Wednesday, June 27, 2007

So... Chris Benoit.

Well, then.

When the WWE embarked on its controversial "Vince is dead" storyline a few weeks back, even those who weren't offended by it wondered what on earth they were going to do if somebody important actually died. People die in wrestling with depressing frequency. The lifestyle is not conducive to a long and healthy retirement. The chances of somebody dying during the course of this storyline were, frankly, much higher than anyone would really like to admit.

And somebody did indeed die - Sherri Martel. This was about as bad as anyone had seen coming. They gave her a token on-air acknowledgement and moved on.

Even in the world of wrestling, where premature death appears to be seen as an occupational hazard, nobody remotely anticipated the horrific fate of the Benoit family - a story which is staggering in its own right, and all the more so for featuring perhaps the last wrestler in the industry that anyone would have expected.

Chris Benoit's reputation, according to pretty much everyone who worked with him, interviewed him, or even just met him at an autograph signing, was as a thoroughly pleasant, decent, hard-working dedicated professional, who loved wrestling passionately, and did his utmost to help teach the next generation. He was hugely respected by the other wrestlers, and almost universally acknowledged as one of the best in-ring performers of his generation, and quite possibly of all time. After twenty years in the business, nobody seemed to have a bad word to say for him - and there are very few wrestlers you can say that about. By all appearances, the man was practically a saint.

On Monday afternoon, the Atlanta police announced that Benoit had been found dead in his home alongside the bodies of his wife Nancy and seven-year-old son Daniel. It appears that Benoit had strangled Nancy late on Friday, and then choked Daniel to death on the Saturday. At some point on Sunday, he committed suicide by choking himself to death using a cord attached to his weight machine.

Obviously, this has staggered everyone involved in wrestling, and everyone with more than a passing interest in it. Not only is it a horrific crime, but it's so drastically at odds with everything people thought they knew about Benoit that it's difficult to get your head around it. Allegations of domestic abuse are also now emerging, which seem to have been a very well-kept secret even within the wrestling industry. It seems completely inexplicable, except perhaps on the grounds of serious mental illness.

The prevailing theory in the mainstream media seems to be steroid-induced rage. No doubt Benoit had been using steroids for years, and the post mortem will probably reveal some very uncomfortable things for the wrestling industry. But the steroid rage theory has its problems. The deaths took place over several days, which doesn't fit neatly with a sudden mood swing. Moreover, wrestlers and mainstream athletes have been using steroids for years, and nothing remotely like this has occurred before. On the other hand, Benoit is not the first man to kill his family and then commit suicide. It seems, at least, not unreasonable to suggest that the root causes probably have more in common with other similar killings.

On the other hand, if you do want to blame the wrestling industry, you could point out that Benoit took a hell of a lot of blows to the head over the years. These things mount up, and arguably provide at least as likely an explanation for Benoit's bizarre mental state as the steroids do.

The WWE found themselves in the horrible position of putting on a three-hour tribute to Benoit in place of Monday night's Raw show, only to learn about the murder-suicide announcement while it was still airing on the west coast. Not surprisingly, the USA network has received some complaints about airing a three-hour hagiography to a child-murderer. The WWE's official line is that when they put the show on the air, they didn't know the circumstances of the death.

This is slightly disingenuous - they were sufficiently worried about his stability to call in the cops in the first place. One of the wrestlers who reportedly received Benoit's erratic text messages was William Regal. Tellingly, Regal's contribution to the tribute show was an extraordinarily tentative speech to camera in which he spoke of his admiration and respect for Benoit's work, but stated outright that he wasn't going to speak about Benoit as a person right now. With the benefit of hindsight, one could easily infer that the penny had dropped for Regal if for nobody else.

But the events were so bizarre and unexpected that the WWE can be forgiven for spending a few hours in a state of denial until the police released more details - after which they busily set about removing all tribute pages from their website, as well as deleting all mention of the "Vince is dead" storyline. (Vince appeared to open the Monday night tribute show, to make abundantly clear that this was for real.) Interestingly, Benoit's matches have also suspiciously disappeared from the track listings on the DVD catalogue. One can only wonder what the hell they're going to do now with shows like Wrestlemania 20, a completely innocuous show which, unfortunately, ends with Benoit winning the world title in the main event. They can't exactly cut him out.

Then again, there may not be very many people who will want to see the end of Wrestlemania 20 any more. Regarded at the time as a touching and heartwarming moment, it featured Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero celebrating together as the Raw and Smackdown world champions - two smaller wrestlers who had seemingly overcome the odds to reach the top of their profession through sheer hard work and talent. Guerrero, a recovered drug addict who had come back from the brink to reclaim his mind, his family and his career, died of heart failure in 2005. Benoit is a murderer. The celebration is rather hollow now.

Somewhat surprisingly, the WWE has decided that the best approach is to plough on with this week's ECW and Smackdown shows, prefacing them with a statement explaining that they didn't know the facts when they ran the tribute show, and in the circumstances they'll just say nothing more about them. Personally, I'd have run a week of Best Of shows. But there is no workable answer here.

I'm even more surprised that they're apparently going to run with Johnny Nitro as ECW Champion - a belt that he won on Sunday night after being parachuted in to replace Chris Benoit at the last minute. To my mind, that belt is a poisoned chalice right now. It's held by a character who only won the title because Chris Benoit was busy at home his murdering his wife. This is a difficult thought to put out of mind. If I were Nitro, I'd be desperate to get rid of the thing. Instead, it seems he's defending it against CM Punk on the next PPV. I might not have made such an announcement the day after the family were found dead.

It would be nice, in some ways, to think that Benoit was indeed the basically decent man that everyone always claimed he was, and that he and his family were the victims of a tragic descent into mental illness. But it seems increasingly as though that may not be a safe assumption after all.