Mike Graham, Chris Benoit and Pro Wrestling's Dark History of Suicide

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Mike Graham, Chris Benoit and Pro Wrestling's Dark History of Suicide
photo from The Dallas Observer

A frightening number of wrestlers have committed suicide over the years. A cycle of depression and drugs has dragged too many men into darkness.

Wrestlers play warriors and villains, monsters and underdogs in this violent theater that millions watch every week. Fans know only the performers' personas, not who their in-ring heroes are away from the lights.

Some men hold their sorrow in the deepest caverns of their hearts, suffering alone.

The WWE Wellness Policy's aim is to wipe out pro wrestling's drug problem. Drugs are certainly not the only reason these men were killing themselves, but taking them out of the equation as much as possible will help.

Wrestling's history is scarred with an abundance of tragedy and needs no more. 

Regardless of their level of success or how many championships they won, losing any of wrestling's fallen brothers is a sad day. Fans miss them as superstars, but their families miss them as men.

Even as long as this list is, there is a flood of additional wrestlers who took their own lives.

Mostly due to their status as part-time or independent wrestlers, there is little information regarding the deaths of the following men.

We have lost The Renegade, Rod Steele, Steven Ranton aka Axis, Jammin' Mitch Snow, Big E. Sleaze, Lee Estabrook who wrestled as Devil Bhudakhan, Brain Damage, Ed Gantner and Mike Marcello.

Antonino Rocca & Ed. Carpentier vs Skull Murphy & P. Firpo

 

Skull Murphy

Wrestling has a long history of men playing monstrous villains. Few did so as convincingly as Skull Murphy.

His oiled, bald head agleam with the lights of the arena, Murphy would yell into the crowd and frighten children.

A childhood disease kept his body completely hairless, adding to his mystique.

Throughout the '60s, he was a tag team champion in several wrestling promotions including Georgia Championship Wrestling. His partner for the majority of those reigns was Brute Bernard, who played an animalistic savage much like George Steele.

Slam Sports called them the "greatest Canadian tag team of all time."

In 1970, Skull Murphy (real name: John Joseph Murphy) overdosed on sleeping pills in his apartment in Charlotte. Murphy was 39 years old.

 

The Von Erichs 

The Von Erich family history reads like a bad TV drama. A wrestling empire fell apart with death after death. 

 

Five of Fritz Von Erich's six sons died before him.  A drug overdose alone would wreck the surviving family, but Mr. and Mrs. Adkisson (their actual names) also saw one of their boys die in a Japanese hotel and three others committed suicide.

Mike Von Erich underwent surgery to repair a damaged shoulder. He suffered toxic shock syndrome as a result of that operation.

He managed to survive, but it was clear that Mike's in-ring career was over. 

Mike took his own life in 1987.  He was just 23 years old.

Chris was the youngest and the smallest of the Von Erich boys, a lifelong fan of wrestling. He grew up around it and watched his father and brothers excel, but his asthma held him back.

In 1991, he shot himself at age 21.

Kerry, one of the best wrestlers of the Von Erich clan, followed his WCCW career up with a stint in WWE.  He became the Intercontinental Champion in 1990. He was also briefly NWA World Heavyweight Champion.

A 1986 motorcycle accident led to Kerry's right foot being amputated. He continued to wrestle, but clearly wasn't as smooth in the ring.

Suffering from drug problems and facing a cocaine possession charge while on probation, Kerry shot himself in the chest in 1993.

The Von Erichs vs. The Freebirds

 

 

Shawn Osborne

There are times when a boyhood dream ends the way it did for Mick Foley or Shawn Michaels, surrounded by cheering fans, a championship title held in the air. Then there are times when those dreams are stillborn.

Former WWE developmental wrestler Shawn McGrath performed during his career as "Bad Seed" Shawn Osborne.

McGrath was a powerful guy with decent athleticism. With the plethora of young talented wrestlers out there though, he never stood out, never broke into the major leagues.

With a little luck, a little momentum and the right storyline at the right time, things could have gone very differently for him. Instead, he stood at the periphery of wrestling success and it seemingly haunted him.

WWE released him in 2008.

McGrath floated around the independent scene for a few years before he committed suicide in 2011 at age 34.

In his suicide note, McGrath cited personal issues and the end of his WWE dream as contributing factors to his decision to end his life.

 

 

Yukon Eric

The great barrel-chested warrior known as Yukon Eric spent much of his career wrestling in Ontario, tossing men around and bearhugging the air right out of them.

Yukon Eric, aka Eric Holmback, grew up in Washington, later becoming a standout football player and mainstay of the Ontario wrestling scene.

Before his death, what people talked about most was Holmack losing part of his ear in a match against Killer Kowalski.  A botched move led to Kowalski's shinbone ripping Holmack's ear from his head.

As Kowalski told Cal Fussman of Esquire, "The ear flew off and rolled across the ring like a little ball."

Belying his larger-than-life personality in the ring, Holmback was described as being  "a loner and a introvert."

Holmback shot himself while sitting in a church parking lot. 

He was only 40 years old.

Chris Kanyon vs. Raven

 

Chris Kanyon

Christopher Klucsaritis morphed several times over throughout his wrestling career and throughout his life.

He began in WCW as a construction worker who often lost focus on his matches because he was busy using his tape measure in the ring. WCW later gave him the Halloween-worthy gimmick of Mortis.

The neon green tights, a silly mask and a Mortal Kombat-inspired gimmick certainly hampered him, but Klucsaritis is a perfect example of how difficult it is to make it in wrestling.

Klucsaritis went on to become a member of Raven's flock as Chris Kanyon. He had brief stints in WWE and TNA as well.

Regardless of his ring name or gimmick, he struggled to rise higher than midcard status. Injuries and a lack of creative direction kept him from achieving anything of significance. 

He will be remembered as wrestling's first openly gay performer and as one of many of the sport's men to commit suicide.

He overdosed on pills in his home in Queens in 2010.

Mike Graham talking about his father

 

 

Eddie and Mike Graham

Wrestling's most recent tragic death happened on Oct. 18, 2012, when Mike Graham shot himself in the forehead.

Mike earned Pro Wrestling Illustrated Rookie of the Year honors in 1972. Though he ended up collecting a number of championships over the years, he never became a big star and was nowhere near as famous as his father, Eddie.

Eddie Graham, aka Edward Gossett, is a member of both the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and WWE Hall of Fame.

Eddie wrestled throughout the '50s and '60s and into the early '70s. Much of that time he spent as one half of one of the country's most hated tag team alongside his kayfabe brother Jerry.

His legacy though is more tied to his booking for Championship Wrestling from Florida. 

He was both the territory's biggest star and its mastermind much like Verne Gagne and Fritz Von Erich were for Minnesota and Dallas, respectively.

Eventually his only son became a wrestler in the company and the two tagged together.

Eddie shot himself in the head in 1985 at age 55.

When such a successful and respected man does something like this, it always surprises those of us cheering him on from the stands.

A man's darkness is often hidden.

Tom Scherberger of The Orlando Sentinel reported that Eddie's wife, Lucy may have seen the signs of his depression.  She said, '"In the last few months, he was always in deep thought, very quiet, wouldn't talk."

Twenty-seven years after his father's death, Mike mirrored his father's exit.

 

Larry Sweeney

Alex Whybrow's charisma shined like a beacon. His death cut deeply for fans who knew him.

Buzzing with energy and forcing smiles upon any who watched him, Whybrow wrestled and talked his way into a devoted cult following.

As Larry Sweeney, he wrestled primarily for Chikara and Ring of Honor, but it was his work as a manager that garnered him the most attention and praise.

 

Video tribute to Larry Sweeney

Wrestling Observer Newsletter twice awarded him their Best Non-Wrestler Award.

Few folks get compared to Bobby Heenan, but Sweeney's exuberant style on the mic along with his quick wit made instant fans of those who saw his work. Sweet 'N' Sour Larry Sweeney was the mouthpiece for Evan Bourne, Sara Del Rey, Chris Hero and Eddie Edwards.

Like many great entertainers, Whybrow quietly dealt with a glut of private pain.

F4Wonline.com reported that Whybrow suffered from bipolar disorder and had battles with drug problems. 

He was only 29 years old when he hung himself in 2011.

 

Tojo Yamamoto

When today's wrestling fans list the greatest heels of all time, they often omit one of the finest villains ever, Tojo Yamamoto.

Born in Hawaii, Harold Watanabe utilized his Japanese roots to incite fans into raucous anger. He slapped on an over-the-top Japanese accent, had someone wave a Japanese flag behind him and became the devious Tojo Yamamoto.

The stocky bald man would deliver chops that echoed throughout the arena.

Nashville news report on Yamamoto

Yamamoto wrestled for over 30 years, often times as a tag team with Jerry Jarrett. Failing health forced him to retire in 1991. He had by that time become a mentor and teacher to many young wrestlers. 

He died at age 65.

Instead of suffering through kidney failure and diabetes, through a life not surrounded by the strange world of wrestling he called home, Yamamoto shot himself with a .25-caliber pistol just one year after retiring.

 

Chris Benoit

Chris Benoit's horrific crimes are all too familiar to wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike.

Benoit strangled his wife, Nancy and killed his son before hanging himself from a weight machine. It was an event that rattled anyone who heard of it.

A man fans marveled at and respected for so long transformed into a monster. 

Benoit had been cheered and admired for his stellar wrestling skills.  He won just about every title a wrestler could hold up on their shoulders and in the process he constructed classic match after classic match.

It all ended in terrible fashion. The media pounced on the moment, blaming Benoit's monstrous acts on 'roid rage.

Benoit did in fact use steroid testosterone, but as the Associated Press writes, Georgia State medical examiner, "Dr. Kris Sperry, said there was no evidence of any other anabolic steroids in the wrestler's body, and nothing to show that steroids played a role in the death of Nancy and Daniel Benoit."

According to Dave Meltzer (via cagesideseats.com) Benoit abused painkillers as early as 2001.

Scientists also believe that brain damage he suffered thanks to years of chair shots and diving headbutts contributed to his actions.

June 4, 2007 remains wrestling's darkest day.

 

Adam Firestorm

Adam Dykes, aka Adam Firestorm or El Antorcha or Torch, wrestled in front of tiny crowds in gyms and fairgrounds across Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

Originally from New Zealand, Dykes made a home inside the ring and in the wrestling business, as a writer, wrestler and radio host.

Video tribute to Adam Firestorm

He spent the majority of his in-ring career with Extreme Canadian Wrestling and made a second career out of hosting Ringside Live, an online radio show.

A serious elbow injury ended his career early, but always a student of the business, he found ways to still be involved with wrestling.

Just about a month before his death, Dykes was involved in a serious car accident when his van hit an elk.

Slam! Sports reported that Dykes killed himself in 2009 at only 32 years old.

 

Mike Awesome

Michael Alfonso (better known to most as Mike Awesome) hung himself in 2007. He was 42 years old.

He spent the later stages of his career as a journeyman, bouncing around from WWE to TNA, Japan and the indies. He will most remembered though as a ECW world champ.

In 1999, Awesome beat Taz and Masato Tanaka for the ECW Heavyweight title at Anarchy Rulz.

Mike Awesome was a large man (6'6'' and 290 lbs) with surprising quickness. Dives in and out of the ring were always an exciting part of his matches.

Video tribute to Mike Awesome

Greg Oliver of Slam! Sports wrote that when Alfonso's wrestling career wound down, he moved onto real estate, becoming a real estate salesman under his real name.  

 

Ludvig Borga

The man who wrestled as Ludvig Borga was many things. Tony Halme was an MMA fighter, an author, a pro boxer who won the Finnish Heavyweight Championship and a controversial member of the Finnish parliament.

He played an unrelenting powerhouse for WWE, the Finnish flag incorporated into his ring wear. According to Jim Ross, Halme was a selfish bully who was hard to be around.

Halme was also a man in pain.

Bleacher Report's own Jonathan Snowden wrote on heavy.com that at the end of his life Halme's "health had deteriorated to the point he was committed to a mental hospital."

Who knows what mental state he was in when he shot himself in 2010?

 

Crash Holly

Felony drug charges hanging over his head, the man WWE fans knew as Crash Holly died in 2003.

Holly (real name: Mike Lockwood) is a former Hardcore Champion and the onscreen cousin of Bob Holly.

Some argue that his death was not intentional, but rather a drug overdose. Bill Gamblin Jr. and Anthony DeBlasi posted telling information on wrestling-news.com that points directly to suicide.

According to the information Gamblin and DeBlasi received from the Santa Rosa County Investigators, Holly received a prescription for a bottle containing 90 pills of generic Soma.  Two days later, the police found him dead and the bottle empty.

Holly was readying for a tour in Japan, but he was facing felony charges of drug possession and driving under the influence.

Perhaps it was the thought of possibly going to jail or his internal struggles that drove him to suicide, but either way wrestling lost a brother and his family lost a husband and father.

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