In an exclusive interview on TODAY, WWE chairman Vince McMahon backed off claims by his organization that steroids had nothing to do with the murder-suicide of wrestler Chris Benoit, his wife and 7-year-old son.
“Steroids may or may not have had anything to do with this,” McMahon told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira. “It’s all speculation until the toxicology reports come back.”
That was a retreat from a statement World Wrestling Entertainment, based in Stamford, Conn., had put out earlier, in which the organization said “steroids were not and could not be related” to the deaths.
Confronted with that statement by Vieira, McMahon said, “We didn’t say that. Our reaction was reacting to the hysteria of the media.”
McMahon explained that he and the WWE were reacting to suggestions that the phenomenon known as “'roid rage” may have led to the killings. Among the potential side effects of steroid use are depression, paranoia and episodes of rage.
The slayings of Benoit’s wife, Nancy, and their child were carried out last weekend. Authorities say that Benoit may have remained in the house with the bodies as long as another day before hanging himself, using the rope and pulleys from a weight machine. His wife had been strangled. Sometime after she was killed, the couple’s son was smothered. Bibles were placed next to the bodies.
‘This man was a monster’
“This is not an act of rage,” McMahon said. “This is an act of deliberation.” He added that investigators also found prescription medications in the house that may have played a role.
“This is a horrific tragedy,” he said. “It happened in pro wrestling. There’s a rush to judgment. There’s almost a hysteria around us.”
McMahon said that Benoit was known to the organization as “a mild-mannered individual,” adding, “there was no way of telling this man was a monster.”
Benoit married Nancy, who also worked for WWE, in 2000. Three years later, she filed for divorce, claiming that her husband “lost his temper and threatened to strike the petitioner and cause extensive damage to the home.”
They reconciled three months later. But there have been reports that the marriage had been under pressure recently, and Nancy had demanded that Benoit spend more time at home helping to care for their son, who was developmentally disabled.
McMahon built the WWE into a thriving force in entertainment, creating characters and building story lines that ran like violent soap operas from one big pay-per-view show to the next. The outcomes of the matches are scripted, but the wrestlers travel as much as 300 days a year, putting on shows in cities across the country on an almost nightly basis.
While the action may be staged, the wrestlers take a pounding in the ring and injuries are frequent. So is the use of pain medications. In an earlier taped interview with NBC News, former wrestler Lex Lugar, who battled addiction to prescription drugs, said that drug use is rampant in the sport.
Benoit, known as the “Canadian Crippler,” had failed to show up for two WWE events. When WWE employees reported receiving puzzling text messages from Benoit early Sunday morning and were unable to contact Benoit in his suburban Atlanta home, WWE officials called law-enforcement authorities, who entered the house on Monday and found the bodies.
Police reported finding anabolic steroids in the home along with prescription drugs. Sports columnists and commentators have attacked McMahon and professional wrestling for failing to control the use of drugs, which have been implicated in a number of deaths. After Benoit's suicide and the slaying of his family, those criticisms intensified.
On Monday, WWE replaced its “Monday Night Raw” television show with a three-hour tribute to Benoit. Shortly afterward, when it became public knowledge that he had killed his wife and child, it pulled a tribute to him from its Web site. The organization also released the statement in which it said steroids were not to blame for the tragedy.
McMahon’s steroid charge
Vieira cited statistics showing that 60 wrestlers have died before the age of 65 since 1985 and said, “It seems like early death is almost an occupational hazard.”
McMahon questioned that number and said that he can speak only to five wrestlers who have died while under contract to the WWE or its predecessor, the WWF.
Among those who have died were Eddie Guerrero, who succumbed in 2005 to heart failure linked to steroid use. Curt “Mr. Perfect” Henning died of a drug overdose in 2003, and Davey Boy Smith, the “British Bulldog,” died in 2002 of heart failure, also linked to steroids.
McMahon referred several times to the WWE’s “wellness program,” which the organization began in February, 2006. The WWE claims to test its athletes for steroids and other drugs and says that Benoit was last tested in April of this year. The results were negative, the WWE says.
Two weeks ago, McMahon had staged his own death in a spectacular car explosion and had not been seen since. WWE publicists claimed that the FBI was working on the case. But when Benoit and his family were found, McMahon re-emerged to fight off the attacks on his business.
Born Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the 61-year-old got involved in professional wrestling through his father, Vincent J. McMahon, a wrestling promoter, whom McMahon did not meet until he was 12 years old. The family business was originally called the World Wide Wrestling Federation. McMahon later changed that to the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, but when the World Wildlife Fund objected in court to McMahon's use of those initials, he changed the name again to World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE.
Under McMahon, professional wrestling underwent a renaissance during the 1980s that saw the creation of the "Wrestlemania" pay-per-view extravaganzas that began in 1985.
In 1994, McMahon stood trial on charges of providing his wrestlers with steroids. He admitted to taking the drugs himself during the 1980s but denied providing them to his wrestlers or ordering them to take them. He was acquitted of the charges.
Mr. McMahon ‘presumed dead’
In WWE shows, McMahon plays a character called “Mr. McMahon” who is seen as an evil overlord. Donald Trump once joined the antics, participating in a staged feud with McMahon.
But on June 11, after a Monday Night Raw broadcast, cameras followed “Mr. McMahon” out of the arena and into his limousine, which was then shown exploding. The WWE said that Mr. McMahon was “presumed dead,” and claimed that the FBI was investigating.
Monday night’s edition of “Raw” was supposed to include a tribute to “Mr. McMahon,” but when news broke that day that Benoit was dead, Vince McMahon reappeared and a tribute to Benoit aired.
“Everybody in this organization, to my knowledge, is well-adjusted family people,” McMahon said. “They go to work like everybody else. They’re performers. We put smiles on faces. That’s our job description, not to be tainted and smeared by this.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints