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Nancy, Daniel, and Chris Benoit: RIP

At the time I write this, the solid facts are that three people are dead: Chris Benoit, wrestler, and his wife, and their seven year old son. When I heard that news last night I was devastated. Chris Benoit’s death alone would have hit me hard; add a family tragedy to it, and the news horrified me.

But it’s worse. The preponderance of evidence is that Chris Benoit killed his wife and son.

My friend Jay called me last night to tell me that the Benoit family was dead. I had guests; I figured I could wait to find out what happened, which was true. Around 11, Susan and I got online to read the news at the same time as we pulled up Monday Night RAW on our TiVo.

RAW opened with Vince McMahon, whose character had recently died in the ongoing WWE storyline. He explained that the Benoit family was dead “in reality,” and that the three hour special RAW which had been planned to forward the McMahon murder storyline was canceled for a tribute program. The arena was empty but for him and the various WWE announcers. No audience. They’re still figuring out how they’ll handle ticket refunds.

So we watched as Jim Ross, Jerry Lawler, Joey Styles, Tazz, John Bradshaw, and Michael Cole talked about Benoit and introduced clips from some of the most important matches in his career. We watched a few WWE wrestlers deliver tributes. A couple of those — Chavo Guerrero, Dean Malenko — were among Benoit’s small inner circle. He had few close friends.

And at the same time, we read reports online. The news consensus slowly converged. It became painfully, stunningly likely that Chris Benoit killed his family. I won’t ever know, but I think some of the people delivering tributes suspected. It wasn’t the most surreal piece of television I’ve ever seen in my life — that happened six years ago — but it was just as hard for me to wrap my mind around it as anything else I’ve ever witnessed.

Benoit was a hero of mine. I don’t think he is any longer, but he was, and for good reason. This is not goofy Bryant, this is not Bryant saying things for effect — which, yeah, I do. This is flat truth. It’s hard for me to compare what Benoit did for a living to what professional athletes do, or what professional actors do, but I have no qualms at all about saying that he had a legitimate case for being one of the top ten performers in the world.

I’ll talk about that for a bit. This is me processing; this is me talking about a hero who did something I can barely comprehend.

Pro wrestling is freeform improvisation. The end of a match is known; a few things that happen during a match are pre-planned. The flow of the match is laid out beforehand, in most cases. Specifics are improvised during the match. When a wrestler fights for a submission hold, there’s no doubt about whether or not he’ll be successful, but the decision to go for that hold was made perhaps seconds ago.

Good wrestlers work their matches in response to both other wrestlers in the ring and the reactions of the crowd. There are good guys and bad guys; it’s incumbent on a wrestler to wrestle in accordance with their character. If the crowd is getting behind a bad guy, the wrestlers need to come up with a reason for the crowd to boo. If the crowd is bored, the wrestlers need to figure out — on the fly — ways to pick the crowd up. The emotional intensity of the match needs to build from beginning to end; you can’t just start hot and keep going if you want a good match.

The elements of that improvisation depend on which style of wrestling you’re watching. WWE crowds expect different things than, say, a Japanese crowd watching an All Japan match. Whereas in one promotion, it might be appropriate to counter an arm drag with a single-leg takedown, that might make no sense to the audience for another promotion.

Plus, of course, you have to be an athlete. Quality varies. Benoit was certainly a great athlete. And he was a great performer. He’s one of the few guys who could seamlessly, painlessly move from style to style depending on where he was wrestling. No matter which style he was using at a given moment, he made you believe it. Not easy; there are a lot of cards stacked against pro wrestlers trying to create real believable emotion out of a fake sporting event. Benoit was good at it.

I don’t know if I’ve really explained why he was my hero. The preceding is about the best I can do. A man I admired for the passion of his work, for his devotion to his craft, and for the pleasure he gave me every time I watched him create in the ring… killed his family.

I want to think that the Benoit who wrestled the Great Sasuke, Bret Hart, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Jushin Liger, Kurt Angle, Edge, so many others — I want to think of him as my hero, and I want to believe that he went mad. I want the Chris Benoit who killed his family to be a different person. I don’t know if I’ll be able to believe that or not, a week from now.

I’m locked and awash in exhaustion, and I suspect I’ll be better able to process this when I’ve slept. This, this is just me writing: putting words down to try and build a framework of understanding around a tragedy.

He had a son, David, from a previous relationship; he had a daughter, Megan, with his previous wife.

Nancy, Daniel, and Chris Benoit are dead.

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