In order for me to write a piece like this, I must consider two sides of this story. Once from the perspective of the artist, and one from the standpoint of reality.
Cartooning and wrestling you see, are not really that far apart. The wrestler and the cartoonist often works crazy hours honing their craft. We often travel to “Parts Unknown” in order to sell said craft, only to have naysayers, the bitter and dreamless keyboard warriors tell us how “fake” or “untalented” we are, when said couch dweller can neither launch a 250 pound man via a powerbomb anymore than he can draw something more inspiring than a stick figure or sexually questionable furry on DeviantArt.
And yes, both cartoonist and wrestler alike will gladly die for their art. In fact, some have achieved this in the literal sense.
B.C. comic strip creator Johnny Hart died in 2007 at his cartooning desk, determined to finish at least one more strip before his time came. Eighteen years earlier and part-way around the world, Osamu Tezuka, cartoonist, animator and artist heralded as the father of manga, died as a nurse pulled him away from his drawing tools. As he screamed his final breath, "I'm begging you, let me work!" the removal of his pen from his hand must have been the same as having a limb pulled off. On the wrestling side of the coin, I don’t think any of us are going to live down the tragic deaths of Perro Aguayo Jr, Mitsuharu Misawa, Owen Hart or Moondog Spot anymore than previous generations could have moved past the unexpected and tragic death of Iron Mike DiBiase.
Not one of these were planned deaths, mind you. Each died from either heart attack, cancer or freak accident. But all of the above men died while performing the art they were best at, be that wrestling or cartooning. And on paper, it seems a beautiful way to die, by being surrounded by the thing you love.
But in reality, there is a horrifying aspect to choosing to die by your sword.
Especially if you happen to be a wrestler.
To protect the names of real life wrestlers, I’m going to create a wrestler for this scenario. We’ll pretend his name is “Jason Todd” and you get five brownie points if you caught the morbid joke.
So one day, against the advice of several doctors, trainers and anyone with common sense, Jason Todd enters the ring. His health is not at 100% but he is determined to continue fighting. And it’s a good wrestling match. Nothing too extreme, violet or over the top, just a friendly exhibition match against his longtime rival, “The Jokester” Crimson Hood. After a few well placed rest holds, two DDT’s and a toe-hold or two, it looks like ol’ Jason has the upper hand and is about to set up for a finisher.
… And then he collapses. No warning.
Jason rolls over, gazing at the pretty lights with his back flat against the canvas. He breathes his last, sighing, almost smiling, going out the way he came in. As the referee frantically comes into view and his opponent tries to cover the problem with a quick pin, Jason’s eyes roll back, and his spirit exits the building, over the parking lot, and up the entrance ramp to the great beyond.
And for Jason, this story is over. How poetic and beautiful for him, right?
But for everyone else, the nightmare has only begun.
The first problem, as the referee raises the X sign and the EMT’s enter the ring, is that Jason has forgotten that the entire arena is filled with all of his loving fans. If he is like at least half of all wrestlers, his mom, dad, wife, children and friends are among the seat warmers, dropping their comp tickets into their soda cups as they realize Jason has stopped breathing.
The next issue is that all of Jason’s friends and road family are either flooding the ring to save him, or backstage, about to hear the worst. Men and women who adopted Jason in spirit as their brother, uncle or mentor, now huddling together, screaming in disbelief. What a fun way to leave your best friends by traumatizing them for life, right?
Before the promoter is made aware of the situation, and certainly long before the EMT’s declare Jason a cadaver, we have the media as problem #3.
Let’s face facts. Whether you are wrestling at an Indy show of ten people, or in front of a WWE event of eighty thousand, the fact of the matter is that once you don a pair of wrestling boots, you are now and forevermore a celebrity.
But worse? You are now live bait. And the media hounds wrestling with more ferocity than a hungry shark heading for an underwater IWA Mid-South event after a failed attempt at going vegan.
As soon as Jason’s lifeless body is collected from the ring, some fanboy on his smartphone has just posted a picture of the decedent on Facebook, while another is doing a live video via Snapchat. Jason’s distraught father is tweeting that there has been a death in the family while another fan copies and pastes the news from the first onto a blog. A wrestling news site scrambles to put up confirmation of the event onto their news board just as TMZ snags an image for their broadcast. By the time the EMT’s have failed to resuscitate Jason, CNN has picked up TMZ’s post, and by the time Jason has been loaded into an ambulance, Nancy Grace, or some other famous low life, has just spread the false rumor that drugs killed Jason Todd. A talk show “expert” will declare Jason a “roid head” and it will be several weeks of unwanted news specials airing out wrestling’s dirty laundry, before an autopsy declares that Jason Todd died of natural causes, stemming from a heart condition.
In the meantime, the company that last booked Jason is being sued.
If his family isn’t suing for wrongful death, then his fans, or maybe the parent of a fan is suing for traumatizing the last six year old to take a picture with Jason. Angry parents are threatening to torch the company to the ground for making them have to explain death to their children, while the WWE is doing their own bit of damage control, because someone on YouTube discovered a failed tryout match Jason Todd one time in March of 1983 at a Madison Square Garden show, and because of his one night only job, the WWE is being wrongfully accused of forcing Jason to take a steroid he never had in his system. The PR team is scrambling to figure out whether or not they have enough footage to do a tribute montage for Monday Night Raw, while the promoter of Jason’s last company is about to file for bankruptcy in an attempt to save his bottom line from the oncoming legal troubles. The state athletic commission is threatening to pulverize the booker, promoter and referee for not doing enough to stop Jason from even entering the building, as his family plans a funeral they can’t afford, as police officers storm the building, hold the other wrestlers hostage for “questioning” and threaten to jail the promoter while the booker quietly sneaks off in the back, texting a heartfelt goodbye to Jason via Facebook.
Jason’s final show, which was being filmed for television, is now being censored to pieces in a dimly lit shack, with a frantic promoter chewing his nails behind a stressed out college kid. After nine different edits and tribute packages, the promoter decides to scrap the whole show, ensuring that the work of all of the other wrestlers on said program never makes air, without at least three minutes of tribute based prefacing. He can not profit from this taping without serious consequences. He juggles with this decision as three other companies offers to do a tribute show. One will send the money to the family, but come up several thousand dollars short of Jason’s final expenses. One will donate to a random charity in his honor, and a third will pocket the profit and leave his family high and dry, while his last company sinks into the sands.
In the weeks that follow, amid the controversy and televised chaos, a ten bell salute is held at every other promotion Jason ever worked for without blowing up a bridge. His fellow wrestlers grieve as they are told “the show must go on” and they are encouraged to get back in the ring and honor their fallen friend. Some of these people may suffer from a deep enough depression that they may turn to over medicating themselves, suicide or withdrawal from society, while others may need to seek counseling years after their hall of fame inductions. His family and fans are left crying in the night with haunting images of Jason dying in front of them, and a child asks softly where Heaven is and why can’t he just drive back from there like he did from Parts Unknown?
Years after Jason has either become unsightly worm food or the vacuumed ashes in a cheap jar, the ripple effect of Jason’s death are still being felt, as more and more wrestlers decide to ignore their doctors and die in the ring as he did, thus continuing an endless cycle of careless behavior, leaving more tragedy in it’s wake than wrestling has ever deserved.
We have seen this happen too many times. Everything I just wrote is the truth, and not one company, not one person, has ever been made “better” for having dealt with it.
It’s tragic when a wrestler doesn’t know when his time has come, and either a freak accident or an unfortunate and sudden health problem claims his life. But it’s so much worse if he knows better and does it anyway.
Yes, it is similar to murder to tell a wrestler not to wrestle. It is very much like cutting the hands off of a cartoonist.
But isn’t it more cruel to let that man die in front of his family or friends? To let him be selfish one last time at the expense of the people he claimed to care about?
I doubt I can change any minds here, but an in-ring death brings out a far worse and rolling tragedy than any other sport or celebrity death in the public eye. It ruins lives and sabotages the very peace the man seeks in his final three count.
It’s anything but a beautiful end.