Wednesday night’s CNN documentary on drugs and wrestling was marketed as a “special investigation,” and it was, but for the most part, it simply covered facts and figures from the Chris Benoit tragedy most wrestling people generally already know. But to the general public, this show could be construed as an eye-opener.
While much of the one-hour Death Grip: Inside Pro Wrestling covered the overly-documented Chris Benoit murder-suicide, Vince McMahon was asked several distinct, to-the-point questions by the show’s host, Drew Griffin, but pretty much went around answering the queries and in some instances went on the offensive and said Griffin was “frying him” with facts, that if they indeed are facts, are after the fact. The show was also called “the real side of fake wrestling.”
Benoit’s father, Mike, starts the show reading entries from his son’s diary that were written to Eddie Guerrero. In the entries, Chris writes about dreams he’s had about his parents and his wife’s parents dying.
Mike felt this was an early warning sign that Chris was disturbed and heading downhill. A retrospective look at Benoit growing up was shown and Mike said buying Chris his first set of weights was the biggest mistake of his life. He added that allowing Chris to drive three hours from Edmonton to Calgary to wrestle was an even bigger mistake.
Several physicians and wrestlers were interviewed for the show, including Chris Kanyon, Del Wilkes (sans his Patriot mask), Eric Bischoff, John Cena, CM Punk and an anonymous wrestler that had his face and voice hidden.
A medical examiner, Dr. Keith Pinckard, made mention of the many wrestlers that have died in recent years and that roughly one-fifth of them were drug-related deaths and a wrestler has seven times the chance of dying young than other athletes.
The anonymous wrestler said that years ago, wrestlers looked like “your unemployed uncle on the couch,” but now “Vince expects them to look a certain way.”
McMahon was asked about the general size of his WWE wrestlers and Griffin asked if he liked “big guys.” Vince responded by saying that the locker room is at its lightest (overall weight) ever.
The 1994 steroid distribution trial where Hulk Hogan testified against McMahon (who was later acquitted) was briefly recapped, as was the fact WCW took over the wrestling ratings from 1996-1998. It was also noted in passing that CNN and WCW were both owned by Ted Turner at the time.
Irv Muchnick, author of Wrestling Babylon, said that the business has become a big-time source of wealth for the wrestlers and inferred that some feel the need for steroids is a springboard to getting the big money as “wrestlers see what works for other wrestlers and they copy it. There are only a handful of really top slots where you make huge money, so much money that you can really take care of your family and really take care of your health and really prepare for your retirement.”
Chris Jericho said some wrestlers choose to be on the juice, but others that stay clean have to learn how to make it in pro wrestling.
Benoit idolizing The Dynamite Kid was a focal point of the show and, to CNN’s credit, they tracked down the wheelchair-bound Dynamite at a public housing facility outside Manchester, England. CNN also found his ex-wife and she told horror stories of Dynamite physically abusing her, holding a gun to her head and her idea to escape his wrath by killing their kids and then herself. She blamed the abuse on steroids and painkillers.
The Kid said he wanted to fit in with the bigger wrestlers of the 1980s WWF, so he turned to steroids. When he spoke, his British accent was so thick that subtitles were used. He said steroids and painkillers “saved his life” because in 1991, he overdosed and the doctors discovered an enlarged heart. He said he’s been clean since then.
Benoit’s brain being examined and determined to be that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient by the Sports Legacy Institute (Chris Nowinski’s company) was detailed and then the situation surrounding concussions was discussed. Mike Benoit said he was upset with the Sports Legacy Institute as they basically said his son’s brain damage was due to his high-flying wrestling style.
Linda McMahon said she nor Vince have studied these findings and Vince said to take action, they now limit chair shots to the head, but accidents still happen as the WWE “is not ballet.” He then makes an interesting point in saying that if Benoit essentially had Alzheimer’s, then how could he function as a wrestler and go to the airport, things like that. He doesn’t buy the concussion theory either.
It should be noted, however, that not all of Vince and Linda’s comments were shown on the show. Their transcript can be accessed at the link at the end of this report.
Vince added that wrestlers are responsible for their own actions.
Another doctor, Dr. Gary Wadler, a steroid specialist, talked about the first drug testing program the WWF started in 1994 after the scandal. Vince said the program didn’t last because it was too expensive. The specialist said the current policy is not where it should be.
A member of the Olympic anti-doping team, Travis Tygart, said that Vince isn’t serious about the current policy due to the fact a wrestler needs to be caught four times to be fired. He added that a loophole that says a wrestler is OK if they have a prescription is another problem.
Dr. David Black, who helped institute the NFL’s drug policy, said that most WWE bodies are built in a pharmacy and not in a gym. Griffin asks if the Wellness Policy will mean the WWE will see smaller wrestlers and Black maneuvers around that by saying wrestlers will now be healthier. It’s obvious he’s on Vince’s payroll — blatantly obvious.
The anonymous wrestler adds that when the 1994 ‘roid scandal broke, the business suffered.
Now comes the bizarre as Punk and Cena go on the record. Punk’s “straight edge” gimmick is discussed and he proclaims it’s not a gimmick. He said he’s pushed by Vince because he is the opposite of what most people think a wrestler is.
Cena looks perturbed when asked if he’s taken steroids. He calls the question “crazy” and adds that he can’t say he’s never taken steroids, but it’ll never be proven that he has.
Vince chimes in again to pat himself on the back saying it wasn’t the federal government or the media that pushed the Wellness Policy — it was him. Griffin then asks if WWE is drug-free and Vince totally ducks the question and says no organization in entertainment or sports is free from drugs.
It’s then noted that Benoit failed a drug test and was given the mandatory warning. When he was tested again this past April, he was clean. Dr. Black said Benoit was always positive about wanting to adhere to the Wellness Policy.
Linda comes back by saying it’s their goal to protect the men and women in their company, but doesn’t say how.
The show concludes with Mike Benoit’s voice saying that if he were to ever meet with Vince, he’d ask him to show concern for the wrestlers and to start “doing something meaningful.”
I admit, I went into this show with a huge amount of skepticism, but came away impressed with CNN. They did their research (they found Dynamite Kid for crying out loud) and presented facts with hard evidence that showed the ugly side of pro wrestling.
Sadly, this documentary was right-on in my view. Granted, there are positives in the business, but nowadays, those are hard to find. And CNN did a good job not discussing them.