Monday, August 25, 2003

Ringside Shadows #188: The RAW Face Predicament

Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment likes its roles clean cut. It likes an easily discernable face and a heel, someone the crowd is encouraged to cheer, and someone the crowd would be nuts not to hate. It's an admirable distinction, if perhaps a slightly dated one, and is one of the commandments around which life in the federation is based. It's all but written in stone, especially when the match in question is the card's main event. I could count on one hand the amount of WWF / WWE title matches which featured a face taking on another face. As such, the main events themselves must be kept under close scrutiny. By limiting the number of potential conflicts in this fashion, you're effectively cutting half the roster out of active contention for the title at any time. For instance, Chris Jericho will never get a singles match with Triple H in Pay Per View, so long as the both of them remain heels and one or the other has the title. The balancing act of maintaining a fresh title scene under these restrictions has been one of the traditional indicators of how a particular federation is faring at any given moment, and it's something that carries over to today, with the battle between RAW and Smackdown.

While Smackdown is now faced with the enviable problem of which deserving athlete to elevate next, RAW is choking on precisely the opposite situation. Fans have held up their end of the bargain on Thursday nights, enduring and learning to enjoy the very limited main event scene they've been granted over the last eight months. They've restricted their diet to World Title matches involving the Big Show, Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle, almost exclusively. John Cena and Chris Benoit were involved, very fleetingly, but on the whole that's been the extent of the scene. Now, thanks to the length of their planning, the dedication of bookers to stick by their guns despite early uncertainties, and some outstanding work from the entire roster, they're ready to bring up a couple new names from an overflowing midcard. Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero, John Cena, Rhyno, Rey Mysterio... any one of them could be believably pushed up to the main event within the next thirty days, and they could thrive with the opportunity.

RAW, on the other hand, is in the middle of a desert with no gas. They've burned through their main event talent with frightening speed, and now find themselves in the middle of nowhere with no means to carry on. Triple H has effectively stopped every single challenge to his throne on more than one occasion, and the atmosphere on any given airing of RAW is that of utter defeat. Several strong heels are nipping at his feet, ready for their chance to run with the company's top honor, but because of their identical roles as heels, they won't get the opportunity. It's honestly very similar to the feeling that permeated every showing of Nitro, in the months that followed Starrcade 1997. The nWo had shut down WCW's last hope, and the audience just wasn't excited about life any more.

On its roster, RAW has six faces in or around main event level. Six guys with the credibility, crowd support and background to take the title from Triple H and move beyond him, to fights with the overpowering heel population of the RAW brand. They've all been granted a chance to take the title over the last year, and with one short exception they've all failed.

Scott Steiner took his chances at the Royal Rumble of 2002 and No Way Out of 2003. On both occasions, he came up short. Just one month later, at WrestleMania, he was nowhere to be found. The man with "the largest arms in the world," who had made his triumphant return to the spotlight after a year's worth of rumors, hints and indications, had come and gone within the span of sixty days. The most over man on the roster in the weeks leading up to the Rumble, Scott put on an ugly match at that event and never really recovered from it in the public's eyes. He's since been slowly rebuilding himself at the bottom of the midcard, working with Chris Nowinski, Three Minute Warning and Test. With the blowoff of his long-standing rivalry with Test apparently out of the way this past week on RAW, Steiner is once again in position to make a play for the top of the card. Matched up with one of the program's higher-seated heels, he could possibly make his way back into a position to challenge for the title somewhere in the next three or four months. That's too late for RAW's current needs, but could be helpful if the problem persists further down the line. I wouldn't write him off in the long run, but for right now he's out of the picture.

Booker T had a much-ballyhooed shot at the title at WrestleMania XIX this past March. Despite putting on a string of good to great matches, retaining the sympathies of the crowd and devoting himself to the development of his character as a serious competitor, he was pinned cleanly and decisively at the big event. Of all the faces on RAW, Booker was the only one to invoke a sense of fear into the current champ, which is something I'm sure could be put to great use if he's ever given the opportunity again. After dropping his title shot at the year's biggest card, Booker tumbled down the card, directionless and hopeless. He eventually landed in the relaunched Intercontinental Title picture, feuded with Christian for several months over it, and won their blowoff before suffering an untimely injury that forced him to drop the belt not long after winning it. With the efforts of Vince's marketing machine behind him, Booker was excited about his spot on the card going into WrestleMania and it was infectious. When his support faded away and he went into freefall after the event, Booker's enthusiasm vanished, along with the audience's cheers. Now that he's on the injured list, after losing steam and eventually settling into the IC title hunt, Booker's almost an afterthought.

Rob Van Dam, still perhaps the face with the largest fan support on the roster, has been constantly shafted and shuffled away from the World Title for his efforts. RVD's had several shots at taking the belt over the last year and a half, spread across the year in an almost random fashion. It would seem that someone has it in for the man, who has consistently defied the odds by taking each consecutive loss in stride and picking up exactly where he left off. He's dropped big match after big match, yet the crowd's cheers have only grown louder after every loss. He is, without question, the face most deserving of carrying RAW's World Title at the moment, but I know I'm not alone in believing that elusive victory is just not in the cards for him. Not if his recent destruction at the hands of Kane is any indication, at any rate. The crowd likes the guy, he's unsinkable, he speaks his mind and he's the owner of an outrageously unique moveset. If his character were a little better-rounded, he'd almost be too good to be true. But in the end, the bookers' lack of faith in him is his undoing. It would take a concentrated effort and several months of high profile victories to get him back into a position where winning the World Title wouldn't be from so far out of left field.

Shawn Michaels seems to be the only face on the roster to meet relative success against the current champ, defeating him twice in singles combat... once with the title on the line. He took the belt from Trips in the original Elimination Chamber, pinning the champion at last year's Survivor Series before returning the favor less than a month later. Occupying himself with feuds opposite Chris Jericho and Randy Orton in the months after his series with the champion, with very strong results, Michaels has one very notable chink in his armor; he's not a full time wrestler. Working through the back injury that committed him to premature retirement five years ago, Michaels still works only pay per views and a very occasional RAW. In terms of credibility, he's right there. I'd almost peg him as the most likely to take the title again, if not for that one flaw. And, even if they won't admit it, that fact looms in the back of every viewer's mind when they see HBK active in the ring once again. It's a difficult obstacle to hurdle, and all but completely eliminates him from contention at the very top of the card. Even if he wins the title another time, everyone watching at home knows it's merely a transitional reign.

Kevin Nash returned a full week after WrestleMania and, in the same fashion as Scott Steiner, promptly marched directly into a three month long feud against Triple H. Nash was Hunter's opponent at the Judgment Day and Bad Blood PPVs of 2003, taking the first win by disqualification and losing the blowoff in a brutal Hell in a Cell brawl. More so than any other man on this list, Kevin Nash's run for the title was met by the complete and utter disapproval of the viewing audience as a whole. Crowds were turned off by the new direction writers took with Nash's character, deviating from the cocky, fun-loving, cool guy attitude that defined him before his injury and serving up an angrier, less vocal "Big Sexy." The cold reception Nash received during his title shots poisoned his character for months to come, to the point that even now he receives perhaps a 60-40 face reaction at best. Nash is now, at best, fodder for an up and coming heel. His poor workrate and moveset have only become worse after his injury, and even his promos have taken a turn in the wrong direction. He's aging poorly, and I'd be surprised to see him near the top of the card as far as three months from now.

Finally, Bill Goldberg is the current champ's most recent victim. After blasting his way through The Rock and Chris Jericho, Goldberg stalled out in the eyes of the common fan. By involving him in extended, elaborate storylines, World Wrestling Entertainment took out the spontaneity and explosive nature that made him such a fan favorite in the first place. Confused, audiences couldn't decide how to react and his stock started to fall. Now, finally pushed in a manner similar to his original WCW run, Goldberg is back on top of his game. In the months before last night's Summerslam card, his matches were short, one-sided and convincing. He'd enter the ring, decapitate his opponent, spear them and jackhammer them for the victory. And, to their credit, he carried right on in that manner through the majority of the Elimination Chamber last night, pinning Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels and Randy Orton. Unfortunately, the unthinkable happened at the match's finish. Triple H pinned him after a shot with his sledgehammer, effectively retaining the title and stopping the unstoppable. While it's too soon to say the story's over for Goldberg, his reputation has most certainly been damaged. This is the guy who stood up from a rock bottom and four or five horrendous chairshots back on the eve of "The Rock Concert II," yet the current champion pinned his shoulders to the mat after a single sledgehammer shot. Bill's still got a chance, as he prepared himself for the loss by obliterating two bonafide legends and one future main eventer, but the fact remains that Trips did to him what no one else could.

And, bluntly enough, that is IT. While there remain a few faces on RAW's roster that I haven't covered, guys like Maven, the Hurricane or Tommy Dreamer, they're all so far out of Triple H's league that a title defense, even a somewhat unsuccessful one, would be emotionless and uninspiring. Likewise, former instant threats like Steve Austin, Mick Foley and the Rock, perennial fan favorites with the credibility to give a PPV main event heat merely by association, have disappeared from the picture entirely. Gone are the days when somebody like TAKA Michinoku could make a legitimate stab at the World Title, convincing the audience in attendance that they were almost guaranteed a title change before their very eyes. In their place are these days of indecision, of hesitation and of near-boredom. Now that he's crushed every legitimate challenger to his throne, where does Triple H go with the World Title next? Is a World that's so easily conquered worth ruling?

Even the old well has run dry. Where in the past, the WWF could turn to their competition when the main event scene grew stale, signing away an upper tier star or a diamond in the rough and exciting fans with a mere unannounced arrival, today no such competition still exists. NWA: TNA is so far below World Wrestling Entertainment in the public's perception, that even if Jeff Jarrett, AJ Styles, Raven and Low Ki walked out on RAW's ramp, 90% of the audience wouldn't know who they were. Perception is reality, especially in professional wrestling, and if these guys were perceived as minor leaguers and no-names right off the bat, no matter how strongly they were booked, it would be months before the crowds started to buy them as legitimate threats to the title. And even then, the law of averages states that one or two of them would turn heel within the first couple months.

It's a tough predicament Vince McMahon and company have found themselves in, one I'm completely unsure about how they can dig themselves out of. That means one of two things; either they have absolutely no idea what to do, and they'll keep throwing shit at the wall until some of it sticks... or maybe, just maybe, they have an enormous surprise right around the corner. For the sake of modern professional wrestling, (and for the fans who watch it every Monday night) I hope against hope that it's the latter. As should you.
until then, i remain

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