Friday, April 8, 2016

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 28 (The Horrifying Death of Chris Benoit)

2007 was the year I became a Ring of Honor fanatic.  I started the year by attending a live show (Dedicated) which featured a pretty damn good Samoa Joe vs. Nigel McGuinness match, plus a host of other fun bouts (Davey Richards vs. Rocky Romero, a wild mixed tag where Daizee Haze was legit rammed head-first into the post and sprouted a potato from her forehead, and a fine Briscoes vs. Aries & Strong 2/3 falls main event).  While there were certainly much stronger ROH shows, the action was so crisp and had such a sense of urgency WWE lacked that I was blown away by this experience.  I'd been to two ROH shows in 2003 but this one felt like a much more well-rounded package and the action was relentless.

At intermission I picked up four ROH DVDs, largely with the intent of finally checking out some of Bryan Danielson's work.  I'd read glowing things about him for months and was quite intrigued to see what all the fuss was about.  I went with Main Event Spectacles (featuring Danielson vs. AJ Styles), Fight of the Century and Irresistable Forces (both headlined by Danielson vs. Joe), and of course I had to pick up the ROH show that generated unprecedented internet buzz and singlehandedly jumpstarted their DVD business, Joe vs. Kobashi.  I watched all four in short order and was shocked by two things.  The first was that Kobashi was not a diminutive high-flying wrestler as I'd pictured (I knew nothing about the man prior to this), but a brawny slugger who could trade brutal power moves with Joe, leading to one of the best ROH matches of all time.  The other shocker was Danielson, who I'd also pictured as an aerial wrestler, but whose style owed more to William Regal and Ric Flair.  This was a consummate mat technician who seemingly knew more holds and counters than anyone since Lou Thesz.  Danielson's grappling-heavy matches with Joe and AJ were a huge breath of fresh air at a time when WWE relied heavily on gimmick matches and outmoded Attitude Era tropes.  Right away I couldn't wait to absorb as much ROH as I could find.  Within a few months they'd become my favorite wrestling promotion by far.

Goddamn this was great

In WWE the two big feuds were John Cena vs. Umaga about which I was less than interested, and the reunited DX, Triple H and Shawn Michaels (who'd spent much of 2006 feebly trying to reprise their 1997 comedy schtick despite now being 37 and 41 respectively, and feuding interminably with Vince & Shane McMahon) against the exciting new heel team of Randy Orton and Edge, or Rated RKO.  I loved this pairing of the company's top two heels, but unfortunately they were booked as DX punching bags for much of the rivalry.  The plan for WrestleMania 23 was a rematch of 'Mania 22's headliner, Cena vs. Triple H.  Holy jeezus this idea bored the shit outta me.  I wasn't all that impressed by their first go-round and certainly didn't need to see it again.  But Hunter tore his quad for the second time at the New Year's Revolution PPV, and Plan B was put into action.  This involved Shawn Michaels stepping in to take Hunter's place, and it would also mean the dissolving of DX (Thank Christ!).

The Royal Rumble was bafflingly referred to as "the most star-studded Rumble of all time," which is guffaw-inducing if one takes even a cursory glance at the lineup.  Go ahead and look it up on Wikipedia, I'll wait......  After a very lackluster show which included the overrated Cena-Umaga Last Man Standing match to blow off their feud, the Rumble itself boiled down to Shawn vs. Undertaker, and this would prove to be the one outstanding segment of the show.  Shawn and Taker traded near-eliminations for several minutes, unknowingly foreshadowing their future pair of WrestleMania classics.  Taker eventually got the win, but I couldn't help lamenting that the two World Title challengers at WrestleMania were both over 40.  WWE desperately needed to start building for the future, and the only guys getting real opportunities were surefire non-starters like Umaga, Bobby Lashley, Chris Masters, and Mr. Kennedy.  I really thought it should've been CM Punk getting the Rumble win and a main event push, given how over he was and how far ahead of Vince's pack of favorites.

The one good part of Rumble '07

In TNA they'd already screwed up just about everything they'd been doing well.  Kurt Angle beat Samoa Joe in a rubber match that January and became an immediate fixture in the World Title picture, while Joe languished as an upper-midcard gatekeeper.  TNA began importing even more former WWE/WCW talent like Scott Steiner and Tyson Tomko while keeping their homegrown stars at arm's length from the top Championship.  This, coupled with constant screwjob finishes, cheap publicity signees like Adam "Pacman" Jones (who wasn't allowed to take bumps but was given a Tag Team Title run anyway), and bonehead gimmicks like the Reverse Battle Royal, made TNA completely unwatchable by year's end.  It was clear TNA would never be a viable WWE alternative, as their creative strategy seemed to consist of trying to "out-WWE" the actual WWE.  No, my only solace would be with Ring of Honor.

That year's WrestleMania would be roughly the 20th anniversary of my first 'Mania as a fan, and would take place in roughly the same location.  Instead of the decaying Pontiac Silverdome though, 'Mania 23 would hail from Ford Field in Detroit.  I wasn't terribly excited for the card going in, but the show ended up quite a spectacle.  Despite my reservations about Michaels and Taker being the two top challengers, they each delivered a fantastic showing; Taker vs. Batista would kick off one of the best feuds of the year, while Michaels and John Cena put together one helluva main event.  The third annual Money in the Bank match went to Mr. Kennedy, in whom I saw very little potential.  Kennedy would be suspended for failing a Wellness Test only months later and would drop the briefcase to Edge.  The other big matchup involved Vince McMahon's unwatchable feud against Donald Trump, where each of them chose an in-ring proxy and the loser would have his head shaved.  The ensuing Bobby Lashley vs. Umaga match was watchable but not very noteworthy, and the subsequent shaving of Vince's head was amusing but ultimately pretty pointless.  All-in-all though, WrestleMania 23 far exceeded my low expectations.

Best WWE match of the year

That spring/summer saw Vince once again take a major on-air role as the center of two of the stupidest angles of all time.  The first involved Vince's limo being blown up with him inside it.  Yup, Vince was shown ambling backstage toward the arena exit, getting in his limo, and KA-BLAMMO!  I haven't the foggiest idea where they were going with this; was Vince's intention to never again appear on television or did he actually think his audience stupid enough to buy some sort of resurrection angle later on?  Regardless, the following week WWE presented a fake tribute show, done in the style of the very real tributes they had done for Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero.  Ya know, beloved stars who'd actually died?  As soon as this aired I said to myself, "Someone's actually gonna die while this debacle's going on and the fake tribute is going to seem really tasteless."  Unfortunately I was right.  Twice.

But before we get to that, Vince's other angle upon abandoning the whole "Vince is dead" storyline involved a ponderous investigation into one of the roster members being Vince's illegitimate son.  The intent was for Mr. Kennedy to be revealed as a McMahon, thus launching a big push.  But as I said before, he got suspended for PEDs (one of a rash of such suspensions that year) and instead the big reveal was Fit Finlay's sidekick Hornswoggle.  Weeks of buildup thrown out in favor of a comedy angle.  Just super.

Just a week after Vince's fake death it was announced that "Sensational" Sherri Martel had died of a drug overdose at the age of 49, yet another 80s star who left us way too young.  Sherri's death went mostly unmentioned by WWE, probably because they realized they'd fucked up by faking Vince's death and then airing a "tribute."  But uncannily the wrestling world would be dealt a far more serious blow only ten days later, when the bodies of Nancy, Daniel, and Chris Benoit were discovered in their Atlanta home.

That Monday evening I'd been playing Smackdown on the Playstation with a friend, and when 9pm rolled around we decided to take a break and see what was on the docket for that night's RAW.  The first image we saw was this:

Fuck.  Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

I said, "This has to be an angle.  They just killed Vince on the air, this has to be an angle."  But it wasn't.  The show faded up to Vince, standing mid-ring in an empty arena, eulogizing Chris Benoit and announcing that this RAW episode would be a tribute.  I was numb.  My favorite wrestler of the last seven years was gone.  Worse, his wife and son had joined him.  My first assumption was they'd died in some kind of accident.  Vehicular, gas leak, something.  The next morning my worst fears were confirmed.  Chris had murdered his wife and seven-year-old boy, and then killed himself.  I spent the next two days in a state of revulsion.  I could not wrap my head around the idea of this well-respected, gentle (outside the ring at least), family man destroying the people he loved most in this world.  It simply couldn't be true.

That night the regularly scheduled ECW episode began with a Vince disclaimer saying that, in light of the new information in the Benoit case, his name would never be mentioned on WWE programming again.  This was perfectly understandable, but it went further than that.  Benoit matches would be removed from episodes of Nitro on WWE's cable subscription service WWE 24/7, he would be omitted from all DVD compilations (excluding the SummerSlam box set the following year), and even special WrestleMania-related magazines would no longer mention his presence in the main event of 'Mania 20.  It was so strange and horrifying; his legacy as one of the most well-respected wrestlers of all time was gone.  Instead he'd just be remembered as a monster.

Of course the media was a frenzy of steroid allegations and concussion talk.  Every former WWE wrestler implied the company was forcing 'roids down everyone's throat, while current employees vehemently denied such a thing.  In the end Chris Nowinski's Sports Legacy Institute found through their research that Benoit had been suffering from severe CTE, which was known to cause dementia, severe depression, and violent behavior.  The one positive thing to come from all this was a much stronger awareness of brain injuries and greater steps to protect the talent.

Being excited about anything WWE-related at that time was damn near impossible, between the Benoit situation and the horrid creative direction.  But Ring of Honor was now offering two-hour pre-taped PPVs every few months, which was tremendously exciting.  Their first effort, Respect is Earned, was a little underwhelming.  But their second, Driven, was a spectacular show headlined by Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness.  This was the first I'd seen of their matches together, and I instantly fell in love with this feud.  The mat wrestling was unlike anything I'd ever encountered; smooth, European-style grappling, counterholds, submissions, plus the two of them resorted to rugged brawling when it was called for.  This match was a masterpiece, and I sought out as many of their previous bouts as I could find.

Now this is a fuckin' PPV

WWE's fall season brought the long-awaited return of Chris Jericho, who had stepped away from the business in 2005, burned out on the exhausting road schedule and tired of being used as a midcarder.  Jericho reappeared on RAW with a short haircut and rather a cheesy babyface version of his old character, but in the ring he still looked great and was featured prominently in the WWE Title mix.

Also John Cena had to forfeit the Title after suffering a torn pec, ending a year-plus reign (the longest since Randy Savage in 1989).  In his place (via a really convoluted mess on the No Mercy PPV) was Randy Orton, who was finally a top player after three years of false starts.  The World Title would end up in the hands of Orton's former Rated RKO partner Edge, and the year closed with two Champions I could get behind.

The one really exciting WWE event that fall was CM Punk finally winning the ECW Title, after months of coming up short.  Originally at Vengeance Punk was slated to face Benoit for the vacant title (The Champion Bobby Lashley had been sidelined with an injury and would never appear on WWE TV again - good thinkin' on that one Vince!), but when Benoit didn't show up his replacement was John Morrison.  Look, I'm a JoMo fan but he was about as inappropriate for the ECW brand as anyone on the roster.  Didn't stop WWE from putting that belt on him though (and immediately jobbing him out to John Cena the following Tuesday).  But Morrison was one of the casualties of the rash of steroid suspensions, and the company needed to get the belt off him.  So on September 4th Morrison and Punk had a blistering free TV match in which Punk finally triumphed.  Sure he'd be treated like a joke champion since Vince didn't understand why he was so popular, but for one night it felt like a major transition.

It's the small victories....

2007 would be the final year of WWE's holdover Attitude Era philosophy, as they were about to move back to a more family-friendly product.  While I'd miss things like cuss words and Hell in a Cell bladejobs, it did feel like the time was right to put to bed the tropes of excess that had been beaten to death over the previous eight years.  The Attitude strategy had served them well in the late 90s as they battled WCW for survival, but in 2007 it felt stale and desperate.

As the new year began Ring of Honor was my one wrestling passion; stars like Danielson, McGuinnes, The Briscoes, Austin Aries, and Roderick Strong were for me the true top talents in the industry and WWE's product became more background noise.  My wrestling fandom now existed in a much smaller universe and I was just fine with that for the time being.

Part 27
Part 29

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