Written by Matt Granda
The date was June 24th, 2007 and myself along with countless fans across the globe were waiting eagerly for the big event to begin. The event in question was Vengeance: Night of Champions, a professional wrestling pay-per-view under the banner of the WWE, also known as World Wrestling Entertainment, airing live from the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas where it had been advertised that every championship would be defended on that night. One of the main selling points of the show was that we would see the crowning of a new ECW World Champion as the title had been vacant for weeks. In one corner was CM Punk, a young fan favorite, and in the other was to be Chris Benoit, a grizzled veteran who had the love and respect of fans the world over.
8 pm rolled around and the show had begun. The ECW World title match was the third bout on the card and CM Punk made his way to the ring. We all awaited the familiar music signaling the arrival of The Rabid Wolverine, but much to everyone’s surprise, Benoit was nowhere to be seen, being replaced at the last minute. Benoit missing an event, let alone a large PPV like Night of Champions, was almost unheard of as professional wrestling was quite literally the most important thing in his life.
Cut to the next day of June 25th and I’m getting on WWE.com, looking for some information about what to expect before Monday Night Raw that evening. As the homepage opened up and I saw the new headline, my heart dropped into my stomach as my mouth hung open in shock.
“Chris Benoit has died.”
That nights episode of Raw was turned into a tribute to The Canadian Crippler, showing some of the best matches of his career from WWE and WCW, all while the announcers and his fellow wrestlers would talk about how much they respected him and how amazing of a wrestler and person he was…but this would be premature in the worst possible way. The next day on June 26th, ECW was set to air and Vince McMahon appeared on a prerecorded video with a message to the audience directly.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Last night on Monday Night Raw, the WWE presented a special tribute show, recognizing the career of Chris Benoit. However, now some 26 hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent. Therefore, other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr. Benoit’s name tonight. On the contrary, tonight’s show will be dedicated to everyone who has been affected by this terrible incident. This evening marks the first step of the healing process. Tonight, WWE performers will do what they do better than anyone else in the world: entertain you.”
Ever since that day, WWE has not acknowledged Chris Benoit on their programming, their websites, their DVDs, or video games. Outside of interviews with Vince and other wrestlers on podcasts and different media platforms, it’s as if Benoit never existed. That’s because the details coming out of the Benoit home from that fateful weekend would turn the whole wrestling world on its head, and cast a dark shadow over the sport that Benoit himself loved more than anything. We now take the plunge once more into the darkness, looking into the eyes of a man destroyed by his profession and his own choices in the search for success, and the violent and demented end that consumed him and those he loved.
A Small Man in a World of Giants
To explain the events of that dark weekend, we have to head to the very beginning. Born Christopher Michael Benoit on May 21st, 1967 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to Micheal and Margaret Benoit, Chris became enraptured with professional wrestling from a very young age.
Living with this family in Edmonton, Alberta, he grew up idolizing legends such as “The Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington and Bret “The Hitman” Hart. He even took to using the Diving Headbutt from the top rope as a finishing maneuver, inspired by Billington’s use of the move. Upon coming of age, Benoit began training with Stu Hart, the father of his idol Bret, at the world famous Hart Family Dungeon and in 1985 he’d make his professional wrestling debut for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. While there, Chris married his first wife Martina in 1988, siring two children, David in 1993 and Meghan in 1997. He stayed with Stampede Wrestling until the promotion closed in 1989, heading to Japan from there.
It’s worth noting that while technically masterful of his craft, Benoit was always a smaller man, at least by pro wrestling standards. Billed at 5’11 and weighing 229 pounds, smaller men like himself would have been looked down on at the time, they weren’t taken seriously. That’s why, even in his younger days, Chris indulged in a plethora of steroids in an attempt to measure up to the previous standard of what a pro wrestler should look like. Something he’d also do in order to stand out is take on a more hard hitting style to his peers, and take some unnecessary risks in the ring, including taking chair shots directly to the head. While it was commonplace for wrestlers to get their hands up in order to protect themselves partially from the damage, Benoit was the type to take the shot head on without any sort of precaution.
Benoit wrestled for New Japan Pro Wrestling as both Pegasus Kid and Wild Pegasus from 1986 to 1997 and in 1994, he would make his way stateside for Extreme Championship Wrestling. Wrestling under his real name, it was in ECW that he’d gain his famous Crippler moniker. During a match on the November to Remember pay-per-view, Benoit accidentally botched a maneuver that ended with his opponent Sabu landing directly on the top of his head, breaking his neck. Sabu would eventually recover, but the nickname would follow Benoit the rest of his life. His work visa expired in 1995 and it was shortly afterwards that he got the phone call from WCW, World Championship Wrestling.
It didn’t take long for Benoit to impress the higher ups in WCW with his technical and hard hitting style. Soon enough he was placed into higher profile programs and was even drafted into the newest incarnation of The Four Horsemen, one of the greatest stables in wrestling history. It was during his time with the Horsemen that he began a rivalry with Kevin Sulllivan, leader of rival stable the Dungeon of Doom as well as one of the bookers of WCW. For clarification, a booker is someone who decides storylines and outcomes of matches on the programming.
This is where we meet Woman, real name Nancy Sullivan, at the time Kevin Sullivan’s on screen valet and real life wife. While on television, she was portrayed as cunning, ruthless, and vicious, a tough as nails lady who don’t need no man. Off screen, Nancy Sullivan was the closest thing to an angel as could possibly be imagined. Kind, caring, thoughtful, and nurturing, she was a sweetheart in every sense of the word.
During Benoit’s feud with Sullivan, Kevin believed it would make rather engaging television to book Nancy to have an onscreen affair with Chris. They would be seen kissing and holding hands openly while on television, playing it up for the cameras, even going so far as to spend more time together while off screen to play it up in public for the fans. Engaging television, yes, but this also ended up bringing Chris and Nancy closer together, so much so that they started a real life affair with one another. Who could have guessed?
This soured the relationship between Kevin and Chris, making things quite volatile backstage between the two. This soon resulted in Nancy moving out and divorcing Kevin, citing physical abuse, and Benoit moving in with her soon after, his own marriage to Martina having fallen apart as well. Come February 25th, 2000, Chris and Nancy welcomed little Daniel Benoit into the world and on November 23rd of the same year, the loving couple were officially married.
Rise to the Top
Benoit remained with WCW until January 16th, 2000. He’d been outspoken for quite a while about how unhappy he was with the company, particularly with Kevin Sullivan being promoted to head booker. Only weeks later on January 31st, Benoit made his debut for WWE, then WWF, on Monday Night Raw. Chris would go on to win multiple championships and have many classic matches and rivalries with the likes of Triple H, Booker T, Edge, Brock Lesnar, and Kurt Angle. The apex of his career came in 2004 when in the main event of WrestleMania 20 in Madison Square Garden, Chris Benoit would win the World Heavyweight Championship. Nancy was in attendance with Daniel and David, and they were brought down to the ring to celebrate as fireworks went off and confetti poured down from the rafters as the crowd cheered and chanted his name.
Not all was sunshine and rainbows though in the Benoit household. In May 2003, Nancy Benoit filed for divorce, citing domestic abuse, Benoit having gone so far as to throw furniture through the house. At one point, Nancy called the marriage “irrevocably broken” and even took out a restraining order against Chris, in which it stated Benoit had “lost his temper and threatened to strike the petitioner and cause extensive damage to the home and personal belongings of the parties, including furniture and furnishings. Petitioner is in reasonable fear for petitioner’s own safety and that of the minor child.”
One of their biggest argument points was Nancy wanting Chris to take a lighter schedule so that he could spend more time at home with family and get some much needed rest. Chris on the other hand saw wrestling as his life and refused to step away if he felt he was needed. Another theorized struggle for the family was that Daniel was rumored to have Fragile X syndrome, a form of autism, but that has been repeatedly denied. Nancy’s sister Sandra Toffoloni stated that Benoit never hit Nancy, though he did push her into a shelf once. It was Sandra that Chris reached out to while under the restraining order, asking her to talk to Nancy for him. She did so and, after convincing her to speak with her husband, Nancy and Chris were able to reconcile, calling off the divorce.
Outside of the marital issues, things were great for Benoit. He was the consummate professional even after losing the World Championship, working hard and doing as he was asked. He continued to wrestle, continued to win championships and entertain people across the globe. Everything was moving forward as normal…until November of 2005. That was when the world of Chris Benoit and pro wrestling as a whole changed forever.
The tale of Chris Benoit would be incomplete without the mention of one very important person.
Eddie Guererro was a fellow professional wrestler and perhaps the most important person in
Chris Benoit’s life. Born on October 9th, 1967, he was the youngest son of Gory Guererro, a
Mexican wrestling legend that helped bring the Lucha Libre style of wrestling to the United States. Eddie was born to be a professional wrestler and it also helped that he was extremely good at it. He’s known today as a wrestling legend in his own right for not only his technical and high flying style, but for his boundless charisma.
His career also mirrored Benoit’s in almost every aspect. Beginning down in Mexico, Eddie moved on to New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1992 and it was there that he first met Chris. They soon became close, traveling the world together and supporting each other however they could. They were the best of friends, practically brothers. They even shared their world title wins together. Eddie had won the WWE Championship in February 2004 and then a month later at WrestleMania, Chris won the World Heavyweight title. Eddie, who had retained his title earlier in the night, made his way to the ring and celebrated with his best friend, shedding tears of joy together as they embraced lovingly for the whole world to see.
The two friends were on the highest of highs…but every high must come down, and this one crashed and burned in the worst possible way. It’s a proven fact that many wrestlers, whether from the wear and tear of the sport or from drug related issues, usually meet an untimely end…and sadly this case is no different. On November 12th, 2005, Eddie and the rest of the roster stayed the night at the Marriott Hotel City Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Early the next morning, Eddie’s nephew and fellow wrestler Chavo Gurerro was informed by hotel workers that his uncle hadn’t answered his scheduled wake up call. Making their way up to Eddie’s room and receiving no answer, they entered inside where they found Eddie, passed out on the floor of the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. He was barely clinging to life and before an ambulance could arrive, Eddie Gurerro passed away in his nephew’s arms, only 38 years of age. Even though Eddie’s past had been riddled with severe drug problems, he’d been clean for several years up to that point, and while a relapse was initially suspected, an autopsy revealed that Eddie had passed from acute heart failure due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
Now the reason I bring up Eddie so prevalently here is that his death was perhaps the single most devastating moment of Chris Benoit’s life up until that point. On the documentary series The Dark Side of The Ring, Chavo spoke about the day that Eddie died and how Benoit reacted to the news.
“Then, I get a call…from Chris. And Chris goes “”Hey man, I’m downstairs, where are you?” “Hey man, are you sitting down?” He goes, “Yeah?” And I go, “Eddie passed away this morning…” And all you hear, from a guy with no emotion whatsoever, you hear a wail. Just this wail from deep down, like a heartbreak. If you ever heard one, this was a heartbreak.”
During the Raw tribute show to Eddie, Benoit could be seen weeping openly on television as the ten bell salute rang out throughout the arena. In his tribute video, Chris sobbed openly and said how much he loved and missed Gurerro, that they would meet again.
Fellow wrestler Chris Jericho recounted on The Dark Side of the Ring Benoit’s behavior at Eddie’s funeral where he was practically inconsolable. “Funeral’s are never good, but Eddie’s funeral was very hard. When I saw Benoit, he came and gave me a hug, but it was the most desperate, saddest ‘I’m hanging on for dear life’ hugs that you could ever get.”
Chris Benoit never seemed to get over Eddie’s death, cutting off contact with many of his other friends and practically becoming a hermit. There were times that Benoit would go to visit Eddie’s family where he would go up to the master bedroom and simply hug Eddie’s pillow and cry as he laid on Eddie’s side of the bed. His family eventually got him a journal to help him cope where he could write and talk to Eddie as much as he wanted, and it seemed to help, but Benoit was very much a broken man, and combined with everything else, he was on the road to destruction, a ticking time bomb that would explode less than two years later.
The Horror in Fayetteville
And that brings us up to date, mere days before the weekend of June 24th. For some time, Benoit had been acting strange. He seemed paranoid, on edge, as if he believed he would soon be fired from WWE even when that wasn’t the case. He started taking different routes to the airport and to the gym, as if he believed that he was being followed.
On June 19th, 2007, Chris Benoit wrestled his last match, a qualifying bout against Elijah Burke for his spot in the ECW World title match that Sunday. During the match, Benoit seemed…off. He seemed tired, sluggish, unfocused, something he’d never allow himself to be while in the ring. Nancy seemed to sense that something was wrong. Benoit had become more aggressive at home, more so than usual, and combined with his rapidly growing paranoia, she was rightly frightened.
Nancy told a friend on June 19th, “I’m scared to death. If anything happens to me, look at Chris.”
On June 22nd, Benoit made the 40 mile drive to Carrollton, Georgia to visit Dr. Phil Astin III. Dr. Astin was a well known physician in the sports and wrestling community, having taken on many pro wrestling patients. He’d been prescribing Benoit with many different painkillers and steroids for years, and that day was no different. While at the office, Benoit had his picture taken by Dr. Astin, a practice the doctor liked to do with some of his more famous patients. In the picture, Benoit can be seen giving the doctor a soft smile, but his eyes look vacant, distant, as if he’s not all there. On that day, a pool cleaner had just finished up at the Benoit residence when he saw Chris and little Daniel outside barbequing for dinner. He was the last person to see the whole family alive.
Whatever exactly triggered the horrid events of the next two days is anyone’s guess, but we do know the grim results. That night, The Rabid Wolverine lived up to his nickname. In the upstairs bedroom of their home, Chris Benoit pounced on Nancy, easily overpowering the much smaller woman. Blood surrounding the body and the wounds to her face and head suggests Chris beat her viciously in a fit of rage. Binding her hands and feet, knee planted firmly into her back, Benoit wrapped a television cable around her neck, drew it tight, and pulled as hard as he could. In what surely was minutes of terror and agony, Nancy Benoit left this world at the hands of the man who had sworn to love her and keep her safe. Wrapping the body in a blanket, Benoit placed a Bible next to his dead wife, a sign of his newly found faith, undoubtedly another piece of influence from Eddie who himself was a born again Christian.
Next was Daniel Benoit. The child probably had no idea of the furocity that had just befallen his mother that he loved so dearly, his bedroom being on the other side of the house from his parent’s room. Hours later after murdering his wife, Benoit entered the room of his sleeping son. It’s believed that Benoit woke Daniel up and had him take Xanax, the drug being found in his system after the fact. Daniel idolized his daddy, posters of Chris hung lovingly on his walls and action figures stood proudly on his shelves. The man who Daniel loved more than anything in this world then proceeded to strangle his little boy to death, the use of Xanax perhaps showing he hadn’t wanted his son to suffer as his wife had. Then, like Nancy, he wrapped Daniel in a blanket, placing another Bible next to his body.
At least 10 hours later after Daniel left this world, Chavo Guererro received an odd voicemail on his phone. It was from Chris and it said that Nancy and Daniel were suffering from food poisoning and that he was at home looking after them. Chavo recounted how odd Benoit sounded while on the phone when he called him back that night, that a lot of what he said sounded groggy and forced, especially the emphasis Benoit put on the end of the call when he said, “Chavo, I love you.”
In the early morning of June 24th, the day of the pay-per-view in Houston, a series of text messages were sent from Benoit’s phone to several people within the WWE, including Chavo Guererro.
The first message was: ““The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open.”
The second message was: “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayetteville, Georgia 30215”
Minutes later, the same exact messages were sent from Nancy’s phone. Chavo and the others didn’t think anything of it and when the next day rolled around and Chris wasn’t at the airport to be picked up, they thought it was weird, but decided to cover for him anyway. It wasn’t until Monday that they told some of the officials within WWE of the messages. The higher ups then called the Fayetteville County sheriff’s office to provide a wellness check on Benoit and his family.
Arriving at the house, officers had difficulty entering the house as both of Benoit’s German Shepards were outside, barking and growling. A neighbor soon came outside and, knowing the dogs, was able to put them aside and take a look in the house herself. Within moments the officers heard a terrible scream as the neighbor came bolting out, a look of sheer sadness and panic on her face, crying out that little Daniel was dead. Entering the still, silent house, the officers searched room by room and soon came to discover the bodies of Nancy and Daniel Benoit. It didn’t take long for them to find the man of the house. Chris Benoit, aged 40, was found in his basement gym, hanging lifeless by the lat pull-down machine, the steel cord wrapped around his neck. It’s believed that after sending the texts to Chavo and the other recipients, Benoit went downstairs, placed a cloth over his neck, wrapped the cord over his throat, adjusted the weights and let it drop. A tragedy in every meaning of the word, a family utterly annihilated, leaving one question to be answered.
The Question of Why
As the world was adjusting to the shocking news of Benoit’s death and what he did to his family, theories popped up over the media as well as with the fans. The first was, of course, the idea of steroids, that this act of evil was caused by roid rage. Toxicology reports on Benoit after his death showed that he had over 10 times the normal amount of testosterone in his body at the time of death. None of this was surprising, Benoit had been a known steroid user for almost all of his career, trying to make up for his short stature. This was a fact, regardless of whether WWE tried to dissuade it or not, particularly since just two month earlier, Chris had passed one of the companies random drug tests which allegedly also tested for steroids. This painted WWE in quite the negative light, even when they did their best to distance themselves from Benoit, especially after a massive drug bust had uncovered receipts for 14 WWE wrestlers that had purchased steroids recently, Chavo Gurerro being one.
After the death of the Benoit family, the office of Dr. Astin was raided by the authorities and evidence was found of the good old doctor having written illegal prescriptions to his patients, Benoit included. He was taken to trial and his lawyer attempted to get evidence thrown out, stating the police had exceeded their authority when it came to their search warrant and seized other patients’ records along with three years of bank records and computers. It was all for not though as in 2008 Dr. Astin was charged with overprescribing medication and in January 2009 he pled guilty to all 175 charges against him, including illegally prescribing drugs, sometimes without even examining his patients, and was given 10 years behind bars. Had he been found out earlier, perhaps the evil of that day could have been prevented.
The second and most prevalent theory for Benoit’s actions is brain damage, namely Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. A neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head and brain trauma, symptoms include behavioral problems, mood problems, and difficulty thinking, which could lead to the patient developing dementia over time. Christopher Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and co-founder of the Boston University CTE Center, is also a former WWE wrestler, one whose career was ended due to multiple untreated concussions. Talking about Chris Benoit, Nowinski has been quoted as saying “Benoit was one of the only guys who would take a chair shot to the back of the head … which is stupid.” He also recalled speaking with Benoit only months before the tragedy, and he asked Benoit how many concussions he had received in his life.
“More than I can remember,” Benoit answered.
Julian Bailes, head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, at the insistence of Nowinski and Benoit’s father Michael, ran scans and tests of Chris Benoit’s brain. The results were shocking. Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. Severe CTE was found while examining his brain tissue, along with damage to the brain stem and all 4 lobes. All those diving headbutts and chair shots to the head had finally caught up to the Rabid Wolverine it seems, resulting in a skull full of almost nothing but brown, dead brain cells. A strict “No Chair Shots to the Head” policy was soon enacted by WWE in the wake of this revelation, and more promotions quickly followed their lead in an attempt to prevent further cases such as that of Benoit.
Conspiracy theories have popped up over the years, such as one suggesting that Kevin Sullivan, in an act of revenge from years ago, killed the family, or that perhaps the deaths were the result of a professional hit. Each one is more ridiculous than the last, and they only work to highlight what is accepted to this day as truth. Chris Benoit, in a state of rage and brain damaged delirium, brutally beat and strangled his wife Nancy and then drugged and strangled his youngest son. Then, whether from the guilt of it all or just in an act to end his own long standing suffering, Benoit hanged himself, taking any concrete answer to all of the lingering questions to the grave.
On July 14th, 2007, Nancy and Daniel Benoit received a memorial service attended by their friends and family along with several employees from the WWE. Their bodies were cremated and were given to Nancy’s family in starfish-shaped urns. Chris Benoit was cremated in private, the fate of his ashes unknown to this day.
That brings us to the end of this dark journey and I have to admit that this was a hard one. Chris Benoit was one of my favorite wrestlers at the time, and sometimes I wonder what would have happened had the horror of that weekend not come to pass. Would he have died soon anyway from his brain damage as some say? Would he have retired and gotten the help he needed? Would he have trained others in his craft and eventually made it into the Hall of Fame himself? In the end, we’ll never know. I can still watch his matches to this day and enjoy them for what they are, but the darkness of what he did will always be there whenever I or anyone else looks back on his work.
To this day, Benoit’s name continues to be treated as a strict taboo in WWE and wrestling as a whole. Posters featuring him have been changed, his name is stricken from all but the history books, but only when it comes to his title victories. Matches that were promoted with him now solely promote his opponents, and any past show or event that features him on the card now comes with parental warnings. His tribute show on Raw is not available on the WWE Network and Vince’s address of him on ECW has been removed from that episode. They’re doing their best to distance themselves from the man, and honestly who could blame them?
I believe Paul Heyman, one of the greatest wrestling managers and personalities of all time, said it best when he was interviewed live for Inside the Ropes in 2019 and was faced with a heckler in the crowd in regards to Benoit.
“You can admire his work all you want, but I’ll give you my take on it since you wanna keep yelling out my boy…Three people died in that house that night. I don’t care about CTE, three people died in that house that night, only one person had that choice behind it. The other two didn’t have the choice to die. So if that’s you’re boy, fuck you. As a performer, amongst the five greatest I’ve ever seen in my life. As a talent, remarkable. As a human being, I don’t care about CTE, I don’t care what the reasons are, Nancy and Daniel had no option, he did. Fuck ‘em.”
As we finish up this tale of tragedy, there’s one person I feel for more than anyone else: David Benoit. Now almost 30 years old, he is still plagued by the events of that weekend. In one fell swoop, he lost his father, step mother, and little brother, all whom he loved so very much. It’s been a hard road for him, and he still idolizes his father, knowing the man who shattered his world wasn’t truly the man who loved and raised him, that all the damage to his brain and the years of steroid abuse had taken that man away. Over the last several years he’s been training to be a wrestler himself, but with the darkness surrounding his last name and his striking resemblance to his dad, I can only hope he’s given the chance to live his dream, he more than deserves to forge his own destiny outside of his father’s looming shadow.