By Mike Mooneyham

June 26, 2007

Professional wrestling superstar Chris Benoit was found dead along with his family Monday afternoon at his Atlanta home.

The bodies of Benoit, 40, his wife, Nancy, 43, and their 7-year-old son Daniel were found by local law enforcement officials at their home in the suburb of Fayetteville at about 2:30 p.m.

Circumstances surrounding their deaths are being investigated by authorities. Police reportedly were dispatched to the home after receiving a call from WWE officials who were concerned that they had not been able to get in touch with Benoit.

Lt. Tommy Pope told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that it was being investigated as a homicide pending results of a preliminary autopsy report that will come out today. Police would not give any details on how they died, other than to say they were not shot to death.

The Canadian-born Benoit has two other children from a prior relationship.

Benoit was scheduled to wrestle at WWE’s Vengeance pay-per-view Sunday night in Houston, but was replaced at the last minute because of what announcer Jim Ross called “personal reasons.”

Chris and Nancy Benoit

Chris and Nancy Benoit

Benoit also had been scheduled to appear on a WWE house show on Saturday. Sources say Benoit, who was last seen by WWE personnel at last week’s TV tapings, called company officials to say he wouldn’t be able to attend the event due to a family illness. It reportedly was the last communication they had with the former WWE world heavyweight champion.

Plans for a live, three-hour Raw special Monday night were scrapped in lieu of a tribute to Benoit. Fans in Corpus Christi, Texas, were sent home prior to the event, while wrestlers were allowed to return home to mourn.

WWE owner Vince McMahon, who broke the news to a devastated locker room about 5:30 p.m., opened the show from center ring in an empty arena and called Benoit “one of the greatest WWE superstars of all-time.”

“They let the crowd go. There’s nobody here,” said 16-time world champ Ric Flair. “It was the right thing to do. The McMahons are devastated as a family.”

“Chris was one of the nicest, hardest-working, most legitimate, honest people I’ve ever met in my life,” a distraught Flair added Monday night. “Everybody liked Chris.”

Benoit, reverently referred to as “the Rabid Wolverine” due to his tenacious, aggressive mat style, his trademark toothless grin and his non-nonsense attitude, was universally respected by his wrestling peers and was regarded as one the best technicians in the business over the past two decades.

“Wrestling has consumed my life,” Benoit said in a 2004 WWE career retrospective video. “Wrestling is my mistress. It’s my passion. It defines who I am as a person.”

Trained by the legendary Stu Hart, Benoit began his career in 1985 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He worked from 1985-89 for Hart’s Stampede Wrestling organization where he held both the British Commonwealth title and the International tag-team title on four different occasions. Benoit, working under a hood as The Pegasus Kid, later performed in Japan where he became an international superstar. He claimed the prestigious IWGP junior heavyweight championship and the 1994 Super J Cup tournament working as a light heavyweight.

Benoit, whose “crippler crossface” became one of the most popular finishing maneuvers in wrestling, later won major titles in ECW and WCW. One of his career highlights was becoming an official member of the elite Four Horsemen along with Flair, Arn Anderson and Brian Pillman in 1995.

“He was a great Horseman. He embodied what it meant to be a Horseman,” said Flair.

Benoit won the U.S. heavyweight title and the WCW tag-team title on two occasions, and defeated Sid Vicious (Sid Eudy) in his final match with the company in January 2000 to win the WCW world heavyweight title. Later that year Benoit joined WWE and formed “The Radicals” along with Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn.

Benoit, a perennial favorite of wrestling purists, held a slew of titles in WWE that culminated with an emotional world title victory in 2004 at Wrestlemania XX at Madison Square Garden. Benoit cried as he celebrated in the ring with his wife and son, as well as best friend, wrestler Eddie Guerrero, who died in 2005.

Benoit’s wife, Nancy Daus Sullivan Benoit, also had spent much of her life in the wrestling business as a valet and manager. More commonly known by her wrestling characters, most notably as Woman, she retired from the business several years ago to raise a family.

She and Benoit met when her then-husband, veteran wrestler Kevin Sullivan, drew up a script that had them involved in a relationship as part of an ongoing storyline on WCW. The two divorced in 1997 shortly after the anglee in which Sullivan, then an official with WCW, “booked his own divorce.” Nancy and Benoit became engaged in 1997, although Benoit didn’t start referring to her as his wife until shortly before the birth of their son Daniel in 2000.