The Benoit Tragedy
– Chris O’Mealy 6/23/17 – 9:25Pm
This will easily be one of the hardest things I’ll ever write about, but I feel it is a necessity. It has been ten years since Chris Benoit, one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, killed his wife Nancy, and young son Daniel, before killing himself in what would become one of the biggest scandals and witch hunts in the history of the sport. There are still so many unanswered questions that we’ll likely never get resolved. Still, as hard as this is to reflect on, I see it as somewhat therapeutic to the situation. I understand if the subject matter is too heavy for you, and you give my articles a pass this week. I don’t blame you at all. For those of you still reading, let’s have a look back at the events of that tragic June weekend in 2007.
The date was June 25, 2007. I was on summer break from college, attending the School of Broadcasting at Montclair State University. I was gearing up for my first study abroad trip to Nice, France. I had stopped by my old school and place of employment, Sussex County Community College, to visit with my colleague and friend, Tim. I got a phone call from my friend Pat McDermott, who some of my readers may know now as an aspiring coach for DDP Yoga. I thought he was calling to visit the college too and see me before I left for my trip, as we’d attended classes together since high school. The somber tone of his voice indicated that something was wrong. He informed me that WWE.com had posted an article stating that Chris Benoit and his entire family were dead. This was disturbing news, as the night before, Benoit had no-showed a WWE PPV event, where his substitute, John Morrison, defeated CM Punk for the ECW Championship. While we all concluded that Benoit’s absence was strange, we all sort of just rolled with it. Now it had come to light that he had passed on. Tim and I scrambled to his Mac to confirm the news and try to figure out what happened, but no cause was in place yet. Raw that evening was cancelled, and the three hour show that was planned to be a mock funeral for the “deceased” Mr. McMahon, who was “blown up” in a limo explosion a few weeks back, was replaced by a real life tribute show in which the announcers openly wept and the wrestlers gave emotional confessions about the passing of their friend, coworker, and mentor. Benoit’s entire career was highlighted and glorified. I had planned to enjoy my last night of Monday Night Raw before I left for Europe, but now I was selfishly distraught that my Raw memories were a tribute to a fallen warrior. I recorded the episode on a VHS tape, much like I did with the Eddy Guerrero tribute shows in 2005, so I could re-watch it as often as I liked. I’ve never since watched that tape and no desire to, even though I still own a working VCR.
Like most of you, I awoke the next morning, and began to process the news that had broken. This wasn’t some sort of tragic accident, this was a murder-suicide. That night on ECW TV on Sci-Fi, Vince McMahon opened the show to explain that you would not hear Chris Benoit’s name mentioned on the broadcast. Little did we know, we’d never hear it mentioned again.
Now, let’s get one thing clear. This article isn’t meant to point fingers or try to be a detective. I know as much about the details of the case as you do. What I’m here to do is clarify my position on the situation as a whole, and what I feel should be happening now that ten years have passed. Whether you agree or disagree is irrelevant. What’s important is that we all keep an open mind moving forward. After all, none of us truly knew the real Chris Benoit. Of course, we feel like we did, being connected through so many other wrestlers who’ve opened up about him since the incident took place. My favorite wrestler, Chris Jericho, speaks pretty openly about his relationship with Benoit and how it personally affected him in his second book. He also interviewed Chavo Guerrero and Nancy’s sister, Sandra Toffoloni, on his podcast. I encourage anyone who hasn’t read or listened to these stories to do so, as they are straight from the sources who knew him best, and really hit home. They also all made sure to let us know who the REAL Chris Benoit was, not the monster that the media portrayed him to be. I’m getting ahead of myself though.
Many people I know have trouble separating Chris Benoit the wrestler from Chris Benoit the man. I fault nobody for this, as it can truly be hard to go back and watch Benoit’s matches without the shadow of his finals days lingering over them. While I personally have been able to do that, I don’t blame anyone who hasn’t. For that very reason, I don’t fault WWE for not featuring his classic matches on compilation DVD releases. While it’s no fun to see a retrospect of Kurt Angle’s greatest matches and not have his exciting bouts with Benoit included, I don’t fault the WWE for doing so. However, there’s an upside to this. The WWE Network now has all of Benoit’s matches included, unedited in their original formats, on every PPV and show he’s a part of. So it’s not as if WWE erased him from the archives forever.
Some people may not agree with that. Many fans want Benoit’s matches included on these DVD sets. Still, others wish WWE would edit him out completely. I highly disagree with that last statement. No matter what the circumstances of one’s death are, it simply cannot be pretended that Chris Benoit never existed. In fact, doing so is often taken as a personal insult to those who knew him best. Jericho himself debated whether to include a photo of him with Chris and Nancy in his first book, but stated that to eliminate the photo would be to act is though they never existed. That’s something I truly agree with.
I’m not saying WWE, or anyone, should be going out of their way to glorify Chris Benoit’s career, but pretending it never happened is just foolish. In fact, by ignoring Benoit in many instances, I feel as though WWE inadvertently draws more attention to him. A perfect example of this is the first Money in the Bank Ladder Match. WWE released a compilation collection of the matches to home video, and while the unedited version is available on the network, watching the match via this DVD will eliminate Benoit’s entrance entirely (suddenly there’s another guy in the ring) and muting the commentary anytime he does anything makes the match feel awkward. If you’re a new fan watching this for the first time, and you Google search the match to figure out who this sixth man is, you’re going to learn all about his life very quickly. In many ways, trying to avoid attention to Chris Benoit only adds attention to Chris Benoit, which I feel is truly counter-productive.
I don’t expect WWE to ever induct Benoit into their Hall of Fame, or release a documentary on his life after the fact, or even feature his “Hard Knocks” DVD on their network. The way they’re currently handling things is the right way. Include him where he was included, but draw no new attention to him after June 2007. As wrestling fans, we really can’t ask for much more.
Most wrestling fans I talked to said many things that reflect my own feelings. Benoit was a great wrestler, but we really shouldn’t be asking for a Hall of Fame induction or a career showcase at this point, even ten years later. Here are a few quotes from people I talked to about Chris Benoit.
“Chris Benoit was one of my all-time favorite wrestlers. I will never forget receiving a text message that he had died while on my way home from work. I honestly could not believe it was true. Little did I know the absolute horror that would follow. I remember feeling emotional during WWE’s tribute to him on Raw but something just felt off the entire time; like there was more to the story. Later that night, the truth started to trickle out and I was flabbergasted. Fast forward to 2017. I consider him one of the greatest in-ring workers of all time and I can still sit back and appreciate his matches. However, there will forever be something lost. Any personal connection I felt towards the man was lost that fateful day and will never return. I disagree with trying to erase him from history but I also understand why WWE does not go out of their way to show him in old clips and I do not blame them one bit if they never put him in the hall of fame. I think it just stirs up bad memories all around. I have little doubt Chris was a good person at one point in his life. His friends all seem to speak of him in glowing terms prior to the tragedy. However, the actions of that one day will forever define his legacy in the eyes of myself and many other people.” –Chris from Rochester, New York
“Benoit was one of the, if not the greatest in ring grappler of our generation. It’s a shame he will (or has been) erased from history.” –Glenn from Charlotte, North Carolina
“As a worker, Benoit was top notch, and he could take virtually anyone and make them look like a million bucks. It’s still a tragedy what happened, and I believe if the WWE had better TBI/concussion protocols, the senseless tragedy that took place could have been possibly avoided.” –Randy from Vancouver, Washington
“Benoit was the wrestler that showed me what psychology could do for a match. His matches with Jericho and Kurt Angle were masterpieces. On the one hand, his work is something that every wrestling fan should watch. He was a true masterclass of the sport. On the other hand, as a father and husband, I cannot see him and not immediately think of what he did. I’m not someone that can separate the worker from the man and I don’t believe that after what he did he should ever be in the Hall of Fame.” –Allan from Denham Springs, Louisiana
It’s hard to disagree with any of their points. As great as Chris Benoit was, it simply won’t be feasible anytime soon to separate the man from the monster. That is why I feel he should not be a candidate for WWE’s Hall of Fame in the near future.
These are testimonies from wrestling fans. People outside of wrestling, namely the United States government and the media, attacked the professional wrestling business after the tragedy took place and nearly destroyed the industry as a whole. Of course, once they moved on to the next tragedy in the media, everyone outside of wrestling quickly forgot about Chris Benoit. It’s a typical media ploy, to get the hot story and always keep moving, but it’s baffling how quickly the uninformed masses were suddenly so educated about the wrestling business and thought they had all the answers. It still angers me to think about it. I don’t openly discuss things I don’t understand, and I stay out of other people’s business when the subject matter doesn’t pertain to me, so this felt like a personal attack on me and every wrestling fan. It still boils my blood to think back and remember these nobodies in wrestling like Marc Mero and Debra suddenly trying to become relevant again by siding against the wrestling industry. I remember a great quote from Bill DeMott regarding Debra, and how the wrestling business was great to her, so she was happy when she was making a ton of money. Suddenly, she’s not making money, so now she thinks the business is awful. Bill said that makes her a knucklehead (awesome word) to even feel that way, and I agree with Bill wholeheartedly. Where is Debra today? Do you know? I sure don’t, but I do know that she’s nowhere close to the land of relevancy anymore.
With the media inquiries pushed aside, the WWE prodding along as if nothing ever happened. While Benoit’s name may still come up in the wrestling industry, it’s always outside of the world of corporate wrestling. It will be mentioned on podcasts by non-WWE wrestlers, or even by WWE talents in a non-WWE environment, but never within those corporate walls. WWE has an image to protect, and while we can chuck rocks at them for their bullying tactics while promoting B A Star and other such nonsense, they are doing the best thing, given the circumstances, when it comes to Chris Benoit.
I personally don’t want the entire legacy of Chris Benoit to be tarnished. I hate seeing Benoit’s name excluded from a list of Royal Rumble winners, even though I understand why he isn’t featured among them for the highlight of “best Rumble winners.” I hate seeing the WrestleMania XX main event ignored when WWE does a retrospect on WrestleMania, even though I fully understand why the match isn’t featured. I hate that I can’t own a new DVD with a classic Benoit match on it, unless he’s forced to be included (Money in the Bank, Elimination Chamber, etc) because so many classic matches are being ignored. Fortunately, ten years later, they’re not fully being erased like they were in the years following the tragedy, and I consider that a huge plus.
However, I want to end this article by stating that I see a real glimmer of hope on the horizon. His name is David Benoit, and he’s Chris’s son from his first marriage. David is training to become a wrestler, and the possibility that he could join WWE is quite real. David is close with many of Benoit’s former friends, so a wrestling career on a mainstream platform is within the realms of possibility. Now, surely WWE won’t go out of their way to announce David as a second generation star. They’re probably force him to use a gimmick name. But, you can’t hide from your past forever. Sooner or later, it will be revealed who he is. The smart fans may even chant for him. David’s wrestling career could finally help ease the pain of the tragedy.
In the end, that’s all I really want. I want the pain to ease. I want everyone to be able to watch a Chris Benoit match and get suckered into his amazing performances. I wish for his wrestling career to be recognized as one of the best of all time. I wish Chris Benoit, the man, could be lionized for everything he was before the final weekend of his life. Ten years may not be a long time, but maybe fifteen will be. Maybe twenty will be. Maybe it will never happen. Nobody can truly predict the future. All I know is that I hope one day everyone can remember and see Chris Benoit the same way I do, as selfish as that sounds. Of course, I fault nobody for their feelings of Chris. I just hope they keep an open mind when it comes to everything about him that isn’t involved in that unspeakable weekend.
I choose to remember Chris Benoit as an amazing wrestler whose final days were a result of his brain condition and nothing more. There are things that I wish were different, but for now, I think where we are is regards to his career is honestly the best course of action. Who knows what the next few years will bring.
Due to the heavy content of this article, I asked my readers and Club Kayfabe WrestleTalk podcast listeners to keep the questions fun this week, as a way for me to decompress after that rough, but also relieving, article I just wrote. Thankfully, they delivered. Enjoy this week’s Q&A!
Q: Who are your favorite comedic/comedy-based wrestlers and why? (Via Russell on Facebook)
A: I love a good comedy wrestler, as I feel every promotion needs a blend of fun and serious wrestlers. Looking back, some of my favorites were Edge & Christian, and Rock & Sock Connection. Mick Foley’s charisma with both the Rock and E&C is unparalleled. I also love comedic babyface Chris Jericho, especially in WCW where he said and did whatever he could to get over. Santino Marella sticks out too, because once he found his groove as a comedy wrestler, he had the Midas touch. I do enjoy silly antics like the guys in CHIKARA pull off, even if my hero Jim Cornette doesn’t. Of course, I HATE forced comedy. Anything that bucky beaver toothed Kevin Dunn finds funny, I generally think is garbage. And don’t even get me started on Oklahoma. I respect Ed Ferrera due to his friendship with some of my close friends, but he deserved to be punched in the face for mocking Jim Ross’s Bell’s Palsy.
Q: Thoughts on the Mark Henry/Mae Young angle? (Via Randy on Facebook)
A: Easily one of my least favorite moments of all time, but I do defend it because it was a product of its time. The Attitude Era was about shock TV and gross humor appealing to the MTV generation, and this was one of those angles that somehow got over. It’s still talked about to this day, so even in infamy, it worked. You never near the commentators bring up Katie Vick anymore, and there’s a reason for that. Still, if I never see the clip again, it will be too soon.
Q: What’s the one dream match you want right now that is still possible? (Via Allan on Facebook)
A: Kurt Angle Vs. Shinsuke Nakamura. The best technical wrestler of his generation meets the best technical wrestler of this generation. True, this match did happen in New Japan, but I’d like to see it on a WrestleMania stage, much like I’d like to see Nakamura and AJ Styles clash. As far as opponents who’ve never met, to the best of my knowledge, Shinsuke Nakamura Vs. Seth Rollins has never taken place. I think they’d tear the house down. WWE already blew it with Undertaker Vs. Sting, so I really hope they give us the Angle match before he’s forced to retire. Sorry, but Angle Vs. Triple H is NOT a dream match for me. Especially since I’ve seen it dozens of times already.
Q: What is your favorite gimmick match of all time? (Via @ThisIsChev on Twitter)
A: It probably sounds weird to keep it simple, but I have three. Battle Royals, simply because they’re fun, and the Royal Rumble because of the unpredictability of who is coming out next (although the last few years the match overall has massively disappointed). I also love tournaments (bring back King of the Ring dammit) and elimination tag matches. Survivor Series matches are traditionally a highlight of the year for me. I used to love TLC matches, until the gimmick PPV overdid the concept of them. And of course, a good hardcore match is always fun. But I want it fully hardcore – No DQ, falls count anywhere, hardcore. Stop coming up with 200 different ways to call a No DQ match, especially when Falls Count Anywhere is basically No DQ.
Q: Stevie Richards and the Meanie were known for cosplaying many different characters, what were your favorites?
A: Nothing beats the Blue World Order, but I was also a big fan of their KISS getup. That may have been their absolute best. Stevie Richards was always so underrated as a performer.
Chris O’Mealy is a former indy wrestling promoter, ring announcer, manager and referee. He is the founder and moderator of the Club Kayfabe Creative Community (http://www.ckcconline.com) and currently hosts three podcasts and writes for his own blog (http://comealy17.wordpress.com). He can be reached on Twitter @chrisomealy or emailed directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also contact him on Facebook (facebook.com/chrisomealy), but he will only accept a friend request if you ask him first.