Saturday, June 30, 2007

The "Deaths" of two legendary wrestlers

One faked, one very real...

On the June 11 episode of Monday Night RAW, some viewers saw a cropped ending where Executive Assistant Jonathan Coachman points a depressed Vince McMahon (WWE Chairman) to his limo, and it cuts as he walks toward it. International audiences and some American audiences saw it continue: Vince lets himself into the limo, and just as he shuts the door, the limo explodes. Of course, in real life, Vince McMahon isn't dead, but his character, Mr. McMahon, is.

The WWE follow a practice called kayfabe, which is basically taking a fictional environment to the next level; for all intents and purposes, they live out their characters in public and pretend, even off the show, that they are the character they portray. In fact it's very seldom that the "real person" and the character differ at all; this is called "breaking kayfabe" and it's pretty much the industry's highest sin. They'll bend it - for example when Eddie Guerrero died in late 2005, rivals put on a match and shook hands afterward. Or when they go to the Middle East, they'll often ignore these rules. So while these people pretty much all get along in real life (they do work together), they maintain certain rivalries - like any show, just carried out further. If you look up kayfabe on Wikipedia and read the article (or click kayfabe here or above) you'll understand it a bit more.

The obvious primary subject was the subject of McMahon's aforementioned depression, then ECW (a former rival federation, now the third WWE brand, after Smackdown) Champion Bobby Lashley, who had just about slaughtered McMahon in a street fight (no disqualifications, win by 3-second pin inside the ring), even after WWE monster personality Umaga interfered, as well as Vince's kayfabe and real life son Shane. The night McMahon "died" was the WWE Draft, where performers/personalities were moved across brands at "random" (random in kayfabe but of course predetermined) and Lashley was moved from ECW to RAW, forcing him to drop his title with no contest. So he was suspected. On the night of June 18, a "federal investigator" (aka, an actor playing one) had interviewed various wrestlers but had not named any suspects.

Internet rumor has it that on June 25, the investigator was supposed to arrest Vince's wife Linda. Also according to Internet rumor, it was going to end up being pinned on Triple H, who has been out on injury since January and is supposed to return "sometime this summer". We do know (from an interview, I guess) that behind the scenes, Vince had persuaded his daughter Stephanie to name him the father of her child, born last year. (Triple H is in real life, the father; within kayfabe the father is still unknown.) She flat out refused him, so he suggested Shane, her brother. She refused that as well - but this was months ago. The rumors go that Triple H was going to find out Vince was the father (in kayfabe) and thus had him killed. Besides Vince himself, no one has been more of a heel (villian) than Triple H, and what better way to bring him back than the greatest possible "push" they could come up with?

But what they were supposed to do with the Vince storyline doesn't matter, because on June 25, RAW started with Vince in the ring, announcing that while they were supposed to be continuing the story of his own demise, they had recently (within a few hours) been surprised with a real-life tragedy: the death of Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit. All they knew at that point was that he, his wife, and 7 year old son had been killed, and gunshots were ruled out. So they dedicated the entire 3 hour timeslot to a massive Benoit tribute. Rightfully so, as he was one of the greatest wrestlers they lost. It wouldn't be fair to compare him to others, such as Andre the Giant, Bam Bam Bigelow, and Owen Hart, but he was most certainly Legend material, had more than earned himself a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame.

However, on the morning of Tuesday the 26th, more facts came to light. Investigators (real ones this time) decided that Benoit strangled his wife on Saturday in their Atlanta home, then watched the Vengeance Pay-Per-View with his son on Sunday (which he called out of due to "personal reasons"), smothered his son with a pillow, and finally on Monday, hanged himself from his home exercise machine. (Some of these dates may be wrong as they are currently in dispute.) Chris Benoit was replaced on Sunday by Johnny Nitro, who beat CM Punk to take the ECW title (which had been vacated by Lashley; Punk didn't hold it). So we can assume that the script called for Benoit to win that match. Vince again appeared on the Tuesday night show, ECW, saying that the current mention would be the last time Benoit's name was mentioned on their show. He apologized for "wasting" a 3 hour segment on a murderer, and vowed to begin the healing process by putting on a great show.

But even though the WWE is washing their hands of Benoit, the media sure isn't. More and more details are coming out each day. The latest is that they believe Benoit's perscribed steroids/stimulants drove him to "snap" in what they call "roid rage". Apparently, he placed a Bible beside the bodies of his wife and son - no note was left. Oddly, there was a mention of text messages he sent somebody shortly before taking his own life, but all they did was give his home address, and one stated that the dogs were locked up and which door he left unlocked. The strangest aspect, however, is that somebody edited Chris Benoit's Wikipedia page at 12:01AM Monday morning, about 14 hours before the bodies were discovered, to say that Benoit bailed on the Pay-Per-View because of the death of his wife. Wikipedia officials traced the IP to Stamford, CT - home of WWE headquarters. The WWE is denying any knowledge, of course, but apparently the Wikipedia editor noted on Wikinews that the death was a rumor going around. But somebody in Connecticut, presumably at the WWE, knew that Benoit's wife was killed 14 hours before anybody else but Benoit himself did.

Personally, I don't know what to think beyond being intrigued by the mysteries surrounding the case. I had great respect for Benoit, but had only seen him in action once or twice. As long as I've been watching wrestling (since late 2005), Benoit's been on the Smackdown brand, which is on Friday nights from 8pm to 10pm. I start work at 10pm but it takes a half hour to get there, and I don't have cable, so I just miss it every week I work. On the draft, Benoit was transferred to ECW, which I enjoyed because I'd be able to see him as I'm off Tuesdays. On the ECW episode immediately following the draft, he defeated Elijah Burke (one of the brand's most talented new performers) to earn the right to face CM Punk for the title vacated by Bobby Lashley. This was five days before the Pay-Per-View he called out of.

I see a lot of people on the Net real quick to condemn Benoit, but most of them had been supporting Benoit until they learned the truth. Personally, I feel as though his accomplishments as a wrestler should be held separate from his personal life, because up until now that's pretty much all he was. I didn't know anything about his personal life. And while it's terrible what he's done, I can't help but think of him as the legend he's always been. I think it's a shame (though I do understand) that the WWE isn't going to acknowledge him and (they implied) he won't be in the WWE Hall of Fame. I think after a few years, a decade, whatever, he should get the recognition he deserves by his peers in the industry he'd dedicated about 20 years of his life to. I don't think that would dishonor the memories of his wife and son.

Looking in my (very small) collection of wrestling DVDs, I see I only have one Chris Benoit match, vs. MVP for the US Championship at Wrestlemania 23, a match he won to retain the title. I think I'll watch it again at some point in the near future.

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