Almost one year ago, news began filtering through that Chris Benoit, one of professional wrestling’s finest ever competitors had died at the age of 40. At first all of us, fans and the industry alike, mourned and wondered what exactly it was about professional wrestling that led to so many of it’s stars passing on before their time. WWE themselves had little or no information on how he had died, but proceeded with the Benoit tribute show on Raw that evening as those men and women we love poured their heart out over the passing of ‘The Crippler’.
As the gloomy Monday smeared into the grotesque Tuesday and the whole story of the tragic double-murder suicide came out, shock soon turned to disbelief and WWE and it’s fans were left reeling in a conundrum of conflicting emotions. Since then I imagine that many of us fans and many within the wrestling industry have found the memory of Chris Benoit a difficult and uncomfortable one to deal with.
In my view, WWE’s decision to go ahead with the tribute to Chris Benoit on the 25th June 2007 episode of Raw was the only one they could make at the time. As Vince desperately tried to explain the following evening on ECW, they simply did not know what had transpired at the Benoit house that weekend and if they had they obviously wouldn’t have put the tribute show on. Given the knowledge they had at that moment, it was the only possible thing to cancel the scheduled show and mark the occasion. Benoit had been a wrestler with ECW, WCW and WWE since 1992, and since all those companies are (more or less) now underneath WWE’s umbrella, 15 years of service could not go ignored especially from a wrestler so revered within the business as perhaps the best worker of the time.
Furthermore, WWE employees all spoke of their admiration and fondness for Benoit, many having travelled the world with him for years.
There was no way the employees would have been happy simply to ignore the Benoit situation, and why would they even suspect Benoit of having committed the crimes he did, feeling the way they did about him?
That next night began the distancing of the company from Benoit with McMahon’s direct to camera speech saying they would never mention Benoit’s name again. Since then, it’s true, on air the talent have never mentioned Benoit again and the company haven’t released any new material with Benoit’s likeness on it. That night also set on the journey, the systematic denial of Benoit’s very existence. All the merchandise associated with Benoit was pulled from the shelves and disposed of, Benoit’s profile was taken off of WWE.com and all references to him deleted. WWE, feeling the pressure of being under the microscope due to the media’s sensationalist approach to reporting the tragedy, attempted to rewrite history. To this day the only place you can see Benoit’s name is in their title histories section, where it stands as the only entry without a hyperlink. It is fair to say that WWE as a company, simply could not deal with the contrasting emotions that Benoit’s actions had brought.
If it was hard for WWE, it could be argued that the tragedy has been more conflicting for the fans of wrestling. Benoit was after all, the quintessential wrestler’s wrestler, 9 times out of 10 he was the best worker in the promotion he worked for. His matches were invariably the best on the card and it was with some level of authenticity that Benoit was widely thought of as somebody who could have a good match with anyone. He seemed, inside and out of the ring, in his public appearances as someone with dignity who took great pride in his work. He seemed like the kind of guy, that as a wrestling fan, you wanted to see do well because of the effort he put into entertaining the fans and the passion for which he felt for the industry. In many ways he was the ultimate icon of the ‘hardcore fan’ and to believe that he will now be much better known for his horrific actions outside the sports entertainment world than for his exceptional performances within it, is still to this day, hard to take. This never more true than when revisiting those moments in his career that were most important.
The end of Wrestlemania 20 was without a doubt, at the time, one of the most rewarding moments for the hardcore fan base in wrestling history. Benoit and Guerrero stood celebrating; each with their respective world titles, getting a storming round of adulation from a grateful Madison Square Garden crowd is a memory that lives long in the conscious. Both deserved it, after toiling away and paying their dues in wrestling rings all over the world for years, finally they had received the recognition they so thoroughly deserved. The hardcore faithful rejoiced that ‘their’ guys were on the top of the industry, where they rightly belonged. After watching it recently however, I felt strange. It was undoubtedly a proud moment for anybody who loves watching wrestling but it can never be enjoyed with the same gusto as it was at the time. Watching it now, Benoit’s tears at the end of the main event make the whole thing seem inappropriate somehow, as if for some reason we all should have realised that Benoit was going to commit the murders of his family.
Wrestlemania 20 was also Gurrerro’s moment too. He and his long time friend had been through so much together and there they were the Kings of all of wrestling, it had to be one of the defining moments of Eddie’s career. Yet, now this moment in Guerrero’s legacy is tainted by the presence of ‘The Crippler’. Will it be harder to remember Guerrero they way he should be remembered because of his close association with Benoit (case in point, where was The Radicals debut when WWE put together their Raw anniversary DVD?) What about Gurrero’s Hall Of Fame induction in 2006 shortly after Eddie had passed on? What was a moment to celebrate the life of one of the most beloved wrestlers in history features Benoit, along with Rey Misterio, inducting ‘Latino Heat’ into the Hall of Fame. As a fan, these moments have taken on a new weight to them that previously they did not hold. Whilst the fan in you is eager to join the celebrations of Gurrero’s life, the human in you is finding it hard not to ignore that Benoit is there.
Benoit also featured in another moment similar to the Guerrero Hall of Fame Induction. It was he who in October 1999, took part in a match with Bret Hart as a tribute to Bret’s late brother Owen. This was a beautifully constructed match with the two men showing the kind of performance levels that had seen both draw plaudits from fans and their peer’s alike. In Hart’s WWE documentary career retrospective ‘The Best There Is, The Best There Was and The Best There Ever Will Be‘, Bret ranks this match as one of the greatest moments of his wrestling life. For him, who counted Benoit as a close personal friend, what emotions does he have watching the match again? For myself as a wrestling fan and a human being, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel a little strange commemorating the life of one person by watching a match featuring a man who took the lives of others, and so the Benoit problem continues.
With Benoit’s life being wholly deleted from WWE’s memory, what price other than the obvious loss of life has the Benoit tragedy cost? How many wrestlers had the best match of their career’s with Chris Benoit and know that nobody will get to see it because it involves perhaps wrestling’s most infamous star, a man WWE don’t want to recognise as even having existed? How many fans considered Benoit their favourite only for his actions to permanently crush their support for not only the man but maybe even the sport? I have found it hard to enjoy Benoit’s matches since this time last year when I have looked back on them. I can no longer watch them and enthuse about the brilliance of his work because Benoit no longer seems like the humble, passionate, hard working future hall-of-famer that he used to be, his legend is now one of evil rather than icon, the dreadful events of last year have made sure of that forever.