Published on March 11th, 2018 | by Marc Madison0
Triumphs and Tragedies: Wrestling Families Who Went Through Darkness and Light
“Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
Wrestling is, in many ways, a family business. A second-generation star’s accomplishments are often looked as a continuation of the lineage of the family patriarch. But sometimes a family’s triumphs are offset by personal tragedies. Often, a tragic occurrence–or a series of them–reveal a family’s strength of character. Or lack of it.
Success is easier to handle. There are tears of joy and words of gratitude. To overcome challenges and adversity, a family has to lean on one another together. Below are a number of wrestling families who have seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Where wrestling and real life diverge, the family bonds are often revealed.
The Anoa’i Family
The Anoa’i family has roots in professional wrestling reaching back to the 1970s starting with the Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika. The pair were part of a large group of Samoan fans who would attend cards promoted by Roy Shire at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. That group of fans were so wild and rowdy that wrestlers like Ray Stevens approached them to become wrestlers. The Anoa’i boys were too dangerous to leave as marks. Afa and Sika would go on to become top professionals and win tag titles all over the US, including the WWE world tag team titles. And while there’s no direct blood link, the Anoai’s consider Peter Maivia a ‘blood brother,’ and they have long claimed the Rock as a de facto “cousin.” The family branches include Samu, Fatu, Rosey, the Usos, Roman Reigns, Umaga, and former WWE world champion Yokozuna.
And while Yokozuna’s championship reigns are a source of pride for the family, the real-life Rodney Anoa’i passed away in 2000 at the age of 34. The cause of death was pulmonary edema. He was on an independent wrestling tour in England at the time of his death.
“He was a sweetheart of a guy. Always jovial and happy and cracking jokes. It’s just a shame to see that he’s gone … He’s contributed so much to our industry and the WWF.” – The Rock on Yokozuna
The family lost another favorite son when Matthew Anoa’i–better known as Rosey in WWE–died from congestive heart failure in April of 2017. His passing hit the family hard.
“Right now, it’s one of those situations where it’s a lot of mixed feelings. When you live in a big family, it’s always great to be able to come together, but to have to come together to send off a brother — and not only was he, my brother,, but in our family, even when you’re cousins, we’re all so close that we feel like brothers. He was my number one fan. He never missed a match, he never missed anything I did in the ring, he always had great advice for me and always reached out to talk.”– Roman Reigns on Twitter
Matthew Anoa’i was preceded in death by his cousin and frequent tag team partner, Edward Fatu. Readers will likely know him better as Umaga, who feuded on top with John Cena. Fatu came into the WWE as one half of Eric Bischoff’s 3 Minute Warning tag team, and later, and most notably, as Umaga. He died in 2009 at the age of 36, the victim of a drug-overdose-induced heart attack and a brain hemorrhage. Umaga had a substantial impact on other members of the Anoa’i family, most significantly the Usos, whom he convinced to get into the ‘family business.’
The Von Erich Family
It’s easy to look back at the Von Erichs as a cautionary tale. Jack Adkisson–better known as Fritz Von Erich–had six sons, five of whom wrestled professionally. Fritz rose to prominence competing for the National Wrestling Alliance, and also captured both versions of the American Wrestling Association’s world championship in 1963. Fritz also helped build a following while competing in Japan under the moniker ‘tetsu no time,’ which would translate to what his finishing move was, ‘the claw.’
“Von Erich was intelligent to the ways of the wrestling business and had a personal dynamism shared by many of the major promoters and stars of the time. Promoters like Von Erich, Mid-South’s Bill Watts, the AWA’s Verne Gagne, and the WWF’s Vince McMahon Sr. and Jr. ran their promotions like kings. They were all-knowing rulers whose personalities dominated anyone around them. They knew exactly what they wanted and listened to no one who disagreed with their vision of the world.” – Pro Wrestling Torch columnist Bruce Mitchell
Tragedy struck early for the Von Erichs. His first son, Jack Jr., passed away in 1959 after touching an exposed electrical wire suffering an electrical shock at the family’s home in Niagra Falls, New York. The jolt knocked him unconscious, and he fell face-down in a puddle of water, where he drowned. He was six years old.
David was known as ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ and competed as part of Fritz’s World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri. While with the NWA, he had rivalries with the likes of Ric Flair and Harley Race. He captured the Missouri heavyweight title twice, which was seen as a stepping stone to the NWA world title because of the NWA’s historical significance in St. Louis. David unexpectedly passed away on Feb. 10, 1984, in Tokyo during a tour for Giant Baba’s All-Japan promotion. Von Erich was in Japan defending the promotion’s United National title, which he’d won a week earlier in Texas. David’s death is still something of a mystery, more than 30 years later. The official cause of death is “acute enteritis.” However, wrestlers like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Mick Foley have gone on record saying that they believe his death was drug-related. Kevin, the only surviving Von Erich brother, has said publicly that he believes David died of a heart attack. David Von Erich was 25 years old when he died.
While many believe David was being groomed for a run with the NWA world title, his brother Kerry was the most successful of the brothers. He defeated Ric Flair for the NWA world championship on May 6, 1984, at the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions. Though he only held the title for 18 days, the win over Flair put the stamp on Kerry as a major player on the national stage, not just in Texas. But a little more than two years later, Von Erich was involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. The crash dislocated his right hip and mangled his leg. After several hours of surgery, doctors saved his right foot. However, Kerry attempted to walk too soon following the surgery, which aggravated the injury. Eventually, his right foot had to be amputated. Kerry would make a comeback to the ring, wearing a prosthetic foot. And even with the missing foot–and in constant pain–the diminished Kerry Von Erich was still very, very good in the ring. He went to the WWE as “the Texas Tornado” and won the Intercontinental title from Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig, dropping the strap back to Hennig three months later. In August 1992, Von Erich left the WWE. He had been de-pushed on TV, and his life was in a slow spiral out of control. In 1993, less than one week after an arrest warrant had been issued for him for felony cocaine possession, Kerry committed suicide. His body was found in a blackberry thicket at his father’s ranch. He had shot himself in the chest with a .44 caliber gun. In his book, Bret Hart stated that Von Erich said to him that ‘I want to follow my brothers, and they keep calling me.’
Mike and Chris Von Erich also preceded Kerry in death. The pressure was on Mike to get into the business, especially after David’s death. Mike physically resembled David, but he didn’t have the same aptitude for–nor interest in–wrestling. He was the quiet one, more interested in music and video production. But he was pressed into service in the ring after David’s death. During a tour of Israel, Mike suffered a separated shoulder, which would require surgery. Following his release from the hospital, Mike’s temperature spiked to 107 degrees. He was later diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome and suffered brain damage as a result. Shortly before he died, Mike was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. Mike drove to Lewisville Lake on April 12, 1987, after leaving a suicide note for his family to find. He drank alcohol and overdosed on Placydils. His body was found in a sleeping bag four days later. He was 23 years old.
If Mike didn’t want to be a wrestler, Chris suffered the opposite problem. From the moment he knew what wrestling was, Chris wanted to be in the ring. The problem was that he was too small–generously listed at 5-feet, 7 inches tall–Chris was never going to be the physical equal of his brothers. Despite his size disadvantage, he turned pro in 1990. But asthma and a predilection for brittle bones continued to plague his in-ring career. He was never able to match his brothers’ prowess, with his biggest feud coming against manager Percy Pringle III (more famous later as Paul Bearer, the manager for the Undertaker). Pringle was hand-picked for the feud because he worked very light and therefore minimize the risk of injury to Chris. Depressed over the deaths of his brothers David and Mike–as well as his lack of success in wrestling–Chris killed himself with a gunshot to the head on Sept. 12, 1991. He was 21 years old.
Kevin Von Erich is the only surviving member of the Von Erich brothers. The family was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009.
The Hart Family
The Hart family is considered Canadian wrestling royalty and with good reason. The father of 12 children, Stu Hart created Stampede Wrestling and trained talent in what was infamously known as the Dungeon. Stu passed away in 2003, but his legacy is not just carried on by those that trained in his Dungeon, but by his family.
Stu’s most successful son remains Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart. Bret was a five-time WWF world champion, a WCW world champion and a WWF tag team champion. However, for all of Bret’s triumphs, he faced his own share of adversity. Whether it was his career-ending concussion at the hands of Bill Goldberg, a subsequent stroke while riding his bicycle, or his battle with cancer, Bret has battled his share of health concerns. But Bret’s issues pale in comparison to the death of his youngest brother, Owen.
“He really belongs there. Today’s fans deserve to enjoy his talents. The memories fade every day. Yes, he moaned that he was away from home and he missed his family. But he loved wrestling. He loved a good match. He had a lot of fun in the ring, and he made the fans have a lot of fun watching him.” – Bret Hart on why Owen belongs in the WWE Hall of Fame
In May of 1999, Owen Hart was scheduled to work under a hood as the comedic character the Blue Blazer against the Godfather for the Intercontinental title at WWE’s Over the Edge PPV. Hart was supposed to be lowered via a harness from the rafters of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. When he was a few feet above the ring, his harness was supposed to foul, and he would then drop in a short bump for comedic effect.
Instead, the “quick release” harness gave way, and Owen plummeted to the ring, striking one of the turnbuckles. He lay motionless in the ring for several minutes as EMTs worked to save his life. He was transported to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead. Owen was 34 years old.
His brother-in-law and frequent tag team partner, “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith battled addiction for much of his later career, and he would suffer a fatal myocardial infarction a little less than three years later while on vacation with his girlfriend at the time. He was 39.
And then there’s TJ Wilson, who worked as Tyson Kidd in the WWE. Wilson suffered a severe neck injury taking the muscle buster from Samoa Joe during a dark match at a Raw TV taping in 2015. He later tweeted a photo of his neck post-surgery, noting that only 5% of people survive this type of injury. Surgery to repair the damage required four screws and a rod to stabilize his neck. He has not wrestled since and currently works for WWE as a producer.
The Armstrong Family
By any standard, Bullet Bob Armstrong had a long, illustrious career. Starting in 1960, Armstrong became a mainstay in Southern promotions like Georgia, Florida, and Southeastern. A lifelong bodybuilder, Armstrong sported a barrel chest and 23-inch biceps in his prime. During a workout in late 1983, Armstrong suffered a horrific injury. During a training session at a gym in Wheeling, West Virginia, Armstrong was doing dumbbell presses on a bench that collapsed underneath him. His nose was torn completely off of his face, both cheekbones were broken, and he suffered several lacerations. The others working out with him rushed him to the hospital. Fellow wrestler Jake “the Snake” Roberts actually found Armstrong’s nose, where it had been swept into a corner. Reconstructive surgery set Bob on the road to recovery, but it took a long time, and when he returned to TV, Armstrong didn’t look the same.
“It was hard to look in the mirror,” Armstrong told the Dothan Eagle during a 2009 interview. “I looked in the mirror and it wasn’t me. I looked out the window in the back of the house and just cried.” [Editor’s note: the linked story contains a factual error, stating that Armstrong’s injury happened in 1982. However, his facial injury happened after his 1983 heel run in Southeastern.]
But when Brad Armstrong passed away on Nov. 1, 2012, it wasn’t just a blow to the Armstrong family. It was a loss for all of wrestling.
“Brad Armstrong was one of the funniest, most personable men I’ve ever met in the business. He could light up any locker room and seemingly got along with everyone. If someone had an issue with Brad Armstrong, they really needed to take a long look into a mirror.
One of the greatest things someone in our business can say of any wrestler is that said wrestler could have a good match with anyone, no matter who. Brad Armstrong certainly fits on a rather short list of wrestlers that could literally have a good match with anyone.” –Jim Ross, on the passing of Brad Armstrong
Brad was 50 years old. His sudden death was felt across the industry, with luminaries like Ross, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Dr. Tom Prichard, and many others weighing in on his legacy in the business. Although he is often thought of as an underneath talent, Armstrong had runs on top in NWA territories like Georgia, Mid-South, and Continental. He was the only member of the family to win a singles world championship, taking the WCW world light heavyweight title, and he also held the Smoky Mountain championship. His in-ring career for WCW was cut short when he was run over by Juventud Guerrera and Psychosis, severely injuring one of Brad’s knees.
And “Road Dogg” Brian James suffered through years of addiction before finally going through rehab and getting the help he needed.
“I got bad. I was unemployed, I was a drug addict, and I contemplated suicide. Like a lot. And the only reason I didn’t go forth with that is that my wife or my children would be the ones to find my brains blown out in the shed out back. You know what I mean? So that was the reason I told myself ‘don’t do that”. – Brian James sharing his thoughts about his past addictions
Brian and his brother Scott both currently work as producers for WWE.
The Guerrero Family
When Eddie Guerrero died in November 2005, it left a hole in the hearts of wrestling fans everywhere. Eddie was, without question, the most successful of the legendary Guerrero family. A former WWE world champion–who pinned Brock Lesnar to claim the title–Eddie was the youngest son of the legendary Gory Guerrero, whose wrestling lineage lives on today as Aiden English (married to Eddie’s daughter Shaul) still wrestles for WWE. Eddie, of course, famously lied, cheated, and stole his way into the hearts of wrestling fans everywhere. A gifted technical and aerial wrestler, Guerrero was sometimes criticized early on for not allowing his personality to come out during his matches. That changed, however, when he worked with Art Barr in Mexico. As La Pareja del Terror, a part of the Los Gringos Locos stable in Mexico, Guerrero was one of the top draws in Mexico. When he and Barr lost a double hair-vs.-mask match against El Hijo de Santo and Octagon at the When Worlds Collide pay-per-view, it blew off what the Wrestling Observer voted the Feud of the Year for 1994.
Eddie’s international experience worked well for him, as he honed his craft in Japan and Mexico. When he came to the United States for ECW, things really began to take off for him and he signed a contract with WCW. After a few years in WCW, he moved on to the WWE, where being a character mattered much more than actual wrestling ability. Finally, Eddie’s personality was able to shine in promos and skits, and the WWE Universe fully embraced his underdog run to the undisputed WWE title in 2004.
“I think at that time, and there were a lot of good tag teams that were at their best, The Hardyz, The Dudleyz, Edge, and Christian were still around here and there, but there was a lot of really, really good tag teams. But at that time, as far as overall and as far as wrestling and performance and entertaining and kind of doing everything, I feel that we were just in the zone. Teaming with Eddie was the best because we didn’t even have to talk matches. We knew each other so well, we’ve been doing this with the ring in the backyard since we were born, it just came so naturally to us”. – Chavo Guerrero on what made Eddie and Los Guerreros so special to him
But it wasn’t all roses for Eddie. He battled some legal trouble, as well as addiction issues that saw him go in and out of rehab. His return to the WWE and his ability to capture the audience’s attention and Vince McMahon’s trust as his champion was one of the truly great underdog stories in wrestling. Eddie was found unresponsive in his hotel room on November 13, 2005, by his nephew Chavo, who reportedly tried to revive him using CPR. He was pronounced dead when paramedics arrived at the scene. While he reportedly died of a heart attack, many believe his body never fully recovered from the damage he had endured after years of substance abuse earlier in his career.
Eddie’s memory continues to live on today as current performers that were big fans of his, like Sasha Banks, continue to commemorate the former champion with ring attire inspired by him and using some of his most notable moves in the ring, including the frog splash. As it stands today, Chavo Guerrero Jr remains the most active member of the Guerrero, whether it has been in front of the camera trying to help develop storylines or behind the scenes developing programs such as Lucha Underground or working on the Netflix original series GLOW.
Marc Madison is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a writer for Pro Wrestling Post.