The Tragic End To The Von Erich Brothers And 10 More Pro Wrestler Deaths Throughout History

The death of a public figure can be extraordinarily saddening. But in addition to the unfortunate passings of various actors, artists, and musicians, we are going to also cover the deaths of professional wrestlers throughout history. The new release of A24 biopic The Iron Claw deals with the lives of the famous Von Erichs, a band of brothers whose claim to fame in the 1980s arose from wrestling. Making a name for themselves in an extremely competitive field, the Von Erichs lived lives of tragedy and triumph, much like the professional wrestlers we’ve wrote about below.

From the mysterious murder of Dino Bravo to the bleak end of Sylvester Ritter, here are just some of many professional wrestlers who met unfortunate ends.

Randy Savage Didn’t Die In A Car Accident, Despite What Early Reports Say

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When Randy “Macho Man” Savage passed on May 20, 2011, it was first reported that he’d been in a car crash. Savage, who’d been traveling in a car with his wife Barbara in Florida, reportedly lost consciousness and crashed into a tree.

Autopsy results later indicated Savage hadn’t succumbed to injuries he sustained in the crash. He had suffered a “cardiovascular event” that actually caused the crash. Savage, who’d left wrestling years earlier, had no history of heart problems, but his official cause of death was heart disease.

There were minimal amounts of drugs and alcohol found in his body, he had an enlarged heart, and coronary artery disease was present at the time of his death. Barbara was not severely injured in the accident.

After Savage was cremated, his ashes were poured at the same spot on his property where his dog’s remains had been placed just days before. Savage’s brother, Lanny, poured both sets of ashes – an ominous task when he did so for the dog, Hercules. When Randy insisted Lanny pour Hercules’s ashes, Lanny asked why and Randy replied

I want you to do it. If anything happens, I want you to do the same thing with my ashes, the same way, the same place. If it’s good enough for Hercules, it’s good enough for me.

Sylvester Ritter AKA Junkyard Dog Died alone On A Mississippi highway

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Before becoming a professional wrestler, Sylvester Ritter (AKA Junkyard Dog) was a star college football player. He also spent time working in a wrecking yard, a role that informed his future wrestling moniker.

Regarded as the first Black superstar in professional wrestling, Ritter was still active in the ring when he passed unexpectedly in 2004. He spent the late 1990s wrestling for Extreme Championship Wrestling, a branch of what is now World Wrestling Entertainment, and also on the independent wrestling circuit. Ritter had struggled with substance abuse, but at the time of his passing was reportedly trying to “fight it off and beat it.”

According to his friend and fellow wrestler Ted DiBiase:

I know around the time of his death, the car accident, that he was going back [to rehab]. I remember he and I talking about it, and he was trying to help other kids that were at this place, doing drugs and stuff.

Part of his life was tragic; in the end, I know he lost a lot. He lost his family. I mean, that’s why he died. He had driven back to North Carolina to see his daughter graduate from high school, and it was on the way back that he had the car accident and was killed.

The accident took place in Mississippi and no one else was involved. The daughter whose graduation he attended in 1998, LaToya, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011.

André The Giant Passed Nearly Two Weeks After His Father’s Funeral

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André René Roussimoff, a native of France who wrestled for decades, was 7 feet 4 inches tall and more than 500 pounds when he passed in 1993. André was literally a giant due to excessive growth hormones caused by acromegaly, a pituitary gland disorder.

Alongside medical problems brought on by acromegaly, years in the ring, and a lifetime of excess, André’s physical health began to deteriorate through the 1980s. He had several surgeries and had to wear a back brace to even enter the ring. By the end of his career, he had chronic pain in his back and knees.

After his father Boris took ill in January 1993, André flew home to France to be with his family. Boris died on January 15; André was found dead 12 (or 13) days later. He’d passed in his sleep of heart failure while still in France.

André wished to be cremated, but he had to be transported back to the US for the task. Reportedly, there were no crematoria in France that could handle a body his size. The only other alternative would have been to cut his body into pieces first. His family rejected this possibility. He was cremated in North Carolina and, afterwards, André’s ashes were later scattered on the grounds of his nearby ranch.

Owen Hart Died In A Wrestling Stunt Gone Wrong

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Owen Hart wrestled around the world before joining the WWF, where he took part in bouts under his real name and as The Blue Blazer. He was from a family of wrestlers, including his brother Bret. Owen and Bret faced off numerous times throughout their careers. 

Hart joined the WWE’s forerunner, the WWF, during the 1980s and was scheduled to take part in Over the Edge – a pay-per-view event in Kansas City, MO, on May 23, 1999. In a match with Charles Wright (as The Godfather), Hart (as The Blue Blazer) was supposed to be lowered into the ring from the rafters high above. He wore a harness and a cape, but something malfunctioned and the wrestler fell nearly 80 feet to his death. He landed on the ropes of the ring before falling into the ring itself.

The TV audience didn’t see Hart’s death, but 16,000 attendees did. A witness later recalled: 

We thought it was a doll at first… We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke.

Commentators told viewers at home that the fall was not part of the performance, as attendees watched medical personnel work on Hart. One of the paramedics who treated Hart indicated the harness “didn’t get hooked on to him. He thought it was hooked on.”

Hart was transported to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. The accident led to a legal battle between Hart’s family and the WWE, which was settled in 2000 The Harts also declined having him inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. 

One additional detail about Hart’s untimely passing that has come to light involves his final words. According to individuals at the event, they heard him yell “Look out!” as he fell – a warning to those below.

The Mysterious Murder Of Dino Bravo Remains Unsolved

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Dino Bravo, born Adolfo Bresciano, wrestled during the 1970s and ’80s before retiring from the sport in 1992. Early in his career, Bravo excelled on the Canadian wrestling circuit. After years of bouncing in and out of the WWF (later the WWE), he became a wrestling trainer, but behind the scenes, he was reportedly involved in mafia-related activities.

The specifics about exactly what Bravo was involved with aren’t clear, but some believe he had ties to a cigarette smuggling operation in Canada. He was also related by marriage to Canadian mob boss Vincenzo Cotroni, adding credence to assertions of mafia connections in the eyes of many.

On March 10, 1993, Bravo was found dead in his apartment in Montreal, Canada. In his autobiography, My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, fellow wrestler Bret Hart claimed Bravo had recently confided to his close friends that his days were numbered. The murder has never been solved. 

The Ultimate Warrior James Hellwig Passed Three Days After His Induction Into The Hall Of Fame

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James Hellwig, known to fans as The Ultimate Warrior, joined the WWE after a career in bodybuilding. The wrestler excelled in the ring through the late 1980s and early ’90s, even legally changing his name to Warrior to build his brand. After he left wrestling, Warrior worked as a blogger and public speaker who sparked controversy with his conservative rhetoric.

An apparent rift between Warrior and the WWE came to an end when the former was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014. The ceremony took place April 5, 2014, and was followed by Warrior’s appearance at Wrestlemania XXX two days later.

Some observers noted his sickly demeanor; one of them told the media: “We all felt like he looked ready to blow a gasket.” Even more foreboding were words uttered by Warrior at the wrestling event:

Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath and if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized.

After returning home to Scottsdale, AZ, Warrior collapsed on April 8, 2014. An autopsy revealed he succumbed to a heart attack caused by cardiovascular disease.

Bam Bam Bigelow’s Drug Overdose Was Brought On By Years Of Chronic Pain And Substance Abuse 

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Scott Bigelow (Bam Bam Bigelow to fans) brought his big size, distinctive tattoos, and dominating presence to professional wrestling during the late 1980s. Prior to entering the ring, he worked as a bounty hunter and spent time in prison, but once he joined the WWE, he distinguished himself as someone who had “just about everything.”

Considered “money in the bank” to his trainer Pretty Boy Larry Sharpe, Bigelow remained active in professional wrestling until the mid-2000s. His appearances were on-and-off later in his career, in part due to physical setbacks after he rescued three children from a fire in 2000. The heroic act left Bigelow with burns over about 40% of his body, something he found ironic, given his wrestling persona:

It’s really ironic that a guy who wore flames almost his whole career and has his head tattooed can be burnt 40 percent and not have scars.

Bigelow spent two months recovering from the fire, but his health woes weren’t over. After back surgery in 2002 and a motorcycle accident in 2005, his substance abuse issues came to light.

Combined with an unsuccessful effort to find his “second half” in life, Bigelow struggled, and in early 2007, was found dead at his home. The cause was an accidental drug overdose.

Bruiser Brody Was Stabbed At A Wrestling Event

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Bruiser Brody, whose real name was Frank Goodish, wrestled under the monikers King Kong Brody, The Masked Marauder, and Red River Jack during his career. He wrestled internationally, bouncing around as an independent for much of the 1980s. It was during a match in Puerto Rico that Brody met his tragic fate.

In July 1998, Brody was in Puerto Rico to compete for the heavyweight championship. At some point during the event, wrestler and promoter Jose Gonzalez allegedly stabbed Brody in a locker room backstage. Former wrestler Mick Foley described what he heard happened in his book, Have A Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks:

Apparently Brody… had been stabbed in the stomach by booker Jose Gonzalez. Brody died on the locker room floor an hour later, poisoned by the bile from his own wounded kidney, while waiting for an ambulance that never arrived. [Editor’s note: Bile comes from the liver and gallbladder, not the kidneys.]

Gonzalez, who’d once wrestled for the WWF, was a native of Puerto Rico and known for his ring persona, Invader I. By some accounts, Gonzalez and Brody had gotten into a heated “business discussion” that resulted in violence. Gonzalez was arrested and charged with killing Brody but pleaded that it was self-defense. He was acquitted of the crime, but this was mainly because many of the witnesses didn’t get their summonses until after the trial was over.

The general consensus is that Gonzalez was guilty. In the minds of Puerto Ricans, as explained by former wrestler Dutch Mantel, “they believed Brody was this character, this wild-looking psychopath hulking figure.” As a result, “they believed what his defense put out, that he was acting in self-defense.”

Brian Pillman’s Death Was Nearly Similar To The Fate Of His Father

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Brian Pillman’s time in the ring was actually his second career as a professional athlete; he briefly played football with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills in 1984 and 1985, respectively. He joined the Canadian Football League in 1986 before entering professional wrestling during the late 1980s.

At the height of his success, Pillman wrestled under the persona Loose Cannon and teamed up with Stone Cold Steve Austin during the early 1990s. Pillman’s success was hampered by a car accident in 1996, one that resulted from him falling asleep while on prescription medication. After he recovered, he returned to the ring.

The following year, Pillman had a heart attack and died – reminiscent of an early end that befell his father, who passed of a heart attack when his son was an infant.

Pillman, like his father, left behind several young children when he passed at the age of 35. He had seven children, including one he never knew about. Although he and wife Melanie were in divorce proceedings at the time of his passing, she never got the chance to tell her husband she was pregnant. 

The Von Erich Brothers Died Within Years Of Each Other

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The Von Erich family was prolific in professional wrestling, with Kerry, Kevin, Mike, Chris, and David all making names for themselves in the sport. Although their real last name was Adkisson, they used the same wrestling surname their father, Fritz, had used when he wrestled during the early 20th century.

Four of the six Von Erich brothers passed during the 1980s and early ’90s (another brother, Jack, died in 1959 of accidental electrocution when he was only 7 years old). Kerry took his own life in February 1993.

Kerry’s death came just two years after Chris also died by suicide; he too took his life after injuries forced him to retire from wrestling. David died in 1984, the result of acute intestinal enteritis. He was in Japan and scheduled to wrestle against Ric Flair for the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship at the time. 

The patriarch of the Von Erich family, Fritz (Jack Adkisson) passed in 1997.

Johnny Valentine’s Career Was Ended By A Tragic Plane Accident

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Johnny Valentine lived a relatively long life, but one that saw his wrestling career cut short due to a plane crash. In 1975, John Wisnieski (AKA Johnny Valentine) was traveling with fellow wrestlers Ric Flair, Bob Bruggers, and Tim Woods to Wilmington, NC. Commentator David Crockett was also on board. 

Valentine recalled:

I was in the back playing chess with Tim Woods… Ric Flair talked me into the front seat. Flair absolutely didn’t want to sit up front with the pilot. Something must have told him. I said, “What the hell, we’ll play later.” Otherwise he could have been in my condition.

The condition Valentine referred to was suffering a damaged spinal column after the plane plummeted 4,000 feet to the ground. With his back broken in three places, he was paralyzed; while he later gained some mobility, he was never able to walk without crutches.

Valentine’s loss to the sport of wrestling was devastating. Considered one of the biggest draws in the growing wrestling scene, Crockett’s brother Jim lamented Valentine’s fate:

The plane crash actually took away Valentine, who in my opinion, would’ve been the biggest babyface we ever had… Just because, people respected him so much that if we had the right heel, it would have just been phenomenal.