The list of wrestlers that have died from symptoms related to steroid abuse is frightening. David Sheehan discusses the matter.
On April 8th this year, Jim Hellwig, a 54-year-old, American white male, suffered a heart attack while walking to his car side by side with his wife. He collapsed and died at the scene. Statistically, his death was unremarkable – according to the US Centre for Disease Control, 720,000 Americans suffer a heart attack each year – 2054 people per day.
However, the death of Jim Hellwig is worthy of attention. The man who lay dead on the ground was better known as The Ultimate Warrior – a superstar of professional wrestling in the 80s and 90s. The man who lay dead on the ground had also admitted to taking anabolic steroids.The death of the Ultimate Warrior became the latest in a long list of high profile wrestlers from his era to meet an early end.
The list reads like a Wrestlemania supercard – Davey Boy Smith aka ‘The British Bulldog’ (died 2002, aged 39, heart attack), Randy Poffo aka ‘Macho Man Randy Savage’ (died 2011, aged 58, heart attack), Raymond Traylor aka ‘The Big Boss Man’ (died 2004, aged 42, heart attack), Curt Henning aka ‘Mr Perfect’ (died 2003 aged 44, acute cocaine intoxication), Raymond Rood aka ‘Ravishing Rick Rude (died 1999, aged 40, heart failure), Michael Hegstrand aka ‘Road Warrior Hawk’ (died 2003, aged 56, heart attack).To understand the era in which these wrestlers performed, let’s go back to the beginning. As the 1970s became the 1980s, there were almost 30 wrestling promotions in the United States, each with their own territory, wrestlers and belts. Carving up the market like this resulted in relatively small scale wrestling fiefdoms with none having any major economic muscle. Enter one Vince McMahon.
Thirty five years old and armed with a degree in business from East Carolina University, McMahon became Chairman of his father’s World Wrestling Federation in 1980 and set about building his vision for the company. He broke old traditions in the industry by promoting his events in the territories of rival organizations and set about acquiring the top wrestlers from across the country to promote WWF nationwide.
McMahon was a bodybuilding enthusiast and WWF began to establish a reputation as having the biggest wrestlers in the business. No longer did wrestlers look like truck drivers, they were now huge muscular athletes. Led by Hulk Hogan and the popularity of Hulkamania, WWF established itself as a major global entertainment business.
However, allegations that the muscular bodies of this new breed of wrestlers were fuelled by steroid use began to surface as early as 1991. That year, a Pennsylvanian doctor, George Zahorian was convicted of dispensing steroids to his clients.
As part of the trial, the FBI subpoenaed Zahorian’s Federal Express records. The records showed that he had been sending packages to WWF’s head office, to Vince McMahon and to ‘Terry Bollea’ – Hulk Hogan’s real name. Dr. Zahorian’s conviction would subsequently lead to the US federal government taking a similar case against Vince McMahon for the illegal distribution of steroids, which went to trial in 1994. McMahon was acquitted of the charges but admitted that he had used steroids himself in the 1980s.
Following the 1991 trial of Dr. Zahorian and the negative publicity that followed, the WWF began independently testing wrestlers for anabolic steroid use for the first time, however, the testing ceased in 1996.
The issue of steroids and the World Wrestling Entertainment (now re-named) came to the forefront again in November 2005 with the death of top wrestler, Eddie Guerrero at the age of 38. Guerrero had died of heart failure. The issue reached a new level of seriousness in June 2007, when WWE wrestler Chris Benoit was found hanged at his home after killing his wife and 7-year-old son.
Investigations later revealed that Benoit had 10 times the normal level of testosterone in his body at the time of his death. A search of his home found prescription steroids.
It led to a case of history repeating itself as Benoit’s doctor, Phil Astin, would be sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2009 for illegally distributing prescription drugs. Dr. Astin had prescribed a 10-month supply of anabolic steroids to Benoit every 3 to 4 weeks between May 2006 and May 2007.
Following Guerrero’s high profile death, the WWE re-introduced independent testing for anabolic steroid use with a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ policy. Under its ‘Talent Wellness Program’ the WWE also tests for recreational drug use and abuse of prescription medication. It has led to the suspension of high profile stars Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio.
An independent testing program did not exist in the era of Jim Hellwig, The Ultimate Warrior, an era that was characterized by ‘the bigger the better’ philosophy. Hellwig admitted to steroid use in 2007 and Vince McMahon has gone on record following his death to confirm that Hellwig and Davey Boy Smith were experimenting with growth hormone.
The list of wrestlers from the 80s and 90s to have died from heart complications is long, the hope is that the wrestlers of the modern era have learned from the lessons of the past.
David Sheehan, Pundit Arena.