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Throughout the next x number of years of this project we are going to be in regular contact with the issue of Chris Benoit – in the true nature of the project we will treat Benoit as if he were any other. Although, by the early part of 1995 it was clear that Benoit, in a wrestling sense, was not like any other.
Benoit first came to the attention of the American audience via ECW in the middle of 1994. He was joined by Dean Malenko and Omari Nishimura as newcomers in part of the NWA World Heavyweight Title tournament. It was a sterile introduction for all three men - with Malenko afford mic time almost out of character to promote himself in an awkward babyface pre-taped TV spot. Malenko would soon be cast as a silent assassin heel as "the Shooter".
For Benoit, Malenko and the now forgotten Nishimura, the title tournament was a payday and a chance for them to show off their talents in a new market. By the time the "tournament" made it to air it had been all but overshadowed by Shane Douglas throwing down the title and the famous Tommy Dreamer ten whips with a cane segment.
But for Benoit and Malenko it would start a regular commitment in ECW. The pair were kept apart early on with Malenko now a "shooter" as a heavy for manager Jason, and Benoit a generic-ish babyface. Benoit was electric in the ring - a style that surely appealed to everybody. It was like watching a technical master on 2x speed. At this stage though, Benoit was a babyface, and a silent one at that too.
Here's where ECW got really smart, though. Benoit, even by this stage, was already probably in the top 4 or 5 wrestlers in North America (by early 1995 he may well have been the best). He was paired with Sabu in a set of matches that, in many ways, should've been game changers for ECW. Paul Heyman (Sabu's manager) spoke up Benoit as the only man capable of going toe-to-toe with Sabu.
The game changer for Benoit ended up being that match, but not in the way many would've expected. Early on Benoit went to flip Sabu onto his back and in a clip that's now become quite famous, Sabu under-rotated and ended up landing on the top of his head - spiking himself. Astonishingly, not only was there no lasting damage but Sabu was back competing again within weeks.
But the dye was cast. ECW captialised on the error and made Benoit "The Crippler" - now a savage heel who wasn't looking to beat people, he was looking to their their career. He faced Hack Myers and that match ended when Myers' "injured his neck". Surprising, somewhat, that ECW tried to do a worked injury in front of that crowd but the effect was clear.
It was also around this time that Benoit would be aligned with Malenko as a tag team. It was an interesting pairing as it seemed like the two might be better off facing each other rather than teaming, but in the line of the program that was building between The Public Enemy and the team of Sabu and The Tazmaniac.
The interesting comparison between Benoit and Malenko is that while neither man spoke particularly much, Malenko remained silent in his role but Benoit was being given more speaking roles. Heyman put a lot of time into his promos, and started to give him some promo time on ECW television. While this might not seem all that significant ECW at the time was a place where you were either a great talker (Foley, Douglas, Funk) or you just didn’t talk. Benoit’s promos were a work in progress, but Heyman worked to get him to a point where he was passable.
ECW were headed towards the ultimate three way tag team showdown, and it was the “Double Tables” match that showed Benoit at his absolute best. Benoit faced off against “The Snow Man” Al Snow in a fantastic singles match, ECW had developed a live event structure that seemed to allow space for one “technical masterpiece” at every live event, flanked by a series of squash matches, walking brawls and a main event or two. The main event, in this case, was Sabu and The Tazmaniac against The Public Enemy. Sabu and Taz won the tag titles, not before Benoit ran out, jumped on the top turnbuckle (where Sabu had laid a table across it) and superbombed Sabu off that table, through another table in the middle of the ring.
The set piece came a few weeks later, where Benoit and Malenko quickly ended the Sabu and Taz title reign, uniting with Shane Douglas to form “The Triple Threat”, a faction that while fantastic on paper never really got time to develop given Douglas’ departure was only a few months from happening.
It all aimed towards “Three Way Dance”, the show months in the making. The date had originally been agreed upon after Benoit ruled out a date of his own due to Japan tour commitments. It was the famous show that Sabu would end up no showing (read the full story on that, here). In the end The Public Enemy would be victorious, but given that Sabu was the link that connected the whole match together (he had beefs with both Rocco Rock and Benoit), the match lacked a lustre it might have had.
Benoit, however, was setting his stall out in the States though. Having become a big name in both Mexico and Japan, it was ECW where he made his mark. Perhaps the only surprise was that it took this long. He’d wrestled on WCW PPVs before, and even had a tryout match in June of 1995 with the WWF. Regardless, he definitely needed the seasoning he got in ECW, and he was absolutely comparable to Shawn Michaels – probably the best worker in the States in 1995.