On November 5th, 2005, Eddie Guerrero died.
I know Pajiba isn’t a very wrestling-friendly spot, so that requires some context: Guerrero is one of the all time greats. He’s one of the most talented and passionate performers of any performance medium. He’s a guy you didn’t have to list as your favorite, because he was obviously a favorite, but you still did. Loud and proud: “My favorite wrestler? Eddie fucking Guerrero, dude.” And you’d fill up with pride, like you had just said it to the man himself, shaking his hand.
It’s frustrating and morbid in a way, because as much as Eddie make pro wrestling great in life, his death is one of the easiest ways to explain what makes pro wrestling great, and what sets it apart from other art forms.
Celebrities die all the time. Actors and actresses, comedians and crazy Australian animal show hosts. Their work means something to you. It matters to you. Steve Irwin’s death was like a surprise punch for my wife, because in his show, you weren’t just invested in someone who’s work you enjoyed. Irwin freely shared his family, his passions, and his dreams. When he died, we lost someone who we had come to know rather intimately.
Professional wrestling offers that same vulnerability on a grander, more intense scale. It’s really hard to explain. On one level you have this live staged combat stunt show, at which Eddie Guerrero performed on the level of any Hollywood legend. But it isn’t just a staged combat show: it’s organic, living theatre that feeds from and responds to it’s audience. Eddie Guerrero could control crowds of 70,000 like a conductor. He could make you see red with hate and lose your mind laughing within moments of each other.
It’s because of that relationship between audience and performer that it feels so raw. There is a thin line between character and performer for a lot of these guys. They put their health and well being and safety on the line so that you’ll love (or love to hate) their character, and that in turn makes you love them. It’s all fake but it’s all extremely real.
If I could compare Eddie to another performer, it’d be Robin Williams. Williams was a rare performer that when he went to work, you were getting every bit of Robin Williams, whether he was dressing up as a nanny or hugging Matt Damon or on a Broadway stage. Guerrero was the same way: no matter what he was doing, you got everything he had to give you, pure and unfiltered. You knew Robin, and you knew Eddie.
The fact that it’s all fiction just enhances this: we fall in love with performers, and see their struggle and frustration to rise to higher, more important spots. We watched a young Eddie Guerrero show up in the mid 90’s with a mustache and a mullet and red and white doofy gear and we loved him instantly.
He’d hand his opponent a chair when the ref’s back was turned, and then fall down flat on his face. The ref would immediately DQ his opponent for using a weapon, and we’d laugh and cheer for this guy that somehow a perfect blend of commedia dell’arte and gladiator.
We watched him struggle, and refuse to give up. We knew about his demons. His addictions. But we also knew about how much he loved his family. We knew how much he loved performing for us.
He’s climb to the top rope, a bloody mess, fans screaming support…cheering for him to take his moment at glory the way he inspired us to take our own. He had come back from rehab. He’d come back clean. His demons were behind him. His best days were ahead.
I don’t know how else to explain the connection you feel to a wrestler that you don’t feel with an actor you enjoy. You’re given access to them. You’re given a real connection. You channel your own hopes into them in a way that you can’t a movie character, because if Eddie can make it, despite being so small in a land of body builders, despite being Latino in a racist company, despite being plagued with addiction…If Eddie can go out there and do what only he can do, if he can stand up for another day, than fuck damn it so can I.
Rest in peace to one of the greatest performance artists of all time. We gave you our hearts every week, and when you suddenly weren’t there to take them, it hurt. Viva la raza.