The professional wrestling industry exists in relative obscurity to anyone who doesn’t follow it regularly. Names and affiliations tend to change faster than the companies’ TV deals, it seems. A few wrestlers are known to even the most clueless observer, such as Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and Dwayne Johnson (aka the Rock). Another name now etched into their minds: Chris Benoit. He was a technician without equal, a shaman of the suplex, a paragon of powerbombers, someone whose name was once synonymous with quiet excellence, rigid discipline and relentless perfectionism. All of that is forgotten now.
The death of Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy and son Daniel was the lead story across America at this time last year. The tragedy exploded onto TV screens with seemingly no warning, and fans who had watched Benoit’s work over the previous 20 years (ten or 15, from the prespective of American viewers) were left with no explanation outside of the self-interested speculations of WWE or their media apostates, both of whom were quick to present the debacle as the result of one or two isolated factors. The humanity of Benoit and, most troubling, his innocent victims, never really factored into anyone’s coverage.
Now, just in time for the anniversary, the new book by Matthew Randazzo V has hit the shelves to the kind of response John Cena gets from the audience: a roughly even mix of cheers and boos. Ring of Hell (Phoenix Books) is written in that “purple prose” one expects from a true-crime author, with enough errors in spelling and grammar to suggest a rush job on the editing, probably to be sure it was out by June. He clearly set out to bury the business in print, but has in fact produced one of the best books ever written about professional wrestling–certainly the best ever written by a non-wrestler.
Author Randazzo has all the right tools for a task of this kind. His parents were both corporate lawyers, and their son works on the legal side of redevelopment projects in his native New Orleans. His main writing gigs tend to center on organized crime, fine preparation for covering an industry with roots, branches and fruit in organized crime. If everything is the book was true, and it’s impossible to confirm or deny all of it since so many of the principals are dead, then the author is entirely in his element.
By telling the life story of Chris Benoit, Randazzo tells a story of pro wrestling’s evolution over those short but strenuous 40 years. Benoit’s sole ambition was to be a wrestler–specifically, a modernized version of his idol, Tom Billington, whose exploits as “the Dynamite Kid” made it possible for shorter, lighter workers to get exposure in the size-conscious American scene. Both men consumed massive amounts of steroids whose salubrious effect on muscle growth was more than balanced by the havoc they wreaked on their bones, connective tissue and their personal lives.
The core of Randazzo’s thesis is that Benoit had serious mental issues dating back to the earliest years of his career, issues related to self-consciousness about height, an emphasis on technical perfection bordering on OCD, and a propensity for cruelty whose limits were apparently nonexistent. These issues–the latter, in particular–were only made worse by his indoctrination into the highly political and ultraviolent wrestling subculture, with its PSYOP-worthy pranks and lethal hazing. Randazzo paints his trainers in Stampede and New Japan as professional sadists who took pride in breaking their students’ bodies and their will. Benoit learned his lessons well, and would mature into a legendary taskmaster who had no problem making a grown man cry on national television if he felt it was necessary to “protect the business”.
Benoit made his bones, as they say, in New Japan as a standout in its light-heavyweight division, and would probably still be there, wealthy and reasonably sane, had he never come to work in America, Randazzo asserts. Instead Benoit and colleagues Dean Malenko and “Latino Heat” Eddy Guerrero played a huge role in the explosion of pro wrestling in the 1990s, with catastrophic consequences for their physical well-being. This is the most entertaining part of the book–the fun and games of ECW and Monday Nitro, when the idea of half the cast being dead in a decade was simply unthinkable, because nothing like it had ever happened before. The combination of prescription drugs, alcohol and steroids killed 50 people and almost killed 50 more. People like Scott Hall, Sunny, Shawn Michaels, Konnan, Juventud Guerrera and Raven–who allegedly rolled on ecstasy for 14 straight days, with the dose doubled daily–are alive practically by accident.
An already-dark story gets darker after the deaths of Brian Pillman in 1997 and Owen Hart in ’99. Both had trained with Benoit in Calgary, and they were the first in what would become an unbearable string of losses for Benoit. The clearest contrast is drawn by Randazzo, between the Benoit who wrestled a tribute match to Hart and the Benoit who did the same for Guerrero just six years later, in 2005. After the death of Guerrero, which is still the saddest moment in wrestling history, the death of Benoit was probably inevitable, but the way it happened was too bone-chilling to be believed.
To write Ring of Hell, Randazzo leaned heavily on the research of others, including a lot of the wrestling media, absorbing 22 books, 38 videos and countless websites. He also cites ECW head Paul Heyman as a primary source along with several former WWE writers, whose takes on the company hierarchy are laugh-out-loud funny. It’s to be expected that many of his sources, including any active wrestlers he talked to, opted not to be identified; if Bob Woodward can do it, why can’t he?
Randazzo’s tone and word choices throughout the book make clear not only that he is not a wrestling fan, but that he harbors serious contempt for both the wrestlers and their fans. He seems unable to understand what could drive wrestler to make the sort of foolish sacrifices required for success in the modern wrestling business, although they aren’t anything that would be unfamiliar to, say, a pro football player or a musician. The awesome body count that came immediately out of 1960s rock, ’90s grunge or the rap scene of the last 15 years makes for an incomplete argument against the music scene (outside of evangelical circles, that is), but the persistence of death among wrestlers is presented by Randazzo as a sufficient reason to shut it all down, or at least to disparage anyone who can still watch the stuff.
Ultimately, what sells this book is the same thing that sells any book about wrestling: the stories. Even the most ardent fan must admit that pro wrestling is one of the shadiest industries this side of the Beltway, and Randazzo offers readers a veritable feast of frighteningly weird tales. One hesitates to go into much detail, since 1) it would be unfair to the author, and 2) paraphrasing does no justice to this stuff. Suffice to say that this ranks right up there with the infamous “wrestling sleaze” thread. Randazzo’s abs are probably in their best shape in years, given the hours he may have spent laughing as he wrote some of this stuff, even though it all ultimately wraps up awfulness that still sinks the spirit when read about now.
When first told of her son’s plans to become a pro wrestler, Chris Benoit’s mother thought “He’ll be hurting by the time he’s 40.” She was right, of course, but Benoit, who excelled in his chosen field, got over one more time on his colleagues. Unlike Pillman, Hart or Guerrero, Benoit actually lived to be 40 years old–for 34 days, at least. In life, as in death, Benoit had a little bit extra.