June 28, 2007
Column: The bell tolls for themWrestlers put life on the line
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun
The wrestlers of my youth didn't die young.
The Sheik, after all the fire, the gouging and the biting, lived to 76. Bobo Brazil, whose head suffered no damage from a lifetime of Coco Butts, managed to make it to 73. Freddie Blassie bled his way all over America to the ripe old age of 85.
The wrestlers of my youth didn't do steroids.
The carnage left behind by steroid abuse in toxic combination with the hardened life of professional wrestling, painkiller usage, the number of concussions, the constant pressure and demands on big bodies, seems never-ending. The victims, too many for so small a world, are both dead and alive.
If Chris Benoit, a steroid abuser, chooses to kill himself, that is his business. He took the necessary drugs he required to make a career and then he took his life.
But when Benoit first murders his wife and smothers his seven-year-old son, that ceases to be his business. We have to ask, once again, how many wrestlers are going to die young, how many murders and suicides and lives are going to be destroyed in the name of sports entertainment.
And who, or what, or anyone, can prevent any of this from happening?
I first met Chris Benoit more than 20 years ago, backstage at the grungy place where Stampede Wrestling used to hold its Friday-night shows. Bruce Hart, son of the late Stu Hart, introduced us.
Benoit wasn't very tall, very old, very imposing or very muscled. But he knew what he wanted to be. That much was clear. He told me he was going to be a professional wrestling star and inside I kind of chuckled to myself.
How could a kid that small make it big in pro wrestling?
The workers -- as Stu Hart used to call them -- of Stampede Wrestling never were huge in stature. This was a small-time promotion. Size clearly didn't matter.
But it's amazing, looking back, to one place and one time, how much promise there was for these hungry kids and how lives have twisted because of the complications attached to those wonky dreams.
Brian Pillman, cut after playing a few games with the Calgary Stampeders, was there. Davey Boy Smith, another short stocky kid, was part of the show. The Dynamite Kid was athletic but didn't look like he weighed a pound more than 180. And, Bruce Hart's little brother Owen, who wasn't always sure he wanted to wrestle, was starting out.
Each of them would leave for the bright lights of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment). Since then, so many funerals, so many tragedies, so few explanations.
Pillman, whose raspy voice I can still hear, was found dead in a hotel room in 1997. He was 35 years old and died of an apparent heart attack, steroid related.
Two years later, Owen Hart crashed to his death at 34, when a wrestling stunt went horribly wrong. His death was a tragic accident, unrelated to the drugs that were around him.
Three years later, Owen's brother-in-law, Davey Boy Smith, died of a heart attack at 39. Not unlike Benoit, Smith was undersized when he tried to make his way to the big money world. The owner and promoter, McMahon, wanted everyone, including himself, to look like Hulk Hogan, everyone that big, that built: the cartoon character's larger than life.
Smith became as big as he could, as thick and as muscled. But his heart all but exploded on May 17, 2002. He didn't survive.
Another undersized wrestler of that promotion never made the big time in spite of having a great name. Biff Wellington started out in the same years as Benoit -- they were once tag-team partners -- without similar ability but with similar frame. As Benoit grew in both size and as a star, Wellington all but disappeared.
He ended up on drugs, then methadone, painkillers and when he was found dead just eight days ago, it hardly registered as news.
There wasn't a murder, a death of a child, a suicide or an ill-thought out television tribute.
Just another wrestler dead before his time. Another graduate of Stampede gone.
Professional wrestlers who have died prematurely in recent years: