When I take my mind back 10 years to the days and weeks right before and right after Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son, one thing in particular always jumps to the forefront of my thoughts.
That spring, a WWE wrestler I was friendly with was Benoit’s traveling partner as they drove from show to show on each weekend’s tour. I can remember how he described their travels to me over AOL Instant Messenger like it was yesterday. “He’s crazy, I love it,” he said. When he caught a cold, Benoit diligently ordered him to take vitamin C and echinacea so it would pass quickly. “He’s like a dad, I love it.”
A few weeks later, as soon it was reported that Benoit, his wife Nancy, and son Daniel were all found dead in their home, I got a sinking feeling. Short of hearing that there was a fire, explosion, or car accident—and there was no indication that there was—there were only three realistic scenarios: Either there was a home invasion, they died of carbon monoxide poisoning, or Chris killed his family before killing himself.
WWE, having rendered their usual tribute-show template unusable by parodying it just days earlier, and dealing with the harrowing nature of the deaths no matter what the outcome of the investigation, cancelled the live show that night in Corpus Christi, Texas. The tribute show instead consisted of old Benoit matches and features, testimonial videos like those shown at past tribute shows, and an announcement by Vince McMahon shown at the top of each hour. It was billed as a tribute to the entire deceased family, with a graphic showing their celebration after Chris won the world title, but in practice, the show was all about him, except for Jerry Lawler making sure to memorialize Nancy—herself a well-known performer—at one point.
As the show went on, it started to to get creepier. One of the matches had Nancy, then Chris’s manager, at ringside. William Regal did an awkward testimonial where he said he would only praise Benoit’s wrestling ability for now. (John Layfield, according to a contemporaneous report in the Wrestling Observer, had just asked him if he thought their friend had “killed the boy.”) Chavo Guerrero Jr., probably Chris’s best friend by that point, then did an even more awkward testimonial in which he made very pointed references to trusting his kids with him. Minutes later, before the show was even off the air, the news started to break: Police were ruling the deaths a murder-suicide. From there, the hits kept coming. WWE confirmed the news on their website right after Raw went off the air, and soon added a timeline of Benoit’s contact with the company over the weekend.
While I scoured the internet to attempt to find out exactly what details were surfacing, the AOL Instant Messenger notification sound dinged. I saw that my WWE wrestler friend, whom I had been trying to reach for hours, had finally gotten back to me. I clicked on the blinking icon in the Windows taskbar, and his initial response popped up.
“I told you he was crazy.”
Fans and wrestlers alike were devastated. Benoit was an icon among hardcore fans—someone who reached the top almost entirely on in-ring wrestling ability while being among the best in the world bell-to-bell for over a decade. Just over three years earlier, at WrestleMania XX, WWE had gaven him what amounted to a lifetime achievement award by giving him the Raw brand’s world title in the main event—Benoit’s first real shot at being “the guy” in his career as the world’s most talented journeyman—and he closed the show in tears, celebrating with his family and with his friend Eddy Guerrero. “Do you know how hard it was explaining to people that Benoit’s emotions were 100% real even though he’s known since December this was happening?” wrote Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer the next day.
The situation became even more surreal given the handling of the case. It didn’t take long, for instance, for the civil servants tasked with investigating the deaths to get beyond the facts of the case. Fayette County’s district attorney said that Daniel had needle marks on his body from growth-hormone injections because he was a borderline dwarf. This created an obvious narrative: Chris, the deranged longtime abuser of bodybuilding drugs, had become so delusional that he had started injecting his average-sized son with HGH. There were, however, no needle marks on the body, and Daniel wasn’t undersized, either. Ballard apologized, but he never explained where the information came from in the first place.
Even worse? There being no suspect to pursue, law enforcement seemingly stopped allocating resources to the case early on. Perhaps most notably, it didn’t come out until three years later that, contrary to 2007 police statements, Benoit had left a suicide note, which he had placed inside a bible in a desk drawer. That sounds relatively missable until you realize that Benoit had left bibles by Nancy and Daniel’s bodies; it wouldn’t have taken a huge inferential leap to look for and through other bibles in the house. Drugs were found in luggage not seized by police, and the remnants of Chris’s diary were found by the Benoit’s neighbor in her own trash can. That same neighbor was asked to corral the family guard dogs when police couldn’t, entered the house, found the bodies, and ran from the property screaming.
It’s safe to say the local authorities were in over their heads. They weren’t the only ones.
The media fury, already out of hand, got even more so when police announced they’d found massive quantities of steroids in the house. WWE put out one of the more ill-advised press release in the history of press releases, titled “WWE® Shocked At Latest Developments In Benoit Tragedy, Concerned By Sensationalistic Reporting.” The thrust of it was that since “Steroids were not, and could not, be related to the cause of death (asphyxiation),” and the killings were drawn out over a day or two, any speculation about “roid rage” was baseless.
With celebrity magazines and cable news being the primary coverage outlets, though, that speculation was omnipresent. The truth was that steroid use could have been a factor in Benoit’s mental decline even if the murders weren’t committed in a state of “roid rage,” but that was too nuanced for the coverage that most people were seeing.
WWE went on the offensive, but, for reasons known only to them, doubled down on the idea that Benoit was drug-free, which was proven wrong by the toxicology results. WWE surrogates then did the rounds, claiming that Benoit had tested positive for testosterone, but negative for anabolic steroids. This stance was technically true—testosterone is an androgen—but so misleading as to be effectively false.
With no real mystery left, the story faded for a couple months, before coming back when the Sports Legacy Institute (now the Concussion Legacy Foundation) announced that they had diagnosed Chris post mortem with CTE, the same brain ailment plaguing football players. In a sense, this was the worst case scenario for WWE. Wrestlers cleaning up was one thing; the public inferring that the act of performing in pro-wrestling matches turned Benoit into a family annihilator was a much greater threat to their future. Unfortunately for them, there was probably something to it.
Outside of Mexico and other parts of Latin America that lifted the lucha libre in-ring style, the entire wrestling world teaches wrestlers to land as flat as possible. This distributes the impact in a way that minimizes musculoskeletal injury, but the whiplash effect means that there’s a concussion risk even if a wrestler doesn’t hit his or her head, meaning that in much of the world wrestling poses the same sorts of inherent risks of brain damage that football does. Benoit could be looked at an outlier, given his penchant for high-impact headbutts and taking chair shots to the brain stem—the latter being uncommon among even the biggest risk-takers in wrestling—but the risks are real. When Andrew “Test” Martin, who had a considerably more conservative style, died of an overdose in 2009, his CTE diagnosis really should have been the one that warranted wider scrutiny and even panic. But he didn’t have the world’s attention after killing his family.
WWE has long challenged the Benoit study, in part because no chain of custody records were kept for the brain tissue and parts of the brain were not salvageable. The company made that discovery later, though, and at the time of the posthumous diagnosis had a more immediate problem: Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) had opened an investigation into the wrestling business. As it turned, this went nowhere, thanks primarily to Waxman passing the buck when he got to join a more powerful House committee, but just the threat made it important to WWE that it be seen cleaning up its act.
Even if you don’t trust WWE, just looking at the wrestlers and what they do in the ring, it’s clear that things have changed greatly over the last 10 years. Wrestlers mostly look like athletes more than action figures now, and chair shots to the head have long since been banned, as well. But everything is not well and good.
Last year, weeks after Brock Lesnar’s UFC return had resulted in him testing positive for a banned substance, clomiphene, that is used with steroid cycles, he headlined SummerSlam. WWE not only didn’t punish him, but eventually admitted that “WWE’s talent wellness program does not apply to part-time performers such as Brock Lesnar.” This implies that The Rock, Triple H, The Undertaker, Sting, and Bill Goldberg were not tested while in WWE, either, and if John Cena is now considered a part-time performer, which seems like a completely reasonable scenario, then you can add him to that list, as well. Whatever role bodybuilding drugs played or didn’t play in Chris Benoit killing his family, WWE’s testing program did improve in the aftermath, even if it’s had some new holes poked in it over time, as well.
Lesnar’s SummerSlam bout featured him busting open Randy Orton’s head with elbow smashes that looked like they belonged in one of his UFC fights. On top of this sort of seemingly reckless in-ring action, we have seen wrestlers cleared a week after suffering a concussion. When Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson suffered the concussion that led to his retirement, he was not diagnosed immediately, instead flying to Europe before working a few more matches. Danielson’s contemporary, Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, alleged in 2014 that he was pressured into working on a previous European tour after suffering a concussion of his own, resulting in a defamation lawsuit from WWE’s touring doctor that is still pending.
In the last 15 years, there has been a worldwide shift towards some variation of the Japanese junior heavyweight style that Benoit mastered, took global, and tweaked when he took enough muscle-enhancing drugs to become a heavyweight. That style is increasingly the dominant one in wrestling right now, even in WWE, and it comes with some obvious, inherent risks.
Of course not everyone who works a hard, fast style is going to develop cognitive issues later in life, let alone become a killer. Benoit was, in many different ways, unique. But in a WWE where injuries have repeatedly gutted recent WrestleManias, concussions have retired Daniel Bryan and Christian, and Sting was retired by a spinal injury from a move he never should have taken at 56 years old, worrying about wrestlers’ health is easier to do than it’s ever been. Especially when Andrew Martin, the second wrestler diagnosed with CTE didn’t take most of those risks.
So, what exactly has WWE learned? Enough to deflate the average size of each wrestler, and to avoid some potential landmines. Maybe not that much else.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.