June 26, 2007
Column: Edmonton was where Benoit's heart was
By TJ MADIGAN - Calgary Sun
When I interview wrestlers, I usually ask how they'd like to be remembered.
The reason for the question isn't openly discussed, but it's probably pretty transparent.
Pro wrestling has an alarming number of premature deaths. Anytime I interview a WWE star, there's always that horrible thought that no matter how young or healthy the wrestler may seem, the next story I write about them could be an obituary. Sometimes, it is.
Oddly, though, the question of being remembered never came up in any of my conversations with Chris Benoit. It didn't need to, because everyone knew Benoit's legacy would be as an all-time great.
Born in Montreal in 1967, Chris had seen the world -- from the inside of a wrestling ring. Inspired by his lifelong idol, The Dynamite Kid, Benoit relocated to Alberta in the mid-'80s to hone his craft as a pro-wrestler under the tutelage of Stu Hart in Stampede Wrestling.
Although Benoit wrestled in places like Mexico and Japan, he fell in love with Alberta and adopted Edmonton as his home town.
Even when his career dictated his house be somewhere else -- he has resided in Atlanta since the late '90s -- Benoit would always tell anyone who would listen that Edmonton was where his heart was.
I remember sitting across from Chris in the Calgary Sun offices in 2004, trying to talk the then-WWE World Champion into doing a photo shoot wearing a Calgary Flames jersey .
"I can't do that, I'm really sorry," Chris politely said. "Edmonton's my home, and I don't want people to get the wrong idea."
My editor and I even offered to run to the mall and get him an Atlanta Flames jersey as a tongue-in-cheek compromise, but our tag team effort only got a grin out of the Canadian Crippler.
"How about we compromise and I just wear an Oilers jersey?," he said with a laugh.
Because of Benoit's hometown-stubbornness, our photo shoot was switched to a shot of the Sun's resident wrestling writer and the WWE Champ, holding the belt. To this day, that picture of me and Chris sits on my desk.
WWE found itself in a difficult position yesterday when the news of Benoit's death broke.
The company was running a TV storyline in which WWE boss Vince McMahon had been killed in a car explosion. McMahon's mock-death had been played up as real on WWE's web site and media releases, with a fake memorial service held on Smackdown just weeks ago.
Last night's episode of Monday Night Raw was supposed to reveal the latest twist in McMahon's murder investigation, but Benoit's passing left WWE no choice but to abandon the angle.
The live crowd was sent home, allowing WWE to broadcast a low-key tribute show from an empty arena in Texas. Pre-taped tributes from the WWE staff were mixed in with classic Benoit matches and moments.
At the top of the 8 O'clock hour, Vince McMahon himself appeared, pulling the plug on the company's biggest storyline of the year and announcing that while his demise was fake, this was reality.
Every WWE employee I spoke with last night was utterly distraught. Not the typical public relations mourning routine, but truly and genuinely heartbroken at the loss of their peer and their friend.
You see, Chris Benoit was the real deal. What you saw was what you got.
He wasn't flashy in the traditional pro wrestling sense. At least not outside the ring. But I always found Chris to be polite, friendly, genuinely likeable and incredibly passionate. Which makes the unraveling news of his final hours all the more unsettling.
In the ring, few will dispute he was the absolute best technical wrestler in the world. And probably of all time.
For most wrestlers and fans, the greatest image of Chris Benoit's career will be a moment that aired on Raw last night -- footage of Benoit's 2004 WWE title win at Wrestlemania XX at Madison Square Garden.
After years of climbing the ladder, Benoit had finally reached the biggest prize in the business -- and had done so on the biggest wrestling show of all time, at the most famous arena in the world.
"It was a moment in history," Benoit told me soon after, incredibly proud of his newfound career highlight. "100 years from now at Wrestlemania 120, they'll look back at that day and see Chris Benoit winning the title at MSG. No one can ever take it away."