We all know that professional wrestling is fake, but the injuries and abuses suffered by the people who do it are very real. Inside and outside of the ring, pro wrestlers have come to some seriously tragic ends. In this feature, we’ll crack open the chronicles of the squared circle to tell the stories of ten absolutely horrifying pro wrestling deaths.
As professional wrestling has evolved, performers have to do more and more to shock and captivate an audience. This practice has introduced a variety of stunts into their repertoire, some of which are more safe than others. Owen Hart was a career grappler, a member of Calgary’s legendary Hart Family with 13 years in the ring. But it only took one miscalculation to end his career and his life. At the WWE’s Over The Edge pay-per-view in May of 1999, Hart was booked to rappel down to the ring from the rafters on a harness line. Unfortunately, the line malfunctioned and the wrestler was dropped a fatal 78 feet into the ring, landing on the top rope chest-first. Hart died of massive internal trauma caused by his fall, but the show went on.
In Japan, professional wrestling is very serious business. The top stars are national celebrities who wield a huge amount of leverage, and that’s a recipe for disaster. The story of Mitsuhiro Momota, better known as Rikidozan, illustrates exactly why. Rikidozan was one of the hugest names in Japanese — a retired sumo who started fake fighting in 1951 and became the country’s most famous wrestler. In 1963, while enjoying himself at a nightclub, Rikidozan was stabbed with a knife soaked in urine by a Japanese gangster and died of an infection a week later. It’s rumored that the attack was paid for by Masahiko Kimura, his longtime rival in the ring.
The process of training to be a professional wrestler is a difficult one. Not only is it physically arduous, there’s often a lot of attitude from the more experienced performers who see it as their duty to haze newcomers. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the ring can be a very dangerous place. Case in point: Brian Ong. In May 2001, Ong was a trainee at California’s All Pro Wrestling School when he was assigned to take a “flapjack” move from fellow trainee Dalip Singh (now wrestling in the WWE as The Great Khali). Ong accidentally grabbed Singh’s shirt as he was being driven downwards into the mat, resulting in his skull whipping back and damaging his spine and brainstem. Ong died as a result of his injuries a few days later.
Frank Goodish, better known by the ring name Bruiser Brody, was one of the wildest competitors the squared circle has ever seen. The bearded Brody had a violent, out-of-control style that made him feared by opponents and audiences alike, and he traveled all over the world taking on all comers. In July 1988, Brody was in Puerto Rico (a huge wrestling market) getting ready for a bout with Dan Spivey. In the locker room, fellow wrestler Jose Huertas Gonzalez approached him and asked to “discuss business” in the shower. The two men walked off and minutes later Gonzalez stabbed Brody in the stomach. He was too huge for paramedics to even lift into the ambulance so other wrestlers had to do it. Brody died in the hospital and strangely enough, Gonzalez was found not guilty for reasons of self-defense.
Our neighbors south of the border have a rich and exciting professional wrestling culture of their own, with fanciful masks and outrageous characters. But it’s just as dangerous, and lucha libre has claimed some lives in the ring. The masked warrior known as Oro was a second-generation luchador who debuted in 1990 with his brother Plata. Oro became famous for his daredevil high-flying style, but that would also lead to his demise. In 1993, Oro prepared for a huge six-man tag team match in Mexico City, instructing his opponents that he wanted to take a big, dramatic fall to make them look good. During the contest, Oro took a clothesline and flipped back insanely, landing on his head. He then collapsed in the ring and was stretchered out to an ambulance, where he died of a brain aneurism. He was only 21 years old.
Some of the most dangerous injuries occurring in the professional wrestling business don’t leave any scars on the surface. Chris Benoit was one of the most popular wrestlers of his era, with a terrifying work ethic and very believable performances. But those performances resulted in his brain suffering myriad concussions that induced a form of dementia in his brain. In 2007, that dementia led him to murder his wife Nancy and son Daniel, drugging them with Xanax before strangling them to death. Three days after their murder, Chris Benoit also took his own life, hanging himself from a weight machine cord. His autopsy revealed heightened testosterone in his system and a brain so damaged that it looked like it belonged to a man in his 80s.
The whole point of professional wrestling moves is that they’re supposed to look a lot scarier than they feel. It’s a delicate dance between the giver and receiver to make things look impressive to the crowd. But sometimes, that dance misses some steps. Ox Baker was an old-time legend who brutalized opponents with his “heart punch” finisher, a straight sock to the ribcage that took out some of the era’s biggest stars. In August 1972, Baker faced local Georgia hero Ray Gunkel in a match where Gunkel managed to overcome the heart punch and get the win. Unfortunately, the punch actually caused a hematoma to form in Gunkel’s chest that created a blood clot in his heart and killed him later that evening.
Here’s another tale of a professional wrestler tangling with organized crime and paying for it. Dino Bravo was the self-proclaimed “Canada’s Strongest Man” who debuted in 1970 and wrestled for most of North America’s biggest promotions. After retiring in 1992, he returned to Montreal and opened a wrestling school, but he may have had his fingers in some other pies. In March 1993, Bravo was found shot to death in his home with seven bullets in his head and ten in his torso. The prevailing theory is that it was a Mafia hit in protest of Bravo’s cigarette smuggling business — his fame in the ring helped him establish a lucrative line in illegal, untaxed smokes. Bravo was also a nephew by marriage to Montreal mafioso Vic Catroni, so it’s not a surprise that the mob found out about his activities.
If you’ve never watched Japanese women’s wrestling, it might freak you out a little bit. In contrast to the silicone-stuffed “divas” of the United States, Japan takes lady grappling incredibly seriously, with hard-hitting action that rivals anything the men can deliver. Unfortunately (and this isn’t sexism, just biology), women’s bodies aren’t designed to suffer the kind of physical abuse men are. Emiko Kado was a young rookie in Japan’s ARSION promotion, working as “enhancement talent” — i.e., losing matches to make other wrestlers look good. With a perfect 0–15 record, she entered a tag team match against legend Mariko Yoshida and Mikiko Futagami in March of 1999. About 20 minutes in, a strike from one of her opponents ruptured a membrane in her brain. Kado was rushed to the hospital but died a little over a week later.
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Death strikes the also-rans as well as the big names in the professional wrestling game. One upcoming star that never made the major leagues was “Sweet and Sour” Larry Sweeney, a somewhat chubby Chicago native with a spectacular way with words. Sweeney wrestled primarily for the Pennsylvania-based Chikara promotion, where he participated in some great matches and developed a talent for inciting rage in the fans. Unfortunately, Sweeney also suffered from bipolar disorder and a mental breakdown in 2009 forced him into temporary retirement. He returned in 2011 but couldn’t manage his issues and eventually hung himself from a turnbuckle pole at a wrestling school in Louisiana and died.