Sunday, June 25, 2017

Chris Benoit: 10 Years Later

A decade has passed since the darkest day in professional wrestling history. Monday, June 25, 2007, police officers entered the Atlanta home of Chris Benoit and discovered his body, as well as the bodies of his wife Nancy and 7-year-old son, Daniel.

Sometime over that weekend, Chris killed Nancy -- who had performed in the wrestling industry from the late 1980s until the late 90s -- by wrapping a cord of some sort around her neck and strangling her. The next day, he sedated his son before putting Daniel's neck in the crook of his elbow and strangling him. That Sunday, Benoit sent some erratic-sounding text messages to a few fellow wrestlers, before hanging himself using a pulley system on a weight machine.

Benoit had missed scheduled events during that week, calling officials and explaining that his family had all gotten sick with food poisoning. He missed that Sunday's "Vengeance" pay per view event, where he was to wrestle CM Punk for the vacant ECW Championship that he was scheduled to win. He had no contact directly with WWE officials that day, and it was publicly stated during the show that Benoit was missing the match due to "personal reasons."

WWE officials learned of the erratic texts that he sent on Sunday that Monday. They called the Atlanta police and asked them to perform a welfare check. The officers then discovered the bodies. Around 5:00 p.m. the decision was made to cancel the 8:00 p.m. 3-hour show for that night and air a Chris Benoit commemorative episode. Before the show was off the air, the word had gotten out that it was being investigated as a murder-suicide. It wouldn't come out until Tuesday that it was Benoit who had murdered his family.

To commemorate the five-year anniversary, I wrote a piece over at @TricycleOffense in 2012 looking at where I was and how I felt that day in 2007. I looked over it for the first time in a while and I feel like it still holds up well. So, the following is an excerpt from that article.

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Tricycle Offense | July 9, 2012

I remember the day clearly. I usually tried to avoid working on Monday nights, but sometimes I would have to. It usually worked out, as I would get off at 8 p.m. and make it home in time for wrestling at 9. This time, Monday Night Raw was a special 3-hour episode and started at 8 p.m. That is when I was scheduled off and explained to the manager my predicament. They all understood my weird obsession with wrestling, so I was allowed to leave at 7:45.

I made it home at 8:15 and quickly turned on the television. What I saw completely threw me off and confused me.
 
Bill Goldberg.
 
Goldberg, who hadn’t been a WWE wrestler since 2004, was on my television destroying everybody around him. I watched for a few seconds and quickly realized what I was watching – the Royal Rumble from 2004. A 30-man battle royal, this was the segment in the middle after Goldberg had just entered. The winner of that event was Chris Benoit. It led to his World Heavyweight Championship victory in the main event of WrestleMania 20.
 
I had figured out what it was, but I still didn’t know why it was on my TV screen. That is, until a graphic at the bottom of the screen popped up saying “In memory of Chris, Nancy, and Daniel Benoit.” I didn’t have Internet access where I was, and this was before the proliferation of smart phones. I called my then-girlfriend Kelly. She wasn’t a wrestling fan, but kept up with it by proxy from being around me. She answered the phone:
 
Me: “Go to WWE.com for me.”
 
Kelly: “What? Chris, no.”
 
Me: “I think Chris Benoit is dead.”
 
She couldn’t get to WWE.com, as their site was over capacity. I told her to try PWInsider.com. Again, she couldn’t get through. I had been on her computer, so TNA’s website was in her history. She went there and they had posted a condolence message for Benoit.
 
I watched the rest of the show in a trance. I couldn’t believe that one of my favorite professional wrestlers was dead. I tried to wrap my head around that. And around the fact that all three were dead. I was trying to brainstorm how. Car wreck? Carbon monoxide poisoning? Home intruder? I thought of every possible scenario except for the actual one.
 
Since WWE had just found out hours before Raw that Benoit had died, the show that night had been canceled, and a 3-hour tribute was quickly put together. It was highlights of Benoit’s career introduced by the announcers, as well as video comments from wrestlers in Benoit’s memory. A few weeks earlier, WWE had started the controversial “Mr. McMahon has died” angle and Vince appeared in the ring inside the empty arena saying that the show was originally supposed to continue that story, but because of Benoit’s death they were dropping that.
 
Later that night, I got online and tried to find out more information. I still couldn’t load PWInsider.com, but I managed to get onto WWE.com and saw a brief blurb that said the incident was now being treated as a murder investigation.
 
Before I went to bed that night, I re-watched the 2-disc Benoit documentary that WWE had released in 2004. As I was watching one of my favorite wrestlers discuss his early days in ECW, his turmoil-filled years in WCW, and finally his road to redemption in WWE, I started processing the information in my head. I wasn’t feeling very good about the situation the more I thought about it. As sick as it sounds, I remember thinking to myself as I was falling asleep, “I hope Nancy killed Chris.”
 
I didn’t want one of my heroes tarnished. That’s what Chris Benoit had been to myself and a lot of other people. He had been a hero. He was an example of hard work and dedication paying off for somebody who was told he wouldn’t be able to do something.

[Read the full post at Tricycle Offense dot com]

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WWE came under a lot of fire for airing the tribute show. In their defense, who could have imagined something like that happening? The next day, on the Tuesday ECW program, a taped message from Vince aired before the show. He noted that now that the facts are coming out, there will be no more mention of Benoit's name. 

McMahon noted that the WWE superstars were going to go back to what they did best -- entertaining everybody watching. He said that that day was the first in the healing process.

So, where are we 10 years later? Have we healed? What is the state of WWE and wrestling in general?

For the safety of the wrestlers, the industry is in a much better place. After the 2005 death of Eddie Guerrero from heart disease, WWE began implementing their Wellness Policy. After the 2007 death of Benoit, they finally started getting really serious about it.

Benoit -- and Guerrero before him -- were both heavily using steroids, but not being criticized for it. That culture seems to have largely been removed from the wrestling world. Jacked-up bodybuilders with unnatural bodies are a thing of the past.

True to their word, Benoit has not been mentioned or shown on WWE programming in the last 10 years. You cannot search "Chris Benoit" on the WWE Network, as nothing shows up. You can still watch events that feature his matches, though.

There was an uncomfortable stigma around wrestling in the later half of 2007 and for a while afterward. That, too, is largely gone. The wrestling world that Chris Benoit existed in has turned over both a new generation of wrestlers and fans. There are a lot of young fans who have no idea who Benoit is.

What is Benoit's legacy? Does he deserve to be remembered for what he was before June 25, 2007 -- one of the greatest wrestlers of all time? Does he deserve to be remembered as a heinous murderer who took two innocent lives before taking his own? Is there a gray area for possible head trauma from concussions clouding his mind? Alcohol use? Steroid "roid rage" potentially?

As I mentioned five years ago, Benoit was the unofficial catalyst for increased head trauma awareness in sports. The National Football League has been under fire for the issues that happen to their athletes. 

I feel like we won't know for a long time the full extent of brain trauma in athletes. The only way to study an athlete's brain is after he or she has died. A lot of athletes -- both in professional wrestling and other sports -- have agreed to donate their brain to science. All we can really do is wait for those findings.

To put a positive on the tragedy, increased awareness of head trauma related to concussions and the cleaning up of an oftentimes filthy wrestling industry is perhaps what we have 10 years after that awful late June 2007 weekend.

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