Wrestling

Crossface: A Fall from Grace

By Steven O’Connor

Tragedy

June 24th 2007 was a day that will forever live in infamy as Fayetteville Police entered the home of professional wrestler Chris Benoit to find the bodies of Chris, his wife Nancy and their seven-year-old son Daniel. Upon further investigation it was discovered that over a three day period, Chris had strangled his wife and suffocated his son before hanging himself in a shocking double murder-suicide. This event would send shockwaves through not only the wrestling industry, but also the worldwide media. A federal investigation was soon launched to look into steroid abuse in professional wrestling as this seemed to be the easy explanation for people as to why Benoit committed these horrible acts.

As to what happened on that tragic weekend, the debate will go on forever and the truth is we will never know for certain. Tests conducted on Chris Benoit’s brain tissue revealed that numerous concussions combined with years of trauma to the head left Benoit with severe brain damage. Benoit was one of the only wrestler’s who would take chair shots to the back of the head and it was said that his brain resembled that of an 85 year old Alzheimer’s patient. Suffering from severe behavioral disorder and possibly even dementia, it is thought that this trauma left his brain so badly damaged that he committed these crimes while not even aware of his own actions or who he was, evidenced by rambling text messages sent to his friends prior to the murders. There was also his diary which showed entries made by Chris where he appeared to be talking to his best friend Eddie Guerrero who had already passed away, leading medical experts to believe that his mind and mental state were already declining.

Chris Benoit’s employer, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), announced the news of Benoit’s death to fans on their official website following the events and subsequently canceled their three-hour broadcast of Raw the following evening. Instead of the live event, WWE aired a tribute show featuring some of Benoit’s greatest moments throughout his illustrious career along with video tributes from his peers to Chris and his family. WWE chairman Vince McMahon also delivered a heart-felt message to the Benoit family prior to the broadcast. After learning the ‘facts’ of this tragedy and the investigation into steroid abuse, the WWE were quick to distance themselves from Benoit, essentially removing his name from their product completely, this included all of his past records with the company. He has also been removed from DVD’s and all past WWE, WCW and ECW (his former employers) broadcasts. It was like he never existed.

When I think of Chris Benoit I will not think of that horrible weekend in Fayetteville, Georgia. Instead I look back with fond memories at one of the greatest technical wrestlers that ever lived and all of the great matches that he gave us as his family looked on. World Wrestling Entertainment can never take those memories away from me.

‘Dynamite’ Chris Benoit

Born in Montreal, Quebec but raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada by parents Michael and Margaret, Chris Benoit grew up watching the wrestlers he saw on TV for Stu Hart’s Calgary Stampede Wrestling promotion. Benoit’s favourite wrestler and idol was a young and exciting British wrestler by the name of Tom Billington aka The Dynamite Kid and Chris aspired to be everything that The Dynamite Kid was. When he was 15 years old he met his hero after a show and knew then that he wanted to be a professional wrestler. Benoit immediately put his plan into action by working out every day with the set of weights his dad had bought for him as a gift. Chris would regularly make the three hour drive to Calgary to train in the legendary ‘Hart Dungeon’ with Stu Hart. At just 18 years old Chris Benoit made his wrestling debut in a tag team match on November 22, 1985 for Stampede Wrestling.

From his early wrestling days it was clear that Benoit wanted to be as much like The Dynamite Kid as possible, even going as far as to wrestle under the name ‘Dynamite Chris Benoit’. He would also use some of Dynamite’s signature moves such as the snap suplex and the diving headbutt off the top rope. After gaining notoriety with Stampede wrestling Benoit would travel to Japan and work with New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW). Benoit made his debut for NJPW in 1986 after spending a year undergoing intense training in the Japanese style of wrestling. Much like The Dynamite Kid, Benoit would flourish in Japan with many critically acclaimed matches with some of the best talent such as Jushin Liger and Black Tiger (a young Eddie Guerrero). Benoit would also wrestle in Mexico as the masked ‘Pegasus Kid’.

Being a professional wrestler meant living a tough life on the road, always traveling and wrestling almost every night for whatever money you could get your hands on. Benoit would soon learn just how tough this life could be but the experience he gained while traveling would help him tremendously. Benoit also won championships wherever he went, proving that his abilities were being recognized. He won his first title in Calgary when he became the Stampede British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight Champion. He would also win four International Tag Team and three more British Commonwealth titles during his time at Stampede. In Japan his hard work paid off as he became the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion after defeating Jushin Liger and he also claimed victories in the Best of the Super Juniors and Super J Cup tournaments. During his time in Mexico was rewarded with the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship which he held for over a year. Chris Benoit was making a name for himself.

The Crippler

Back in the USA Benoit had made some appearances for World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 1993 and 1994 before heading back to Japan. It was in 1994 thought that he burst onto the scene when he was hired by Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) which was making waves in its competition with WCW and WWE. He earned the nickname ‘The Crippler’ following a match with Sabu in which he accidentally broke Sabu’s neck. Benoit was distraught following this incident however the nickname stuck and he would use it throughout his career. More championships soon followed as did more bumps and bruises in the lawless and brutal world of ECW before finding his way back to WCW as part of a talent exchange with NJPW and would continue to wrestle for both promotions. Working in the WCW cruiserweight division Benoit, along with good friends Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero continually stole the show and put on classic matches that would overshadow the main event guys in the company. In 1995 Benoit’s career would receive a boost like never before when he was approached to join the most elite group in wrestling history. When Ric Flair reformed The 4 Horseman, Chris Benoit would join up alongside Arn Anderson and Brian Pillman. It was whilst working in WCW that Benoit was booked in a storyline involving his partner Kevin Sullivan’s wife Nancy. The storyline involved Chris and Nancy having an affair and to make it believable, it was suggested that the two spend time together outside the ring. From spending so much time together Chris and Nancy developed a real life affair and would eventually marry in November 2000, nine months after their son Daniel was born.

Life in WCW would be a rollercoaster for Chris and many other wrestlers as they attempted to upstage the WWE in the Monday night ratings war. The backstage politics combined with poor booking and writing made WCW an extremely difficult place to work, with many of the talent defecting to the WWE in order to enhance their careers. In 2000, Chris Benoit felt that he desperately needed a change of scenery. In an attempt to change Benoit’s mind, he was awarded with the World Heavyweight Championship by defeating Sid Vicious at the ‘Souled Out’ Pay-Per-View event, however his mind was made up. He forfeited the title back to WCW and along with Dean Malenko, Perry Saturn and his best friend Eddie Guerrero he left the company and made his way to the WWE. The sky was the limit now.

18 Year Odyssey

Chris had finally made it to the top and he became an instant hit as he showed up unannounced on Raw along with Saturn, Malenko and Guerrero, as part of the heel faction ‘The Radicalz’. For the next few years Chris would do what he did best and that was put on classic matches, showcasing his extraordinary technical abilities with the likes of Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle. Chris won his first title in the WWE in just over a month as he defeated Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle In a triple-threat match at Wrestlemania 2000.

In 2001 Chris would face the toughest obstacle in his career after suffering a severe neck injury following a ‘Tables, Ladders and Chairs’ match. Benoit performed his flying headbutt off the top rope as he always did although this time he landed awkwardly. He continued to wrestle until he took part in a triple-threat match at the King of the Ring 2001 pay-per-view event against Chris Jericho and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Following the match it was discovered that Chris had ruptured a disc which moved into his spinal column and it would require surgery from Dr Lloyd Youngblood. The injury would keep Benoit out of action and he would be gone from the WWE for over a year.

When Chris returned the WWE was an entirely different place. Vince McMahon had purchased rival company WCW and many of their wrestlers were now working for the WWE. At the 2003 Royal Rumble it was clear that Benoit was as good as he ever was as he faced Kurt Angle in an incredible match. The fans welcomed Chris back with a standing ovation as he stood alone in the ring after losing the match.

While being technically gifted and having so many classic matches, Benoit was never seen as World Champion material, much like The Dynamite Kid, because of his size. That would change in March of 2004 on the grandest stage of them all. In January 2004 Chris had won the prestigious Royal Rumble match and earned the right to compete for the World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania XX in a triple-threat match against two of the greatest of all time, Triple H and Shawn Michaels. In one of the greatest matches in Wrestlemania history, Chris had finally realized his lifelong dream of becoming World Champion, a feat that many people throughout the years told him he could never accomplish. The memory of that night was one that will live with wrestling fans forever as Benoit was joined in the ring by his best friend Eddie Guerrero (the WWE champion from WWEs other brand Smackdown). The two men hugged and celebrated being on top of the world. Chris was then joined by his family and celebrated in the ring with confetti falling all around them.

Benoit had no intention of taking things easy as champion as only one month later he defeated both Triple H and Shawn Michaels in a rematch that some say was better than the original. Benoit would take on all challengers and would carry the championship until August 2004 when young up and coming star Randy Orton defeated him in a superb match at the annual Summerslam event. Throughout 2005 and 2006 Benoit would wrestle for the WWE brand Smackdown and would win the United States Championship, following in the footsteps of some of the greatest wrestlers of all time before him.

In November 2005 Benoit and the wrestling world were dealt a devastating blow as Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room. The following evening’s broadcast of Raw saw the entire WWE roster assemble and pay tribute to their fallen friend. Chris took this loss perhaps harder than anyone. It is believed that he never really recovered from the emotional loss of his best friend, the man who he traveled the world with and was closest to in and out of the ring. From that point on, it was clear that there was something missing in Benoit’s life.

Legacy

Chris Benoit would remain on Smackdown, with memorable feuds against Booker T and J.B.L., until June 11th 2007 when he was drafted to ECW, an expanded promotion set-up by the WWE. On June 19th Benoit defeated Elijah Burke in match to determine the number one contender for the new ECW championship in a match at the upcoming ‘Vengeance’ pay-per-view event. This would turn out to be Chris Benoit’s final match as Chris would be absent for the house shows prior to ‘Vengeance’ and would also fail to show up for the PPV.

After such a wonderful wrestling career, devoted husband and father Chris Benoit’s name will always be shrouded in darkness. The arguments as to what happened on that horrible weekend will go on forever, but I prefer to remember one of the greatest, and one of my favourite, wrestlers of all time who deserves to have his great accomplishments remembered and his legend to remain. I want to remember Chris the family man with his wife by his side and his adoring young son looking up at his hero, the champion.

For Nancy, Daniel and Chris.

You can follow Steven on twitter @st3ven91 as he discusses wrestling, The American Office and his obsession with the Chicago Bulls.

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