Jim Hellwig, better known as The Ultimate Warrior, passed away Tuesday April 8. His sudden death occurred only days after his return to WWE as a spokesperson and his indictment into WWE’s Hall of Fame. Although authorities have not yet released the cause of death, TMZ reports that Hellwig, who legally changed his name to Warrior in 1993, collapsed outside of his hotel in Arizona and was pronounced dead at the hospital. The death of the middle-aged Ultimate Warrior came as a shock to fans that witnessed his spirited return to the WWE ring only a day earlier, but the Warrior’s death reveals a bigger problem in the world of professional wrestling.
Friends and fans of the Warrior expressed their shock at the wrestler’s sudden death, and many of his colleagues took to Twitter to reach out to Warrior fans and offer condolences to his family. The news of his death came off the heels of the Warrior’s first appearance in the WWE ring in 18 years. The Warrior climbed into the ring one last time the night before his death, donning a mask reminiscent of The Ultimate Warrior’s famous face paint. He was not there to wrestle, and instead delivered a bizarrely appropriate speech to rowdy fans about the fleeting nature of life saying, “every man’s heart one day beats its final beat.” Naturally, when the news broke a day later, fans were praying it was not suicide.
It wasn’t suicide. Instead, the Warrior’s death is a tragic part of a frightening epidemic that is rarely addressed in the world of professional wrestling. Indeed, the Warrior’s death reveals a bigger problem in the WWE, a problem demonstrated by the average mortality rate of pro wrestlers. The Warrior was only 54, and in the last 10 years alone at least 15 of WWE’s professional wrestlers have died of heart complications, drug overdoses, or suicide before reaching the age of 60. Although the WWE fights are staged, the hits the athletes take to their bodies are real, resulting in real long-term damage. Professional wrestlers belong to a culture of athletes who abuse their bodies with a range of performance enhancing and pain-killing drugs. While there has been no confirmation of drug abuse in the case of the Ultimate Warrior’s untimely death, drug abuse in the industry is something almost all professional wrestlers admit to.
When a wrestler like the Ultimate Warrior dies in middle-age, fans and colleagues seem shocked, but the least common way for a professional wrestler to die is of old age. The industry encourages a vicious cycle of bodily harm and drug abuse. Many professional wrestlers use steroids, or gain dangerous amounts of body fat in order to possess the kind of body required to be a formidable presence in the ring. Over the years, the added bulk takes a toll on the body and heart, which must work harder than necessary to support the extra weight. Professional wrestlers often sustain severe injuries while performing stunts in the ring and then turn to painkillers to manage the pain, but the painkillers often act as a sedative so they then rely on stimulants to recapture their performance edge. This type of prolonged drug abuse is often deadly even after wrestlers are well into retirement. Details of the Warrior’s death have not been released to the public but the Warrior’s body mass alone suggests, in the very least, steroid use.
This cycle of pain, drugs, and performance is commonplace within the culture of pro wrestling, and wrestlers who want to enjoy fame are expected to do whatever it takes to secure their place in an industry that often exploits its athletes, discarding them once they are no longer able to perform. There is little support offered to the athletes who are injured or become dependent on drugs, and wrestlers are left with few options once their fleeting careers are over. There is no question that the world of professional wrestling is extremely competitive, and the Warrior was no stranger to the cut throat practices of the WWE over the stretch of his career. Wrestlers are on the road for over 300 days a year, they sustain severe injuries that often lead to drug abuse, but there is also a psychological component that the industry seems reluctant to address. There are very few options for a wrestler after their career has ended, so in many cases they they struggle with depression once their wrestling personas are no longer relevant.
Professional wrestlers have to be willing to go the extra mile to attain glory, doing whatever they must to perform, and many of those who rise to stardom very quickly watch their fame slip away, forgotten by fans until their final fall far from the spotlight.
Commentary by Sandra Pugliese