A World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler leaps at his opponent during a match at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan in 2005. Injuries and physical punishment from their work exact a toll on many professional wrestlers.
In a blunder of grotesque proportions, World Wrestling Entertainment canceled the normal edition of Monday Night Raw and put on a three-hour tribute to professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who was found dead Monday in his home with his wife, Nancy, and 7-year-old son, Daniel. Even as the show was airing, wire services were reporting that this was no garden-variety tragedy: Benoit had slain his family and then committed suicide. By Tuesday morning, WWE was pushing the ill-advised tribute show down the memory hole and air-brushing Benoit from history, removing nearly all mentions of him from its Web site.
But wrestling fans will not soon forget Benoit, because while the circumstances of his death were unanticipated, the fact of it was not. For those of a certain age, witnessing the deaths of favorite wrestlers has become a grisly commonplace.
So far in 2007, Bam Bam Bigelow, Mike Awesome and Sensational Sherri have died. None was even 50. If you think back to the wrestlers from your childhood Saturday mornings, you'll be chilled at the list of the dead: Crash Holly, Kerry Von Erich, Owen Hart, Adrian Adonis, Yokozuna, Brian Pillman, Davey Boy Smith, André the Giant, Rick Rude, Bruiser Brody, Miss Elizabeth, Big Boss Man, Earthquake, Curt Hennig, Junkyard Dog, Hercules, Big John Studd, Road Warrior Hawk.
And here's the scary part: None of those wrestlers lived past 46.
The causes of death vary widely, of course. André the Giant, for instance, had acromegaly. (As he once touchingly remarked to Billy Crystal, "We do not live long, the big and the small.") But a striking number of the deaths were related to steroid or drug use.
Three years ago, USA Today did a study on the death rates of professional wrestlers. It found that between 1997 and 2004, about 1,000 people under the age of 45 had worked in professional wrestling (this included not just the WWE, but many minor circuits). During that time, 65 of them died. Keith Pinckard, a medical examiner who follows pro wrestling deaths, said wrestlers have death rates roughly seven times higher than the general population.
It's a hard life. Many wrestlers work three to five events a week. The lifestyle is part carny, part rock star, with all the attendant risky behaviors including heavy drinking and recreational drug use.
Steroids have been a bane of the industry. As the legendary wrestler Bruno Sammartino said in 1991, "There was a joke: If you did not test positive for steroids, you were fired." But this overstates things, since steroid testing has rarely risen to a level of laxity in the wrestling world. (Steroids were found at Benoit's house.)
And then there is the physical punishment from the work itself. Professional wrestling isn't "real" because the outcomes are scripted, but the pain the athletes endure is very real. You can't fake the hurt out of falling 10 or 20 feet onto a hard surface.
Pushed to achieve comic-book physiques, wrestlers must perform despite pain or lose their contracts. And unlike traditional athletes, they cannot rely on meritocracy to protect them, as in "as long as I excel, they can't touch me"; they can't precisely because the outcomes are scripted. Add that at the major-league level, professional wrestling has essentially become a monopoly. (A nascent promotion, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, is beginning to establish roots in the wrestling world, but it is far from being a true competitor to the WWE.)
The management of WWE can hire and fire at will because they are less like the commissioners of a sports league and more like the owners of a theater.
Except that at this particular theater, the actors often die.
It is a bizarre juxtaposition that as the WWE was distancing itself from Benoit on Tuesday, a number of retired NFL players were testifying before Congress about the long-term physical hazards of professional football. They were arguing that lawmakers should step in and force the NFL Players Association to protect them.
But, as a USA Today report discovered, professional wrestlers are 20 times more likely than football players to die before the age of 45. And unlike football players, wrestlers don't have a union to protect their interests.
It would not be untoward for Congress to investigate pro wrestling, but perhaps what it really needs is a union. Unions can be stifling, counterproductive things. Sometimes unions act against the long-term interests of workers. But in some cases, where the circumstances of an industry are so heavily weighted against workers as to make their jobs unfairly dangerous, unions can be an important protection. And if ever an industry fit the bill, it is professional wrestling, which has come to make 19th-century coal mining look like a cushy gig.
A wrestlers' union would go against much of the free-bird culture of pro wrestling goodness knows how it would fit with the tradition of "kayfabe" (the wrestlers' code that they never break character when in the presence of outsiders). But it would be worth the trouble if it cleaned up the business and saved some lives.
At the end of the ill-fated tribute to Benoit, the WWE showed highlights from WrestleMania XX, where he won the championship belt in the main event. He was greeted in the ring by his good friend, fellow superstar wrestler Eddie Guerrero. This was in 2004, and both men were 37.
Three years later, both of them were dead.