TV

The Horrific Crime That Changed WWE Forever

Chris Benoit's murder-suicide shocked the world. Nothing in wrestling – and sports in general – has been the same since.
07 August 2020, 3:07am

Only so much from pro-wrestling crosses over from the arenas and tour buses into the swirl of mass popular culture.

While the odd catchphrase might have achieved exit velocity, it's usually the people who make it out: Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock. You can probably see a mural of them in your mind's eye, stretched out in a line in their victory poses. And then you come to the leering, snaggle-toothed sneer of Chris Benoit.

Thirteen years ago, police found the bodies of Benoit, his wife, Nancy, and their seven-year-old son, Daniel, in their Fayetteville, Georgia home. Benoit, it was quickly determined, had strangled his wife, smothered his son and then taken his own life. He was set, on the night of his death, to claim his third WWE heavyweight championship.

The news was horrific, and has lost none of its horror over time. But it was also a bifurcation point for professional wrestling, largely because it was too terrible to ignore. There is wrestling before Chris Benoit became a double murderer, and wrestling after.

The media couldn’t just look the other way; wrestling's visibility at the time wouldn't allow it. Prior to Benoit, looking the other way was the mainstream's default response to the grimness that haunts wrestling's edges; it takes no time to find a list of early deaths and violent crimes that loom large in wrestling lore but didn't make the nightly news.

This is in keeping with the historical view of pro-wrestling. For respectable folks, wrestling is – and has always been – a freak show, staffed by failed athletes and drug addicts, and watched by poor people.

But with pro-wrestling's last great boom, wrestling became acceptable, if still kind of weird. Benoit wasn't living in a trailer at the time of his crime. The periodic world champion, who spent most of his career on the upper half of the midcard, was living in a mansion. Had this crime happened ten or 20 years earlier, Benoit would have been a grisly footnote, alongside Bruiser Brody being stabbed to death in a Bayamon shower.

When the medical examiner cut Chris Benoit open, he found the brain of an 85-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer's. Benoit may have been addled by steroid, alcohol and the rest, but a lifetime of being hit in the head and jumping into things had also him with irreparable brain damage.

This is where that demarcation point becomes clearest. WWE was already on the way toward a more PG-rated product, but it accelerated by default after chair shots to the head – those high-impact, high-drama blows to an unprotected skull – began to disappear after the Benoit autopsy.

It needs to be stressed that those shots were a major part of WWE's physical storytelling in the years between 1997 and 2007. They were punctuation marks, used whenever a bad guy needed to prove his savagery or a good guy wanted to show how invested he was in his righteous vengeance. Even as the hyper-sexualised atmosphere of the Attitude Era receded, the chair shot still thrived.

It seems ludicrous and sad, in retrospect, to think that anyone ever believed that slamming steel onto people's skulls was anything but a terrible idea. But suspension of disbelief is the game, here, and it kept the chair shot alive for a criminally long time. Here's the other place where the Benoit murder-suicide intersects with wider culture: if it hadn't been for the crime and subsequent media attention to brain injuries, odds are that our sports would be even further behind addressing the issue.

Though his book was released a year prior to the Benoit murders, the work of concussion awareness advocate Chris Nowinski didn't get the attention it deserved until after the crime. Nowinski was, at the time, a recently retired WWE wrestler and former Harvard football player. He left the sport young after dealing with post-concussion syndrome, and threw himself into what's become his life's work: trying to prevent and treat concussions.

Nowinski lurked at the confluence of three worlds: pro-wrestling, American football and concussion research. The aftermath of the Benoit story launched his work into the stratosphere. This was not because he was a ghoulish opportunist; he is not. He was an expert, though, and one with unique personal experience of – and insight into – both the world of brain injuries and the two sports in which they have done the most damage.

The ensuing media attention translated into donations to the foundation Nowinski co-founded, the Sports Legacy Institute – set up just 11 days before the Benoit story broke. With that financial backing, SLI has been at the forefront of pushing the NFL on concussion safety.

In the years since the murders, WWE has scrubbed Chris Benoit from its history. Now, Chris Benoit's legacy is his crime. That, and what came after the horror – a broader sense of awakening from a dream into a world where wrestling, and its costs, is anything but fake.

You can now check out VICE TV UK’s documentary series Dark Side of the Ring, which investigates the most controversial stories surrounding some of wrestling's greatest legends, including unprecedented access to a new cast of insiders who reveal more on the brutal story of Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide in a two-part double bill episode here.

Watch the full ‘DARK SIDE OF THE RING’ box sets for free on All 4 here.