Chris Benoit was known as the "Crippler" during his time as a professional wrestler, and the shocking deaths of he and his family in the summer of 2007 nearly crippled the entire industry. For wrestling fans, the legacy of Benoit is something that has been packed away into the deepest recesses of their mind since sometime shortly after that summer. They have been trained to forget the career of a man who, at one point in time, was one of the sport's most beloved stars. Some of that forgetfulness is due to the WWE's erasure of Benoit's legacy, and some of it is their own choosing, due to the way that Benoit's life ended and the sinister way in which he left this earth.
However, as the Season Two premiere of Dark Side of the Ring pointedly addresses, some are unable to file this man, his family, and the ghost of his career away so easily. Throughout the two-hour documentary, a powerful story is told of family and friends still trying to cope with a horrific crime more than a decade later.
Viewers are taken on a roller coaster of emotions as the filmmakers try to make sense of what led to the fateful nights in Georgia during June of 2007 that saw Benoit murder his wife Nancy, son Daniel, and ultimately take his own life.
The filmmakers did a good job in telling the story of someone who's story too often gets left out of the narrative due to the focus being on the horrific act her husband committed: Nancy Benoit. A would-be WWE Hall of Famer in her own right, Nancy rose through the ranks in the 1980s and 1990s to become one of the most iconic wrestling managers of all time, spending the majority of her career known by the name "Woman."
We see someone who was ahead of her time and transformative for the business, getting physically involved in matches when other females in the industry simply were used as eye candy. Her involvement in the industry eventually led her to Chris, and the relationship is explained in a way that makes Chris out to be Nancy's hero at the time, saving her from an allegedly violent marriage with wrestler Kevin Sullivan. However, by the time we get to part two of the film, we see the marriage deteriorate with the couple on the verge of a divorce before the gruesome murder-suicide.
A good portion of part one is also spent on Benoit's close friendship with Eddie Guerrero, as well as Guerrero's 2005 death. The friendship between the two men is well known, and long-time wrestling fans will remember the final scene of WrestleMania XX in Madison Square Garden as both Benoit and Guerrero embraced as WWE's two world champions. At the time, it was one of the most memorable WrestleMania moments of all time.
That night at the Garden would ultimately prove to be the climax of both of their careers. The documentary vividly recounts Guerrero's death in a Minnesota hotel in the fall of 2005, with Chavo Guerrero Jr. describing the scene as he discovered his uncle's body. Benoit was also in the hotel that day, and they describe his reaction to his best friend's death and how he struggled with that death for the rest of his life. It's a heart-wrenching retelling and presented as a potential trigger for what is to come.
As the documentary moves to its final hour, part two is a heartbreaking retelling of the murders and suicide themselves, with a detailed explanation from Larry Alden of the Fayette County (GA) Sheriff's Office, as well as family members and writer Matthew Randazzo V (Ring of Hell). No details are spared, including police crime scene photos from inside the house (no bodies are pictured, but some gruesome artifacts are).
We also hear the story of how WWE personnel found out about what had happened and an initial meeting that Vince McMahon held with talent. Clips are shown from the WWE Raw tribute show that aired the night the news broke, a show which has long been erased from WWE's history books. Chris Jericho, who narrates the documentary, chose to not be a part of it. Chavo Guerrero Jr. struggles with what he said that night, and Jim Ross describes the experience as one of regret, though he justifies it by explaining the company just didn't know the full picture at the time.
Friends and family of the Benoits (including Nancy's sister, Sandra Toffoloni, and Chris' surviving son, David Benoit) still struggle to cope with what happened and identify the cause of it all throughout the program. David, understandably, still idolizes his father and Toffoloni recounts moments where perhaps she could have intervened.
A fair amount of time is spent on the steroids angle, which was heavily used by the mass media at the time of the crime. However, we also hear about how WWE had ramped up their drug testing program following Guerrero's death. Or had they?
There are conflicting accounts here, with Chris Jericho talking about how you couldn't take high powered Aspirin without failing a test, while Randazzo and texts from Nancy prior to her death make the drug testing program sound far less thorough. Randazzo explains that Benoit had survived testing despite there being massive amounts of testosterone in his system at the time of his death.
Depression and possible alcoholism are also touched on, but former wrestler Chris Nowinski really shines here when explaining the research that was done on Benoit's brain as it relates to neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. We know now that CTE has been seen as a cause of numerous violent episodes with ex-professional athletes, and if there's a positive to be derived from this awful situation, it's the increase in awareness of CTE and the positive impacts that awareness has had on the wrestling business.
In the end, there is an uplifting conclusion to the program that shows that, despite so many dark and gruesome moments in the sport's history, pro wrestling can still serve as a catalyst to bring us all together.
If the Chris Benoit edition of Dark Side of the Ring is any indication, Season Two of the series is once again going to be must-see television. The series thrives in weaving some positive threads out of the darkest stories in the sport's history, no matter how challenging that may be. The tale of the Benoit tragedy is certainly one of the most difficult moments in wrestling history, however, the final scenes prove that positives can still be born out of the darkest of circumstances.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Dark Side of the Ring: Benoit premieres Tuesday, March 24th at 9 p.m. ET on VICE TV. Part one of the episode is available on YouTube now.
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