Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tragedies Beyond the Squared Circle

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2004, accounting for 32,439 deaths. On average, 10.9 people out of 100,000 commit suicide.

For professional wrestlers, however, the rate of tragedy is much higher. The recent events surrounding Chris Benoit and possibly "Sensational" Sherri Martel have once again put the personal lives and early deaths of wrestlers in the national spotlight. In total, 96 wrestlers under the age of 65 have passed away since 1985. Granted, this list includes "freaks of nature" such as Andre the Giant and Little Beaver, whose bodies may not have lasted long whether they wrestled or pursued more "normal" lives. Unfortunately the Andres and the Little Beavers are far too small of the total. Whatever the reason, although there are thousands of wrestlers in hundreds of federations across America who go about their careers without incident, the profession of wrestling, at least at its highest levels, seems to attract personal disaster.

In 1999, director Barry Blaustein released Beyond the Mat, an inside look at the reality behind professional wrestling. Unlike any wrestling documentary before it, Beyond the Mat wasn't just about bodyslams and headlocks, it was about the highs, the lows, the pains, and the pleasures of life in the wrestling industry. Among the many personalities covered by Blaustein was Terry Funk. Funk, a hardcore wrestling legend, has wrestled since 1965 on nearly every continent, in every size venue, and in nearly every type of match, including those with barbwire ropes and pyrotechnics. At the end of the film, the 55-year old Funk was still seen putting his body on the line, despite his doctors advising him to the contrary. Seemingly unable to walk away, Terry Funk is still active.

As depressing as the story of Terry Funk may be, perhaps the biggest fall from grace depicted in Beyond the Mat was that of former WWF Superstar Jake "The Snake" Roberts. Roberts, once one of the most famous names in professional wrestling, let substance abuse get the better of him after leaving the WWF, succumbing to the evils of drugs and alcohol. With the pinnacle of his career drifting further behind him, Roberts became a physical and emotional mess, reportedly even smoking crack in a hotel room before a scheduled meeting with his daughter.

Although currently 52 years old, Jake Roberts is still wrestling. In an event earlier this year in the small town of Bushnell, Florida, Jake headlined against a local independent wrestler. Still the crowd favorite, many of the 200 or so people in attendance chanted Roberts' name and waited patiently for his autograph, despite his physical frailty and his almost incoherent post-match speech concerning those who have done him wrong in his career. Whether he was under the influence during his soliloquy or just felt the strong need to air his grievances to the people of Bushnell could be definitely be argued. As one of the many in the crowd, I was sad to see yet another chapter in the tale of a former hero of the squared circle.

But why, you may wonder, was I in Bushnell, watching this one-time legend in a two-bit town?

Because that night my brother was on the undercard.

As much as I brag about having a brother in professional wrestling, there are times it scares the hell out of me.

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