'Ring of Hell' tells disturbing story

"Ring of Hell" book cover.

The latest pro wrestling book to hit the shelves, "Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & The Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry," is one sure to ruffle some feathers. It's an extremely hard-hitting look at a complex industry in which performers die young, promoters get rich and broken families are the norm.

Unlike some other books of its genre, however, Matthew Randazzo peels back the deeper layers of a nearly impenetrable business that the author describes as its dysfunctional, sadistic underbelly. The book is compelling and controversial, no doubt, and if you're a devotee, it probably will make you cringe at the very least and even question your sanity for being a follower.

Randazzo himself claims to be a longtime fan, but you'll be hard-pressed to find any remotely sympathetic characters in this book. "Ring of Hell" is a heavy-handed indictment of the wrestling business, and the author pulls no punches about it. Then again, he's not trying to win any popularity contest, and he leaves it up to the reader to make his own judgment concerning the book's more startling and scandalous revelations.

Fans of the wrestling business will experience real shock and awe with this knockdown, drag-out page-turner.

If the title of the book isn't enough to hook you, the ominous opening quote from the central character surely should do the trick.

"The world (of wrestling) doesn't push you to the depths of darkness. You do. That drives me nuts ... It's not the world of wrestling that drove (troubled wrestlers) to alcohol, the world of wrestling that drove them to drugs. You do that to yourself." - Chris Benoit

The book, appropriately enough, was released on the one-year anniversary of the biggest and most tragic story to ever hit the wrestling business. The industry was shaken like never before when Benoit went on a gruesome weekend killing spree that claimed the lives of his wife, his 7-year-old son and himself.

Randazzo paints a sick and destructive picture of an industry he contends turned Benoit, a seemingly normal and kind family man with unimpeachable character, into what is described as "a brain-damaged, ogre-faced drug addict." The 5-foot-8 Benoit, a small man in a big man's world, was willing to sacrifice his health and his life for a cheap pop. And, if mangling and mutilating his body was the price for fame, so be it. Life without wrestling, it seemed, was no life at all for a man like Chris Benoit.

Randazzo describes in great detail Benoit's obsession with childhood hero "Dynamite Kid" Tom Billington, a performer Bret Hart once called, "pound for pound, the greatest wrestler that ever lived."

While he may have been one of the greats in the ring, the Dynamite Kid was anything but outside of it.

Racked with pain at an early age, Billington compensated by abusing his colleagues, becoming a bully who would make examples out of any weak personality in the locker room.

He was an acrobatic high-flyer who thrilled crowds with his daredevil style and risky moves, but lacking the size of a big-money star, he pumped his body with steroids and speed, his weight ballooning from 170 pounds to more than 250.

Benoit was one of the very few wrestlers the roid-raging Billington showed the slightest bit of kindness to. In tribute to Billington, Benoit made his pro debut at age 18 as "Dynamite" Chris Benoit in Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling promotion, and even began using some of the Kid's trademark moves such as the diving head butt and snap suplex.

It was Billington's influences that helped transform Benoit from an undersized, shy youngster into a driven performer and backstage disciplinarian. Like his wrestling idol, Benoit used abundant amounts of steroids and human growth hormone to enhance his body, embracing a lifestyle of self-destruction in a desperate attempt to overcome his size limitations. Billington's posterior was so scarred from his injections of huge dosages of horse steroids, Randazzo writes, that it could bend a normal syringe without breaking the skin.

The author relates the story that Billington, cousin of the late "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith, was so disliked that Jacques Rougeau had the Montreal Mafia put out a contract on his life to drive him out of the World Wrestling Federation.

Years of nasty bumps, drug and steroid abuse eventually crippled Billington's career and personal life. His ex-wife Michelle, whose sister Julie was married to Bret Hart, claimed he once held a shotgun to her head for hours, although Billington later maintained it wasn't loaded. The abuse became so bad that in 1991, while six months pregnant with their third child, she gave Billington a one-way ticket back to his native England.

Abandoned by his family and the business, he returned home a broken man, later losing the use of one of his legs "after competing in human cockfights held in the garages of gamblers." At age 49, destitute and confined to a wheelchair, he is now a footnote in a tragic chapter of wrestling history.

Randazzo also delves into possible reasons behind Benoit's catastrophic mental and physical breakdown, and questions why the pro wrestling lifestyle comes with an occupational mortality rate worse than that of drug dealers.

Benoit is unflatteringly portrayed as a self-mutilating wrestling junkie who always put business first, thereby earning the respect and admiration of his colleagues, and a favorite of wrestling's hardcore following that struggled to reconcile, in the wake of his grisly murders, that he had been such a "good worker" but apparently such a bad person.

The "Canadian Crippler," with his no-nonsense approach to wrestling and his tunnel-visioned, all-consuming love for the business, is depicted, perhaps unfairly, as a sadist to young wrestlers and, more accurately, as a masochist to himself. Stunted both physically and emotionally, the real Chris Benoit popped pills, shot up steroids and sacrificed his health to make a living in the ultimate con game, according to the book.

It was better to risk death than to miss dates, as Benoit proved in 2001, when he wrestled for three weeks with partial paralysis and a broken neck. What Benoit perceived as a noble calling became an unbridled and unhealthy passion.

It's no surprise that Benoit's close circle of friends, for the most part, ultimately met tragic ends in their obsessive attempts to achieve - and hold on to - success in the business. Benoit watched colleagues like the talented but out-of-control Brian Pillman and the good-natured, kind-hearted Eddie Guerrero suffer premature deaths after attempting to push their bodies harder than physically possible. Benoit, however, learned no lessons.

And while the book revolves around Benoit and his addiction to a career that ultimately led to tragedy, it covers a lot more ground than just his story.

Hilarious at points, depressing at times and shockingly salacious, "Ring of Hell" ($25.95, Phoenix Books) goes behind the curtain of a secretive world that is portrayed as a psychotic, bizarre subculture. The intense, ruthlessly compelling 341-page read is well-written and well-researched, as Randazzo scoured through volumes of newsletters, books, transcripts and shoot videos, in addition to conducting countless interviews with former WWE writers, some of whom obviously had left the company with bridges burning behind them.

While the narrative provides the reader with some level of backstage access, that inside look should be tempered for the sake of fairness and balance, since most of the highly-placed sources seem more than willing to dish on their former employer.

At points, the book comes across as a true crime story, which shouldn't be too surprising since Randazzo, the son of two corporate attorneys, was born to one of New Orleans' oldest and most colorful Sicilian families and has expertise in organized crime and political corruption.

It's that background that gives Randazzo a unique perspective on his revealing take on a mob-run Japanese wrestling industry in which verbal and sexual abuse run rampant, and where beatings in its "hell camp" training regimens were so brutal and severe that sometimes they were fatal.

It was in Japan's dojo system during the '80s, the author theorizes, that Benoit evolved from tortured trainee to backstage bully. Benoit was, in fact, the product of warped and twisted training grounds such as the infamous Hart family Dungeon in Canada and the Japanese dojos. It was a demeaning, nightmarish system designed to reward the strong and break the weak.

A virtual outsider with no vested interest in the business he's writing about, Randazzo plays no favorites, and very few main characters escape the wrath of his poisonous pen. His vivid descriptions of characters leave little to the imagination.

He describes old-school wrestling star and former WCW boss Ole Anderson as a cruel and close-minded ogre who "made Bill Watts look like Barack Obama." And those were his good points.

"With godlike confidence in his perfect judgment, Ole venomously ridiculed anyone who disagreed with him or wrestled him in a manner that didn't fit within his narrow, outdated conception of pro wrasslin'. Outside of his longtime cronies and his family, few could spend time in Ole's presence without being told that they were useless, godforsaken, pieces of ---- that would be better off dead. If Ole had been king, everyone in his entire kingdom would have been beheaded within a week."

Even the charismatic Dusty Rhodes, who also once ran the now-defunct WCW, isn't spared. Rhodes, now part of WWE's creative team, is described as "morbidly obese, boring in the ring, and ugly as an inbred pig farmer, but he was one hell of an interview, a lisping, jive-dropping, yarn-spinning BS artist who convinced the fans that he was the homely physical embodiment of the American Dream."

The revolutionary ECW is described as a company where drug use was not only tolerated, but encouraged. "If you pass a drug test in ECW, you're fired," was the motto of the ECW locker room, a strip-club atmosphere where booze, marijuana, cocaine and pills were used openly, according to Randazzo.

Former ECW puppet master Paul Heyman is described as a Jim Jones-type motivator who delivered hallucinatory pep talks that inspired blind devotion from a loyal cast of misfits.

"Heyman looked like he had just been plunged out of a toilet. Greasy faced, stubbly, red-eyed permanently distracted and disheveled, Heyman bolted through the locker room ranting encouragement and hype with Waffle House napkins with booking notes scribbled over the falling out his pocket," the author writes.

Randazzo's investigative expose is an engaging read that's bound to create controversy in wrestling circles. There are tales of sordid behavior, sexual improprieties, and "dysfunctional and exploitative" work environments. The language is coarse and colorful, and the author takes no prisoners as he shines a glaring light on the culture of the wrestling industry and uncovers some hidden - and inconvenient - truths along the way.

Some of the narrative, however, comes across as exaggerated and sensationalized, sprinkled with supposition and speculation, prompting some critics to unfairly give the book a Jerry Springer-type label. And some of the accounts, quite naturally, have been contradicted by others. But, being it's the wrestling business, that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise since it's an industry built on constantly working everyone else at all times, even when there is nothing to be gained from it. To Randazzo's credit, he occasionally questions his own sources' credibility, knowing full well the working nature of the business.

One source tells the author that Triple H, upon joining WWE in the mid-'90s, confided that "I don't care what I have to do, but I'm going to run this place," which seems highly unlikely since the wrestler was at best a mid-carder at the time, and his path to the top was hardly a slam dunk. Conspiracy theorists, however, would likely disagree, arguing that Triple H employed a long-range plan to manipulate his way into marrying the boss's daughter.

The subtitle of the book also is a little misleading, since it's fairly obvious that the pro wrestling industry - or at least the Vince McMahon version of it - isn't going anywhere soon, coming off the highest-grossing year in company history.

And, to the company's credit, significant strides have been made in its wellness program, a development that undoubtedly will save lives. Unfortunately, though, the company's drug-testing policy at the time failed to catch Benoit's rampant steroid usage. The policy contained one seeming loophole - permitting steroid use with a valid prescription from a doctor.

At odds with Benoit's portrayal as being sadistic are many professional colleagues who claim they had never seen a cruel side of Benoit. Unlike his childhood idol, The Dynamite Kid, Benoit was well-liked and respected across the board. Yes, he was a ruthless perfectionist who made seemingly foolish sacrifices, and he did expect rookies in the business to take their craft seriously, but mostly he was demanding of himself, always striving to live up to extremely lofty standards in a business he embraced with a child's enthusiasm. And those qualities are hardly limited to professional wrestling stars. That insatiable desire and drive to succeed, as well as a fear of failure, can be found throughout the spectrum of professional sports.

Did the unrelenting schedule and pressures of working for a corporate monolith push Benoit to snap and commit such a heinous crime? In fairness, it should be noted that the company had given extended time off several months prior to the murders, to deal with "personal issues."

Was it Benoit's reckless, high-risk style that resulted in massive spinal damage and brain decay consistent with an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient that caused his extremely abnormal behavior before and during his homicidal meltdown? It certainly could have been a factor.

Should the company have seen it coming? It's doubtful anyone really did, and it's unlikely there will ever be any real answers.

None of this, however, should detract from the overall impact of the book. There are lessons to be learned.

Randazzo contends that there were plenty of signs that pointed to Benoit's methodical meltdown. Despite being wealthy enough to leave the pain and misery behind him, he pushed himself harder and harder. Life without wrestling to Chris Benoit wasn't life at all.

In the end, says Randazzo, it was apparent that Benoit was falling apart. One ex-WWE writer commented that there no longer was any "bravado or bluster" in Benoit. One of the most respected and admired workers in the business, he was beloved by fans but never able to love himself.

"He seemed like a gentle guy in a rough business, and the business was eating him up," the writer said. "He seemed broken, insecure, like maybe he had just lost something. I remember talking to Paul Heyman about how great Benoit was, and Paul said to me, 'Don't tell me, tell him.' As if the poor guy needed to hear it." And, when the writer did approach Benoit and told him how in awe he was of the wrestler, Benoit insecurely responded, "Really?"

Perhaps those insecurities could be explained by the lack of respect shown to Benoit by an inept management in WCW, where politically untouchable performers such as Kevin Nash and Scott Hall accorded him respect more befitting a mid-card cruiserweight, privately calling him names such as "vanilla midget."

Randazzo relates one backstage incident in which a condescending Hall, talking to Benoit in a "casual, chummy manner," urinated on Benoit's cowboy boots while the unsuspecting wrestler thought he was being complimented. An earlier, more probable version of the same incident is much more unflattering to Hall. That account placed the two at a urinal where Hall was so off balance he accidentally peed on Benoit's boot, hardly an act of bullying, and more of a case of being drunk.

Randazzo quoted one insider, explaining the fall of WCW, as saying, "Those guys (Nash and Hulk Hogan) knew burying Bret Hart and Ric Flair and Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho was bad for WCW's business, but they knew it would raise their own value come contract negotiations. And the hilarious thing about WCW's downfall is guys like Hogan and Nash really, truly did not give a ---- at all. They seemed to think it was funny."

"There would be times when Hall literally couldn't put sentences together," recalled former WWE writer Chad Damiani. "His skin would be bloated. You'd see him in the lobby of a hotel, trying to talk to a fan, and he couldn't seem to tell their faces were registering with horror."

Despite being given a world heavyweight title, Benoit finally stood up to the power-brokers at WCW, leaving behind a lucrative salary for a chance to shine and be his own man in WWE. While New York was a much more tightly run ship, the company still reflected a culture that encouraged comic book-hero bodies that all too often came with a steep price tag.

Benoit and best friend Eddie Guerrero, who both fled WCW at the same time, did what it took to reach their professional pinnacles in 2004. Benoit had overcome the odds by defeating two opponents in the main event of Wrestlemania XX at Madison Square Garden to win the WWE world title. After the match, members of his family, including a teary-eyed Nancy and Daniel, celebrated with him in the ring amid a shower of confetti.

Guerrero successfully defended the WWE heavyweight title on the same show. Side by side, at the mecca of professional arenas, their dreams had been realized. But there was to be no storybook ending.

Two tortured souls, two world titles, two small men in the land of giants. Within a little more than three years, both would be dead.

"You always rooted for him, because he was a good guy and he overcame the odds," Dave Meltzer, editor of The Wrestling Observer newsletter, later said of Benoit. "It's like you watched Rocky, and in the end it comes out that Rocky killed his wife."

Soft-spoken and quite backstage, and somewhat of a loner, Benoit seemed troubled and lost, particularly in the final years of his life. His wife, Nancy, had threatened to divorce him, claiming that Benoit threatened her, broke furniture in fits of rage and was guilty of "cruel treatment." She got a judge to sign a legal order of protection, barring him from the family home. And in three months, she went back into court and dismissed everything. Some speculated that she took him back for son Daniel's sake, since Benoit had always been an ideal father.

Perhaps, contends the author, it shouldn't have been that great a surprise when Benoit, in a final fit of madness in June 2007, strangled his 43-year-old wife with a television cord, choked his son to death and then hung himself from his own weight machine. In doing so, he also ripped the heart out of the wrestling industry, destroying the image that so many fans - and friends - had of a man who had come to personify the profession.

Adding an even stranger twist to the horrific crime was Benoit leaving Bibles next to the bodies of his victims. Guerrero, an admitted drug and alcohol abuser, had encouraged the heretofore irreligious Benoit to try Christianity, and the two sometimes read Scripture together in locker rooms and on the road. The 38-year-old Guerrero would die alone of heart-related complications in a Minneapolis hotel room in November 2005. Benoit's own demise would come 19 months later, a month after his 40th birthday, at his own hands, through slow suffocation with no signs of resistance.

The two had shared the Word as well as Wrestling; now the final common denominator was death.

"He truly lived for the business," fellow WWE superstar John Cena would say after learning of Benoit's fate.

Randazzo, however, concludes that "Chris Benoit truly died for the business."

- Old School Championship Wrestling will present a show Sunday night at Weekend's Pub, 428 Redbank Road, Goose Creek. Main event is Al Snow vs. Malachi plus a tag-team tournament. Bell time is 6 p.m. Adult admission is $8; kids 12 and under $5. For more information, visit www.oscwonline.com or call 743-4800.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at (843) 937-6000, ext. 3090.