It’s really unfortunate that this is even a “Top 10” category, but for whatever reason the world of professional wrestling has more young deaths per capita than any other profession that I can think of. And while it’s sad that there are so many who have passed away (and no, I’m certainly not pointing the finger at Vince McMahon or WWE), there are a few that were unable to live up to their potential because of their lives tragically ending way too soon.
10. Chris Candido
Mr. “No Gimmicks Needed” was someone who had a very up-and-down career. He first gained traction in Smoky Mountain Wrestling before being signed by WWE (along with his girlfriend, Tamara “Sunny” Sytch) in 1995 to become the BodyDonnas. Various problems led to his departure from the promotion (who kept Sytch) and he made his way to ECW, XPW, WCW, NJPW, and eventually TNA. It was in TNA where Candido had a terrible leg injury in a match with Lance Hoyt against Sonny Siaki and Apolo. Candido fractured his fibula and tibia along with having his ankle dislocated and ended up passing away from a post-surgery blood clot in 2005. In spite of numerous drug-related issues, Candido appeared to have been on a good path and passed away way too soon at age 33.
9. Art Barr
There may not be a lot of young readers who remember Barr as he passed away back in 1994 before he was able to hit the big time. He started his career in Pacific Northwest Wrestling based out of Portland, Oregon. Roddy Piper saw something in him and gave him a gimmick to work with, which was based on the movie Beetlejuice. Barr began wearing facepaint and flour in his hair to be a wacky fan favourite in the area. He was signed by WCW in 1990 and was renamed “The Juicer”, but a first-degree sexual assault conviction from the year before followed him and the company ended up letting him go. He then went to Mexico, where he became a massive star in a very short period of time. He was “The Love Machine” Art Barr and tagged with Eddie Guerrero, which then led to a faction called Los Gringos Locos. By the time 1994 rolled around, the team was being courted by ECW, WCW, NJPW, and WWE. Unfortunately, Barr passed away under unknown circumstances while at home in Oregon (the coroner was unable to confirm if the death was a heart failure or drug-related). At 28 years of age, there is no telling what he could have done with Guerrero.
8. Eddie Guerrero
The oldest person on this list was probably the most decorated and also the most talented. Guerrero started as a skinny high flyer in 1987 and would end up defeating Brock Lesnar (!!!) for the WWE World championship in 2004. This is certainly not a case of a man not reaching his potential, but it’s certainly a case of an extremely talented all-around performer who died at 38 years of age, which is way too young for anyone to pass away. Where he was scheduled to become a two-time champion shortly after his passing, there was still much more left for Guerrero to accomplish in the business of professional wrestling…so the argument could be made that he was never able to truly reach his full potential.
7. Larry Sweeney
This one is tough for me because I was a massive fan of Sweeney. To me, he was one of the greatest independent “sports entertainers” in the entire country; either as a manager or as an in-ring competitor. I have a “Sweet & Sour” t-shirt still in my bedroom drawer and I can still remember the interview questions he answered for me during one of my previous wrestling writing stints. I thought he was insanely talented and if not for the WWE’s decision to NOT use managers on a regular basis, he was never picked up for anything other than a one-off (he played “Nick Hogan” in an in-ring parody segment called “Orton Knows Best”). His charisma was off-the-charts and his promo skills were second to none. While I don’t think he would have ever been a superstar wrestler had he not committed suicide in 2011 at age 30, seeing where NXT has gone in 2015…it’s quite possible he may have at least gotten his shot.
6. Gino Hernandez
Again, a lot of younger fans won’t know who this is and that’s a shame. Debuting in 1973, Hernandez had a pretty decent career in the Detroit area as a pretty-boy babyface who would battle the man who dominated the area, The Sheik. Trained by Jose Lothario, “The Handsome Half-Breed” (a reference to his Italian/Hispanic ring name) found his biggest success in the early 80’s, first as a tag team partner to Tully Blanchard (collectively known as The Dynamic Duo) and then as a top heel in World Class as both a singles wrestler and as a tag partner to “Gentleman” Chris Adams (also collectively known as The Dynamic Duo) who feuded with the highly popular Von Erich family. Hernandez was found dead of a cocaine overdose in early 1986 at only 28 years of age.
Eddie Fatu was in the prime of his career. After spending years honing his craft and trying to find the right gimmick (as Ekmo of the Island Boyz or Jamal of 3 Minute Warning), he came into WWE in 2006 as Umaga. He feuded with the likes of Ric Flair, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Kane, Batista, CM Punk, Jeff Hardy, and John Cena…establishing himself as a top main event-level heel. He even represented Vince McMahon in a match against Bobby Lashley (with Donald Trump by his side) where his boss’ hair was on the line in a heavily promoted match at WrestleMania 23. In a story that sadly reflects the majority of the wrestlers on this list, Fatu’s drug problems would not only cause him to be fired by WWE in 2009, but would be a direct cause of the heart attack that killed him in December of that same year. At only 36 years old, who knows just where Umaga could have gone with his gimmick had he stayed straight? Possibly a world champion?
4. Buzz Sawyer
Because of his bald head, most wrestling fans assumed that Sawyer was a lot older than he actually was. And really, his career never reached the heights it should have primarily because of his personal problems more than an untimely death. But where he was only 32 when he passed away, there was a lot more time for the “Mad Dog” to rebound and cement a better legacy for himself. I mean, this was a man who was a member of the original Legion of Doom stable under Paul Ellering, wrestled inside of an enclosed steel cage against Tommy Rich in 1983 (which inspired the Hell in a Cell concept), wrestled VERY briefly in WWE under Captain Lou Albano, and wrestled briefly in WCW before fracturing his wrist in 1990 and leaving the company. He had potential that everybody could see, but he always seemed to be his own worst enemy. Drugs killed Sawyer, but had he remained alive there is no telling just where his life could have taken this extremely talented performer.
3. Brian Pillman
I remember watching Pillman in Stampede Wrestling out of Calgary and really thinking that this guy had it all. He was young, was good looking, and seemed to have a ton of talent. He was picked up by WCW after being in the business for only three years and was renamed “Flyin’ Brian”. He was always seen as a mid-card guy until he teamed with “Stunning” Steve Austin as The Hollywood Blondes. But even then, main-event success eluded him. He joined the Four Horsemen in 1995 before developing his incredibly innovative “Loose Cannon” gimmick (which no one has really been able to replicate to this day). THIS was the gimmick that was supposed to get him over as a main event talent as he seemed to put all of the puzzle pieces together. A car accident would then shatter his ankle in 1996, only a short time before becoming the first WWE wrestler to sign a guaranteed contract with the company. Eventually, he joined the new Hart Foundation before his death in late 1997 at age 35. Had he been able to remain healthy, Pillman still had all the potential in the world to become a main event player.
2. Kerry Von Erich
Here is a young man who actually reached the top of the mountain by winning the NWA World Heavyweight championship from Ric Flair in 1984 when he was only 24 years old. He lost the title only 18 days later, so it’s not like they truly ran with him at the helm. Yes, Von Erich was massively successful in Texas during wrestling’s mid-80’s heyday, but he could never seem to translate that into NWA or WWE success on a national stage. His best opportunity came when he joined WWE in the summer of 1990. He was only 30 years old and appeared to be well on his way to superstardom, winning the Intercontinental title as the “Texas Tornado” by defeating “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. Of course, the majority of wrestlers and fans had no idea that he was wrestling on a prosthetic foot (which had been amputated a couple of years earlier after a motorcycle accident) and had a pretty bad drug habit (another reason why he was NWA champion for such a short period of time). He was only 33 when he died.
1. Owen Hart
I think it’s safe to say that Hart had the potential to be a world champion before all was said and done. Of course, having said that, he was stuck in a silly “masked hero” gimmick (i.e. the Blue Blazer) that didn’t have a ton of upside potential. Anybody who saw his feud with his brother, Bret, knows that he had all the potential in the world as a cocky heel (“Enough is enough and it’s time for a change!“). Before anybody says that he had done too many mid-card gimmicks to break out on his own again (he is not a “nugget“!!), just keep in mind that he was only 34 when he passed away. With the Attitude Era leading to the purchase of WCW and ECW, it’s very possible he could have been a World champion at some point. I think out of everybody on this list, Hart probably had the most potential to really thrive as the years went on. His tragic death happened to come at a time when he was focusing on entertaining the crowd, but when properly motivated he had the promo ability to go with his in-ring skills.
But what are YOUR thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Is there anybody I missed? Sound off in a comment below or via social media and let me know!
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