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Wrestling with the Horror that Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport
By Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Iryin Muchnick, Creg Oliver, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2007 Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Iryin Muchnick and Creg Oliver
All rights reserved.
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS: THE TARNISHED LEGACY OF CHRIS BENOIT
Chris Benoit was a man in search of an identity when he arrived in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in 1994.
He'd had his international successes, particularly in Japan, and had stuck a tentative toe into the North American waters on occasion, but he had never established any sort of a beachhead.
ECW was a wild place, with wrestlers using baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire and tables set alight with lighter fluid. But strangely, the rabid fan base of the Philadelphia-based promotion appreciated the finer arts of professional wrestling as well.
Benoit, with his crisply executed, technically sound maneuvers, fit in perfectly. The passion he had for his craft was obvious. Equally clear was his lack of confidence on the microphone, the missing direction in his career. Pro Wrestling Illustrated had even noted Benoit's "dry image" in a 1994 scouting report: "Lack of glitziness hurts him in the eyes of some U.S. promoters."
He would find both confidence and direction thanks to an unfortunate accident.
It was November 5, 1994, the big November to Remember show, and he was taking on one of the most wild high fliers on ECW's roster of misfits and castoffs, "The Homicidal, Genocidal, Suicidal" Sabu. Like Benoit, Sabu had a burning desire for pro wrestling. Born Terry Brunk, his uncle was Ed Farhat, better known for the terror he struck as The Sheik, a headliner from the 1950s to the 1970s.
What should have been a routine, though fierce, battle ended in near tragedy when Sabu fell awkwardly, landing on top of his head. He suffered a bruised spine and nerve damage.
* * *
Benoit cried in the dressing room, worried for his friend. He left Philadelphia that night, not knowing that Sabu's neck was all but broken. He followed up once he returned to Edmonton, calling ECW boss Paul Heyman, who was over the moon with excitement.
"It's great, you're going to be called The Crippler. This is awesome, we're going to make so much money," Benoit recalled Heyman telling him excitedly. All the while he just wanted to know the status of his friend. Benoit still grappled with the potentially lethal mistake years later. "Things do happen, accidents do happen. I think the people that I work with know me, and the people that know me personally know I'd never take advantage of a situation or someone in the ring like that," he said. "They know that it was a mistake. Things happen. It's a physical, contact sport, and injuries are going to happen." Still, he would admit to liking The Crippler nickname: "It grew on me and I'm proud of it."
The accident led to the persona of The Crippler—and it wasn't really that far off from Benoit's real personality. He was a no-nonsense guy who took his craft seriously. You messed with him, there could be serious repercussions. He wasn't one for distractions either and had an excellent ability to focus. "When I have a goal, I try to have tunnel vision to that goal," he once said.
The ECW run of Chris "The Crippler" Benoit lasted less than a year, ending in mid-1995. After a June World Wrestling Federation (WWF) tryout, where he lost to Sparky Plugg, Owen Hart, and Adam Bomb, Benoit was basically done with ECW, frustrated with the irregular paychecks and the difficulties in getting Heyman to act and complete the working visa he needed as a Canadian to live and work in the United States. Then in August, Eric Bischoff and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) went on a bit of a signing spree, taking Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Eddie Guerrero from ECW to damage the competing, upstart company. Benoit was also bound by loyalty to New Japan Pro Wrestling, which had a working relationship with WCW.
Unlike his brief, previous stint in WCW in 1993, Benoit would be a featured performer for many years. A multi-time champion and a member of the prestigious Four Horsemen faction, he was given the company's world title (just days before departing for the better-known WWF in January 2000). In short, he accomplished a target that he laid out in 1997: "My main goal is to establish myself in North America, and I really haven't had that opportunity because I've been over in Japan for the last eight years."
Gary Juster was in charge of business affairs at WCW at the time, and he signed Benoit to his first contract. Benoit arrived in his office with his oldest son, David. "Chris was always the consummate gentleman, always very respectful, very deferential, always very pleasant to deal with. He was really like that for as long as I knew him," said Juster.
He brought to North America a number of unique wrestling moves that would become synonymous with his career. "I like maneuvers that stun quickly and can be just as quickly capitalized on with, either, another hold or move or a pin," he told WCW Magazine in May 1993. "The Snapmare suplex is like that. It hits a man so fast, he doesn't know what happened to him, and he's a sitting duck for the next move—the German suplex. Well, it's athletic instinct to react one way when you're caught in a full-nelson. But to find yourself suplexed to the mat, your body just doesn't expect it, and you're totally helpless at that point. There's no defense."
As a part of the Four Horsemen clique of Ric Flair, Brian Pillman, and Dean Malenko, and later former Chicago Bear Steve "Mongo" McMichael, Benoit had a high-profile role even if title belts eluded him. "People will ask me, 'How does it feel to be a Horseman?' If I think about the tradition and all that, what the Horsemen have been about, it's an honor," he once said. Benoit knew enough to be quiet and listen to the advice of stars such as Flair and the retired Arn Anderson. "Just hanging around these guys hearing them talk was very educational, just being there. I kept my mouth shut and inhaled everything they said and talked about, and learned as much as I could," he told Silvervision.co.uk.
The Horsemen and Kevin Sullivan's Dungeon of Doom faction feuded for months, and Benoit was paired up with Woman (Nancy Sullivan, Kevin's wife) onscreen, which led to an off screen relationship as well when the Sullivans divorced.
By the spring of 1998, Benoit captured his first WCW title, the TV belt. A best-of-seven match series with Booker T elevated both men. "It was a highlight reel," Booker T recalled to Silvervision.co.uk. "It's got a lot of nostalgia, just two guys mano e mano. They were the matches that put me in the limelight as far as being a viable singles competitor. With these matches nobody could doubt me any more." Runs with the tag team titles, alongside Malenko, and stints with the more prestigious United States belt would follow.
While in WCW, Benoit was allowed to keep up some of his international bookings, especially in Japan, where he'd been a big name earlier in the decade. He was considered homegrown talent in Japan, as he had spent more than a year in the New Japan dojo system in 1986–87, improving his craft. The first six months at the dojo were spent doing isometric exercises all day, such as squats and push-ups. After that, the students had the discipline to enter the ring to further their training.
"When he initially got pushed, he got pushed really hard. He was pushed as Pegasus Kid; he won the [International Wrestling Grand Prix] title in 1990 under the mask," explained Japanese wrestling expert Zach Arnold. "Then they re-pushed him as Chris Benoit, as Wild Pegasus. They gave him a couple of IWGP title shots. He didn't win. They pretty much used his character as a mid-card strong character to introduce new guys. They introduced Eddie Guerrero as Black Tiger through him in '93." Benoit said in 1995 that there wasn't any significance to the Pegasus Kid name, that it was just a name that he and "Tokyo" Joe Diago, a New Japan talent scout and trainer, came up with in Calgary.
In his autobiography, Guerrero talks about his first match with Benoit, which happened in Japan. "I liked Chris from the moment we first shook hands. He was totally cool, one of the nicest guys I've ever met. But when the time came to get into the ring with him, I was nervous as shit, even a bit intimidated. I'd seen him work. I knew how good he was."
The pinnacle of Benoit's many successes in Japan were the wins in 1994 and 1995 in the prestigious Super J Cup, highlighting lighter-weight wrestlers. Benoit himself once called the 1994 win the greatest honor he ever had, but wouldn't brag about it in interviews. "It meant a lot to me, as you say, the best junior wrestler in the world," he told Silvervision.co.uk. "I never think of myself of being the best or the quickest. I don't look at it in that way, because to me wrestling is a form of art. It's like when I was in the J Cup, I thought this was great. I never thought this would springboard me to something here, or springboard me to something there. To me, I appreciate the moment I'm doing it in. I don't think beyond that moment, so it was a great accolade for me at the time, but I knew I was coming back again on the tour and had something to prove on the next tour."
Another graduate of the New Japan dojo, 2 Cold Scorpio (Charles Skaggs), ended up teaming with and facing Benoit dozens of times. Competing against someone so many times makes you closer, he said. "Chris and me ... in this business, everybody has that certain someone that you have chemistry with. To us, we could have had a so-so match, but to everyone else it was great."
Though it was in Japan that Benoit was best known, he would always assert that his time in Mexico made him a better wrestler, opening doors for him to work in Austria and Germany in the early 1990s when the North American promoters wouldn't look at such a small man. "It was a great experience. I enjoyed my time down there. It's a different style of wrestling, a different brand of wrestling, which I think helped better myself in terms of working in the international scene at the time," said Benoit, who was a regular in Mexico from 1991 to 1994, often masked as Pegasus Kid. "I have so many good memories of working down in Mexico, not only from in the ring but outside, and camaraderie with the guys. Some of the guys ... barely were able to speak English and I couldn't speak Spanish, and having that bond and forging relationships was really neat." In Mexico's Universal Wrestling Association (UWA) promotion, Benoit had a long feud with the Blue Blazer, a masked Owen Hart. He also held the UWA Light Heavyweight title in 1991, upsetting Villano III (Arturo Díaz Mendoza). Benoit and Villano III would feud for months, and their battles climaxed in a historic mask-versus-mask match on November 3, 1991, at the Quatro Caminos Bullring in Naucalpan, which Benoit lost.
In an interview with the Web site SLAM! Wrestling, Benoit explained that he did have a hard time adapting to the ring style in Mexico. "On my first tour I kept trying to wrestle their style, trying to find that medium, and it just didn't work. By the last week I started wrestling my style, but working within their brand of wrestling, and it just clicked.... It's faster paced. It's go, go, go, whereas in the States the psychology is different in terms of telling the story."
Chris Jericho (Chris Irvine) was in Mexico with Benoit on many occasions, and he said that Benoit's successes in North America and abroad influenced many, many wrestlers and "changed the style of pro wrestling in this country, because he spent a lot of time in Japan and kind of integrated the Japanese style, the Mexican style, and the hard-hitting Calgary style into the WWE and the WCW, the former company he worked for."
Working in Europe in the early 1990s forced yet another change in Benoit. "The wrestling in Europe is so different," he said. "It's run by rounds, so you have five three-minute rounds, and you'll be in the middle of something and the bell will ring, and you'll have to go back to your corner."
Back in North America, things weren't going smoothly in WCW, which Benoit later said was a "company that was very poorly managed and had very poor leadership if any at all." Behind-the-scenes matchmaker Kevin Nash once dismissed the likes of Benoit, Malenko, and Guerrero as "vanilla midgets," and in 2006, Nash still stood by his comment in an interview with The Pro Wrestling Torch. "I love Eddie [Guerrero] and Chris [Benoit] to death, but those guys were mid-card guys thirteen years in the business in WCW. I mean, they're great and probably two of the best workers ever, but they never [main-evented] anywhere else, so I don't know why they put them on pedestals [on Raw and Smackdown!]."
The constant turmoil behind the scenes of the promotion was having its effect on Benoit and his close colleagues. In January 2000, Benoit finally won a world title, beating Sid Vicious to claim the WCW World Heavyweight Championship at WCW's Souled Out pay-per-view. A day later, he surrendered the belt and left the company, headed for the WWF along with fellow "Radicalz" Malenko, Guerrero, and Perry Saturn. "I think everyone was frustrated. Eddie was sick and tired, Dean was sick and tired of it, all of us were," Benoit said of the exodus. Kevin Sullivan had also been elevated to a power position.
The WWF—later known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)—was a wide-open field for Benoit: new opponents, new titles to win, new television shows on new stations, and, finally, the chance to wrestle for hometown crowds in Alberta. "The Rabid Wolverine" reveled in it all, and became one of the company's top performers, reliable in and out of the ring, fighting back for his position regardless of injuries minor or serious, such as a broken neck in 2001.
"No matter what promo we gave him or whether it was written for him to win or to lose, he never complained about anything," recalled former WWE writer Ranjan Chhibber. "Benoit wasn't an avid talker, but he talked to me the most when I asked him about his time in the Land of the Rising Sun. He was proud of his time there and put every Japanese wrestler I inquired about over. And when Benoit praised someone, you knew he meant it, because if he didn't like someone, he would just remain silent about them."
WWE champion John Cena agreed, calling Benoit "iron clad" on Larry King Live. "He was real quiet. He kept to himself. He had ultimate respect for his workplace. He was a model employee."
Benoit succeeded in spite of his weak interview skills, fashioning much of his persona after Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies or as "The Man with No Name" in the spaghetti westerns. "He was a guy who maybe wasn't the most articulate human being in the world, but if you watched the facials and the body language, he said so much with that, that he didn't have to say it verbally," said long-time pro and current trainer Les Thatcher.
In January 2004, Benoit entered the Royal Rumble as the first competitor, and outlasted all twenty-nine other competitors to earn a world title shot. He chose to challenge for Triple H's WWE World title at WrestleMania XX in New York's fabled Madison Square Garden, in a three-way match that pitted him against both Triple H and Shawn Michaels. The whole company was pleased that Benoit was going to win the company's top title, Michaels wrote in his autobiography: "Chris Benoit is a guy who really loves what he does and who wanted the title as badly as I did. Chris is also one of the most genuine human beings I've met in this business. Chris deserved this moment, and Hunter and I were determined to do our best to let him enjoy his reward."
In the end, Benoit made Triple H submit to the Crippler Crossface. Confetti fell from the ceiling, and his best friend Eddie Guerrero, the world champion on the Smackdown! program, came out to offer his congratulations in an emotional moment. "It felt like a dream. I was standing there at Wrestle-Mania in Madison Square Garden with my best friend in the business, a man who is as close to me as a brother, both of us carrying the gold," Guerrero wrote in his book. "But as soon as the right moment came, I got out of there. It was his night in the spotlight, something that he so rightfully deserved and earned for himself. Chris deserved that title for so long. He had it in WCW for a moment—literally. I know back then I wasn't close to ready to be champ, but Chris most definitely was."
Benoit's family would then enter the ring, his father, Michael, tripping on the way in, his sons, David and Daniel, embracing him, his wife, Nancy, wiping back tears. "The roar of the people went right through us. The people were giving their gratitude to Chris not just for winning the match but for how much all three of those guys [Triple H and Shawn Michaels] had put into it," Nancy Benoit told the Edmonton Sun. "Everything was happening in slow motion. His dad was hugging me and his grin was so huge. I've never seen a prouder dad."
Excerpted from Benoit by Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Iryin Muchnick, Creg Oliver, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2007 Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Iryin Muchnick and Creg Oliver. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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