Let's begin with the obvious caveat: professional wrestling is fake. It is essentially a bizarre mix of gymnastics, body-building, soap opera, rock concert, and advertising. When wrestlers walk through the curtain to the cheers (or well earned boos) of the audience, they know exactly what is going to happen, and have rehearsed the big spots that will leave the crowd in awe. Still, it holds a unique place for many people, existing somewhere between nostalgia and escapism.
To some, professional wrestling will be memories of watching homegrown behemoths like Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy as they settled their differences on ITV on a Saturday afternoon. To others, it's staying up all night to see the superman-physiqued World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) "Superstars" perform live from America. Either way, they're the cartoonish heroes and villains of our youth; indestructible warriors who beat the suspiciously insurmountable odds to win at any cost. At heart, it is entertainment.
This is why it's so shocking to hear of wrestlers dying in the ring.
It's rare. Most in-ring deaths happened in the 1970s and '80s, back when the industry was local rather than global, and highly unregulated to boot. They were almost exclusively cases of middle-aged men with heart issues—brought on by their size or use of steroids—having their most vital organ give out during a match. Perhaps the most famous British case is that of ITV World of Sport star Malcolm 'King Kong' Kirk, who died in front of holidaymakers in Great Yarmouth in 1987. Facing Big Daddy in a tag team match, Kirk was hit with the Big Splash finishing move—his heart gave out on impact. He was taken to hospital, away from a stunned crowd looking for some light entertainment on their holiday, but pronounced dead upon arrival.
Another common cause of death in the ring comes from a blight on sport that is only now being taken seriously: head injuries. The Great Khali, an Indian giant billed at 2.16m tall (just over seven feet), is perhaps best known for his roles in films such as Get Smart and Adam Sandler's 2005 remake of The Longest Yard. However, he also enjoyed a decade-long wrestling career around the globe, and is inexplicably a former WWE Heavyweight Champion.
While learning his craft with California-based All Pro Wrestling (APW), Khali was training with a fellow hopeful, Brian Ong. The pair attempted to perform a 'flapjack,' which entailed Ong bouncing off the ropes and running at Khali, who would stoop down and hoist his opponent above his head. Khali would then drop Ong behind him, with the victim landing on his back. However, Ong—who had already suffered a concussion earlier in the session—was disorientated and landed badly, again hitting his head on the drop from Khali's massive frame. The move resulted in Ong's death a few days later, and the fallout saw APW pay a $1.3 million settlement to his family. No blame is attributed to Khali.
However, in-ring deaths aren't restricted to grainy old video clips from a bygone era. Professional wrestling is a show—but sometimes the show goes tragically wrong.
In 1999, WWE star Owen Hart was enjoying a surge of popularity as he rekindled his Blue Blazer gimmick. Set to win the Intercontinental Championship, the second most prestigious belt behind only the World Championship, Hart was to enter the ring from the rafters attached to a harness at the Over the Edge pay-per-view. The plan was simple: Hart, as a comedic heel (bad guy), was to be lowered to just above the ring and become stuck, where he would then release his harness and fall flat on his face to the jeers of the crowd. However, Hart became detached while still some 70 feet above the ring.
Why this happened is still debated—some say the harness failed, others that Hart accidentally released it while adjusting the cape he was wearing—but the result was still brutal. He fell and landed on the ropes, which threw him into the ring. Mercifully, the live TV feed was on a delay and showing a short video to build up the match. The arena was also darkened so the crowd could watch the same video. Still, the WWE team had the unpleasant task of narrating the audience through what was happening, and at the end of the night announcing his death to the world.
Owen's elder brother, Bret "The Hitman" Hart, is adamant that WWE should have ended proceedings following the accident. "Owen would not have wanted the show to go on," he told US sports host Jim Rome a year later. For added emphasis he added, "If Vince McMahon had dropped [his son] Shane McMahon from the ceiling, and he splattered on the mat, I don't think he would have scraped him off and sent the next match out."
The following night on WWE's flagship RAW show, the script was thrown out. Instead it became a mixture of commemorative matches and videos; the fantastical rivalries and characters were dropped in favor of wrestlers speaking from their hearts.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking tribute came listening to legendary WWE announcer Jim Ross's voice crack, 24 hours after narrating his friend's death, as he declared "I hope that I can be as good a man as [Owen], so that I can see him again someday."
This format of tribute—of the show stopping and being replaced by humanity—is how WWE, and most of the industry, deals with death. When Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his motel room in 2005 by his nephew, fellow WWE wrestler Chavo Guerrero, the next night's RAW was again scrapped in favor of tributes: wrestlers performing matches simply for the love of it, using Eddie's signature moves and wearing his apparel, interspersed by videos of hulking Superstars breaking down in tears as they remembered their fallen friend.
As tragic as these events are, they serve to show the tremendous community that exists within professional wrestling. Performers break down and weep for the loss of one of their own, and the fans accept the break in the show to pay tribute, cheering and crying in equal measure. There is a true sense of kinship between these highly trained professionals, who go to great lengths to take care of each other in and out of the ring. That is why it's all the more shocking when you read of a wrestler dying in a match.
The most recent case occurred last month (March 2015) and involved Rey Mysterio, a well-known and respected Mexican-American wrestler who has recently returned to the Mexican Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion (AAA) promotion.
In his second match back, Mysterio was tagging with Xtreme Tiger against the team of Manik and El Hijo del Perro Aguayo. Setting up his famous 619 finisher—where a wrestler lies with their head and shoulders resting on the middle rope, ready for Mysterio to swing through the gap and deliver a kick to the head—Mysterio threw Perro Aguayo out of the ring with a head-scissors takedown. Perro Aguayo returned to the ring, only to receive a drop kick to the shoulder to set him up for this 619. As scripted, Perro Aguayo fell onto the second rope, but he did so limp. His tag partner Manik checked on him, and Mysterio pulled out of completing the move. Former wrestler Konnan, ringside in a management role, shook Perro Aguayo to try to revive him, but to no avail. The match continued for several more minutes, before Mysterio and Xtreme Tiger picked up the victory and, with the severity of the situation rapidly becoming apparent, Perro Aguayo received medical attention.
It was too late. By morning, Perro Aguayo Jr. had died from cardiac arrest, the result of a stroke caused by three broken vertebrae in his neck. Later that week, Rey Mysterio was a pallbearer at Aguayo's funeral. In the ultimate of ironies, 20 years previously, Mysterio had been one of Perro Aguayo's first opponents; he now laid his friend to rest after being in the ring at his end.
The response from Mysterio was the same brand of philosophical showmanship that is strangely typical of the profession. He took to social media to post pictures of himself and Perro Aguayo Jr., both from recent times and when they were starting out 20 years previously, and post an optimistic message, which translated to English read: "Just a friendship of brothers that began years ago and we should not question the ways of God. But on this occasion I wonder why and I do not understand. I miss you and I will take you with me the rest of my life. Rest in peace Hijo Del Perro." The sentiment was a drop in the ocean of outpouring for Perro Aguayo, a popular and decorated second-generation wrestler who'd spent his career entertaining Mexican fans.
Mysterio is no stranger to death in his sport. A close friend of Eddie Guerrero, he rode the wave of compassion following Guerrero's death to a fairytale weekend at Wrestlemania 22. The night before the big event, he presented Eddie's widow Vickie with her late husband's induction to the WWE Hall of Fame. The next night, he celebrated with the Guerrero family as he won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Mysterio's victory was pre-scripted. It served to pay tribute to Eddie Guerrero, absolutely, but at the same time was undoubtedly a profitable business move. The story was compelling: would the tiny Mysterio, who weighed just twelve stones and was barely five-feet-six, defeat Olympic champion Kurt Angle and young superstar Randy Orton to pay tribute to his friend? Of course he did.
And this is where the heart of the complicated relationship between professional wrestling and death lies. What WWE did with Mysterio in the aftermath of Guerrero's passing is nothing new. Professional wrestling learns from these deaths, and lives are not lost in vain. Most promotions now have rules to ensure wrestlers aren't using steroids, or abusing pain medication, and provide thorough cardiovascular testing. However, there is another side to it.
The show paying tribute to Owen Hart was the third most viewed in RAW's 23-year history. Mysterio's desire to pay tribute to his deceased friend drove viewers to pay to watch Wrestlemania. The name of El Hijo del Perro Aguayo has far more reach in death than it did in life.
When WWE Chairman Vince McMahon lead the locker room out to start the tributes to Eddie Guerrero's memorial episode of RAW, he closed out his opening speech by saying: "Eddie's goal every night was to steal the show. So tonight, there's no doubt in anyone's mind that Eddie would want the show to go on, and so it shall."
The most bizarre thing about death in the predetermined world of professional wrestling isn't that it occurs. It's that the show does go on—and that the real life drama it generates can be excellent for business.