Inside Chris Benoit winning the WWE world title at WrestleMania 20: How Vince McMahon, Triple H, Shawn Michaels and more felt about making him champion

Today, Chris Benoit is a dirty name in professional wrestling.

Prior to his murder-suicides in 2007, Benoit was widely regarded as one of the best in-ring performers in the world.

Benoit is a former heavyweight champion

He used to tell everyone he was the ‘best technical wrestler’ in the world and they were welcome to prove him wrong. Precious few could.

Still, when he finally arrived as World Heavyweight Champion in 2004, it was still something of a surprise. Benoit wasn’t the typical mid-six-footer that Vince McMahon had made superstars around the turn of the millennium in the mould of The Rock, Triple H, Brock Lesnar and so on.

When Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit entered WWE in 2000 as The Radicalz with Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn, the moves were seen as WWE acquiring some world-class workers.

The Radicalz debuted in WWE in early 2000

They started off in the mid-card and many felt that was where they would stay in the era of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock at the top. But, by 2004, both of those megastars had move on, Brock Lesnar and Goldberg were on their way out the door and it was time to try something new.

Guerrero’s charisma had always been off the charts, but the in-ring work of Latino Heat and particularly Benoit had won them countless supporters in the locker room.

Benoit was booked to win the 2004 Royal Rumble all the way from number one and Guerrero would dethrone the exiting Brock Lesnar at No Way Out.

Benoit tapped Triple H out at WrestleMania 20

The Crippler decided to challenge Triple H at WrestleMania 20 and Shawn Michaels was included in that match as well. Guerrero had to face Kurt Angle.

Having these two guys as the focal points of WrestleMania is one thing, but to have them main event the show at Madison Square Garden – the Mecca of WWE – is a huge deal.

So was anyone in WWE against it at the time?

“No, not at all,” said WWE stalwart Bruce Prichard. “Everyone was for it and felt that he deserved it due to the work he had done up until that point. They felt that with the right opponents and if they put him over in the right way, he could be the man.”

Benoit may not have been a larger than life star, but Prichard explained why McMahon believed he could be a top guy.

“I believe Vince saw something in Benoit to make him believe he could be different enough and felt that once that bell rang, Benoit owned you.

“His in-ring work would convince you of anything and maybe he didn’t need to be that speaker that had always had that position.

McMahon was firmly behind Guerrero and Benoit

“Triple H and Shawn Michaels really fought for Benoit. They really thought he could be the guy and they really pushed for it. I remember that vividly.

“I don’t think there was anybody against Benoit winning the championship. As a matter of fact, there were a lot of people for it. The only negative for Chris was his verbal skills. There was some questions as to whether Chris’ personality was going to hold him back from being a good champion.

“So we thought, as long as you surround him and book him with colourful guys, you can use that to your advantage.

“Too often we look at guys at when they get into the top spot we say ‘oh, now he’s got to do this’ – no! Don’t f*** with it. My thing was let Chris be Chris. Let him do what brought him to the dance. Paul Heyman was another guy who was very adamant about that too.”

What transpired at WrestleMania 20 was, arguably, the greatest triple-threat in history. On top of that, the final image of the show saw Guererro and Benoit together in the middle of the ring with confetti running down as world champions.

Benoit and Guerrero at WrestleMania 20

“Vince was ecstatic because it was a visual of what’s to come, what’s next. Here’s who’s going to lead us into the next chapter,” said Prichard.

When they got backstage, Jim Ross revealed it was a real high point for the company.

“I know it was celebratory as hell when Lawler and I finally got to the back, a lot of tears. Not just from Eddie and Chris, a lot of tears from other guys,” said JR.

“They were legitimately emotional and were so thankful that they saw two of their peers have career nights in the world’s most famous arena at the world’s most famous wrestling event and they were just glad they were there to witness it.

“That’s the brotherhood that’s sometimes overlooked in this business and it shouldn’t be. Everybody was happy, I can recall that the post-WrestleMania party was very festive, everybody was happy. I’m privileged to be a part of that day. It really means something to me to this very day all these years later.

“The guys on the roster and a lot of us that were close to Vince kept encouraging him that we’re travelling in the right direction, these two guys would be great representatives and would ensure every time they’re in the ring they’re going to put on the best match or solid at worst. I just think it took a little bit of gentle persuasion. It took him a little bit of time, breaking old habits, breaking the mould.

The action between Benoit, Michaels and Triple H was amazing

“He saw that those two guys’ peers were very supportive of them and I think Hunter and Shawn looked at potential opponents going forward, how good does it get? You got Eddie and Benoit that you could be booked with. That was another reason, everyone wanted to work for Benoit or Eddie, why wouldn’t you?

“I think it took Vince McMahon a little while but it soon became evident and they had such overwhelming support from the locker room that it could not be ignored.”

Vince took a bit of persuading to go with Guerrero and Benoit – particularly the latter, but Prichard noted that Vince really took the time to help Benoit once he became the top guy.

“Still learning. I don’t know that that was ever anything that Chris was ever completely comfortable with. It was something that Vince did work a lot with him on personally, but Chris, he wrestled in the ring. That’s what he did best. That is what made his name for him. That is what people loved him for.

Fans savoured the magical moment between Benoit and Guerrero

“So for him to go and verbalise that a lot of the time, that was difficult. That was difficult for him. That was something that Vince did work with him an awful lot. You know you get the very best that you can out of it and it was a slow process. But the only way you’re gonna get better, no different than how you get better in the ring, is repetition.

“The only way you’re gonna get better at doing media interviews and speaking in front of large audiences is actually doing it. Go out there, flub up a few times, do what you have to do. But then you’re going to be more comfortable and when you’re more comfortable, it’s better.”

Benoit would hold the title until SummerSlam, but never tasted that world title gold again in WWE. Is that an indictment of how they felt his reign went? Possibly, but he remained a valuable player all the same.

Of course, Benoit’s title reign, the greatest triple-threat ever and that final image of WrestleMania 20 are never spoken about. That’s not his legacy. Quite rightly, he is remembered for the heinous crimes he committed three years later where he killed his wife and son before taking his own life.

Source: Sport

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