Remembering the Crippler

We all had false teenage idols – people we unnecessarily looked up to, regardless of how important they really were in our lives, revered for odd reasons that were really never questioned. They were just there. They were unreasonable loves, like a particular television show or silly band, nearly embarrassing but there nonetheless.

But just because those people or things were frivolous, it didn’t mean they were stupid. They are part of growing up. And they stick with you forever and ever, regardless of how you’ve passed them by.

Today, one of those people that I had passed by passed away.

I have made no secret of my former love of professional wrestling. And I will make no secret now that, regardless of how obnoxious it has become and how I no longer follow it, professional wrestling still holds a strong spot in my heart. It can still be a common topic among friends, a nostalgic look back through history, through an escape that was part athletics, part pure drama.

Through all of that, though, I have still held a longing respect for one wrestler – for Chris Benoit, a wrestler that transcended the petty angles and boring fake-fighting. He wrestled for the pure sport of it, for the acrobatic delight of the fans, a good guy through and through. He was never as heralded as the talkers or the brawlers. But he was a special talent – a man that could make other people better through in ring style and teaching.

He was better than the sport, I always thought – stuck in a wrestling landscape that didn’t quite appreciate him as much as they should have, a landscape that was built through edgier and edgier stories, larger and larger breasts and less and less pure technical talent. He was old school before it was cool to be old school. He was fluid. He made everything look easy. He made professional wrestling look less like the childish melodrama it has become and more like the carefully staged production it once was.

I latched onto Chris Benoit – a smart beacon in a room full of fakes, a wrestler I could still seem intelligent in liking. He was the braniac’s wrestler, the technical artist’s wrestler, the hardcore fan’s wrestler. He was not a fan favorite. He was not selling tickets. But he was putting a full night of work in every night, all night, making his opponents seem like a million bucks and letting the glory wash over in the locker-room.

And now, he’s gone. Found dead in his home with his wife and son. As of now, no one knows how. But everyone who loved watching him is mourning. Amazingly, it happened on the night he was about to be crowned ECW champion – the last American title he had never held.

It was over three years ago when Chris Benoit finally, for the first time, undisputed, held up the World Wrestling Entertainment championship title. He was met in the ring with his longtime friend – the now also deceased Eddie Guerrero. That night, my two favorite wrestlers – two brilliant workers that defined the “smark” generation, that made us all forget for a few minutes the bullshit, the planned run-ins, the over exaggerated bravado, the scene struggling to stay afloat, weighed down under its own over-the-top brashness – held the two Championship Titles for their respective shows.

And that was the last time I ever followed wrestling. I lost interest. The moment I wanted to see had been shown, like watching the final episode of a television drama. Everything after that was contrary to the happy ending I had envisioned.

Especially this.

I’ve taken heat before for my current views on wrestling. I’ve been called out for considering the sport to be long passed, a “stage I grew out of.” I’ve effectively alienated and insulted my friends that still watch wrestling.

But keep this in mind. While I never really follow wrestling anymore, I still respect some aspects of it. I respect a hard fought lucha match, a smart storyline, a technical masterpiece and a tape of Japanese NOAH-style stiff suplexes. Most of all, I still respect Chris Benoit and his legend; his 22 year career, built brick by brick, layer by layer until he was at the peak of his sport, the best actor in a long running play.

Without Chris Benoit, I would have had nothing to watch. One by one, my favorite characters came and went, became monsters and then were rendered ineffective. Except Benoit. He was always there, still working hard, still rising above the steroid rumors and womanizing and sloppy wrestling to be the greatest technical wrestler that had ever entered the squared circle.

Sure, I haven’t missed him much over the past three years. But whenever I throw my Best of Chris Benoit in Japan tape into the VCR, or come across his name on the Internet, or think of how I played hours – DAYS – worth of WCW No Mercy on Nintendo 64, until my thumbs bled and my eyes rolled back in their sockets, rest assured he’ll be missed.

This was lovingly handwritten on June 25th, 2007