Injury, drugs and death - the dark side of professional wrestling
Behind the flashing lights, pyrotechnics, oiled muscle men and large breasted swimsuit models of professional wrestling; that so many people love enough to spend many hours a week and hundreds of pounds/dollars to follow; lies the sad fact that this industry is broken and needs rather a lot of fixing. Read on to find out more about wrestling’s dark side.
If you have read some of my other articles you will know that being a professional wrestler involves suffering many bumps and bruises as well as the risk of torn muscles and damaged ligaments. See wrestling with pain. Sometimes though, there are even more serious and sometimes career threatening injuries to contend with too; such as multiple concussions, broken necks, broken backs and while many of these have been surgically repaired by highly trained specialists, some are not so lucky. The wrestler Droz had a promising career ahead of him before being seriously injured in a match with D-Lo Brown and being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
One of the most tragic accidents in wrestling history occurred when a zip wire carrying the great Owen Hart to the ring from the rooftop of an arena broke and sent him plummeting to his death fifty feet below. Although this is probably the most high profile death in wrestling there have been many more wrestlers or former wrestlers who have died prematurely in circumstances that are arguably related to wrestling.
Crash Holly, Mike Awesome, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Road Warrior Hawk, Test, Chris Kanyon, Umaga, Lance Cade, Trent Acid, Luna Vachon. These are just a few of the names of wrestlers who have died at a young age in the past few years. There are plenty more and I will not be discussing them all here but I will talk about a few.
Test, Crash Holly, Umaga and Lance Cade all died as a result of overdosing on cocktails of drugs both prescription and illegal; Cade was just 29 years old and left behind a wife and two young children.
Eddie Guerrero had well known problems with drug addiction but had successfully put all that behind him and had an inspirational comeback story climaxing with winning the WWE championship in 2004 and sharing the spotlight with his long time best friend Chris Benoit on the grandest stage of all at Wrestlemania, the WWE’s equivalent of the Superbowl. However the history of abusing his body caught up with him in November 2005 when he suffered a heart attack in his hotel room and passed away at the age of 38.
Chris Benoit never recovered from the grief and went into a downward spiral of depression and in June of 2007 it emerged that while under the influence of alcohol and drugs he murdered his wife and young son before committing suicide at their family home. He was 40. Although many were quick to come out with theories of ‘roid rage’ – a state of heightened mental tension and mood-swings associated with the use and abuse of anabolic steroids – his family were unhappy with this explanation and donated Benoit’s brain to a group researching the effects of concussions on the human brain. On detailed examination it was reported that the brain resembled that of an elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was most likely highly delusional when he committed these terrible acts and I for one feel sorry for him and his family. This damage was almost certainly due to many years of landing on his head and being hit on the head hundreds of times with metal chairs.
There has long been a culture and mentality in the locker rooms that led performers to take excessive amounts of prescription and illegal drugs and it will probably take many years for this to be eradicated. In the past wrestlers felt encouraged to look as good as possible and took steroids and later human growth hormone (HGH) to help obtain big muscly bodies. Also when injuries like those described above occurred, wrestlers were reluctant to take time off to recover for fear of losing their ‘spot’ and having to start again at the bottom of the ladder. This led to guys becoming addicted to painkillers which in some cases led to using other drugs to keep going through the days of traveling and competing, then even more drugs to help wind down and get to sleep at night. It’s a vicious circle and one that a lot of people just cannot break out of.
Legendary 70s and 80s wrestling star ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper has called this culture the ‘sickness’ and that is probably the most appropriate term for this problem given that it is rife in the industry and has spread to infect so many of it’s stars. So if it’s a sickness, what is the cure?
Since the deaths of Guerrero and Benoit, much has been learned and many steps have been taken to try to change the business. WWE has implemented policies to discourage the use of drugs as well as dealing with and helping those who do take drugs. These involve regular mandatory drug tests with penalties including, fines, suspensions and enforced drug rehabilitation programs for failure. They have also publicly promised to pay for rehab for any former employee who requests help. Another welcome move taken by both WWE and main rival TNA was to ban all unprotected blows to the head by objects/weapons such as metal chairs.
While all these moves constitute a great start, much more needs to be done in order to eradicate this problem forever. The owners, managers and television executives are starting to do their bit; now it’s the turn of the wrestlers themselves. The older wrestlers and trainers who act as mentors to the younger generations have an obligation to guide and educate them to help change the backstage mentality forever to ensure a brighter future for the pseudo sport that so many of us around the world love and for those who dedicate their lives to perfecting the art of professional wrestling.
For more on what makes a good professional wrestler read my article What makes a good pro wrestler?