Not long after Viceland’s latest Dark Side of the Ring episode about Chris Benoit debuted last week, Jonathan Snowden, a veteran MMA and wrestling journalist, noticed an uptick in positive mentions of the documentary’s subject. Benoit, who murdered his wife (Nancy) and his youngest child (Daniel) before killing himself, was gradually reappearing in the wrestling discourse. And Snowden didn’t like what he saw.
This wasn’t a questionable #MeToo case that allowed interested parties to believe either victim or victimizer. No, this was the culmination of an increasingly abusive relationship, which encompassed a petition for divorce and restraining order from Nancy in 2003, that ended in her and Daniel’s death. Athletes have gotten a number of free passes for violence against women over the years — e.g., Bengals star running back Joe Mixon flattened a woman with a single devastating punch, which was even caught on video, yet he continues to earn his keep in the NFL — but this was cold-blooded murder. And as much as defenders of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez and legendary Bills running back O.J. Simpson would like to tie their actions to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE as a justification for violence against others is still on shaky grounds, legally and morally.
But now, after Dark Side of the Ring: Benoit, viewers had a vehicle that did just that for Benoit. In it, he’s presented by those individuals discussing his story as someone who wrestled hard and well, who abused his body and performance-enhancing drugs, who developed CTE from myriad self-induced injuries and who may have become so emotionally unmoored from all of the above that he committed a double homicide. And perhaps more importantly for Benoit fans, they had a reason to talk about his wrestling exploits again.
Snowden has followed what he calls “the cult of Chris Benoit” grow over time, and views its “Benoit bros” as deeply problematic. “For a time, it seemed like we all agreed that his actions were heinous enough that the end of his life overpowered whatever he accomplished as a performer during it,” Snowden tells me. “But the pushback over the years, led by his friend Chris Jericho, continues to gain momentum. There is now a substantial group of misanthropic wrestling fans willing to ignore the fact Benoit murdered his wife and child because he was good at pretending to fight.”
Snowden attributes this partly to the nature of wrestling fandom itself, which has elevated Benoit’s reputation in death and even overlooked what he perceives to be the man’s obvious limitations as a complete in-ring performer. “Wrestling fandom is bursting with misogynists and socially inept incels — Benoit, with his robotic personality, complete inability to emote and dangerous lack of empathy is a relatable character to them in life the way he never was on the screen,” Snowden explains. “The further away we get from his actual career as a performer, the better Benoit becomes to his worshipers. I’ve seen him described as the greatest professional wrestler of all time — this despite the fact he couldn’t be trusted to speak on camera, which is kind of a key job component in modern wrestling. His wrestling also lacked anything resembling creative flair. He was a slavish imitator of the Dynamite Kid, copying not just his moves, but his mannerisms and execution. It was almost paint-by-numbers wrestling. The end result may have been a pretty picture, but it was almost sterile in its lack of artistry.”
Artist or not, Benoit has received a sudden bump in popularity on social media from fans of the Viceland documentary eager to rehash his impressive “work rate” — the pace at which he wrestled and the variety of moves he used — as well as his willingness to absorb vast amounts of punishment for the sake of realism. It’s helped, too, that in the doc, his skill in the ring is “put over” by longtime friend and opponent Chris Jericho, a man who has struggled with cognitive dissonance related to the murders almost since the day they happened, when he began making the rounds on TV talk shows.
“Chris was a dark, troubled individual who was bottling up some very serious issues; and he rarely expressed what he was really feeling inside. I think that’s part of why he was such an amazing performer. He took out all his aggression and insecurities on his opponents in the ring and during his workouts,” Jericho wrote in his second book, Undisputed, distilling the perspective he would share going forward in interviews that turned to the question of Benoit, including an episode of his own podcast in which he and wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer broke down some of Benoit’s most significant matches.
In a documentary otherwise characterized by as much nuance as the medium allows — incorporating the earlier death of Benoit’s friend Eddie Guerrero and giving a lot of space to a discussion at the end with former WWE wrestler and chronic traumatic encephalopathy researcher Chris Nowinski — Jericho constitutes its erratically beating heart. “If you’re going to give me shit about it for glorifying a murderer, stop listening now,” he intones gravely a mere two minutes into the first part of the documentary.
Yet Jericho also offers his own bizarre summing-up of the whole affair, stating that Benoit’s misdeeds almost destroyed the sport of wrestling, the sport he and Jericho loved so much. One might have expected to hear that wrestling destroyed Benoit, who in turn had destroyed himself for our entertainment, but that wasn’t how someone as devoted to the sport as Jericho saw it.
Benoit’s death came toward the end of an era of unprecedented bad publicity and premature wrestler deaths that had begun with Vince McMahon’s 1993 federal trial for allegedly working with a shady Pennsylvania doctor to distribute steroids to his wrestlers and encompassed the loss of such talented grapplers as the aforementioned Brian Pillman (1997), Owen Hart (1999), Curt Hennig (2003), Guerrero (2005) and many others.
As such, it was an era of “dirt sheet gossip,” stories from within the insider-y world of pro wrestling newsgathering, and big exposes of the sort that muckraking journalist Irv Muchnick churned out for a variety of publications. Muchnick had first opened the sport’s skeleton-filled closet in 1992 with an investigation into the mysterious death of Nancy Argentino, girlfriend of wrestling superstar Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, that made a convincing case that Snuka had caused the skull fractures that led to her death (he was charged with third-degree murder in 2015, but declared unfit to stand trial due to dementia perhaps linked, like Benoit’s cognitive decline, with CTE). Muchnick then proceeded to make a case, rounding the talk-show circuit with each new fatality, that wrestling posed too great a danger to its performers to be allowed to continue — a case he hammered home in his section of his co-authored book about the death of Benoit, Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror that Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport.
In other words, it was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. And so, the WWE and McMahon quickly excommunicated Benoit: “Other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr. Benoit’s name tonight,” McMahon declared on WWE programming just two days after the murder(s)-suicide. And there hasn’t been any mention of the former World Heavyweight Champion in any WWE publicity materials ever since.
This also was a decade before #MeToo, which has only intensified the call to no longer separate the artist from their misdeeds. Admittedly, athletes have seemingly been largely spared in this regard (provided they’re still useful on the field), but Benoit’s crimes are so heinous that they would almost certainly be an exception to that rule.
And yet, here we are: Benoit not only coming back into view, but due to be re-evaluated solely on the basis of his athletic prowess — in 2020 no less.
“Although I haven’t watched the documentary yet, hearing Benoit’s name evokes memories of the last time I legitimately cared about a wrestler’s storyline success in the ring because of the level of realism he brought to the performance and the reported details about his work ethic, and how all of that was intertwined with the stories of perceived backstage slights directed toward him,” says, if uncomfortably, Ian Douglass, author of several wrestling books including last year’s Brute Power: The Autobiography of Buggsy McGraw. “Benoit resembled a real athlete trying to win a real athletic contest by inflicting violence on another person. By comparison, most modern wrestling resembles a choreographed game of touch football.”
Jim Jividen, a college professor who maintains an extensive blog dedicated to an alternate history of pro wrestling in which “workrate” determines the outcome of matches, likens the challenges of dealing with Benoit’s situation to those who still appreciate the work of Woody Allen. “My reading is that Jericho’s expressing the position that is most close to the one I expressed right after the murders, which is that Benoit was brilliant at a craft very few people care about,” Jividen tells me. “And the people who most care about it are also the people who best understand what he did. And so, because of that, his brilliance gets lost and there’s no other possible outcome.”
“I strongly don’t think Jericho’s advocating for another outcome,” he continues. “I think he’s pretty explicit that there isn’t any possible way to celebrate Benoit, because the ground on which he’d be celebrated is so close to the ground on which he committed parricide. To me, Jericho is being much more honest than saying ‘Benoit’s overrated’ or ‘if you say anything about Benoit that isn’t murder, you’re excusing murder.’ You can decide not to watch a Benoit match or not to watch Hannah and Her Sisters, but to say they weren’t good is dishonest.”
Danny Cage, the owner of the Monster Factory wrestling school and trainer of budding superstars such as WWE’s Matt Riddle, also still finds himself watching Benoit matches from time to time — but not for Benoit. “I do so because I feel whoever he was working with in those matches shouldn’t have to suffer by not having their work shown. Chris did enough damage, so those matches shouldn’t be shunned or forgotten because that means we end up neglecting the other wrestlers in them.”
Meanwhile, Aubrey Sitterson, who co-authored The Comic Book Story of Pro Wrestling with illustrator Chris Moreno, reconciles his appreciation for Benoit with the masochistic tendencies of the sport (in direct contrast to Jericho’s argument). “While it doesn’t come close to the brutal taking of innocent lives, for me, this is also part of the tragedy of Benoit — that the very thing that made him great, the thing that the industry encouraged him to do and rewarded him for over the course of decades, played such a huge role in his downfall and the murder of his family,” Sitterson says. “If Benoit is to be remembered for anything, I wish it was the grisly exclamation point his actions placed upon the CTE crisis that plagues professional wrestling and other sports, a reminder of the very real toll that wrestling can exact.”
The thing is, more than anyone else, Nancy Benoit chillingly appears to have understood in her 2003 petition for divorce and request for a restraining order that Benoit’s was an ongoing process of abuse, not some sudden eruption of forgivable, steroid-fueled, brain-damaged anger. She could see what was coming, and her sister Sandra laments in the documentary that she took the call from Chris that reconnected the two. Nancy was, the petition read, “in reasonable fear for [her] safety and the safety of the minor child,” with there being a “substantial likelihood [Chris Benoit] will commit such acts of violence against [Nancy] and the child [Daniel].”
This should be the real legacy. Not what Chris Benoit did in the ring. And not what steroids and head trauma may or may not have inspired him to do. It should be about Nancy and Daniel Benoit and how no one wanted to protect them because they were too taken with the athletic prowess of the man Nancy and Daniel lived in fear of.
After all, they’re the victims, not Chris Benoit.