In Search of My Childhood Wrestling Heroes
What's it like to go back, almost 20 years later, in search of your forgotten wrestling heroes?
Growing up as a child in the 1990s, it was hard to avoid WWF – it seemed omnipresent. It captivated me throughout much of my childhood in a small village in rural Yorkshire. Wrestling was always on my mind; the extravagance and theatrics of it all stimulated my imagination. It transformed my secluded, banal and ordinary surroundings into something huge.
No longer did I just sit down on the sofa: I climbed up onto it, reached the highest point, stretched my arms out high, tapped my elbow and then threw myself onto it elbow first, pretending a cushion was a squashed opponent; a vest and pants combo was no longer underwear, it was wrestling attire.
At school we would assign ourselves characters at break time, marking out a ring with four school jumpers acting as turnbuckles, and have royal rumbles, performing outlandish moves with zero skill or know-how until we were stopped by tears or the school bell.
I remember getting an official WWF Championship Belt for my birthday and the soaring sense of amazement that came with being able to strap it around my waist or hang it on my shoulder as I paraded around my bedroom in my mum's sunglasses pretending I was Bret 'The Hitman' Hart.
I remember the crushing disappointment of opening my Christmas present, knowing full-well it was a wrestling ring, only to find out that Grandma had bought me the WCW version instead of a WWF one – it was like being bought two-stripe tracksuit bottoms when all your mates had the hip Adidas three-stripe.
As a kid without Sky TV, you even had to pick your friends carefully, working out who had parents with the magic combination of a subscription and the leniency to let you come over and watch middle-of-the-night pay-per-view WWF events. For a while wrestling was all-encompassing. It was the videos I watched, the toys I played with and the games I made up.
But I grew up and I moved on. That's not to say there is anything wrong with adults who still follow it, but it was something that felt attached to my youth. When you have girls, cider and cigarettes at 15, all of a sudden staying in with your mates and wrestling in your pants pretending to be an undertaker or a clown doesn't seem quite so appealing. Or normal.
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But recently, I decided it would be fun to try and track down the people who had played such an integral role in igniting my imagination as a kid. Where are my childhood heroes now, some 20 years down the line?
Well, in a lot of instances the answer is that they're dead. Lurking beneath all that wrestling prowess and showmanship lay intense pressure, drugs – both performance enhancing and recreational – and a strain on the heart that would send a great many to their graves in their 40s.
Dr Keith Pinkcard carried out a study on the years 1983 through 2003 and found that 64 wrestlers under the age of 40 had died during that period; some of my favourites as a child are included in that list. Davey Boy Smith, better known as The British Bulldog, went at 39 with an enlarged heart. There is some dispute over whether this was down to a pre-existing condition or as a result of prolonged steroid abuse, but Smith spent some of his final years struggling with prescription drug addiction after he injured his back severely in a match.
Big Boss Man died at 41 of a massive heart attack. Bam Bam Bigelow left us aged 45 with toxic levels of cocaine and benzodiazepine (an anti-anxiety drug) in his system. A further contributing factor was arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease – the narrowing of small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart.
Crash Holly died at 32; he was found by friend and fellow wrestler Steve Richards in a pool of vomit next to prescription drugs and alcohol. Yokozuna died at 34. Weighing 260kg when he passed away, he suffered a pulmonary edema in a Liverpool hotel room while on a wrestling tour. Road Warrior Hawk (Legion of Doom) went at 46 of a heart attack in his sleep. The list goes on. Others have died more recently too such as Macho Man Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior, and Doink the Clown. It's clear that there was a price to be paid.
Of those that are still alive, they remain in various states and conditions. Those that have somehow retained a role within the WWE (the name for the former WWF since 2002) seem to still be doing well (I was surprised to see someone like The Undertaker, at 50, still involved in top level wrestling).
Some have gradually slid down the rankings, working the independent circuits until retirement or injury takes over. Others are left struggling. Kamala has lost both his legs to diabetes; he has been crowdfunding a book and documentary about himself in order to assist with medical bills and the adaptations his home requires now he is a wheelchair user. Similarly, in 2013 'Hacksaw' Jim Duggan had to use crowdfunding to assist with his medical bills, as he required treatment for a torn rotator cuff.
It's clear that the world of professional wrestling – or sports entertainment – takes it toll on the body and mind. Razor Ramon was one of my favourite wrestlers as a kid, so I was sad to see that drugs and run-ins with the law has consumed much of his life post-wrestling; he did not respond to my interview request.
Nor did Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Chyna, Diamond Dallas Page, Jake the Snake Roberts, The Iron Sheik and many, many others. But one person did – and he was a huge childhood favourite.
He's also turned out to be one of the most successful post-retirement: Mick Foley, who also went by the monikers Mankind, Cactus Jack and Dude Love. Mick has published four books, three of which have been New York Times bestsellers, and now tours a one-man show, merging comedy and anecdotal wrestling stories (tour dates here.) He kindly agreed to take me down memory lane, though as he tells me up front, "I may dance around a couple of the tough questions if you don't mind" which I suspect means a lot of the aforementioned turmoil with drugs, illness and death.
My introduction to the man behind the mask – like many others, no doubt - was the excellent 1999 Wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat. It's a film that, over 15 years later, Foley is still fond of: "I was very pleased with it. When I first spoke with the director in 1994 his thought was that I would be the guy who had a taste of mainstream stardom but was now back on the independent circuit, so fortunately my role in the movie, and in wrestling and life, changed during the planning of that movie. I loved it.
"It's a very powerful film and one I'm proud of." The film captures Jake the Snake Roberts in the midst of a spiralling drug addiction, but he has now made a U-turn and it back on track, "Jake Roberts is doing very well. He's the subject of a documentary called the Resurrection of Jake the Snake and I've seen it; it's really powerful. Jake's come a long way from where he was during filming. His tale is an inspirational one of redemption."
Foley is softly spoken during our conversation and is notorious for being a nice guy; I enquire how this affected being in a environment filled with big, angry dudes.
"For the most part the guys who end up doing well in professional wrestling, or sports entertainment as WWE likes to call it, will do well partially because they love making people happy. We go to great lengths to put on a great show by sacrificing ourselves mentally and physically, so you tend to get people who are givers by nature; finding nice guys in that world is not that unusual.
"I did wonder how I fitted in being a non-classic alpha male but you learn that if you don't assert yourself in the ring or behind the scenes then you get left by the wayside. Those were some hard lessons that I had to learn and I try to impart those on people I see in the WWE development system who have similar personalities."
Foley goes on to tell me about the behind-the-scenes wrestling that took place: "I've often said that the fiercest battles in pro wrestling take place behind the scenes. You have to remember our owner, Vince McMahon, is a larger than life billionaire and he is an imposing figure; not everyone feels comfortable standing up to him but I seriously believe the conversations I've had with Mr McMahon – the good, the bad and the ugly – have really led me to believe that I can pursue any goal. After arguing about a contract with Mr McMahon I honestly felt I could debate foreign policy with world leaders; the rest of life seems pretty easy after that."
We speak about the roles of characters and how integral they are to the person who is living them – which, it turns out, can be one and the same.
"I broke into wrestling during the era when people were their character 24/7. Guys were just expected to be in character whenever they were in public. I had a girlfriend who I went out with for six months in '88, '89, who didn't know my real name because I had met her in character, and I never quite found a way to tell her that I was quite different [in real life].
"We were really protective of the characters back then. I'd be hard pressed to think of a wrestler who really excelled who didn't have a very active voice in their character's presentation; guys really fought for what they believed in and the best characters were always the ones that were extensions of people's natural personalities. So, a guy like Stone Cold Steve Austin was so convincing because it's just an extension of himself. Dwayne Johnson struck gold as the Rock because he found a way to turn up the volume on his natural character."
As we wind up the conversation, I try and get Mick to reflect on wrestling and his role within it.
"We do what we do to create a few hours of escapism from the real world. From my 30 years of travelling I've seen that it's a pretty tough world out there. It's not always that people have it bad, but they're working hard to put food on the table and a roof over their heads and [wrestling] just takes their minds off of life's problems for a few hours a week. That's really flattering and something that I can appreciate better now then I did back when I was on the go."