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Rest in Peace, Wrestlers

(George Napolitano / MediaPunch / IPX)

Three old wrestling stars died within days of one another. Here’s why that matters.

If celebrity deaths come in threes, then perhaps the deaths of three professional wrestlers over the course of a single week in February 2017 — George “The Animal” Steele, Chavo Guerrero Sr., and Ivan Koloff — should not be so surprising. All three were elder wrestling veterans beloved by generations of fans, and all three transcended the world of the ring to have an impact on popular culture.

The passing of these men also reminds us that while professional wrestling is “fake,” a staged, character-driven performance art rather than an actual athletic competition, it’s nonetheless a fact that modern wrestling performers too often die before their time.

The last two decades have seen dozens of wrestlers dying young: of heart attacks, drug overdoses, and misadventures ranging from in-ring disasters and traffic accidents to suicides. So while last month’s string of three deaths saddened the wrestling world, it also reminded the fans that wrestlers could have long careers, enjoy retirement, and pass peacefully.

Does that seem a curious thing to have to celebrate? So be it. These three lived fascinating lives — and in each case, their longevity added to their mystique.

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As a New Yorker growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, my local wrestling circuit was the World Wrestling Federation, which was just beginning its nationwide expansion. I heard about wrestling before I ever saw it, from my youngest uncle and a second cousin. I pumped them for information about wrestlers, and their favorite was George "The Animal" Steele, whom they described as “a caveman with a green tongue.”

My mental image did not match what I eventually saw at all — I pictured a loincloth, and a lot of hair — but he was still a shocking sight for young eyes. Steele was baldheaded, but otherwise hirsute. He didn’t have the now de rigueur bodybuilder physique of today’s wrestlers, or even the longshoreman body typical of his opponents. He really did look like an animal, with an orangutan-like belly and long arms he’d flail enthusiastically when whatever grappler he was facing would try to initiate the ol’ collar-and-elbow tie-up. Soon enough, Steele would be flashing his green tongue, gnawing on the turnbuckles, and using an illegal weapon on whomever was fed to him that week. His interviews were short and sweet too: “Dah, dah, dah.”

But at the same time, he knew how to wrestle — his finishing maneuver was a flying hammerlock — and he was announced as being from Detroit, and he presumably laced up his own boots and cashed his paychecks. What was Steele, anyway? Rumors flew around the playground that he was a college professor.

It wasn’t quite true, but William James Myers did have a master’s degree and taught high school and coached wrestling in Michigan. His first forays into the professional ranks were simply under a mask to obscure his identity.  Later, the “animal” gimmick turned out to be flexible enough to survive for decades.

When professional wrestling started orienting toward a younger audience in the mid-‘80s, Steele became a “face” — a good guy, that is, in wrestling parlance. His character became smitten with Miss Elizabeth, the manager of the legendary Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Their feud helped elevate Savage to WWF stardom.

Steele himself moved onto film as he grew older, playing wrestler Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie Ed Wood. But he continued to make occasional appearances in wrestling arenas large and small into his seventies. He could do so, as his persona was far more physical than his actual wrestling style, which mostly involved loping about the ring, pummeling his opponents, and occasionally taking a tumble over the top rope.

George Steele encapsulated the carnival aspect of wrestling: He was a sideshow attraction, a camp spectacle, an oddball in any era who could thus work in every era. He entered hospice care in early February and passed due to kidney failure Feb. 16, 2017, at the age of 79.

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Ivan Koloff was different. Though Canada’s own Oreal James Perras was no more a Russian than Steele was a caveman, he looked real. And in 1971, “The Russian Bear” did the unthinkable, by ending Bruno Sammartino’s seven-and-a-half year reign as WWF champion, and claiming the title for the forces of evil.

It’s said that when the final bell rang, Madison Square Garden, which Sammartino had sold out on a monthly basis, fell deathly silent. It was like watching Star Wars for the millionth time, only this time the film climaxed with Darth Vader blasting Luke Skywalker to atoms. Koloff’s win was shocking enough that, almost 25 years later, when punk rock legend Dee Dee Ramone recorded “The Crusher,” a song about a wrestler facing off against “the Russian Bear,” Ramone’s New York audience understood right away that he was singing about Ivan Koloff.

When I saw Koloff, it was in the mid-1980s, when he was a performer in the National Wrestling Alliance, a southern rival of the WWF whose TV programming had just come north thanks to cable television.  He retained a powerlifter’s physique into his 40s, and was booked as the tag-team champion along with his monstrous “nephew,” Nikita.  Ivan was the thinker of the team; together, they stood toe-to-toe against the likes of the Mad Max-inspired Road Warriors, the high-flying Rock’n’Roll Express, and the portly Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes in violent and occasionally bloody matches. NWA wrestling was choreographed, of course, but there was more emphasis on legitimate-seeming brawls than in the WWF.

Not that wackiness didn’t abound elsewhere.  The wrestling business in the 1980s was still dominated by a system of territories; most leagues were regional, with their own rosters, championships, and even preferred wrestling styles. The industry was covered, after a fashion, by monthly magazines that reported on the storylines and championship battles as though wrestling was a real sport—at least, that’s what it seemed like to kids. In adult retrospect, though, these “markazines” (a mark was someone who believed wrestling was real) constantly winked at the audience.

From markazines, and Ivan Koloff, I learned about the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. In a manufactured interview, Koloff declared that he hyped himself up for his big matches by watching the film school classic Battleship Potemkin. One feature article had Ivan, Nikita, and their American turncoat comrade Krusher Kruschev traveling to Washington D.C., with a copy of Howard Zinn’s radical A People’s History of the United States as their tourist brochure.  

I won’t say I went to graduate school for media studies and became a leftist because of Ivan Koloff. But he helped.

In his retirement, Koloff embraced religion and made frequent public appearances. He died of liver cancer Feb. 18, 2017, at the age of 74.

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Then there was Chavo Guerrero Sr. I never saw him in his prime, but I was a fan of his younger brother Eddie, who passed away in 2005, and his son Chavo Guerrero Jr., who is an active wrestler to this day. Chavo Sr. did have a late run in his mid-50s, in the league that was now called World Wrestling Entertainment, as “Chavo Classic,” a balding, pot-bellied busybody who nonetheless managed to win the cruiserweight title thanks to “accidentally” tripping and falling atop an already unconscious opponent.

Realistic it was not, but Chavo Sr. was intriguing, and thanks to archival videos, I got to witness some excellent wrestling from Chavo in his prime.

The Guerrero family were pioneers in the highly stylized high-flying lucha libre style of Mexico, but they’d also mastered the mat-based style common in the United States.  Chavo’s father Gory even created a classic wrestling hold: the mounted back lock called “the camel clutch.”

Son Chavo brought that hybrid style to California in the 1970s, when he was a major figure in the NWA’s affiliate league, NWA Hollywood Wrestling. There, he battled “Rowdy” Roddy Piper for three years, in a wide array of gimmick matches: they fought in cages, they put their handsome heads of hair on the line, they battered one another with chains. 

The ultraviolence was always interspersed with traditional mat wrestling, and occasional leaps off the top rope, sometimes onto the canvas and sometimes onto the cement floor. Chavo’s mat wrestling background also served him well in Japan, where the “strong style” of realistic wrestling holds predominated, and in the American Wrestling Association, run by former NCAA champion Verne Gagne.

But it was California where Chavo was a legend. He held the NWA Americas heavyweight title 15 times and impressed a young John Darnielle enough that The Mountain Goats frontman recorded the song “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” about his childhood hero in 2015. Chavo even appeared and wrestled in the video for the song.

Chavo Guerrero Sr. died Feb. 11, 2017, of liver cancer, at the age of 68.

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In the days of George Steele, Ivan Koloff, and Chavo Guerrero, wrestlers were muscular, but they were human. With leagues operating regionally, top wrestlers used to be able to work out in their local gyms to keep from getting too flabby, drive to work, growl at the marks and roll around to a predetermined conclusion, and go home to sleep that same night. And wrestling itself, because of the practice known as “kayfabe” — that is, the contrivance that the matches were competitive sporting events and not acrobatic exhibitions — was safer.  

Not anymore.

Today, most wrestlers don’t look like the strongest guy in your hometown; they instead tend to resemble statues by Michelangelo. It is certainly possible to organize one’s life around muscular perfection, but bodybuilding becomes much more complicated when one is on the road 200 or more days a year — working out between flights and long drives — and participating in a full-contact sport that has no off-season, little in the way of paid downtime, and a nationwide touring schedule.

Painkillers allow wrestlers to perform while hurting; steroids let them build superhuman physiques.  But painkiller addiction is not uncommon, and recreational drugs are widely available wherever there are lights and TV cameras. Too often, these drug combinations have turned deadly, and men in their forties are dying of cardiac issues most people experience in their sixties and seventies.

With kayfabe long since a memory, wrestling is no longer the wrestling we once knew. Fans now understand what real sport-fighting looks like — because we have mixed-martial arts now. For wrestling to compete, it has to offer something other than a fake MMA competition.  WWE’s house style is dynamic; where wrestlers would once apply a real-seeming chin lock or arm hold to rest between the dramatic “high spots” of a match, WWE wrestlers today tend to brawl with punches and kicks rather than catch their breaths with “rest holds.” 

And the high spots are ever higher. When Bob Backlund was WWF champion in the late 1970s, he used the atomic drop — a move wherein he’d lift up his opponent, assume a lunge position, and drop the opponent tailbone first across his own knee — to devastating effect. Today that move is basically comic relief when it is seen at all.  

In the 1980s, Jake “The Snake” Roberts made his career around a move he called the DDT: with his arm around an opponent’s neck, he dropped onto his back, taking his opponent with him, head first. The DDT was once a guaranteed finisher. Now it’s not uncommon for a wrestler to kick out of three or four DDTs, performed off the top rope to make for a bigger boom, over the course of a single match.

Chavo Guerroro’s high-flying moves seem quaint now, as contemporary wrestlers perform triple-twists when they fling themselves upon their opponents, and cement floors, as if they were trained by Cirque du Soleil. Joints tear. Concussions accumulate. Short-term relief is in a little brown bottle. Leagues have worked to help current and former performers with drug testing, consequences for drug use, paid stints in rehab, and counseling; but the trend toward wrestlers dying before they get to even be nostalgia acts remains worrying.

When kids watch wrestling, they’re rooting for and booing adult performers, not immortal cartoons with magical powers. As the kids grow up and reach middle age, their childhood heroes grow old and pass. This is as it should be. Let us hope that today’s fans won’t have to write legacies for their favorite childhood wrestlers for a long, long time.

 


Nick Mamatas is the author of seven and a half novels, including I Am Providence, The Last Weekend, and The Damned Highway with Brian Keene.