Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Ringside Shadows #137: Two Former TV Champions... Where Are They Now?

It was just over two years ago now, mid-1998, when many would argue WCW really dropped the ball with their midcard. The time had come to shift the balance of power from the veterans that had dominated the scene for so long to the rookies that were capturing the attention of the fanbase. Case in point: Booker T and Chris Benoit. The two were about to embark on a wild series of bouts over Booker's recently acquired TV title, one which should have guaranteed their elevation to the upper crust of the card. While both men faced a negative reaction in their first few months with the company, they'd each managed to build a dynasty all their own through the years (Booker with Harlem Heat, Benoit with the Horsemen), and the audience had grown to respect them for that. Now, instead of booing upon their arrival, fans were giving them a chance to show us what they had, and weren't being let down.

Benoit's realistic selling, combined with Booker's kick-intensive offense, was giving fans something they'd never seen before. With Hogan, Goldberg and Nash at the top recycling the same old kick / punch / suplex / finisher / pin formula in the main event, an actual series of reversals in the middle of the match was something revolutionary, let alone from two no-names buried in the ranks of the TV Title. Though neither was scheduled for much of a push, crowd interest for the feud they'd put together was so solid, Eric Bischoff started putting them higher and higher on the card. If Goldberg was main eventing a Nitro against Glacier, he was often following a tough act in Benoit / Booker.

While they'd met on more than one occasion in the early parts of the feud (including the oft-referenced house show title changes that saw Benoit an unrecognized 2 time champion), the smack didn't really hit the fan until Fit Finlay came into the mix. During a regularly scheduled title defense on Nitro, T put his belt on the line against the Irishman and everyone wrote the match off as a piece of cake victory for the champion. Sure enough, Booker had fought through a strong series of submissions to hit the axe kick of doom, but before he could put that last nail in the coffin, Benoit had marched down the ramp to watch the action firsthand. His presence distracted the champ long enough to cost him a rollup... and the title. In the weeks after, Finlay did his job and defended the belt on a regular basis, while Benoit and Booker T tore each other to pieces. When their personal problems started to spill out of the locker rooms, interfering in unrelated matches, Bischoff laid down the law in a couple of the best-ruled decisions of his first reign. The two would meet on Nitro, with the winner acting as the number one contender at the upcoming PPV. When Benoit acquired the title shot, only to lose the PPV match cleanly, Booker figured it was time for his shot. The Crippler disputed this claim, and Bischoff gave us a decision I'm thankful for to this day. They'd attempt to follow in the boots of Magnum TA and Nikita Koloff in a best of seven series, with the winner laying claim to the next title shot.

As if that weren't reason enough to celebrate, the first match of the series set a blistering pace, with each successive meeting maintaining that status quo and then some. After working over the arm and neck throughout the first match, Benoit had lost the advantage when a series of reversals didn't go his way. Booker hit a lightning fast axe kick and sidewalk slam, then went up top for the finisher he hadn't used in months, a forward flip-into guillotine legdrop combination, titled the Harlem Hangover. It missed, which believably kept both men on the ground for nine of the referee's standing ten count. The Wolverine draped an arm over his opponent, but Booker kicked out after the long two count and teased another momentum shift. He hit the ropes and swung for the fences with a wild clothesline, but Benoit was waiting for it. A crossface came out of the blue, and Booker tapped.

Off to Thunder we went, where things went much the same way. Midway through match two, the effects of the epic they'd battled on Nitro were beginning to show in both men, but then quickly vanished once the action hit the boiling point. Near the end, it seemed to be almost a replay of the finish of their Nitro match, as Booker took a late advantage with a sidewalk slam and climbed the ropes. Instead of attempting the hangover, however, he hit a missle dropkick. Benoit couldn't kick out and the series was tied at one apiece.

WCW Saturday Night was the scene of match number 3, and again the Crippler pounded out an early advantage. When Booker started to blow the winds of change, Chris high tailed it to the floor, killing the momentum. Once back in, Booker took the advantage anyway and broke out a couple new, Benoit-esque power moves of his own. That was enough for Chris, and he drilled a snap suplex and backbreaker in an effort to show Booker how to correctly do things. Another sweet series of reversals and counters wrapped this one up, as Benoit hit the rolling suplexes and looked for the headbutt, which he missed. Booker stood and tried that same clothesline, which Benoit attempted to drag into that same crossface... unsuccessfully. Though the submission didn't land, Chris still had time to pull a go-behind and counter. A bridged German suplex was enough to take home the 'V' in this instance, making the score 2-1 Benoit.

Match four was back on Nitro, and T finally took a decisive early advantage. Three minutes later, the big man was proving to us that when given an opportunity, he won't let go. It was becoming a back and forth affair, when Fit Finlay stepped out to "scout" the action. Both men found themselves laid out for an eight count, following a Benoit German release suplex, but the Crippler eventually went right back to the offense, kicking his opponent in the head and nailing a short clothesline. Still, Booker managed a reversal and an axe kick, followed by an uncharacteristic belly to back suplex. Running with the momentum, he picked up the series leader for a slam, but wasn't watching the position of his arm. Benoit, however, most certainly was paying attention, and he exploited it by slamming Booker to the mat, directly into the crossface. Inches from the ropes, Booker gave in after nearly nine solid minutes.

Part five of the series took place on Thunder, and saw another early advantage by Booker T. Benoit stood tall after taking nearly everything Booker had, and promptly landed his rolling german suplexes, a snap suplex and a hard elbow for two. Chris hit the diving headbutt that wasn't his finisher at the time, and Booker's brother, Stevie Ray, found his way to ringside for "encouragement". The moment Benoit took to look away from the action cost him in the end, as Booker blocked the Crippler Crossface that Benoit had planned, and turned things around with the spin kick and a sidewalk slam. The former champ did the "spinaroonie" breakdance to his feet, and Benoit viciously clotheslined him right back to the ground. Talk about instant heat. The Crippler then uncharacteristically confronted Stevie Ray from the apron, giving Booker the chance to hit a missle dropkick and stretch the series to six.

WCW Saturday Night was skipped in the rotation this go round, and Benoit attempted to avoid a seventh match with a victory on Nitro. Neither man seemed willing to make the first mistake, and it led to a couple minutes of match time with very little to show. Benoit took a break on the floor, and the action finally picked up. The Winnepeg native took it to his opponent, a run that culminated with several nearfalls and a diving headbutt that sucked the wind out of both men. When that only netted him a two count, Stevie Ray took the opportunity to deposit himself at ringside once again. Booker took control with a strong series of focused attacks, but Benoit reversed the breakdance spin yet again again and was looking for the kill. With all the momentum on his side, the rabid wolverine whipped his opponent into the ropes, but Booker hurtled him, performing a bizarre pinning combination utilizing his legs, that grabbed the three count. Post match, a furious Benoit assaulted Booker's leg until Stevie Ray finally broke it all it up.

Match seven would go down on Thunder, and would decide who the better man really was in the long run. In the moments before the opening bell, Bret Hart and Eric Bischoff marched their way into the ring, announcing that they were betting on Benoit. The Crippler wasn't sure what to think of this vote of confidence, as he stared from across the ring, and the Hart / Bischoff coalition found themselves a little surprised by his response. Stevie Ray accompanied his brother to the ring this week, but was asked to head back, as Booker wanted to do this one by himself.

The two tore into each other with everything they had, predictably so, as this was the final match of the series. Benoit went for the legs, (a strategy he should've employed earlier, since Booker focuses so heavily on them for his offense) as the viewing audience cut to a commercial. Returning from the break, the two traded turns on offense, with Benoit continuing his attack on the legs. He stretched Booker's long frame into one of the meanest surfboards you'll ever see, and it was suddenly time for another commercial. Returning yet again, Booker had taken the offense. Benoit made a quick comeback, drilling his rolling suplexes for two, before landing the diving headbutt for another two count. Bret Hart, outside the ring, felt he had seen enough and clocked Booker with a chair while the ref's back was turned. As Hart encourages his fellow Canadian to cover his downed opponent, Benoit instead stood, deep in thought, as the ref administered a ten count. At eight, Benoit informed the official of what had happened, and gets himself disqualified. Booker had taken the series, but it was tainted.

After the series of seven was through, JJ Dillon looked at the evidence, at the competitors and at the poor way things had ended, and made the decision to book Booker / Benoit VIII at the Great American Bash, with the winner receiving a title shot later that very night. The match was hard fought from bell to bell, and when the dust settled, Booker was looking forward to a title match while Benoit sat and thought about the opportunity he'd given up in match seven. T took the title that night, and the feud had effectively blown off.

Shoot back to the present, two years later. Booker T has just won the WCW World Title on an evening that many believe to be the big turnaround the federation's needed for years, while Benoit is over in the WWF, main eventing in a World Title match with the Rock. It's taken longer than any of us ever expected, but the rewards are just as sweet as we'd hoped. These two proved to us all that they could carry a program over two years ago in the mindless ranks of WCW, and now they're getting their chance to run with that ball in the big game.

It's often been debated how the WWF's World Champion would stack up with WCW's in the ring. You'll have folks claiming one has grown from his days in the other federation, or one had lost his touch. Sometimes the two had never even stepped into the same ring together, or most of the times they had the results were less than memorable. With Booker and Benoit, there's little question. They were extraordinary. You couldn't ask for a better champion in either man. In the end, though, it's just two former TV champions. Where are they now, and where are they going...? That's for fate to decide. Best of luck, boys, and cheers. I'll enjoy watching both of you give it your best shots.
until then, i remain

No comments: