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One of many: Chyna's just the latest pro wrestling star to die way too young

Chyna, a pro wrestling icon in the 1990s, died Wednesday at the age of 45. But she's far from alone — recent years show a troubling trend of big names from wrestling's glory days passing away far too young. 

Two Aprils ago it was The Ultimate Warrior, born James Brian Hellwig, who died at 54. Then in August, Rowdy Roddy Piper, born Roderick Toombs, died at 61. And now Chyna, whose real name was Joan Laurer.

Those three examples are just from the past two years, but the list goes on. Curt Hennig, known in the ring as Mr. Perfect, died in 2003 at 44. We can go further back too, and include one of the sport's biggest stars: Andre the Giant, whose real name was André Roussimoff, died in 1993 at 46. 

The tragic list continues, too. Chyna's death is just the latest to highlight the problem. 

Back in 2003, HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel ran a segment about deaths in pro wrestling. The show's investigation found that, between 1997 and its airing, more than 60 performers from wrestling federations around the world had died at age 45 or younger — which Real Sports called a rate 400% higher than the normal population.

In 2014, FiveThirtyEight took a look at the program from WrestleMania VI, held in 1990. Of the 14 matches then, only five featured wrestlers who were all still alive 24 years later. A simple Google search for "pro wrestler deaths" yields an avalanche of grim blog and news results. 

All the deceased share a tragically early expiration date, but causes of death vary. 

Hellwig (The Ultimate Warrior) died of cardiovascular disease. Roussimoff (Andre the Giant) died of congestive heart failure. Piper died of a heart attack.

There are more sordid stories, too. In 2007, Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son, then killed himself. 

Chyna's cause of death hasn't been released by authorities, but foul play is not suspected.

Wrestling fans have certainly taken notice of their idols dying early. 

Piper himself addressed pro wrestlers dying young in that 2003 Real Sports segment. In the interview, Piper predicted he wouldn't live to see age 65. He died 12 years later at age 61. 

“Everybody’s dead,” Piper told HBO. “They’re all dying early and nobody cares about it … They take them and they screw them up so much.” 

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), by far the dominant organization in pro wrestling, reportedly fired Piper soon after he said that. 

But what's to blame for the early deaths? Pro wrestling is punishing by nature; alcohol and drug abuse were rampant during wrestling's earlier days. Still, it's a trend that's difficult to precisely pin down. 

WWE send Mashable the following statement, which it also sent the BBC last year following Piper's death. 

Unfortunately, some past performers were part of a generation of wrestlers who made unhealthy and poor personal lifestyle choices, which in some cases continued beyond their years in the ring. However, today's athletes take great pride and personal responsibility for their overall health and well-being. Notwithstanding, WWE talent are subject to random drug testing and expected to live healthy lifestyles, reinforced through our Talent Wellness Program, which was instituted in 2006.

Perhaps real gains are being made. WWE star Daniel Bryan recently retired at age 34. Bryan decided to quit after repeatedly suffering concussions — which then led to seizures. 

Bryan told ABC he initially tried to keep his seizures secret, because he didn't want to quit. 

"I have loved this in a way that I have never loved anything else," Bryan said when he announced his retirement from pro wrestling. 

Chyna's death is just the latest reminder. 

Pro wrestling might be staged, unlike other sports. But the people who power it — and the consequences they face — are all too real. 

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