Chris Benoit

I have never been shy about the fact that I am a fan of the sport of professional wrestling and have been for nearly three decades. I have seen plenty of wrestlers come and go over the years, including the companies they worked for. I was there on the front lines watching during the so-called “Monday Night Wars” when Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) almost succeeded in running Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) into the ground. The business in America had never been hotter, with performers like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and Goldberg eventually becoming household names. Veterans also carried the business at that time, including Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall, though they were also assisted by one of the greatest pools of international talent ever assembled. Though it took WWE a few years to get on board, WCW’s supporting cast was comprised of individuals like Rey Mysterio Jr. who, arguably, revolutionized the way fans and promoters thought about athleticism and size in the ring. Hungry young talent like Chris Jericho got their start filling out the middle of the card and men like Eddie Guerrero, whose charisma matched his pure in-ring talent, set the stage for later success. And then there was Chris Benoit, dubbed the “Rabid Wolverine,” who was arguably the greatest professional wrestler of his generation—a position he would hold until 10 years ago when he murdered his wife and son before killing himself.

For years, numerous friends, girlfriends, and acquaintances have questioned my love of pro-wrestling and the lengths I would go to see it. Before the age of ready-at-hand streaming services, the only way I could consume wrestling outside of the major companies on cable was to use the two 4-head VCRs I purchased to record and copy American graps to trade with anonymous names on the Internet. During my high school and college years, I acquired a massive library of VHS tapes packed with wrestling from Mexico, Japan, and Europe, not to mention historic bouts from the days when American wrestling was regional and not broadcasted nationally. The video quality ranged from “alright” (at  best) to “atrocious,” but I didn’t care. Mitsuharu Misawa had a Match of the Year bout with Toshiaki Kawada in Tokyo and I was going to see it—even if took me four months to get the tape.

When people shook their heads at me, I could always go to my tapes and pull out 3-4 with matches that I knew would change their minds, no matter how visceral their contempt for wrestling was. Invariably, one of those matches would feature Benoit, a performer who never let his stature get in the way of making you believe that he could tear through any opponent under all circumstances. Whether matched up with a junior heavyweight in Japan, a technical master from Europe, or a brawler in America, Benoit could effortlessly match styles. While some wrestlers take it down a few notches when performing in front of small crowds or with the TV cameras off, Benoit never could. His passion was for professional wrestling and he never let anyone in the audience forget it. Sometimes that meant demonstrating his cardio conditioning by doing 15 minute sprints in the ring; at other times it meant showing off his technical prowess, floating between holds and lockups to remind the audience of pro-wrestling’s catch-as-catch can roots. But when he felt compelled, giving the audience a show meant diving head first off the top rope night after night; taking unprotected chair shots to the front and back of the head; and never letting a concussion get in the way of a good match.

When news broke of what Benoit had done, speculation immediately began that the cause of his actions was roid rage. It was no secret to even non-fans of the sport that wrestlers often looked to a needle to assist them in the gym. Since the 1980s in particular and the ascendency of guys like Hogan and the late Ultimate Warrior, image was essential to success; being larger than life was just part of the job. Benoit, who would have a hard time cresting 200lbs. on his own, blew up his physique in order to better fit in once he started wrestling in the United States. And so it was natural for people to conclude that his “routine” got the best of him. It made for the best story, namely that wrestling is full of roided-up pseudo-athletes whose work glorified violence, including violence against women. The Benoit tragedy was a perfect example of life imitating art; the low-brow “male soap opera” of wrestling had become all too real. Only that wasn’t the full story. An autopsy on Benoit proved that he had the brain of an octogenarian with dementia; years of head trauma had taken its toll. While it is impossible to know for sure why Benoit did what he did or excuse his actions by merely pointing to autopsy results, Benoit’s actions spurred WWE and other wrestling companies into being more proactive about preventing concussions and medically screening concussed performers before sending them back into the ring. The reforms have been far from perfect, but the situation today is far better than it was a decade ago.

Following his death, WWE effectively scrubbed Benoit from history, removing his name from their website and broadcasts; pulling all of his merchandise off the shelves; and never releasing any footage of him on DVD. With the advent of the WWE Network in 2014—the company’s 24-hour streaming service and video archive—Benoit’s matches become accessible again, though it is still impossible to track them down through the Network’s search engine; you have to know what you’re looking for to find him.

Part of me wishes I could say I never went back to watch another Benoit match, but that would be a lie. While I don’t remember the first time I watched Benoit wrestle again, I doubt I waited that long. For me, between the ropes, Benoit was as good as there has ever been. One of my happiest moments as a wrestling fan took place at WrestleMania XX in 2004 when he stood in the middle of the ring, embraced by his real-life friend Eddie Guerrero, holding the WWE World Championship. It was the culmination of one of the most brilliant wrestling careers in history, one that spanned the globe and left behind a treasury of some of the greatest bouts ever to take place in the squared circle. And then, three years later, Benoit, his wife, and his young son were all dead. All of the classic matches in the world against the likes of Jushin Liger, The Great Sasuke, Kurt Angle, Shawn Michaels, etc. cannot make up for Benoit’s horrible actions. And yet to deny his role in shaping a generation’s understanding of what great wrestling is cannot be overlooked either. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any up-and-coming grappler ever achieving any level of excellence without spending hours studying Benoit’s matches. His intensity, psychology, and raw athleticism, when packaged together, were unparalleled. They may never be matched again.

Today, when my sons want to watch some great wrestling, I don’t have to rummage through piles of tapes in boxes; everything I want is just a few clicks away. I have shown them some of the premier matches in history, but not a single one has included Chris Benoit. One day, if their interest in the sport abides, I will have to tell them about Benoit and what he did—both in and outside of the ring. However, once again I cannot lie. When I am alone and need a refresher on what greatness in pro-wrestling is, the easiest choice I can make is to turn on a Benoit bout, suspend disbelief, and get lost in the artistry of it all.

My Ninth Shameless Professional Wrestling Post in Years: New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 Edition

It’s no mystery that I am a pro-wrestling fan and that my fandom spills over the boundaries of mainstream American graps such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to include independent promotions in the U.S. and Europe, Lucha Libre from Mexico, and puoresu from Japan. Many moons ago, when I has but a lad of 17, I purchased two 4-head VCRs for the purpose of double taping and dubbing American wrestling matches for the purposes of trading my wares with fans abroad for their local brand of wrestling goodness. I would scour listservs and other forums for results from the biggest shows abroad and then vow to track down the bouts, sometimes waiting as long as six months before getting my hands on them. To this day, my mother’s basement storage area still houses hundreds of video tapes with countless hours of wrestling from Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, Germany, and even North Korea. Today, almost all of that footage is available online, either “illegally” (that’s debatable) from video websites or licitly from the growing number of dedicated pro-wrestling streaming services that have come online over the past three years. Never in my teenage dreams did I believe such a thing would be possible and yet here we are.

For those unaware, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) began 45 years ago as a way to showcase what became known as “strong style,” that is, Japan’s unique blend of martial-arts striking and submission wrestling in a worked forum (i.e., the outcomes are predetermined). Today, thanks to tape trading, foreign talent exchanges, and the aforementioned streaming services, strong style is literally everywhere, though arguably few do it well outside of its original Japanese context. For instance, when Shinsuke Nakamura, the self-proclaimed “King of Strong Style,” left New Japan last year for WWE’s NXT brand, everyone knew he would have to cool his jets a bit. And while Nakamura has found a way to retain his strong-style approach to wrestling, it’s clear to anyone who followed his Japanese work that it is watered-down presentation of what he can do fully in the ring. Although NJPW, like any wrestling promotion, has had its ups and downs over the decades, most agree that the promotion has been firing on (almost) all cylinders for the past five years thanks to a mixture of grizzled veterans, new stars, and (largely) top-shelf foreign talent. With the launch of the New Japan World streaming service for a mere 999 Yen per month (roughly $10), which includes new live events and a treasure chest of archival material, NJPW is finally able to reach a global audience quickly and efficiently. Moreover, because of growing interest from the Anglophone world, New Japan World now offers English-language commentary for its biggest shows, though I confess that I still love listening to the Japanese announcers, particularly when the big bouts are hitting their respective crescendos.

For the past 25 years, it has been a NJPW tradition to run shows at the famous Tokyo Dome on January 4. Though the event names have changed over the years, the company has now settled on “Wrestle Kingdom” as its premiere event where all of the major promotional feuds are (typically) brought to a close. Unlike the WWE and other American promotions today, NJPW’s booking style is pretty straightforward: Wrestler A wants to prove he is better than Wrestler B, so they’re going to lock up in the ring to find out. There are, of course, personality clashes mixed in, not to mention some colorful characters and a few guys willing to bend the rules to the breaking point to get what they need, but more times than not it all makes sense. Relying less on over-the-top angles and heavily scripted interview segments, many of New Japan’s storylines are advanced in the ring. In fact, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out the personalities, feuds, and goals in play just by watching a couple of shows, English commentary or not. Yes, NJPW, like all of pro-wrestling, is a work, that is, the wrestlers are not actively competing against each other, but when it comes to Wrestle Kingdom in particular, they are competing for the audience’s adulation and the right to be viewed as the best performers on the planet.

For those interested, here is my brief review of last night’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 event from Tokyo. Instead of running the risk of catching spoilers online, I actually arose at 3am EST yesterday (5pm Tokyo time) to watch the entire show as it unfolded lived. Since I have not had time to go back and re-watch any of the matches, these comments — and the five-star rating system I employ — are best on first impressions from seeing the bouts as they happened. In the heat of the moment, there isn’t much time to second-guess certain spots, match length, or results; the real question comes down to whether or not you are entertained. Not surprisingly, I was very entertained.

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My Eighth Shameless Professional Wrestling Post in Years: Best Wrestlers of 2016

For the four of you who care, I have put together my list of the Top 5 professional wrestlers in 2016 from across the wrestling spectrum. I made my selections based on not only in-ring ability, but the impact they had on the sport in general. Obviously there are some factors which will always be out of a performer’s direct control, such as how well they are booked; the opponents they are given; and the overall health of the companies they work for. However, truly great wrestlers will find a way to transcend these limitations, sometimes in ways we’ve never seen before. Enjoy.

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My Seventh Shameless Professional Wrestling Post In Years: Best Matches 2016 (WWE) Edition

Although 2016 is not quite over, I present — to the 5 or 6 of you dear readers who care — my top 10 matches of 2016 which aired through one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s numerous outlets, including the mainline RAW and Smackdown brands, NXT, and the Cruiserweight Classic (CWC) that aired on the WWE Network this summer. I have opted to forego star rankings for the matches and, to diversify the list a tad, I have not included multiple matches from the same competitors. In other words, even though every meet-up between the teams DIY and The Revival in NXT are is pure gold, I have only included what I believe is their best bout. Also, I have intentionally left women’s wrestling off of the list.

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My Sixth Shameless Professional Wrestling Blog Post in Years: WWE Talent Rankings

For those (few) who care, I present my wholly subjective, arguably ill-informed and poorly reasoned ranked list male workers (i.e., “insider”-speak for in-ring talent) currently employed by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and active on the main roster. First, however, a few qualifiers . . .

  • I have excluded “special attraction” performers such as The Undertaker, HHH, and Shane McMahon even though they are all under WWE contract.
  • I have included part-time talent such as Brock Lesnar and Chris Jericho.
  • I have included injured talent who are set to return shortly and have wrestled for at least four months since last year’s WrestleMania.
  • My assessments are based primarily on a performer’s body of work in the ring, though I have also tried to account for how poor booking or limited use may mask a wrestler’s potential.

Enjoy.

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My Fifth Shameless Professional Wrestling Blog Post In Years: Post-WrestleMania Edition

WrestleMania 32 has come and gone. I went back on my promise to post predictions before the show — a wise move on my part since most of the show was booked around swerving the audience. That was all fine and good when Zach Ryder — a perennial jobber buried by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) despite his ability to get over with the fans — finally had his big moment and walked out Intercontinental Champion in the show’s opening bout (an overstuffed seven-way ladder match), but it got a bit old by the time A.J. Styles lost clean as a sheet to Chris Jericho and Sasha Banks was denied her big moment when Charlotte inexplicably retained the newly christened Women’s Championship. And then the show just dragged on, and on, and on, blowing past the 11 o’clock hour for the sole purpose of delivering one of the most underwhelming main events in WrestleMania history. A number of “old timers” showed up, including Shawn Michaels, Cactus Jack, and Steve Austin, and all for the purpose of overshadowing the company’s younger talent. The Rock had another “WrestleMania” moment, this time squashing Eric Rowan of the Wyatt Family in six seconds flat. Oh, and John Cena returned to help his good buddy The Rock drive the final nails into the coffin of the Wyatt Family gimmick, thus bringing to an apparent end one of the best ideas the company has had in years. Oh, and Shane McMahon fell off a 15-foot high steel cage to cap off a match where all 46 years of his non-wrestling self fared better in the ring against the legendary Undertaker than most of the established talent.

Granted, when watching the show this year I was entertained, largely because I was in the company of my brother and close friends, all of whom love wrestling as much as I do. But now that the buzz of WrestleMania is over, I am left feeling confused and disappointed. Where does WWE go from here, now that its world champion — Roman Reigns — is one of the most despised stars in the company? Will WWE use tonight’s post-Mania Monday Night RAW to hit “reset” by introducing new and returning talent or will it “stay the course,” cramming unimaginative content down the audience’s throat and expecting them to like it? Were it not for the NXT Takeover special that aired on Friday, this entire wrestling-packed weekend would have been a bust. But NXT is a niche product, and it is clear WWE has no plans to transfer the basic booking formulas that work so well in that environment to its flagship shows. Shame.

My Fourth Shameless Professional Wrestling Blog Post In Years: WrestleMania Edition

WrestleMania weekend has arrived in Dallas, Texas where World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is banking on the distant hope that 100k fans will fill AT&T Stadium to watch one of the most underwhelming super-cards in years. Injuries and one forced retirement started adversely affecting this show’s prospects months ago. Terrible booking doesn’t help either. Instead of being treated to bona fide dream matches like John Cena v. The Undertaker and Seth Rollins v. HHH, we are being force-fed the McMahon Family Drama, one that has been playing out on WWE television for more than 15 years. The one bright spot to this weekend is tonight’s NXT Takeover show. For those unaware, NXT is WWE’s developmental program-turned-runaway success with a weekly show and occasional special events that have overshadowed the “big stage” WWE product for over two years now. Now well-stocked with indie, international, and home-grown talent, NXT now houses the best collection of in-ring talent in North America, if not the world. Even if WrestleMania doesn’t deliver, it’s all but guaranteed that NXT will.

For those curious, below are my NXT Takeover predictions. I will post my WrestleMania ones in due course.

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My Third Shameless Professional Wrestling Blog Post In Years: Hayabusa

I was deeply saddened to learn this morning that Hayabusa (real name Eiji Ezaki) passed away today at the age of 47. Few fans under the age of 30 likely know the name, but anyone who watched international pro-graps during the 1990s remembers Hayabusa as one of the most spectacular junior heavyweights of that era, mixing outstanding high-flying maneuvers with solid Japanese-style in-ring psychology. Devastatingly, in 2001, he slipped on a “routine” springboard moonsault (known otherwise as the “Lionsault” which Chris Jericho uses to this day) and broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Although he finally managed to walk again last year with the use of a cane, the amazing performer die-hard wrestling fans knew and loved was never the same after that tragic day nearly 15 years ago.

I make mention of Hayabusa for two reasons. First, as an avid collector of pro-wrestling video tapes in the 1990s and early 00s, he was one of my favorites. I was privileged in August 1998 to drive down with one of my best friends to Dayton, Ohio and watch him perform at Extreme Championship Wrestling’s Heatwave 1998 Pay-Per-View. (For those interested, the event is available on the WWE Network and I can be clearly seen throughout on the far left of the screen sitting in the second row.) Heaven only knows where his career would have gone had he avoided injury, but he left behind a body of work that still inspires pro-wrestlers to this day.

Second, and more importantly, Hayabusa’s injury should serve as a reminder to all of those who deride pro-wrestling that the sport is dangerous. Even “routine” or “casual” moves can lead to devastating consequences if executed poorly or something as “simple” as a slip-of-the-foot occurs. People who decry pro-wrestling as “fake” have no idea what they are talking about, and the price Hayabusa paid to be among the top talents in the world is proof positive of that. I haven’t the foggiest idea why Hayabusa got into the world of pro-wrestling or what he hoped to get out of it. But I have no doubt, after watching him in the ring for years, that he loved and dedicated himself to the craft which ultimately cost him everything. Requiescat in pace.

My Second Shameless Professional Wrestling Blog Post In Years: Daniel Bryan Edition

Unless it’s one of the more deceptive (and some might say tasteless) works in years, Daniel Bryan (formerly billed under his real name Bryan Danielson) is set to retire from professional wrestling tonight on World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) flagship show Monday Night RAW. Bryan, who started making noise on the indie circuit back in 2001, emerged into one of the most unlikely wrestling superstars in history despite having neither “the look” WWE goes for when pushing main-event players nor their usually narrow definition of charisma. Bryan, who has never been known for his work on the microphone, leveraged his quirky but straightforward personality into becoming something of an “everyman’s champion,” an unassuming guy you’d love to have in your work place but never expect to be saturated with raw athletic ability or pure wrestling talent. To a certain degree, Bryan followed in the footsteps of the late Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, combining high-risk aerial moves with a more legitimate catch-style approach to mat wrestling punctuated with martial arts-inspired maneuvers and strikes reminiscent of New Japan “Strong Style” wrestling. Though some wrestling purists lamented that Bryan rarely had opponents in WWE who could “go” in the way only Bryan could, he managed to adapt his in-ring approach to gel with a wide spectrum of performers.

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My First Shameless Professional Wrestling Blog Post in Years

People who have followed my various blogs and social-media quips should know by now that I am a fan of the sport and art of professional wrestling. Even so, I have refrained from posting about wrestling on Opus Publicum since I hit the “reset button” in July 2014, mainly because I wanted to focus more specifically on religion and politics (the only two topics beyond pro-wrestling worth discussing). I don’t have any plans to change this “policy,” though I am going to use last night’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) show, The Royal Rumble, and the current road to WrestleMania 32, to shamelessly indulge in some armchair commentary on the product; its strengths; and its ever-expanding list of weaknesses. If you have no interesting in wrestling, read no further, and if you truly detest wrestling, rest assured that I won’t be spending much time on it going forward; sometimes, however, I feel compelled to entertain myself.

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