Thursday, March 16, 2017

WrestleMania XX: Reckoning with the Redacted

The only result of a World Title match at Mania that doesn't feel COMPLETELY gross today
Photo Credit:
In 2004, I was the very definition of a lapsed wrestling fan. I hadn't actively watched in about three years. I may not have even known that they had gotten the "F" out and were now WWE. But my younger brother had taken up my wrestling fandom, and he and his friends were ordering WrestleMania XX on PPV. He asked if I would come, and I wasn't sure. But then he explained that The Undertaker was coming back as his original Deadman character, and I said, "Okay, I'll be there."

For the last few years I have dismissed the argument that WrestleMania's purpose is to bring lapsed fans back to take a look at the product. And then when watching WrestleMania XX this week, that story came back to me and I realized that I had totally done that. I wouldn't have come to watch the show if I didn't have the comfort of knowing that a character with whom I was deeply familiar with would be there.

The only part of this where the supposed wisdom in this practice falls apart is what happened in the months after. Did I get pulled back in and did I keep up with the product? Nope, not at all. I could have seen Mick Foley and Randy Orton have a spectacular hardcore match the next month at Backlash, but I had already checked out. Apparently, the card wasn't quite good enough to keep me interested. Maybe I subconsciously knew, "Yeah, that main event match was pretty good, but I bet one of those guys is going to end up murdering his family, so I better get out now while I can."

And I guess that's what I'm mainly here to talk about this week, the unfortunate happenstance of WrestleMania XX's final image being a jubilant celebration of a murderer. Chris Benoit beat both Shawn Michaels and Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship, in a victory that was basically the 2004 equivalent of Daniel Bryan winning WWE's top prize, a hard-working, highly skilled, unlikely hero that fans never thought would be given such an honor. Brandon Stroud has written that when Benoit won, he ran out into his front yard, screaming in happiness.

The trials and tribulations were evident on the face of Benoit as soon as Triple H tapped out to the Crossface Crippler. Benoit spent a few seconds with his face on the mat, bawling his eyes out. His reaction showed how much he had gone through to get to this very moment, and the weight of the company was now on his shoulders. As Earl Hebner handed him the belt, he turned around and saw his best friend, Eddie Guerrero standing there. Eddie had retained his title earlier in the night and kept his also unlikely title reign going. Two of the guys most loved by the true fans for their technical precision and adherence to the true spirit of pro wrestling were now the two guys on top in WWE. It was perfection.

And now they're both dead, and one of them killed his family. It's almost too painful to even think about.

Should you go back and watch WrestleMania XX, specifically the final match? I would never tell anyone what to do. If you never want to see a Chris Benoit match again, that is perfectly rational. If you choose to separate the art from the artist and view Benoit's body of work as being totally alien from his horrible final two days, then that's rational too. There is no unwritten moral rule that dictates something like this, especially since it's pro wrestling and none of us know what the hell we're supposed to make of it anyway. It's all fake, yet it's also brutally real.

I will say that when I watched the main event this week, I found myself engrossed in the match and at times actually rooting for Benoit. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I felt like taking a shower. How could I root for a murderer? What does that say about me? Maybe all it really says is that I can watch a wrestling match and push out all the annoying baggage of the real world that surrounds it. Is that a talent for which I should be rewarded for having? Absolutely not, it's just something I realized was happening. Benoit, Michaels and Triple H are three of the best guys of that era, and it's no accident that they were able to produce a work of art that stands alone and rings true today.

Above all, just watch the end of WrestleMania XX so you can at least see Eddie Guererro being happy. Watching him will never feel guilty. At least there's one dead wrestler who can make you smile.