An Open Letter, taken from Countdown to Lockdown
Of course, as it turned out, there was far more to the Benoit deaths than originally thought. For reasons that may never be completely known, Chris Benoit murdered his wife and child before taking his own life. This series of events shook the foundations of the wrestling world, and for a long time — weeks, months — it made me feel self conscious and even ashamed to be part of the business. There had been brief moments of time over the course of my career where I might have wondered just what I was doing in a business that can be occasionally heartless and uncaring, but for the first few weeks following those previously unthinkable actions, I actually felt ill at ease just walking around, thinking I would be looked at, pointed to, and talked about as “one of them.”
The press didn’t help much. It seemed for the most part that they were interested only in ratings and information that fit into their two-word sound-bite explanation: “ ’roid rage.” I’m not really into bashing the mainstream media, but it would certainly seem that with so many hours to fill on cable news, there should have been more room for some nuanced reporting and actual investigation instead of a parade of talking heads and a grand rush to judgment. I almost became one of those talking heads, after agreeing to do The O’Reilly Factor, before a friend at ChildFund International convinced me to reconsider. “You’ve done so much to help people,” she said. “Are you sure you want to jeopardize all that to be on his show?”
“I think we could have a good conversation,” I said.
“Yes, Mick, you could . . . but that’s really his choice. Do you want to trust him to make that choice for you?”
Not really. Which was probably a good decision, especially after seeing Bill tee off on one of his wrestling guests (I can’t honestly remember who — there were so many of them for a few weeks) for no real reason, and then present cherry-picked information on the famous Lionel Tate murder case without ever mentioning that the judge and jury had unanimously rejected the Tate defense team’s bogus “wrestling defense.” (They had attempted to blame the murder of a little girl on Tate’s imitating moves he had seen on pro-wrestling television shows.) I’m not really bashing O’Reilly, either; he was no worse than anybody else out there, even if his reporting on the Tate case was a pretty good case of putting a little misleading spin into the “no-spin zone.”
But there was part of me that really wanted to talk. I felt like the wrestling business was being unfairly blamed for the heinous Benoit deaths, and I wanted to defend it. But so many of the guys in the wrestling business came off poorly — even Kevin Nash, one of the smartest guys in the business, wasn’t allowed to make valid points without enduring constant interruption on Hannity & Colmes. Really, only Chris Jericho and Bret Hart came across truly well — in Jericho’s case, because he was smart enough to agree to appear only if he wasn’t part of a panel of guests, where arguing and yelling are seemingly encouraged.
I wanted to have my say, but I came to the conclusion that it would be better to do so after the smoke had cleared and the scramble for ratings had dissipated. I felt like this issue would be with us in the wrestling business for a long time to come, and eventually I would have a chance to make some sort of sense out of it. I even thought about writing a novel, Letters to Eddie, attempting to get into Chris Benoit’s head during those last few months of his life and explain the frustration, rage, and fear that he may have expressed through his journals to his deceased best friend, Eddie Guerrero. I had so many ideas running through my head during those first few weeks, and I was looking for some way to get them out. I absolutely knew that it wasn’t as simple as the ’roid rage the press was attempting to pin the blame on, or, later, the head injuries that Chris’s father was placing all of his faith in as an explanation. Of course, Benoit’s history of steroid use may have been one part of the problem, as may have been a history of possible concussions. But I believe each of these was just a simple ingredient in a complex stew of factors, stirred and seasoned over time and circumstance, eventually bubbling forth at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way.
I think it’s entirely possible (perhaps even probable) that Benoit would have never gotten a series of big career breaks had he not had the impressive physique that anabolic steroids helped make possible. But at a certain point, when he had been a big star for many years, I think the only person who thought Chris Benoit still needed steroids to maintain his career was Chris himself. Apparently Chris was so psychologically dependent on maintaining his look that he didn’t cycle off steroids even when recuperating from neck surgery, when he wouldn’t be in the public eye for several months. So there is a chance that his longtime usage may have played a contributory role, but the idea of the guy just “snapping” due to steroid use struck me as highly unlikely, especially given the drawn-out nature of the murders/suicide.
I completely understand the emphasis that Chris Benoit’s father has placed on his son’s head injuries as an attempt to explain the unexplainable; living with the tragedy and the knowledge that his son was responsible for these deaths is a burden too great for me to even imagine. I heard Mr. Benoit on a television show, talking about the severity of the blows Chris had taken over the years from chairs, tables, garbage cans — all the stuff that I’m pretty closely associated with. To be sure, Chris had some experience with those types of matches, but I think that it’s more likely that his traumatic brain injuries were a result of a hard-hitting style that really never relented over the course of time.
Everything he did was just so intense; every forearm, every suplex, every one of those diving head butts from the top rope. I thought he might come back from his neck surgery with a slightly more relaxed style; certainly I thought he’d take the top-rope head butt out of his repertoire of regular moves.
As a matter of necessity, most guys who wrestle in a physically demanding style will eventually find a way to ease up, to change their style, to incorporate a little levity into their character if they want to continue wrestling past the point where Mother Nature starts suggesting they slow down. Just about everyone who has had a long run in a top spot has found a way. I know I did, practically turning a 180 and becoming a comedic character with a sock puppet after so many years of doing all that hardcore stuff. But Benoit never changed. He was still pretty much full tilt every night, with very little in the way of comedy or even promos to take the pressure off his body, especially when it came to absorbing some type of punishment to the head on an almost nightly basis.
I’m not trying to sell the gravity of the concussion crisis in the wrestling business short, either. Believe me, I think about it every single day, wondering if I took too many head shots for too long, and what type of price I may eventually pay for doing so. I think there was some argument to make years ago that taking unprotected chair shots to the head was the right thing to do for business. I mean it looked so convincing on camera, back in the day when people still could be emotionally swayed by that type of image. Now, it’s a ridiculous argument to even have. Barring some huge angle, where a chair shot absolutely, positively, has to look devastating on camera (and even then it’s questionable), every wrestler needs to get those hands up when a chair is headed their way.
A few months ago, after a couple years of persistence on the part of my friend Chris Nowinski, I agreed to contribute posthumous samples of my brain to the Sports Legacy Institute, the group that Nowinski cofounded after his own pro-wrestling career was cut short due to a history of concussions. It’s not like I find the image of a drill burring its way into my brain after death to be a real comforting one. But afterdoing some studying on all the problems associated with concussions in football, hockey, wrestling, and just about any contact sport, I do realize the great importance of this type of science, and I hope that my life and career can be of some use to others after I’m gone.
A few months after the Benoit deaths, I asked WWE if I could speak to the wrestlers in their two developmental territories, Ohio Valley Wrestling and Florida Championship Wrestling, and pass on whatever knowledge or advice I could in order to possibly prevent any further tragedy in the future. In truth, the Benoit situation was probably some kind of perfect horrible storm, the likes of which our business will never see again, but one need only look at the ever-expanding list of wrestler deaths to see that certain mistakes keep being made over and over again. It was my intent to arm those young wrestlers with as much information as possible so they could make the best possibledecisions for themselves. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but at the very least I hoped that my experiences and advice would add another voice to a much-needed conversation about life and death in the world of professional wrestling.
Maybe it could even act as food for thought, which the younger guys could feel free to digest and absorb, or eliminate from their systems as quickly as possible. I thought the talks were very effective — and who knows, maybe some of it even sank in. I spoke to a total of maybe one hundred men and women, all wrestlers that WWE had thought enough of to have in their developmental program. These men and women were set to become the stars of tomorrow — some of them already have. But there are thousands of professional wrestlers out there, and no possible way to talk to them all. So I’m going to use this chapter as a means of hopefully reaching a few more. Again, I’m not going to pretend to have all of the answers, or that listening to me is going to have a profound effect on many lives. But I am hoping to get through to a few. And though I usually try my best not to be preachy, in this case, I probably do know more than almost any of you. So I’m going to do my best to share my feelings/knowledge/advice, in what I would like to think of as an open letter to every wrestler: past, present, and future.
I’m going to start out by acknowledging this incredibly sobering list of young wrestlers’ deaths. In 2001, when Foley Is Good was published, I had a list of only four wrestlers whose deaths may have been attributed in part to problems with prescription drugs, which was then, and still is, the biggest problem concerning these deaths in the wrestling business. Maybe I didn’t have all the facts, or maybe I just had my head in the sand, because the problem was surely bigger than I described it then, and has gotten far worse since that time. I know there are all kinds of different lists concerning wrestlers’ deaths out there, with all different types of criteria, but for the sake of this book I looked at wrestlers who died at fifty or younger in the last twenty years and whose deaths might possibly be seen as unnatural. So I didn’t include people like Brian Hildebrand, one of my very best friends, who died of stomach cancer, or others whose deaths, however tragic, could not be linked to wrestling in any realistic way.
There are sixty-six names on my list; it’s far from complete, as I have chosen only the names of wrestlers who had some type of regional or national success. If I were to include all the deaths involving young, independent wrestlers, I know the list would be far more extensive.
Still, sixty-six wrestlers is an incredible number. Out of those sixty-six, I knew forty-nine. Out of those forty-nine, I considered myself friendly with thirty of them. Thirty human beings I knew well and liked — gone before age fifty.
These losses used to devastate me. But in the last several years, there have just been so many, so often, that I’ve almost built up an immunity to it; it’s like I can no longer mourn deaths that I almost expect to occur. And that is a pretty sad statement. It makes me feel somehow less human, and in truth it probably offers some explanation as to why I am no longer close with many guys in the business. I think it’s almost a defense mechanism to protect myself from the inevitable sadness of losing even more friends in the future. I would most likely be deceiving myself to think that the news of my own death would be much news at all . . . and that’s a sad statement, too.
Okay, enough of the sad statements. Let’s see what we can do about it. When I was a kid, maybe eight or nine, I read a statistic claiming that NFL football players had a life expectancy of forty-two. For the life of me, I can’t find that statistic now — at least not with my limited web-surfing skills, but I can almost swear to its existence; most likely in Sports Illustrated, Sport, or Sporting News, as those were my three go-to magazines when I was that age. So, even though I can’t find that statistic or prove it, I’d like all of you to accept it, at least long enough for me to explain it as it pertains to pro wrestling. Now, when I was a kid, that statistic baffled me — a forty-two-year life expectancy. How could that possibly be? But my mother explained it in a way that made a little more sense of it. “Mickey, people who are drawn to pro football are going to be more likely to be drawn to other things in life that are going to be dangerous. They will be more likely to drive fast, live fast,and die fast.”
Like the statistic itself, my mother’s explanation can’t be proven, but it made perfect sense to me then. As I became involved with pro wrestling, I saw my mother’s explanation in action. The guys I met lived lives filled with risks both inside and outside the ring. Wrestlingis really not a profession likely to draw from those who have done a careful analysis of risk and reward, because anyone who weighs such things carefully would stay far away from a business like ours. The chances of making a decent living are small, the chances of ending up broke are good, and the chances of living the rest of your life in somedegree of pain because of the foolishness of pursuing this dream are almost guaranteed.
NBC did an intriguing story during its 2010 Winter Olympics coverage, asking whether some of the Olympians drawn to the more potentially dangerous events might actually have a different genetic makeup than those who avoid such things as half-pipes, ski jumps, moguls, and the adrenaline rush of world-class downhill speed.From what I could tell (including a couple of hours of follow-up research), the answers were inconclusive, but I think it’s a question worthy of asking and scientifically researching. I know during the course of my career I may have struck many as something of a thrill seeker; a guy who needed a fix of danger every now and then. I guess that’s the way I struck the producers of the Dr. Phil show, as I was recently asked (and declined) to be on an episode about “adrenaline junkies,” or something of that nature. In truth, I just didn’t think I accurately fit the bill. I just can’t envision myself on a motorcycle, a snowboard, skis (water or snow), or any number of commonly accepted adventurer apparatuses without wiping out and getting badly injured.
So common sense tells me to stay far away from those types of things. I weigh the risk/reward ratio for such activities and overwhelmingly err on the side of caution. I don’t even drive particularly fast. But for some reason, pro wrestling has historically been the one area of my life where caution has repeatedly been thrown to the wind, and where that risk/reward ratio has sometimes been thrown away completely. I vividly recall being told how dangerous the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, was before flying there twice in 1987. For many years, I remember seeing signs at every international airport I flew out of, stating that the Lagos airport did not meet international safety standards. The Federal Aviation Administration even suspended service between Lagos and the United States in 1993. Yet such knowledge wasn’t even a consideration when I was given the chance to wrestle in Nigeria. Even when I was given a one- way ticket to Lagos. Even when I handed my passport to a man who bypassed customs and immigration — and kept the passport with him for the duration of the trip.
It wasn’t as if I was stupid. I was a recent college graduate and had even received an award for being an outstanding student in my major. But in 1987 (and for many years after), I just didn’t consider the possible risks when it came to the decision-making process in so many aspects of professional wrestling. I made it to shows no matter what. If a flight was canceled because of weather, I got in my car and drove. On occasions when my car broke down, I left it on the side of the road and hitchhiked. That’s just the way it was when I broke in and, in many ways, the way it still is for people who choose to pursue dreams that often don’t coincide with logical thought processes.
Obviously, there is an upside to the realization of those illogical dream pursuits. But there is a heck of a price to pay for those who willingly go through life with blinders on — even when those dreams come true. So the people who are drawn to pro wrestling are likely to ignore the risks not only of being pummeled on a nightly basis, but of just about every other facet of life as well: driving fast, drinking hard, driving fast while drinking hard, and living life itself in that proverbial fast lane. We’ve got some extreme personalities in our world; guys who seem bigger than life in the ring often don’t know how to turn off that persona once they leave the ring.
The best wrestling characters are usually just natural extensions of a performer’s real self — with the volume turned up. And throughout the decades, torrid tales of the wrestling lifestyle have filled dressing rooms from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. But those lifestyles — more alcohol, more drugs, more women, more cars, more money — come with a price. And that price quite often includes a shortened life. So many of the lives on that list of sixty-six names were ended by heart attacks — almost half of them, by my count. Some have links to use (and possible abuse) of prescription drugs, some to steroid abuse, some to the cocaine heyday of the 1980s. In so many cases, wrestlers have just attempted to pack too many excesses into too few years.
I think things are changing for the better, even if some of the changes have been slow in coming and sometimes were forced from the outside world. Guys take better care of their bodies now, and there is not nearly as much pressure to conform to a late-night-party atmosphere in order to gain acceptance among one’s peers. Sure, instances of late-night debauchery still take place, but not on such a regular basis.
Drug testing has certainly helped. For years I wondered how wrestlers could travel from city to city, collecting prescriptions from doctors across the country, treating the world as one giant pharmacy. In FoleyIs Good I wondered about some type of national database and whether the lack of such a thing was financially motivated — because in the end everything seems to come down to money. I don’t know if such a database currently exists, but I know WWE and TNA are doing their best to ensure that no wrestler has more than one physician. Now that doesn’t mean that guys won’t find ways to cheat the system or won’t find doctors willing to overprescribe legal medications, but I think this step has been a highly effective one in limiting the potential misuse of prescription drugs.
Every wrestler has got to accept that pain is going to be part of the lifestyle, and that the things we do to entertain and to follow our dream are going to lead to a certain amount of discomfort for the rest of our lives. Accept it. Deal with it. Don’t mask it with pills. I’m not saying there is never a need for pain medication. No matter how tough the guy or how strong the will, there will most likely be a time (hopefully a very temporary time) in every wrestler’s life when the pain simply becomes unbearable. And during those certain times, prescribed pain medication certainly can be of great help. For example, while vacationing with my two younger children at Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was slightly dismayed to find that my kneecap had become dislocated during the course of navigating a children’s raft ride.
Hey, these things occasionally happen when one has taken so many chances with his body for so many years. I managed to get the kneecap back into its groove, but the area swelled almost instantly and made movement painful and difficult. With the entire vacation in jeopardy, I made the call to go to the pill bottle (kind of like a baseball manager going to his closer) and was able to return to the park and get through the day with the help of half a Vicodin (or the generic equivalent). There are certainly times when pain medicine can be of great use in a pro wrestler’s life, but the abuse of such medicine is a good way to ruin a career . . . and cut short a life.
I have heard it said that the pro-wrestling lifestyle doesn’t necessarily create personal weaknesses, but it will exploit any weaknesses that an individual might bring with him (or her) into the business. Unlike other sports teams, which travel to venues as a group aboard buses and planes, much of the travel in pro wrestling is done in a personal automobile or rental car. Traveling in such a way, the world can kind of seem like one’s own personal playground, beckoning to each individual to follow his or her heart’s desire. If one has a fondness or a weakness for anything, it’s pretty easy to find it while cruising down life’s highway. If one has a fondness/weakness for alcohol, there’s a favorite bar in every city. Likewise, a fondness/weakness for other substances can be easily exploited. For me, the constant calling from late-night restaurants was almost impossible to resist. I’m one of those guys who uses food as both a reward and a consolation, and I did plenty of both at plenty of late-night diners and fast-food haunts over the years.
And if the drug of choice is women? Well, for so many of the guys throughout pro wrestling’s history, that drug is an awfully tough one to resist. The title character in my novel Tietam Brown was an amalgamation of several of the wrestlers I had seen over the years, who had let their insatiable need for women dominate and eventually destroy their lives. It’s like a sickness, as real as any addiction I’ve ever seen and probably equally damaging both emotionally and financially. It’s not like I’m immune to that sickness, either; being the kid who never could get the girls, transformed into some kind of star with the very real possibility of attracting women, occasionally has me feeling like that proverbial kid in the candy store. It’s like a veritable recipe for disaster — so I just do my very best to stay out of the candy store at all times.
For many years (even decades, from what I’ve heard), the wrestling business seemed to encourage, even nurture, a certain atmosphere of disrespect from its wrestlers toward their female audience. As odd as it sounds now, I think it actually had something to do with perpetuating the legitimacy of good guys and bad guys; a “bad guy” certainly couldn’t have word getting around that he was nice to women . . . or, even worse, that he’d been a gentle, sensitive lover! So guys were encouraged to be kind of crummy to the girls, even if they weren’t being blatantly mean. I even had my job threatened one night in 1988, by a booker who had seen me talking to a girl in a wheelchair after the matches in Evansville, Indiana. The girl, Terri DePriest, had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and thus a limited time to live, but in the interest of remaining a “bad guy,” I was told not to let anyone see me speaking to her again. I may have really needed that job, butfortunately that was one order I deliberately disobeyed. For the most part, much of that type of mentality has gone theway of the Burgermeister Meisterburger’s laws concerning Kris Kringle in the Rankin-Bass Claymation classic Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Most of the guys in the business realize that it’s a new day and that most of those old philosophies regarding women no longer pertain to them. Still, there’s this subtle sense of disrespect for women that occasionally rears its ugly head, and it’s almost always the wrestler who pays the ultimate price in the end (whether they realize it or not).
I don’t claim to know everything about successful relationships (even though, at twenty years, my relationship has to be some sort of pro-wrestling record), but I can advise any prospective wrestler not to fall into the trap of disrespecting women that has led to so many failed relationships with dire financial and emotional consequences. It bothers me to hear any wrestler still talking about female fans in a derogatory fashion (the common names are ring rat, arena rat, or just plain rat) just because someone had the poor judgment to physically associate with them. Guys should be flattered that women would want to watch them, let alone sleep with them. In so many cases, wrestlers who break into the business without learning to respect women end up lonely, miserable, and destitute, and I’m pretty sure there is a correlation.
And, if I hear of any wrestler messing around with Rohypnol (roofies — the date rape drug), I will do whatever is in my power to make sure they never get booked again. Look, I know that wrestlers are targets: for women, for fights, for\ lawsuits. Just try to remember that as a wrestler you are a public personality with a bull’s-eye on your back. Check IDs, never assume that no means yes, and try to stay out of places where drunk people hang out. I know that seems difficult, and kind of uncool, but unless youhave this real need to spend time in court, watching your hard-earned money go to some drunk in a bar who probably deserved the beating he got, find a new hobby. There’s nothing wrong with being a nerd these days. Hey, half the TNA crew stays in their hotel rooms with their video games, or tweeting, or texting, or possibly even reading. If I could recommend one specific talent to a wrestler who wants to hold on to some of the money he (or she) has made, it would be “enjoy the act of doing nothing.” Enjoy being by yourself in a hotel room, or on a beach, or in front of a computer screen watching, um, movies . . . in moderation, of course. You know, if I was sure I could do it without getting busted by my children, I just might do it, too.
No matter what we get paid, wrestlers work hard for their money. There is a physical and emotional toll for everything we do in the ring. No one gets out of the business without paying some kind of price. So do yourselves a favor and save as much money as you can. As much as you can, whenever you can, for as long as you can. No matter how good you might think you are, or how much you might think you’ll make, everyone is just one wrong move, one bad bump, one missed step, from being out of a job. No one should think of the wrestling business as a lifetime job or a right to make a good living.
With TNA in the picture more wrestlers of different looks can get a fair shot. But there are still only fifty or so really good jobs for the thousands that want them, and most of those thousands are going to be putting an awful lot of faith in one man’s whim. I used to sit in on production meetings when I did some announcing for that man’s company. And that man I’m making reference to, Vince McMahon, well, he kind of changes his mind for any reason he wants, or for noreason at all. So a wrestler, no matter how good, or how popular, or how filled with potential, should probably not rest all his financial dreams, professional hopes, and sense of personal self on the whims of a somewhat impulsive billionaire.
The wrestling business is filled with lists of guys who made a fortune, and guys who are worth a fortune . . . and it’s not the same list. Believe me, there are some big spenders in the business, guys who believe that the good times are never going to end, who have very little, if anything, to show for a lifetime of hard work. On the other hand, there are wrestlers who made steady but never really big money, who nonetheless get to call their own shots in life because they were smart enough to save and invest the money they made, and realized that the business might not always be there to take care of them.
Speaking of being smart — the real world can be a tough place, and you may eventually need every brain cell you can spare. Get as much of an education as you can, so that you’ll have something to fall back on in the event that your life doesn’t work out exactly as you wouldhave booked it. On one of the last days of my WWE stay, when few outside of the front office staff knew of my imminent departure, I asked if I could address the wrestlers in one of the regular talent meetings, held every few weeks. I’m sure there were a couple of anxious momentsfor the front office staff on hand as I made my way to the front of theroom. “Look, I don’t know how many of you follow the stock market, but it’s down right now, and it might be a good time to start thinkingabout funding your own retirement.” I had asked the developmental wrestlers in Ohio Valley and Florida a year earlier if any of them had heard of a Simplified Employee Pension plan. Two or three wrestlers in each place had heard of such a thing. A total of one replied that he had started funding his own retirement through an SEP. I explained that it might seem like it was way too soon to start thinking about retirement, but that no one gets out of the business without paying a price, and the very least they owed themselves was the hope of a dignified retirement and the chance of passing some money down to their heirs. WWE hall of famer Gerald Brisco later remarked that it had been the most important thing said all day. I laughed and said, “Do you think anyone listened?”
“Well, Mick, if just one person listened, it would be worth it.”
Something tells me he was giving our wrestlers way too much credit. Something tells me that very few of them have — but that somewhere down the line, most of them will complain that there is no retirement or pension plan for wrestlers. Look, it would be really nice if a retirement fairy or an insurance fairy floated down and started bestowing nice things like that on us. But it’s not likely to happen. And until it does, it’s really up to you to take the initiative and do the right thing when you’re young enough for it to matter. I think that wrestlers in general have trouble believing in their own mortality, or in the eventuality of their own decline. Wrestling is objective, and rare is the worker I have met who isn’t convinced they’ve still got it. In baseball, it’s so much easier; if you can’t get around on a fastball, you and everyone else is going to know. Wrestling is full of dreamers and the easily confused; guys who performin front of a symphony of silence and then come back to the dressing room, claiming to have had that “silent heat.” We don’t tend to draw those guys who look to get health insurance when they are young and healthy, and insurance is relatively cheap. Although even “relatively cheap” is all relative these days. We don’t draw too many guys who get into the business thinking about compounding interest on their SEP plans when they’re twenty years old. Because if we all thought logically about the future, we’d never get involved in a business like wrestling.
I once talked to Dennis Knight (WCW’s Tex Slazenger, WWE’s Mideon — one of my favorite guys in the business) about saving some money, putting a little away each week, paying his taxes on time, funding his retirement. A few days later, he came up to me, saying my talk had changed his life. “So you started saving?” I said. “Well, I’m going to . . . right after I buy Barry’s bike.” Like they say, you can lead a horse to water . . . but you can’t make him drink. Retirement can be especially tough on a wrestler, even if it’s not a true retirement, but just a retirement from the big time. Life can be tough on a guy who goes from being an action figure on the shelfnext to Spider-Man to being unemployed in a day’s time. If a guyhas a name, he can make some money on the independent circuit,but that’s a tough row to hoe, and fame can be fleeting. The MickeyRourke movie The Wrestler did an incredible job of showing the pitfallsof a career in steep decline — a subject I got a little closer to thanI’d planned when reviewing the film for a respected website, Slate.com. A writer from Sports Illustrated who met me at the media screeningpretty much depicted me in his article as a real-life Randy “the Ram” Robinson (“Finding dignity in retirement can be difficult,” theSI piece said of me) because I had the audacity to appear as SantaClaus later that night at the Twisted Sister holiday show. The writerlater claimed he didn’t know that I was doing the show for free, thatI was a good friend of lead singer Dee Snider, or that I was a huge Santa fanatic.
Here’s the big question, not only for that writer, but for the retiredwrestlers as well as the fans: what exactly is a dignified retirement?What job would have been sufficient for that writer . . . or for our wrestlingfans? What if I really had been being paid to be Santa . . . for just one show, or as a full-time job? Would that really be undignified? Or would it be a pretty cool job for anyone, be they a former wrestler ornot? Putting smiles on kids’ faces — undignified? Not to me.I’m not saying that there haven’t been moments where I’ve wrestled with the dignity, or the lack thereof, that certain situations have presented.
For every college lecture at an MIT or a Notre Dame that I’ve been fortunate to give, there’s been a handful of minor-league baseballmascots to clothesline, or that occasional personal appearancethat the world forgot to attend. But no way am I pleading guilty in the case of the Twisted Sister Santa.
How about being a chef at a restaurant? Justin Credible (former ECW champion) does just that at an Olive Garden, and gets taunted by fans because of it. For doing something he enjoys, that he trainedfor, that he wanted to do. I don’t want to single out wrestling fans as being particularly cruel, especially after having heard the worst that baseball and football fans have to offer. But some of our fans who read the Internet sites, who are familiar with some of the inside sheets, assume that their knowledge is some kind of license to be hurtful or insensitive or mean.
What exactly is an acceptable postwrestling job? Governor? Yes, we’ve had one of those. A member of the Japanese diet (equivalent of a U.S. senator)? We’ve had a couple of those. A New York Times number one best-selling author? Yes, that sounds dignified — unless, of course, that author is wearing a Santa Claus suit. Look, there is no real answer to the question, but to this wrestler, at least, any job done with pride is a dignified job. I recently did a comedy show in Worcester, Massachusetts, that only sixteen people showed up for. Sixteen! I know, because I counted them. I guess I could have seen it as an undignified experience, but I did my very best to entertain the few who were on hand. I left with a definite feeling of accomplishment, because I knew I’d taken pride in the work I’d done, despite the small crowd.
And if you never hit the big time, and don’t have occasion to save a lot of money — so what? Have fun anyway; just be reasonable with your goals. Give yourself a realistic timeline for success and stick to it. I gave myself until I was twenty-six to start making a decent living, and hope I would have been brave enough to push the fantasy world of pro wrestling aside if that time had arrived and I was still living week to week. Some of the happiest wrestlers I know are guys who realized their time was up and entered the real world full-time, while still playing superhero a couple of weekends a month. They’re no twaiting every day for that phone to ring, or that e-mail to arrive, or that text to come, or whatever method guys hope and pray their break will come by these days. For your sake, I hope it does. But it’s always best to have a Plan B in life.
I sometimes look back on my adventures in the world of pro wrestling the way Dorothy described her journey in The Wizard of Oz — some of it was horrible, but most of it was beautiful. Even though I agree partially with her sentiment that “there’s no place like home,” I wonder how long Dorothy herself would have felt that way. Would she really have been content to confine herself to a mundane existence on a Kansas farm? Maybe for a while. But something tells me that after that while, Dorothy would have started yearning for another journey over the rainbow.
Pro wrestling, even on its smallest scale, is about as close to that journey as I can imagine. Good guys, bad guys, costumes, fakers, treachery, joy, heartbreak, beauty, friendship. Even in my early days — the ten-dollar payoffs, the nights sleeping in the car — there was no experience that could even come close, even after encountering more than a few men who seemed to lack brains and/or hearts. I know how lucky I am that I never truly had to leave it; that I can jump between that “no place like home” feeling and that yellow brick road any time I want.
Most wrestlers don’t have that luxury. For many, the transition from fictional battles with in-ring foes to real-life battles with grocery bills and mortgage payments is a difficult one. For some, it’s heartbreaking and unbearable, especially when maintaining the belief (however right or wrong) that the business didn’t treat them right. The baggage one accumulates along the way — bad habits, addictions, long-term injuries (including repetitive concussions) — can make that transition feel almost impossible. Depression is frequent — and more than a few of the men on that list of wrestlers who died too young decided that no life at all was better than the one they had remaining.
I wish I had a simple solution to all of the challenges the prowrestling business faces. Or all of the challenges that confront every wrestler — past, present, and future. I can’t say for sure how I would have reacted, or how life would have worked out for me, if a couple of important people hadn’t seen something in me, or if a couple of lucky breaks hadn’t worked out my way. But I hope I would have had the wisdom and sense to leave the business better in some way than I found it. Stone Cold Steve Austin caught some flak when he was rumored to have said something along the lines of “Stop dying; you’re making the business look bad” at a WWE talent meeting a few years ago — but I think there’s something to that sentiment.
There are all kinds of possible excuses but no legitimate reasons for the staggeringlist of deaths I’ve tried to address. We’ve all got to realize that as horrible as it can sometimes be, and as beautiful as it often is, this wrestling business of ours is not worth dying over.
There you go — thousands of words of advice from a guy with a history of head injuries. I don’t expect anything I’ve written to have too much of an effect on anyone, but in the words of Gerald Brisco, “If one person listened, it would be worth it.”
Taken from Countdown To Lockdown: A Hardcore Journey by Mick Foley, published by Grand Central Publishing, 2010.