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COMMENTARY

Benoit pushed the limits to entertain us

July 01, 2007|Childs Walker | Baltimore Sun

This might be hard for non-wrestling fans to understand, but to those who loved Chris Benoit's work, the killings at his home and his suicide were as shocking as if Peyton Manning or Tim Duncan or Derek Jeter committed the same acts.

He was that good at what he did and that respected by fans and peers for doing everything the right way.

As such, the story of how he strangled his wife, smothered his child and hanged himself is as disturbing as any I've encountered. It raises countless questions about drugs, the vagaries of the mind and our propensity for glorifying risk. It offers answers to none of them.

First off, shame on all the news hosts who've spent the last few days screaming 'roid rage, as if there's ever a dead-simple explanation when a man kills his family and himself.

The sad episode does raise questions about links between steroid use, the frenetic lifestyle of wrestlers and mental instability. Benoit's employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, has already tried to steer coverage away from his possible steroid use (authorities found prescribed anabolic steroids while searching his home).

The deliberate nature of his actions suggested anything but a rage, the company said in a news release. Chairman Vince McMahon reiterated that position on the "Today" show, noting that Benoit tested negative for drug use in April.

The company's points may be true as far as they go (though McMahon failed to acknowledge loopholes in the testing policy that allow steroid use with a prescription). But depression is actually much more common among steroid users than " 'roid rage," said Dr. Bill Howard, founder of the sports medicine institute at Union Memorial Hospital.

Howard called me a few days ago, fuming about the inaccuracies he perceived in coverage of the Benoit story.

"It was depression," he said. "That's by far the most common psychological side effect of steroid use. You'll find an amazing number of these users having domestic problems related to depression."

Former wrestler Chris Nowinski, a spokesman on the dangers of concussions, has suggested that Benoit might have suffered brain trauma that altered his mental state over the years. One of Benoit's signature moves was a diving head butt off the top rope.

Whatever the cause, his end left different feelings than past tragedies in the profession.

There is a stereotypical wrestler death. Benoit's great friend and rival, Eddie Guerrero, demonstrated it two years ago when he was found dead of a heart attack in his hotel room the same day he was to win the world championship.

Fans mourned Guerrero, remembering his astonishing bag of physical tricks and the outlaw mirth in his eyes and smile. But given his long history of steroid and pain-pill use, his lonely death at 38 fit expectations. It echoed those of so many contemporaries, from Brian Pillman to Curt Hennig to Davey Boy Smith.

Benoit's end proved far more disquieting, especially given that he was the model wrestler.

In the ring, he could do anything, appearing just as comfortable in a fast-paced match full of intricate moves as in a pitched brawl dominated by bruising kicks and skin-busting head butts.

He never missed a date or loafed through a performance. He came off as reserved but unfailingly appreciative of those who enjoyed his work. He enforced tradition and respect in the locker room, demanding punishing calisthenics from any youngster who mouthed off to an elder. He wept when speaking at Guerrero's memorial show.

Even his suspected steroid use seemed understandable. He was a 5-foot-10 man whose body was probably meant to carry 170 or 180 pounds. But he fell in love with a business in which the most glorified performers stood well over 6 feet and packed 250 to 300 muscular pounds.

Benoit acknowledged the pressure over the years, once telling the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter that steroids for wrestlers were like cigarettes in the 1950s. Many used them and few contemplated the risks.

Benoit's hero, the Dynamite Kid, packed layers and layers of muscle onto a lithe frame and ignored the signs as he lost the ability to walk.

That was Benoit's context, one in which stoic men loved their craft so much that they warped and eventually broke their bodies on the altar of performance. When he won the world title at Wrestlemania, fans cried and cheered because the moment seemed to suggest that passion and work and resilience really might be enough in this life.

That his wife, Nancy, had filed for divorce and a restraining order less than a year earlier (she later dropped both requests) wasn't known to fans. In fact, he invited his family into the ring to celebrate and often spoke of how he wanted to get home more often.

All that explains why fans feel so shaken.

We don't know that wrestling led Benoit to the terrible events of last weekend. We will never know what ran through his mind.

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