Monday, February 23, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 02/23/04

Three weeks and counting. It's getting to be crunch time for World Wrestling Entertainment, but instead of ramping up for the big show, they seem to be descending. The show appears to have peaked about a month early, with last week's show a noticeable step down from the kind of quality we'd been applauding just seven days earlier. The whole 'Mania card's pretty much become a reality by now, so the hard part should be over and the shows should have nothing standing in their way... right? Eh, I wish I could respond with a positive nod.

I really am short on time this week, by the way. And I don't mean it in the usual "Well, I've got a couple things I need to do, but once I sit down I'll just go ahead and churn out three pages anyway" sense. So my apologies in advance if this week's contribution is a bit brief.

The women's match was an incredible disappointment, no doubt about it. Rather than leaving this successful formula as it's been for the past... well, honestly, the last year... they tinkered with it, sports entertainmented it and rushed it. These ladies have been whuppin' ass on a consistent basis all year on their own, working with just a little direction, a finish and the aid of an agent. Now that they're closing in on the big show, with a tremendous heel champion and a subtle "underdog chase" scenario brewing with Victoria, the bookers finally decided to quote-unquote "shake things up" and tinker with the formula. Instead of letting these four have at it, put on a show and wrestle a lengthy match, the first two competitors were eliminated within the first minute and the belt changed hands in a bizarre face vs. face scenario. Why is it so hard to understand... you don't fuck with a formula when it's working. I like Victoria as champ, but this wasn't the way to do it.

Orton and Venis was nothing special, though I can't help but agree with all the noise about Venis deserving better. If they'd pulled the friggin' trigger on the whole "Chief Morley" storyline, he'd be in a very good position as a mid-card face by now, still cruising on the sympathy heat for taking a bullet for Bischoff and getting discarded for his trouble. How do you build a guy like that for six months and then just dismiss his character in one week? This match didn't do anything for me, and the finish just came off as pale and uninteresting. They're not getting the RKO over as an explosive, "he can hit it from anywhere" instant threat, they're just exposing Orton's difficulty nailing the move when under pressure, and making his opponents look like drooling retards for laying down after it.

Triple H droned on about the same thing he was shouting last week, before Benoit interrupted, shot a lousy comeback with "talk talk talk" and then went all man-of-steel, climbing into the ring with just a chair and the knowledge that he had an ass-whuppin' in his near future. They could be doing a lot more to get me emotionally involved with this matchup... all I've got right now is a mild annoyance of Triple H's repetitive, needlessly lengthy promos, a slight loathing of Shawn Michaels for jamming his nose into a situation that he didn't deserve, and a weak interest in seeing Benoit overcome the old guard and hold the belt for the very first time. It's pretty freaking obvious which one of the three involved in this one would be the most deserving, entertaining and active champion, since Benoit's wrestled as many matches in his first four appearances on RAW as HBK and Triple H have in the last four months.

The Wolverine and the Leviathan put on a passable little matchup, despite losing the first half of it to commercial. Yeah, like we needed to take in all that chatter in the preceding moments, but the beginning of the actual WRESTLING match is OK to leave on the cutting room floor. Fuck that bullshit. I'd love to hear JR shout "folks, we've gotta take a commercial break... if this promo concludes during the break, we'll show you the highlights as soon as we're back on the air" during a Helmsley monologue. Anyway, I liked that Benoit spent the whole match working on the leg, apparently to set up for the sharpshooter, but don't understand why Batista then stood up, attempted a powerbomb with little hesitation, and fell victim to a crossface after... his ARM gave out? Wouldn't it have made a little more sense for the Crippler to work that right arm relentlessly, so that when the big man lost his grip it was due to the damage it had sustained and not a rookie mistake? Ahhh... what'm I thinking?

I loved seeing Booker T and RVD attempt a few original double-team maneuvers this week, since I half expected them to do the old "work like two singles wrestlers in a team, rather than a competent championship duo" deal. Good for them, maybe they'll pleasantly surprise me with this title run by recapturing their motivation and putting on the kind of performances that made me such a fan of them both a couple years ago. Weak match, all things considered. Do something with Rob Conway! He's MONEY!

I'm a HUGE fan of what we saw with Christian and Trish last night. That's exactly what they needed to do to make this thing between he and Chris Jericho take off, and both Stratus and the former IC champ played their roles to perfection. That clothesline was just brutal, coming from out of nowhere and all but decapitating poor Trish, and the old school liontamer just drove the point home. That audience didn't know what to make of him when he went out there for the match, but after Trish tapped out, they wanted blood. Beautiful!

The main event was a crock of shit, but you already knew that. I like how they all but turned Eric face backstage before the match, basically giving us a reason to admire him for motivating WCW to overcome all odds, for having the balls to challenge McMahon in a personal grudge match, and lending him sympathy heat for being supposedly undercut by Time Warner just as he was about to recapture his past glory.... then expected the audience to boo him again when he went out to challenge Vince in their main event. Neither guy knew what to do with the about-face of the live crowd, so McMahon just set about no-selling, taunting, brawling and looking like a tool. A worthless waste of time, that wasn't really buoyed by the unexpected appearance of Brock Lesnar as the show went off the air.

A second sub-par effort. The ingredients are there for this show, but they keep mixing it up by overthinking things, pushing the wrong segments at the wrong parts of the show and the wrong aspects of the wrong feuds. This could've been a high seven, low eight.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4

Monday, February 16, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 02/16/04

With time running out and a string of great television only recently behind them, the pressure was on for RAW to continue to deliver the goods this week, especially in the shadow of Eddy Guerrero's emotional title win at Smackdown's No Way Out the night before. With a surefire hit in the previously announced match between Chris Benoit and Shawn Michaels, inevitable confrontations between Randy Orton and Mick Foley, as well as Chris Jericho and Christian, and the possibility of the Rock's return, this looked to be yet another episode of "Can't-Miss" programming. So how was the follow-through? Read on, my friends. Read on.

I loved the opening promo, though it's not really something I want to get used to. Triple H had a legitimate reason to voice his frustration, as did Chris Benoit, and when the two of them finally collided in the ring it was sheer beauty. This is an example of exactly the way they need to use the Crippler, not as a guy who likes mind games or even as a colorful character, but as a worker who comes to the ring with the intention of expressing himself through his own actions. I've been waiting for WEEKS to see Benoit yank the mic out of Triple H's hands, and it was still every bit as surprising and impressive as I'd hoped when that finally came to pass this week. I wish these two could've had a one on one at WrestleMania, because judging from their brief tussle to open this show, it would've been Trips' best singles match since No Way Out '01.

There wasn't a lot of entertaining character development on last night's show, save for two shining exceptions; Christian and Eric Bischoff. In Bischoff we saw, up close and personal, just how stressful, hectic, non-stop and unrelenting a day as General Manager can be on the night of a RAW broadcast. The guy was taking shit from every direction throughout the course of the show, and it was extremely interesting to watch his demeanor decay from initial excitement to eventual disgust and frustration. Whether from faces or heels, enemies or allies, Bisch could NOT catch a break last night, and that's something I'd love to see turned into a full fledged storyline next week when he faces off with Vince in the center of the ring. Take all the hell he's been through since accepting the position more than a year ago, multiply that by the shit he took last night, add in a bit of the heckling he took for the death of WCW and smack Vince McMahon's head on top of the whole stinking pile... you've got what's known as a scapegoat, boys and girls. I want to see Eric lose it during that little face off, stop censoring himself and verbally tear Vince a new asshole.

Likewise, Christian almost carried the whole backstage portion of the show by his lonesome last night. While Jericho's spot on RAW and budding romance with Trish Stratus has cooled since he inexplicably turned full face a couple of weeks ago, Christian has made up for the slack with his delivery, a few well-written lines and a great story arc that's got the legs to last well beyond WrestleMania. I honestly can't wait to see how this is continued next week.

I wasn't impressed or even really interested in the tag title match, even though the belts somehow changed hands. As I mentioned in my writeup of last week's main event, Booker T and Rob Van Dam have been visibly uninspired between the ropes for a short time now, and didn't seem to put forward much in the way of extra effort when armed with the added thrill of winning the belts in their near future. I'll be the first in line to praise these two guys when they put on a great match, as I've been a vocal fan of both in the past, but I also won't overlook the instances where they're to blame for putting on a weak, boring match. This week was just such an instance. Not one of the four guys in the ring looked interested in doing much more than mailing an effort in here, and the finishing sequence went on for way too long, to boot.

I can't help but echo the seemingly universal sentiments about the Evolution / Mick Foley obliteration segment. I thought they did a great job of portraying the kind of sick, personal, pointed atmosphere this segment needed to succeed... but they just drug it on for an eternity. Orton and Flair were both laying some fat potatoes on ol' Mick here, with Flair hitting poor guy directly on the nose, and I'll admit that it lent big time sympathy points to the former champ. In a way, I guess, this was probably the most realistic beating we've seen on RAW in ages, due in large part to the fact that a chunk of it wasn't worked, but on a sports entertainment show, violence this drawn out and realistic sticks out like a sore thumb. You can't go from an uncomfortable car-wreck of a guy getting his face systematically peeled from his skull to a bald "bionic redneck" riding an ATV to the ring, drinking beers and sucker punching the talent nearly a year after retiring from active competition. It's gotta be one or the other.

The women's match was good, if much shorter than I'd have liked, and I'm getting a little tired of seeing Victoria pin Molly without much difficulty. It's not that I have that big of a problem with the higher-ups deciding that the time has come to switch the momentum to somebody else... Molly's had a very good run, and done a lot for the division during her tenure as champion, and Victoria has improved so greatly over the last twelve months that she deserves to be the one to dethrone her... it's more that I don't understand why they're building one woman as this undeniable threat to the belt, then refusing to give her either a title shot or a moment or two outside the ring to explain her position. I still love this division, though, and pray nightly that the same kind of success comes to the men's division one day.

The main event, as I'd hoped, was tremendous. They gave these two much longer than I'd hoped they would, appropriately reminded us of the reason they have such a passionate and immediate hatred for each other, and let JR and Lawler actually call the action instead of talking about another, unrelated storyline or uninvolved athlete. Though Benoit's still a little too reliant on the chops, this was a very good first encounter, and really served to whet my appetite for lengthier meetings between the two in the near future. Benoit was booked to keep up with and, in many cases, outclass the multiple-time champion, and was in position to put the whole thing away when Triple H meandered to ringside, ruined all the internet fans' hopes and dreams and ultimately cost the Crippler the match. Michaels went a long way toward establishing the Crossface as a genuinely painful maneuver here, frantically scrambling out of the ring or into the ropes on the two occasions Benoit went for it, and legitimately put the new guy over as his equal, if not his better. Sure, Benoit took the pinfall in the end... this was still about as close to a torch passing as we're going to see on free TV.

As for Triple H's involvement in the match... well, I know it's hard to admit it, but the guy is playing a great heel. He's kayfabing everyone in the world by ruining the clash of the titans we'd all expected, not just the so-called "marks" but also the "smarts." If you've got a couple minutes and don't mind coming back, I covered the whole scenario about six months ago in an issue of Ringside Shadows. Read it with an open mind, then apply what I was saying in September to what Triple H and Shawn did last night. They simultaneously solidified the heel champ as a genuine asshead, laid more roots for the full-blown Michaels heel turn at or just after WrestleMania, and all but gave Benoit an open invitation to either retain or win the World Title opposite HBK in Edmonton. Come on, just think about it... an arrogant, cocky heel champion Shawn Michaels... defending his belt in Canada... against the hometown boy, the new national hero, Chris Benoit. My interest in that possibility more than compensates for the disappointment about the way last night's match wound up.

Oh yeah, and it didn't really fit anywhere else, but I loved the spots where those two were struggling over the German Suplexes. Michaels told volumes with his body language, like he knew the match would be over if Benoit hit the rolling Germans, and Benoit knew the same thing. Just a great bit of silent storytelling between two of the masters.

So it's four weeks to WrestleMania, aka Crunch Time. Time to ramp up, to add a nitrous boost, to put pedal to medal, or any number of other overused "acceleration" cliches you can imagine, as the unyielding hard sell for the year's biggest event becomes more and more frantic. These last few weeks have, traditionally, been among the most exciting and entertaining of the entire year for fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, as the bookers have a finish line to shoot for with their writing and the athletes have a pinnacle to reach towards with their efforts. It's one of the few opportunities you'll ever get to see a flawless melding of anticipation, desire, frustration and precision in sports entertainment, as those four planets very, very rarely align in this violent little corner of the world. It's the month-and-a-half-long time viewers look forward to with no exceptions.

So why did it feel like such a let-down this week?

Maybe it had to do with the incredible roll RAW had been on for the last several episodes, or perhaps the furious anticipation with which we'd all waited for this week's Benoit / Michaels dream match. Maybe it was just a bad week for the writers, or a transitional RAW that had been planned from the start as the framework of an even bigger picture. Whatever the cause, this week's show came off feeling flat, especially in comparison to what we took in last week. I can't give it much more than an average grade, superb main event or no. For every heated exchange between the Heart Break Kid and the Wolverine, there was a spontaneous rainstorm on the entryway, for every sharpshooter a missed spot in the tag title match. Sure, the big match itself delivered... but the undercard fell flat.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5.25

Saturday, February 14, 2004

The World's Greatest WWE No Way Out 2004 Preview

And, just like that, we're just one short month outside of the biggest event of the wrestling world's calendar. No Way Out has traditionally been an event full of momentum, preparations, strong, motivated wrestling and completely unexpected surprises and storyline twists. Though you wouldn't think it by looking at the surface, No Way Out has been filled with just as many shocks, twists and turns as its big brother WrestleMania. Thinking logically, one would assume they'd save their marquee matchups, their swerves and their strongest pairings for the big 'Mania, and that's exactly why the WWE marketing machine catches fans completely unwary by pulling out all the stops one month shy of their pinnacle spectacle. From the first PPV appearance of the Radicals in 2000 and the unforgettable Hell in a Cell match between Triple H and Cactus Jack that same year to the tremendous 2/3 falls match between Triple H and Steve Austin and a very strong World Title match between the Rock and Kurt Angle in 2001 to the arrival of the nWo in 2002 to Stone Cold Steve Austin's return to the ring last year, No Way Out has carved out a spot for itself as one of the federation's real "must see" events, if just to enjoy the momentum as the entire crew looks forward to the big card just thirty days away.

This year's card seems to be no exception with several key matchups taking place, a main event that just might see a title change, a couple possibilities in the undercard and plenty of room for a big storyline shift. Though Smackdown's starting to hurt right now thanks to the loss of Chris Benoit, nagging injuries to several big players and roster cuts, I find myself more and more excited about the program's predicament with each passing day. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if there were ever a time to create a new hero on the Thursday night squad, that time is now. The bookers are trying new things, and they're starting to realize that fans are kind of digging the new guys. John Cena is the most over man on the program. Brock Lesnar is making a serious name for himself as an unstoppable heel champion. Eddy Guerrero has more momentum behind him than ever. Chavo has become a serious heel with serious heat. It's almost as if you can smell the fuse burning on that show, like it's just a matter of moments until somebody explodes into the next cornerstone character. And that, at least to me, is an extremely interesting situation.

APA vs. Shelton Benjamin & Charlie Haas

I don't know what to say about this match, really. The World's Greatest Tag Team has evolved into more than a solid pair of amateur technicians over the last several months. Now, more than ever before, they work together as a tremendous duo, compensating for each other's weaknesses and relying on each other's strengths. They're both growing more comfortable, both as athletes and as characters, and they're becoming a perfect example of what great tag team wrestling should be. Unfortunately, the team opposing them has reached the point where they could be legitimately classified as a polar opposite to Haas and Benjamin. While I've never been a fan of Bradshaw, I can't say the same for ol' Ron Simmons. It's a bit unsettling to see the kind of regression the former WCW champion has made over the last few years, transforming from a guy with a constant chip on his shoulder and a horrifyingly realistic dominator into a man who's had too many beers, doesn't really know what to do with himself anymore and rolls around the ring without rhyme or reason. This match will be brutal, and I don't mean that in a good way. With luck, the WGTT will use their technical proficiency and ring smarts to isolate one member of the APA or the other, work them to pieces and then pin them or force them to submit just a few minutes into the match, ushering in a new era of Smackdown's tag team scene. A more likely scenario, though, has both men falling victim to an early Clothesline from Hell, falling on top of one another in a mock-homosexual position and staring at the lights together as Bradshaw pins them both in the center of the ring. I have faith this will be a little less cookie-cutter than that, and that the youngsters will actually manage to pull out a surprise win, but faith is about as far from certainty as a man can get in World Wrestling Entertainment. Cross your fingers, boys and girls, and pray to the booking gods that somebody back there isn't asleep at the wheel with this one.
Winners: Haas and Benjamin.

Jamie Noble vs. Nidia
Blindfold Match

How fitting... one of the dumbest angles of the last few years culminates in one of the dumbest matches of the last few years. Blindfold matches don't work, no ifs ands or buts. Rick Martel and Jake Roberts tried it, and looked like complete retards, at WrestleMania several years ago. Triple H and D'Lo Brown tried it, and may as well have come to the ring dressed as Gobbledy Gookers, on RAW at the first appearance of RAW Roulette. And... you know what? Nidia and Jamie are going to look like tools Sunday night when they trot out this unbearable gimmick yet again, whether Nidia wears a blindfold or not. It's really a crime, the way they've rewarded Noble for producing some of the best matches of the Smackdown brand and for progressing into one of the most air-tight characters on the show. The only reason to celebrate this match is because of the ending it represents, the light at the end of the tunnel that's almost within reach. Stupid.
Winner: Nidia

Rikishi & Scotty 2 Hotty (c) vs. The Bashams & Shaniqua
WWE Tag Team Titles Match

This won't be a bad match, per se, but it won't be a particularly exciting one either. The Bashams are ever so slowly becoming a solid tag team combination, even though they're still stuck on the overdone "twin brothers that not even the ref can tell apart" gimmick. To tell the truth, though, both guys are so painfully bland that it's harder to tell their characters apart than it is their physical appearance. Likewise, Too Cool 2k4 aren't exactly a bad team, but they also aren't vibrant and recognizable enough to merit the championship run they've been given. They aren't all that exciting, they just go through the motions, produce a mediocre match and cash their paychecks. Scotty used to know how to work a very good match, in the days just before his entire arsenal became a setup for the worm, and Rikishi can still put on a great performance for someone of his size. They've just been doing the same thing for so long that their act has lost whatever novelty it had in the first place, and audiences are becoming indifferent to them. It's like two ships passing in the night, I suppose... one team is bland as bland can be, going through the motions on their way to discovering the single gimmick or trademark that will define them, while the other is bland as bland can be, going through the motions on their way down after discovering and exploiting the single gimmick or trademark that defined them. I'd say the Bashams have a better shot here, although neither team is really what I'd consider championship material.
Winners: The Bashams and Shaniqua

Rey Mysterio (c) w/Jorge Paez vs. Chavo Guerrero w/Chavo Sr.
WWE Cruiserweight Title Match

I really like the possibilities with this one. Tell you what, though, I'd like the chances even more if Jorge Paez and Chavo Sr. weren't involved. With Chavo Jr. really coming into his own once again as a tremendous heel and Rey rediscovering his youth by reclaiming his mask, this match could fly based entirely on the momentum, characters and natural abilities of the two guys who will be fighting in the ring. All they're doing by adding a flamboyant boxer and an old, retired pro wrestler to the mix is diluting the formula. That, or they're giving it legs to continue at WrestleMania. Either way, this match should be very good if given the time, and Mysterio is ultimately retaining.
Winner: Rey Mysterio

Kurt Angle vs. John Cena vs. Big Show
Number One Contender's Match

A good mix of styles, abilities and characters. Kurt Angle is, without a doubt, one of the best natural athletes in the sport, but his image could do with a little freshening up and the whole "super patriot" thing is getting tired. John Cena's a complete opposite; his act is still fresh, years away from its expiration date, but his ringwork could do with some fine tuning. And, finally, the Big Show has been performing to the very best of his ability since jumping to Smackdown over a year ago. He's not the fastest wrestler on the show, nor is he the most athletic, but he goes out there and does the job he's been asked to do. He's the kind of guy who can lose the Royal Rumble to a man half his size without losing any credibility whatsoever.

I suppose what I'm getting at is this; all three guys deserve a title shot for different reasons. Whether it's at WrestleMania, the night before or the month after, they all deserve a chance. It's tough to call a winner, which makes it tough to do the same for the World Championship match. If Kurt Angle wins this match, chances are much better that Eddy's leaving the show with gold around his waist. If Cena wins it, I'd give the advantage to Lesnar. Big Show? Anybody's guess. I think Angle's the most obvious choice here, although I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop this one to Cena, lose his mind as a result of dropping so many high profile matches in a row, and turn full heel.
Winner: Kurt Angle

Brock Lesnar vs. Eddie Guerrero
WWE Title Match

Talk about a pleasant surprise. I was so tensed up and worried about Chris Benoit's upcoming main event push and World Title shot that I didn't give a second thought about who Brock's opponent would be this month. So, when Guerrero earned the chance at that sequel to the Royal Rumble, I smiled and welcomed it with open arms. "Latino Heat" has deserved this opportunity for some time now, after returning from his well known problems with drugs and alcohol, proving his worth to the federation and reestablishing himself as one of the foremost workers on the whole show. Part of me wishes he'd been given more time to flesh out this sudden shot at the big time, but another part says I should just sit back and enjoy it, no matter what the result, because losing a World Title match at No Way Out is much better than never receiving one in the first place.

Brock's been very good with his portrayal of the angry, slightly paranoid heel champ, and despite slowing down a bit over the last couple weeks (come on... that bit with the mariachi band was lame), he's still a tremendous champ and an unbelievable talent especially considering his age. He's already this good, and he's got at least another decade and a half in him. I'm looking forward to seeing how well the two pair off against each other, even moreso since I saw their brief contact in the tag match that closed out Smackdown this past Thursday. Given time and not too much goofy interference from Bill Goldberg, this could be a real jewel of a show-capper. And, much as it doesn't make sense to do so, I'm going to go against John's patented "win on TV, lose on PPV" formula that's served him so well over the years. Lesnar / Goldberg doesn't need the added drama of the Title mixed in, not nearly as much as Guerrero / Angle would. OK, WWE. I'll bite. You've convinced me that Eddy Guerrero is the next WWE Champion.
Winner: Eddy Guerrero

In Closing...

As I alluded to in my introduction, there's a lot of empty space on this card... six matches to fill three hours, and I really don't see any of these going 40 minutes+. Something's going to happen, I just haven't the foggiest what that might be. Guess there's only one way to find out.... not a horrible card, but not a great one either. I'm sure it'll be remembered fondly if Latino Heat wins the belt.
until next time, i remain

Monday, February 9, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 02/09/04

As seems to be the usual for the bookers of World Wrestling Entertainment, the storylines have really picked up, ramped up and fleshed out over the last couple of weeks, as the road to WrestleMania begins to solidify and narrow. It's easy to see why the shows have been so traditionally good during the months of January and February over the last few years; the bookers have a light at the end of the tunnel, a vanishing point at which to aim their crosshairs. They know where the big payoff should lie, and have begun concentrating on getting the individual storylines to that point, as a result. My big question is: why is WrestleMania the only event worthy of such undivided attention? All right, I'll concede that it's the biggest show of the year. Without a doubt. WrestleMania is, as Vince McMahon is so keen to inform us, the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Stanley Cup all rolled into one. All right, the talent is excited going into the big showcase. But I don't understand why, if it's so easy at the beginning of the new year to pick a point of closure, pick a series of stupendous matches and pick a set of intriguing storylines to get there, that same strategy can't be also applied to Summerslam, the Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble? For that matter, why can't they apply this kind of effort to the regular monthly PPVs that help to fill the federation's monetary intravenous? I'm tickled pink to see the way this year's big card is shaping up, but I'm also scratching my head as to why the federation can't give us this same kind of dedication and drive in the so-called "off months," as well. The asking price of PPVs isn't getting any cheaper.

Well, despite the problems I have with the writers' negligence of most events that don't end in the word "mania," I've got to admit that their hype has snagged me without much effort. I've been dying to see shows like what we were delivered last week and the week before, for several years now. And I'd be lying if I said the taste in my mouth was anything but sweet. As the multitudes of forum visitors wondered aloud, I thought the same thing; "How long has it been since we saw three undeniably good episodes of RAW back-to-back-to-back?" I couldn't come up with an answer, but was hoping it would be a moot point after the evening was through.

Kicking the show off with Goldberg was an unexpectedly strong decision. It's funny, the guy's been on television for almost a full year now, but the undeniable effect of seeing him in the ring with somebody new hasn't worn off yet. Watching Goldberg go head to head with Vince McMahon and then Paul Heyman was both an exciting proposition as a fan of the sport and a sensible situation as a critic of the writing. It made sense for those three, along with Steve Austin, to be in the ring together. It was good television to see Goldberg spear Paul Heyman, who is quickly becoming twice the heel GM Eric Bischoff is in a fraction of the time. It was surprising, to say the least, to watch Steve Austin inadvertently fall victim to a spear himself. This is the kind of stuff I'll eat up with a spoon... faces with a legitimate beef with one another. Wrestlers who don't always get along, despite their shared status as good guys. All the reason Stone Cold needs to re-adopt his former mantra of "DTA."

They didn't need to run a spot like that on this week's show. Between Chris Benoit, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, Randy Orton, Ric Flair, Chris Jericho and Christian, you had more than enough great stuff to fill the entire two hour broadcast. But they put it on the program anyway, and it added yet another layer to what's turning out to be an extremely deep series of feuds and disagreements. I'm loving this.

Jericho and Trish vs. Matt Hardy and Molly was probably the best mixed tag match I've ever seen. Everything was clicking here except the one spot everybody will remember, no doubt, when Jericho botched an enziguiri. And even that made sense, however inadvertently, since Jericho was putting all his weight on that injured knee to even attempt the move and still managed to get up and kick V1 in the head moments later. Molly and Trish were spot-on from start to finish, and really put on a show for us in the ring whenever they were together. They've reached the point with the women's division where it no longer looks like two runway models going through the motions they were shown backstage before the match, and instead both Trish and Molly appear to be competent workers of their own right. This was a very strong match, featuring four participants I'm always interested in watching and a finish that was both unexpected and compelling. I love that they're taking Christian's character in new directions, expanding him from the straightforward, egotistical, cocky bastard role that pretty much defines the run-of-the-mill WWE heel into more of a three dimensional personality with his own motivations, desires and devices.

Oh yeah, and I'm not one to say "I told ya so," but take a look at my contribution to the RRC two weeks back. Looky who predicted a romance between Trish and Christian first...

Flair and Benoit were on next, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to that match all week long. My dream match has long been Benoit vs. Flair, albeit younger versions of both men with the leadership of the Horsemen at stake, and I was eager to see how they'd handle these two in their current situations on RAW. Likewise, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to see this go a little longer, but I'll take what we got nonetheless. For my money, the match focused too heavily on chops and not enough on the story of Benoit's leg, so that when a bloody-chested Nature Boy suddenly locked in his figure four leglock and the Crippler immediately grabbed the rope, screaming, it didn't really seem right. I did like the counter into the crossface, which I'd consider a key aspect of getting Benoit over, and I loved that they just let these two cut loose and work to a clean finish with no hint of outside interference. Flair just doesn't have the stamina or body to do what he wanted to do here any longer, and the match lagged a little bit as a result. Still very good for free TV and something I'd accept happily if they offered it to us again.

I also really enjoyed that they positioned the infamous contract signing immediately after the Flair / Benoit match, as it was the perfect spot to capitalize on the challenger's traditional pattern of crowd interest. Benoit is never as over with the audience as he is immediately after a lengthy, well fought match, so keeping him in the ring through the commercial break and on into the formalities helped carry over a lot of that momentum and retain the electricity that was firing through the arena. I'll admit, I was worried about what kind of result the Crippler would produce when he came to RAW, and during the first couple of weeks it was painfully obvious that the crowds weren't all that crazy about him. Now that he's put a couple matches behind him, audiences are warming up to him considerably and he's become visibly more at ease in his non-wrestling ring appearances.

And, though I loathe the idea of a triple threat in the main event of WrestleMania, I can't argue with the way they handled the HBK / HHH / Benoit conference last night. Though Benoit came off as the most bush league of the three, it's exactly that kind of treatment and his response to it that should help define his character and really put the audience's support behind him. As for Michaels, hey... nothing he did was out of character. In fact, in the split second it took him to deliver that superkick, he successfully transformed from the pale, boring impersonation of Shawn Michaels we've been seeing on television over the last year and a half to the show stopper himself, the Heart Break Kid, one of the most egocentric men in the history of the promotion. Nothing the man did during his heyday was for anything other than selfish, occasionally bitter, reasons. It was always about him, whether he was a face or a heel, and that bold personality is a big part of why he was so successful. Although the live crowd was too shell shocked to do much more than mumble and whimper as Michaels stood over an unconscious Chris Benoit and signed the paperwork, there's no denying they were behind the Wolverine when the dust settled. I can't wait to see how this works out next week between the two, how Benoit takes the frustrations and anger generated by this twist and brings them out in all their gritty detail in the ring.

Of course, the whole segment would've benefitted tremendously if Triple H hadn't come down with such a chronic case of oral diarrhea at the very outset. That little "you can't take the last step" speech would've been much more effective if it hadn't run on for close to five minutes. Take a look at how well it worked for Flair, and he only mentioned it as an aside before the Royal Rumble.

Kane and the Hurricane worked a grand total of two minutes, introductions inclusive, and accomplished absolutely dick during that time. Which isn't so much their fault as it is that of the gentlemen backstage, for rushing them out there after the contract thing ran long to complete in three minutes what was likely scripted to take five. To borrow a phrase, "we are all collectively dumber" for partaking in that experience.

Oh yeah, and the Undertaker won't be on RAW prior to WrestleMania. Which means we get to see more of that "eerie blue mist" that miraculously makes its way into the ring while birds attempt to build a nest in Kane's gaping maw. It's OK, I guess. My anticipation for the dead man's return had already all but died itself.

Foley's promo was strong, even if it was a little flawed at heart. It's one thing for the King and JR to act surprised when something blatantly obvious has happened or is about to do so, (such as the Undertaker's return) but it's something else entirely for the two of them to act like something that's been blatant public knowledge for years is a disturbing revelation. For god's sake, they used Orton's AWOL adventure as a feature on an episode of Confidential at one point, and now neither guy knew the first thing about it? King thinks Foley's making it all up? JR even contradicted himself within moments, at first acting shocked and appalled, then later confirming Foley's facts as "the god's honest truth." I'm not sure why, but the treatment of that whole segment bothered me. No fault of Foley or Orton.

The backstage beatdown went about how you'd envision it. I was a little surprised nobody went through the drywall in "catering," as there's rarely any other reason to have a big, empty white wall in the same area as a beating is going on. Part of me thinks that was the plan after all, but Batista mistakenly threw Mick into the wrong section of wall, resulting in the ugly collision that preceded the big table powerbomb. Foley sold the enormity of his suffering through the sound of his breathing alone, as it seemed to be genuinely labored and painful to attempt. Good segment that got the point across.

I couldn't get excited about the three-way for the Intercontinental Title until the very end. Booker and RVD, especially, seemed to be just going through the motions and filling in the blanks with uninspired offense until they hit the near falls, while Orton wasn't even involved in the majority of the match. The one thing I absolutely adored, though, was the finish. In one instant, they simultaneously reinforced the strength of Rob Van Dam's finishing maneuver, the intense personal toll he pays every time he even attempts it, and Orton's undeniable ring awareness. Every time RVD hits a five star frog splash, he clutches his belly and rolls around the ring in pain for a few moment before attempting to cover his opponent for a pinfall. Orton knew this, perhaps from their past encounters, and arrived to hurl RVD out of the ring an instant after he hit the finisher, while that pain was still coursing through his body. Orton not only knew that Booker T would be easy prey for a three count, but that Van Dam would be unable to stop the cover. That's a great finish, building off of something that Van Dam's been doing every week for years now.

All in all, I was extremely happy with the directions taken with different characters this week. Randy Orton, Mick Foley, Christian, Chris Benoit, Goldberg, Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels all showed off sides of their characters that were previously unseen last night, and each one has the potential for a wealth of future storylines hidden within. The actual action in the ring itself was as varied as they come, with Benoit vs. Flair and Jericho/Stratus vs. Hardy/Holly performing very well, the Intercontinental championship match mixing hots with colds, and the Kane vs. Hurricane match sucking a pretty ginormous set of deez nuts. The entire direction of the show is undeniably interesting, and I honestly can't wait to see if this hot streak can continue next week in RAW's counter to No Way Out. A very good program that wasn't perfect, but was head and shoulders above average.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.6

Monday, February 2, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 02/02/04

The more I thought about last week's show, the more I liked it. After originally taking it in, I thought it was good despite a few glaring flaws. After I'd slept on it, I found myself a little more excited about the direction RAW seems to be headed in, and the show jumped up a couple notches in my imagination. Once I sat down and started putting my thoughts into written form, I realized the show was more than just "good," it was "very good." Well above average. It was something that reminded me why I fell back into love with wrestling more than half a dozen years ago. It was meaty, it provided both intrigue and follow-through, it offered physical collisions in the ring that I'd consider PPV-worthy and it had an underlying electricity that really tied the whole thing together into a superb, explosive package. But, ever the worrier, I quickly moved past last week's show and began to daydream about how they'd manage to drop the ball with this week's. It wasn't a conscious decision, but it's something that happened nonetheless. I sat down to press "play" on my TiVo with an overbearing sense of dread, like I was about to watch video of a plane crash but didn't know where exactly it was on the tape. I didn't have high hopes going in, to say the least, which is more than likely a by-product of so many let downs over the last two years than any sort of personal disorder.

Fortunately enough, RAW worked quickly to alleviate my fears, sending not only Chris Jericho out to the ring, (seven days removed from an outrageously good showing on last week's RAW) but Chris Benoit, Ric Flair and Eric Bischoff as well. I'm still a little worried about Benoit's presence on the mic, not to mention his ability as a face that can garner instant crowd support, but I'm willing to sit back and take in a couple more promos before I make a real decision on that front. He seems to lack the intensity and conviction on the mic that defines his performance in the ring, and his eyes often betray him during long interview segments. I want to see him gritting his teeth, going brow-to-brow with anyone that bothers him and really putting some fire behind his words. Instead I'm watching him posture, look around the ring with a hollow expression on his face and use the phrase "Well, ya know..." before every single sentence. I'm worried.

Fortunately enough, he was in there with two of RAW's best heels and one of its hottest face / tweeners. Flair was good enough in his demeanor to overshadow Benoit's lacking presence on the microphone, and could single-handedly put the Crippler into serious main event contention again with a good showing during their match next week. Watching Ric tell his former pupil that he doesn't have what it takes to become a legend is pure gold, and lends instant sympathy to Benoit's character.

I like Bischoff in the glasses. It's a look that not many people can pull off in pro wrestling, but adds a new dimension to his on-screen presence. He feels more like a member of the old guard now, like he's been around long enough to know every trick in the book, not to mention a way to turn any situation into his own favor. He doesn't seem to have been as rash in his decision making over the last month, either, now that I think about it. Bischoff is slowly transforming from an impulsive manager, who books on the fly and often makes poor decisions as a result, into a cool, calculated owner who's begun to think things through before taking action. His master plans have a bit more planning now, as evidenced by his booking of the Trish / Kane match this week and his efforts to halt Benoit's momentum before it's gathered too much steam. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, (and, on reflection, when am I not?) but I like the way Bischoff appears to be headed.

I'm usually the first to defend Mark Henry's role on RAW, but not this week. Sure, the situation they booked him in was absolutely perfect for the kind of character he's been meant to portray. A similarly-themed match between Benoit and the Big Show a couple ofyears ago on RAW resulted in one of the Crippler's most memorable ovations, after he fought the entire match to cut the Show down to size, work his shoulder and apply the crossface. When the Big Show finally realized that he was stuck in the center of the ring with nowhere to go, he screamed in a mixture of frustration and pain and tapped out. Though the match was only about seven or eight minutes long, the two had told such a compelling story from bell to bell that the previously tame audience was on its feet with excitement. This week's match was a perfect chance to try that same strategy again, but a combination of time restrictions and Mark Henry's lack of effort and mobility spoiled the opportunity. Honestly, I'm not surprised to learn that Mark was injured going into the match, because he really didn't look like he wanted to be in the ring last night. I like the storyline that Benoit's crossface tore "The World's Strongest Man"'s shoulder right out of the socket, but I think it might've meant more if it had absorbed a little more damage before the crossface was applied. Bad match, but a good story.

Great backstage storytelling between Test, Orton and Foley. Orton and Test, especially, impressed the hell out of me. Instead of immediately joining forces because of their shared role as heels, the two squabbled like a pair of hyenas hovering over the same kill. Orton wants his victory over Foley to be unquestioned, to be his alone. Test merely wanted some payback for the backstage assault that took him out of the Royal Rumble and ruined his shot at a WrestleMania main event. Both guys had motivation to tear into Mick, but Orton's reasoning was more emotional. Thus, he came away with the kill. Great continuity, writing and execution.

Despite my fiancee's announcement that she loves watching Rico act like an ass, I'm getting tired of his gimmick. It was funny and original the first half-dozen times I saw it, but now that act's wearing thin. It's time to do something new, and I don't think the unnecessary addition of Stacey Keibler is what he needs. Rico's a unique worker in the ring, and he's got a character that's started to click. Now's the time to take it to the next level and maybe reveal a little more about who he is and what he's trying to do.

The "Trish-as-Yoko" reference has been batted around and praised pretty largely since last night, and I don't really have anything new to add to it. Very nice little vignette that greatly enhanced the ongoing saga between these two and Chris Jericho. Christian, as the self-centered dickhead, is in rare form.

Kane vs. Trish was everything you'd imagine it would be. Once again, Bischoff shows that he'd put more than ten minutes' worth of thought into last week's show, as not only did he rob Chris Jericho of his much maligned "favor," but he got the end result he was after only seven days later by taking advantage of Jericho's lovesick gullibility. It's a win-win situation for Bischoff, as he gets out of having to redeem the last favor he promised at the Survivor Series, aids his buddies in Evolution by all but guaranteeing them a win later in the night, screws over his most recent enemy in Chris Jericho, and scares the fuck out of Trish. Kane delayed a bit too long with the chokeslam, but now I'm really nitpicking. I loved the spot where Kane took Y2J's legs out from under him with a chair, just a split second after he'd stepped between the ropes. It was a transitional spot to set up the big leg injury on the steel post, sure, but it was done so well that the entire segment succeeded based off of it.

I'm liking this Undertaker return less and less with each passing week. As I admitted last week, it was undeniably cool to hear the gong at the Royal Rumble and to enjoy the tingle that ran down my spine as I heard the audience's reaction to it. It was a little less inspiring to hear it the next night on RAW, and then to see the Ring-style video that accompanied it. I was still interested in seeing the deadman's return... then it took another step in the wrong direction last night, as lightning struck the ring, mist coated the apron, Kane ran like a little girl and the announcers tried to act witless, as though they had no idea what was happening. It's getting silly again, and I'm losing my anticipation with each week. I honestly don't want them to rush his return, but I also don't want to see all the stupid quirks that are associated with his character coming out of the woodwork and ushering in a new age of childlike "supernatural" gimmicks and unbelievable storylines. What's next, Paul Bearer with his urn? A buzzard flying through the arena? Flaming cameramen at six o'clock? All they need to do is put him in his original mortician's outfit, wipe some purple paint under his eyes, drop the arena lights and trot him out there again. Instead, they're over-producing it and I'm losing interest. Get on with it.

I wasn't crazed about the Booker vs. V1 match. Neither guy was clicking last night, and I've really lost my high on Booker over the last year or so. I didn't mind the spinaroonie when it was his equivalent of Shawn Michaels' kip-up, just a cool little transition he threw in while regaining his vertical base after a big spot. As the central focus of a match, a maneuver he uses randomly and needlessly throughout the match, I'm really getting sick of it. I dislike the spinaroonie for the same reason I hated the Worm, the People's Elbow and the Road Dogg's dancing kneedrop. It's stupid, it demeans his opponent and the audience, and it degrades the sport. Worst of all, it's applied after a simple punch or kick nowadays... his opponents just lay in the ring, wait for him to complete the minute-long process, and then get up like nothing just happened. Ugh.

Triple H accomplished exactly dick in his promo-turned-match with Spike Dudley. That was a balls-nasty pedigree, though, wasn't it? Yeah, I can't wait until he pulls that out against a guy who's just regaining his momentum after returning from a career-halting neck injury. Poor Spike... his win-loss record's gotta be like 3-2900 over the last couple of years. Remember when he actually meant something to ECW?

I wasn't inspired by the Flair / Batista vs. Jericho / Christian match, which was a real let-down after their superb handicap match last week. Granted, RVD and Randy Orton were in the ring for that one, but the majority of the same competitors were in action with one another here last night. I like that the figure four was used as the finisher, no matter how obvious that was going in, but I just didn't like the way they got there. I don't understand why every heel victory must first be preceded by a "behind-the-ref's back" submission, the use of a foreign object and / or a ref bump. Can't people just win and lose anymore? Do we really need to see elaborately written finishes, when in most cases a simple "Christian makes the hot tag and collapses from the apron, Jericho fights but ultimately succumbs to the figure four" will do? Why can't we trust the four guys in the ring to get from point A to point B on their own? Let the wrestlers do their job, honest to god.

And, lending a theme to the night, the HBK / Orton fight I was enthused about at the show's opening didn't do anything for me, either. Nobody came out on the right foot last night, it seems. There was no real direction to this match, nothing to drive it. Orton's been unexpectedly good over the last couple of weeks, and Shawn Michaels has been... well.... Shawn Michaels, but even their combined hot streaks couldn't produce something great here. Maybe somebody put something in the water backstage.

All in all, an extremely well-written show that was largely marred by poor performances from the talent and / or overbooked finishes. I like the direction they're going with Benoit, teasing his tension with everybody on the show, (because everybody's jusitifiably jealous of his Rumble victory) and I'm head-over-heels for this Jericho / Christian / Trish thing. And hey, Orton and Foley are out there kicking asses too. All in all, if the matches had panned out last night and every promo had been solid, this would've cracked the eight barrier. As is, it's just a notch or two below last week's. Still above average, still a show I'm enjoying tuning in to, but not as inspiring as what I took in at the end of January.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.8