Since Monday, wrestling fans in particular have been trying to get their heads around the last three days of Chris Benoit’s life. Not to belittle the tragedy in any way, but within this, the career of his wife, Nancy “Woman” Benoit, has largely been skipped.
SLAM! Wrestling’s Marty Goldstein went some way to fixing that, with an interview with photographer Bill Otten on his radio show, which airs on 92.9 Kick FM from Winnipeg. Otten was the man who took Nancy from front-row ringside, to actually working in professional wrestling, and was happy to share his memories of her.
The first time that Otten saw Nancy Toffolini (her maiden name) was in Orlando, Florida, in 1983. She and her then-husband Jim Daus were big wrestling fans, and attended the matches every week, always sitting in the front row. Otten — who had been a wrestling fan since the 1970s — was photographing the event, and was struck by Mrs. Daus’ beauty. She reminded him of actress Valerie Bertinelli, who at the time was married to rock star Eddie Van Halen.
Keen to build his fledgling portfolio, though rather shy in asking, it took more than one conversation for him to convince Nancy to let him photograph her. She eventually agreed, though it soon became apparent that she wasn’t a natural model, as she looked much the same in every shot.
At the time, Billy Jack Haynes was on a babyface tear through the Florida territory, and approached Otten about setting up a photo shoot, that would put him over as a ladies man. Otten realized that Nancy would be perfect for this type of photo shoot, and thus she and another model both posed with Haynes as he flexed his famous physique. The picture made the front of Main Event magazine, and is remembered today by many fans of the time.
Kevin Sullivan — who Otten referred to as “a genius” of a booker — had been feuding with Haynes at this time, and came to Otten excitedly, with the idea of using the same girls in a photo shoot with him. Playing his occult persona to perfection, Sullivan wanted to give the impression that he had brainwashed Haynes’ lady-friends, and brought them into his realm.
But only Nancy showed up that day. It was to be the beginning of new things for her, both professionally and personally.
Nancy was dubbed “The Fallen Angel,” and became Sullivan’s valet. Her beauty brought out an extra dimension in Sullivan’s gimmick, playing him to the crowd as the master of manipulators, with a mental control over those who followed him. In reality, the two had fallen in love, and after her divorce from Daus, they married in 1985. But Otten believes that Nancy’s decisions may have been as much about succeeding professionally as anything else.
Kevin and Nancy moved to Atlanta and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 1989, and it was a further six years before Otten would cross their paths again. This time, it was in ECW, when Nancy was managing The Sandman. Fortuitously meeting on an airplane on their way to Philadelphia, she explained that her role was to light cigarettes and open beer cans for her charge. Initially perplexed, Otten soon came to understand, and appreciate, what that was all about.
After her ECW stint had come to an end, Nancy returned to WCW, and in the storyline, was stolen again, this time leaving Sullivan to manage Chris Benoit. Bizarrely, Sullivan, who was booking the storylines at the time, suggested that Chris and Nancy share hotel rooms, and portray their alliance as a shoot. In 1997, Otten spotted Nancy with Chris in San Francisco, prior to a WCW pay-per-view. She insisted that she was merely showing him around the city, but they “seemed pretty friendly,” in Otten’s own words.
It would later be joked in wrestling locker rooms that Sullivan “had booked his own divorce,” and Otten noted that he believed that both Chris and Nancy wanted to start a family, which likely led to their decision to get engaged, just months after Otten spotted them together. Most likely, the idea would be that Chris would continue to wrestle and provide for the family, while she stayed at home.
Otten ended the interview by noting how nice Chris Benoit had always been to him, pondering on how he would always shake his hand, and chat a little about Nancy. He had spoken to Chris only two weeks ago, with no hint of any distress on Benoit’s part. The tragedy, he said, was like a real-life horror film.
That is certainly the way that other wrestling fans have seen the tragic deaths of Nancy, Daniel, and Chris Benoit. Perhaps one of the small comforts is that Nancy Toffolini, for a little while, got to enjoy a life in wrestling that so many others envied.
TOP PHOTO: Photo by Mike Lano, [email protected]