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

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