ONE OF THE GOALS of this third “ultimate historical edition” is to reestablish the known — not speculative — record of what happened to Chris Benoit and his family in June 2007. Another is to introduce this wicked story to a new generation of readers. My fellow author Greg Oliver, who runs the SLAM! Wrestling news and feature site, told me that when he tables his books at places like wrestling fan conventions, there is palpable renewed interest in Benoit: Wrestling With the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport, the volume of instant essays Greg co-wrote with Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, and myself. Initially that book drew interest from people who were news consumers trying to make sense out of the event and its aftermath. Today, Greg said, he detects something different: curiosity, from scratch, on the part of those who have only heard about Benoit in passing and want to nail down the fundamentals. My hope is that this renewed footprint of CHRIS & NANCY will help.
As for what has gone down in the intervening dozen years, you can choose your own jumping-off point. Mine is related to Benoit only in one important sense: It is the most recent parallel wrestler’s suicide by hanging. On May 16, 2019, former WWE “diva” Ashley Massaro took her own life in this fashion. She was 39 and one of the two seemingly premature ex-WWE fatalities that year. The other, Rick Bognar, the one-time “fake Diesel,” died suddenly at 49 of unknown causes.
Obviously, this collective annual toll of two was a tiny fraction of the 20-plus in Benoit’s 2007, which occurred at the peak of major wrestling promotion early fatalities. Many of that generation’s untimely deaths could be traced, though not in any reliably direct, one-to-one correspondence, to some combination of drugs and what we now better understand is the insidious accumulation of traumatic brain injury. The drugs involved were at least as likely to be painkillers and antidepressants as either the steroid family or recreational “street” drugs. They now fit neatly into what we know as a society-wide opioid crisis.
Meanwhile, the detection of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by both dumb stunt impacts and lots of completely routine ones, is still foolproof only postmortem. More interested in elevating discussion of the overall problem than in constructing a perfect pie graph, I called both drug excess and brain trauma, twin occupational hazards in varying measures, the ingredients of wrestling’s “cocktail of death.”
This turn of phrase makes for a punchy subtitle but may be too anodyne for a fantasy industry that is almost, by definition, unequipped to deal with the realities of mental illness in general — something the world at large is just starting to come to grips with. You could say that some of the inherent self-medication in wrestling is the symptom of another cocktail ingredient.
Today, giving due credit for constructive changes, I must record that the industry’s bedrock health and safety record has improved from its unimaginably very worst. Performers in this spectacle-sports hybrid still die young at a low roar, but at rates consistent with a more expected rhythm as a consequence of the extreme risk-taking of what the Taylor Swift lyric calls “the young and the reckless.” The clear and present danger highlighted by Congressional investigations — half-hearted though those investigations were — has abated. In place is the somewhat normalized human sausage factory that is a byproduct of late-empire America’s inexhaustible entertainments.
But let’s not take too large a leap from this qualified good news. I, for one, am not about to declare the WWE Wellness Policy a success, except on its own narrow terms. I have some skin in this game, both in general and as a figure who, in caricature, was featured in the pages of American Lawyer magazine in 2011, juxtaposed against WWE mouthpiece Jerry McDevitt for a post-Benoit debate. (See it here.)
Please do not try to sell me on the notion that today’s drug tests are administered, and their associated disciplines meted out, with scientific neutrality. WWE vice president of talent Paul “Triple H” Levesque, husband of Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie, still performs occasionally at age 50, and he looks mahvelous. (One of Levesque’s early personal trainers and “nutritionists,” Dave Palumbo, who at one point was imprisoned for selling fake human growth hormone, was renowned for counseling his clients on how to beat drug tests.) I don’t know, maybe movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson really was forced to pee into a cup before parachuting back into WWE rings for cameo appearances. John Cena lost time to a torn pectoral in the years just before he, too, was mostly detached to Hollywood. Pec and triceps ruptures are injuries not found in the sports medicine literature prior to steroids.
Aside from the smell test for specific eyebrow-raising performers, the basic point is that WWE contracts with a drug-testing lab but still runs the show. This is not a genuinely independent review system. In legit sports, the system is also less than perfect and transparent, but it’s inching closer — in part because the scrutiny is greater and in part because the standards for regulating performance enhancement are more objective and compelling.
Again: What WWE is doing today in the area of preventing future Benoits is considerably better than nothing, no matter what motivates the powers-that-be — a genuine concern for health and safety, or simply public relations — and no matter how large the remaining gap between the real and the ideal.
In addition, a couple of new factors on the contemporary wrestling industry landscape have done a lot to mitigate against future Benoits. The main one: WWE, in the way of every global corporate franchise, has grown progressively more homogenized. Despite the occasional exception who proves the rule (see Brock Lesnar), no individual wrestler is any longer meaningfully the superstar of the company. The superstar is, rather, the “brand” itself. “Superstar” is itself a contrived term of art. Mad marketing genius Vince McMahon has concocted a complete dedicated, and somewhat creepy and Orwellian, vocabulary, led from the top by “WWE universe.” In the past, when a Benoit got out of control, it was a feature, not a bug. (A better example from history would be Brian Pillman, who unlike Benoit was a genuinely crazy character, not merely self-destructive.)
All of this combines to make someone like Ashley Massaro more of an isolated tragedy in the brave new world.
Of course, today’s WWE boasts big people, men and women, larger than life, yadda yadda yadda. But they are also more carefully domesticated, to round out and fill in the potholes of the overall roster of this preconceived “universe.” By and large, a “talent” recites scripted promos. The talents dress professionally in public and have the expectation of behaving like ambassadors. From where I sit, the quintessential 2020s WWE dude is someone like Adam “Braun Strowman” Scherr. Son of a slow-pitch softball legend who himself gained notoriety in strongman events before migrating to WWE’s development program, Strowman was groomed in accordance with a very particular corporate definition of superstardom. Not only comfortable inside the squared circle, he can be relied on to deliver articulate pre-Fox SmackDown premiere promo interviews from the broadcast booth of a nationally televised baseball game.
The other new factor is a bit more complicated. For a long time after squashing rival WCW, WWE had almost undiluted hegemony over wrestling’s North American market, as well as a vast majority of global revenues. But then this resilient and ever-evolving art form found renewed energy, creativity, and popularity at its local independent roots. For a long time this translated into an unofficial feeder system for WWE and its Florida developmental operation and third-wheel circuit, NXT.
But the indie talent surge became not just steady but unsinkable, and not just as a platform for someone like Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson to land in WWE and enjoy due notice and income. Plenty of wrestlers, like the Young Bucks, became two-continent brands in their own rights. The 2018 All-In show in Chicago scrambled the playbook of indie ambition. A new promotion, All Elite Wrestling, has truly competitive capitalization and a substantial national television package, and seems the entity best equipped in many years to give WWE at least a little bit of a run for its money.
With competition comes a better prospect for taking care of the talent, theoretically — but this positive development comes with a caveat. WCW gave WWE competition, too, but the higher pay coming out of the welcome competition was accompanied by less drug-testing, more risky behavior. Because wrestlers don’t want to be encumbered in their quest to get “over,” they made a no-testing regime one of the lures of a better deal.
Will 2020s pro wrestling competition — some of it based more on stunt set pieces than on classic quasi-athletic storytelling — ultimately embrace longer-life industry practices or simply another form of the “cocktail of death”? We’ll see.
THESE ARE LIKELY TO BE AMONG THE LAST WORDS of my career on the larger meaning of the pop culture phenomenon of professional wrestling — a subject that has obsessed me for more than 35 years. In recent years I largely moved on to other subjects, notably the public health deficits of football and the systemic coach sexual abuse and cover-ups embedded in swimming and other youth sports. Accordingly, I reach here toward some finality or legacy for my wrestling reportage and commentary. Finding such a theme turns out not to be that hard, since the evidence assaults us 24/7.
It is spelled T-R-U-M-P.
Trump. Donald John Trump, long ago labeled “the thin-fingered vulgarian” by the late, great Spy magazine. In 1988 and 1989, his since bankrupted casino in Atlantic City hosted WrestleManias 4 and 5. Of course, on January 20, 2017, Trump became the unlikely, though in retrospect eminently fitting, populist demagogue 45th president of the United States.
Trump the table-overturner of norms. Trump the bad king. Trump the race-baiter. Master of crudely unethical non-compliance with the Constitution’s emoluments clause. Russia election interference colluder. Ukraine military aid shakedown quarterback. “Individual-1” unindicted co-conspirator in campaign finance law violations that resulted in the payout of hush money to a porn star and a Playboy model he had screwed. Ultimate opportunist, hype artist, con man, compulsive liar, exhibit of incurable narcissistic personality disorder and megalomania. The man his narrowly triumphant electoral, decidedly popular-vote minority, base loves to love and everyone else loves to hate.
And all this before the corona virus crisis, which is unfolding as this edition is being published, and promises to be the closest thing to apocalypse any of us will ever experience.
In other words, the all-time wrestling heel. To say that Trump epitomizes or encapsulates or illustrates or emblemizes or legitimizes WrestleWorld is to engage in rare understatement for a field of human endeavor that aims low and little, while expressing itself low and large. Should I make myself even more clear? By asserting that the election of Donald Trump, undisputed world champion of the deterioration of American civic life, brought the chickens home to roost, I do not intend indirection, analogy, or metaphor. I mean that, literally, poultry animals of the foulest sort now perch up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. They are found in degraded United States embassies, installations, and institutions from Jerusalem to Jakarta, Bern to Bonn, London to Lusaka. Also in hitherto at least nominally science-based entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Most to the point for our purposes, they include some of the specific characters who brought us the “WWE universe.”
An old commercial for a brand of audiotape once asked, Is it live or is it Memorex? How quaint. In 2020, on the cusp of possibilities ranging from Trump’s ejection from office to his designs on presidency for life, we are magnitudes of meta-reality beyond mundane literary contemplation. The spectacle of wrestling’s cartoonishly masculine and verbally blustery advocates of violent gesture, as entertainment and catharsis, has been cited time and again as a model for the decline of civility in the public square. But that was then. This is now: Mainstream pundits routinely deconstruct presidential rhetoric, Twitter tactics, and chaotic distractions with the term kayfabe, carny code for the somewhat comically guarded inside industry secret that wrestling is not a straight athletic competition. Nowadays, commentators of the affairs of state toss around kayfabe as though it were the accepted shared vocabulary for a citizenry reduced to the chatter of wrestling fans trying to decide whether they are marks or smart or smart marks.
Because, it seems, that’s what we have all been reduced to. The painstaking design of the American democratic experiment by Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton evidently didn’t account for this.
In a memorable scene from The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s girlfriend is aghast at the idea that politicians might be operating out of the same playbook as mobsters. In reply, Al Pacino’s Michael says to Diane Keaton’s Kay, “Now who’s being naive?”
Donald Trump, ultimate practitioner of wrestling style, has obliterated the concept of naivete, just as he has steamrolled science, facts, and truth. He is living, breathing, walking dystopia — not as prophecy but as reality TV once and for all exerting temporal power. To the Sinclair Lewis question of whether “it can happen here,” Trump has provided the answer: yes. To the question of whether such a devolution would entail either George Orwell’s paradigm of fear or Aldous Huxley’s paradigm of state-induced lethargy or Hannah Arendt’s paradigm of bottom-line banality, Trump has provided another answer: yes. Yes! All of the above! With a Pier Sixer of a schmazz thrown in for good measure!
But CHRIS & NANCY doesn’t rebrand itself merely to recycle these commonplaces. I also want to continue my larger mission as a reporter who tries to connect the dots between the pigs from the fringe and the men from the mainstream (again borrowing from Orwell), and to challenge readers to the task of telling one from the other.
In the original edition, Trump was found only in a footnote. By the end of the book, Linda McMahon — wife of WWE potentate Vince McMahon — was just becoming a real working Republican politico, the governor-appointed and state legislature-confirmed member of the Connecticut Board of Education. In 2017 Linda would be in the Trump cabinet as administrator of the Small Business Administration. Shrugging off the baggage of a drunk-driving episode, Raj Shah — the communications director for Congressman Rob Simmons, McMahon’s Republican primary opponent roadkill in her first unsuccessful run for a U.S. Senate seat from Connecticut in 2010 — became President Trump’s deputy press secretary.
David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for his comprehensive coverage of the fraudulent, self-dealing Donald J. Trump Foundation, which dissolved before accepting a $2 million fine after being prosecuted by the state of New York. The largest contributors to the foundation, to the tune of $4 million in 2007 and $1 million in 2009, were Vince and Linda McMahon. These donations accounted for 95 percent of the foundation’s intake through that period (Trump himself didn’t contribute a dime). This money was basically a payout for Trump’s participation as a sideshow attraction to the main event of WrestleMania 23.
During the 2016 election cycle, Linda McMahon also donated $200,000, the third largest individual sum, to the anti-Hillary Clinton political action committee (PAC) Future45. Taking leave of her cabinet post in 2019, McMahon became chair of America First Action, perhaps the most important “super PAC” supporting Trump’s reelection.
While the Trump and McMahon families trod parallel paths, some things about them are different. For example, in my estimation Stephanie McMahon and Paul Levesque contribute far more substance to their family enterprise than do First Daughter Ivanka Trump and First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner.
IN CHRIS & NANCY I DISCUSS possible contradictions or inaccuracies in WWE’s public statements following the double-murder suicide of one of its best-known talents. This question had first come up with the televised shtick in which Trump executed a “hostile takeover” of the Raw TV show — whatever that was supposed to mean. WWE put out deadpan press releases to promote the storyline and boost ratings.
Material misstatements by publicly traded companies run afoul of Securities and Exchange Commission regulations and laws. But we all know how regulations and laws work in the plutocracy. Wrestling observers have known since all the way back to the then-WWF’s exploitation in the mid-1980s of a ploy called “barter syndication” to get its taped matches on local television stations at the expense of those of old-line promoters from the territorial Mafia era. Federal Communications Commission rules say it is illegal “payola” for a disk jockey or radio station employee to accept a bribe for pushing a piece of recorded music. However, when a company does the same thing, systematically and wholesale and from the top, it is called … business.
In 2007, just before Chris Benoit went on his rampage, WWE doubled down on its Trump antics with a storyline in which “Mr. McMahon” was murdered by a car bomb in his limousine. I was in my hometown of St. Louis, for a couple of author events promoting my book Wrestling Babylon, when I got a call from a producer for Darren Rovell, then the sports business specialist at CNBC. The producer asked me to hustle to a local studio for a remote satellite interview.
In the way of TV news, I was mostly a prop as Rovell churned his own coverage questioning whether the SEC would look into the faked public death of the chair of a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange:
Is it a crime for the WWE to fake McMahon’s death? I don’t believe so. Because a police report wasn’t filed and McMahon isn’t creating any sort of phony documentation or cashing in on a life insurance policy, it doesn’t seem like there’s any exposure here.
But I still think there’s a possibility the organization could be sued by a shareholder. By announcing that he is “presumed dead” on their official Web site, they could be charged with misleading stockholders. There’s no evidence that a slew of people bought the McMahon news on Wall Street. As of Monday’s close, WWE stock is down only 1.8 percent since the “accident.” You’d think if McMahon really died, the thing would plummet. That being said, I think there could still be a claim.
Here was WWE’s tongue-in-cheek response:
To date, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. has not received a single inquiry from a shareholder regarding the alleged demise of “Mr. McMahon.” It is well known to our shareholders and our viewers that “Mr. McMahon” is a character portrayed by Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the founder and Chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. As far as speculation as to who may have committed this heinous act against “Mr. McMahon,” the WWE has not ruled out any suspects, including CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell. The WWE would like to thank CNBC for its concern over the “Mr. McMahon” mystery and we would like to remind your viewers to continue to tune into WWE’s Monday Night RAW, cable’s top rated program on USA Network (a division of NBCU), to keep abreast of the latest developments in this ongoing situation.
Never make the mistake of taking Donald John Trump or Vincent Kennedy McMahon “literally.” But do take them “seriously.” Not all that much is at stake, admittedly. Only the state of the nation and of the world.
So here we are in 2020: The lessons of CHRIS & NANCY have jumped the shark, traversing from memory to American history. I hope you enjoy the book and reflect on it. In the second edition a few years ago, I undertook the good-faith exercise of correcting a few typos and mostly inconsequential glitches, and duly footnoting the revisions. With this third historical edition, I’m going for the hermetically sealed and authoritative gusto; I took myself out of the penalty box and removed the errata footnotes. The changes are still few and trivial.
What remain for curious readers seeking guidance are just a few basics.
Who done it? Answer: Chris Benoit. Not Kevin Sullivan. Not Vince McMahon. Not a crazed fan. (But I must say that the last would have been a higher-level suspect than either Sullivan or McMahon.)
When did McMahon know Chris done it — not Nancy, not a home invader? Answer: Unquestionably, well before WWE aired the on-the-fly Raw tribute to Benoit that night on the USA cable network.
What’s your point? Answer: Life goes on. In America, life is defined by making money. Corporations and their soulless stewards enjoy an uncanny knack for compartmentalizing everything, even double murder-suicide. They deny, they spin, they manipulate, they run out the clock — whatever it takes to keep the masses mesmerized and their eyes off the ball of measures that would hold secondary forces accountable and make repetitions of our worst history less inevitable.