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wrestling / Columns

Shining a Spotlight 6.19.08: Benoit One Year Later

June 19, 2008 | Posted by Michael Weyer

I know that my topic this week may seem like jumping the gun a bit. But I figure there’s going to be a few other columns on this same topic so I might as well get mine out now. Plus, a recent purchase pushed this one along and so here we go.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year. A year since that horrifying weekend. A year since that Monday night that changed the business forever. We’d had tragedy, of course. We’d had deaths, we’d had scandals but this…This was something else entirely. This was a man who was one of the most respected, most admired, most seemingly honorable in a dirty business committing an act so horrific, it still boggles the mind. It still makes no sense a year later but we’ve had to deal with it.

It seemed wrong from the start, when Chris Benoit no-showed a PPV where he was due to become ECW champion. It was very out of character for him but some hoped there was a logical reason. Then came that horrifying news as the RAW that was to be the “tribute” to the “late” Mr. McMahon opened with a very much alive Vince in an empty arena saying Chris Benoit, Nancy Benoit and their son had been found dead in their Atlanta home. Once again, we were filled with shock. Once again, we watched tributes by wrestlers and classic Benoit moments as we tried to deal with the grief over the terrible loss and wrestling sites crashed under the weight of shocked fans offering their memories and tributes to this man.

And then the facts came in and it got far, far worse.

It’s still hard to accept, despite how so many people now say it was inevitable. This wasn’t someone like Austin or Randy Orton or someone else who had a history of trouble. Scott Hall, we’d have accepted with no problem. But this was Benoit. This was a man hailed so much for his terrific drive, his great attitude and his professionalism. You never heard of him getting in trouble on the road or anything, no word of drug use, nothing that would indicate anything like this was coming. But as we all know, it did and things have never been the same.

What’s brought this up isn’t just the one-year anniversary coming up. It’s also that I just purchased the first major book detailing the events and how they pertain to the business. I know, there was that one book, simply titled Benoit that contained some short essays but only one major book so far: Ring of Hell: The story of Chris Benoit & the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry (Phoenix Books, $25.95) by Matthew Randazzo V. As you can tell from that title, the book is a bit inflammatory at parts but then again, it is telling a powerful story. But the book does far more than just discuss Benoit and what happened; instead it uses Benoit as an example of how horrible the industry has become.

I should warn you off the bat that the 344 page book is written more for the non-wrestling fan. Indeed, my local Barnes & Noble had it in the True Crime section instead of sports, which is a warning sign. It also paints an interesting contrast of portraying Benoit as both victim and monster while raking Vince McMahon across the coals in a way so savage even Shane Douglas would be saying “whoa, dude, settle down.” It’s a bit troubling to see such an outside view of the business but sadly, sensationalism was to be expected given what happened. Randazzo’s opinion of wrestling is given from the start with his assertion how it was begun by carnival conmen and mobsters to fool unknowing gamblers and that anyone who takes part in the business is automatically not a rational person. Benoit, in fact, is described as the ultimate mark (Benoit himself admitting to it in an interview) and the road that led to his destruction can be traced to the man Benoit idolized: The Dynamite Kid.

Randazzo gives the brutal but sadly accurate report of how Tommy Billington, while incredibly talented in the ring, was also one of the most horrible bastards wrestling has ever known, a man whose backstage antics make Randy Orton look like a candidate for sainthood. Why Benoit would pick Dynamite of all people to emulate remains a mystery but in Randazzo’s mind, that was the key to everything. It was hardly helped by Stampede, as he dissects everything from the brutal Dungeon to the even more brutal road trips and the wild pranks that bordered downright dangerous. There’s a nice bit of Randazzo listing twenty rules Stu had all the wrestlers learn in order to work in the business and also does a nice job covering how Stampede fell apart due to both Vince’s rise to power and Bruce Hart’s erratic booking. He also relates, as fact, the long-standing rumor that Jacques Rougeau had the Montreal Mafia put out a contract on Dynamite’s life to drive him out of the WWF and to a disastrous last run in Stampede.

This leads to a discussion of Japan. I’ve long believed that a book detailing the history of pro wrestling in Japan for American audiences is a story waiting to happen and Randazzo does a good job on how it blossomed in the post-WWII years with its more real style, detailing the dojos and the “Young Boys” systems. However, I’m sure some Japanese wrestling fans will be more than slightly upset at his stating as absolute fact that the business “always was and always would be dominated by the Yakuza.” To hear Randazzo tell it, the Japanese mafia runs every damn thing involving the business, which sounds more speculative than absolute fact. He also paints legendary Antonio Inoki as a complete lunatic who, seriously, is actually compared to Sadaam and Kim Jong Ill. It details Benoit’s training in Japan and a nice bio on Keiichi Yamada, better known as Jushin Liger. This leads to talk of the classic Liger/Pegasus Kid battles that won respect for both men and light heavyweights in general. While Benoit had talked of this time in glowing terms, Randazzo relates it was much harder for him then that and Benoit acted out with some brutal pranks of his own on fellow workers.

The Mexican wrestling scene gets off better as even Randazzo has to acknowledge the honor and tradition that dominate that scene. Again, there’s a great examination of how the various promotions grew, the luchadors and masked wrestlers becoming true heroes and Benoit fitting in well among the scene, meeting future best friend Victor “Black Cat” Mar and returning to Japan for another great run and the Super J Cup tournament, winning him the massive IWC fan base he’d maintain until the end.

We then move to WCW and boy, does Randazzo go to town on them. The first sentence kicks it all off: “Of the billions of dollars Ted Turner has given to charity, no cause was more unworthy than World Championship Wrestling.” From the start, Randazzo nails the key problem of WCW: that the people in charge had no idea how to run a wrestling company and completely ignored the millions Vince was making with WWF and instead treated WCW as not worthy of their attention. It was here Benoit first entered WCW, working under Bill Watts. Unfortunately, Watts’ hard-nosed style alienated the wrestlers against him although Randazzo makes the great point that after Stampede and Japan, Watts was downright easy for Benoit. He does note that it was here that Benoit’s major problem, his seeming blandness and failure to connect to the crowds with charisma, came to the fore. He wouldn’t get the chance as Watts was pushed out in favor of Ole Anderson who Randazzo says “made Watts look like Barack Obama.” (seriously, did anyone ever like the guy?) Hating smaller, younger wrestlers, Ole naturally hated Benoit, which pushed him out of the company and to ECW.

As you might guess, Randazzo doesn’t have a high opinion of ECW or Paul Heyman. He compares Heyman to a high school kid using his wit to attach himself to the popular crowd and says it was Heyman who procured most of the drugs for the ECW roster and that he “backstabbed” Eddie Gilbert to take over booking, which isn’t quite the case. Randazzo does give Heyman credit for doing what WCW and WWF weren’t doing at the time, which was showing a willingness to replaces old stars with new ones. Randazzo naturally details the infamous match with Sabu and the dark comedy of his hospital trip where, despite his broken neck, Sabu still refused to break the act and speak English to the doctors. Of course, Heyman saw this as the ultimate break for Benoit, conceiving the Crippler name and Randazzo paints it that Benoit never forgave Heyman for such a callous attitude for Sabu, especially after Benoit had been found in a closet backstage crying over the incident. On the other hand, Heyman didn’t seem to understand how Benoit could be so rough with rookies and sad over a guy who had already suffered so many injuries.

Randazzo’s intriguing look of ECW continues as he notes that many of the workers didn’t fit in with WWF or WCW because they weren’t expert politicians which ironically meant a locker room mostly free of strife. Drugs and loose women, on the other hand, were prevalent though Benoit did his best to resist it so he wouldn’t mess up his in-ring performance. There’s another nice bit on how Heyman wooed the wrestling newsletters the Big Two would ignore which led to the attention for Benoit, Guerrero and Malenko and their simultaneous leaving for WCW.

Once again, Randazzo has a field day on the politics of WCW at the time, talking about how Bischoff and Hogan were sending things into a tailspin. There’s a couple of versions of the birth of “Nitro” I’ve never heard of like a prankster making up a fake fax from Linda McMahon turning Bischoff down for a job, making him want to strike back at WWF and the idea that Bischoff was sent to suggest “Nitro” with the hopes he’d be fired. So “Nitro” begins and Benoit is brought in with his intro coming out of the limo and the announcers “praising him for at least managing to make it to the arena without hurting himself.” Whatever else, Randazzo is capable of turning a phrase like describing Flair as “the cockroach scurrying over the ruins wrought by Hiroshima Hogan’s ego.” This leads to Benoit chosen for the Horsemen as Kevin Sullivan wanted to be sure no one in the group would overshadow Flair. This leads to a discussion on the whole “Loose Cannon” angle which ended up ruining Brian Pillman’s life which should have been a warning sign for Benoit.

Of course, the entire Kevin Sullivan-Nancy-Benoit situation gets some detailing. Randazzo does give Sullivan credit for breaking out despite his less than athletic physique and being ahead of his time with sexy valet the Fallen Angel aka Nancy Toffoloni. No bimbo, Nancy, when allowed to speak, showed an amazing understanding of the business and quite astute, not surprising given Sullivan living his gimmick 24/7. As a man who loved kayfabe, Sullivan insisted the whole “Benoit stealing my wife” bit look authentic by having them spend time together which made no sense to anyone given the fact they were both cheating on each other (with the infamous “Heavy Metal” story included). As everyone knows, it blew up in Sullivan’s face, trapping him in a “carny who cried work” situation that would cause him to lose his wife although Benoit also seemed stalled in his career.

Moving on to Hall and Nash’s arrival, Randazzo covers familiar territory but still does well with it, talking about how Hall and Nash came in like the Rat Pack cool and, after a strong leader like Vince, had no patience for the chaos of WCW. It brings up Nash’s old quote that “rock stars never partied as hard as wrestlers” and the wild atmosphere of the time. Randazzo makes a very interesting point here: That Hall and Nash were right for treating wrestling like a business and out for the money while Benoit and Bret Hart were “deranged marks” for actually caring about putting on good matches. Benoit is portrayed as feeling betrayed when Flair and Arn Anderson refused to help cut through the chaos and look out for the younger guys (not to mention Flair’s wild partying ways). Benoit is shown as changing, becoming colder and more paranoid as things got more chaotic, with his concussions perhaps playing a part in the behavior. It was hardly helped by the Montreal screwjob (Randazzo openly says Bret was “more famous than anyone else for forgetting that the business itself is a work,” that Bret honestly seemed to think he’d “won” the WWF title and that led to the Screwjob). Owen’s death was also a major factor and Randazzo rakes Vince for the tribute show on RAW, something that seems a bit off to me. It is fun to hear the tale of how, at the funeral, Jericho talked about leaving for WWF and Hogan asking “can you take me with?”

Along with talk of how Benoit had to be a lookout for a recovering Eddie Guerrero after the latter’s car accident, Randazzo nicely highlights the duo’s friendship with referee Brian Hildebrand and how his death from cancer also affected Benoit. He notes the tribute match to Owen along with Bobby Heenan’s less-than nice comments about Stu during it. This leads to more talk of the chaos of WCW and Vince Russo’s arrival as everyone cheered him bringing detailed notes on characters and angles…until they read them. This soon gets to the moment in January of 2000 as Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero and Saturn do their walk-out with Randazzo accusing the four of double-crossing Shane Douglas by going to secret meetings with WWF without him.

It’s probably no surprise that Vince doesn’t come off well under Randazzo who basically says the true Vince is a bigger bastard than “Mister McMahon.” He’s ruthless, callous, uncaring about anyone that won’t make him money and surrounds himself with ass-kissers. Ironically, some of his comments show the strengths of Vince, his drive and charisma and alpha dog status holding tight reign over a company made of some incredible egos. It is refreshing that Randazzo puts a positive spin on Benoit losing one of his first matches to HHH, as Hunter and Vince were both impressed by his drive and skill, making him the star of the four. He showed good charisma and interview skills and the ability to “dumb down” his repertoire for WWF. They even enhanced his gap-toothed look to emphasize his tough demeanor as the Wolverine and the birth of Daniel added to the happiness.

Of course, the good times wouldn’t last long as Benoit would soon stagnate under the power of HHH and Stephanie as Randazzo makes it quite clear his opinion that HHH doesn’t love Stephanie at all but just using the boss’ daughter to get ahead which I personally think is way off. Benoit was pushed aside and soon found his way to the injury list after his wild cage match with Kurt Angle. It’s here, in this year spent at home without the business he loved so much, that Benoit’s life, according to Randazzo, began to disintegrate. The fights with Nancy became more regular and they separated for a time before coming back together. When he returned to WWE, it was a sadder man, less enthused which wasn’t helped by the wild politics that had taken over the company. Indeed, Randazzo moves away from Benoit to portray Vince as a man who’s totally lost it, going nuts with wild schemes and ideas and refusing to listen to others while employing people (Michael Hayes, Bruce Pritchard) who regularly engage in racist banter and practices while his talentless daughter runs things her own way. A lot of quotes from guys like Dave Madigan are used, all in a negative light which is a bit of a turn-off. Yeah, Vince has had problems and he’s no saint by any means but this is really piling on the venom for non-wrestling fans.

After noting Benoit’s world title run in 2004, Randazzo moves to Eddie’s death and how it basically rocked Benoit, covering his tribute match on Smackdown with HHH and Scott Hall slamming it as too contrived (yeah, he’s one to talk). Randazzo also seems way too snide about everyone paying tribute to the passion for wresting by “a man who died thanks to his career-necessitated abuse of steroids and illicit drugs.” He slams Vince for not doing such obvious things as give wrestlers breaks and such but basically ignores how Benoit was given several months off to recover from injuries and when he came back in 2006, was given the US title right off.

So we move to the murders themselves and how the death of people like Victor Mar, Biff Wellington and Bad News Allen was pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back. Randazzo accuses WWE of making up the story that Daniel suffered from a learning disability to absolve themselves of responsibility. I do have problems with Randazzo imagining Benoit’s thoughts and feelings during the crimes as no one can truly know what he was thinking at that time. It’s painful to read the reenactment as it’s still hard to imagine Benoit capable of such an act. But Randazzo saves his venom for Vince and the “death of Mr. McMahon” angle which made true wrestling deaths seem a joke. Randazzo does take a shot at Internet fans for only now realizing how crass wrestling could be, making us all sound like dumb marks. Randazzo also joins the growing voices that Vince knew full well that Benoit was probably responsible for the murders/suicide but went ahead with the tribute show to “the baby-murdering junkie” to give himself some deniability. In Randazzo’s mind, “Vince McMahon has never killed anyone but he has unapologetically tempted hundreds who don’t know any better to pursue their own destruction and death for his financial profit.”

And that’s where the book ends. Yes, right there. No talk of the media blitz, no discussion of the aftereffects on WWE, the new wellness policy, the CNN program, the basic erasing of Benoit from WWE history. After making such a big deal of the way wrestling contributed to Benoit’s end, the book completely ignores the fallout afterward and how it affected things. Randazzo just ends the thing cold, making his case for the cold business and Benoit stand there, ignoring the fact that, as much as some will deny it, things have changed since. Oh, I know many will say they haven’t but if nothing else, the wellness policy has now been given teeth and a willingness to be used no matter what.

Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton, Ken Kennedy, William Regal, Bobby Lashley and many more. All top stars, all involved in major angles and programs, all of whom broke the policy and have been suspended for it, regardless of how it shakes up things. It’s sad that it took this tragedy to open his eyes but Vince McMahon may be realizing that ignoring the problems of workers aren’t going to make them go away and he’s taken steps to give them the chance to recover while also punishing them for breaking those rules in the first place. Also, while there’s no plan for any health insurance program or such, WWE is making strides with their checkups. Indeed, MVP would probably say the new exams are a good thing as it was thanks to them his heart condition was discovered in time to treat it with only minor surgery. Yes, it’d be wonderful if this had been set up before but at least WWE is trying (Which is more than can be said for TNA or even ROH, not to mention most actual pro sports organizations).

The key thing that’s been around since Benoit’s death has been WWE basically acting like he never existed. Like many, I was a bit annoyed by that. I understood it at the beginning as a knee-jerk reaction and all but felt they went too far with it. But as time has gone by, I’ve come to realize they have a point. Whenever I pop in a DVD featuring him, I’ll be hit by a twinge of pain, watching this man and wondering how he could possibly do what he did, ignoring the match to focus just on his horrible actions. Even the casual mention of him by HHH on his new DVD led to that feeling of anger and makes me realize WWE may be making the right move by ignoring him. Perhaps, in time, he’ll be put back in some of the histories but not with the honor he would have once had.

I said it last year but the fact is, Vince remains in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation with Benoit. Mention him too much with matches and such and he comes off as paying tribute to a monster while ignoring him too much makes him sound cold. It’s true that since then, Vince has done a lot of “throw whatever you’ve got and see what sticks” but while we’ve had garbage like the “son angle” (which was ruined by Kennedy’s suspension), we’ve also had good stuff like Orton’s nice long title reign and some improvement to matches on the regular shows. Yeah, the “Million Dollar Mania” thing is a mess but the idea of Vince McMahon giving away money is intriguing enough to notice by some fans. Let’s not forget, the man has shown surprising heart at times like paying for the funerals of workers like Bam Bam Bigelow and such so I don’t think he’s the complete and total bastard Randazzo portrays him as. Ruthless and egotistical, often but not a fool by any means and I also think blaming him totally for what happened is unfair (don’t get me started on the idea of Vince putting out fake stories when you consider how wild the media was at the time with false allegations and theories).

The media blitz on Benoit has mostly died down although you can be sure these new books will highlight it more. Irv Muchnick is working on one and I must admit to being interested in Scott Keith’s upcoming Dungeon of Death and how it’ll examine the man Keith once admired so greatly. As for myself, my opinion of a year ago mostly stands. I was never as huge a Benoit mark as others although I respected his ring work and attitude a lot. However, despite how I’ve tried, I’ve just been unable to separate the worker from the man. Indeed, for all the faults he makes in his book, Randazzo does make the intriguing observation that Benoit was far more real than other wrestlers but sadly that led to the problems of his downfall. He hits it on the head, that Benoit took it all far, far too seriously and that intensity was a key factor in what happened as well. It’s great he took it with pride but we all know that pride goeth before the fall and that was sadly the case here.

As for the fans, I know a lot of guys at the time said “I’m done with wrestling now” and ratings have dropped but we still have a lot of fans following it. It’s in the blood, really and hard to totally give up on, which may make us fools in the eyes of Randazzo but good for the business as a whole. I know some have said that we fans share the burden for Benoit’s actions, pushing him to do such stunts but I find that incredibly offensive a statement. No matter how much we may have liked or respected him, in no way did we contribute to the death of his wife or his son. That was his own decision, however troubled it was and blaming the fans for making him perform the stunts that led to the injuries is just denying Benoit the responsibility for his actions, which does no one any favors.

I still can’t forgive him. I’m sorry, I just can’t. He killed his wife. He killed his son. Whatever he felt, whatever his problems, there is no defending this, no justifying those actions. What I said last year holds: Chris Benoit is the OJ Simpson of pro wrestling and that is a stigma that will haunt his name forever. I just don’t see him ever getting into any Hall of Fame because it doesn’t seem right, no matter his in-ring accolades, to honor a man who committed such a heinous act. His ultimate forgiveness is in the hands of a higher authority of course, so I can’t say with complete certainty he’s in Hell. But it’s hard to imagine his soul at rest after what he did, despite how rough his life was.

Time heals all wounds and maybe with the passage of more years, this one can be salved. But for now, on the first anniversary, it still feels painfully raw to remember that night when one of the most respected man in our business ripped the heart out of wrestling, destroying his name, the faith in his fans and giving the business a black eye that still hasn’t faded. It’s sad that the image of Chris Benoit many will remember is the one Matthew Randazzo shows: A man foolish to get into such a dangerous business, refusing to see it for the joke it was and letting his commitment ruin his life. But that’s the fate of Chris Benoit now and it may be many a year before that changes, if ever.

Also around 411mania:

Truth B Told looks at when Indy wrestlers should jump to the big leagues.

The Fink has fans create their own stables.

Mike Chin discusses the Importance of big men.

The Wrestling Doctor rexamines women in WWE and TNA.

Julian counts down the Top 10 Rock matches.

We kick off our new “Best of 411 Era” look with an examination of tag teams of the time.

The Shimmy continues its look at the WWECW title.

Piledriver Report continues the debate on the greatest rivalry.

Speaking of which, Hubbard gives another idea for a final Bret/Owen match.

Thoughts From the Top Rope is the latest to preview the draft lottery.

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

For this week, the spotlight is off.

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Michael Weyer
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