The biggest misconception in the general public regarding professional wrestling is that there’s no danger to it. That is far from the case. Like stuntmen, wrestlers have to perform very tough work on a nightly basis, not to mention traveling and other bits that take their toll. That’s including drug use as the ‘80s and ‘90s were packed with “recreational” drugs used constantly, almost no one immune from it and we’ve seen the results. The wrestling landscape is filled with guys who died before their time due to drug use as well as the occasional health issue (Eddie Guerrero) or freak accident (Owen Hart). It’s led to more criticism of the business chewing guys up and running lives.
But some guys are able to beat the odds. Amazingly, guys who have taken tons of drugs but still remain with us as well as men who have survived amazing injuries or accidents that should have been fatal. It’s remarkable to see it, as if fate has a sense of humor in who it spares and interesting to see who can make it or not. This list is in no way meant to be disrespectful to these wrestlers. In fact, it's rather to marvel at how these wrestlers were able to overcome abuse to their bodies and/or issues in the past to still be standing today.
Here are 15 wrestlers who, by all rights, should be in the ground but instead are still with us and showing how remarkable things can be. And we hope they remain with us for a long, long time.
The Canadian wrestling scene is infamous for the highly dangerous touring as driving at nighttime in a Canadian winter is akin to taking your life in your own hands and no wonder they’re nicknamed “the Winter Death Tours.” That was proven by an incident that nearly claimed a man who would go on to be a legend. Before signing up with WWE, Edge and Christian were on the indie scene, Edge driving late at night to Winnipeg, a trip that required them to go over a frozen lake so vast that it took them an hour to get half-way across it at 35 miles an hour. Tired, Edge barely saw the lake having a hole in front of them roughly the size of a football field and barely stopped with the ring van following behind them.
Thus, the wrestlers and the heavy van found themselves in a frozen lake in the middle of a night where it was 40 degrees below zero. They managed to recover to go the long way around and Edge has half-joked that no ladder fall has terrified him the way that moment has. Amazing to think how one of the greatest WWE superstars of the last decade was nearly taken away before his career really started.
14 Buff Bagwell
Bagwell is mocked by many for his lack of real in-ring skills, his bad promos and his massive ego. But you have to respect how the man survived after should have been being killed, not once but twice. The first was in 1998 when he took a bad bulldog from Rick Steiner, landing hard with spinal shock, nearly breaking his neck right then and there. He was in a wheelchair for a while but recovered although, of course, WCW would blow his potential at a babyface by having him go right to a heel again.
More importantly is 2012 as he had a seizure while driving and crashed his car, suffering broken bones in his neck, face and jaw. He had to be fed through a tube, able to walk but needed four metal plates inserted into his face with his jaw wired shut. To be able to keep going after both shows that Buff may truly have “the stuff” needed to go on after such stunning injuries.
Few men have taken the punishment Sabu has and lived to tell about it. His litany of injuries, in and out of the ring, is stunning. Landing right on his neck to break it in a bout against Chris Benoit, slashed massively in a barbed-wire battle with Terry Funk and repairing the gash to continue, breaking his neck again in a drop against Taz and far too many drops through tables, barbed wire, tacks, nails, fire and more to count. He truly lives up to his persona as a wild man without fear and seemingly no pain, refusing to give up despite these horrible injuries and why he remains a massive hardcore icon to his fans and a true survivor no matter what.
12 Scott Hall
It’s stunning and almost heartbreaking to see Scott Hall today, a ravaged wreck compared to the fantastic and handsome worker he was in the 1990s. The man was a terrific worker and hugely over with crowds, a multiple IC champion and a key to success for both WWE and WCW. While his drug use was always high, it got out of control in WCW, leading to numerous escapades, DUIs, arrests and more that would follow him through his later years. It’s caused major health problems as, in rehab, he needed a pacemaker installed in his chest and was later diagnosed with epilepsy with later hospital visits to follow.
He’s still around and trying to clean up but falling prey to his personal addictions and in many ways, it’s astounding that a man with so many well-documented drug problems is still alive to tell the remarkable tales and be a true survivor.
11 Eric Young
From his time in Team Canada to his current run, Young has been one of the most dependable guys in TNA, going from comedy stuff to hard-hitting champion with ease. He’s known for promos with a raspy voice and the reason for that has been multiple surgeries for polyps on his throat that keep popping up. He’s endured several operations over the years and while it may sound routine, Young knows first-hand it isn’t.
In 2004, one of his first operations had an unexpected hiccup that caused Young’s heart to stop on the operating table for 10 whole minutes before he was revived. Young has admitted that much of his drive comes from the incident and a reminder to many of the dangers of “simple” surgery that can hit most anyone without warning.
10 Superstar Billy Graham
Graham broke the mold for wrestlers with his great physique and terrific promo style. But that body was the result of rampant steroid use and Graham would pay the price for that as his life went on, a hip replacement not helping the situation. His body would be warped and ravaged by steroid aftereffects and other drugs adding to it. In 2002, he was close to death before getting a liver transplant but has been in and out of hospitals since with liver problems and an enlarged spleen and went so far in 2010 to announce his funeral plans as he didn’t expect to live long. Diagnosed with Hepatitis C, he was given a drug to help but in 2013, was hospitalized with double pneumonia and heart failure. While he has recovered, Graham is a shadow of the great figure he once was and how life can take its toll on any superstar.
9 Dynamite Kid
There’s no denying the sheer brilliance of Tom Billington in the ring. He was doing hard-hitting, high-flying, amazing technical wrestling on a scale no one could imagine, emerging as a monster popular character in Stampede before moving to form the British Bulldogs in the WWE. Their reign as tag team champions was terrific but it all came crashing down when a bad landing by Don Muraco caused the Kid to suffer horrific damage to his neck and spinal column, leaving him nearly paralyzed. He refused to give up and in fact, only agreed to the drop the tag titles to the Hart Foundation in a match he couldn’t even wrestle in.
He came back far too soon and refused to slow down, continuing with his trademark flying headbutt despite the mounting damage and his drug use more out of control than ever. It has ended with Dynamite now confined to a wheelchair, his great body beyond repair and a stroke making it worse. A sad case of a man whose style led to a brutal fall and amazing he still lives with all that.
8 Ric Flair
It’s amazing how one of the greatest careers ever nearly ended before it truly got started. In 1975, Flair was really starting to get his first serious push as “the Nature Boy,” winning over crowds with his attitude and great ring skills. In October, he was travelling by plane with David Crockett, Johnny Valentine, Bob Bruggers and “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods when the plane crashed in North Carolina. The pilot was killed and Valentine was paralyzed for life while Woods immediately went out to wrestle rather than have fans know he was in a plane with rival Valentine.
Flair himself broke his back in three places and was laid up for weeks with the doctors saying he’d be lucky to walk again, let alone wrestle. With help from Wahoo McDaniel, Flair embarked on a brutal physical therapy that got him back in just three months.
That's not to mention the years of Ric Flair being the biggest party animal wrestling has ever seen, yet always staying in amazing shape and wrestling for 40 years.
All this showcases his stunning abilities and drive to succeed and why he remains such an icon for the business.
Sean Waltman is no stranger to brutal injuries over the years, often his legs and neck. He’s also known for a hard party style with the Kliq and others and addictions that have hurt his pushes. But nothing compares to 2013 when, at an indie show, X-Pac suffered one of the most gruesome in-ring injuries ever seen. Going for his signature “Bronco Buster” maneuver, X-Pace ended up landing right on the steel cable of the turnbuckle and tore his anus. An injury that may sound funny but really quite serious although X-Pac didn’t realize it at first.
He went through the match, including going through a table and then the after-party but at the hotel, began bleeding uncontrollably. Luckily, hotel security managed to find him before he bled to death and he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. It surely would have been one of the more embarrassing ways to go. Waltman tweeted after the incident: "It's hard not to laugh, so feel free to find some humor in it."
6 Jeff Hardy
Jeff has always had a daredevil spirit in him and that’s driven him on to some acts that make fans seriously worry for him. One is his wrestling style with his apparent addiction to leaping off 20-foot ladders, smashing through tables, taking bumps and dives no sane person should endure and going back for more. There’s also his party style as his drug use is well known, leading him to be let go from WWE several times, a key arrest in 2008 crushing a planned WrestleMania push and has also popped up in TNA (best shown in the infamous Victory Road 2011 main event).
It was showcased earlier this year with him wiping out on his motorbike and shattering his leg, wrecking his and Matt's reign as TNA tag team champions. The man is immensely talented but often seems to have a self-destruction streak that leaves you amazed it hasn’t come to a harsh end as addictions and danger rarely mix well.
5 Harley Race
It’s been noted by many how driven Race was in his wrestling years, the man always giving his all and never slowing down to provide a good show. There’s a big reason for that as in 1961, he was driving with his pregnant wife, Vivian, the two only married a month when they were slammed by another car. Vivian died instantly and Race himself was declared dead on the scene but revived. Race was taken to the hospital where his leg was nearly mangled and the doctors wanted to amputate it. Race’s boss at the time, Gust Karras, stopped them, saving Race’s leg and thus his career.
It took a long recovery and many noted Race was obviously never the same emotionally after the tragedy but he would be back in the ring in just two years. It was a driving force for Race, his brush with death making him want to live his life to the fullest and certainly succeeded there for one of the greatest careers ever.
4 Magnum T.A.
It may be the greatest “what if” of wrestling in the 1980’s. Terry Allen was the ultimate package, great looks, a fantastic worker, terrific on the mic and a huge presence with fans. In the mid-1980’s, he was taking off huge as one of the biggest stars of Jim Crockett Promotions and was poised to win the NWA World title from Ric Flair at Starrcade ’86. But just a month before the show, Allen was driving his Porsche in a North Carolina rainstorm and skidded off the road, smashing into a tree so hard they needed the Jaws of Life to pry him out of it. Doctors reported that Allen’s C-4 and C-5 vertebrae basically exploded and seriously believed he would never walk again. The fans poured out in droves with letters and cards to help him out and Magnum would be able to walk, albeit with a cane, a few months later. But despite the hopes of the fans, a return to the ring was not to be and one of the finest careers around was cut short just as it was about to hit its height. He could have become the Hogan of WCW, boosting them big time and while it’s great he survived, fans are still left wondering what could have been.
3 Mick Foley
It’s no surprise Foley has nearly bought it several times in his extreme battles. He’s fond of saying that if he had taken the chokeslam off the Hell in the Cell properly from the Undertaker in 1998, he’d have been killed by the drop into the ring. But years earlier, Foley nearly bought it while driving to a friend’s party and a car without its headlights on smashed into theirs. Given the speed both cars were travelling at it, it was remarkable no one was killed although Foley did sustain a busted shoulder and a leg wound, not to mention losing his front two teeth, creating his now-famous gap in his smile. Foley has claimed it was a dropkick from Sting that caused those teeth to be lost but that was as close as he came to meeting his maker even with all those wild shots in the ring that makes it remarkable the man is breathing, let alone able to walk.
2 Jake Roberts
It’s baffling that while so many young guys have died from drug use, a guy who has taken enough narcotics to wipe out a football team is still with us. Even among wrestlers, the Snake’s addictions are legendary, the man is one of those people who could be high or drunk as hell yet appear sober so it was hard to tell how bad he could be. It was openly addressed in a 1996 WWE run and several times his personal demons have come calling in public to lead him to some bad stuff (like the infamous “Heroes of Wrestling” PPV) and just as it seems he’s gotten himself together, he hits a bad patch again. Yet through all those addictions, Roberts still endures and proves that snakes truly are the best survivors out there.
1 Jerry Lawler
Here’s the thing with Lawler; he WAS dead. His on-air heart attack in the middle of a 2012 RAW episode was scary to watch happen, shaking you as a guy you’d taken for granted, always being around was nearly taken from us. It’s more jarring that Lawler was clinically dead for roughly 20 minutes before finally being revived and had to be placed on a ventilator at the hospital. Given that Lawler wasn’t known for the same drug use or partying as other guys, it was quite terrifying but thankfully he managed to pull through and was back on RAW in a couple of months. It’s still remarkable to realize how close we came to losing the King and we should be grateful for the time we have now.