Five years ago, the lives of every wrestling fan around the world changed forever. Monday, June 25, 2007 police entered a suburban Atlanta house and found the bodies of Nancy Benoit, 7-year-old Daniel Benoit, and professional wrestling superstar Chris Benoit.
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.
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.
For years, during the “Monday Night Wars” between WWE and WCW, the consensus was that WWE had the more entertaining show, but that WCW was where the real wrestling was. Chris Jericho even commented as such on his DVD documentary that WWE released in 2011. He said that WWE’s main events – using Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin as an example – usually topped WCW’s – using Hulk Hogan vs. Roddy Piper as an example – but that WCW’s mid-card blew everything else away.
The core group of WCW’s mid-card in the late ‘90s were some of the best wrestlers in the world. Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Raven, Saturn, Rey Mysterio, Billy Kidman, etc. But at the top of that list was Chris Benoit. He was head and shoulders above everybody at that point, and was arguably the top wrestler in the world at that time.
Slowly but surely, most of that group jumped ship to WWE. When Benoit, Malenko, Saturn, and Guerrero all debuted in WWE on the same night, that has been unofficially marked as when the Monday Night Wars ended. WCW stayed in business for another 15 months or so, but they no longer had any sort of edge over WWE at this point. Now, the entertaining stories had the solid wrestling to go along with it.
If you want to parallel things from present day, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan take us back to the early 2000s and the story of Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero. All four were told they were too small and unable to make it to the top of WWE. Guerrero worked his way to the top by becoming one of the most charismatic wrestlers of all time, in addition to being an amazing technician. Benoit, while not quite as charismatic or having great microphone skills, exuded a certain something that resonated with audiences. He was the underdog and people respected that. He was small, but he was believable. His style was hard-hitting and showed that he could hang with anybody, no matter the size or build.
There is one word that makes the Benoit tragedy so crazy to comprehend: respect. The fans respected Chris Benoit. He had been on national television for over 10 years at that point. People had watched him grow from underappreciated mid-carder to World Champ. He was, without a doubt, the most respected wrestler among fans. That is why it was so hard to believe that he killed his wife and son, before hanging himself.
In the days that passed, wrestling was under fire and I hated it. The Nancy Graces and Bill O’Reillys of the world were having a field day sensationalizing it. You would think a story like that would report itself and you wouldn’t need to go to the extremes like they did, but it’s all about ratings. If all the channels are reporting the same thing, they need something to win that edge.
I saw a parade of former wrestlers try to destroy the industry that made them stars and millionaires. I was taken aback at how some of these wrestlers were seemingly trying to get themselves back into the public eye and make things about everything except what it was supposed to be – the senseless deaths of three people.
I remember only three people making any sort of sense during that time – Chris Jericho, Bret Hart, and Kevin Nash. Those were the only three I recall being interviewed that I actually enjoyed listening to. Larry King Live later featured a panel that included then WWE Champ John Cena, Jericho, Ted DiBiase, among others that I liked.
It was always hard enough having friends who knew you were a wrestling fan. It got even harder during the summer of 2007. The shit-talking, the dumb jokes, the bad commentary, it all just got worse after the news of Benoit was leaked.
And now, 5 years later, where are we?
Benoit’s death was the unofficial trigger for increased awareness of concussions. After studying his brain, it was found to have extensive damage from getting throttled around inside his skull. His study came out, in addition to a couple former NFL players who committed suicide around that time, and it became a hot-button issue.
The NFL has changed how they handle head trauma, instituting new rules and procedures to ensure player safety. WWE has officially banned the use of chairs to the head. TNA and Ring of Honor have not publicly stated anything, but they no longer utilize them. WWE also tests harder for concussions, and have pulled wrestlers from high profile matches upon realizing they had a concussion; Randy Orton and Alberto Del Rio being among the most recent.
Wrestling is in a different place than it was 5 years ago. I think wrestlers are smarter now to the risks they take with their bodies. Two wrestlers known for the hard knocks they have taken over their careers have notably spoken out about it – Mick Foley and Nigel McGuinness. Foley has said that he is donating his brain to the same foundation that studied Benoit’s. McGuinness, in his recent ROH documentary retrospective, stated that he would not be surprised if he had brain damage from his battles, and even mentioned Benoit on the set.
What is Chris Benoit’s legacy? Does he deserve to have one? In his second autobiography, Chris Jericho writes about his WWE career, which included several feuds with Benoit. When recounting his matches with Benoit, he adds a line to the effect of “And, according to WWE, that match doesn’t exist.”
Basically, he doesn’t exist on WWE programming anymore. If you go to the title histories section of WWE.com, his name is listed in the lineage, but that’s it. He is not included on retrospective pieces; for instance, Randy Orton’s first-ever World Championship victory is not included on Orton’s WWE DVD release, because it was a match against Benoit.
The only footage of Benoit to be prominently featured by WWE is Ric Flair’s 1998 return to WCW, in which Benoit was one of five other men in the ring. It was such a huge moment in Flair’s career, and out of respect to the 16-time World Champ, WWE chose not to edit it in any way. I doubt they would do that for anybody else, and I think had Benoit not stood in the background and not uttered a word, WWE’s stance on it might have been different.
Does Benoit deserve to have his career erased? Do other wrestlers deserve to have parts of their career erased? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to those questions.
Obviously, things have changed. When I see pictures of him, I react differently. His matches are different now upon viewing. I’m conflicted on how to remember a man who at one time I looked up to and respected.
But, the show goes on. It hurts, but you pick yourself up and keep going. That’s what WWE has done, that’s what professional wrestling has done, and it’s what wrestling fans have done.