Lex Luger doesn't mince words when asked about pro wrestling's appeal.
"People like to see freaks," said the former Lawrence Pfohl. "It's like live cartoon characters."
Not long ago, Luger was 270 pounds of romping manly aggression and animalistic sex appeal. It's what his public wanted and he gave it to them in steroid-fueled, larger-than-life doses as "The Total Package," a man who borrowed his name — sort of — from Superman's arch-enemy.
But the freak show that became Luger's life nearly killed him. The man who made millions, flew in private jets and lived in mansions is now dead broke, sleeps on a used bed and keeps his clothes in neat piles on the floor.
Luger is a pro wrestling casualty, although he considers himself lucky. He recently turned 49, an age many of his friends in the business will never see.
The latest in that growing toll was Chris Benoit, the "Canadian Crippler." The 40-year-old Fayette County resident apparently strangled his wife, choked his 7-year-old son to death and placed Bibles by their bodies before hanging himself by hitching a weight machine's cable to his neck and letting drop 240 pounds.
The Benoit family's tragic end once again exposed the sordid underbelly of professional wrestling.
Luger hadn't seen Benoit in several years but believes his old friend was in a "dark place" due, in part, to the frenetic pressures of the life and many years of drugs he took to build himself up and to keep the pain at bay. Authorities found steroids in Benoit's home and are investigating whether "roid rage," an explosive fit of aggression traced to steroid abuse, had anything to do with the deaths.
Benoit is one of many who have died early.
Keith Pinckard, a medical examiner in Dallas, started logging the deaths of pro wrestlers and ex-wrestlers after his office performed an autopsy on one killed in an accident.
"It seemed bizarre," said Pinckard, "there seemed to be a lot of deaths."
There were. He found nearly 70 who died early going back nearly 20 years. It was a rate at least seven times the rate of the general population, he calculated. The causes of deaths fell in common themes: drug overdoses and heart attacks were most common, followed by suicide and "natural causes."
Vince McMahon, owner of the World Wrestling Entertainment, the federation for which Benoit and Luger wrestled, has said the organization has instituted drug testing in response to such allegations of abuse.
"The last test that Chris Benoit took of a random nature was in April which he was totally negative," McMahon said on NBC's "Today" morning program. "That doesn't mean that he wasn't taking prescription medication and perhaps even steroids when this happened. We don't know."
"Ravishing Rick Rude" died in 1999 after being found unconscious in his Alpharetta home with empty prescription bottles near his bed. The death of the 40-year-old (his legal name was Rood) was ruled a heart attack. He suffered a neck injury years earlier that virtually ended his career.
In "Rude's" obituary, wrestler Curt Hennig, "Mr. Perfect," memorialized his lifelong friend as a performer who gave fans what they wanted.
Four years later, Hennig, 44, was found dead in a hotel, Authorities ruled it cocaine intoxication.
In an obit for Hennig, Atlanta area wrestler Ray "Big Boss Man" Traylor Jr. noted the mounting loss of his closest friends. "It used to be me, him and Rick Rude together," Traylor said. "And then Rick died."
A year later, "Big Boss Man" died of a heart attack.
The pressures on wrestlers to perform night after night grew as the business got more lucrative as federations such as McMahon's WWE went international.
But as wrestling exploded in reach, smaller regional circuits that gave more wrestlers a living dried up.
Atlanta resident Gary Juster, a former wrestling promoter, said the old circuits needed wrestlers, men who added a shtick to their act, but were athletes first and foremost.
Then, about 25 years ago, the sport changed. "The look of a typical wrestler changed," Juster said. "It changed from wrestler to bodybuilder, that chiseled look. There wasn't as much passion for the craft."
As "The Look" became more important, steroids became more popular. "Guys did whatever they had to do to get ahead," Juster said.
The pressure increased as jobs became fewer and more lucrative, said former wrestler Rick Steiner.
"Now there's pay-per-view every week and TV every night. There's the added pressure to look good and there's 100 guys wanting what you have, so a lot of guys take the easy way out," said Steiner, who is a real estate agent and school board member in Cherokee County. "You got to be ready to go every day — and if not, there's a lot of guys ready to step in for you in a heartbeat.
"Some guys sell their souls to be on TV," said Steiner, who came up in the business with Benoit in the mid-1980s.
Steiner said he took "every supplement I could" coming up. "It wasn't a controlled substance then." But Steiner stopped. "The benefits vs. my long-term goals went different ways."
He retired several years ago when his body started aching and he was asked to go back on the road 20 days a month. It was a scary moment. "There's no pension, it's what you save, " he said. "It's over and that's it. Once you are in the limelight and get a taste of the crowd, [some wrestlers] can't let it go. A lot of guys have trouble making that transition."
As is Lex Luger.
Luger, a Buffalo native, banged around in the Canadian Football League and the United States Football League as an offensive lineman before trying his hand in a Florida wrestling circuit.
Luger still looks good as he sits behind a desk at Western Hills Baptist Church in Kennesaw. His face is tanned and heavily creased, the body lean and his biceps still resemble bowling balls.
But when he gets up to walk, he hobbles like he's 80. He has put in for hip surgery with Social Security.
Luger was as big as they came in the 1990s and rolled through millions of dollars, he said.
Life on the circuit was exciting and exhausting. Some years he was on the road 300 days a year. There were 5 a.m. flights, daytime gym work, shows at night, parties in some hotel or penthouse.
And then repeat again and again.
He needed help to keep up with the pace.
"Steroids were there as a shortcut to get size," he said. And then there's the pain from the never-ending body slams and pile drivers. "You start with a painkiller for bumps and bruises. And then you need more. It's never enough."
Those on the circuit were a family, "a dysfunctional family" he said. Everyone wants a piece of a superstar. "There's a lot of leeches, losers, cruisers and abusers."
"I found no matter how hard you chase it, it's never quite enough," he said. "Money makes you more comfortable being miserable."
Luger's fall was hard and quick. He got divorced and in 2003 he made an early morning call to Cobb County 911 saying his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hulette, known on the wrestling circuit as Miss Elizabeth, had passed out.
She was taken to Kennestone Hospital, where she died. The autopsy showed a mix of alcohol, painkillers and tranquilizers in her system.
He was arrested for possessing three kinds of steroids found in the home. Later, he got a DUI. "My life had fallen apart and I still didn't get it," he said.
A judge sentenced him to probation and revoked it in late 2005 when he went to Canada for a work appearance without court approval. An arrest and two strip searches later, the former Total Package was back in Cobb County Jail.
Luger credits Steve Baskin, the pastor of Western Hills Baptist, with pulling him from a terminal tailspin. The jail chaplain met Luger in early 2006 and sensed the former wrestler was spiritually wounded.
"Here's a guy who would have died or gone to prison," said Baskin. "He didn't have the skills to negotiate through his probation." Baskin said Luger had never learned to think for himself well enough to handle "regular" life experiences.
After Luger was freed, Baskin's friends — Doc Frady, pastor of Clarkdale First Baptist, and his wife, Jan — invited Luger to their home for a birthday party.
Luger learned the couple had been married 54 years and had lived in the same house for much of that time.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Luger recalls. "I didn't even know people like that existed anymore."
Luger lives in a spare bedroom in Baskin's apartment and is trying to figure out a path in life.
He'd like to help counsel those in trouble. Or maybe be a fitness coach. He even said he'd take clients out to the supermarket and show them what to buy. He's eager. He's uncertain. To him, regular life is a new business.
e mërkurë, 4 korrik 2007
Lex Luger: Lives on the ropes
The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a very good article about Lex Luger.
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