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The Life

June 6, 2002
Canaries in the coal mine
ESPN The Magazine

While Ken Caminiti was making headlines for admitting that he used steroids to become an MVP, you could barely find a mention of the death of 39-year-old Davey Boy Smith.

Davey Boy Smith
Davey Boy Smith
Smith, a former Intercontinental champion for the old WWF, rose to fame by draping himself in the Union Jack and wrestling as the super-buff British Bulldog. He also was part of the first and most dysfunctional family of Canadian wrestling -- the Harts. Last year, his ex-wife Diana published a tell-all book in which she accused him of "doping my juice" and raping her while she was unconscious. Needless to say, they divorced and Davey took up with the estranged wife of Diana's brother. Late on the evening of May 17, Smith died of a heart attack while beside her in bed; the medical examiner suggested that prolonged steroid use was to blame.

Maybe I shouldn't be amazed that his death barely registered in the U.S. (It was much bigger news in Canada and England.) After all, Smith was central casting's version of the drug-addled, sex-freak wrestler that everyone rubber-necked around, waiting to watch die. Three of his running buddies -- Brian Pillman, Rick Rude and Louie Spicolli -- all expired before they passed 40.

Ask most reporters if their definition of "news" includes the early death of a wrestler like Davey Boy and they'll roll their eyes, as if to say, "Call Howard Stern." But the truth is that Smith's death has just as much bearing on baseball as Caminiti's mea culpa. Why? Because wrestlers are the canaries of the steroid-soaked coal mine.

Long before Slugger Zero got his first homer from a Dianabol pill, wrestlers were mixing meds like amateur chemists. Superstar Billy Graham used to enthuse to anyone who asked him, "Just lay in bed and you'll feel yourself grow."

Graham turns 59 on Friday. And he's been spending a lot of time in bed lately. The man who had The Body way before Jesse Ventura is on his sixth hip. His immune system is shot from all the infections that are feasting on one another. He has virtually no movement in the ankles. He's lost four inches from his 6'4" frame because of a collapsing lower spine. And his liver, ravaged by hepatitis C, is leaking like a sieve.

Superstar didn't want to talk about Caminiti this week. "He wants to leave that part of his life behind," says the wrestling columnist Mike Mooneyham, who spoke with him Wednesday to deliver the news that he'd found a liver donor.

Unfortunately, Mooneyham's good news didn't last long. The Mayo Clinic of Scottsdale, where Graham is being treated, doesn't accept partial liver transplants from untested "good samaritans" like the one Mooneyham found. Graham could move to a clinic that does, but doesn't have the money or strength to make the trip. So he's stuck waiting for a Mayo-approved liver, his voice too hoarse from harsh medicine to complain in more than a whisper. If it were stronger, though, he'd sill decline to talk about Caminiti. His doctors give him three years to live without a new liver -- too little future to spend living in the past.

In a curious way, Superstar was one of the lucky ones. When he started dropping his drawers for needles, the drugs were still relatively simple. But the generation of athletes that started experimenting with more potent cocktails has paid a more lethal price. As their muscle mass got too big for their frames and they started getting the typical steroid-related injuries -- pulled hamstrings, strained muscles, ruptured tendons -- they upped the number of pain pills they downed. Two days before Davey Boy's death, another wrestler, 350-pound Alex "Big Dick Dudley" Rizzo, founder of The Dudley Boys, expired of kidney failure at the age of 37. The medical examiner blamed pain-killers. As with Smith, Rizzo's death pretty much went unnoticed.

The conventional argument is that you can't compare wrestlers and "real" athletes. Plenty of major league baseball players think they can juice themselves safely. Dr. Jose Antonio, an exercise physiologist, told The Magazine's Jeff Bradley he could put "any athlete on a cycle of anabolic steroids and his perfomances would go up, with no side effects. I guarantee it. Your players are not tested, you know anabolic steroids aid performance, so why not use them?"

But ballplayers who put on circus-like muscles are just kidding themselves if they think they're not in danger. A study recently published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that 62 Finnish power-lifters suspected of using steroids died at a rate five times higher than average. As Bryan Alvarez points out in the new issue of his Figure 4 wrestling newsletter: "The causes of death were strikingly similar [to wrestling deaths]: Three committed suicide, three had heart attacks, one passed away after falling into a coma (likely drug-related) and one died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma."

Baseball hasn't had a record like that yet. But it's still early in the game. Which brings us to another bit of symmetry.

Vince McMahon routinely gets hammered for allowing steroid abuse to run rampant in his company. But I really don't believe that he's ever forced anyone to "go on the gas." What I do believe is that he's dangled buckets of money in front of those that do. And so has baseball. Caminiti neatly summed up the rules of steroid engagement in mainstream sports when he told SI: "If a young player were to ask me what to do, I'm not going to tell him it's bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school. So I can't say, 'Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job and make the money."

It's easy to dismiss wrestling as a make-believe freak show. But when it comes to steroids, it's the one place we can see the future clearly. Athletes who started to juice heavily in the '80s and '90s are starting to die in their late thirties and forties. They're the canaries in the coal mine. Will baseball heed the warning?

Shaun Assael a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the co- author of Sex, Lies & Headlocks, a biography of Vince McMahon to be published by Crown next month. E-mail him at

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