Friday, March 12, 2004

The World's Greatest WWE WrestleMania XX Preview

It's the biggest weekend of the year, the day we've all been anticipating since they began running that obnoxious "countdown" after every other commerical break almost a year ago. It's the World Series of Professional Wrestling, the event every worker, no matter what they say, dreams of becoming a part of. No matter what you think of Vince McMahon, WWE, its roster, its bookers or its history, there's no denying the aura that constantly surrounds this event. WrestleMania has survived dry spells (see WMIX or WMXI), it's enjoyed some hot streaks (WMII, WMV and WMXV), and it's become, without a shadow of a doubt, the single most important word in the history of the industry. No matter how cheesy the commercials may seem, everything Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, Ric Flair, Triple H, Eddy Guerrero and Chris Benoit discuss in that brief promotional spot is spot-on. Almost inexplicably, 'Mania has risen above all the petty grudges, the accusations and the backstage politics as an emotional, career-summarizing experience that's shared by both the athletes themselves and the fans witnessing it around the world. An opportunity to appear on the card is more than enough for any wrestler to brag about, and a chance at the main event means near immortality. It's where stars are made, where storylines are concluded and where dreams are realized. It's our everything.

This year's show looks to be a real champ, too. Not only are the WWE employees excited about the celebration of the event's twentieth anniversary, but virtually all of their key players are healthy. The card is overflowing with fresh new face-offs and golden opportunities. It's a big, big chance for Eddy Guerrero, Randy Orton, Christian John Cena and Chris Benoit to solidify themselves in a much larger spot on their respective cards, and an opportunity for Chavo Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho to justify their current positions on either RAW or SmackDown. This will be an extremely interesting show to watch, not only this weekend, but this time next year... if just to see how these individuals' performances affected their booking over the next twelve months.

I know I'm excited, and I don't even have the added pleasure of witnessing the show live and in person, as Dave does. I wish I weren't poor, and could've afforded to make the long trek to Madison Square Garden for this appears as though I'll be missing something special.

Chavo Guerrero Jr. (c), Akio, Funaki, Billy Kidman, Shannon Moore, Rey Mysterio, Jamie Noble, Nunzio, Yoshihiro Tajiri, Ultimo Dragon
Cruiserweight Open for the Cruiserweight Title

There's little question in my mind this match will be opening the show for us Sunday night, and I can't argue with that logic whatsoever. Cruiserweight matches in general are absolutely ideal for getting a big crowd off its feet, excited and into the action right off the bat, and with the lightweights starting to make a little noise on their side of the show, this could be key to the division's ultimate success or failure. This is a tailor-made WrestleMania opener, with several of the show's brightest, most underappreciated stars, and I'm glad to see it happening now that the federation finally has enough talent to make some sparks with their long-suffering Cruiserweight division.

There are a million guys who deserve to win this one; everybody from the established names like Rey Mysterio, Tajiri and Jamie Noble to the underutilized Ultimo Dragon, Billy Kidman and Nunzio to the unexpected Hurricane, Paul London or an unannounced new hire. I'd love to see them kick off the show with a bang by sending somebody like Low Ki or Sonjay Dutt out there to make an instant name for themselves, but that's daydreaming at its best. If you look at the way they've built this, there's really no third option: Rey Mysterio has been the undeniable focus of the division over the last six months, and Chavo's just starting to ramp his game up in the aftermath of the split of his tag team. They're both odds-on favorites to take this one, and no matter how much I'd rather see somebody else shock the audience by pulling it out here, I just can't pick against them. This comes down to a face-off, and I'm betting Chavo retains the belt for at least another month.
Winner: Chavo Guerrero, Jr.

Sable & Torrie Wilson vs. Stacy Keibler & Miss Jackie
Evening Gown Match

I guess every WrestleMania needs to come fully equipped with a teased-nudie scene anymore. At least this year's show has set aside enough time so that none of the matches on the card should need to be cut so that Vince & co. can justify the expenses they've paid to cosmetic surgeons over the last twelve months. And, in keeping with that trend, at least the girls they're trotting around this year have been involved with the programming in the past, unlike last year's worthless segment.

I knew they were headed in this direction from the first moment Stacey and Jackie started protesting the newest Playboy magazine covers, and I wasn't really all that pleased about it then, either. None of these girls know the first thing about putting on an entertaining match; at least half of the participants have taken part in singles matches in the past that were so bad, viewers can only dream about blocking them from their memory. All I need to do is say the words "Jackie Gayda" and "bulldog" in close proximity to one another, and visions of blown spots should dance through your head like so many holiday sugarplums.

I don't care who wins this. It'll pop the audience, Jackie will more than likely bare her chest (either by accident or by design), and the end result won't really be all that pretty.
Winners: Sable & Torrie

Booker T & Rob Van Dam (c) vs. Jindrak & Cade vs. La Resistance vs. The Dudley Boyz
World Tag Team Titles

The tag team scene is in an extremely sorry state these days, both on RAW and on Smackdown. Only a handful of legitimate teams still exist, amid the "throw two singles stars together and let the good times roll" atmosphere that's handicapped the division since the mid 90s, and even they aren't treated as anything out of the ordinary. I've always believed that the merits of good teamwork, a couple guys who know each others' weaknesses and how to cover for them, and a straightforward tag team mentality should be more than enough to overcome the power of two former World Champions, teamed together temporarily. Alas, the logic World Wrestling Entertainment has been filling us with over the last decade or so claims otherwise.

I like both Booker T and RVD as singles stars, but even I have to admit they've been underachieving at best over the last six months. Neither guy has any of the spark, the fire that set them apart from their peers not all that long ago. Van Dam has finally succumbed to the prescribed McMahon method of repetition in the ring, and Booker's concentrated on completely pandering to the audience, rather than maintaining his excitingly original style both on the mat and in the air. I'm no fan of their tag team run, and it'd be a pity to see the division "begin again" with such a lukewarm, unenthusiastic team holding the belts. If I had my choice of the four teams presented here, I'd hand with La Resistance. Aside from the stale anti-American sentiment they've based their gimmick on since day one, these guys are actually starting to grow as individuals. I've never had a problem with Rob Conway, who seems to be a natural in the ring, and even Renee Dupree is maturing into a much more entertaining, less risky package. Though it's a long shot and the more likely team is the Dudley Boyz, I'm gonna go with my gut instinct here. The Frenchmen recapture their titles.
Winners: La Resistance

Rikishi & Scotty 2 Hotty (c) vs. The Basham Brothers vs. World?s Greatest Tag Team vs. APA
WWE Tag Team Titles

Smackdown's tag team scene is in even worse shape than RAW's. At least the Monday night program has a relatively deep pool of individual talent to pull from when their ranks start to dry up; Smackdown's so low on talent right now, almost everybody who could be active on the show already is. I'm surprised the APA and Too Cool were brought in to the title scene this year, when younger teams like Kidman / London and the FBI are still available, but who can say really why the bookers move in the ways that they do.

This'll be weak. Scotty and Rikishi were both very sound workers when their team was first put together nearly five years ago, but today they're still inhabiting the same roles, performing the same moves and... hell, they're even wearing the same outfits. There's something to be said for a successful gimmick, but there's something to be said for striking while the iron's hot, too. Scotty should've been grandfathered into the cruiserweight scene after carrying the division on his back for so long in its infancy (along with some help from Dean Malenko), while Rikishi is large and agile enough to make something of himself in the midcard. The Bashams have the makings of a good to great tag team, but haven't done enough to get themselves noticed, while the APA is basically just there for filler. If there's any justice in the world, the belts will go back around the waists of Hass and Benjamin this Sunday, but I have a sneaking suspicion that option hasn't even been considered at this point. I'd love to take TWGTT in this one, but my brain tells me otherwise.
Winners: Rikishi & Scotty 2 Hotty

Victoria (c) vs. Molly Holly
Women's Title (Molly's Hair is on the Line)

I've been one of the more vocal supporters of the rise of the women's division over the last year on RAW, and I've been just as vocal in my opposition of its direction over the last month. The ladies worked their asses off over the last year to improve dramatically, both as individuals and as a collective division, and we've now arrived at the point where the focus isn't on any one lady so much as it is on the title. Where, in the past, the entire competitive roster has been one spotlighted star and a random roster of evil challengers (see the eras of Alundra Blayze, Sable and, to a degree, Trish Stratus), the current division boasts easily half a dozen women who could legitimately make a successful run for the title at any time. Though Molly held the belt for the majority of the last year, it was never to the point that all the other women looked ineffective and non-credible. With very few exceptions, every match has been competitive and underbooked, while the storylines had settled down into a refreshingly competition-only mindset. Sure, occasionally we'd see some sort of confrontation between the ladies backstage, but on the whole the only real story has been each lady's desire for gold.

That changed early last month, when the writing took the division into more of a sports entertainment-ized direction. Instead of facing off in long, generally very good bouts and limiting their appearances outside of the ring, the women started showing up in Eric Bischoff's office, catfighting their way to the ring and enduring matches that had no pace or substance, lasting just seconds instead of minutes. It's hurt to watch this transformation go down over the last couple weeks, but it'll be worth it this Sunday as Molly and Victoria go at it for all the marbles. I'm actually very pleased with their choice of a title match here, as the focus has been placed squarely on the two women who made the most progress over the last year, not the two competitiors who posed in Playboy or concentrated the most on gaining an audience's affections. Following only an audience's reaction, you'd think this match should feature Trish and Lita, the two most recognizable faces in the division who gather the most cheers. Instead, they're giving us what's sure to be a much better match with two hard working ladies that deserve a lot more credit than they've been given. Sure, it's been tainted a bit with the needless addition of a "Molly wins or shaves her head" stipulation, but I think the match can succeed despite that mild setback. Given time, these two can get any crowd in the nation involved in what they're doing. Given less than three minutes, they'll only take steps backwards.

The stipulation leads me to believe Molly's taking the pin here and shaving her head the next night in an attempt to set her character apart from the rest of the division. I'm gonna disagree with that logic, though, and say Molly finally snaps her losing streak here Sunday night. This feud's only begun to kick.
Winner: Molly Holly

Big Show (c) vs. John Cena
US Title Match

I can't rag on the Big Show whatsoever. 2002 and 2003 were banner years for the big guy, as he finally shed the slow, boring, absolutely useless label that had followed him for years and emerged as one of the most valuable members of the Smackdown team. He's a very big guy, so it's to be taken for granted that he won't be sailing through the air or participating in many iron man matches, but for what he's been given, the Big Show is making one heck of an impact. He's built himself into exactly the kind of position a guy of his stature should fill: the seemingly unstoppable monster, always there to fill in the other half of a main event, and always a gigantic threat. Whether he succeeds in squashing the little guy or falls in dramatic fashion, his purpose is clear-cut and (this is the key) very difficult to book improperly. He can only serve a couple real purposes, but he's been mastering those over the last sixteen months.

Likewise, John Cena has become one of World Wrestling Entertainment's biggest surprises. He's certainly not the best athlete in the world, and to the casual viewer his character is contrived and stupid. But the guy's got that extra something, that undefinable ingredient that sets the live audience ablaze. He's arguably the most popular man on Smackdown at this point, invoking a reaction that's frighteningly loud with almost every appearance. He's got a lot of momentum behind him, and unless they play their cards very carefully with him, it'll all be for naught.

To be truthful, though, this won't be a very good match. Cena's never been good enough to carry the Big Show to the kind of outstanding match he's capable of with just a little help, and with his knee injury complicating matters even further, I think it's safe to say this won't be anything special. The Show has needed to drop the US title for some time now, since he never defends it, and Cena could really use the shot in the arm of a win here to keep his popularity on the upswing. The self proclaimed master of thugonomics pulls out the miracle in my book.
Winner: John Cena

Christian vs. Chris Jericho

The build's been ramping up for almost half a year. They finally pulled the trigger only a few short weeks ago, and it came off perfectly. So why am I losing interest in this match with every passing day? Jericho's generally the master of the initial build, before eventually losing interest and half-assing a feud's conclusion or blowoff, so why do things seem to be moving in the opposite direction this time around? Hey, I don't have the answers... I just ask the questions.

I'm a big fan of both these guys, but this feud's running out of gas. There's only so long you can play the "innocent puppy dog in love" card before it gets overdone and boring, and we're reaching that point right now. Either get together with him or turn heel, admit you liked it when Christian shoved you around and kick Y2J to the curb, Trish. She's been in need of some freshening up for a while now, and though a vicious, heartless heel direction might contradict everything she's been for the last few years, that won't exactly be new ground for Ms. Stratus. Remember when she was on all fours, barking like a dog for Mr. McMahon to take her back? That's a pretty far cry from the squeaky-clean, girl next door image she tries to flaunt every week on RAW these days.

I'll admit to being a little anxious to see how these two work together in the ring Sunday night. Jericho's a real hot and cold performer, and Christian's in the same ballpark. They'll either team up to put on one hell of a show and tear the house down from the center of the card, or they'll both mail it in and leave a nasty odor in the middle of the ring. My money's on Jericho here, because a Trish heel turn (and the natural accompanying Christian victory) is a bit too much to ask of the current writing crew. I wish I could say I had more confidence in them than that.
Winner: Chris Jericho

The Undertaker vs. Kane

I'll admit to losing myself to emotion when that familiar gong sounded at the Royal Rumble. I'll even admit to thinking the whole idea was pretty cool the next night on RAW, when they pulled the same stunt again. By now, though, I've remembered why I was glad to see the old Undertaker go and the new one arrive. The "supernatural" stunts they pull off to get this guy over, the goofy catchphrases they're still trying to trot out, it just doesn't work any more. The focus of the federation has shifted from children to teens and young adults. Imagine the Undertaker trying to make a career for himself in Major League Baseball or the NFL. Crowds wouldn't know what to do with him at first, then they'd realize they were being played for fools and turn on him violently. If the goal is a more physical, sports-themed federation (as I'd imagine it is, considering the main events and characters of the last five years), this is the wrong move to make.

Kane's capable of a very good match when opposed by a sound worker and an emotional audience, but I seriously doubt he'll be able to do anything with his "brother" this Sunday night. Besides, they've already all but killed off all his momentum by jobbing him out on several occasions to Shane McMahon, so why not lay him down yet again for another match against the Undertaker? The 'Taker wins this one, and there's no real second guessing it.
Winner: The Undertaker

The Rock & Mick Foley vs. Randy Orton, Ric Flair & Batista

I know I'm not the only one who thinks this needed to be a singles match. Foley and Orton are the ones who have the beef here, not Foley, Orton, Flair, Rock and Batista... that's the way it was built for the first two months, that's where the heat really was, and that's how it should've ended up. Rocky could've been busied elsewhere. Flair and Batista could've lived without dropping the tag titles on RAW a couple weeks ago. The heat, the meat and the money is with Foley and Orton. Likewise, I'm not sure where they're going with this booking. Every step of the way has been a completely Evolution-dominated annihilation. It's been a total heel romp, which naturally leads to the face overcoming all odds and coming out victorious at the epic blowoff... except that doesn't help anyone. Foley doesn't gain anything with a win here, aside from maybe a little peace of mind as he returns to retirement. Orton, on the other hand, suffers substantially by dropping a clean loss to a guy who hasn't wrestled competitively in four years. The only reason to even launch this feud is establish Orton, which is something they're completely missing the boat on thus far.

In the ring, I suppose these guys match up OK, but it's really a luck of the draw. Flair has been on-again, off-again for the majority of his "farewell tour," Orton absolutely carryable and has an undeniable ring presence and charisma, Batista is still a couple of years away from becoming a player, and Foley & Rocky are both wild cards. These guys have been away from the ring long enough to merit a little concern. Rock, perhaps, a little less so... he's proven time and time again that he can jolt from one thing to another and continue to excel at both, while Foley hasn't done much aside from referee a match here and there, play behind-the-scenes commissioner once or twice, and fall down a flight of stairs. If Mick's up to it, Flair puts on his game face and the younger half of Evolution are interested, this match could be a real pleasant surprise. If not... well, I hope it doesn't come to that. Mick and The Rock go over here, with the Foley / Orton feud that could've triple-headlined this event goes on to a singles payoff at Backlash or King of the Ring.
Winners: Mick Foley & The Rock

Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar
Special Referee: Steve Austin

Even though we haven't seen much of ol' BG and the rumors have been floating about Brock's disappearance after the event this Sunday night, I can't help but get excited about this match. This is a high impact, no-frills, all flash and no substance kind of match, and while I'd normally tear something like this apart without a second thought, I can't help but agree with its placement on the card here. If there were ever a time for a match that's all flashes and bangs, it'd be in the middle of a five hour block of WrestleMania.

This should wake the crowd up for the final portion of the show, and I'm expecting it to be pure, mindless fun. Brock and Goldberg are two guys you'd naturally want to see face off with one another, and I'm glad they're getting this out in the open before Billy-Bo's much-anticipated and speculated exit from the company. This shouldn't be extra long, and it shouldn't be a psychological masterpiece. It should be two goliaths swinging at one another with all their might, scales tilting from one guy's advantage to the other's with reckless abandon and a couple very close nearfalls. The obvious choice is for Brock to go over here, since he's the more valuable commodity to the company's future, but I wouldn't put it past them to have signed Goldberg for another full year in secret, just to surprise us all by finishing the match with a spear and a jackhammer. I only hope Lesnar doesn't try anything retarded, like another full-ring SSP... because Goldberg doesn't have the ring awareness and presence of mind to get out of the way and save both their asses, like Kurt Angle did last year.
Winner: Brock Lesnar

Eddie Guerrero (c) vs. Kurt Angle
WWE Title Match

I can't complain a damn bit about this one. Eddy's championship win (and subsequent public acceptance and popularity) has been the nicest surprise of the new year, and Kurt Angle's return to the heel stature that helped him rise to fame is something that's worth celebrating completely on its own. The fact that these two guys are co-headlining the biggest show of the year is almost enough to make you believe there is such a thing as justice in the world. Here you've got two of the best all around packages in the entire business; a former Olympic champion who made the transition from the amateur style to professional with uncanny ease and an international phenomenon, a guy who toured the entire globe, who wrestled his heart out in just about every federation in the world. This isn't a storytelling masterpiece, it's two of the most dominant forces on the entire Smackdown scene going toe to toe for the World Title on the biggest stage of 2004. In short, it's a championship match, not an epic poem.

I can't wait to see how Kurt and Eddy square off together in the ring Sunday night. The little taste we got on the Smackdown-televised Royal Rumble a couple months ago was enough to whet my appetite, but now I'm ready for the main course. Holy shit, that sounded cheesy. Seriously, that was like a line out of a bad porno. "I'm ready for the main course"... gah.. somebody shoot me. Anyway, there's only so many ways you can say "this will own every ass in the building." Guerrero and Angle are gonna tear that house apart Sunday, and I've got Eddy retaining. With the kind of success he's had since winning the gold last month, there's no way they're stopping his forward momentum now. At least, not to a guy who's still redefining himself as a heel. I'd be surprised if this ended here.
Winner: Eddy Guerrero

Triple H (c) vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit
World Championship Match

Hah, I can't wait to see the backlash on the 'net if Benoit loses this one. You're gonna hear so many "never watching this shit again" and "can't believe they think Triple H is over"s, you'd think they'd aired an episode of RAW featuring necrophelia and bad puns. I've gotta agree, though, if Benoit somehow doesn't come out of the next couple months with the World Title around his waist, my faith in the writers will have been completely obliterated. Everything they've done to the guy since his win at the Royal Rumble has been to undermine his status with the audience, to place his ability under stress in question and to basically make him look like a nobody. He's been cheap shotted, he's been distracted at the least opportune moment, and he's been basically brushed aside in the rush to continue this never ending Triple H / Shawn Michaels feud. If they're not building this guy up to be an underdog emerging from the warzone as a newly-crowned champion, they're doing a pretty good job at killing any future chance he'll have at the top.

The match itself, though, will be good. Scratch that, it'll be great. Shawn and Hunter can still go when they feel like cutting loose, and Benoit is... well, he's Chris freaking Benoit. The things I've read in the house show reports between these three have been nothing but promising, and if they tap even a fraction of their potential in this one it'll be an instant classic. I'm not a big fan of three-ways, but I'm willing to make an exception considering the participants. While I'll come clean and admit I'm not really looking forward to this one as much as I am Guerrero / Angle, this match (and its potential conclusion) is still a big reason why I'll be tuning in Sunday night. And, so long as Triple H doesn't come out smelling like roses for the third straight WrestleMania (the fourth out of five), the match will be a success. This story has been completely leading to Benoit / Michaels for all the glory next month in Edmonton, and the thought of a heel Michaels north of the border is just too good to pass up. HBK wins the gold here, turns heel the next night on RAW and goes on to face the Wolverine in his hometown.
Winner: Shawn Michaels

In Closing...

A really stacked card, absolutely befitting of a good WrestleMania. I haven't seen a lineup this full of talent, potential and compelling storytelling in just about three years. With several favorable breaks, a couple better than average efforts and a good decision or two, this could be more of a WrestleMania X-7 and less of a Wrestlemania IX. Ha! Ha! I made insider humor. Anyway, my heart is out to all the lonely souls like myself who couldn't afford a ticket and transport to this year's big event, and my foot is looking for the ass of the lucky folks (like Dave) who'll be there in person Sunday night. Nah, I'm sure you guys will have a great time and I'll be looking for you next year. I'm excited, and you should be too. WMXX looks legendary.
until next time, i remain

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