A few months ago, I blogged about the disgrace of Charlie Sheen and John Galliano, and how Two & a Half Men and Christian Dior were right to fire the men and disassociate their brands from them.
In that post, I also wrote about professional wrestler Chris Benoit who, four years ago today, committed a double murder–suicide, strangling his wife, Nancy, and their 7-year-old son using chokeholds, then killing himself using a weight machine.
At the time, the mainstream media had a field day with the tragedy, especially when it was speculated that steroids and their side-effects—specifically ’roid rage—played a role. Outspoken, right-winged commentators like Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly had no shortage of perspectives on the case, and used “expert” witnesses (some credible, like fellow World Wrestling Entertainment stars John Cena, Chris Jericho, and Bret Hart, and some not-so-credible, like former WWE wrestlers Marc Mero and Steve Blackman, who both had axes to grind with the company) and opinions to bolster their arguments that pro-wrestling is nothing but a homoerotic display of extreme violence and degradation of all that is good and right in American culture by a bunch of ’roided-up, “fake” performers.
Books such as Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror that Destroyed a Family & Crippled a Sport by Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Irv Muchnick and Greg Oliver and Matthew Randazzo V’s Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry have examined that case and divided fans on the topic.
When I originally wrote the article below for a university paper, then subsequently re-edited it for a wrestling website, I struggled to reconcile the “family man” and 20-year pro wrestling veteran that fans and co-workers loved, with the monster who orchestrated a horror weekend involving domestic violence and obvious mental illness on Benoit’s part.
“On the one hand, I felt his legacy as one of the best professional wrestlers ever to grace the squared circle shouldn’t be forgotten, however, Benoit took three lives…, sullied the reputation of professional wrestling and sparked a debate on steroids and drug testing that raged for years; the smoke of which still lingers today…
“Benoit was obviously seriously mentally ill; the (not-so-) funny thing is, his friends, family and co-workers never picked up on it.”
So, without further ado, here is a version of the article I mentioned above, originally written in 2008, with regular edits thereafter. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Over the weekend of 23rd and 24th June, 2007, the world of professional wrestling was rocked by the double murder-suicide involving World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar Chris Benoit, his wife and seven-year-old son.
Benoit was scheduled to appear at a WWE pay-per-view on the night of Sunday, 24th June, but had to return home abruptly a few days earlier, claiming that his wife, Nancy, and son, Daniel, had food poisoning. Suspicions arose when Benoit sent five odd text messages to co-workers and friends, repeatedly stating his “physical address”, which door to his suburban home was unlocked, and where his dogs were tied up. When repeated phone calls from the WWE went unanswered, and inquiries into local hospitals in the Atlanta, Georgia, area proved fruitless, WWE contacted authorities, who had a neighbour search the home, finding the bodies of Nancy, 43, and Daniel, 7. The body of Benoit, 40, was found hanging from a weight machine in his home gym.
At first it was thought the gruesome body count was the result of a triple-murder, and WWE ran a special three-hour tribute edition of their flagship show Raw, dedicated to the memory of Benoit. However, about 26 hours later news broke that it was actually Benoit who killed his family and himself. All mentions of his name were banned from WWE programming, and repeats of the tribute show were cancelled in international markets.
Doug Frattallone, a television producer, reporter and anchor, and author of the “Professor Wrestling” column on The Pittsburgh Channel website, says, “If there’s police tape around the home of one of your employees—and your employee and his family is inside, deceased—that might be a signal that there’s foul play. It’s certainly not the time to immortalise someone [with a tribute show]”.
The media, particularly in the US, had a field day with this story as more aspects of the crime came to light. Bad press has surrounded sports entertainment pretty much since its inception, and has only increased as the juggernaut that is WWE becomes more popular on a global scale. For example, when the Chris Benoit tragedy was revealed, US news programs, such as FOX’s controversial O’Reily Factor, were quick to point out that four prominent professional wrestlers had died since the book Wrestling Babylon by Irv Muchnick was published in 2007, adding to the industry’s negative profile. In the tome, Muchnick reveals 2002 and 2006 studies that focused on the premature deaths of 62 power lifters and 3, 850 National Football League (NFL) players respectively, and how the bigger men and men suspected of using steroids died at rates much higher than their non-drug-using counterparts. These findings lend themselves to the theory that Benoit committed his crimes while experiencing “’roid rage”, which I will return to later. But, Muchnick says, little attention has been paid to “the mortality rate of pro wrestlers…” because “…they’re just, you know, wrestlers”, and “are not actual human beings”.
Although not a wrestling fan at the time of Owen Hart’s death, a fatal accident that occurred during a pay-per-view where Hart was involved in an entrance via a cable from the rafters, I can only imagine the bad press generated at that time. And at the end of 2005, Eddie Guerrero, a second-generation wrestler and one of Benoit’s best friends, died of heart failure resulting from heavy drug use earlier in the wrestler’s life. This death didn’t cause as much controversy as Hart’s and Benoit’s (The Los Angeles Times newspaper dedicated almost ninety times as much info on Benoit as it did on Guerrero’s death), however there was some debate over drug use in sports entertainment once the toxicology report was released. WWE have overhauled their Wellness Policy, in which wrestlers are monitored on and penalised for drug use more stringently.
Kevin McElvaney, Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine and WrestleZone.com columnist, shares his thoughts on the Wellness Policy:
“Chris Benoit was obviously either allowed to ‘slip through the cracks’ or somehow circumvent the Wellness Policy through a loophole or with a cheating device… There was a recent change implemented in the Wellness Policy which addresses the possibility of cheating in urine tests. Wrestlers must now lift their shirts and pull their pants down to their knees while giving urine samples, while a representative of the testing team observes. Some people were probably using urine filtration devices to produce clean samples, and it’s possible that Chris Benoit did the same thing… One problem with the… policy—at least as of June 2007—was that doctors notes excused plenty of drug abuses that would otherwise have been punished…”
Fellow WrestleZone.com reporter Keelan Balderson echoes McElvaney’s concerns on the legitimacy of the program:
“…There are a few major loopholes that wouldn’t be allowed in the Olympics, for example… If you have a legitimate doctor’s prescription for a substance… it’s allowed to slide”.
Benoit had a doctor’s prescription, from the corrupt Dr. Philip Astin, who was charged with 175 counts of illegally prescribing drugs to Benoit and others, and has been sentenced to ten years imprisonment.
While I don’t believe Benoit’s actions were in any way justified, and I am disappointed that they may have jeopardised Benoit’s chance to be recognised purely for the tremendous athlete that he was, I don’t think it’s right that the WWE has ostracised one of the greatest wrestlers ever from the WWE family. “He will never be in the Hall of Fame. Vince [McMahon] said it himself: ‘you will never hear the name Chris Benoit mentioned on this show again’ (at least words to that effect)”, Balderson says.
Yes, I acknowledge that Benoit’s actions were selfish, heinous, and deplorable, but I can comprehend the desperation he felt, too. Consider the way the body of Daniel was arranged in his bed and the how killer took time to place a Bible next to each of his victims. This says more about the state of mind Benoit must have been in, and that the public shouldn’t be so quick to shun him, than if he had stabbed them to death in a violent rage. It doesn’t change the fact that three lives have been eliminated, but maybe in the future we can celebrate the life of Chris Benoit, rather than focus on the tragic circumstances surrounding his death. [Early Bird note: Four years later, I have changed my mind and I do not feel it is appropriate to "celebrate his life". But wrestling fans will always be able to separate the wrestler from the murderer in discussion and debate.]
When reading the many farewell messages on the websites of Benoit’s peers and fellow wrestlers at the time the news broke, it seemed that some of them subscribed to the above school of thought. Former WWE Champion and current commentator for the SmackDown! Brand, Booker T, said on Houston, Texas, news program KHOU:
“I feel like the human life is a delicate piece of equipment and everyone has their breaking point. We don’t know what his breaking point was… We’re all human. I just think it was a huge malfunction and whatever it was, we may never know”.
Controversial former WWE Superstar Bret Hart, brother of the late Owen Hart, was interviewed extensively in the wake of the tragedy, saying Benoit was a locker-room leader and never expressed any signs that could have signified the events that occurred. “It knocked you off your feet the second you heard it…”, Hart said, “I can’t imagine Chris killing his son…”. In fact, Hart revealed that as a child, Benoit “reminded me of my own little son…”
Rob Van Dam, a former WWE Superstar who is known for being outspoken, holds Benoit in the highest esteem:
“Chris was truly a role model’s role model. You simply had to respect him and admire his focus and unmatched discipline. If I ever got asked a question about who I looked up to the most in the business… it’s Chris Benoit—in the ring and in the dressing room and with his family”.
However, there are others who view Benoit’s actions as unthinkable. Former WWE Diva Victoria, who chose to vent her feelings on MySpace, said the murder-suicide was “selfish” and “hurtful”, fearing that the high profile of Benoit “glamorises the situation”.
And of course there’s the official statements from WWE and Vince McMahon (whose WWE character and alter-ego “Mr. McMahon” was involved in a murder angle in the weeks leading up to Benoit’s death, which was immediately abolished in light of the tragedy) who appeared on US morning show Today, and his wife and WWE CEO Linda McMahon on Good Morning America. In Vince’s interview, he said that Benoit doesn’t represent what the WWE is about (although when he was alive, many people in the company, wrestling insiders and wrestling fans would say that Benoit was exactly what the WWE was about, or should be about), and that there was “no way of telling that this man was a monster”.
The WWE knows how smart their fans are in terms of knowing what goes on outside the ring, so why not incorporate some of that into the product? As Balderson mentioned above: Chris Benoit will never be mentioned on or in WWE programming and publications again. However, to my knowledge Benoit has been mentioned twice on WWE programming since his demise [up to May 2008]: once in an onscreen address from Chairman McMahon the night after the Raw tribute show aired, saying that references to their disgraced employee will cease immediately, and during Ric Flair’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech (which has been edited out of the forthcoming WrestleMania XXIV DVD, on which the ceremony is a bonus feature). Due to the sensitive nature of the crimes it’s obvious why they haven’t been used to bolster the product.
Many are wondering what drove Benoit to murder his wife and child and take his own life over the span of three days. (Nancy was killed on Friday 22nd June, Daniel on Saturday 23rd June and finally, Benoit on Sunday 24th June, according to medical reports.) Much speculation revolved around “’roid rage”; violence stemming from the use of steroids. However, the rage usually only occurs for a few minutes after taking the drug, and with the murders taking place over three days, ’roid rage seems unlikely. Balderson says, “…There have been no studies that prove it even exists and on top of this there was method in Benoit’s actions—you can’t kill your wife, son and yourself in one quick burst of rage”. Heath McCoy, writing in Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror that Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport, agrees: “… there was much about the incident that indicated deliberation, not rage”. Contributing doctors on the case revealed that withdrawal from steroids does cause bouts of severe depression, fatigue and mood swings, which seems a more likely scenario. But the abundance of steroids found in Benoit’s possession (Dr. Astin provided the wrestler with ten months worth of steroids every few weeks), isn’t evidence to support withdrawals. Though, “to be safe, I think steroids should be treated as the cause of the problem, but so should concussions, mental health, and personal problems,” says McElvaney.
From my point of view, the factors in Benoit’s life mentioned above may have contributed to the tragedy. Benoit suffered a broken neck eleven years ago, and if he was still feeling the effects of the injury, it could have impacted tremendously on his emotional and physical wellbeing. The travelling involved with being a WWE Superstar results in being away from home for long periods of time, which can take a toll on personal relationships. Reports surfaced that Benoit and his wife Nancy fought constantly for the wellbeing of Daniel who, it was alleged, had Fragile X syndrome, a form of inherited mental retardation that can be accompanied by growth problems (Benoit had apparently been injecting his son with Human Growth Hormone [HGH] in an attempt to counteract that) and autism. Benoit may have transferred his paranoia about his own size onto his son. It took the wrestler years to break into the mainstream American market because he was “such a small man”. Bret Hart says when he met Benoit as a teen, he “remembers him looking closer to nine or ten”. Balderson explains:
“I think all smaller wrestlers deep down feel that they need to be bigger to make it [in the WWE] because that’s how Vince [McMahon] likes it… Vince continues to push wrestlers… because of their size [as opposed to actual wrestling talent], so there is an ideology that to make it in this industry you have to be big, or at least ripped for your size.”
Which Benoit was. McElvaney goes on:
“…Chris was self-conscious about his own size and, apparently, insecure about Daniel’s size. The latter is completely unjustifiable, to me. I think the fact that Chris Benoit injected his son with HGH affects my opinion of him far more than the fact that he, himself, used steroids.”
Daniel’s condition had been pretty well concealed, as McMahon, Benoit’s closest friends, and even Nancy’s parents were not aware of it (they deny that their grandson suffered from Fragile X). As stated earlier, grief over the death of friend Eddie Guerrero may have been a contributing factor to the killings, or at least Benoit’s state of mind. Greg Oliver, another author of the book Benoit, was in contact with the wrestler at the time of Guerrero’s death:
“‘… I do not believe that I will ever find someone that I will bond with and be able to understand and be understood as I was with Eddie… My wife Nancy bought me a diary and I have started to write letters to Eddie…’”
Said diary was not found by the authorities.
Also, it surfaced that Nancy filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order against her husband in 2003, signaling that perhaps domestic violence was an occurrence in the marriage. (The divorce petition and restraining order were later dropped.) It had also been speculated that Benoit was to be demoted in the WWE. Just weeks before the tragedy, it was reported on many wrestling news websites (not WWE.com) that the WWE creative team didn’t feel Benoit had a strong enough on-screen persona or microphone skills to be a top Superstar or champion. However, the pay-per-view that Benoit missed the Sunday that he died was the day that he would once again be a World Champion. Chris Jericho weighed in on this at the time on Nancy Grace:
“… He was about to become the ECW Champion… ECW is more with some younger guys that are just learning, and Chris was a great trainer and so well respected, they wanted him to be kind of more of a trainer to some of these younger guys… So to move Chris to ECW, Chris would not see that as a demotion”.
His other stint as World Heavyweight Champion was at WrestleMania 20 in 2004, where Daniel and Nancy came into the ring to celebrate with Benoit. “… A hundred years from now, at WrestleMania 120, they’ll look back and see [that] Chris Benoit made Triple H tap out at Madison Square Garden…”, Benoit has said. No, he won’t. McCoy believes what Benoit did “to drag it [wrestling] down and scandalise it in the eyes of the public would have shamed [Benoit] to the core”.
Once again, WWE’s decision to pull all mentions of Chris Benoit from their product was the socially responsible and ethical thing to do. “Future generations will never know what a great performer he was, and that’s a shame,” says Oliver. “He epitomised what professional wrestling could and should be: hard-hitting, dramatic, serious action between high-calibre, exciting athletes”.
“We can… never forget or forgive these horrible acts… And that overshadows everything else in his life. But you can’t tell the story of pro wrestling without talking about Chris Benoit,” says Jericho.
Much like you can’t tell the story of the history of the world without taking the bad with the good. And, if turning on the nightly news is anything to go by, there’s still a lot of bad.
Three years after I wrote this article (with some edits I made just now), my feelings have changed somewhat. But if reading the copious amounts of literature on the subject of Benoit and questionable behaviour in sports entertainment (some of which I’ve mentioned here and, if you have any interest in this topic whatsoever, I advise you pick up. Perhaps I could even lend you a copy ;)), professional wrestling companies aren’t completely innocent in all this. One of the sections I edited out of the piece for publication on The Early Bird was about wrestling legend Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka who, in 1983 after a domestic violence incident, was suspected of murdering his girlfriend. Yet he still appears frequently on WWE television as one of the greatest high-flying wrestlers of all time. I guess it goes to show that domestic violence, drug use and all manner of other crimes are passable in the entertainment industry (sorry to bring his name up again, but Charlie Sheen comes to mind), just as long as you’re not found guilty of murder. Then you’re really done for.
Image via Who’s Dated Who.