I've been meaning to write this for a few days, but I just had to get my head around what has happened.
Besides music, there is nothing in this world that I love more than professional wrestling. Ever since I was six years old, it has been my obsession. Everyone in my life thought it would be a fleeting thing, like it is with most boys. My fervor has grown with each passing year. I love the athleticism, the passion and the pageantry. As a disabled person, I live vicariously through these men and imagine myself fighting alongside them. It has gotten me through many of the worst times my life, and been the icebreaker for my greatest friendships.
Wrestling fans become very attached to their favorite performer. Unlike conventional sports, where the team often overshadows the individual, fans have an intense bond with their favorite wrestler. Although we may not know the person outside of their character, they become our friends, our enemies and our rivals. When a favorite wins, we are right there with him, and when they lose we feel their pain. It's a passionate love affair.
In 1997, I was a hardcore WCW fan. This was during the heyday of the nWo, and the company was on fire. The shows not only had star power, but also had the best in ring action I had ever seen. I was exposed to wrestling styles from around the world. I saw lucha-libre, the Japanese “strong style” and British technical wrestling. That's when I first saw him.
He was a member of the Four Horsemen then, along with Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Steve McMichael. He was non-descript and could not cut a promo to save his life. Then I saw him in the ring, and my jaw hit the floor. Everything looked legitimate. This man was an athlete of the highest caliber. I started to follow him, and I liked him more with every match I saw.
He didn't become one of my favorites until Bash at the Beach '97. I bought the Pay Per View to see Dennis Rodman get his ass kicked by Lex Luger and the Giant. However, after the midcard, the main event became an afterthought.
He was going up against Kevin Sullivan that night, in a retirement match. If I were 22 at the time, I would have called it "an old fashioned blood feud inspired by the likes of Magnum TA and Tully Blanchard." At the time, I thought they hated each other. The match blew me away. The two men tore each other apart, and every blow connected with a loud smack of flesh. These two hated each other, and you could taste it. My friend Jeremy and I were screaming as if this was the last wrestling match we would ever see. They went back and forth, back and forth. They kicked out of every pinning combination I had ever seen. Then he climbed the turnbuckles and hit his famous swan dive. Jeremy and I screamed the numbers we had heard a million times, our hearts stopping with each slap of the referee's hand.
Stay down Sullivan!
Would Sullivan get his shoulder up at the last second?!
Jeremy and I jumped three feet in the air when we heard the bell ring. We hugged each other and ran around the house screaming "HE WON! HE WON! HE WON! HE WON!" We would see Chris Benoit wrestle another day. We finally calmed down enough to watch him walk up the ramp. I had never seen such courage displayed in the squared circle. At that moment, I had someone new to look up to.
After his match with Sullivan, Benoit seemed to get better and better. I watched him have phenomenal match after phenomenal match. He helped make Booker T into a singles star with their Best of Seven series. He had a technical clinic with Dean Malenko at Road Wild. He was Bret Hart's personal choice for a tribute match for his brother Owen. Each time, Benoit showed respect and honor for his profession. The more I read about Chris Benoit, the more I liked him. There was no scandal. He seemed to be what he was on TV: A class act with profound respect for the fans and his sport.
When Benoit jumped to the WWF in 2000, along with Eddie Guererro, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko I was thrilled. Finally he would be in a place where his skills would be appreciated. Once again, Chris Benoit proved that he had the skills to back up his reputation. He had fantastic matches with The Rock, Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho.
Although Benoit had the skills, I doubted he would ever be world champion. After all, he wasn't very good on the mike and was a cruiserweight. Cruiserweights never made it to the top of the card. However, in 2004, he did the unthinkable: he won the Royal Rumble. He entered the ring at #1, and lasted an hour against 30 of the biggest names on the WWE roster. When the bell rang and he collapsed from exaustion I had goosebumps. An actual wrestler had a shot at the sport's most valued prize. The title would be decided in a Triple Threat match with Shawn Michaels and Triple H.
WrestleMania XX was already shaping up to be one of the best nights I'd ever had as a wrestling fan. Eddie Guererro retained his WWE Championship in a great match against Kurt Angle. The Undertaker went back to his deadman persona, with Paul Bearer in tow. The magnificence of Madison Square Garden added to the aura of the event.
Shawn Michaels came down to the ring first, showboating as usual. Then Benoit, who looked like a man on a mission. Finally the champion strode down to the ring, confident in his abilities. As I looked at these three men in the ring staring at each other I remember thinking "This one is going to be special." I was right. The main event of WrestleMania XX is one of the greatest matches I have ever seen. Like Sullivan, it went back and forth, back and forth. There were reversals on top of reversals, kickout after kickout. Michaels and Helmsley both wore the crimson mask.
Towards the end of the match, Hunter had Benoit setup for a Pedigree. My heart sank, the dream had ended. At the last second, Benoit was able to reverse the hold and now had Triple H in the Crippler Crossface! I screamed with joy, but it looked as if Hunter had kicked Benoit away. My heart sank again.
BUT WAIT! CHRIS BENOIT HELD ON AND ROLLED THROUGH!! HUNTER IS LOCKED IN THE CRIPPLER CROSSFACE WITH NOWHERE TO GO!!!
My heart was beating so fast I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
C'mon Hunter, tap. Tap before I die.
TAP! TAP! TAP YOU SONOFABITCH!
I was yelling so loudly that my brother thought something was wrong and came in to check on me.
With one final burst of strength Benoit reared back, increasing the pressure on Hunter's neck. Finally he couldn't take it anymore and tapped his hand on the canvas. The Game was over.
I let out a scream of orgasmic joy. Chris Benoit won the World Title at WrestleMania. Referee Earl Hebner got the belt from the timekeeper and presented it to the new champion. Benoit burst into tears. I did too.
Confetti started to pour from the ceiling of the Garden. Benoit turned around saw his best friend, fellow champion Eddie Guererro. The two men stood in the center of the ring and hugged. The dream had come true. Then Benoit's family poured into the ring: His parents, his wife Nancy, daughter Megan, and sons David and Daniel. It was the most poignant moment I have ever seen in a wrestling ring.
As I watched Benoit walk up the aisle that night, I will never forget what I was thinking:
"This represents everything I love about this sport, and I am proud to call this man my champion."
All my life I had been made fun of for liking wrestling, and I finally had someone that I could show to people that weren't wrestling fans. After I would show them one of his matches, they would begrudgingly admit that Benoit was a legitimate athlete. Each time I saw Chris Benoit my respect grew. He earned every ounce of it.
In November of 2005, his best friend Eddie Guererro died of a heart attack in his hotel room. On RAW the next night, Benoit cried his eyes out and I thought I had seen a glimpse of the man behind the character. I felt empathy for everyone that night, but Benoit's tearful speech shook me to the core.
Benoit soldiered on, moving to Smackdown and winning the United States title once again. He seemed to be preparing the new generation of stars, feuding with Montel Vontavious Porter. MVP's ring presence improved with each bout.
Two weeks ago, Chris Benoit was traded from Smackdown to ECW. He looked CM Punk directly in the eye, and I anticipated Benoit's greatest feud yet. I had fantasies of hour long time limit draws, and respectful handshakes. The young lion and the cagey veteran were about to collide.
The feud never happened.
On Monday morning, I went to 411mania.com to read the Vengeance results. Nothing really stood out, except for the fact that Benoit missed his match with Punk due to "personal reasons." I thought it was odd, but figured a grandmother had died or something. I pushed the news aside and went on with my day. Around 5:30 PM, I checked my Myspace page and saw that Marty Jannetty had posted a bulletin. Marty's bulletins are usually overdramatic, so I gave it passing glance. The passing glance turned into disbelief:
"please tell me Chris Benoit and family is NOT really dead!!"
Oh God....not again. Not again.
I opened the bulletin:
"WWE is reporting that Chris Benoit and his family has all been found dead in their home...I'm just trying to get my mind right to be a pawl bearer at Sherri's funeral....and...Chris being another good friend...come on man..some one tell me either this is a stupid a stroyline...or....am I fuckin dreaming???? or in hell!!!"
No....No....This can't be true. Marty is probably just looking for attention. I'll go on WWE.com and everything will be fine.
Marty wasn't lying. Chris Benoit was dead. Another piece of my childhood gone forever....and his whole family went along with him. I was dumbfounded. Was it carbon monoxide? A robbery? Had he been murdered? I couldn’t believe it.
My friend Shaun came over that night, and we watched RAW together. The show opened with Vince McMahon explaining what happened to an empty arena in Corpus Christi. McMahon scrapped his "death," and promised us some of Benoit's greatest moments. As I watched the ending of the 2004 Royal Rumble, I thought that this format had become too familiar. Benoit's coworkers delivered tear-filled speeches about what a great man Chris Benoit was inside and outside of the ring. Their stories reaffirmed my respect.
Shaun left shortly after the telecast ended. I was about to go to bed, but decided to check WWE.com one last time. They now had more information. Chris Benoit had killed his wife and child before killing himself. I reread the sentence a million times, but it still didn't click. Monica IM'ed me and said the story was on CNN. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was guilty of mourning a murderer. I went to bed with a heavy heart.
I woke up the next day with the media in full swing. They didn't give a damn about Chris Benoit before, but were quick to judge the situation. Wrestling is a horrible redneck sport, so of course steroids and the WWE were to blame. I didn't know what to think. I told my mom what happened and she dismissed Benoit as "Just another whacko."
I went to work and tried to forget about the whole thing. My coworker Gina is a fan and she asked me how I was holding up. I looked her directly in the eyes and said: "I'm devastated." My coworker Stephen condescendingly asked me what was wrong and I told him. He dismissed my feelings. My coworker Lauren said that it was a tragedy, but with a smirk on her face. She is too smart for wrestling.
I went on the WWE website several times that day, and watched the company try to erase all traces of Chris Benoit from history. I watched the media turn the Benoit situation from a tragedy into another excuse to show the evils of professional wrestling. When I went to the wrestling websites, people were going through the exact same feelings I was trying to deal with. How can you forgive yourself for cheering a murderer? Should I even watch wrestling anymore?
The story kept getting more bizarre as the days went on. Vince McMahon went on the Today show to defend his company and got jumped on by Meredith Veira. Lauren made a comment about steroids in wrestling while I was watching it, and I childishly lashed out. I told her to shut the fuck up and yelled and screamed. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I quickly composed myself and apologized, but I felt as if I were being attacked as well. Our society is very hypocritical when it comes to wrestling. It's perfectly fine to watch a reality show with vapid Playboy Playmates, but if you watch wrestling you are the scum of the earth.
The media coverage of the event has only made this worse. It's too easy to say "just avoid the media" because it's impossible in our society. The talking head shows claimed that they were blaming Benoit, but were really going after wrestling. They hired bitter ex-wrestlers who lost their ride to substantiate their claim: Mark Mero, Lex Luger, Debra McMichael and The Ultimate Warrior. The only show that seemed to give the story a balanced approach was Nancy Grace, who admitted she didn't understand the business or the murder. Chris Jericho appeared on her show and actually told it like it was. The worst was Bill O'Reilly, who got Irving Muchnick, a respected journalist, to give another aspect to the story. O’Reilly never even let him speak, calling him a Benoit apologist.
I have had enough. This would be so much easier for me if I didn't like Chris Benoit so much. I know wrestling isn't real, and that these guys are just playing characters but until Monday night nobody had a bad thing to say about him. I'm not apologizing for Benoit at all, but I want there to be some explanation for why he did this. Why did he throw it all away? There has to be a better answer than steroids or prescription drugs.
This blog may be hard to understand if you aren't a wrestling fan. Chris Benoit killed his family, why are you upset? The man is a murderer, get over it. I am upset because I had a lot of honest emotion wrapped up in this man. His matches brought me a lot of joy, and they are some of the best times I've had as a wrestling fan.
I suppose I'll have to separate the performer from the person. I may be able to do that eventually, but it won't be for a long time. Right now, I'm too numb. I know Nancy and Daniel are in a better place, and I hope Benoit made peace with his maker.