Death and Drugs

September 6, 2007

I wrote the following for my ďStorm FrontĒ article for ďFighting SpiritĒ Magazine, back in March, and it is being reproduced with permission from Uncooked Media Ltd.

Please keep in mind this was writen well before the Chris Benoit trajedy.

With the deaths earlier this year of Bam Bam Bigelow and more recently Mike Awesome, two men I considered good friends, I find myself in a somber mood wanting to discuss the staggering death rate that seems to plague the wrestling industry. Every year we lose a few more people yet nothing ever seems to be done about it. We talk about how sad we are that our friends or former co-workers are gone, and how tragic their loss is, but when are we going to actually talk about why these people are dying and is there anything we can do to prevent more deaths in the future.

During my career I have known, and or worked with 34 people who have died and are no longer with us, and Iím only counting the people that I actually knew personally and died while in their 40ís or younger. The really scary part is with the majority of these deaths being due to the cumulative effects of past lifestyle and drug choices, Iím left wondering how many more people out there are tragedies waiting to happen.

I find every wrestling story I tell my students at Storm Wrestling Academytm include at least one person who died prematurely and is no longer with us. I think without exception for every company or promotion I have worked for I can name at least one person I worked with that is no longer with us.

Early Indy days in Canada:
Mike Lozanski (died at 35)
Rhonda Singh (40)

FMW Japan (1991):
Mike Awesome (42)

2 Week tour of Lebanon 1992:
Chris Adams (dead at 46)

CWA Catch in Europe 1993:
Larry Cameron (41)
Eddie Gilbert (33)
Pit Bull #2 (36)
Road Warrior Hawk (46)

SMW Tennessee 1994:
Chris Candito (33)
Dick Murdock (49)

WAR Japan 1996-1998:
Bam Bam Bigelow (45)

ECW 1997-2000:
Rick Rude (41)
Louis Spicoli (27)
Big Dick Dudley (34)
Bobby Duncum jr. (34)

WCW 2000-2001:
The Wall (36)
Miss Elizabeth (42)

WWF/WWE 2001-2005:
Curt Hennig (44)
Big Boss Man (42)
Eddie Guerrero (38)
Crash Holly (32)

And that is far from an all-inclusive list; those are just the names that popped into my head while running down the companies Iíve worked for. This brings up two very important questions: Why is the death toll so high, and why isnít something being done about it?

The majority of deaths in wrestling are drug related or from drug related heart attacks. Does this then mean that wrestlers are just way bigger drug users than other athletes or entertainers? I donít think so, because drug use is prevalent in all walks of life. It seems every celebrity biography you read includes drug addiction and a stint or two in rehab. Iím not sure there is a successful rock band or musical group that hasnít had at least one member forced into detox or rehab, and I read about pro athletes getting busted for drug possession all the time. I think the problem lies in the lack of checks and balances in our industry, and the fringe celebrity status wrestlers receive.

As huge and successful as pro-wrestling has become we are still viewed by the vast majority as second-class celebrities. Most major sports coverage be it newspaper or television ignore pro-wrestling. None of the entertainment programs ever cover pro-wrestling. Can you imagine the coverage Entertainment Tonight or Sports Illustrated would have given the Matt Hardy, Lita, and Edge love affair 2 years ago if it had happened in any industry other than pro-wrestling? This was the equivalent of the Pitt, Jolie, Aniston affair yet received maybe 1 billionth the press.

What does press coverage and respect in the media have to do with wrestlers dying? It has to do with accountability and checks and balances. I am in no way blaming the media for the deaths just explaining how public scrutiny is likely making the difference and saving the lives of those with drug issues in other fields. When Britney Spears appeared to go off the deep end and shaved her head, it was all over the news and there was public outcry for her to go to rehab. When Lindsey Lohan was discovered to be an alcoholic before she was legally old enough to drink, there were all kinds of pressures and media exposure forcing her to clean up her image and head to rehab. Pro-wrestling still slides under the radar for the most part so problems donít get exposed and thus go unchecked until its far too late.

It doesnít help that the majority of these wrestling deaths happen well after the wrestler is out of the spot light. Bam Bam Bigelow and Mike Awesome havenít been featured on TV in several years and with the exception of wrestling news boards online and minimal local media in their hometowns not much gets said and thus nothing gets changed. There are no outside forces pressuring the industry, and those in it, to clean up, which means itís up to the individuals or the Industry to police itself and thus far we have failed miserably at doing so.

The individuals will almost never do it alone. People with addictions are people with addictions and once you are on that road it is generally a one-way street. In almost every case people who get off drugs do so by interventions or pressure and support from friends and families. That is the other problem when you are on the road wrestling you never see your family, and your friends are the guys you travel with and are likely in the same boat you are.

Vince McMahon and WWE have made efforts over the years to force people to clean up their act. I can think of several people who have been told to clean up or ship out, but in almost every case, the person shipped out and found work elsewhere. I wonít name names, but I know people who have jumped from WWE to ECW, WCW, TNA or Japan to avoid drug tests or forced rehab stints. The industry is a competitive one and in order to make money a lot gets overlooked and these people can always find work.

WWEís current wellness program has the best chance of succeeding. After Eddie Guerreroís death there seemed to be a lot of pressure to clean up the industry, but I fear even that pressure has lessened because we hear so little about the program now. WWEís wellness program is out of sight for the most part, which means out of mind and therefore seems to have been swept under the carpet. That may not be the case but with out public exposure of problems and failed tests there is less public pressure and less accountability and incentive to clean up.

So with all that said, is there a solution? I think there is and I think it lies with the future of our industry. I didnít write this article to condemn the industries past; I wrote it as a warning to itís future. The easiest way to make a change is at the beginning of your career, before you make bad choices, before you head down that one-way street. There are pressures and opportunities to take drugs in all walks of life. Once you choose drugs there are but two endings available to you, rehab and getting off drugs, or death. In wrestling, your chances of finding rehab in time are likely less than in any other profession, so the choices you make now are the most important ones of your life. Hereís hoping you make the right choices, and your life is a long one.

Lance Storm