It’s a brutal life, that of a wrestling superstar. When you aren’t copping a steel chair over the head, you’re being crunched through a wooden table, or repeatedly slammed on the floor of the ring. Concussions are commonplace as are broken bones and torn muscles. That’s not to mention the temptation of drug abuse, often leading to serious health problems. It’s not uncommon for a professional wrestler to quite literally drop dead. No one is immune either. Randy Savage for example, one of the greatest we’ve ever seen in the squared circle, suffered this fate four years ago when behind the wheel of a car. A previously undetected heart condition was the cause. A similar fate in recent years befell the likes of the Big Boss Man, Road Warrior Hawk and Viscera.
Many professional wrestlers also suffer from depression, and suicide is unfortunately all too common. The cut-throat industry is forever hiring and firing people, often leading to more drug abuse, personal problems, and frequent run-ins with the law. Sean O’Haire, Mike Awesome and Chris Kanyon all reportedly took their own lives in recent years.
Others are simply struck down by natural causes. Dr. Death was killed by throat cancer in 2009, a disease doctors believed he’d beaten years earlier. The towering Giant Gonzales of early 1990s fame was forced to retire early with sciatic nerve pain and spent many years fighting diabetes before he succumbed to the illness in 2010.
Occasionally some wrestlers are simply taken out by individuals wielding firearms. Take British wrestler Chris Adams who spent a few years with World Championship Wrestling. Adams and his girlfriend both overdosed in 2000, the latter fatally so. The following year Adams was to face charges of manslaughter, but was shot and killed in a drunken bar brawl before his trial took place. Here are 15 pro wrestlers who failed to live past the age of 40.
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15 Louie Spicolli
Louie Mucciolo Jr fell victim to a drug overdose in the middle of his wrestling career only five days after his 27th birthday. He suffered from depression throughout his life and was known for his heavy drug abuse, having almost died from an overdose in 1996. He managed to kick the habit but relapsed on news his mother was terminally ill with cancer, and fatally overdosed on Soma and wine a week before he was booked to wrestle Larry Zbyszko at WCW’s SuperBrawl VIII. His mother died a few months later. Spicolli also wrestled with ECW and WWE, and upon signing with WCW had turned his hand to some part-time commentary.
Eddie Fatu died of a heart attack at the age of 36, brought on by a suspected drug overdose in late 2009. Earlier that year he'd been released by the WWE for failing a drug test for a second time. Born in American Samoa, Fatu made a brief WWE debut in 1996 but was quickly dropped. He returned in 2002 as Jamal and lasted about a year. After a stint in Japan, Fatu re-signed with WWE in late 2005, and was introduced as Umaga in 2006. He proved a success and quickly climbed the ladder with wins over the likes of Triple H, Kane and John Cena. He fought for the WWE Championship but was unsuccessful and had to settle for the Intercontinental title, an honor he claimed twice.
13 Johnny Grunge
Michael Durham, billed as Johnny Grunge, was one half of The Public Enemy alongside Rocco Rock, who is also no longer with us. The pair collected four ECW World Tag Team Championships, and were eventually signed by WCW. In 1996 they defeated Booker T and Stevie Ray, better known as the legendary Harlem Heat, to win the WCW World Tag Team Championship. The Public Enemy won several other tag team titles during their career at various other wrestling organizations on the circuit.
Their partnership ended prematurely in 2002 when Rocco Rock died of a heart attack. Durham, a former neighbor of Chris Benoit, died from sleep apnea when 39 years old. An empty pill bottle was allegedly found next to his body.
12 Crash Holly
Michael Lockwood was found dead at 32, surrounded by empty bottles of prescription drugs and a partially empty bottle of alcohol. He had recently received divorce papers from his wife, and his death was officially ruled a suicide. Lockwood was signed by the WWE in 1998, and introduced the following year as Crash Holly, the cousin of Hardcore Holly. The Holly cousins enjoyed the Tag Team Championship titles briefly before Crash moved over into the hardcore division.
Upon winning the Hardcore Championship he claimed he’d have to defend his title 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This led to the 24/7 rule meaning the title could be won and lost at any time, so long as there was a referee around to count a pin fall. The rule meant the belt changed hands frequently, and Crash Holly eventually became a 22-time Hardcore champion.
He was also a one-time European Champion and one-time Light Heavyweight champion before his release from the company midway through 2003, roughly four months before he died.
Andrew Martin was discovered dead at his Florida home shortly after a neighbor called authorities and reported seeing him motionless for several hours. His death was ruled an accidental overdose and came four days shy of his 34th birthday. He made his WWE debut in 1998 and became an active member of the roster. Test teamed up with The Rock and soon after joined The Corporation. He rose to prominence through an on-screen relationship with Stephanie McMahon.
Throughout his time with the company he proved himself equally talented as a tag-team and singles wrestler. Martin was a two-time Hardcore champion, and also won the European and Intercontinental titles. His most successful tag team partner was Booker T with which he won both the WWE and WCW tag titles. He announced his retirement from professional wrestling in 2007, less than two years before his death.
10 Brian Pillman
Pillman was just 35 years old when an undetected heart condition claimed his life on October 5, 1997. That night he was booked to wrestle Mick Foley’s alter-ego Dude Love in a pay per view. After failing to arrive at the venue on time, a call was placed to his motel who informed promoter Jim Cornette that Pillman had died earlier that day of a heart attack. Pillman’s widow later claimed he’d been taking painkillers and growth hormones. Traces of cocaine were also found in his system.
Born in Cincinnati, Pillman was a hard-hitting defensive lineman in college and eventually returned to his hometown when signed as a free agent by the Bengals. His short-lived pro football career was replaced by wrestling in 1986. His accomplishments in the ring include a WCW World Tag Team Championship alongside Stunning Steve Austin, who ultimately matured into Stone Cold.
9 Buzz Sawyer
Not the most talented wrestler we’ve ever seen, but certainly one of the most colorful. Buzz Sawyer had stints with both WCW and the WWE, but it’s some of his antics out of the ring that have contributed to his notoriety. He was a drug user and didn’t mind getting physical with law enforcement. He was also something of a coach and one story in wrestling circles suggests he was paid a large sum of money by one Mark Calaway to teach him how to wrestle. Sawyer soon skipped town but Calaway had the last laugh, pursuing his career eventually becoming known as The Undertaker.
At age 32, Bruce Woyan died of heart failure stemming from a drug overdose. Controversy continued to swirl posthumously with fellow wrestler Billy Jack Haynes claiming in subsequent interviews his friend had been murdered due to the pair’s drug-running activities.
8 Frank Gotch
One of the first great professional wrestlers and a driving force behind the popularity of the industry back in the early 20th century. Gotch was World Heavyweight Champion from 1908 to 1913, a substantial reign in any combat sport. That was in the days when professional wrestling was more grapples and submission holds than of steel chairs, glitz and glamour. After retiring, Gotch toured with a traveling circus, offering challengers $250 if they could last 15 minutes against him without submitting or being pinned. Suffice to say Gotch was never out of pocket. He died at the age of 39 from blood poisoning, caused by a failure of the kidneys.
7 Rick Rude
Rick Rude was an imposing muscular specimen who enjoyed a glittering 12-year career. His accomplishments in the ring included winning the WCW International World Heavyweight Championship three times, and the WWE Intercontinental Title. He retired in 1994 from a back injury sustained during a match with Sting, which he won, claiming the WCW title for the third time. The injury forced him to relinquish the title. From 1997 until his death, Rood featured in a management capacity on WWE and WCW. He died of heart failure in 1999, aged 40. An autopsy found his death was caused by an overdose of mixed medications. He’s remembered by fans and his peers as one of the classiest wrestlers of all time, both in and out of the ring.
6 Davey Boy Smith
Smith suffered a fatal heart attack while on vacation with his girlfriend. The coroner found microscopic scar tissue in his heart, which he attributed to likely steroid abuse. Hailing from the northwest of England, Smith is considered one of the greatest wrestlers never to win a world title. After growing up in the UK, he moved to Canada and continued his wrestling training under Stu Hart, father of Bret and Owen. In 1984 he married Stu’s daughter Diana. Smith’s first stint in the WWF began in 1985 and he spent most of his career at the organization with the odd stint in WCW and Japan. In early 2000, Diana divorced Smith just two years before his death.
Another wrestler of Samoan descent, the Yokozuna character was primarily based on a Japanese sumo wrestler. In reality, Rodney Anoa’i was part of the legendary wrestling family, making him related to The Rock, Rikishi and the late Umaga. His wrestling CV is impeccable – a two-time WWE Champion, Royal Rumble winner, and two-time WWE tag-team champion with Owen Hart, another wrestler who suffered an early death. Anoa’i was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012, roughly 11 and a half years after his death. He was 34 when he died from a pulmonary edema in a hotel room in England, weighing about 575 pounds.
4 Eddie Guerrero
While at the peak of his powers a decade ago, Guerrero was found unconscious in his hotel room by nephew Chavo Guerrero. Despite Chavo’s CPR efforts, Guerrero was pronounced dead when paramedics arrived. His death was recorded as heart failure due to an underlying cardiovascular disease. A Mexican-American wrestler, Guerrero worked his way to the top of the ladder after humble beginnings in WCW. He wrestled in Mexico and Japan early in his career before being signed by ECW and eventually returning to WCW. In 2000 he debuted in the WWE as part of The Radicalz but by 2001 he was in rehab, being treated for an addiction to painkillers. After being arrested for drunk driving later that year he was released from the company.
Within six months he was back and in early 2004 he won the WWE Championship from Brock Lesnar, his crowning moment as a wrestler. He has posthumously been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
3 Chris Benoit
The wrestling world was rocked to its core in 2007 when it emerged 40-year-old Chris Benoit had not only killed himself but also, allegedly, his wife and son. Authorities believe Benoit strangled his wife on June 22, then hanged himself two days later. Some time in between, his son was also murdered, most likely smothered. Tests on Benoit’s brain revealed severe damage sustained throughout his 22-year wrestling career. He won almost every belt possible in both the WWE, and WCW. But despite being one of the greatest we’ve seen in the ring, the legacy he left is solely entwined in how he ended his life, and his family’s.
2 Owen Hart
The wrestling world plunged into mourning in 1999 when Owen Hart fell to his death at a WWE pay-per-view event in Kansas City. While being lavishly lowered into the ring ahead of an Intercontinental Title match with the Godfather, Hart’s harness released prematurely and he plummeted almost 80 feet landing chest first on one of the top ropes. From there he tumbled into the ring and died soon after from internal injuries.
Hart was the youngest son of famed wrestling trainer Stu, and his best years were still likely ahead of him. He managed to win the World Tag Team title four times, the Intercontinental Championship twice and the European belt once. He was 34 years old when he suffered his fateful fall.
1 The Von Erich Brothers
Of the six sons born to former wrestler Jack ‘Fritz Von Erich’ Adkisson, five became wrestlers and only one outlived him. In order, his wife Doris bore Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike and Chris.
David’s best years came in WCW where he engaged in a memorable feud with Ric Flair. He died prematurely in Japan aged 25 from a heart attack after sustaining acute enteritis.
Mike was only 23 when he died, intentionally overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol just days after being arrested for drunk driving and drugs.
Four-and-a-half years later, Chris took his own life shooting himself in the head, aged only 21. He’d been battling depression caused by the deaths of his brothers, and by his faltering wrestling career.
Kerry survived a car accident in 1986 that cost him his right foot and went on to win a WWE Intercontinental Championship with a prosthetic leg. Unfortunately he’d become addicted to painkillers since his car accident and this led to numerous run-ins with the law. While facing a lengthy prison sentence in 1993 aged 33, Kerry shot himself fatally in the heart on his father’s ranch. This left Kevin Von Erich as the only second-generation survivor of the family.
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