Chris Benoit -- Before The Killings, An Icon To Insiders
By J.M. Berger
The 2003 Royal Rumble, a WWE pay-per-view event, left city wrestling fans with a great memory they thought was indelible.
It was an epic battle in Boston, between two of the most talented performers in the history of professional wrestling. One of those men was Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle.
The other was Chris Benoit.
"The two of them got a standing ovation at the end of the match, which is very rare in wrestling nowadays," recalled Dan Mirade, owner of the Millennium Wrestling Federation in Melrose. "It just shows how much the fans really appreciated what he went out there and did for 25 minutes."
Unlike other pro wrestling stars such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Hulk Hogan, Benoit never became a mainstream star. So it's hard for non-fans to understand just how devastating his fall into dishonor can be for those who followed his career. And everyone followed his career.
"Chris Benoit is about as influential as they come in the wrestling business," said Gabe Sapolsky, a Brookline native and head booker for East Coast wrestling promotion Ring of Honor. "There is no one in the wrestling business who has not studied Chris Benoit."
Benoit was considered the greatest "technical wrestler" of his generation, if not the history of wrestling. The phrase refers to someone who is extremely athletic and agile in the ring, telling the story of a match with the timing and intensity of his wrestling moves.
"When you explain that somebody was a great wrestler, people don't know what that means, because it's not a real sport," said Bryan Alvarez, writer and editor of Figure Four Weekly, a national newsletter devoted to the wrestling industry.
"I think if you asked most fans who the best there ever was, in the ring, many of them would say Chris Benoit," he said. In terms of stature and respect, Benoit might have been to wrestling what Marlon Brando was to acting, he said.
In addition to his high status with wrestling's most engaged fans, Benoit was also an inspiration to an entire generation of wrestlers.
Because his influence is so far reaching, Benoit's disgrace has been especially difficult for the pro wrestling community to process and accept.
"There aren't words really to describe what that feels for somebody in the business, except to say there's a depth of emotion here that is greater than it might have been with another star," said Sheldon Goldberg, chief promoter for New England Championship Wrestling in Jamaica Plain.
For many, the tragedy undercuts their fondest memories of wrestling at its very best -- athletic, skilled and powerful, unburdened by showboating, questionable acting and bloated storylines.
Sean Gorman, who performs as an in-ring "manager" with NECW, remembered the 2003 Rumble match as just such a moment.
"Even this jaded wrestling fan, who had been watching for so long, I got so wrapped up in that match that I actually forgot that it wasn't legitimate for that amazing 20 minutes," said Gorman.
Benoit is associated with many such fan favorite moments.
At the end of Wrestlemania XX in 2004, Benoit won the WWE Championship. In a moment that many relished, he embraced his real-life best friend and fellow wrestler Eddie Guerrero as the show rang to a close.
For many, the scene was a once-in-a-lifetime vindication for two of the industry's most influential -- and too often underappreciated -- performers.
Three years later, Guerrero is dead due to steroid-related heart disease.
And Benoit is now a murderer, twice over.
And the memory of Wrestlemania XX?
"That's forever tainted now," said Gorman.