After the raucous rock music has died down, the pyrotechnics are just smoking tubes protruding from the ground, and the fans have left, the entertaining athletes limp back to their homes, heavily injured and drained from the night’s events. Although the bouts these modern-day Atlases engage in are choreographed (something that has been acknowledged on several occasions), the reality is that professional wrestling is extremely physical and punishing, but that aspect of the profession is often negated. This is the dirty truth about professional wrestling.
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Seldom publicized, albeit from the documentary Beyond the Mat, the life wrestlers lead often damages them physically and psychologically, leading to the deterioration of family units, relationships, and even careers. The combination of these factors added to the celebrity worship of fans and the low compensation wrestlers receive force many to continue wrestling well after their prime.
In an especially heart-wrenching narrative shown in the film, 80s superstar wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts struggles with the loss of celebrity, being forced to fight in smaller and smaller venues, drug addiction, and attempting to reconcile with his unwilling daughter. Although the scenes and personas in and out of the rings are written like campy 80s action movies, the story differs vastly outside the ring.
The spectator sport of wrestling outside the ring reads more like a Greek tragedy than entertainment. The sport is strife with substance abuse, mental health issues, strained family ties, physical abuse, murders, and suicides. The most tragic story of these stories is easy and by far Chris Benoit’s.
Chris Benoit rose through the ranks quickly and was extremely popular amongst fans. He eventually became one of the most well-known wrestlers of his time. Spontaneously, Chris strangled his wife, suffocated his son, and hung himself from one of his weight training machines. Next to each body was a bible. When the medical inspector autopsied Benoit’s body, it was revealed that his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient due to years of untreated concussions. Some people have even gone as far as saying that it was a result of years of steroid abuse.
Career Cut Short
Darren Drozdov was a former NFL defensive back and an up-and-coming young wrestler. Unfortunately, however, Drozdov was left a quadriplegic after a horrific accident. A silver lining in the cloud of serious personal injury was that Darren continued working with WWF as a writer and Internet show host. He spent years writing and contributing to the media company’s websites, magazines, and Internet shows.
But Darren was not the only wrestler to suffer such a tragic fate.
Thomas “Tom” Billington, professionally known as Dynamite Kid, was the second part of British tag-team The British Bulldogs. He was especially famous for his spectacular aerial moves. Although he always offered a great show, he was warned that his extremely acrobatic moves would eventually lead to serious bodily damage.
In 1997, his ability to walk was extremely restricted and he eventually lost the use of his left leg completely. In the 2007 CNN documentary Death Grip: Inside Pro Wrestling, Dynamite Kid said that he was forced back to wrestling because he needed money and that a doctor had warned him that it would result in grave bodily damage.
More Than Half
An article by Ashley Matthew says that almost half of male wrestlers and a whopping 75% of female wrestlers have died as a result of heart-related conditions, compared to the general populations’ 25-27% death rate from heart diseases. This can be a result of steroid use but, as Occam’s razor stipulates, the most obvious answer is closest to the truth.
Wrestlers have to preserve their mass by eating vast amounts of food and, although most of it is burned off, a lot of it (especially when meat is used as protein) remains in the blood vessels of the circulatory system. On top of that is the pressure from the profession: there is no off season, scheduling is extremely tight, and the actual job is unbelievably physical, putting stress both on the body and the mind. Compounding all those factors is also the fact some wrestlers take painkillers due to chronic pain as a result of repeated injuries, and you have individuals that are at high risk for cardiac episodes.
The Man (The McMahon)
Often in light of tragedy, people try to find the reasons or the enablers that help facilitate the tragedy. One man that is constantly pointed at when it comes to the deaths of wrestlers is the owner of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) who is often blamed for the “size” of wrestlers.
Vince McMahon initially worked with his father but eventually acquired the company he worked for, then the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). McMahon envisioned propelling the sport to a national audience (which up until that point was separated into small local territories, which did not intrude into each other’s areas).
He did so by maybe even subconsciously tapping into the 80s obsession with bodybuilding and bodybuilder-esque action movie stars. Wrestlers started looking more like Mr. Universe contestants and less like unemployed uncle couch potatoes. But to keep up with an insane schedule and be chiseled and huge like a beef-eating Adonis, you need a little help, which came in the form of steroids, amphetamines, and other lab-grown concoctions.
McMahon even went to trial for the distribution of steroids to his wrestlers. Although one wrestler did testify that McMahon coerced his talent into using steroids, the testimony was thrown out because he also made it clear that he disliked McMahon. Although McMahon admitted to using steroids, he was acquitted of distributing them to his wrestlers.
Since being mired in death and controversy, most legitimate and prestigious wrestling/entertainment companies have opted to clean up their name by enforcing mandated and random drug tests. If a wrestler gives three positive tests, he/she is indefinitely suspended from the organization and their blemished record will relegate them to second and third-tier organizations. To further ensure the wrestlers’ safety, the WWE has prohibited purposefully drawing blood, “blading” (a popular practice in the past in which a wrestler would cut him/herself to add to the spectacle), and direct hits to the head with metal folding chairs (a fan favorite in the 1980s wrestling heyday). Even though it seems like wrestling is being ushered into a safer (and arguably saner) era, will this hurt their viewership, resulting in the sport returning to its phantasmagoric (and dangerous) past? Only time will tell.
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