When WWE bought WCW for a pittance in 2001, the greatest angle in history was staring Vince McMahon in the face: an invasion of WWE by outside forces, which weren’t actually outside, since everyone would be under a WWE contract. Invasion angles were hot in pro wrestling, and had been for years; ECW guys would show up on WWE or WCW shows—the former even had a sort of talent exchange agreement with ECW—and the refrain would be a shocked “what’s he doing here” before the newly rich and arrived Raven or Tazz would settle into being just another WWE guy.
WWE screwed it up, of course. It’s part of pro wrestling lore, that the WCW wrestlers were too spoiled for WWE’s grueling schedule, or that McMahon’s ego and permanent status as a mark for himself wouldn’t allow him to book WCW as actually threatening. What was true was that the initial rush of WCW wrestlers would, with very few exceptions, flame out. An awful lot of them weren’t terribly good, which isn’t that surprising when you consider just what a wasteland of talent late era WCW was. It was old guys coasting, young-ish guys who tamped down their hunger temporarily, and actually young guys who weren’t terribly good.
Then there was Sean O’Haire, who died four years ago on September 8, 2014.
O’Haire had it, the combination of looks, charisma, and athleticism you need to become a proverbial big deal in pro wrestling, though he was weighed down by depression, what seemed like an on-off enjoyment of pro wrestling, and a penchant for bar brawls. He was big, 6’6” big, but moved like a much smaller man. One of his signatures was the swanton bomb, a top rope flip in which the executor has to land just right to hit their opponent with the back of the neck and shoulder area. It’s a hard move to do, even for wrestlers on the smaller, nimbler side of things. O’Haire did it with aplomb, regularly doing the master’s version of the swanton: landing it and rolling into a standing position.
Plug O’Haire’s name into YouTube and you’re bound to see a compilation of his best moves, including that swanton. They’re all good. It’s cliche, but he moves like a cat. He’s powerful and graceful, especially in the older footage from WCW, where they would let wrestlers work a more open style (WWE notoriously wants its heels to refrain from flips and tricks, and O’Haire was a natural heel). If you wanted to convey the balletic qualities of pro wrestling, shorn of storylines and narrative, you could do a lot worse than give a newbie one of the mesmerizing O’Haire compilations.
The problem when he came into WWE—as a tag-team champion with Chris Palumbo—was that he had a half-formed clay quality to go with all the raw talent. As stated, he wasn’t going to be able to rely on the jumps, flips, and acrobatics as a heel, and all the WCW wrestlers came in as heels, at least initially. O’Haire and Palumbo feuded with Bradshaw and Farooq when they were tagging as the APA, and the APA were hugely over.
He needed work, first in becoming more than a collection of badass moves, then in working the preferred WWE style for heels. In 2002, he went to Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE’s developmental territory, which was run by legendary manager and booker Jim Cornette.
When he returned, magic happened. He was working the right style for WWE, or close to it, but more importantly he had a killer gimmick to go with his ring work. His hair was shaggier, his goatee longer, and he had new tattoos. He took to wearing a black trenchcoat and got some cool new theme music.
But most important, were the vignettes his new character filmed. In them, the black-clad O’Haire picked a fraught topic—sex, drugs, religion—and urged viewers to do the opposite of what a “good” person would. He became the devil on your shoulder, whispering evil thoughts into your head. Cheat on your spouse, it’s just a couple drinks, you don’t really need to pay taxes, laws are merely suggestions.
They’re so good, brief shots of legitimate weirdness piercing the wrestling. Cornette claims in an episode of his podcast that they were scripted sentences, delivered one at a time, then spliced together, partly for effect, partly because O’Haire, for all his talents, was never good at off-the-cuff promo delivery. And the gimmick was always going to have a relatively low ceiling, despite the fact that it was so unique—what was the endgame of this, just more vignettes?
The truth is that it doesn’t matter. The devil’s advocate gimmick slowly pushed him up the card to a respectable midcard run, then a winning streak over established stars and pairing him with Roddy Piper as his mentor, as a means of transitioning after the fun but limiting gimmick he returned with. He was set and more success was clearly around the corner.
Until it disappeared. First, Piper got fired, then O’Haire was released after a motorcycle accident, though his repeated brawls and drinking certainly made that easier for management. He went on to a respectable but brief MMA career, mostly in Japan, and then he faded from memory.
He hanged himself in 2014, after WWE sponsored stints in rehab and numerous run-ins with the law—including, importantly, domestic battery charges. A long obituary in the wake of his suicide can’t reconcile the many Sean O’Haires: the charismatic talent, the humble and kind friend, the guy who didn’t really like wrestling, the girlfriend-beating brawler who got his face caved in when he picked the wrong fight in 2007.
In strictly wrestling terms, he was one of pro wrestling’s nearly men, rediscovered periodically with a jolt of surprise at how he didn’t become huge. Steve Austin ran across him in just this way and was stunned at how good he was. Even there, though, his guest, Johnny Mundo, qualified the praise by saying the first time they met, O’Haire karate kicked a much smaller man at a bar. It’s told as a joking anecdote, but it sums up why the story of unrealized potential, violence, booze, and death turned out the way it did. O’Haire was a great "what if" story. He was also violent and depressed and an alcoholic. He was all of those things because wrestling does not, cannot, happen in “strictly” wrestling terms.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.