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January 23, 2015

History was made - and forgotten - last time Philly hosted Royal Rumble

WWE Royal Rumble
012315_Benoit-Belt_AP WWE/AP

Chris Benoit

There’s a reason you haven’t heard a whole lot of talk about what happened the last time the Royal Rumble was in Philly.

Despite the fact that its main event ended with the winner accomplishing something only one other wrestler can claim to have done - winning the 30-man match from the No. 1 entry spot - the 2004 Rumble has been all but erased from WWE’s history book.

And that’s because the last man standing that night was Chris Benoit.

A search for “Chris Benoit” under “Superstars” on returns the following message: “There are no pages matching your search. Please try different search term.”

Even if you don’t know much about the world of professional wrestling, you’ve likely heard that name before. On June 25, 2007, police in Georgia discovered the bodies of Benoit, his wife Nancy, and their seven-year-old son, Daniel. Authorities later concluded that over the three days leading up to their gruesome discovery, Benoit had murdered his wife and son before taking his own life.

The details of the crime are disturbing - from the messages sent between the killings to the bibles found placed next to the victims - and the story quickly made headlines across the nation.

RELATED: Jim Ross: 'Philly got me back in the game'

Initially, the circumstances surrounding the case - specifically Benoit’s role - were not known to the public, and those in WWE had little reason to suspect Benoit, 40 at the time, was anything other than a victim.

On Saturday, June 23, Benoit was scheduled to appear at a WWE live event in Beaumont, Texas, but contacted WWE earlier that afternoon to inform them that he would be unable to attend because his wife and son had food poisoning. The investigation would later show that Benoit had bound and murdered his 43-year-old wife the day before. 

Between 3:53 and 3:58 a.m. on Sunday morning, Benoit sent a series of text messages to some of his co-workers. All but one of them said the following: “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayetteville Georgia. 30215”

The other said: “The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open”

When Benoit failed to confirm his new travel arrangements, WWE officials attempted to contact him throughout the day Sunday. Growing concerned, WWE contacted the authorities on Monday afternoon, shortly after being informed of the text messages Benoit sent the day before, and asked that they check on Benoit and his family.

Later that afternoon, police told WWE what they had discovered at Benoit’s home.

A police car sits outside the Benoit home on the night of June 25, 2007. (AP photo)

In the hours that followed, the WWE decided to cancel Raw, one of their weekly live shows, and instead air a tribute to Benoit, featuring career highlights, comments from other wrestlers, and more.

This would prove to be an unfortunate mistake for WWE - one that may have contributed to their continued fear of all things Benoit. When the show began, Benoit was a victim. By the time it ended, news outlets had started to report that Benoit had murdered his family and taken his own life.

Within 48 hours, WWE released a statement detailing their timeline of events as they related to the apparent murder-suicide. They also began distancing themselves from Benoit, saying in the release that “as facts emerged surrounding the case, all tributes to Chris Benoit were removed both on-air and on”

“How would you keep people from thinking about - not about his wrestling - but about his family, and what he did.”

In the time since, Benoit’s career has faded into the backdrop.

Many fans believe he deserves to be in the WWE Hall of Fame, but that’s not likely to ever happen. His name may still appear in the record books, and his matches on WWE Network, but that’s only because removing those would mean removing matches that were pivotal in the careers of other wrestling legends. If that’s not an argument in favor of his impact in the ring, I don’t know what is.

Still, you’ll struggle to find much more from the WWE. A search for “Chris Benoit” under “Superstars” on returns the following message: “There are no pages matching your search. Please try different search term.”

Promotional materials for past Royal Rumbles have alluded to the fact that only two men have ever won the event from the No. 1 position … but they only name one of them, Shawn Michaels.

Legendary WWE announcer -- and Hall of Fame member -- Jim Ross, better known as JR, said he gets asked about Benoit’s place in WWE history all the time. He knew Benoit well, and said during an interview on Wednesday that the two had a “great rapport” and his death was “absolutely, mind-blowing shocking.”

Ross acknowledged that WWE has all but forgotten the former superstar, but also believes that if he could ask Benoit today, he would agree with the decision to leave him out of the Hall of Fame.

“If I had a way to communicate with Chris Benoit today, no matter where he is, and I asked him, ‘Hey, Chris, it’s JR. We’d like to know your thought’s on the WWE Hall of Fame. Do you think you’d belong in it?’ I truly believe this in my heart, that he would say, ‘Absolutely not,’” Ross said.

That’s because Benoit wouldn’t be the only one being inducted that day, and the entire event would be overshadowed by the awful events that took place in the final days of his life.

“It wouldn’t be about his wrestling career. It wouldn’t be about him going wall-to-wall in Philly at the Royal Rumble,” Ross added. “It’d be about what happened in that house outside of Atlanta, that was unspeakable. That no one — I certainly didn’t foresee it happening. That’s what that whole celebration would become. It wouldn’t be a celebration at all.

“How would you keep people from thinking about - not about his wrestling - but about his family, and what he did.”

And Ross maintains that is the reason the WWE continues to distance itself from Benoit.

“When you’re talking about Chris Benoit, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the cross-face hold? Or is his love of The Dynamite Kid? Or is it the fact that -- from what we know, what we think -- he murdered his wife and his son and committed suicide? That’s what they’re going to think about.”

A few months after Benoit’s death, it was revealed that he suffered from multiple concussions, leaving his brain “so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient,” according to doctors. He was suffering from advanced dementia and his brain showed similar damage to that of four former NFL players who sank into deep depressions, ultimately harming themselves and/or others.

WWE was quick to dismiss these findings as “speculative,” perhaps that’s at least part of the reason they want to avoid referencing Benoit whenever possible. This report could make them look somewhat responsible -- they did outlaw steel chairs to the back of the head a few years later -- for not only the death of one of their own, but an innocent woman and child as well.

Even now, seven and a half years after his death, the WWE is still keeping its distance. As recently as last month, it was reported that they were banning players from WWE 2K15 for creating Benoit characters within the game.

Needless to say, when Royal Rumble gets underway at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, there won’t be any video tributes to the historic match that took place there 11 years prior. 

And considering the circumstances surrounding the winner, that’s probably for the best.

“He’s not known anymore just as the great wrestler Chris Benoit,” said Ross. “Now, he’s more known for the last several hours of his life on earth. And those thoughts are not very pleasant to envision or to carry with you.”

More on Jim Ross and the Royal Rumble coming later today. Plus, keep an eye out for a one-on-one interview with Philly wrestling legend The Blue Meanie ahead of Sunday's big event.