What the Wrestlers Leave Behind
Wrestling is a sport both championed for and predicated on its violence, and its story is so frequently coupled with death that it verges on irony.
Eighteen professional wrestlers passed away in the 2010s alone, justifying a website, DeadWrestlers.net, entirely devoted to chronicling their frequent deaths.
Corporations like the WWE foster an environment where men are bodies and bodies are replaceable. Look at the results from a quick Google search with the keywords ‘college, wrestler, and dead.’
The history of wrestling in America is violent, tragic, and imbued with a winning-at-any-cost mentality that has left indelible wounds on the wrestlers’ loved ones, both on the professional circuit and in the college arena.
Even as the families of wrestlers bereave the loss of their beloved athlete, many have calculated opinions on the sport itself — its place in the pantheon of American culture, its impact on mental and physical health, and what it means to toil on the mat.
Daniel Kelly, a Harvard wrestler, passed away a few months ago at the age of 25.
He attended Harvard on a wrestling scholarship, after being drafted by a slew of Ivy League schools in the country. Described by his family as preternaturally talented, Daniel was a wrestling prodigy in Alexandria Township, New Jersey — a neck of the woods where wrestling reigned, according to his uncle.
He won the 112-pound New Jersey state championship in Atlantic City in 2007 before going on to wrestle in college. At the time of his death, he hadn’t completed his sophomore season.
“You can’t describe the pain and the loss,” Pete Kelly, Daniel’s uncle, said. “It’s an incredibly difficult thing. The young man was really one of the highlights of our entire family.”
Pete was reticent to discuss the details surrounding his nephew’s death, which was deemed to be drug-related from the county coroner’s initial assessments.
“A lot of it has to do with the demands of the sport and the university that he attended,” Pete Kelly said. “There’s probably other wrestlers that he wrestled with that could probably share the same experience, especially on his team at Harvard. I know a number of them had been through difficulties as well.”
Pete helped organize a memorial fund after Daniel’s passing, which has collected over $24,000 on his behalf. Despite Daniel’s death, Pete is adamant about his approval of wrestling and its place in American culture.
“I can’t say that wrestling led to what happened,” Pete said. “I think [Daniel] had great memories of the sport.”
Daniel’s uncle seemed to think that the budding star’s wrestling career could have been even more impressive, but Daniel’s interests were so varied and disparate that the sport wasn’t always the number-one priority. According to Pete, Daniel’s father wrestled in his youth, as well.
“I actually deserve the credit for getting my brother involved in wrestling,” Pete said. “I was already a junior in high school and I got caught up in the sport. I loved it. I encouraged my brother, who was just coming into eighth grade.”
Chris Kelly, Daniel’s father, was hesitant to expound on any of the details his brother provided. He is in the process of finding a way to tell what he calls “a very complicated story” about his son’s experience in the college wrestling circuit, and also suggested that Daniel wasn’t completely consumed by his love for the sport.
While the Kelly family admires wrestling on a high school and collegiate level, an admiration they say is shared with many people from their neighborhood in New Jersey, Pete made a clear distinction between this culture and that of the destructive WWE circuit.
“In that case, it’s obviously a quest for money and success,” Pete said. “The WWE mandates that these guys do some pretty crazy things in order to become successful… Those [WWE] guys are dealing with so much stress — not only in their lives but with their physical bodies. What they’re dealing with is crazy, and then they have to look like Adonis when they walk out there too.”
Or, in the case of Viscera, the 6' 9", 487-pound, former WWE pro, they look like demonic bulldozers.
Viscera, or Big Daddy V, or Big Daddy Voodoo — or as he was born, Nelson Frazier Jr. — passed away from a heart attack last February at the age of 43. According to his widow, Cassandra Frazier, Nelson suffered from a slew of unmitigated physical and mental ailments during his career, including pneumonia and depression.
She blames it all on the unrelenting demands of his employer: a soulless operation that has now left her homeless and missing everything she once loved.
“My husband died in my arms, and it wasn’t from playing volleyball,” Cassandra said, crying to me over the phone. “I’ve seen the bruises. I’ve seen the hematomas. I’ve seen the depression. This company drove him crazy. Do you think all this stuff is a coincidence? Out of all sportsmen and athletes, wrestlers are the ones that are dying every other week.”
Cassandra has plans to publish a book detailing the problems she has observed over the years with the WWE. Her husband signed with World Wrestling Federation in 1993, before going on to collect multiple titles in 2000's WWE Hardcore Championship, a contest which elevates the stakes in the ring by eliminating disqualifications and allowing wrestlers to challenge the champion at any time.
In addition to the problems Nelson suffered as a byproduct of his work environment, Cassandra says that the WWE unfairly paid higher benefits to the widows of other wrestlers simply because her husband was black.
“I lost my husband in my arms; that’s the hardest thing I ever went through,” Cassandra said. “And now, my life don’t mean anything to me. I’m getting ready to stir some shit up. I’m getting ready to stir the world up of WWE. I’m going to tell everything.”
“I want WWE to know, I want Vince [McMahon, the WWE chairman] to know. I would love to meet him so I can just slap the shit out of him. I want motherfucking justice.”
The organization has had its fair share of scrutiny in the past for violence both in and out of the ring, as well as a growing roster of former pros who have committed suicide due to depression, drug abuse, or combinations of the two.
For Cassandra, there’s no forgiving the WWE for taking the man she loved. As to whether her bombshell book comes to fruition is uncertain for now, but she is nevertheless mad as hell and resolute in her mission.
For the athletes who enter the ring, the wrestling path is arduous, time-consuming, and sometimes deadly. For those who are left behind, the questions linger even as the time for mourning passes.
Wrestling is an institution for some, a death trap for others, and a gladiatorial thrill for a bloodthirsty audience. While there isn’t always someone to blame or a reason for the tragedy, wrestling’s intersection with death is unprecedented in other sports — and its road is paved with sadness for those who choose to walk it.