Almost from the moment I knew enough about pro wrestling to appreciate it for what it is, Chris Benoit was my favorite. He exemplified everything a good pro wrestler was supposed to be. He worked hard in the ring. He worked safe, rarely injuring his opponents. He worked selflessly, always tried to make the other guy look like a million bucks, because very rarely did Benoit ever have the opportunity to work with someone else as accomplished in the ring as he was. Despite a few short stints in the main event the last few years, he was never a superstar. He was never going to be a mainstream celebrity like The Rock — not pretty or witty enough. Benoit was a pro wrestler. That’s why we loved him.
Seeing him win the WWE World Heavyweight Title at WrestleMania XX was the happiest I’ve ever been as a wrestling fan. It was proof that, even in a business as twisted and amoral as pro wrestling, hard work and dedication to one’s craft could pay off. Now I wonder if Chris and his family wouldn’t have been better off if it had never happened.
On Friday, according to the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, Chris Benoit strangled his wife Nancy to death in their home in Fayetteville, Georgia. At some point on Saturday, Benoit smothered his 7-year-old son Daniel to death, then called to inform WWE that he would not be at Sunday’s Vengeance pay-per-view event in Houston as scheduled, for “personal reasons.” On Sunday, Benoit hanged himself in his weight room. Responding to the concerns of friends and family members who had received odd text messages from Benoit on Sunday, Fayette County Sheriff’s deputies entered the Benoit home yesterday afternoon and found all three dead from asphyxiation. Nancy Daus Benoit was discovered bound at the hands and feet. Bibles had been placed near the bodies of both Nancy and Daniel. Police found prescription steroids in the house, and are investigating whether steroid-induced anger or paranoia may have contributed.
We’ll probably never know what was going on in Chris Benoit’s mind this weekend, what drove him to murder his own wife and young son, what drove him to hang himself with the pulley cord of his weight machine. Pro wrestling is unique among sports and scripted entertainment; even in today’s “smart” environment, when fans are in on the joke and promotions no longer pretend to the outside world that their matches are legitimate athletic contests, wrestlers tend to live their gimmicks. Watching every film Tom Hanks has ever made might not tell you a single thing about the real man, but watching Chris Benoit in the ring gave us some insight, we thought, into the real man. As a fan, I felt like I knew Chris Benoit, at least a little. Apparently I didn’t know him nearly as well as I thought.
The rate of premature deaths among pro wrestlers is alarmingly high. At the end of WrestleMania XX, after Chris Benoit had won his first (and now only) WWE World Title, his best friend and fellow wrestling legend Eddie Guerrero joined him to celebrate in the ring. Seeing the two of them, my two favorite wrestlers, in the ring together to conclude WrestleMania was the closest to euphoria pro wrestling has ever taken me. It is just over three years later and both men are dead, Guerrero from drug-induced heart failure in November 2005. Shayne Bower, who wrestled as Beef Wellington and was a frequent tag team partner of Benoit in Canada and Japan early in their careers, was found dead from a heart attack on June 24, a day before the Benoit tragedy was discovered.
Most deaths are due to drug use (particularly steroids and addiction to painkillers) or health issues (heart disease linked to obesity), some due to in- or near-ring accidents (Owen Hart’s fall from the top of the Kemper Arena in 1999 is still the most unforgettable example). A few, most notably Dino Bravo and Bruiser Brody, have been murdered, and a depressingly large number have committed suicide. Something is horribly wrong with an industry that sends so many of its workers to such early graves. Is it the permissive attitude toward drug use? Is it the pressure to perform consistently at a high level night after night? Is it the inherent and nearly unceasing violence of wrestling programming? I have no idea. But someone in authority should look into it. This time it was not just a wrestler who died before his time, but his wife and child as well.
Pro wrestling fans are sadly accustomed to hearing the news that another wrestler has died. But I can’t think of another wrestling-related death as bizarre, shocking, or heartbreaking as the murder-suicide of Nancy, Daniel and Chris Benoit. It will haunt wrestlers and fans for years to come. A man who should have been remembered for his outstanding work in the ring will now be remembered as the man who murdered his family before killing himself, for God only knows what reason.
For more, check out this story at SI.com.