WWE: The Lonesome Death of Chris Benoit


The world of sports entertainment provides us with treasured memories and an escape from everyday stress. That doesn’t mean its stars are immune from troubles of their own, like Chris Benoit.

Another year of WWE Hall of Fame entrants also brings another year of questionable exclusions. Owen Hart? No. British Bulldog? Not yet. Out of all the names we could list, the most tragic omission that will never come to pass is that of Chris Benoit. The Canadian Crippler held 22 belts between his lengthy career in WWE, WCW, NJPW, and ECW. He was the world champion twice – once in WCW and once in WWE – and was scheduled to win his third on the night of his death. He is one of only five men to ever be a Triple Crown Champion in both WCW and WWE and is only the second wrestler in WWE history to win the Royal Rumble after starting as the number one entrant.

He was a champion, a husband, and a father. He was also a murderer.

This June will mark the 10 year anniversary of the night Chris Benoit killed his wife and 7 year old son before committing suicide a few days later. Police entered his home on the afternoon of June 25th, 2007 after Benoit missed several appointments, causing concern with his friends and family. He had given no indication about his intentions other than some cryptic text messages listing his address and a short phone conversation with Chavo Guerrero which Chavo later described as “odd”. The horrifying reality of Benoit’s crimes can never be understated and it is hard for fans to look back on his storied career without ultimately reverting to the sobering way it ended.

The toxicology report concluded that Benoit had traces of Xanax, hydrocodone, and elevated level of testosterone in his system which some people incorrectly point to as evidence of steroid use. Nothing in the report suggested any type of steroids were present or that “roid rage” was a plausible explanation for his behavior but a further analysis revealed something much more likely. The autopsy on Benoit’s brain concluded it was so damaged from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that despite being only 40 years old, his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. In September 2007, Science Daily published an article detailing the physical effects of CTE in all four regions of Benoit’s brain:

"“According to the examinations, Mr. Benoit’s brain exhibited large amounts of abnormal Tau protein, manifested as Neurofibrillary Tangles (NFTs) and Neuropil Threads [NTs]. These represent aggregates of abnormal Tau protein, which are remnants of the cytoskeleton of the brain cells and their connections. Frequent NFTs and NTs were distributed in all regions of the brain including the neocortex, the limbic cortex, subcortical ganglia and brainstem ganglia accompanied by loss of brain cells. Accumulation of abnormal Tau protein in the form of NFTs and NTs in the brain has been confirmed to cause neurodegeneration, cognitive impairment and dementia.”"

In addition to those mentioned in the Science Daily article, other symptoms of CTE include memory loss, depression, and aggression. Its cause is thought to be directly related to repeated head trauma which typically manifests itself physically in the form of concussions. Unfortunately, this affliction cannot be formally diagnosed until after death since the brain must be dissected in order to confirm the presence of CTE damage. There are numerous examples of the brains of athletes from other sports exhibiting these physical signs as well as retired wrestlers (including Mick Foley and Tommy Dreamer) who have openly discussed feeling its effects throughout their careers. Chris Jericho was one of Benoit’s closest friends and discussed the CTE issue on his podcast, going so far as to say that concussions most likely played a role in Benoit’s actions:

"“I would say, if I’m talking rationally, I would say concussions. I would say the same thing that happened with Junior Seau and all these type of guys, nothing makes sense about it. It could be concussions. It could be rage. It could be demonic possession for all I know. There’s no real closure on that.”"

As the news of his death broke, WWE canceled the RAW scheduled for that evening and replaced it with Vince McMahon addressing an empty arena, saying that the next 3 hours would be dedicated to Benoit’s legacy. During this show, wrestlers and announcers all spoke highly of Chris, most of them doing so as they fought back tears. Once the details began to emerge however, the cleansing of his connection to the company began and went so deep that a search for his name on WWE.com yields zero results. While some people agree with this decision, avoiding any discussion about him or this tragedy allows WWE to also avoid the uncomfortable truth that their business may have played a part in his actions.

In no way am I suggesting WWE is responsible for Benoit’s crimes. However, their refusal to acknowledge any culpability surrounding his condition is akin to the NFL doing the same when retired players commit questionable or horrific acts as a result of CTE. Not many wrestlers are willing to speak openly about Benoit but Kurt Angle isn’t afraid to remember his friend with fondness and appreciation. Appearing on Talk is Jericho, Angle reminisced about Benoit’s technical proficiency and how his in-ring skill should be acknowledged as one of the greatest of all time:

"“I’m sorry, but he has got to be in the top three of all time. I mean, you can’t deny that. I mean, even Bret Hart will tell you that. I’m not going to excuse any of the things Chris did outside of wrestling, but when he was in that ring, he was possibly the greatest of all time.”"

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The WWE has no long-term plans to address CTE apart from the ImPACT Concussion Management Program. These tests are only given once a year or if a wrestler displays outward symptoms of a concussion. Perhaps the day will come when giant sports entities such as the NFL or WWE recognize the dangers posed by CTE and rely more on just annual tests to prevent its devastating effects. As we remember Benoit, do yourself a favor and avoid going down any of the myriad rabbit holes that deal with various conspiracy theories surrounding his death. Such nonsense only serves to muddy the waters of a confusing and sad time in wrestling history. Since CTE is still a relatively new medical diagnosis, fans walk a fine line between condemning Benoit’s actions while also fondly remembering his ability or scrubbing away his accomplishments entirely and erasing him from the history books. WWE has chosen the latter. I choose the former.