JG's Columns
James Guttman Responds to: Yahoo's Article on WrestleMania VII's Death Count
By James Guttman
May 24, 2011 - 9:10 AM

Well, look at that. Mainstream media outlets are reporting about wrestling. That must mean one of two things. Either it's WrestleMania weekend...or a wrestler died. And WrestleMania weekend doesn't always guarantee an article.

This past week, the entire planet lost a special performer as Randy "Macho Man" Savage - a star with unparalleled talents both in and out of the ring - died tragically at the age of 58. An amazing force behind wrestling and the savior of the business back when mega-star Hulk Hogan decided to take time off in 1988, Savage had skills that few others could ever dream of and even fewer actually realize exist. He was a consummate performer and one of the most intense characters in wrestling history.

So, when he passed away following a heart attack while driving - which lead to a car accident on May 20th, the world was shocked. Immediately, people paid tribute in their own ways. Some looked back at his storied career. Others made jokes about how his death allowed us to escape Harold Camping's failed "rapture". Then, of course, there was Yahoo - that reported about the "troubling" percentage of wrestlers from WrestleMania VII who have died. 

Do you want to know what I find troubling? This isn't the first time I've seen this article. I remember reading it when Bryan "Crush" Adams died. Forget percentages. I find someone sitting around waiting for a former wrestler to die in order to repost a shock piece to be the real troubling thing.

But, hey, death sells, right? Whether it's a photograph of Princess Diana slowly dying in a limousine snapped by the same vultures who ran her off the road or a zoomed picture of Owen Hart's lifeless body laying in the ring after a tragic accident 12 years ago yesterday, everyone clicks to read or see death. That's what drives the hit count and makes the advertisers scream "Yahoo!"

Before addressing the "shocking problem", let's take a look at the names mentioned as the 25% who have died and what really happened:

Randy Savage (Heart Attack): 58 isn't old by any stretch, but it's still older than 30 and close to the age where news of someone having a heart attack is met with shock, without being something we need a congressional investigation for. You've heard stories like this before. "Oh, Bill's dad died. Heart attack. He was only 55." Everyone shakes their head and speaks about how sad it is. But few say, "I bet it was all the steroids Bill's dad did." No. They accept that things happen.  That's what happened with Randy. Had he not been driving, it's anyone's guess whether or not he could have been treated and helped.

Andre The Giant (Heart Failure): Andre died at 46. Acromegaly was the disease that caused his giant-like features and is known for causing premature death. For years prior to his passing, his health deteriorated to the point where he couldn't walk without the aid of a cane. His heart failure wasn't caused by a night of coke and crank. It wasn't shocking.  It was caused by the very ailment that made him a star.

Joey Marella (car accident): No drugs. No steroids. The guy was a tiny referee and tragically passed away on July 4th while driving to a show.

Dino Bravo (murder): Dino had ties to the French Canadian Mafia, allegedly. Not really a huge problem in wrestling. In fact, his name on this list is almost silly as, to the best of my knowledge; no other star from a WrestleMania had been gunned down in their home over a dispute regarding bootlegged cigarettes.  Check percentages on that one.

Kerry Von Erich (suicide): Yes. Kerry Von Erich killed himself. So did his brother Mike...and Chris...and (supposedly) David. His family was a tragic story that shouldn't be tied to the main story of wrestler deaths. I'm not sure what went on in the Von Erich household, but that many suicides from one family is less about long wrestler work schedules and more about things we will never know for sure.

Earthquake (bladder cancer): Nothing shocking or salacious there.

That leaves Mr. Perfect, Elizabeth, Road Warrior Hawk, Hercules, Crush, and The Big Bossman. While nothing to sneeze at in terms of numbers, it's half of the original list. Half.

But we wouldn't want to get in the way of a juicy story, right? I mean, saying that "25% of the wrestlers from WrestleMania VII" (an event that took place over 20 years ago) are dead sounds better than admitting half that number were either natural or unrelated issues.   I mean, who would click on a story that talked about 12.5% of questionable wrestler deaths from WrestleMania VII? The money is in the round numbers, right?

So, I'll tell you what, let's address those six. I've said this before, I'll say it again. Wrestling is a business unlike football or boxing - two sports the death toll has been compared to. Especially given the 1991 time period, you have to remember that the success of a wrestler can't be compared to football in terms of mainstream acceptance. Yahoo does stories about wrestlers when they die. They do stories about football players every Sunday.

Yet, wrestling is far more stressful on the body and takes up far more time than any other sport. Every day, these guys travel to another town and repeatedly throw themselves on the ground. So why do they do it? It's not the money, modest for many outside megastar status, or even fame. Those may be factors for some, but the only common reason that runs throughout all is "the rush". They all do it for the feeling they get when the crowd roars.

"Wrestling" is the drug. These men and women risk their physical well being and personal lives nightly in giant arenas and then, when the giant arenas stop booking them, they do it in high school gyms for 11 people. It's a personality quirk that has always seemed, at least to me, to be an obvious trait that lends itself to risky behavior. Whether it's drinking, drugs, or skydiving - it's all about the rush.

In the last ten years, wrestling has made some big changes. WWE now pays for rehab for any former star who needs it. I have many friends in the business who have taken advantage of that offer and cleaned themselves up. With changes in health insurance coverage for stars and even concussion research helping to prevent future deaths like this, you can't continue to hold "the business" responsible. Wrestling, like anything in life, learned from its mistakes and is now taking the steps to correct it.

But please, if you're going to express mock shock, outrage, and amazement at the young deaths surrounding a business built on risky behavior and sadomasochistic physical harm, at least focus the count on those who genuinely died from such behavior. Andre the Giant, Earthquake, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage deserve better than to be lumped into a group they don't belong in and one that cheapens their legacies.

Given how they spent their lives entertaining us, it's the least we can do.

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