An occasional feature in which we honor the sport's fallen and examine their legacies. Today: Brian "Crush" Adams, who died in 2007 after accidentally ingesting a lethal mixture of prescription drugs.
Brian Adams's mainstream wrestling career started in medias res. A former military man who'd learned how to grapple while stationed in Japan, Adams was plucked out of the indie scene of the Pacific Northwest and thrust into top-level WWF storylines as the third member of Demolition, one of the most successful acts in the WWF. Demolition were themselves a semi-sanitized, cartoon version of the Road Warriors — smaller spikes, less anabolically grotesque physiques — and the connection was perhaps even stronger than that. Demolition swiped their look from The Humungus of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the very film from which Hawk and Animal lifted their post-apocalyptic shtick. (I guess I'll point out here that there was a wrestler, or rather, several wrestlers, who went by the name "Lord Humongous" in Mid-South and the CWA and probably a bunch of other places. They looked exactly like the guy from the movie, except when promoters got lazy and it was just a guy in a hockey mask. Sid Vicious played Humongous at one time, as did — allegedly — Scott Hall.)
While the addition of a third member to their crowd-pleasing roughneck S&M routine was an interesting twist, it chiefly served to re-establish Demolition as a villainous stable. They had debuted as baddies, but — just as with the Road Warriors before them — their unique and brutal style made them fan favorites in relatively short order. After WrestleMania VI, though, they had brawled their way through all of the legitimate heel opposition, and the decision was made to bring them back over to the dark side. And so came Crush. Demolition were so dominant it hardly seemed fair, but that was exactly the point: It was just a case of monsters being monsters.
In retrospect, Crush's run with Demolition was the only time his career made sense. He was a creature of wrestling's 1990s; nobody better embodied the gonzo eclecticism of the day. He played so many archetypes of '90s wrestling mythology that he became legendary at none of them, moving from persona to persona without ever fully leaving the last behind, though no mention of his previous lives was ever made. He was a man without a history, unstuck in time.
There's some minor dispute as to the real reason for Crush's addition to Demolition; it's usually accepted that Ax (Bill Eadie), the team's elder statesman, was getting older and steering toward a backstage role in the company — although there's also some question over whether he agreed to the plan or whether it was forced upon him — but a handful of reports cite a serious shellfish allergy as the cause of Eadie's semi-demotion. Either way, Demolition invoked "Freebird rules" (named for the legendary Fabulous Freebirds threesome, it's a tenuously legal setup wherein a three-man squad can defend the tag belts with any two members on any given night). And, as if that weren't enough, they proceeded to flout even those tenuously legal rules by occasionally switching the non-active member into the match in dire situations. (This was a point of serious consternation for the more earnest young fan. All three members dressed alike and had full facepaint, but their paint patterns were distinct and their physiques were significantly dissimilar. It was only through the willful negligence of the referees that such shenanigans were possible, though it goes without saying that such negligence is at the core of a high percentage of bad guy in-ring machinations.)
Demolition battled against the cream of the fan-favorite crop — the Rockers, the Hart Foundation — before they found themselves at odds with their forebear, the Road Warriors (known in the WWF by what was previously a toss-in nickname: The Legion of Doom). This was a big moment for wrestling. Even to the less-worldly fan who didn't know that Demolition was a knock-off of the Warriors, both teams were famous enough that this rivalry seemed inevitable even when they were contractually and geographically detached. To finally see them face to face was exhilarating.
Unfortunately, the feud crumbled under the weight of its own hype. Both teams were competent, but neither was built around technical wrestling mastery. And while either faction could cut growling, fear-inducing promos with the best of them, there was something unimpressive and not at all fear-inducing about hearing them growl so monotonously at each other. They needed an everyman to stand in opposition. The feud had all the hype of King Kong vs. Godzilla and the payoff of Alien vs. Predator. And though it was never said aloud, it was basically an old-school Loser Leaves Town match: Once dispatched by the LOD, Demolition's fate in the WWF was all but sealed. They hung around for a while after, but soon the team went their separate ways.
Adams resurfaced in the WWF soon after, still going by "Crush" but otherwise completely repackaged. He was now a blandly straightforward babyface: fluorescent orange tights, bleached tips on his mullet, golden tan, and an easygoing Hawaiian surfer disposition. (To drive the point home, he was often referred to as "Kona Crush," and he did the traditional surfer's "hang loose" hand gesture.) If he was less easygoing in the ring, it was mostly to comical effect — his finishing move, wherein he grabbed either side of his opponent's head and lifted them off the ground and then smashed them back down, was called the "Coconut Crush." He soon began a feud with Barry Darsow, formerly Crush's old Demolition running buddy Smash, who was now portraying a wrestling repo man called, ahem, the Repo Man.
It was at this point in Adams's career that the constant repackaging became something of a gimmick in and of itself. That he would re-debut sans name change made the process even more bizarre. Wrestling fans are persistently willing to turn a blind eye to familiar players in new garb; whereas one might think that keeping the "Crush" moniker would establish some sort of "reality-based" consistency, in fact it did little more than confuse the whole structure of wrestling reality. Were we supposed to recognize this new character as Crush from Demolition? Were we supposed to pretend that he had never existed? If fans reacted less than exuberantly to Crush's re-debut, perhaps it was because they were busy trying to sort out the schism. The storyline was edging toward the meta; Crush was changing clothes and speech patterns with every chapter while the background remained stubbornly immutable. He had become the middling protagonist in a Philip K. Dick paradox novel.
The only memorable part of Crush's Hawaiian-heritage run — and I guess it bears mention that Adams actually was from Hawaii, though his Kona Crush persona was so inauthentic as to render that fact almost irrelevant — was his feud with the evil clown Doink. If it's not clear by now that this was an era of unbearably Philistine wrestling personas in the WWE, let it be known that Doink wasn't just a wacky creation of the WWF think tank that was bestowed upon some unknown schlub; it was a character given to "Maniac" Matt Bourne, a borderline legend of the '80s indie scene. (One imagines Vince McMahon seeing Bourne's psychopathic cackle and saying, "Has anybody seen that Stephen King movie with the clown?") Crush fell victim to an attack from Doink's prosthetic arm (he had all his natural limbs; the prosthetic was a gag), and, later, at WrestleMania IX, he was double-teamed by Doink and a Doink lookalike, the latter of whom, as if to add to the mirroring effect, also attacked Crush with a prosthetic arm.
After falling victim to a sternum-crushing attack at the hands of Yokozuna, Crush disappeared for several months. He returned as a heel, shockingly aligning himself with Yokozuna and manager Mr. Fuji and bristling at his friend Randy Savage for not contacting him during his recuperation. This was taken (for whatever reason) as nothing less than an attack on America itself. Crush fashioned himself an anti-American Japan sympathizer, now with darkened hair, a goatee, black and purple tights, and a return to facepaint (naturally). If the switchover to the dark side didn't pass the groan test, again, that was beside the point — why simply reposition Crush when a complete and inexplicable makeover would do? And while you're at it, why not have a native Hawaiian take up the banner of Japan? It's a mindfuck on the order of The Man in the High Castle.
Crush feuded with Savage through WrestleMania X and then faded from the main event scene until late 1995, when he was arrested in Hawaii for carrying an illegal firearm and purchasing steroids, landing him briefly in jail.
While this might have spelled the end for a lesser (read: smaller) performer, Crush was welcomed back to the WWF in 1996, probably in large part due to the beginning of the WWF's Monday night showdown with WCW and WCW's consequent raid of the WWF roster. With ECW's indie success and Scott Hall and Kevin Nash's "invasion" of WCW as the Outsiders, it was an increasingly "reality-based" period in pro wrestling. And so, as if to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the WWF didn't quite get it, Adams was brought back in a new role that capitalized on his ex-con status: Crush was now an ex-con. A grizzled caricature of an ex-con, to be sure. (His manager upon his return was his lawyer, and he proclaimed the injustice done to Crush by the American legal system.) He was still called Crush, of course — and while he was portrayed as a man changed by his recent past, the specifics of his previous incarnations were left for the most part unmentioned.
This was also an odd era of WWF programming in which every wrestler seemed to be part of a faction, and so Crush was lumped into the anti-establishment group the Nation of Domination (which would later become a more straightforwardly Black Power outfit) and then subsequently put in his own quartet of bikers called the Disciples of Apocalypse (to arrive at the name, they started with "DOA" and worked backward, of course). He was joined by Brian Lee, formerly the Underfaker, and the Harris brothers, who both sported shaved heads. If that and the Harleys and the tattoos didn't evoke a vague sense of white nationalism, the Disciples' subsequent feuds with the (now all-black) Nation of Domination and the Puerto Rican nationalist posse Los Boricuas made the insinuation plain.
But the gang-warfare era petered out, and so did Crush's renaissance. Soon after, supposedly in reaction to the infamous Montreal Screwjob, Adams left the WWF.
He resurfaced soon thereafter in WCW, under his real name — the norm for WCW, which had pushed "reality" programming to it thudding endpoint — although "Brian Adams" was just a way for WCW to imply "Crush" without violating copyright or, you know, coming up with a new gimmick. He debuted to fairly significant momentary acclaim. This too was the standard in WCW: introduce a familiar face, put him in street clothes, have the announcers scream things like, "That's Brian Adams!! What on earth is he doing here?!?" and then bury them in the back of a crowded in-ring promo two weeks later, seldom to be heard from again. Sorry, spoiler alert. Adams teased an alliance with Bret Hart, then betrayed him and joined the nWo's villainous platoon, and basically disappeared from the spotlight.
He had a brief resurgence in 2000 as part of the tag team Kronik alongside Bryan Clark. In this tweaked persona, Clark seemed to have adopted his real-life buddy Randy Savage's style regimen: little or no body fat, bulging muscles, black-dyed hair, and sunglasses fit for an asshole teenager. Kronik were basically mercenaries, which meant they switched allegiance with little or no reason and which ironically rendered them the most internally consistent characters in all of WCW's helter-skelter storytelling. When Vince McMahon bought WCW a year or so later, Kronik had a brief feud with the Undertaker and Kane, but, the story goes, their performance in the payoff pay-per-view match was so lackluster that the Undertaker lit into them backstage, and neither member of Kronik was asked to return. The duo did some work in Japan, but that functionally spelled the end of both of their wrestling careers.
Soon, Adams was trying his hand at pro boxing. He had been a boxer during his military days, and he seemed to be serious about a second ring career, even if having Randy Savage as his hypeman made it all seem rather silly. (Adams worked as Savage's bodyguard at times as well, though one has to chuckle at the image, however legitimate, of a fake fighter being protected by another fake fighter.) But Adams injured himself in training and called it a career. He settled down and collected on a Lloyd's of London insurance policy (a station of the cross for the wrestler in decline) and thought about opening a gym (another station of the cross) in Florida. Sadly, that never got past the planning stages. He died just two months after Chris Benoit murdered his family and took his own life, and so Adams's death, at age 43, was covered widely in the mainstream media — notably on ESPN — who lost interest in dead wrestlers almost immediately thereafter.
Extreme as it was, Benoit's case was taken in the mainstream press as somehow pervasively illuminating of the wrestling world, whereas Adams's death was merely a footnote. In a lot of ways, that gets things exactly backward. Crush was as pure a product of his era and his sport as any professional wrestler. If you want the shortform version of the modern wrestling career arc, in all its weird glory, look no further than Brian Adams. He was, in order: a paint-faced monster; a neon-clad, bleached-blond do-gooder; an unpatriotic scoundrel; a gritty ex-con biker; and a black-clad nWo turncoat. He wrestled in Japan, in the indies, in the WWF, and in WCW. He was American; he was a tropical exotic; he was un-American; he was a beast from Parts Unknown. Outside the ring, Brian Adams was a military man, a bodyguard, a wannabe boxer, a prospective gym owner; post-career, he lived off the dividends of his insurance policy. And then he died in his bed, having swallowed a bad mixture of painkillers and muscle relaxers that he took for his lingering back injury.
We know this story by heart even if we didn't know the man, and there's something both pathetic and heartbreaking in that. He was a stereotype right down to his sad end. For all the incoherence of his in-ring career, his life outside the ring played exactly and tragically to type.
Farewell, Crush. You were everything you ever could have been, for better and for worse.
The Masked Man is a guy named David Shoemaker who works in publishing. He also writes about wrestling for Grantland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan. You can find the rest of the Dead Wrestler series here.