Tuesday, June 26, 2007

#143. Chris Benoit

Can't believe the news today...

Yesterday I was finishing up my latest column for Paperback Reader, well aware that it was stretching past the half hour mark at 8, when Raw was broadcasting another three hour edition of its regular programming. So when I finally got out into the living room, I had my sister switch to the USA network, because she hadn't been aware of the event. We found ourselves watching Steve Austin speaking about Chris Benoit. I didn't understand what was happening. I knew that Chris had pulled out of Vengeance the previous evening so he could go home for personal reasons, so I thought we should call my other sister, who might know what was really going on. She hadn't been watching (had, in fact, also forgotten about the altered start time), but the only thing she knew was what she'd been reading on the Internet recently, that it was illness that caused Chris to exit so abruptly. That wasn't what I'd heard.

Then the television made it all but clear. Chris, his wife and his son, were all found dead earlier in the day. Just like Eddie Guerrero, a personal hero, a favorite wrestler, was gone.

I had to decide if I was going to go to work today. I could've called out last night, but I was so baffled by the sudden news, I still couldn't figure out what to do, even by the end of the program. This morning, I still didn't know what I would do. Finally, I made the decision to call out, because I had to know what the world knew, not just that he and most of his family were dead, but what was being reported as to the cause. I also wanted to know if his death would be reported in the paper. It was, and this was the first time, after hours of dreading what it could be, that the first suspicion was that he had killed his wife and son on the weekend, and then himself on Monday.

And I can't believe that. I've spent the last few hours scouring, as the name of the blog implies, and that's as much the conclusion as anyone's reached, based on what we've been told. And I still can't bring myself to believe it. As with anything else, death has become a prominent fixture in wrestling, be it Eddie Guerrero two years ago, Owen Hart, the Von Ehrichs, and on and on, but this is the most difficult one to understand. We watch these men compete week in and week out. They literally become a part of our lives. They may compete in a sport where most of what happens is predetermined, but what they go through is as real as it can be. Some have speculated that the stress of the ring, of the wrestling experience, finally got to him. And it probably wouldn't be too hard to understand how. Aside from Eddie, Chris can be likened, more than with any other current superstar, to Kurt Angle, who became famous not because of his prowess, but for his inability to walk away, even to his own personal harm, to the point where he went from one company to another, when he was supposed to be taking some time off, just so he could continue to compete.

I'm not condemning Angle. And I'm not condemning Chris, whose dedication was legendary. More than any other wrestler in the modern era, Chris Benoit was the epitomy of commitment. He truly loved this business of professional wrestling. And so I can't come to any easy conclusions to how his life could have ended like this. In many ways, someone elsewhere made the proper allusion when they referenced Phil Hartman, the great comic who was involved in another such incident a decade ago. It's just so hard to understand.

I cannot conclude any other way than to express my gratitude for having had the privilege of watching Chris over the years in the wrestling ring. No, he was never the top star. But he was always the best. Back in 2004, when he and Eddie captured heavyweight titles and Pro Wrestling Illustrated picked him over Eddie for the top position on their annual PWI 500 ranking, I couldn't help but be angry, because I felt Eddie deserved, despite not having that Royal Rumble win, or the WrestleMania main event, that honor. But that was something Eddie didn't need. More than anyone, Chris truly deserved the recognition, to be named, for one brief moment, the top man in the game. Eddie was the showman. But Chris was the spirit of the sport.

Today, wrestling mourns a giant.

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