Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Tragedy of Chris Benoit, and The Tangled Web of Pro-Wrestling

On Monday night, following the breaking news that WWE superstar Chris Benoit had died in his home over the weekend with his wife and mentally-challenged son, Vince K. McMahon Jr. broke down the fourth wall between him and his audience. Vince was supposedly dead, a victim of a very poorly staged carbomb which was unfortunately widely reported on in the news media, but now, he was simply the boss paying tribute to a model employee; not many fans of pro-wrestling would argue that Chris Benoit was one of the greatest of all-time. He was infinitely more athletic and skilled than the Hulk Hogans and Steve Austins of the world, and when he finally won the Big One, the World Wrestling Entertainment Heavyweight Championship, it was considered by fans to be long overdue.

If asked, Vince would probably answer that Benoit's accomplishments over a 20+ year career were even more significant in the wrestling world because he didn't have the looks or charisma that someone like The Rock had, or the size that any number of famous monster champs had. Hulk was 6'6", Triple H & The Rock were 6'4", even Steve Austin was 6'2". Chris Benoit was 5'10" on a generous day, probably closer to 5'8", but he stilled suplexed the 7'2" Big Show out of the ring to win The Royal Rumble battle royale and his subsequent title shot at Wrestlemania 20. Of course we know it was all fixed, but you jump in the ring, the first of 30 men, last a whole hour, and finally get tossed around by a 500lb. giant, and let's see how you do... 40lb. forearms dropping on your back still hurt even if the punches are pulled. Benoit was a tireless worker. He busted his hump for the love of the business, and that was his persona; he didn't need to crack wise on the mic. He was vicious in the ring, first earning the nickname "The Crippler" because, well, he crippled a guy. Later, he was the "Rabid Wolverine" (no doubt because he reminded more than a few people of the X-Men hero after a haircut), and his gimmick was simply that he was missing a tooth, obviously knocked out in the heat of battle.

All the reports and interviews with co-workers are noting that his real life personality was the farthest thing from his frenzied in-ring character. He was a good friend to countless people, and selfless in helping others achieve their dreams. Now, as all the horrible details of this tragedy are reported by the GA Police department or leak out from every loose mouth in the news media, the WWE is faced with the unfortunate position of having paid tribute to a man that appears to have murdered his wife and son. They've pulled back, and put the PR machine on overdrive. It's sad really; I think what everyone is forgetting is that no matter what he did, that 3-hour tribute show was not for Chris Benoit the man, but for Chris Benoit the entertainer, the performer, the employee. It's not about who he was, but what he did in the ring, and that's separate from the darkness that surrounds his former home right now. After 20 years in service of the fans, Benoit deserves a respectful thanks and a moment of silence.

But the country at large probably won't give him that, because pro-wrestling is the new travelling circus. A lot of the fault lies at McMahon's feet. Vince's decisions in storylines have made the Entertainment in "Sports Entertainment" laughable on a regular basis, and whatever Sports are left, they mostly involve guys getting hurt for the viewing pleasure of others (falling right in line with our Jackass culture). Young men gather around the water cooler to talk about the weekly happenings in hushed tones because they don't want to admit they watch. It's become an embarrassment. I know this is true because I used to be one of these young men. I haven't watched in about 18 months, and I'm sure I haven't missed anything other than the departure of Kurt Angle (more on him later), but when I did watch and later talk about it, I usually looked around to see if any women were around before I let loose with my theories on whatever championship belt feud was going on. I didn't want to admit that I watched, but I still did. I could say that when I started watching in 1996 or 1997, it was a way for me to spend time with good friends that I didn't see enough; we just got together every Monday. It was easy. But then, I can admit, I got into it, despite later realizing that Vince McMahon and his creative team haven't had a fresh idea since those late 90's glory days, and that watching the shows every week was kinda like eating pizza everyday for lunch; ya know, everyone loves pizza, but after a while, enough is enough. By 2004, I was routinely nodding off throughout the shows.

One of the reasons the shows' quality declined is because Vince McMahon has a documented love for pushing the "Big Man" to the fore, with no regard for their skill level. Hulk Hogan is the classic example. He was 6'6", 330lbs., and looked like he was straight off Venice Beach, CA. He was better looking than the likes of Andre The Giant, and was memorable on the mic. But he couldn't really wrestle beyond the basics. He pulled out the same old moves for his entire career. Shit, he showed his most varied set of maneuvers in Rocky III. Since then, it's been a parade of larger-than-life men, with rippling physiques, which has repeatedly brought up the Steroid question. Look at a raging freak like Gene Snitsky, with his back acne (a noted side-effect of steroid use), or Adonis-types like Scott Steiner or Chris Masters, who have so many muscles they can barely move. Guys like this have nothing to offer beyond their size, and where do you think that size came from? McMahon and his company have denied denied denied for so long, but after Internet news sites reported on a new WWE steroid policy a few years ago, you saw Masters, Snitsky, and others shrink and lose definition. Hmmmm...

Now, along with the Benoit tragedy, comes the discussions. The comparisons to major league baseball's current troubles have started already, with some crying for government intervention. Government officials would probably shy away, stating that since pro-wrestling, with its outcomes being predetermined, is not a competitive sport, there is no playing field to level. Others would state the alarming figure, one that will surely be repeated frequently in the media for the next few days: in the past decade, 60 current or former pro-wrestlers under the age of 45 have died. This is a frightening statistic. Steroids may not be the cause of death, but turn the whole stat on its side, and see that the steroids AND the deaths are the effects of the business.

Like in baseball, when people talk about steroids, they point out the mass, the muscles, the mysterious growth of Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi & Mark McGwire. But also like in baseball, the problem with steroids in wrestling might be more covert than that. Pitchers use steroids as much as power hitters, but the pitchers use it to heal faster. This is most likely the way in which a lot of pro-wrestlers use steroids; they're hurt on such a regular basis, they need something just to keep going. Wrestling personality and Steve Austin's ex-wife, Debra Marshall was quoted today as saying she saw Austin take steroids, and considering the time in his career when they were married, it is likely that he used the steroids for this purpose. This goes hand in hand with the well-documented and widespread addiction to painkillers across the pro-wrestling business. According to current TNA Wrestling star Kurt Angle, in his various radio interviews following his departure from WWE, Vince McMahon regularly encouraged his wrestlers to perform injured, and so the wrestlers, trying to keep favor with the boss, get addicted to whatever will keep them upright. It could be steroids or painkillers, or it could be booze, weed, or cocaine. It could be all of those things (See: the tragedy of the late Eddie Guerrero, Benoit's good friend). And one thing that came out in the reports for a lot of those 60 deaths is that the wrestler was severely depressed, a result of the drug abuse and hard profession. It is verging on an epidemic in the business. Could you look at Benoit's career, and blame the profession, the life, "The Sickness" as wrestlers call it, for his actions?

To make matters more complicated, there is the ongoing scientific investigation into the connection between multiple head injuries in NFL players and their effect on the player's mental state. Former wrestler Chris Nowinski had to leave the wrestling business because of a severe head injury, and now, according to a NY Times story, he dedicates his time to investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that can cause memory loss, depression and "bizarre, paranoid behavior". Despite a 2003 report of spousal abuse filed by Benoit's wife, Nowinski doesn't believe that Benoit snapped in a fit of "'roid rage" - he instead believes that it was "repeated, untreated concussions that might have caused his friend to snap."

This story will not end until the entirety of this chain is addressed. Is it steroids, painkillers, and drugs, because Vince McMahon pushes his talented employees too hard? Did Benoit take too many chair shots to the back of the head (Nowinski says yes, "[Benoit] was stupid")? Could it maybe be that 20 years of acting as a violent character, along with the other factors, would readjust your reality? Whatever the answers to these questions are, Vince McMahon needs to stop the PR machine from shielding his organization, walk out into the fray, and try his hardest to assist in solving this equation. Otherwise, his whole world will crumble around him, and he'll be holding many more tributes to lost employees.

- NY Times story, including the bit with Chris Nowinski
- Monday Night Raw intro, featuring Vince McMahon's original statement, and a 4-minute highlight reel of Chris Benoit
- Vince McMahon's...repositioning

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