By Michael Lewis
On Thursday, June 21, Chris Benoit was making plans for the future. The Fourth of July was only two weeks away, and one of the most popular professional wrestlers in the world was looking forward to spending the holiday with his wife, Nancy, and their seven-year old son, Daniel. In preparation, Benoit made his annual call to James Robison, a good friend in Peachtree City, Georgia. It was a tradition for the Benoit family to spend the evening of the Fourth with Robison, who always reserved an out-of the-way parking spot for the Benoits so they could enjoy the local fireworks show at a distance from fans and autograph seekers. Even on his nights off, people wanted Chris Benoit to be “the Canadian Crippler.”
Benoit asked Robison about his family, his business, his life. It was lassic Chris—always putting himself out for others. In the World Wrestling Entertainment locker room, wrestlers knew Benoit as the guy you went to with a problem: Pissed at management? Not sure how to execute a certain move? Trouble with the wife? Talk to the guy whose whole life had been wrestling.
“It was a typical conversation,” remembers Robison. “There were no signs of trouble. So I was just completely shocked about what happened. There was nothing you could look back on that indicated he wanted to say goodbye.”
Four days later police would find Benoit, his son, and his wife dead inside their million-dollar home on a quiet street in Fayetteville, Georgia—all victims of Benoit himself. He committed the murders during an excruciating journey through darkness that spanned three days, killing first his wife, then his son, and finally himself. Friends, family, and fans would attribute the tragedy to everything from “’roid rage” to severe depression; his employer, the WWE, would brand the spree a freak occurrence, an isolated case of a man who snapped under pressure.
Seen through the prism of Benoit’s career, however, the truth may be that the worst act of violence ever to strike the wrestling world wasn’t random, but the result of over two decades spent in an unregulated industry that pushes its talent to the point of death. Given Benoit’s lifestyle—which was characterized by an enormous intake of performance-enhancing drugs, 300-day-per-year workloads, and blunt force head trauma as a way of life—the main question surrounding the tragedy may not be why it happened, but why it hadn’t happened before.Chris Benoit’s final days, it could be argued, began the moment he first stepped through the ropes and into the ring.
Chris Benoit wanted to be a pro wrestler almost from the time he could walk. He grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and became a fan while watching Stampede Wrestling, a minor-league outfit in Calgary. Never the biggest or strongest kid, Benoit idolized guys like Bret Hart and the Dynamite Kid (Tom Billington), Stampede stars who became major international grapplers.
Desperate to become a wrestler himself, Benoit started weight training at 13. Later he went to Calgary, where he convinced Bret Hart’s father, Stu, to allow him to study at the famous Dungeon—the basement training center beneath Hart’s mansion where legends such as Hart, Brian Pillman, and Lance Storm also learned the craft. There he was schooled in the very real skills that define the uniquely physical faux sport of modern pro wrestling.
The aggressive kid picked up the art quickly, mastering the holds, kicks, leaps, and stunts that lend the fights their brutal authenticity. He debuted as a pro in 1985 at only 18. At that time wrestling was entering a boom era, as stars from small regional circuits like Stampede were being recruited by emerging national brands like the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), the American Wrestling Association (AWA), and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Much of it was thanks to the promotional wizardry of the WWF’s Vince McMahon Jr., a hulking, gruff-voiced businessman who coined the term “sports entertainment.” McMahon had grown up in the business and organized the first WrestleMania, a pay-per-view event that featured mainstream celebrities like Cyndi Lauper and Muhammad Ali. Wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and André the Giant were becoming world-famous.
By Michael Lewis
Chris Benoit had every intention of making it just as big. Unlike the Hogans of the business, who tended to rely on outrageous stage personae and massively inflated physiques, Benoit—just 5'10"—focused on the acrobatics of his performances. He was a “wrestler’s wrestler,” a hard worker who excelled at the fundamentals.
“He was such a terrific technical wrestler,” says Bret Hart, Benoit’s idol and mentor. “He had so much deep respect for the craft. That’s part of what made him so good.”
Benoit’s stage image, that of a shy, average guy, became a favorite among the more cerebral fans who appreciated the craft over ludicrous story lines. Still, his rise was anything but rapid. He performed four years with Stampede, then five overseas with New Japan Pro Wrestling, an NWA affiliate. By 1995 he had landed a regular gig with World Wrestling Championship (WCW), then the second-biggest pro wrestling outfit in the U.S.
It was a dream come true for Benoit. He traveled to big cities, performing in front of thousands of adoring kids and on national TV. Over the ensuing years, everything about him would only become bigger: his size, his star power, and—though few on the outside would ever see it—the toll it all took on his personal life.
The theatrics of pro wrestling make it easy to think thatno serious damage is ever done to its performers. In reality, it is just as competitive and far more dangerous than any real sport. One recent study found that pro wrestlers are 12 times more likely to die from heart disease than other Americans ages 25 to 44; another found that they are 20 times more likely to die before 45 than NFL players. For a wrestler, competing with injuries is the norm.
“Sometimes on the day after a match, I’d be in so much pain that it would take me 10 minutes to summon the courage to attempt standing up and getting out of bed,” says Hart, now 50 and retired after nearly 25 years in the business. “Often I’d just fall back down.”
Severe concussions are one of wrestling’s dirty secrets. “There have been matches I didn’t even remember competing in after I was done. Or how it was finished or who won,” says Marc Mero, a former WWE star.
During his stint with WCW, Benoit performed 250 to 300 nights a year—a grueling schedule involving nightly physical punishment. One of his signature moves was the flying head butt, in which he’d dive off the top rope and smash his head into an opponent. And while many wrestlers were hesitant to get smacked with a steel chair, Benoit—devoted to authenticity—insisted that his colleagues strike him in the head. He laughed off the pain in the locker room. Then it was on to the next plane and the next city.
To cope with the physical pain and isolation of the road, Benoit increasingly turned to the pro wrestler’s greatest solace: drugs. Thanks to a lack of regulation for most of the past three decades, a pro wrestling locker room was better than the pharmacy counter at Walgreens. Somas, Percocets, Halcion, Vicodin, human growth hormone, half a dozen kinds of steroids—if you named it, a network of doctors well-known on the circuit could prescribe it. It wasn’t unusual for a doctor to enter a locker room with grocery bags bearing the names of a dozen wrestlers, each one filled with drugs.
“Sometimes I held out my hand and swallowed whatever they had,” says Rob Van Dam, a 36-year-old retired pro. Van Dam once thought he might have a problem; he was taking 30 Somas (painkillers) a day. Then he looked around and saw ex-wrestler Louie Spicolli “taking 100 a day, so I figured I wasn’t as bad off.”
Spicolli died when he was 27, one of 64 professional wrestlers who have passed away before reaching 50 over the past 10 years (see “Grappling With Death,” page 154). Pop in a DVD of WrestleMania VI and you’ll see the event through a harrowing prism. Of the 45 performers who entered the ring that April night in 1990, a dozen are dead—27 percent of wrestling’s biggest yearly event, now a morbid footnote.
The rationalization for taking so many pills sets in very easily. “First you think, I’m going to take it when I get hurt,” says Joe Laurinaitis, the living half of the legendary ’80s tag team the Road Warriors. “Then you start to think, Maybe I should take it before a match, so I won’t get hurt. And then maybe it’s wearing off before you go out to dinner, so you take another one. And that’s how it starts.” During one brutal stretch, Laurinaitis wrestled on 79 consecutive nights.
By Michael Lewis
But wrestlers propped themselves up with far more than just painkillers. Steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) were commonplace, as was cocaine, which wrestlers used to amp themselves before matches or to party afterward. Steroids and HGH were almost a requirement for stardom. They helped muscles recover more quickly between workouts and made a big difference in physique; back then, former wrestlers say, you could always tell who was on “the juice.” Wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior had bulging biceps, ripped stomachs, and huge chests (both have since admitted using steroids). Knowing that WWF boss Vince McMahon loved muscular, cartoonish physiques made the pressure to conform immense.
“Louie Spicolli never wanted to take steroids…but he figured if he looked better than the next guy, he’d get a job,” says Dave Meltzer, a longtime wrestling journalist. “All of a sudden, he got up to 270 pounds, and the WWF offered him a job. Brian Pillman hated steroids. But he took them because he wanted to survive in this business. It’s not personal choice.”
Louie Spicolli died in 1998 by overdosing on Soma and wine—which was exacerbated by a steroid-linked heart condition. For Brian Pillman it was arteriosclerotic heart disease, again linked to steroid use.
Chris Benoit made the devil’s bargain with steroids as well. Over the years his arms thickened by inches, and by the late 1990s he resembled a refrigerator across the chest. He was also one of WCW’s top draws and constantly touring. In one of the earliest signs of the toll the life was taking on him, in 1997 he and his first wife, Martina, divorced. While she retained custody of their two children, he stayed on the road. That same year he entered into a relationship that would end far more tragically.
Nancy Sullivan was a striking brunette who, like Benoit, came to the sport at an early age. Raised in DeLand, Florida, she was a 20-year-old aspiring model when a photographer chose her to be on the cover of Wrestling All Stars magazine. Soon Nancy began traveling with the Florida Championship Wrestling organization as part of the promotion. She divorced her teenage sweetheart, Jim Daus, to marry pro wrestler and promoter Kevin Sullivan. She met Chris Benoit when Sullivan placed her in a story line to be an on-air item with Benoit. Fiction soon blurred into reality, as Nancy left Sullivan to marry Benoit.
Their son, Daniel, was born in February 2000. Benoit quickly became known as a family man who often brought his wife and son to events.
A month before Daniel’s birth, Benoit joined what would become the biggest—and most controversial—wrestling organization on Earth, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Then known as the WWF (it changed its name in 2002 after the World Wildlife Fund sued over trademark rights), the group was dominating attendance and TV ratings after adopting more violent, adult-themed story lines.
Benoit’s new boss was McMahon, who had been charged in the early ’90s with distributing illegal steroids, along with a doctor named George Zahorian. McMahon was acquitted in 1994, but his penchant for promoting stars who looked like they were on steroids continued unabated.
“When things go bad, Vince always pushes the big guys,” says Meltzer. “He thinks that’s what people want, the giant freaks.”
From his office in Stamford, Connecticut, McMahon lords over a $400 million-a-year empire with 15 million weekly viewers. He rewrites story lines, signs new talent, and insists that office employees never wear jeans (suits or “business casual” only)—all part of the WWE’s “clean” image. “If you complained, he’d fire you, so you’d better keep your mouth shut,” says former WWE wrestler Rick Steiner. “If he wants you to be the biggest star, he’ll make you the biggest star. He has total control.”
By Michael Lewis
Marc Mero, 47, another former WWE wrestler, describes McMahon as a man with a “huge ego” whose operation rewards “dedicated company men” regardless of whether or not they’re the best performers.
Benoit was unswervingly loyal, known for never missing matches. Eventually, all the traveling affected his marriage. On May 12, 2003, Nancy filed for divorce and for a protective order, stating in court records that “Chris had lost his temper and threatened to strike the petitioner [Nancy] and cause extensive damage to the home and personal belongings of the parties.” The judge issued a restraining order against Benoit. But three months later Nancy withdrew the petition, and Benoit resumed his life as wrestling star by day, family man by night.
In March 2004, McMahon rewarded Benoit’s dedication by granting him the title of world heavyweight champion. After his match Benoit stood in the ring at Madison Square Garden, triumphantly holding hands with Eddie Guerrero, his best friend, who held the title of WWE champion. Like Benoit, Guerrero was an undersized, middle-of-the-pack competitor who rose to become extraordinarily popular. He talked openly about beating his addiction to painkillers and how he embraced religion, and he was hailed as a guy who overcame his inner demons.
Guerrero’s nephew Chavo—another WWE superstar—found Eddie unconscious in a Minneapolis hotel room less than two years later, in November 2005. Doctors later pronounced him dead from acute heart failure—the result of years of steroid and painkiller abuse. He was 38, five months younger than Benoit.
Guerrero’s death rocked the WWE, which instituted the “Talent Wellness Program”—a regimen of health exams encompassing random drug testing, physicals, and stress tests. But it included a major loophole: If a wrestler could find a doctor who was willing to say he needed a particular drug, he wouldn’t be penalized.
Benoit was devastated by the loss of his friend. Seeing how distraught he was, Nancy bought him a diary, and for a few weeks in late 2005 he would sit down, grab a pen, and open a vein. He wrote letters to Eddie, railing against the lifestyle they had both led, and quoted scripture.
“I’ll be with you soon,” he wrote to his dead friend.
Whether or not Benoit was having suicidal thoughts is unknown, but by last June Nancy Benoit was growing increasingly concerned about her husband’s erratic behavior. Chris had become paranoid over the past few months. At times he wouldn’t let his family out of the house. He began taking different routes to the airport, sure he was being followed.
He seemed always on edge and feared being fired. On June 11 he’d been transferred to Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), the least watched of the WWE’s three shows. He worried the WWE was about to let him go, but in truth he was in no danger of being fired; the organization reportedly saw Benoit as a mentor and believed he had a long-term future as a trainer. Just before his transfer, Benoit had a discussion with fellow superstar Rob Van Dam, who had recently decided to leave the WWE.
“He kept saying how much he loved watching me wrestle, and he said, ‘I have so much respect for you for leaving,’” Van Dam says. “Then he says, ‘A lot of us don’t know when to walk away from this business.’ It seemed like he was saying, ‘Damn, I wish I could walk away right now.’”
Only Nancy seemed to sense the danger. On Thursday, June 21, she called a close friend, who has chosen to remain anonymous. “I’m scared to death,” Nancy said. “If anything happens to me, look at Chris.”
It’s about 40 miles from the Benoit home in Fayetteville to the offices of Dr. Phil Astin III, in Carrollton, Georgia. On Friday morning, June 22, Chris Benoit got in the car and headed east on a route he knew way too well.
By Michael Lewis
Dr. Astin was well-known throughout the sports and wrestling worlds. A personal physician to many wrestling stars, he was always ready with his prescription pad. Pictures of his famous patients covered the walls of his office, including an autographed snapshot of Chris Benoit. Astin had been prescribing Benoit drugs for several years, and according to an affidavit filed in a federal indictment that would emerge later, he was typically giving Benoit a 10-month supply of steroids every four weeks. After his visit with Astin, Benoit returned home. At 6 p.m. a pool cleaner arrived and saw Daniel and Chris outside the house, grilling dinner on a barbecue. He was the last one to see the family alive.
No one knows exactly what precipitated the events that evening. At some point after the pool cleaner left, Chris and Nancy Benoit struggled in the second floor den of their home. The 220-pound Chris took his 5'4" wife by surprise, first overpowering her, then binding her hands and feet with duct tape. Because police later found blood under her face, they believe Chris may have smashed her head into the floor. Pinning his knee into her back, he then wrapped a TV cable around her neck, drawing it tight until she stopped breathing.
Three weeks prior Nancy had bought her husband a silver cross to wear, a sign of his recent religious devotion. Now Chris Benoit wrapped his wife in a blanket and placed a Bible next to her corpse.
Benoit’s son probably had no idea what happened to his mom; his room was on the opposite side of the 7,500-square-foot house. Police believe that sometime in the next few hours Benoit walked into Daniel’s room while the seven-year-old was still asleep.
Daniel was the happiest little boy around. He loved Cheerios, school, and wrestling. He was slightly small for his age but full of life. He could bust out a perfect imitation of his grandma Maureen Toffoloni, and his bond with Nancy was so great that relatives joked she would have to buy a prom dress one day.
Daniel’s bedroom was a shrine to his daddy. On one shelf there was a foot-high action figure of Chris. To the right of his tiny bed was a chair holding two replica championship belts. On the walls were posters of his dad. One in particular stood out. It showed Benoit executing his finishing move, the Crippler Crossface. With an assassin’s precision, Benoit would kneel down next to a rival grappler. He’d lock his hands around his opponent’s face and pull back to stretch his neck.
As Daniel slept, Benoit approached his bed. Police believe he gently woke him, then convinced his son to swallow some Xanax, an antianxiety drug he himself was taking. The act was remarkable in its kindness, considering that shortly after drugging Daniel, Chris Benoit strangled him. He then placed another Bible next to his body.
Police were later confused by the bruising pattern on Daniel’s face, until one investigator saw footage of Benoit in the ring and realized that it matched the application of the Crippler Crossface. Benoit, it appears, took his son’s life as if he were an opponent in just another simulated fight.
Murder often devolves into suicide relatively fast, with the killer either following a plan or quickly realizing that the future has become unbearable. Benoit prolonged the end for over a day, lingering in the same house with the bodies of his wife and son.
On Saturday afternoon—at least 10 hours after he killed Daniel—he left a voice mail for Chavo Guerrero. He said he’d missed his plane and wouldn’t be able to meet up before that night’s scheduled show in Beaumont, Texas. Guerrero called his friend back, and Benoit reiterated the story about missing the flight. In a tone that Guerrero would remember as strangely “forced,” Benoit said he loved him, then hung up. Baffled, Chavo called back 10 minutes later and asked if anything was wrong. Benoit told him he’d had a stressful day and that Nancy and Daniel had food poisoning and were throwing up. “Everything’s fine, though,” he told Chavo. “I’ll still make tonight’s show.”
A short time later Benoit wandered outside and encountered a neighbor, Holly McFague. He muttered the same story about his wife and son being sick. McFague would recall the conversation as “extremely odd.”
By Michael Lewis
No one else heard from Benoit until 3:53 a.m. Sunday, when he sent out a blast of text messages to Chavo Guerrero. “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayetteville, Georgia 30215,” the first message read. Two minutes later Guerrero got a second text from Benoit: “The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open.”
Guerrero, who awoke to the beep, was confused. Was Benoit asking to be picked up? Didn’t he know Guerrero was in Houston? Guerrero figured it was an old message just getting through and went back to sleep. Three more text messages, all from Nancy Benoit’s cell phone, were sent to Guerrero in the next three minutes, simply repeating the Benoits’ home address. Then silence.
When Guerrero awoke on Sunday morning, he repeatedly tried to call Benoit. Employees at WWE headquarters also attempted to reach him; he was scheduled to perform at a pay-per-view event that night.
It wasn’t until Monday at 12:30 p.m. that Guerrero told WWE officials about the text messages. Shortly afterward the WWE asked the Fayette County sheriff’s office to check out the family house.
The police had some trouble getting in; two German shepherds barked at the officers. Finally, McFague, who knew the dogs well, led the officers inside to make the gruesome discovery.
They found Chris Benoit in his basement gym. After sending Guerrero the text messages, he’d removed the bar of a lat pull-down machine and placed a cloth around his neck. He then wrapped the steel cord around his throat, adjusted the machine’s weight, and hanged himself.
Nancy and Daniel Benoit were laid to rest on Saturday, July 14, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Seventy-five people attended the memorial service at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, where Father Phil Egitto told the mourners, “The tragedy that took the lives of Nancy and Daniel must not be allowed to take our souls.”
Nancy’s sister, Sandra Toffoloni, also spoke. Some of Chris Benoit’s friends were in the audience, including Dean Malenko, a former wrestler who had taught Benoit the Crippler Crossface move. Wiping away tears throughout her 10-minute eulogy, Toffoloni remembered her sister and the little boy she adored.
“Daniel kissed sweetly, hugged tightly, and laughed happily,” Toffoloni said. “Daniel was her whole world, and they had a beautiful future.”
The service lasted 45 minutes. Christopher Michael Benoit’s name was not uttered once.
Three days after the discovery of the bodies, Chris Nowinski, a former college football player and pro wrestler who now devotes his life to researching the dangers of concussions, called Michael Benoit, Chris’ father. He asked if his organization, the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), could examine his son’s brain. Michael Benoit agreed.
SLI doctors found that Benoit’s brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, filled with brown, dead brain cells—killed off as a result of head trauma. Similar injuries have been known to cause changes in behavior, personality, and temperament.
According to Dr. Julian Bailes, the head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, who works with SLI, no test or scan could have identified Benoit’s brain damage while he was alive. But one has only to watch a few of the “tribute clips” on the Internet to see what caused it. Most feature numerous shots of Benoit executing his flying head butt. It’s like watching a death by 1,000 cuts.
Toxicology reports later revealed that Benoit had 10 times the normal level of the steroid testosterone in his body—no surprise, given Astin’s prescription. He was also on painkillers and, of course, Xanax. According to the WWE, he had passed a steroids test under the Wellness Program two and a half months earlier. Apparently, the program hadn’t proved much of a deterrent.
By Michael Lewis
Oddly, even before the toxicology report was released, the WWE issued a statement declaring that “steroids were not and could not be related to the cause of death.” Two days later Vince McMahon appeared on the Today show, where he stated that the tragedy couldn’t have been ’roid rage, because the murders were “an act of deliberation.” McMahon called Chris Benoit, a man he had elevated to hero status, “a monster.”
In the most glaring attempt by the WWE to seize on an alternative explanation for Benoit’s rampage, Jerry McDevitt, the WWE’s outside attorney, told the Associated Press two days after the murders that the Benoits had been arguing because Nancy wanted Chris to stay at home more because Daniel had Fragile X syndrome—a genetically passed form of mental retardation and autism. McDevitt said that he learned about the Benoits’ struggles from friends and relatives of the Benoits. Major media outlets such as Fox News ran McDevitt’s story, presenting the Fragile X angle as all but fact.
In reality, none of Daniel’s medical records indicate any form of serious disability, and family members adamantly refuted the Fragile X theory. McDevitt later admitted that he had heard about the Fragile X story from a caller on a radio talk show who claimed Benoit had spoken to her. No one corroborated her story.
Benoit’s fellow wrestlers in the WWE were quick to toe the company line. On Larry King Live, WWE champion John Cena and others scoffed at reports that the company’s wrestlers still used steroids and other drugs. The industry’s most vocal defender was a WWE wrestler named Ken Kennedy, who lashed out at the media on his Web site for falsely portraying current WWE wrestlers as “babbling idiots who are all addicted to steroids, drugs, alcohol, etc.”
Only weeks later Kennedy’s name appeared on a list of 14 WWE wrestlers who investigators said had recently purchased steroids through Signature Pharmacy, an Orlando-based company that drug enforcement agents had raided in February. One of the other wrestlers on the list was Chavo Guerrero.
The raid established that WWE wrestlers were buying human growth hormone and steroids like nandrolone and stanozolol well after the February 2006 start of the Talent Wellness Program testing policy. Reeling from the revelation, the WWE suspended 10 wrestlers, but the organization’s problems may just be beginning.
The families of both Benoit and his wife are expected to sue the WWE, and Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida has called for Congressional hearings this winter to look into the WWE’s steroid policy and why so many wrestlers die young. “I have heard from former professional wrestlers that the abuse of steroids and other drugs is rampant in the industry,” says Stearns, “and I believe that congressional scrutiny could lead to action.”
Whether or not the lawsuits and hearings will fundamentally change the industry is unknown, but former WWE standouts like Mero believe that one man could quickly end the culture of drugs, steroids, and death.
“Vince McMahon is the most powerful man in this industry,” Mero says. “If he wanted to change things, he could make it happen tomorrow, and everyone would fall in line.”
For fans of the WWE, it is now almost as if Chris Benoit never existed. Except for historical records, many of his matches and DVDs have been removed from the company’s Web site, as has any mention of his life or career. His name hasn’t been mentioned once on WWE television since late June. Most retailers who sold Benoit merchandise immediately took it off their shelves. One week after the tragedy, a fan looking for answers held up a sign at a WWE event: Why? it read.
WWE officials quickly confiscated that, too.