Anyone familiar with professional wrestling from the mid to late 90s to the early 2000s will recognize the name, Chris Benoit. The five-time best technical wrestler was a staple of the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in the companies successful years. While most of the WCW was comprised of aging superstars scalped from the more successful WWF (the precursor to the WWE after a bit of litigation from the World Wildlife Federation) Benoit was a superstar in the early part of his career. At a time when wrestling was comprised mostly of gimmicks in poor taste- actually, professional wrestling has always been comprised of this- Benoit was the exception to the norm. The man, as mentioned above, had a technical wrestling style that seemed more suited for the Olympics than showtime. Think Kurt Angle without the buffoonery. Chris seemed calculated, poised, and collected whenever he fought. I remember watching him growing up and he, along with Sting and Macho Man, became one of my favorite wrestlers during the years when I enjoyed the sport, or show depending on your point of view.
What made Chris Benoit such a popular figure in American Professional Wrestling was that, at 5’11 220 lbs, he wasn’t some larger than life superhero. What made the WCW a success- along with the New World Order- was its promotion of a weight class outside of heavyweight and a more realistic, technical approach to wrestling. It’s important to note the climate of professional wrestling at the time Benoit rose to fame. In the mid-90s the WWF was more focused on the theatrics and heavyweight gladiators of the professional wrestling world. WCW’s breaking from the norm allowed the new kid on the block to challenge for pro wrestling supremacy and few embodied the WCW approach better than Benoit.
I don’t know how wrestling works nowadays, or how it worked in 2007 for that matter. On June 11 Benoit was drafted from SmackDown! to ECW as part of the 2007 WWE draft and was slated to fight for the ECW World Championship at Vengeance on June 24. The Pegasus Kid would not make the event. The day before the event, June 23, Benoit called fellow wrestler and close friend Chavo Guerrero telling him his wife and son were ill with food poisoning and that he was working to reschedule his flight to the event. Guerrero would later say something sounded off during the phone call.
On June 25, 2007, police entered Benoit’s home in Fayetteville, Georgia after the WWE requested a “welfare check” due to Benoit missing the Vengeance events without notifying the company. The officers discovered the bodies of Chris, his wife Nancy, and their 7-year-old son Daniel each with a Bible placed nearby. It was determined that over a three-day period, Benoit had killed his wife and son before committing suicide. Nancy had been bound before the killing while Daniel was found with Xanax in his system and was likely unconscious before Chris took his life. After the double murders, Benoit hanged himself on his lat pulldown machine. Both Chris and Nancy were found with Xanax, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone in their systems at therapeutic levels.
The WWE released the following statement immediately following the tragedy:
World Wrestling Entertainment is deeply saddened to report that today Chris Benoit and his family were found dead in their home. There are no further details at this time, other than the Benoit family residence is currently being investigated by local authorities. Tonight’s Raw on USA Network will serve as a tribute to Chris Benoit and his family. WWE extends its sincerest thoughts and prayers to the Benoit family’s relatives and loved ones in this time of tragedy.
After the gruesome details of the event were brought to light the WWE distanced themselves issuing this statement the following day:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Last night on Monday Night Raw, the WWE presented a special tribute show, recognizing the career of Chris Benoit. However, now some 26 hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent. Therefore, other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr. Benoit’s name tonight. On the contrary, tonight’s show will be dedicated to everyone who has been affected by this terrible incident. This evening marks the first step of the healing process. Tonight, WWE performers will do what they do better than anyone else in the world: entertain you.
For a man who fought for a living, and regularly took metal chairs to the back of the head, concussions are a part of the job. Tests conducted on Benoit’s brain by Julian Bailes, the head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, showed, “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.” Other tests showed severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and damage to all four lobes of the brain and brainstem. To be perfectly clear, the purpose of this piece is not to condone or justify Chris’s actions. The man committed a horrific act, however erasing him from existence- largely the approach WWE has taken- doesn’t sit well and seems disrespectful to Nancy and Daniel. While the NFL has taken, albeit forced to some degree, steps to remedy the brain trauma its sport has had on its participants the WWE simply swiped the tragedy of Chris Benoit under the rug.