Five would-have-been stars whose careers were cut short

Jun 22, 2022 - by Steve Gerweck

Wrestlers are some of the most beloved athletes in the world. The fanbase of enterprises like WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) or AEW (All Elite Wrestling) cross generations, gender, and countries.

As trained showmen, it is unsurprising that so many have moved to Hollywood and started acting careers during their retirements, such as John Cena and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Every week, millions tune in to watch some of the best entertainers in the business. Fans buy merchandise, place wagers on sports betting websites, and support their favorite wrestlers through injury and victory. Wrestlers reward these fans with high-flying acts, intense rivalries, and some amazing fights.

Unfortunately, this ending to their career is not always guaranteed, and many meet far less glamorous fates. Whether it is because of sustained injuries, substance abuse, or scandals – here are five careers wrestling that were cut tragically short.

1. Stone Cold Steve Austin

“Stone Cold” Steve Austin is widely considered to be one of the greatest wrestlers of all time – representing an iconic period of WWF (now WWE) history: the Attitude Era.

The Attitude Era embodied the current trends in mass adult entertainment, including increased violence and profanity. Other major players of this era include The Rock and Triple H.

Austin’s accolades include winning the WWF Triple Crown Championship, the Royal Rumble, the Million Dollar Championship, and headlining dozens of WWF pay-per-view events, such as WrestleMania.

Unfortunately, he began to suffer increasingly serious injuries, especially to his neck and knees. At the height of his popularity, he even had to sit out, per doctor’s orders, for a year.

Though he eventually returned to WWF, this was short-lived, as doctors continued to warn him that any blow could be fatal. Though he had a legendary ring legacy up until this point, this quick end is seen as one of the saddest examples of a career cut short early.

2. Brian Pillman

Brian Pillman was one of the most loved, dynamic, and arguably unhinged wrestlers of the 1990s. He knew how to stir up a crowd, going so far as to threaten to urinate on the Extreme Championship Wrestling ring and he garnered a reputation as “The Loose Cannon.”

These tactics made him the talk of the town, and he began partnering with such icons as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in promotions and segments, which further endeared him to audiences everywhere.

As with the other people on this list, Pillman’s physical health quickly deteriorated – with his joints taking most of the beating. In 1996, he was in a car accident that destroyed his ankles and severely limited his in-ring ability.

He also began to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.

In 1997, Pillman was slated to fight fellow wrestler “Dude Love”. When he failed to arrive at the arena, the event organizers called his hotel, where they learned that Pillman had died due to a massive heart attack – shocking the wrestling world.

In the history of wrestling, this was one of the most tragic ends to an up-and-coming career.

3. Dynamite Kid

Thomas Billington, aka The Dynamite Kid, was known for some of the most extreme wrestling moves, like the diving headbutt, never seen in the ring before.

His career gained traction throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, when his acrobatic abilities ensured his status as a crowd favorite who quickly built an impressive and dedicated following.

However, due to his intense fight style – he sustained multiple injuries which eventually confined him to a wheelchair.

In addition to his paralysis, he had severe heart problems and suffered from multiple strokes, including one immediately following his final match in 1996 – when he had a seizure in the airport on the way home.

These seizures were linked to his head injuries and his consistent use of LSD.

The Dynamite Kid is an example of an athlete who was a victim of his own talent and vibrant fighting style.

4. Paige

Born in Norwich, UK – Saraya-Jade Bevis was destined to walk into the ring from birth.

She was born into a wrestling family who were responsible for the founding of the World Association of Wrestling (WAW). Her mother infamously, and unknowingly, wrestled in a bout while seven months pregnant with Saraya-Jade.

Though being unsure at first, after her first match at age thirteen, she began pursuing a wrestling career earnestly – competing all over the world and eventually catching the eye of the coveted WWE.

Signing in 2011, Bevis adopted the ring name “Paige” and began her meteoric rise to stardom.

She quickly became a fan favorite – her life story was even turned into a documentary and later, a feature film called Fighting with My Family, which The Rock himself produced. She was also a central figure in the development of the “Total Divas” concept in the mid-2010s.

However, her talent could not protect her from a series of injuries. These injuries came to a head in 2017 when Paige suffered a blow to the neck from Sasha Banks that was so intense it prompted the referee to stop the match.

In 2018, it was announced on an episode of RAW that Paige would be retiring due to her sustained neck injuries at the age of 25.

Paige, as the only athlete to ever simultaneously possess the Divas Championship and NXT Championship, is an inspiration to women in wrestling everywhere.

Like Cena and Johnson, she decided to transform her post-ring career into a positive and joined the media side of WWE as a manager and analyst.

5. Chris Nowinski

After graduating from Harvard University, Chis Nowinski decided to enter the pro wrestling competition, Tough Enough, making it to the final three.

Though he did not win, his talent attracted the attention of WWE, and he was added to their main roster in 2002 as Chris Harvard.

His persona was deeply rooted in his Harvard identity. He would pompously talk down to the audience and his opponents – playing into the elitist stereotypes of Harvard alumni.

Nowinski’s career was cut short when he suffered multiple head injuries in a short amount of time – the worst one being the concussion he suffered at the 2003 Royal Rumble, where a mistake in timing led to the full weight of another wrestler landing on Nowinski’s head.

He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome at 24 years of age and had to retire from WWE formally.

Nowinski has since redirected his energies into writing and founding the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which educates the public about brain safety and the dangers of contact sports.

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