Pro wrestling is its own unique genre in entertainment. An athletic competition with pre-determined outcomes. Part Shakespearean morality play, part crass B-action movie. Simple tales of good versus evil and the ways in which each triumphs over the other. It’s as if Hollywood’s stunt people held production hostage and took center stage because they are the power source that pushes the story forward. It might appear to be a sport, mimicking the strikes and submissions that have turned mixed martial arts into a global billion dollar industry, but it’s what it has always been: a carnival tent attraction that tells the hero’s journey over and over again until the audience stops forking over the cash (it never has).
In the pursuit of packed arenas and peaking bank accounts, the pro wrestlers that define themselves in the squared circle — falling on their backs over and over again win or lose, experiencing car crash-like whiplash night-in-and-night-out, no matter if they are the curtain jerker or the main event — know peaks and valleys like few others. It’s an industry without protections: unions, benefits, retirement and savings. Always one miscalculation away from a career-ending injury or even death. The demands of a 365-day-a-year business known for constant travel all over the world has at times been a toxic formula, which leads to premature death.
Pro wrestling’s macabre public relationship with the grim repear started in earnest in 1997. On October 5th, the day pro wrestling’s major promoter WWF (now WWE) had a major pay-per-view, one of its upper-tier stars, Brian Pillman, 35, had passed away in his hotel room via a sudden heart attack before the broadcast. Fans were informed by WWF owner Vince McMahon midway through the show.
Then on May 23, 1999, second-generation wrestler Owen Hart, forced to perform a comedy stunt gone wrong — in which he descended from the Kemper Arena’s rafters in Kansas City — was dropped out of his harness from 78 feet in the air. He died shortly after due to internal injuries related to blunt force trauma. McMahon, from behind the scenes, decided the show must go on, and continued the pay-per-view.
Somehow, the WWF survived and retained its surging popularity at the time, long enough for that to be forgotten…until June 24, 2007.
The most unsettling news to ever come out of pro wrestling: champion Chris Benoit murdered his wife Nancy and seven-year-old son, Daniel, then killed himself. The story reopened WWE’s troubled past and set forth a whole new chapter in sports overall. Benoit’s brain was studied, leading to groundbreaking information on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that manifests with thinking and memory problems, even onset dementia, personality and behavioral changes in forms of aggression and depression, sometimes fatal. CTE became a conversation forever linked with the NFL, combat sports, contact sports, and even soccer.
A shocking 2011 report contextualized how dangerous pro wrestling is: more than a quarter of the-then WWF’s 1991 Wrestlemania performers (51) had died, compared to zero of the 44 starting players for 1991’s NFL Super Bowl and only two of the 44 boxers that were world champion that year. Between that and the way Benoit’s high-profile murder-suicide permanently altered the sports landscape, the pro wrestling industry remains both sensationally and somberly associated with death.
Yet, thanks to the internet making any show from anywhere available to fans all over the world, pro wrestling — not just the WWE - is booming.
Since pro wrestling has an all-too-familiar relationship with untimely death, I aim to understand the camaraderie and contentiousness, risk and sacrifice, fear and success of being a pro wrestler, and how it amounts to a special bond between the performers, which is often challenged and immortalized when wrestlers pass away early in tragic circumstances or simply move on to the next life as a survivor of pro wrestling’s rigorous lifestyle.
This book is about the connection between performers who trust each other with their lives during their athletic feats, a culture once so secretive it had its own language, now thrust into the public eye demanding transparency, thanks to the collective grieving pro wrestling’s sudden deaths brought upon the industry and its audience. Unity — or lack thereof — is always worth exploring, and grief, despite its universal nature, is still not a ready conversation. It’s difficult, even taboo.
Discussing grief via a popular entertainment industry frames grief in relatable terms. It can explain how the world’s toughest people are vulnerable, how they are loved, how they loved, how they love, how they long for loved ones, how they accept loved ones passed on. It can be instructive on how to heal, while serving to honor the memories, matches and people that shaped pro wrestling history.
This book is pop psychology grief counseling. A collection of top stars remembering their fallen colleagues, friends, fellow legends. A must-read for wrestling fans and fans of those who make the most out of the less traveled road.
Pro wrestling industry people that I know for the book’s forward or advanced praise: Mauro Ranallo (Showtime, WWE commentator), Dave Meltzer (Preeminent wrestling historian/founder of Wrestling Observer Newsletter), Daniel Cormier (UFC champion), David Shoemaker (wrestling historian for Bill Simmons’ The Ringer), Tom Lawlor (former UFC fighter/current independent wrestler).
NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLERS IN THE GENRE BY: MICK FOLEY, CHRIS JERICHO, RIC FLAIR, JOHN CENA, SHAWN MICHAELS, DANIEL BRYAN, AJ MENDEZ BROOKS, AND MORE.