Jonathan Snowden reviews “Ring of Hell”
When professional wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife Nancy and seven-year-old son Daniel, the wrestling community was shocked. Or at least they claimed to be. It turns out that these purveyors of deceit, these muscle-bound charlatans, were carefully hiding the truth. The lovable family-man Chris Benoit they talked about in their interviews on CNN or Fox News didn’t exist. He may have never existed. The real Chris Benoit was a stunted (both physically and emotionally) weirdo who popped enough pills and shot up enough steroids to kill an elephant, sacrificing his health to make a living in the ultimate con game.
Matthew Randazzo V has shown in dizzying detail in his new book Ring of Hell how the wrestling business Benoit loved with a child’s enthusiasm helped lead to his death. It was a business where you had to endure countless hours of physical abuse as part of your initiation just to join. Once you “made it” you were blessed with the chance to ride for hours from town to town with a roving gang of lunatics and drug addicts for little pay. Benoit made his start in the business (professional wrestling is always referred to by wrestlers as “the business” in hushed tones) in two of the most warped and twisted training grounds the sport had ever seen. The stories about what it took to break into this freak show act in Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling and to survive months in New Japan Pro Wrestling’s tortuous training dojo are truly startling. Even long-time fans of wrestling will learn new details about the life their favorite stars had to withstand to make their start in wrestling. Randazzo paints a vivid picture of the life of a Westerner in Japan, a place where a 400-pound star can punch an old lady in the face and receive nothing but thanks in return, a place where the payoffs are all in cash and from the hands of the Japanese mafioso who really control the wrestling industry there.
Randazzo follows Benoit from his beginnings in the industry through his career in America. The “family man” his WWE co-workers portrayed in their media appearances actually spent every minute he could away from home. The only thing Benoit loved was professional wrestling and he did whatever it took to make it. That means he did a lot of steroids. Like his idol the Dynamite Kid, Benoit did copious amounts of drugs to build muscle on his slight frame. Even then he was still considered too small for mainstream American wrestling in WCW. Wrestling booker Ole Anderson (the man who made the matches and decided on storylines) was able to wrap his massive hand all the way around Benoit’s wrist. “Female bones.” And like that his dream of making it big as a wrestler in the United States was seemingly crushed.
The answer to this size problem was an increasingly violent and dangerous style of wrestling. Dives from the top rope directly onto his head, concussion-causing suplexes and pratfall bumps, chops to the chest that popped blood vessels. Nothing was too crazy for Chris Benoit to do in the ring. Combined with the drugs, this physical abuse took its toll on Benoit. Once the quiet “young boy” Benoit become a sadistic ribber and locker room disciplinarian. Something in Benoit wasn’t wired right. He saw other’s pain as merely weakness. Like his idol the Dynamite Kid, Benoit was constantly proving himself, a little man in a big man’s game, but through sheer effort of will (and a willingness to humble himself and cripple his body), Benoit eventually made it to the big time.
Here the book loses its bearing for a time. It follows Benoit to the oddball ECW locker room where drug use was never hidden and an inability to entertain fans conventionally was masked by an ability to get thrown through a table or hit with a steel chair. The book does a good job of succinctly summing up the Paul Heyman led company: it was a promotion that emphasized the ECW brand name over any individual wrestler. Heyman was one of the first to recognize wrestlers as the disposable commodities they are. He pushed them to the brink of their physical well being and when they couldn’t continue at that pace, he replaced them with someone else.
ECW gave Benoit a jumping off point into the wild world of WCW. Here Benoit, who loved wrestling and the wrestling business with an unbridled and unhealthy passion, ran head long into savvy operators who realized wrestling was a job like any other. Men like Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were working to maximize their own income, like most Americans, and weren’t held back by wrestling’s unwritten rules about being a good soldier and keeping your mouth shut. Benoit was unhinged at the very thought of these men not respecting “the business.” He would give up anything for wrestling, his self respect, his physical health, his sanity, his family. The WCW period is interesting but has been well covered in books like Bryan Alvarez’s Death of WCW. Long-time wrestling fans likely won’t learn anything new in this section and the material may be a bit dense for non-wrestling fans.
The book picks up steam again as Benoit journeys to wrestling nirvana-World Wrestling Entertainment. Randazzo has good sources in the WWE and the book opens wide the dysfunctional McMahon family circus. The book shows explicitly how McMahon encouraged his wrestlers to push themselves to the limits. It isn’t a coincidence that wrestlers from the McMahon era have routinely died in their 30’s and 40’s. The WWE schedule is a non-stop grind of lonely hotel rooms, long drives, flights, and back-breaking matches. McMahon also requires a physique impossible to acquire without performance enhancing drugs. Wrestlers get hooked on a lethal cocktail of painkillers, steroids, and pharmaceuticals. Chris Benoit was no exception. Even after watching close friends like Eddy Guerrero and Brian Pillman suffer and die after attempting to push their bodies harder than physically possible, Benoit learned no lessons. Despite being wealthy enough to leave the pain and misery behind him, he pushed himself harder and harder. Life without wrestling to Benoit wasn’t life at all.
After his best friend Guerrero died of a steroid-induced heart attack, Benoit became distraught. The book falters here as Randazzo seems reluctant to discuss the murders in all of their grisly detail. This restraint may be the sign of a good person, but it isn’t the sign of a good True Crime author. Observer readers will have already read all the details in Ring of Hell and more. But this book isn’t really about the murders. It’s about a cutthroat industry that has left bodies in its wake for two decades as Vince McMahon built a billion dollar company. And it’s about a Canadian lunatic beloved by fans but never able to love himself. It’s an amazing story well-told and an honest look inside a brutal and backwards business.