June 26, 2007

On Chris Benoit

Anyone who's read the official bio that my agents circulate about me around town knows that one of my prized collection pieces is a commemorative folding chair I got to keep as a souvenir from Wrestlemania XIV, held at Safeco Field in Seattle back in March of 2003.

"Prized" because, ever since I gawked with my kindergarten buddy Tito at the sight of Pedro Morales going into fake convulsions after being tossed over the top rope and onto the concrete floor by Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, I've been a fan of professional wrestling.

I suppose, being a short, nerdy kid with a hyperactive imagination and not much natural athletic ability, wrestling was right up there with comic books as sort of inevitable.

But it was something that never really went away. My mom would tell stories about growing up watching Slave Girl Moolah cheat her way to victory over poor Daisy Mae when the female wrestling circuit found it's way into her small town of Cambridge, MD. Some of my fondest memories of my late maternal grandfather involve sitting next to him one row back from his favorite seat in the upper deck of the Baltimore Civic Center to watch Hulk Hogan narrowly escape defeat at the hands of Killer Khan. Or going with the son of some of my parent's Amway associates (long story) to the 2nd row of the 5th Regiment Armory to see the Road Warriors bulldoze The Four Horseman. I'd even gone so far as to design my own wrestling role-playing game my freshman year in high school using paper character markers, sheets of graph paper marked off like an arena, and a bunch of 10 and 20-sided dice I'd swiped from my "Dungeons & Dragons" set - oddly enough, it was such a big hit among my classmates at my all-boys private school, that the study hall proctor threatened to shut it down because he thought I'd set up some sort of adolescent gambling ring.

I WISH I'd been that devious. :-)

And, by the time I was an adult, that just meant I now had the cash and freedom to indulge in as many pay-per-views and live events as my heart desired.

I'd pulled back the last few years, largely because there were only a handful of characters that I still enjoyed watching. The Rock had left to make movies. Steve Austin had injured himself and pissed off enough people in the business that he'd clearly worn out his welcome. Hulk Hogan was past his prime 15 years ago. Ric Flair is a shadow of his former, glorious self.

And then, there were the deaths.

And I'm not talking about the old timers who gracefully exit this mortal coil after a long and illustrious life like Classy Freddie Blassie or "Big Cat" Ernie Ladd or Gorilla Monsoon or Stu Hart.

It's the early deaths of apparently healthy people who are clearly being eaten away on the inside.

Brian Pillman. Crash Holly. Louie Spicoli. Miss Elizabeth. Mr. Perfect. Eddie Guerrero. Ravishing Rick Rude. The Big Boss Man. Terry "Bam Bam" Gordy. Owen Hart. Davey Boy Smith.

And that's just in the last 10 years.

Let's not even get into "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert or Adrian Adonis or Dino Bravo from way back in the day.

Hell, in just the last year we'd lost both Bam Bam Bigelow and Sensational Sherry, and poor Kurt Angle just looks and acts like he has a freakin' death wish.

It wasn't as fun as it used to be, and the specter of the grim reaper seemed to loom larger every year.

But this Chris Benoit thing.....

So, let's back it up for a minute.

Chris Benoit was an extremely intense in-ring performer. Former champ & announcer Larry Zbyszko once said "Benoit hits guys like they owe him money". He was also one of the most technically proficient and gifted and dedicated performers ever. Dude had to have his neck surgically reinforced a few years ago after a spinal injury, and he continued to finish matches with a flying head butt off the top rope.

Back in 1996, I had a bit of a family outing to WCW's Great American Bash at the renamed Baltimore Arena - the usual suspects of me and Grandaddy, but, this time, my younger cousin, my mom, and my 10 year old nephew also came along. And one of the highlights of the night was one of the very earliest true "Falls Count Anywhere" matches put on by a major promoter on a pay-per-view. As the name implies, the two wrestlers can battle it out wherever they want - there's no countout, and the referee has to follow them wherever they go. So if, say, one guy wants to pin the other guy on the announcer's table instead of inside the ring, that would count towards winning the match.

This particular night, "Falls Count Anywhere" pit Benoit, nicknamed "The Crippler" after he dropped the Tazmaniac on his head and put him out for nearly a year with a broken neck, against old school crazy guy Kevin Sullivan. The storyline was that Benoit's valet, a hot little sumthin' who called herself, simply, "Woman", was Kevin Sullivan's wife and that she'd started shagging Benoit on the side, so this match was about payback.

The scary thing was that it wasn't just a storyline. In real life, "Woman" was named Nancy Daus and she really was Kevin Sullivan's wife, and she really HAD started shagging Benoit on the side! And Sullivan was, what they call in the wrestling business, a "booker", which is essentially a writer for storylines and match outcomes. So, it looked as if Sullivan had booked himself in an especially dangerous match with the guy who'd been creeping with his wife behind his back.

And the match did not disappoint - Sullivan came out to the ring first and then met Benoit with a fist in the middle of the main entrance. They stood there swinging on each other for, like, a minute, before tumbling over the guardrail and into the crowd, where they continued to fight their way all the way up the arena steps, PAST our section in the lower mezzanine, THROUGH the doorway to the concession stands, and INTO the men's room. A camera crew followed them the whole way and never bothered to clear the bathroom before hand. There were guys literally hanging root at the urinals as these two duked it out.

My nephew begged my mother to let him follow them into the bathroom. I'm sure you can guess her response.

Announcer quote of the night - "Head first into the commode!"

Benoit was a fan favorite and a bigger star at this time than Sullivan. And, let's face it, just like in the movies, audiences always cheer for the girl to go with the younger, better looking guy over her creepy husband. So Sullivan booked the match for Benoit to win and for one of Benoit's buddies to join him in kicking Sullivan's ass some more at the end of the match.

Talk about externalizing your emotional pain.

Kevin Sullivan kind of faded into quasi-retirement after that. "Woman" also eventually stopped as an in-ring performer and married Chris Benoit a few years later. When Benoit, after nearly two decades in the business, won the world championship in the main event of Wrestlemania XX at Madison Square Garden, Nancy joined him in his post-ring celebration with their young son Daniel and Chris's children from a previous relationship. In the video, you can see him kiss his son and hold him in the air with his newly won championship belt hung over his shoulder.

That was his family, back in 2004.

This weekend, after sending a text message to one of his co-workers about a "family emergency", Chris Benoit roped up Nancy's feet & hands before strangling her. A day later, he smothered 7-year-old Daniel with a plastic bag in his bed. And then, a day after that, he laid a Bible next to each of their bodies, went into his weight room downstairs, and hung himself with the cable from an exercise machine.

There are lots of untimely, unnatural wrestling deaths. Given the amount of stress they put on their bodies and spirits, even suicide is not entirely unthinkable, although, sitting here, right now, I can't really recall any instances of wrestlers intentionally taking their own lives.

But murder?

I mean, we can be mad at Lex Luger for inadvertently causing Miss Elizabeth's death because they were screwing around with too many prescription drugs. But Luger was stupid and reckless. That was an accident.

This is murder.

And, even though, I suspect, it will probably fall under the category of "crime of passion" - there is an element of pre-meditation here that, if it had ever gone to court, probably would have earned Benoit the death penalty anyway.

Who knows what might have set him off to kill Nancy in the first place (although, knowing the history, I'm sure a picture is now forming in all of your minds) - but, doing what he did, in his addled frame of mind, knowing what might be waiting for him in the judicial system, Benoit may have thought he was mercy-killing a soon-to-be-orphaned Daniel.

Who knows?

But (and I'm really reluctant to say this, but, what the Hell), everything has an energy that is intrinsic to itself, no matter how it evolves. And when you start wrong, it's real hard to end right.

Chris Benoit - may God have mercy on your soul, and the souls of your victims.