It was one of the most infamous stories in the history of professional wrestling.
It was a case that almost brought an already-maligned industry to its knees.
It was as a case was surreal as it was shocking, as confusing as it was damaging, and as infamous as it was notorious.
Of course, it’s the case of Chris Benoit.
Authorities in Fayetteville, Georgia, were called to the Benoit residence on the morning of June 25, 2007, after Chris, one of the biggest stars in WWE, missed several shows without explanation. His son, Daniel, and wife, Nancy, had also not been heard from in several days.
Benoit had been with the company for seven years. His career started in Calgary, Alberta, where he developed a reputation as an intense, serious performer with a demeanor not dissimilar to his real-life persona. He later moved to Japan, putting on critically acclaimed displays with a multitude of talented and acrobatic wrestlers. By the end of the 1990s, he was seen as one of the best in the world – and found himself in seriously high demand.
Professional wrestling is a much more complex and nuanced form of entertainment than its given credit for. Fans know it’s not real. The key to Benoit’s success was he made wrestling feel real – as any great performer does. Pro-wrestling is built on storytelling, emotion, and intensity – and Benoit, the performer, had all three attributes in spades.
It’s due to this ability that he won the companies top prize, the World Heavyweight Championship, in March 2004. His eighteen-year journey of blood, spandex, and adversity was finally recognized with the catharsis of being at the helm of the world’s biggest promotion (WWE) in the most famous arena on Earth – Madison Square Garden.
Everything seemed to be perfect in the Benoit world. Chris was on great money, had a loving, caring family, and was the top guy in the world’s top promotion. The company had enough stock in him to let him run with the belt for 5 months (which is quite a long time in wrestling), and he continued to entertain his legions of fans week in and week out. Although he did eventually lose the title (passing the torch, as it is known), Benoit was still scripted and presented as one of the company’s top performers. He used his acquired career capital to shine a light on and work with younger performers to help establish themselves and eventually follow in his footsteps to the World Heavyweight Title. Throughout his career, Benoit was known as a consummate professional who lived and breathed pro-wrestling, and would often punish himself for a perceived poor performance by ruthlessly exercising to the point of vomiting.
It was his professionalism which made his absence from a show in Texas so notable. Benoit was supposed to be wrestling C.M. Punk for the companies third-tier World Championship – a big match. Some fans had bought tickets just to see the two of them work with each other. C.M. Punk was one of the company’s brightest up-and-comers at the time and a match with Benoit would help solidify his place in the canon of WWE television. As the authorities approached the gates to his residence, they had ample cause for concern.
Benoit hadn’t been the same after 2005. If the previous year was the apex of his career, this year was the lowest. The pendulum of professional wrestling is a cruel one sometimes. Benoit’s best friend on Earth was Eddie Guerrero – the two became friends in Japan in the ’90s, had been in WCW (the second largest wrestling promotion at the time) together, and eventually jumped ship to the WWE in 2000. The two were inseparable, Guerrero’s extroverted and affable persona seemed to somehow mesh with Benoit’s brooding intensity rather well. They had an unspoken bond and would always be there for each other in times of peril. When Chris won the World Title in Madison Square Garden, Eddie was the first to come to the ring to celebrate with him. Guererro happened to be the other World Champion (the WWE Champion) at the time. The two were often written off and underused because of their relatively small sizes – and had transcended a world dominated by giants to become the leading men of the WWE. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script.
They also couldn’t have written a crueler ending – as 38-year-old Guerrero died in a Minnesota hotel room on November 13, 2005. His death came both as an enormous shock and a frightening wake-up call as years of drug abuse caught up with him. The whole industry was shaken to its core as massive changes in drug testing became the norm. A whole encyclopedia of previously-allowed substances was banned in an instant. Wrestlers and fans alike mourned but none were affected quite as profoundly as Chris Benoit, who broke down during his tribute the following night on Monday Night Raw. The already quiet and reclusive Benoit recoiled into his shell even more in the following months – hardly conversing with anyone in the locker room, appearing even more stoic on camera, and keeping a diary where he wrote to Guerrero about his daily life. It was his way of keeping Eddie alive in his memory.
Benoit continued to wrestle every week. It was the only career he had ever had – and perhaps his routine kept his mind occupied and grounded in the present moment. His intensity and proficiency inside the ropes never waned, his appearances never got less regular, and he continued to perform high-risk maneuvers, such as the Diving Headbutt, every show.
Benoit was known for his hard-nosed, self-destructive style of wrestling. He’d often take unprotected steel-chair shots to the head, get smashed in the temple with championship belts, fall off ladders, and land on his head performing moves. If you’ve ever set foot in a wrestling ring, you’ll know the canvas is not forgiving and it takes weeks to get accustomed to landing on it. Benoit had suffered numerous concussions in his career and had apparently forgotten how many he had received when asked.
It is also obvious that Benoit used steroids. His physical frame was enormous and he was still considered small by wrestling standards. By the time 2007 rolled around, his brain (and physique) had 20 years of wear and tear on it – although his outward persona remained, to his friends, as calm and as pensive as ever.
His Fayetteville residence was equally calm from the outside on that June morning. Authorities had now entered his gates and were heading towards his back-door after finding the front entrance locked. Upon walking into the house, they were greeted with a chilling, anonymous emptiness in the front room. It was is if there had been activity only a short time before but, for some reason, was not there anymore. As if the lights were on but nobody was home.
Sadly the eery tranquility didn’t last. As police ventured upstairs, they found the body of his wife, Nancy, lying dead on the bathroom floor. She had been strangled and a bible was placed next to her. A short time later they found seven-year-old Daniel who had suffered the same fate. They later found Chris Benoit’s body hanging from a lat-pulldown machine in his home gym down in the basement. Authorities immediately knew that there was no need for a suspect hunt – they knew who the culprit was. A letter, penned by Chris Benoit, was later found with the introduction ”I am preparing to leave this Earth”.
It’s been almost 13 years since the incident. Media coverage focused heavily on the steroids that were found in Benoit’s house and lazily blamed the murder-suicide on ‘roid rage’. WWE came under intense media scrutiny almost collapsed under the sheer weight of the case. The name ‘Chris Benoit’ was quickly scrubbed off any piece of WWE-related media as his career and existence were swept under the rug in a flash. Wholesale changes came in banning chair shots to the head and intentional bleeding. Concussion tests were swiftly introduced and those with them were not to be cleared to wrestle. The landscape of the industry completely changed, and WWE has been rated PG ever since 2008.
Chris Benoit’s crimes obviously do not deserve to be defended. However, the closest anyone has to an explanation came when his brain was analyzed by former wrestler (and now scientific author) Christopher Nowinski. Nowinski’s company, the Sports Legacy Institute, found that Benoit’s brain had been so badly damaged from his years in the ring that it resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. He was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated strikes to the head. Side effects can include paranoia, depression, reckless behavior, and seething aggression. A toxic cocktail for a man who was already severely depressed after losing his best friend.
I am in no way defending Benoit’s actions and I agree with WWE’s move of erasing any mention of him. Perhaps the depression and CTE tell us how Benoit reached his eventual state, but nothing can ever tell us why he chose to do what he did. Nor is it my place to speculate here, as I’m not going to cheapen the sanctity of two innocent lives by turning their case into rambling conspiracy-fodder.
In the end, Chris Benoit almost single-handedly destroyed the very industry he loved so much. His legacy as a performer still remains, but he has disqualified himself from any further discussion within the industry due to his horrendous personal acts.
The ‘why’ behind this is a torturing question that will always go unanswered.