There were only two points in my life as a professional wrestling fan, stemming back to 1991, where I seriously considered giving up on watching for good. The first came after my favorite wrestler murdered his wife and child before hanging himself, and the second came after watching the movie The Wrestler. For those that don’t know the plot, a wrestler who was extremely popular in the 1980s was continuing to work on the independent circuit, wrestling dangerous matches and having a heart attack before recovering and getting back in the ring. The ending is ambiguous, with the lead character clutching at his heart in the middle of the match, and leaping off the top rope as the movie cuts to black. It’s left up to the viewer to determine that he possibly died in the middle of the ring.
After watching The Wrestler, a movie that was portrayed as realistically accurate by many pro wrestlers, including Mick Foley, I felt really bad about being a professional wrestling fan. These guys were (and are) damn-near killing themselves for our enjoyment, and I found myself rooting for the main character, Randy the Ram, to quit altogether, rather than step in the ring for that one big comeback match that may or may not (but probably) have led to his death.
Nearly two months ago, we almost had a real-life viewing of The Wrestler by having Jerry Lawler, one of the most beloved figures in the business, have a heart attack and nearly die on national television. Had the worst occurred, I don’t think this could have been something I’d bounce back from.
We’ve seen some pretty emotionally deflating deaths among active wrestlers in WWE over the past 15 years, none more so than the big three of Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. I’ve been fortunate enough (or blessed, however you want to put it) to have never lost any close family members or friends, so losing those three was the closest thing to losing somebody I cared about considering how much I emotionally invested myself into professional wrestling.
It wasn’t just that they died, it was also how they died in the context of everything going on around them in that moment. The professional wrestling business seems to have this air of tragedy lingering about it, and there seems to be some sick cosmic dramatic flair surrounding each death. Owen died in a freak accident on Pay Per View in front of a live audience. Eddie died the morning of a Raw and Smackdown Supershow taping in Minnesota where he was allegedly booked to win the World Title, and Chris Benoit committed his acts during the airing of the Vengeance: Night of Champions Pay Per View. Even Brian Pillman died the night before the Bad Blood 1997 Pay Per View. These deaths didn’t happen during the week, which would have allowed WWE enough time to adequately prepare for how to handle each of their deaths. No, they happened either during or just before major shows, prompting Vince McMahon, the wrestlers, and his creative team to seemingly do the impossible…allow the show to go on while simultaneously processing and coping with the fact that a member of their “family” is gone and never coming back. That is an ordeal and a half to have happen to you once, but Vince has had to deal with it four times already, and was extremely close to having it happen a fifth time in September.
(A quick sidebar if I may: do you realize that WWE has never had an active champion die, but were mere hours away from having it happen on three different occasions? Owen was scheduled to win the Intercontinental Title from the Godfather as the Blue Blazer at Over The Edge, Eddie was rumored to win the World Heavyweight Championship from the injured Batista that day at the Raw/Smackdown Supershow, and Benoit was scheduled to win the vacant ECW Championship at Vengeance: Night of Champions. There’s no conclusion that needs to be drawn from this information, it’s just a very strange set of circumstances. And considering the high mortality rate among professional wrestlers, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before.)
But as crazy a precedent that had been set with deaths among active WWE wrestlers, Lawler’s near-fatal heart attack would have amazingly been unprecedented. Despite their proximity in time to major WWE events, Guerrero, Benoit and Pillman all died in their home/hotel. Despite dying in the middle of the show, the Owen Hart accident was only seen by those in attendance, having happened during a pre-recorded promo by the Blue Blazer and not during a match. Lawler would have died on national television in front of the world. I actually managed to get a live glimpse of Lawler keeling over because my eyes happened to wander toward the announce booth during that particular camera shot, and I knew something was wrong immediately. Lawler was carted out as a tag team match was still in progress, with Kane in particular standing in his corner looking concerned at what was going on at the announce table. Had Lawler not survived the attack, we could all say we saw one of the most beloved figures in professional wrestling die in front of our very eyes. As somebody who has never had to truly experience death, I’m not quite sure I’d know how to react, or if I could ever bring myself to watch again.
So as Jerry Lawler makes his triumphant return to the broadcast booth tonight for the first time since suffering the heart attack, this is a happy ending for a business that seems mired in dramatic tragedy, regardless of how you feel about him returning. Lawler obviously wants to return, and would have easily been granted a retirement should he had chosen to do so. The King is getting back to doing what he loves to do, and if they show him coming out on live TV tonight (as I assume they will), I probably won’t be able to help but smile in relief that the worst case scenario didn’t come to fruition. Wrestling fans have had enough heartache to last a lifetime already.
Long Live The King!
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