Thanks for checking out this weekly instalment of The Wrestling Review Corner. I’m continuing to look at documentaries, and today I have one in a similar vein to that of the ESPN piece on Scott Hall, that I wrote about previously. It’s the controversy-stirring, blood pumping Death Grip, a special program produced by the CNN: Special Investigation Unit. At about 40 minutes long, it’s a really slick, professional news feature which shines a spotlight of accountability on those who rule the business, while being unshackled by any sentimentality towards professional wrestling.
The program mainly focuses on the Chris Benoit tragedy, a topic which polarizes opinion among wrestling fans. For those unfamiliar with what I mean, I’m talking about the haunting, dark, horrific story of the Rabid Wolverine taking his own life, after murdering his wife and young son. The investigators are quick to scrutinize the WWE, and rightfully so. The show puts the heat on Vince in particular and holds him to account, but does recognise the positive elements of his success and dominance in the industry.
For the most part, Death Grip tries to work out what drove Chris to commit such an act, and generally how the business and it’s plights may be shortening the lives of wrestlers. Of course, the damning facts are brought to light once more, as the business we know and love is hounded. Drugs, performance enhancing and otherwise, are brought to the forefront as a possible reason for the serious heart and mental issues that many performers go through and ultimately die from. Vince and wife Linda vehemently deny that there is a link, and refuse to accept responsibility for the life choices and demons of their workers.
The rich selection of interviewees really save this from being too skewed. They add a certain balance and perspective to proceedings. Chris Kanyon makes an appearance, and talks about working with Benoit. It was really cool to see a young CM Punk at the height of his time in ECW flying the Straight Edge flag, too bad the interviewer was nauseating in his condescension towards him. John Cena is questioned on steroids, and denies ever having used them.
Perhaps the most sobering moment of all was seeing Dynamite Kid, living in a council house in Manchester. The documentary doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of one of the game’s best ever performers. He is painted as a man who the business turned into a monster. His former wife describes him as a drug user, a violent and threatening one. It’s even more shocking when Mike Benoit (Chris’ Dad) recalls his son idolising this man, through his childhood and career.
He idolised a man who was spiralling out of control behind closed doors, and hurtling towards a breakdown. The Kid’s wife spoke of him putting a shotgun under her chin once, a claim which he confesses to on camera, “but he was only pretending” – There is a scary similarity between the two, both inside and outside the ring. It’s so, so depressing to see Dynamite Kid in this shape. He needs some help. Hello DDP!
One really interesting discovery is made when former wrestler Chris Nowinski steps forward and reaches out to Mike Benoit, asking for a piece of Chris’ brain for examination. He was looking for brain damage, as part of his organisation’s studies into the effects of multiple concussions in sport. The findings were startling – at his time of death, Benoit is said to have had the brain of an elderly Alzheimers patient. He got that way because of excessive concussions, according to Nowinski’s organisation. CNN are quick to make a link between his signature move the Diving Headbutt and the mental problems. Vince McMahon criticised the findings of that report quite justifiably, by questioning how a man with that kind of brain damage could have operated on a day-to-day basis (performed, booked hotels, rented cars, etc)
Vince may not have been willing to accept that there may be a problem with concussions, but he has gone a long way to try and fix the company’s drug policy. The widely known Wellness Program hasn’t always been at the stage it is now, and some would argue that it still has a way to go. At the time of this film, they were still criticised for leniency. However, they were also recognised for bringing in the same man who perfected the NFL’s program to clean things up in the WWE. His work was ongoing, and I don’t know how successful it has actually was.
At the time of Death Grip, in the aftermath of the Benoit tragedy, there was definitely still a lot of questions to be answered by WWE. After an autopsy, Chris was shown to have had steroids in his body at the time of his death. It’s a pretty damning conclusion to a story drenched in speculation, criticism and controversy. I love pro wrestling and I love Vince McMahon, but the figures are scary and have to be analysed.
To love this business, you have to accept it’s problems. I hope they will be solved over time, but for now, give yourself a bitesize education on the darker underbelly of the modern WWE. Death Grip explains a lot, and I’m absolutely sure you won’t be bored by it.
Thanks for reading.