Thursday, February 1, 2001
SLAM! Wrestling Guest Column
Paying homage to fallen heroes (and villains)
"If a man loves the labor of his trade, apart from any question of success or fame, the gods have called him."
- Robert Louis Stephenson
I recently lost my Father, who passed away unexpectedly from complications of surgery at the age of 62. He was a man who worked hard all of his life, loved his family, and lived up to his responsibilities. He was also a man who had to fight his whole life to get whatever he could, and it was rare when a good break actually came his way. My Dad, a Union Carpenter by trade, told me a short time before his death that he had pretty much accepted his role in life early on, but confided in me that if he had been given the opportunity to pursue the things in life that he enjoyed doing, his years could have been a little happier. His passing has not only left me without a mentor and confidant, but also a very dear friend, and forced me to reevaluate things in my own life. I know I will miss him every day.
In an effort to occupy my time and to not dwell on my loss, I recently dug into my old wrestling tapes from the mid-to-late 1980's, back when the sport exploded nationally. Now, I'll be the first to admit that those old WWF, NWA, & AWA Television tapings and House shows of the time are a far cry from the dynamic, hardcore matches that we have become accustomed to today. In fact, most of those old matches are now considered boring by today's standards, and hitting the fast forward button sometimes is an absolute must. But since it had been a long time since I had a chance to watch these tapes, and I couldn't remember who actually wrestled on them, I blew the dust off of them and stepped back into 1986-87, when I was a young teenager. What I found was a surreal experience to say the least.
The first tape was a WWF House Show from Madison Square Gardens circa 1987, which didn't do me any good at all taking my mind off of my Father, since one the wrestlers in the first match on the tape was Adrian Adonis -- as in (the late) Adrian Adonis. Adonis, a top WWF heel, had been tragically killed in an auto accident in Newfoundland over ten years ago. Being a young mark at the time, I actually felt relieved that it was not one of my heroes like Ricky Steamboat or Hulk Hogan that had died when I heard the news. After all, I was only around 15 and had not experienced death on a personal level and, like most kids, didn't really understand it.
As I went through these tapes, I saw a pattern developing -- each tape contained matches with wrestlers who had left us far too soon. One after another, I saw Andre the Giant, Big John Studd, Uncle Elmer, Dino Bravo, Junkyard Dog, Rick Rude, Owen Hart, Brian Pillman, Kerry Von Erich, Eddie Gilbert, Dick Murdoch, Buzz Sawyer, Jerry Blackwell, and Yokozuna (then known as Kokina in the AWA). Even the likeable Gorilla Monsoon and Gordon Solie, who both recently passed on, appeared throughout the videos. I sat and shook my head as I counted the number of guys who we will no longer be able to enjoy competing in the ring again, and the men whose voices we were so used to hearing that have been silenced forever.
If anything positive came out of this for me, besides being entertained, it was that I began to look at these Men with a more mature and sentimental perspective. As I viewed each match, I thought of the circumstances that had surrounded each of their deaths. Some were aided by drug and alcohol abuse (Pillman), some were accidental (Adonis, Owen Hart), and some had bodies that just stopped breathing and hearts that stopped beating, like Andre and John Studd. Dino Bravo, who was murdered, and Kerry Von Erich, who committed suicide, were notable exceptions. From subscribing to insider sheets over the years, I became aware of the personal problems that most wrestlers go through during their careers, and realized that behind the scenes they have their own demons and addictions, like the rest of us. For them, it may be even tougher as they have to become a completely different character every night as they head to the ring. If they "Bring it to work", so to speak, it will effect their performance and they wouldn't be able to give the fans their money's worth. These men also sacrificed spending valuable time with their families to pursue their dream, time that they are no longer able to make up because they are gone from this Earth.
Watching these old matches again made me say things like, "Adrian Adonis was a really great heel", "Eddie Gilbert could really work a crowd", and "Rick Rude could really draw awesome heat", things I obviously didn't think of when I saw these bouts the first time around. When I saw matches involving Owen Hart and Brian Pillman in particular, I remembered how young they were when they died, and how they left small children behind who now have to grow up without a Father. Instead of remaining sad about my own Dad's passing, I realized how lucky I was to have him around for the first 28 years of my life, and I am thankful that my relationship with him was allowed to grow and mature as we both got older.
Because wrestling is regarded as sports-entertainment and not pure sport, its past is not as revered as other sports like baseball. I had seen most of the men I mentioned live at one time or another during their careers, and I always left the arena feeling entertained, which is why they chose to step into the ring in the first place. Their hard work and dedication to having good, entertaining matches is no longer lost on me. All of these men should be remembered for the memories they have given us, and although they may have not been the greatest ever, wrestling would not be where it is today had they not paved the way. Their matches will live on forever. I encourage all of SLAM's readers to gather a couple of friends together one night and watch an old school wrestling tape. You'll be glad you did.
As for my Dad, well he wasn't exactly a big wrestling fan (he actually loved boxing), but to me he will always be a Champion. And to all of our fallen heroes (and villains) who have crossed over, I say thank you. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.
Steve Cirvello is from Staten Island, N.Y. and can be emailed at email@example.com.