Wrestler Chris Benoit gets ready to make his comeback
By SCOTT ZERR --
It's been nearly a year since Chris Benoit locked his trademark move, the Crippler Crossface, on an opponent.
Nearly 12 months since a frenzied audience bellowed out "Woooooooo" after he cracked an opponent across the chest with a wicked reverse knife-edge chop.
It was shortly after Benoit's last appearance in Edmonton - an episode of Smackdown! during which he amazed a home-town crowd by folding "Stone Cold" Steve Austin up like an accordion with 10 straight suplexes - that his career was sidetracked by a serious neck injury.
The 34-year-old Montreal-born, Edmonton-raised star of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) remains on the road to recovery, but the journey is starting to finally wind down - and not a moment too soon.
(Formerly WWF, the WWE changed its name after a court case upheld the World Wildlife Fund's right to use the WWF acronym.)
"I'm getting really itchy feet to get back at it," said Benoit, whose surgery repaired damaged nerves and vertebrae, in a recent interview.
The effects of the constant pounding taken by Benoit over the years began to show after a particularly ferocious Tables, Ladders and Chairs match late last spring and were evident as he departed Skyreach Centre last May when he flexed his right arm and the muscles would not respond.
Admittedly in a state of denial that anything was seriously wrong, Benoit continued to wrestle five nights a week with then tag-team partner Chris Jericho.
"I went to a couple of doctors and they told me to do some physiotherapy and take it easy in the ring. Well, that's like telling a hockey player to take it easy on the ice - there's no such thing ... it's impossible," said Benoit, who is now aiming to return to action by mid-June.
"I'm skeptical of a lot of doctors because you go to them with a small thing and they say take four weeks off."
Benoit wound up talking over his situation with Austin, who suffered his own neck injury several years earlier after an in-ring miscue with the late Owen Hart.
Under Austin's recommendation, Benoit paid a visit to Dr. Lloyd Youngblood in San Antonio, Texas, and felt confident in his abilities. Unfortunately, the consultation resulted in setting the date for the Crippler to go under the knife.
"Initially it was three months off, then six, and then further evaluations might have taken it to a year," Benoit explained.
"I was never worried I might never come back, but what scared me the most was maybe being a year out of the public eye.
"I know what it's like to try to come back after taking two weeks off; you lose a lot of intensity."
Following the surgery, Benoit could hardly play around with his children without experiencing pain. Gradually it started to subside, now to the point where he is able to train with prospective WWE talent learning the trade with the Heartland Wrestling Association in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While teaching young recruits with the same wide-eyed expectations he had so many years ago in the famous "dungeon'' of Stu Hart's Calgary home, Benoit has gingerly moved about the ring in preparation for his own comeback.
He's taken a few "bumps" but nothing targeted on the back or neck. The five-foot-10, 230-pounder remains hopeful that time truly does heal all wounds.
"It was a shock to the body," he said of taking falls again. "I'd done nothing for 10 months. I'm getting out of bed in the morning all stiff, but it's muscle stiffness not skeletal.
"I'm not doing suplexes or clotheslines, but it feels good to be doing a lot of mat wrestling.
"I feel I'm as intense as before and I'm being told that I'm looking intense. When I start taking suplexes and backdrops that might be a whole different story. I don't know how my body is going to react.
"I've loved teaching. I step into the ring with those kids for four hours and later I step out and watch them do what they've learned. It gives me so much of a good feeling."
Benoit, an Archbishop O'Leary grad, originally wanted to be back in the ring for the Wrestlemania event in Toronto last March. Now he won't even be around for the WWE's return to his home-town tomorrow night at Skyreach Centre because it is for an episode of RAW - Benoit is part of the Smackdown! show.
Since Benoit's injury, the WWE has changed dramatically - splitting into two shows, RAW and Smackdown!, with separate rosters of wrestlers - and there are new faces in the locker rooms.
Despite all his time away from the ring, Benoit was "drafted" third in late March by Vince McMahon to be in the Smackdown! talent pool, something which caught the former tag-team and intercontinental champion by surprise.
"That meant a whole lot to me. I had no idea that was going to happen," he said. "To be drafted that high, I was wondering if they thought I'd be back the next week. It's obviously a big pat on the shoulder. It's nice that Vince is showing a lot of faith in me and is looking forward to me being back."
When Benoit left the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling in April of 2000, he, like many other wrestlers, had few good things to say about the company and many of its stars.
Prime sources of the discontent were the chief members of WCW's New World Order - Kevin Nash and Hollywood Hulk Hogan.
That duo has since resurfaced in the WWE and Hogan has shockingly regained the level of popularity he enjoyed in the '80s. Rumours suggest that Nash and Hogan are calling the shots in the WWE locker rooms, but Benoit seems cautiously optimistic.
"The past is the past. My relationship with them was in the past, with a different company that was very poorly managed and had very poor leadership if any at all," he explained.
"This is a different time, a different era and a different company. I'm not going to walk in skeptical. I'm going to be open-minded. It's about business and faith in the company."
Watching Hogan's return, particularly the surge of approval he received at Wrestlemania in Toronto, Benoit realized the loyalty of the WWE fans.
Benoit had endeared himself to those same people with his ever-aggressive style and high-impact moves. There's little doubt his own in-ring return will be greeted with a passionate enthusiasm as well.
"The first five or six months it might be a bit touch and go because I'm picking it all up again, but I just want to be involved. That's what it's all about. To do what you love, it's unparalleled."