Faith Shaken

My mind is going in many different directions this morning, none of them good. I did not sleep well last night and as of this moment I feel quite nauseous. I feel like my world has been turned upside down all because of the death of someone I have never met, which itself makes me feel somewhat foolish for feeling anything at all. Like I said, my thoughts are all over the map.

Chris Benoit, for those who don’t know the name, was a professional wrestler. No doubt you’ll be hearing more about him in the coming days as his story receives more national coverage. I expect it will, although not for any reasons I would have ever dreamed. Although early reports are somewhat sketchy, it appears that this past weekend he excused himself from a rather important pay-per-view match to head home and attend to a family emergency. At some point after arriving home he apparently suffocated his wife and 7-year old son before hanging himself. The details may very well change, but at its core one thing remains undisputable: Chris Benoit, his wife, and his son, are all dead.

Unfortunately, this kind of story is not uncommon. I would venture that I hear about one of these murder-suicides taking place in this country at least twice a month, if not more often. They are altogether too common in our society. Like most people, whenever I hear one of these stories on the news, I shake my head and wonder aloud how anyone could do such a thing to another human being, especially someone they professed to love. Especially to a young child. A young child they helped bring to life. Whenever the debate over legalizing gay marriage is brought up and the pro-family groups starting throwing out terms like “preserving the sanctity of marriage” I think of these tales of domestic horror and ask, “where’s the sanctity in that?”. It infuriates me. At the same time it doesn’t touch me. From a distance they are pointless tragedies that seem to only happen to people I would never come in contact with. I can’t imagine anything like that happening with one of my friends.

Chris Benoit was not my friend. As I’ve said, I have never so much as met the man. But like a lot of celebrities, be they actors or musicians or athletes, I felt like I knew him. I have followed his career for the last ten years as closely as that of any wrestler in the business. He was, without question, my favorite wrestler. While he was never the biggest star in the business – not by a long shot – he was, in the minds of most hardcore fans, the greatest in-ring performer that ever lived. He didn’t have the greatest look, being smaller than most of the big names of the industry. He was never the most charismatic character, his interview skills lacking anything to make him truly memorable to casual fans. But in the ring, well, he was simply the most intense and consistent professional to ever wear boots. He made whoever he was in the ring with look good. He had good matches with some of the dregs of the business. It was not uncommon for guys who looked sloppy and terrible to be put in a series of matches with Chris Benoit that left people saying, “hmmm… maybe that guy wasn’t so bad after all”. Of course once they moved on to a new opponent they went back to looking like shit. But for those moments when they were in the ring with Benoit they looked like a star. It’s an ability very few in the business have been able to nail down, and Benoit was the master. I’ve seen him wrestle hundreds of times, and I can’t recall ever seeing him have a bad match. Boring maybe, but never bad. He was the consummate professional in the ring. Outside of the ring, he appeared to be a man of great dignity and of few words. He was as well respected within the business as anyone. He lived and breathed wrestling and it showed. People loved him for it.

Professional wrestlers are notorious for having outlandish personalities and living lives that are forever skirting disaster. In the past ten years the industry has lost far too many of its brothers and sisters to the awful side effects of injuries and drugs. It is an incredibly difficult lifestyles to maintain. Benoit himself missed an entire year due to a severe neck injury, and no doubt the effects of that injury were something he felt every day. As a fan it is a side of the business we often try to ignore, although it seems to be hitting us in the face more and more often these days.

I love pro wrestling. I can’t really explain why. I just do. There is a stigma in society that fans of pro wrestling have to put up with. Its considered the lowest form of entertainment on the planet; something for white trash in trailer homes. Sadly, its hard to disagree with that, given the barbaric nature of the sport and the childish, lowest-common-denominator storytelling that often takes place, particularly in the WWE, the largest wrestling promotion in the world and the one which employed Chris Benoit. Pure wrestling fans hate that side of things, but we put up with it, mainly because in between all the crap lies the reason we watch – the matches. When it comes to baseball, I try and tune out all the talk about steroids and salaries and other such nonsense, because for the three hours or so that I’m immersed in a game, they don’t matter. Wrestling is the same way for me. I can live with the nonsense so long as I get some good matches. Chris Benoit gave me good matches. He gave me GREAT matches. He was one of those guys who made it worth watching.

On January 19, 2003, Fish and I dragged our asses into the Fleet Center in Boston to watch the WWE Royal Rumble pay-per-view. I had bought the tickets months in advance based solely on the idea that the Royal Rumble match itself was usually one of the highlights of the wrestling year. At the time none of the other matches had been announced. As the weeks ticked off, the show began to take shape and it was not looking particularly good. The WWE was coming off their greatest stretch ever in terms of overall quality, and was beginning a very long tailspin. The line-up for this show was not promising. Then, at seemingly the last minute, they added a match which was to feature Chris Benoit challenging Kurt Angle (perhaps my second favorite in-ring performer next to Benoit) for Angle’s WWE Championship title. Given the nature of the storylines at the time, no one expected Benoit to win the title (and he didn’t). But wrestling fans don’t watch to see who wins and who loses. They watch for the match. When Fish and I got to the building that night, there was an odd buzz in the air. Talking to people around us we constantly heard the same thing, “I came to see Benoit-Angle. The rest of this show sucks.” Again, Benoit was not then, nor has he ever been a huge star. But to the true fans he was an amazing wrestler, and on that night we knew we were in for something special. He did not disappoint. Angle and Benoit proceeded to put on what is simply my favorite match of all time. It was twenty minutes of wrestling bliss, with a back-and-forth that was so intense and so convincing that on more than one occasion we all though Benoit was about to win, even though in our hearts we knew he wouldn’t. Angle eventually pulled out the victory and the match would go on to win numerous “Match of the Year” awards. After the champ had left the ring, Benoit pulled himself to his feet, while on the PPV broadcast they were cutting away to a pre-recorded segment. In the arena, Fish and I and the 15,000+ other fans with us that night gave Benoit a prolonged standing ovation. He may have lost, but he gave us an amazing match. He more than gave us our money’s worth. I remember the feeling in the building, how electric it was. How sincere the moment felt. Even from afar you could tell by Benoit’s body language that he himself was caught off guard by the ovation. He looked around at all of us and then pounded his fist against his chest in that way that has come to signify a macho form of “thank you”. It was, in a word, a “moment”. We knew we had just seen and taken in part in a something special. Apparently the WWE agreed, because they did something on the PPV broadcast that they *never* do, by returning to the ring after the pre-recorded segment to show Benoit standing in the ring being showered with respect by the fans. I still get chills thinking about it.

In March of 2004, at one of the five biggest events in wrestling history – Wrestlemania XX – Chris Benoit won his first and only World Championship title. The storyline leading up to his victory centered around the fact that he had been in the business for 18 years and never reached the top. They played up the fact that he was considered undersized and had been constantly told he wouldn’t make it in the business. His wife and children were all present at ringside, as was his father. He was an incredible underdog who had taken the hardest possible route to get to that point. It was one of the few storylines the WWE has ever got right, because it was built on so much truth. Benoit was the hero of internet wrestling fans even when he wasn’t seen as a major star in the eyes of casual fans. But even casual fans could appreciate his worth, and this title victory, however brief his reign may end up being, was seen as a sort of “thank you” to him from an industry that he had given so much to. The celebration following the win was enormous. Confetti fell from the ceiling, his family joined him in the ring. The WWE made sure to treat it as a big deal. A far bigger deal than other title changes to be sure. Chris Benoit was that working class hero that fans felt like was one of them, and we all shared in his victory that night.

All of which makes the story of the past 24 hours so much harder to swallow. In an industry filled with egomaniacs and scumbags, Chris Benoit had always carried himself as a man of character and class. He was respected by fans and peers alike. I have never heard a negative word uttered about his character or his person, which is amazing considering the daily muck that most wrestlers get dragged through.

Then this.

“Pro wrestler Chris Benoit, his wife and 7-year-old son were found slain Monday at their Fayetteville home, authorities said. Detective Bo Turner told television station WAGA that the case was being investigated as a murder-suicide, but said that could not be confirmed until the evidence was examined by a crime lab. WAGA reported that investigators believe Benoit killed his wife and son over the weekend, and then himself sometime Monday.”

I can’t comprehend it.

In truth, I don’t really have any heroes. I don’t believe in putting people on a pedestal merely because they happen to have a talent or skill that is widely publicized. Nothing about being a good athlete or singer makes you a better person. Even as a kid, while I had my favorites, I never thought I should model my life after some ballplayer. Chris Benoit is no exception. Yet at the same time he is one of those few who I have always held in high regard. He was someone who I admired. He worked his ass off and appeared to be a man of great integrity. He belonged to a small circle of public figures who I might call my heroes. Now he is dead. And everything I thought I knew about him is suddenly called into question. And it hurts.

There will be more to this story. Odds are we’ll never know exactly what happened, or more importantly, why it happened. I don’t expect the story will ever have anything resembling a happy ending. I am preparing myself for the fact that his name will go down in history alongside O.J. Simpson, although obviously to a much smaller degree of infamy. And as much I want ignore it all, to be able to simply go home, throw in my “Chris Benoit Story” DVD and watch him talk again with such passion about the business and about his family, I know I’ll never be able to without thinking about this awful, awful tragedy.

I did not know Chris Benoit, but he touched my life. I can only pray that now that his is over, he may find peace.

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