WWE, Chris Benoit and Impressionable Young Minds

DEAD- WWE stars Chris Benoit and Eddie Gurrero

Jon Ronson- Guardian Newspaper (8/12/07)

It’s June and my nine-year-old son, Joel, has become obsessed with WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) on Sky Sports 3. I catch glimpses of it during the moments I look up from my paper on a Saturday morning. A wrestler yells, “I spit in the face of people who aren’t cool.” Then he grabs his opponent by the chin, repeatedly smashes his face into the floor, kicks him in the head, takes a big bite of an apple and spits it all over him. Joel looks impressed. Suddenly, a midget (as small people are called in the wrestling world) dressed as a leprechaun emerges from underneath the ring and scurries around to the sounds of Irish pipe music. “It’s Hornswoggle!” Joel squeals, clapping.

And so on. Bodybuilders beat each other to a pulp. Women in bikinis beat each other to a pulp, sometimes with midgets on their shoulders. From time to time the wrestlers lay out their philosophies for the camera. Joel recreates fights with his WWE action figures. “Take that, Undertaker,” he says, whacking him with Chris Benoit. Benoit is one of his favourite action figures because of his lovable, gap-toothed smile.

I don’t approve of the wrestling. It seems violent, sexist and belittling of dwarfs. I think of our house as cerebral, and it saddens me that Joel is drawn so primordially to giant musclemen hitting each other with chairs until they bleed from head wounds. But I don’t ban him from watching it because I haven’t the stamina for the fight that would surely ensue. Still, I wish he wasn’t so obsessed.

On June 26, Joel yells from the kitchen, “Oh my God! Chris Benoit is dead.”

I rush downstairs. Joel looks upset and confused. He’s seen a paragraph in the paper, and sure enough there it is on the ABC News website: “American wrestling star Chris Benoit asphyxiated his son and wife, leaving copies of the Bible next to each of their bodies, before he hanged himself in a basement weight room using a cord from one of the weight machines, law enforcement officials said Tuesday afternoon. Police ruled the deaths a murder-suicide a day after discovering Benoit, his wife, Nancy, and their seven-year-old son, Daniel, dead in the family’s suburban Atlanta home.”

That evening WWE broadcasts a three-hour tribute. Tearful, shell-shocked wrestlers share their reminiscences. One says that Benoit was a wonderful father because his son always wore a suit, was unfailingly polite and at all times called his father “Sir”. This seems a bit creepy under the circumstances. I later read he killed his son using a choke hold – a wrestling move for which he was famous.

Then, the day after the tribute show, nothing. In the same way that Stalin had his opponents airbrushed from photographs, WWE purges from its website all references to Benoit. WWE chief Vince McMahon lets it be known that he’ll never speak of him again. I read that copies of the WWE-distributed biopic, Hard Knocks: The Chris Benoit Story, are being withdrawn from shops across the world. They’re trying to pretend Chris Benoit never existed.

Suddenly I’m really interested in WWE. It’s strange: my nine-year-old son is drawn to the fake violence but repulsed by the real thing (he now leaves his Benoit action figure to one side when recreating fights), whereas I, at 40, am the opposite. I don’t care for the fake violence, but I’m dying to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who are these people? What does wrestling do to their psyches? Did wrestling kill Benoit and his family?

I have a brainwave. “I’ll approach WWE and offer myself and Joel as a father/son interviewing team! They’ll be beguiled by the idea, especially after all the terrible publicity they’ve had since the murders. It’ll be a way in.” And so I telephone WWE.

September. It took a while to get back to me, but today I’m told that WWE headquarters in Connecticut has agreed. WWE hardly ever lets outsiders into its midst. Our access will be limited, but it is implied that five minutes in a room with the likes of The Great Khali is the equivalent of an hour with a lesser being. “I’ve had the great good fortune of meeting Sir Paul McCartney,” Henry Jacob, WWE’s man in London, tells me, “but nothing compares to the first time you see The Undertaker in the flesh getting off his tour bus.” Jacob says this is because when you meet a wrestler, you’re not meeting a mere actor. You’re meeting the character. You’re not meeting Tobey Maguire. You’re meeting Spiderman.

“They are like real-life superheroes,” I think, “but at what cost?”

Until Joel came across the sport while channel-hopping one day, I was unaware of WWE. I had a vague memory of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Hulk Hogan, and assumed the whole thing had died away in the 80s. So it’s a surprise to discover how vast an empire this is. A promoter called Jess McMahon established the company, then called Capitol Wrestling, in 1915 – he decided that this ancient sport (it was introduced into the Olympics in 648BC) could benefit from some pizzazz, so he encouraged his wrestlers to develop carnival-type personas. This tradition was passed on to McMahon’s son, Vince Sr, who launched WWF (World Wrestling Federation) in 1963, and then on to his son, Vince Jr, who was sued by the World Wildlife Fund (they wanted the initials for themselves), changed the name to WWE and turned it into the mighty conglomerate it is today. He did this by trading on the enormous popularity of his biggest early star, Hulk Hogan.

Hogan dazzled America in the 70s and 80s with his violent antics. He starred in Rocky III and beat up various chatshow hosts on live television. (In 1985 he left one, Richard Belzer, unconscious on the floor. America loved it, I suspect because Hogan seemed like an all-American hero and Belzer a nebbishy New Yorker.) In the 80s, McMahon launched a series of hugely profitable pay-per-view matches called Wrestlemania (Hogan’s fights were the main event). He branched out into clothing and video games, and put his wrestlers on a gruelling, almost never-ending sell-out world tour.

And that’s how it has remained ever since. The live shows are televised three times a week, in 26 countries. Hogan still wrestles occasionally, although he’s now the star of a VH1 reality show called Hogan Knows Best. McMahon’s stars of today include John Cena (currently recovering from a pectoral injury and so not on this tour) and the breathtakingly monstrous 7ft Kane. The company’s revenue for 2006 was $415m.

Birmingham. My constant whining has paid off. Today, we’re due to have a proper interview with William Regal. At 39, he’s an old-timer, and one of WWE’s very few British wrestlers. He’s been on the circuit since the glory days of Big Daddy, and has been with WWE for 10 years. He was great friends with Benoit and was named in the New York Daily News article as one of the 13 wrestlers prescribed illegal steroids by Signature.

“I am going to ask him about the dark side,” I whisper to Joel while we wait. “I mean it.” We glare testily at each other. I sigh. “What I do may seem seedy sometimes,” I confess. “Yes, I ask grieving friends whether they think their friend might have killed his wife and son because he was off his head on steroids. Yes, I do that kind of thing in my work.”

Joel narrows his eyes, but says nothing.

And then William Regal appears. We shake hands. I turn on the tape recorder.

“So…” I begin.

“Is the Great Khali on steroids?” Joel asks.

There’s a startled silence. I shoot my child a covert smile.

“No,” Regal says. “He’s got a disease of the pituitary gland. He’s that big because he’s got an extra release of growth hormone that has a detrimental effect. It’s started to eat away at his legs. His head is getting bigger and his hands are getting bigger.”

“Are any wrestlers on steroids?” Joel asks.

“We’re a cosmetic business,” Regal replies. “I’ve used them – I’ll be quite honest. I don’t any more.”

“What does it do to your head?” I ask. “Does it turn you psychotic?”

“I never had any problems like that,” he replies. “My steroid use used to coincide with me getting my publicity photographs taken. I started taking steroids to get a certain look.” He pauses. “Remember, a lot of our fans want that superhero look.”

Joel and I nod. It’s true: we do want them to have that look. The bigger, the better, as far as I’m concerned. In fact, I was disappointed when I came face to face with the 7ft Kane the other day. I want him to be 9ft! Ten foot! For me, the perfect wrestling match would involve two 50ft giants stamping on each other’s heads for hours while roaring like monsters.

Regal says wrestling is truly a fan-led sport. Pleasing the fans – hearing the mighty cheers and mighty boos – means everything to them. It is no wonder the sport turns them strange after a while.

“Do you think Chris Benoit took steroids and that’s why he killed his family and then himself?” I ask.

“I knew Chris for 20 years,” he replies. “I knew him better than anybody here. I had a lot of problems myself several years ago. I went off the rails for a few years with drink and different things. Chris was one of the guys that got me healthy again. If he’d shown any outward signs, we’d have been there to help him, a lot of us, because there was nobody more respected. I think the whole steroid thing was blown out of proportion by the media. I think something just snapped. I think he’s just a man that flipped for no reason. You hear about it a lot.”

“When was your last conversation with him?”

“It was a few days before it happened. We were the grumpy old men of wrestling. We talked about how the young fellas don’t have respect any more. They don’t have the passion. You should see the locker rooms – they leave their stuff all over the floor. No manners at all.”

We are nearing the end of our interview. Regal tells me about a day – 15 years ago – when Vince McMahon made a startling announcement on live television. “He stood up on stage and admitted that wrestling was fixed. He said, ‘We’re not going to insult your intelligence any more. It’s fixed. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. We decide in advance who’s going to win the match.’ ”

Regal says this brave, honest announcement had an unexpected consequence: “When we used to tell people it was real, we didn’t have to do half as much hard work as we do now they know results are fixed. We have to do far more dangerous high-impact moves. People won’t watch if they think it’s phoney.”

It is a few weeks later, and I hear that a former WWE wrestler, Christopher Nowinski, might have solved the mystery of what happened to Chris Benoit. Nowinski is famed for being WWE’s first ever Harvard graduate wrestler. His signature moves included the Harvard Buster (which involved kicking people while rolling forward) and the self-explanatory Eye Gouge. I call him and he tells me a startling tale. “One time I was watching Chris fight,” he says, “and he allowed someone to hit him on the back of the head with a chair.”

“Is that unusual?” I ask.

“It’s very rare,” he replies. “It was rare enough for me to turn to the guy sitting next to me and say, ‘That was a stupid idea.’ When a wrestler gets hit at the front of the head, you see, they can move in such a way as to cushion the blow. But when you take it to the back of the head, you can’t see it coming. There’s nothing performance about it. It’s just a hit to the head.”

Nowinski says there’s no chance the move was an accident. It would have been prearranged. Benoit would have told the other wrestler to do it.

“It was a really bad idea in terms of brain trauma,” he says. “Chris always wanted it to look realistic. He was a very tough individual. He never wanted to take a day off.” He pauses. “But it was crazy. The audience can’t tell the difference between a blow to the back and a blow to the front. They can’t tell if you’re hurt or not. I think Chris forgot it’s supposed to be a performance.”

And, Nowinski believes, these rare blows to the back of the head were the culprits. In the weeks before Benoit killed his family, he says, “there were signs of strange behaviour. He was depressed, becoming paranoid. These are issues we’ve seen in other athletes who’ve suffered head traumas.”

Nowinski is the author of a book, Head Games, that details stories of professional football players who endured head traumas and subsequently behaved erratically before eventually committing suicide. The NFL player Andre Waters received successive concussions, fell into a depression, and shot himself in the head at his home in Florida. Then there was Justin Strzelczyk, a lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who suffered a series of concussions, retired, spiralled downwards, complained of depression and began hearing voices from “the evil ones”. One morning in September 2004 the police spotted him driving at 100mph on the wrong side of a toll road in New York. They gave chase. He crashed into a truck carrying acid and died instantly.

And now there is Chris Benoit. Julian Bailes, a neuropathologist at West Virginia University, studied Benoit’s brain tissue and concluded that it “was so severely damaged, it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient”. The damage was apparently very similar to that seen in the brain tissue of Waters and Strzelczyk. WWE has dismissed Nowinski’s claims as “speculative”.

I have some speculation of my own. I remember something Henry Jacob said to me in September. I asked how they decided which wrestlers would win or lose which matches, and he said they take their lead from the crowds: WWE loves wrestlers who walk out to be greeted by mighty cheers or mighty boos – they’re the ones WWE push as superstars. These pure heroes or pure villains are put on posters and T-shirts, and given movie deals, and so on. And, of course, they’re rewarded with wins. The wrestlers who need to watch out, Jacob said, are those who lose track of who they’re supposed to be and become multidimensional. Then the crowd doesn’t know what to do. Should they cheer? Boo? Eventually, these wrestlers walk out to be greeted with nothing but a confused silence. The next thing they know, they’re being told to lose matches. It isn’t long before they’re marginalised and quietly dropped from the WWE roster altogether.

Falling out of favour with WWE is the worst thing that can happen to a wrestler. A wrestler dumped by WWE will invariably end up on the skids in some lesser, backstreet wrestling club.

Benoit was well respected among his peer group, and technically skilful, but he never drew the cheers of a Rey Mysterio or the gasps of a Kane. The audience didn’t quite know how they were supposed to respond to him. I wonder if he took his dangerous, brain-damaging blows to the back of the head to compensate for this. Maybe that was his way of trying to remain in everyone’s favour. ·

Jon Ronson’s latest collection, What I Do: More True Tales Of Everyday Craziness, is published by Guardian Books and Picador.


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