Chris Van Vliet Interview With David Benoit
In the last post that I wrote for this blog, I discussed mental health, in the form of a documentary about a wrestling commentator, who suffers from bipolar disorder. In this, I mentioned both that I still keep up to date with/watch wrestling programmes, and my love for Test Match Special commentary on cricket. This, naturally led me to a couple of options as to the next post (I will discuss ‘The Duckworth Lewis Method at some stage, I’m sure), however, a few months ago, I took the time to sit and listen to an interview ostensibly on a wrestling YouTube channel, but which isn’t really what you might expect. I promise it’s worth your time to watch it, but I need to set it up a little bit first.
The channel in question is hosted by Chris Van Vliet - the specific interview is with David Benoit, and can be found here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBXZIr6DP-c). Most of the time, appearances on his channel are tied into promoting something, with tales about the backstage politics that are associated with the business. This makes sense – you are in a competitive marketplace, where success is determined by how much money you draw/value you provide, and on occasion, wanting to keep your job may come at the expense of someone else (e.g. ‘backstage heat’). It also attracts, what I’ll describe as, ‘characters’, where they provoke a reaction. There’s an interesting TED Talk by Eric Bischoff about news and politics being shaped by the techniques and tactics used by wrestlers over the years to get you to ‘feel’ vs assess facts – never forget, Donald Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame.
However, the performers cannot all be the same (or in other words) a ‘cookie cutter’ star. What is going to make someone go out of their way to spend their own money to support you? How are you going to stand out?
There are different ways to do this, of course, and one way is to have a particular move set/style in the ring which is unique. This could be a high-flying style, it could be a lot of lifting and slamming, or, as this really clunky segue is trying to get to, it could be a technical style.
Those who know what happened will understand there is controversy about me bringing this up, but if you were writing down a list of performers who, in history, are the greatest technical wrestlers of all time, then Chris Benoit is a name which should be near the top. He won countless titles and accolades, including World Championships. However, he is not going to be appearing in any hall of fame, and has a rather large black mark next to his achievements. This is a black mark, which recently was re-visited, thanks to the Vice TV documentary series, ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ (again, some excellent topics covered here - the Death of Bruiser Brody, who was stabbed in the showers at an event in Puerto Rico, and the 'Montreal Screwjob' are well worth a watch).
On 25th June 2007, police were called to check in at Benoit’s residence, at the request of his employers. Police found the bodies of Benoit, his wife, Nancy, and his 7-year-old son, Daniel. The investigation/evidence led to the conclusion that Benoit had killed Nancy and Daniel, before committing suicide. Autopsy results indicated that Benoit had the brain of an elderly patient with Alzheimer’s, likely suffering from depression, and CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy). It is truly one of the worst things that has happened in the sport, and understandably led to a lot of media debate concerning wellbeing of talent, in addition to reporting what happened.
However, to bring this back to the interview to watch – Benoit had another son, David, from a previous marriage, who was not living with him at the time. David was about 14/15 years old at the time this happened, and sat down for an interview with Chris Van Vliet, which was released earlier this year. It is an interview which addresses a lot of points that you wouldn’t necessarily think about.
The first 10 minutes or so are background as to what he is doing for work (working in oil fields in Canada), and his current connection with the industry. However, what is clear is just how much baggage David has. On the one hand, the father that he knew was his hero – at that age, growing up seeing your father winning titles and the adoration of fans reinforces that he’s your superman. Then, in an instant, that all changes – he commits one of the most heinous acts that anyone could even think of, and suddenly, he’s not the hero, at all. Equally, that’s not someone that you recognise.
The interview does go on to discuss what he remembers about that period of time. What was the last thing his father said to him, and when? What did he do when he heard the news? Who broke the news to him? He’s not only lost his father, he’s also lost his stepmother, and half-brother. What happened when he tried to go back into school? What support did they receive from WWE afterwards? Who does he still speak to in the industry? He looks uncannily like his father – how has he had to cope with being recognised? He still has items from his father’s career – are they on display, or in a box in the corner, tucked away? He also has a sister, who wants to remain out of the public eye.
They also discuss his own plans – he started training, but has only had a very limited amount, and is debating whether to go back. He discusses the possibility of wrestling as Chris Benoit Jr, and trying to celebrate/commemorate what his father was able to accomplish inside the ring, not outside of it. The trouble is, if he does that, he’s always going to be known as the son of the guy who murdered his wife and child. Having said this, though, you understand the argument as to why he wants to try and celebrate his father as he knew him, but he’s in a no win situation, and you feel incredibly sorry for what he’s had to cope with. It should be said, though, that Van Vliet does an excellent job at being sympathetic, and giving David room to breathe, and settle into feeling as comfortable as he can, when discussing a sensitive topic.
This case ties in with a much larger debate to be had about support available, and the welfare of wrestlers. At the time, initial reporting and debate focused on steroid abuse, and 'roid rage'. However, one of Benoit’s signature moves was a flying headbutt, which essentially involves hitting your head frequently, which would lead to the conclusion that he was suffering from CTE. I’m a big rugby fan, and in recent years, there has been a wholesale change in concussion management/monitoring and protocols. The sanctions for players who tackle anywhere near the head are far more serious than the ‘good old days’, and for me, this is major progress. There’s a reflection towards the end of the interview about trying to find any silver linings, and acknowledging the changes which the Benoit case has brought into all sports, knowing the potentially devastating consequences of head trauma.
Either way, the interview is about 50 minutes long. Even if you are not a wrestling fan, there is a lot there to unpack. It’s a difficult listen at times, but it gives a very frank account of what happens after tragedy hits a family.