wrestling / TV Reports

Dark Side of the Ring Season 2.1 Review: The Chris Benoit Tragedy

March 20, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Dark Side of the Ring Season 2 - Chris Benoit screenshot
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Dark Side of the Ring Season 2.1 Review: The Chris Benoit Tragedy  

Author’s Note: This is a review of the Dark Side of the Ring Season 2 premiere based on a screener provided to 411mania by VICE TV.

The VICE TV wrestling-themed docuseries, Dark Side of the Ring, was easily one of the top breakout shows of 2019. The show offered a candid, sobering look at some of the tragic stories of wrestling’s history. It wasn’t long before Dark Side of the Ring was renewed for Season 2, which would promise to take a deeper look at some of the most tragic moments in the history of professional wrestling.

Season 2 starts with an in-depth two-hour premiere showcasing the tragedy of one of the darkest moments in wrestling many fans could ever remember, the Chris Benoit murder-suicide. In June 2007, it was discovered that former WWE World Heavyweight champion Chris Benoit had murdered his own wife, Nancy Benoit (formerly the valet Woman of WCW), and his seven-year-old son Daniel before hanging himself to death. That same weekend, Benoit was scheduled to be in action and face CM Punk in a match for the vacant ECW title at Night of Champions 2007 in Houston, Texas. The wrestling industry was left reeling when it was revealed the following day that Benoit had died and taken the life of his family before himself.

On Monday, June 25 that year, it was revealed that Benoit and his wife and son were dead. As such, Vince McMahon and WWE suspended the planned show for Monday Night Raw and instead went forth with a tribute show for Benoit’s career, with wrestlers paying tribute and giving testimonials for a man who was widely recognized as one of wrestling’s top workers. However, as the tribute show progressed more details began surfacing on this tragedy, which became even worse and more devastating. At the start of WWE’s tribute show, no one had come to the realization yet that Benoit had murdered his own family before killing himself. And by the end of the show, WWE had basically spent two hours glorifying a murderer who had just killed his own wife and young son.

There have been some monumental tragedies and losses in the wrestling business before, but nothing really like this. It was an awful, devastating moment for any fan. Chris Benoit was beloved and seen as one of wrestling’s best workhorses. He embodied what hardcore fans liked about match quality and “workrate.” Benoit was not the biggest dude, and maybe not the best with a promo, but he was intense and a top technician in the ring.

The Dark Side of the Ring Season 2 premiere is an incredible look back at not just the days leading up to the tragic event, but the years that brought Benoit’s life to that point, along with the devastating aftermath. The Benoit tragedy has never really been told or presented this way. Thankfully, former WWE Superstar Chavo Guerrero, who himself was a close friend of Benoit and his family, serves a producer for the Season 2 premiere. It lends an authenticity in that this reflects the shock, anger and analysis of the event by Benoit’s friends, family members and peers, but also provides the perspective of Nancy Benoit’s family with her sister, Sandra Toffoloni.

While I’d say the episode is not without its flaws, it’s a fascinating, in-depth and comprehensive overview of the Benoit tragedy, that delves not just into the lives of Chris Benoit, but also Nancy Benoit (formerly Nancy Sullivan and Nancy Toffoloni) and Benoit’s own eldest son, David.

One thing I really appreciate about this documentary is David Benoit and Nancy’s sister, Sandra, finally getting the chance to tell their stories. What many people forget is that Chris Benoit had two children from a previous marriage at the time of the tragedy. David Benoit couldn’t have been more than 14-15 at the time when it happened. His sister Megan was even younger. I can’t even imagine what it felt like for a teenager, who worshipped and idolized his father, to find out about this all those years ago, and having to live with that for the rest of your life.

I thought Sandra’s perspective on Nancy and her career was fascinating. She provides a lot of new insight on Nancy’s life and what she was experiencing during her first marriage to former WCW wrestler and booker Kevin Sullivan. There are allegations of abuse that are made. While Sullivan does not appear in the documentary, a subtext marker states that he denied any abuse allegations. It’s well documented how the bizarre true-to-life Benoit/Sullivan/Woman angle worked out, and Sullivan essentially “booked his own divorce.” This documentary suggests that Nancy’s marriage was in turmoil due to physical abuse and she found solace and a protector in Benoit, where the drama of a wrestling angle bled over to real life.

There are also many new in-depth interviews with Benoit’s friends, peers, and confidantes in the business, including Chris Jericho, Chavo Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Dean’s wife Julie, Jim Ross, and also Vickie Guerrero. The Guerrero and Benoit families were all very close. The late WWE Hall of Famer, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris were the best of friends and as close as brothers. A great deal of time is used to examine just how devastating Eddie’s death in 2005 was to Benoit. The impression is that Eddie’s death was a possible mental breaking point for Benoit that shattered him emotionally.

Ring of Hell author Matthew Randazzo also provides more technical insight on what took place over the course of the murders before Benoit later killed himself, which appeared to take place over the course of three days. There are still facts and elements about the case that don’t add up. Specifically, while steroids were found in Benoit’s system, the murder-suicide doesn’t appear to be a crime resembling roid rage. Former WWE Superstar Christopher Nowinski, who now runs the Concussion Legacy Foundation, also provides new interview footage in the episode and offers more insight into the damage and trauma to Benoit’s brain that possibly had an influence on his mental state.

Still, what makes this situation even more tragic and devastating, is that there still aren’t a lot of clear answers left in the wake of this event, between the damaged family members who were traumatized by what happened and how this nearly toppled the industry. I very much appreciated how the documentary examined the media coverage surrounding this tragedy. Wrestling was not without its flaws that needed improvement, but the news media coverage on the Benoit murder-suicide was obviously slanted and came with an agenda, with wildly sensationalized and inaccurate coverage. Thankfully, this documentary takes a more grounded, sobering and honest portrayal of events and also dissects with how the news media coverage was skewed against the wrestling industry.

Now, in terms of some of the more disturbing details, the commentators and interview subjects do offer some more in-depth commentary on exactly how Benoit murdered Nancy and Daniel. Additionally, the deterioration of Benoit and Nancy’s marriage in the time leading up to the tragedy is documented. Before the murder-suicide took place, it appeared that Chris Benoit was growing more paranoid and erratic, and he was growing abusive toward Nancy. There’s text communication where Nancy mentions Benoit was going through roid rages and using steroids.

The moments describing exactly what Benoit did to Nancy and Daniel were probably the toughest moments of the documentary to experience, but I believe their inclusion was necessary, otherwise it would’ve been accused as biased and flinching in the face of Benoit’s crimes. None of Benoit’s close friends excuse him for his actions, but they are still left reeling and confused by his actions, even to this very day. I believe Sandra Toffoloni probably had the most fascinating and honest perspective on the tragedy. She speculated that it wasn’t really one thing that triggered this event, but it was likely all of the things piled together that led to Benoit committing this act: the brain damage and head trauma, the steroid use, potential alcohol abuse, and the grief and emotional trauma from the death of Eddie Guerrero.

If any positive can be taken away from all of this, it’s that the living victims in this tragedy, David and Sandra, were able to reconcile later on. The interview subjects also rightfully give credit to Nancy’s own work in the business as she had her own career in wrestling as a manager and valet. Unfortunately, due to her connection to all of this, she likely can never receive the credit she is due. And despite everything that happened, Sandra still respects and loves what her sister did for the wrestling business and how she played her role.

If any honest criticism can be laid at the feet of WWE in the aftermath of this tragedy, putting aside how they were unfairly targeted by the news media, it’s probably their handling of the family members of Benoit and Nancy. Randazzo does raise evidence that the early iteration of the WWE Wellness Policy was lax because Benoit was passing all of his drug tests for the Wellness Policy even though he was using steroids and testosterone. There’s a text message from Nancy saying the WWE Wellness Policy was a joke. And over 10 years later, WWE basically revealed that Brock Lesnar was not getting drug tested by WWE because he was “part-timer” in the wake of Lesnar’s failed drug tests for USADA in the UFC. Other than a handful of individuals, David Benoit received no support or contact from anyone in WWE or the wrestling business, something he is still bitter about, and the same goes for Sandra Toffoloni, who had to be medically sedated after learning what happened to her sister.

Now, this is just my own speculation. Perhaps Vince McMahon and WWE felt ashamed with their handling of the Benoit tribute and broadcasting one after initially learning about his death. Jim Ross, who worked in WWE at the time, addresses what happened there and how they moved forward and jumped the gun without enough information on that broadcast. Essentially, the tragedy and Benoit’s crimes led to WWE “erasing” Benoit from history. Now, fans often complain about this fact despite WWE’s stance on this being very understandable. However, in my opinion, I’d say not doing more to help the surviving Benoit and Toffoloni family members was a mistake. I personally have no idea if this is the case, but perhaps WWE did feel ashamed or embarrassed by the whole thing. Maybe WWE officials feared that the families wanted no contact with them and that’s why contact was completely broken off. For his part, Jim Ross details going to Nancy and Daniel’s funeral and receiving a rather cold reception there, which is understandable for that time.

My one major criticism is that while the episode does delve into the death of Eddie Guerrero, and Eddie’s own demons with drug addiction, Chavo Guerrero plainly says that Eddie was clean when he died. At one point, an interviewer asks Chavo, “And there wasn’t any sign that obviously he had relapsed?” Chavo responds, “He didn’t relapse. The verdict was heart disease, at 38.” The part of this that doesn’t sit well with me is that it’s well documented that Guerrero was taking steroids at the time of his death.

Now, maybe Eddie Guerrero was not abusing steroids and was clean from more recreational drug use. While I am not a doctor, just googling WebMD presents a result that links steroid use to heart disease. It’s also possible that some of Guerrero’s past drug use had taken a toll on his body and caused a great deal of damage to his heart as well. I am not here to stand in judgement of Eddie Guerrero. Also, I am not saying steroid use was the sole cause of his death. The man was an icon and is very much deserving of his status as a beloved wrestler and Hall of Famer, but I don’t think the fact that Guerrero was using steroids at the time of his passing should be overlooked or swept under the rug. Unfortunately, it came off like that was the case here.

At a length of 85 minutes, this Dark Side of the Ring episode is probably one of the greatest feature-length documentaries I have ever seen. Everyone should give this a look at least once to see it for themselves. This episode likely won’t provide closure for wrestling fans who ever enjoyed Chris Benoit or his career, but it was a story that needed to be told. The producers and VICE Studios team did a fantastic job that provided a stark look and portrayal of this tragedy and how it affected the people closest to Chris and Nancy Benoit. Any fan who ever watched or enjoyed wrestling, or was left reeling by the aftermath of the Benoit tragedy, needs to give this film a look. This is an award-worthy piece of work by the Dark Side of the Ring crew.

Dark Side of the Ring Season 2 premieres with the two-hour Chris Benoit special episode on VICE TV on Tuesday, March 24 at 9:00 pm EST. The first 45 minutes will be available on March 20 on YouTube.

9.5
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
The season premiere of Dark Side of the Ring starts off with an unsettling breakdown one of the greatest tragedies in the history of professional wrestling. The producers provided an honest and candid look at the years and days that led to the Chris Benoit tragedy and the aftermath that followed. While Season 1 of Dark Side of the Ring was impressive, this episode far surpasses any of the ones from the first season. Presented at a feature-length, the producers are really able to offer a more comprehensive and broad overview of the tragedy in a way that's never been presented before. This episode is something that everyone should give a look at least once.
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