When Wrestlers Die Young

Photo courtesy of AEW’s Twitter page.

Before the news of Jon Huber’s death last night at the age of 41 due to a non-COVID lung issue, I was already reminiscing about another wrestler who died too young 15 years ago, also around the holidays: Eddie Guerrero. Guerrero was 38 when he died of heart failure, likely due to his prior steroid and drug issues, on Nov. 13, 2005.

When Eddie died, it hit me hard. He was one of the best wrestlers of that time period, and when a guy like that, who stands at only five feet, eight inches (two inches smaller than I am) but still seems larger than life, dies, it hits different. When you see these manly men in the hard wrestling business crying about his death, that hits different. When, much like Huber, Eddie was seen as a pillar of the locker room, and a guy who had found religion, changed his life around, and was living the good life, as it were, and is taken too soon like that? That hits different.

I wrote three poems about Eddie and showed them to my ninth grade English teacher. I’d cringe reading them now, but that was my catharsis. I was reorganizing and sifting through my old papers and came across those yesterday. The fact that the Jon Huber news came later that day was an unwelcome bit of serendipity.

The three poems.

Only 15 at the time of Eddie’s passing, I was quite accustomed, as morbid as that sounds, to death. By that age, I’d already been to a number of funerals in real life, but also, in the wrestling world, fans like me became accustomed to wrestlers dying young. Tallies of wrestlers dying from drug and alcohol issues, suicides, and the like, seemed oddly common in the notoriously hard wrestling business. Wrestlers who died young included Reid Flair, Ric Flair’s son at 25 to a drug overdose; Crash Holly at 32 to suicide from drug overdose/alcohol poisoning; Kerry Von Erich at 33 to suicide; Test at 33 to drug overdose; Yokozuna at 34 to a heart attack; Brian Pillman at 35 to the same issue as Eddie Guerrero’s; and the British Bulldog at 39 to heart attack. That morbid list also includes Rick Rude, Mr. Perfect, Umaga, Big Boss Man, Mike Awesome, Rosey, etc.

Wrestling fans are intimately familiar with the core list of wrestlers who have died young. Heck, David Shoemaker, one of my favorite wrestling writers, made his name talking about wrestlers who died young. Guerrero’s death didn’t shakeup the business, though. It would take until the double murder-suicide by Chris Benoit, who was only 40-years-old, in the summer of 2007 to truly shakeup the business. Ever since that point, along with the general better practices and attitudes of a new generation (which tracks with the overall population), the business cleaned up. WWE instituted a rigorous Wellness Policy, regularly suspended guys for drug issues, helped them get rehab, and so on. Perhaps the most important, consequential aspect of that was banning steel chair shots to the head and getting more serious about concussions by incorporating the knowledge society had gained about head trauma into the profession.

To the point where, wrestler deaths seemed to be uncommon again? That is, dying young. Dying of seemingly preventable reasons. The reverse happened. Instead of being accustomed to death, we came accustomed to a much different locker room. The boys and girls were clean. They were playing video games instead of closing down the bars. They were more likely to be vegans than to mess with hard drugs. The wrestling business itself changed, too, to where smaller guys became valued, the “indy darlings” took over the business, and guys weren’t expected to be jacked anymore.

Also, time and age are different now because of how much more this generation knows about taking care of their bodies versus previous generations, the less drug and alcohol use, and of course, a aforementioned part about being safer in the ring now that we know more about concussions.

Someone 38 in 2005 was still young, don’t get me wrong, but a wrestler in his late 30s at that time (and years earlier) seemed on the tail-end of their career, old even. For example, I saw a 1998 Raw segment where Michael P.S. Hayes, better known as one half of arguably the greatest tag team of all time, the Fabulous Freebirds, was involved in (he gets chokeslamed by Kane) and he was only 38 at the time! But he not only looked like an old timer, he was treated like one. Folks, Randy Orton is 40-years-old. AJ Styles is 43. Kevin Owens is 36. Heck, we’re still seeing 54-year-old Goldberg wrestle. The 55-year-old Undertaker had a match in 2020 (cinematic match, but still). It’s just not uncommon to see wrestlers hitting their stride in their late 30s and early 40s, and even late 40s now. All of that is to say, when a death happens young now, not only am I not accustomed to it anymore, but it hits even harder because that seems especially young nowadays.

So for instance, when Ashley Massaro’s death happened in May 2019 by suicide, that was like, “Whoa.” Because we hadn’t had anything like that in what felt like a while. And because suicide always feels like it comes out of nowhere even though there are typically red flags along the way.

Luke Harper, on right, as part of the Wyatt Family in WWE.

Then the craphole year that is 2020 happened and we lost two men far too young in ways that had nothing to do with the old times of running hard, doing hard drugs or drink, and both of whom, by every account, were incredible family men, incredible members of their communities, and incredible people to have in wrestling locker rooms.

First, Shad Gaspard, perhaps best known as one half of Cryme Tyme in WWE around 2006-2007, who died in a tragic drowning in May at the young age of 39. Before he died, he saved his son from drowning, too.

Second, was Huber’s death. Better known as Luke Harper in WWE and Brodie Lee/Mr. Brodie Lee in AEW, he’s received an incredible outpouring of support and love from wrestlers across wrestling promotions, both new generation and old generation. He was that kind of talent, both as an actual talent and as the human being behind the talent.

The news of his death hit hard, similar to how I felt upon hearing Eddie’s death. Surreal is the best way to describe it. What? Huh? How? Are you sure it’s that guy? I was watching another episode of Bones when I saw AEW Tweet out the photo that accompanies this post, and I Googled to make sure I was seeing things right. I stopped the show, and spent the next two hours scrolling Twitter for reactions, crying, scrolling, crying. Again, there’s something about these pro wrestlers where you sort of seem them as that larger-than-life, invincible types. Dying young isn’t supposed to happen to anyone, but surely it can’t happen to these guys and girls, right? Surreal and tragic. Those are the words that keep coming in mind. Why?

I was a huge Luke Harper fan. There’s very few people in professional wrestling who come across as authentic within their characters. Huber to me was Luke Harper. He looked like the swamp creature he portrayed as part of the Wyatt Family. Authenticity is key to presenting a believable character on television, and he oozed authenticity. As Big E, a fellow wrestler said, it wouldn’t be shocking at all if after Huber retired from professional wrestling, he went on to have a successful career as a character actor in Hollywood. He was that good. Oh, and yeah, he was incredible in the ring as a big man, who moved like a smaller man, and had a distinctive style because of it. But it’s the character in between the moves that sells wrestling and boy, was I sold.

There was a period of time when all those pieces came together and you not only believed that Luke Harper could win the WWE Championship, you thought they (WWE) should have done it. That, especially now given what’s happened here, is one of the biggest missed opportunities in WWE in the last five years. I’m glad he went on to find some success with AEW, although since I don’t have cable, I didn’t get to see a lot of it.

While all of that stuff is great, especially to fans, and it’s rough to lose a mind and talent for the business like that (the business as such works because each generation passes down its knowledge and so forth), it’s even rougher to lose the human being behind the talent. Reading all the mementos pouring in from wrestlers across the industry about him made me tear up aplenty. But as great as those are, the man himself talking about what drives him in life really hits you like the worst of gut punches:

He leaves behind a wife and two children.

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