It’s a difficult situation to be in, writing about someone I never knew personally, while many did know him, worked with him, traveled with him and knew him well, or knew of his torments.
Larry Sweeney is just one more young life tragically lost in the industry, and although this one is far more personal, we should all ponder that chicken-and-the-egg question of whether the industry attracts talented individuals with demons battling for their souls, or if the industry tends to stoke the fires of those demons in individuals who become part of the business.
Almost all reports about Larry Sweeney over the past few years mentioned Bipolar Disorder. That’s a condition – a mental illness – that causes drastic or frequent mood swings, often from, to or a combination of depression and Mania. It’s believed to be a brain chemistry issue, and it has a variety of severities, and it is said to be managed with treatment.
Bipolar isn’t exactly rare – five million adults in the United States have it, and isn’t exactly unknown to the mainstream – actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has just been reported to be in treatment for the condition. And history has examples of great talents, like Vincent van Gogh, who may have had the condition.
But I’m not an expert in medical conditions, nor the personal history of Larry Sweeney.
There is a poignant reflection on Larry Sweeney by Allison Danger & Amber Gertner for those who want to get a very personal take on it, at http://www.diva-dirt.com/2011/04/16/the-untitled-allison-danger-show-episode-12-larry-sweeney-tribute-show/
All I can offer is a glimpse of Larry Sweeney’s career and what he offered and how he portrayed his gifted talents in the ring for audiences all over the place. And along the way, I’d very much like to provide some insight and some things I’ve discovered in researching him.
Greatness is mostly subjective, and the sad reality is that professional wrestlers who don’t work in that Connecticut based powerhouse don’t get hardly recognized by the mainstream or by mainstream oriented fans, but let me just add to some already notable wrestling dignitaries, and say that Larry Sweeney was great at what he did.
Unfortunately, his calling in this industry would have been answered in decades past, and as weird as it is that in the real fighting industries, his size would have slotted him, but he could have been recognized as great, he found himself fighting a battle against his size in a corporate world that doesn’t care much – with rare exceptions – if you’re not of a certain height.
It’s too bad that that old Gordon Solie axiom, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog, didn’t play out in this story.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of watching numerous talents in the rings of the indy circuit. I admire the passion and talent and drive of wrestlers toiling in small venues, having their matches taped for hardcore fans, trying to keep alive an artform that is either ignored or unwanted by the mainstream masses. The pessimist in me suggests that mainstream fans just don’t want to explore the depths of professional wrestling. The optimist in me suggests that without the options of even a decade ago, there’s just not the same sort of fanbase these days, and they’re more than satisfied with watching the mainstream products.
Either way, the talents of Larry Sweeney were far more attuned to the wrestling of yesteryear.
As a wrestler, he paid attention to the subtleties in the ring and the interactions of the fans and had created a character – a real heel – that all put together a depth of character and performance seldom seen these days. Well, unless you watched “Sweet and Sour” in action in the US, Canada, Mexico and Japan, for a wide variety of promotions, and often with his ICW-ICWA Texarkana Television Championship, which he held 27 times.
That’s one prop that was properly defined as a Championship, though.
What was amazing about Sweeney in the ring was an incredible ability to be a professional wrestler, to meld the concepts of over-the-top comedy with a heelish seriousness, to walk that fine line between making people want to watch, and making people want to hate, to blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
Larry Sweeney was a spectacle in the ring, like he was at the Full Impact Pro Third Anniversary Show, attacking Delirious, decked out in a blue singlet with red stars, leopard print tights showing below the blue, with big purple kneepads, white elbow pads and white boots … plus the pink & white boa.
Inside the ring, he transitioned like few others, overselling a low-blow one minute, feverishly attacking his opponent a few minutes later, and working in a way that defied modern day sensibilities. Unlike so many, Larry Sweeney interacted in multiple dimensions: against the opponent, with and against the referee, and especially with the fans.
Sweeney was decidedly Old School in approach: slower paced, methodical in his moves, telling a story. And he had that often unquantifiable quality called ‘fire’. Larry Sweeney just had “it” – he turned it on, became a true professional wrestler, and performed seamlessly in the ring.
In another day and age, even when his size would cause issues, he could have been a manager of stars. He was often compared to Bobby Heenan – of course, because he could work and taking bumps would never be an issue, and more than that, his ability on the stick was impressive.
He really did have that gift of gab.
And again, over the top while being serious. The thing is, Larry Sweeney could be utterly lampooning and at the same time cutting a promo that got the audience involved, whether live or on a DVD.
In Ring of Honor, he almost revolutionized the managerial role, as he dressed upscale, often with a white suit, open at the collar, yelling into a cell phone and played a modern day “super agent” type of manager.
Thanks to Bob Barnett, I got a glimpse of Bobby Davis in action, and while Sweeney looked a lot more like Ray Stevens (shorter, blond hair) than Davis (taller, dark hair), there’s a definite similarity in the attitude.
But it wasn’t the tweener coolness that is wrecking the heel/face dynamic, but the serious business side – the Jerry Maguire before the moralistic part – that was best portrayed when ROH and Larry blended work and shoot and Matt Sydal got his contract “sold” to Vince McMahon’s WWE.
The scary thing is that, like most professional wrestling greats, Alex Whybrow likely made his own personality larger than life, and provided the glimpses of what drove him.
And yet, being over the top, being able to emote and perform and interact, it’s easy to start to believe that professional wrestling was something of a positive for him.
The real details of the breakup of business relationship between Larry Sweeney and Ring of Honor weren’t exactly headline news, even if the odd behavior was reported. I’m more than willing to give ROH the benefit of the doubt of how they handled situations a few years back. Dealing with irrationality and spectacles isn’t something any business can readily relate to, but the torment of bi-polar disorder wasn’t something Mr. Whybrow could just walk away from.
That was a long time ago, and there’s no way we’ll ever know what could have saved him. Most reports indicate that the man we knew as Larry Sweeney stopped taking his meds. Whatever happened in those years between Larry Sweeney halting his promising career in wrestling, and Alex Whybrow taking his life will remain a mystery.