As 2017 draws to a close, it’s significant to note the various anniversaries happening this year, both big and small, relative to WWE.
Fifty years ago, WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino lost(!) in Madison Square Garden for the first time since winning the championship years before. Granted it was only via count-out, but still Gorilla Monsoon recorded the “W” to the shock of the New York crowd.
Forty years ago Superstar Billy Graham won his only WWWF Championship, and, despite being a heel, held onto the title for almost a year (heels working for McMahon were used merely as transitional champions for the most part).
Thirty years ago, the WWE (then WWF) hosted WrestleMania III, an event rightly credited as the zenith of the 1980s Pro Wrestling boom.
Twenty years ago was the Montreal Screwjob, a kayfabe-shattering match-finish that altered the landscape of the sport and lunged the company headfirst into the Attitude Era.
Ten years ago…a few things happened.
The future President of the United States of America shaved Vince McMahon’s head, after spearing him at ringside and pummeling him with itty-bitty fists of fury. That’s probably the memory WWE hopes you take away from that year.
Unfortunately, there is another event that is seared into pro wrestling fandom’s collective consciousness, and despite how hard the company has tried to ignore it, distance themselves from it, and take preventative measures to ensure it never happens again, we will never forget the Benoit family tragedy, nor should we: By remembering it, examining it and reflecting on it we can hopefully prevent it.
Let’s look back on all that was going on around the WWE before, during and after that tragic June day.
15 (BEFORE) THE WWE WAS ASKING FOR IT
I am not a believer in karma, necessarily, but I do believe if you do the crime but avoid doing the time, eventually your past will catch up to you. Justice will be done, one way or another.
Back in 1993 the federal government started cracking down on the over-abundance of steroids being passed around like Halloween candy and Vince McMahon was their number-one target. Despite what looked like an easy win for the Feds, Vince managed to elude indictment, due to some key witnesses flaking out.
McMahon walked away scot-free, confident he’d beaten “the man.” The hubris never faded, either. Stephanie even compared Vince’s bravery against the feds to America’s post-9|11 resolve. Steroid-use was reduced dramatically in the aftermath, but it never truly went away. Benoit was a regular user and abuser and many believed that played a critical role in his breakdown that led to his terrible acts.
14 (DURING) A No-Show At A PPV
In the weeks leading up to the tragedy, Benoit had been a regular staple on ECW. He had recently been drafted to the Tuesday night show and was scheduled to wrestle (and presumably beat) CM Punk for the ECW Championship at the next PPV: Vengeance.
Benoit had been a pro wrestler for over 20 years by this point and it was likely that his ECW stint would have been one of his final big runs with the company. It’s not out of the question that a retirement match at WrestleMania 25 could have been in the back of his (or Vince’s) mind.
At about three in the morning, on the day of the PPV, Benoit sent several text-messages to various co-workers, noting his address, the location of family pets, and the fact that the side-door to his house was unlocked. When WWE personnel arrived at the Toyota Center and Benoit was nowhere to be found, people started to worry.
13 (BEFORE) The Consequences of Eddie Guerrero's Passing
Benoit is, of course, not the first death in the world of pro wrestling. The sport has lost far too many of its biggest stars since the 1980s bubble ended. For Benoit, few hit harder than the loss of Eddie Guerrero. Eddie and Chris had been friends going back to their days wrestling in Japan. They became close after Benoit kicked Guerrero a little too stiffly in the head and knocked him out cold. Pro wrestling is weird.
They traveled the world together, grew frustrated with WCW together, joined the WWE together and reached the pinnacle of their profession together, sharing that iconic—now tainted—moment as confetti rained down from Madison Square Garden’s rafters as the two world champions embraced.
Eddie died a little over a year later due to complications from his (steroid-induced) enlarged heart. Chris struggled getting over the loss of his friend and even wrote diary entries to him in the weeks after his death.
12 (DURING) NANCY
Benoit’s last day on the job for WWE came on Tuesday evening’s ECW taping. After that he took a few days off before what would have been a Friday house show and Sunday PPV. Instead, on Friday, Benoit's wife Nancy became the first victim of a horrific weekend. Many details will forever be unknown, but forensics has revealed some. Benoit apparently attacked in such a way that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a wrestling ring.
Toxicologists said there was no evidence that Nancy had been sedated, though there were levels of alcohol and other drugs in her system (but not enough to indicate she’d been forcefully drugged); more than likely it was self-induced without any suspicion of what her husband was planning to do. Nancy previously—in 2003—intended to divorce Chris, citing cruelty on his part. She later retracted the divorce and stayed with him to the end.
11 (BEFORE) TERRIBLE, TASTELESS TIMING
Around this time, WWE TV was in the middle of its own mystery. The Raw in question was built around a Vince McMahon Appreciation Night, only instead of praising their boss, wrestlers took their opportunities to trash him as a horrible human being and tyrannical ruler (in kayfabe of course). Heartbroken at being so loathed by his underlings, McMahon “Charlie-Brown-walked” into his limo…which promptly exploded.
The storyline was supposed to kick off a summer-long mystery culminating in the perpetrator being outed as Linda McMahon. She would subsequently be sent to jail. Vince’s Will would then be read via a video recording, revealing Mr. Kennedy as his illegitimate son and heir to the company. WWE even scheduled the June 25th Raw to be a “tribute show” such as the ones done for Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero. Tasteless, right?
But over the weekend an actual tragedy occurred and of course, the storyline was immediately scrapped.
10 (DURING) M.I.A.
Benoit was scheduled to work a house show in Beaumont on Friday, but at 3:30 pm, he left a voicemail message for Chavo Guerrero, saying that he’d missed his flight and would not make the show. The two played phone tag for a bit before Benoit claimed Nancy and Daniel (their son) had been sick with food poisoning. Chavo was suspicious, but had no idea what might have happened. Benoit just sounded “off” to him. Before hanging up, Chris uncharacteristically said “I love you” to him, which raised even more red flags.
The house show happened without any more incidents and since Benoit was not scheduled for any shows on Saturday, no one followed up on him until Sunday, when he sent the various text messages early in the morning. The timeline established indicates at least some measure of competency and forethought into his actions. This wasn’t just a “roid-rage snapping” as some argue.
9 (BEFORE) A RUINED MIND
As stated, Chris Benoit had been a heavy-steroid user throughout his pro wrestling career. Never the biggest guy on any roster, Benoit relied on a fast pace, stiff style, and a willingness to throw his body around with reckless abandon, all to win over audiences. It worked, and Benoit was regularly listed among the best active wrestlers of his day. But the constant abuse of steroids, along with testosterone injections, and the multiple concussions he endured throughout his career (chairshots to his unprotected head, a thousand—at least—flying headbutts off the top rope), rendered his brain into mush.
Chris Nowinski, who had a short stint as a wrestler before a concussion ended his career, has become a crusader in the realm of concussion-awareness, both in pro wrestling and in the NFL. Nowinski argues that, based on Benoit’s brain (which doctors compared to an eighty-year-old alzheimer’s sufferer), he would have been dead within a year anyway.
8 (AFTER) THE P.R. NIGHTMARE
Naturally embarrassed and, from a business standpoint, severely jeopardized by the scandalous nature of the crimes, WWE quickly pushed a PR campaign to try and distance themselves from the tragedy. For legal reasons it behooved the company to deny any culpability and instead blame Benoit’s own life choices. Several other wrestlers within and without the company echoed the sentiment, while a few noted the hypocrisy of the WWE in blaming a man who’d been driven to that point without any hint of responsibility with regards to the grueling schedule and unreasonable demands they ask of their employees independent contractors.
After the passing of Eddie Guerrero, WWE implemented a “wellness” policy, to—in their words—ensure such a tragedy did not happen again. The death of Benoit showed how much of a joke it had been. It wasn’t until after the 2007 tragedy that they began to take it more seriously.
7 (AFTER) CLEANING UP THE MESS
Naturally, Benoit’s acts dominated the news after it happened. Eventually, the media found a new story to chase and WWE was left to pick up the pieces and try and move on like it was business as usual. Obviously the “Who killed Mr. McMahon” storyline was dropped like a hot-potato, and any and all references to Benoit or the circumstances of his death were instantly removed from WWE programming. It made for an awkward time, initially, as everyone in the arenas would discuss it throughout June and July; mumbling conjecture and discussing the hows and whys. Everyone was talking about it, but no one was talking about it.
Behind the scenes, however, it was clear the company was more determined to implement changes than they were after Eddie died. The number of suspensions handed out by the Wellness Policy grew exponentially, with several repeat-offenders getting busted and even some big names like Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton eating a suspension.
6 (AFTER) THERE’S ALWAYS A CONSPIRACY THEORY
Anytime you have a similar event with even a minor celebrity there are going to be conspiracy theorists who get their jollies questioning every detail and offering their own outlandish takes on what “really” happened. The same is true with Benoit.
The most prevalent one is that Kevin Sullivan was the actual perpetrator and that he framed Chris due to Benoit having an illicit relationship with Sherri Martel, whom Kevin Sullivan was also apparently romantically attached to. There is also the theory that Sullivan committed the acts as an act of revenge for Benoit stealing Nancy from him 10 years earlier, when a storyline turned into reality. Apparently Sullivan is a member of a Satanic cult too.
Then there are the rumors than Benoit put his son in the Crippler Crossface before committing the act. There’s no evidence of that and in fact it’s more likely that Benoit sedated and then suffocated him. Rumors and theories such as those are just overly-sensational ramblings meant to stir up interest in a story that ought to be viewed as a tragedy. It’s tasteless.
5 (AFTER) CONCUSSION IGNORANCE
Nowinski’s concussion-related work led to a lot of Benoit’s medical history being revealed. Apparently, his brain was so concussion-addled that he likely suffered early stages of dementia (he was only 40), which might have led to his violent end.
Despite the work Nowinski did for concussion awareness, it remained an area of little concern in WWE for several years. Head-shots were banned, but it would be another two years before some of the crazier bumps and dangerous moves were ordered toned down. The switch to PG played a big role in that, and was also likely a PR decision meant to distance themselves from what happened with Benoit.
Today WWE is clearly wary to disrupt the image of a safe, family-friendly entertainment company they’ve cultivated for themselves over the decade. Their refusal to allow Daniel Bryan to wrestle, despite being cleared by several outside doctors, shows how terrified they are of another “Benoit” happening again.
4 (AFTER) Other Stars Being Outed
Of course, not everyone in the media moved on to other stories. Television’s resident cow, Nancy Grace, devoted weeks of coverage to the story. The ultimate pot-stirrer, faux-outrage extraordinaire took every opportunity available to her, in the days after Benoit’s death, to paint the company as a band of roided-up savages, killing themselves for the sick pleasure of their redneck audience.
It didn’t help that in August of that year a tidal of suspensions were handed out by WWE. Sports Illustrated broke the story, implicating Charlie Haas, Chavo Guerrero, Edge, Funaki, Shane Helms, John Morrison, Mr. Kennedy, Randy Orton, Umaga and William Regal. There were others later revealed to be doping, such as Batista, Chris Masters, Booker T, and Santino Marella. In fact, also on the list were Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, two men who would be dead before the story broke. Clearly WWE had a problem, and the hope was this was the ultimate wake-up call.
3 (AFTER) WRONGNESS POLICY
The one-two punch of the tragedy followed by a third of the roster getting busted, forced WWE to be even more publicly stringent going forward. This is why Jeff Hardy, despite being in the middle of a big push, was suspended just before WrestleMania XXIV, where he was one of the front-runners to win the Money in the Bank contract.
And yet, now that time has passed and Benoit is—as WWE hoped—a mostly-forgotten figure, the company has shown themselves more willing to bend their own rules now than they were a decade ago. Before last year it was an open-secret that part-timers like Brock Lensar, The Rock and Triple H are not held accountable to the Wellness Policy’s code of conduct. But after Lesnar was busted by UFC for doping in 2016, the open-secret became a public joke. The public hasn’t just forgotten about Benoit; WWE has too.
2 (AFTER) SCRUBBING HISTORY
Speaking of: Benoit is the single-most taboo figure in wrestling history. And since WWE is the only company big enough to write (or rewrite) pro wrestling’s history books, Benoit is likely to stay a “name redacted” figure forever…and that’s fair.
There’s no way to reasonably discern the kayfabe character from the actual man. This isn’t like watching The Dark Knight and not caring that Christian Bale is actually a jerk. The line between character and person is—by design—blurred in WWE. There’s no way to promote the history of a guy dubbed “The Crippler” who did the things he did. Sometimes, though, the company goes too far in trying to avoid him. Every Royal Rumble features references to “HBK being one of only two men to win from the number one spot.” Without saying who the other guy is it becomes obvious. Generic acknowledgements when necessary might be the best approach going forward.
1 (AFTER) ACTIONS REFLECT LEADERSHIP
Perhaps the biggest take-away from the scandal-fueled year of 2007 is that the seeds for it were planted years before, the bitter harvest was reaped, and in its wake only superficial changes were made. Vince McMahon himself is all you need to look at if you’re wondering if the company really cares about steroids.
It’s not the fact that almost everyone on the roster has or is using steroids. It’s not the fact that before, during and after the Benoit tragedy, wrestlers who had been using steroids, continued using steroids, and despite being busted for it, continued using steroids nonetheless. Those are symptoms of the problem. If you want to know the source of the problem, look no further than the big-baller-shot-caller in WWE. Look right at the guy who makes every decision, who chooses who rises or falls in the company based on his idiosyncratic taste. Look no further than walking roid-head Vince McMahon and tell me the company doesn’t still have a steroid problem today.