Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, best friends through thin times and thickening bodies, strutted in shared triumph around the ring in Madison Square Garden. Guerrero had just successfully defended his World Wrestling Entertainment title; Benoit had defeated two opponents to wear the belt as world heavyweight champion.
The wrestling was scripted, but the mutual sense of achievement on March 14, 2004, was real. After all the travel on back roads, the spiritual and pharmacological comfort, the dreams and near-death, the two pals had reached the professional pinnacle together.
Both were relatively small men in a business of behemoths, and both had built stupendous physiques by pumping their muscles with steroids and human growth hormones. After years of wandering through wrestling's grimy lower levels, the men &
now in their mid-30s &
had grown into well-paid star attractions in WWE, the richest and most glamorous wrestling enterprise.
Side by side at the Garden, their boyhood dreams finally realized, the easygoing, Mexican-born Guerrero and the intense, Canadian-born Benoit stood on the mountaintop, seemingly in peak physical form.
Within a little more than three years, both would be dead.
Benoit and Guerrero lived in a culture that breeds addicts, that encourages comic-book-hero bodies &
and that in recent years has seen dozens of its members die at conspicuously young ages, at a startling rate.
Dave Meltzer, founder and editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, recently compiled a list of current and former wrestlers who have died since 1997, before turning 50. He said his list ran to about 60 names &
and that was before former wrestler Brian "Crush" Adams died Monday of indeterminate causes.
About half those wrestlers died of various causes, he said, including car accidents, suicides and drug overdoses; the rest of the deaths, he said, are linked to heart ailments, including the type that killed Guerrero: arteriosclerotic heart disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack.
To put that mortality rate into context, Meltzer compares pro wrestling &
which has had roughly 1,500 male competitors in the past quarter-century, he estimates &
with pro football. If the same ratio of NFL players in the same time frame died before reaching age 50, more than 430 current or former players would have died prematurely, he said.
"And someone would be asking some serious questions," Meltzer said. "Something would be done."
When Guerrero, 38, died alone of heart-related complications in a Minneapolis hotel room on Nov. 13, 2005, the man who found his body was his nephew and also a wrestler, Chavo Guerrero Jr. Overcome, Chavo Guerrero immediately called the one man he thought could understand the shock and grief: Chris Benoit.
Benoit's own demise would come 19 months later. Over the course of three days in late June, police say, the 40-year-old Benoit (pronounced ben-WAH) drugged and killed his 7-year-old son, Daniel, then strangled his wife, Nancy, 43, in the family's home outside Atlanta. Although Guerrero and Benoit died under different circumstances, their lives had several parallels.
The two men had a long friendship, traveling together in a circuit that weaved through Mexico, Japan, Europe and the United States. As wrestlers, both lived in near-constant pain, coping with the bruising, often lonely lifestyle with such drugs as sedatives and narcotic painkillers.
For Guerrero, an admitted alcoholic and drug abuser, prayer became a tool to help tame his torments. He encouraged Benoit to try Christianity, and in the later years of their friendship, they sometimes read Scripture together &
in locker rooms and hotel rooms, on soul-searching road trips.
Over more than 10 years of friendship, Guerrero and Benoit lived a professional existence ringed with sudden death. Eight wrestlers or former wrestlers who had been close associates of Benoit and Guerrero died during this decade &
five from the kind of heart-related ailment that felled Guerrero. The oldest of these men was 51; the youngest was 27.
People looking for clues into Benoit's alleged homicide and suicide have wondered whether despair over his friends' deaths led him to a sense of fatalism. What role did drugs and the long-term effects of his violent line of work play in Benoit's tragic end?
Benoit "took Eddie's death the hardest," said Carlos Ashenoff, a longtime friend of Guerrero, who wrestled with him and Benoit under the ring name Konnan over some 15 years. "And then another close friend dies. And the friend of a friend. Everyone around him dies. And no one seemed to give a damn."
Said Ashenoff: "It's just one tragedy after another."
On July 27, prompted by the Benoit tragedy, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked "WWE to provide information about steroids and drug abuse in pro wrestling. The committee's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he wants the company to respond by Aug. 24.
After Guerrero's death, WWE vowed to clean house. After Benoit's death, many question how much was actually done.
Why do so many wrestlers die young?
There has never been a definitive medical study of the issue, but there are expert guesses. Drug abuse might play a role, some insiders say, as well as the long-term effect of repeated collisions such as concussive blows to the head. The number of heart-related deaths, coming after a long period of heavy steroid use among wrestlers, also has been cited as suspicious.
Others within wrestling think the lifestyle is probably a factor. Even in the major league WWE, life outside the ring can be tougher than life within it.
A publicly traded corporation with more than $400 million in revenues in its most recent fiscal year, ending in April, WWE pays its main-event performers handsomely; retired stars such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Steve Williams, better known as Stone Cold Steve Austin, became millionaires.
But lesser lights don't fare quite so well. The WWE's rank and file &
there are about 200 wrestlers under contract, according to the company &
make about $100,000 annually at the low end (Benoit and Guerrero were making about $500,000 before their deaths, according to WWE sources).
That's far more than wrestlers can hope to earn in regional, independent promotions across the country or by wrestling abroad. But WWE's wrestlers are "independent contractors," with limited rights. WWE, for example, doesn't offer paid vacations, pension benefits or 401(k) plans.
There's also no off-season. Wrestlers perform in arenas across America, Asia and Europe as many as 150 times a year.
"The number one change that has to happen &
and I've been saying it for years &
is mandatory time off on a regular basis," said Wade Keller, the founder and editor of PWTorch.com, a wrestling newsletter. "Working 50 weeks a year is unsustainable. If they had a few months off a year, their bodies would have time to recover and they could have real relationships with their (families). It's one thing to wreck your body and abuse pills when you're 22. It's a lot harder when you're 40."
There's another job obligation as well: the pressure to maintain a chiseled superhero physique.
Wrestling hasn't always been the province of such muscled men. "Gorgeous George" Wagner, the 1950s TV wrestling star, was 5-foot-9 and a rather lumpy 210 pounds in his heyday. Top performers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Freddie Blassie and Bruno Sammartino, look flabby compared with today's performers.
The body image of pro wrestlers began to change in the mid-'80s when Hulk Hogan became wrestling's best-known figure. Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) was so large &
about 6-5 and 300 pounds &
and "ripped" that promoters demanded similarly proportioned men to maintain the illusion of a fairly matched contest.
Among those promoting this change, says Keller, was Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE (and its forerunner, the World Wrestling Federation). McMahon, a former bodybuilder, wanted "not just guys who performed well, but guys who looked like they just walked in from a video game," says Keller.
WWE executives, however, deny any suggestion that drug use is tolerated among their wrestlers. "We've made a lot of changes over the years," spokesman Gary Davis says. "We don't need steroids. We don't need drugs."
But Marc Mero, a former wrestler, believes steroids are commonplace in wrestling. "If you're not jacked and ready to go, you're not on," said Mero, who added that he took the muscle-building drugs for seven years.
In interviews over the years, Guerrero and Benoit would tell much the same story: They always wanted to be wrestlers.
The youngest of four sons, Eduardo Gory Guerrero seemed destined for the ring. His father, Gory Guerrero, was a legendary Mexican wrestler, promoter and trainer. The family maintained its own makeshift ring in the back yard of its South El Paso home. Eddie Guerrero's elder brothers &
Mando, Hector and Chavo &
all preceded him into the professional ranks, and Chavo Jr. followed close behind. Even the name fit: Guerrero is Spanish for "warrior."
"Out of my whole life, there were maybe four months that I thought, I don't want to be a wrestler," he told the El Paso Times in 2003. "But I know what I wanted to do all my life. I grew up watching my dad and older brothers do it. This is a dream for me."
Benoit followed a similar path. Born in Montreal, he grew up in a suburb of Edmonton, Alberta. When he was 12, he saw a British wrestler called the Dynamite Kid (Tom Billington) perform in his home town. Benoit was hooked. "I just idolized him," he told a Canadian newspaper years later. "We had back-yard wrestling matches or I would be in my room, kicking my bed, trying to (imitate) him."
The teen-age Benoit drove 180 miles every week to Calgary to work out at "the Dungeon," a famed training gym run by promoter Stu Hart in the basement of Hart's mansion. In tribute to Billington, Benoit made his debut at 18 as "Dynamite" Chris Benoit in Hart's Stampede Wrestling promotion.
While still a teen-ager, Guerrero was wrestling professionally, too. His first appearances were in Mexico, where "lucha libre" ("free fighting") has a long and colorful history. He would tour Japan, where he met Benoit.
Those who saw Guerrero perform remarked on his athleticism within the ring and his charisma out of it. But those near him say he was already troubled. Ashenoff said it was apparent when he met him in 1988 that Guerrero had a drinking problem. Later, Ashenoff said: "He had a cocaine habit. Next, it was pain medication. Then it was a muscle-relaxer habit."
Drugs and alcohol seemed to treat Guerrero's wrestling pains, Ashenoff says, but the pain also seemed to justify the drugs.
Current and former wrestlers say Guerrero's problems were extreme, but not unusual. In addition to casual use of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, wrestlers "play hurt" with the help of pain medications like Vicodin, Percocet and Soma, a particular favorite.
"You self-medicate," says Mero, a veteran of the WWE and the defunct World Championship Wrestling. "You suck it up and perform. If it leads to an addiction, that's part of (the job). Because, if you can't (perform), there are a hundred guys willing to take your place."
Glenn Gilberti, who wrestled in the WCW as Disco Inferno, said he knew of a fellow wrestler who took "30 to 50" Soma tablets day, and another who took as many Vicodin pills for relief. "Wrestling has changed in the past 10 to 15 years," Gilberti says. "It's more physical and realistic. It looks like it hurts because it does."
Says Ashenoff: "You get into a cycle where you need something to get you to bed at night, then something to get you up in the morning, then something to pick you up during the day, then something to bring you down at night. And you're not getting any real time to recover because you're working all the time."
At some point, Guerrero and Benoit became acquainted with another class of drugs: anabolic steroids.
Insiders say both men used the drugs to pack on muscle. Guerrero was 5-foot-8, Benoit was 5-9, and both weighed about 220 pounds when they died.
The toxicology report on Benoit's body indicated that he was taking synthetic testosterone, a steroid. He also had the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and a prescription painkiller similar to Percocet in his system.
In a subsequent indictment of Chris and Nancy Benoit's doctor, Phil C. Astin, on July 2, federal prosecutors alleged that Astin provided a 10-month supply of steroids to Benoit every three to four weeks from May 4, 2006, through May 9, 2007, as well as prescriptions for Percocet, Xanax and other drugs. According to the indictment, Astin wrote multiple prescriptions for the Benoits on the same date, leaving some of the prescriptions undated &
a violation of federal law. Astin has pleaded not guilty.
The medical examiner who conducted Guerrero's autopsy noted that the wrestler died of heart disease, complicated by an enlarged heart and other enlarged organs that were "consistent" with a history of steroid use.
In the ring, Benoit (nicknamed "the Canadian Crippler") and Guerrero (known as "Latino Heat") sometimes performed as allies, sometimes as feuding rivals. When both men jumped from World Championship Wrestling to WWF in 2000, they formed a "heel" (or villain) alliance called "the Radicalz." At various points, one or the other would become a "face," or good guy.
In real life, they were often inseparable. For several years, they lived near each other in the Tampa area. Benoit was a vigilant friend after an intoxicated Guerrero nearly died in a car accident in early 1999; Guerrero returned the attention when Benoit underwent spinal fusion surgery on his neck in 2001.
Guerrero's accident helped strengthen his religious convictions, and he sought to bolster Benoit's faith, too, says Ashenoff. Both men had rocky marriages punctuated by separations (Nancy Benoit filed for divorce in 2003, alleging that her husband had threatened her, but she eventually withdrew the petition).
When Guerrero finally was anointed WWE champion in early 2004 (he "lost" his title four months later), the organization marketed his triumph as a redemption story. The company released a DVD recounting his life story, and later a WWE-authorized autobiography (both called "Cheating Death, Stealing Life"). In both, Guerrero claimed that he had been sober for four years.
It was a hopeful, inspiring story. But like much about wrestling, it wasn't true.
Ashenoff, Guerrero's old friend and tag-team partner, visited him regularly during his championship years and remembers being shocked by his physical and emotional decline. "I could see him getting weaker and weaker. You'd see him in the dressing room looking like a mummy in ice packs. He could barely move after a show. ... He was taking all these painkillers and he was very paranoid. He was just an emotional basket case."
"Without a doubt," Ashenoff says, "he wasn't clean (in the months before his death). I know that for a fact. All those years (of abuse) finally caught up to him."
WWE aired a week of "tribute" shows to Guerrero. Benoit was interviewed on one of them, and is shown sobbing uncontrollably. "I just want to tell you I love you and (will) never forget you," he said through his tears before adding, "and we'll see each other again."
Within days, WWE turned Guerrero's death into a running story line. Two weeks after Guerrero's funeral, wrestler Randy Orton was portrayed on WWE's "Smackdown" show as destroying an "Eddie Guerrero Memorial Lowrider" to initiate a feud with another wrestler. Guerrero's name was later invoked to sell a pay-per-view special called "Hell in a Cell." The angle continued for much of last year.
Publicly, Benoit played along. But he was clearly bitter about it, says Meltzer. "I've got to get out of here, but there's nowhere to go," Benoit wrote in an e-mail to Meltzer late last year.
On June 24, Benoit was supposed to perform at a WWE event in Texas. He never showed up.
In recent interviews, WWE officials say they cannot shed any light on what led to Benoit's behavior during his tragic last weekend. "We just don't know what demons seized him," says David Black, the physician who runs the WWE drug-testing program that was implemented after Guerrero's death.
Evidence at the crime scene and the official police time line of events, however, suggest deliberation, not a sudden burst of drug-fueled activity, says Jerry McDevitt, the company's general counsel.
The Georgia state medical examiner, Kris Sperry, said it is "unanswerable" whether drugs played a role in Benoit's alleged crimes.
Black and McDevitt say they do not know of a link or any pattern to the deaths of professional wrestlers over the years.
"People see things that are a coincidence that leads them to reach grand conclusions that are not supported by scientific analysis," says WWE's Black, a forensic scientist. "You have to be very cautious about this kind of information," he says.
Black and McDevitt point out that only five men &
including Guerrero and Benoit &
have died while under WWE contract during the organization's 44-year history.
Further, they dispute suggestions that drug use is widespread among the WWE's wrestlers.
When the company instituted drug tests early last year, "less than half" of its performers came back with positive results, Black says. Since then, he estimates that there have been "sporadic" cases of positive tests, involving about 15 percent of performers. Suspensions have followed for some WWE stars.
Wrestlers say that contention ignores the obvious. The WWE's testing regime "is a joke," Gilberti says. "Just look at the guys on TV. There's steroid testing?" He and others doubt that WWE, given the economic incentive to keep its stars wrestling, can be trusted to administer and enforce a rigorous drug testing program. Gilberti likens it to "putting Keith Richards in charge of doing drug tests for rock stars."
WWE says its program is comparable to other sports-related drug-detection programs (Black was involved in setting up the NFL's testing program). But WWE acknowledges that its wrestlers are given a "therapeutic exemption," enabling them to escape sanction if they produce a doctor's prescription and justification for taking a drug, such as for treating an injury.
"This is not a competitive sport," Black says. "If a worker tested positive at Nissan Motor Corporation, they would not be dismissed" for a medically justifiable reason, either.
Keller, though, points out that some wrestlers "doctor-shop" until they find a physician who will write prescriptions for the drugs they seek.
Keller is among several critics who say WWE needs a more comprehensive policy, addressing both its working conditions and the use of drugs. Until then, he thinks, wrestling might experience more problems.
This past Monday, it did. Brian Adams, the former WCW and WWE wrestler, was found dead in his Tampa area home by his wife. While police are still investigating, the circumstances of Adams' death had many of the hallmarks of Guerrero's demise. Adams' wife reported that he stopped breathing, and police said there were no visible signs of injury or foul play.
Adams was 43.
It's time for reform, Ashenoff says. "It's almost like there's an omerta," a Mafia-like code of silence among wrestlers, he says. "You don't snitch on each other. But it's just gotten to the point where enough is enough."
"I'm one of the success stories," Mero, 47, says with an ironic laugh. "I'm not dead."