- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Beware, this is a professional wrestling story. And when professional wrestling stories turn up in newspapers, on television and all over the Internet and provide material for the talk shows — as they have lately — something must have gone terribly wrong.

Something did.

Late last month, Chris Benoit, one of the marquee names of the giant World Wrestling Entertainment media conglomerate, strangled his wife and 7-year-old son in their suburban Atlanta home and then committed suicide, hanging himself from a weight machine. It was a big story, a horrific story and, to pro wrestling devotees, a shock of the highest magnitude. What sort of lasting effect this has remains to be seen, but the immediate impact has been huge.

“When it came to the theater of professional wrestling, Chris Benoit was considered as good within his realm as Michael Jordan in basketball,” said Mike Johnson, who writes for the Web site Pro Wrestling Insider (pwinsider.com). “This guy was revered in the industry.”

But given that its matches are scripted and choreographed — unlike basketball or football — pro wrestling bears more resemblance to Cirque du Soleil or the Ice Capades than true athletic competition.

“It doesn’t neatly fit into any one category,” Johnson said.

Except perhaps this one: big business. With its popular cable TV programs, a well-oiled marketing machine and live events that regularly sell out big arenas, pro wrestling — specifically WWE and its chief rival, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) — is a multibillion dollar industry fueled by a loyal, intense following.

And now WWE has a big problem on its hands again, centered on wrestlers’ rampant use of steroids and other drugs. This is nothing new. Such stories pop up every few years, usually in connection with a wrestler who dies young. The death of Eddie Guerrero in 2005 sparked numerous articles about wrestlers and steroids and inspired a revamped WWE drug-testing policy the following year.

But the Benoit crime surpassed anything wrestling has seen before.

“I’ve loved wrestling since I was 10 years old,” said Dan McDevitt, a realtor who once dabbled in professional wrestling and then owned a wrestling school and now occasionally promotes matches in the Baltimore area. “I remember Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik. I was never really ashamed to be a wrestler in the business, but this kind of made me sick to my stomach.”

McDevitt said he met Benoit “three or four times” and “just like everyone says, he was very respectful and very quiet. He was one of the nicer big names I met. He was always in the ring with young guys, teaching, pulling them aside and talking to them.”

According to court papers cited in published reports, Benoit was identified as “an excessive buyer of injectable steroids.” Steroid containers were found in his home, and an Atlanta-based doctor, Phil Astin, has been named in a court affidavit as prescribing a “10-month supply” of anabolic steroids to Benoit every three or four weeks. On July 2, Astin was charged with seven counts of improperly supplying painkillers to other patients, but his lawyer denied he supplied steroids to Benoit.

There seems to be less intrigue (or hysteria) with painkillers than steroids. But many in the wrestling world, including McDevitt, say it also is a big problem. The action might be phony, but the injuries definitely are real, and wrestlers’ bodies fall apart.

“It’s a tough sport,” he said. “I’m 34, and my body is half-broken up.”

Said Johnson: “The physicality is as real as anything you see in football. There’s no such thing as a prop chair. If a guy picks up a chair, he’s gonna use it. If a guy goes through a table, while the table might be somewhat prepared, you still have to break it with the weight of your own body. And they’re doing it without pads.”

McDevitt said about 50 wrestlers out of the 500 who signed up for his school completed the program.

“When people start getting slammed around and thrown around, man, that hurts,” he said. “You’re on the road four or five days a week, you start taking pain medication just to cope. … You do it to cope and get up and move the next day, and six months later you can’t go a day without it.”

But as in the Benoit case, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs grab the headlines. It is uncertain whether Benoit was a victim of ‘roid rage — the depression, anger and other personality disorders caused by the use of steroids. Other issues, physical and emotional, might have led to the crimes.

Former wrestler Hulk Hogan told Us Weekly, “It had to be something personal, something domestic between him and his wife.” He also claimed that Nancy Benoit “was into devil-worship stuff.”

Regardless of what led to the death of Benoit and his family, the hot-button issue of performance-enhancing drugs again has been brought to light, piquing the interest of news organizations that otherwise ignore pro wrestling entirely.

Lists of wrestlers and former wrestlers who died young are making the rounds again, only now they’re longer.

“That’s one thing you can’t deny,” McDevitt said. “It’s kind of eye-opening.”

Ex-wrestlers, beat up and down on their luck, have been quoted decrying the business.

Carlos (Konnan) Ashenoff, 43, described by the New York Daily News as having “an artificial hip on his side and a kidney transplant in the near future,” told the newspaper, “All these guys are dying, and nobody gives a [expletive].” The story said Ashenoff wants Congress to step in and deal with wrestling’s drug problem.

“That’s something that has to be looked at,” said writer Phil Lowe, who runs British-based Web site wrestlemag.com. “You can say steroids, but you can extend it to painkillers and prescription drugs. Even though WWE has a wellness policy, it basically needs to be ripped up.”

Critics say the WWE drug policy is a joke, that among other fallacies, it allows for a certain level of steroids.

“The level of what they allow is higher than the NFL or anti-doping agencies,” Johnson said.

Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE, told NBC’s “Today” after the deaths that Benoit took a drug test in April that was “totally negative.” But, he added, “That doesn’t mean he wasn’t taking prescription medication and perhaps even steroids when this happened. We just don’t know.”

McDevitt knows. He promotes wrestling events, the equivalent of the minor leagues, in the area as a “hobby,” he said. A decade ago, McDevitt was a pro wrestler working as an “extra” on the WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) circuit, meaning he was one of the guys in the ring who would get involved in the mayhem that would regularly break out.

“It’s not like people are sitting around talking about it,” he said. “No one ever tells you, but you can definitely tell when the guys are on it. Their muscles look really full and bloated, their veins are coming up to the skin. Their face holds a lot of water. You can look at a guy and tell he’s on the gas.”

But if wrestling is not a sport, if the participants don’t need to increase their muscle mass to run faster, hit baseballs farther or fend off charging defensive linemen more effectively, why bother?

“It was an unspoken expectation you have to be larger than life,” Johnson said. “If you see larger bodies getting more prominent roles in story lines and merchandising, you do what you need to do to get on a level playing field.”

In the 1990s, amid negative steroid publicity, the emphasis shifted to “story lines and trying to produce characters” like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. But according to Johnson, that philosophy didn’t last.

“The guys who look larger than life, who look more ripped, are more likely to sell more merchandise,” he said. “They’re living, breathing, walking super heroes.”

McDevitt said he was tempted to go on the gas when he was trying to make it as a wrestler but was dissuaded by a doctor when McDevitt told him of a history of heart disease in his family.

“It came down to me not wanting to make that 100 percent commitment,” he said. “It’s something that’s part of the game. I don’t think there are any top guys in wrestling that aren’t on it or haven’t been on it.

“I think everything in life comes down to money,” said McDevitt, who gave up his wrestling school because of the expense, the grind and liability issues. “If they start strengthening drug-testing policies, the bodies will start to soften up. If that happens, the marketing will start to go down. But I think guys will find ways around it.”

McDevitt said he has reason to believe that even wrestlers on the local level, especially those harboring big dreams, are juicing.

“Undoubtedly yes,” he said. “Not all of them, but the ones pushing and looking to make a career of it. Probably because they have to. They feel they have to get that look.”

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