By Mike Mooneyham

July 1, 2007

“It’s a horrible, horrible event that’s happened. We have no understanding why it happened. It’s going to take us a long time to come to terms with this, and we may never come to terms with it.” – Michael Benoit, father of Chris Benoit

No one may ever know exactly what transpired last weekend when Chris Benoit took the lives of his wife, his 7-year-old son and even his own.

Motives are being sought by investigators who had the grisly task of sifting through a crime scene that transformed a lavish home in an upscale suburban Atlanta neighborhood into a virtual house of horrors.

But we all know, of course, there can be no motive for such a despicable act of finality, no excuse to take the lives of two people who should have been so precious.

An athlete who the world respected for his incredible ability inside a wrestling ring, a beautiful woman who was a diva long before WWE came up with its assembly line of manufactured eye candy, and an innocent, special-needs child who loved his parents and was his dad’s biggest fan. Somehow, now, the memories seem so distant.

There’s a fine line between fantasy and reality in the world of wrestling. Sometimes that line gets blurred. But ultimately the good guy always wins. In this real-life tragedy, however, the finish went totally against script, and there was no happy ending.

Chris Benoit

Chris Benoit

Killing spree The horrific details of the weekend killing spree grew grimmer with each passing hour last week after the story broke late Monday afternoon. Police would later say that the 40-year-old Benoit – who had failed to appear for weekend shows – strangled his 43-year-old wife, Nancy, and smothered his 7-year-old son, Daniel, before hanging himself with weight lifting equipment.

Daniel, who appeared to have been killed in a chokehold because he had internal neck injuries but no visible bruises, was found in a bedroom whose walls were covered by wrestling posters of his father. Nancy Benoit had bruises on her back and stomach, indicating her husband had his knee in her back as he pulled on a cord that was around her neck. Bibles were found next to bodies, and the only clues that had been offered were a series of chilling text messages to friends, prompting them to alert the police out of concern for his welfare.

Friends and family, fans and followers, have all been stunned and shocked, and left with one burning question.

How in the world could this have happened?

Life imitates art

In the wrestling business, life often imitates art, and so it was in the case of Chris and Nancy Benoit. While working for the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling in 1996, Chris Benoit was scripted to have an on-air affair with Nancy, then married to veteran wrestler Kevin Sullivan, Benoit’s in-ring nemesis. Later, she left Sullivan for Benoit in real life, and the couple married in 2000.

There were some rocky patches in the relationship, friends say, but nothing that would have ever telegraphed such a tragic ending. Their son suffered from an autistic-like condition called Fragile X, and the situation had placed a heavy strain on the Benoits’ marriage.

WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt said Benoit’s wife didn’t want him to quit wrestling but wanted him to stay home more often. She had recently undergone surgery on her neck and was in pain, he said.

“It’s very difficult to raise a child this way. There’s a lot of guilt,” McDevitt said. “Chris was traveling on the road; she was trying to deal with the problems on her own.”

No one, however, could have envisioned this.

Those close to him have speculated that perhaps Benoit, realizing that his mentally disabled son would have to grow up without his mother, with his dad facing at least a life prison term and living with the shame of it all, took his son’s life to spare him what Benoit, in his warped and altered sense of perception, considered a bleak future. At that point, they say, there was little doubt what Benoit would do next.

The fact is, nobody knows for sure, and that’s the most difficult thing for friends and family to deal with.

Media firestorm

The wrestling world, quite naturally, is devastated. The sport has taken a shot to the gut that will take months and maybe years to recover from. But where does it go from here?

A media feeding frenzy has ensued in the aftermath of the double murder-suicide, with much of the spotlight being shone on steroids, a problem that has long existed in pro wrestling and other sports. While steroids were found in the Benoit home, and there’s little doubt that Benoit used them to bulk up his otherwise smallish frame, it’s doubtful that the muscle-enhancing drug caused him to take the lives of his wife and a son he had loved with a passion.

The tragic events of last weekend left WWE and its chairman, Vince McMahon, between a rock and a hard place. When the wrestling conglomerate learned of Benoit’s death, it made the decision to scuttle its three-hour live Monday Night Raw special and mock service intended for McMahon in favor of a real one for Benoit. McMahon, who had last been seen on television inside an exploding limo, appeared at the top of the hour to clarify the difference between the fictional death of his character and the real-life death of Benoit and his family. McMahon broke character in an empty arena to announce the news to a nationwide audience. A hastily put together tribute on USA Network then celebrated Benoit’s life.

By the end of the program, however, the media was already reporting that police officials suspected that Benoit had killed his own family and committed suicide. WWE now had to employ damage control to deal with the public relations gaffe of airing a three-hour tribute to an apparent murderer.

Never before in the history of pro wrestling had reality been so blurred. McMahon had just begun building weeks of storyline involving his own “presumed” death, and it had become sandwiched between the real-life deaths of former WWE star “Sensational Sherri” Martel – dead at the age of 49 and with a history of substance abuse – and now one of the company’s most popular performers. But this wasn’t just a death. It was a tragedy of mythic proportion in the context of the wrestling business, and one whose effects may have lasting ramifications for the industry.

And, if there’s a silver lining to be found in any of this, those ramifications may be a good thing.

New policy needed

Despite WWE’s best intentions and efforts, its drug-testing policy may not be the ultimate answer to the company’s woes and the rash of deaths in wrestling that the mainstream media likes to point to.

It’s long been suggested in this space and elsewhere that the wrestling industry needs to address the root of the problem and not the symptoms. The facts are plain and simple. Unlike other sports, there’s no off-season in wrestling. Most WWE performers spend at least 200 days a year on the road, flying home for a day off before flying out again to begin the cycle all over.

A demanding lifestyle aimed at maintaining a chiseled physique, along with a grueling travel schedule that sees wrestlers on the road up to 25 days a month, create serious problems of dependency and depression.

The company should implement a policy whereby its performers are given extended vacations or “down time” that would afford them the opportunity to recharge their batteries, reacquaint themselves with their families, and at least attempt to incorporate some sense of normalcy into their lives. As it stands now, the only “down time” wrestlers get is when they’re recovering or rehabbing from injuries.

WWE’s wellness policy, which allows prescribed steroids and was implemented after Benoit’s friend Eddie Guerrero died of steroid-related heart failure in 2005, has worked in some cases. Some performers have been suspended and some have been sent to rehab. Some have been fired when nothing else worked.

But the environment has been far from conducive to emotional healing. A professional wrestler is a unique animal in a unique world. The situation cries for a full-time staff that can render emotional, psychological and spiritual help to those who desperately need it. And there have been many. All you have to do is look at the list that grows each year.

Looking for answers

No suicide note was left, and those who knew Benoit have been at a loss to explain the carnage.

They all knew the unflashy but technically sound wrestler as low-key, soft-spoken and steady as a rock. It just wasn’t in his character to commit such an indescribably heinous crime. Could everything they knew about this wrestler with the wholesome family-man image been wrong?

“Nobody saw this coming. That’s why everybody is so shocked,” 16-time world champion Ric Flair said. “This is just very sad. It’s terrible. How could that happen?”

Flair said he had spent time with Benoit the previous Tuesday. “He was with all four of my kids and (wife) Tiffany at the Smackdown in Charlotte. Everything seemed fine.”

But now his legacy, which would have placed him among the elite in wrestling history, has been forever tarnished. Pound for pound, many say, he was the top wrestler in the business. A profession he once described as his “mistress” will forever look down on him in shame. His tributes on the company Web site have been taken down, all merchandise has been pulled from the company’s online store, his many highlights may never again see the light of day on a WWE broadcast, and Vince McMahon referred to him last week as a “monster.”

Emotions have ranged from sadness to disgust. Shocked fans say now they will never be able to separate the wrestler from the man.

“You try to figure out why something like this would occur and sadly, it’s hard to come up with a reason,” Jerry Lawler told Memphis’ WMC-TV. He says Benoit often brought his family on the road during wrestling shows and they always seemed so close, “and I think that’s what’s so shocking to the wrestling community. Everyone that knew Chris, to everyone that knew Nancy and especially to everyone who knew his son Daniel.”

“We hear the media rush to judgment about why and how this horrific chain of events came to pass, but still without the evidence or a valid motive,” said WWE announcer Jim Ross. “So then why are three people dead? What caused this irrational and totally uncharacteristic behavior from an individual who hereto for had never demonstrated such tendencies in his workplace, not even once? I don’t know and neither does anyone else until the medical examiner can provide more information, and then there will be most likely questions in this matter than may never be answered. I know this, God knows and he will deal with this matter accordingly.”

Many lament the fact that Nancy Benoit, who enjoyed a successful career in the business, has been overshadowed in this tragedy. “I loved Nancy,” said Flair. You know how much fun I had with her when she was Kevin’s (Sullivan) wife for all those years. I’m in shock about Nancy. The only reason I didn’t talk on the (Raw) show Monday night is because I thought they needed to talk as much about Nancy as they did Chris. Of all the girls I ever worked with, Nancy was my favorite. I saw on Fox where it said she was the manager of world champion Ric Flair, but she was more than that. She was a wonderful and very entertaining person in our business.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Nancy’s family,” Michael Benoit, Chris Benoit’s father, said. “We’re very concerned about the long-term affects on her family. There are no words to describe the loss we feel.”

Chris Benoit’s former wife, Martina Benoit, with whom he had two other children, called the wrestler “the most loving person anyone could imagine.” “I love him,” she said.

Many people loved Benoit. He was the definition of a pro wrestler. Ironically he spent his entire 22-year career protecting his opponents in the ring.

It’s a shame he couldn’t have afforded that same protection to his own flesh and blood.