Friday, February 23, 2001

Ringside Shadows #163: A WrestleMania Wish List

In the world of professional wrestling, Wrestlemania is the last word. More so than the Great American Bash, than Summerslam, or even Starrcade. There's a certain aura, an air about the event that lifts it above all the others, something that helps it stand out as an undisputed king of the hill. The history is as rich as they come, including everything from Ricky Steamboat's early feud with Randy Savage to Bret Hart and Steve Austin's unforgettable masterpiece at Mania 13. The torch has been passed at a Wrestlemania and the World Title has, more often than not, left the building around the waist of a new champion. It's more than a pay per view, it's an event.

That's why it's such an unpleasant surprise to see the way things have become over the last few years. With little exception, the mystique has remained the same... however, something's most certainly missing. The goosebumps are still there, as the hours become minutes leading up to the big event. The grand scale remains intact, the importance of the event readily visible in the actions of the workers, audible in the voices of the announcers. But once that first bell rings, after the year's pop sensation(s) have finished their rendition of "America the Beautiful," something's different. Despite all the hooplah and celebration, Wrestlemania itself has become just another pay per view.

Maybe I'm letting the evolution of the industry blind me, rather than showing me a whole new world. Maybe it's a sign of the times. To me, though, Wrestlemania just hasn't been that special since Austin won his first World Title at big number fourteen. The buildup to these big matches has been less than I'd expect. The payoffs have been dry, if they're even there at all. More often than not, Titan has been using the familiarity of the year's biggest draw to build toward their next big PPV event. Never had it been so obvious as last year, where April's Backlash served as more of a blowoff PPV than even Wrestlemania itself.

Now don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with giving the fans something to chew on in the 24 hours before the next airing of WWF RAW. Hey, that's half the reason the Monday after 'Mania is consistently the most watched Raw of the year. What I've got an issue with is the tactful delaying of something fans have been anticipating for almost an entire year. It's the simple factor of giving an audience what they want. If they're led to believe the Rock / Austin match they've paid thirty bucks for will be the last ever, chances are they won't be back if you end it in a DQ and tell them to "come back next time." Historically, Wrestlemania has served as a bookend, with potential to serve as a springboard into the future. It's not just another chapter, it's a conclusion... but it leaves plenty of space for the sequel.

Put frankly, the WWF has let me down at Wrestlemania for two years running now, and I've yet to decide if I'll give them a third chance or not. The potential for an absolutely incredible event is there, without question, and it only depends on the federation's ability to put the right pieces in the right places, hit the start button and follow through. This year, more than any other, the WWF has the leisure of picking and choosing their participants. Unlike years before, when the "elite" air of a Wrestlemania was compromised because of a small roster, the talent pool is literally overflowing as we head into 2001. Every man that made the machine work during the dry years is still around, (from Austin to HHH to inactives like Foley and Shawn Michaels) and they've added just about everyone that was giving them trouble from the competition as well (Benoit, Guerrero, Jericho and Raven.) There's no reason why they can't put together a fabulous card from start to finish this time, something to make up for the mistakes of the past two years and then some. Yet, still I find myself doubting.

Because it's still just a bit too early to start making calls about the Wrestlemania card, I've decided to seize the day and compile one of my own. I've taken my own interpretations of the current booking layout, thrown in a twist and let my imagination run wild with the results. What follows is my absolute dream Wrestlemania XVII card, with everything from the storylines leading up to it to the followthrough the next night on Raw and beyond. I've disobeyed several key guidelines in creating this, the most notable being my exclusion of some really big names. Missing from the roster is the Undertaker, the Big Show, Kane and several others who will no doubt play a big role in the actual follow through of this year's show. I've taken the liberty of adding a couple names to the mix that in all honesty might not be signed, sealed and delivered by the time late March rolls around. In all likelihood, this card could never happen the way I've planned it. However, there's still that slim chance, a chance that I find extremely intriguing. If nothing else, it should be a blast to see just how close (or how far away) the actual proceedings turn out to my own.

So, without further introduction, I give you my Wrestlemania X-Seven Wish List:

Dean Malenko vs. Taka Michinoku (For the Light-Heavyweight title)
A questionable choice, when big names like the 'Taker and Kane sit on the sidelines, but a justifiable one in my eyes. To prepare for every good main event, you first need an explosive curtain jerker that gets fans off their seats and eager for a night of crazy action. WCW hit a goldmine with the Cruiserweights, then promptly failed to follow through. Since the WWF has practically been in the business of profiting from WCW's mistakes, it's surprised me how long they've missed this one. Quick, incredible, slightly spotty action from the LHW division does the job in a hurry, giving fans more than just pyrotechnics to cheer about.

In the months leading up, I'd have the layer of dust cleaned from the Light Heavy title, slowly weaning fans into consistent title defenses on Raw and Smackdown every week. Malenko would adopt a stance similar to his Radical teammate Chris Benoit, claiming he's the best Light Heavyweight the WWF has ever seen, and would challenge anyone that thinks differently to "prove him wrong." Enter: parade of underused talent. Everyone from Crash Holly to Essa Rios would come out of the woodwork looking to accelerate their rocketship to stardom, and Malenko would handle each with ease. I'd move away from his current "James Bond" gimmick, and more towards the cocky, arrogant dickhead he portrayed back in ECW. He'd eliminate these men in the ring, then adopt a "told ya so" persona and leave the arena, dusting his hands along the way. One week before Raw, I'd give him a real test against Scotty Too Hotty (as the two had a mildly successful feud in the summer of 2000) that ends in a Malenko cloverleaf. Spitting on Scott's prone figure, Malenko would announce "this is what happens when you mess with the best," and would systematically destroy his downed opponent. I'd employ more than a little old school heeling, involving the use of a chair and the near total obliteration of the his opponent's leg. As the bell rings incessantly (as they always do) and Malenko shouting "PROVE ME WRONG!" a lone figure sprints to the ring, scoops up the Light Heavy champion and lands a picture-perfect Michinoku driver on the chair. Just like that, Malenko's out. Taka grabs the mic and says "I accept your challenge."

I'd build things around this "former champion meets the current regime" storyline, focusing heavily on Taka's extended title reign several years ago and the fact that they've never met with so much at stake. The match would be far from overbooked, with the quality of the fight itself depending on just what they feel up to at the time. They'd tell a story in the ring, with Malenko keeping to the mat and wearing down Taka's leg and Michinoku mounting the air attack, breaking out counters to maneuvers Dean didn't even know existed. Frustration would factor in about halfway through, as Malenko wouldn't be used to such a well-planned assault, and he'd start to get more desperate as time went on. About ten minutes in, I'd send Scotty Too Hotty out on crutches. Malenko would cinch in the Cloverleaf, only to watch Taka make the ropes. With both the ref and Dean-o distracted by Scotty and Taka recovering on the mat, nobody would notice Brian Christopher's sprint down the entryway, chair in hand. The ref still elsewhere, Dean would turn around to a faceful of steel. Spinning on his way to the mat, he'd be greeted by Taka and a heavy duty Michinoku driver. His attention once more on the match itself, the ref would count to three and Malenko would be sans his precious Light Heavy gold.

In the weeks after, I'd have Taka show a level of disgust over the way he gained the title, offering Malenko a rematch on Raw. Once again, Christopher would interfere and Taka would confront him. The three would head into a rotation of feuds, with Scotty Too Hotty returning in a couple weeks to make things even more interesting.

Raven vs. Tazz vs. Crash Holly (For the Hardcore Title)
This one's pretty elementary. You've got two notable ECW Hardcore veterans and a guy that's held the WWF Hardcore belt twice as many times as anybody else. Tazz and Raven never really started the feud they should have had, and though both have developed into their own men since then, they remain similar enough to make a feud based off their dismantled friendship really work. With the crowd ready to eat out of their hands following the surefire Taka / Malenko hit, these three would be allotted a little more leeway in their match structure, which is always a necessity in the Hardcore division.

The build, admittedly, would have had to start about a month before No Way Out... so I guess you can eliminate this one from the sketchbooks for the real Wrestlemania. I'd have set up a sort of brutal teacher / student relationship between Raven and Crash around that time, with Raven always the reluctant professor and Crash the kid that just won't leave him alone. More often than not, Crash would find himself through a window or into a box of "plunda" thanks to his role model, none the wiser but that much more ballsier. Through a consistent trial at the hands of Raven, Crash would develop from an Elroy Jetson clone to a tough as nails hardcore warrior, and Raven wouldn't notice or care at any point along the way. Crash would need a new look, something a little less "pro wrestling" and a little more "street fighting."

With the Crash Holly subplot running along full steam on the side, Raven would embark on a head-on feud with his old partner, Tazz. They'd throw a few verbal jabs at one another, they'd partake in a throwaway Raw hardcore match or two, but neither man would take a noticeable advantage as the federation barreled towards Wrestlemania. With both Tazz and Raven venting frustrations on Crash at one point or another, neither would realize he was developing into a competent worker until it was too late.

The three would go nose to nose at Wrestlemania, with most of the emphasis going towards Crash and his arrival as a serious force. They'd hit the usual junk spots, and I'm willing to bet they'd bust out one or two originals, as well. Perhaps an Evenflow off a loading dock or a face-down Tazzmission on a bed of thumbtacks. When the dust settles, though, Crash would "graduate" from his school of hard knocks, emerging as the new Hardcore champion before diving back into the remains of his opponents and continuing the brawl where it was last left off.

William Regal vs. Jerry Lynn (For the European Title)
I've always felt the European title should reflect some of the things that make European wrestling as a whole so unique, and by involving two guys that know their way around the ring like Regal and Lynn I think I've captured a lot of that. My vision may be completely flawed, but I've always seen the European style as a much more mat-oriented, submission heavy style. While the Japanese or Mexicans may like their boys to fly, the Europeans would rather see a man stretched to new heights of the imagination or brutalized with a vicious series of countless assaults. With Lynn a fresh debut and Regal continuing a hot heel run, (closely involved with Vince and Trish) a shot at the European title and the arrogant prick who holds it would be close to an ideal way to establish to Jerry Lynn as a credible competitor.

To begin with, obviously, I'd need to get the belt off Test, whose run has been nothing short of worthless. If the point was to put the belt around the waist of Test so the division wasn't forgotten while Regal recovers from an injury, why hasn't it been defended on TV for weeks? As JR and Lawler made a big deal about pointing out how they'd never seen anyone defeat Regal that quickly when the gold exchange took place, getting it back on Regal shouldn't be too much of a problem. Truth is often stranger than fiction, (and, in this case, more believable) so I'd send Regal out as soon as he's healthy and request a rematch for his title later in the night. As he wasn't working at 100% when the European title left his possession, officials shouldn't have any trouble granting him this shot (and his relationship with Vince couldn't hurt either.) I'd send Test out almost immediately, and sic Regal on his legs. He'd effectively ground the big man, making it near impossible to deliver any high impact maneuvers and keeping him from climbing to the top rope for the big elbow that ended their last encounter. Wrapping Test's big frame into the Indian death hold he'd been using as a finisher in the weeks before, Regal would make the big man squeal like a pig before submitting and handing over the title he probably shouldn't have won in the first place.

I'd keep the build for his match against Jerry Lynn quiet, possibly even billing him against a "mystery opponent," in the same vein as Tazz's debut against Kurt Angle one year ago. I'd keep storylines to a bare minimum, if at all, and would keep this one strictly underbooked. There would be no run-ins, no men gliding from the roof... just a quiet, pure wrestling match. I suppose it would serve as a test for the WWF's audiences, to see if they'd matured enough to accept an actual wrestling match again or if they needed T&A and pyrotechnics to keep their attention. In the end, Regal would go over by DQ or countout. Nobody deserves a taste of gold in their first match for the Federation, but it would be worth baiting the fans to see if they'd buy it with a teased title change at the finish.

Edge and Christian vs. X-Pac and Justin Credible (For the Tag Team Titles)
I know, it's been said already that X-Pac and Justin Credible won't be pursuing their fortune in the tag division. Credible is a fresh addition to the lineup and X-Pac is returning from several months on the shelf, meaning they're both motivated and ready to light the world on fire. If anything needs that match, it's the tag team division. With the Hollys acting as singles once again, the Hardys on the verge of a breakup and Kaientai suffering through a gimmick that even WCW rejected, things have certainly looked better in the tag scene. The makeshift pairing of the Undertaker and Kane won't last, and the Haku / Phatu Samoan Connection is going nowhere fast. Edge and Christian continue to improve, but there's only so many ways you can package the same matches between the same teams. We've seen every variation the Dudleys and the Suicide Blondes can put together, and without the addition of another team to the mix, things are getting stale rather quickly.

Of course, for this match to go over with fans at all, one of the teams would have to turn face. I'd make Edge and Christian my go-to guys. They've been something of a crowd favorite for some time now, even though they're still technically heels. It's only a matter of time before they officially turn, due to the audience's reaction alone. With Credible and X-Pac working as the super serious heels, E&C would have found a couple great foils for their overall comical package. Any other team might have trouble making a face turn work less than a month after stealing the titles from the Dudleys, but I think Edge and Christian have enough charisma and popularity to pull it off.

This one would likely be the least interesting of the night, since the two teams don't have much reason to be facing off, and the division is quickly being reduced to shambles. Fans wouldn't have reason to care about the match unless the four involved were to really heat it up. But even then, the results would be mixed at best. I'd put Edge and Christian over strong, poking fun at their all too serious opponents every step of the way and forcing them to make a critical mistake because of it.

Matt Hardy vs. Jeff Hardy
Things already seem to be breaking apart at the seams for these two, with Matt's recent relationship with Lita starting to take his attention away from the interests of the team. With a little prodding, a little jealousy, a couple poorly-aimed clotheslines and the right atmosphere, the crack in the brothers' relationship could become a rift faster than you could imagine. A love triangle is probably the best way to go here, and would bring about the most vocal reaction from the audience.

I'd do this one by the book, letting the Matt / Lita thing go on harmlessly for a little while before Jeff reveals that (surprise!) he, too, has a thing for the lovely miss Lita. Confronted about it, Lita can't bring herself to choose between the two, which further drives a wedge between the brothers. They'd begin to have trouble trusting each other in the ring, leading to a losing streak and mistimed / blown spots and finishes. On top of that, each would catch the other trying to spend a little bonus time with their fiery red haired manager. Finally, push would come to shove and they'd exchange to blows in the middle of a match, one walking out on the other and leaving him to be torn apart by their opposition. Upon returning to the back, they would decide there's only one way to settle things: a match at Wrestlemania, with Lita's hand at stake. Needless to say this doesn't sit well with her, but the boys have made up their minds, and the match is booked for the big WM.

I don't think I could do the match justice with words here, but if you think these two were explosive in their later matches with Edge and Christian, just imagine how crazy this one would be. I'd play it off as even for as long as possible, before Matt would take a late advantage. Taking a peek at the prize, sitting at ringside, he thinks he sees a bit of remorse in the eyes of miss Lita and confronts her about it. She swears it's not true, and before the issue can be pressed even further, Jeff levels his brother and rolls him up for a two count. Picking up where his sibling left off, Jeff accuses Lita of being partial to his brother and Lita decides enough is enough. She leaves the ringside area and climbs the entryway, with both Hardys in hot pursuit. As they near the backstage entrance, Lita hesitates as the two try to explain themselves. Suddenly, from out of the blue, Dean Malenko rushes from behind the curtain and flattens both Hardys with his (now signature) steel chair. Lita looks at Matt, looks at Jeff, looks up to Dean and slowly, cautiously joins him under the entryway. Dean extends an arm, and escorts her to the back. Game, set, match.

Chris Jericho vs. Eddy Guerrero (For the Intercontinental Title)
This one has a relatively solid story going for it already. It was against Jericho that Guerrero injured himself several months ago, putting him out of action for quite a while. Though it wasn't really Jericho's fault, that's never stopped the bookers before... so why start now? Left to their own means, Jericho and Guerrero could put together a tidy little feud, jabbing back and forth at one another both on the stick and on the mat.

This one's short and simple; overbook it, and you kill what could be the strongest match on the card. Guerrero and Jericho are two of the best at telling a story and following it up in the ring, and if you aren't letting them do their job then why are they even around? Guerrero would get the nod at Wrestlemania, but it wouldn't be the last time these two locked horns.

Chris Benoit vs. HHH vs. Steve Austin
It makes sense with the current bookings, and you aren't likely to find a better match anywhere else in America. Benoit finally hit full stride in the WWF halfway through 2000, HHH pretty much owned the Federation in Austin's absence, and Stone Cold himself is quickly returning to his old form. It's no secret they're building Benoit up for a full time main event push, as he was involved at the top of the card this past Monday and faced off against Austin on Smackdown one week ago today. HHH and the Rattlesnake have a long, storied history that I'd be surprised to see ended this weekend at the PPV, and at this point have yet to really reach their true potential in a one on one encounter. Basically, you could mix and match any combination of these three and have an instant match of the year candidate... so if you must have a three way this high on the card, you will not do any better than this.

The story picks up nicely from where things stand at this very moment. HHH and Benoit don't have a friendship, per se, but they do have a sort of understanding. An honor amongst thieves, if you will. Helmsley and Austin are desperately after each other's blood, and that won't wrap up with one match, three falls or not. I've got their No Way Out matchup booked as a knock down, drag out slobberknocker (for lack of a better word.) They'll shed blood, sweat and tears, and they'll tear each other's limbs off, but when that third fall reaches its critical last minute, Austin's "Don't Trust Anybody" attitude will come back to bite him in the ass. With HHH calling in the cavalry to get the better of his enemy, he finds a way to render Austin helpless as he climbs to the floor and takes the third fall by means of escaping the cage

Seething over his cheap loss to the Game at No Way Out, Austin's a single-line railroad, bound and determined to deconstruct HHH and everything he's ever stood for. So eager for a no holds barred rematch with Helmsley, is Austin, that he forfeits his title shot at the 'Mania. The powers that be determine the only way to name a new challenger is another Rumble, this time dominating an entire episode of Raw, and HHH has found his loophole. He plays his cards to perfection, securing the number 30 slot in the new Rumble, and infuriating Austin to no end. Stone Cold gave up his World Title shot to concentrate completely on The Game, and if HHH wins the #1 contender's spot, a match at Wrestlemania between the two is out of the question. Helmsley reads the writing on the wall, and in the moments before this second rumble, secures a ruling that if the Rattlesnake interferes in any way, he'll never have another match with HHH... ever again. The Rumble comes and goes, leaving Chris Benoit, the Rock, HHH and Chris Jericho as the final four. Working as a unit, HHH and Benoit tear the Rock to pieces and attempt to throw him over. They succeed, but don't notice that he never hit the floor, instead rolling under the bottom rope and resting on the apron. With Benoit and the Game continuing to function as a team, they make short work of Y2J and throw him all the way into the crowd. Seeing his chance, the Crippler uses their combined momentum to his advantage, almost effortlessly tossing the off-balance HHH to the floor as well, not a full second later. Austin erupts into laughter at the announce table, while Benoit blows a couple snot rockets in Helmsley's direction and bares his gap-toothed smile. Raising his arms, he turns to face the cameras... and is met by a Rocky clothesline that sends him spiraling over the top rope and all the way to the floor. The Rock celebrates in the ring, while Benoit and Helmsley butt heads on the ground. Finally, Austin chases them away by flinging multiple cans of brew at their heads, and shares one with the people's champ in the ring.

With the time for celebrations at an end, the three head to the biggest match of the year like wild dogs, taking cheap shots at one another every step of the way. Once the bell rings, they use their combined rage to make a new definition for the word brutality. It's an ugly, ugly brawl that leaves distinct trails of blood from the ring to the entryway to the crowd, and back into the ring again. With Helmsley saved from the Crippler Crossface by Austin, (and then subsequently treated to a stunner) Austin laid out thanks to a pedigree and Benoit barely maintaining consciousness on the floor thanks to an errant chair shot, the ref begins that long ten count. At five there's a little motion from each man. At eight they're each on one knee, and by ten Austin has reached his feet. As Benoit slowly rolls in, Austin slumps back against the ropes and HHH climbs to a vertical base, the Texas crowd explodes at the sight of the Heart Break Kid, Shawn Michaels. Maintaining a poker face, HBK doesn't break stride as he slides between the ropes and climbs into the ring.

With the audience silenced, he stares at each of the three men in the ring and plays the dramatic pause for everything it's worth. Slowly, purposefully, he takes off his commissioner's cowboy hat, followed by his shirt. Pulling the fabric over his head, he's a flurry of motion as he throws the shirt down and waffles Austin with some Sweet Chin Music. Breathing a sigh of relief, Helmsley gladly opens his arms for an embrace and tastes a little chin music of his own an instant later. Michaels looks at Benoit, points at Austin and shouts "Cover him!" With no choice due to the no-DQ stipulation, the ref counts the three. HBK raises Benoit's arm, surveys the damage, and walks to the back amidst a chorus of boos.

You can probably assume where this one would go... Austin and HHH continue their feud, while Benoit and HBK take the fed by storm as a tandem. With Michaels on the stick and Benoit in the ring, the duo is unstoppable, making their eventual split that much more heated. That's right, Shawn Michaels' first match back in a WWF ring comes against one Chris Benoit.

Kurt Angle vs. The Rock (For the WWF Title)
Face the facts; nobody expects Kurt Angle to retain this Sunday night, much less to arrive at Wrestlemania with the gold still fit snugly around his waist. As the Olympic hero himself mentioned on this past Monday's Raw, the plate seems to be set for an Austin / Rock main event at the grand event and he doesn't have a thing to say about it. Now face another fact; the WWF thrives on swerving its fans, giving them something they never expected. Everything about Kurt Angle's initial run in the WWF has defied the odds. He grabbed the European title, much to everyone's surprise, within months of his debut. He carried both that belt and the Intercontinental gold at the same time, another great surprise. He took a King of the Ring tournament from right under the noses of heavily-favored Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Eddy Guerrero. Nobody, I mean NOBODY thought he had a chance in his title shot against the Rock several months ago. Even fewer figured he'd survive the Royal Rumble with his gold.

So here's something that might spoil part of "The World's Greatest No Way Out Preview" for you (coming this Saturday night.) I'm picking Kurt Angle. Of all the matches I've booked for this card, I'd wager this one is the most likely for the "real" Wrestlemania XVII. It's just the WWF's style. For the purposes of this column, though, here's how this Sunday's NWO matchup ends up; Angle gets a clean pin. His title reign has been surprisingly lacking in credible finishes, and he's hung on by the skin of his teeth time and time again. It seems like the only clean victories he's picked up as champion have come from Essa Rios. Not exactly the best man on the roster to put over your champion as a formidable contender. So Angle squeaks out a clean win at No Way Out, and he's set for a match against Royal Rumble winner Steve Austin at the big dance, right? Not quite. (see above)

From there this stuff writes itself. Rocky pokes fun at Angle every step of the way, and Angle shoots right back, mentioning his impressive record against the Rock in title matches. The match comes to pass, and it's every bit the classic you know it could be. With Angle unquestionably the strongest heel in the WWF and Rocky the quintessential face, you'd have to try to miss with this one. By the time the bell has tolled, the Rock's kicked out of the Olympic Slam, Angle's countered the People's Elbow with a precise clipping of Rocky's leg and the People's Champ has somehow defied the odds once again to become the first six time champ in WWF history.

Following up, Rocky would grant Angle the traditional rematch at Backlash, where he'd make things official with another victory over the Olympic champion before taking on the rejuvenated Chris Benoit, with Shawn Michaels in his corner.

And that, I suppose, is that. A Wrestlemania that wouldn't disappoint yours truly. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. When it all comes down to it, I'm sure everyone has their own idea of a dream Wrestlemania roster. Who makes the cut on yours...?
until then, i remain

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