On Dead Wrestlers

Initially, this was going to be an essay about Owen Hart, an essay on the resting unease with which I’ve regarded the work (and ultimately the occupation) of one of my favorite wrestlers for the majority of my life. I haven’t seen the episode of Dark Side of the Ring about the negligence that led to his utterly preventable death, and I’m not sure I can. It’s goofy, maybe embarrassing, but I was eleven years old when Owen Hart died, and it was the first time I really felt a wrestler’s passing. Most of the ones I cared about back then were still active in some nominal way, and when they started dying it was in ways that I was willing to believe were more about personal choice than occupational hazard—steroid use, alcohol, drug addiction—until I grew up a little and began to see how those things were connected to the job.

With Owen, there was no possible way to smokescreen what happened. Nobody I knew in 1999 could afford Pay Per View every month, so one of my friends whose parents let him on the internet that night saw and told everybody at lunch and, kids being kids and wrestling being wrestling, we thought the whole thing was bullshit—a work, if you will. But then Raw happened, specifically a Raw titled “Raw Is Owen,” completely divorced from the context of the World Wrestling Federation’s ongoing storylines, and featuring confessional-style interviews with his friends and co-workers about how good he was as a wrestler and a father, and my whole perception of wrestling as an entertainment changed.

That show has a real weird vibe now, like Vince McMahon and company were throwing a public funeral where, gun to head, their grieving wrestlers had to process the fact that the company they worked for killed him while also sorting through their memories of someone they’d been traveling, working, and joking around with in arenas, at hotels, and on the road for years. Some of them, racked with grief, had to go out and wrestle a fucking match in front of people who’d shown up for an episode of Monday Night Raw in the middle of the Attitude Era. Actually, it’s worse than that. Owen Hart died on May 23 in Kansas City, then the whole roster and crew had to drive four hours for Raw in St. Louis. As soon as that wraps up, they have to drive another four hours to Moline, Illinois, to shoot the next week’s episode of Raw, where things get back to business as usual, which must have been three of the most emotionally grueling days of television in the history of wrestling.

The thing is, this can’t be an essay about Owen Hart. At this point, few essays about dead wrestlers, beyond initial reports of their death and further investigation, should be about the individual. That kind of writing about professional wrestling, the pulling out of one person from their place in history, their context in the broader story of wrestling, is often too easy, each separate instance of tragedy—drugs, alcohol, steroid abuse, accident, negligence—builds to a thesis that nobody wants to come out and speak to directly, which is this: there are few forms of art and entertainment that breed tragedy at the same rate as professional wrestling. How can anything I write about a wrestler who died in 1999 do justice to that truth? How can anything I write about a wrestler who took her life in 2020 do anything but echo the ongoing pain and grief of that loss?

I’m really struggling with the death of Hana Kimura. She was 22 years old. She was four years into the business. The obviousness of her talent and potential was startling, and now that’s gone, but in a peculiar way where it’s not. When something bad happens to a wrestler, that potential, what they could have contributed to their art, remains. What if Bret Hart wasn’t forced into retirement by a concussion? What if Owen Hart wasn’t in the rafters in 1999? Bret was 42 when he stepped away, Owen 34 when he died. It’s not fun to think about what either could have done, but the same way Star Trek fans have wondered what it’d be like for Kirk and Spock to date for over 50 years, wrestling by its very nature encourages fantasy. Without it, what you’re left with is a gaping hole where they were, and the knowledge that wrestling itself, the thing they did, was responsible, in whole or in part, for that hole. Kimura was so young that the hole can’t be fantasy booked away.

This is a grim coping mechanism, and that it’s not possible for every dead wrestler speaks to its flaws. Chris Benoit, for instance. How could you take him out of the infinite toybox of wrestling past and present and wonder how he would have done from 2007 onward? How can you watch an old Chris Benoit match, many of his most famous involving the woman he murdered, without the fact of his murders/suicide screaming like a siren? Knowing what we know about CTE, how can you watch him get hit in the face with a chair, or execute a flying headbutt, or do anything, anything at all, and adopt a neutral position on him? If one finds oneself appreciating a Chris Benoit match … how, exactly?

Benoit exists at one extreme of the spectrum of dead wrestlers, where the way he died makes him entirely irredeemable. Owen Hart exists at the other end of the spectrum, where a man near-universally loved by peers and fans died in a way that the people responsible for that death will never be redeemed, no matter how hard they try. What they share, if they share anything, is that their absence in the world is an indictment of their profession and the expectations placed on them, both by the companies they worked for and their fans, whether those expectations were real or merely perceived.

And it’s hard to square away that absence. Owen Hart is one of my favorite wrestlers, but I hardly watch any of his work anymore. I know how his story ends, whether he’s wrestling his brother at WrestleMania X or tagging with Jeff Jarrett on Raw. There’s a two year stretch of Eddie Guerrero that I’ll never see beyond the ECW One Night Stand match against Benoit where he’s so obviously frustrated by his body’s inability to keep up with his mind that it hurts just as much, if not more, than a spot later in the show where Joey Styles tags a call of a Mike Awesome suicide dive with the phrase “and it’s a shame he didn’t succeed in taking his own life” knowing that he’d do just that less than two years later.

Every single dead wrestler, even the ones who were lucky enough to live a full life, has a profound impact on the tapestry that is professional wrestling in a way that’s different, I think, than film, television, sports, and other kinds of visual entertainment. When you watch an old movie, you’re seeing an actor or an actress, long dead, play a part. There’s a separation If you watch an old WrestleMania where the crew of announcers is Bobby Heenan, Gorilla Monsoon, Gene Okerlund, and Howard Finkel, you’re listening to the dead speak. If you watch Rick Rude vs. The Ultimate Warrior, you’re watching two dead men wrestle, accompanied by the voices of dead men, the circumstances of those deaths, tragic or not, front and present, because the line that separates the audience and the performer—that line being character—is so thin that it’s barely there. You’re watching people play a role, both physically and psychologically, but the nature of wrestling as an intensely physical enterprise that few leave without scars of some kind, so it’s impossible to separate the two. Sometimes that’s the way movies handle tragedy—see the way the Fast and the Furious franchise acknowledged and mourned Paul Walker through the plot of his last film—but with wrestling it’s just relentless. A documentary about Owen Hart. Shad Gaspard dying after getting caught in a riptide. Hana Kimura taking her life due to relentless cyberbullying. We’re talking about one week here. One week.

It’s impossible to shut off whatever it is that makes it possible, even necessary, to grieve for complete strangers. Maybe that was true 20, 30 years ago, but a lot has changed in the way fans engage with wrestlers, and I think that change begins with Owen Hart’s death, which prompted Raw is Owen and a later tribute match on WCW Monday Nitro between Bret Hart and Chris Benoit in the same arena Owen died in, which is now one of the most emotionally complicated matches in the history of wrestling. In October 1999, Mick Foley published his first memoir, Mankind: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks. In the middle of the book, breaking the otherwise year by year timeline of Foley’s career, is a chapter simply titled “Owen.” It was, in all likelihood, the last thing written for the book, the rawness of its grief barely mediated by editing.

Foley’s memoir changed a lot of things insofar as a casual fan’s perception of wrestlers as people are concerned. Unless you were watching shoot videos and reading the Observer that far back, it’s possible that it and the documentaries Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows and Beyond the Mat were the first time the curtain separating fan and worker was pulled back a little. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read any of Foley’s books or watched either film, but as a consequence of them I feel a deep and likely everlasting connection to Foley and Bret, and the chapter in Foley’s memoir about Owen made this cartoon angry little brother who I knew nothing about outside of his in-ring life, a real man. In the years since, everybody who knew him professionally has told stories about this or that version of Owen, the prankster or the technical wrestler or the dad who was working towards retiring so he could raise his kids. And now, at the end of all of that, 20 years later, there is a documentary where his widow and children get to tell their story. Never in my wildest dreams as a child who loved wrestling did I think I’d get to know a wrestler as a person, let alone one who died while I was still a child, but that’s a normal state of affairs now, one that’s often rewarding, but is just as often tragic.

In the years since Owen Hart’s death and the publication of Foley’s first memoir, there’ve been more wrestler memoirs than anyone can read, more shoot videos than anyone can watch, more wrestler podcasts than anyone can listen to, and the invention of Twitter, which enables fans to have a near constant stream of content, a lot of which is often personal, from their favorite wrestlers, along with a backchannel means of trolling, criticizing, and otherwise begging them for attention. There’s a long history of wrestling fan weirdness, but since the dawn of Hulkamania we’ve been encouraged to see wrestlers in a light far different than culture used to regard them. Wrestlers are celebrities now, even if relatively few become major ones, and one of the facts about celebrity in a world where everything is hyperniche is that directly engaging with the people who believe in your celebrity is as effective a way of building it as just showing up to do your job on television on Monday night.

Consider the rise of the wrestling webseries, which went from being something that made WWE pay attention to Zack Ryder to ostensibly launching a new wrestling promotion as a direct competitor to WWE. Consider the role reality television has played in the general public’s perception of the Bella Twins and other members of the women’s division. How social media proved that there was a market for women’s wrestling. How The Rock’s embrace of Instagram and Twitter makes him feel accessible despite his being the biggest movie star in the world. I know that Mick Foley has read at least one essay of mine. That’s a guy who made me love wrestling. That’s a guy who made me want to write. In a world where this kind of connection isn’t possible, neither is any of that.

But it also means knowing every good thing Shad Gaspard did, how good a father he was, how missed he is by his friends where otherwise he’d be a fun, wasted midcard act on a creatively dire era of Raw. It means knowing what drove Hana Kimura to suicide. It means knowing everything all the time, and wrestling’s propensity to create tragedy and attempt over and over again to rewrite stories like Chyna’s or Owen Hart’s in a way that’s kinder to wrestling means that you’re being gaslit by a medium that didn’t exactly suffer or care when those people died in the first place. We’re trained to love these people. We do, fiercely. When they die we’re asked over and over again to keep moving as though these deaths are anomalous, as if grief for these strangers is a series of disconnected phenomena when every single person on the internet is intensely connected to someone they’d otherwise never know, as if those connections aren’t part of the business of fandom anymore.

I don’t know how to end this essay, so here’s something I thought about this week. I ordered an Ultimo Dragon pin from Absolute Intense Wrestling, and it came in the mail. I let the envelope sit on my coffee table for a while before opening it yesterday. Two pins spilled out. One was the Ultimo Dragon pin. The other was a pin of Chandler Biggins, one of AIW’s co-owners who died a few years back. Chandler Biggins was a friend of mine, someone who believed in my ability as a play-by-play commentator and let me live out a ridiculous dream. The pin made me cry, then it made me think about how, once or twice a year, Kevin Owens, who briefly wrestled in AIW before signing a WWE contract (who I wanted to book so badly, to the point where Biggins would joke that I needed to start making “Steen money” at work to make it happen), tweets about how good Biggins was to him, how important he was to his scene and indie wrestling in general.

People who knew Biggins knew that, but the average WWE fan would not. So here’s Kevin Owens, Universal Champion, who writes Biggins’ name on his wrist tape when he wrestles in Cleveland, tweeting about him. And inevitably, someone will tweet back at him “I didn’t know him, but he seems like he was a good guy.” It’s nice when it happens, but heartbreaking in a way. Like, yeah, he was a good guy who loved wrestling. It’s nice that someone who otherwise wouldn’t know that does. But it’s deeply sad, to me at least, that some people only know that because he’s gone, because there’s a hole in the industry that can’t be filled or ignored, and thus must be addressed from time to time. I miss him. I miss Hana and Shad and Owen and too many people in wrestling to list. I am glad there is and will always be something of them in this world. I wish they were here, obviously, but almost more than that, selfishly, I wish it wasn’t so difficult to engage with their work, that doing so didn’t require choking down grief as much as it does. But that’s not possible. Professional wrestling is not built that way. It is now a constant cycle of connection and trauma, and getting off the ride won’t help. This is the price of knowledge. It’s incredible how many of us can live with it.