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By Mike Johnson on 2016-02-04 18:50:07

Brian Knighton, professionally known as Axl Rotten, was found deceased today in Baltimore, Maryland.   According to sources we have spoken with, he was found by authorities in a [12:30 AM Update:] McDonalds next to the motel he was staying in. [See bottom of post for additional details.] He had tweeted earlier today, so the belief is he passed away sometime in the last ten hours. Knighton was only 44 years old.

Knighton was best known for his run in the original Extreme Championship Wrestling, where a feud with his storyline brother and former tag team partner Ian Rotten resulted in ECW getting a ton of magazine press and online buzz for the usage of barbed wire baseball bats and a level of blood and violence that wasn't the norm in 1995 anywhere but some of the Japanese death match promotions.  The feud was named the 1995 "Feud of the Year" by Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine and at the time, the throwback to the old days of wide-eyed, bloody photos in the magazines, mixed with the storyline of two "brothers" trying to maim each other with barbed wire, led to ECW far more coverage than it would have likely received otherwise.

Knighton, as Rotten, was trained by late WCW enhancement talent Joey Maggs and Maryland independent wrestler Ricky Lawless.  Although he grew up in Baltimore, Rotten was billed as from the Newcastle, UK and for a time carried a cockney accent.  His ring name was a tribute to heavy metal and punk rocker Johnny Rotten while the Axl came from Eddie Murphy's character in "Beverly Hills Cop", which Knighton was a huge fan of.  Metal music was a huge influence for Knighton, who was specifically a massive Kiss fan.

After wrestling in the Mid-Eastern Wrestling Federation in Maryland, Rotten and his "brother" Ian (who was broke into the business by Axl) appeared on the early episodes of The Global Wrestling Federation, a promotion run out of the Sportatorium in Dallas, Texas that initially had a nice collection of talent and a daily ESPN afternoon timeslot.

Prior to that run, Rotten had a short and somewhat forgotten run in World Championship Wrestling, where he was brought in to work with "The Rapmaster" PN Newz, a hip hop character booker Dusty Rhodes was trying to get over at the time.  Rotten rarely, if ever, worked TV but did appear on a number of house shows.

Rotten also had several runs in Memphis, appearing at different time periods for the promotion before he really made a name for himself and then later, after his feud with Ian Rotten in ECW ran it's course to give himself and the ECW fans a break from all the violence he did over the course of the feud.

When Paul Heyman took over the booking in ECW, Rotten found himself a home for much of his career.  He and Ian were originally brought in as Terry Funk's "Few Good Men" and would run interference for him during his feuds with Sabu and Shane Douglas during the fledgling era of the company.  The two would feud with the two other signature ECW tag teams of the era - The Public Enemy and The Pitbulls, putting on entertaining brawls.

At the end of 1995, The Pitbulls and The Rottens faced off in a bout where the losing team would never team again in ECW.  At the time, wrestling stipulations were discarded left and right.  Wanting to be different, Paul Heyman stuck to the stipulation and the two never teamed officially again, although it was teased once.  The dedication to respecting the fans with the stipulation was so strong that years after ECW closed, Axl and Ian were involved in a brawl together at Jeremy Borash's Hardcore Homecoming event in Philadelphia and they and the promoters made it clear there was never an "official match" so that the stipulation wasn't technically violated.

While Rotten was a solid - and at times, good to great - performer in the ring with a very underrated gift for gab, he was also his own worst enemy at times.  It would never fail that any time Paul Heyman and ECW put some momentum behind him or gave him some television time, that Rotten would inevitably have something happen where he, either backstage or in the ring or in real life, would do something that would cause the promotion to hold back on pushing him.  If you ever wondered why Rotten was never used more prominently on TV in ECW, that was likely the answer.

As time went on, Knighton was absolutely angry about seeing others pushed to more prominent positions.  While he was around longer and was put with D-Von Dudley as a tag team to help bring D-Von along, when time came for D-Von to get the big push, the ECW Tag Team titles, the PPV and WWF TV appearances, etc. that came with the push, Rotten would often voice privately that he was the one who scarred his arms and face for the company and wasn't being treated fairly or appreciated for his contribution.   While he never failed to help others improve, he had an underlying feeling of often being passed over for someone else when "his" time should have already come.

The reality, which Knighton may or may not have figured out at some point in his life, was that he was his own worst enemy.  If there was a second-worst enemy, it was his personal demons.  By his own admission during interviews, he had been through rehab a number of times and he regularly told friends that he had been "x" days sober and this time, he was finally beyond his addictions.  Even with the help of the WWE Wellness Program, which assisted him and spent far more money on his health than Rotten could have made the company given how little time he spent under contract to the company, Knighton would still, eventually return to old behavior, to the point that those who had been his best friends in the Maryland wrestling scene had given up on him.

After Axl won the feud against Ian in the first ever "Taipei Death Match" with both men taping their fists and "dipping them in broken glass" in July 1995, he disappeared to Memphis to give himself a break from ECW and returned working as an undercard babyface.  He turned and worked with D-Von Dudley and would eventually end up teaming with Balls Mahoney as the Chair Swinging Freaks.

The team with Mahoney was Rotten's other major claim to fame in the original ECW, a team that could be the babyface foils for heels like the Dudley Boyz, The FBI or Sabu and Rob Van Dam and remain over and popular no matter how often they lost, for they helped provide the blood and violence that was ECW's mantra.  Rotten remained a regular in the company until late 1999 when ECW decided to purge a number of talents who management (read: Paul Heyman) felt - even by ECW standards, where partying was never frowned upon as long as you could wrestle - were in a very dangerous place and were "suspended", which was really a cover to fire them. 

Rotten never returned to the original ECW and at times, knocked Paul Heyman personally.  In the years that followed, while he was very proud of the fact that he was in ECW video-games and had an ECW action figure, his bluster and pride over scarring himself to get over ECW and being a walking billboard for the company with those scars would disappear.  In the documentary "Barbed Wire City", Rotten referred to it as one of the stupidest things he'd ever done. 

The difference in physical appearance for both Axl and his partner Balls Mahoney in that film, from interviews filmed in 2001 and then additional material filmed nearly a decade later was sobering, sad and depressing.  It's even sadder watching the footage as Rotten, obviously not well, makes Mahoney cry with all the kind things he says about his partner.

Post-ECW, Rotten worked in Japan and for a number of independent promotion.  In the aftermath of ECW and WCW closing, WWE did have interest in hiring him and Mahoney as an underneath tag team.  For some reason, it never happened. 

Rotten was brought back to ECW when WWE resurrected it for their One Night Stand events.  WWE wanted to hire him in 2006 when they resurrected the ECW brand and Rotten signed the deal.  He would never appear for the brand and at the time, sources indicated that Rotten never followed through with necessary blood and medical testing that was needed to clear him to tour and wrestle internationally.  There were theories as to why this happened, but no one who knows for sure is ever going to go on record as to why.

Rotten, in conversations I had with him over the years, would never directly respond to questioning that asked him why, in the face of getting exactly what he always wanted, a chance to make big money in wrestling, he didn't do what was necessary to finalize the paperwork.  Once again, sadly, he was his own worst enemy.  He had the chance to work for WWE as a contracted talent, where chances are, his vastly underrated mic skills would have caught someone's eye, but it was not to be.   WWE would never call again.

That said, to WWE's credit, despite the fact that the only real contracts Brian Knighton ever signed with them were related to ECW reunion shows, they still assisted him under their Wellness Policy and sent him to rehab a number of times. Rotten would credit them for their help in getting his life together during periods he was doing better.

Rotten made one lone appearance in TNA, when Tommy Dreamer put together the Hardcore Justice show.  It was the typically frustrating weekend for friends of Brian Knighton.  He showed up on Saturday and was clean and in great spirits for a pre-show dinner party with fans.  The Knighton who showed up Sunday at the show was in another world with Balls Mahoney tasked with hiding him out of sight and trying to get him coherent.  He came out of his fog long enough to work a tag match that night but later that night, there was a lot of anger towards him by other ECW alumni for "screwing up."  When TNA quickly killed the ECW angle, Knighton's behavior was one of the things that was used as a scapegoat.

In recent years, Rotten made very rare appearances in the ring, most often appearing on ECW-related reunion style show.  He had back issues that were going to require surgery and he and friends had attempted to fundraise money for his recovery.  WWE's Chris Jericho had personally donated $10,000 to assist Rotten, who at one point, was so badly hurting, he was in a wheelchair.

Rotten had also dealt with bouts of Bell's Palsy as well. 

There were always stories of Rotten getting things together personally but just as often, stories of him being back in the thick of his personal problems would return.  It was a broken record and one that eventually overshadowed the natural talent and love for pro wrestling that he undoubtedly had.

Rotten had visited with Ian Rotten, his storyline brother, just last week, returning home to Maryland on 1/31.  On Facebook tonight, Ian wrote that he knew when Rotten left, it was going to be the last time he saw his mentor, friend and brother alive.  Sadly, he was right.

On a personal level, I dealt and spoke with Axl so many times over the last 20 years of my life that I couldn't even begin to count how many conversations we've had.  He loved pro wrestling and in most of my dealings, was extremely honest and blunt about himself as much as he was about others.  I always liked him personally and I am extremely sad for his family and friends.  I am sorry he never found the happiness and peace in life that he deserved.

While the circumstances of his death are not yet known, the fear (and in some cases, belief) among those who knew him is that it was likely drug-related as the motel he was staying at was well known locally in Baltimore as being a seedy location.  If that is indeed the case, Brian Knighton deserved better but moreso than that, his family did.

On behalf of everyone associated with, I'd to express our deepest condolences to Knighton's friends, family and fans.

Brian Knighton was only 44 years old.

12:30 AM Updates: Our initial article has been updated to reflect the following: Knighton was not found in his hotel room by authorities, but inside a McDonalds across the street from the hotel he was staying at. The initial sourcing of the story indicated Knighton was found at the hotel. We are told Knighton was initially identified because he had been staying at the hotel.   The story has also been updated to add a little more detail to Knighton's career and to include comments written by Knighton's storyline brother and one-time protege, Ian Rotten.

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