WWE Wellness Fallout: A Brief History of Drug Testing in Professional Wrestling

David Bixenspan@davidbixFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2011

WWE Wellness Fallout: A Brief History of Drug Testing in Professional Wrestling

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    Until Sin Cara failed a drug test in June that got him suspended in July when he couldn't provide an adequate prescription for the banned substance, no WWE talent had officially been suspended since Rey Mysterio two years ago in August 2009. 

    Then, this week, head referee Mike Chioda and Tough Enough winner "Silent Rage" Andy Leavine were also suspended.

    You can speculate all you want about the reason that there were no official failures/suspensions for almost two years and then three (with one not officially announced) within a month or two.  WWE added synthetic marijuana substitutes like K2 and Spice to the banned substance list in late June. 

    Presumably due to the substitutes being more dangerous and occupying an odd space legally, they are not punished with a fine (and unofficially a decreased push) like marijuana or alcohol, instead garnering a suspension like all other drugs.

    The change came after Sin Cara's positive test (believed to be for anabolic steroids) is reported to have taken place, so it might not mean anything for him, but it could for Chioda and Leavine. 

    Still, even then, knowing the wrestling business, it seems really strange that nobody could fail a drug test for two years and then three would be failed so close together.  Also, it seems like the key wrestling reporters are in agreement that Leavine has been suspended even though it hasn't been announced yet. 

    That is also...curious.

    At any rate, something's happening, and it's the latest bump on the roller coaster ride that has been drug testing in pro wrestling.  The topic has a fascinating history, one that I will try my best to condense for you, the reader.

WWE Starts Testing After Jim Duggan & the Iron Sheik Are Arrested Together

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    In early 1987, "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan jumped from Bill Watts' Universal Wrestling Federation to what was then the World Wrestling Federation.  He quickly got into a feud with the Iron Sheik. 

    Duggan was the goofy patriot, Sheik was the evil Iranian.  It was exactly what you'd expect from the WWF at that point.

    On May 26th, after a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey where they had faced off in a tag team match, they went against normal wrestling protocol and carpooled together.  Big mistake.

    Suspecting a DUI, the police pulled them over on the New Jersey Turnpike, and both wrestlers were arrested. Duggan for marijuana possession and driving under the influence of alcohol and Sheik for possession of marijuana and cocaine.

    Thanks to the two rivals driving together and revealing that pro wrestling may not be on the level, the arrests became a major national news story.  Both wrestlers were fired.  Duggan eventually received a a "conditional discharge" while Sheik was sentence to one year of probation.

    With the mess this caused in the media, the WWF instituted drug testing for the first time, with Vince McMahon announcing to the wrestlers that "The days of a six-pack and a b*** j** are over!" according to Bret Hart. 

    They were only testing for cocaine, but by most accounts, the program was relatively well executed.

WWE Gets Tough on Drug Testing After a Ton of Bad Press & a Steroid Trial

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    There are a TON of different things to cover here, so I'll try to keep it as brief as possible.  For more information, check out the Wrestling Observer & Pro Wrestling Torch back issue archives in the paid members' sections of their websites.

    Dr. George Zahorian D.O. is an osteopath and urologist from Pennsylvania who served as a doctor for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission for many years.  One of wrestling's worst kept secrets was that he was dealing anabolic steroids and a cornucopia of other drugs to wrestlers and other "patients." 

    He eventually got busted and went on trial in 1991.  He was convicted.

    Hulk Hogan was originally scheduled to be called as a government witness, but lawyer Jerry McDevitt earned his new job as WWE's outside counsel by getting him out of it.  The argument was that Zahorian and Hogan did, in fact, have a legitimate doctor-patient relationship. 

    McDevitt claimed that the medical issue Hogan sought treatment for would cause embarrassment to him if revealed publicly.  With Hogan out, the mainstream media ignored much of the trial.

    Meanwhile, Hogan was scheduled to appear on Arsenio Hall's highly rated syndicated late night talk show.  The plan was for him to be contrite and admit to using anabolic steroids.  Instead, he claimed to have only used anabolics three times in the past and only "for the treatment of injuries" (something that anabolics aren't legitimately used for). 

    This brought the media down on the WWF.  Meanwhile, the Justice Department was investigating the company, leading to a 1994 trial where Vince McMahon personally and Titan Sports (the parent company of the WWF) were found not guilty.

    In response, the WWF announced a comprehensive drug testing program.  It took a while to get off the ground.  The wrestlers were given a few months notice to get clean for the initial "baseline" tests, yet many still failed. 

    Still, as time went on and sexual harassment scandals shined a brighter spotlight on the company, the testing got pretty strict.  The WWF from 1992 to 1996 was, at least as far as steroids went, probably the cleanest of any modern wrestling company.

    In 1996, random drug testing was dropped because the company was losing money and WCW wasn't testing much, if at all.  In one of those McMahons not understanding how certain things make them look moment, they've claimed it gave WCW an unfair advantage without explaining why. 

    They started to crack down a little more on other drugs, but it was a big change.  Speaking of WCW...

WCW Pays Lip Service to Drug Testing, Doesn't Really Do Anything of Substance

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    When Bill Watts was hired by Turner Broadcasting to run World Championship Wrestling, he wanted to institute a legitimate drug testing program.  In his book, he talked about speaking to then top star and WCW Champion Sting when he was getting ready to start the program.

    According to Watts, Sting was worried about getting off anabolic steroids after using them for his whole career, but as the top guy, he was fine with getting off them to set a good example. 

    He just wanted to make sure it was a legitimate program because he didn't see the point in making the big change if it wasn't.  Watts assured him the program would be on the up and up, and Sting cleaned up.

    Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  Multiple wrestlers failed drug tests, but since their contracts had no provisions for suspensions or any other punishment (Watts wanted to use the failures to renegotiate the contracts of wrestlers who he felt were overpaid), nothing happened to them. 

    Eventually, Watts gave up and told Sting that the program had no teeth, and he could do whatever he wanted.

    WCW's drug testing program largely seemed like a non-entity for most of the next several years. 2 Cold Scorpio was fired in 1994 after three marijuana positives, but that was about it.

    As WCW entered its boom period, stories would sometimes pop up about drug testing.  They were usually about how the big stars were never tested.  When tests took place, the samples were usually gathered at TV tapings for shows where the big stars weren't present.

    In his first book, "A Lion's Tale," Chris Jericho told an amusing story about WCW's drug testing program.  He failed a drug test for what he claims was a then-legal prohormone available over the counter in retail stores. 

    As punishment, Jericho and the other wrestlers who failed that round of tests had to watch an anti-drug educational film from a few decades earlier.

Jamie Noble Finds a Way to Get Fired for Using Steroids When WWE Wasn't Testing

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    Jamie Noble, who now works as an agent/producer in WWE, was a hell of a wrestler.  Brought into WWE as a contract accquired in the WCW assets purchase, he eventually developed a very entertaining "redneck" character and became the center of the cruiserweight division at its peak. 

    Yes, WWE actually had a decent cruiserweight division for a little while.

    Anyway, he was a small major league wrestler who idolized Chris Benoit, so as you might expect, he went on anabolic steroids at some point.  At the end of Summer 2004, he developed an infection on his rear end. 

    When he went to his doctor to get it checked out, the doctor asked him how how thought he got it, and he answered honestly. It was from injecting anabolic steroids.

    By itself, that's not a problem.  If you're not familiar with this story, then I'm sure the headline is starting to puzzle you.  It's probably happened to plenty of wrestlers, right?

    Well, Noble's reaction to his plight inspired a special kind of stupidity in him.  Since WWE pays for treatment of on the job injuries, he submitted the infection as one.  Once the paperwork that explained the cause arrived from the doctor, they had to fire him.

    He was told that as long as he stayed out of trouble (and TNA), he would eventually be brought back.  After about a year, he was.

WWE Starts Talent Wellness Program After Death of Eddy Guerrero

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    On Nov. 13th, 2005, Eddy Guerrero died of heart disease on the day he was going to WWE's Smackdown World Heavyweight Championship.  On his death certificate, anabolic steroid abuse was listed as a contributing cause.

    Four days later on Nov. 17th, most of the WWE roster was in Europe, working on the scheduled tour.  Nick "Eugene" Dinsmore took too many Somas, couldn't find his hotel room key card, and wandered to the lobby, where he passed out. 

    He had overdosed.  Thankfully for Dinsmore, the embarrassing visibility of his overdose probably saved his life.  The timing was a nightmare for WWE.

    Four days after that on Nov. 21st, WWE publicly announced that Dinsmore was being sent to rehab.  They had another, related announcement that day: They were starting a new drug testing program as part of a larger plan that also included heart exams.

    While it's no longer available. WWE.com had posted a video of Vince McMahon telling the talent.  It seemed as if the talent least likely to have any worries were stationed opposite the camera.  It didn't prevent the meeting from being awkward. 

    Kurt Angle was the only wrestler to ask any questions.  Sounding extremely nervous, he asked if the testing would show exactly how much medication the wrestlers were taking.  When Vince answered that he believed it would, Angle sounded scared.

    The program officially launched on Feb. 27th, 2006. It started with "baseline testing" that didn't count, instead allowing anyone who was on anything to slowly and safely taper off while getting an idea of where their levels needed to come down from. 

    New hires would also take baseline tests when they signed.  According to a document (PDF) supplied to U.S. Congress:

    • 186 baseline tests were administered in the first year of the program.
    • 75 people tested positive.
    • There were 115 positives among the 75 people, as some tested positive for more than one class of drug: 68 for anabolic steroids, 34 for "prescription drugs,"  two for "illicit drugs," and 11 for Ephedrine/Pseudoephedrine.

    Over the next year or so, you could see the program working from time to time, and there were times where wrestlers were clearly suspended, but there were enough neon signs to make many fans cynical.

    The much touted heart exams were rarely mentioned, and whenever anything related to them came up, nobody was sure if there was a point to them, as wrestlers known to have enlarged hearts were working full schedules.

    And Chris Benoit killed his family and himself.

WWE Comes Under Fire After Chris Benoit Kills His Family and Himself

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    Like with the original steroid scandals, there's a lot to condense here.  In this case, you probably know the basics.

    Chris Benoit killed his wife Nancy, their son Daniel and then himself over the course of the last weekend of June 2007.  Large quantities of anabolic steroids (testosterone cypionate) were found in the home, with Chris getting what would last the average patient on testosterone replacement therapy 10 months every four weeks from his "personal physician" Dr. Phil Astin Jr. 

    The spotlight was on WWE, and Benoit coverage was all over cable news networks.

    "Roid rage" became the buzzword even though it was likely that only Nancy's death could have been the result of a traditional roid rage. 

    Still, the steroids could have had a severe effect on his psyche along with brain damage, the cocktail of other drugs that he was taking, depression from his three best friends dying within a few months, etc.

    Coincidentally, during the media blitz, the Albany, New York District Attorney's Office went public with a customer list from Signature Compounding Pharmacy, where it turned out that many wrestlers were getting their steroids, human growth hormone, etc.  The timing ensured mainstream coverage of the wrestlers' involvement.

    The investigation had been going on for a while and many wrestlers even bought from them after it was made public that they were buying from a targeted company.  Internet pharmacy use violates WWE's drug policy, so most of the wrestlers named were suspended. 

    It was said that those who went unpunished had already served suspensions for the mail-order drugs.

    After the Signature debacle, WWE announced that they would publicly announce the names of all suspended talent effective a few months later.  On the second day of the new policy, Harry "D.H." Smith was suspended in the middle of a big push. 

    Dave Meltzer then reported in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that the suspension was close to two months old, with Smith only getting the push for public relations reasons, "proving" that WWE would suspend a pushed wrestler.

    A Congressional inquiry didn't go anywhere other than facilitating the release of interesting reading material a year after it happened.

    Still, WWE did improve the program over time, removing the "working suspension" amendment, banning more types of drugs, suspending top stars like Jeff Hardy, etc.  Having said that, there have still been plenty of neon signs that went unpunished and punishments that seemed retaliatory. 

    Things are definitely better than they used to be, but they probably could be a lot better.