Viceland’s DARK SIDE OF THE RING: BENOIT Speaks About The Unspeakable

Content warning: The following review contains the true details of a murder-suicide and the deaths of a woman and child. Less importantly, it also contains some spoilers for the premiere episode of Viceland’s Dark Side of the Ring, Season Two.

It was June 2007 and my 20-year fandom of pro wrestling was beginning to wane. I was becoming involved with the music and film scenes here in Toronto and was starting to pull away from watching WWE as often as I was before, but I still stayed up on it even if I wasn’t watching week-to-week. Little did I know that two events during that summer would affect me deeply, not just as a wrestling fan, but as a person. One was the death of my father in July, and the other was the death of my favourite wrestler, Chris Benoit, and the disgusting details surrounding it in June, exactly a month earlier to the day. The circumstances of the two deaths could not possibly be more different, but they affected me in such similar ways that it shook me to the core, especially given the short period between them. Thirteen years later, the premiere of the second season of Vice’s documentary series, Dark Side of the Ring, addresses Benoit and what led up to and resulted from, his horrific crime.

On or around the night of June 24, 2007, Chris Benoit, one of the top stars in the WWE, killed his wife Nancy, his 7-year-old son Daniel, and then himself. This all-too-real horror story unfolded for the family over the course of three days, with Benoit first binding Nancy and strangling her, before drugging Daniel with Xanax and doing the same to him. Finally, Benoit used a cable to hang himself from a workout machine. It was to become one of the most repulsive crimes that I or anyone, but particularly the wrestling world, had ever seen. 

The bodies of the Benoit family were discovered when police did a ‘welfare check’ on WWE’s behalf after Benoit uncharacteristically missed a pay-per-view event for which he was scheduled, but details of the crime did not surface until days afterwards. In the meantime, the only information that Vince McMahon and the company had about the incident (allegedly), was that one of their top stars and his family were dead. WWE presented a memorial show on the June 25 edition of Raw before it was public that Benoit had committed the murders, and it remains one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever witnessed on television, more so in hindsight when you realize that the entire WWE roster was (unknowingly) eulogizing a murderer. 

Viceland’s two-part premiere of the documentary series begins with the story of Benoit’s rise to fame. Long considered one of the wrestlers most dedicated to his craft, Benoit wrestled with some of the greatest to ever step in the ring. From Canada to Japan to the US and all points in between, Benoit was described as an utmost professional as a performer, and this was often taken to irrational levels. As an example, Chris Jericho describes Benoit feeling the need to do hundreds of squats after a match where a single move didn’t go exactly as planned – though this would be nearly imperceptible to the audience. This self-punishment was far from atypical with Benoit, and really drives home how seriously he took his performances and the industry in general. 

What really comes through in the documentary, especially in the first half, is how Benoit’s life and career were intertwined with those of his closest friend and confidante, Eddie Guerrero. Benoit and Guerrero followed similar paths, first meeting in Japan and then travelling the world together. Both ended up in WCW and eventually WWE, and one of the most iconic moments in Wrestlemania history (prior to 2007), was the two friends embracing at the end of Wrestlemania XX, having achieved the pinnacle of their careers. You can’t really tell one story without telling the other, and this episode of Dark Side of the Ring serves as a pretty good chronicle of Eddie’s career as well. Vickie Guerrero (Eddie’s wife and a popular WWE performer in her own right) and nephew Chavo Guerrero provide valuable and heartfelt insight here, and Chavo’s description of Eddie’s death from heart failure is one of the most gutting moments of the show.

The first part of Dark Side of The Ring also details the way that Nancy Benoit came to develop the character of Woman, a conniving valet whose style was copied by many women in the industry afterwards, from Sensational Sherri in the ’80s and ’90s to Zelina Vega today. Woman was the valet/manager for a number of stars, but is best known for her association with booker/promoter/wrestler Kevin Sullivan and then for Benoit. Dark Side of the Ring recounts an infamous wrestling fable about Sullivan, who was booking WCW in the ’90s and who was in an offscreen, real-life relationship with Nancy. Sullivan booked a wrestling angle where Benoit ‘stole’ Woman from him, only for this to play out for real and Nancy ending up with Chris, which led to the pair getting together and eventually being married. This story is recounted by a number of people including Nancy’s sister Sandra Toffoloni, Jericho, Vickie and Chavo Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and others. Nancy is described as a powerful, take-no-shit performer and person, and the interviewees form a really solid case for Nancy being considered for a Hall of Fame induction in the second half and provide one of the documentary’s only real bright spots. 

The first part of the documentary ends with Benoit’s ghastly crime, and the second half is all about what happened and what came of it. Having read and heard more about this stuff over the past 13 years, I was surprised and impressed at how thorough the research was on this, giving it a feeling of one of the better Unsolved Mysteries episodes. The Atlanta police officer in charge of the investigation, who discovered the bodies, is interviewed, as is the only surviving member of the family, Benoit’s son David. 

There are theories about what would possess someone like Benoit to do what he did – namely, steroid and other drug abuse, as well as (in my opinion, the more likely theory) the idea of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) being the culprit. Benoit’s brain, which was studied after his death, showed signs of extreme degeneration as a result of the many head injuries he received over the course of his career. Though not enough is known about either long or short-term effects of CTE, there is evidence from the brains of football and other athletes that concussion effects can result in extreme, out-of-character, and dissociative behaviour, even years after the initial injuries occurred.  In the intervening years between Benoit’s death and the current state of wrestling, drug overdoses and abuses are far less common, and WWE takes concussions a lot more seriously, and that’s laudable. 

Life is weird, my friends. This article is scheduled to go live on what would have been my father’s 70th birthday. And, once again, my feelings about that are bound up with thinking about Chris Benoit and the ghastly things he did. Because of that, I’ve been compelled to read and learn about what Benoit did and why only to come away frustrated that so little of it makes any sense. I hope, in a way, that this article ages poorly and the next few years provide clarity into the real effects of concussions and CTE. To this end, Dark Side of the Ring is hard to watch and will almost certainly leave you angry, confused, and heartbroken, but starts a necessary conversation about what led to, and resulted from, Chris Benoit’s unspeakable act. 

Viceland’s Dark Side of The Ring: BENOIT will premiere Tuesday, March 24 at 9PM ET/PT on VICE TV via all major satellite and cable providers, VICETV.com, and the VICE TV app via iOS, Android, Apple TV, and Chromecast.

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