When Chris Benoit failed to show up to WWE’s Vengeance pay-per-view on June 24th, 2007, their talent relation’s office had been told a mixture of missed flights and food poisoning were behind the absence. But for someone who had been heralded for years as a consummate professional, it seemed off.
That night Benoit was set to bag the vacant ECW World Heavyweight Championship against CM Punk in a move that would see him bumped back into the company’s nonpareil, having spent a year or two in undercard purgatory. But he gave it a miss, handing the belt to Johnny Nitro by proxy.
The next day, having been tipped off by some suspect messages sent by Benoit to fellow wrestler and friend Chavo Guerrero, WWE called upon the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department to drop-in on the family. They discovered the deceased bodies of Benoit, his wife Nancy, and their son, Daniel, in what they reported back to WWE as a ‘major crime scene’.
It couldn’t have come at a more awkward time for the company. Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon, had just written his ‘Mr McMahon’ persona out of any further public appearances by having him die in a hammy limousine explosion and the episode of RAW taking place the day after Vengeance in Corpus Christi, Texas, was scheduled to be a three-hour long tribute to him.
Instead, when the cameras rolled, the only person anyone could see was McMahon, holding court in an empty arena, revealing to the shock of the internet-less fan base that Chris, Nancy and Daniel Benoit had all been found dead, and that night’s show would, by contrast, be a tribute to him and his achievements.
Two years earlier in November 2005, the WWE had acted similarly following the death of Eddie Guerrero. But the death was non-suspicious. After an autopsy showed that he had been slain by acute heart failure brought on by struggles with pills and alcohol, the WWE introduced a wellness policy and shook off any employees who didn’t stack up. It was covered.
The same could not be done for Benoit. The WWE had to act fast and appropriately, regardless of what he had done for them. And sure enough, they did. Within a day of broadcasting the shell-shocked musings of mourning wrestlers, the WWE had purged its site of almost all mentions, clips and images of Chris Benoit. The biopic Hard Knocks was withdrawn from shops, Vince McMahon solemnly announced there would be no further talk of Benoit and the company moved quickly and successfully on.
They really did. Whatever else may be said about shortfalls of quality or character, the sheer scope of what they now call the WWE Universe is unassailable. Ten years later, the business is outrageously booming. You only have to take a look at the stadiums that Wrestlemania sells out to understand how paltry those niggling comments of ‘how can you watch that when it’s fake?’ really are. Everybody knows it’s fake and no-one gives a shit. Except maybe the wrestlers. And that’s where the problem might surprisingly lie.
During a frank chat with author Jon Ronson in the months following Benoit’s double murder-suicide, WWE’s most famous Brit, William Regal, had dismissed the allegations of steroid use playing a part in his long-time friend’s actions. He said that it was Vince McMahon’s decision to admit that his enterprise was fixed which actually laid the foundations for years of wrestling tragedy.
When we used to tell people it was real, we didn’t have to do half as much hard work as we do now they know results are fixed. We have to do far more dangerous high-impact moves. People won’t watch if they think it’s phoney.
Casual critics will point out to you the oversells of fake punches and the synced stamping of feet but rarely consider direct steel chair shots, Mick Foley suffering internal bleeding after that Hell in a Cell match, or in this case, Benoit careering into an announcers table after botching a running dive. The amount of bona fide hits these guys take day-in-day-out, year after year is not to be sneered at. It would leave any one of us running for the medicine cabinet.
But does prescription abuse absolve murder? No. Regardless of how many people are quick to say so.
Examiners found no trace of anything to do with ‘roid-rage’ in Benoit’s system and concluded that years of head trauma was the most likely indicator as to why he did what he did. West Virginia University neurosurgeon Julian Bailes’ further results showed that his brain ‘was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.’
His former contemporaries will translate his acts of murder as ‘snapping’ and cushion the horror of his exit with odes to his unfailing manners and devotion to the craft. With the odd exception of the rare pragmatist, most of those who worked with Benoit have found it increasingly difficult to blanket ban him from their lives. Kurt Angle most recently praised him.
He told Chris Jericho on his podcast:
I’m sorry, but he has got to be in the top three of all time. I mean, you can’t deny that. I mean, even Bret Hart will tell you that. I’m not going to excuse any of the things Chris did outside of wrestling, but when he was in that ring, he was possibly the greatest of all time.
For the most part, the beliefs and actions of historical figures haven’t come between their achievements. Being renown as a syphilitic paedophile hasn’t stopped the work of Paul Gauguin being hung on the walls of galleries and homes alike all over the world. Likewise, the anti-semitic drivel that chequered Richard Wagner’s career hasn’t muted performances of Ride of the Valkyries.
Is it different when it comes to Chris Benoit? Yes and no. There’s an obvious difference between inciting something horrible and undertaking it. But I think WWE’s total boycott of reference is counter-intuitive.
Chris Benoit is a watertight part of their history, their fabric. Recognising his death soberly and honestly, instead of airbrushing him out like a Stalin detractor could not only heal wounds of the company and its disaffected fans but prevent this from ever happening again.