Iconic Deaths in Pro Wrestling
By Howard T. Brody
While professional wrestling has been a part of Americana since the early part of the 20th Century, and contributed to the rise of television in the 1950s and cable TV in the late 1970s, for many fans of the squared circle, the Golden Era of sports entertainment was the 20-year span between 1980 and 2000.
It was during this time that we saw the rise of national companies like the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). It was also during this time that we saw pro wrestling achieve mainstream coverage and many of its stars becoming media superstars.
Unfortunately, many of pro wrestling’s biggest and brightest performers from that era are no longer with us as some have passed from natural causes, some from tragic accidents and some from more ominous circumstances.
Here is a bit of a “Who’s Who” from that era. Let us remember.
André the Giant
He literally and figuratively was the biggest star of the period. When he faced Hulk Hogan in the main event of WrestleMania III – before 93,173 fans at
He literally and figuratively was the biggest star of the period. When he faced Hulk Hogan in the main event of WrestleMania III – before 93,173 fans at Pontiac’s Silverdome in 1987 – he had already been in the business 24 years, having started when he was only 17. Billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” André was considered wrestling’s first mainstream star of that era. In the 1970s he appeared as Bigfoot on the TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” fought boxer Chuck Wepner at Shea Stadium in which he threw Wepner over the top rope and out of the ring, and was even offered a tryout by the Washington Redskins for their defensive line. In the 1980s he appeared in several TV shows and movies with his most memorable role of Fezzik in “The Princess Bride.” In January 1993 André, 46, died in his sleep of congestive heart failure.
“MACHO MAN” RANDY SAVAGE AND MISS ELIZABETH
For fans, they were the perfect wrestling couple. The charismatic, rugged and raspy-voiced Superstar paired with the quiet yet beautiful valet who helped him go from bad guy to good guy. Savage became so popular he landed a gig as a spokesman for Slim Jim and incorporated his wrestling catch phrase “Oh Yeah!” with that of the company’s slogan “Snap into a Slim Jim!” They were real life husband and wife who married in 1984 but divorced in 1992. In May 2003, Elizabeth, 42, was found unconscious by then boyfriend Lex Luger, who attempted to resuscitate her. Medical examiner records listed her death as “acute toxicity” from a mixture of painkillers and vodka. In May 2011, Savage, 58, passed from a sudden heart attack, suffered while driving. He became unresponsive and lost control of his auto, crashing into a tree.
Captain Lou Albano
A wrestler during the 1950s and ‘60s, Albano achieved mainstream fame as a wrestling manager and thanks to a friendship he forged with David Wolff, Cyndi Lauper’s then boyfriend and manager, he was at the center of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection. After Captain Lou got exposure on MTV in the music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” playing Lauper’s father, he landed roles in the 1986 Brian De Palma film “Wise Guys” and TV shows like “Miami Vice.” Albano was then cast in the role of a lifetime as Nintendo’s mascot, Mario, in the live-action and animated segments of the TV show “The Super Mario Brothers Super Show!” In October 2009, Albano, 76, passed from a massive heart attack while residing in hospice.
The Ultimate Warrior To many his intensity as a performer was unmatched, and at one point he was the WWF’s heir apparent to Hulk Hogan after pinning him at WrestleMania VI. Born James Hellwig, he legally changed his name to Warrior in 1993. He and the WWF engaged in a series of lawsuits in 1996 and 1998 over ownership claims to Warrior and Ultimate Warrior, and again in 2005 and 2006 after the WWE released “The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior” DVD. In 2009 the lawsuit was dismissed, but the animosity continued. In an unprecedented move, Warrior returned to WWE in April 2014 and over a three day period was inducted into their Hall of Fame, appeared at WrestleMania XXX, and made a speech on “Raw” about the Warrior inside everyone. It was final public appearance as the very next day, Warrior, 54, passed from a heart attack. His legacy continues, however, as the WWE gives the Warrior Award in his honor, at their annual Hall of Fame ceremony.
Dusty Rhodes While a lot of people will remember him as the common man dressed in polka dots and having a valet named Sapphire, Rhodes made his mark as a creative force behind the scenes with several companies including the NWA and World Championship Wrestling. “The American Dream” was one of the most charismatic performers in history, and his feuds with “Superstar” Billy Graham, Terry Funk, Kevin Sullivan and the Four Horsemen were legendary. But perhaps Rhodes’ true legacy – aside from sons Dustin (aka Goldust) and Cody following in his footsteps – is that he helped to shape the WWE’s future. Many wrestlers in the organization went through the WWE’s Performance Center while Dusty was a coach there and are considered “Dusty’s Kids.” Although he had battled and recovered from stomach cancer, Rhodes passed in June 2015 after suffering a fall in his home to which his health quickly deteriorated.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper During the height of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection, he was the straw that stirred the drink as the ultimate bad guy. While he was actually Canadian, the rowdy Scotsman played the perfect spoils to Hulk Hogan’s superhero persona. Regarded by his peers as the greatest villain in the history of wrestling, Piper was picked to be part the first WrestleMania main event where he and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff faced Hogan and celebrity Mr. T. Eventually Piper turned good and thanks to his many TV appearances on shows ranging from “Walker, Texas Ranger” to “Celebrity Wife Swap,” he became one of wrestling’s most beloved figures. Piper had a memorable film career too with leads in such cult classics as “They Live” and “Hell Comes to Frogtown.” In July 2015, Piper, 61, passed in his sleep from a cardiac arrest caused by hypertension.
When she first started wrestling, Joanie Laurer didn’t know a wristlock from a wristwatch. That didn’t stop her from becoming the most dominant female of the WWF’s attitude era. Billed as the “Ninth Wonder of the World,” Chyna helped redefine the ladies division as an emphasis was now placed on beauty and fitness rather than in-ring ability. Chyna shot to Superstardom with two appearances in Playboy, several television shows and a couple of amateur porn videos. In 2011 she embarked on a career in the adult industry and performed in several films. In April 2016, Laurer, 46, was found dead at her home in Redondo Beach, California. In December her autopsy report was released and revealed that she passed from a deadly mixture of alcohol, anxiety drugs, painkillers and sleeping pills.
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka
Although the Superfly wrestled for many NWA regional promotions before, and for the AWA after his run with the WWF, it was perhaps his time in the WWF that is most memorable. In a storyline where Captain Lou Albano cheated him out of money, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers became his new manager and Snuka turned from villain to hero. As a villain, his feud with Bob Backlund was legendary. And as a hero, his leap off the top of a steel cage onto Don “Magnificent” Muraco had inspired future wrestlers Mick Foley and Tommy Dreamer for their fearless style, both of whom were in attendance. But perhaps one of the most iconic moments of ‘80s wrestling came when “Rowdy” Roddy Piper smashed a coconut over Snuka’s head to trigger their feud. In 2015 Snuka was indicted and arrested on third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges in relation to the 1983 death of his then girlfriend. Snuka pleaded not guilty and in June 2016 was found unfit to stand trial due to being diagnosed with dementia. On January 3, 2017, the charges against him were dismissed and twelve days later Snuka, 73, passed away.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list of who passed on from that perceived Golden Era of sports entertainment, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention:
- Big John Studd (1995, age 47), a big man who along with others like King Kong Bundy set the standard for the big men of the era and who participated in WrestleMania I in a bodyslam challenge versus Andre the Giant;
- Junkyard Dog (1998, age 45), a popular African American competitor, especially with younger fans, who went from being a regional star in Tennessee, Louisiana and the Carolinas to national prominence with the WWF;
- “Ravishing” Rick Rude (1999, age 40), a four-time world champion who had a stellar career in the waning days of the territories as the industry transitioned to the national companies. At the height of the Monday Night Wars between the WWF and WCW, Rude was the only wrestler to appear on both “Raw is War” and “Monday Nitro” broadcasts on the same night as Raw was pre-recorded and he had jumped to WCW in the interim;
- Gorilla Monsoon (1999, age 62), a former wrestler who became a beloved TV announcer, and Gordon Solie (2000, age 71) who called play-by-play for 36 years, were about as iconic as you could get in their roles as storytellers – Monsoon for the WWF and Solie for WCW/NWA;
- Yokozuna (2000, age 34), a two-time WWF world and world tag team champion who, at nearly 600 pounds, was also a member of the famous Anoaʻi wrestling family. Roman Reigns, Rikishi and The Rock were among his cousins;
- Davey Boy Smith (2002, age 39), who along with tag team partner, Dynamite Kid, formed the British Bulldogs, and Road Warrior Hawk (2003, age 45), who along with tag team partner, Animal, comprised the Legion of Doomb, together redefined tag team wrestling with their fearless, unabashed physical wrestling styles;
- The Public Enemy tag team, comprised of “Flyboy” Rocco Rock (2002, age 49) and Johnny Grunge (2006, age 39), who helped define Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) for their hardcore wrestling style and use of tables that was later adopted by the Dudleys.
- “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig (2003, age 44), a second generation wrestler who initially rose to stardom in the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and was noted for his athletic prowess;
- Hercules Hernandez (2004, age 47), a wrestler who primarily performed in Florida and Texas before getting to the big stage in the WWF in the mid-‘80s, was noted for his tremendous strength and physique;
- Big Boss Man (2004, age 41), a real-life former Cobb County, Georgia prison guard who portrayed a number of Boss Man-like characters throughout the 1990s with WCW and who was one of the most respected wrestlers behind the scenes by his peers;
- Eddie Guerrero (2005, age 38), a second generation competitor, who helped define Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in 1995, the World Championship Wrestling Cruiserweight division in the mid-to-late-‘90s and later the WWF/WWE Attitude Era;
- Earthquake (2006, age 42), a former sumo wrestler, John Tenta, along with his tag team partner Typhoon, was perhaps best known for being a member of The Natural Disasters, one of the largest tag teams to ever compete;
- The Fabulous Moolah (2007, Age 84), a pioneer of ladies wrestling, responsible for training two generations of stars and who was an integral part of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection storyline as she, managed by Lou Albano, lost her title after a 28-year-run to Wendi Richter, managed by Cyndi Lauper, at the inaugural WrestleMania;
- Sherri Martel (2007, age 49), a former WWF and AWA champion, and Luna Vachon (2010, age 48), a second generation wrestler and valet, both of whom helped usher in the WWF’s Attitude Era and also had notoriety with ECW;
- Verne Gagne (2015, age 89), the legendary champion and promoter of the AWA and Nick Bockwinkle (2015, age 80) the perennial AWA champion during most of the 1980s who was classy both in the ring and out;
- Mr. Fuji (2016, age 81), a talented tag team wrestler who achieved his greatest fame as a manager and appearing alongside “Magnificent” Don Muraco during the mid-‘80s in the WWF TV spoof “Fuji Vice”;
- And the Von Erich Family, which saw noted World Class Wrestling promoter, wrestler and family patriarch Fritz pass in 1997 at age 68, four of his five wrestling sons passed before him. David (1984, age 25) died while on tour of Japan, while Mike (1987, age 23), Chris (1991, age 21) and Kerry (1993, age 33) all committed suicide.
Unfortunately, there are five more deaths that should be noted, all of which are shrouded in tragedy.
In July 1998, Bruiser Brody, 42, a former football player and sportswriter, who helped innovate the “brawling” style of pro wrestling and who was considered a bit of an outlaw in the business for trying to stick up for the rights of wrestlers over the promotions they worked for, was stabbed in the showers prior to a match in Puerto Rico. José González, a wrestler who also worked for the office and was the prime suspect in the murder, was acquitted of the crime.
In May 1999, Owen Hart, 34, son of the legendary Stu Hart and younger brother of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, fell to his death following an equipment malfunction during a live WWF pay-per-view event. Many of his peers considered him to be one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time and believed that his best years were still in front of him.
But in June 2007, the most notorious deaths in all of professional wrestling took place and became headline news around the world. Over a three day period, Chris Benoit, 40, killed his wife Nancy, 43, who had achieved her own level of success as a manager/valet for ECW and WCW (under the guise “Woman” when she was married to then wrestler Kevin Sullivan) and then strangled their 7-year-old son Daniel before hanging himself. The double-murder and suicide sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling world and has since been the subject of radio and TV talk shows, books, a documentary and as announced in September 2016, a planned feature film.
Whether they passed by natural causes, heartbreaking accidents or as we’ve seen, more menacing conditions, professional wrestling has certainly had its fair share of iconic deaths – and then some.