Monday, December 15, 2003

WWE RAW Review: 12/15/03

Well, you're coming off a PPV that was panned even before it hit the airwaves, three or four universally-praised episodes of RAW and an almost clean sweep of the brand's title scene. You're riding high on the temporary momentum of two unexpected, major, major high profile returns in Mick Foley and the Rock. And you've got an off-week next Monday, effectively making this week's episode the closest thing to a season-ender as WWE is likely to get. If you're involved with the creation of WWE's RAW, you have a helluva lot of different directions, spins and motivations coming into this week's show. So how did they react...? Well, let's take a gander;

We kicked the show off with Evolution, gloating about their three title victories last night at Armageddon and looking every bit like the most dominating force in the sport. Like I said in my preview for Sunday's PPV, I have no beef with Evolution... in fact, I constantly enjoy them. Batista is being used well as an unimaginably powerful monster who isn't afraid to talk. Randy Orton is on the verge of coming completely into his own and "casting his own shadow," to steal a phrase. Ric Flair is getting another opportunity to make that big farewell tour, as a heel, in a position where he can simultaneously cover for his missteps in the ring (which are becoming more and more frequent) and lend some of his legendary heat to a couple new guys who could really use it right now. And, finally, Triple H is back in the kind of leadership role that helped get him to the main event in the first place. I'm not happy to see the belt back around his waist, not by a damned long shot, but if there were any predicament that I could've accepted with that end result, this is it. I love good, tough heel stables, and even though I'm tired of seeing their leader in the main event, that's precisely what Evolution is right now. Like it or not, this is something I've been wishing we had more of.

I'm not sure where they're going with Chris Jericho right now, which is why I'm so interested in his current storyline. I live to be surprised, and thus far I haven't been able to predict a thing in the ongoing Jericho / Trish / Christian / Lita affair. Y2J is owning the show with his subtle expressions and body language, telling more of a story with a dirty look than we'd ever get out of him in a ten minute promo. He's retaining most of the elements that make him such a compelling heel, yet he's slowly gaining more and more fan support for doing so. Here's hoping the whole storyline doesn't end with him wildly changing gears into a crowd-pandering face character, which is unfortunately something these writers have grown notorious for doing in the past.

The Henry / Hardy vs. Maven / Booker tag match was an odd little number, really not something I'm used to seeing on free TV. Rather than going balls out and hitting spot after spot after spot in a windless, action-packed fluff match with all flash and no substance, these guys actually slowed things down a little bit and let their skills as wrestlers tell the story. Unfortunately, there are better people to have attempted this with than Mark Henry, Maven and Booker T, but I like the idea of it and I was caught completely off-guard by it here. Give me Lance Storm vs. Chris Benoit in one of these matches somewhere down the line and I'll be forever your bitch, WWE. Anyway, there were a few shining moments despite the sluggish pace and I'm interested in seeing Booker and Matt Hardy in the ring together again in the near future. Not horrible, but not particularly entertaining either.

I can't say I understand the logic, on-screen or off, to suspending Goldberg for thirty days. Bischoff himself has even said he'd be a fool not to realize the marketing potential of a guy like Goldberg, (Remember? Back when Bill was about to wrestle a "Lose and I Quit" match? Bisch said something along the lines of "I'm gonna make some money off of him while he's still here") so why take him off the show if you're attempting to succeed as GM? If he'd simply explained it away as a precaution to keep his other talent healthy, since Big Bill DID just wipe out a single tag team in one fell swoop, that'd make sense. Instead, we get some crap about Eric punishing the former champion "for being patriotic" or something equally as lame. I couldn't care less about France, and I think that's an opinion held by the vast majority of my fellow Americans... so why would seeing Goldberg trample their flag make me want to rush out and buy a pile of wrestling tickets?

Shawn Michaels was spot-on last night, single handedly raising the show a couple notches through his brief promo with Mick Foley and his participation in an unexpectedly good tag match against Evolution. I can't say why, but I've just been left a little bored by HBK in recent weeks... maybe it's got something to do with his character being stuck in 1996 and the magic of his return finally wearing off. Or maybe it's the guys he's been fighting for the last year. Regardless, he snapped me out of that mindset last night. I'm interested in seeing him wrestle a World Title match in two weeks, but if he does win that belt he's GOT to do something to freshen himself up again. RAW needs the kind of self-centered fire Shawn used to carry with him, despite the upward curve of the last few weeks' worth of programming.

Call me what you like, but I'm going to come right out and say it: Rico's probably the freshest character on all of RAW right now, and he's got a lot of potential now that the ball's started to roll. The whole pseudo-gay thing he's doing is a lot more believable than anybody's willing to admit, and his offense is overly original and more than a little convincing. Everybody knows a guy who's wormed his way out of a fight by preying on his opponent's homophobia, whether it's merely licking somebody's arm to get them to loosen up or release a choke or straight-up straddling them and acting like it's enjoyable to chase them off for good. It's a characteristic weakness of most athletic guys, especially if it's done in front of a large crowd of people. Rico even takes it a step further by leading right into his offense, catching his opponents off-guard and then kicking them in the face before they've even had a chance to wrap their heads around what's going on. If the bookers know where to go from here, this thing could really take off.

I didn't see the Jericho / Kane match as a burial, as I saw several people calling it in the Forums. Instead, it looked like a guy who's down on his luck, wrestling his second match of the evening against a guy twice his size, pissed off about losing a title shot and looking for someone to maim. And even working against those odds, Jericho got a bit of offense in before defending himself with a chair and causing a disqualification. It's easy to get so caught up in the whole internet love affair of "where's this going, why did so-and-so have to lose that match, what good does it do for the company to do that, why isn't so-and-so champion by now," that you overlook the obvious simplicity of it all. Sometimes guys' gameplans don't work, and as a result they lose the contest. Simply enough, the breaks didn't fall Jericho's way and he lost the match. It's extremely easy to overanalyze stuff like this, but I really don't think he's any further down the ladder now than he was before the match. I still can't wait to see how this thing with Christian turns out.

And, finally, we had the main event which seems to be the real deciding factor over whether you loved this show or despised it. Personally, I thought it was one of the best cliffhangers I'd ever seen... after all, this is the season-ender, isn't it? I can't wait to see what motivated Mick to suddenly lose his nerve and quietly back away from the ring like a puppy who just witnessed its first lightning bolt. It's indescribably better than seeing yet another "face gets screwed as nameless heel returns to RAW and costs him the match" scenario, or another helping of "face overcomes the odds, returns to glory and ousts the evil emperor." This is a story with depth, it's a guy who's on top of the world until he realizes he's lost what got him there in the first place. I'm thrilled to see where they go with this, and honestly can't wait the two weeks until we'll find out. A profound thumbs up from yours truly, and let all the nay-sayers be damned. I want to see more storylines that leave me unsure of what's to come, hungry for more, like the ending of this episode did.

A couple of great storylines going into uncharted territory, one lengthy tag match that was much better than I'd anticipated, a couple segments' worth of filler and a few sparks that could just as soon go nowhere as lead to the next big feud. An above average show that left us with a visual that will more than keep us chomping at the bit for RAW's return to the air two weeks from now.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.35

Saturday, December 13, 2003

The World's Greatest WWE Armageddon 2003 Preview

Well, here I sit... a box of snotty kleenex on one side and the lineup for this month's Armageddon card on the other, and I'm not particularly sure which one I'm more inclined to discuss at great length. Yes, the RAW roster is making the rounds this month with their third brand-exclusive PPV offering, and despite a string of very good television programs I'm not all that excited about the card itself. Despite a hot opening to the month of December, a number of high profile, quality matches on free TV and a set of impressive surprise returns, the matches themselves don't look to be anything to write home about. Where the vast majority of WWE's pay per view extravaganzas have had at least one technically sound matchup upon which to thrust all of our expectations, even that token offering to the workrate freaks of the world is missing from this month's big show. I still like the direction they're going with the show, and it could be said that this is a work in progress so we shouldn't be criticizing it until we've seen the finished product. Fair enough. But, in-progress or no, this is still a show that we're expected to shell out forty hard-earned bucks to witness from the security of our own homes. I appreciate the long-term planning that's necessary to recover from the depths to which RAW had only recently sunk... I honestly do. But I also appreciate the need to keep the fans interested and entertained along the way. This is a lukewarm show at best.

So, I guess to answer my own internal question, I appear to be more interested in Armageddon than I am the nasty box of overused facial tissues. Flu season sucks, folks. It really sucks. Especially if you're working more than sixty hours a week. Pity me. Better still, pity the clientele that must deal with me this afternoon.

The Dudley Boyz (c) vs. Garrison Cade & Mark Jindrak vs. La Resistance vs. Val Venis & Lance Storm vs. Rosey & The Hurricane vs. Scott Steiner & Test
World Tag Team Titles Turmoil Match

It's nice to see some sparks coming from the tag team division once again. Seems like it was only yesterday that we were writing up what must've been our eighth consecutive preview of the same old "Dudleys vs. La Resistance" title match on PPV, so I'll give them credit for quickly and concisely building a halfway decent tag team division in such a short amount of time. Though several of these teams are merely quick pairings of superstars that are usually lost in singles action, even those makeshift combinations were given on-screen motivation for working with one another. Rather than merely sending Lance Storm out with Val Venis and proclaiming "hey, these guys are a tag team now," they provided a little backstory to the combination's friendship and established them as more than just a flavor of the week. Likewise, they're finally going somewhere with Mark Jindrak and Garrison Cade... just as I thought they would be relegated to the status of "guys who throw purty dropkicks" for the rest of their careers.

I'm not sure which set of rules they're going with for this match, since the formula for a multi-participant title match varies just about as often as the means of victory in a cage match, but given the number of teams involved I'd imagine this will be elimination-style. The momentum's gotta be with Cade and Jindrak going in, since they've gained such a central focus in the division, but I also wouldn't rule out La Resistance or the Dudleys.
Winners: Vanilla Coke, Jindrak & Cade

Mark Henry vs. Booker T

I'm not sure what I should say about this match... I think John will have the whole defeatist pessimistic angle hit hard here, Dave will unleash the violent expletives and likely mention how "Vince McMahon is a shiny cunt" for misusing Booker and constantly overpushing Mark Henry. Hm. There's really nowhere else for me to fit unless I want to say something nice about this match... which, actually, I guess I could try out for a change.

I've been one of the loudest voices praising Mark Henry's utilization over the last several months. Since coming to RAW and immediately aligning himself with Theodore Long and Rodney Mack, Mark's been used extremely well, with very few exceptions. He hasn't been exposed with many lengthy matches, which everyone knows are not his forte. He's been used as an impact player (to borrow a term) effectively, landing a brutal power move at the exact moment the match has called for it, and he's learned to express his character through facial expressions and body language. He honestly looks like a legitimate threat to the title, even if it would be the wrong move to ever put it on him for an extended period of time. However, he and Booker are a poor match for one another. They took two guys growing heads of steam (Henry from his monster heel push, Booker from his return to action after an injury) and pushed them together in an ill-timed match that likely won't benefit either one of them. The only story here is that there is no story. Henry's run into a couple of Booker's post-match celebrations, and that's about it. It's color-by-number booking at its finest, and I can't say I'm pleased with the end result. Booker needs to take this one, since he's been sliding ever since WrestleMania and needs to boost of tackling a guy with the size and reputation of Mark Henry. With that said, I'm picking the big man here because the bookers haven't done a thing right with this feud yet, so why start now?
Winner: Mark Henry

Rob Van Dam (c) vs. Randy Orton
WWE Intercontinental Title Match with Mick Foley as Referee

By all indications, this should be the most anticipated match on the card. RVD has been white-hot with the crowds since his first month with the company, and Randy Orton has been slowly developing an enormous amount of disdain from the audience since Evolution was reunited many moons ago. These are two guys who SHOULD be fighting one another for the second most prestigious belt in the promotion. They each have undeniable main event potential (with both already fighting for the title in past PPV main events) and a connection with the audience that can't be put into words. So why does this match feel so flat going in?

Unfortunately, Van Dam's been in cruise control all month with rumors flying about his contract renegotiations and little to no air time to develop his character or his motivations for the match this Sunday. His ringwork has been missing the edge that defined it up until this point, and his notoriety are slowly disintegrating as a result. Orton, meanwhile, is headed in the opposite direction. He's still got a long way to go in the ring before I consider him above average, but he's made notable improvements and gets better with each passing week. His character really turned a corner in the months before Batista returned to Evolution, and he's become a much more confident performer both on the mic and in the background. His association with Flair and Triple H is resulting in heat by association, and he's amplifying that rub as best as he can. There's no question about it, Orton is being groomed for the big time, he knows it, and he's ramping up his game to make that dream come true.

So what we've basically got in this one Sunday is the chosen one taking on the overlooked one. RVD should be defending his title with ferocity right now, fighting for his future in the company, not just going through the motions and looking up at the lights. Yet, somehow, I think the latter is the more likely of those two scenarios.
Winner: Randy Orton

Trish Stratus & Lita vs. Chris Jericho & Christian

I still don't think this storyline is over. I'll admit, I was a little worried when the whole Jericho / Trish / Christian / Lita dating scene was revealed to have been a bet from square one, but Jericho's nonverbal communication last Monday on RAW confirmed that there's more to this than we're being led to believe. Which is good, because there's no other real excuse for this match to be on the card, while the extremely strong women's division is snubbed and Matt Hardy is nowhere to be found. Trish and Lita come out on top, and Jericho isn't sure which side he's on.
Winner: Trish & Lita

Shawn Michaels vs. Batista

Isn't it interesting how Shawn Michaels has now feuded (and subsequently wrestled on PPV) with every member of Evolution? And he's laid down for each one of them, sans Batista who gets his chance this Sunday. Strange, though, when a face takes issue with a dominating stable, he's historically worked his way through that stable's members from the bottom up, not the other way around as HBK has done here.

Like most of my colleagues, I've been pleasantly surprised by what Batista's shown us since returning in style a couple of months ago. Like Mark Henry, he's being pushed as the combination of the irresistible force and the immovable object, but Batista has much more to work with in terms of personality and physical ability. Unfortunately, that comes with a price since he seems prone to disaster. He works a convincingly aggressive style, but unless he can settle down and start hitting his spots with some regularity he's a risky guy to work with... which could mean trouble for Shawn Michaels. I'm looking forward to this one, at least more so than the others on the card, if just to see HBK attempt to prove he can still work a good to great match with a big guy after a horrible outing with Goldberg on RAW. Batista could really use this win, but Michaels is at risk of becoming a designated jobber if he drops another big match like this. I'm going with the Heart Breaker.
Winner: Shawn Michaels

Goldberg (c) vs. Kane vs. Triple H
World Heavyweight Title Match

I really liked the way this was set up, with Kane unexpectedly thrusting himself into the Title hunt. It gave a sense of unpredictability back to a promotion that's needed it for years. For one or two nights, there was a sense that anything could happen and anyone could have a reasonable chance at the title. After a couple weeks, however, it was business as usual again. Instead of just Triple H and Goldberg in the main event, now there was a third man... that was it. No additional excitement or sense that you might miss something important if you dared to take a bathroom break during the main event. Just as quickly as things bubbled up, they settled down again and we were left with just a third ingredient to the same old formula.

The match could be surprisingly decent, but could just as easily go the other way entirely considering the volatility of all three men. If Goldberg keeps his wits around him and doesn't become too focused on playing the aggressor, Triple H brings his working boots and Kane doesn't phone it in, this should be a tight little three-way. The smart money is on Triple H, regaining the World Title now that his other commitments are out of the way, but I can't really overestimate how bad a decision that would be, considering how recent his dominant reign at the top still is. I'd hesitate to put the belt on Kane, too, since he's not really defined enough as a character to carry all of RAW on his back. Goldberg's my pick to retain, and to do so for several months to come. He's a good choice as the current figurehead of RAW, and it should mean something more than this when he finally does drop the gold.
Winner: Goldberg

In Closing...

Usually I talk myself into loving or loathing a card while typing up my match-by-match analysis, but this month is an exception to that rule. Like I said in my opening paragraph, this is really just a "blah" card from top to bottom. There's nothing motivating me to buy this show (or attend it live, as it were, since I live only two short hours from Orlando, where the event is being held), just like there's nothing really driving me away. I'll chalk that up to this being a formative month for the upcoming storylines that should begin their build to WrestleMania any day now. Just... don't let me down again, ok WWE?
until next time, i remain