While not as deadly as boxing, professional wrestling involves enough real physicality that death, while rare, is not a stranger to the squared circle. Names big and small have died in the ring or because of actions that took place in it. These are but a few examples.
Read our cover story on Lucha Libre
June 13, 1971 — Alberto Torres
Alberto Torres is a name that many are not familiar with these days, but from the late ’50s until his death, he was a tag team champion in various territories across the United States, primarily in the Georgia NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) territory. How he died is not the reason he is most remembered today but, rather, what happened in the wake of his death. In a tag match with his partner, Cowboy Bob Ellis, against Ox Baker and The Claw, Torres, working with a ruptured pancreas, collapsed after taking Baker’s famous Heart Punch. Torres died in the hospital days later. What happened next? Promoters started playing up the deadliness of Baker’s Heart Punch, especially after another wrestler, Ray Gunkel, passed away after facing Baker in a match in 1972. Yes, real deaths were used to promote the power of a fake move so that fans would boo a bad guy just a little bit louder. The plan worked too well; a riot broke out in Cleveland in 1974 after Baker repeatedly Heart Punched his opponent after a match was over.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
October 26, 1993 — Oro
At 21 years old, Oro had already traveled the world and was changing the face of with his aerial style. In an effort to make his trios match on the night of October 26 even more dramatic, Oro wanted to land on his head and neck after a clothesline so that fans might think he was seriously injured. He took the bump as planned, but as the match went on, it became obvious he was in no condition to continue. Oro collapsed and soon fell into a coma, dying before he made it to the hospital. He is believed to have died from a brain aneurysm, but at the request of his family, no autopsy was performed. It was Oro’s belief that he should do something high-risk in every match for the fans.
May 23, 1999 — Owen Hart
The death of Owen Hart is perhaps still the most controversial moment in American pro wrestling history, which says a lot given the many, many poor decisions made by promoters over the years. In a stunt meant to mock a rival wrestling promotion, Hart, dressed as a character known as the Blue Blazer, was to be lowered from the upper levels of Kemper Arena in Kansas City via a rope-and-harness system. Something went wrong with the quick-release mechanism, and Hart fell 78 feet, landing on the top rope and then in the ring. He was transported to a hospital, where he died from the injuries sustained in the fall. His fall took place off camera during a live pay-per-view, and the WWE made the controversial decision to continue with the event, even after it learned of his death and mentioned it on air.
June 13, 2009 — Mitsuaru Misawa
Considered by many to be one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Mitsuharu Misawa was still an active competitor at age 46. During a tag team match, he took a backdrop suplex, something he had no doubt done quite a few times in his career. When the referee of the match checked on him, Misawa said he couldn’t move. After his death, his family asked the police not to release a cause of death, but it is believed that the move caused a spinal cord injury that then led to cardiac arrest. Attempts were made to revive him while he was still in the ring, while fans in attendance chanted his name, as they had done so many times over the course of his career.
March 21, 2015 — Perro Aguayo Jr.
You can watch the video of Perro Aguayo Jr.’s death as many times as you’d like, and it still won’t make any sense. One moment he’s seemingly fine, squaring off with Rey Mysterio Jr. in Mysterio’s big Auditorio de Tijuana homecoming. The next he’s lying limply against the ropes, not moving. The cause of death was cardiac arrest due to a cervical stroke. At varying times in his career, he had been considered one of the ten best wrestlers in the world, and it seemed that he was on the edge of reaching new highs in his career as he prepared to feud with Mysterio Jr. The freak accident is believed to have killed him almost instantly.