We should warn you upfront that this post will be morbid, as well as simply sad. It is, perhaps, not the best article to browse while sipping your morning coffee, unless you like to start your day on a macabre note.
The professional wrestling industry has a long and storied history, from carnival sideshows to today's global branding, but one unsavory specter has always lurked in its shadows: the constant presence of death.
Wrestling has a dubious relationship with the great hereafter, chiefly because its history is dotted by an alarming frequency of performers who have died young. Equally troublesome is that the causes of these deaths are so often similar—heart disease, drug overdoses, suicides.
It is, of course, also sad when a legend fades into old age and passes away in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, such as the recent deaths of Chavo Guerrero, Sr. and George "The Animal" Steele. But when death comes knocking on the door of so many people in the prime of their lives, it becomes evident that there is a greater problem. While we have seen stories of great recovery lately, for every Jake the Snake we seem to have countless others who succumb to their demons.
For their part, WWE has taken great strides in the last decade to improve their workers' welfare and lengthen their life expectancy, but such precautions would possibly not exist were it not for the premature departures of these 20 young superstars.
20 Brian Pillman — Age 35
The namesake for the infamous "Pillman's got a gun" angle, Brian Pillman was one of a few instances of a WWE performer dying while contracted with the company. He had only signed to the company a year before his death, debuting in 1996 and carrying out a hotly contested feud against future megastar (and Pillman's real-life close friend) Steve Austin.
Though his time in WWE was short, cut tragically so by a fatal heart attack derived from a genetic condition that had also killed his father, Pillman was a key player in an angle many would later on consider a harbinger of the Attitude Era.
19 Big Boss Man — Age 41
One of the most agile big men in the history of the sport, Big Boss Man appeared for close to two decades in wrestling promotions across the country and in Japan. He performed under a variety of names, including "The Boss" and "Big Bubba Rogers" in WCW and simply "Big Bubba" in All Japan Pro Wrestling. He is best known for his time in WWE, as an enforcer for the evil Corporation faction and a four-time hardcore champion.
18 André the Giant — Age 46
In wrestling, there are names that transcend the genre and become part of the wider culture: your Hulk Hogans, Rocks, and John Cenas. One such name that remains familiar to wrestling fanatics and dissenters alike—even now, over twenty years after his death—is André the Giant.
By the time he was 12, this colossal Frenchman was too big to fit on the bus to school, receiving rides to and from in the back of his neighbor's pickup truck. (Trivia: that neighbor was Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett.) Even as a child, he was a sight to behold, which translated brilliantly to his professional wrestling career. He was really no in-ring virtuoso by any metric, but to see André in person was to behold what felt like one of the largest human beings who has ever lived; he earned his "8th Wonder of the World" nickname in spades.
17 Mr. Perfect — Age 44
The toil that professional wrestling takes on an athlete's body is considerable. It's an unfortunate reality that, for a considerable era of the industry, a common remedy was rampant abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol to cope with the brutal job's physical and mental anguish.
Mr. Perfect was one such user, having died at age 44 of a cocaine overdose. His father, the wrestler Larry Hennig, would later speculate that the use of steroids and painkillers also played a role in his son Curt's untimely death. Mr. Perfect's own son, WWE Superstar Curtis Axel, continues his family's legacy in the wrestling business.
16 Miss Elizabeth — Age 42
One of the most iconic moments in WrestleMania history occurred at the franchise event's seventh installment when, in the aftermath of a crushing loss to the Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage was betrayed by his valet Sensational Sherri, only to be rescued by his former lover Miss Elizabeth. Their teary reunion, after having split in storyline while staying married in real life, was the peak of wrestling's strange, charming melodrama.
The charm fades, though, when one discovers that Elizabeth and the Macho Man split for real shortly thereafter and Elizabeth retreated from the wrestling spotlight, returning four years later in WCW. She remained with the company until 2000, beginning a turbulent relationship with Lex Luger, which would be marked by episodes of domestic violence and extreme drunkenness.
15 Yokozuna — Age 34
Feared and revered for his Banzai drop, this big man is among WWE's more underrated champions. During his time, he was a two-time world champion, two-time tag champion with Owen Hart, a Royal Rumble winner, and subsequently main evented WrestleMania IX and X against Bret Hart. (At IX, he also faced Hulk Hogan, but the less said about that mess the better.)
Yokozuna's massive girth was his trademark. His physique allowed him to be portrayed believably as a monstrous force, who could take on the likes of Hart and Hogan, but unfortunately it also contributed to his downfall. After his WWE release, he was touring with an independent promotion in Liverpool, England when he suffered a fatal pulmonary edema—a blockage that causes fluid to accumulate in the lungs.
14 Chris Candido — Age 33
The journeyman Chris Candido died in New Brunswick NJ in 2005, only a few miles away from where he grew up. Although he was only 33 years old at the time of his passing, he had been training and competing as a wrestler for almost 20 years, starting out as part of the ring crew in his hometown when he was still a kid.
Frequently appearing with his real-life high school sweetheart, Tamara Sytch, Candido was a seasoned traveler, competing in just about every major promotion in North America at some point: ECW, WCW, WWE, and TNA, as well as countless independent promotions.
13 Brian Adams — Age 43
This Hawaii native competed all over the world throughout his 17-year career, debuting in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1986 and retiring at the Japanese promotion Wrestle-1 in 2003. Along the way, he accumulated several champions in WWE, WCW, and All Japan Pro Wrestling, mostly as a tag team competitor.
After his retirement, the big man remained relatively obscure, favoring a private and quiet life with his family—although, he did have a stint as Randy Savage's real-life bodyguard. Sadly for Adams and his family, in 2007 he was discovered unconscious by his 7-year-old son, and pronounced dead at the scene by first responders. An autopsy concluded that he had died of a lethal drug combination, which included a painkiller and a muscle relaxant.
12 Mike Awesome — Age 42
Mike Awesome is possibly the greatest talent of the 1990s that never reached his fullest potential. In spite of his in-ring acuity, his career was hindered by frequent (and horrible) gimmick changes and bad politicking, including the infamous episode of Nitro when he debuted in WCW while still holding the ECW Championship.
Nevertheless, he managed to make a career for himself, one which is mostly remembered for his deft combination of high-flying and a big man's power arsenal. In 2006, citing the tricky financial life of an independent wrestler, he retired after 17 years. He moved on to work as a real estate agent in Tampa, Florida.
11 Sensational Sherri — Age 49
A stealer of hearts and a one-time Women's Champion, Sherri Martel was perhaps the greatest heel manager of the late 80s through the early 90s, famously valeting for Randy Savage after his falling out with Miss Elizabeth. Her gold-chasing career continued in WCW and various independent promotions, including a one-off appearance in WWE and an induction into the organization's Hall of Fame a few years before her death.
In the early summer of 2007, Martel was found dead in her home. At first investigated as a potential homicide, the medical examiner ultimately ruled her death as a drug overdose. The lethal substances in her system included oxycodone, according to her toxicology report, but it was never clear whether or not the overdose was intentional.
10 Test — Age 33
Debuting in WWE as a bodyguard for the band Mötley Crüe, Test would have a decent run through the Attitude Era, accumulating Intercontinental, European, and Hardcore Championships, as well as playing a supporting character in many major storylines as an enforcer in The Corporation. Through the rest of his six-year run, he also found moderate tag team success as one half of T&A (with Albert) and is famously remembered as the guy duped out of marrying Stephanie McMahon.
A serious neck injury sidelined Test for much of 2004, the last year of his first run in WWE. He had spinal fusion surgery, which in later years would be the beginning of the end of main eventers like Edge and Daniel Bryan. Test would go on to compete in independent promotions in 2005, before returning to WWE in 2006 as part of the ECW brand. There, he pursued the ECW Championship unsuccessfully before disappearing from television. He was then released after a Wellness Policy violation.
9 Bam Bam Bigelow — Age 45
Among the most agile big men in the history of the sport, this moonsaulting, diving-headbutting New Jersey native is one of the most memorable presences in wrestling from his 20-year career. Despite never holding a championship in WWE, he appeared in the main event of WrestleMania XI against NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor. His other accolades include championship runs and pay-per-view headlines in WCW and ECW, before he hung up the boots in 2006.
Retiring to a home in Pennsylvania, Bigelow lived out the last year of his life fairly quietly, dabbling in various ventures that included opening a restaurant. After the restaurant shut down, he moved to Florida suddenly without informing his closest friends, including Shane Douglas.
8 Crash Holly — Age 32
As the fictional cousin to Bob, Crash Holly endeared himself to Attitude Era fans via his comedic "weigh-in" bits before matches and his frequent appearances in matches for the Hardcore Championship—he is a 22-time champion. He would also accumulate a Light Heavyweight and European Championship before being released from the company in 2003.
Unfortunately, this release and various personal problems seemed to act as a tipping point for Crash; in November of that year, he was found dead at Stevie Richards's house. The toxicology reported a lethal dose of a muscle relaxant and a high blood alcohol concentration. Only 32 years old, the young wrestler seemed unable to find direction after his release, having appeared very briefly in the earliest incarnation of TNA.
7 Chyna — Age 46
The Ninth Wonder of the World, the only female Intercontinental Champion ever, an undeniable icon of the strange and mixed up world of professional wrestling, Chyna died in April 2016 of an apparent drug overdose. Her death at 46 came at the tail-end of decades of a tumultuous personal life, notably of the troubled relationship she had with Sean Waltman.
But for a time, Chyna was one of the most popular figures in wrestling. Serving both as a valet to her then-boyfriend Triple H and a fierce competitor in her own right, she spent four years in WWE making an international name for herself. She departed the company in 2001 in the wake of an alleged affair between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, although Chyna would deny years later that their breakup influenced her decision to leave.
6 Lance Cade — Age 29
The youngest entrant on this list, Lance Cade is unfortunately mostly remembered for his unfulfilled potential. Appearing in WWE's various developmental territories, starting when he was only 2o years old, Cade debuted in alliance with Trevor Murdoch and eventually earned three Tag Team Championships alongside him.
Unfortunately for Cade, after the dissolution of his team with Murdoch, he failed to catch on as a singles competitor, or alongside Chris Jericho. He was released from WWE in 2008. He competed on independents and in Japan for the next two years, until he died of heart failure in 2010.
5 Owen Hart — Age 34
Owen Hart's death is well-documented in wrestling circles, and it stands out as one of the most harrowing experiences in the industry's history. During the Over the Edge pay-per-view in 1999, Hart was to descend from the arena rafters on a zipline as part of his comedic "Blue Blazer" character. The safety harness failed, due to a quick release trigger being toggled too soon. Hart fell almost 80 feet, into the ring, and to his death.
It remains unclear whether Owen died in the ring or later on at the hospital from the injuries the fall gave him, but WWE chose to continue the event to its finish. This was a controversial decision, reportedly enraging Hart's widow Martha, who would sue the company over the poor planning of the stunt.
4 Perro Aguayo Jr. — Age 35
Rey Mysterio, Jr., the wildly popular luchador and WWE alum, is well-known for his signature move the "619." In it, he usually performs a dropkick on his opponent to entangle him between the middle and top ropes, then performs a feint through the ropes to kick his opponent. It is a relatively safe signature move that hundreds of wrestlers have all performed with Mysterio at some point.
On March 20, 2015, Perro Aguayo, Jr. was to be the recipient of this routine, but when he fell onto the ropes, Aguayo suffered whiplash and fell limp. While it was evident immediately that Perro was injured—Mysterio did not perform the 619—the match continued to its planned conclusion.
3 Mitsuharu Misawa — Age 46
Misuharu Misawa was a technical fiend, an innovator of the Japanese "strong style" of wrestling that current WWE greats like Shinsuke Nakamura and Hideo Itami employ now. His long career in All Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH influenced the likes of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Chris Hero as well.
2 Eddie Guerrero — Age 38
Who can forget Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit standing together, both as champions, at the conclusion of WrestleMania XX? It was a moment many fans had been waiting for ever since the two supremely talented but under-utilized virtuosos had arrived in WWE from WCW. Unfortunately, the grandeur of the moment is inseparable from the fact that, within three years, both men would be dead.
Let's start with Guerrero. His long climb to the top saw him competing in Mexico, Japan, ECW, WCW, and finally WWE, where he remained for the rest of his career. A recovering alcohol and drug abuser—a fact which was used to garner sympathy in his championship feud against Brock Lesnar—Guerrero had seemingly beaten his "demons" in order to achieve greatness.
This appeared to not be the case offscreen; in November of 2005, Guerrero died in a hotel room in Minneapolis, discovered by his nephew and former tag team partner Chavo. The death was caused by heart failure, related to a cardiovascular disease that Guerrero had developed allegedly while using steroids throughout his professional wrestling career.
1 Nancy Benoit — Age 43
It's impossible to write about death and professional wrestling without addressing the Benoit family murder-suicide. Much has been written about it, many of which centers on the perpetrator, Chris Benoit, but to close this list we'd like to honor the life of his wife, Nancy.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Nancy made a name for herself as a valet to Kevin Sullivan in WCW and ECW, where she appeared simply as "Woman." She was booked into a betrayal angle against Sullivan, where she began offering her valet services to Chris Benoit, a decision over which Benoit and Sullivan feuded. The on-screen relationship between Chris and Nancy, who was married to Sullivan at the time, blossomed into a real-life romance, and the two were eventually married.
The marriage had its speed bumps, including when Nancy filed for divorce in 2003, alleging cruelty at Chris's hands. They ultimately never divorced.
While it's no doubt that Chris Benoit was himself a victim, of mental illness and addiction, it's impossible to use those facts as an excuse for the murders he committed. Nancy's untimely passing at age 43, and the even more horrifying murder of their 7-year-old son, are the real tragedies in this situation.
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