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The death of Chyna sheds light on Wrestling’s dark history of chewing up and spitting out its performers.
Any wrestling fan can rattle off a list of premature deaths in the industry on more than ten fingers: Dusty Rhodes, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Eddie Guerrero, the Ultimate Warrior, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Umaga, Mike Awesome, Chris Kanyon, Chris Candido, Crash Holly, Davey Boy Smith, Lance Cade, Owen Hart… There have been several studies that chronicle the young deaths of professional wrestlers, and in the last several years alone, many high-profile performers have succumbed to the high mortality rate attached to the sport, which researchers at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University say is primarily due to cardiovascular disease. Of those listed above, these include Piper, Guerrero, Warrior, Umaga, Smith and Cade, who, at 29, is possibly the earliest death in wrestling.
That’s not to discount the very high use and abuse of drugs, both prescription and otherwise, that often go hand in hand with heart failure and that have claimed the lives of Andrew “Test” Martin, Sherri Martel, Miss Elizabeth, Mr Perfect and, most recently, Joanie Laurer – better known as Chyna, the Ninth Wonder of the World (Andre the Giant was the eighth).
It emerged last Thursday that Laurer had been found dead in her apartment by her manager at the age of 46. Laurer had lead a tumultuous life since her departure from World Wrestling Entertainment in 2001, where she blazed trails for both male and female wrestlers in her five years there. She became the first woman to qualify for the King of the Ring tournament, the first female entrant in the Royal Rumble, the first female No. 1 Contender to the WWE Heavyweight Championship and the first woman to hold the Intercontinental Championship (twice), all in 1999 alone. Her departure was rumoured to be due to her messy breakup with Paul Levesque, who wrestles under the name Triple H and who allegedly began seeing WWE owner Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie whilst still involved with Laurer. (Levesque and McMahon are now married, set to inherit the family business when 70-year-old Vince retires or dies, whichever comes first.) Since then, Laurer battled with mental health and substance abuse problems, violent relationships and, in 2004, began her foray into adult entertainment with then-partner X-Pac (Sean Waltman) in the Paris Hilton sex tape parody, 1 Night in China.
The last few years have seen a revolution in women’s wrestling from the Bra and Panties matches and largely sexualised roles of women in the sport and sports entertainment that coincided with Chyna’s heyday, the late ’90s Attitude Era. Women’s matches have been transitioning from the five-minute obligatory bathroom break to half-hour Iron Woman contests in WWE’s developmental brand NXT, helmed by none other than Levesque. Coupled with social media campaigns like #GiveDivasAChance, which was spawned from a 30-second Divas match, the role of women in wrestling, and in particular Chyna, has been on fans’ lips of late. (“Divas” was WWE’s trademark for their female performers up until early April when they abolished that outdated term, and its accompanying pink, sparkly butterfly-shaped Divas title belt.)
The night before WrestleMania, WWE’s SuperBowl of sorts, is the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Amongst the predominantly old, white men who are inducted for their contributions to wrestling, there is usually some combination of a posthumous, female, celebrity and/or person of colour inductee. This year, those honours went to Big Boss Man Ray Traylor (who also died from a heart attack), Jacqueline, Snoop Dogg and The Godfather, respectively. Next year, one of those categories will no doubt be occupied by Laurer.
For the past couple of years at least, wrestling fans have agitated to get Laurer inducted. When asked about this on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast, Levesque qualified Laurer’s continued denial thusly:
I’ve got an 8-year-old kid and my 8-year-old kid sees the Hall of Fame, and my 8-year-old kid goes on the internet to look at, you know, ‘there’s Chyna, I’ve never heard of her. I’m eight years old, I’ve never heard of her, so I go put that in, and I punch it up,’ and what comes up? And I’m not criticising anybody; I’m not criticising lifestyle choices. Everybody has their reasons and I don’t know what they were, and I don’t care to know. It’s not a morality thing or anything else. It’s just the fact of what it is. And that’s a difficult choice. The Hall of Fame is a funny thing in that it is not as simple as, ‘this guy had a really good career, a legendary career, he should go in the Hall of Fame’. Yeah…but we can’t because of this reason. We can’t because of this legal instance.
I’m sure the fact that daddy’s ex did porn after he cheated on her with mummy comes into play. But the legal argument is bullocks: Austin, Mike Tyson and Levesque’s own posse of besties Scott Hall and Kevin Nash have all been inducted, amidst accusations and/or convictions for domestic abuse, sexual assault and, in Hall’s case, second degree murder, a charge which was later dropped due to insufficient evidence. This year alone saw the induction of Confederate flag-waving racists The Fabulous Freebirds, as well as the aforementioned Snoop Dogg, who directed porn himself and has a rap sheet as long as his discography.
Another man denied induction and scrubbed from wrestling history (and rightly so in my opinion) is Chris Benoit, who in 2007 murdered his wife and 7-year-old son and killed himself, sending the professional wrestling community – and WWE in particular – into a tailspin. Questions of prescription drug abuse, mental and physical health, domestic abuse and the gruelling 300-days-a-year schedule that sees wrestlers performing in different towns and countries every night were brought to the forefront.
Shortly after the murder-suicide, over a dozen WWE Superstars were implicated in a Signature Pharmacy sting for purchasing steroids. This followed revelations that Benoit was plied with steroids and testosterone at the time of the killings and was receiving up to a 10-month supply of steroids every few weeks from Dr Phil Astin, who is serving a ten-year prison sentence for illegally distributing prescription drugs.
Accusations of domestic abuse were also levelled against Benoit by his wife Nancy, who cited them in a 2003 divorce petition. A more stringent Wellness Program has since been enacted by WWE which includes harsher penalties for unauthorised drug use as well as domestic and sexual assaults. Of course, those employed by WWE and committing such acts (particularly the latter two) prior to these clauses being put in place remain unaffected.
The murder-suicide also raised issues of traumatic brain injury, a condition that is taken much more seriously by WWE and contact sports in general now than it was at the time of the crimes. Benoit’s brain was examined by Dr Julian Bailes of the Sports Legacy Institute who said it “was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.” With the amount of unprotected chair shots to the head and diving headbutts (Benoit’s signature move), it’s no wonder. I shudder to think what the brains of Mick Foley, Brock Lesnar (who also competed in UFC) and countless others who wrestled in an era before they were forced into early retirement due to one too many concussions look like.
In the days following her death, Laurer’s manager announced that her brain would be donated to chronic traumatic encephalopathy research.
As you can see, wrestling and, in particular, WWE has a dark history of chewing up and spitting out wrestlers who become inconvenient or can no longer provide what they need from them. Accountability and the watchful eye of social media mean wrestlers and wrestling can no longer get away with what they used to. Hulk Hogan’s unceremonious firing in the wake of leaked footage of him having sex and accompanying racist remarks is proof positive. (Not that I don’t think Hogan should have been terminated for spouting horrible racism, but one has to wonder how much of his firing had to do with the sex and how much his racism.) If arguably the biggest star in wrestling history can be tossed aside so easily, the fate of everyone else involved in wrestling and, again, WWE particularly, hangs precariously in the balance.
The recent spate of injuries to top stars such as John Cena, Seth Rollins, Nikki Bella, Randy Orton, Adrian Neville and Tyson Kidd has ignited arguments to drastically cut the amount of days spent wrestling and travelling, to implement a rotating roster where wrestlers perform for a maximum of six months at a time, and even an offseason. When such a high percentage of wrestlers end up with drug habits, brain injuries, physical health problems and premature deaths (to say nothing of the violent streak that also plagues competitors in other, similarly intense sports), introspection and action has to be taken. Pensions (which I suppose is what, in effect, WWE Legends contracts are), health insurance or a union would surely benefit the vast majority of wrestlers who don’t parlay their in-ring and acting talents into other avenues, such as The Rock, John Cena and even Jesse Ventura with his political career.
If we can learn one thing from Laurer’s untimely passing it’s that wrestling needs to help its heroes in life before it’s too late to do so in death.