boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Distant tragedy could affect Boston wrestling community

Beau Douglas got an early start in pro wrestling, training under local legend Walter "Killer" Kowalski while still a student at Somerville High School.

He was following the example of Chris Benoit, perhaps the single most influential figure in modern pro wrestling, who started training at age 18 and rose to become a world champion.

Throughout his 10 years in the industry, Douglas looked to Benoit as a role model and constant inspiration. But that's all over now.

"I'm always going to respect what he did as a performer," said Douglas. "But I can't respect him as a human being."

Last month, Benoit asphyxiated his wife, Nancy, their 7-year-old son, then hung himself in the family's Atlanta home.

The weight of Benoit's lethal breakdown has left the strongmen of professional wrestling staggering - and it's not just the emotional toll of a hero fallen into dishonor. More revelations and scandals are expected to spin out of the story in the weeks to come, and local promoters are worried that a distant tragedy could come home to roost in Boston.

"Chris Benoit was a great performer in the ring, and what he did outside of the ring has nothing to do with the wrestling business," said Douglas (whose real name is Beau Bedugnis).

But like many in the local wrestling community, he worries people won't see it that way.

SHOCK, SADNESS AND HORROR

When news of the deaths broke, on June 25, the only facts immediately known were that the former World Wrestling Entertainment champion and his entire family had been found dead in their home.

By June 26, it was clear that authorities believed Benoit had murdered his wife and child, then committed suicide. For many, shock and grief turned to deep anger.

"This is a guy they patterned themselves after, idolized," said Sheldon Goldberg, head promoter of Jamaica Plain-based New England Championship Wrestling (NECW). "Whenever someone who has become an idol to somebody does something horrific, there's some sense of betrayal there."

Gabe Sapolsky, chief booker for the East Coast promotion Ring of Honor, described it as "heartbreak." Born and raised in Brookline, Sapolsky has become one of the most important players in the world of independent

wrestling. Boston is a regular stop for Ring of Honor's tours, including a major show scheduled for August.

"I really can't speak how just utterly sad and what a state of disbelief everybody is in, and it's because Chris Benoit was so respected and so influential," said Sapolsky.

Although he loomed large inside the industry, few in the mainstream media had ever heard the name "Chris Benoit" before flocking to cover the sensational murder-suicide. Local wrestlers cringed when reporters at a

press conference held by police outside of Benoit's home began to shout out questions about "roid rage."

"People can make all kinds of theories, all kinds of speculation, was it steroids, was it this, was it that? You know what, it was probably a bunch of different things," said NECW wrestler Alex Arion (real name, Alex Pliakis).

"Whatever the reason was, it was still B.S. You're never gonna justify it," said Arion.

Most of the people who spoke for this story worry that pro wrestling will become the scapegoat for the kind of tragic crime that can be found in all walks of life.

But Benoit was at the top of an industry that even supporters admit is "difficult" -- especially where WWE is concerned.

"You're not home a lot. You're on the road, traveling, on a plane, every morning a different city, and you're hurt, but you still have to perform," said Paul Richards, a promoter with NECW who worked for WWE and later as New England promoter for Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW).

At the top levels, the pressure of filling one of WWE's top spots is intense, he said.

"If you hurt yourself, or sprain your neck, or hurt your leg, you're going to try to fight your way through it to maintain your position, because if you're not there, someone else is going to step in," he said.

IS WRESTLING THE PROBLEM?

In order to ascend the ranks while working with pain and injury, some wrestlers turn to drugs -- prescription painkillers and muscle-building anabolic steroids, which can be legally prescribed for injuries or illegally

abused for bodybuilding. The resulting wear and tear has sent almost 90 professional wrestlers to an early grave over the last two decades (see sidebar).

But could it drive a man to murder?

Many concede that the high-impact world of WWE -- both in the ring and backstage -- may have played a role in shaping what Chris Benoit became. But one person after another insisted it was too simplistic to point to wrestling as the explanation for why Benoit snapped.

"This is an issue about one guy who did something horrific," said Goldberg. "It's an easy way out to say that it was steroids or roid rage, or that it was some byproduct of wrestling-related drug use."

Many believe that both the media and the general public bring preconceptions about wrestling to the table when they see the headlines about Benoit -- shining the same bad light on everyone in the industry.

"In the public eye, wrestling's already bad," said D.C. Dillinger, a performer with NECW (whose real name is David Cahill). "People look down on it as lowbrow entertainment, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator. That isn't true, but that's the perception of wrestling."

The Benoit story is part and parcel of a daily problem faced by local wrestling promotions -- dealing with the fallout from what happens in the WWE.

THE BROAD BRUSH

Local promotions like NECW and the Melrose-based Millennium Wrestling Federation (for which Beau Douglas performs) have to live with the overwhelming dominance of WWE in the world of professional wrestling. But they don't have to like it.

"Our biggest fight, on a daily basis, is to differentiate ourselves from WWE," said Goldberg.

NECW intentionally steers away from the level of sexual content and violence seen in WWE programming. Goldberg hopes this has enabled the promotion to build up trust with its audience -- a vital connection in the midst of a wrestling scandal, when the lines between staged storylines and real crime blur in the minds of many.

At an NECW event in Quincy just days after the Benoit story broke, fans managed to get past the bad news. Nearly 200 people turned out, mostly families with children, to cheer and jeer their local heroes and villains with boisterous enthusiasm.

"I was scared to death ... that there was going to be nobody there," Goldberg said. "It restored my faith that people who are fans are going to continue to be fans."

Goldberg worries that the ongoing Benoit scandal will encourage people to paint everyone in wrestling with the same broad brush. In the end, he can only put his trust in the local fan base to understand the difference.

"When something like this happens, it's like, 'Oh my God,' did I do all this work and spend all this time only to have some external thing pull the rug out from under me?" Goldberg said. "The truth is you've got to have faith in the people that have been coming out and supporting you."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES