Sunday, June 1, 2008

Book Review: Ring of Hell

By Rick Morris

When legendary pro wrestler Chris Benoit brutally massacred his family and then killed himself, many people, myself included, struggled to reconcile what we knew of this man, what we thought we knew and the horror that he ended up perpetrating. It all seemed so contradictory, the details of the different sides so disparate, that so many of us became reconciled to never knowing the full picture about what could have brought this family tragedy to reality. But author Matthew Randazzo V's shocking new book "Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & The Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry" does what I never thought possible: it takes the many seemingly disconnected threads of this man's life and weaves together a coherent whole that leads inexorably and sadly toward the blood-soaked weekend at the Benoit estate last summer.

[SIDE NOTE: I am very proud of my objectivity, and have displayed it here repeatedly by criticizing institutions that I love when justified, such as the Detroit Red Wings and the Cleveland Indians. But when I found out about this book in the last week, I knew that I would feel a need to read it and subsequently review it here and I feared that I could not be fully objective. Years ago, Mr. Randazzo and I used to visit some of the same industry forums, he largely as a poster, me largely as a lurker, but my memories of him were not fond ones. I'll not elaborate except to say that I found his forum persona overbearing and off-putting. In fairness, he was clearly a great and gifted writer and many talented creative types can come off that way. Additionally, as I've tried to familiarize myself with some of his other work this past week, I found some writing that puts his political views at great variance with my own -- and profound political differences have always been a threat to my potential for objectivity. Additionally, any writer who sees another get a book deal before him and does not feel at least a slight twinge probably doesn't have any professional pride. So, given my sometimes-overwrought potential for self-criticism, I was scared that if the book dissatisfied me that I'd be questioning myself about my real reasons for writing a bad review. Fortunately, as the next sentence will indicate, any qualms I had about anything I would write would prove to be badly misguided.]

This book is, quite simply, the best one in the genre of pro wrestling books that dates back almost a full decade.

Randazzo connects the dots in a manner that should perhaps have been more obvious to us, but was not at all. Chris Benoit's professional personality and private demons were not contradictory halves of a disconnected whole. His obsessive dedication to the business, his need to be perfect in his role as a pro grappler: these were SYMPTOMS of his overall crumbling psyche. In short, his madness was in plain sight the whole time, disguised as politeness with fans or hard work in the ring or any of the other aspects of his persona that made him appear to so many of us as the real (with apologies to Curt Hennig) "Mr. Perfect."

The link at the top of this review leads to a column from February in which I reviewed my thoughts at the time of the tragedy. Along with many others in the family, I posted repeatedly the night the murder-suicide was made public and in the days that followed. Chris Benoit was my favorite wrestler. In my column, I reprinted my posts in full even as I noted that they made me cringe by how naive I looked -- but I was grasping for a more full understanding as to how I and so many others were duped into thinking this man was personally as well as professionally great. On our FDH Lounge Internet TV show last summer, we reunited our friends Ryan Ward and Kyle Ross from the legendary smart mark show SUNDAY NIGHT SUBMISSION to help make sense of the matter. We couldn't. I admit that I saw Benoit as a professional role model, a symbol of persistence who proved that you could make it to the top of any industry with an unshakable work ethic. I came to the obvious conclusion that we never really knew him at all, but like everyone else I couldn't reconcile the pieces that didn't seem to fit.

Through his meticulous research, Randazzo managed to put them together. Benoit's entire life was a pathetic journey that led up to that infamous weekend in the Atlanta exurbs. A wiry and introverted Western Canadian boy, he took his first real meaning in life from watching his hero the Dynamite Kid compete in Stampede Wrestling. Kid, whose real name was Tom Billington, was perhaps the greatest technical pro wrestler of all time, and Benoit worshiped him. In ways that would seem funny if they didn't end up being so disturbing, Benoit was almost a precursor to "'Net smart marks" of today like myself with his strong appreciation for workrate. Benoit pumped himself full of steroids and other unhealthy growth substances and chased a pro career that began in the Stampede territory, led to a training stint with New Japan (more on that below) and then a triumphant return to Stampede (where he got to rub elbows with his ultimate hero professionally) before his early '90s tenure in Japan and Mexico led to the ECW/WCW/WWE sequence that defines him in the minds of most fans.

This book contains a plethora of amazing revelations about Benoit and so many of the surrounding characters on his road to infamy. Now, I have been queried by my friend, FDH Lounge Dignitary and President Paul Belfi whether I believe every last story I read in the book. The answer is of course no; this is an industry built on constantly working everyone else at all times, even when there is no apparent advantage to doing so. But I believe the vast majority of them and even the ones that are more questionable do add valuable color.

Case in point: an unnamed source, a WWE wrestler in the company in 1995, told Randazzo that HHH confided in him upon coming into the company, "I don't care what I have to do, but I'm going to run this place." Cue the "Mwhahahahahahaahaha" and twirling of villainous handlebar mustache. I don't blame Randazzo at all for putting this story in the book, but I'm dubious that he was told the truth. HHH was coming off a lower-middle-card stint in WCW and was in all likelihood just happy to have a better job at the time. The notion that he could have been Machiavellian and prescient enough to know then that he'd end up one day with the keys to the kingdom? Believe it if you want to.

But again, I do believe the vast majority of the stories in the book and there is an equal mix of on-the-record and off-the-record quotes in there. I've read some online reviews that objected to his use of materials such as shoot interview tapes for sourcing, but I have no problem with that as they are quotes on the public record.

I want to provide some flavor of what's in the book without giving away anything that might be deemed excessive by the lawyers over at Phoenix Books, so here's a list of generalities in terms of the most sensational materials:

^ Vince McMahon's 2004 mandate about the minimum size of new wrestlers being hired
^ The unparalleled con job Fidel Castro pulled on Antonio Inoki -- it's beyond anything you could imagine
^ What the Dynamite Kid did to his opponents while they were blading themselves
^ What the Dynamite Kid did right before his own wedding
^ How Stampede wrestlers might "rib" each other -- I'd call it committing felonies, personally
^ The hazing techniques of the New Japan dojo: banana rape, golden showers and drinking your own, uh, fluids, among others
^ The mob contract that drove the British Bulldogs out of the WWF
^ Horrible one-sided WWF contracts
^ The yakuza's methods of dealing with Big Van Vader
^ Ole Anderson's "scientific method" for proving Benoit was too small to make it in wrestling
^ Benoit's psychological pain about the incident that gave him the "Crippler" nickname
^ More legendary Paul Heyman con jobs
^ The never-told-before details on how Kevin Sullivan inadvertently sabotaged his own marriage with a storyline -- what's on the public record is only the tip of the iceberg
^ Sullivan's other behind-the-scenes shenanigans
^ Nancy Benoit's own oddities
^ Two incidents between Scott Hall and Benoit that were remarkable
^ Ric Flair and Arn Anderson road stories
^ The never-before-told story about the equipment that failed Owen Hart in Kansas City that tragic night -- and why it did
^ Vince Russo's aborted kid-toucher storyline
^ How Benoit would have mutilated himself on live television had WCW not released him in 2000
^ The extent to which the Radicalz screwed Shane Douglas
^ How the McMahons don't even let funerals get in the way of conducting business
^ The rib on Billy Jack Haynes that almost led to him murdering Vince McMahon
^ What led Scott Hall to think McMahon was the devil incarnate
^ Chyna and Eddy Guerrero -- why two drug abusers working together might have deepened both addictions
^ More behind-the-scenes anecdotes about Vince, Stephanie, HHH and their toadies than you can shake a stick at -- including stories of racism far beyond what got Michael Hayes recently suspended
^ Writer Dave Lagana's alleged sexual harassment of male and female wrestlers
^ How Benoit willingly kept wrestling, in reckless style no less, on a broken neck in 2001
^ Benoit's sense of torture at being on the sidelines due to injury in 2001-2002
^ How only top stars in WWE are allowed to use company trainers and physical therapists
^ Benoit's ultimate moment of triumph in 2004 -- undermined from the outset
^ Benoit's psychological collapse at the time of Eddy's passing
^ Nancy Benoit's "paper trail" -- the manner in which she chronicled through various means her husband's mental deterioration
^ How Vince's version of the Benoit tribute show was the result of him being boxed in by his own ego -- he felt that he had to proceed a certain route based on "the show goes on" with the Owen tragedy and the fact that he destroyed the "standard tribute show" in the "Vince got murdered" storyline
^ Evidence that Benoit was clutching at straws that God would somehow bring his son back to life before he hung himself from his weight bench
^ The chronology of the final tragic weekend

Some online reviews I've read find Randazzo's writing style to be distracting at best and counterproductive at worst. It's a matter of personal taste, so I'm not going to pronounce anyone wrong for their opinion, but I disagree. Randazzo has a strong and distinctive pattern of writing and it shows up constantly (i.e. touches such as referring to Benoit and Bret Hart in their WCW days as "deranged marks" and wondering, since Benoit apparently killed his son with his finishing maneuver, the Crippler Crossface, "did Benoit hear Jim Ross announcing in the background?"). The tone is absurd at times, but I feel that it matches the material perfectly. Again, others may disagree.

As a big follower of the Four Horsemen, I admit that I'd like to have seen the material on Benoit's tenure with the group in WCW fleshed out a bit more. Somebody like Mongo McMichael would have been a most unlikely character for Benoit to rub elbows with; the Horsemen aspect of the WCW stay is probably the weakest part of the book, but as you can tell from everything else I've noted, everything else more than makes up for it.

I appreciate also that Randazzo, while laying deserved blame mostly at the feet of Benoit (with the rest divided up among odious creatures like McMahon), does not take cheap shots at the fans at the very end for continuing to enjoy the spectacle of wrestling. Writer Irvin Muchnick has also provided outstanding coverage of the Benoit story, but he ends up with a judgmental "how can you fans still watch this without feeling the blood on your hands?" point of view that is aggravating. Randazzo lets us draw our own conclusions about how we should let these revelations color our enjoyment of the industry.

To sum up: were it not for fact that pro wrestling is the redheaded stepchild of American society, Randazzo would likely be up for a Pulitzer Prize for the journalism contained in this book. It's the most honest book ever written about the business, surpassing tomes penned by those in the industry because he's not holding anything back to protect himself or others. This book sets a new standard for exposing the truth about pro wrestling, one that may never be topped and certainly won't be anytime soon.

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