Chris Benoit is one of the best wrestlers of all time. Chris Benoit also murdered his wife, Nancy, and his son, Daniel, before hanging himself over a three day period in June 2007.
Leaving aside the issue of individual taste, the former statement is widely held to be true and the later is established fact. If Chris Benoit was anybody else — if he were half the wrestler he was — his name would have been erased from history a long time ago, but he’s one of the best, a wrestler who, along with the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and others, changed how smaller, more technically-minded wrestlers were perceived and served as inspiration for a generation of wrestlers who followed him. He was a fixture of the Monday Night War, one of the centerpieces of the Ruthless Aggression era, and was part of one of the most emotional WrestleMania conclusions in history.
Three years after that WrestleMania finish, he murdered his wife and son. Nancy Benoit was 43 years old. Daniel Benoit was seven.
Why Are We Talking About Chris Benoit?
Chris Benoit is a subject of discussion on wrestling Twitter this week because of this tweet by Jordynne Grace:
It is, in my opinion, not a particularly well thought out critique of how good Chris Benoit was as a worker. It appears to hinge on Benoit’s inability to “remember matches,” which is either a dig at his having CTE or a weird way of saying that the business has changed from calling matches in the ring to planning them out beforehand, neither of which are particularly true — Benoit was operating at a high level when he committed suicide — nor relevant, as anybody fantasy booking Chris Benoit taking bookings on the indies at age 55 is fantasy booking a world where he neither committed suicide nor murdered his wife and son. What the point of such an exercise is, exactly, I can’t figure out.
Rather than stick with Grace’s point, I want to focus on the tweet that prompted it.
It's always wild listening to wrestlers discuss Chris Benoit in a professional context cause they always be sure to note they aren't excusing what happened before praising his in-ring stuff for 10 minutes.
Except New Jack.
— Robert O'Neill (@RobertONeill31) July 6, 2022
That’s a bingo, and it’s not limited to wrestlers. The first sentence of this piece was “Chris Benoit is one of the best wrestlers of all time.” Whether or not you or I actually believe that, it is the general attitude of professional wrestling as a culture, an irrefutable proof.
It is incredible to me that this distinction matters to anybody. He murdered his wife. He murdered his child. But rather than being points at which a person might stop hard and consider hero worshiping, they’re a turnstile. The deaths of Nancy and Daniel Benoit are tragic, but they are, for many, the quarter you pay to take the ride that is a career which, at the very least, contributed greatly to those deaths.
Robert O’Neill is right, and it’s an open and shut case.
Using the Artist to Shield the Art
Fans and wrestlers alike invoke Chris Benoit’s murders as a means of protecting themselves from being cringed at, the way a cinephile says “I know the things he’s accused of are terrible” before going on about how relatable Annie Hall is. The juxtaposition of an artist’s confirmed or alleged crimes with the value of their art is normal, somehow, like it’s not at least a little weird to relate to the director/writer/actor/role of Woody Allen, whose aww shucks nebbishness has made it easy to wave away the thought that he might be capable of molesting his seven-year-old daughter.
Chris Benoit does not have the same built-in protections as an Allen or a Roman Polanski. He murdered his wife. He murdered his son. He killed himself. Unless you’re the kind of person who buys into “Kevin Sullivan did it” conspiracy theories that populated wrestling message boards fifteen years ago — the illogical extreme of Benoit love — nobody is throwing up a smokescreen or making this more complicated: you can literally feel the mood curdling on the Monday Night Raw tribute to the Benoit on a moment by moment basis, as the realization of what had happened over the weekend set in.
The murders and the Signature Pharmacy steroid scandal that followed two months later (Benoit was a patient at Signature) represented one of the biggest ever challenges to WWE’s business, perhaps the biggest outside of the 1994 federal steroid trial and the current scandal involving Vince McMahon reportedly utilizing $12 million in WWE funds to secure NDAs with four former female employees over actions including allegedly pressuring a wrestler into performing oral sex on him and his sending unsolicited nudes to employees.
These are titanic events that fundamentally shaped the wrestling business, and Benoit basically gets the same treatment that McMahon is frequently afforded: that he’s a genius who did something bad, that the good things they did are still worth celebrating.
That is certainly one way that many respond to propaganda, which is what the “I know what he did was bad” line of reasoning is, to say nothing of wrestlers praising him after tapping the sign that says “murder is wrong,” or, worse, pulling a Shawn Michaels and adding the Crippler Crossface to your arsenal does.
Chris Benoit was whitewashed from WWE title histories and show results, his back catalog damned to an out of print DVD until the WWE Network presented his work virtually uncommented on. “I know what he did was wrong, but” has been a part of wrestling dialog since 2007, but the dump of WWE, WCW, and ECW content onto one streaming service, along with wrestlers like Chris Jericho pointing towards their favorite Benoit matches, made it difficult for the generation of fans who came along after he murdered his wife and son to avoid his body of work, like you need him to understand wrestling.
And maybe you do, but not because he was a great artist.
What Can We Learn From Chris Benoit?
Chris Benoit’s merits as an artist are held up by the idea that he may not have murdered Nancy and Daniel Benoit if he didn’t suffer from CTE, a neurodegenerative disease that is the result of repeated head trauma. It is the reason why the management of concussions, formerly a thing an athlete toughed out, is now at the forefront of athletic medicine. While CTE is still a young field of study, everyone who cares about sports knows about it and has heard many horror stories.
Chris Benoit’s is maybe the worst one.
Frankly, I don’t know what to do with the fact that Benoit had severe CTE. Speaking for myself, I’ve had five concussions, so it occurs to me that I am as likely to get it as he was. I have a kind of sympathy for that, and yet I am not capable of holding that up as a capital-R Reason for his murdering Nancy and Daniel Benoit. Doing so means having to figure out whether or not Benoit was a decent person before he was one of the premier bullies of the WWE locker room, or if he was suffering from CTE in 2003 when Nancy filed for a divorce and submitted a petition for a personal protective order over domestic abuse.
Chris Benoit’s CTE was not a switch that flipped from “decent guy” to “murderer.” It was the cumulative result of a man who idolized wrestlers like Dynamite Kid throwing himself full force into everything he did. His bumps were harder and faster than anybody else’s of his era, his moveset seemed almost designed to dump him on the back of his head. I suspect that wrestling is a source of chronic pain and head trauma for everybody who gives it a go for a sustained period of time, but the one thing I can say about Chris Benoit, having watched his work across the bulk of his career, is that nobody of his generation outside of Mick Foley went harder to make what he did look as vicious and brutal as possible.
This may sound cold, but that’s a choice he made nearly every night he wrestled over the course of 22 years. That is a very long time in wrestling years, replete with opportunities to maybe rethink his approach: concussions, injuries, the deaths of colleagues and friends, the move to the comparatively lower stakes ECW brand at the end. But I don’t think he ever slowed down, either because he didn’t know how to or because he was racing the clock as he got older.
CTE as the Smoking Gun
Nobody chooses to get CTE. When Benoit murdered his wife and son, CTE was a concept so nebulous that steroids were pointed to as the Reason he did what he did. But there is no Reason, at least not one we’ll ever know, because there is rarely one smoking gun.
That one is assumed, that the idea of a “right mind” is evoked, is why there is a shocking lack of discomfort in watching the work of Chris Benoit. It is beautiful. It is educational. It came at a cost, which doesn’t suggest that murder or assault or abuse were beyond him in whatever his “right mind” was.
The fact that Benoit had CTE is something that needs to be folded into discussion of his work, not cited as a disclaimer or taken and cast aside as a fact. Similarly, the fact that he murdered his wife and son needs to be folded into that discussion. Cynical wrestling fans try to spot the bump or chairshot that “turned” Benoit, but the truth is that it’s as much the first one he took in 1985 as it was his last in 2007.
More Professional Wrestling
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You cannot say that concussions caused a tragedy and praise the mechanism that gave the man those concussions. You cannot mourn the loss of two people and praise the man who murdered them. Why? Because what we talk about when we talk about Chris Benoit — any wrestler, really — is choice. One chooses to wrestle. One chooses their style. One chooses how that style intersects with other wrestlers. One chooses to take bumps, chairshots to the head, and dangerous gimmick matches. One chooses to take steroids to bulk up. Is there industry pressure to do all of these things? Yes, but one can choose whether or not to bow to them.
Did Chris Benoit choose to murder Nancy and Daniel Benoit? Here is an instance where I don’t have a definitive answer. I know that severe depression and suicidality are among big symptoms of the disease, and that murders (ex-NFL cornerback Phillip Adams killed six people and himself) and suicides (star linebacker Junior Seau and others) litter the road to an understanding of the disease, and it is no coincidence that the athletes who have suffered from it were in sports where head trauma was common. Is choice involved? Plenty of research suggests that it is not, or that, at the very least, suicide is not a selfish act. Junior Seau chose to shoot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for CTE research. Chris Benoit hung himself after killing two people over the course of a weekend. It’s hard for me to not read conscious choice into either act.
Chris Benoit is not a redeemable figure. He is a cautionary tale. His clotheslines, his suplexes, his chops, the arc of his flying headbutt, one of the most distinct submission finishes in the history of wrestling — none of that matters. Chris Benoit sacrificed a lot over the course of 25 years of wrestling. He mortgaged his body and his brain for his craft. He murdered his wife and son. These facts are inextricable from each other. There is more of what not to learn from Chris Benoit than there is to learn from him.
Citing the murders of his wife and child and the consequences of CTE is not absolution for what Benoit did. It’s a means of throwing salt over one’s shoulder and praying that something like what Chris Benoit never happens again. It could. Acknowledging that is more important than any one wrestler, no matter how good they were.