Triumph and Tragedy: A Tribute to Some of the Hardest Working Wrestlers Ever

Kenny McKnightContributor IIIOctober 14, 2011

There have been several groups throughout the history of wrestling; many existing solely on camera and in the ring. Some groups are formed to combine numbers in hope of gaining more political power backstage, but sadly very few are formed out of a shared passion for the wrestling industry.

During the '90s, wrestling fans were treated with seeing a group of wrestlers rise from the independent circuit, through Extreme Championship Wrestling, World Championship Wrestling, and finally World Wrestling Entertainment, bringing us some of the very best technical wrestling ever seen in the history of pro wrestling.

They reached the pinnacle of success, and have also been cursed with some of the greatest tragedies the business has ever witnessed.

Whether they were part of the Four Horsemen, the Filthy Animals, or even The Radicalz, Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit gave their all for the business they loved.

Benoit, Jericho, and Malenko first really started to make names for themselves in Japan. They were true students of the business and took in many aspects of the Japanese wrestling style, garnering the attention of several American promotions. Malenko worked with his brother, Joe, in a tag team, capturing titles in Japan and gaining much recognition for their technical skills.

Benoit wrestled as the Pegasus Kid, his style reminiscent of the Dynamite Kid. He put on classic matches with many of Japan’s greatest. Jericho also did a good deal of work in Japan, taking quite a bit of their more high-flying arsenal and putting his own touches on it.

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Eddie Guerrero began making a name for himself in Mexico. Being part of the famous Guerrero family, he had instant recognition, but also had to work hard to live up to his family name. He formed a successful tag team with Art Barr, garnering interest from several major promotions.

His rocket ride to the top was cut short, however, as his partner, Art Barr, passed away before they finalized any major deals. Eddie adopted Barr’s frog splash finisher as a tribute to his friend and partner; the move would become synonymous with Eddie Guerrero in later years.

These four men eventually made their way to a small promotion in Pennsylvania known as NWA Eastern Championship Wrestling, hoping to get their first big break in the United States. It was here that they really began to turn heads with their fast-paced, technical styles. They all felt a connection through their passion for wrestling, and their paths would intertwine throughout their careers.

After spending some time in ECW, gaining popularity with fans in the United States, Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit made the move to World Championship Wrestling, seeing the opportunity to apply their trade on a worldwide platform.

WCW used the four to help establish their Cruiserweight title, and the matches that followed proved to be some of the very best in the history of WCW.

Along with an influx of Mexican wrestlers, the Cruiserweight division in WCW became a huge attraction. Politics within the company however, would prove to sour things.

Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko were inducted into the infamous Four Horsemen, giving them a major boost in popularity. Benoit moved up through the ranks of WCW for a short time before being knocked back down the ladder in favor of older veterans with more political pull.

Dean Malenko was thrust into the shadows and nearly forgotten by the company. Eddie and Jericho were put in badly booked storylines and were being horribly misused. They all agreed that something needed to change.

Then the wrestling world was rocked when Owen Heart died during a WWF pay per view event. Benoit and Jericho both knew Owen and were friends with him through their training in The Dungeon, a wrestling school ran by Owen’s father Stu Hart.

Benoit wrestled Bret Hart in a memorial match on Nitro, which was considered to be one of the best technical matches, possibly of all time. Benoit went on to win the WCW World title, only to vacate it on the same night.

Tired of WCW’s politics, Chris Jericho left the company in 1999, debuting on WWE Raw to confront The Rock. He began a campaign interrupting wrestlers and telling them that he was there to save the WWE. In 2000, Benoit, Malenko, and Guerrero joined Jericho in WWE, forming a stable with Perry Saturn known as The Radicalz.

The group became very popular in the WWE until splitting up when Dean Malenko announced his retirement from wrestling. Chris Jericho, the one man out of this group of friends who wasn’t in the group, had many classic matches with the other members during this time.

Eddie Guerrero was released from the WWE to deal with drug and alcohol problems and many people worried that he would never return. The rest of the guys moved on with their careers, racking up wins and a few titles along the way.

Eddie battled with his demons, which nearly took his life and destroyed his family. He finally managed to clean up his act and repair damaged relationships with his friends and family before being brought back to the WWE.

Chris Jericho went on to feud with the many of WWE’s top stars, teaming with Chris Benoit and winning the WWE tag team titles on SmackDown. Benoit was injured after a very brutal Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match. He and Jericho dropped the belts and Benoit had to get surgery to repair his neck after rupturing a disk.

Jericho turned his attention to the WWE title, ultimately defeating both The Rock and Stone Cold on the same night to become the first WWE Undisputed Champion. Jericho had finally reached the pinnacle of the business. He would later lose the title to Triple H at WrestleMania, but his legacy was now cemented in the annals of WWE and wrestling in general.

Chris Benoit made his return from his neck surgery and eventually moved to SmackDown full time, where he chased the title for months with no breaks.

In 2004, Chris Benoit won the Royal Rumble, becoming not only the No. 1 contender for the world title of his choosing, but also the second man to ever enter at No. 1 and win the Rumble, an honor only shared by Shawn Michaels.

It was only fitting that Chris Benoit would jump over to Raw and be placed in a triple threat match with the champion, Triple H, and Shawn Michaels.

Eddie Guerrero won a battle royal on SmackDown following the royal rumble and earned a shot for the WWE title at No Way Out. Eddie would face Brock Lesnar for the title in a match that many people felt he could not win.

In a sad foreshadowing of the future, Brock Lesnar would taunt Eddie throughout the match out of frustration, saying “Die Eddie! Just die!”

With the help of Goldberg, Eddie Guerrero managed to defeat Lesnar and capture the WWE Title, his years of trials and tragedy finally culminating in him winning the top prize in the wrestling business.

Chris Benoit’s chance would come at WrestleMania 20. He was the fan favorite in the match, but many thought that Shawn Michaels’ involvement in the match was a bad omen for Benoit.

Benoit managed to battle past two of the greatest wrestlers in the history of WWE to win the World Heavyweight Title that night, solidifying himself as a wrestling legend, though this accomplishment would later come under fire. WrestleMania 20 ended with Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero standing together in the middle of the ring with their hands raised in victory.

Benoit and Eddie’s title reigns would last throughout the early part of 2004 but will be remembered forever as two of the most deserving title reigns of all time. Eddie went on to team up with Chavo again as well as teaming with Rey Mysterio and winning the tag titles.

Chris Benoit would feud with Jericho and many others on Raw before being traded to Smackdown in 2005. He would face his longtime friend Eddie Guerrero when the two of them, as well as Chris Jericho, took part in ECW One Night Stand, a one night tribute to the legacy of ECW.

Chris Benoit would go on to win the US Title, and Eddie would chase the World Heavyweight Title. Chris Jericho would feud with John Cena for the WWE Title until August when he would leave WWE after being defeated in a “You’re fired” match by John Cena. Jericho stated later that he just felt burnt out on wrestling and needed a break from the business.

Tragedy would strike a few months later, as Eddie Guerrero would be found dead in his hotel room on Nov. 13, 2005; the cause of death being natural causes related to heart failure.

Eddie’s death rocked the world of wrestling, and was a tragic loss that Chris Benoit would never recover from. After he won a match on a tribute show, Dean Malenko came down to raise Benoit’s hand, the two showing respect for their fallen friend.

Chris Benoit would go on to win the United States Title and eventually would lose it to Montel Vontavious Porter before being drafted to ECW after a highly competitive battle with then ECW Champion, Bobby Lashley.

Benoit would be entered in a tournament to crown a new ECW Champion, facing CM Punk in the match to crown a new champion. This match would sadly never take place.

The night of the show, Chris Benoit no showed, sighting a family emergency. Nobody then understood how serious the emergency was. Chris Benoit, his son, and his wife were found dead in their home. A tribute show was aired on Raw, only to later find out that Chris Benoit had allegedly murdered his wife and son before killing himself.

The effects of this tragedy are still being felt in the wrestling industry, with a congressional hearing looming and a lower morale in the locker room than ever before.

Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko took part in several interviews discussing Chris Benoit and it was clear that the loss of their friend, and the nature of this loss, have scarred them forever.

Chris Jericho became the last active wrestler of this group when he made his return to the ring, interrupting Randy Orton before eventually moving on to completely change his character, giving us a few more years of amazing matches that showed the brilliance that these men had.

He has since taken another extended hiatus, and rumors are circulating that he may be gearing up for a return.

These men have given everything for the business that they love. Good or bad, their impact on wrestling is something that can never be undone or forgotten.

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