I went to Phoenix this past weekend to see Wrestlemania, and on my way to the show, I ran into a father and his 9-year-old son visiting from Mexico. We naturally began talking about wrestling, and a wrestler named Umaga came up. I'd just visited a local restaurant owned by a former wrestler he used to be associated with.
The father asked me if Umaga was still wrestling. I paused, trying to think of how to delicately tell him the answer, particularly with the boy there. I explained to the father that Umaga had passed away last year, at 36 years old.
The boy overheard and exclaimed, "Umaga died?! They killed him? When's he coming back?"
I awkwardly explained that, no, they didn't kill him, and no, he's really not coming back. I tried to think of how to explain that he'd had a heart attack after mixing prescription medication. However, the father and son were already off on a related conversation.
"He's dead? So he's never coming back?"
"That's right. Everybody dies."
The boy paused, looking thoughtful.
"Everybody dies? Even the wrestlers?"
"Even the wrestlers."
The boy tried processing this information his father had given him, with the cartoon world of wrestling getting a little too real. His dad turned to me, smiled and said, "Well they're all millionaires, so they're probably going to Hell!" and laughed.
Death's always a tough topic. Wrestling has seen more than its share, with the effects of drugs, both recreational and steroids, leading to a series of tragedies outpacing other sports and entertainment.
It made me think about my 6-year-old little brother and all the things he hasn't had to deal with yet, and what I'd tell a child of my own. There's always going to be tragedy, and there's never an easy way to deal with it.
(Photo: Umaga attends the press conference held by WWE to announce details of Wrestlemania 23 at Trump Tower on March 28, 2007 in New York City. Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)