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10 Wrestling Stars Who Sadly Passed Away In 2021

Paul Orndorff

A new year has officially rolled in, but sadly, as with every year, 2022 sees the world of professional wrestling begin with fewer wrestling personalities than at the start of 2021.

Across the previous twelve months, numerous Hall of Famers, ex-champions, and bonafide legends sadly passed away. Though these are dark moments for the industry, particularly when the passing wrestler in question has made such a historical impact on pro wrestling, this can often be when the Internet Wrestling Community reveals itself as a positive thing, remembering these larger-than-life performers for the memories they created and the paths they paved for today’s generation of talent.

This was the case for effectively all of 2021’s passing wrestlers and other industry personnel. Fellow wrestlers and fans took over wrestling Twitter with stories of laughter and joy, some often coming as a surprise as to how much of an impact they had made on certain individuals.

Today, Inside The Ropes remembers a select few wrestlers who sadly left us in 2021, but left behind careers that can’t be touched, whether it was inside the ring or in a behind-the-scenes role.

Butch Reed (11 July 1954-5 February 2021)

Butch Reed Thumb

A Kansas City native, Butch Reed is best known for his work in the World Wrestling Federation, where he arrived alongside famed managed Slick in 1986. There, Reed dyed his hair blonde and took on the moniker of “The Natural”; effectively, he was an updated incarnation of Sweet Daddy Siki, the legendary star believed to be the first African American to challenge for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

It was in the WWF that Reed became a somewhat big name, earning a slew of victories over The British Bulldogs, George Steele, and Koko B. Ware, to name but a few, and enjoyed rivalries with Ricky Steamboat and “Superstar” Billy Graham, though the latter would be replaced in actual matches by Don Muraco owing to Graham’s health issues. Perhaps most notably, Reed took part in two separate firsts in the WWF; the first Survivor Series main event (though as the first man eliminated), and was suitably the first man eliminated from the inaugural Royal Rumble match, too.

Leaving the WWF following a loss to eventual tournament winner Randy Savage at WrestleMania IV, resurfacing soon thereafter as “Hacksaw” Butch Reed in Jim Crockett Promotions, soon renamed to World Championship Wrestling. There, he enjoyed success with Ron “Faarooq” Simmons as part of the Doom tag team, capturing the NWA and WCW World Tag Team Championships alongside the Hall of Famer before the duo split up, and Reed left the company before its peak in the mid-1990s.

Wrestling sporadically around the independent circuit after this, Reed’s last in-ring outing was on 18 May 2013, teaming with Bob Orton Jr. in a loss to Flash Flanagan and Ron Powers on a Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling card.

Reed passed away on 5 February 2021 after suffering from complications following two heart attacks the month prior, with a positive COVID-19 case also linked to his passing. The former “Natural” was 66-years-old at the time.

Jim Crockett Jr. (10 August 1944-3 March 2021)

Jim Crockett Jr.

Son of the late Jim Crockett Sr. (“Big Jim” to those in the business), Jim Crockett Jr. (alongside siblings Jackie and Frances) originally opted to not follow directly in his father’s footsteps following Big Jim’s 1973 passing. Instead, it would be Crockett Sr.’s son-in-law John Ringley who took control of Jim Crockett Promotions, making changes to the rosters both onscreen and behind the scenes. George South was signed on as the head booker, while legendary names like Ric Flair and Wahoo McDaniel were added to the wrestler’s roster.

Serving three terms as President of the National Wrestling Alliance, Jim is responsible for making a series of exemplary, if controversial at the time, company decisions, including a working relationship with the World Wrestling Federation, organising events in key states without first contacting the necessary NWA promoters for said states, and, ultimately, promoting JCP as the overall NWA, owing to him owning six NWA-affiliated territories.

It wasn’t all deemed derogatory to the downfall of the NWA, though; in fact, business was thriving upon Crockett purchasing Vince McMahon’s prime Saturday night television spot on Superstation WTBS. This led to the creation of the inaugural Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup in April 1986 (now renamed the Crockett Cup), while the following year, he bought out both Championship Wrestling From Florida and the Universal Wrestling Federation, thus bringing Sting and Jim Ross onboard.

By the end of 1988, business wasn’t booming anymore for Crockett Jr., who was nearing bankruptcy. The company was sold to Ted Turner (where it became World Championship Wrestling), though Crockett Jr. remained the NWA’s President for another three years. A failed attempt at a 1994 wrestling network, the World Wrestling Network (no affiliation to the governing body which presides/presided over EVOLVE, Dragon Gate USA, and SHINE Wrestling, amongst others) was Jim’s last stint in the business.

Crockett Jr. passed away on 3 March 2021, owing to complications from liver and kidney failure, with the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reporting four days before that he was in “grave condition“. David Crockett, Jim’s brother, reported that he had also tested positive for COVID-19 two months earlier. The former NWA President was 76-years-old.

Barry Orton (28 May 1958-19 March 2021)

Barry Orton

You never hear about Barry Orton these days, despite his legendary family ties; he was effectively blacklisted from the mainstream wrestling industry for displaying rather vocal opinions against sexual harassment within the World Wrestling Federation. According to Orton, he had been sexually harassed by Terry Garvin – then a booker for Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment giant – stating that Garvin repeatedly pleaded to perform oral sex on him. When further stories emerged of Garvin assaulting young ring boys, Orton came forward with these accusations to back up those stories.

It’s no real surprise, then, that Orton’s life was tragic. He was divorced four times, was a frequent user of valium and methamphetamine, and carried a .44 magnum, threatening to turn it on himself. Thankfully, Orton ultimately attended a therapist at the request of a friend, overcoming his drug addiction.

Wrestling mainly for the WWF, he was mainly used as an enhancement talent wherever he went. He would be defeated by The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers, The Killer Bees, Tony Atlas, Pedro Morales, and Tito Santana, to name a few, though he did challenge for the WWF Intercontinental Championship (against The Texas Tornado) and the WWF World Tag Team Championships (against The US Express, teaming with Larry Finnegan). In 1986, Orton was unable to wrestle for Vince McMahon’s empire after a female passenger died while he was driving under the influence, resulting in him moving to wrestle in Stampede Wrestling instead.

Barry retired from the business in 1991, following a WWF Wrestling Challenge loss to Jake Roberts. Two decades later, however, he came out of retirement for, surprisingly, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (!) at their January 2011 Kurt Russellreunion 2: The Reunioning, partaking in a legends Battle Royal that also included such luminaries as The Warlord, “Dangerous” Danny Davis, Savio Vega, and his brother, Bob Orton Jr.

Orton passed away on 19 March 2021, with no cause of death named. He was 62-years-old.

New Jack (3 January 1963-14 May 2021)

New Jack

Unquestionably one of the wrestling world’s most controversial in-ring figures, New Jack sadly left us last year after a twenty-nine-year career, leaving behind a hardcore career that will literally never be topped. No-one will ever come near the legitimacy of New Jack.

From his childhood, New Jack had a tough life, witnessing his father shoot and stab his mother before ultimately dying of a heart attack, leaving the real-life Jerome Young with just his mother. Despite finding football success in high school, he fell into the wrong crowd, resulting in him becoming a frequent user of cocaine and robbing various stores before eventually training to become a professional wrestler.

After earning a decent-sized following due to his work in Smoky Mountain Wrestling, where he formed The Gangstas with Mustafa Saed, New Jack joined Extreme Championship Wrestling in June 1995, almost instantaneously gaining notoriety with intense rivalries vs. The Public Enemy and The Headhunters. The latter of those saw The Gangstas turned into babyfaces, following New Jack’s return from imprisonment at the 1996 Big Ass Extreme Bash pay-per-view. This peaked at The Doctor Is In the following August, where Jack and Saed would begin their first reign as ECW World Tag Team Champions. New Jack would capture the titles a further two times, once with Saed and once with John Kronus as The Gangstanators.

This is nothing in comparison to both the Mass Transit and Vic Grimes incidents, though. The former saw Jack cut open the untrained Eric Kulas, who had convinced Paul Heyman that he was actually trained by Killer Kowalski, with Kulas suffering excessive bleeding after the incision was made the wrong way. Then, four years later, Jack forced Grimes to fall off a scaffolding, where they missed a set of tables and landed directly on the concrete floor, with Jack suffering brain damage from the impact of Grimes landing on top of him. Both are among wrestling’s most infamous stories that make New Jack one of ECW’s most famed grapplers.

Following ECW’s closure, New Jack wrestled wherever would allow him, from Xtreme Pro Wrestling to the then-Total Nonstop Action, the former of which saw him again toss Vic Grimes off a scaffolding and legitimately beat up a 69-year-old Gypsy Joe. Although he had a two-year break from 2019 onwards, New Jack wrestled over WrestleMania 37 weekend for the ICW: No Holds Barred promotion, teaming with The Carnage Crew in a victory over The Rejects and the incredibly-named Neil Diamond Cutter in what would be New Jack’s final match.

New Jack’s ill health had been well-documented over the years, with doctors finding blood clots all over his body after he had collapsed while walking home. He passed away on 14 May 2021 after suffering a heart attack, with an outpouring of support flooding social media. He was just 58-years-old.

Paul Orndorff (29 October 1949-12 July 2021)

Paul Orndorff

Before he became “Mr. Wonderful”, the real-life Paul Parlette Orndorff Jr. already had a legitimate sports background, playing college football at the University Of Tampa, before being selected by the New Orleans Saints in the 1973 NFL Draft. He would, however, quit training camp after considering a career in professional wrestling.

Debuting in 1976 in Championship Wrestling From Florida, Paul Orndorff predominantly worked the territories, winning a slew of NWA championships from 1977 onwards, including the Southern Heavyweight Championship, the National Heavyweight Championship, and the World Tag Team Championships, doing so alongside “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. Feuds with Jerry Lawler, Ernie Ladd, and Ted DiBiase put Orndorff’s name on the map, with a World Wrestling Federation contract coming his way in late-1983.

In Vince McMahon’s empire, Orndorff took on Roddy Piper as his manager, with “The Hot Rod” giving him the nickname of “Mr. Wonderful”, with their alliance – and Piper’s attack on Cyndi Lauper – leading them to the main event of the inaugural WrestleMania against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. Although they lost following backfired interference from Bob Orton Jr., Orndorff and Piper remain in the history books for headlining the inaugural “Showcase Of The Immortals”.

Referred to as “Hulk Jr.” by Adrian Adonis, owing to his staggering physical appearance resembling that of “The Hulkster”, Paul played both babyface and heel roles to great effect in the WWF, World Championship Wrestling, and various other promotions, enjoying feuds against Hogan himself, Steve Williams, and Cactus Jack, becoming a one-time WCW World Television Champion and two-time WCW World Tag Team Champion alongside Paul Roma as Pretty Wonderful. He last wrestled for WCW at the 2000 Fall Brawl pay-per-view, partaking in a five-on-five elimination match.

Inducted into the 2005 WWE Hall of Fame class, “Mr. Wonderful” made sporadic appearances, wrestling his final match in May 2017 (he, Danny Duggan, and Omar Amir defeated Bobby Collins, Jacob Creed, and Kevin Cannon), while also dealing with a plethora of health issues, including cancer and dementia. His dementia ultimately led to Orndorff’s death on 12 July 2021; he was 71-years-old.

Jody Hamilton (28 August 1938-3 August 2021)

Jody Hamilton

Debuting in 1955, Joseph Nicholas Zwaduk III, a once-promising boxer, wrestled under a plethora of alias’, including Jody Hamilton, The Masked Assassin, and The Mighty Bolo. It was as The Masked Assassin (or, rather, Assassin #1) that Hamilton found the most success, though, teaming with Tom Renesto (oddly enough, as Assassin #2) as, you guessed it, The Assassins.

Known for their iconic gold masks, Hamilton and Renesto were a world-renowned tag team hated for their rule-breaking mannerisms; they were effectively the antithesis of FTR. This was a tactic that brought significant fame to The Assassins, resulting in them working all over the world from California to Japan to Australia to the Far East. Though they travelled around the territories, they stayed with one promotion – Georgia Championship Wrestling – for four years, between 1968 and 1972, where they became a record twelve-time NWA Georgia Tag Team Champions. The duo’s rivalry with The Kentuckians, the team of “Tiny” Smith and Luke Brown drew a series of sold-out audiences to the east coast.

With Tom focusing more on the backstage aspects of running a wrestling show, Jody moved forward as a singles wrestler, while also being part of various other incarnations of The Assassins with the likes of future WWF star, Hercules. On his own, his famed feud with Mr. Wrestling II became the longest in the history of Georgian wrestling, but he could never find the same success as a singles star, ultimately wrestling his final match on 11 June 1988. He and Scott Peterson went to a draw in a Back Street Survival match with Col. DeBeers and The Grappler.

Hamilton is also known for his founding of Deep South Championship Wrestling in 1986, which would later become simply Deep South Wrestling, where he worked both as a wrestler and in a backstage capacity. He later sold the company, with that person going out of business, after a bad fall in a match led to Hamilton breaking the lumbar vertebrae in his back. Hamilton also worked as the director of World Championship Wrestling’s Power Plant, helping produce numerous future World Heavyweight Champions such as Diamond Dallas Page and Goldberg, resulting in his 1994 WCW Hall of Fame induction.

It is with heavy heart that I make this post. At 2:16 today my father took his last breath on this earth. He passed…

Posted by Joe Hamilton Jr. on Tuesday, August 3, 2021

After a two-year stint of DSW working as WWE’s developmental territory, Hamilton effectively left the business. He passed away on 3 August at the age of 82-years-old while in hospice care, with Hamilton’s son – and former WWE and WCW referee – Nick Patrick breaking the news.

Bobby Eaton (14 August 1958-4 August 2021)

Bobby Eaton

Famous for his transcendent work in The Midnight Express, “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton wrestled for an incredible forty years, spanning from his debut in May 1976 until his official retirement in March 2016.

A fan of professional wrestling from a young age with a particular interest in the NWA Mid-America promotion, Eaton would debut for said company at just seventeen-years-old, though he’d been helping set up the rings since he was thirteen. It didn’t take long for fans, wrestlers, and even the promoter began to notice the potential Eaton showed, hence why he gradually rose up the card. He captured the promotion’s Tag Team Championships within two years alongside Lanny Poffo, and enjoyed a heated feud with Chris Colt, before the promotion closed down due to ticket sales deteriorating.

After a stint in the Continental Wrestling Association, Eaton joined Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling, teaming with “Lover Boy” Dennis Condrey and managed by Jim Cornette to form The Midnight Express. The Express would go through various phases in various promotions, with Eaton also teaming with “Sweet” Stan Lane during his career, though both iterations were successful; Eaton was an eleven-time Tag Team Champion in numerous companies just with Condrey and Lane, though he held a number of titles with other partners, too, as well as holding the WCW World Television Championship and Smoky Mountain Wrestling’s Beat The Champ Television Championship.

Regarded as one of the nicest people in the industry, Eaton has been called a flawless performer. Aspects of wrestling psychology and precise timing came naturally to Eaton, with his Alabama Jam top-rope legdrop – renamed the Tower Of London while wrestling as Earl Robert Eaton alongside Lord Steven Regal in WCW – remaining a beauty to the eye even with today’s inhumane GIFable flips from the likes of Ricochet and Will Ospreay.

Eaton’s official final match came on 19 March 2016 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he wrestled in a fifteen-man Rumble alongside the likes of Sam Houston and The Boogeyman. Having suffered from numerous health issues over the years, the legendary tag team grappler passed away in his sleep on 4 August 2021, just over one month on from the passing of his wife Donna. He was found by his and Donna’s daughter, Taryn.

Daffney (17 July 1975-1 September 2021)

Daffney

Unquestionably one of the most tragic deaths of 2021, the passing of Daffney rocked the wrestling world due to the nature of her passing. The day prior to her passing being announced, the real-life Shannon Spruill live-streamed on Instagram, where she held both a pistol and a suicide note, with the request that her brain be donated for research and testing. The harrowing footage made the rounds on social media, with concerned fans and peers able to alert the authorities. Sadly, her death was announced the next day.

Known primarily for her work in both World Championship Wrestling and the now-IMPACT Wrestling, Daffney debuted in the former as a manager for David Flair and Crowbar after graduating with a Bachelor Of Arts in Film and Video Production. Dubbed “The Scream Queen” due to her piercing screams while stationed outside the ring, Daffney wrestled just nine matches for the Ted Turner-helmed promotion; four of these were contested for the company’s World Cruiserweight Championship, which Daffney at one point held to become just the second woman in history to do so. Wrestling her final bout on the 11 July 2000 Thunder episode, Daffney was released in February 2001, owing to budget cuts. How times change.

Though she debuted on the second NWA:TNA weekly pay-per-view, Daffney would wrestle around the independent circuit for a few years, before she officially landed in the promotion in December 2008. Initially portraying Sarah Palin, an Alaskan governor, she feuded with The Beautiful People, who cut her hair and resulted in her transforming back into Daffney. It was here where, arguably, she had the most success, participating in the inaugural knockouts Monster’s Ball vs. Taylor Wilde, followed by the first-ever intergender Monster’s Ball a month later. There, she and Raven lost to Wilde and Abyss in a chaotic brawl.

A feud with Tara, a.k.a. WWE’s Victoria, was her only other notable career highlight. Though she ultimately returned after, a bout vs. Miss Betsy in April 2010 left Daffney with a slew of injuries that left her sidelined for two months. She failed to regain any momentum, and departed the promotion in March 2011, though she soon filed a worker’s compensation claim against TNA, believing she’d been placed in an unfair working environment. She cited this as the reason for her injuries vs. Betsy.

Wrestling just one match post-TNA, Daffney defeated Sammi Lane in April 2011 in what would be her final outing. Spruill later became outspoken on concussions within wrestling, detailing the struggles she had on a daily basis from concussion side effects. Her passing, following the aforementioned footage being shared online, was announced on 2 September by SHIMMER wrestler, Lexie Fyfe. The aftermath of her passing was strongly felt within the industry; WWE messaged employees to provide mental health counselling when it was required, while Awesome Kong dedicated her IMPACT Hall of Fame induction speech to her. Tragically, Daffney was just 46-years-old.

During an interview with Inside The Ropes’ Adam Morrison, Rosemary detailed the impact Daffney had made on the business:

“Daffney was a wonderful, close, beautiful friend, and a beautiful soul. To be able to pick her brain and to recognise different techniques that she put forward… without Daffney in TNA, there is no Rosemary in IMPACT Wrestling, to be perfectly flat out. Without Daffney and without Roxxi Laveaux, without characters that set the precadent and paved the way for dark characters to be accepted, for the Su Yungs and the Rosemarys and the Havoks of IMPACT Wrestling now, we had to have them before.

She was absolutely a game-changer and a pioneer, but she was also suffering. That comes from a time when people didn’t talk about things and it wasn’t as common, but we’re trying to break that stigma. Daffney’s suicide had to do with the final straw.”

Blackjack Lanza (14 October 1935-8 December 2021)

Blackjack Lanza

Trained by Verne Gagne, Blackjack Lanza had a fairly shorter in-ring career than you may recall; he only wrestled between 1961 and 1985, but he’s been involved in the business for a lot longer, primarily as a road agent.

For the first ten years of his career, Lanza wrestled around wherever he could, competing for NWA Mid-America, the St. Louis Wrestling Club, the American Wrestling Association, and Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, amongst others. He captured both the NWA Southern Junior Heavyweight Championship and the WWA (World Wrestling Association) World Heavyweight Championship during this time.

In 1971, however, the real-life John Mortl Lanzo began teaming with Blackjack Mulligan to form the soon-to-be-famed Blackjacks tandem. They were a big money-drawing tag team, known for stomping their cowboy boots into unsuspecting opponents and their striking cowboy hats. Together, Lanza and Mulligan were a believable, rugged, belligerent tag team. They were truly a generational tandem, being five-time Tag Team Champions that included two-time NWA American Tag Team Champions, one-time NWA Texas Tag Team Champions, and one-time WWA World Tag Team Champions, though they’re most known for capturing the World Wide Wrestling Federation World Tag Team Championships, dethroning Pat Barrett and Dominic DeNucci on 26 August 1975.

They wrestled their final WWWF match in November 1975, disbanding for eight years before reuniting in 1983 for an additional seventeen matches. During this break from The Blackjacks, Lanza also took a slight break, not wrestling a single match between 1980 and 1982. In his final three years as an in-ring competitor, Blackjack Lanza wrestled primarily for the AWA and Central States Wrestling. His last outing came on 2 August 1985, teaming with Dick The Bruiser and The Crusher in a loss to Ray Stevens, and Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy of The Fabulous Freebirds on an AWA card in Denver, Colorado.

Upon retiring from active competition, Lanza was inducted into both the WWE Hall of Fame (in 2006) and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (in 2016) alongside Blackjack Mulligan, while also inducting Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, his longtime manager, into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. Outside of this, he acted as a road agent and producer for the World Wrestling Federation. Blackjack Lanza’s passing was confirmed by Jim Ross, via Twitter, on 8 December 2021.

Jimmy Rave (8 December 1982-12 December 2021)

Jimmy Rave

The case of Jimmy Rave is quite tragic. Having previously suffered from drug addiction, Rave also confirmed he’s had both of his legs, as well as his left arm amputated due to infections. Prior to his death, Rave’s fans contributed to his medical bills, all in the aid of helping out one of the generation’s hidden gems.

Initially debuting as the masked Mr. XTC, the moniker of Jimmy Rave was soon born, as he wrestled around the independent circuit for Combat Zone Wrestling, Full Impact Pro, and Dragon Gate, while also competing in New Japan’s 2008 Best Of The Super Juniors tournament. It wasn’t until 2003 that Rave found continual success, as he joined Prince Nana’s Embassy faction in Ring Of Honor. There, he was nicknamed “The Crown Jewel Of The Embassy”.

In the then-Cary Silkin-helmed promotion, Rave made himself famous, becoming one of the most despised heels in the company, so much so that ROH management had to warn fans that toilet roll was now banned from events after an altercation between Rave and a fan over the matter. ROH audiences during this peak would throw toilet roll at Rave instead of the usual array of colourful streamers. The future IMPACT star would also enjoy a feud with AJ Styles based around who could use the Styles/Rave Clash, as well as an ROH World championship challenge vs. Bryan Danielson.

Leaving ROH in August 2007 after signing a contract just that May, Jimmy Rave rocked up in Total Nonstop Action alongside Christy Hemme and Lance Rock (the future Lance Archer) as The Rock N Rave Infection, though this team was largely used as a jobber to the likes of Team 3D, LAX, and The Motor City Machine Guns. Rave and Rock would both be released from their contracts in February 2009, though Rave would return two years later as part of an X Division Championship tournament.

Sporadic returns to ROH over the next few years saw Rave join both The Embassy and S.C.U.M factions, though his drug addiction prevented him from ever getting too far there. Numerous stints around the independent circuit saw Rave pop up in CZW, Game Changer Wrestling, and CHIKARA, with his final match coming at CZW’s Cage Of Death XXI pay-per-view in December 2019; he teamed with Azrieal and Monsta Mack in a loss to the Young, Dumb N Broke trio of Charlie Tiger, Ellis Taylor, and Griffin McCoy.

Due to the aforementioned infections and subsequent amputations, Rave announced his retirement on 28 November 2020. He ultimately passed away on 12 December 2021, just four days after his 39th birthday.

We here at Inside The Ropes would like to send our condolences to family and friends of these legendary wrestlers at this time.