Few high-profile industries have been beset by as many stunning tragedies as professional wrestling, and in its first season, Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring explored a collection of squared-circle horror stories that illustrated how a wild environment of substance abuse, rampant egos, incessant travel and outsized personas and lifestyles often led to catastrophe. It was a docuseries of superheroic characters and destructive impulses, and in its second season (debuting March 24), it tackles a new assortment of cases that prove that, though the pain they experience in the ring may not always be real, the suffering wrestlers endure—and, unfortunately, dish out—in real life is anything but phony.
And never was that truer than with regard to the subject of Dark Side of the Ring’s two-hour season premiere: Chris Benoit.
Though its forthcoming run will delve into a range of well-known sagas, including the untimely death of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s girlfriend Nancy Argentino (whom he may have killed), the Mafia-related murder of Dino Bravo, and the horrifying 1999 demise of Owen Hart (who fell from the rafters of Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, during a pay-per-view event), the series’ main attraction is Benoit. In 2007, the Canadian-born WCW and WWE star committed a monstrous double murder-suicide, ending the lives of his wife Nancy and young son Daniel before hanging himself in the basement gym at his home in Fayetteville, Georgia. To family, friends, colleagues, and outsiders alike, it was an unthinkable atrocity, particularly because, for the majority of his life, Benoit had been known as a quiet, friendly, ambitious pro who was as dedicated to his clan as he was to his trade. According to those featured, Benoit was “a gentle giant” and “one of the greatest workers in wrestling,” and the homicidal fiend he became was “not the Chris I knew.”
Which doesn’t change the fact that, thanks to a combination of volatile elements, he eventually perpetrated the most terrible crime imaginable.
Dark Side of the Ring doesn’t have a definitive answer as to why Benoit did what he did. Nonetheless, over the course of its two-part premiere, it traces his path from exciting phenom to established headliner to tabloid villain and, in doing so, digs into uncomfortable truths about the culture in which he thrived. That journey began in Stampede Wrestling, a Calgary-based regional promotion that initially made Benoit fall in love with sports entertainment (seeing the Dynamite Kid deliver flying headbutts from the top rope was the spark that lit Benoit’s pro dreams), and wound up giving him his start in the business. Though at 5-foot-10 he was considered short in an era that prized titanic behemoths, he quickly rose up the ranks, and as friend and frequent combatant Chris Jericho remembers, “He was the most intense and believable performer I’ve ever been in the ring with.”
Before long, Benoit was transitioning to the WCW big leagues alongside his close comrades Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko, who together were known as the Three Amigos. That’s where Benoit also met Nancy Toffoloni, who had made a name for herself first as Fallen Angel, a Satanic acolyte of Kevin Sullivan’s Prince of Darkness, and then as the ruthless and conniving manager Woman—a character that Toffoloni’s sister Sandra says was closely based on her actual personality. If Toffoloni’s art was an imitation of her life, however, that dynamic would be reversed once Sullivan (who was romantically involved with Toffoloni) concocted a storyline in which Benoit wooed Toffoloni away from him. The narrative was a hit with audiences, albeit not with Sullivan, since Benoit and Toffoloni soon began an off-camera affair, leading to marriage and the birth of their son Daniel.
As was the case in so many season one episodes, Dark Side of the Ring’s Benoit installment illustrates the pitfalls of wrestling’s commingling of the real and the fictional. While the Benoits were a seemingly happy unit for some time—circumstances borne out by new interviews with David Benoit, Chris’ son from his first marriage—things took a turn for the disastrous when Eddie Guerrero died of a heart condition in 2005 at the age of 38.
Having originally met on a Japan tour, Benoit and Guerrero were best friends, and though Guerrero’s demise wasn’t totally unexpected after years of drug and alcohol problems, it still hit Benoit like a Mack truck. Depression and self-isolation followed, much to the chagrin of everyone around Benoit, who by all accounts was so gripped by grief that he transformed into a person no one recognized.
“Depression and self-isolation followed, much to the chagrin of everyone around Benoit, who by all accounts was so gripped by grief that he transformed into a person no one recognized.”
His descent culminated in the three-day period of June 22-24, 2007, when—after sending cryptic text messages to friend Chavo Guerrero and others—he bound and strangled Nancy to death in their bedroom, sedated and then suffocated 7-year-old Daniel, and finally killed himself. Since Benoit was a lifelong PED user who, at the time of his death, had severely high levels of testosterone in his system, steroids were immediately blamed for this nightmare. Yet due to the efforts of former wrestler-turned-neuroscientist Chris Nowinski, who created the Concussion Legacy Foundation, it eventually became clear that Benoit’s innumerable head injuries (especially from folding chair-related shots) had resulted in a severe case of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) that affected his mind and conduct. Throw in a marriage that may have been rockier, and more abusive, than it appeared from the outside, and his was an unstable situation primed to explode.
Dark Side of the Ring once again balances its wealth of great talking-head interviews and archival footage with cornier elements such as fuzzy dramatic recreations and soundbite-y transitions to commercial. Furthermore, it occasionally detours away from more interesting avenues of exploration—such as Jericho’s unelaborated-upon comment that Benoit’s scandalous crime almost destroyed wrestling—in favor of sensationalistic angles, which makes it at once immensely watchable and frustratingly shallow. However, if it’s neither as curious nor as deep as one would ideally like, it remains in its second season a stark reminder that blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality is rarely a recipe for health and happiness—and, also, that those searching for a stable profession might want to take wrestling off their lists.