Real Life Lessons Learned from Fake Fighting: Separating Art from Its Artist

author: Nick Dashing

Professional wrestling is a shitty business. It’s a shitty business filled with shitty companies, shitty traditions and a shitty audience. From its earliest days as a carnival side-attraction, pro wrestling was a business founded upon deception and exploitation. Even today, wrestling promotions are built on the backs of athletes scraping for a living, trying not to get injured while simultaneously performing more and more dangerous feats to satiate an increasingly entitled fanbase, and being screwed out of money by their promoters.

More importantly, wrestling is filled with shitty people. Making an exhaustive list would be too great of an undertaking, so let’s skim WWE’s Hall of Fame for a few examples:

The Fabulous Moolah, inducted in 1995, was one of the first professional women’s wrestlers. She also opened a school to train younger female wrestlers in Columbia, South Carolina (home state pride, woo!) where she then literally pimped out her proteges to secure better booking for herself in other promotions.

Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, inducted in 1996, is probably best known for being one of the first “high-flyers” in professional wrestling, including doing the first cage-dive onto a downed opponent. In 1983, however, he was allegedly involved in an accident that killed his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino. To be fair, this case never went to court for lack of evidence (allegedly due to interference from Vince McMahon), but it was briefly reopened in 2015, before the court ruled Snuka incapable of standing trial due to a history of head injuries.

Abdullah the Butcher, inducted in 2011, was a pioneer of the “hardcore” style of professional wrestling, and in particular, blading one’s head to draw out blood. He became so used to cutting his head that he now has grooves in his forehead deep enough to stand nickels in. That in and of itself isn’t terrible, but at some point Abdullah contracted hepatitis C, and continued to bleed on his opponents without informing them. (NSFW image on link)

Carlos Colon, inducted in 2014, was the premiere wrestling promoter in Puerto Rico. In 1988, he decided to discipline an uncooperative wrestler named Bruiser Brody by essentially carrying out a hit on him. Colon allegedly had another wrestler, Invader I, stab Brody repeatedly while in the shower, and then helped to cover up the murder.

The Ultimate Warrior, also inducted in 2014, was set to be Hulk Hogan’s successor as the top guy in the WWF¹. His main event run ended rather abruptly, as his primadonna attitude made him hated in the locker room. Warrior then spent the later part of his life advocating against homosexuality, stating multiple times in lectures and Youtube videos that “queering doesn’t make the world work.”

Donald Trump.

It was much easier to be a wrestling fan back in the 1980s before kayfabe (pro wrestling’s equivalent of the “fourth wall”) was broken and the business was exposed as scripted. Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet, pro wrestling is a far more transparent enterprise. This is almost always a good thing: many of the shadier practices of the business have been mitigated, if not out-and-out eliminated. If a wrestler is treated unfairly, s/he no longer has to worry about keeping up kayfabe and being bullied into “sucking it up.” Most importantly, the death toll of wrestlers for the 90s and 00s generations should drop dramatically.

But ignorance is bliss, and being aware of wrestling’s shittiness can make it a tough business to be a fan of. Even before his racist tirade was leaked in 2015, wrestling fans were aware of how shitty a person Hulk Hogan was from various stories told by other wrestlers.

Every wrestling fan has to learn a harsh lesson once they become “smart” (which is to say, when they learn that what they see on TV isn’t real, and that wrestlers are not always their characters). Chances are, your favorite wrestler as a kid has been pretty shitty. Hulk Hogan was a racist. So was Ric Flair. Stone Cold Steve Austin beat his wife. John Cena ruined another man’s relationship and then had him fired. Do you ignore these people’s real life shittiness and remain a fan, do you simply extricate yourself from them forever, or do you take a middling path and learn how to separate the character from the person, the body of work from the worker, the fantasy sold to you by promoters from the very disappointing reality?

Below is the story of how I came to the latter solution, and learned to separate art from its artist as a whole.

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It’s not uncommon for wrestling fans to go on hiatus; after all, wrestling will always be there, and at some point, younger dudes become interested in girls, which makes wrestling less of an option. I had just come off a break from wrestling at the beginning of 2004, just in time to catch the buildup to Wrestlemania 20. The main event of that Wrestlemania was a Triple Threat match for the WWE World Title. The odds-on favorites to win were former WWE Champions Shawn Michaels and Triple H, while the third man, Chris Benoit, was more like a third-wheel in the fight. Benoit had never been much more than a mid-carder (a secondary character in wrestling) and even smart fans expected him to lose since the feud between Michaels and Triple H overshadowed him completely.

But to our surprise, Benoit managed to tap out Triple H and became the world champion for the first time in his 17-year long career. The image of him and his friend Eddie Guerrero, who had just defended the WWE Title against Kurt Angle earlier in the night, celebrating to close out the show still remains one of the coolest moments in wrestling history.

Now by this point I was a “smart” fan, in that I was well aware that what I was seeing was a performance, and not a real sport. However, when I was a kid and watched wrestling, Chris Benoit was one of my favorites. I grew up watching WCW (World Championship Wrestling), WWE’s main competitor throughout the 90s, where both Benoit and Guerrero were active in its Cruiserweight (high-flyer) division, and Benoit was part of the legendary wrestling group, the Four Horsemen. Fast forward to 2000, when I switched over to watching WWE, and, lo and behold, both Benoit and Guerrero also jumped ship. Benoit still remained a favorite of mine alongside Stone Cold and the Rock because he always looked intense and all of his matches were exciting. When I became a “smart” fan I learned to appreciate him for his “workrate” and “wrestling psychology.” When both he and Eddie Guerrero won their respective world titles, it was the wrestling equivalent of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series; no one ever expected it, but to long time fans it was the greatest achievement on earth.

Then, in November 2005, Eddie Guerrero died from complications arising from an earlier drug addiction. Eddie had always been open about his addiction, and the fact that he overcame it was part of the greatness of his rise to the top. This was probably the first wrestler’s death that really stuck with me, and given how much of a paragon of virtue he was outside of his addiction, he set the standard extremely high for how wrestlers could behave. Chris Benoit agrees.

Unfortunately, Chris Benoit didn’t follow up on this when he died in June, 2007. Instead of dying a hero like Eddie did, Benoit killed his wife Nancy and his 10 year old son Daniel, then hanged himself on a weight machine, becoming without a doubt the shittiest wrestler to have ever lived.

Once the news broke, more details came forward, some true, some false. It came to light that he had been charged for beating his wife before (true), that his son had a disability (true), that he had a history of anger stemming from steroid use (half-true, ‘roid rage isn’t really a thing, but he did use steroids and did have anger issues), that he had killed his son with his finishing hold, the Crippler Crossface (false), that there was a day and a half space between when he killed his wife and when he killed his son (true). Later came various accusations and supposed motivations. The first obvious conclusion was that steroids were involved, which came from Sean Hannity. Nancy Grace implied that Benoit was depressed from “being demoted from the Four Horsemen to Monday Night Raw.” A former wrestler named Marc Mero implied that wrestling made people violent and this was the outcome of that. And as with anything else they can sink their teeth into, the media ran with all of these conclusions and sensationalized the murder to promote whatever agenda they wanted to. Videogame fans know all too well the old canard that the media likes to dredge up about videogames being violent. This is doubly true for how the media has, until very recently, treated professional wrestling.

I was 16 at the time of the Benoit double-murder-suicide. Obviously, it was shitty for a bunch of reasons that have nothing to do with me, but, for me, it was a very difficult thing to accept. I had basically grown up watching Chris Benoit wrestle, and he was one of the very few people both me and my dad really liked. Despite the fact that I know now how full of shit the media was about the Benoit murders, I did not then. Every new revelation that came up about it was a new, ugly detail that was like a stab to the back. On some level, I probably did feel like it was a betrayal. As I did more research over the next few months, becoming a “smarter” fan, I learned just how shitty the business itself was, and how many people just like Benoit were in the business. It was found out later that Benoit suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE, the disease football players get from having too many concussions), and basically committed murder during a psychotic break. Watching old matches of his, it becomes clear why: His finish was literally just him driving his head into an opponent’s sternum (when he didn’t miss and smash his head against the hard mat), and he never blocked his head from an oncoming chair shot.

I took another hiatus for wrestling shortly after that. Part of it was liking girls, but the other part was because I just did not know if it was still okay to like wrestling.

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I eventually ended my hiatus after a few weeks of not having TV/Internet, and instead watching my step-mom’s wrestling DVDs. She is a big Bret Hart fan, and one of the matches on Bret’s bio-DVD was a match he had against Chris Benoit in WCW. Without going into too much detail, it was a great match, because Bret Hart is excellent. Another DVD had a match between Benoit and Kurt Angle, which was also fantastic. There were many other individual matches I watched in that time, but sooner or later I had to conclude that Chris Benoit, loath as I am to acknowledge him, was one of the best wrestlers in history, and unfortunately, I still enjoy his matches.

Years later, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still feel guilty whenever I watch a Chris Benoit match. He would be easier to ignore altogether if he was a smaller player in WWE and WCW. It would also be easier if he sucked. But he wasn’t, and he didn’t, and after some reflection, I realized it would be dishonest, not to mention impossible, to just pretend that he wasn’t one of my favorite wrestlers at one point, and that he had a huge impact in history.

So I was in a weird, uncomfortable state where I couldn’t say I liked Chris Benoit, but also didn’t think it was intellectually right to consider him an unperson. What can you do?

The first option I listed above, to just ignore his crimes, wasn’t going to happen. As a digression, I am very thankful to past-me for never indulging in the willful ignorance surrounding the Benoit murders. Tons of conspiracy theories came up after the murders that absolved Chris Benoit from murdering his wife and son. One says that Vince McMahon put out a mafia hit. Another claims that Benoit was involved in a prescription drug ring and is in witness protection. The most infamous is probably that a former wrestler, and Nancy Benoit’s ex-husband, Kevin Sullivan killed them and framed Chris. The fact that Benoit ruined Kevin and Nancy’s marriage and that Sullivan played a Satanic character fueled that rumor. Thankfully I was never so stupid as to believe that, nor was I so enamoured with Chris Benoit that I willingly lived in ignorance to facts in order to feel better about his murders. Benoit-truthers are stupid and should be ridiculed at any opportunity.

The second option I listed above was to just never watch another Chris Benoit match or acknowledge him. For this one, I don’t really see a point. Not acknowledging him isn’t really a protest. Wrestling is, in many ways, community entertainment. It’s meant to be watched with others, and discussed with others, like a sport or a TV show. You can’t prevent others from mentioning him, and at some point Benoit probably will come up. He was just too involved in the business not to. I’ve also never been one to tell others how to enjoy something. That being said, this is how my dad handles Benoit. I don’t feel the way he does, but maybe when I have a wife and kids I will. Who knows.

The third option, to separate the artist from his art, is what I ended up doing. The question inherent in this is whether or not an artist being shitty makes his art less valuable. The famous example is Woody Allen, who slept with his underaged adopted daughter. Does that make his movies, or his stand up, less funny, exciting or memorable? To use an example from music, does Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism make Flight of the Valkyries less skillful? Does OJ Simpson murdering his wife and her boyfriend mean that you can’t be a Buffalo Bills fan anymore, and do all of the records he set and Superbowls he won become invalid?

To some people, yes, it does. For me, it doesn’t. Wrestling being outed as “fake” makes it easier than it would otherwise, really, because not only can I separate Chris Benoit from his matches, but I can also separate Chris Benoit the person from Chris Benoit the character on TV.

Let me put it a simpler way. Is Hulk Hogan a racist? No. Hulk Hogan is a real American. He always fights to protect his friends and the American way. He loves everyone that isn’t a villain, no matter what color their skin is or what religion they practice. Hulk Hogan is an awesome role model. He tells kids to work out, say their prayers and take their vitamins. Except for when he joined the NWO and became a bad guy, Hulk Hogan is a paragon of what was considered “good” in 80s and 90s America.

Terry Bollea, the person who plays Hulk Hogan, however, is a racist. Terry Bollea is a terrible person. He frequently interfered in other people’s jobs, making himself look good and others bad. He blew the whistle on a potential wrestlers’ union, making him responsible for the deaths of several wrestlers who were simply driven into the ground with how grueling the WWE’s schedule can be. Does that invalidate every Hulk Hogan match, promo, interview, or autograph signing though?

Chris Benoit is obviously more complicated, because Benoit the person is ostensibly also the character. He came up as a wrestler without an over-the-top, colorful character. That makes it harder. There will probably never be a day that I can’t watch a Benoit match without there being a shroud over his performance. But, wrestling matches take two people, and I feel like it is a disservice to hold what he did against whomever he was working with that night, and overall I have been able, with time, to separate Benoit’s performances from his murders.

At the end of the day, that’s really up to the individual, and how much they can separate Hulk Hogan and Terry Bollea, or Chris Benoit from the matches he worked. For me it’s not hard, but I can’t begrudge those that can’t make those distinctions.

If it helps any, the Benoit murders have also been a blessing in disguise. His death triggered a very deep look at how WWE treats it's employees. They're still not perfect, but the wellness policies they enacted and the way they treat major injuries had improved by leaps and bounds. Accidents still happen, but in a weird twist of fate, Chris Benoit may have saved a number of people’s lives. This includes Daniel Bryan, who might as well have been Benoit the way he wrestled, and is responsible for me getting back into modern WWE after my hiatus. Bryan had to retire in 2016 due to concussions, which is heartbreaking for me, but far less so than if he became another Chris Benoit. 

All of Chris Benoit’s matches are now up on the WWE Network, with a parental advisory. This seems like the best compromise between people like me are willing to separate an artist from his art, and those who would rather just let people like Benoit go forgotten.

 

  1. World Wrestling Federation, WWE’s former name. They changed in 2002 after a lawsuit from the World Wildlife Fund.