In dying unexpectedly on Tuesday, the professional wrestler known as the Ultimate Warrior (né James Hellwig) had this in common with many of his contemporaries: He expired long before his time.
Professional wrestlers of Warrior’s generation (he was 54) have experienced a mortality rate that would be considered a crisis and a scandal if it happened in some other context — say, to football players, racecar drivers or boxers.
The list of prematurely dead wrestlers of the last generation is so long, stretching to more than five dozen names, that there is a Web site dedicated to those who have died before age 50. You would have to go back to the early-TV generation, the era of Gorgeous George and Freddie Blassie, to find a cohort that survived more or less intact into old age.
The roll of the dead includes major stars, such as Eddie Guerrero (died in 2005, age 38), a World Wrestling Entertainment champion from a distinguished wrestling family, and the lesser-known and anonymous lugs who plied the VFW halls and grimy, bare-bulb auditoriums depicted in “The Wrestler.” Among the most famous dead wrestlers of all is Chris Benoit (died in 2007, age 40), who came to widespread public attention after killing his wife, 7-year-old son and then himself in an apparently drug-fueled frenzy.
“Drug-fueled” is an inexact and elastic term, because most of wrestling’s premature deaths could in some ways be attributed to drugs. Since at least the 1980s, when fans began flocking to wrestlers who resembled excessively muscled cartoon characters, professional wrestlers have abused drugs in a way that makes the heavy-handed East German athlete-doping programs of the 1970s seem like carefully controlled clinical experiments.
It was not just steroids, although there has been plenty of that (Benoit, only 5-foot-8, was a jacked 220 pounds at the time of his death). Although there has been no systematic study of wrestler deaths, the number who have died from coronary-related diseases and with enlarged hearts (such as Guerrero) has suggested a strong link to steroid abuse.
But close observers of the business have known for years about professional wrestling’s other pathologies. Guerrero’s death, in particular, exposed the rampant abuse of alcohol and cocaine and wrestlers’ dependence on pain medicines such as Percocet, Vicodin and Soma, a muscle relaxant. Although the action in wrestling is scripted, the pain is real and constant.
“You self-medicate,” the wrestler Marc Mero, a WWE veteran, told The Washington Post after Benoit’s death in 2007. “You suck it up and perform. If it leads to an addiction, that’s part of [the job]. Because, if you can’t [perform], there are a hundred guys willing to take your place.”
Another former wrestler, Carlos Ashenoff (a.k.a. Konnan) described a vicious cycle: The pain justifies the pain killers, and the constant travel and performance demands keep bringing on the pain. “You get into a cycle where you need something to get you to bed at night, then something to get you up in the morning, then something to pick you up during the day, then something to bring you down at night,” he said at the time. “And you’re not getting any real time to recover because you’re working all the time.”
Benoit’s murder-suicide raised the profile of another professional wrestling hazard: the effect of repeated blows to the head. As a result of taking a pounding from chairs, tables and ladders during his wrestling career, Benoit may have suffered from the same degenerative symptoms that afflict boxers and football players, doctors suspect.
Warrior (his legal name) died in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Tuesday while on vacation with his family, but a cause of death hasn’t been determined, according to a spokesperson for World Wrestling Entertainment, the Stamford, Conn.-based behemoth of professional wrestling.
In the wake of Guerrero’s death, and prompted in no small part by news media and congressional pressure, the company began a series of reforms. It banned direct blows to the head, it instituted a drug-testing regimen and it cut back on mandatory performances in an effort to allow its 75 or so performers more time to recuperate.
But it also began to push back against direct culpability for the toll among wrestlers, arguing that there was no scientific analysis linking the demands of professional wrestling to early death.
In fact, the WWE said Wednesday that only five wrestlers have died while under performance contracts with the company — one in an accident, one by suicide (Benoit) and three from heart attacks. The many others who have died were not under contract with the company at the time. A WWE spokesperson did not include Warrior in the total because he was an “ambassador,” or promotional contractor, not a performer.
It’s possible that the current generation of wrestlers is on a healthier trajectory than Warrior’s, said Dave Meltzer, the founder and editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter.
“It’s a different business,” he said Wednesday. “The benefits of using steroids are still there, but they aren’t as big as they used to be. It’s more about how you perform now than only about how you look. You don’t see as many juiced-up guys.”
But that’s not to say it deserves a clean bill of health, he said.
“When people say it’s clean, that’s probably a stretch,” Meltzer said. “But it’s much better than it’s been in the last 30 to 40 years.”
The era, in other words, when the Ultimate Warrior was stalking the ring.