Steroids: Not the Only Problem in Professional Wrestling

(c) Thomas Emma

The following is an e-mail I received from Thomas Emma. Thomas is a former team captain of the Duke Blue Devils basketball team. He is the founder of Power Performance, Inc., a company that specializes in training athletes in strength, conditioning, and performance-enhancement techniques.

Steroids: Not the Only Problem in Professional Wrestling

Okay, I finally have had enough of the coverage of the steroid endemic in professional wrestling.

My problem is not that media has brought to the forefront steroid abuse among wrestling performers (a good thing), but that they seem to blame each and every premature wrestler death on the drug. Case and point, during a recent cable television legal show where commentators and their guests were discussing steroids and professional wrestling (mostly in relation to the Chris Benoit murder/suicide case) a list of the four dozen or so wrestlers who died in the past 10 to 15 years under the age of 50 would scroll down the screen every few minutes. The insinuation, of course, was that all these athletes died mysteriously of some unknown illness most likely linked to steroids. This is far from the case. While steroid abuse may very well have contributed to some or even a slight majority of the listed wrestling deaths (the medical community has by and large not confirmed this link, however) many of the premature fatalities had absolutely nothing to do with the drug.

Two names that jumped out at me immediately were Andre the Giant and Bruiser Brody.

The 7'4" (listed) 520 lb. (confirmed) Andre Giant actually dealt with a condition called Acromegaly (sometimes referred to a Giantism) that caused his body to produce huge amounts of growth hormone year after year, thus making him grow up and then out to enormous proportions throughout his life.

In essence, his body did naturally what steroids and its cousin in the muscle building family Human Growth Hormone (HGH) were designed to do: increase testosterone levels. To think that Andre would add to his problem by taking steroids or other growth related drugs is ridiculous to say the least. On top of this, the Giant eschewed the weight room and never pumped iron throughout his wrestling career. As anyone in the sports or strength and conditioning world knows without lifting weights the “positive” physical byproducts of steroid use (increased strength, power, and muscle mass) don’t come to pass. Andre the Giant may have consumed prodigious quantities of food, drank massive amounts of alcohol (he was rumored to have imbibed 144 12-ounce cans of beer in a single sitting!), and loved the night life, but did he abuse steroids? Not a chance!

Now on to Bruiser Brody. Unlike Andre the Giant, the massive Brody was an avid weightlifter and, according to his recently published biography, experimented with steroids in the late 1970's before they were known to cause health problems. But his use was short lived, as he felt that while steroids helped him build additional strength and muscle, they didn’t agree with his constitution.

Bruiser Brody was well known in wrestling circles as a health freak, eating canned tuna and green beans on road trips while his counterparts filled up on fast food and beer. If steroids were bothering his system, it’s not a stretch to think he would give them up regardless of what they did to enhance his physique and strength.

The above is moot when it comes the demise of Bruiser Brody, however. He was stabbed in a wrestling locker room by a fellow wrestler prior to a card in Puerto Rico. Brody died shortly thereafter at a nearby hospital. There was some speculation that his blood wouldn’t clot from the wound due to his high level of aspirin intake causing him to bleed to death. This sad story certainly doesn’t speak highly of professional wrestling business, especially on the island of Puerto Rico, but it also is a case where a prominent wrestler’s death had absolutely nothing to do with steroids.

And, as you may have already guessed, the scrolling list included others who’s premature deaths were not steroid related. Adrian Adonis died in a car accident on rout to a wrestling card. Owen Hart from the famous Hart wrestling family which includes his legendary brother, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, succumbed to a misguided in-ring stunt. John Tenta (a.k.a. Earthquake), Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell, The Big Boss Man, and Bam Bam Bigelow were extremely huge men, all tipping the scales at over or near 400 lbs. during their wrestling careers. The life spans of 400 plus pound individuals, wrestlers or not, are markedly shorter than the average. The excess weight carried by these wrestlers certainly had something to do with their premature deaths. This is not to say that any or all of these four didn’t abuse drugs (I have no way of knowing for sure), but from the looks of their collective physiques, steroids and HGH were not their drugs of choice. The above mentioned wrestlers I suspect are not the only ones on the scrolling list that died of something other than steroid abuse.

Please let me reemphasize. I’m not against the media or anyone else for that matter delving into the steroid epidemic in professional wrestling. There is an obvious problem and the more it comes to the forefront the more lay people, especially impressionable young people, will understand the inherent dangers of steroid use. Ultimately, lives may even be saved. What I object to is when steroids are blamed for all the problems in professional wrestling.

When the mainstream media exaggerates on a subject (i.e., the scrolling list) in their lust to promote a story casual observers (most of us) build opinions on partially incorrect information. This takes away from the real facts of the situation, which in turn makes solutions and answers more difficult to come by.

Unfortunately steroid abuse is only one of the many health debilitating factors inherent to the professional wrestling lifestyle. Below the most prominent of these factors are discussed.


Ask any business traveler how grueling regular travel is and all will quickly exclaim: very! And remember, these business road warriors are not being body slammed and stomped by 300 lb. individuals on a nightly basis during their trips! Wrestling performers are constantly moving around the country and the world (the WWE has regular tours to Europe and on at least two occasions that I’m aware of the company staged shows on army bases in Iraq) plying their trade.

This relentless travel grinds down the athletes both mentally and physically, subjecting them to early flights after late shows, frequent time changes, sleep depravation, airplane meals, and cramped seating (remember even the smaller wrestlers are well above average size and fitting them comfortably into conventional airplane seats is an impossibility).

In addition to the events themselves, which most performers arrive well before the opening bell to discuss specifics of their matches, finishes, etc., wrestlers must find time (and energy) on the road to workout, eat well, and attend promotional events. It is true that house shows (non-televised wrestling events that take place in markets throughout the country) are not as prevalent as they once were before the days of pay-per-views and nationally televised weekly shows such as Raw and Smackdown, but the travel is still brutal, requiring wrestlers to be on the road for much of the week. And don’t forget what has happened over the past five years when it comes to air travel. The airways are much more congested, causing flight delays and cancellations; airlines have had numerous financial problems, leading to less amenities and comforts during flights; and airports, because of post 9-11 security measures, have began to resemble lines for popular rock concert tickets when they first go on sale.

Year-Round Sport

Imagine the Dallas Cowboys playing 52 games per year. How about the New York Yankees taking the field 300 times or so in a given season. Well, that’s pretty much what professional wrestlers are required to do year after year.

Unlike baseball, football, basketball, or any other major or minor professional sport, wrestling is a year-round endeavor. There is no off season for wrestling performers. As such, it is virtually impossible for them to recover mentally and physically from the rigors of the circuit. Unfortunately, this has always been the case in the mat game. Money is king and the more pay-per-views, house shows, and cable and network television programs the more green that flows into the coffers of promoters. Regular exposure also pumps up merchandise sales, which can yield substantial income for both wrestlers and promoters alike. Without a reasonable amount of downtime, however, wrestlers are bound to overtrain their bodies, sustain injuries, and burnout their minds. Is it any wonder why these athletes turn to drugs to keep their fires burning?

And if you were wondering, there appears to be no plans to lighten the professional wrestling circuit in order to help performers stay fresh. Promoters for their part just don’t have much of an incentive to decrease wrestler schedules. As you’ll read later in the article, the competition is so fierce for roster spots, especially in the WWE, there is always a wellspring of eager and available talent waiting in the wings to move in. Supply and demand is definitely not on the side of the wrestlers in the current climate.

Physical Demands

For decades, long before promoters, most prominently Vince McMahon, Jr., admitted that the outcomes of matches were predetermined, many hardcore wrestling fans and casual observers alike speculated that professional wrestling was “fake”. While these speculators have been proven right to some extent, the term “fake” can (and should) be hotly debated. The winners and losers of contests may very well be decided in advance, but the punishment these athletes take during matches (and sometimes during interviews!) is far from unreal. In fact, some of the stunts, which include multiple story falls from cages and ladders, chair shots, and top rope back flips onto ringside cement floors are perhaps more dangerous than legitimate fighting would be. The envelope is constantly being pushed in today’s brand of professional wrestling, as performers (with the encouragement from promoters) aspire to keep the ever demanding public interested. As such, injuries, many of them of the serious variety, are commonplace in the mat game. The possibility of injury in the ring is exacerbated by the fact wrestlers are called upon to perform numerous times per week. This breeds fatigue and loss of concentration, both of which can lead to injury in the ring (a tired, overtrained body is more likely to sustain injury; concentration loss in the squared circle can be devastating to both performers, as wrestlers are responsible for their opponents safety as well as their own during a match).

Extreme physical wear and tear such as the type professional wrestlers endure can cause a myriad of health problems, not the least of which are an addiction to painkillers and serious head trauma. Painkiller addiction is as prominent in professional wrestling as steroid abuse and its side effects are equally as harmful. Many of the wrestlers in the aforementioned scrolling list were found to have painkilling medication in their systems at the time of their deaths. Head trauma is commonplace among wrestlers for obvious reasons. Boots, fists, and turnbuckles regularly come in contact with wrestler’s noggins during a match. On some occasions harder objects bang into the cranium such as a ring post, the above mentioned folding chair, and even the timekeepers bell! While these collisions to the head are supposed to be staged, many head shots hit there mark due to mistakes in timing or in the name of making the action seem real. There has been some speculation that repeated concussions contributed to Chris Benoit’s state of mind prior to the double murder/suicide at his Atlanta area home.

Competitive Stress

It goes without saying that all professional sports and money making entertainment endeavors are extremely competitive. However, I would argue that no profession holds a candle to wrestling in terms of competition. Since the territory system dissolved some years back, wrestlers have had very limited opportunities to work for substantial pay.

The WWE dominates the business in monopoly like fashion, with the only other semi-major promotion being TNA. This is a far cry from 25 years ago when numerous successful major and minor promotions spanned North America and the Far East, giving wrestling performers ample opportunities to work regularly.

If a wrestler was released by a promotion or just felt it was time to leave a territory there were many places he could land and make a solid living. Obviously this is not the case anymore. Think of it as if the NFL suddenly cut 85% of its franchises, forcing the released players to vie for spots on the remaining 15% of the teams-who, by the way, already had full and talented rosters.

A certain amount of competitive stress is good. It can encourage hard work and keep one on his toes. Too much, such as occurs in today’s wrestling business, causes, in my opinion, nothing but problems. First and foremost, it influences wrestlers to do everything humanly possible to increase their chances of success. This, of course, can lead to steroid and other “performance enhancement” drug abuse. It also tempts performers to take unnecessary chances in the ring to get the attention of promoters and fans. The bottom line is that without options most wrestlers feel the need to go the extra mile at all times in all ways. This, as we’ve seen, can lead to tragedy.

The Realities and Temptations of the Road

Remaining healthy and sane while engaging in the professional wrestling lifestyle is challenging proposition to say the least.

Even the most level headed and disciplined of performers often succumbs to the pressures, demands, and temptations of the wrestling circuit. Living out of a suitcase, as most wrestlers do on a year-round basis, creates numerous pitfalls and potential problems. The late nights can (and often do) lead to alcohol and recreational drug abuse. The hotel bar is often the only place other than the locker room for wrestlers to socialize on tour. As such, on most nights drinks (and stronger potions) tend to flow freely well after midnight. Uneven sleep patterns encourage the use of sedatives to wind down and uppers to get the tired body going. Other event intensive sports, most notably baseball, have had their share of problems with stimulant abuse. However, because of the exclusive late night nature of the wrestling (even baseball has its fair share of day and early evening games), the mat competitors are most susceptible.

The road has a way of breaking up marriages and families, which, of course, begets loneliness and depression. The list of professional wrestler divorces would fill the length of this article and then some. In fact, on a per capita basis the wrestling business competes favorably with Hollywood on divorce front. Celebrity status, which many wrestlers certainly possess today, present numerous other temptations, not to mention an element of undesirable hangers on. Throw in the fact that even if some wrestlers don’t qualify as “celebrities” their size and physical presence can make them targets for attention, both positive and negative. There is also peer pressure among wrestlers to “hang out” and enjoy the fruits of their success on the road. And who can blame them? As mentioned, these performers endure tremendous physical punishment night after night and most have had to work extremely hard to get were they are in the ultra-competitive profession. It is no surprise then that many wrestlers choose to live the high life once the matches conclude for the evening.