CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, Ultimate Historical Edition, is available in ebook form. Purchase links to all major ebook platforms are at the bottom of this article. A free bonus preview of the new Introduction is at SLAM! Wrestling: http://slam.canoe.com/Slam/Wrestling/2020/03/21/22805760.html.
Publisher ECW Press says the print version of this new edition will be available later. The print version of the old edition is still available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/397SNpj.
You also can acquire an autographed copy of the original edition of CHRIS & NANCY direct from the author. Send $19.95 via PayPal to [email protected], or a money order in the amount of $19.95 to Benoit Book, P.O. Box 9629, Berkeley, CA 94709. Buyers will receive, in addition, printouts of Muchnick’s Introduction to the second edition, published in 2013, and Introduction to the new Historical Edition.
by Irvin Muchnick
In 1985 I had the vaguest of my handful of personal encounters, most of them inconsequential, with Vince McMahon, founder and chair of what is now called WWE. As you’ll see, the ‘85 brush was the most fleeting of them all. In fact, it wasn’t even verbal. At the time, WWE was Titan Sports, doing business as the World Wrestling Federation.
The most substantive of my interactions with McMahon would come in 1992. That was when McMahon, directing matches, interviews, and “angles” backstage at the “go home” television taping to promote the eighth WrestleMania, spent the better part of an hour on the phone with me as he strove, on deadline, to talk down my upcoming article in People magazine exposing his kiddie hero star, Hulk Hogan, as a user of both steroids and recreational drugs. (The resulting People story is collected in my 2007 book Wrestling Babylon.)
The 1985 incident, of no note to anyone other than myself, happened at a taping of WWF’s syndicated television show at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York. This was during the period after the company’s long run of recording TV in Allentown and Hamburg, Pennsylvania, and prior to WWE’s current regimen of elaborate live network TV productions at changing locations on the road.
I had decided to stop in Poughkeepsie on the way home of my commute between the Catskills, where I had a small country cabin on an acre, and New York City, where I kept a tiny tenement apartment in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan known as Alphabet City.
An unreconstructed bohemian on either side of 30, I had fallen — after a stint as an editor at a literary agency — into after-hours legal word processing temp gigs for white-shoe law firms, at work stations using an early system called Vydec. Because I typed close to 100 words a minute back then, I was in enough demand as a Vydec temp to make more money than I knew how to spend. I bought my little country getaway outside Margaretville, in upstate Delaware County, and arranged five city temp shifts across three days every week.
I had moved to New York in 1979 from my native St. Louis, where my uncle Sam Muchnick, the co-founder and long-time president of the National Wrestling Alliance, was winding down his legendary career as the industry’s premier global powerbroker of the post-World War II era. Thus, I had been following the peculiar wrestling business, with varying levels of intensity, ever since I was knee-high to a turnbuckle. In the 1960s, my family used to make ritual Sunday evening visits to Uncle Sam’s house in West County, where the cousins watched Bonanza and What’s My Line? on TV together while Mom and Aunt Helen ran out for ice cream. These gatherings often included drop-ins by Gene Kiniski and family during his tenure as NWA champion; less often, by Pat O’Connor, the former NWA champion turned perennial St. Louis Wrestling Club headliner and booker, along with his wife of the time and their daughter.
In perhaps the most enduring family lore of our wrestler socializing anecdotes, my older sister Barb, an accomplished pianist, started playing in the living room one Sunday night. Kiniski, a garrulous conversationalist, stopped to identify the piece: Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
I remember sitting next to Dick “Bulldog” Brower in my uncle’s box at a St. Louis football Cardinals game; Brower, pathetically, tried to rib a little kid into believing he didn’t know a thing about football. I remember Dory Funk Sr., from Texas, calling Uncle Sam to play a telephonic card trick they called “Mr. Wizard.” I remember listening to Sam’s end of the conversation when George Abel, host of the local hit TV show Wrestling at the Chase, called to complain that, during his interview with Fritz Von Erich at a taping a few days earlier, Von Erich had broken an unwritten rule by punching Abel on the arm, which actually hurt.
And of course, as recounted in Wrestling Babylon, I was at Kiel Auditorium on November 22, 1963, to see Lou Thesz defend the NWA title against Von Erich — they went ahead with the show just hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In my first years in New York, I attended a couple of Madison Square Garden shows a year. Through Uncle Sam, I would call his old counterpart there, Vincent James McMahon, father of the now iconic Vincent Kennedy McMahon, and McMahon Senior would direct the box office to comp ringside tickets for me plus a friend. I was usually seated just a few feet away from the MSG cable broadcast table manned by McMahon Junior. In those days young Vince was regarded dismissively, as the beneficiary of nepotism and a callow clown. The joke would be on us after Vince bought his dying father’s Capital Wrestling Corporation in 1982, and a year later had the vision to begin his cable- and deregulation-enabled national expansion, which blew up the industry’s legacy Mafia-esque territorial system. A behind-the-scenes promotional war shook out McMahon’s competitors — the last significant one of whom was Ted Turner — and a goofy and decentralized fringe form of junk entertainment got transformed and distilled into a few global brands; for the last nearly 20 years, McMahon’s publicly traded WWE has enjoyed clear multibillion-dollar dominance.
On July 14, 1984, all this started coming into focus for me at my country home in upstate New York. I often watched Georgia Championship Wrestling’s Saturday NWA-oriented show, World Championship Wrestling, on the WTBS “super station” of the then still-fledgling cable TV industry. That day, out of nowhere, the introductory Atlanta announcer suddenly handed the microphone over to Vince McMahon. Instead of the NWA show, an institution of early cable (and even, briefly, the most-watched TV sports program of any kind during the major league baseball strike of 1981), TBS wrestling was now under the WWF banner.
Obviously, McMahon had engineered a hostile takeover. (In wrestling history, the day is known as “Black Saturday.”) This drama coalesced with other hints I’d picked up on — notably WWF’s poaching months earlier of Hulk Hogan and announcer Gene Okerlund from Verne Gagne’s Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association. Something big was shaking.
Ever since that day, I’ve been obsessed not only with where pro wrestling has gone, but also and more importantly, with the culture-mongering concept of where the wrestling phenomenon has taken us as a society. (Feel free to skip ahead if you’re already way too familiar with this rap.) Business is business and wrestling is wrestling; there are no vectors of morality or “authenticity” here, at least none that aren’t risible. But the wrestlingization of American culture? The descent into what Juvenal termed “bread and circuses” as a distraction of late-empire decline and decay? Now there was an all-purpose worldview to which a casual wrestling fan, who aspired to writing subject matter with a little more intellectual heft, could cling.
Which takes us back to 1985 in Poughkeepsie.
This was the first wrestling TV taping I’d attended in a number of years, since my uncle’s Wrestling at the Chase productions at the KPLR Channel 11 studio in St. Louis. A few years later, by now living in California, I would go to a couple of WWF shoots — one at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, another at the Cow Palace on the outskirts of San Francisco. After the Cow Palace show, I recall driving with the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer to an after-party of the talent and crew at the bar of the Holiday Inn near the San Francisco airport. Koko B. Ware, the “Birdman,” hitched a ride with us, but he asked to get dropped off at another motel where he had an assignation with a groupie. Ware spent most of the drive talking about how classy WWF was and how he didn’t miss the cheapskate ways of his old wrestling bosses in Memphis. On the Holiday Inn bar dance floor, I made small talk with both Vince McMahon and his top creative assistant, Pat Patterson.
On the earlier occasion at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center, as I had at the Garden house shows, I maneuvered to a spot not far from where McMahon and his sidekick of the time, Bruno Sammartino, were doing the play-by-play and commentary. If I strained, I could even hear some of the hype and puffery they were spewing. My focus was on Vince, the trailer-park kid who had been privileged to get into position to seize this day of pro wrestling history. I wondered whether, if I studied him closely enough, his vocal and physical mannerisms might begin to explain what had prepared him to command this industry and monetize it in new ways. So in Poughkeepsie, I stared at Vince in the broadcast booth. And stared.
And eventually Vince stared back. Indeed, glared. Then he went back to his business.
Two things struck me on that night almost 35 years ago. The first was the interviews. In the old days, if a wrestler flubbed his turn “on the stick,” everyone just moved on. Extemporaneous imperfection was even part of the charm. But now, in impeccable, postmodernist WWF — later to become “the WWE universe” — interviews were tightly scripted and TV shoots were more like Hollywood movie takes. If a wrestler got tangled up in his syntax or omitted a key phrase, they would cut and restart.
The biggest eye-opener, however, involved the entrance of a wrestler called Corporal Kirshner. A journeyman performer, he was a knockoff of Sergeant Slaughter, the putative ex-Marine Corps drill instructor character who, after morphing into a babyface (good guy) and the incarnation of superpatriotism, became the third biggest star on the WWF roster in 1984. But after leading an unsuccessful attempt to organize the wrestlers into a union, Slaughter bolted WWF for Gagne’s soon-to-be-squashed AWA. Now McMahon needed a Slaughter 2.0 and Corporal Kirshner was it.
Music accompanied Kirshner on his walk from the dressing room to the ring. The Marine Corps hymn, I guess it was, same as Slaughter — nothing new about that. What was new was the roadies’ prep work before Kirshner even emerged. The roadies handed out tiny American flags to everyone in the first two rows. Dutifully and on cue, the conscripted extras waved the flags for the cameras, as if this were a spontaneous mass expression of love for the performer.
On the phone the next day, I explained the scene to Dave Meltzer, whose incredible newsletter was in its early years. I don’t have the subsequent Wrestling Observer report in front of me, but I remember Dave commenting something like this: “Folks, remember these tricks whenever McMahon gets tired of wrestling and decides to go into politics.”
Vince McMahon never got tired of wrestling, of course. But he and Linda did become political players. Linda spent a total of $100 million of the family fortune on her two separate failed U.S. Senate campaigns in Connecticut, in 2010 and 2012. In what effectively was a payout for Donald Trump’s role at the 2007 WrestleMania, the McMahons made the single largest contribution to the fraudulent, self-dealing, and now defunct-by-court-order Donald J. Trump Foundation. Linda was the first head of the Small Business Administration in President Trump’s cabinet, and now chairs what may be the most formidable political action committee supporting his reelection.
The wrestlingization of America is complete. So, too, may be its destruction. Tweaking truth in the name of entertainment has come a long way. The process has pivoted, conglomerated, into a nonstop assault on truth, in the name of power. What started out in the mid-eighties as a fan’s epiphany has erupted into the metaphor of one of the darkest eras of national and world history.
Irvin Muchnick’s CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, Ultimate Historical Edition, on Amazon Kindle: https://amzn.to/2U9E4Gc.