The death of Eddie Guerrero, the highly gifted and respected wrestler whose talent changed the way professional wrestling saw itself and whose tragedy came to symbolize the toll that the wrestling industry often takes on its performers, marked the end of a significant 18-year career that will not soon be forgotten.
Guerrero, who was one of the biggest stars in the WWE at the time of his death, was only 38. According to media reports, local officers, and nephew Salvador Guerrero III (who performs as Kerwin White and Chavo Guerrero), Eddie Guerrero was found, dead, at approximately 7 a.m. local time (8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) Sunday morning. A toothbrush found near his corpse indicated that he had been brushing his teeth when he passed away, suggesting that his death was as sudden and unexpected as it appeared outwardly. It appears that he died of heart failure, but conclusive tests on him have not been completed.
His surprising death was the cruel end of a positive story. As had been chronicled in a television special and DVD (“Cheating Death, Stealing Life”), Guerrero battled with drug and alcohol addiction for much of his professional life, nearly killing himself several times and bringing his career to a screeching halt. As a testament only to his determination and will, Guerrero kicked the habit, rebuilt his family, and reinvented his professional life, returning to the business as a born-again Christian and a performer at the top of his game. According to his nephew, he celebrated four years of sobriety just days earlier.
But Guerrero’s death, while shocking, was not a departure from the recent history of the wrestling industry in which performers consistently die young. Many young wrestlers have died in the past several years in deaths often relating to heart failure. Abuse of anabolic steroids and narcotics, which is common among wrestlers, are said to be among the reasons behind such deaths.
Guerrero’s life was cast in this dark shadow of tragedy and death in professional wrestling. Many of his contemporaries and friends, including Art Barr and Brian Pillman, died in their prime. This year, Chris Candido died at 33 as the result of a blood clot after surgery and Shinya Hashimoto at 40 after what was reported as brain hemorrhaging. In comparison to years past, the young deaths were neither few nor as directly relatable to drug abuse.
The scene—a young, able-bodied man torn down in the midst of his prime, dead on the floor of a hotel—was eerily similar to the tragic death of Brian Pillman, whose heart failure in advance of a WWF pay per view event in 1997 was said to be heavily influenced by his years of drug abuse.
Guerrero’s extreme will, which was tested during his very human struggle with abuse of drugs, came to symbolize to all who knew him a certain indomitable spirit and resistance that marked the personal character of Eddie Guerrero and gave hope that a journey with which wrestlers have constantly struggled was not without lesson and ultimate reward. Guerrero, who is widely respected by both fans and professional wrestlers on a personal and professional level, was a complex man with demons and an embodiment of the literary struggle between man and himself. His struggles were explored in a highly-lauded WWE Films Documentary ironically titled “Cheating Death, Stealing Life” and a subsequent unreleased autobiography scheduled to be released next month.
In an immediate sense, the loss of Guerrero is an extraordinary problem for WWE. As one of the most talented all-around performers in the company and one of the few stars in a thin cache of wrestlers on Smackdown, Guerrero will be nearly impossible to replace. As the biggest Latino star in WWE since Pedro Morales three decades ago, Eddie Guerrero was influential in the WWE’s success in Southwestern markets and in TV ratings. No single person is prepared to carry the many hats that Guerrero wore nor do it with the admiration that Guerrero gained in his years with the company.
For the image of the company, the death of a wrestler as prominent could reignite query into the business, such as the type that ensued when USA Today published a piece examining the link between steroids and the early deaths and HBO’s Real Sports challenged the company’s responsibility in dealing with the health of their employees. During that time, one of the arguments posed was that most of the dead wrestlers had not worked for WWE in years. In this case, Guerrero was employed at the time of his death.
The death brought an end to minute logistical concerns for WWE. The problem, leading into their show double-brand show Sunday, was how to handle the title situation with Batista, who was injured this past week. He was scheduled to face Guerrero and Orton for the title in advance of a European tour. Instead, tapings for both RAW and Smackdown were dedicated to his life and were a sparsely-arranged set of matches, comments from fellow wrestlers, and glimpses back at Guerrero’s decorated career. The tour may be postponed at this point so that wrestlers can grieve and visit with Guerrero and family.
There is no superlative that can properly identify the sort of professional wrestler that Guerrero was. Historically, he is not often given credit for being the star his father Gori Guerrero was, or the man who broke the barriers between Mexican and American wrestling—the honor goes to Rey Mysterio Jr., or the best worker of his era who is almost universally considered Chris Benoit, his interview ability was easily eclipsed by wrestlers who had a longer time as a star. But in reality, Guerrero was among the most significant performers of his era, and stands among the greatest performers of all time.
“I dare say [he was] one of the more stellar performers in the history of our business,” said Vince McMahon, the promoter of WWE, at a press conference Sunday afternoon.
He was a superb actor and had a sense of theatre in his every move. He could combine vocal intonation, facial reaction, and comedy in a way that exceeds the capacity of almost any wrestler in history. In a ludicrous feud with Rey Mysterio, his acting shined through and created an excellent emotional rivalry out of very little. When asked to do an emotional promo, he was like no other, and it was a skill he developed only recently.
It was wrestling that was his original skill and he excelled at it. Outside of Chris Benoit, whose proficiency in multiple styles and consistency is incomparable, Guerrero is arguably the best wrestler of this era. While his precision and care in the ring waned recently, he remained among the top in-ring performers in wrestling. In an in-ring career that spans two decades, Guerrero has amassed an impressive list of excellent with a wide variety of wrestlers, and usually took it to another level with athletes of similar caliber. In Japan, his matches as Black Tiger in New Japan Pro Wrestling gave him his first exposure to a different style of wrestling and provided with him friends in people like Dean Malenko (also a second-generation wrestler) and Chris Benoit. His matches with Malenko, Benoit, and Rey Mysterio Jr. are among the most memorable of his career. His series with Malenko is the stuff of legend. His match with Art Barr against Octagon and El Hijo de Santo on the AAA When Worlds Collide PPV in 1994 also stand among his best. He was able to combine high-flying in-ring action with emotion and ring psychology like few others his age.
A complete career retrospective can be found here .
Guerrero is survived by his wife Vicky and children Shaul, 14; Sherilyn, 9; and Kaylie Marie, 3. They recently relocated to Phoenix, AZ. His mother, Herlinda, and several of his brothers are also alive. He will be memorialized Thursday in Scottsdale, AZ.