Mon, Jul 02, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Pro wrestlers dying early

AP , ATLANTA, GEORGIA

A note, teddy bear, toy wrestler and angel lie at the gate in front of the home of WWE professional wrestler Chris Benoit last Tuesday in Fayetteville, Georgia. Benoit strangled his wife, suffocated his seven-year-old son and placed a Bible next to their bodies before hanging himself.

PHOTO: AP

Everything is planned. The high-flying moves. The outlandish story lines. The crackpot characters.

But one thing is not in the script -- the staggering number of US professional wrestlers who die young.

Chris Benoit was the latest, taking his own life at age 40 after killing his wife and son in a grisly case that might be the blackest eye yet for the pseudo-sport already ridiculed as nothing more than comic books come to life, a cult-like outlet for testosterone-raging young males to cheer on their freakishly bulked-up heroes.

But Benoit, the tenacious, grim-faced grappler known as the "Canadian Crippler," was hardly alone in heading to an early grave.

The very same weekend that Benoit killed his family, the body of old tag-team partner "Biff Wellington" -- real name was Shayne Bower -- was found in his bed, dead at 42.

A couple of weeks ago, former women's champion "Sensational" Sherri Martel died at her mother's home in Alabama. She was 49.

And on it goes.

Mike Awesome -- Michael Lee Alfonso in real life -- was found hanged in his Florida home in February, the apparent victim of a suicide at 42.

"Bam Bam" Bigelow was 45 when a lethal cocktail of cocaine and benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety drug, stopped his already ailing heart in January.

And on it goes, dozens and dozens of wrestlers meeting a similar fate over the past two decades.

Some died with drugs flowing through their veins.

Others tried to clean up but belatedly paid the price for their long-term abuse of steroids, painkillers, alcohol, cocaine and other illicit substances.

"From my 17 years in the business, I know probably 40 to 45 wrestlers who dropped dead before they were 50," said Lance Evers, a semiretired wrestler who goes by "Lance Storm" when he is in the ring.

"It's an astronomical number," he said. "I'm sick and tired of it."

Over the years, there are been numerous proposals to put wrestling under some sort of oversight, be it at the state or federal level.

Those ideas usually have fallen on deaf ears, largely because the powers-that-be, be it the old-time regional promoters or World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon, the guy who largely controls the sport today, do not want the government telling them how to run their business.

Jim Wilson, who parlayed pro football into a ring career, said he was blackballed when he began pushing for a wrestler's union.

Since then, he has written a book about his experiences and kept up the push to rein in those who govern the sport.

Although Wilson's battle often has been a lonely one, he says that Benoit's death might reinvigorate the cause.

A union could be a useful tool for cleaning up the sport. It might lead to a pension plan, improved benefits, more stringent health and safety guidelines and a revamped pay structure that would allow wrestlers to spend more time at home without risking a pay cut, he said.

Now, most top wrestlers get a guaranteed salary, but the bulk of their income is based on how often they compete, which leads some to feel that they must get in the ring while injured, often with the aid of painkillers and other numbing chemicals.

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