Professional wrestling is a tragic business. Most serious fans can tell you exactly where they were when they learned that Owen Hart had fallen to his death during a live pay-per-view performance or when they heard that Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room just a few days before he was slated to win the heavyweight championship.
Sitting in my office checking the headlines on CNN before my first class one morning last March, I remember reading about how the wrestler named Test (real name Andrew Martin) died of an overdose of pain killers in his home in Florida. The article hit me hard — harder than I expected actually — not just because I had been a Test fan, but because I knew that this death was just one more in a long list of the tragic endings to befall these larger than life athletes.
This has been a tough decade for wrestling fans. Seems that every new generation must endure their share of grief as the people for whom they once cheered so loudly, with such fierce intensity, have succumbed to the rigors of the sport and life and passed away. At least forty professional wrestlers have died since 2000, some of heart attacks, several of drug overdoses, and a rare few of natural causes.
In addition to the high profile death of Eddie Guerrero (heart failure at 38) and the shocking suicide of Chris Benoit following his brutal murder of his family, there have been dozens others who have lost their metaphoric matches: Yokozuna (heart failure at 34), The Fabulous Moolah (heart attack at 84), Bam Bam Bigelow (drugs at 45), and Sherri Martel (drugs at 49), Bad News Brown (heart attack at 63), Crash Holly (suicide at 32), and Hercules Hernandez (heart disease at 47).
Though all these deaths have been tragic to fans, reading about a few in particular broke my heart again and again. For example, Kurt Hennig (drugs at 44), also known as Mr. Perfect, was one of my favorite bad guys growing up. However, the wound that stung the most must have been the news about Miss Elizabeth (drugs at 42), the manager of Macho Man Randy Savage. Though only a boy with just a television understanding of love and relationships, how pretty and pure she seemed struck me at once, and of course she became my first celebrity crush, pining over her from the living room.
A few days after she had died in August 2003, some friends and I attended a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) house show in Sacramento. While chatting with various people seated in the rows around us, I remember how we suddenly sat in melancholic silence when someone reminded us of Miss Elizabeth’s recent death, despite the epic battle waging in the ring. No small feat for wrestling fans who in addition to cheering and booing have a proscribed set of additional behaviorism that everyone must act out at certain times in the show. Just image, wrestlers beating on each other, the crowd roaring, and then ten fans among the chaos silently remembering the woman whom we all loved in our own way.
* * *
Wrestler found dead was the headline I read when glancing at the news that day in March. Almost immediately, I thought, “Oh shit … who is it now?” As an avid wrestling fan that was well aware of the sad lives of wrestlers long before Mickey Rourke’s film The Wrestler, I read the line with trepidation and concern but sadly without much surprise. I already knew about the cancer of the drug abuse, murders, suicides, broken homes and marriages infecting the sad history of the business, so it was tough not to be cynical.
Staring at the headline, I quickly realized that the lack of name probably indicated that the deceased was most likely one of the less famous wrestlers. If Hulk Hogan or Rick Flair had passed — events that would also break my heart — I was sure their names would appear in the title rather than vaguely embedded somewhere in the article. I’m not proud to admit that the thought that one of my childhood heroes hadn’t yet died was somewhat of a relief to me. Relief, but still saddening nonetheless.
The final thought to flash in my mind the split second before the screen loaded and the mystery was resolved was that I hoped it was one of old-timers. One of the wrestlers from back in the old days when the business was new and the country was still divided into territories. I hoped it was someone who had lived a long full life and had died in their sleep while surrounded by family and friends. Admittedly, though these thoughts may possess a certain amount of callousness, just the idea of another wrestler dying far before their time was just too much to bear, again.
* * *
As a wrestling fan, I’ve always tended to root for the bad guys. Although starting off as a good guy when he first debuted in the WWE in 1998, Test seemed to fit better in the role of villain as his career progressed. By mid-2000, he was a tough as hell bad guy who wasn’t above cheating, but certainly didn’t rely on that as his only means of winning. Standing 6’6” and weighing 250+ plus pounds, Test hardly needed to cheat in order to win; sometimes he’d just beat the hell out of his opponent using his multitude of powerful finishing moves. I liked that; I relished every minute of his performance. While I always respected the wrestlers whose technical prowess overcame their physical limitations, such as highfliers and submission people, the wrestlers that I loved most were the big guys with the big moves, wrestlers like Kevin Nash, Kane, The Undertaker, and most importantly, Test.
March again, and I read the news numbly. CNN explained that Martin had been found dead in his home. I quickly navigated to Wikipedia (which rather morbidly has more insider information when celebrities die than most news organizations) and read about how his neighbors had called the police after watching Martin sit motionlessly in his chair for several hours. The autopsy would later report that Test died from an overdose of Oxycondone. Interested in learning more, especially because my regular studies and work provided far less time to devote to watching wrestling, I continued reading and learned that Test had left the WWE and joined TNA (Total Nonstop Action) briefly before announcing his retirement in 2007. The Wikipedia entry also alluded to a controversy about his use of steroids being a contributing factor in his leaving the wrestling profession.
Sitting in my office, Wikipedia wide open, I was surprised at how sad I’d become over the course of just a few minutes. I had never met the man in real life; I had only known his wrestling persona. But suspension of disbelief runs deep in the wrestling community, and it’s hard to divorce the man from the character. So I found myself saddened by the death of a person I didn’t really know at all — yet that estrangement didn’t make it easier.
* * *
Not knowing exactly how to react to the news of a death is a strange feeling to say the least. When a family member or close friend dies, there’s a prescribed grieving process which is based on the proximity and emotional intensity of the relationship. Consequently, if your heart and your brain still can’t come to terms with the death, you can follow the readily available templates: crying, stoic silence, inappropriate humor, time off work, lamenting with fellow bereaved, among others. And yet when Test died, the sorrow I felt was genuine, but I had no clue how to express my grief. Was it foolish to cry for someone I’d never met? Was it ridiculous to grieve over the death of an entertainer you only knew by the character they played on television?
In addition to the general sorrow of knowing that yet another tragedy had befallen a seemingly-cursed industry, I also felt this loss far more personally than any of the other professionals whose deaths I had mourned in passing. When Miss Elizabeth died, I honored her memory with friends and strangers at the Arco Arena. When Guerrero died, I watched his tribute show on Monday Night Raw and wept along with the fans and wrestlers.
When Test died, however, I knew that I would be in a unique minority. Fan websites would of course have messages of condolence, but that would be all. When a popular wrestler died, I could share the sorrow with the majority of the wrestling community that had been robbed of one of its own heroes. With Guerrero, my grief was felt and consoled by the broken hearts of fans all over the world, but with Test, I knew my grieving process would be relatively lonely. There were some touching memorial videos posted on YouTube, but that just further underscored how solitary this type of grieving process was.
* * *
With all that emotion and nowhere to express my sorrow, I decided to honor Test in the only way I knew how. Once my papers were graded and the next days lecture notes prepared, I went home that night and searched through my DVD collection of WWE pay-per-views. For some reason, I looked for one match in particular: King of the Ring (2002). As part of the qualifying bracket unique to that pay-per-view episode, Test was matched up to fight against Brock Lesnar.
Even before the match started, everyone knew Lesnar was winning the whole thing. The WWE had introduced him a few months prior, and the head honchos were pushing him hard and fast into the spotlight. I disliked his character from the beginning, and honestly, nothing he ever did in the ring made me rethink my position. Naturally, when Test was set to battle him at the pay-per-view, I was intrigued. First of all, they were both villains, and given the rarity of two bad guys fighting each other — especially because these arrangements mess up many of the proscribed tropes and gimmicks — I had to watch. Secondly, they were both massive guys too, so neither one of them would be able to rely on their strength, simply overpowering their opponent as they often did.
Lesnar won the match of course, but one thing that made me feel good was the positive way that the fans reacted to Test. Although Test was an entrenched villain, he was clearly a fan favorite over Lesnar and received impressive applause whenever he landed a major move on his opponent. Yet despite the loss, I still remember that match as one of my favorites. For starters, my dislike of Lesnar was equally proportional to my support of Test, so you can imagine my glee watching Lesnar get knocked around in a way a man his size rarely does. Furthermore, it was amazing to see so many fans cheering for Test (at least for that match), a glory he hopefully remembered (like me) until his final days.
Maybe Test wasn’t always the bad guy, and maybe we shouldn’t love villains, but evil wrestling was what he did best. In fact, seeing him march to the ring like a Viking conqueror and cheering for him along with his legion of fans was a great validation. A great feeling, a great match — that is how I choose to remember Andrew Martin. That March evening, watching that fight again, screaming at the television when Lesnar’s manager interfered and Test was pinned, afterwards I started applauding, somehow relieved, somehow purged of the strong emotions that lacked voice until that moment.
Some people may not find Martin’s death as particularly tragic as me. Some would dismiss the whole incident as the just desserts of a life spent indulging in drugs and celebrity. And yet I can’t help but feel strangely culpable in some way, too. Oxycondone? He had died of an overdose of pain killers, no doubt needed after torturing his body and sacrificing his health trying to please the fans. Did my cheers contribute to his eventual demise? Did my persistent taunting and raging encouragement urge him to push himself too far, breaking his muscle and bones that ached with a pain that would not shrink?
Reflecting now, I can’t help but remember Mickey Rourke’s lines at the end of The Wrestler, when he tells the crowd that he’ll keep doing it (wrestling) as long as they keep cheering, which obviously raises an interesting point about the potential guilt that the fans share with the great wrestlers who have met their end too early in life, just like Test and so many others. Honestly, I don’t know whose to blame, and I don’t know how to fix the systemic tragedy so entrenched within the entertainment I love. However, I do know this: I was a fan of Andrew Martin, and he shall be missed.