Every week, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: "Dr. Death" Steve Williams, who died of throat cancer on Dec. 29.
For a wrestler as eminent as "Dr. Death" Steve Williams (1960-2009), it's bitter irony that the average wrestling fan's most vivid memory of him is probably the beating he took at the hands of Bart Gunn, a decidedly insignificant wrestler, in the WWF'S hilariously ill-conceived "Brawl for All" tournament. (Or, as the always mouthy Jim Cornette called it, "without a doubt the stupidest idea that has ever made air in the WWF.") Here was the setup: "Brawl for All" was supposed to be a competition of "real" fighting. This was incredibly problematic for an organization that purported to be about, um, real fighting. And since the WWF hadn't exactly come to terms with its own reality, or lack thereof, "Brawl for All" came off rather like a François Truffaut experiment, a pugilist Day for Night — without the postmodern self-consciousness.
Despite the general absurdity of his chosen profession, and despite his fearsome moniker, Steve Williams never played the role of anyone except (presumably) himself. Williams was frightening precisely because he didn't need to fool anybody — because he was a top-level college wrestler and football player before turning to pro wrestling; because he was legendary for his after-hours brawling; because despite the fact that, ahem, we all know that this wrestling stuff is fake, we knew that Williams really could kick anybody's ass. But aside from a brief run as part of a bad-guy stable called the Varsity Club in NWA/WCW and some title runs in the regional federations, that aura never translated into sustained success in America. He was tough, but on TV, he only looked tough.
The pro wrestling audience rejects the legit tough guys as wrestlers because, like so many other things our fragile human minds can't quite wrap themselves around, real reality only disrupts the fake reality we've become accustomed to. The legit tough guy is the exception that blows the rule to pieces.
So: whither the badass? Sadly, Williams's fate wasn't unique. A long line of "real life" tough guys have made their way into squared circle of professional wrestling over the years — Ken Shamrock, Steve Blackman, Tank Abbott — but none of them ever amounted to much in the fake world of wrestling. Despite the insistence of pro wrestlers over the years that everything is completely real, and despite the fact that their code of maintaining this reality — they call it kayfabe — is famously ironclad, one starts to suspect that the wrestlers are protecting their own carefully cultivated self-mythos more than they're protecting their audience.
Williams spent the better part of his career wrestling in Japan, where physical legitimacy is much more highly esteemed. He never had the charisma that it takes to draw the masses and hit it big in the U.S., even though he worked the ring impressively, like a shaggy-haired bulldozer.
His most lasting contribution to the sport will probably be that his simple existence forced a then-new wrestler to change his name so as to avoid confusion, and so that other Steve Williams — a guy who would prove to have the charisma that Dr. Death lacked — changed his surname to "Austin," and an icon was born. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was incredibly popular for his portrayal of a tough guy. The fact that Dr. Death would have whooped him in a real-life fight is meaningless — and so too was so much of Williams's career, at least to the majority of American fans. And so we bid farewell to "Dr. Death," a wrestler too legitimate for his own good.
The Masked Man works in publishing.