Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Canon Book Review: Ring of Hell

Sorry I didn't post over the past two days. Work has been a little crazy this week, so I haven't had too much time to devote to this blog. But today is another day, and I will try my best to at least have something up for people to read. So here goes. Recently, I read the book Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & The Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry by Matthew Randazzo V. While the fall of the wrestling industry seems to have been exaggerated, it is still an introspective and often times revealing look at the life and death of one of pro wrestling's greatest performers, Chris Benoit.

The main theme of the book that Randazzo seems to be focused on is how the buisness of professional wrestling, with its non-stop travel and rampart drug and steroid use, was the primary reason for Chris Benoit's descent into madness. Growing up, Benoit was a quiet kid from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada who became such a huge fan of the wrestler The Dynamite Kid that his devotion bordered on worship. From an early age, Benoit decided to mold himself and his body after The Dynamite Kid, determined to follow his idol into the pro wrestling business. In order to accomplish this, Benoit started doing steroids in order to get his physique like The Dynamite Kid, and willingly underwent harsh and often times humiliating training both at the infamous Dungeon of Calgary, Alberta, Canada and the New Japan dojo, whose students are worked half to death on a daily basis and expected to deal with all sorts of punishment as proof of their devotion towards becoming a pro wrestler.

The book goes on to depict Benoit's wrestling career and the issues he and other wrestlers faced in each spot. From wrestling in Japan, where the Yakuza has a huge influence over the business and the style is often stiff and hard-hitting, although the money and accommodations are usually first-class, to the totally foreign style of lucha-libre wrestling in Mexico, which Benoit struggled to adjust to. We then read about Benoit's time in ECW, which is the promotion that actually comes off looking the best in this book despite a looker room so full of drug use that it was said that "If you pass a drug test in ECW, you're fired!" But ECW was largely free of the politics and backstabbing that plagued Benoit both in his early days in Stampede and later in WCW and the WWE. Benoit later went into WCW, which basically served as a vanity promotion for Hulk Hogan during his time there, and also rewarded wrestlers like Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, wrestlers that weren't nearly as devoted to the buisness as Benoit and his best friend Eddy Guerrero. To make matters worse, Benoit became embroiled in a bitter feud with booker Kevin Sullivan, whose wife Nancy eventually became Benoit's wife largely due to some idiotic attempt by Sullivan to "work" the other wrestlers by having Benoit and Nancy act as if they were having an affair. Ultimately, fiction became truth and Nancy ended up with Benoit, which didn't exactly endear Benoit in his boss's eyes.

Benoit, Guerrero, and a few other wrestlers would eventually leave WCW after Sullivan was rehired as head booker in 2000. While free of the political minefield that was WCW, as the book states, Benoit had other problems. For one, his best friend seemed to be fighting a losing battle with drug addiction, and it was often Benoit that took care of Guerrero and made sure he lived to see another day. Another problem was the demands put on the wrestlers by Vince McMahon, which, along with Benoit's insistence to work a highly dangerous style night in and night out, led to severe spinal injury and surgery in 2001. The author uses testimonies from former WWE staff members and writers to spin a tale of a company that is ran by a coked-up bodybuilding obsessed  megalomaniac in his McMahon and his daughter Stephanie, who comes off as unqualifed for her position and highly defensive of both her intelligence and her job, often dismissing any percieved threat to her job and keeping less-qualified writers just because they tow the line. Not to mention the influence of wrestler Triple-H, who seems to have as much power as anyone due to his marriage to Stephanie, a marriage which some people wonder is a sham. The result is that Benoit finds himself working for a company where, in his own words, it's better to keep your mouth shut in order to keep your job instead of speaking out and losing your job.

Benoit enjoyed some success in WWE, including a world title reign, but ultimately he was still depressed. Things really got bad in 2005, when his best friend Guerrero passed away. The untimely death of his friend, as well as the death of close friend Mike "Johnny Grunge" Durham, left Benoit feeling alone. Whether or not it was due to the concussions, Benoit, not exactly the most stable individual before, became increasingly withdrawn, depressed and paranoid. Eventually, Benoit snapped one weekend, which led to the tragic events of that June weekend in 2007.

The book is not just a portrayal of Benoit, who comes across as a singularly devoted man to his craft, who seemed like a great father according to all of those around him and a decent guy that had a wicked side when it came to young wrestlers. That trait seems to have been influenced by his treatment in Stampede Wrestling as well as the influence of The Dynamite Kid, who was despised for his mean-spirited "pratical jokes". Benoit also seemed to never quite accept himself, as even as he was being hailed as the best wrestler in the world, Benoit would often be in a funk and would punish himself for even the smallest mistake by doing an unfathomable number of Hindu Squats or Push-Ups or Squat Thrusts or whatever exercise in order to punish his body. Meanwhile, the wrestling business as a whole does not come off as a good way to make a living, as Randazzo paints a picture of a business where unhealthy amounts of steroids and painkillers are part of the job, where personal freedom is sacrificed for glory, and where many men are "chewed up and spit out" by an unforgiving business, which has left many young men either dead or crippled before the age of 50.

Randazzo is not a fan of pro wrestling, rather he is a true crime writer who seems to specialize in books about crime syndicates. As a result, the book comes across as a bitter, often jaded look at pro wrestling as a whole, and the author does not spare punches in expressing his opinion about pro wrestling. So if you're somebody that's a huge fan of wrestling, you might become angry about the various attacks on the business that the book makes. It didn't bother me, though. Randazzo did a lot of research for this book, but I do question the validity of some of his sources, including watching a bunch of shoot interviews, which often are one-sided affairs in which the wrestler is obviously biased and attacks certain individuals in order to make themselves look better. These interviews often should be taken with a grain of salt, so I was surprised that the author would rely so heavily on these sources. Another thing I found odd is that, for a story about Benoit and the crimes he committed, a majority of the book is devoted to other people. I'm guessing that was just to establish the type of business Benoit was in, but in a way, it seems like Benoit is just a background character in a story about his own life, to the point where the murders and suicide Benoit committed is almost treated as an afterthought at the end of the book.

Ultimately, this is a book worth reading, but it does have it's flaws. For one, while there is a lot of information, and Randazzo did a lot of research, he seems too willing to accept the words of anybody with a take as the truth. So while I believe most of it to be accurate, I have my doubts about a few things since many of his sources seem to have an ax to grind. Another thing is that, in blaming pro wrestling for Chris Benoit's actions, I don't think he assigns enough blame on Benoit himself, as he just stops short of painting Benoit as a victim of a buisness that swallowed him whole. I could see that if Benoit was found dead of a heart attack like his friends Guerrero and Brian Pillman, but let's face facts here. This was a man who over the course of three days, murdered both his wife and his son, and more than likely considered making a plane flight so he could wrestle the next day, to the point that he even rescheduled his flight. The author seems to believe that Benoit was not in his right mind due to the multiple concussions and massive painkiller use, but I don't think that should be an excuse for his actions. If you want to blame pro wrestling for the deaths of Guerrero, Pillman, Owen Hart (which was not a result of drugs, but a poorly conceived stunt gone horribly wrong) and others, well I have no real issue with that, and I'd even agree with that sentiment. But to paint Chris Benoit as a victim, and Randazzo is far from alone in this approach, btw, is wrong.

Bottom line, Ring of Hell is a deep expose of a business that, frankly, is screwed up in a lot of ways. The book provides a lot of new information and you will be shocked at what you learn about Benoit and the job that he chose. The book has some flaws, yes, but ultimately it's worth reading, even if you should take some of the information presented with a grain of salt. I'll give it a 6.5 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any ideas for future reviews about anything at all, from your favorite episode of In the Heat of the Night to the top 5 movies directed by Michael Bay, or whatever, than send me your ideas either by leaving a comment or by e-mail at

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