Had I written this post at 6PM yesterday, this post would have been different.
Had I written this post at 10PM yesterday, it would have been different from that one.
Had I written this post at 1AM this morning, it would have been different from either of those.
At 8AM, at 10AM, even as I write this now, I’m not sure how to write this.
There are constants. Chris Benoit is one of the wrestlers that got me back into watching the product back in the mid 90s. The story is similar to a lot of the “hardcore” group that were drawn in by ECW – disappointed in the cartoonish crap that Vince McMahon was presenting and finally angered by the direction WCW had taken (going more towards the “family friendly” product that the WWF was producing and away from the traditional product that made Jim Crockett’s sector of the NWA the show to watch), the hardcore fans were willing to take pretty much anything that they could see on TV and had the things they wanted – blood feuds and workrate. Along came ECW, which had been working just the same as a hundred other indy feds in front of a handful of people in South Philadelphia who were a bit smarter than your average mark, but bigger marks at the same time.
It was lightning in a bottle – the fanbase was unusual in that it was overly strong in both their support and fickleness. Given the right product, there was money to be made for all involved as long as it was done right. Do it wrong, and you could lose that fanbase in just a few shows, a luxury that the major promotions didn’t have to worry about. Eddie Gilbert saw it, and when Paul Heyman got control, he ran with it. Since Paul could easily view things from the fan’s perspective (most managers are just that – fans of the product who happen to get an in with one of the workers) he could identify with what the fans wanted. Additionally, he got to live through the WCW product as a manager to see firsthand the things that the company was doing right and what the company was doing wrong. From that, Paul built, taking the smart route of building his roster with familiar workers that the casual fan knew (Jimmy Snuka, Doink) and his own original workers. But the company grew – and thrived – when Paul signed the workers who fit inbetween those two classifications. With contacts and past experience working with many people in WCW, Paul signed people who might have been somewhat familiar to fans of the major promotions, but who got misused or buried in the undercard where they were silently putting over less qualified talent. It’s similar to the small market baseball team using extra scouting to find what castoffs really were worth the time, while at the same time scouting the farm systems and foreign leagues to find talent.
Ask any “smart” fan to tell you three traditional breeding grounds of pro wrestlers outside of the United States and they’ll give you three areas: Japan, Mexico, and Canada. Heyman hit all three with success.
It was Canada – Calgary, specifically – that brought Chris Benoit to ECW. Benoit was an incredible worker who was a student of the industry, skilled enough technically to thrive in Japan, a country whose professional wrestling tastes leaned more towards the 45 minute match than to the 12 minute fireworks show. In America, interviews built the character. In Japan, your ringwork developed the character. Benoit thrived in the environment, and Japan loved him. So why was he unheard of in the United States by all but a handful of people?
Benoit was 5’7″, at best, and American major promotions booked size before talent for the mostpart. Add onto that Benoit lacked charisma; he wasn’t traditionally attractive and didn’t talk that well in interviews. The package made him unattractive to the major promotions who wanted to put their characters on lunch boxes and cartoons. Plus, Benoit’s size made him difficult to book against larger opponents. Benoit might work in a tag team (where smaller workers tended to gravitate) or low on the card, but for someone who was working on top of the card in Calgary and making very good money in Japan where he was respected not only by other workers but the fanbase too, there really wasn’t a reason for Benoit to work in America, and at the same time, America didn’t really want him.
Until Paul Heyman. Heyman approached Benoit with something unique – a major push in a promotion with a strong (and growing) underground fanbase and a weekly television show. With ECW seemingly being “the” place to work, Benoit accepted. The fit worked since there were no Lex Lugers or Hulk Hogans in the ECW promotion. Most workers were smaller, and those who were bigger were kept in their own feuds with similar workers. Benoit didn’t need to wear a cape or rename himself or try to be charismatic – he just had to be Chris Benoit.
Benoit thrived in ECW, and I caught him there at his peak. I knew Benoit through Apter mags but knew little about him except that he was a small guy. Benoit was presented to me in possibly the best way he could have been booked – this scary-looking bully who people, regardless of size, were a little concerned about because he could snap, and that he seemingly liked to hurt people without conscience. [Note: At the time I write this now (12:56PM 7/26) I can see the eerie coincidence of this] Two clips were shown over and over in regards to Benoit – his powerbomb of Flyboy Rocko Rock off the top rope through a table (unseen at the time – one of those jaw dropping moments) and him dropping Sabu on his head, breaking his neck (a blown spot, Sabu’s neck was legit broken when Benoit backdropped Sabu but instead of landing on his back as the spot would normally go, Sabu fell directly on his head. Obviously unplanned, it was milked for as much as it could possibly be used.) He was grouped with Shane Douglas and Dean Malenko – Douglas the least skilled worker of the three but an awesome mouthpiece, and Malenko the quiet and calculated ring technician who could outwrestle anyone. There was tension though, as Benoit was thought to want Douglas’ championship, and having no conscience there was the constant feeling that Douglas had to watch his back.
Benoit would later go on to WCW (as did most of ECW’s mid-90s roster in an attempt to eliminate the competition) where he remained somewhat under the radar for several years (thanks to poor booking), then over to WWF(E) where he got booked properly, enjoyed several title reigns (including a hell of a main event at Wrestlemania 20 where he won one of the WWE World Titles – I don’t know which one), and remained a major star for the length of his tenure, excluding a year he lost due to injury.
But all of that goes away. It’s hard to explain, even as bits and pieces slip out from supposed close sources of what actually happened, how something like this could happen. This isn’t Phil Hartman’s wife having a drug issue and killing the two of them. This isn’t some kind of Lifetime movie where the abusive husband eventually takes that final step, or even so many pro wrestling suicides where a career is ending (or over) and injuries and drugs cloud the brain so that something that seems so logical to them is in reality completely insane. This is a person without (to my knowledge) an arrest record, at least any time recently. No signs of alcohol abuse, no signs of recent marital issues (Benoit had been married previously when he got into his relationship with Nancy), no real sign that there was anything wrong. Maybe something will come out of this later (things always seem to), but if there was a history of violence it would have already come up – police records aren’t that hard for the media to search and access.
What triggers something like that? What causes you to one moment be a friend to coworkers, the first call people make when they’re in trouble or need help, and then the next moment be someone capable of taking the life of not just an adult, but a seven-year-old boy?
EDIT: And my answer is pretty much given for me – Benoit apparently did have a history of domestic violence, which led to Nancy filing for divorce and an order of protection in 2003, with an evaluation for drug/alcohol abuse and a batterer’s intervention program. Nancy also sought sole custody of Daniel. While the petition never says that Chris ever hit either of the two of them (the complaint only states that Chris threatened to strike Nancy and caused damage to their possessions), the past history sets the tone. And while this could have very easily be viewed as essentially nothing concrete being used in order to have a reason to file for divorce (it would be difficult to prove or deny threats made, especially if made during an argument at home and not recorded), the profile (considering Benoit’s usage of steroids) fits all too well.
Press conference in 4 minutes – I’m betting that I don’t want to hear this.