By Mike Mooneyham

Aug. 26, 2007

Third in a series

There’s little question that professional wrestling is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in today’s celebrity-driven culture, and that World Wrestling Entertainment is one of the most successful media franchises on the globe.

But pro wrestling, and more specifically WWE, is at a crossroads. With congressional hearings looming and mainstream media scrutiny at an all-time high, the wrestling industry is facing some tough decisions. In the wake of the double murder-suicide involving Chris Benoit and his wife and 7-year-old son, the spotlight is shining brighter than ever on the alarming mortality rate among professional wrestlers.

Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer recently came up with a list of 65 wrestlers who have, since 1997, died before their 50th birthday. An equivalent mortality score would be 186 major league baseball players and 435 NFL players.

“If there is a profession in America with a higher mortality rate, I’d like to know,” wrote noted sports journalist Frank Deford last week in an article on the Sports Illustrated Web site. “A professional wrestler probably has a greater chance of dying than a soldier posted to Iraq. But who cares? Who does anything about it?”

Chris and Nancy Benoit -

Chris and Nancy Benoit

While those statistics are astounding, professional wrestling has managed to fly under the media radar until the Benoit story. There appears to be no turning back now, and there’s a hue and cry for answers.

Marc Mero is among a number of former pro wrestlers who are asking questions.

Mero, who now runs a personal training facility in Orlando, says WWE handled the situation terribly in the aftermath of the Benoit tragedy.

“It really shocked me. They really had a chance to step up. If they would have come out with their white hats and said we wanted to make sure that this doesn’t happen again and that wrestlers have healthier lifestyles … they can’t continue to ignore the problem. It’s all going to come to light.”

Mero sees the issue as not just a WWE problem, but an industry-wide problem, and that includes the Nashville-based TNA (Total Nonstop Action), which holds monthly pay-per-views and has a weekly one-hour show on Spike TV that is taped at Universal Studios in Orlando.

“It’s the wrestling industry. It’s not just WWE,” says Mero. “Wait until one of those (TNA) guys dies in a theme park or dies over at the hotel that houses all the people going over to the theme park. This is a wrestling industry problem. They can’t continue to ignore the problem either.”

In what was likely the first step toward possible hearings this fall, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month asked WWE chairman Vince McMahon to voluntarily come forward with documents detailing his organization’s drug policy, citing “questions about reports of widespread use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by professional wrestlers.” Although WWE had just recorded the most lucrative quarter in company history, the request sent WWE shares tumbling.

A second congressional panel, the Committee on Energy and Commerce, later sent WWE a letter requesting information on the company’s drug-testing policy over the past 20 years. The letter indicated that any investigation wouldn’t be limited to just WWE.

“We understand that this problem is not limited to the WWE; we therefore will be sending similar information requests to other wrestling leagues,” according to the letter. The investigation has since broadened to include TNA and the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance), with letters sent specifically to TNA president Dixie Carter and Bob Trobich, executive director of the NWA.

Mero says he e-mailed Carter several weeks ago, but all he’s gotten in response is a run-around from company officials and attorneys who told him it’s a private matter.

Mero says he wasn’t surprised in light of several developments that have occurred in recent weeks on TNA television, including the signing of suspended Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones.

“When does it all end?” asks Mero.

Carlos “Konnan” Ashenoff wonders the same thing. The 43-year-old Ashenoff, a longtime steroid user who recently underwent a kidney transplant as a result of his heavy usage of painkillers over the years, thinks Benoit’s fate was hastened by the wrestler having to watch a succession of friends die.

“It’s one tragedy after another,” he told the Washington Post.

Benoit “took Eddie’s death the hardest,” said Ashenoff, a longtime friend of the late Eddie Guerrero, who wrestled with him and Benoit over some 15 years. “And then another close friend dies. And the friend of a friend. Everyone around him dies. And no one seemed to give a damn.”

NEWS AND NOTES: ACW Pro Wrestling will hold a special wrestling show Sept. 8 in conjunction with the Bikers Helping Bikers organization. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will be held in the former Food Lion shopping center behind Gilligan’s restaurant in Goose Creek. The event is free, but donations will be accepted. Featured will be a special midgets match pitting Justice against Blixx and and a women’s bout with former WCW personality Daffney vs. Stephanie. Also on the bill will be The Gambler, Big Hoss, Johnny Z and Mack Truck … Old School Championship Wrestling will hold a show Sept. 9 at Weekend’s Pub, 428 Redbank Road, Goose Creek. Top bouts are Josh Magnum vs. Mack Truck, and Chris Mayne vs Killian O’Conner. Bell time is 6 p.m. Adult admission is $8; children 12 and under $5. For more information, call 824-1477 … George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Summer Slam pay-per-view at 8 p.m. tonight. Cover charge is $10 … Michael Bay, director of the summer blockboster movie “Transformers, “has purchased Hulk Hogan’s Miami Beach mansion for more than $18 million. Hogan had purchased the 17,339-square-foot home in April 2006 and paid $12 million at that time … Former Clemson and Chicago Bears standout Donnell Woolford served as guest referee for an Ivan Koloff-Mean Mark Ash chain match last weekend in Wilmington, N.C. Reach Mike Mooneyham at 937-5517 or [email protected]. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.