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TELEVISION & RADIO

Ultimate takedown

For some pro wrestlers, the pressure to perform exacts a toll.

March 29, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

As legions of fans count down to the biggest event of the year, Wrestlemania XIX at Safeco Field in Seattle on Sunday, the age-old question about professional wrestling -- is it authentic? -- has been replaced by a more significant one: Is it deadly? Yes, the competition that fills arenas and prompts millions of pay-per-view buys is scripted, but the danger is real -- 24 current or former professional wrestlers age 45 or younger have died since 1997.

One of the latest, Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig, was found dead in his Brandon, Fla., hotel room the afternoon of Feb. 10, hours before he was scheduled to take part in a show at the Tampa State Fairgrounds. The official cause of death was "cocaine intoxication," which caused a fatal heart attack, according to the medical examiner. An autopsy revealed an enlarged heart and Hennig's family said he had a history of an irregular heartbeat, but his father is convinced there was another significant factor.

"Wrestling had a major part in my son's death," he said.

Hennig, 44, had fallen from pro wrestling's top echelon in recent months -- he was fired last June by World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWI, the industry's major league, after an altercation with another performer away from the ring -- but previously he had been one of its most popular and innovative performers. His routine was less preening and flexing than it was an exhibition of quick and jolting power moves, jumps, dives and body slams.

The fans loved him, and Vince McMahon, architect of the WWE, rewarded him with the "Perfect" nickname -- and a salary of nearly $1 million a year.

But while lucrative, Hennig found life as a professional wrestler far from perfect. The work was constant, with little or no time to heal from injuries suffered in a seemingly never-ending quest to look great while trying stunts even more outrageous than the night before.

Larry Hennig, known as "The Axe" in his own pro wrestling career, acknowledges the demands placed on his son: "Sometimes the dollar is more powerful than the body and mind. A lot of people don't realize what these guys go through." Pain pills and steroids "are part of the business." And he added, "There seems to be a pattern here. The pressures, this 'live hard, die young' mentality, is definitely out there."

Indeed, Dave Meltzer, an industry watchdog and editor of the weekly magazine Wrestling Observer, estimates that most of the young men who died engaged in abuse of steroids, prescription drugs and/or human growth hormone -- risky behavior he says was compounded by job stress, recreational drug use and bad diet habits.

The wrestling lifestyle, it seems, is not conducive to a long, healthy life.

Show goes on

Only hours after Curt Hennig's death in Florida, a jumbo television screen at Staples Center, fitted atop a stage constructed for the WWE's nationally televised "Monday Night Raw" event, flashed his image with the message, "In memory of...."

"Did he die?" a fan in a floor seat asked a friend.

But before there was time for an answer, a roar of guitar riffs and fireworks prefaced the introduction of the show's "plot," one that event organizers surely considered less vexing: Would WWE chief McMahon really fire his general manager, Eric Bischoff?

So it goes in the fast-paced, high-stakes major league of professional wrestling, which last year generated $425 million in revenue. There is little time for sentiment, or, critics say, oversight on health issues that exist in other sports-related and entertainment businesses. Calls for more emphasis on the safety and welfare of wrestlers are lost in an insatiable drive to broaden business and make money. Death and drug use are taboo topics for "the talent," which is what the wrestlers are called by the handlers who shelter them from questions on such issues.

McMahon, who refused multiple interview requests until Friday, reacted angrily to criticism that he turns his head from health and safety matters. "I'm a human being and a businessman," he said. "If people die, they can't perform for you. From the human being's perspective, how do you think I feel? Do you think I'm the ... devil?"

McMahon said some of the deaths were tied to a decades-old mentality of former wrestlers who "still crave the parties, the attention, the sex, drugs and rock and roll that was part of our business and no longer is now."

But others say not much has changed.

"It's a syndrome, an interrelated, vicious cycle," Bruce Hart, a veteran trainer who has worked with several of the dead wrestlers, said of the business.

"There's a demand to look a certain way, constant pressure to build and maintain a career, and it's a business that requires a ton of travel, a lot of physical punishment and a ton of personal appearances. It's an invitation for these guys to take something to deal with it: steroids, painkillers and other drugs."

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