Guerrero's death just latest in pro wrestling's sad string

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November 16, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

I know most people don't think of professional wrestlers as athletes, but they might feel differently if they had watched Eddie Guerrero as much as I did.

You see, Guerrero could wiggle around the mat, finding a million clever ways to apply and counter amateur grappling holds. He could lift a man 100 pounds heavier than him and slam him to the canvas with an emphatic slap. Or, he could launch himself high above the ring like an acrobat, catch his opponent's head between his calves and twirl the man down with a graceful flip.

He never achieved the kind of crossover stardom enjoyed by Hulk Hogan or The Rock. But he had been world champion and was revered by peers and fans as a pro's pro.

Eddie Guerrero was found dead in a Minneapolis hotel room Sunday morning. The husband and father of three was 38. He would have wrestled at the Target Center that evening and would likely have given fans the type of great show he had delivered hundreds of nights a year since he was a teenager. His is a terribly sad story and an increasingly common one in a business whose stars have been dropping at an alarming rate.

Guerrero was born to a pro wrestling family. His father, Gory, was a member of Mexico's most popular tag team and also promoted matches around the family's hometown of El Paso, Texas. Eddie's older brothers, Chavo, Mondo and Hector, wrestled professionally in Mexico and the United States.

But the youngest boy in the family would surpass them all. Home video footage from the documentary Cheating Death, Stealing Life: The Eddie Guerrero Story shows a tiny Eddie prancing about the wrestling ring in the family's backyard. In his teen years, he's shown practicing the basics, tossing himself in the air and landing on his back over and over.

Bulked up monsters like Hogan were the rage in wrestling's top ranks when Guerrero emerged as a pro in the late 1980s. So he figured he'd find his big paydays in Mexico and Japan, countries that appreciate solid amateur technique mixed with daring acrobatics.

But come the mid-1990s, Guerrero made his way to World Championship Wrestling, the main rival of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment. He still wasn't headlining shows, but his matches with modest-sized peers like Chris Benoit and Rey Mysterio Jr. consistently upstaged the lumbering main-eventers. Hardcore fans regarded Guerrero as one of the best "workers" or pure wrestlers in the world.

Unfortunately, Guerrero never controlled his personal life the way he controlled a match. He drank too much and experimented with harder drugs. In 1999, buzzed on pills, he drove his car off a road going 130 mph and nearly died.

He rushed back to the ring in six months and became increasingly dependent on pain pills to perform at his old level. By then, he had moved to the WWE and his matches were as good as ever. He also developed a more entertaining persona as a lusty Latino (a stereotype yes, but pulled off with an impish grin that showed he was in on the joke).

But his addiction seemed about to consume him. He nearly overdosed twice, once in his mother's home. His wife left him, his wrestling friends staged unsuccessful interventions and, finally, the WWE fired him. There's a chilling scene in Cheating Death, Stealing Life in which Guerrero's friend and wrestling competitor Dean Malenko says, "I also didn't want to be one of those guys to find out the next morning that my friend Eddie Guerrero was, you know, found in a hotel room dead."

The tale took a happy turn, however. Guerrero cleaned up and remarried his wife. He shined in matches for independent promotions and looked better still when he returned to the WWE. He reinvented his character again, becoming a charming cheater who'd do things like wear an unlaced boot so an opponent going for an ankle lock would come up with nothing but a shoe and be suddenly prone for a pin.

"Just one day, I woke up and the sun was brighter," he said in the documentary.

He won his first world title in February 2004, diving into the crowd afterward with a euphoric, yet peaceful smile. He was among the promotion's top stars and was set to wrestle for the title again Sunday.

Said the often-prickly McMahon of Guerrero: "You feel a warmth from him, a genuine warmth and a genuine caring. He's special."

It seemed he had escaped the fate of all too many wrestlers from the 1980s and 1990s. Davey Boy Smith, Rick Rude, Curt Henning, Brian Pillman. All big stars once, all linked to drugs, all dead by age 45. And they're only the most famous of dozens who've died in recent years.

Pro wrestling is a hard life. WWE stars may seem like actors, but they spend hundreds of nights a year throwing their bodies around in cities across the world. The winners are predetermined, but when you fall on your neck for a living, the pain eventually grows deep and permanent. Pressure to look muscular has also led some to use steroids.

The WWE has made a bigger point in recent years of forcing its stars to get help for substance abuse, but too often, the help arrived too late. Wrestlers are so fatalistic that they make a point of shaking hands after every show, knowing they may never see each other again.

We don't yet know the details of Eddie Guerrero's end, if addiction had claimed him again (close friends and family say he had been sober four years) or if he had simply strained his heart too much during previous brushes with death. But we know he was a family man who seemed to love his work and thrive on doing it well. Of all the wrestlers who've died in recent years, he was perhaps the greatest talent and the greatest symbol of redemption. I'm sad he's gone.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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