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Half a dozen active wrestlers and wrestling personalities died during the ratings war, mainly between the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling, as punishing road schedules, painkillers, and ever more fantastic stunts were offered to television audiences hungry for the spectacle of gladiators.
It all started in 1995 when the WCWat the time Ted Turner's outfitdecided to go head-to-head against the WWF by airing its show Nitro against the WWF's Monday Night Raw, which was then airing on the USA Network. Television wrestling was a relatively staid affaircartoony characters went through the motions of beating "jobbers," or no-name wrestlers with no hope of winning, to entice people to attend the next local event, or "house show," or to buy the next pay-per-view. Nitro changed the rules. It pitted top stars against one another in PPV-caliber events, and dipped into Time Warner's kitty to sign up some of the biggest stars, many of whom were working for the WWF at the time. Wrestlers jumping ship from one company to another, and a new hardcore style that combined high-flying antics, a number of prop garbage cans, folding chairs and ladders, and classic wrestling maneuvers fueled the immense ratings increase that the industry saw in the mid and late 1990s.
The action may be scripted, but the deaths are real. They rose as the stakes got higher.
"These things have happened over the past 15 or so years," says Dave Meltzer, who runs the Wrestling Observer, a "sheet" of inside wrestling information, but "really escalated in the last three or four years."
Brian Pillman was the first major post-Nitro casualty. He had wrestled on the first-ever Nitro match for WCW, and then, after an injury, spent a brief time in ECW to build momentum for his leap to the WWF, where his character wrestled with his own personal demons. Formerly a high-flying wrestler, Pillman suffered an ankle injury that forced him to change his style to straightforward brawling and his character to a loose cannon. Like many other wrestlers with nagging injuries, industry insiders say, he abused prescription painkillers.
On October 5, 1997, just before the PPV event Badd Blood, he was found dead in a hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota, thanks to a heart attack brought on by heart disease and possibly complicated by prescription drugs. The WWF responded by hyping an interview with Pillman's widow, Melanie Pillman, the next night on Raw.
Eric Bischoff, at the time the public face of World Championship Wrestling, where Pillman had spent most of his career, took the time to point out that the WCW had random drug-testing policies. He also said, in an online chat, "If there was ever one decision that I could change, and ever one time in my wrestling lifetime that I could turn back the clock and change the way things happened, I would have gone the extra mile to make sure Brian stayed with WCW."
The WCW was soon to have its own deaths, though.
"The WCW was the one with the really scary deaths," says Meltzer. "After Pillman, the WWF sent guys to rehab."
Asked about the WWF's response to Pillman's death, WWF spokesman Judd Everhart says, "Brian Pillman died from heart failure, and his death did not have any impact on our talent policies. We have worked with our talent over the years to help them with any health issues they may have faced and continue to follow that practice today."
But after Pillman, the deaths continued. On February 15, 1998, Louis Mucciolo, who wrestled under the name of Louie Spicolli for the WCW and who had also recently jumped from ECW, died of an overdose of Carisoprodol, a prescription muscle relaxant. Spicolli, who was only 27, was just beginning to get recognition among the fans and substantial TV time. He was starting to get what wrestlers know as "the push," the all-important determinant of income. Being pushed by promoters means TV time and merchandising and, from the wrestler's perspective, increased bargaining power. The push, however, is in the hands of the promoters who develop characters and write the segments.
"It leads to a paranoid life," Meltzer says. Spicolli, who wrestled for the ECW and the WWF (as Rad Radford), had a bad drug problem, says Meltzer.
The WCW was well-known as having an exceptionally paranoid locker room during the wrestling wars. Bischoff spent millions signing top talent, and keeping all those egos happy with their separate pushes led to ridiculous storylines, changes in direction, and wild physical stunts. The WCW frequently went for the quick payoff, such as when it lured the semi-retired Rick Rude away from both the WWF and ECW. When he died of a heart attack at age 40 in April 1999, Rude was training for a comeback, but for the WWF.
"He was probably 'roided up at the time," Meltzer says.
Only a couple of months earlier, a wrestler on the way down perished. Rick Wilson had gotten what the fan sheets called "a semi-major push" in 1995 by the WCW. The fans had been promised an "ultimate surprise" by WWF-turned-WCW star Hulk Hogan and were primed to expect the long-missing Ultimate Warrior, a 1980s WWF superstar. Instead, they were introduced to Wilson as "the Renegade." He was lost in the shuffle and reduced to jobbing on WCW's second-tier shows. He was then let go by the WCW. In February 1999, a despondent Wilson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The most spectacular wrestling death in 1999 was that of Owen Hart of the WWF. While the WCW was well-known for repackaging old WWF wrestlers and concepts and selling them to new fans, the WWF also took a few jabs at its competition. The WCW often had its main event star Sting descend via cable from the rafters like a superhero. Once in the ring, he would clobber opponents with a baseball bat. The WWF, riffing on the storyline, dressed accomplished technical wrestler Owen Hart as the comical Blue Blazer and started sending him down from the rafters as well.
The joke soured on May 23, 1999, during a PPV event, when Hart fell from the rafters to the ring in Kansas City's Kemper Arena. The lights were down, so the audience did not see Hart fall, but they did watch him get carried backstage, where he died while the event was still under way. While online fans were alerted to Hart's death immediately, the thousands of people watching the show live were not told of Hart's backstage death, and the show went on. The next night, on Raw, a "memorial" episode featured heartfelt statements by wrestlers. The WWF also sent a busload of wrestlers and cameras to Hart's funeral, and eventually sent a bundle to Hart's family, which received a huge settlement, reportedly $18 million.
The final wrestling-war death was in 2000, when WCW wrestler Bobby Duncum Jr., who spent most of his career in Japan before working in the ECW and then jumping to the WCW, OD'd on painkillers and alcohol.
By the time Duncum died, though, the war was nearly over. WCW exhausted the possibilities of its "New World Order" storyline, and its bloated roster of aging stars cost the company tens of millions of dollars. Its ratings collapsed while the WWF cashed in on its new stars, like Triple H, the Rock, and former Olympian Kurt Angle. Little ECW suffered the most, as both the larger operations frequently raided its talent. ECW filed for bankruptcy, and earlier this year the WCW was put up for sale.
Today, the WWF holds a monopoly over pro wrestling as powerful as Microsoft's grip on software. Except for a few small promoters who run shows out of high school gyms and air their programs on local TV, the WWF is the first, last, and only stop for wrestlers. Meanwhile, the chances of unionization are near nil, and the WWF is already cutting some of the stars who helped it win the war, including Chyna, who had a bestselling book under her championship belt.
The question no one can answer yet is whether Vince McMahon, who has finally become the undisputed boss, rules over what might be the bombed-out remains of a war-torn industry.