By Mike Mooneyham

Feb. 25, 2007

Mike Awesome had, what they call in the business, “the look.”

He also had the ability in the ring and was gifted with an uncanny agility that at one time earned him the label of being the best big man in wrestling.

But sadly, like far too many of his contemporaries, he never made it to the autumn of his life.

Awesome, whose real name was Michael Alfonso, was found dead the evening of Feb. 17 by friends who went to his home and found him hanging. The death has been listed as an apparent suicide.

Mike Awesome

Mike Awesome

He was only 42 years old and left behind a wife, whom he met in high school and married in 1991, a 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter.

Awesome, who was 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds at his peak, hadn’t wrestled in more than a year and recently had begun selling real estate in the Tampa area.

His career had peaked with an impressive run in ECW during the late ’90s and a major signing with WCW in 2000. The following years, however, were less than productive, resulting in an exit from the business and a life outside the ring.

A short obituary in the local paper described Awesome as “a loving father and son … an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed fishing and trail bike riding with his numerous loving friends and his son Casey.” It briefly mentioned his 17-year career as a professional wrestler but never listed the ring name that made him famous.

Business eats its young

Awesome’s passing brings back a plethora of unpleasant memories.

Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow, another top star from the ’90s, was found dead in the Hudson, Fla., home of his girlfriend just weeks earlier.

Once a main-event performer at Wrestlemania and an even bigger star in Japan where he sold out the Tokyo Dome, the 45-year-old Bigelow was eking out an existence on a $700-a-month social security disability check at the time of his death.

But fame and fortune came at a heavy cost. The fading superstar had become dependent on pain medications to help his battered body, but they had done little to numb the emotional anguish brought on by several years away from his three children following a messy divorce, a business venture in Pennsylvania that had gone bankrupt and concerns over possible jail time as a result of a motorcycle accident in 2005 that had nearly killed his girlfriend.

“I destroyed my youth, my health and my marriage, lost my fortune,” he told the Tampa Tribune a few months before his death. “I’m trying to teach these guys about the mistakes I made,” he said in reference to advice he was giving wrestlers at an area independent show. “There are ways to do things without getting hurt. I don’t want them to feel like I do at 45.”

Bigelow’s funeral in New Jersey was paid for by WWE owner Vince McMahon, while a second funeral in Florida was funded by several local wrestlers.

Four years ago Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, who this week was tabbed to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, was found dead at the age of 44 in a Brandon, Fla., hotel room, hours before he was scheduled to take part in a wrestling show at the Tampa State Fairgrounds. The official cause of death was “cocaine intoxication,” which caused a fatal heart attack, according to the medical examiner. An autopsy had revealed an enlarged heart. But his father, former wrestling star Larry “The Axe” Hennig, was convinced there was another significant factor.

“Wrestling had a major part in my son’s death,” he said at the time.

Hennig’s childhood friend, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, had died in his bed three years earlier at his home in Fulton County, Ga., of a drug overdose medical officials said included Valium and gamma-hydroxybutrate, the so-called “date rape drug,” used by athletes to quicken their recovery from weightlifting sessions.

Another Minnesota native, Mike “Road Warrior Hawk” Hegstrand, died at his home in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., in 2003 from an enlarged heart caused by high blood pressure at age 46. Mike “Crash Holly” Lockwood died two weeks later at age 32 from what a medical examiner ruled a suicide. A lethal combination of painkillers was found in his system.

The roll call of premature wrestling deaths is seemingly endless.

Chris Von Erich (Chris Adkisson), 21; Mike Von Erich (Mike Adkisson), 23; Louie Spiccoli (Louis Mucciolo), 27; Art Barr (28); Gino Hernandez (Charles Wolfe), 29; Crash Holly (Mike Lockwood), 32; Kerry Von Erich (Kerry Adkisson), 32; Buzz Sawyer (Bruce Woyan), 32; Eddie Gilbert, 33; The Renegade (Rick Williams), 33; Owen Hart, 33; Chris Candido (Chris Candito), 33; Bobby Duncum Jr., 34; Yokozuna (Rodney Anoai), 34; Big Dick Dudley (Alex Rizzo), 34; Brian Pillman, 35; Pitbull No. 2 (Anthony Durante), 36; Eddie Guerrero, 38; “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, 39; Johnny Grunge (Mike Durham), 39; Terry Gordy, 40; Rick Rude (Richard Rood), 40; Big Boss Man (Ray Traylor), 42; Miss Elizabeth (Liz Hulette), 42; Earthquake (John Tenta), 42; Curt Hennig, 44; Bam Bam Bigelow, 45; Junkyard Dog (Sylvester Ritter), 45; Hercules (Ray Fernandez), 46; Big John Studd (John Minton), 46; “Gentleman” Chris Adams, 46; Road Warrior Hawk (Mike Hegstrand), 46.

And that list comes nowhere close to even scratching the surface.

Enlarged hearts, hardening of the arteries and other coronary problems – symptoms associated with steroid use – are the reasons most often identified by medical examiners in the wrestlers’ deaths.

Some died as a direct result of the wrestling lifestyle – grueling travel schedules combined with a vicious cycle of steroids, painkillers, cocaine and sleeping aids. Some died of drug overdoses. Some took their own lives. One, Owen Hart, died of a stunt that went tragically awry.

But they all succumbed – at an extraordinarily high rate for people that young – to a profession that grinds up its top athletes like no other.

Mike Awesome

Awesome was a top star in Japan before coming to Extreme Championship Wrestling where he won the hardcore company’s version of the world heavyweight title. He created considerable controversy when he left ECW to go to WCW while still ECW’s champion. He returned to drop the belt to Tazz (Petre Senerchia), but never regained the level of success he had experienced in ECW and in Japan.

Awesome is perhaps best remembered by ECW fans for his feud with Japanese star Masato Tanaka. The two rivals renewed their feud with a match at the original ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view on June 5, 2005, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.

Former pro wrestler Lance Storm (Lance Evers) recalled on his Web site that Tanaka-Awesome “stole the show.”

“I talked to Mike a lot that night and was very happy for him. He seemed really happy and content with his life. He talked about how he enjoyed pushing his daughter on the swing in their back yard. He would combine doing that with doing Hindu squats by doing a squat between each push. I also remember discovering that he had been happily married longer than I had, which is a rarity in this business.”

Awesome broke into the business in the late ’80s after training at Steve Keirn’s wrestling school in Tampa. He had worked briefly as an ironworker on numerous downtown Tampa highrises following high school, and after three years in college, he began training as a pro wrestler.

Awesome was extremely gifted and athletic for his size, and it wasn’t long before Japanese promotions came knocking at his door. He worked primarily in Japan under a hood, as The Gladiator, and was good enough to win Atsushi Onita’s FMW (Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling) tag-team title in 1994 with Big Titan and the company’s singles title the next year with a win over Hayabusa. An injury forced him to drop the title, but he regained it the following spring.

Awesome joined ECW in 1998 where he renewed his feud with FMW star Tanaka in a program that culminated with a memorable match at ECW’s Heat Wave ’98 pay-per-view.

Another serious injury kept Awesome out of action for some time, until he returned to Japan in the second half of 1999, this time working with All Japan. After a tour with the promotion, Awesome returned the United States and joined ECW on the full-time basis, beating Tazz for the ECW world title at the Anarchy Rulz pay-per-view. A new feud with Tanaka got under way, and in December of that year, the two traded the title back and forth.

His jump from ECW to Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling was far from ordinary. In a four-day span, Awesome made a surprise appearance on the first Nitro produced by the team of Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo, was pulled from WCW’s Thunder show due to threats from the ECW legal team, and returned to ECW for one final match in Buffalo in which he dropped the promotion’s title to Tazz, who at the time was on loan from WWE. The hastily planned bout took on even greater significance due to the unique circumstances surrounding it – a WCW-contracted wrestler working with a WWE-contracted wrestler in an ECW ring fighting for the ECW title. Although he was claiming to be under ECW contract prior to signing with WCW, Awesome later claimed that he was never under contract to ECW.

Awesome said the connection with WCW came through the “chain” of Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea), cousin Horace Hogan (Horace Bollea) and Russo. He said at the time that the Hulkster advised him to join WCW. “He said it was the major leagues, and it was compared to where I was. He was pretty positive about it. He said it was a good move, and so did I.”

Awesome was soon repackaged with a new gimmick, “That 70s Guy,” dressed in various throwback outfits, with his own “Lava Lamp Lounge” show and traveling in a takeoff of the Partridge Family bus. The angle bombed, and Awesome was relegated to a mid-card comedy act.

Other bad gimmicks and flawed creative decisions doomed Awesome’s future success in WCW, although he was making more money than he had ever made in ECW or Japan.

If there was anything lacking in Awesome’s repertoire, it was his interview ability. Being a mainstay in Japan for so many years, he never really had the occasion to utilize it.

“Being in Japan all those years, we didn’t have an opportunity to be on the mic,” he said in a 2000 interview. “They didn’t understand what we were saying anyway.”

Awesome became part of the WCW invasion angle in the then-WWF and made his debut in June 2001 when he won the company’s hardcore title and became the first “invader” to win gold in WWE.

Awesome’s push slowly declined, however, and he was eventually sidelined with an injury in November 2001. He was released from the company in September 2002. A brief stint with TNA was followed by his last wrestling appearance at One Night Stand in 2005 where he beat his old foe, Tanaka, in a critically acclaimed match. Awesome, however, blew out his knee during the bout, killing any chance that Vince McMahon might offer him one more run in WWE. And with the company encouraging a safer style for its performers, it was unlikely that Awesome’s crash-and-burn style would have been welcomed into the fold anyway.

It also was clear that neither ECW management nor its fans fans had forgiven Awesome for what they considered a betrayal of ECW five years earlier.

Awesome, feeling that he was underpaid for his performance at the 2005 PPV, later announced his retirement from wrestling so he could concentrate on spending time with his family and selling real estate.

“In addition to all the time we spent together at work, Mike was one of those few guys in the business that I met that I likely would have been friends with had I met him elsewhere in life,” said Storm. “Mike shared my love for reading and seemed to be a very happy and loyal family man. If Mike and I had lived in the same city, I’m sure our families would have become very close. I cannot express how surprised and saddened I am to hear about his death.”