The Chris Benoit Story: 10 Years On
“We will offer you some of the most memorable moments in Chris’s professional life, and you’ll hear tonight comments from his peers. Those here, his fellow performers, those here who loved Chris and admired him so much.
So tonight will be a three-hour tribute to one of the greatest WWE superstars of all time. Tonight will be a tribute to Chris Benoit.”
Vince McMahon, speaking at the opening of WWE Raw on 25 June 2007
“Last night on Monday Night Raw, the WWE presented a special tribute show, recognising the career of Chris Benoit. However now, some twenty-six hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent. Therefore, other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr Benoit’s name tonight.”
Vince McMahon, speaking at the opening of WWE Extreme Championship Wrestling on 26 June 2007
2004: Wrestlemania XX
“This sold out crowd at Madison Square has erupted! Chris Benoit’s eighteen-year odyssey has culminated by winning the world heavyweight title at Wrestlemania Twenty!”
Benoit, so many times, has been so close, year after year, mile after mile, continent after continent, but Benoit never gave up. He never gave up. And Benoit has done it. Benoit is living his dream, finally. Finally, by god, finally, Benoit has become the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Jim Ross, commentator at Wrestlemania XX, 2004
If you’d asked wrestling fans at any point during the previous year or decade if they thought Chris Benoit would win the World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestlemania, they’d probably have laughed at you. Even though he was widely agreed to be the finest wrestler on the planet, it was unthinkable.
Wrestlemania is ‘the granddaddy of them all’ in wrestling. Even if you know nothing else about wrestling, the chances are that you’ve heard the name before. Being in the main event of Wrestlemania isn’t something many wrestlers get to do. It was the biggest match on the biggest show of the year in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. It was the twentieth anniversary show, hailing from Madison Square Garden — sacred ground for wrestling fans. And Chris Benoit just didn’t fit in the main event. Everyone knew it.
The wrestlers that got ‘the big push’ were usually enormous, muscular superheroes, huge characters or flamboyant performers. They could engage audiences with their charisma and appearance, along with their abilities on the microphone to talk people into paying to watch the next big show.
Chris Benoit, on the other hand, had once been referred to as a ‘vanilla midget’. Although undeniably muscular, he wasn’t a flashy character. He wasn’t flamboyant. And his abilities on the microphone could be best described as ‘they don’t let him talk on the microphone very often”.
If you were to compare him to an actor, it would probably be Philip Seymour Hoffman. A great and talented actor, but not the one that movie studios would likely regard as a box-office attraction. But if you ask movie fans which actors they really loved, his name would turn up a lot more than the studios might expect.
So when he was booked to wrestle Hunter Hearst Helmsley (better known as ‘Triple H’) in the main event at Wrestlemania XX, most fans assumed he’d lose. When Triple H’s arch-nemesis, Shawn Michaels, was added to make it a ‘Triple Threat’, where the first person to beat someone else won the match, fans were now certain he wouldn’t win. Triple H and Shawn Michaels were the golden children of WWE. Benoit was clearly just there to make it a better match.
So it was an emotional moment when he won. And was then joined in the ring by his closest friend and fellow ‘vanilla midget’, Eddie Guerrero, who had successfully defended another championship earlier in the night. Confetti fell from the ceiling as the two men embraced and celebrated together.
It was one of the great Wrestlemania moments. The two underdogs celebrating at the big one. It’s the kind of moment WWE use in video packages everywhere. But instead, it’s virtually banned footage. WWE will not show it any more.
Because on 22 June 2007, Chris Benoit murdered his wife Nancy. The next morning, he killed their seven-year-old son Daniel. The day after that, he killed himself.
The making of Chris Benoit
When Jim Ross described ‘mile after mile, continent after continent’, it was a fair summation of Chris Benoit’s career. He’d worked all over the world in a way that many wrestlers today just don’t get the opportunity to do.
At the time Benoit broke into the business properly, there were still remnants of the ‘territory’ system — the loose coalition of smaller wrestling organisations that worked together. It had been almost entirely killed off by Vince McMahon’s nation-wide ‘World Wrestling Federation’ (also known as the WWF and nowadays ‘WWE’ for ‘World Wrestling Entertainment’). The biggest competitor to McMahon was ‘World Championship Wrestling’ (WCW), which had formed out of the regional ‘Jim Crockett Promotions’. While there were (and are) still smaller organisations around, they were struggling.
Benoit had first made a name for himself in ‘Stampede Wrestling’ in Calgary, Canada — Stampede was well-regarded amongst fans, not least because of the close associations with the Hart family, who are close to royalty amongst wrestling purists. And even though he was small by wrestling standards, and lacked charisma, Benoit showed a lot of promise in terms of ability, even at a young age.
It’s important to understand what ‘wrestling ability’ actually means. It doesn’t mean someone who can beat anyone else — it’s about being able to have believable matches that tell a good story. If you can have a good match with anyone, that means that the ‘money’ wrestlers are more likely to look good by having a match with you. The best wrestlers can make their opponents look as good as they are. So if you can do that, you’re a valuable commodity.
When Stampede closed its doors in 1989 (sold to McMahon), Benoit travelled to Japan to train and wrestle. The Japanese wrestling dojos are notoriously tough, with a focus on humility and respect. Benoit was assigned to scrub floors and work as part of the ring crew (putting up the ring itself) for months before he was allowed to wrestle.
However, once he did, he quickly rose through the ranks. Wrestling under a mask as ‘The Pegasus Kid’, he won multiple championships. He also wrestled around the world, first as ‘The Pegasus Kid’ and then, when he lost the mask as the result of a match, as ‘Wild Pegasus, Chris Benoit’. His work in Japan, Europe and Mexico meant that he was already becoming known to the more knowledgeable of wrestling fans in America.
After a handful of matches in WCW, Benoit made his mark in ‘Extreme Championship Wrestling’. This was a Philadelphia promotion that had gained a reputation for being for the ‘true’ fans of wrestling. It was more adult-edged, with more violence and scantily clad women than the family-friendly WWF or WCW. But as much as ECW fans lapped that up, they also knew their wrestling, so good wrestlers were treated with enthusiastic respect.
Benoit was in his element and, for the first time, was booked as a main event contender. He was even helped by an unfortunate incident where he was involved in a match with a wrestler called ‘Sabu’, who landed badly on his head and broke his neck (although recovered and continued to wrestle the following year). As he’d already gained the nickname ‘The Crippler’, the moniker was played up as if the accident was intentional. In reality, Benoit was devastated to have been part of the injury.
Although his run in ECW was well-regarded, Benoit was offered a multi-year deal to work for WCW. He accepted, although he would no longer be the big fish in the small pond. In WCW, Benoit was further down the card, there for the most part to have good matches with people.
This doesn’t mean he was a ‘jobber’ (a wrestler who always loses). He was part of the legendary ‘Four Horsemen’ group of wrestlers with ‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair. And he was the centrepiece of a feud with ‘the Taskmaster’ Kevin Sullivan, who was reasonably high in the card, despite a silly gimmick as the leader of the ‘Dungeon of Doom’, a stable of goofy monster wrestlers.
Benoit’s feud with Sullivan had unexpected real-life consequences. In the storyline, Benoit started an affair with Sullivan’s wife, ‘Woman’. She was Sullivan’s wife both in storyline and in real-life — Nancy Sullivan, formerly Nancy Toffoloni.
Since wrestling, at the time, was less open about its scripted nature, wrestlers were expected to keep up appearances while travelling to and from shows. It was, for example, a major story when wrestlers like the Iron Sheik and ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan had been arrested for drug possession while sharing a car. The main reason for the story wasn’t that Sheiky and Duggy had been using drugs — it was that Duggan was a good guy ‘face’ and Sheik was a bad guy ‘heel’. Exposing the business was a big no-no.
So when Chris Benoit and Nancy Sullivan were booked to have a relationship with each other, they were expected to travel together and share hotel rooms in order to keep up appearances while travelling to and from shows. Almost inevitably, this ended up in them actually having an affair, with Nancy finally leaving Kevin for Chris.
Wrestling being a very strange business, this real-life situation was further used to build up the feud between Sullivan and Benoit. And although Benoit acknowledged Sullivan had never actually taken any liberties with him, either in the ring or outside of it (Sullivan was a ‘booker’, which is effectively a writer, who could decide which wrestlers would be ‘pushed’ or not), he believed Sullivan hated him and would try to damage his career. Benoit won the storyline match and Sullivan retired to focus on booking.
Meanwhile, Nancy and Chris got engaged.
Nancy had been part of the wrestling industry for years, although it doesn’t seem like it was something she’d dreamed of. She’d met Kevin Sullivan while modelling with him for a wrestling photoshoot. Being beautiful and showing a lot of personality, Sullivan thought she could be a good addition to his Florida-based act at the time — the ‘Satanic Family’. After some convincing, she agreed, and became the ‘Fallen Angel’ character who accompanied Sullivan’s group to the ring. They married soon afterwards.
When Sullivan joined WCW, the now Nancy Sullivan went too. She was given a new character and story, where she played a shy, geeky fan of a wrestler called Rick Steiner, sitting in the front row for his matches. He eventually asked her on a date, where she was given a sexy makeover (wrestling stories have never been the most subtle). Alas for Steiner, it was all a trap — she was the bait to lure him into an attack by Kevin Sullivan’s new group. Shedding her innocent guise, she continued to accompany Sullivan to the ring, now named simply ‘Woman’.
Like Benoit, she also spent time in ECW, having followed Sullivan there too. She also managed other wrestlers, where she took part in some controversial storylines. She was given more to do in ECW and gained her own following. After going back to WCW and the ‘Benoit affair’ storyline, she retired from the wrestling world when she divorced Kevin Sullivan.
Her and Benoit married not long after. She supported his career, turning up once or twice on camera as herself, cheering him on. And they seemed mostly happy, especially after Nancy gave birth to their son, Daniel, in 2000. But things clearly weren’t easy. In 2003, she petitioned for divorce, although withdrew it. She also took out a protection order a while later, because of domestic violence. She also withdrew that.
Benoit as a main-eventer
Benoit’s popularity continued to rise in WCW over the next few years. He became the most dependable wrestler on the roster, capable of having a good match with just about anyone. His run with Booker T was particularly well regarded, but it was his matches with Bret Hart that really cemented him on the top.
Few wrestlers have ever been respected within the industry to the level of Bret Hart. Similar to Benoit, he was not the flashiest or the most charismatic, but his ability was so strong, fans came to love him. Following one of the best years of his career in 1997 (including a sensational match with Stone Cold Steve Austin, which I wrote about here), he’d left the WWF to join WCW. He floundered a little in WCW, who didn’t know how to make the most of him, before taking a leave of absence following the death of his brother.
Bret’s brother (Owen) had died as the result of a stunt gone wrong in the WWF. He had been intended to rappel down from the top of the building, before falling the last few feet, in a moment of physical comedy. Sadly, the buckle that connected him to the safety cable came loose and he fell to his death in front of thousands of fans. Bret was devastated. Eventually, he returned to the ring to wrestle a tribute match to Owen — and he chose to wrestle Chris Benoit.
This was an endorsement that was not lost on either other wrestlers or fans. It was an enormous gesture of trust and respect from Hart. The two had a strong, emotional match — one of Hart’s best in WCW. From this point on, Benoit was closer to the main event level than he had ever been. A later match between Benoit and Hart actually gained mainstream exposure, as one of the montage of clips shown in the opening credits of ‘Malcolm in the Middle’.
Benoit was frustrated and unhappy working in WCW, though. By 2000, he wasn’t the only one — the management of the organisation was becoming more erratic. The final straw came when Kevin Sullivan was promoted to head booker. Despite Sullivan’s promises to be fair, Benoit felt he would be sabotaged if he stayed, so along with four colleagues, (including Eddie Guerrero, a name that will quickly become important in this story), he handed in his resignation.
By this time, WCW was desperate not to lose talent, so tried to keep Benoit on board. He was booked to become WCW champion the following week, which actually happened. Benoit held the title, despite planning to leave the following day. When it became clear that he had no intention of staying and had actually signed with Vince McMahon’s WWF, WCW reversed the decision (under the technicality that Benoit’s opponent had his foot under the ropes when he submitted). Benoit, Guerrero and others were gone. WCW went out of business the following year.
There were possible signs around this time that Benoit had issues that had not been fully recognised. Out-of-character interviews with wrestlers and people in the wrestling business are often to be taken with a pinch of salt — just look at the long list of incredible lies by Hulk Hogan catalogued by Stuart Millard. And this is an unverified story from a sole eye-witness, former WCW employee Chad Damiani, told after Benoit’s death. However, it’s notable that this story has done the rounds amongst wrestling fans and wrestlers, and nobody has said that it sounds out-of-character for Benoit.
‘…they talked about how they all knew Sullivan was going to screw the hell out of Benoit and make a fool out of him. Benoit then said something with absolute finality that ended the conversation and all the speculation. He said ‘If they tell me to do something I don’t want to do, I’m going to walk out on live TV and punch a ringpost and shatter my hand. Then I’m going to punch the ringpost with my other hand and shatter it too. Then I’m going to walk backstage, go to the hospital and sit out while I recover.’ Everyone just sat there watching him because they knew he was dead serious. Benoit was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a bullshitter. Everyone there believed him like he had just said the most natural thing in the world.’
The big jump
The night when Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn turned up in the WWF was one of the most memorable moments in a year when the WWF was on absolute fire. Although he was yet to break Hollywood, The Rock was already the biggest wrestler in the US, Triple H had become a workhorse who never had a bad match, and Stone Cold Steve Austin was about to return from injury.
The company was making more money than it had in the days of Hulkamania. In fact, it was making so much money that Vince McMahon had used it to fund an attempted rival to the National Football League with his ‘XFL’ — an extreme, ‘smashmouth’ football league, which turned out to be unsustainable.
So the injection of four new wrestlers, all of whom were respected by the fans, and all of whom now had fresh matches to be had with everybody, was cause for huge excitement. They freshened up the roster, particularly Benoit and Guerrero.
Benoit’s best friend for years, Eddie Guerrero was a Mexican ‘luchador’. Of similar height and build to Benoit, Guerrero was also fiercely charismatic — capable of spinning on a dime from intensity to hilarity. His sleazy, womanising ‘Latino Heat’ character was often genuinely funny. Even when he broke his arm in his first match in the WWF, his character was so strong that being unable to wrestle didn’t really hurt him.
Meanwhile, Benoit’s ability to have great matches with anyone was put to good use. He was now a fixture near the top of the shows and occasionally in the main event, having great matches with the WWF’s best.
Now no longer in the younger half of the locker room, Benoit became a ‘locker room leader’ — someone who the younger wrestlers looked up to, learned from and listened to. It was also a role that often involved hazing wrestlers who were perceived as disrespectful, forcing them to go through training until they were physically sick, or ‘chopping’ (slapping) them in the chest repeatedly, sometimes until they bled.
While stories like these were often related at the time as harmless fun, or even something to be respected, they are strange in hindsight. They combine Benoit’s passion for the business with a cruel streak — he was known as a tough guy in an industry that has a potent and toxic mixture of masculinity, ego and insecurity.
Benoit was becoming more popular with fans, but had to spend a year recuperating after a broken neck. While this meant a year out during a lucrative time, he and Nancy now had a one-year-old son, Daniel, which meant Chris was able to spend time with him in his first years — a rarity for wrestlers, who usually spend so much of their life travelling from venue to venue.
He returned, seemingly without missing a beat. He and Guerrero (who had been fired and rehired following addiction issues) were both in the form of their lives. Both were also notably more muscular than in the past, supposedly purely through working out while recovering. This made them both slightly less mobile, but their matches were so good, it didn’t really matter.
By 2003, both men were floating around the midcard and towards the top of the show, but never had the momentum to make them true main-eventers. This was usually reserved for the larger or more charismatic performers.
So it was a pleasant surprise for fans when both men were given ‘the big push’ in the lead-up to Wrestlemania XX in 2004. They were given the top two belts and storylines about underdogs who had never been given the chance to win the big one. By the time both won their titles, it was a rare thing in wrestling — one of those perfect moments as they embraced and celebrated in the ring together in a blizzard of confetti. On the DVD that was later released, more of the celebration was shown. Benoit was joined in the ring by Nancy Benoit and his two sons (Chris and Nancy’s son Daniel and David, Benoit’s son by a previous marriage). It is now strange footage to watch.
Guerrero and Benoit both struggled in the main event position, though. It appeared to be too much stress for Eddie, who seemed relieved to lose the title to ‘JBL’, a friend of his. While the WWE (having now changed names from the WWF) were happy to use his past addictions as storyline fodder, there was genuine concern about stress causing him to relapse. Instead, they played it safe.
Benoit, meanwhile, had a run with the title which involved some excellent matches, but was never really the focus of the show in the way it was with more established headliners. Which was a shame, because being champion seemed to genuinely mean a lot to Benoit.
Both remained around the top of the card, and more of a feature attraction than they had been previously. And, as ever, Benoit’s matches were consistently well regarded. But in 2005, everything changed when Eddie Guerrero suddenly died.
Eddie Guerrero’s Death
Eddie Guerrero was found in his hotel room by his nephew, Chavo. His death was caused by heart complications, a sentence written too many times about dead wrestlers. Years of painkiller abuse, testosterone steroids and the stress of constant travel and physical injuries take their toll, leading to a death rate amongst wrestlers that is truly astonishing.
Eddie’s death was felt particularly acutely, not least because he was aged just 38. He was well-liked and popular, and seemed to be at his absolute peak as a performer. After the stress of being champion the previous year, he seemed about to get a second chance which he seemed far better prepared for.
The regular storylines of WWE Raw were put on hold for a night, and the show was turned into a tribute for him. The ring bell was tolled ten times during a minute’s silence. Clips from a recent DVD telling his life story (Cheating Death, Stealing Life: The Eddie Guerrero Story) were interspersed with feel-good matches and clips from wrestlers talking about their love and admiration for him. A small studio had been set up, with wrestlers encouraged to speak openly and out of character.
Despite his reputation for stoicism, Benoit was clearly emotionally wrought. The two had been close friends for years and he was heartbroken. They had worked in ECW together, WCW together, Japan and Mexico together… and the year before, they’d celebrated in the main event of Wrestleamania XX together. He started off speaking quietly and in a measured way, before breaking down and weeping openly.
“Y’know, he was the one friend that I had that I could go to and pour my heart out to if I was going through something, if I had a personal issue, a personal problem, he was the one guy that I could call and, and talk to and, y’know, that he would understand and he would talk me out of it, y’know, because of all the experiences that he’d been through….
“We never left each other without telling each other that we loved each other. And I truly can say that I love Eddie Guerrero. He’s a man that I can say I love, and I love his family, and my heart, and my thoughts and my prayers go out to his wife Vickie, (and his children) Shaul, Sherelyn and Kayleigh. I can’t imagine the sorrow that they’re going through right now and, and the emotions that they’re feeling… Eddie, you made such a great impression on my life, and I want to thank you for everything you’ve ever given me. And I want to thank you from my heart, and tell you that I love you and I’ll never forget you. And we will see each other again. I love you, Eddie.”
A year and a half later, the same format would be used in a tribute show to Chris Benoit.
Three days in the Benoit home
Following Eddie Guerrero’s death, Benoit was slowly moved down the ladder in WWE. While he seemed to accept that, he wasn’t necessarily happy. According to Nancy Benoit’s sister, Chris had become paranoid, convinced he was being followed. He would plot out multiple routes to the gym and was very careful about sharing information. He appears to have kept this hidden from his co-workers for the most part though.
However, it was clear he struggled at times. Chris Jericho, a fellow wrestler and friend, talked about having had a match that had gone well, except for one small moment, where the two had miscommunicated and a kick had gone wrong. Benoit was embarrassed, and Jericho found him later in the corner of a boiler room visibly upset. Saying he’d have to do squats to ease his mind, and Jericho joining in, he did 500 squats in a row. At a time when most wrestlers were switching off for the night.
While Eddie Guerrero had struggled immediately with the pressure and fame of being a champion, Benoit may have also struggled with it longer term. His mental health by this point in time does seem to have been degrading, if reports are to be believed.
By 2007, WWE had separated its roster into three distinct shows — RAW, Smackdown and ECW (McMahon had bought out ECW when it went bust in 2001, using the name and elements of the style for a new show). Benoit was drafted to ECW, where he would be the veteran of the group, helping younger wrestlers to find their feet.
While he would once again be the big fish in the small pond, it’s entirely possible that it felt like a demotion. However, he was booked to face up-and-comer CM Punk in a match for the vacant ECW championship at a pay-per-view show called ‘Vengeance: Night of Champions’. The match never happened. CM Punk faced a replacement wrestler, Johnny Nitro instead.
The night before, Benoit had been due to take part in a house show (an untelevised show, which WWE regularly run between TV shows), but called to say that his son was vomiting, and that he and his wife were taking him to the hospital. Later, he told another wrestler that Nancy was vomiting blood and Daniel was also sick. He told both that he expected to make the pay-per-view, but he didn’t turn up.
In the early hours of the following morning, he sent five texts from both his and Nancy’s phone to some of his closer friends in the business. The first (which he sent to four people, including Chavo Guerrero) read “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayeteville Georgia. 30215”. The other said “The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open”.
Some WWE employees who lived near him attempted to visit him to check he was okay, but couldn’t get in. The following day, the police gained entry. They found the bodies of the Benoit family inside.
Nancy had been tied up and strangled with a cord. A bible had been placed at her side. The police later determined that she’d died first, on the Friday night.
The body of seven-year-old Daniel was found in his bed, where there were posters of his dad on the wall. He appeared to have been killed the following morning. He had bruises around his neck and arms, which confused the mortician until he saw footage of Benoit’s wrestling hold, the ‘crippler crossface’. It appeared Benoit had performed a version of the move on his son to kill him while he slept. Another bible had been placed by his side.
Chris Benoit’s body was found in his gym, sitting upright on his weights bench. After spending two days in the house with his dead wife and son, he killed himself on the Sunday. He had used his gym equipment to strangle himself, wrapping a towelled metal cord around his neck and then adding dumbells to the weights on the other side of the pulley. A third bible was nearby, with a suicide note in it, in which he said that he had ‘prepared to leave this world’.
As with any investigation, the information that was released was limited at first. On the Monday, the news broke that the family had been found dead. Oddly, Benoit’s Wikipedia entry had been updated the previous night to say that he no-showed the pay-per-view due to the death of his wife — this later turned out to be a serial Wikipedia prankster who had coincidentally got it right.
Wrestlers and fans, unaware of the situation, were grief-stricken. Benoit had been adored. While people tried to work out what had happened, the excuses Benoit had made confused things. Theories included the theory that they had died through either food-poisoning or a gas-leak.
On the Monday, following the precedent set by Eddie Guerrero’s death the previous year, WWE ran a tribute show to Benoit. Clips from his own DVD (Hard Knocks: The Chris Benoit Story) were shown, interspersed with tributes from wrestlers.
The two most notable were:
Adam ‘Edge’ Copeland — a younger wrestler who’d idolised Benoit, and gone to him for advice for his own neck injury. The points to specifically note are how he talks about how much he envied Benoit’s relationship with Daniel, and also how he says Chris “would have been hot at me for crying, but I can’t help it… I just love that guy.”
William Regal — a British wrestler, who had gone through his own battles with addiction and injury. Not long before, his career had fallen by the wayside. But he’d cleaned himself up, and it was a barnstormer of a match with Benoit at a charity show that got him back on good terms with WWE. But he seemed very hesitant to speak, and kept his remarks purely professional, rather than talking about Benoit as a person. Many believe that he already suspected Chris had murdered Nancy and Daniel. “At a later date, I’ll be quite happy to sit here and tell you all the things about Chris Benoit that I’d like to tell you. But now, all I’m willing to say is that Chris Benoit was undoubtedly the hardest working man in professional wrestling — the most dedicated and totally absorbed in the business of professional wrestling… of anybody I’ve ever met. And that’s all I’ve really got to say at the moment. He was the absolute best.”
During the broadcast of the three-hour show, the news broke officially that Benoit was believed to have killed Nancy and Daniel. But with it being live TV and no way to really change course without broadcasting dead air for another hour, they continued with the show.
The following night, McMahon opened the ECW TV show with a short statement, distancing WWE from Chris Benoit, vowing his name would never be broadcast again.
What happened next
This was a huge news story, as after people like OJ Simpson and Phil Spector, Chris Benoit was one of the most famous people to have ever become a murderer. WWE understandably, went into damage control mode. Early theories were that Benoit had killed Nancy and Daniel in a fit of ‘roid-rage’ — a term used to describe the bouts of anger and depression that were often a side-effect of steroid abuse.
This was partly because Benoit had particularly high levels of testosterone, which he had been injecting with a doctor’s prescription. McMahon having battled a steroids scandal a decade previously, a new drugs scandal would not be good news for WWE. A number of wrestlers were on news and talk shows, explaining (sometimes aggressively) how steroid use was a thing of the past.
However, this was just the beginning of a bad run of publicity for WWE in connection with steroids. Shortly after Benoit’s death, a company called ‘Signature Pharmacy’ was raided while investigating his steroid use, and was found to have supplied a huge number of wrestlers with prescriptions for steroids and painkillers upon request. This was despite WWE having brought in a ‘wellness policy’ to help treat addiction following Guerrero’s death the previous year.
The main reason for this is that wrestling was still an enormously cosmetic industry. Having the right look could make the difference in terms of where you were on the card and how much you were paid. Even those who had recovered from addiction issues continued with at least occasional use of illegal steroids and testosterone. William Regal explained in an interview that “My steroid use used to coincide with me getting my publicity photographs taken. I started taking steroids to get a certain look. Remember, a lot of our fans want that superhero look.”
This led to WWE taking more action with its wellness policy, actually beginning to take it more seriously, partly to avoid more thorough investigation and regulation.
Were concussions to blame?
One consequence of Benoit’s death has had some positive effects — the research into the damage multiple concussions can have on the brain. This was due to the work of Chris Nowinski.
Nowinski was a wrestler that had to retire at the age of just 26, due to post-concussion syndrome. This had ended the career of Bret Hart back in WCW as well, but it was a shock when it happened to someone so young. He continued to wrestle for a year after being diagnosed, but couldn’t take it anymore.
He started researching head injuries, literally writing the book on it. His own concussions had happened as a result of both his football career and wrestling, where moves that impacted the head were common. And concussions were a problem, but not generally taken seriously.
A measure of how seriously they weren’t taken can be seen in the prevalence of ‘chairshots’ to the head, where a folded metal chair (or other weapons) were slammed into other wrestlers’ heads. Being able to take serious chairshots was seen as a point of pride for some, leaving chairs dented and battered on a regular basis. And fans expected it — the noise, the damage… sometimes, in fact, wrestlers taking lighter chairshots or avoiding chairshots to the head would be mocked online or even in person. A weak chairshot could even be booed.
The problem was that the chairs were actually metal chairs. They weren’t rigged. At most, they may be relatively thin in terms of the metal, but it was still metal being slammed into foreheads. And that’s without taking into account the amount of regular bumps wrestlers took to the head, when they were slammed on the mat, fell or dove out of the ring. Even on a small level, the amount of damage was potentially enormous.
Benoit took a lot of bumps to the head. One of his most famous moves was a diving headbutt, where he’d throw himself off the rope, landing chest-first on the ring canvas, under which is what can probably best be described as a trampoline if the middle of it was made out of wood. He did that move in every match. Off top ropes and sometimes even off cages and off ladders.
He also took a fair amount of chairshots, dives and moves that landed him on his head. It was even pointed out by Nowinski that Benoit had, at least once, willingly taken a chairshot to the back of the head, where he was totally unable to protect himself in any way. And that was just the planned stuff. In wrestling, things can go wrong as well.
Nowinski, who had now started to make connections between repeated concussions and mental health problems in football, requested that Benoit’s brain was studied after his death, and his father agreed to let his brain be used. The examination reported that Benoit’s brain could be compared to an 80-year-old suffering from dementia (in terms of physical damage, not in terms of mental ability).
The publicity that this generated helped Nowinski set up the Sports Legacy Institute, which is now the Concussion Legacy Foundation. More research continues to be done into the damage done by concussions.
However, this is not without its controversy. It has been suggested by some (including Nancy’s family and WWE) that this was on some levels an excuse for Benoit’s actions — a way of suggesting it wasn’t his fault, that his father in particular may want to cling to.
In the tribute episode of Raw, one thing that people repeatedly say is that Benoit wasn’t an emotional guy. He was hard to know and didn’t make friends easily. But at the same time, the stories of his intensely emotional nature have also come out, and the footage of him breaking down into tears while talking about his love for Eddie Guerrero suggest a man who was far from unemotional.
But wrestling, and a lot of wider society, has had a tendency to value stoicism. To value not showing emotions. To see difficulty in coping, or needing help, as a weakness. Enough of society has an insecure relationship with ‘machismo’ and some find it easier to come across as a ‘tough son-of-a-bitch’ than to be able to ask for help. And there may have been a fear that offering help would be seen as an accusation of weakness as well.
Realistically, it’s now impossible to know exactly why it happened. Benoit may have had a psychotic break as either a part of, or consequence of, long-term depression or other mental health problems. These may have been exacerbated by concussion issues and/or steroid usage, or it may have been purely due to one or either of them. It may have happened because of simple anger or hatred. It may have happened out of nowhere. All we have is speculation.
The ’legacy’ of Chris Benoit
When the news broke, fans were in shock. Benoit was beloved and there had been a lot of grief when he died. The internet being what it is, some wrestling internet forums still have threads available to read, records of live updates as fans hear about the news, mourn the deaths and then are left reeling by the news of Benoit being the culprit rather than a victim.
When it was revealed that he’d murdered Nancy and Daniel, some couldn’t believe it. Not just in a ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ wrestling way, Benoit was a hero to many. With hard work and a humble nature, he’d become famous, respected and married one of the most beautiful women in wrestling. It was, for some, unthinkable that he could have done this — he was too much of a role model. Good people just didn’t do things like that.
There were immediately theories that Benoit had been framed by an intruder, who had killed Nancy while Chris was out, and then forcing Benoit to kill himself. Or perhaps, it had even been Nancy’s former husband, the evil Taskmaster Kevin Sullivan. For some, that made more sense than the idea that Benoit could have done something so evil.
This was, for the most part, mercifully brief (and, to be fair to most fans, the rarity rather than the rule). There was anger, there was confusion and there was sorrow. Then there was a division amongst fans — was it possible to separate Benoit the wrestler from Benoit the murderer?
The Wrestling Observer (a weekly newsletter written by Dave Meltzer, who may actually be the most prolific and accomplished sports journalist ever, according to the New York Times) has a ‘hall of fame’, which fans vote on each year. It’s not easy to get into and turned out to be even harder to get out of. Meltzer put up a vote as to whether Benoit should remain in the hall of fame or be cast out. It needed a 60% consensus to remove him — which it almost reached, but not quite. Benoit remains in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame to this day. Some see it as an injustice that Benoit isn’t in the WWE’s hall of fame (the annual induction they run at Wrestlemania), but most realise that it’s impossible.
One person who appears to think otherwise is Benoit’s son from his previous marriage, David. Far from turning his back on wrestling, David has embraced both it and his father’s career. His twitter feed shows how proud he is to be the son of Chris Benoit, and he seems determined to follow in Chris’s footsteps and make it as a professional wrestler as well.
A sad and sordid story that happened not long after the deaths was that Hustler magazine published nude photos that Nancy had posed for in her twenties. The front cover included the wording “Chris Benoit’s Murdered Wife Nude”. The Toffoloni family took them to court, citing an invasion of privacy and publicly proclaiming that publisher Larry Flynt was clearly trying to cash in on a tragedy. They lost the case, as the pictures were seen to be separate to the incident that had happened.
Meanwhile, Vince McMahon was mostly true to his word. Benoit has never been shown on WWE programming since. At most, his name has been perfunctorily mentioned in some of their books and magazines, when writing a history of the title or Wrestlemania. When DVDs of various wrestlers histories were released that involved matches Benoit was in, they were kept to matches with multiple participants. Close-ups of Benoit were removed, as was commentary praising him.
When WWE launched their network (an online app, with all the pay-per-views from WWE, WCW, ECW and more, along with years of weekly TV shows and more), a selling point was that the complete nature of the footage. So they felt that they couldn’t leave out Benoit — he was too prolific and a part of too many shows. Instead, they made it difficult to find him. His name isn’t on the search function. He’s not used as a selling point for any of the matches.
Benoit hasn’t been completely removed from ‘official’ wrestling history. But in as many practical senses as possible, he’s become ignored and forgotten.
Fans tend not to talk about him. Speaking on a personal level, there’s a simple reason for this. No matter how much of a hero he was, how much of a role model he was, how much I admired his work ethic and talent, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Chris Benoit is very simple and it overshadows everything else.
He murdered his wife and child.
That’s his legacy.