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The Post and Courier
Sep 14 2014 12:01 am
Mike Mooneyham Columnist
WWE PHOTO Sean O’Haire was found dead early Tuesday in his Spartanburg home.
It was a dream come true when Sean O’Haire landed a full-time job with World Championship Wrestling in 2000.
The Hilton Head High graduate wanted to be a wrestler because he was a fighter, first and foremost, shaped by years of kick boxing, mixed martial arts and toughman contests.
But less than two years later, when Atlanta-based WCW was sold and absorbed by the WWF (now WWE), O’Haire was forced into a role that he was neither familiar with nor particularly enjoyed.
And that was the part of a professional wrestler whose role was determined by his acting ability.
From the end of his pro wrestling career in 2005 until last week, O’Haire continued to fight – in shoot fighting contests and in local bars.
But sometime between late last Monday night and early Tuesday, O’Haire lost a fight he apparently felt he couldn’t win.
The TMZ website reported that O’Haire’s father made a 911 call Tuesday morning concerning a suicide. When an investigating officer arrived at the Spartanburg home, the former wrestler’s lifeless body was found in a bedroom, with a rope tied around his neck and connected to the bedpost.
O’Haire, whose real name was Sean Christopher Haire, was only 43 years old.
As the pro wrestling community mourns the loss of one of its own, family and friends struggle with the circumstances surrounding his death.
A real fighter
At 6-4 and 270 pounds, O’Haire was a natural fit for the wrestling business, although his in-ring career would last only five years.
Many insiders dubbed him a “can’t-miss” prospect, and the highly respected Wrestling Observer newsletter voted him its Rookie of the Year in 2000.
O’Haire would claim that he lucked into his gig with WCW, earning a tryout through a series of fortuitous connections to Power Plant head trainer and former wrestling star Paul Orndorff, who liked O’Haire’s size and legitimate fighting ability.
Promoter Matt Holder, who had aspirations of a ring career of his own, recalls first meeting O’Haire at the Smyrna, Ga., training facility
“I was dabbling in the business back then and thought I could be a big, successful wrestler,” says Holder.
The first two trainees Holder met at the front door were O’Haire and future tag-team partner Mark Jindrak, both of whom stood over 6-4 and sported chiseled physiques.
“I looked at Sean and made a joke,” says Holder. “I told him that I just needed to turn around and go back home. I was about two feet too short and was the wrong guy for the job.”
Their paths would cross again over the years, and Holder was shocked when he heard the news of his friend’s death.
“Sean was a super nice guy. He really looked the part of a pro wrestler with that size. He had so much potential.”
“He was a big guy and he just had that look,” says former WCW performer Scotty Riggs. “That’s why he was so good in wrestling. Sean was massive, but he moved like a gazelle. He was fluid in everything he did. He had some great gifts, and he had some top guys in WCW like Kevin Nash and Sting who worked with him. They really helped him along.”
The only thing that worked against him, says Riggs, was that O’Haire might have been “too competitive” for pro wrestling.
“He didn’t want to lose a match.”
Riggs recalls seeing firsthand how O’Haire would react when a fan would ask him how he could have lost a match to a physically inferior opponent.
“It drove him nuts. He would want to kill the guy for asking the question,” laughs Riggs.
Ironically enough, says Riggs, the powerful O’Haire had a deft touch inside the ring.
“I never worked with Sean, but guys I knew who did said that while he came across as hard, vicious and mean, he was actually easy to work with. And that takes skill.”
Sean O’Haire’s final fight was one he couldn’t win – Post and Courier
Riggs says O’Haire, with his impressive size and working ability, was a perfect fit for WCW.
“That’s the difference between being a wrestler and being a sports entertainment guy. As a wrestler you go out there and work holds and know your body language. As a big guy Sean knew how to use his body language. He knew how to do that instead of having to run back and forth, while killing your knees, your ankles and your spine.”
Possessing that knowledge, says Riggs, was the key to a long career in the ring.
“That way you could have a 30- or 40-year career like Ric Flair who knew how to work. Otherwise you have a seven- or eight-year career and be done and be used up because you didn’t know how to work. You know how to do TV, but you don’t know how to work and actually make a living.”
Out of the wrestling business for the past decade, O’Haire had been working in the security business in recent months. He also had been employed as a personal trainer and hair stylist, and had worked as a professional bodyguard and bodyguard trainer.
On Friday and Saturday nights, O’Haire worked at Ford’s Oyster House and Cajun Kitchen in downtown Greenville, where he had earned a reputation for keeping order.
Holder recalls an incident where O’Haire was called on to help break up a fight.
“This guy thought he was just going to strong-arm Sean, and Sean snatched this 250-pound guy up and put him in some hold before disposing of him. A friend of mine who also worked there was amazed at Sean’s strength. Security loved him. Nobody messed around with him after that.”
Holder says O’Haire recently returned from Africa where he had done private security for major corporations and foreign diplomats.
Steve Mullikin, owner of Exec3 Executive Protection and Security Services in Greenville, said Friday that O’Haire had been employed by his company since January. He described O’Haire as “intelligent and soft-spoken.”
With his size and ability to handle problems, O’Haire was a model employee, says Mullikin.
“We’re more proactive than we are anything else,” says Mullikin. “When we see something start to develop, we’ll go out and talk to folks first and try and calm everything down. Sean loved that idea. He said that if he didn’t have to lay his hands on somebody, he was good with that.
“There was one incident when somebody was drunk and kind of pushed the envelope. Sean just put the guy in a chicken wing hold and took him out. He didn’t get hyped up about it. He just said he wished it hadn’t happened that way.”
Mullikin says O’Haire approached him earlier this year about taking a high-risk security job in Africa.
“He told me about having a chance to go overseas and do some high-risk stuff. He wasn’t married and didn’t have kids, so I said, why not?”
O’Haire, who had been married and divorced twice, had a history of trouble with the law.
In 2004, weeks after he was released by WWE, the 17-time Toughman contest winner was arrested on suspicion of assault and battery against two women at a nightclub, although those charges were later dropped. In 2006, he was charged with assault at another late-night establishment.
O’Haire suffered serious injuries in a fight that took place outside a bar on Hilton Head Island in 2007. He told deputies he was attacked while walking up to the Hilton Head Brewing Co., according to a Beaufort County Sheriff’s report. Other witnesses claimed O’Haire tried to start a fight with an alleged assailant.
O’Haire suffered fractures to his face and skull, including his orbital bone, which resulted in a partially reconstructed and reinforced titanium jaw and orbital socket. Vision in his left eye was permanently impaired as a result of the fight.
Haire also faced charges of battery and criminal trespassing in 2009, but that case was closed in 2011.
In all, Haire was charged in four fights on the island, but convicted of only one.
Riggs was around for some of O’Haire’s bar brawling. Both were living in the Hilton Head area, and Riggs says O’Haire would occasionally drop by in between MMA training stints in Atlanta, Columbia and Savannah. O’Haire had grown up in that area, says Riggs, and had carved out a reputation.
“Whenever I was around him, he always seemed to have to live up to that reputation,” says Riggs. “We’d bump into each other at a lot of the clubs on Hilton Head Island. At that time everybody there knew everything everybody did. And everybody had dated everybody else’s girlfriend. It was just a massive sorority hall.”
O’Haire was not one to back away from a scrap, says Riggs, and most folks in the close-knit community knew of his fighting ability.
“I remember we were out one night with some friends. The bar owner came up to me and said, ‘Hey man. Haire just walked in. I’ve just got a bad feeling something’s going to happen.’ I told him to give Sean a break and not to put a bad vibe out. Little did I know, but something did happen, and he got blamed for some criminal activity where someone got stomped on.”
The barroom brawling might have flown back in the old territorial days, but not in today’s world of sports entertainment, says Riggs.
In some respects, O’Haire was a throwback to an earlier era where pro wrestlers were expected to defend the honor of their profession, whether it be in an alleyway or a bar.
“Sean would have been great back in those days,” says Riggs. “It was the old school mentality. You could get in a bar brawl. Police would arrest everybody, the promoter would take care of it and you’d be out. No big deal. And the promoter loved it because you’d draw more people in the town to see the big brawler.”
But in O’Haire’s case, he was labeled a “bad apple” in street fights in and outside bars in Hilton Head and Spartanburg, where authorities considered it hardly an irregular occurrence when O’Haire was getting involved in fights where police were called.
Sean O’Haire’s final fight was one he couldn’t win – Post and Courier
“That was just part of his reputation,” adds Riggs. “He was an intense guy. Sean had a short fuse. That’s the way God made him.”
Those types of incidents, however, flew in the face of characterizations of O’Haire in later years.
“He was a very gentle and kind person that studied Buddhism and was employed as a personal trainer at Exzel Fitness in Spartanburg,” his obituary information noted.
Many used the words “caring,” “humble” and “soft-spoken” to describe O’Haire on his memorial page as tributes poured in from friends and fans all over the world.
The fact that he also had worked as a hair stylist, says Riggs, showed that there was a gentler side to O’Haire.
“Any wrestler or athlete in the entertainment field usually is a great creative person, and sometimes they have to find a creative outlet,” explains Riggs. “Hair styling might have been a creative outlet for him – a way to create something. Maybe he couldn’t physically do the things he once could, so it was something he came up with to take its place.”
Veteran wrestler Adam Pearce described on his Facebook account how O’Haire helped him during his first WCW tryout in 1999.
“What no one knew was that I went into it with a decimated left shoulder (I had partial reconstructive surgery the following year, which explains the big scar that I wear to this day). I really shouldn’t have even been there with the injury.
“As part of my evaluation, I was tasked by Paul Orndorff and company with wrestling opposite Sean O’Haire in an amateur-style match. As we were set to begin, I secretly said to him, ‘Please watch my left shoulder, it’s gone.’ With everyone watching, he didn’t say a word. He simply looked me in the eye, and nodded a subtle ‘yes’ in response.”
Pearce said that O’Haire could have easily yanked on his arm and exposed his injury, or could have embarrassed him physically. But he didn’t.
“He took care of me, never touching my left arm, and really served to help me look better than I should have. And even though I ended up not signing WCW’s contract, I have never ever forgotten what he did.”
Career cut short
O’Haire had the look of a pro wrestler long before breaking into the sport. A winner of 17 Toughman contests, he was 29 when he debuted on WCW television in 2000.
As part of a radical new group brought in by booker Vince Russo called The Natural Born Thrillers, O’Haire appeared tailor-made for a business that craved big men with physiques chiseled out of granite. He was an amazing physical specimen who possessed cat-like agility and could perform acrobatic moves such as the “Seanton” (swanton) with relative ease.
Earmarked for a superstar push, O’Haire teamed with fellow Power Plant grad Jindrak to win the WCW world tag-team belts, and later with Chuck Palumbo, another giant at 6-6 and 270 pounds. The latter combination held that title until WCW was sold in a fire sale to WWE for a reported paltry sum of $2.5 million.
The pair soon found themselves in the middle of a poorly executed invasion angle that saw former WCW talent embroiled in feuds with the home-team WWE superstars. After losing the WCW tag-team belts to The Undertaker and Kane, the two split up.
The WWE style, though, was markedly different, and the company’s philosophy was as well. O’Haire was sent to the company’s Louisville-based developmental territory for further grooming while the creative staff attempted to craft a new gimmick for him. Like most WWE performers, it would be a role that demanded as much acting acumen as grappling skills.
O’Haire would be brought back, but completely repackaged as a dark and twisted “Devil’s Advocate” character who sported a trench coat along with menacing fire and spiderweb tattoos. His gimmick was to urge people to commit adultery, break the law, not pay taxes, and not go to church, among other things.
For someone who didn’t particularly like acting, O’Haire showed great promise on the mic, and was paired with Roddy Piper, one of the greatest talkers in the history of the business.
That combination, though, never had time to click, and came to an abrupt halt when Piper was unceremoniously released by WWE after making controversial remarks about the business on an HBO special.
Despite wins over the likes of Hulk Hogan, Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, O’Haire slowly slipped off the major broadcasts and dropped down on WWE cards. After suffering a motorcycle accident injury that required time off, he was released by the company in 2004. His wrestling career, in effect, was over.
O’Haire found sporadic work with Japanese promotions until 2005 before. After wrestling, O’Haire pursued the sport of kickboxing, before transitioning into MMA, where he finished his career with a professional record of 4-2.
He held the distinction of not only fighting for the Pride Fighting Championships in its dying days, but also for K-1 in Japan as a kickboxer.
O’Haire fought gimmick boxer-turned-MMA fighter Eric “Butterbean” Esch at a Pride event in 2006, losing via technical knockout.
He wasn’t nearly as successful in kickboxing, losing all four times he entered the ring for K-1. O’Haire last fought professionally in 2007. His MMA career ended shortly after suffering left eye damage as a result of a bar fight.
In the end, says Riggs, it could have been politics that helped derail O’Haire’s promising future in the wrestling business.
“People don’t understand the politics in the wrestling industry. There are so many gifted guys up there, and Sean was one of them,” says Riggs. “He had talent. When they did that Devil’s Advocate gimmick, that thing could have done so well.”
Mainly, adds Riggs, because O’Haire was so convincing in his most comfortable and natural role – that of a real fighter.
“Everything he said could have had that little bit of an exclamation point to it. But it’s not always your ability or talent or skills. It’s how someone views you.”
Like many in the fighting world, O’Haire had his share of demons that blocked his path to what should have been resounding success.
TMZ reported Friday that O’Haire went to WWE-sponsored rehab six times in the past six years, including once earlier this year. Sources told the website that O’Haire went to rehab again earlier this year, but WWE was unable to reach him again following his final stint.
“He possessed incredible gifts,” noted Riggs. “But there were issues, and they all made him who he was.”
Mullikin, who had employed O’Haire in January, said he never noticed any major change in O’Haire’s personality, and he had never exhibited any signs of depression. An initial interview was thorough, and O’Haire was open about his past.
“Had he not been up-front with me, I wouldn’t have known anything was going,” said Mullikin. “I knew he had a back injury, and there was one time he told me that his back was really bothering him and that he wouldn’t be at work that day. I respected that. I asked him if he was OK, and he said he didn’t like taking any heavy pain medicine. But he was back to work the next day.”
In subsequent conversations, says Mullikin, O’Haire remained up-front.
“He knew he had problems, but he spoke very intelligently about those problems. He told me he used to have a problem. Everybody used to have a problem. It’s how you handle it after that. He was the kind of person who hit his problems head-on and never really showed any kind of depression or confusion to me or any of our staff. You know the saying, ‘Speak softly, but carry a big stick?’ That described Sean.”
News of O’Haire’s passing stunned his co-workers. “No one saw that one coming,” said Mullikin. “It took everyone by total surprise. We were shocked.”
Throughout the developed world, self-harm is now the leading cause of death for people 15 to 49, surpassing all cancers and heart disease, according to a recent report.
“Everyone says diabetes is a silent killer, but I think in our day and age it’s turned into mental illness,” says Holder. “People just don’t treat your brain as an organ. With heart disease, you’re going straight to the doctor. You’re on heart medicine. You change your diet. But people who have mental problems don’t have that luxury.”
Holder says he has been around wrestling long enough to know that those who practice it are a different breed. Some handle the lifestyle differently than others.
“Maybe it’s this crazy lifestyle that we’ve all gravitated toward, and being on the road, it’s like a whole melting pot of crazy. I don’t know what it is. There’s no in between in this business. You either have this superior, higher-echelon guys that saved their money and never even smoked a cigarette like Jerry Lawler, then on the other end you have guys like Sean O’Haire that made plenty of money and maybe still wasn’t happy.”
Without knowing O’Haire’s specific situation, noted California-based psychiatrist Dr. David M. Reiss has observed over the years that athletes, including pro wrestlers, are susceptible to a unique set of potential issues.
“It’s so hard in these situations because you don’t know what’s going on personally, but my concern is that it seems to be more prevalent with athletes because there is steroid use, which can have chronic effects on the brain, and you have head injury. There can be a proclivity to impulsivity which just takes the right combination of things to trigger it.
“It may not be the person’s basic personality. They may not even be all that depressed in the classic sense, but you put together some acute stress and acute depression, add in the wrong drugs or alcohol and sometimes even anti-depressants, and it doesn’t take a lot of subtle brain injury to create a momentary monster.
“We don’t understand it real well, but we do know that even the medications for depression don’t work the same way in people who have had head injuries. I have no idea if he (O’Haire) was depressed or in treatment, but sometimes people who are in treatment get put on drugs like Prozac, and it subdues them too much. It helps the depression; they don’t look depressed, but they feel flat. And especially for someone whose life is based on adrenaline. You suddenly add a chemical element, whether it’s from an anti-depressant, alcohol or who knows what else, suddenly they’re just bursting at the seams to be impulsive. If you have the wrong combination of things, it can be a disaster.”
The state of shock surrounding the suicide of comedian Robin Williams created a ripple effect on social media. Research has shown that releasing such detail about the circumstances of a high-profile suicide could increase the likelihood of distressed individuals making similar attempts on their own lives.
With suicide being the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, has it become an acceptable resolve for the disease of addiction and depression?
“There are these silent cases, and the more there are, the more there are in the media, and it becomes at that moment acceptable,” says Reiss. “Who knows at that moment if he (O’Haire) was thinking of Robin Williams? No one will ever know.
“All you need is the wrong combination to have a momentary sort of quasi-psychosis. ‘I’ll do that and I’ll be in the papers.’ And here it is in the papers, basically setting up the next one. A person who is in good shape is not going to respond that way, but sometimes that’s just enough to reach that critical mass at that moment. And maybe 10 minutes later they wouldn’t have done it.”
When it comes to mental illness, says Reiss, isolation can be a killer.
“Especially for guys who are reasonably bright, feel they’ve lost their edge, are no longer getting that adrenaline rush, and you add to it antidepressants or medication that takes away libido, and all you need is a critical mass and the person being alone. It could have been the wrong day and the wrong time. It could have been many things that just added up.”
Mental illness manifests itself in different people in variable ways, and depression, like other illnesses, takes many forms.
“We talk about mental illness like it’s one illness, but it can take so many different forms and there’s so many different variables. What we know just scratches the surface.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517843-937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.