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  Dec 4, 2001

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'Tributes' goes into the depths of despair
By PERRY LEFKO -- For SLAM! Wrestling

Tributes: Remembering some of the World's Greatest Wrestlers
By Dave Meltzer
Stewart House Publishing
$29.95 Cdn, $19.95 USD
ISBN: 1-56366-085-4

Shakespeare wrote that all true stories end in death, and when an individual dies too young or by virtue of mysterious or sensational cause it creates a certain aura or mystique. Add in the business of wrestling, which is a show whose performers tug at the hearts and minds of the people who pay to watch them, and you have the ingredients for an interesting book called Tributes, Remembering Some of the World's Greatest Wrestlers.

Written by Dave Meltzer, the editor/publisher of The Wrestling Observer, Tributes looks at a variety of figures inside and outside of the ring who have graduated to the squared circle in the sky. Some died of natural causes; some influenced their deaths by abusing drugs, alcohol, food or a combination of all three; two were murdered -- one of them, in fact, allegedly by another wrestler; while another lost his life in a horrific stunt that went terribly and tragically wrong. All combined they are real-life stories in a business that is known for being fake.

Packaged together with some interesting pictures and some facts and you have one of the more interesting reads of the volume of wrestling tomes that have become an interesting new genre in book publishing. There is enough literary and pictorial content in this work -- no pun intended -- that make this appealing.

And real. Unlike two wrestling recent books that have hit the market, this one tells stories in which the facts haven't been distorted because Meltzer wouldn't allow his reputation to be besmirched -- to borrow a William Regal buzzword.

The cover of a dimly-lit gymnasium with a wrestling ring sets the tone for the death and darkness that Meltzer delves into in the lives of 20 wrestling figures of different generations and continents. It's an interesting -- and sad -- compendium, beginning with the opening two stories about Owen Hart and Brian Pillman, who wrestled together at one time in the World Wrestling Federation as part of the five-person Hart Foundation, headed by Owen's older brother Bret. Owen is the youngest of 12 children, all of whom have some connection to wrestling, yet his tragic death resulting from a dramatic headfirst-fall into a turnbuckle received international play in the media. Beyond just the fact he died at age 34 and left behind a wife and two children whom he adored is the way his career evolved and ended. He became the victim of a stunt in which he was to be lowered into the ring from the rafters. But, the rig of the harness snapped and he plunged to his death. Sadly, although the commentators indicated to the audience that what happened hadn't been orchestrated, the card continued, proving the old adage that the show must go on, even though morally it should have been shelved.

Then there is Pillman, a wild personality inside and outside of the ring, who died at age 35 because of heart failure. His death, unlike Owen Hart's, did not come as a surprise to those who followed his career. He had been a candle burning too quickly, an excess user of growth hormones and drugs. Born with throat cancer that resulted in 31 different operations before the age of three and left him with a raspy voice, Pillman had been plagued with problems all his life. He made the most of his physical talents, proving he had a bigger heart than athletes/performers blessed with bigger and stronger bodies in separate careers in professional football and wrestling. He lived life to the extreme and ultimately paid the price for his excess behavior.

Then there is Kerry Adkisson, a.k.a. Kerry Von Erich, another product of a famous wrestling family burdened with tragedy. Von Erich had the physical looks to be a star, but could not control his vices. He had a well-known drug problem and if you look at the photos of him you can't help but be alarmed by the crazed look in his eyes. Von Erich's tragedy was a product of a terrible motorcycle accident about six years before. His right ankle was badly injured and eventually required surgery to fuse it together, but privately the real story was he had to have the foot amputated. That was kept a deep secret in the business, even though some people knew because he never removed his boot, even while showering. When his right boot was pulled off in a match two years after the accident and the amputation, it revealed a sock without a foot in it. Von Erich quickly worked to put the boot back on but the audience was stunned. When reported by Meltzer and later picked up by another publication, the incident was quickly denied. How a wrestler can perform with such as disability -- which in fact was against the ancient statutes of the business -- is incredible. Symbolically, Kerry Von Erich lived a protected life, but when he feared going to jail on cocaine possession charges he ended his physical and emotional pain by shooting himself in the heart.

Andre The Giant and Yokozuna are compelling portraits because of their size, but also because they died of heart attacks, influenced in part by excess eating and drinking. The Giant, born Andre Rene Rousimoff in France in 1946, became one of the most recognized performers in the business when it took off as a mainstream property in the mid-'80s. He was literally a larger-than-life individual because of his abnormal size, a product of a rare glandular disease. When he stopped growing in height, his head, hands and feet grew beyond proportion. He stood 6-foot-3 by the age of 12. He was billed at times as standing 7-foot-4, but Meltzer reveals The Giant was closer to 6-foot-9, but his protruding features made him seem larger and taller. Pictures show him as a behemoth with a defined physique in early years, but obese because of excess drinking and eating in the last years of his life. He weighed about 555 pounds when he died at age 46. Rodney Anoia, a.k.a., Yokozuna, was a Somoan who was portrayed as a giant Japanese sumo wrestler. He reportedly weighed more than any other wrestler, tipping the scales between 700-800 pounds. He died at age 34, reportedly drinking heavily the night before he was discovered dead. He had been banned from some states in the U.S. because his weight was deemed too high of a risk factor in the latter part of his life. The WWF, in which he had been a two-time world champion, wanted him to reduce to some 400 pounds. Ironically, the WWF had pushed him originally to increase his weight and he obliged to enhance his career, only to lose control. At one point he was sent by the WWF to a weight-loss program, but lasted only a weekend.

Frank Goodish, a.k.a. Bruiser Brody, died on the operating table the morning after another wrestler, Jose Huertas Gonzales, reportedly stabbed him in the bathroom of a locker room prior to a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Supposedly, Gonzales, an occasional tag-team partner of Brody in the year before he died, had concerns about some tax issues, which aren't clearly explained and why Gonzales resorted to violence. Gonzales left the locker room in a blood-stained shirt, but returned with a new shirt and wrestled.

It is these types of stories that really make you wonder about the wrestling business, which has been exposed, warts and all, because of the volume of books that have hit the market in the last few years, primarily because of the success of Mick Foley's Have A Nice Day! It became a worldwide bestseller and opened the doors for others of its kind, although Tributes goes further into the depths of despair than Foley's book and subsequent follow-up. Perhaps because Meltzer is a journalist who doesn't have to cater to anyone but his readership is he able to write so objectively. There is seemingly no axe to grind or gain, which seems to be the case with Diana Hart's controversial book, Under The Mat, which is already facing a potential lawsuit.

The only problem with Meltzer's book is its title. Many of the wrestlers profiled had talent but calling Owen Hart, Brian Pillman, Yokozuna, Rick Rude and Kerry Von Erich great is stretching the meaning of the word. They were merely individuals who died too young and were victims of a cruel business. Owen's brother said wrestlers are like circus animals and to a certain extent that is apparent in Meltzer's book.

Another review: Meltzer's 'Tributes' simply astonishing

To purchase a copy of Dave Meltzer's Tributes online, click here.

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