Letters to Holly

Tuesday, June 26

Horrible and Sudden News

EDIT: I won't be online tomorrow as I am having wisdom teeth yanked out. Might be away Thursday too.

One of my favorite wrestlers has died, and police are calling it a murder-suicide.

Chris Benoit was one of the guys who, in the mid '90s, brought a new degree of realism and intensity to rasslin at a time when it was flush with cartoony characters and gimmicks. He was a product of the fabled Stu Hart Dungeon, a basement training center run by the patriarch of Canadian wrestling. Benoit was small and quiet, and that kept him from advancing beyond the midcard for many years, but the fans took to him because he never coasted through a match or a feud. He always showed up ready to play, and his matches would often steal the show from the main event, even if it included Hogan or Rock or Austin.

I first noticed Benoit when he moved to WCW, the Atlanta-based national promotion. The organization had the financial backing of Ted Turner and later Time-Warner and was able to sign and maintain a huge roster at high salaries. Benoit and his smaller compatriots were deemed the "Vanilla Midgets" backstage by the larger boys who ran the show. They were considered unmarketable because they relied on performance and choreography instead of catchphrases.

It wasn't until the bloated budgets and diva tantrums threatened to sink WCW that Benoit was given the world belt. But because the talent had largely soured on the management and backstage hierarchies, Benoit and his popular running buddies walked out the door not 24 hours after he won the title. Management let them, saying anyone who wasn't happy at WCW could leave with no financial entanglements. Within a month, they were on the WWF and working in a significant storyline.

Benoit was placed against the Rock for his first singles feud and worked the main event on consecutive PPVs. He held the tag belts and the Intercontinental title before finally getting the WWF belt in 2004. This was not long after he was sidelined for a year with spinal fusion surgery; his hard style of performance had ground away at his neck. But even after that, his style remained the same. He never changed his repertoire. He had just been moved to the WWE-owned ECW roster to capture that group's world title and bring respectability to a floundering franchise. He was going to win the belt this past Sunday.

But he no-showed, saying he had a family emergency. Word spread that his one-time tag partner in Canada had died, and it was assumed he was taking time off (even from a world title win) to pay respects. But late Monday, he was found dead along with his wife and son in their Atlanta home.

Even plugged in online as I am, I heard nothing of this until I turned on the weekly Monday show. It was supposed to be a three-hour special devoted to the storyline that owner Vince McMahon had died in a car bombing. We were going to see a cloying tribute to the character and watch as the feds investigated the matter backstage. But when 8 p.m. rolled around, the show began instead with the now-traditional memoriam screen, and it was naming Benoit.

The screen then cut to an empty Texas arena where the show was supposed to broadcast live. Vince was in the ring (the first time he'd appeared onscreen since his character's apparent death) to say the show had been canceled, the storyline has been halted, and the next three hours would pay video tribute to Benoit who was found dead in his home along with his wife and son. I thought initially the family's plane may have crashed on the way to the Canada services. During commercials and match highlights, I checked online. The Atlanta paper would say only that the family had not been shot to death. Message boards claimed that Benoit had told the company that his wife and son were coughing up blood. But today, the paper quotes police as saying he killed them then himself, and the eventually released details will be bizarre.

It's a shock. I'm used to seeing sudden announcements of wrestler deaths. So many of them die after their hearts give out after years of steroids or painkillers. But this obituary is eclipsed by the circumstances. Benoit dead after killing his family. I don't know the guy, had watched him perform for about ten years, but the news hit hard, abetted by the fear that this would be an ugly story, and apparently it is.

His was the first wrestling shirt I ever owned. I still have it. Unfortunately all the performers whose shirts I bought are dead now. And everything I liked about the guy will be overshadowed by what ultimately will be announced about his death and especially those of his family. His wife was in the business too; that's how they met. It became a funny scandal: They were put together by a writer who was also her husband and Benoit's onscreen rival. The story dictated that they would fall for each other and team up against the husband. Then it happened for real. She left the writer/wrestler and took up with Benoit. They got married and had a son. He was seven when he died. Benoit had just turned 40.

Benoit's best friend Eddy Guerrero died within the past two years. His heart failed him after he cleaned up from drugs. Eddy was a fantastic ring performer. He had the gift of gab Benoit lacked. His death was a shock as well, but this is different because of the offscreen events. And I feel horrible for Chavo, Eddy's nephew and fellow wrestler. He's lost Eddy and Chris within such a short time, and the latter through an apparent domestic tragedy.

I'm sleepwalking through the day, saddened and burdened by the whole damn thing. This will do nothing to help the mainstream image of the business, and that's an anathema to everything Benoit tried to give it inside the ring.

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