Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review of "Ring of Hell"


Originally published at World Wrestling Insanity on July 11, 2008

Ring of Hell: the Story of Chris Benoit and the Fall of the Wrestling Industry is a book that’s been a long time coming. The professional wrestling industry has managed to fly under the radar for years, avoiding scrutiny from both the media and the government. For years, wrestling’s ethereal status as pseudo-sport combined with the general public’s ignorance to the inner workings of the business gave it a pass against most criticism until last year’s murder suicide involving Chris Benoit finally woke up the mainstream media. While it’s by no means the first book to take a hard look at the world of professional wrestling, it’s the first to adopt a take no prisoners stance that absolutely rips the industry apart. It’s also the first book to truly analyze what went wrong with Chris Benoit and why he went from being a beloved figure in professional to its most horrific. While it’s hard to argue against the criticism that author Matthew Randazzo V makes, it’s equally hard to take his criticism seriously as the book stumbles across the fine line between muck-raking and sensationalism. Regrettably, Randazzo’s approach to exposing the business’ working conditions ultimately fails. The author’s attempt to reveal the sickness inside the business is tantamount to a surgeon performing a biopsy with a chainsaw rather than a scalpel. By the time you’re finished reading Ring of Hell, you can’t help but wonder if Randazzo’s mother was gang-raped by a carload of wrestlers while Vince McMahon stood by and watched or whether he’s just that hell-bent on writing a sensationalized attack to cash in on the Benoit incident.

Whatever Randazzo’s motives, it’s a shame because Ring of Hell could have been a great book. Randazzo displays a lot of potential but the book falls prey to repetitiveness and just plain mediocre writing. At times, it is smartly written and at other times, it reads like a post on a wrestling board populated by junior high students. As clever as it may have seemed to the author, the comparisons to the porn industry get old rather quickly. It’s even worse when you see the same adjectives used over and over throughout the book. One has to wonder what the book might have looked like had an editor taken the time to go over it.

Randazzo’s love for his subject is clear from this particular piece of prose, “The drug-addicted cretin who knowingly turned himself into a crippled junkie for pro wrestling fame is surreal in comparison to Chris Benoit, the friend and family man; and that loving father and doting husband is surreal in comparison to Chris Benoit, the wrestler” (p. 20) Add that to the following gem and you can imagine Randazzo’s true feelings on Benoit:


I can’t imagine many wrestling fans reading this book without feeling insulted. Every page drips with venom and Randazzo seems to hold as much disdain for fans as he does for the industry itself. It’s hard to take the book seriously when he refers to the fans’ reaction to Benoit’s death as follows: “A sizable number of these fans would treat Benoit’s murder of his wife and child as a tragedy precisely because it would destroy any hopes of a future Benoit match. For many of them, it was hard to reconcile that Benoit was such a “good worker” but apparently such a bad person.” P. 261. Randazzo’s contempt for wrestling as well as its fans reminds me of a fundamentalist preacher trying to warn his audience against the evils of rock and roll music. Not only is the music bad but the fans are bad for listening to it. Sinner repent indeed.

While Randazzo organizes the facts into a comprehensive form, his analysis of the facts devalues the work he has put into researching the murders. Randazzo seems to be ignorant to some of the most elemental principles of human psychology. For instance, he seems oblivious to the common phenomenon of hero worship and fandom as seen when he discusses Benoit’s adulation for his hero Tom Billington (aka Dynamite Kid). “Tracing the decline in Chris Benoit’s mental health is complicated by the considerable evidence that he was always something of a crackpot. Benoit’s adolescent infatuation with Tom Billington seems neurotic and pitiful in retrospect: why was an otherwise normal teenage boy so abjectly preoccupied with receiving the approval of a pro wrestler?” Unlike billions of people on the planet, Randazzo has seemingly never looked up to anyone nor heard of celebrities.

Randazzo’s armchair psychology and failure to grasp this basic concept made me wonder whether I was reading the wrestling equivalent of Seduction of the Innocent. At times, his deductive skills bordered on the ridiculous as evident by the following “The cumulative stress of the road itself-the monotony, the pressure, the loneliness-was enough to drive many normal insane by itself” (p. 291). If the grind of the road is that deleterious to wrestlers, Randazzo may want to alert psychiatrists to the gold mine of patients waiting in wrestling as well as the over-the-road truck driving industry.

Time after time, Randazzo’s posits are undermined by ridiculous statements about the simplest things. Like many before him, he makes a convincing case that the daily grind of working in the ring combined with no off season is nothing short of suicidal. Yet the lack of understanding on the industry itself draws his total understanding of the business into question. It’s like someone giving you a discourse on calculus when they can’t show a grasp of basic addition. His comments on bumps clearly show he has an imprecise grasp of the fundamentals of wrestling given the following, “There is no “right way to fall, everything a pro wrestler does hurts” (p. 50). Contrary to Randazzo’s assertion, there is a right way to fall. Anyone who’s watched Tough Enough or spent time in MMA knows that there are techniques that can be used to fall without being hurt.. He also seems to ignore the golden rule of wrestling which is to protect your opponent. Few people will argue that wrestlers have an easy job you can’t help but wonder how much of the business Randazzo really understands.

On the surface, it appears that Randazzo has done a lot of research into the subject but his lack of understanding with basic concepts like bumps is troubling. Further weakening his work is that he fails to grasp (or just doesn’t care about) the idea that wrestling isn’t the only industry with its share of problems and scandals. What’s different about wrestling than say, football is that wrestling has flown under the radar for so long that it’s gotten a pass. And while pro football has seen some reforms such as drug testing and improved benefits for older players, one can hardly argue that the NFL doesn’t have its fair share of problems. Professional wrestling is definitely in need of reform but Randazzo’s book fails by being so over the top with its criticism that you can’t help but feel you’re taking part in a witch hunt. If the author let his disdain for the business take a backseat to his actual writing, it might have been more effective.

Despite the author’s heavy handed approach, the book does an excellent job of speculating what might have happened to cause Chris Benoit to kill his wife and son. Randazzo makes a strong case that a combination of a pre-existing mental condition, the physical torture Benoit subjected his body to coupled with a combination of prescription drug and steroid abuse set a timer that led to Benoit’s ultimate self destruction. It’s the most thought out analysis yet on the subject and one that should stimulate some discussion.

The book’s true strength is the number of interviews done with former WWE insiders (mostly former writers). Randazzo presents one of the closest looks yet at what goes on behind the scenes at Titan Tower, something you know you won’t get from a WWE book or most newsletters. It’s refreshing to see someone with no ties to the industry present a no-holds barred account of professional wrestling after years of pandering by the so-called wrestling media. It’s just so disappointing that Randazzo’s end product is so flawed.

1 comment:

St. Fenster said...

Good Lord. I just read an interview with Randazzo and he sounded like a total dick. Aren't investigative journalists supposed to at least 'try' to remain impartial?

He even had unkind things to say about Gene Simmons and John Travolta in reference to entertainers addicted to adulation. I'm no huge fan of Simmons or Travolta, but hey, some people like their work. There was no need for Randazzo to belittle their contributions as being 'crappy'.

I have to wonder how many of his 'insider interviews' were provided by bitter, vengeful ex-writers with an axe to grind.