Thursday, August 16, 2007
Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, best friends through thin times and thickening bodies, strutted in shared triumph around the ring in Madison Square Garden. Guerrero had just successfully defended his World Wrestling Entertainment title; Benoit had defeated two opponents to wear the belt as world heavyweight champion.
The wrestling was scripted, but the mutual sense of achievement on March 14, 2004, was real. After all the travel on back roads, the spiritual and pharmacological comfort, the dreams and near-death, the two pals had reached the professional pinnacle together.
Both were relatively small men in a business of behemoths, and both had built stupendous physiques by pumping their muscles with steroids and human growth hormones. After years of wandering through wrestling's grimy lower levels, the men -- now in their mid-30s -- had grown into well-paid star attractions in WWE, the richest and most glamorous wrestling enterprise.
Side by side at the Garden, their boyhood dreams finally realized, the easygoing, Mexican-born Guerrero and the intense, Canadian-born Benoit stood on the mountaintop, seemingly in peak physical form.
Within a little more than three years, both would be dead.
Benoit and Guerrero lived in a culture that breeds addicts, that encourages comic-book-hero bodies -- and that in recent years has seen dozens of its members die at conspicuously young ages, at a startling rate.
Dave Meltzer, founder and editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, recently compiled a list of current and former wrestlers who have died since 1997, before turning 50. He said his list ran to about 60 names -- and that was before former wrestler Brian "Crush" Adams died Monday of indeterminate causes.
About half those wrestlers died of various causes, he said, including car accidents, suicides and drug overdoses; the rest of the deaths, he said, are linked to heart ailments, including the type that killed Guerrero: arteriosclerotic heart disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack.
To put that mortality rate into context, Meltzer compares pro wrestling -- which has had roughly 1,500 male competitors in the past quarter-century, he estimates -- with pro football. If the same ratio of NFL players in the same time frame died before reaching age 50, more than 430 current or former players would have died prematurely, he said.
"And someone would be asking some serious questions," Meltzer said. "Something would be done."
When Guerrero, 38, died alone of heart-related complications in a Minneapolis hotel room on Nov. 13, 2005, the man who found his body was his nephew and also a wrestler, Chavo Guerrero Jr. Overcome, Chavo Guerrero immediately called the one man he thought could understand the shock and grief: Chris Benoit.