By Childs Walker
June 30, 2007
He was that good at what he did and that respected by fans and peers for doing everything the right way.
As such, accounts of the way he strangled his wife, smothered his child and hanged himself are as disturbing as any I've encountered. They raise countless questions about drugs, the vagaries of the mind and our propensity for glorifying risk. They offer answers to none of them.
First off, shame on all the news hosts who've spent the past few days screaming "'roid rage," as if there's ever a simple explanation when a man kills his family and himself.
The sad episode does raise questions about links between steroid use, the frenetic lifestyle of wrestlers and mental instability. Benoit's employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, has tried to steer coverage away from his possible steroid use (authorities found prescribed anabolic steroids while searching his home).
The deliberate nature of his actions suggested anything but a rage, the company said in a news release. Chairman Vince McMahon reiterated that position on NBC's Today show, noting that Benoit tested negative for drug use in April.
The company's points may be true as far as they go (though McMahon failed to acknowledge loopholes in the testing policy that allow steroid use with a prescription). But depression is much more common among steroid users than "'roid rage," said Dr. William Howard, founder of Union Memorial Sports Medicine.
"That's by far the most common psychological side effect of steroid use," he said. "You'll find an amazing number of these users having domestic problems related to depression."
Former wrestler Chris Nowinski, a spokesman on the dangers of concussions, has suggested that Benoit might have suffered brain trauma. One of Benoit's signature moves was a diving head butt off the top rope.
Whatever the cause, his end left different feelings from those that followed past tragedies in the profession.
There is a stereotypical wrestler death. Benoit's great friend and rival, Eddie Guerrero, demonstrated it two years ago when he was found dead of a heart attack in his hotel room on the day he was to win the world championship.
Fans mourned Guerrero, remembering his astonishing bag of physical tricks and the outlaw mirth in his eyes and smile. But given his long history of steroid and pain-pill use, his lonely death at 38 fit expectations. It echoed those of so many contemporaries, including Brian Pillman, Curt Hennig and Davey Boy Smith.
Benoit's death proved far more disquieting, especially given that he was the model wrestler.
In the ring, he could do anything, appearing just as comfortable in a fast-paced match full of intricate moves as in a pitched brawl dominated by bruising kicks and skin-busting head butts.
He never missed a date or loafed through a performance. He came off as reserved but unfailingly appreciative of those who enjoyed his work. He enforced tradition and respect in the locker room.
Even his suspected steroid use seemed understandable. He was 5 feet 10 and had a body meant for 170 or 180 pounds. But he fell in love with a business in which the most glorified performers stood well over 6 feet and packed 250 to 300 muscular pounds.
Benoit acknowledged the pressure over the years, once telling the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter that steroids for wrestlers were like cigarettes in the 1950s. Many used them, and few contemplated the risks.
That was Benoit's context, one in which stoic men loved their craft so much that they warped and eventually broke their bodies. When he won the world title at Wrestlemania, fans cried and cheered because the moment seemed to suggest that passion and work and resilience might be enough in this life.
That his wife, Nancy, had filed for divorce and a restraining order less than a year earlier (she later dropped both filings) wasn't known to fans. In fact, he invited his family into the ring to celebrate and often spoke of how he wanted to get home more often.
All of that explains why fans feel so shaken.
We don't know that wrestling led Benoit to the terrible events of last weekend. We will never know what ran through his mind.
Some people dismiss wrestling all too easily because of its carnival roots and ridiculous plots. But really, what's so rational about dressing up in colored armor and beating your fellow man as half-naked women cheer you on at the coliseum? I've just described the nation's most popular sport, professional football.
And we know that football shatters the bodies of its greatest heroes. Johnny Unitas' scarred knees and gnarled hands told us so.
We know that tens of thousands of punches to the head slow the steps and slur the words of courageous boxers. We're reminded every time Muhammad Ali appears in public.
We know that a car traveling 200 mph can spin out of control even when guided by the most skilled hand. Dale Earnhardt's demise at Daytona attested to that.
No, it won't do to dismiss the implications of Benoit's death simply because he was a wrestler.
As a culture, we've decided that consenting adults are allowed to push themselves past safe limits for our entertainment. Drug testing and better medical care and safety precautions can lessen many of these risks but cannot stamp them out.
I don't know about you, but when a boxer loses his life in the ring, or a football player is crippled, or a wrestler turns up dead in his hotel room, I feel complicit.
If I know these acts are so destructive, why do I watch? Do I lack the moral fortitude to look past my desire to be entertained? I fear the answer is yes.
In the past few days, scores of wrestling fans have said on message boards that Benoit's death will kill their love of the spectacle. Many more have said that one man's deranged acts shouldn't end an art loved by so many. I agree with the latter, and yet I wonder.
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