NEW YORK — Hucksters make their living ahead of the curve, or at the very least, by selling that illusion.
So there was something satisfying about watching pro wrestling czar Vince McMahon being forced to come clean, if only this once.
“Steroids may or may not have had anything to do with this,” he acknowledged Thursday during an interview on the “Today” show concerning the murder-suicide of one-time WWE star Chris Benoit, his wife and son. “It’s all speculation until the toxicology reports come back.”
McMahon is right about that last part, though just two days earlier, his World Wrestling Entertainment issued a statement insisting that even though anabolic steroids were found in Benoit’s home, they “were not, and could not be related” to the deaths.
The statement went on to decry “sensationalist reporting,” then suggested the way Benoit went about the business of murdering his wife and son, placing Bibles next to their bodies before hanging himself on a weight machine “indicate deliberation, not rage.”
McMahon repeated that assertion in the interview, and he might be right about that, too. The shame is he didn’t stop there.
“There’s a rush to judgment,” McMahon said. “There’s almost a hysteria around us.”
In case anybody is still wondering why that is, tragedy seems to find its way into pro wrestling more often than called for in McMahon’s feverish scripts.
In 2005, Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his Minneapolis hotel room, the victim of heart failure linked to steroid use. Two years earlier, the deaths of Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig and Miss Elizabeth, the girlfriend of former champion Lex Luger, were tied to drug and alcohol abuse. A year earlier, heart failure linked to steroid abuse was blamed in the death of Davey Boy Smith, the “British Bulldog.”
In 1999, real life intruded on wrestling’s art when Owen Hart was killed trying to perform a stunt during a pay-per-view event. The audience had no idea Hart’s death was real — not just a stunt — in large part because the show continued.
Even Benoit’s nickname, “The Canadian Crippler,” was a mocking reference to the very real havoc the “sport” occasionally wreaks on its cast; he acquired the moniker, according to SLAM! magazine, because Benoit broke an opponent’s neck a dozen years ago by accidentally dropping him on his head.
Wrestling is hardly the only diversion that destroys bodies at an alarming rate, as the testimony of a handful of former NFL players before Congress this week reminds us. It’s not the only one, either, pressuring its participants to pop pills — and worse — in pursuit of ever-bigger and more spectacular performances. Just think of all the witnesses from baseball, bookended by the odd couple of commissioner Bud Selig and superstar-turned-informant Jose Canseco, who have made appearances before lawmakers over the last few years. And stories about well-off celebrities who have trouble handling fame and fortune are so numerous they’ve become a cottage industry.
The difference with pro wrestling is that tragedies like Benoit’s are almost part of its allure. McMahon and his handlers do their best to sell recklessness, then pretend to be surprised every time someone proves more reckless than scripted. It’s like that old trick of choking an opponent with a cord, then tucking it into your shorts and throwing up your arms in protest when the referee comes looking.
Just two weeks ago, McMahon had WWE cameras follow him out of the ring and toward a waiting limousine that exploded. His own publicists tried to pass off the spectacular fake as a real assassination and pretended the FBI was investigating. McMahon might have been hiding still, if not for the grisly scene at Benoit’s house and the attacks it prompted on McMahon’s empire.
McMahon was hauled into court in 1994 on charges of providing steroids to his employees a decade earlier, and acquitted. There’s no question he knows the difference between truth and lies, and now is hardly the time to be disingenuous.
If there’s a hysteria around his “sport,” all he has to do is pause in front of a mirror to find the huckster who’s responsible.