Tragic Fates and the First Wrestlemania
For some readers, it will seem hard to believe that the institution known as Wrestlemania is about to enter into its 30th edition (as of this writing.) Promoters of the event at Madison Square Garden in New York City probably had no real idea at the time what they were starting. People have also heard that from time to time professional wrestlers do not live the greatest lives. However, thirty years hence, it is a little shocking just how much tragedy has been associated with the performers in the first Wrestlemania. Get ready…because none of this is going to end well.
The wrestler known as Brutus Beefcake is actually named Ed Leslie. As Brutus Beefcake, Leslie wrestled second generation wrestler David Sammartino to a double disqualification at the first Wrestlemania. Over the next few years, Leslie would turn into a ‘face’ (good guy) and lose two shots at the WWF Intercontinental Title. The first was in 1988 when he was ‘replaced’ due to ‘injury’ at Summerslam. The Intercontinental Champion, at the time, The Honkytonk Man would lose to the Ultimate Warrior. In the storyline, the wrestler ‘Outlaw’ Ron Bass had attacked Beefcake robbing him of the opportunity. The next time that Beefcake would lose out on the belt was due to actual injury. On July 4th 1990, Leslie was involved in a para-sailing accident in which a female friend was parasailing and her knees hit Leslie’s face. In order to save Leslie’s life, his entire face had to be reconstructed with metal plates. :Years later, Leslie would wrestle again but never achieve championship level fame or prominence. As a replacement, the ‘Texas Tornado’ Kerry Von Erich would defeat ‘Mr. Perfect’ Curt Henning for the title.
Muhammad Ali was one of two ‘guest referees’ to officiate the main event tag match between Hulk Hogan and actor Mr. T facing off against ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful’ Paul Orndorff. Ali would even connect on a punch against Piper in the match. However, even in 1985, there would be signs starting of what would end up as Ali’s greatest opponent. Ali would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The symptoms started off with slurred speech as well as shaking hands. Currently, the former heavyweight champion of the boxing world has difficulty walking without assistance as well as speaking. It is a stark contrast from the performer who spoke so eloquently and would ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’ It is suspected that Ali’s long boxing career may have contributed to his current medical state.
Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan
Raymond Lewis ‘Ray’ Heenan was known better as the ‘heel’ manager Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan. At the original Wrestlemania, Heenan was the manager of wrestler Big John Studd in the 15,000 dollar Body Slam Challenge. Heenan would go on to fame as a manager as well as a commentator on the show Primetime Wrestling. In 2002, Heenan was diagnosed with throat cancer. As a result of the cancer, Heenan was robbed of the robust voice which marked much of his career. Heenan also would require several reconstructive surgeries. In one such surgery in January 2008, Heenan had to be placed in a medically induced coma. In 2011, Heenan broke his pelvis which caused more medical issues. Heenan’s facial appearance has been radically changed as a result of the many surgeries and Heenan has lost a lot of weight as a result.
S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones
Born Conrad Efraim in Antigua in the West Indies, Special Delivery “SD: Jones was often considered to be ‘enhancement talent’ in the WWF in the 1980s. Jones would often ‘convincingly lose’ to more established heels. Jones would also act as a frequent tag team partner to more established ‘face’ stars like Tony Atlas or Andre the Giant. Jones even had an action figure for the WWF’s toy line with LJN in the 1980s. In Wrestlemania I, Jones would ‘enhance’ King Kong Bundy’s reputation by losing in ‘9 seconds.’ The clocked match was actually closer to 25 seconds. After retiring to his native Antigua, Jones suffered a stroke in 2008 from which he never recovered. Two days after the stroke, Conrad Efraim had passed away. According to friends and family, Jones was jovial and happy a mere day before the stroke hit.
Paul Perschmann was commonly known to wrestling audiences as ‘Playboy’ Buddy Rose. At the first Wrestlemania however, Pershmann was known as the masked ‘Executioner’ and wrestled Tito Santana. There was never really a feud built up between the two. It was simply the opening match at Wrestlemania. Perschmann was found dead by his wife in 2009. The cause of death was generally attributed to diabetes as well as issues with blood sugar. He had been battling weight problems since the 1980s. At the time of his death, Rose was described as being ‘morbidly obese’ by a family friend.
Big John Studd
John ‘Big John Studd’ Minton was one of the truly great ‘heel’ wrestlers of the 1980s. Studd was practically the leader of the bad guys in the Hulk Hogan Rock N’ Wrestling Cartoon Show. Studd would also go on to be featured in movies such as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Studd’s main attribute was that he could legitimately physically challenge large ‘face’ wrestlers of the day like Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. In the first Wrestlemania, Studd lost the 15,000 Body Slam challenged when he was slammed by Andre the Giant. Andre worked on Studd’s knees throughout the match in order to make him weaker for the slam. In 1995, Minton died from complications dues to multiple health conditions including Liver Cancer, Hodgkin’s Disease and possibly ALS (which is more popularly known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease.) John Minton was only 47 years old when he passed away.
Andre The Giant
Andre Roussimoff aka Andre the Giant was literally one of the biggest stars that wrestling has ever known. Andre was diagnosed early on in life with Acromegaly or ‘Gigantism’ which he was informed would be fatal. Andre continued to live and become a successful wrestler as well an occasional actor. Famously, Andre was featured in the classic movie A Princess Bride. After winning the 15,000 Body Slam challenge at Wrestlemania, Andre attempted to distribute the money by throwing it into the crowd. Bobby Heenan took the bag of money and ran back to the locker room with it. In January of 1993, in his native France, Andre went up the steps of his hotel to lie down in his room. He simply never woke up. The official cause of death appeared to be a heart attack. Roussimoff was 46 years old at the time of his death.
Matthew Osbourne assumed several different wrestling personas during his long career. Osbourne was known as ‘Maniac’ Matt Bourne as well as the original ‘Doink The Clown.’ As Matt Borne, he lost to established face wrestler Ricky Steamboat in the original Wrestlemania. Steamboat and Borne had actually worked together several times in the past (mostly in independent promotions). Matthew Obourne’s death at his girlfriend’s house in 2013 was mysterious enough to be originally investigated as a homicide. The eventual ruling was that Osbourne overdosed on morphine as well as Hydro-quinone (which is the active ingredient in the drug Vicodin.) The homicide investigation was subsequently dropped. His impact in professional wrestling history was not often seen due to the sheer variety of work that he did.
Robert Marella was known as ‘Gino’ to his friends but Gorilla Monsoon to most of the rest of the world. During his wrestling career, he was famously involved in a ‘boxing versus wrestling’ match with Muhammad Ali. By the time of the first Wrestlemania, Monsoon was doing color commentary for the event with future governor Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura. Monsoon would later be a regular feature co-host for Primetime Wrestling with Bobby Heenan. Heenan and Monsoon would verbally spar on air but were actually great friends. Monsoon’s son was referee Joey Marella. The younger Marella would die in an auto accident in 1994. Monsoon himself would die of heart failure due to complications for diabetes in 1999. Sadly, his friend Bobby Heenan had to fight to give Monsoon an on air tribute after his death. Heenan was working for World Championship Wrestling at the time and Monsoon had never been associated with that organization.
Sylvester Ritter aka The Junkyard Dog was one of the most popular wrestlers in the 1980s. At the first Wrestlemania, Junkyard Dog participated in the first championship match of the night when he challenged Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine for the Intercontinental Title. The Junkyard Dog would win the match (but not the title) by beating Valentine by count-out. Ritter died in Mississippi in a one car auto accident. He was driving home from watching his daughter graduate from high school. Ritter seemed to have fallen asleep during the drive and ran into a tree. His daughter Latoya’s graduation was in North Carolina. In 2011, Latoya Ritter would die after an apparent fall. People in the house at the time said they heard a ‘loud thud’ before finding Latoya unconscious. She never regained consciousness.