Wrestlers Anonymous

By A.J. Dugger III 12/10/14

More wrestlers are becoming open with their steroid stories. Back before testing was taken seriously, it was juice or lose.


“I wanted an edge. I wanted to be the strongest grappler in town.” Those were the words of Leroy Jackson, who nearly became an amateur-wrestling champion in Texas during the early 1990s. Jackson was caught using steroids and his career instantly came to an end. “When I was on my way up is when people started testing seriously for steroids. I was actually doing a good job of outsmarting the system until my luck ran out.” According to Jackson, word got out that he was using anabolic steroids and a former rival of his informed authorities, who then searched his home and found the evidence. Jackson was a small athlete, only 5'11 and 190 pounds. He used the drugs to give him an advantage against the much bigger guys. Jackson was quick and agile. Once he'd counter a move, he'd get his opponents off balance and slam them with monstrous strength. 

Looking back, Jackson feels that the unfortunate incident is a blessing. “I'll never know how good I really was,” he said. “Without the juice would I have been as good? I'll never know. But I'm glad I was caught and I'm glad it happened when I was young because a lot of guys don't get caught and end up self-destructing.” Indeed, the stigma that haunts the wrestling industry the most is the association with drugs, particularly steroids and painkillers.

"Today, if you wanted to make Frankenstein, you really could make Frankenstein,” said Dan “The Beast” Severn, a retired MMA fighter and professional wrestler. “You could take a seven-foot-tall basketball frame of a body, and put them on the right chemicals, and put them through the right type of training, you could build a freak-a-saurus that weighs probably three to four hundred pounds and will destroy anything that climbs into the cage with it. But did it win on its own ability? No." 

One of wrestling's biggest stars is Triple H, an overall 13-time World Heavyweight Champion (five-time World Champion and eight-time WWF Champion). Referring to himself as “The Game,” Triple H has become one of the best heels (villains) in wrestling history, often sharing the ring with other wrestling legends including Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Mankind, Kane and others. However, he's gotten more and more muscular overtime. After tearing his left quadriceps muscle in May 2001, he returned the following January and his newly improved physique had everyone talking. “He married the boss' daughter,” said Clifford Wrigley, a wrestling fan in Nashville, TN. Wrigley says in reference to Triple H's marriage to WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon's daughter, Stephanie. “Hey, I like Triple H and he's a great athlete. But when you marry the boss' daughter, you get perks. And I'm sure some of those perks are ignored substance-abuse and a world title run as champion, whenever you want it.”

Tom Charam is a wrestling fan with a different perspective. “It irks me when people are so quick to accuse muscular athletes of using steroids,” said the Boston native. “In the case of Triple H, look at how long he was out of action in 2001. If a person sat around rehabbing their injury and lifting weights all day everyday, wouldn't they beef up to that size naturally? It's possible. Don't forget that he started out as a body builder. And if anybody has the dedication to be the best and have the best body, it's Triple H.”

Wrestler Scott Steiner is also a former world-wrestling champion. Like Triple H, he's been accused of using PEDs because of his massive build. Though he denies using any illegal substances, he hinted that Triple H might be a different story. “I told (WWE) to have Triple H pick me up in a limo, then we could go test together. They never asked again. I’ve never failed a drug test in my life. Their Wellness Policy is a political issue. A lot of people have addictions. And if they don’t have the willpower to control it, that’s when it becomes a problem.” 

With the passage of time, more and more wrestlers are becoming open with their steroid stories. Terry Bollea, best known as Hollywood Hulk Hogan, has admitted to steroid use early in his career before it became frowned upon. “I think the mindset changed around '90 when it became illegal. There was an era when the steroids were predominant in every single sport across the board, but now I think even though it's prevalent, it's not as inundated as it was back then. I think you can pull out isolated incidences in any sport and point people out. Some athletes take shortcuts. Whenever there's an injury, there's a doctor that'll prescribe a pain pill to take the pain away. There's a lot of pain in our business.”

Hogan also explained that using steroids was actually considered the “correct thing to do” during his younger days. "In the '70s and ‘80s, doctors would write you a prescription for a steroid, where every sport in the world was doing it and the mindset was, 'it was safer than taking sugar.' Well, everybody's been re-educated. Steroids are for injuries and certain medical uses, but not for bulking up and enhancing athletic ability."

The tragic murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family garnered lots of media attention and put the WWE under a microscope. In June 2007, Benoit, a two-time world wrestling heavyweight champion nicknamed “The Crippler” murdered his wife by strangling her and then suffocated their 7-year-old son. Before committing suicide by hanging himself with the pulley of a weight machine, Benoit placed a Bible next to their bodies. 

Almost immediately, media outlets blamed the disturbing event on “Roid Rage.” Roid Rage is commonly known as the violent behavior by someone who regularly takes anabolic steroids. However, most people who have violent outbursts while taking steroids are violent individuals prior to usage. According to those who knew him, Benoit was not the violent type. Still, the constant blaming of steroids led many wrestlers to speak out. 

“I don't see an out-of-control rage being responsible for that (the deaths). But then again, I don't think we'll ever know what exactly caused this. I take great offense when people in the media point to it as “Roid Rage” but also pointing the finger at the WWE as a whole, saying we're a bunch of steroid monsters,” said 15-time World Wrestling Heavyweight Champion John Cena in 2007. Legendary former World Wrestling Heavyweight Champion Bret Hart also spoke out. “The WWE's got really strict drug testing,” he said. “I keep hearing all this stuff about steroids. If you're going to pin this on steroids then you have to have some real facts.” 

One of Benoit's closest friends, former World Wrestling Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho, also denied that steroids played a part in Benoit's tragic outbursts. “This is not about steroids and wrestling. This is about a man who had severe mental issues in his head that he kept bottled up in his head and it exploded into this horrible, violent act.”

According to tests conducted by Julian Bailes of the Sports Legacy Institute, Benoit's brain was full of dead brain cells and resembled the brain of an 85-year old Alzheimer's patient. "His brain was very abnormal, something you should never see in a 40-year old," said Bailes. These tests support the theory that Benoit's brain damage resulted from a long career of the head trauma and chronic concussions suffered in the wrestling ring while entertaining his fans. Bailes compared it to several NFL players who suffered a similar pattern of suffering repeated concussions that led to insane behavior. 

Following the Benoit tragedy, the WWE began to more actively enforce their rules against steroid usage. In addition to Benoit's death, 10 wrestlers were suspended for drug policy violations in 2007. The wrestlers included, Chavo Guerrero, Shane Helms, Randy Orton, John Morrison, Mr. Kennedy, Funaki, Charlie Haas, Umaga, William Regal, and Edge. One of the suspended wrestlers, Umaga (Eddie Fatu) died two years later as a result of a combination of hydrocodone, carisoprodol, and diazepam.

Davey Boy Smith, known to wrestling fans as The British Bulldog, passed away suddenly in 2002. But his family and friends knew he'd been addicted to drugs for years. “Everyone around me thought I had a drug problem and I did have a drug problem. I couldn't get off the morphine. I checked into rehab for seven weeks to clean my system out. I was in so much pain I was crying. I could barely stand,” said Smith in 1999.

According to his family, he started taking morphine and prescription pills for pain after suffering a back injury. Making matters worse was the loss of his mother, his sister, and his friend, Owen Hart.

The autopsy revealed that past steroid use might have played a part in Smith's death. Stress, injuries and drugs were what brought the wrestler down. According to former wrestler Bruce Hart, "Davey paid the price with steroid cocktails and human-growth hormones."

Martha Clark, a nursing student and wrestling fan in Memphis, TN, says that it's unfortunate that anabolic steroids have such a stigma attached to them. “When you're in pain, you're in pain,” she explained. “Of course you shouldn't abuse the drug or use it simply to get bigger and stronger. That's when it becomes a problem. But corticosteroids and other drugs can relieve pain and give you more range of motion, if you're in pain. Just use it only as needed. The irony is that too much use of corticosteroids can break your body down and weaken your muscles. This, and wrestling two or three shows a night is not good.”

One wrestler who sees the issue from both sides is former Olympic Gold Medalist and WWE Champion Kurt Angle. Angle won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics with a broken neck. Over the years his injuries have gotten much worse. On the 2004 sports talk show, “Off The Record” Angle explained his take on the situation. “I can't say I never took painkillers. I can't say who's taken them and who's not taking them. The thing is, we wrestle 250 days a year. We've got to bust our rear ends every single time we go out there. I've got neck injuries and injuries to my whole body.”

Angle explained that McMahon is quite tough when it comes to PEDs. “You screw up and get caught up in drugs, you're gone,” said Angle. “He's very strict about it and I don't blame him for that. But I also don't blame a wrestler if he's hurt to do something to relieve the pain as long as he's not abusing it and it's under a prescribed basis.” The gray area occurs when steroids and painkillers are prescribed and not abused. In the wrestling business, pain can be excruciating and frequent. “How could you tell someone not to take pain relievers if they're in so much pain that they can't bear it and their doctor is willing to give it to them on a prescribed basis?”

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has always had steroid allegations thrown at him, even when he was a young teenager. In his book, The Rock Says, Johnson said that he was well over six-foot-tall and nearly 200 pounds when he was only 13 and was always the biggest kid in class, no matter where his family moved. By the time he was 15, he was already 6'4. “My size, unfortunately, frequently led other people to suspect that I was on...something. I was fifteen-years-old and looked like a grown man.”

In the book, Johnson spoke in detail about his one and only run-in with steroids. “My only experience with steroids was in the summer after my senior year in high school. I had just graduated and was getting ready to play college ball. So I decided that I wanted to get even bigger and stronger. It was stupid. I had no idea what I was doing. From a friend of a friend, I obtained an oral steroid—at least, it was supposed to be a steroid. For all I know, I was taking Advil. I popped this stuff every day for about three weeks, and after seeing no results at all, and feeling no different, I stopped taking whatever it was.”

In 2009, Johnson spoke to MTV about steroids in the wrestling industry. “It’s not as prevalent today in our sport as it was 10 years ago,” Johnson said. “But we have to recognize that a culture was created where it was OK to do that, and a lot of team managers, owners, players who didn’t do it would turn the other cheek. We recognize that, and now we have to institute stronger penalties, which we are doing.”

Men are not the only wrestlers with steroid allegations following them. Before marrying Stephanie McMahon, Triple H dated former wrestler Chyna for years. Because of her muscular body and charisma, Chyna attracted a lot of attention in the wrestling world, even becoming the first woman to enter the Royal Rumble and the first female Intercontinental Champion. Her original gimmick in the WWF was working as Triple H's bodyguard. One look at Chyna's physique and people would assume that she was on something illegal, though Chyna has always denied it. In August 2001, radio personality Larry King asked her outright about steroids. “Absolutely not,” she replied. Larry pressed a bit further. “You did this without help?” “Blood, sweat, and tears, Larry,” Chyna stated, later describing herself as “a lady with muscle.”

Charam says he is tired of seeing wrestlers get labeled as steroid abusers. “There are so many sports out there. Basketball, football, hockey, boxing, you name it. But why is it that people accuse wrestlers of steroids the most often? I know a lot of them have been busted for using, but a lot of them are clean. And hear me out: what's the point in hulking up in a sport where the ending is already determined anyway? You mean to tell me you're going to juice up just to lay down and lose to a guy on Monday night?” Charam's sister, Ashlee, agrees with her brother. “Look at The Big Show (Paul Wight) and Andre The Giant. They're legit giants. Could steroids have made them that big? No way! It's possible for God to make you big and strong with no enhancements.”

Jackson is still a wrestling fan despite what happened to him several decades ago. “Wrestling is fun to watch—great entertainment and storylines. Then, as now, I love the action. But every profession has its dark side. When I hear about a wrestler dying from drugs, I'm glad I was caught back in the day because it could just as easily been me.”

A. J. Dugger lll is a journalist based in Clarksville, Tennessee. He recently published his first book, The Dealers: Then and Now. Recent stories were on the prescription drug epidemic in his home state and the meth lab next door to you.

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A.J. Dugger has been writing his entire life. Hailing from Memphis, TN, A.J. graduated from Austin Peay State University in 2009. He began a successful journalism career by writing for publications such as The Tennessee Tribune, Business Arts and Heritage Clarksville Magazine, The Murfreesboro Post, The Tri-State Defender, The Leaf-Chronicle, The Clarksville Sports Network, Clarksville Online, Black Clarksville, and numerous other publications. Follow A.J. on Twitter.