Pro wrestling is the most dangerous mainstream entertainment industry in the world today. It's beginning to rival the postal service of yesteryear in its suprisingly shocking fatality rate. If it keeps it up, it could give the US Army a run for its money.
Sadly, however, pro wrestling is no longer a joking matter.
For a profession that has more in common with a soap opera than sport, the rising bodycount of pro wrestling is incredible. The latest tragedy regarding the death of Andrew Martin (aka Test) has come on the back of a growing PR nightmare for the industry, and more specifically, the WWE.
Just what the hell is going on?
It's not like the deaths have concerned old or clearly 'over the hill' wrestlers. Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit were both in their prime before they died, achieving top billing at major pay per views and weekly TV cards. It's almost come to the point where literally anyone in pro wrestling could drop dead tomorrow.
The November debacle surrounding the storyline hospitalization of Jeff Hardy sent a shiver down more than one spine, not because the storyline was genuinely well-planned, but because the storyline seemed genuinely realistic at face value. (Of course, the callousness with which the storyline was employed in the first place with regard to previous wrestlers' deaths gives clarity as to what the WWE thinks about the phenomenon).
With the PR fallout, the WWE has resorted to a wellness program. But even the word 'wellness' sounds like a euphemism. It's become clear to many observers that the industry cannot regulate itself; even the wellness program came on the back of a federal investigation into steroid abuse and adverse media publicity as opposed to a genuine desire from inside to clean up house.
In deciding to apportion the blame, however, we must realise at the end of the day that we're dealing with grown men who knew full well the lifestyle, responsibilities, and hazards that come with pro wrestling. That said, as of the late 19th century, most workers have had a right to a safe working environment. This isn't China or Kazakhstan we're talking about here; we're talking America: the richest country in the world.
Some of the deaths were genuine accidents (Owen Hart), or associated with long-term medical conditions and injuries accumulated over a long career (especially by other sports industry standards).
But some are directly related to the dark side of pro wrestling that movies like the recent Academy-award nominated "The Wrestler," or the 1999 film "Beyond the Mat" have revealed to casual wrestling fans. And none of the horrible lifestyles depicted have been categorically denied by those involved. In fact, they've even been romanticised by people inside and outside the industry.
For a product aimed at kids around the globe today, but particularly in the 1980s, it's clear a lot of the 'sports entertainers' aren't exactly role-model material. Drug abuse, pain-killer addiction, criminal infringements, and the old-favourite steroid abuse are common themes found within the industry. Steroids have been a favourite avenue for federal authorities to get involved in, not least because they're a common problem in other sports, too (although it's almost impossible to pin a death to steroid abuse).
Whether steroids get eliminated from pro wrestling is moot. Pro wrestling is draining emotionally and physically, and it's unwarranted. Between travelling, house shows, and a lack of a close/holiday season, many wrestlers' bodies are simply not able to recuperate sufficiently—thus short-term problems become long-term problems, which become life- threatening ones.
Are house shows really that lucrative? The increase in overseas dates are becoming another thing to look out for as pro wrestling declines in popularity at home.
Another thing hovering under the radar of the body count catastrophe is the serious long-term injuries being suffered by increasingly younger wrestlers. Wrestling matches involve far more than clotheslines and legdrops as they did in the early days. Today, ladders, tables and chairs, crazy top-rope moves, blood, and the sport's faster pace reflect the evolution of the fan base as much as anything else. Wrestling matches are a lot longer and more complex, especially at the monthly (increasingly twice monthly) pay-per-view level. The result is the effective early retirement of the likes of Mick Foley, Sid Eudy, Stone Cold, and in more serious cases, the likes of Droz and Bret Hart.
In my opinion, what makes Ric Flair so unique is the absolute certainty that no wrestler will probably ever achieve his longevity in the ring again. Of course, the inability of most wrestlers to call it a day like him is frightening, even though there are obvious health risks, as in the case of HBK (back) and Kurt Angle (near paralysis).
In my opinion, the solution is simple, a close season of perhaps a month or two. Other athletes in other sports have always talked about the absolute need to "recharge batteries." A more direct comparison with the likes of boxing and MMA reveal most of the athletes involved in those industries hardly fight, often having months in between bouts to let their bodies heal. This is especially so as one's profile increases. It would benefit the wrestling bookers as well, having more time to think through and finally write coherent storylines and plan strategically as opposed to daily.
God knows even fans need a break from the weekly routine...even if they don't actually realise it.
For a list of wrestler deaths since 1985 see here.