A Way Out: On Addiction, Redemption, and Eddie Guerrero Winning the WWE Championship

Photo Courtesy of WWE

Let’s tell it straight up – Eddie Guerrero was an addict.

Drugs, alcohol; Eddie did all of it. He’s gotten DUIs, he’s had stints in rehab. He’s had second, third, and fourth chances. His wife left him and took their children. He was fired from his dream job. He had friend after friend after friend tell him that they were afraid of losing him. But, for a long time, none of that mattered. The only thing that mattered to Eddie Guerrero was getting that next high.

That’s how it is for addicts (including this writer). We can, and usually do, lose everything. But even then, it still takes us a while to finally make the decision that we want to take our lives back.

Addiction is a lot like drowning. It’s almost become a cliche at this point, but it’s the truest analogy one can provide. At first, you just want to dip your toes in the water. You want to go for a little swim, just to see how it feels. And oh, does it feel good. So you go out a little deeper, a little further. You don’t need a lifejacket; you know how to swim. But then, all of a sudden, you’ve gone out too far, past the shore, and now you are swimming and swimming in this vast ocean, trying to keep your head above water. Wave after wave crashes over you, to the point that you can barely swim anymore. You decide that it’s too hard to fight the current. You’re too weak; you’re too tired. You’re screaming for help but your voice gets lost in the vastness of it all.

Some people are lucky. Maybe they have people who’ve been watching them swim, who throw out a life preserver just in time. But the thing about addiction is that sometimes, even if you’re drowning and somebody throws you a life preserver, you throw it right back. Maybe you’re not ready to be saved just yet. Maybe you don’t think you deserve to be saved.

For Eddie Guerrero, it took a long time before he realized he deserved to be saved.

Like with most addicts, it started out innocently enough. A drink here, a pill there. But all too quickly, the waves got bigger.

“You’re doing these great things and wrestling and it’s great but, after you’ve done it, the feeling’s gone,” Guerrero said in his WWE-produced documentary. “There’s nothing to fill you. So I know, for me, I started turning to other things. I started buying this, started buying that and it would satisfy me for a little bit. But before I knew it, that wasn’t enough. I was already drinking, so I started drinking a little more. And before you knew it, I started taking a pill here and a pill there and experimenting with other stuff and I just started going downhill.”

It started in WCW. There, he was a multiple-time champion. He held the WCW Cruiserweight Championship as well as the United States Championship. He was a superstar in every sense of the word. But it wasn’t enough.

On New Year’s Eve, 1999 Guerrero was charged with a DUI after he crashed his car into a tree.

He should have been killed.

But, he cheated death on that night and you would think that would have been a wakeup call.

It wasn’t.

Eventually, Guerrero joined his friends in going to the World Wrestling Federation. It wouldn’t take long, however, until he broke his arm and found himself addicted to pain killers.

Eventually, he checked himself into rehab. But he left, thinking he could quit on his own.

It’s something that a lot of us do. At first, we deny there’s a problem, then we decide we want to fight it ourselves.

“There was still the doubt that, ‘Well, maybe I can have a drink,'” Guerrero said. “I experimented. One glass of wine led to two, and two led to the whole bottle. And I went to buy another bottle and I stayed at the bar. Everybody started buying me shots and I had nine of them lined up. And I’m pounding them all down, one right after the other. I don’t remember too much about that.”

The next morning, he woke up in jail, after getting another DUI.

“I said, like, ‘God, what happened?'” Guerrero remembered. “I’m trying to do the right thing here. All I wanted to do was have one glass of wine. Those really were my intentions. That’s all I wanted to do, was just have a glass of wine like any normal human being.”

The thing is, addicts aren’t normal human beings. Maybe we never were. Addiction is based, at least partly, on a chemical reaction in our brains. Many addicts are born with this different chemical makeup; often times it’s genetic. We inherit this disease and are then forced to deal with the consequences of it.

But let’s tell the truth and shame the devil – is addiction really a disease? Or is it a symptom? I’ve always believed it was a symptom of something much deeper, much darker, much harder to overcome. Maybe it’s trauma. Maybe it’s depression, or anxiety, or any number of other mental illnesses. We drink, at first, to distract. And then we do it to forget. We drink, or we use, so that we don’t have to feel. Feeling is the worst part, something to be avoided at all costs. So we drink. Or we shoot. Or we snort. Or we swallow. We do anything and everything we can to forget about what brought us to this point in the first place.

I imagine that’s how it was for Eddie Guerrero and, as in many of these types of stories, he lost everything.

“I got out of jail and my picture was in the newspaper and my kids were calling and asking me why,” Guerrero said. “And I know now, in my life, I can never, ever safely take a drink again. My life was basically turned upside down. I got the phone call and was let go [from the WWE]. My first thing was ‘Please don’t let me go. I’ve lost everything. I can’t lose this.'”

Even more than losing his job, the thing that really served as a wakeup call to Eddie Guerrero, was losing his family.

“The hardest thing is when you love somebody and they don’t love you anymore,” he said. “You realize you’re not gonna wake up with your children anymore. You realize everything you worked for is gone. It hurt so bad, just to breathe. I didn’t want to breathe. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to live.”

Eddie Guerrero couldn’t breathe, even if he wanted to. He was drowning. And he was desperately reaching out, hoping against hope that somebody, something, would take his hand.

Finally, he rose from the depths. It wasn’t an overnight thing. It never is. AA will have you believe that there are 12 Steps, but there are so many more. It’s a step forward, a step backward, a step to the left or right. But Eddie Guerrero kept going. He didn’t give up.

While away from WWE, Guerrero found himself wrestling for various independent promotions across the country. He was one of the first wrestlers to legitimize Ring of Honor. He put on matches with countless future superstars.

Most importantly, Eddie Guerrero found himself. He was having fun. He was doing what he loved. He was getting sober.

Eventually, things got better. He and his wife, Vickie, renewed their wedding vows. He spent more time with his children. And when WWE called, he was able to answer.

Guerrero returned to WWE in 2002 and immediately reminded the wrestling world just who the hell he was. He put on classics with Rob Van Dam, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, and more. He teamed once more with his nephew, Chavo, and produced countless hilarious moments as part of Los Guerreros. He won tag titles and US titles and more.

But there was one title that had eluded Eddie Guerrero his entire career – the WWE Championship.

For guys like Eddie Guerrero, the World Championship was a pipe dream. He was too small, too fast, too “vanilla.”

Add to the fact that Guerrero was a recovering addict, and the chances were slim that he would ever get a World Championship match, let alone actually win the thing.

But Eddie Guerrero was used to beating the odds.

Finally, by February of 2004, Eddie Guerrero was the hottest act in the company. He lied and he cheated and he stole the hearts of WWE fans across the world; so much so that he earned himself a WWE Championship match against Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004. The match itself was typical. It was a David and Goliath match in the best sense of the term. Eddie Guerrero was, after all, used to slaying giants.

But the match itself was not the highlight of his feud with Brock Lesnar. The real high point was Eddie Guerrero’s promo on the Smackdown before the pay-per-view.

Brock Lesnar was bullying Guerrero in typical fashion, even going so far as to bring up Guerrero’s past addiction issues. But, rather than deny or gloss over, or try to hide behind his addiction, Guerrero went the other way. He acknowledged them, head-on. He faced them. He admitted them.

And he used them.

“You wanna talk about addiction?” Guerrero asked Lesnar. “You wanna go down that road? You know what, homes? Let’s tell it straight up – the truth is, I am an addict. About three years ago, in Minneapolis Minnesota, your home state, in the shower, in the locker room; oh man, I was high. I was high high high. I don’t remember much about that night, but what I do remember is that they carried me out of the arena and they sent me straight into rehab. But they didn’t do that. I did that to myself. And that was just the beginning.”

Indeed, it was. That night in Minneapolis was the beginning of Eddie Guerrero’s redemption. Almost five years later, in that same city, that same state, Eddie Guerrero would lose his life. But on that night, he began to take his life back.

“Through all that time, through all those three years, not only did I wind up losing my job; I lost my wife. I lost my kids. And I lost myself. I lost my spirit. I disgraced my race. I disgraced my family. And I disgraced myself. But you know what? I came to a point in my life, I came to a point where it was do or die. I had to make a decision: do or die. And you know what? I did. Because I’m here right now, day by day, by the grace of God, and I have earned my way back into this.”

He had. Both on screen and off. Guerrero worked hard to rebuild his name, rebuild his marriage, rebuild his career, rebuild his life. He earned that match against Brock Lesnar, and he earned what came after.

“Day by day, by the grace of God, I have earned the respect of my kids again,” Guerrero said. “Day by day, I have earned my life back. When I stepped across you, and I see that [belt] across your waist, you know what that symbolizes for me? ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s my way of telling my family I’m sorry. That’s my way of telling my kids I’m gonna provide a better way of life for them. I’m gonna get them the bikes that they wanted. I’m gonna give them a better education.

“That’s my new addiction. When I step into this ring, I am addicted. I’m addicted to the high that I get from them. I’m addicted to the high that I get when I go home and I tell my family ‘Hey, I’m doing it.’ I’m addicted to the satisfaction that I get to tell everybody like you, that didn’t believe in me, you can stick it up your ass. I’m addicted to the Do or Die feeling that I’m gonna have at No Way Out. Because you know as well as I do…Oh, what a high it is when we’re in here, brother. See, the difference between me and you is that I’m an addict. And I’ll do anything and run over anybody that it’s going to take to get that [belt] around my waist and to get my high at No Way Out and become the WWE Champion.”

Even writing it out now, 19 years later, that promo still gives this writer chills. It still makes me tear up. Because Eddie’s story – it’s not just his own. Eddie’s story is for the man graduating from an addiction recovery center program after years upon years of trying. Eddie’s story is for the young woman who drinks to forget that she was abused – physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually – by her stepfather because she was protecting her sisters from him. Eddie’s story is for the writer who swore that he wouldn’t end up like his alcoholic mother, who died on the day of his senior prom, but he fell into addiction all the same. Eddie’s story is more than a comeback story. It’s more than a wrestling story. It’s a story for those of us who have touched rock bottom and have built something beautiful on top of it.

Not every story gets a happy ending. Sometimes, the man falls back into old habits after he graduates. Sometimes, the young woman drinks so much that she dies on the day of her son’s senior prom.

But sometimes, just sometimes, there’s a miracle. Sometimes, only sometimes, there’s magic. Sometimes, the writer reclaims his life, and gets to tell his story to other people via a wrestling article on

Sometimes, just sometimes, David beats Goliath.

That’s what happened on February 15, 2004. Eddie Guerrero beat Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship. Wrestling historians would have you believe that that was the culmination of Eddie Guerrero’s legacy. It’s not. Eddie Guerrero’s legacy isn’t defined by the championships he won or the matches he wrestled or the giants he slayed. David beat Goliath, sure. But Brock Lesnar was never Eddie’s goliath. Addiction was. And Eddie beat that years before No Way Out. And in doing so, he proved that there actually was a way out. The way out was through. And boy did Eddie Guerrero push through. In doing so, he took back his career. He took back his family. He took back his life.

Eddie Guerrero passed away in 2005, a sober man. And that, that, is his legacy. Because Eddie Guerrero proved that you can beat the odds, that you can push through, that you can slay the giant.

Let’s tell it straight up – Eddie Guerrero was an addict. But oh, he was so much more. He was a husband, a father, a son, a brother, an uncle. He was a performer. He was a friend. He was an example.

And he was proof positive that if you fight back, if you don’t give up, if you push through whatever is going on, there is a way out. It’s just up to you to find it.