Excerpted and adapted from The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling (Gotham Books). For the Dead Wrestler of the Week archive, click here.
The first thing you need to know is that Chris Benoit doesn't exist. That's what WWE would have you believe, anyway. His matches are scrubbed from DVDs, his name largely whitewashed from the WWE record books, despite the fact that he's a five-time U.S. champion, a "triple crown" champion. (Meaning that at various times he held the primary title, a secondary title—Intercontinental or U.S. championships—and tag-team titles.) He was WCW champion and WWE world heavyweight champion, and was slated to become the champ of the WWE-owned ECW brand, but that never happened, because—well, we'll get to that later. The important thing is that he's WWE's forgotten man; the only evidence of his existence are old VHS tapes at yard sales, old wrestling magazines at flea markets, and "out of stock" DVD listings on Amazon.
The thing you always hear about Chris Benoit's childhood is that he idolized Tom Billington, the Dynamite Kid. That automatically puts him squarely within a unique quadrant of fandom; most kids of his generation would have hewed toward the Dynamite Kid's tag-team partner, Davey Boy Smith, the taller, better-looking, brawnier of the two—and the one, not coincidentally, who went on to a high-profile career in America as a singles wrestler. The Dynamite Kid was little, particularly for the strictures of WWF television in those days, and although he was immensely talented, talent as such isn't always what the average fan registers; you can tell when a match is lousy, maybe, but not so much who's at fault for the ineptitude.
Benoit met his idol as a kid and told him he was going to be just like him. His dad got him a weight set to reward his ambition, and Benoit started training in his teens as a wrestler—driving hours to the Hart family's Dungeon to learn the craft. "Dynamite" Chris Benoit debuted in Stampede Wrestling in November 1985, when Chris was 18. The nickname was more indicator than modifier; he didn't idolize Billington by that point so much as he channeled him, move for move, down to his physique and the very way he carried himself. After Stampede closed its doors, Benoit followed the Dynamite Kid's path to Japan, where he eventually donned a mask as the "Pegasus Kid" and achieved a not-insignificant level of notoriety.
In 1994 in ECW, the Benoit mythos was first truly allowed to blossom. He was nicknamed the "Crippler" after he fake-injured Rocco Rock (half of the Public Enemy tag team), and the moniker was solidified when he legitimately broke Sabu's neck in a match. It was a matter of miscommunication rather than brutality—Benoit slammed Sabu with the intention of him landing on his chest, but Sabu twisted to try to land on his back and ended up falling on his head.
Nevertheless, Paul Heyman ran with it, and Benoit's mantle as one of wrestling's Legitimately Dangerous Persons was established. His in-ring style was as unrelenting as Billington's, but it's worth noting that Benoit wasn't the real-life bully that Billington had been. For Benoit, the Dynamite Kid ring style was a tribute but more importantly a brutal affectation, a means of proving his legitimacy to the fans. If his style wasn't intended to wreak havoc on the bodies of himself and his opponents, it was nonetheless a side effect.
In 1995, Benoit's U.S. visa expired, and he went back to New Japan wrestling, which led—via a talent-exchange program—to WCW. Benoit had wrestled a couple of matches there before, but his re-debut, as part of the New Japan posse, befits his career. He was part of an accidental insurgent movement in the wrestling world, a meteor shower of undersized, mega-talented grapplers from the outer edges of the wrestling world—Japan, Mexico, ECW—whose primary purpose was to fill up programming time as WCW expanded its television presence. Their introduction was propelled more by necessity than desire. Wrestling in America is equal parts athletic endeavor and morality play, its stars as much character actors performing teeth-clenched monologues as acrobats, and when Benoit debuted in WCW, he was only given half of the wrestler's playbook from which to operate: He didn't ever talk. Despite his purity and devotion to the craft, he was hardly more "pro wrestler" in the modern sense than was a manager or announcer or valet. He was empty space occupied.
Of the troupe brought in to fill WCW Monday Nitro's first hour with mostly story-free product over which the announcers could hype the more significant happenings of the later parts of the show, Benoit—along with Eddie Guerrero—was the one most fans would have picked out for stardom. Nevertheless, success didn't come easily. Benoit was the first to graduate to the A-team, as he was picked to be a member of a reformed Four Horsemen stable, alongside Brian Pillman and mainstays Ric Flair and Arn Anderson. Benoit was the brooding, silent bruiser of the bunch, often seen leering in the background of Horsemen promos in a rumpled suit and collarless dress shirt.
When Pillman left WCW in 1996, Benoit was fitted into his feud against Dungeon of Doom ringleader—and backstage booker—Kevin Sullivan. Sullivan was about as old-school as anybody in those days, and above all he insisted on the wrestlers keeping up the facade of kayfabe. So when the storyline began to turn on Benoit stealing away Sullivan's valet, Woman (also known by her real name, Nancy), Sullivan insisted that Benoit keep up the act in real life by traveling with Nancy as if they were an item—this despite the fact that Sullivan was actually married to Nancy in real life.
As such things often go, life imitated art, and Benoit and Nancy were soon an item. (Eventually, Nancy divorced Sullivan and married Benoit.) Unsurprisingly, Sullivan and Benoit's matches were gruelingly violent, even taking into account that these were two of wrestling's most famous stiff workers. Benoit said that he respected Sullivan for never taking any liberties with him in the ring. That's one of wrestling's most sacred bylaws: Your safety is consistently in the hands of your opponent, so any liberty taken in the ring—any potato punch to the noggin, any submission hold applied too tightly—threatens the very foundation of the pro wrestling art. And Sullivan was too old school to take a cheap shot at Benoit. Even so, it's hard to watch their matches and not see the violence as more than allusion; if Sullivan wasn't exacting revenge, he was definitely seeking therapy in violence.
On Jan. 31, 2000, Benoit and Guerrero debuted in the WWF, along with Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn—both of whom had also gone from ECW fame to WCW aimlessness—as the Radicalz. They were functionally the last insurgent turncoats in the Monday Night Wars, and in some way, they were the greatest bellwether since Hall and Nash jumped ship to WCW. The Outsiders had signaled a new way of doing things, that there was a new major player in the wrestling industry, while the Radicalz epitomized the fact that that major player was in its death throes. Frustrated by their lack of promotion in WCW, these four jumped to the WWF in what was as much a political statement as a career advancement. But even though they arrived with significant fanfare, they weren't necessarily fated for greatness. If their initial employment by WCW was a matter of necessity, their hiring by WWF was a matter of opportunity. They were all symbols of WCW's lack of ingenuity and inability to promote from within. In hiring them, WWF management were able to cast themselves as visionaries by co-opting wrestlers underutilized by their rival.
The Radicalz, as they were originally composed, lasted roughly five minutes. During their first run-in, Guerrero gruesomely injured his elbow while performing a Frog Splash, and he was put out of action. By the time he returned, Benoit was moving on to a singles career separate from his Radicalz comrades. He entered into a lengthy beef with Chris Jericho, and their rivalry felt like a grudge match to determine who had been repressed more undeservedly in WCW. When they eventually teamed up against Triple H and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, at stake was the redemption of their entire lot.
As Guerrero almost shockingly became a rounded, WWF-style superstar, Benoit became the embodiment of the very inability to achieve that; he was a mute, violent menace, the sort of personality normally only seen in monstrous villains of the past. He came to exemplify everything the WWE mainstream was not, and in doing so, he excelled. Somehow the underappreciated indie darling had become a mainstream star. Benoit won the Royal Rumble in 2004 and entered into a three-way title dispute against Triple H and Shawn Michaels, thus fully insinuating himself into the superstar ranks.
On November 13, 2005, Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room by his nephew Chavo. The coroner said it was heart failure due to arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, presumably because of the toll that years of steroids and painkillers and street drugs took on his heart and, not incidentally, because he never went to the doctor for help and because nobody intervened to take him to the doctor.
The thing you always hear is that Chris Benoit never got over Eddie's death. That's what they said in the early hours after Benoit and his family were discovered dead. Some people have said it since the reality of the situation came out, but usually they're tactful enough not to footnote the story with excuses.
Chris Benoit's body was ravaged by the strain of 20-plus years of wrestling, of steroid and HGH abuse, of a broken neck he'd had fused, of the relentless compulsion to prove himself. His brain was destroyed by years of diving headbutts that probably concussed him a little every time and of being hit in the head with steel chairs—Benoit was notoriously one of the only guys who would take shots to the back of his head, which is demonstrably more dangerous to your brain. His soul was ferrying the weight of Eddie's death, of Owen Hart's death, of a possibly dissolving marriage. The doctors eventually said that when he died he had the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's sufferer. The weight of all that pain and stress on a dementia-stricken mind. You don't have to excuse what he did to try to make some sense of it.
The night he killed himself, Benoit was supposed to win the ECW Championship. Which is to say that everything wrestling-wise was good. That nobody saw this coming.
On Friday, June 22, 2007, Benoit murdered his wife, Nancy. He tied her up and choked her to death from behind, his knee on her back. On Saturday he left an answering-machine message for his buddy Chavo Guerrero–Eddie's nephew and frequent tag-team partner—and told him he'd overslept and missed his flight. That was his first weak attempt at lying; I would guess that he was more in a state of denial than trying to cover anything up. On Sunday he killed his 7-year-old son, Daniel, sedating him with Xanax and suffocating him. He communicated with Chavo and other WWE personnel by phone and text throughout the next two days, and the story became that Nancy had food poisoning, that she was vomiting blood, that their son, Daniel, was vomiting, too, that he had to take them to the hospital. Benoit started texting people with vague warnings and admissions: He'd send them his address and then tell them that the dogs were penned up by the pool, that the side door of the house was unlocked. Benoit hanged himself from the pulley of a weight machine, with 240 pounds of steel that barely outweighed his muscled frame providing the lethal counterweight.
It was an abdication of heroism, an admission of the fraudulence of the whole thing. The lies about food poisoning and oversleeping were incidental compared to the lie of the superheroic existence, the lie of a strength that was all steroids and HGH, and of invincibility that was only a disguised masochism.
On Monday night, WWE paid tribute to their fallen comrade with a commemorative show. The facts of the murder scene didn't start trickling out until the show was airing on the West Coast, and nobody considered that Benoit himself could be to blame. WWE chairman Vince McMahon opened the show, alone in the ring with a microphone, which not only signified the seriousness of the night but also broke the script; Vince had recently been "killed" in storylines, and Benoit's death retconned that fiction out of existence. When the truth of the situation came out, WWE understandably scrubbed all mention of Vince's pseudodemise from its website right along with the Benoit tributes.
Among the numerous video eulogies to Benoit that aired that night, the only outliers from the love-fest were those of Dean Malenko, who had a subtle, if telling, sense of horror coursing through his otherwise formal tribute, and William Regal—supposedly one of the people who received text messages from Benoit over the weekend—who had a stoically circumspect take on the situation that, in retrospect, is chilling. He refused to discuss Benoit as a person, despite their close relationship, only focusing on his ringwork; one can only assume that he had considered the possibility of the true tragedy.
In a segment that aired on the Wednesday episode of ECW and the Thursday episode of SmackDown, Vince again opened things up, apologized for Monday's tribute show, and reinstated business as usual—minus the him-being-dead thing. He promised that the tragedy would not be mentioned again. He was serious about that. In the past year or so, Benoit has started inching back into WWE history—he's in the new WWE Encyclopedia, and his matches appear on recent DVDs, though his name is edited out. The next time Chris Benoit's name is mentioned on a WWE telecast will be the first since then.
Chris Benoit was a world champion, and he murdered his wife and son and killed himself. The latter act doesn't actually erase the former, but it suffocates it. In the arena of professional wrestling, when all the world's a stage, when the crowd's response determines wins, positions, and entire careers, a reprehensible act is enough to purge reality from the record. Benoit was only ever a star because the fans screamed for him to be. Now they withdraw those screams, and Benoit's legacy is nullified. If any of this makes sense, I would say it makes a certain kind of sense.
One of the oddest sidebars of the tragedy is its descent into conspiracy theory. Benoit was always a cipher, an armature on which diehard wrestling fans could sculpt whatever they wished. In death, Benoit became for some a vector of outrage, of rumor-mongering, of revisionist history. Conspiracy thrives in confusion, in complexity. For lack of a more satisfying answer, we have grassy knolls and inside jobs. So it would be for Benoit and his wife and son—only in the absence of sense is such inanity possible, and only in the world of professional wrestling is reality already skewed enough for such ideas to multiply organically.
The most prevalent theory, of course, was that they were all murdered by Kevin Sullivan in a satanic ritual. Sullivan had played a Satanist on and off through his career, and even for the wrestling fans who claim to understand the business's fakery, such ideas are all too seductive. The ideas are prevalent and widespread, and Wrestling Pundit does a good job of rounding them up and dispelling them here.
Such conspiracy-mongering is chiefly possible, though, because of the blank slate Benoit offered to his fans, and because of the deliberate obfuscation by the WWE in the years since the tragedy. Because Chris Benoit doesn't exist. Call him Lethe, Greek spirit of oblivion. Or Saint Anthony (of Padua), patron saint of the missing—and, incidentally, of miracles. In the end, he's forgotten, whitewashed not just from polite discourse but also from institutional memory. You see it when other wrestlers perform his moves, the subtle attempt to recast them as something other than Benoit's.
The world wants to pretend Benoit never lived because of the way he died. But it's still ritual suicide, self-mutilation in service of a dream. He was a real-life underdog: He fought for everything he got; he transcended his roles; he defied the script. He was determined to outperform life's lot for him, by any means necessary, and he succeeded, and the crowd went wild, and confetti fell from the rafters. In the end, life fought back, and people suffered in indescribable ways, and Benoit died hanging from a weight-machine pulley. It was an act of total self-cancellation: the breath choked from his log-thick neck by the cord that connected the weights to the pull-down bar that had made him so incomprehensibly massive, the giving of oneself back over to that which had made one.
The Dead Wrestler of the Week archive: Brian "Crush" Adams | The Undertaker | "Macho Man" Randy Savage | Captain Lou Albano (1933-2009) | "Ravishing" Rick Rude | Owen Hart | Lance Cade | Road Warrior Hawk | Extreme Championship Wrestling | Junkyard Dog | Yokozuna | Chris Kanyon | The Ultimate Warrior | André the Giant | "The Big Boss Man" Ray Traylor | Miss Elizabeth | Dino Bravo | "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig | "Dr. Death" Steve Williams | Ludvig Borga
The Masked Man is a guy named David Shoemaker who works in publishing. He recently published The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. He also writes about wrestling for Grantland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan.
Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © David Shoemaker, 2013.