Dave Scherer has followed professional wrestling — as both a fan and a journalist — for nearly 30 years now, and in that time, he’s seen all sorts of guys step between the ropes. But he’d never seen anyone like Chris Benoit, a wrestler who was both technically sound and brutally raw — a grind-’em-out, stone-serious grappler who could best be described as unflashy yet still managed to go over well with both the fans and the guys in the locker room.
It didn’t hurt that Benoit was probably one of the best of all time, always delivering top-notch efforts and often carrying guys of lesser talent to the matches of their careers. And almost no one had a bad thing to say about him, whether on the message boards or in the boardrooms of the WWE, a fact evidenced by the sheer number of wrestlers who lined up to sing his praises during Monday’s three-hour tribute on “Monday Night Raw,” before the full details of his death were revealed. He was well-liked and respected by everyone who worked with him or shook his hand. By all accounts, he was a family man who loved his life and his craft.
Of course, that picture has changed considerably since Monday, when details of the apparent double-murder and suicide in his Fayetteville, Georgia, home started to make waves around the world (see “Deaths Of WWE Champ Chris Benoit, Family Being Treated As Murder-Suicide” ). According to investigators, Benoit murdered his wife and son, laying Bibles beside their bodies and staying in the home for several hours before taking his own life in the basement. Now everything Scherer — and millions of wrestling fans worldwide — knew about the former champion appears to have been wrong.
“Before Monday, I was a huge fan of Chris Benoit. He was always an amazing worker, among the best who ever stepped in the ring. He developed a following among the hard-core Internet fans because they appreciated how great he was,” Scherer, who owns the professional-wrestling-news site PWInsider.com, told MTV News on Wednesday. “But after hearing about what it appears he has done to his family, I will never be able to look at him or his work the same way. As someone who holds my wife and daughter as the more important things in my life, I can’t understand how he could do what he is alleged to have done. At this point in time, I never want to see any of his matches again.”
Scherer isn’t alone in his sentiments. In the days following the tragedy in Fayetteville, the WWE pulled all Benoit merchandise from its online store, and chairman Vince McMahon took to the airwaves to denounce his former champ. Users on Amazon.com actively debated whether or not it’s appropriate to sell Benoit’s “Hard Knocks” DVD. And MTV News has been flooded with e-mails from shocked fans, many of whom say they idolized Benoit but now will never be able to separate the wrestler from the man.
“For the majority of my adolescence, I’ve watched and admired wresting, Chris Benoit being one of the not-to-miss superstars. As an adult, I’ve come to realize, now more so than ever before, that the person I see on the screen is truly not [that person in real life],” Aleisha Bayron-Kaiser of Houston wrote. “I’m still in the mindset of ’I know I’ll wake up soon,’ but I’m honestly not surprised because this sort of thing happens too often. I am disappointed in who I idolized.”
“Last night I was in tears. Now I am in disgust,” Audrey Presson from Umatilla, Florida, added. “How can a man who demanded such respect bring such disrespect to his life? Remembering him in the light I saw him in in my teen years is hard now that these horrid actions have been revealed.”
We live in a time when our heroes are constantly letting us down or have bad light cast on them. Whether they’re athletes like Mark McGwire and Michael Vick or musicians like R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, we’re willing to put supremely talented people on pedestals and often equally willing to forgive when they tumble off of them. But if investigators are correct, few instances in recent memory are as brutal and unexpected as the Benoit tragedy, which only makes the hurt felt by those who idolized him all the more real — and all the more difficult to forgive.
“We’re more willing to create heroes these days because our culture has become more fragmented — because there are more absentee fathers out there, kids need to reach out and have other figures to identify with,” said Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum, a sports psychologist and the author of “Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self-Destructive Paths and Jeopardize Their Careers.” “People idolize athletes because if they can identify with someone who is out there performing well, it makes them feel good about themselves. If anything, the way people are reacting to Benoit is an index of how betrayed they feel by him.”
But will millions of shell-shocked fans ever be able to view Benoit’s greatest moments — his 1999 match with Bret Hart, a tribute to Bret’s brother, a fellow grappler who died in a freak in-ring incident; or his post-match celebration from WrestleMania XX — in the same light? Will the Fayetteville tragedy color the way people view professional wrestling forever? As you’d expect in a situation like this, the answers aren’t really clear. In fact, they tend to vary depending on the individual, just another hint at how personally connected people felt to their hero.
“I can’t say,” Scherer responded when asked if he’ll be able to watch Benoit’s matches again. “Right now, I don’t see that time coming. If I find out he was suffering from dementia due to concussions, maybe I could. If it ends up being [steroid] rage, no way.”
“There are stages that take place in instances like this,” Teitelbaum said. “First, fans get mad because they’re losing something. Then they withdraw or get depressed, but gradually they come back.
“Feelings are intensified when it’s an abrupt loss like this,” he continued. “But generally, if someone’s hero has failed them, they will come back. Not necessarily to the hero who let them down, but to someone else — to the next star they’ve made.”