all during his life.