Wrestling with lies and demons

Benoit and Guerrero celebrate at WrestleMania XXAs I rode home on the MARC train the other night, I saw several people reading the sprawling Washington Post features section piece on the sad lives and early deaths of professional wrestlers Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. This led into a series of hard-to-answer questions about why so many wrestlers die young, other than the assumed impact of illegal steroids on their hearts. I should state right up front that I don't get pro wrestling. However, I have a friend who sort of does (Hi, Larry) and he got me to thinking about the suicide of Benoit, who had killed his wife and son. Since this story involved Southern culture, to one degree or another, I assumed that a religion ghost would come up sooner or later.

Sure enough, there is Godtalk in reporter Paul Farhi's story. Here is the opening of the story:

Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, best friends through thin times and thickening bodies, strutted in shared triumph around the ring in Madison Square Garden. Guerrero had just successfully defended his World Wrestling Entertainment title; Benoit had defeated two opponents to wear the belt as world heavyweight champion.

The wrestling was scripted, but the mutual sense of achievement on March 14, 2004, was real. After all the travel on back roads, the spiritual and pharmacological comfort, the dreams and near-death, the two pals had reached the professional pinnacle together.

Spiritual comfort?

The two men had a long friendship, traveling together in a circuit that weaved through Mexico, Japan, Europe and the United States. As wrestlers, both lived in near-constant pain, coping with the bruising, often lonely lifestyle with such drugs as sedatives and narcotic painkillers.

For Guerrero, an admitted alcoholic and drug abuser, prayer became a tool to help tame his torments. He encouraged Benoit to try Christianity, and in the later years of their friendship, they sometimes read Scripture together -- in locker rooms and hotel rooms, on soul-searching road trips.

This leads to a pretty obvious question: What does it mean to "try Christianity"?

Is there some kind of network of Christians in pro wrestling, as there is in legitmate sports? There are a wide variety of faith groups active in Hollywood these days. Wrestling, after all, is part sports and part Hollywood -- with lots of fakery and imagination thrown in. It's hard to imagine a kind of pro-wrestling parachurch ministry, but it's pretty easy to check this kind of thing out.

At the very least, one could establish whether these men were active in any congregation near their homes, even if they spent very little time at home (which is part of the overarching sadness behind the entire sordid tale of life on the wrestling road).

Faith shows up again at the crucial moment in the story, when Guerrero dies young and, perhaps, Benoit begins to slide deeper into despair. Their friendship had grown even deeper when Benoit helped his comrade recover from a near-fatal car wreck.

Guerrero's accident helped strengthen his religious convictions, and he sought to bolster Benoit's faith, too, says [Carlos] Ashenoff. Both men had rocky marriages punctuated by separations (Nancy Benoit filed for divorce in 2003, alleging that her husband had threatened her, but she eventually withdrew the petition).

When Guerrero finally was anointed WWE champion in early 2004 (he "lost" his title four months later), the organization marketed his triumph as a redemption story. The company released a DVD recounting his life story, and later a WWE-authorized autobiography (both called "Cheating Death, Stealing Life"). In both, Guerrero claimed that he had been sober for four years.

It was a hopeful, inspiring story. But like much about wrestling, it wasn't true.

And this is where I was very troubled about the role of faith in this story. How does faith mix with a professional life that is built on lies, when one works in a business in which cheating is part of the tradecraft? The goal is to create illusion, yet without any public confession that the illusion is real. How does one live with that?

Clearly the religious ghost in this story is real. It deserves attention.

However, if it deserves attention, then it makes sense to give it enough attention that it makes some kind of sense. Or, tragically, if the faith is senseless, then we need to know enough about what happened to grasp that tragedy. What role did faith play? Please show the reader more and let us wrestle with that.

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