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wrestling / Columns

Shining a Spotlight 11.20.08: Benoit and Keith

November 20, 2008 | Posted by Michael Weyer

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big reader and particularly with wrestling books. As such, I was naturally eager to get my hands on the fifth book by a man known for his wrestling histories. Dungeon of Death: Chris Benoit and the Hart Family Curse is the fifth book by Scott Keith, a man I’ve written about a bit in the past. I’ve often been negative about his work and his views on the business but I was still willing to approach this book with an open mind as I was interested in the take on the biggest story in wrestling history by a man who admired the participant involved in a major way. I know that Ryan Byers did his own review but I thought I’d add my thoughts to both the book and its author.

The book doesn’t just focus on Benoit but other wrestlers who have famously seen their lives ruined by drugs and the pressures of the business. It tends to mix in what I’ve also found the weaknesses of Keith’s writing which is that he can be rather judgmental on both workers and the business itself, pretty high horse talking about drug use and such. True, so many of the guys he discusses did indeed mess up their lives with drugs and steroids and the like but Keith sounds a bit too superior talking about it all, as if he’s never made any mistakes in his life.

Another thing that bugs you are the errors Keith will make, some very surprising. For a man who loved Benoit so much, he really messes up the timeline of the guy’s life such as when he says it was Benoit’s participation in 1994’s “When Worlds Collide” PPV that earned him a spot with ECW. In truth, Benoit not only was in ECW at this point but had already had the infamous neck-breaking match with Sabu. More baffling is when Keith hints that Benoit’s feud with Kevin Sullivan led to the emphasis on “hardcore” brawling when ECW had already set the bar by then. Even wilder is his statement on how a brawl between them in the ladies’ rest room “led to every brawl WCW did using that spot” when I can’t remember a single other match doing that. He also muffs some of the timeline involving Benoit’s 2001 injury and says Benoit returned in 2002 with no fanfare despite the fact his DVD has Benoit’s appearance to a huge ovation in his home town.

Another annoyance is Keith’s writing style. I’m well used to his constant use of terms like “I digress” and “a word on…if I may.” But when reading the bios of the British Bulldogs and Bret Hart, I realized that these were word-for-word cut and pasted from his 2000 book The Buzz on Pro Wrestling. Indeed, the Bret entry mentions how Bret lost the belt at Wrestlemania IX due to the “Hogan incident” but doesn’t go into more detail on what that incident was as he’d discussed in an earlier chapter of The Buzz. I understand Keith was on a clock writing this and all and I sympathize that there are only so many ways you can tell the same story. I’ve repeated myself a bit relaying some stories as well in my columns but such an obvious cut and paste job hurts his writing credibility.

I’ve long felt Keith’s Canadian background and bias to wrestlers from his home country hurts him and that comes up here, particularly discussing the Harts. He’s still in the camp Montreal was a crime against all of Canada which I still think is overblown and actually refers to the Harts as “the closest Canada had to a royal family.” He makes some stuff from Stampede sound bigger than it really was (Archie the Stomper’s “rant” on Bad News Brown for instance) and makes him sound a bit elitist as a wrestling critic. That mentality does undermine some of his points which is a shame as this book is surprisingly fair at times.

Indeed, I was rather surprised at how some of this book is much fairer than I expected to certain people and even offers some good insight. When he discusses the Von Erichs, Keith illustrates the similarities between Fritz and Stu Hart who both pushed their sons into the business against wishes and did their best to build promotions around them. However, while Stu could be hard-hearted, Fritz went way too far indulging them and their habits which led to the self-destruction of all of them. When he discusses Kerry, Keith can be down on the guy being high all the time but makes the terrific point that if it had been publicly known that Kerry lost a foot in his 1986 motorcycle accident, he could have gotten over as a majorly sympathetic figure. But Fritz’s refusal to let his sons show any weakness led to Kerry throwing himself into things before he was truly ready, ending in the same tragedy that claimed his brothers. When he discusses the AWA at times, Keith is forced to acknowledge that you can’t blame Vince for that promotion’s downfall as Verne Gagne’s refusal to change with the times was always going to do him in at the end.

When he discusses the Dynamite Kid, Keith doesn’t let his obvious love of the man’s ring work overshadow the fact that Kid was a pretty hard-hearted bastard. I was a bit disappointed he didn’t make the connection between Benoit’s adulation of such a man and how Benoit lived his life but Keith does go in depth to how Kid’s passion led to his fall. While he says it seemed wrong to pull Dynamite out a hospital bed to drop the tag titles in 1987, Keith has to admit Vince had no other options and most anyone would have done the same thing. Keith mentions how Dynamite could be a control freak (complete with quotes from his biography) and doesn’t blame Davey Boy for wanting to break away. He talks of how Davey Boy’s reliance on steroids blew him up and marred his ring style but does skim over his back injury due to WCW’s negligence in 1998 and how that messed him up further. His chapter on the Bulldogs ends with his quote on how Dynamite wouldn’t change a thing and that says it all as to how he only has himself to blame for his current state.

I was a bit worried when I got to the chapter on Owen Hart. I still remember how in Tonight…In This Very Ring, Keith openly blamed Vince for Owen’s death, even saying (and this is a direct quote) “I hope there is an afterlife and I hope Vince McMahon burns in hell forever for taking Owen Hart away from me and anyone else who calls himself a wrestling fan.” Keith begins the chapter discussing how he was watching the “Over the Edge” PPV but was out of the room when the actual fall happened and how he hated the idea of Vince keeping the show going afterward. That’s followed by a nice bio of Owen’s career where it’s clear Keith really enjoyed watching the man perform as he had something special while behind the scenes was a good guy who was smart with his money.

However, I was rather surprised by how Keith’s venom toward Vince over Owen has lessened. Oh, he still has anger but he no longer seems to think Vince killed the man. He openly says that while Vince may be a money driven jerk, it was a tragic accident. Considering how many times the cable stunt had been used, it was probably inevitable that this was going to happen eventually and Owen was the unlucky one. Keith does go into the fallout and how it tore the family apart but doesn’t take sides in it. He also seems to have pulled back on how the Owen tribute show wasn’t a true testament to the man as Keith says that “it’s safe to say no one in his own family would have known what (Owen) wanted at the best of times.” Maybe this is a case of time healing wounds as Keith acknowledges it as a tragic loss but not quite the venom he once had.

This connects as well to Bret Hart as Keith does add new material to the Bret chapter on his time post-Montreal. There’s also an addition midway through talking about the Summer Slam 92 match with Davey Boy as Keith criticizes Bret for claiming he alone carried the match and says that Bret is way too critical on details of the match. I find that rather laughable as Keith is notorious for taking away stars from matches for the tiniest errors. However, the man does acknowledge that Bret’s own self-pride has ever been his biggest flaw.

The bulk of the book, of course, is Benoit and here’s where I find Keith’s words intriguing. The man was always a massive Benoit mark, he openly admits it and thus it must be hard to him to accept any of this. How world you feel if the man you held as an example of all that was good and right about wrestling ended up not only killing his family and himself but did more damage to the industry’s image than Vince ever could? Like everyone else, Keith can’t offer an easy answer although he tires his best when discussing Benoit’s life.

It’s interesting to note how Keith’s love and respect of Benoit doesn’t close him to how the man brought a lot on himself. He notes how a lot of the concussion damage Benoit suffered was because he refused to protect himself from chair shots or flying head butts to make it look real. In fact, Keith acknowledges the same points made by Ring of Hell that Benoit’s utter seriousness about the in-ring action was pretty much a set-up for disaster and that it was inevitable he’d do something drastic, even if no one could have imagined this. It’s telling how Brian Pillman also was dedicated to doing whatever it took to be in the ring and, as Keith illustrates in his chapter on Pillman, destroyed himself thanks to that attitude. It’s a shame Benoit never took that lesson to heart.

A part of the book that’s gotten discussion is the section where Keith talks about wrestlers who have died early over the years. It seems a lot of cases are Keith talking about wrestlers he really liked such as Terry Gordy, Chris Candido and Curt Henning. He notes their flaws and private stuff but seems to put more of the blame on the business itself and less on the individual. Again, Keith makes some errors in the bios and some of his random judgments such as talking about Junkyard Dog messing up his life with cocaine despite the fact the man ended up dying in a car accident. His bio on Hawk is nice for how the Road Warriors changed the business but he does seem snotty talking about Animal spitting on their legacy teaming with Heindrich, as if the man should have put his entire life on hold just because Hawk died. In his entry on Elizabeth, Keith does nicely sum up how and why the Elizabeth/Savage act worked so well but his statement of her as a “symbol of female empowerment” seems a tad off to say the least. Naturally, Eddie Guerrero gets a focus and you can tell the sadness Keith has at how a man who seemd to have gotten back on track suddenly fell like that. Of course, he points out how it affected Benoit’s mind more and while he mentions WWE cashing in on his memory, he goes into no detail more than that, an odd omission. It also seems off to talk on Big Bossman or Terry Gordy who didn’t seem the steriod type but he still talks of them messing up lives with drugs.

The last two chapters talk a lot about the whole steroid issue, including Vince’s clashes with the government in 1994 and 2007 and it’s a bit difficult to see what Keith is trying to say here. One minute he says it’s the wrestlers’ own fault for doing this but the next he blames promoters (especially Vince) for how they encourage such things but then he says it’s the fans who want wrestlers and matches bigger and better and they shoulder the blame for it all. Keith acknowledges just about all wrestlers take steroids but that many go overboard with it and promoters turn a blind eye. He puts blame on Vince for allowing it all and enjoying the jacked-up wrestler image and mocks the Wellness Policy as ineffective. At the same time, he does acknowledge that WWE at least has some standards while TNA doesn’t have a public policy and no problem picking up someone like Kurt Angle who was let go from WWE due to his erratic behavior.

It comes back to Benoit as Keith makes it sound like the real tragedy is less the fact the man murdered his wife and son and then himself and more that it’s robbed wrestling of a great star and his legacy. It’s interesting that in the book, Keith says he finds it wrong to erase Benoit so much from WWE history because the man’s ring work should be remembered and people should be able to distinguish between the man and the character. However, in recent posts on his blog, Keith has acknowledged that in the last year, he’s found it quite hard to watch any of Benoit’s old stuff and maybe WWE is right in trying to leave it all alone right now. This must be a hard admission from a man who was such a fan.

That’s the hard thing sometimes about Keith as the man still understands wrestling and does seem to enjoy it. His blog may be filled more with DVD and TV reviews but he still follows PPVS and does offer some good insight at times. His fans who post there can offer good stuff as well as the man is a good writer still. His love of the business may have taken hits but it’s hard to get wrestling totally out of your blood, even a cynic like Keith. The problem is that the man is an outsider with no real connections to the backstage goings-on but acts like he’s a real expert. He says the only way to solve things is a wrestling union and says it’s Vince stopping it when the truth is, wrestlers themselves would have difficulties gathering together in a business where looking out for number one has always been a constant.

I can sympathize with Keith a lot in the writing of this as this was a book he didn’t want to do. He was doing it just on the Harts when the Benoit deal went down and I suspect he was pressured by editors to add in a lot on Benoit. As I said, it must be hard for Keith to grasp that his idol could do something like this and is desperate for answers but it’s hard to find them in this case. I agree a lot on his talk of the over-the-top media reaction and all and that it’s hard to understand why this happened. It’s interesting that one of the most powerful parts of the book isn’t a written section but a photo of Bret between portraits of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe who also lived fast and died young.

It’s important to remember what Keith will ignore, that the very nature of wrestling business leads to abuse of drugs and such and it’s hardly alone as pro sports are filled with the same problems. Plus, keep in mind that no one really understood the dangers of steroids when they first started to take control in the ‘80’s just as no one really got the idea that smoking cigarettes could be harmful to your health decades ago. Am I condoning it? No, I’m a hard-core anti-smoker and alcohol person myself. But given the pressures wrestlers put themselves under, I can understand how such temptations are hard to avoid.

While Keith makes so many good points in the book, it’s undermined by his key problem: He has no real contacts within wrestling and this is mostly an outsider view by someone who paints himself as an expert. As far as I know, he never met Chris Benoit but acts like the man was a friend a lot of the time with the loss and the anger at the business itself for causing it. However, by blaming the business so much, Keith ignores the fact that at the end of the day, Chris Benoit is the only person responsible for those horrible acts and tarnishing the business he professed to love so much and ignoring that just does more harm.

For all its flaws, Dungeon of Death is interesting to see how a man who loves his subject matter has to face the dark side of things. Keith is capable of some good insight and views of the business and his love of wrestling itself is clear. It’s a shame he lets that superiority and belief he really is an expert flaw his words and give it an air of arrogance as if he talks for the entire fan base. You do feel for Keith trying to reconcile what his idol did but to just perpetuate the idea of Benoit as a victim instead of a killer just makes the situation worse to understand. Maybe there are no easy answers here but that’s no excuse to keep muddling up the questions.

Also around 411mania:

Truth B Told talks the NWA getting on TV

The Fink books Survivor Series

Chin talks the Importance of avoiding WCW’s mistakes

Evolution Schematic talks Santino

The Bard hunts Batista

Don’t Think Twice has a great article on the duality of performers

For the Record argues why the Undertaker should be on RAW

The Shimmy kick-starts Mania booking

Wrestling Doctor talks WWE

Tim hands out congratulations to various folk

Don’t forget Column of Honor, Triple Threat, 3 R’s, Fact or Fiction, Ask 411 and all the rest.

Next week is another wrestling book featured, the latest by James Guttman. For this week, the spotlight is off.

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Michael Weyer
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