This account of Chris Benoit’s life and time in wrestling has been described as a true crime story. It reads like the case for the prosecution.
(Before going further, I must say that had I been reading this book for “pleasure” rather than a review, I would have quit when I reached the point where the author refers to a group of sex workers as “subhuman ogresses”.)
There is nothing wrong with a book on Benoit being extremely negative about him and the wrestling industry — indeed, it would be bizarre for that not to be the case.
It’s also not inherently wrong to write a book that seeks to make an argument and concentrating solely on examples that back up that point. Once you accept a book is effectively just a list of every shitty part of Benoit’s relationship with pro wrestling, you can concentrate on the inescapable truth that there sure are a lot of shitty parts to list.
The problem with Ring of Hell, however, is the absolute lack of nuance or ambiguity that is a part of even the grimmest reality. Almost everything in the book is stated with absolute certainty, with no room for doubt and plenty of room for relentless hyperbole.
To take just a few examples, the book claims Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington “was a hard, heartless bastard who presented a terminal menace to absolutely everyone he met.” While that was doubtless the case to many people who encountered him in pro wrestling, I know for a fact that some wrestlers had a very different experience of Billington.
Similarly the book recounts the story of a kayfabed childhood Bret Hart fearing the Mongolian Stomper’s in-character threats to visit the family home, then notes “this story goes a long way in explaining why Bret had such trouble differentiating between wrestling and reality later in life.”
Not only is the latter half of this sentence stated as incontrovertible fact, but the psychological analysis is also presented as indisputable truth rather than at best a theory.
The book never misses an opportunity to present an incident or story in the most dramatic or powerful fashion. At one point it claims that a victim of the Hart family dungeon was hit in the groin so hard that his testicle “swelled to the size of a crystal ball.” A later anecdote of Taz experiencing an involuntary ejaculation during a particularly hard suplex is presented in a way that at the very least implies this was a regular occurrence across the industry rather than a bizarre one-off. Benoit and company are described as making their WWF debut “dressed like sleazy middle-aged men on the date-rape prowl at a disco.”
This is all a style choice, but it’s a choice that undermines the important content and message of the book. The Benoit tragedy prompted questions that many chose to answer with simple, single-factor solutions. Ring of Hell makes clear that in reality it was a deadly combination of Benoit’s own personality and experiences and a vast array of negative factors in pro wrestling from physical and mental deterioration to a cocktail of drugs to psychological trauma.
Unfortunately it’s presented in such a manner that even when it is stating uncomfortable truths, it will be all too easy for many readers to simply dismiss as so over-the-top and lacking objectivity as to undermine the book’s many valid arguments.