Professional wrestling came under fire when a number of wrestlers were dying before the age of 40. Many of the cases were linked to drug abuse, their bodies having been worn down by the rigors of touring almost year round and several additional factors.
There was a lot more pressure that started to come towards World Wrestling Entertainment for trying to find out what was causing the sudden deaths to their current and former talents dying well before they could reach middle-age status. Things started to change in the WWE in 2007 when Chris Benoit, his wife and son Daniel were found dead in their home in Atlanta, Ga. – which was found to be a murder-suicide.
The WWE started to make changes towards their Talent Wellness Program where superstars were given three strikes for failed tests – which included 30- and 60-day suspensions for the first two violations and termination on the third. It hasn’t been perfect, but that has helped a number of superstars find their path to sobriety, which include names like Scott Hall and Jake Roberts (who also had help from Diamond Dallas Page).
The following wrestlers were once big names in wrestling and made poor decisions. Some didn’t have today’s wellness policy available that would have offered them rehabilitation for not only current, but former WWE superstars. Others on this list rejected the help and were released, only to become members of the list of wrestlers dying young.
15 Mike Bell
Mike Bell might not have been one of the biggest names in the WWE as a jobber during the early 1990s and against in 2001, which was the time of his most famous incident where he upset WWE superstar Perry Saturn that led to him being legitimately attacked by Saturn. It was those moments where wrestling felt awkwardly real. Bell’s career didn’t take off too much after that and it was found that he had a history of abusing prescription medications – based on a documentary with his brothers.
In December 2008, Bell was found dead in California while at a rehabilitation center. The death was linked to having inhaled by what is considered an accidental inhalation of a product called Dust-Off; which led to Bell suffering a heart attack and dying at the age of 37 years old. While Bell was not a well-known wrestler in WWE’s history, he could have benefitted from the wellness program to find assistance.
14 Johnny Grunge
Known for his time as one-half of the tag team Public Enemy that wrestled in ECW, WCW and WWE, Johnny Grunge held tag team gold in WCW and ECW with Rocco Rock. He was never a healthy wrestler even during his wrestling career – weighing a very rotund 263 pounds while competing around the world. His tag team partner Rock died of a heart attack in 2002 – which led to stress and depression for Grunge.
While many wrestlers on this list had issues with drug and alcohol abuse, Grunge was dealing with obesity and would develop a blockage in his coronary arteries that led to his death at the age of 39. There is a good chance that he could have been guided to help in losing the excess weight and could have still be alive today if he was able to make the proper dietary choices in his later years.
13 Axl Rotten
Considered one of the pioneers of hardcore wrestling from is time at ECW between 1993 and 1999, he was unable to continue his wrestling career into his 40s after he suffered a spinal injury that forced him into using a wheelchair. There was a brief stint spent in a rehabilitation facility in Maryland for his injuries, but it unfortunately didn’t catch his drug addiction problems.
Earlier this year, he was found dead in a fast food restaurant bathroom near his Maryland home, with an autopsy showing that he had accidentally taken too much heroin that led to an overdose fatality. The saddest part was that he was found dead about 10 hours after sending a tweet on his account about how he may not do things like other people, but he only does things his way. He was 44 years old when he passed away. It’s unclear if he ever attempted to go to a drug rehabilitation center.
Andrew Martin is another example of a wrestler having developed bad habits that shortened his life. The problems started when he made a return to the WWE as Test to join the company’s ECW brand in 2006 with a new look, to say the least. He was easily more muscular than when he was first with the company during the Attitude Era. Several months passed by until he was released from the WWE in 2007.
It was only one violation of the wellness policy, but he was released – seemingly having declined going to rehabilitation like others around that time. Two years later, Martin was found dead after having accidentally overdosed on oxycodone and was also found to have suffered from concussion symptoms. It was sad news considering that it was a similar case of brain damage that was found with Chris Benoit in 2007. Martin was very young and only a few days away from turning 34 years old.
11 Brian Adams
Brian Adams wrestled under a number of ring names for multiple wrestling promotions around the world – most notably as Crush, a third member of legendary tag team called Demolition. He was also repackaged as Kona Crush in the early 1990s as someone the fans would get behind. Unfortunately, he was struggling with steroid issues that led to an arrest in 1995 and his termination from WWE.
Despite returning to WWF in 2001 as part of the team KroniK, he was fired shortly after and struggled to find consistent work in wrestling and even boxing. In 2007, his son found him unconscious in his bed. It must have been a traumatic moment for his 7-year-old child who had to call 911 for someone to come help his dad. He was pronounced dead and an autopsy result found that he took several medications that, by themselves, were taken at therapeutic doses. But together, they were lethal to his body.
10 Kerry Von Erich
The Von Erich family has a long tradition within the sport of professional wrestling and Kerry had a chance to show that as the Texas Tornado in the WWE in the early 1990s. Despite having claimed the Intercontinental Championship, his run did not end on the best of terms with losing several matches before he was released from the company. It was impressive that he was able to continue wrestling despite a motorcycle accident in 1986 caused the amputation of his foot.
This Von Erich brother started to become addicted to pain killers that led to a number of arrests and even a lengthy stint behind bars. The story got worse as he would end up taking his own life after shooting himself in the heart while he was at his father’s Texas ranch in 1993. He was only 33 years old when his substance abuse led him to feel it was necessary to take his own life.
9 Luna Vachon
During the 1990s, Luna Vachon stood out among the other female wrestlers with a unique look that looked like a punk rock closet was dumped onto an Amazonian goddess and sent out to the ring. The sad fact is that while she was one of the more popular female talents, her time with WWE was cut short due to a number of outbursts she had behind the scenes.
It was discovered that she was going through rehabilitation paid for by the WWE back in 2009 and apparently completed the course. However, she had a relapse to fall back into her drug addictions that must have been developed during her professional wrestling career. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to help her and she could have benefited from another trip from WWE. She was found dead in her home in 2010 with an autopsy having found substances like oxycodone and benzodiazepine in her system. There was also drug residue and straws found at multiple places throughout her home.
People who watched the Surreal Life back in 2005 can recall that Joanie Laurer, known best as Chyna in the WWE, was enjoying her drinks in the house and the cameras caught issues between her and her ex-boyfriend in Sean Waltman. Her time after she was released from the WWE included drug and alcohol addiction and a career in the pornographic film industry. There was a time when she started on another reality show called Celebrity Rehab, but she claimed she didn’t have an addiction problem.
Earlier this year, she was found dead in her California home at the age of 45. According to her manager, she was taking medication for her anxiety and had trouble sleeping. Based on her past, many went with the assumption that either she had overdosed on her medication, or the past drug abuse took a toll on her long-term health. It’s unfortunate she didn’t take advantage of the WWE's wellness program.
7 Curt Hennig
Before the WWE would improve their Talent Wellness Program, a number of talents were living their lives outside of the ring a little more recklessly than they do now. Even the older veterans were making poor decisions behind the scenes and one of the best examples of that could be found in the story of Curt Hennig’s release from the WWE in 2002.
After a successful return at the Royal Rumble that year, the man once known early in his career as Mr. Perfect was involved in an altercation with WWE’s newest young superstar in Brock Lesnar while the wrestlers were returning from the United Kingdom for a special pay-per-view event – an incident called the “Plane Ride from Hell.” Hennig was released and was later found to have died almost a year later in a hotel room. The autopsy found that he had a large amount of cocaine in his body at the time of his death.
6 Bam Bam Bigelow
During his career between the World Wrestling Federation, World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling, Bam Bam Bigelow was one of the most intimidating wrestlers between the 1980s and 1990s. However, his post-wrestling career was filled with a several personal problems that included being arrested for endangering his child while driving recklessly in 2004.
But the saddest news came three years later when he was found dead in his Florida home in 2007. While he had suffered from multiple health problems that included heart disease due to having been more than 300 pounds for most of his adult life, the autopsy found that he had multiple substances in his body that included high levels of cocaine and other drugs. At the age of 45, Bigelow was not alive during a time when the WWE had extended their rehabilitation offerings to former talents; which may have helped save someone like Bigelow.
5 Sherri Martel
Having a “sensational” career in the 1980s and early 1990s, Sherri Martel was a three-time women’s champion with the AWA and one additional reign in the WWE before she became a manager for a number of superstars – most notably with Shawn Michaels. Martel was also seen in ECW and WCW, where she was a manager for the Harlem Heat tag team. She would finish her career with the WWE in 1997 and made a few appearances afterward on the indie circuit.
But in 2007, she was found dead in her mother’s home in Alabama at the age of 49. It was found that she had taken a large amount of substances that led to her overdosing her system. The most notable drug found in her body during the autopsy and the homicide investigators was oxycodone. Her times of drug abuse came during a time when the WWE’s wellness policy was limited compared to its current state.
4 Miss Elizabeth
Before the women’s roster was revolutionized by the likes of Trish Stratus, Lita and others from the Attitude Era, Miss Elizabeth was one of the most iconic valet managers in the 1980s and 1990s; most notably with the “Macho Man” Randy Savage – the two were actually married in 1984. But the two split and she would move on to having a relationship with Lex Luger for years.
The relationship wasn’t perfect as the two were involved in a domestic dispute in 2003 where the police found that she was visibly abused. Shortly after the incident, it was known that Luger was apparently driving impaired and had a gun in his car. Many probably would have thought that Miss Elizabeth would have fled, but she was found dead in their Georgia home in 2003 after Luger called 911. At age 42, she apparently had overdosed on a combination of painkillers and alcohol.
Sometimes, the opportunity to be cured of one’s addictions falls on the individual himself or herself. In the case of Eddie Fatu, who wrestled as Umaga, was someone who decided he didn’t have a real problem with drug abuse. During his time as the Samoan Bulldozer, Fatu was a fast-rising superstar in the WWE who was able to earn big victories over veterans like Triple H and even won the Intercontinental Championship twice.
In 2009, he apparently violated the company’s wellness policy for a second time and was ordered to report to a rehabilitation center as a way of trying to help him get better. Because he refused rehab, Fatu was released from the WWE in a surprising turn of events. Fatu would be found later on with large traces of a number of substances in his system that included carisoprodol, diazepam and hydrocodone – dying of a drug overdose at the age of 36.
2 Lance Cade
It’s been discussed before how Lance Cade showed plenty of promise as a young superstar in the WWE, whether it was in a tag team with Trevor Murdoch or as the protégé for Chris Jericho in the later months of his run in the WWE. There was a lot to like about the young buck who was first trained by Shawn Michaels at the Heartbreak Kid’s wrestling academy. The unfortunate thing about Cade was that he was a young guy who apparently didn’t live with a smart mind.
He was released in 2008 after an incident that Jim Ross wrote about involving him suffering a seizure on a plane. While there was hope he could turn things around, he was found suffering from heart failure at only 29 years old. Anyone dying before the age of 30 of heart failure, especially when they’re in decent physical shape, likely suffered from continued drug additions and could have been saved by WWE’s rehabilitation offer.
1 Davey Boy Smith
It was no secret for those who followed professional wrestling in the 1990s that Davey Boy Smith – known best in the old WWE years as the British Bulldog – was connected with steroid use. Part of the reason his second run in the company ended in 1993 was that he was found to have received shipments of Human Growth Hormone from England, shipments that the Ultimate Warrior also received back then.
Shortly before his release from the company in 2000, Smith was entered into a rehabilitation center at the request of the company to help take care of the addictions to multiple substances that included morphine. However, he left the company and the rehabilitation. His eventual heart attack that cost him his life in 2002 was linked to his past drug and steroid abuse. It was found that he was known for having mixed steroids and other substances into a cocktail on a regular basis.