Last week, former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Brian Christopher hanged himself in his Tennessee jail cell. For much of his adult life, he had faced down the long shadow of his father, Memphis wrestling legend and WWE Hall of Famer Jerry “the King” Lawler, and now he was facing charges for driving under the influence and evading police.
Reporters quickly reduced Christopher to yet another “dead wrestler of the week,” a trope popularized by then-Deadspin columnist David Shoemaker in a series of essays written between 2010 and 2013. The extremely dangerous sport had produced a bumper crop of battered brains and bodies, so the fatalities were a fait accompli. Last week was particularly inexhaustible, with the deaths of 70-year-old Soviet menace Nikolai Volkoff and 57-year-old Memphis territory-based heel Brickhouse Brown in addition to Christopher. But the lede to Christopher’s obituary was written well in advance: “The son of WWE Hall of Famer Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler passed away today…”
Minimizing the life of any child born of fame and fortune into a paternal footnote is indeed unfortunate. But in Christopher's case, it compounds the tragedy of a gifted performer who, in the words of Deadspin’s David Bixenspan, “deserved so much better.” Because just as wrestling has given us an annual pool of men and women who have died young, it has also presented devoted followers and casual fans with a host of troubled royal families — another layer of the kayfabe-versus-reality soap opera dramatics of pro wrestling storytelling for us to probe and scrutinize (“kayfabe” is wrestling shorthand for the fictional reality presented as authentic). As with everything else, viewers are left to wonder how much is true.
Tales of familial woe always resonate with audiences. Calgary’s wrestling hero Stu Hart had 12 children — all of the sons wrestlers, all of the daughters married to wrestlers — with Bret and Owen distinguishing themselves in the WWE, and Owen dying when a harness stunt at the 1999 Over the Edge pay-per-view went awry. Big Minneapolis-based bruiser Larry “The Axe” Hennig raised Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, a top WWE villain and astounding technical performer who died of acute cocaine intoxication at age 44.
Ric Flair’s daughter Ashley, who wrestles as Charlotte in WWE, is already a far superior athlete to her father, but Flair’s older son David fared poorly as a wrestler, and his younger son Reid — another aspiring wrestler — died in 2013 of a drug overdose. And Dallas wrestler and promoter Fritz Von Erich surely had the worst luck of all: his oldest son Jack died at age six after a lightning strike, his son David died from a drug overdose in 1984, and sons Mike, Chris, and Kerry took their own lives in 1987, 1991, and 1993, respectively.
Brian Christopher and Jerry Lawler now join this star-crossed club. I had known of Christopher’s prior brushes with the law, but they seemed relatively minor — arrests related to drinking and drugging, which were nothing in comparison to father Jerry’s well-publicized 1993 indictment for sexually assaulting an underage girl or his 2016 arrest for domestic abuse of his girlfriend.
It is challenging to reconstruct the father-son dynamics at play between Jerry, who took the nation by storm during his 1982 feud with comedian Andy Kaufman, and Brian, who spent much of his early ’90s career as a top performer in Jerry’s Memphis territory trying to get Jerry to admit on television that he was Brian’s dad. In one especially ferocious interview, a jacked, handsome Brian screams at “The King” that he was over the hill and dating valet Stacy “The Kat” Carter because he was in the throes of a midlife crisis. Before he can force any kind of admission about his paternity from “The King,” “Superstar” Bill Dundee and his own bleached-blonde valet make an appearance and Christopher proceeds to insult the Australian grappler for being “too freaking old.”
Christopher’s work there with his dad set the standard for subsequent invocations of their kayfabe relationship. In spite of many winks, nudges, and sometimes even prodding from his son, Jerry wasn’t about to play Brian’s dad on television, even if that might have gotten him over a lot faster. This stood in stark contrast to how other second-generation performers such as Dustin Rhodes, Charlotte Flair, Curt Hennig, and Ted DiBiase Jr. have been broken into the business, which usually involved having a father as the basis for most of their on-stage persona as well as serving as a manager, tag team partner, or both. Christopher was on his own.
Christopher was a performer I kept hoping would break through, partly because I appreciated the second-generation star’s technical skills and partly because I enjoyed the banter between then-color commentator Lawler and Jim Ross about him. Christopher's parentage was hinted at by Lawler’s boastful remarks but never admitted. Christopher, I worried, was becoming the WWE equivalent of WCW’s Brad Armstrong, a hyper-athletic second-generation wrestler who had gone through a number of ludicrous gimmicks while losing loads of watchable matches to television title-holders and supposed rising stars with half his natural ability. He appeared likely, as with so many great wrestlers who have everything but “it,” to miss his big push by a few minutes at some appointed location.
However, after Christopher was paired with Scott “Too Hot” Taylor and repackaged as “Scotty 2 Hotty” and “Grandmaster Sexay,” the duo embarked on a crowd-pleasing, ass-shaking run with Samoan powerhouse Rikishi Phatu. As the WWE’s “Attitude Era” entered full swing, it was hard to stand out among the truly bizarre antics of the company’s performers — the Japanese wrestlers in Kaientai threatened to cut off Val Venis’ penis with a katana, after all — but the novelty of Sexay and Hotty hopping around like hyped-up boy band stars appropriating hip-hop culture while Rikishi twerked his enormous, pimple-covered booty earned the group a spot in the upper midcard.
It wouldn’t last. Owing to the increasingly risque and racially insensitive product now on offer, my own enthusiasm for the sport began to wane in 2001, the same year Christopher was released from the company after he was arrested for possession of steroids (his impressive body was, at least in part, a testament to better living through chemistry) and cocaine at the Canadian border. At the time, Lawler spun the release as a simple fact of life: “That’s always been the one, longstanding rule — if you ever get caught or cause any problems at the Canadian border, you’re going to get fired,” he told Mike Mooneyham in 2001.
Christopher continued to find work, teaming with fellow second-generation stars Erik Watts (son of tough-guy promoter and wrestler “Cowboy” Bill Watts) and David Flair in a long-running feud against a very over-the-hill Dusty Rhodes. Most people either ignored or didn’t care for this feud, but as someone tormented by my own father’s life and generational legacy, I had a certain fondness for it. Here were three kids with enormous shoes to fill. TNA itself was the brainchild of the Jarrett family — promoter Jerry Jarrett and his star wrestler son Jeff, whose WWE Hall of Fame career was due in no small part to how strong his own father made him appear back when he was starting out in their Memphis territory in the late 1980s.
I didn’t have any particular love for Jarrett or Watts, but I wanted them to make good as a way of validating their own legacies while keeping alive some vestige of the old southern style of wrestling I’d grown up watching. Such a territory would be a place where Brian Christopher, somewhat small in stature but big in charisma, could gradually become the same sort of star player in Memphis and Nashville that “The King” had been. Nothing of the sort came to pass, with the Jarretts selling a majority share of TNA to Dallas-based Panda Energy International, and Christopher departing for good after his run there ended in 2004, making sporadic appearances in the WWE and taking lots of independent bookings to fill the gap.
Was Christopher his own worst enemy? Was he unmanned by his father’s chauvinistic and boastful brand of wrestling bravado? Perhaps there were traces of that in some of their public Memphis interactions, but there’s no point in psychoanalyzing what isn’t there. As I realized when I talked with Kevin Von Erich while curating an exhibit about his family’s Dallas wrestling promotion, such after-the-fact explanations are meaningless. “That isn’t something worth talking about in there, because what else needs to be said,” he told me, after I asked him for this thoughts on the tone and direction of the exhibit. Bad things can happen to anybody; we the survivors respond as best we can, and life goes on. Muckraking the lives of the dead was something that ought to be left to the sport’s tabloid or “dirt sheet” era, the stuff of David Meltzer’s two interesting but extremely judgmental Tributes volumes from the early 2000s.
In Christopher’s case, better to let his colleagues and family offer their own codas. Second-generation star Jeff Jarrett, a long-time opponent of Christopher’s in the ring, chose to highlight his friend’s abilities in the ring, emphasizing “his infectious laugh, his athletic ability, and his knack for making everyone in the match better” while cautioning (as a fellow sufferer) that “the disease of addiction is real, it’s very dark, and it’s fatal if left untreated.”
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, himself a third-generation wrestler, waited a week before writing a moving tribute on his Instagram. “We rode together daily (1500 miles per week) trained together at any gym we could find, ate together at any Waffle House off the highway, wrestled together in flea markets to state fairs, shared motel rooms together, and would always dream (and talk shit) about what life would be like once we made it to the big leagues of the WWE,” he posted. “I never knew him to be suicidal, but I guess sometimes the pain just gets to be too much for one to take.”
Lawler also made his own grand gesture, wearing a “Grandmaster Sexay” vest to the ring for a match in Jackson, Tennessee against weak-chinned WWE irritant James Ellsworth that took place a day after Christopher’s funeral. In a lifetime filled with subtle appreciations of and nods to his son’s underrated wrestling skills, this final glamorous touch made perfect sense: “The King” was using his own aging yet still beloved body to memorialize his son in the sort of showy expression of grief available to those artists who paint using the wrestling mat as their canvas. He finished Ellsworth with his own trademark piledriver, the same finisher that allegedly put Andy Kaufman in traction, thereby concluding a match Ellsworth called “the most emotional of my career” because every move “The King” made in his inimitable style was done in memory of his son.
It’s easy to forget that in wrestling, the winners and losers are declared for us by others. Reactions to Christopher’s death from his friends humanized him: he was loved, redeemed, and forgiven. He had deserved much better in a life during which most of us just saw him as his promoters wanted us to; he deserved to be seen in a kaleidoscopic perspective that most people, especially wrestlers stereotyped in the ordinary course of business, are rarely afforded. He deserved at least this much, and so do we.