Saturday, February 2, 2008

Benoit family tragedy -- a look back

By Rick Morris

This column tackles the stages of grief a person goes through as a fan when somebody you admire passes away suddenly and shockingly -- and you find out that the person committed monstrous, heinous crimes and was completely unworthy of your respect. The person going through those phases was me, last June. I'm not someone who engages in a lot of writing about personal topics involving myself, but as a writer and someone fascinated by human psychology, I was really blown away by what I expressed at the time and I knew that others of similar interests would be enthralled as well.

Inspired by a couple of different factors (Jason's recent post about leaving thoughts on message boards and my realization that the first post-Benoit WrestleMania is just round the corner), I decided to revisit my thoughts at the time of the Benoit murder-suicide last summer. This blog was still almost two months away from being created, but I was posting regularly on the wrestling message board at One of my associates at STN remarked to me that my participation in the Benoit tragedy thread almost amounted to a live-blog over several days as the evolution of my emotions and analysis was on full display -- the necessary background here is that Chris Benoit was my favorite wrestler and somebody I personally admired as an example of great perseverance in his career. I do find this as I look back a fascinating display of evolving thinking under unthinkable circumstances -- as fascinated as I am by matters of psychology, I find my thoughts and coping mechanisms to be really, really interesting.

Here is the thread with the comments of all posters on the Benoit tragedy from the STN message board.

Here's Part One of my thoughts, posted at 7:10 PM EST on June 25, when the earliest details were making their way out to the public:

"I am the typical internet smark. Benoit was my favorite.

I am just numb right now. So many in this industry drop dead early that it gets easier to accept all the time, no matter how much you were a fan of theirs. As with the Owen Hart tragedy, I'm struck by the fact that we're probably diminished as human beings for continuing to support an industry that takes such a toll on people. But I'll keep watching, as will 99.9% of us, so it's a sad commentary, I guess. I guess by next week we'll all start justifying again about how it's the life they chose.

I am taping tonight's RAW and will probably rewatch it a bunch of times. I know that Benoit spoke of his wrestling being like art, which is what I loved about him. I'd like to think that he would find it fitting and flattering that we will remember him for his body of work, but I can't be sure of that.

And I really, really hope that there was not any foul play here, although it certainly doesn't look good.

RIP, thoughts and prayers to the family."

Here's Part Two of my thoughts, posted at 9:48 PM EST that same night reflecting on Benoit and some unfortunate foreshadowing on my part:

Carbon monoxide could certainly be possible, but since I tend to look at everything in life in terms of probability, here's what I wonder: what are the odds of something that would be noteworthy enough to make the news, albeit maybe just regional news, happening to somebody of his level of (relative) fame? It's not often that something that random happens to someone even marginally famous.

But, man, I really hope that this was just an accident. As horrible as this is with the three of them passing away, to have it be from any murder/suicide would be simply unbearable. To have arguably the greatest wrestler's wrestler ever be remembered not for what he gave us all these years but to be remembered by the mainstream as an unseemly tabloid headline -- I can't even fathom that.

As an example of what I mean by that, my best friend is not a wrestling fan, doesn't have much use for the business. But he was with me one time when I flipped on wrestling and he said, "That guy's your favorite wrestler? He's pretty good." I don't want people like my buddy who don't know or care about the business to know him as a tabloid headline.

But if it was ... I do believe that some good can come out of anything, no matter how small a trace. If this was a gruesome act of horror perpetrated from within that family, the slime from this will stick to the business and Vince won't get away with rationalizing what this business does to people. The long-overdue PR hit for operating the business in such a subhuman manner will come. As I said to a friend tonight, "The business is guilty until proven innocent." I think that's the only reason that we could even entertain the notion of he or his wife perpetrating this.

Again, I don't believe the murder/suicide theory, probably because I can't bring myself to do so. I think the police are obligated to start by checking for foul play, so I make no assumptions based on that.

I'll always remember Wrestlemania XX, watching it at Harpos, with all of us making the salt and pepper shakers jump on the table at the end as we pounded our fists yelling, "Tap, tap, tap." I can only speak for myself, but I was cynical enough to believe that HHH wasn't going to put him over, so I was so overjoyed when he did. I'll also remember getting my picture taken with him at the first Pillman tribute show (damn, when you add Pillman and Benoit to the "extended family," the Harts are right up there with the Von Erichs for tragedy). And I'll remember the fans giving him that shocking standing ovation at the end of the 2003 Royal Rumble match against Kurt Angle. That match was designed not to get him over, but to give Angle at strong win heading into Wrestlemania XIX. The spontaneous reaction was the ultimate rebuttal to those who thought his alleged lack of mic skills would keep the people from getting behind him enough to become a main event star.

We're definitely going to talk about him on the next Lounge on July 1. I'm not saying that in the usual manner of my FDH promotion on these boards, because I'll honestly tell you that it may not be our greatest segment ever. I just need to vent a little bit to feel better personally."

Here's Part Three of my thoughts, posted at 11:28 PM EST that same night, as the unthinkable is settling in:

Bizarre indeed, Liam. This is truly uncharted territory for this business.

It seems that we can't run from the truth of what apparently happened anymore. The phrase "where there's smoke, there's fire" really applies in instances such as these. Too much has come out, albeit on background, from police sources who must know everything already.

There are two innocent victims in a horrific murder/suicide and my favorite wrestler, someone who I admired for his work ethic and for his leadership skills in the locker room, is not among the innocents. It's a sign of how quickly things move in the Internet age that I've come to grips with this in a matter of hours. The trick now, for me and for so many, will be to separate our pleasurable memories that Benoit gave us from the man who murdered his wife and young son. We didn't know his true nature at the time, so we're not culpable for having admired him. But is it still possible on any level to admire his work?

I never thought that admiring a Chris Benoit match would be like trying to find merit in a painting by Hitler, but here we are."

Here's Part Four of my thoughts, posted at 7:42 AM EST the next morning, as the anger and betrayal are in full effect:

Mike, I don't begrudge you that perspective. We all deal with things in our own way. I just don't share it.

I'll never deny what he did in that ring and the fact that I thought he was the best, largely because he could work any style convincingly. But as I said above, my enjoyment could only come because I did not know what he was capable of -- killing his wife and young, young son, these are such cowardly acts ... for me personally (and a great many others, I suspect), I'd be right there with you in mourning him if his final acts on this earth were not so despicable.

It's going to be so surreal going back and tracking in this thread what we said with what we knew at the time, because I was full of heartfelt sentiments towards him with my first few thoughts I posted. But now?

F Chris Benoit."

Here's Part Five of my thoughts, posted at 10:28 PM EST that next night. In this post, I recopy a column about the situation that I wrote for our blog:

Posting here since word broke has been a kind of therapy for many of us. Certainly, my posts trace my thought process at the various stages of what I knew whe. It was kind of like an instant time capsule for all of us. I am glad that nobody on these boards has displayed the kind of idiocy I'm routinely seeing in other corners of the internet.

I did collect my thoughts somewhat for a short essay on the FDH blog. I'm reprinting here for the benefit of anyone struggling to make sense of their own thoughts right now.

The eulogy that wasn't

24 hours ago, I was preparing a written tribute in this space for Chris Benoit and his family. In an admission that will admittedly brand me an internet smart mark, I will say that he was my favorite wrestler. The operative word here is "was."

My words were going to express the notion that my all-time favorite athlete, Steve Yzerman, retired almost a year ago and that I wrote a tribute to him. I was prepared to express how much harder it is to pay tribute to someone who's passed away than to someone who's retired ... until I learned the circumstances.

There are a million different perspectives out there about this tragedy, and I can respect all of them -- except for the immature clowns on message boards who either want to use the blood of innocents to bash pro wrestling fans, or, on the other extreme, to defend Benoit as "a good man who became sick at the end" and can't let go of the man they wanted to believe existed.

For those who only now know him as a tabloid headline, let me give you the meat of the tribute I was going to write for him. Chris Benoit was a man who said that he treated his profession as art, and many of us loved him for the way that he applied that philosophy to his matches. He almost never had a bad match, even with the least talented wrestlers in the industry. He could work any style in a believable manner. He gave us some of the greatest moments in wrestling history, whether it be the shocking standing ovation he was given at the end of the 2003 Royal Rumble, his Wrestlemania XX triumphant moment with the late, great Eddy Guerrero, his J-Cup highlights from Japan or any hundred other matches. He worked hard, set an example of how to be a professional for wrestlers coming up, and really shined with his leadership in that capacity.

Now for the parts I wasn't going to include ...

Because of what he did in the ring, the fact that his colleagues invariably cited him as one of the most respected wrestlers in the industry (the quintessential "wrestler's wrestler," if you will) and his quiet, humble nature, we all overlooked a few things. Like the fact that he got together with his current wife Nancy at the expense of her existing marriage (and his relationship with the mother of his other children) during the infamous "Kevin Sullivan booked his own divorce" period 11 years ago. And the obvious use of steroids, HGH, or any similar product to pack the unnatural amount of musculature on his relatively slight frame. Nobody's perfect, right?

Well, that's an obvious understatement right now.

In the end, Chris Benoit was all of those things, and that was all we knew at the time -- so it was valid to look at him with the great appreciation that we did. I don't begrudge myself the fun I had at the time from his efforts.

But now? Appreciating Chris Benoit for his work would be like appreciating Adolf Hitler for some paintings that he might have created. Benoit murdered his wife and child in cold blood before taking the coward's way out at the end of a rope. The details of last weekend, combined with confirmation of previous spousal abuse that was not publicly known until now, conspire to make this story keep getting more nauseating by the hour. He deserves none of the glory that many of us were ready to give him when we first learned of his demise prior to absorbing the gory details. He deserves ... well, exactly what he's getting right now and for eternity. Let's leave it at that.

We who appreciated Chris Benoit saw in him the good side of an industry plagued by repetitive and numbing premature death and general sleaze. We thought he stood for the positive side of what is admittedly a morally challenged industry. But in the end, he exemplified to the "nth degree" the open sewer that the business really is. It's a sad measure of how addictive the entertainment can be that so few of us (and I don't exempt myself from this) will abandon it in long-overdue outrage.'"

In the span of under thirty hours, I digested the fact that a man I greatly respected, someone who had provided me so many hours of great entertainment, turned out to be a vile, sick individual unbeknown to us all. My earlier thoughts were still of a type of hero worship that makes me wince to revisit it -- before my outrage kicked in fully. One of the truly outstanding posters on that board, Liam in England, said it best so succinctly when he called the evening the news broke the most surreal night of his 14 years of being a wrestling fan.

My lasting thought on the matter is that I am saddened by how little has changed. The WWE claims to be enforcing a strict drug policy, but still pushes wrestlers constantly with a 'roided-up look to them. If the greatest shock to the system the business ever endured, a matter that might be termed the "9/11 of the wrestling business" (not nearly on that scale, certainly, but purely in terms of the sadness and depression it caused to so many) couldn't bring lasting changes to benefit the performers who bring us such fun, what possibly could?

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