Pro wrestling is built in part on controversy of a contrived nature. Promoters can’t sell tickets at arenas or build television ratings without manufacturing conflicts between the “baby faces” and the “heels.” And few bad guys in the history of the business could match Adrian Adonis when it came to stirring things up.
Adonis’ story is a tragic one. For reasons still not entirely clear, he went from a major attraction in the World Wrestling Federation to obscurity in the blink of an eye before dying tragically at the age of 34.
Adrian Adonis fought his way to the top
Adrian Adonis (his real name was Keith Adonis Franke) was a high school dropout in the Buffalo, New York, area and 20 years old when he began training to be a pro wrestler. He joined the American Wrestling Association (AWA) promotion in 1979 and caught on quickly as part of the East-West Connection with Jesse “The Body” Ventura. They held the tag team championship for nearly a year before moving to the bigger World Wrestling Federation, the forerunner to the WWE.
Taking on the persona of a biker-like bad guy, Adonis showing drawing power in arenas and was rewarded with series of matches against WWF champion Bob Backlund and Intercontinental champ Pedro Morales in 1982. With Ventura sidelined by injuries and transitioning to TV commentary, Adonis formed the North-South Connection with Dick Murdoch and held the title for nine months beginning in April 1984.
Adonis’ weight had begun to balloon, but he still showed athleticism while making the decision to adopt a risky and controversial change to his character in the ring.
The birth of the ‘Adorable’ character
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which would take a devastating toll on the gay population, had only recently come into focus as a major health concern in 1985 when “Adorable” Adrian Adonis discarded his leather jacket and adopted an effeminate persona on the WWF circuit. Pandering to fear and ignorance, Adonis took the role to the extreme with his leg warmers, pink outfits, and use of makeup in creating a character for fans to despise as he beat their favorites.
For better or worse, the character was a success for the WWF. Adonis was given a spot in Wrestlemania 2, earned featured-match billing in a feud with Junkyard Dog, and even challenged Hulk Hogan for the championship belt.
Adrian Adonis’ tragic death in Canada
Having been booted from the WWF, Adrian Adonis returned briefly to the AWA, where he lost to Greg Gagne in the final of a championship tournament. An ankle injury prevented him from joining an AWA collaboration with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and his salary was cut off.
With no place else to turn, Adonis started contracting with small regional circuits that typically require long drives from town to town with little time off. Wrestlers frequently carpooled to share the driving and cut down on expenses.
On July 4, 1988, Adonis was in a minivan being driven by William Arko, who wrestled under the name of Mike Kelly, in Lewisporte, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Inconsistencies in the accident report were never resolved, but the vehicle either hit a moose or swerved to avoid it. Arko lost control of the minivan and drove into a lake. Adonis, Victor Arko (a/k/a Mike Kelly), and fellow wrestler Dave “Wildman” McKigney were all killed, and William Arko was seriously injured.
Adonis was just 34 years old and left behind a wife and two daughters.