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Does Size Really Matter? An Examination of Steroids in Pro Wrestling

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  • Does Size Really Matter? An Examination of Steroids in Pro Wrestling

    PREFACE: In my first college English class, we were told to write an essay on any ethical topic. So of course I decided to focus my essay on professional wrestling. While my teacher may not have liked my paper, based on the grade I received, I very much enjoyed writing it. This article is not extremely complex and goes over basic wrestling knowledge, as my audience was originally not people who know great amounts about the sport. I am also aware that steroids alone is not the issue in professional wrestling that causes the large amount of premature deaths, but for the sake of making my argument easier, I focused on anabolic steroids only. I took out the citations to make this a much easier read.

    The general public today is more than aware of the scandals involving anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in professional sports today. Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the Olympics, among other sports and organizations, have all been dealing with steroid scandals, and receive an incredible amount of media attention when dealing with issues related to performance enhancing drugs. One sport that does not get a similar level of attention for the same problems concerning anabolic steroids is professional wrestling. This is not because steroid usage is not as much of an issue in wrestling as it is in other sports, but rather it is the opposite. The use of steroids by professional wrestlers can be traced back many years, and also has been connected with the sports’ top performers. Not only has steroid usage been prevalent in the sport, but wrestlers have died because of it. Overall demands of professional wrestling and the psychology of wrestling promoters have attributed to the rampant steroid usage over the years, and nothing will be done about this problem until the wrestling community can agree to put the health and well-being of the performers as priority over the physical image professional wrestlers are expected to have.
    The usage of steroids in professional wrestling is wrongly underestimated by the public. Dave Meltzer, arguably the most accomplished journalist in professional wrestling, did an eye-opening study on deaths of professional wrestlers. He found that in between the years 1997 and 2007, sixty five professional wrestlers died before reaching their 50th birthday. Also noted with the shocking death toll is that a majority of the deaths were the result of heart attacks, liver failures, and kidney failures, all of which are symptoms of steroid usage. The more astounding and saddening aspect of Dave’s study is his comparison to other sports. Proportionally comparing the young deaths of professional wrestlers to other professional sports, Meltzer found that the sixty five deaths would be equivalent to if 185 MLB players died or 435 NFL players died under the age of 50 within the same time frame. This report magnifies the severity of steroid usage within professional wrestling compared to other sports.
    Before continuing on the topic of anabolic steroids, one should have a general understanding of the negative health effects behind steroid usage. According to Daniel J. DeNoon, a senior medical writer for WebMD says some of the exterior side effects of steroids are acne, balding, and oily skin. But these are not the reasons steroids are frowned upon in all different types and levels of sports. Anabolic steroids can cause a range of serious issues, including an enlarged heart, becoming more prone to heart attacks and liver disease, mood swings, delusion, and intense bouts of rage, commonly known as “roid rage”. Steroids can also make a person more prone to injury by weakening muscle tendons. Even if a performer that once used steroids decides to stop, the damage done to the wrestler’s body from the previous usage is long term, and the wrestler can become even more prone to injuries. Unfortunately, a large amount of pro wrestlers will overlook all of the negative effects that steroids offer so long as they get results, whether it’s adding on muscle mass or speeding up the recovery process of an injury. Despite the serious risks associated with steroids, usage is widespread throughout the wrestling community, linking to numerous premature deaths among professional wrestlers. One of the more high-profile deaths in the sport was the sudden loss of Eddie Guerrero.
    Eddie Guerrero will be remembered not only for the great accomplishments he achieved as a professional wrestler, but for his premature death caused by steroids. Eddie, coming from a family of pro wrestlers, began his career in 1987 at the age of 20 years old. His near-twenty year career saw him win championships in several major wrestling promotions, including Extreme Championship Wrestling, Mexico-based promotion AAA, World Championship Wrestling, and lastly World Wresting Entertainment. His drug use was well documented though, as WWE sent him to rehabilitation in 2001. Unfortunately rehab did not prove to be enough. Eddie’s fantastic career came to a tragic end on November 13th, 2005 when he was found dead in a hotel room. Eddie Guerrero, 38, was under contract with WWE at the time of his death. Autopsy results showed that Eddie’s death resulted from heart disease, presumably caused by years of steroid and drug abuse. While this tragic event shocked the wrestling community, no one could have expected what happened to Chris Benoit two years later.
    Chris Benoit was another professional wrestler that had an amazing career ended too soon. A native of Canada, he began his career in the mid-1980s. Over the course of his decorated career, Chris won championships in Canada, Japan, Mexico and the United States, for multiple major wrestling promotions. He worked for WWE up until the time of his death. Despite his accomplishments in the ring, Chris Benoit’s career will forever be overshadowed by his death. On June 25th, 2007, the bodies of 40 year old Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy, and his 7 year old son Daniel were found at their home in Georgia. Chris was employed by the WWE at the time, and the company initially responded with grievance for the tragedy. Over the next few days investigators determined the cause of the death of the Benoit family to be a double murder-suicide by Chris, making WWE quickly change its stance on the situation from grief to disgrace. The autopsy reports showed that steroids were a huge part of Chris’s lifestyle, and that they definitely affected his physical well-being. Sandra Toffoloni, sister of Nancy Benoit, stated that “the medical examiner told us after the autopsy that Chris was on his way to death within 10 months. His heart was huge, about 3 times normal size, and it was ready to blow up at any moment,”. His long-term abuse of steroids also contributed to the roid-rage that ensued him to commit this tragedy. While he accomplished great heights in his career, Chris Benoit will be remembered mainly for how steroids took control of his life.
    Is there any correlation between the careers of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit? Both were phenomenal wrestlers who had large followings amongst pro wrestling fans, and even became good friends outside the ring. The two also had similarities in size. Eddie stood at 5’8”, while Chris measured up to 5’9”. Kevin Nash, a towering 6’11” professional wrestler and booker, which is a person responsible for making matches and storylines, for over 20 years, had a term for men like Eddie and Chris. Kevin Nash threw them under the category of “vanilla midgets”, which Thomas Golianopoulos, a contributor for the New York Times among other papers and magazines, describes as “small-statured, gifted technical wrestlers that lacked big in-ring personalities but were beloved by fans”. Guerrero and Benoit both dealt with being tagged as vanilla midgets, but still had great careers in professional wrestling up until the time of their deaths.
    Just like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, Kevin Nash experienced great success in the business, winning multiple championships on numerous televised wrestling programs. Kevin also had creative and booking control for parts of his career, meaning he was able to have a say in what happened on the television product, whether it involved himself or other performers. He, like many other important figures in the professional wrestling world, believed size, stature, and charisma made all the difference in the world of televised professional wrestling. Kevin Nash thought Eddie and Chris should have never been given the success they each had in pro wrestling, stating “you put two guys that were great workers that were the same height as the referees, and I’m sorry, man… That’s not the standard”. There was obviously pressure on performers such as Guerrero and Benoit to fit the larger-than-life build that some others believed was necessary to survive in the professional wrestling business. Where these men lacked in height, steroids helped them greatly improve their physique. To compensate their disadvantages in height, vanilla midgets would sometimes resort to intense weight training along with anabolic steroid usage. Unfortunately, this epidemic of steroids in the pro wrestling business is by no means a new issue.
    Despite the heavy amounts of press that went along with Chris Benoit’s case, the issue of steroids within the professional wrestling world has been around for decades. John Ziegler is credited as being the first doctor to use testosterone injections to help athletes, when he revealed in 1954 that he gave these injections to body builders. Steroids were further perfected by Dr. Ziegler and began seeing use more often by body builders as early as the late 1950s. Steroids began to leak into pro wrestling when bodybuilders, such as “Superstar” Billy Graham, began to enter the wrestling world. Billy Graham, coming from a bodybuilding background that started when he was a teenager, had an incredible physique. He also frequently used steroids, a habit that developed from his time as a bodybuilder and resulted in several health issues later on in his life, including damage to his liver and skeletal system. The “Superstar” became one of the top wrestlers during his peak years in the mid to late 1970s, winning multiple titles in various companies, largely in part to his near-freakish physique. Billy Graham set the standard for what future main-event wrestlers should look like. This new look inadvertently caused future professional wrestlers to resort to using steroids themselves to achieve a level of success similar to “Superstar” Billy Graham.
    The introduction of steroids into the profession wrestling world by former bodybuilders led to heavy usage in the 80s and 90s, and eventually a government crackdown. WWE, then known as the WWF (short for World Wrestling Federation), received its largest mainstream success in the 1980s, with the sculpted 6’5”, 300 pound Hulk Hogan leading the pack thru a golden era in professional wrestling. Hogan fit the new mold for wrestlers of having an extremely muscular frame, set up by predecessors such as “Superstar” Billy Graham. Hulk even gloated about his “24-inch pythons,” which referred to his massive arms. Throughout this period though, steroid usage was widespread amongst wrestlers. The steroid issue was eventually brought to the mainstream media attention, after a doctor was indicted and found guilty on charges relating to steroids.
    The behind-the-scenes steroid usage finally opened up to the public when in June of 1991, Dr. George Zahorian, the doctor that was be on staff at WWF’s live events, was found guilty on twelve counts of illegally dispensing steroids. Among the dozens of professional wrestling names involved in the steroid distribution of Dr. Zahorian included Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and even the owner of the company Vince McMahon. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, another top star during the 1980s, testified as a witness against Dr. Zahorian, admitting to receiving steroids from the doctor. Also noted during the trial was that steroid abuse was rampant throughout all levels of WWF, whether main-eventers or newcomers. On the topic of steroids, the attorney for the trial later mentioned that “they’re used throughout the WWF. Wrestlers either use them or they don’t participate”. This quote spoke volumes of the problem going on within professional wrestling locker rooms everywhere. Basically this meant that in order to be a part of the WWF, one would have to use steroids in order to remain relevant within the company. Vince McMahon realized the bad publicity the steroids issue was causing him, so he decided to implement a new rule in the WWF.
    Mr. McMahon realized that something needed to be done to eliminate the negative media attention that his wrestling company was receiving. On July 14th, 1991, Vince McMahon had an article written in the New York Times announcing that the WWF will begin testing their wrestlers for steroids. While Vince may not have necessarily wanted to do something to address the steroids issue, but he had no other choice, as long as he was trying to reaffirm the reputation of the World Wrestling Federation. Unfortunately, testing their wrestlers for steroids did not change the overall demand for larger-than-life performers. Promoters such as Vince McMahon realized that the new breed of muscular wrestlers made for better television and better overall profits, so in actuality they did not want to address the usage of steroids. The WWF did not want to test their wrestlers, but the influx of bad press gave the company no other option. This new drug testing policy that Vince implemented was to be used by the WWF only when the company deemed it necessary. So while Vince made the general public believe he put a stop the steroids issue, he really just found a way to quiet the negative publicity. The pressures made by the major wrestling promotions to have top athletic specimens and giants caused steroid usage to continue throughout the industry.
    While on the exterior Vince McMahon seemingly addressed the steroid problem by implementing a drug testing policy in 1991, things did not end there. In 1994 Vince was put on trial for allegedly giving steroids to his workers. Hulk Hogan, possibly the greatest wrestler that ever performed for Vince McMahon, even spoke at the trial. Hogan finally admitted to using steroids, but cleared his former boss’s name by declaring that Vince never demanded him to use steroids. But it was only until Eddie Guerrero’s death that Vince McMahon decided to improve the lackluster drug policy that was in place. It wasn’t until December 2005 that WWE began doing random drug tests on their wrestlers, but even this system contained flaws. A loophole in the random drug testing system was that a wrestler would not be punished for testing positive as long as they had a doctor’s prescription for the drug being used. Chris Benoit was receiving a 10-month supply of steroids every several weeks from a doctor, and Chris never failed WWE’s random drug test. The WWE, along with the majority of the professional wrestling world, has continuously turned a blind eye to the rampant steroid issue that has taken over the business.
    While steroids are still a major issue in the world of professional wrestling, smaller performers are beginning to once again reach the top echelons in the sport. Just in the past two years alone, WWE’s 5’10” Daniel Bryan and Impact Wrestling’s 5’9” Austin Aries have won the top titles in their respective televised promotions. Despite the top companies still pushing their bigger and more intimidating performers, the smaller professional wrestlers have been able to find success for themselves based on their in-ring techniques and overall dedication, rather than just size and physique. Daniel Bryan and Austin Aries have followed the path that their vanilla midget predecessors paved for them, and fan response has been great. Some of the storylines that Bryan and Ares have been involved in recently poke fun at their short stature, saying they do not belong with the rest of the large wrestlers. There still is some resentment by promoters and other higher-ups in professional wrestling companies to push the smaller athletes to the top spots, but slowly promoters are becoming more open to letting vanilla midgets become major stars.
    In conclusion, steroid usage in the professional wrestling world would decrease if the demand, by those involved in wrestling promoting and booking, for larger and more muscular performers is significantly lessened. Wrestlers can feel pressured into steroid usage, despite the largely negative side effects and the disturbingly high amount of early deaths among pro wrestlers. Both Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, among countless others, had their lives taken away because of their desire to succeed as a wrestler. Many people that work behind the scenes in the wrestling business have the approach that they would rather not be bothered with vanilla midgets, and would much rather work with the larger and more chiseled athletes, a philosophy that was brought on by the introduction of bodybuilders into the professional wrestling world as early as the 1970s. When wrestling hit a national mainstream height in the 1980s and early 1990s, so did the steroids issue. The conviction of a doctor giving steroids to WWF superstars led to the first attempt at having drug tests for the performers, but the system didn’t see an improvement until the death of Eddie Guerrero in 2005, where drug tests became randomized. Despite improvements in the system, wrestlers such as Chris Benoit were still able to get by with loopholes. While the drug testing system still can use reform, wrestling promoters and other higher-ups are allowing vanilla midgets to once again take the spotlight, showing that the general psychology within the sport is improving. The improvement in the health and well-being of professional wrestlers heavily relies on promoters easing their expectations for wrestlers to look the part.