Published on June 24th, 2017 | by Joey Finnegan0
They Called Him The Crippler: The Life and Death of Chris Benoit
Born on a Sunday
Michael and Margaret Benoit were blessed with a son, Christopher Michael Benoit, on Sunday, May 21st, 1967 in Montreal, Quebec. They would go on to raise him in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A posthumous study into Christopher done by Dr. Bennett Omalu revealed he had a normal development, no medical or mental illnesses. When Chris was six years old, he was involved in a car accident that saw his head strike the windshield. He was hospitalized for three days and thought to have a mild traumatic brain injury, but wound up showing no deleterious effects or signs of permanent injury.
He played football for five years, sustaining no known instances of injury. He never missed practices or games. He had no known substance or drug abuse issues. He became interested in wrestling from an early age. As a result, he began a serious weightlifting and exercise regimen.
In an ABC News interview, his father Michael said, “He was pretty much driven from the age of 12, 13 to get in the wrestling industry. Chris lifted weights every day. He was 13 years old … he was breaking records in high school in our basement.”
It was around that time Chris saw ‘Dynamite Kid’ Thomas Billington perform at the Edmonton Pavilion. He cited that moment in a 2000 interview as one that helped drive him to become a professional wrestler.
“I just idolized him. We had backyard wrestling matches or I would be in my room, kicking my bed, trying to clone him. I remember how he and Bret [Hart] stood out above everyone else.”
Benoit wore his influences on his sleeve, making it obvious that he had studied Dynamite Kid’s work. He looked like him, was even billed as “Dynamite Chris” at an early point in his career, and would famously go on to adopt Billington’s diving headbutt and snap suplex as integral parts of his in-ring move set. He later borrowed from Bret, as well, often using The Hitman’s finishing submission hold, The Sharpshooter. The most notable example of which has to be when he used it to tap Shawn Michaels out at Backlash 2004 in Edmonton, Alberta.
This came during the rematch of their WrestleMania XX triple threat with Triple H, causing the hometown, very pro-Benoit crowd to give him a massive ovation. Not only had he triumphed over the dastardly Cerebral Assassin again, retaining the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, which he won only the previous month at The Showcase of the Immortals, but he had also seemingly avenged The Montreal Screwjob. All right there in Edmonton, where his journey into the wrestling world began. His family even watched, smiling from the crowd, including his wife Nancy and his son Daniel.
It’s very hard to write about Chris Benoit, even harder to try and understand him. He’s a man split in two. There’s everything before, his whole life, and then there’s three days and the befuddling after. The family and friends left with unanswerable questions. Everything before seems to point to such a family man. He was certainly flawed, but good at heart, and man could he wrestle. One of the best ever.
When asked if he worried about the dangerous lifestyle of a wrestler, especially after the deaths of Owen Hart and Brian Pillman, he simply responded with, “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”
A once harmless quote illustrating acceptance of his dangerous career, now an unbelievably ominous reminder of the end.
Chris Benoit was a lot of things in his life, but no matter how talented he was inside the ring, all of that will always be overshadowed by his final days.
I. A WOLVERINE AT HART: FROM THE DUNGEON TO JAPAN
“It was barbaric. I’m glad when I came in Stu wasn’t in his prime. But he could still take you down and make you scream.”
Chris Benoit began his journey into wrestling properly when he was eighteen years old. He sought out the best training available, in order to grow and perfect his craft. This sent him to a legendary training ground established in 1948. A place that offered training to more than wrestlers, including football players and strongmen. It was located in the basement of a mansion, which served as the home of a famous Canadian family.
The infamous Hart family ‘Dungeon’ was run by Stu Hart, after he founded Stampede Wrestling (also known at different times as Klondike Wrestling, Big Time Wrestling, and Wildcat Wrestling). The patriarch of the Hart Family was famous for his grueling training methods. The Dungeon is known for having helped to train some of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the business. The list of names that have passed through those walls is very impressive.
- Bret “Hitman” Hart
- Owen Hart
- Dean Hart
- Davey Boy Smith
- Jim Neidhart
- “Superstar” Billy Graham
- Greg Valentine
- Bad News Allen
- Brian Pillman
- Jushin Liger
- Ricky Fuji
- Chris Benoit
- Natalya Neidhart
- Lance Storm
- DH Smith
- Tyson Kidd
- Chris Jericho
- Roddy Piper
That’s only a portion. It goes on like this. The place saw a ton of talented people train there. Chris Benoit was only one of many. It was through his work there that Chris made his way to Stampede Wrestling, quickly becoming a homegrown star. His career in the promotion began in 1985.
His first match came on November 22nd, 1985 in Calgary, Alberta. It was a tag team bout, which saw Benoit team with “The Remarkable” Rick Patterson to take on Butch Moffat and Mike Hammer. The finish came when Chris pinned Moffat with a sunset flip. His first-ever title win occurred when Benoit defeated Gama Singh for the Stampede British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight Championship. Chris would later win three more British Commonwealth Championships and four International Tag Team Championships (his partners were Ben Bassarab, Keith Hart, Lance Idol, and Biff Wellington).
His most prominent title run saw Benoit trading the Commonwealth Championship with Johnny Smith. During which, Smith turned heel, leading to a feud that was supposed to revive Stampede in its dying days. “The Battle of the British Bulldogs” featured Chris teaming with Davey Boy Smith to take on his Championship rival Johnny Smith and his idol Dynamite Kid. It didn’t wind up doing much for the promotion, but that couldn’t be helped. Benoit was constantly overshadowed in the promotion by another tragic figure of wrestling’s history: Owen Hart.
To make his own name, Chris Benoit made his way to New Japan Pro-Wrestling, thanks to a recommendation from Bad News Allen. Upon arriving there, the man who’d later become known as The Pegasus Kid spent about a year in the New Japan Dojo to improve his skills. He spent months doing push ups and sweeping the floor before even stepping foot in the ring. It’s a famously brutal regimen, similar to what he underwent at The Dungeon.
He began touring Japan in 1987, initially under the name “Dynamite Chris,” which he hated. He would later don the mask and become known as The Pegasus Kid. He grew to love Japan and began to schedule his career around trips to the country. Due to his resemblance to Dynamite Kid, a highly respected name in Japanese wrestling, Chris quickly caught on with the country’s crowd. His time there saw him put on acclaimed matches with men such as Jushin Thunder Liger, Shinjiro Otani, Black Tiger, and El Samurai.
It also saw him win the Best of the Super Juniors tournament twice (in 1993 and 1995), the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship (from Jushin Thunder Liger, who he later lost it back to, along with his mask, forcing him to reinvent his character as Wild Pegasus), the Super Grade Junior Heavyweight Tag League (with Shinjiro Otani) and the Super J Cup tournament in 1994. He picked up the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship during this period, as well, holding that title for over a year, putting on multiple forty-plus minute matches with Villaino III.
While working in Japan, Chris Benoit had a match with Eddie Guerrero. During the bout, Chris kicked Eddie in the head, knocking him out cold, beginning a personal friendship between the two. Along with Dean Malenko, they became known as “The Three Amigos.”
This period of Chris Benoit’s life made him the wrestler he was. He traveled all over the world, including various regions of Mexico and Europe. He took what he learned during all that time and brought a mostly unseen style to America, helping to change the very state of professional wrestling in the country.
“He was almost, I’d say, like the Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky of his profession. He was that good. He influenced many, many wrestlers all around the world for 22 years and almost kind of changed the style of pro wrestling in this country, because he spent a lot of time in Japan and kind of ingratiated the Japanese style, the Mexican style, and the hard-hitting Calgary style into the WWE and the WCW, the former company he worked for.”
II. COMING TO AMERICA: WCW & ECW
Chris Benoit made his first appearance in WCW back in June of 1992 as part of a tournament for the NWA World Tag Team Championships. He teamed with Biff Wellington, a fellow Canadian. They were defeated by Brian Pillman and Jushin Thunder Liger in the first round of Clash of the Champions XIX.
He did not return to World Championship Wrestling until January 1992 at Clash of the Champions XXII, where he defeated Brad Armstrong. He would incur a defeat at the hands of 2 Cold Scorpio, one month later, during Superbrawl III. This finish came with only three seconds remaining in the twenty-minute time limit. During this time, Chris also formed a team with Bobby Eaton. They would go on to lose to 2 Cold Scorpio and Marcus Bagwell at Slamboree. From there, Benoit headed back to Japan.
In 1994, Chris began working ECW shows in between Japanese tours. It was during this time that he developed his most famous nickname: The Crippler. It was cemented when he accidentally broke Sabu’s neck at November 2 Remember. It happened when Benoit threw Sabu into a face-first “pancake” bump, but Sabu tried to change direction mid-air and take a backdrop bump instead. He didn’t get enough rotation and landed almost directly on his neck.
After the match, Benoit returned to the locker room and broke down at the idea of possibly paralyzing someone. Paul Heyman, head booker of ECW, saw an opportunity and decided to continue the “Crippler” moniker. From then on, until his departure, Chris was known as “Crippler Benoit” in the land of the extreme (WCW would later take that and change it to the Canadian Crippler Chris Benoit).
Benoit later won his first American title in the promotion, alongside Dean Malenko. They took the ECW Tag Team Championships off of Sabu and the Tazmaniac in February of 1995. After the match, they were initiated into the Shane Douglas-led faction known as The Triple Threat, an attempt at recreating The Four Horsemen. The Franchise was carrying the ECW World Heavyweight Championship at the time, putting all the gold in their hands. However, Benoit and Malenko would go on to lose their titles in April of that year to The Public Enemy.
In the Rise and Fall of ECW book, Heyman revealed he had plans to keep Benoit as a dominant heel in the company for some time. He was even going to put the company’s top prize on him and make The Crippler a long-term Champion for the company. That’s where issues with Benoit’s work visa came in. He was forced to leave the company and return to Japan. Paul Heyman was supposed to renew it but missed the date. So, in the interest of job security, and due to his inability to enter the United States, Chris stayed in Japan until WCW called.
Due to a working relationship between NJPW and WCW, Chris Benoit signed with the latter company in late 1995. Along with the majority of men involved in the “talent exchange,” Benoit began in the cruiserweight division, working numerous high-quality matches with his rivals from Japan. After some impressive work, he was approached by Ric Flair and the WCW booking staff to join the newly reformed Four Horsemen, alongside The Nature Boy, Arn Anderson, and Brian Pillman.
He was introduced by Brian Pillman as a take no shit type of heel, in an effort to bring a new dynamic to “the alliance to end Hulkamania.” This alliance saw the Horsemen working with The Dungeon of Doom, led by Kevin Sullivan. Anyone familiar with Benoit’s story knows this is a massive turning point in his life.
The alliance came crashing down when a feud began between Kevin Sullivan and Brian Pillman. This rivalry is a subject for another time (“I respect you, booker man”), but it ended abruptly when Pillman finagled his way out of the company, over to ECW, and then over to the WWF (now WWE). Needing a replacement, Chris Benoit was subbed in for The Loose Cannon.
III. THE MAN WHO BOOKED HIS OWN DIVORCE
It began during a match with The Public Enemy. Dissension brewed as Kevin Sullivan and Chris Benoit reluctantly joined forces to take on the team for a “Lethal Lottery” tag team match. It ended with The Public Enemy winning and The Taskmaster attacking The Canadian Crippler. From there, they had violent confrontations, leading to a feud in which Kevin Sullivan, WCW’s head booker, booked Chris Benoit to have an affair with Woman, Sullivan’s onscreen valet and real life wife Nancy Sullivan.
In order to promote realism and keep an old-school edge, Sullivan had them spend time together in public. They’d hold hands, share hotel rooms, etc. This on-screen relationship developed into an off-screen relationship. It was a messy situation, to say the least. Chris himself was married to Martina Benoit, who gave birth to two of his children, David and Megan. Rather than squash the feud, Sullivan and Benoit continued on, wrestling a series of fierce matches. They had a rocky relationship, at best, behind the scenes. However, Chris said on the DVD “Hard Knocks: The Chris Benoit Story,” that Sullivan never took undue liberties with him in the ring, even though he blamed Benoit for his marriage crumbling.
This lasted for over a year, with Sullivan dispatching several of his enforcers to try and take out Benoit. It all culminated in a retirement match at Bash at the Beach 1997, which Sullivan lost in an attempt to explain away his disappearance into a behind-the-scenes role. This story has become something of a legend among wrestling fans, with many of them using it as fodder for a conspiracy theory.
As the conspiracy goes, the belief is that Kevin Sullivan held this grudge for a decade, plotting and scheming. Then he acted, killing Chris, Nancy, and Daniel, and framing Chris for the whole thing. The most “evidence” ever cited for this notion is Sullivan’s history playing a Satanist character. It’s a ludicrous idea, frankly.
From a two-part episode of The Ross Report:
JIM ROSS: “I’ve read where you’ve been accused of being in some sort of conspiracy and it’s the most ridiculous stuff that I’ve ever heard, and it’s based on the fact that – you and Nancy had been separated for a long time when she died. You and her were, that was long over, but your character on television was so provocative that people literally thought that you and your cult of unknown, unseen devil worshippers had something to do with this slaughter.”
KEVIN SULLIVAN: “Yeah and that did bother me for a while, Jim, until I talked to [Nancy Benoit’s] mother and she said, ‘I can’t believe that people could even think that,’ you know, and she made me feel better, the sister made me feel better. I mean, my son was going to the funeral. He got off the plane, there was so much paparazzi there, he turned around and got on the plane. I didn’t go because I knew it would be a three-ring circus. I couldn’t even pay my respects, but my life had gone on. I had moved to The Keys, I had started a gym, I had a child, you know. So it was different. It was like I had been out of the business seven or eight years. I had gone on, but when this came up, I was saying to myself, ‘This is how people are so sick, and so much of an idol worship, they were looking for, and I don’t mean this in any bad light, but they were looking for an out because he was a great, great, great, fabulous wrestler. We’ll never know what caused it, but for people to believe something like that, means they believe that the earth is hollow or flat or whatever.”
IV. A RADICAL DEPARTURE
After the feud with Sullivan, Chris Benoit would eventually move on to everyone’s favorite five time, five time, five time, five time, five time WCW World Heavyweight Champion, Booker T (yes, we all know Booker won it once more in WWE). Before he wore the big gold belt though, Booker feuded with Benoit for the WCW World Television Championship, until Book lost the title to Fit Finlay. This was a long feud, which saw the two later go at it over a series of eight matches to determine the number one contender for Finlay’s gold. It was supposed to be a best-of-seven series, and it looked to be headed that way when Benoit went up 3-1.
Then Booker made a comeback, forcing a seventh match on WCW’s flagship television program, Monday Nitro. However, one of Benoit’s idols, Bret Hart, got involved in the final bout in an attempt to draw Chris to the New World Order. The Canadian Crippler wasn’t going to win that way, explaining to the referee what happened, causing himself to be disqualified. Not one to be outdone, Booker also refused to win that way, so an eighth match was called for at the 1998 Great American Bash.
The winner would go onto face Finlay later in the night. Booker picked up the victory there, but the series did wonders for both of their careers as singles competitors. They remained in the upper mid-card from then on.
That really sums up Benoit’s career in World Championship Wrestling. He never quite made it past the upper mid-card. No matter how good he was, there was always someone else. There was always a Hulk Hogan, a Sting, a Kevin Nash, or any of the other names WCW had on lock. There was always a ceiling for the majority of the roster. Not a glass ceiling, a simple ceiling. It was almost impossible to burst through, and if someone did, they were usually squashed back down. Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio Jr. come to mind. Plenty of people won plenty of gold, Benoit included, but they were never stars. At least they were never treated as such.
KEVIN NASH: “When Benoit and Guerrero hugged [at the end of WrestleMania XX], that was the end of the business. Has business been the same since that WrestleMania? Has it come close to the Austin era? Has it come close to the nWo or the Hogan era? You put two fucking guys that were great workers that were the same height as the fucking referees, and I’m sorry, man. Are you going to watch a porno movie with a guy with a three-inch dick? Even if you’re not gay, you will not watch a porno movie with a guy with a three-inch dick. That’s not the standard in porno films. So you put a 5-foot-7 guy as your world champion.”
This comes from the same man who was in charge of booking WCW for a while. The same man who called Benoit and Guerrero “vanilla midgets.” The stories of younger, smaller, mid-card guys being held down in World Championship Wrestling are plentiful. It’s why Chris Jericho left, and why Chris Benoit would wind up leaving himself (with Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn, and Dean Malenko in tow).
After the Booker feud, Benoit won the WCW World Tag Team Championships with Dean Malenko. They would go on to reform the Four Horsemen with Arn Anderson and Steve ‘Mongo’ McMichael. I know what you’re thinking, how could being in two iterations of one of the most legendary factions in the history of professional wrestling be a bad thing? It wasn’t, but due to animosity between Ric Flair and Eric Bischoff, the Horsemen in the mid to late nineties were never given much. They’d be fed to the NWO, or never really hit it off like they should have. There’s a reason McMichael and Malenko weren’t inducted into the Hall of Fame when the Horsemen were, and it’s not only the fact that Benoit was a card carrying member back then.
These frustrations with management and their ceiling led to The Revolution, a heel faction made up of Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Shane Douglas, and Perry Saturn. They were young, in their prime, and pissed they weren’t getting the same chances as the other guys. They even succeeded from the WCW, becoming their own nation, flying their own flag and everything. Benoit wasn’t long for this group, eventually splitting from it, due to beef with Douglas, the group’s leader.
All total, while in WCW, Benoit won the tag titles twice, the television title three times, the US title twice, and despite the company’s attempts to erase it, he also won the big gold belt. The thing is, by the time they put the WCW World Heavyweight Championship on him at Souled Out 2000, Chris was fed up. He was unhappy working in the company. Putting the title on him was meant to appease his unhappiness, but it was too little, too late. He left the company the next day, along with Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn. They would soon make their way to the then World Wrestling Federation to form the group known as The Radicalz.
Here’s the story, straight from Latino Heat:
INTERVIEWER: “What led to you, along with Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn, asking for your release in January of 1999?”
EDDIE GUERRERO: “Well, I was already ready to ask for my release before Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara came in. When they came in, I said, ‘Alright, let me give it another shot. Things might go different now, things look a little different.’ When I heard that things were changing back to the old-“
INTERVIEWER: “With Kevin Sullivan?”
GUERRERO: “You know, it wasn’t so much Kevin, you know what I mean? Even though I do think maybe there was some personal vendettas, I don’t know. It wasn’t so much Kevin, it was the structure of things that I didn’t like. I really did not like the structure.”
INTERVIEWER:” As far as what?”
GUERRERO: “It was the old structure, and I saw the same bullshit coming. The same bullshit, and I just felt it, and it didn’t feel right. I wanted out. So when Chris and Dean approached me, and Perry, and the other guys. You know, I was a shoe-in already. They didn’t even have to ask me. There’s a joke. It’s not a joke, it’s a truth. When Perry and Dean and Chris were talking about it, they said, ‘Well, should we call Eddie and let him know?’ They said, ‘Ahh, he’s in, don’t worry about it.’ I’m loyal until you screw me, maybe four or five times. Maybe now it’s probably less, but once I get screwed over, I don’t go and bury you, but I won’t let myself get buried again.”
INTERVIEWER: “What was the ultimatum that you guys went to WCW with?”
GUERRERO: “We just wanted a change of structure, a structure that we could work with.”
INTERVIEWER: “Who did you approach?”
GUERRERO: “Who was the president? Who had taken Eric’s place? What was his name?”
INTERVIEWER: “Bill Bush?”
GUERRERO: “Bill Bush, that’s who we approached, and we just talked to him straight up. I think he saw it as a threat. He definitely saw it as a threat. It wasn’t a threat. We were just unhappy with the structure, you know, and I know there was personal issues between Kevin and some of the boys. Whether he had them with me, I don’t know.”
INTERVIEWER: “How did WCW management react to you guys?”
GUERRERO: “We got threatened in one way. They totally treated us like we had- like we were the enemy, you know? Yeah, it was pretty much like that. Not all of them, but most of them.”
INTERVIEWER: “We did an interview with Kevin Sullivan. He was here, and in his shoot, he said that he helped Chris Benoit by giving him the title. Agree?”
GUERRERO: “I think he helped us all. I do agree that he did help us all, but you gotta remember one thing, okay? You can help me all you want, but if I don’t produce, then help means shit. You gotta be able to produce, one way or another. Chris Benoit produced. He’s one of the best workers in the world, and I’m not saying that because he’s one of my best friends. His work speaks for itself. Look at the fruits, and Kevin, yeah, he did give us an opportunity. He gave me an opportunity. He gave me a hell of a chance. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have had this opportunity, as far as the junior heavyweights. Kevin Sullivan fought for the junior heavyweights, and I will always be grateful to him for that. His personal thing with Chris, that’s his deal and Chris’s.”
INTERVIEWER: “Do you think that he let personal issues get in the way of business, or no?”
GUERRERO: “I felt they did, whether he wanted to or not. I’m sure they did, unfortunately. I don’t think it got in the way once they stepped into the ring, because in the ring, both of them were totally professional, but I think it did get in the way. You gotta understand, there’s a lot more to the story than is said.”
INTERVIEWER: “Do you wanna talk about it, or-“
GUERRERO: “No, because it’s not my place to talk about it.”
INTERVIEWER: “Okay. Was there ever a chance of you returning to ECW, instead of going to the World Wrestling Federation?”
GUERRERO: “No. Well, yeah, there was. I take it back, there was. We wanted out. It was a real while that we wanted out. When we confronted Bill Bush, we had already wanted out for, I don’t know how many months before that. Me and Dean went to talk to Paul E. when we wrestled in Florida. So, yeah, we wanted out, and we didn’t care if it was going to Japan and ECW again, or if we went to WWF. We weren’t sure they were gonna want us.”
INTERVIEWER: “Did you guys get heat for going to that show in Florida, or did you guys do it say, ‘Hey, maybe-“
GUERRERO: “No, we really went to see our options. That’s what it was.”
INTERVIEWER: “How did you guys contact the World Wrestling Federation about you guys jumping?”
GUERRERO: “Just called.”
INTERVIEWER: “How interested were they about taking you guys?”
GUERRERO: “Oh, they were interested. Very interested.”
It can all be traced back to Scott Levy, AKA Raven. Back in 1999, most of the roster was so unhappy with the political environment of the company, WCW management had to hold a meeting. They offered anyone who was unhappy the opportunity to negotiate a release of their contract. Raven jumped right on it, appearing back in ECW less than a week later. He was the inspiration, proof the grass could be greener on the other side.
This all led to the previously mentioned Souled Out pay-per-view on June 16th, 2000, where WCW had Chris Benoit defeat Sid Vicious in the main event for their vacant World Heavyweight Championship. Despite the honor, nothing changed. Benoit was threatened over his intended departure, as well as asked to stay the day after being awarded the big gold belt, rather than quit. In response, he supposedly threw the title in a garbage can and left, holding his ground. WCW then attempted to erase his reign by pointing out that Sid’s foot was under the rope when Benoit made him tap, invalidating the victory.
However it went down, Chris Benoit was done with the company on January 17th, 2000. He went back to Japan for a few weeks. Then, on the January 31st, 2000 episode of Raw is War, The Radicalz debuted.
The group’s jump to WWF is seen by many as the death knell for World Championship Wrestling.
V. A WOLVERINE IN THE LAND OF GIANTS
Chris Benoit won his first title in the WWF/E at WrestleMania 2000, only a few months after his debut. He pinned Chris Jericho in a triple threat with Kurt Angle to capture the Olympic gold medal winner’s Intercontinental Championship. Around the same time, Benoit wrestled in his first main event matches. He took on The Rock for the then-WWF Championship at Fully Loaded on July 23rd, 2000, and then challenged for the gold again as part of a four-way at Unforgiven on September 24th, 2000.
Benoit also developed a long-running feud with Chris Jericho during this period, which saw them battling for the Intercontinental Championship. The Crippler seemed to have the upper hand, defeating Y2J at Backlash 2000, Judgement Day 2000, and SummerSlam 2000. It all culminated at Royal Rumble 2001, in what was once considered one of the best ladder matches of all time: Jericho versus Benoit for the IC gold. The man of 1,004 holds picked up the victory there, but all told, between April 2000 and January 2001, Chris Benoit won the Intercontinental Championship three times.
This was only the beginning. Chris Benoit’s entire WWE career is filled with accolades and fantastic matches, but one of his first truly star-making moments came during the May 21st, 2001 episode of Monday Night Raw. The previous week, Benoit and Jericho challenged the brutally dominant tag team of WWF Champion Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H, known as the Two Man Power Trip, for their WWF Tag Team Championships. The Canadian contemporaries picked up a huge victory.
The pair used their win as ammo to challenge for Stone Cold’s title. Neither were ultimately successful. Even worse, Benoit picked up a neck injury during a four way TLC match on the May 24th, 2001 episode of SmackDown. He was defending his newly won WWF Tag Team Championships alongside Chris Jericho, facing off against The Dudley Boyz, Edge and Christian, and The Hardy Boyz. The injury required surgery, but Benoit kept wrestling until King of the Ring 2001, where Steve Austin defeated both him and Jericho in a triple threat to retain the WWF Championship. He spent a year out of action from there, missing the entire Invasion storyline (dodging a bullet in the process).
In the first WWE draft, Chris Benoit was picked third by Vince McMahon to be on SmackDown. He found a home there, settling into the tag team division along with the rest of the “SmackDown Six.” For those unfamiliar, that’s Benoit, Kurt Angle, Rey Mysterio, Edge, Eddie Guerrero, and Chavo Guerrero. They were the workhorses of the brand, putting on quality match after quality match for the newly created WWE Tag Team Championship. Raw scored the tag champs in the draft, so SmackDown had to make a move and get some new titles. Benoit and Angle were the inaugural winners, but the gold bounced around a very competitive division.
Fast forward to Royal Rumble 2004. Chris Benoit had seen numerous successes in his career, capturing gold all over the world. None of it compared to the Rumble, or where that would take him. He entered at number one, outlasting all other opponents. It came down to him and Big Show in one of the most hair-raising finales in the history of the Royal Rumble match. Somehow though, he managed to survive even the giant, securing himself a main event shot at WrestleMania XX.
Rather than challenge for the gold on SmackDown, Benoit’s Rumble win was cashed in on Monday Night Raw and Triple H’s World Heavyweight Championship. This inserted him into a brutal feud between The Game and Shawn Michaels. They were former best friends, out for blood. He was after the title. It was the perfect position to fall into. The two of them were so distracted with each other, they underestimated Chris Benoit.
As we all know, The Crippler walked away with the big gold belt at WrestleMania XX. He retained it the next month at Backlash 2004. The run lasted until SummerSlam of that year, where Benoit lost the World Heavyweight Championship to Randy Orton.
Chris would later renew an old rivalry with Booker T. This time, it was for the United States Championship. They went for the best of seven series again and everything. Booker won the first three matches, thanks in large part to his wife’s interference. Benoit won the fourth, but then Booker T sustained a legitimate groin injury after the match. Randy Orton was chosen as his replacement for the series. The Viper would go on to win the US title for Booker.
Throughout his WWE tenure, Chris Benoit won thirteen championships. He’s the 12th Triple Crown Champion, a Royal Rumble winner, etc. So when the company looked to be working on rebuilding Paul Heyman’s ECW as a third televised brand, Chris was an ideal name to lead the show. He was a highly acclaimed veteran, who could help get younger talent to the next level.
On the June 11th, 2007 episode of Monday Night Raw, Chris Benoit was drafted to ECW. He won his debut match teaming up with CM Punk against Marcus Cor Von and Elijah Burke. He then wrestled his last match on June 19th, defeating Burke in a match to determine who would go on to compete against CM Punk at Vengeance for the vacated ECW Championship. Chris would obviously miss Vengeance. Johnny Nitro (now Johnny Mundo of Lucha Underground) replaced him. Viewers were informed that Benoit wasn’t there, due to a “family emergency.”
A stellar career comes to this…
VI. A FEW DAYS IN GEORGIA
On Friday, June 22, 2007, Chris killed his wife Nancy in an upstairs bedroom. Her limbs were bound, and her body was wrapped in a towel. A Bible was placed by her body. Injuries revealed that Benoit had pressed a knee into her back while pulling on a cord around her neck, causing strangulation. Blood was also found under her head, implying that she may have tried to defend herself against Benoit. However, officials said that there were no signs of an immediate struggle.
At about 3:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday, June 23, Chavo Guerrero received a voicemail message from Chris’s phone stating he had overslept and missed his flight and would be late for that night’s house show in Beaumont, Texas. Guerrero called Benoit back and observed Benoit sounded tired and groggy, as he confirmed everything that he had said in his voice message. Guerrero was concerned about Benoit’s tone and demeanor so he called him back 12 minutes later. Benoit did not answer, and Guerrero left a message asking him to call back.
At 3:44 p.m. EDT, Benoit called Guerrero back, stating that he had not answered the call because he was on the phone with Delta Air Lines changing his flight. Benoit mentioned that he had a stressful day due to Nancy and Daniel “being sick from food poisoning.” Guerrero then replied with, “All right man, if you need to talk, I’m here for you.” Benoit ended the conversation by saying, “I love you, Chavo.”
On Sunday, June 24, five text messages were sent to coworkers Guerrero and Scott Armstrong between 3:51 a.m. and 3:58 a.m. using both Chris Benoit’s and Nancy Benoit’s cell phones. Four of them were the Benoits’ address; the fifth said that the family’s dogs were in the enclosed pool area, and also noted that a garage side door had been left open.
Not long after, Chris Benoit took his own life.
The sad truth is that his final days vastly overshadow everything that came before it. I recently brought the subject of this article up to my father, and he knew Chris Benoit’s name. Not because of the work he did inside the ring. He knew the name in relation to the sad story that is his end.
That is the perception of Chris Benoit. He’s a murderer who wrestled.
Various questions arose after the grisly scene was discovered at the Benoit home in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Chris Benoit was described as the sort of man who would stop home on grueling touring loops to see his family no matter what, even if it was only for a few hours. Why would he do this? He had issues. Nancy filed for divorce and a restraining order in 2003 after Chris got scarily physical, but they seemingly patched that up. They were together for years more. Why would he do this?
Drug abuse may have played a role. On the same day he murdered Nancy, on June 22nd, Chris paid a visit to the office of Dr. Phil Astin in Carrollton, Georgia. There, he picked up a prescription. Steroids were found in Benoit’s system at the time of his death, and Astin, the physician who supplied Benoit and others with steroids, was convicted and sent to prison for 10 years. According to a note in his autopsy file, Benoit had a severely enlarged heart (620 grams, double the weight of a normal, average, healthy heart) with left ventricular hypertrophy and bilateral atrioventricular dilatation, a common finding in wrestlers who abused steroids and/or human growth hormone. Nancy Benoit’s sister claims Benoit would have been dead in a year due to his enlarged heart.
But the prevailing thought is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in people who have suffered numerous blows to the head. Chris Benoit unmistakably sustained a large amount of shots to the head.
Here’s a particularly sickening one:
It doesn’t matter how tough you are, your brain can’t take bumps. The research with CTE seems to show that if it sustains enough trauma, eventually, your brain will break down. The symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s and dementia, but it could happen at any time. You basically become a ticking time bomb. Cases like Terry Long, Dave Duerson, Dave Mirra, and Jovan Belcher come to mind. Suicides and murder. This stuff is terrifying.
CTE puts a new face on it, but Alzheimer’s and dementia have always been scary. More than one-third of people living with dementia have shown aggressive behavior, whether it be swearing, screaming, making threats, or getting physical. That type of behavior may be linked to the person’s personality before dementia, but it may also develop in people who have never been aggressive before. They change, because their brain is changing, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Chris Benoit wasn’t exempt from this. In fact, upon autopsy, his brain was compared to that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. Nancy Benoit’s sister, Sandra Toffoloni, spoke to Chris Jericho about the tragedy on “Talk Is Jericho.” They had the following exchange about some of the personality changes they witnessed in Chris Benoit in the last year and a half of his life:
JERICHO: “You mentioned earlier about the last year and a half. Did you start noticing anything? Cause I started noticing stuff, too, you know? I used to call Chris – I still do – we called him ‘Houdini,’ because he would just – I don’t – he would just disappear. Like, you never would know when he was leaving. If we were ever having some drinks at a bar, whatever – even in the arena, he would just like, poof, he’s gone.
And then I also call him, ‘The Loch Ness Monster,’ because he would surface, and like call you on the phone, and if you missed that call, if he went back under – even three seconds later – you wouldn’t hear from him for like another month. And that started really getting more and more regular. Where it’s like, ‘Hey dude,’ – you could start – like, looking back now, you can see that there’s some stuff like that going on more and more frequently. Did you notice that, and have the experiences with that, as well?”
SANDRA: “Definitely. There were way more instances of that – that’s a great term, ‘Loch Ness Monster’ – that’s very, very true. I’d get a random text or a random call, and then I’ll call my sister and be like, ‘Hey, I just heard from Chris in, wherever, Minneapolis. Was everything okay at the match, or whatever?’ She’s like, ‘Oh, he’s probably had a drink, just wants to chat with you and hear something funny, or something.’
And I’m like, ‘Well, I missed, and tried to call back.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s gone.’ And then I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ But what really became noticeable was a little bit more of, like, a sense of unsafeness and paranoia for the family. Like, he would just constantly be checking the alarm at night, constantly be checking things, and for himself, like when we would go to the gym and things like that, he would take different ways every time.”
JERICHO: “Like different routes?”
SANDRA: “Yeah, different routes, the same gym. Around the same time every day, sometimes twice a day, you know? The way we would go in the morning is not the way that we would go after dinner, and, you know, we’d take the Hummer one day, but then – I had a Mustang, at the time – he’s like, ‘Let’s take the Mustang, instead.’
It never ever, ever before that had been – he used to be, you know, fairly laid back about stuff like that. There was never any issue like that. So when it did start happening, it was something I noticed immediately. Like, ‘What is the deal with this? What is going on?’ And he seemed to have a little bit more short patience with things, um, just that not having it sensibility over certain things.
Going into Publix and getting food and stuff. He didn’t want to do that anymore. He wanted, you know – he’d tell me what he wanted and send me. Or if me and Nancy were out during the day, he’d just call and say, ‘Pick this up.’ It was a huge personality change. Not crazy huge, where everyone else would notice, but people around him a lot would notice.”
Everything in the above exchange logically points to CTE, but we can never know for sure. It makes sense. Chris Benoit sustained a ludicrous amount of shots to the head throughout his career, and deterioration of the brain could very well explain for such a change from this family man to a cold-blooded murderer. In response, WWE adopted a “no chair shots to the head” rule. They’re also much more in tune with injuries, doling out top quality treatment and rehab. They do not mess around with head injuries either, that’s for sure. Corey Graves and Daniel Bryan had their in-ring careers ended, due to concussion-related injuries.
That’s definitive change, perhaps the one sliver of light in all this darkness. The WWE is a much safer company, with doctors at ringside for every match. Finn Balor versus Samoa Joe at NXT TakeOver: Dallas comes to mind. Joe got busted open early and the match was repeatedly stopped so the wound could be tended to, much to the chagrin of many fans. Safety has been made more of a priority.
Otherwise, there’s nothing. It’s all darkness. Even with CTE, it’s all terrible. The literal best case scenario is that he damaged his brain so badly, it drove him insane enough to kill his wife and son.
That means at most, Chris Benoit is a cautionary tale.
For those interested, I traveled to Fayetteville, Georgia to obtain the police report for the crime. You can read it by clicking here. You can also read the posthumous study into Chris done by Dr. Bennett Omalu, entitled “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a professional American wrestler.”