Fans, Friends Look Behind Benoit Facade

"Do I still love this guy or do I walk away hating this guy who's so out there that he could actually kill his wife and son," the friend says. "It's hard to distinguish, and you can't meet them both halfway."

When wrestling fans wanted to be marveled by gimmicks, they followed any number of spandex-wearing musclemen. When they wanted a good show, they watched Benoit. He was old-school, he was intense, and his gimmick was that he really didn't have one.

"People looked forward to his matches," says Mike Mooneyham, co-author of "Sex, Lies, and Headlocks," a book about the WWE. "He was believable, realistic and probably one of the greatest workers over the last 10 or 15 years. If it was a bad show, Chris could save it in his match."

Reality has never been a staple of professional wrestling. Its stars are cut from granite; its canned drama could cause the most gullible to collectively roll their eyes. And then there's the schedule. In the old days, Russ Hart says, they'd bond on eight- or nine-hour bus trips together, riding from show to show, taking chairs to the head until the next stop.

The average professional wrestler today spends between 200 and 250 days of the year on the road. Some jokingly call "Marriott" their home address. Others become caught up in their make-believe lives in the ring. Flyin' Brian Pillman wrestled with a loose cannon gimmick that eventually led to him being fired by the WCW. He crashed his Hummer into a tree, slipped into a coma, and became addicted to painkillers. He died in a Minnesota hotel room, at the age of 35, of an undetected heart ailment.

Benoit's secrets -- and not-so-little-secrets -- have unraveled in the week since his death. The office of his friend, Dr. Phil Astin, was raided last week. Authorities want to know what might have been in Benoit's system at the time of the apparent murder-suicide. Friends of Benoit's say it was obvious long before last weekend that the wrestler was using performance-enhancing drugs.

"I don't think anybody had any illusions about whether he was on steroids," Hart says. " … just by looking at his physique and the muscle mass he had."

And then there were the statements by a WWE attorney this week who said the Benoits had recently been arguing over the care of Daniel, who reportedly had Fragile X Syndrome. Many people close to Benoit, including his in-laws, said they were unaware of any mental ailment.

That was typical Chris -- keeping to himself, hiding.

"You've got to realize that athletes generally handle their problems physically, so we're probably not the best with relationships," says Bill Watts, a former wrestler and promoter. "But here's the problem with athletes: It's not the fear of hope or reward that guides you, it's the fear of loss. You're always trying to look for the edge, to do whatever you can to maintain it so you push all the parameters.

"You can't live this persona and turn it off when you go home and read the newspaper or watch the news. It becomes you."

By all accounts, Chris Benoit was just being Chris Benoit on the afternoon of June 22. He visited Astin's office, took the hour-plus ride to Carrollton, Ga., through at least two construction zones and handfuls of stops, and smiled for a fan in a picture that has been plastered all over the national media. He made plans to fly to a WWE event over the weekend.

And then Benoit bound his wife's wrists and feet and strangled her.

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