Professional wrestling is known for being staged with colorful characters and predetermined outcomes. On-screen, the wrestlers are often portrayed as larger-than-life valiant heroes or despicable villains.
However, the drama doesn’t always stop after they exit the ring. In fact, their real-life exploits can sometimes be even more fantastical than what they do in the ring.
Almost 30 years on and the death of Bruiser Brody at the hands of fellow wrestler Jose Gonzalez (aka Invader) still remains one of the most controversial moments in the history of pro wrestling. Although we may never know the complete truth, the story is fraught with allegations of corruption, cover-ups, and bias against American wrestlers.
In 1988, Bruiser Brody (real name Frank Goodish) traveled to Bayamon to do a show for World Wrestling Council (WWC), the biggest promotion in Puerto Rico. He was accompanied by fellow American wrestlers, such as Tony Atlas and Dutch Mantell. Before his match, Gonzalez approached Brody for a conversation. The two went into the shower for privacy, and Gonzalez stabbed Brody.
According to witnesses, it took paramedics 40 minutes to arrive. Brody later died on the operating table due to blood loss. Gonzalez was charged with murder but was acquitted in 1989. According to Gonzalez, Brody became violent during their talk and Gonzalez acted in self-defense.
Some of the guys in the locker room disagreed. They said they never heard arguing coming from the two men. Moreover, one wrestler named Chris Youngblood said he saw Invader carrying something wrapped in a towel into the showers.
Many have accused the investigators of bias toward Gonzalez, who was a big star in Puerto Rico. Both Dutch Mantell and Tony Atlas wanted to testify against Invader but received their subpoenas after the trial was over. Mantell claims to still have his subpoena which was issued on January 3, 1989, but wasn’t mailed until the January 13, 10 days later.
In 1997, wrestler Gary Mize (aka Billy Joe Travis) was arrested in Memphis for unpaid child support. At first glance, this doesn’t sound like a particularly noteworthy crime, but Travis was arrested on live TV during a wrestling show.
Travis was working for Tennessee promotion United States Wrestling Alliance (USWA) under the leadership of Jerry “The King” Lawler, the wrestler best known for his rivalry with comedian Andy Kaufman. Not one to miss an opportunity, Lawler took advantage of his popularity in Memphis and convinced the officers to allow the filming of Travis being arrested.
The scene plays out with two announcers discussing the show when Travis’s manager, Luther Biggs, bursts in and starts screaming that “Billy Joe Travis is being arrested.” In the story line, his arrest was blamed on Brian Christopher, Lawler’s real-life son and the wrestler currently involved in a feud with Travis.
Harrison Norris Jr., known professionally as “Hardbody Harrison,” had a moderately successful career as a wrestler. He was employed by World Championship Wrestling (WCW) between 1995 and 2001, working mainly as a jobber (someone who regularly loses matches to make his opponents look good).
When the company went under, Harrison seemingly took the same route as many other wrestlers and opened a training school. However, his operation was actually a front which enabled Hardbody and his cohorts to kidnap and force women into prostitution.
Between 2001 and 2005, Harrison enticed eight women with false promises of training them and tricked them into peonage by charging large sums of money for various expenses. The women were then forced into prostitution to repay their debts. In some cases, Hardbody’s gang dropped the wrestling training ruse completely and simply kidnapped the women if they were easy targets, such as junkies or homeless people.
The women were isolated from their friends and families and monitored at all times by Harrison or his two accomplices. Besides sex labor, the victims had to do chores and were “fined” if they broke house rules, thus increasing their debts. Some of the women managed to alert authorities in 2005. In 2007, Harrison was found guilty on 24 charges and sentenced to life in prison.
Richard Morgan Fliehr is better known to his fans as “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Widely considered one of the greatest performers in pro wrestling history, Flair was faced with adversity from the start. He had the misfortune of being born in Memphis in 1949, the same time and place that a woman named Georgia Tann was running one of the largest child trafficking operations in US history.
Tann operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an orphanage/adoption agency which was really a front for Tann selling babies to wealthy, out-of-state couples. Sometimes, she bribed nurses and doctors to turn newborns over to her and tell the parents they were stillborn.
Other times, she played the role of the helpful social worker trying to remove children from a bad environment. She usually succeeded thanks to a corrupt judge named Camille Kelley. In its 26 years of existence, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was estimated to steal over 5,000 babies. Even more disturbing, 500 of them died while in the organization’s custody due to poor care.
Ric Flair was adopted on March 18, 1949. This was shortly before the adoption agency was closed for good. His real name was most likely Fred Phillips. Seeing as how the agency destroyed or manufactured most documents, it’s unlikely that the Nature Boy will ever find out what happened to his biological parents. That isn’t a big deal to Flair, though. He admitted that he never even looked over his adoption papers until he started doing research for his autobiography.
During the early 1980s, former Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera was enjoying a successful stint with the American Wrestling Association (AWA) as part of a popular group called The Heenan Family.
This went away in 1984 following a show in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Patera and Japanese wrestler Masa Saito wanted to grab a bite to eat and headed to McDonald’s. However, it was late and the restaurant was closed so an employee turned them away. Angered by the refusal, Patera had a flashback to his high school days of shot put and lobbed a 13-kilogram (30 lb) boulder through the McDonald’s window.
Later, the situation got violent when two police officers came looking for Patera at a motel. An impromptu “tag team match” broke out, with Patera and Saito easily overpowering the two cops. It wasn’t until other officers arrived that the situation got under control.
The two wrestlers were later convicted of criminal damage to property, obstructing an officer, and multiple counts of battery to an officer. They were each sentenced to two years in jail followed by six years of probation.
Pro wrestlers might not be the most famous people in the world, but it is still risky to assume that nobody will recognize them. Back in 2010, 30-year-old Nicholas Wilson walked into a PNC Bank in Collingswood, New Jersey, and passed a note to the teller. The note instructed her to give him money or he would shoot her. He walked off with $3,100.
However, Wilson didn’t bother to wear a mask so police were able to release his image to the public. Wrestling fans were quick to point out that the suspect looked an awful lot like Nick Gage, a mainstay attraction of Philadelphia-based promotion Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW).
Eventually, Gage recognized his folly and turned himself in. He got a five-year prison term for bank robbery and was released in 2015.
During a prison interview, Gage admitted that he was broke and addicted to OxyContin at the time of the robbery. When told that he was recognized immediately from his surveillance photo, Gage looked on the brighter side: “I guess I didn’t realize how popular I was.”
During the 1990s, Glenn Gilbertti worked for World Championship Wrestling (WCW), portraying a comedy wrestler spoofing John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever. His name was Disco Inferno. Fast-forward to 2007 and Gilbertti was facing felony charges for organizing high-stakes poker games at his friend’s house in Roswell, Georgia.
At the time of the arrest, Roswell authorities called it the biggest local gambling bust in decades. The operation put together by Gilbertti and Dan Tyre worked on a large scale, featuring dozens of players, staff to wait on them, and minimum $10,000 buy-ins. Besides gambling, police also found drugs and one illegal handgun.
Some of the players caught in the raid were subsequently interviewed and claimed the scope of the bust was blown out of proportion. They said it was a small game featuring “friends of a friend” which evolved out of a group of guys getting together to watch football and playing a few hands. The “high stakes” were $5 and $10 games of Texas Hold’em, and most players only brought a few hundred dollars to the table.
The truth was probably somewhere in the middle as police turned up $46,000 in cash. Gilbertti and Tyre were charged with commercial gambling and drug possession while 25 other people faced various misdemeanor charges.
Back in 1997, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was on tour in the Middle East with Kuwait being one of the stops. As was customary, some of the wrestlers did media appearances to promote the show. In this case, two performers known as The Undertaker and Big Van Vader did an interview show called Good Morning Kuwait.
During the meeting, presenter Bassam Al Othman asked the question all wrestlers hate: “Is it fake?” While The Undertaker answered diplomatically, Vader had a violent outburst. He grabbed Othman by his tie and started cursing and threatening him.
The presenter subsequently filed charges, and Vader (real name Leon White) found himself under house arrest in Kuwait. After 10 days, Vader was free to leave after paying fines amounting to roughly $150. The television station got in more trouble for the cursing on live TV, and wrestling was unofficially banned in Kuwait for 11 years.
The saga continued in an interview where Vader claimed the whole thing was staged. He was working under orders from the show’s producer who forgot to tell the host (or failed on purpose to get a better reaction). The drama took another turn in 1999 when Othman sued the WWF for $1 million, claiming the company used footage of Vader manhandling him for commercial purposes without his permission.
Canadian wrestlers seem to have a fondness for organized crime. World Wrestling Federation’s Dino Bravo was gunned down in his home in 1993, allegedly as mob retaliation for a shipment of smuggled cigarettes he lost to the police. However, he was still small-time compared to Johnny K-9, whose criminal career was far more fruitful than his wrestling career.
K-9 (real name Ion Croitoru) was born in Hamilton, Ontario. He had a 15-year wrestling career and made appearances with various promotions, including the WWF. He also had a few small acting roles and worked as a bodyguard for several celebrities. Over the course of his life, Croitoru was involved with three major Canadian criminal organizations: the Satan’s Choice motorcycle club, the Gravelle crime family, and the United Nations gang.
Croitoru started out as a biker with Satan’s Choice. During that time, he was involved with crimes such as trafficking, assault, extortion, and bombing a police station. Eventually, Croitoru was arrested. By the time he got out, Satan’s Choice was no more.
In 1998, Croitoru advanced to murder, executing lawyer Lynn Gilbank and her husband in their home, allegedly for working a case against the Gravelle crime family. He was charged in 2005, but the trial didn’t proceed due to lack of evidence.
Croitoru was arrested again in 2009 for conspiring to kill notorious Vancouver gangsters the Bacon Brothers and other members of their gang, the Red Scorpions. Two years later, he faced another set of murder and attempted murder charges. He struck a deal that got him released on parole in 2016 and died in a halfway house in 2017.
Back in June 2007, the WWE embarked on an ambitious story line involving the (fake) death of company owner Vince McMahon, seemingly killed in a limousine explosion. According to some pundits, the goal was to create a mystery about the identity of the perpetrator that was similar to the iconic Dallas story line, “Who Shot JR?”
It never got that far, though, because Vince was standing in the ring alive and well the following week. He was giving a heartfelt tribute to one of his performers who had just died over the weekend.
His name was Chris Benoit. On June 25, Benoit, his wife, Nancy, and his son Daniel were found dead in their Atlanta home. At first, authorities believed that they were the victims of a home invasion. But it soon became clear that Benoit had strangled his wife and son and then committed suicide. Common motives suggested for his actions included brain trauma, depression, and alcohol and steroids abuse, all leading to mental instability.
The WWE ended up turning their fake tribute show planned for Vince McMahon into a real one for Benoit. Once they found out about the true circumstances surrounding his death, they had to open their next show with an apology for the previous one.
The strangest part of the event came courtesy of Chris Benoit’s Wikipedia page. After he missed that Sunday’s pay-per-view show, someone changed his Wiki entry to say he did it due to the death of his wife, Nancy. This happened 14 hours before police found the bodies. Eventually, authorities dismissed it as a “huge coincidence” after tracing the IP to a Connecticut teenager who made random edits to several Wikipedia pages.