SOW REPORTS: The Crippler’s Social Collapse

A SHOT OF WRESTLING REPORTS is an academic perspective into the stories and moments of pro wrestling. Anytime I had the opportunity to mix my academics with my passion of professional wrestling, I took it! This REPORT looks into the double murder suicide of the Benoit Family as written in a Queens College Sociology course in 2010 (3 years after the incident). Read the paper below or listen to it A Shot of Wrestling Podcast with some added comments.

“From triumph to tragedy” has been a phrase that professional wrestling announcers have used to describe the success of professional wrestling’s elite and their downfall. A phrase commonly used during a championship match is now used to describe the double-murder/suicide of the Benoit family. In Ring of Hell, Matthew Randazzo V (2008) shows the psychological breakdown of Chris Benoit through years of alcohol, painkillers, steroid and drug abuse. The double-murder/suicide made national headlines and shook the foundation of the pro-wrestling business.

No stranger to steroid use himself, successful wrestling promoter Vincent Kennedy McMahon installed a wellness program in his company. Largely do to the premature passing of one of their superstars Eddie Guerrero. A long time friend to Benoit, Eddie traveled the same circuit. Both shared success in organizations like New Japan Wrestling (NJPW), World Championship Wrestling (WCW), and Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW). Eddie Guerrero a Born Again Christian befriended Benoit during one of his most struggling times. When his close friends became a statistic to a young dying breed of wrestlers, Eddie shared his faith and friendship with Benoit. Randazzo V (2008) explains that Benoit experience the lonely life of an eighty-year-old, where all his close friends were passing. The hardest deaths that Benoit experienced until this point was that of his best friend Victor “Black Cat” Mar and his tag team partner Brian “The Loose Canon” Pillman. Since Benoit was garnished with his own nickname as “The Crippler” we will later discuss how nicknames or labels in professional wrestling affect the lifestyle of its wrestlers.

The downward spiral of Benoit began to show publicly when his best friend Eddie Guerrero died in 2005. On November 12th, Eddie’s nephew Chavo Guerrero found his uncle slouched over the sink of his hotel bathroom. The first call that Chavo made was not to his family but to Benoit who was staying in the same hotel. Benoit rushed to Eddie’s room, embraced the corpse and tenderly kissed his buddy farewell as paramedics removed the body. On November 18th, WWE’s broadcast of Friday Night Smackdown, issued a tribute show to Eddie Guerrero where Benoit wrestled. Benoit who has made of reputation of being a strong, aggressive, powerful mans-man, had a televised emotional breakdown. Benoit’s reputation originated from his training in the Hart Family Dungeon and the frat-like hazing of the New Japan Dojo. Both training facilities demanded respect to any of its graduates due to their tough training customs. For Benoit to break kayfabeon national TV was uncharacteristic of the disciplined Hart Dungeon and Dojo graduate.

Benoit’s death followed the chain of premature deaths of wrestlers that died from what people in the business refer to as “wrestling cocktails”. A unique concoction of steroids, drugs and alcohol. McMahon who in the past five years produced two tribute shows to fallen wrestlers, was involved in a similar storyline. As a promoter enriched in old-school wrestling values he looked to show validity in his own televised homicide. Two weeks prior to Benoit’s death, McMahon mimicked the series finale of the Sopranos when he entered a white limousine that exploded. Creatively, the writers of the weekly episodic cable show Monday Night Raw where instructed by McMahon to “pull all the stops”. Wrestling fans swarmed the internet message boards to comment on the validity of the events. The WWE Website provided news updates, wrestlers issued tribute promo, law enforcement and expert interviews were provided. Even a press releases was leaked that stated that the incident was treated as a homicide, and even their company flags flew at half-mast. The week after the McMahon’s explosion, one of their female superstars passed away. Hall of Famer Sherri Martel died of an accidental drug overdose. McMahon determine to maintain the validity of his storyline would not break kayfabe until Monday, June 25, 2007. 

On Monday, June 25, 2007, WWE was notified of an alarming text message from Chris Benoit to Chavo Guerrero. The Company contacted the Fayetteville Sheriff’s Department to check the Benoit residence. When authorities arrived they discovered the three bodies. Nancy Benoit was found upstairs in the family room with her wrist and feet bound and her body wrapped in a towel. Her injuries suggested that someone pressed a knee into her back while pulling a television cord around her neck. Benoit’s son was found suffocated in the bedroom with no bruises. Benoit was found in the gym, hung by his weight lifting machine. Benoit tied a noose to the weight cord to hang himself. When Benoit released the weights, approximately 240 pounds caused his strangulation.

Life crisis and traumatic experiences are one of the main reasons people commit suicide (Upanne, 2001) and there is nothing more traumatic than waking up in a home that resembles a scene from horror movie. Toxicology reports would find that Xanax and hydrocodone were found in Benoit’s system. Dr. Phil C. Astin III was the personal doctor for Chris Benoit and is currently serving a ten year sentence for illegally prescribing drugs to the wrestler.

When investigators began to put the pieces together an “early clue proved to be a false start; a contributor to the Wikipedia website posted a mention of Nancy’s death a full 14 hours before her body had been discovered by police. But the writer, who chose to remain anonymous, later apologized, saying he was repeating an idle rumor that, by a huge coincidence, turned out to be true” (People, 2007). Phone records showed the communication between Chris Benoit and Chavo Guerrero on Saturday, June 23rd through Sunday June 24th. The messages indicated that Chris Benoit was going to be late for a scheduled event due to a missed flight. Chavo called Benoit when he failed to attend the house show on Saturday, June 23rd. Benoit explained that he had stayed-up all night with Nancy and Daniel who had severe food poisoning. The evening of Sunday, June 24th Benoit was schedule to win the ECW Heavyweight Championship at a pay-per-view. When he failed to attend the pay-per-view, WWE officials talked to Chavo who showed them the final text message that he shared with Benoit. The message stated that the dogs were in the enclosed pool area and the side door by the garage was left open. Whether or not Benoit was actually thinking of attending the events for a final curtain call we will never know.

What could make a successful, respected and admired wrestler murder his family? Could it be the divorce that Nancy filed weeks before the incident, the death of his tag-team partner, or death of his best friend, how about the demands of a wrestler’s travel schedule, or maybe the in-ring character of “The Crippler”. Individually each situation can send a normal individual on a downward spiral. But the combination of all these social elements, combined with drug abuse killed the Benoit family.

Social process theory explains that “All people regardless of their race, class, or gender, have the potential to become delinquents or criminals” (Siegel, 2006, pg. 218). Many believe that money can provide happiness but late rapper Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. garnered the phrase “more money more problems” which could not be more true than in Benoit’s case. Every social class has its own burdens and even though Benoit’s professional success gave him financial success, the question was at what cost?

As a fifteen year old, Chris Benoit’s physique did not resemble a professional wrestler let alone an athlete. The eager youngster followed the wrestlers when they came to his hometown of Calgary Alberta Canada. Many wrestler from the northern territory of Stampede Wrestling remember Benoit as the quiet shadow that was always at their shows. The wrestler that Benoit admired the most was Tom “The Dynamite Kid” Billington. Benoit admired him for being a smaller wrestler who could deliver high-flying acrobatic moves and delivered one of the strongest clotheslines in the business. Unbeknownst to Billington he would not only become Benoit’s mentor but he would act as a father figure to him.

The relationships that families have are important to determine the behavior of an individual. Having a positive, negative or absent relationship in a family can either make you criminal offender or make you refrain from it. Families that raise their children in a household that lacks love and has absent parents are vulnerable to crime-promoting forces in the environment. Benoit grew-up in a middle-class family where both parents worked. When Benoit began to get closer to the wrestlers at the shows the wrestlers became his family. The wrestling family structure is similar to that of a fraternity; a band of brothers that unite through common interests but are easily tempted by sex, drugs and/or violence. As a young kid to be exposed to this lifestyle Benoit was heading down the wrong road.

“Physiologist have long recognized that the peer group has a powerful effect on human conduct and can have a dramatic influence on decision making and behavior choices” (Siegel, 2006, pg. 221). The famous Hart Family Dungeon trained future champions like Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Chris Jericho and “Superstar” Billy Graham. The Dungeon was amply named for its hardcore training regimens similar to that of medieval sports that showed no regard to human life. Stu Hart was the leader of this boot camp, that was known for inducing pain. “When trainees screamed and wept in pain Stu would sink in the holds even deeper” (Randazzo V, 2008, pg. 48). Wrestlers would tell stories on how they were physically and psychologically beaten. Wrestlers who wanted to make it, knew that they would gain large amounts of credibility and respect for withstanding the pain in The Dungeon. The peer pressure that everyone gave each other was different than that of your friends asking you to try something new. The peer pressure in The Dungeon stemmed from the individuals desire to show who was the alpha male. If Jericho lasted through a 10 minute match Benoit wanted to last 11 minutes. If Bret took a soft bump to the mat then Benoit wanted to welt in pain. Through this colt-like learning process Stu had the influence and attention of each of his pupils.

Many who graduated The Dungeon would begin to wrestle as stars for Stu Hart’s organization Stampede Wrestling which was family-run similar to that of the WWE. Benoit however wanted to earn more respect and credibility which was why he was referred to the New Japan Dojo which made The Dungeon look like a playground. This will be the start of how Benoit associated pain with gaining respect. In fact, this hazing mentality that wrestlers have increases their pain threshold to act like ticking time bombs. Each wrestler suppresses their tragedies with “wrestling cocktails” until their bodies or mind gives-in. How do wrestler’s manage to make sense of their physical torture? Smith explains that “pain is given a different meaning depending on the time, place, or person involved” (Smith, 2008). Many of us cannot imagine how people can handle the pain of getting a tattoo but according to Smith’s research they can handle the pain because they are in a place where that pain is acceptable. Wrestlers work through the same pain in the ring and are trained to be tough and manage that pain. Getting hit over the head with a chair hurts but in a wrestling match it has become a common practice that wrestlers become immune to that pain.

When Benoit returned to the U.S. he knew he had to add more muscle to make it. The wrestling fans in Japan admire the athleticism of a wrestler while in the U.S. mere size was admired. When Benoit decided to run with the big boys he needed to look the part. Billington would enter Benoit’s life again this time to show him how to inject himself with growth hormones to gain muscle mass. Steroids have always been popular amongst wrestlers. A study conducted by Hartgens (2004) show that athletes that take steroids show an increase in body mass of 5-20%. It also examined aggression, hostility and mood. It stated that male bodybuilders experienced mood changes and increases in their libido which increased aggression and hostility. The same study explained that mood was not disturbed but depending on the quantity of steroids taken it did show a slight change. Benoit may have been satisfied with the alternative that Billington provided to increase mass but according to Hatgens (2004), the use of steroids would have changed his aggression and mood that caused the murder of his family.

The excessive steroid use showed a different, bigger, dominant specimen in the American market. Benoit still soft-spoken outside the ring, inside the ring could now compete with heavyweights like “The Hitman”, “The Rock” and “The Undertaker”. At this point Benoit had already earned the name “The Crippler” for his legendary match that broke the neck of an ECW wrestler. Inside the ring, announcers described Benoit as ruthless, relentless and unforgiving. The article “Talking Smack” (2008) referred to the announcers labels as “sport talk”. This type of language infiltrates our culture and changes our values on what is or is not acceptable. “The Crippler” became a household name that meant someone who was admired and hard working. When “sport talk” transforms negative labels or phrases to positive or tolerable persona’s it is not only dangerous for the audience watching but for the individual who has the label. Positive or not the “The Crippler” lived up to his name in and out of the ring; an example of social reaction theory.

We have learned how the social process approach guided Benoit to murder his family. Through social learning Benoit learned his criminal behavior from Billington whose blood drenched matches were admired by the young Canadian. Social control theory explains that “human behavior is controlled through close associations with institutions and individuals” (Seigel, 2006, pg. 225). The Dungeon, the New Japan Dojo, and every wrestling organization that Benoit wrestled-in allowed him to continue making the life threatening bonds that ultimately killed his career and family. Finally, social reaction theory otherwise known as labeling theory explains that Benoit’s nickname as “The Crippler” put him in the mental state to become a murder. He drew his strength from the ability to cripple his family and the wrestling industry just like he crippled his opponents in the ring; he was ruthless, relentless and unforgiving.

The professional wrestling industry has lost many performers but never as dramatic as Benoit. You have to question the social process approach if out-of-all the wrestlers only one became a murderer. If “The Dynamite Kid” was part of the same industry and he taught Benoit everything he knew why didn’t Billington kill his family? or with a name like “The Hitman” why didn’t Bret Hart accept his label and become a hired assassin? Every wrestler has the pressure to succeed and when they see the physically bigger wrestler become successful, they all think that body enhancement drugs is the answer. Body enhancement drugs are the shortcut and are usually used by individuals who are peer pressured by weaker wrestlers to eliminate the competition.

WORKS CITED

Chory, Rebecca M, Lachlan, Ken, Skalski, Paul, Tamborini, Ron, Westerman, David (2008): Talking Smack: Verbal Aggression in Professional Wrestling. Communication Studies; Jul-Sep2008, Vol. 59 Issue 3, p242-258, 17p, 1 Chart

Hartgens, Fred,  Kuipers, Harm (2004): Effects of Androgenic-Anabolic Steroids in Athletes.

Sports Medicine; 2004, Vol. 34 Issue 8, p513-554, 42p, 1 Diagram, 6 Charts

Morrissey, Siobhan, Sutton, Larry, Truesdell, Jeff (2007): Chris Benoit’s Final Days (cover story)

People; 7/16/2007, Vol. 68 Issue 3, p64-69, 6p, 10 Color Photographs, 1 Black and White Photograph

Randazzo V, Matthew (2008). Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry. Beverlly Hills, CA: Pheonix Books

Seigel, Larry J (2003): Criminology, Ninth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth

Smith, R. Tyson (2008): Pain in the Act: The Meanings of Pain Among Professional Wrestlers.

Qualitative Sociology; Jun2008, Vol. 31 Issue 2, p129-148, 20p, 5 Color Photographs

Upanne, Maila (2001): A model-based analysis of professional practices in suicide prevention.

Scandinavian Journal of Public Health; Dec2001, Vol. 29 Issue 4, p292-299, 8p, 1 Diagram, 2 Charts, 2 Graphs

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