His name is a curse word in the WWE. His image has been expunged from its history by the company’s ministry of truth. And yet, his specter haunted professional wrestling’s grandest stage this time last year, and he’s lurked in the back of my mind ever since.
Though I have long since lapsed as a professional wrestling fan, I still pay yearly homage to the sporting spectacle of Wrestlemania, the Super Bowl of professional wrestling. Each annual supercard features clashes between the WWE’s biggest stars and the climax of its most significant storylines. Last year, the 30th edition of the once-ragtag-but-now-storied event featured Daniel Bryan, a lean, if scrappy wrestler, known for his technical prowess and enthusiastic affirmations, but who stands as far more diminutive than many of his larger-than-life colleagues, much as Benoit did. Bryan’s path to the main event embraced two of the most time-honored archetypes in professional wrestling: the underdog and the rebel.
And as has become the custom in the WWE, real life had a hand in writing the script. Bryan’s on-screen adversaries in the weeks and months leading to Wrestlemania 30 were Triple H, a former full-time wrestler and current actual WWE COO, as well as Triple H’s wife and fellow real life bigwig Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and heiress apparent to her father’s company. Each night, this pair, subtly dubbed “The Authority”, would conspire to create as much unfairness for Bryan as possible and throw as many obstacles in his path as they could. Triple H and Stephanie would give long-winded speeches about how Bryan, with his smaller stature and unkempt beard, was a solid performer, a dependable presence on the card, but would never be “the face of the WWE.”
In these hymns of condescension, these in-character representatives of the front office echoed the suspected sentiments of their real world counterparts. Though Bryan had amassed a tidal wave of fan support, eliciting cheers of his trademark “YES!” chant even when he was not in front of the camera, there was a palpable fear among the faithful that he would never be allowed to reach the main event, let alone win the world title and bask in the accompanying spotlight with the company’s full support. The diehards pictured Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and the rest of WWE Creative, the force that decides who rises and falls in the company, sitting in a real life boardroom, complimenting Bryan’s in-ring craft, but deciding that he lacks the “look” of a top dog or the raw charisma of a transcendent talent.
The in-ring counterparts to Triple H and Stephanie were a pair of the more traditional “superstars” of professional wrestling. The Authority’s chosen champion was Randy Orton, a third-generation wrestler chiseled out of solid granite, who was known both for his bad behavior offstage and his countless second chances to be prominently pushed back onto it. The number one contender to Orton’s title was Dave Batista, a man who had left the company years earlier to pursue a career in film and had returned to promote his upcoming role in Guardians of the Galaxy. Batista, with his pumped up muscles and power moveset, looked like a genuine superhero plucked from the comic book movies in which he appears. These men stood as the standard bearers of the industry and represented the typical “chosen ones” of the wrestling world, each dripping with past accolades and corporate approval.
But despite such opposition, both fictional and factual, Bryan managed to win over the crowd in his campaign against these villains. He cut a path between the rebellious antics of predecessors like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock, large men who thumbed their noses at authority, and renowned underdogs like Mick Foley and Rey Mysterio who, despite their atypical appearances, earned the fans’ support as consummate underdogs. That’s why when Bryan beat Triple H in the opening bout of Wrestlemania–a victory that, somewhat convolutedly, meant Bryan would be added to the championship match later that evening between Orton and Batista–it was also a cathartic win for the fans.
WWE’s creative team fully intended to tell that kind of story, and by the same token, knew what Bryan’s win represented. Triple H, long-accused of “burying” similar upstart talents to “maintain his spot,” had introduced a video package chronicling his victories over former up-and-comers and their subsequent spirals back to the bottom of the card. Bryan’s victory was cast as a story of overcoming adversity–not necessarily from Triple H’s strikes or submissions, but rather from every WWE executive who viewed Bryan and his ilk as technically-sound “enhancement talent” instead of main event material.
Bryan went on to win the main event that evening, a “triple threat” match where he took on both Orton and Batista at the same time. He was crowned as world champion, and, ostensibly, the company’s biggest star.
This too was as much a victory for the cheering hordes in the stands as for the wrestler in the ring or the character he portrayed. Bryan had originally made his name in Japan and on the independent circuit, and his claim to fame was his skill as an in-ring technician rather than his showmanship. When he defeated Orton, the homegrown champion who had been groomed, both in storylines and in real life, by the establishment, as well as Batista, one of the many “part-timers” who had returned exclusively for big events and opportunities to plug their latest projects, the WWE seemed to be acquiescing to its most ardent fans. The win seemed like a statement from the company, saying, “We hear you. We’ve been hearing you. This man is an unusual choice to reach the pinnacle of our business, but he has connected with you, and we’re willing to give him a chance.”.
But as Bryan stood in the ring, holding his championship belts and embracing his family members as confetti descended from the rafters, there was a shadow cast from ten years prior.
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The conventional wisdom of the wrestling business is that the statute of limitations for repeating a storyline is seven years. By that point, the consensus is that there’s been enough turnover in the audience that a company can start to hit some of the same plot points all over again. There are certainly tropes in wrestling that reappear more often; the industry, by nature, trades in predictable patterns and familiar archetypes. But seven years is the unofficial limit. So I suppose it was fine that Bryan’s victory seemed eerily similar to one that longtime fans had witnessed a decade ago.
Like Bryan, Chris Benoit had also toiled outside the spotlight for many years. He too had made his name overseas and in independent federations. He had wrestled in WCW, the now defunct, then rival of the WWE, where he and others like him were infamously derided as “vanilla midgets”–smaller wrestlers who had neither the pizazz nor the physique of Hulk Hogan and his ilk.
Indeed, Benoit, much the same as Bryan, lacked the size or good looks of the day’s stars, but made up for it with his sheer intensity and ability in the ring. By the time he made the jump to the WWE, he was known for putting on masterpieces of technical wrestling–matches that ebbed and flowed with chains of moves that told a story rather than presented an unconnected series of slams and jams. But Benoit was never much for the entertainment side of “World Wrestling Entertainment”, lacking the interview skills of many of the company’s most featured talents. He quietly did his job, liked but unheralded, never cracking the main event.
That is, until the build to Wrestlemania 20, where a groundswell of grassroots audience support, spurred by the most devoted of wrestling fans, catapulted Benoit into the show’s marquee championship match. The story then was remarkably similar to the story now.
Benoit took on a new catchphrase, “I am for real,” which emphasized his no-nonsense style in the ring and out of it. His match in the main event of Wrestlemania was a “triple threat” encounter as well, and he took on two of the company’s then-standard bearers. He faced Shawn Michaels, a decorated former champion, notorious for his bad behavior, who had been semi-retired for years due to a back injury, but who had recently returned to make a series of special appearances, eschewing the usual channels for reaching the main event and leapfrogging into the match.
Benoit also took on none other than the current world champion, Triple H himself, who was dogged by off-screen accusations that he was only able to enjoy such a long, dominating run as champ because he had married the boss’s daughter and was being groomed for corporate command, rather than earning it. While Michaels himself was a bit smaller than the typical star, both he and Triple H were longstanding members of the old guard, seen, to varying degrees, as standing in the way of the new and different faces in the business–the wrestlers who were anointed by the fans and who threatened to break the mold of the kind of superstar that the company could put front and center.
Benoit won the world title that night, forcing Triple H to give up in the middle of the ring. When he did, there was true happiness in Benoit’s eyes as the referee handed him the championship belt. The win was not just a storyline success for his character, but a vindication of his nearly two decade career. His friend, Eddie Guerrero, another champion, came out to hug him and raise his hand in victory.
Guerrero was another wrestler deemed too small or too outside the norm to serve as a focal point of the company. Yet at the end of the night, the confetti dropped, and there they both stood, each holding a title. Again, it seemed to signal that a change was happening in the WWE — that these unsung grapplers were going to be given their moment in the sun, because the fans, particularly the ones most devoted to the product, had demanded it. Like most things in professional wrestling, it didn’t last, but that only seemed to make the moment all the more poignant in hindsight.
Three years later, Chris Benoit murdered his wife and seven-year-old son, and then took his own life.
These events shocked the public both inside and outside the industry and shook the very foundations of professional wrestling. Internal investigations were conducted. Drug testing protocols, termed the “Wellness Policy” were instituted. In the ensuing years, the WWE went to great pains to rid itself of its reputation as a controversy-courting bad influence. The “PG Era” reigned. And every effort was made to scrub Chris Benoit from the pages of WWE history.
But two innocent people were gone; another very disturbed individual was gone with them, and we remembered.
Explanations and excuses have been offered. Eddie Guerrero had unexpectedly died not long after Wrestlemania 20. Many opined that Benoit was traumatized by the death of his dear friend and had never come to terms with the loss. Stories emerged about the disintegration of the Benoits’ marriage. Experts spoke about the effects of steroid abuse in an industry where image can be more important than ability. Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and former WWE wrestler himself, pointed to the years of blows to the head that Benoit had endured in his chosen profession, and raised the same issue of successive concussions and their brain-altering effects that the NFL would take up years later.
Regardless of the reasons for it, that single horrifying act cast a pall over everything Benoit had achieved in professional wrestling. The fans who had challenged the WWE brass’s idea of what a superstar could be had been unknowingly cheering on an individual who would become a murderer. The groundswell of support to shift the status quo at the top of the WWE had left us singing the praises of a man who would go on to extinguish the life of a child.
Each iota of support the fans had offered for Chris Benoit was returned in guilt. What had we done? How could we have raised someone up who was capable of such horror? How could we have cheered and encouraged a man taking the hits that would contribute to his mental imbalance? We, or at least I, felt like an enabler, or perhaps even, in some minute, distant way, an accomplice.
A few months after his Wrestlemania victory, I saw Chris Benoit take on Triple H again. I watched the match in person in Madison Square Garden. I screamed at the top of my lungs as Benoit defended his title. I watched as he locked his opponent in his signature move, “the Crippler Crossface”, and retained his title. I left the arena filled with joy–joy that the true fans’ chosen champion had succeeded–joy that now feels shameful.
We only see a tiny sliver of any performer. Our favorite actors and actresses who inhabit the characters we grow to love may be sinners or saints when the cameras stop rolling. The athletes we idolize put on a public persona and manage their “brands” when it comes time to face the crowd. It’s impossible to gain a 360-degree view of these distant objects of our affections. And that means that these people are always capable of surprising us with who they really are, or, at least, with what they’re truly capable of.
And because of that, I winced just a bit at Daniel Bryan’s victory in the echoes of Chris Benoit’s past. Benoit’s fan-propelled moment in the spotlight did not cause his terrible moment of weakness and violence. There’s no reason to fear a similar result here and now. By all accounts, Bryan is a clean, upstanding individual, and even wrestling’s most unsavory personalities, in an industry that can attract them, have rarely committed acts as unforgivable as Benoit’s.
But we don’t know. We can’t know. And more than that, when the WWE tells the same stories over and over again, the fans, even the lapsed fans, who have made it past that seven-year benchmark, cannot help but remember how the last story ended.