The passing of an actor, a sports star, or any well-known figure can be shocking. It can also be somewhat expected, especially if the individual has lived a long life. Regardless of how and when it happens, the loss of a celebrity can feel like losing a friend, a hero, or even a family member.
As individuals who were admired, celebrated, and maybe even laughed at, professional wrestlers fall into an interesting category of celebrity. Part actors and part athletes, they are fixtures of our childhoods, with standouts like Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and others showing up on TV each week to entertain us. Professional wrestling has grown to be a global powerhouse, one that brings pay-per-view events and regular programming to the world alongside massive events fans can attend - if they're lucky enough to get a chance.
Our favorite professional wrestlers from the 1980s and 1990s brought us hours of fun and athleticism, only to find themselves in difficult circumstances that were literally a matter of life and death. So many professional wrestlers met tragic ends - sad final chapters to their already fascinating stories.
When Randy "Macho Man" Savage passed on May 20, 2011, it was first reported that he'd been in a car crash. Savage, who'd been traveling in a car with his wife Barbara in Florida, reportedly lost consciousness and crashed into a tree.
Autopsy results later indicated Savage hadn't succumbed to injuries he sustained in the crash. He had suffered a "cardiovascular event" that actually caused the crash. Savage, who'd left wrestling years earlier, had no history of heart problems, but his official cause of death was heart disease.
There were minimal amounts of drugs and alcohol found in his body, he had an enlarged heart, and coronary artery disease was present at the time of his death. Barbara was not severely injured in the accident.
After Savage was cremated, his ashes were poured at the same spot on his property where his dog's remains had been placed just days before. Savage's brother, Lanny, poured both sets of ashes - an ominous task when he did so for the dog, Hercules. When Randy insisted Lanny pour Hercules's ashes, Lanny asked why and Randy replied:
I want you to do it. If anything happens, I want you to do the same thing with my ashes, the same way, the same place. If it’s good enough for Hercules, it’s good enough for me.
- Age: 59 (1952-2011)
- Birthplace: Columbus, OH
Before becoming a professional wrestler, Sylvester Ritter (AKA Junkyard Dog) was a star college football player. He also spent time working in a wrecking yard, a role that informed his future wrestling moniker.
Regarded as the first Black superstar in professional wrestling, Ritter was still active in the ring when he passed unexpectedly in 2004. He spent the late 1990s wrestling for Extreme Championship Wrestling, a branch of what is now World Wrestling Entertainment, and also on the independent wrestling circuit. Ritter had struggled with substance abuse, but at the time of his passing was reportedly trying to "fight it off and beat it."
According to his friend and fellow wrestler Ted DiBiase:
I know around the time of his death, the car accident, that he was going back [to rehab]. I remember he and I talking about it, and he was trying to help other kids that were at this place, doing drugs and stuff.
Part of his life was tragic; in the end, I know he lost a lot. He lost his family. I mean, that’s why he died. He had driven back to North Carolina to see his daughter graduate from high school, and it was on the way back that he had the car accident and was killed.
The accident took place in Mississippi and no one else was involved. The daughter whose graduation he attended in 1998, LaToya, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011.
- Age: 46 (1952-1998)
- Birthplace: Wadesboro, NC
André René Roussimoff, a native of France who wrestled for decades, was 7 feet 4 inches tall and more than 500 pounds when he passed in 1993. André was literally a giant due to excessive growth hormones caused by acromegaly, a pituitary gland disorder.
Alongside medical problems brought on by acromegaly, years in the ring, and a lifetime of excess, André's physical health began to deteriorate through the 1980s. He had several surgeries and had to wear a back brace to even enter the ring. By the end of his career, he had chronic pain in his back and knees.
After his father Boris took ill in January 1993, André flew home to France to be with his family. Boris died on January 15; André was found dead 12 (or 13) days later. He'd passed in his sleep of heart failure while still in France.
André wished to be cremated, but he had to be transported back to the US for the task. Reportedly, there were no crematoria in France that could handle a body his size. The only other alternative would have been to cut his body into pieces first. His family rejected this possibility. He was cremated in North Carolina and, afterwards, André's ashes were later scattered on the grounds of his nearby ranch.
- Age: 47 (1946-1993)
- Birthplace: Seine-et-Marne, France
Owen Hart wrestled around the world before joining the WWF, where he took part in bouts under his real name and as The Blue Blazer. He was from a family of wrestlers, including his brother Bret. Owen and Bret faced off numerous times throughout their careers.
Hart joined the WWE's forerunner, the WWF, during the 1980s and was scheduled to take part in Over the Edge - a pay-per-view event in Kansas City, MO, on May 23, 1999. In a match with Charles Wright (as The Godfather), Hart (as The Blue Blazer) was supposed to be lowered into the ring from the rafters high above. He wore a harness and a cape, but something malfunctioned and the wrestler fell nearly 80 feet to his death. He landed on the ropes of the ring before falling into the ring itself.
The TV audience didn't see Hart's death, but 16,000 attendees did. A witness later recalled:
We thought it was a doll at first... We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke.
Commentators told viewers at home that the fall was not part of the performance, as attendees watched medical personnel work on Hart. One of the paramedics who treated Hart indicated the harness "didn't get hooked on to him. He thought it was hooked on."
Hart was transported to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. The accident led to a legal battle between Hart's family and the WWE, which was settled in 2000 The Harts also declined having him inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
One additional detail about Hart's untimely passing that has come to light involves his final words. According to individuals at the event, they heard him yell "Look out!" as he fell - a warning to those below.
- Age: 34 (1965-1999)
- Birthplace: Calgary, Alberta, Canada