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How to Separate a Hero From a Monster


On a flight from Warsaw to New York City in the summer of 2007 I got some startling and unsettling news - my hero was a murderer.

Growing up, I had two big heroes in the crazy world of sports entertainment - Terry Funk, who turned out to be one of the nicest, coolest, most down-to-earth guys and Chris Benoit, who turned out to be a murderer. So, needless to say, when I was travelling back to my home country in June of 2007 and saw the headline on an airplane seat monitor that Chris Benoit had killed his wife and son before taking his own life, I was in shock.

My first reaction was disbelief which later turned into sadness and confusion. I couldn’t believe that someone I had looked up to since I was about 15 years old had committed such a heinous act. It stands as the most horrific thing that has ever happened in the world as pro wrestling. So much so, that World Wrestling Entertainment has completely erased Benoit from WWE history. They have removed all of his matches from their video library and have refrained from even speaking his name or making any reference to him whatsoever.

This has created a great divide among wrestling fans. One the one side of the argument, you have those who say that because of his actions in 2007, Chris Benoit deserves to be erased from the history books regardless of how good he was in the ring and on the other side you’ve got long time fans who still respect his work as a wrestler and entertainer and see no point in trying to pretend that one of the best wrestlers of all time, never even existed. There are also those, on the extreme end of things that continue to tout Chris Benoit for an eventual induction to the WWE Hall of Fame.

So the question remains - is it okay to be a fan of someone, even after they have proven to be a monster in real life? How do you differentiate, or can you differentiate, between the larger-than-life character and the real person? Let’s look at some other examples.

Hulk Hogan

The Hero: Hulk Hogan became a mainstream success in 1982 after his appearance in Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky 3”. Soon after, “Hulkamania” was running wild and selling out major arenas all over the world for nearly a decade. At the peak of Hulk Hogan’s popularity he faced Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III in front of over 93,000 people in March of 1987. Into the 90’s, Hogan continued to be a major star in WCW when he helped form the nWo (New World Order) which for a time eclipsed the WWF in popularity. In the 2000’s his career dwindled, but he remained as popular as ever, becoming somewhat of an icon.

The Monster: In 2015 a recording of Hogan talking to his son surfaced, in which he made several racial slurs. There was an immediate reaction from WWE, quite similar to what they had done to Benoit. Among other things, all mention of Hogan in recent years was removed and his status in the Hall of Fame was revoked.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that Hogan was finally welcomed back to the WWE, but his re-entry was not taken so kindly by many fans. A lot of wrestlers, especially black wrestlers, such as MVP, Mark Henry and others were also not happy about Hogan’s reinstatement.

Hogan was also involved in a long lawsuit with Gawker Media when a sex tape of him and the ex-wife of radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge was released. Hogan claimed he was unknowingly filmed and ended up getting $31 million dollars from Gawker, which put the company out of business.

Mike Tyson

For some reason, fans of professional wrestling seem to be much more unforgiving than their combat sports counterparts. While Hogan’s head still sits firmly on the chopping block of many pro wrestling fans’ minds, it’s funny how a guy like Mike Tyson is still beloved and celebrated by boxing fans, maybe even more so than ever in 2019.

The Hero: Mike Tyson’s legacy is sewn into the very fabric of professional boxing. He won 33 of his first 37 fights by knockout. At the age of 20 he became the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in boxing history. Tyson became an international celebrity of the highest order and made millions upon millions of dollars for his fights.

The Monster: Tyson has admitted that he is not to be trusted around women. Several ladies over the years have spoken out about the way he has conducted himself, with allegations ranging from harassment and groping to physical abuse and rape. Tyson’s ex-wife, Robin Givens stated that Tyson beat her on many occasions including once punching her in the head so hard that she bounced off the wall and fell to the floor unconscious. Tyson also spent three years in prison after being convicted of raping Desiree Washington in 1991.


Jon Jones

The Hero: Much like Mike Tyson in boxing or Hulk Hogan in pro wrestling, many consider Jon “Bones” Jones to be the GOAT of MMA. Jones is undefeated to this day in his 25 appearances inside the cage, his only loss coming by disqualification after an illegal strike in a fight he had clearly been winning. After taking the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in March of 2011, he went on to successfully defend the title a record eight times against the best fighters the sport had to offer.

The Monster: The list is long here … really long. Jones’ biggest critics will tell you that he is a cheater, having tested positive on multiple occasions for everything from steroids to cocaine and that as a result his wins are meaningless. But perhaps Jones’ lowest moment came in 2015 when he was involved in a hit-and-run incident involving a pregnant woman in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jones fled the scene of the crime after the accident, only to return moments later in search of his marijuana pipe. Jones has also cancelled fights at the last minute, been accused of homophobic slurs, started fights at weigh-ins and been involved with countless other degenerate behaviors.

Our Duty as Fans

Fame, pressure, stress, wealth, success and other factors are not easily handled by people. When our heroes fall from grace and are involved in or accused of terrible things, what should our reactions be? How should the organizations and promotions they work for handle these situations? These questions are not easily answered.

In the case of combat sports (boxing, MMA etc.) it seems that the promoters that manage these fighters’ careers are not too concerned about what kind of people they are outside of the ring. In nearly all cases of failed drug tests, after a suspension and fine, the fighters are almost always allowed back. Fighters like Jon Jones have pushed this to the limit, but as of this writing Jones is once again the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion.

From a civil perspective, it also seems that fighters can do no wrong. Mike Tyson has spent time in jail for rape and is a wife beater, but boxing commissions continued to give him a license to compete and promoters continued to find fights for him and further his career.

The world of pro wrestling is a bit different, though. Society may look at real fighters as “troubled” or “violent” people and therefore may be more tolerant when they do terrible things outside the ring. However, pro wrestlers are viewed more as entertainers and characters, kind of in the same light as actors or comedians. I think this is the real divide. WWE is also an entertainment company (World Wrestling Entertainment) that is geared heavily towards children and younger viewers. They have sponsors involved that may be lost if they don’t part ways with controversial wrestlers. Parents might not want their kids watching a real-life racist, regardless of how entertaining his wrestling persona is on TV. There is a lot more to lose in a scandal for WWE than for the UFC or boxing.

The Exception

I fully believe that all human beings are capable of both extreme good and extreme evil, regardless of age, race, religion, place of birth, gender or how famous they are. Our experiences in life shape who we become. Our reactions to these experiences and our behavior define who we are. Under the right conditions people can either do amazing things that no one could ever imagine or commit the most atrocious acts that no one could ever understand. I am also a believer of not giving up on someone. If the person is willing to change and is taking steps towards rehabilitation, they should be carefully monitored and fully supported.

Chris Benoit, who I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, is the exception. He’s the exception because he’s no longer here to defend himself. While other fighters and wrestlers have also done some repulsive things, there is always hope as long as they are alive. There is always hope that they can somehow turn their lives around.

In most cases, there’s an apology, a promise to get back on the right track, some kind of punishment for their crimes and some form of rehabilitation. In the case of Chris Benoit, because he’s dead and because he took the lives of others at the same time, there is only speculation. Did he have brain or concussion issues? Was this the real Benoit or was this just some kind of drug-induced / mental-illness induced moment of madness that he shouldn’t be held fully accountable for? How would Benoit be perceived now if he had somehow lived through this tragedy? The world will never know. And because of that, one can only assume based on the facts we have. And based on those facts, I agree with WWE’s policy.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to separate the hero persona from the real-life person. When those two worlds collide it can cause a disconnect for the fan. When our heroes are exposed as human, capable of foul and folly, it makes us question whether we should still be able to enjoy the great things that they have accomplished or whether we should still support them.

In my opinion, as long as they show a genuine resolve to better themselves and rehabilitate themselves and continue to take steps in the right direction, we should not turn our backs on them, the same way we would not give up on a troubled friend or family member. But just like with friends and family, sometimes it’s best to cut toxic people out of our lives no matter how much we loved or admired them.

- Daniel Austin (blog) (podcast)




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