Taking Names

Ex-wrestler boils about WWE pressure-cooker

As soon as Marc Mero heard about the death of wrestler Chris Benoit, one thought went through his mind: "That is the 23rd person I have wrestled that is now dead."

And in Benoit's case, it wasn't just him. Authorities now say he killed his wife and 7-year-old son before taking his own life.

It made Mero mad.

"If there was any other sport, and there were this many deaths, there would be some sort of investigation," said the 46-year-old who enjoyed widespread fame in the '90s as Johnny B. Badd and now runs a training center in Altamonte Springs. "But in our business, it's just kind of sad -- like: Oh, another person died."

Not anymore. Mero said Wednesday that he's determined to get more vocal in his criticism of the WWE, the dominant league in a pressure-cooker industry that he says is awash in steroids and pushes far too many wrestlers over the edge.

Mero's voice and criticism may soon be amplified, since he lives in Central Florida -- where the wrestling world will convene next spring. The event is WrestleMania. And local officials worked hard to lure the "the Super Bowl of Wrestling."

But more and more people are beginning to look beyond the taut, oiled bodies in the center of the brightly lit ring to the dark shadows that have long concealed wrestling's ugly secrets.

"People need to know what's going on," Mero said. "And I'm going to tell them."

Mero is not alone in his concern. Three years ago, USA Today conducted an investigation that found that 65 wrestlers, all age 45 or younger, had died in less than seven years. Many had enlarged hearts and died of coronary problems at "an extraordinarily high rate for people that young."

Many of Mero's friends were lost to heart attacks. But there were also victims of murder and suicide.

A WWE spokesman did not return requests for comment Wednesday. But the organization has suggested it was inappropriate for anyone to jump to conclusions.

Authorities found prescription steroids in Benoit's house and said Benoit was a customer of a pharmacy in Orlando -- again brightening the spotlight on Central Florida.

Mero, however, makes it clear that he doesn't blame wrestling's body count solely on steroids. Instead, he thinks the combination of intense pressure and a lack of counseling and guidance offered to wrestlers is a recipe for disaster.

"This is a business where, if you're not jacked up and ready to go, you're out," he said. "And it's taking its toll."

DYER: HEY, BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE ANOTHER $10 MILLION?

This week, the backers of a new performing-arts center agreed to raise another $10 million for the downtown project.

That they obliged isn't remarkable. What is remarkable is that they were even asked.

This group of philanthropists, foundations, individuals and businesses has already vowed to raise more than $100 million.

Compare that to the Orlando Magic, which have pledged between $50 million and $75 million in construction cash -- for a building that will make them that much money many times over.

And then there are the Citrus Bowl backers who have pledged a grand total of, let's see . . . zero dollars for their project.

more in /news/local/state

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