Monday, April 26, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 04/26/04

RAW's hot. No question about it, the show's been vastly improved over the course of the last few months, and that's not just a knee-jerk reaction to the turn of events that saw Chris Benoit crowned the show's Heavyweight Champion. There's motivation in the workers, both young and old, there's honest-to-god intrigue pouring out of the majority of the show's newer ongoing storylines, the main events have been simply outstanding and the roster hasn't been this competitive in years. RAW has been quietly moving away from the "one man show" status that plagued it for most of 2002 and 2003, and approaching the point where just about anybody could have a legitimate chance at one of the top belts without wildly upsetting the order of things. It's been a fun little movement to witness, and I don't think I've been this optimistic about the product since WrestleMania X-7. Of course, running with such momentum could just as easily produce a grisly wreck as a glorious victory, but that's a risk I'm willing to take if shows such as the ones we've witnessed throughout the month of April are our rewards.

Still, it's tough to watch a new episode without that tiny bit of hesitation plucking away at the corner of your mind. All good things must come to an end, and as a grim pessimist at heart it was tough for me to go into this week's broadcast without the slightest hint of worry hanging over my head. I'd seen these writers screw up situations just as promising as those currently on the show throughout their tenure(s)... but I suppose there's no use in crying over spilled milk... especially when said milk hasn't even left the carton yet.

Regardless, the women's match kicked things off for us this week.. and was underwhelming yet again. It really is a sad thing to see how utterly fucked this division has become since the writers decided to quit letting the stories work their way out in the ring. Since the title was taken off of Molly prior to WrestleMania, all hell has broken loose. Victoria's successful heel character has become a horrifyingly boring, run of the mill, Alundra Blayze-esque face with little or no depth. Molly's been moved away from the lengthy matches that showcased her excellent ring awareness, and is now participating in three minute matches that are nothing more than vehicles for the face to remove her wig. Trish has been turned heel and completely removed from the division. Jazz has lost her manager and subsequently vanished from the show entirely. Lita has been pushed as a top face, with the focus placed squarely on her abilities in the ring, which rank somewhere between "shitty" and "very poor" (only technical terms here, boys and girls) And... yeah, Gail Kim's been brought back from purgatory. Actually, I'm kind of relieved to see Gail back again, as her tandem with Molly was one of the last successful things the division had done before spiraling into the stinkpit. Judging by last night's performance, she's still fairly green on the whole, but she's improving and the couple new maneuvers she's learned are impressive, fresh additions to the division. This match wasn't horrendous, but it wasn't pretty either and the handful of new directions they've taken with the major players are already stale.

I'll let the Kane / Lita / Matt Hardy thing develop a little further before I comment on it, because they're keeping it rather open-ended at this point. I don't see how putting the moves on Lita will make Kane any less "soft," (aside from the obvious sexual pun) but I did enjoy the brief beat-down he put Matt through backstage last night. That was seriously one of the most realistic beatings I've ever seen, and Matt sold it like he'd lost the ability to stand upright. Who knows, though, maybe they thought that door was gimmicked and Kane didn't make the realization until he'd already turned Version 1.0's spine into a gelatinous dessert dish.

Coach wasn't at his best opposite Tajiri last night, but I'll forgive him. I don't know why they had to revert to pulling the race card in this brief promo, (an instant sign that the writing is uninspired and lazy) but it managed to basically blow off the lingering Coach / Tajiri feud and shuffle us right along to this week's mini-main event of Trips vs. Tajiri, so I guess it all evens out in the end. I'm really enjoying Triple H's contribution to the program right now, even if he is still on-screen a tad too often. He's working his ass off, his flagrantly dismissive attitude towards midcard athletes is finally starting to catch up with him, and his character is really hitting high gear as a result. Both guys' timing was perfect for the mist spot at the end of this segment, which reminded me (perhaps incidentally) of the Muta / Flair spot at the end of the 1989 Great American Bash, albeit with the face / heel roles reversed. I also really loved that you could actually hear Tajiri go "PTHTPTHTPTH" over the house PA when he spit. Little touches like that make me fall in love with a segment.

The backstage bit with Hunter talking to trees, walls and (when pointed in the right direction) Eric Bischoff was amusing at best. I didn't think it was all that funny, personally, but it's certainly a lot better than some of the other comedy they've churned out.

Though the announce team was almost exclusively focused on Eugene and William Regal at the time, Rob Conway and Rhyno were busy putting on a very solid showcase in the ring while waiting for Eric's nephew to set off the pyro. Conway was noticeably in charge for the vast majority of the match, and seemed to have things wrapped up before the spot with Eugene caused the obvious distraction and cost him the match, kickstarting their little feud. I won't lie to you and say it was a breakout performance, or even the match of the night, but it was a nice showing by two guys who should have big things in their future. Especially good when you consider they only had four minutes of time to work with.

The trigger shall be pulled on the Eugene experiment next week. Let's see how the fans deal with bodybuilders who attempt to beat mentally retarded people.

I didn't care much for the match between Christian and Grandmaster Sexay. Though he continues to improve, both in the ring and on the mic, (as his pre-match promo proves) Christian still has a ways to go before I'd send him out there with the task of pulling a good match out of dead weight like Brian Christopher. This was just awful, there's no two ways about it. Sexay isn't interesting any more (and yes, he WAS at one time) and the years have not been kind to his abilities in the ring. Chris Jericho's still hanging around, but I'm worried he was here to move on to a feud with Tyson Tomko, rather than to wrap up his ongoing series with Christian. Somebody explain to me why he's not in the main event, either here or on Smackdown?

Triple H and Tajiri strolled out there after Y2J was removed from Trish, and actually did exactly what they needed to do. You're crazy if you thought Tajiri should've gone over here, but Triple H went out of his way to really establish the buzzsaw as a credible threat and a genuine talent. I'll borrow a phrase from the RAW thread in the forums, by saying "you don't have to lose to put somebody over." Helmsley made Tajiri's kicks look like the brutal, muscle-shredding weapons they used to be in ECW, and took so many of them that it honestly seemed as though he wouldn't be able to stand to deliver the pedigree. The momentum was back and forth throughout, with the smaller man commanding a surprising portion of the match. I thought the mist spot came off a bit contrived, but on the whole I was extremely impressed by this match. Trips is positively untouchable in the ring right now.

Matt Hardy and Kane can't really be judged on the match they pounded out last night, since it was about as competitive as a solo game of checkers, and Matt kept right on bumping regardless of what kind of internal bleeding he had as a result of the backstage throw down. Seriously, either this guy woke up with an IV in his arm or he put on one of the best performances of his career last night, and in the process made Kane look like exactly the kind of overwhelming monster he's needed to be since day one. The kiss with Lita was bizarre, but like I said earlier; I'm gonna withhold judgment.

Randy Orton was walking the walk last night, proving that post-concussion syndrome wasn't to thank for his outstanding performance on last week's RAW and he really HAS turned the corner. This guy has become one of the most entertaining names on the show, and has FINALLY wholeheartedly embraced his gimmick. Before his battle with Mick Foley, there was always some sort of a childlike smile in his face, like he was always thinking "this is so COOL!", no matter how serious the subject of his speech may have been. As of last week, that smile has vanished and Orton is infinitely better as a result. I loved the interaction with Harley Race, as I seem to have been the only person alive who didn't see it coming, and really enjoyed the restraint the grizzled veteran showed. Everybody in the arena expected him to hop that rail and climb into the ring, Orton seemingly included, and when he didn't it lent legitimacy to Randy's claims that he's the real "next big thing," so to speak. I'm glad they've decided to put Shelton Benjamin opposite him in the IC title race, rather than Edge, but it came off as a little awkward that Shelton made the save last night and didn't bother to even nod in Harley's direction. Does he have any reason at all for disliking Randy Orton, aside from the natural association with Evolution?

I swear to god, there were WORMS crawling just underneath the skin on Batista's shoulders during his backstage promo last night. I couldn't pay attention to what the man was saying, I was so transfixed by the freakish, unnatural vein structures of his upper arms.

And, yet again, RAW absolutely cleaned up in the main event. I honestly preferred last night's tag match to the one we saw last week, despite the obvious emotional boost of seeing Benoit hold two belts above his head for the first time. Everyone in the ring was on last night, including Batista (who I don't think deserves a lot of the negative reputation he's gathered thus far) and the end result was a thing of beauty. Flair's facial expressions have been dynamite over the last few months, and last night was no exception in that department as the Nature Boy continued to turn it up a little bit beyond the comfort level. He's really seemed to have a fire lit underneath him recently, and has even begun shaking up the usual spots. For instance, when he performed the Flair Flop last night, it wasn't the usual "take a hard chop in the corner, walk a couple steps and flop." Instead, he teetered, tottered and fought his own knees before finally succumbing to a fall in the center of the ring. Benoit and Edge are functioning like they were born to tag together, and it was honestly very easy to forget this was only their second week together as a tandem. I will say there seemed to be a little something missing from last night's match, but for the life of me I can't figure out what it was. Maybe it was the sense that this shouldn't have been a title match, but rather a grudge match between four bitter enemies. It didn't need the added attraction of the tag team titles to make it successful, the match did a fantastic job of doing that itself.

I'm not positive what to make of the post-match business with Shawn Michaels, nor the audience's reaction to it. I honestly didn't hear a boo upon my viewing of the match, but it's entirely possible that my own enthusiasm, combined with JR and the King's frantic screams, drowned out the audience altogether. I wouldn't call Benoit's sharpshooter a particularly heelish action, especially considering the guy was flat on his back, seeing stars while Edge was getting his explanation from HBK in the center of the ring, but it's really up to the audiences to decide what they thought the right action should've been in that scenario. I did notice that Benoit was INSANELY over with the Topeka crowd at his introduction, however. Seriously, that was a champion's reception.

All in all, another very strong show. It's still got its flaws, but I'm LOVING the quality of the work on these programs, the string of outstanding main events and the quality of the new storylines. I've got a lot of hope for RAW all of a sudden, and I cannot WAIT for next week's main event. I'd rank this week's show just a hair above last week's, with the women's division, Grandmaster Sexay's performance and a little uncertainty about the direction of a couple feuds the only things that are keeping it down. And, for what it's worth, JR's wild flailing of his arms when Eugene set off the pyro was my pick for funniest moment of the night. That was priceless.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.4

Monday, April 19, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 04/19/04

If you read my portion of this week's Backlash Preview, you'll know that, while I was relatively happy with what RAW had pieced together for the April PPV, I was honestly worried about the direction they'd be taking for the rest of the season and the amount of time it would take them to determine said direction. RAW has been a show with, honestly, quite a few very good ideas and storylines over the last six months, but its pacing has been a constant stumbling block along the way. The program (and the federation as a whole, really) absolutely cleaned up with the feuds, matches and payoffs of the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, but once it had hurriedly established its half of the WMXX card with well over a month to spare, there was a sense that we were just treading water until the big event actually got here. If you look back at the RRC's grades, you'll see a correlation there, too, as the numbers spiked just after the Rumble, when the Mania bookings were still coming together, and then slowly dove as the event grew nearer and nearer.

So, when I saw a good number of WrestleMania rematches at this past Sunday's Backlash PPV, I worried that things hadn't been planned very far in advance. I had just cause... it's something the federation has done countless times in the past after a big card. There was only one way to be sure, though. If the writers really did have nothing in the tank for near future, they'd coast through this week's RAW, lightly touch on a couple of lingering rivalries from 'Mania and just take it easy, since there's no PPV to worry about this month. If they had done their homework, this week's show would be a launch pad.

The night started off on the right foot, not with a promo, a mysterious limousine or an update on Eugene's current whereabouts, but with a followup on one of the better matches at WrestleMania XX and a chance to wrap up one of RAW's longest running storylines. Chris Jericho and Christian have had better matches than the one they pounded out last night, in my humble opinion. That's not poo-pooing last night's effort, per se, but I thought both guys looked a little off at the outset. The spots with Trish just felt forced and unecessary to me, especially the "bend her over your knee and spank her" bit. Doing it once is cute. Doing it the very next night is a bit much. To their credit, the match picked up after the commercial and built to a nice crescendo before the newest in a series of awkward big men fumbled his debut on WWE airwaves. Incidentally, I really do like that running enziguri Jericho's been doing. But, while they gave the match plenty of time, it seemed anti-climactic to finish it off with a run-in from out of nowhere. I honestly thought Nathan Jones had returned when the new guy showed up, judging from the combination of his ugly balance, his choice of offense and his ineptitude at delivering said offense. Y2J and Christian deserved a better blowoff than that, if they plan to move forward with this new guy, Tomko, in Christian's place.

Chris Benoit punched out a wicked promo in his first appearance last night, which honstly surprised me. Over the last couple of months, the Crippler has become much more confident in himself, both physically and verbally, and is becoming a much more credible champion as a result. There should be no question in anyone's mind, his ringwork has always been there, but his charisma and comfort level with the mic have been well below average for years. Now that he's been given the chance to run with the ball, he's developing in those areas a lot faster than I'd imagined he might. When you're afraid of the microphone, it comes through in your body language. Benoit was not comfortable on the stick, all the way up to the main event at WrestleMania. Since then, though, he's taken a more relaxed approach to that aspect of the business and has stepped it up big time. Case in point: rather than ignoring the fans' chants and barreling on through his promo, as he would've done just a couple of months ago, Benoit stopped speaking to acknowledge the audience when they had something to say. The end result was head and shoulders above anything he could've said on his own.

I was glad to see them finally take a step forward with Molly's character last night. It's been over a month since her hair hit the entryway in MSG, and we've all seen her without the wig on more than one occasion since then. As of last night, the constant removal of her wigs have gone from being a source of embarrassment to a source of frustration for the former champ. These are exactly the kind of heels I love to watch; Molly's completely justified in her anger, but takes it just a little bit too far in her hunt for payback. Now if only they'd let Victoria drop that shallow, smiley, goofy facade and go back to doing what she's best at.

Randy Orton really did turn the corner Sunday night. There was something in the way he strode to the ring last night that confirmed it, something that had been missing from his character just last week. His attitude has gone from uncertain cockiness to unshaken confidence. For the first time since he came to RAW, I can say without question that he held my attention throughout his promo. He had a good subject to dig his teeth into, and he tore a big chunk out of it all on his own. I'm intrigued, I want to see where they can take him from here and how he'll react to the next challenge they throw at him, whether it turns out to be Edge or Shelton Benjamin.

I really haven't been impressed by Garrison Cade, and considering the amount of chances he's had to do so, I don't know that he's on the brink of revealing anything big. I'd been hoping they'd transfer Coach over to a more substantial managing role since he turned heel, but Cade's probably the last person on the roster I'd want them to pair him off with. Still, I guess a little progress is better than none at all. Cade really is worthless, though.

I wasn't expecting the Matt Hardy face turn, so thumbs up on that. Lita doesn't have much of an upside as more than a valet any more, so moving her back over to Matt's side is probably the best thing they could do with her at this point. At the very least, it'll give the writers an excuse to use him again... even if it is as a punching bag. Meanwhile, Kane's character is still swirling around the toilet bowl.

Finally, the main event... which was, yet again, undeniably sweet. I'm in heaven with the kind of main events they've been pouring out for us over the last month or two... between Benoit's title reign, Benjamin's elevation and Hunter's rediscovered willingness to work a long, exciting, competitive match. I'm not sure why they passed on the HBK heel turn here, instead opting to fight the crowd yet again in an attempt to move past the '97 Survivor Series. While I'll usually agree with the sentiment of moving on from something that went down nearly seven years ago, the legitimate hatred that Canadian fans still have for Michaels (and Hebner) is the kind of stuff McMahon should be willing to KILL for. Why they're trying to shift gears when the heel of the century is stagnating as a dull, boring face at the top of the card is beyond me. So they fought against the tide again this week, trying to get HBK over as somebody that Benoit likes and respects (despite the fact they'll be facing off for the World Title in two weeks). Weird. Just weird.

But anyhow, like I said, this was the next in a string of superb main events, and it left me with a nice taste in my mouth, for a change. I'm interested in seeing where they go from here, with Benoit, Edge, HBK and Benjamin all riding their own individual little hot streaks.

I'll take my hat off to the writers this week. They had a big task to tackle and met it head-on. The new storylines are here, they're refreshing, they involve some new faces and they're all off on the right foot. A big step above average, despite a few minimal rough spots. I'll watch this kind of a program every week without complaint.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.3

Saturday, April 17, 2004

The World's Greatest WWE Backlash 2004 Preview

We're just a month out of WrestleMania XX, and everybody's favorite monopolistic professional wrestling organization has already started its annual downturn in terms of storylines, audience interest and general enthusiasm. This is my least favorite part of the year, as everyone involved with the product is occupying a creative valley in the aftermath of the biggest card of the year (dare I say... of the decade?) and the quality of the shows themselves is generally at its worst. Taking a quick look at this card, one might be tempted to claim otherwise, however. There are, at the very least, three matches worthy of every bit of your attention this Sunday night, and one or two that could really surprise if a couple breaks fall their way. Make no mistake, this isn't a bad show by any stretch of the imagination... I'm just worried about where they can go from here. The top three matches on the card are blowoffs to feuds that started long before WrestleMania, and the rest of the lineup is frightfully transparent. Victoria vs. Lita? We haven't even seen Victoria on RAW over the last couple weeks, so there's no doubt that feud's just a placeholder. Edge vs. Kane? That might go another couple weeks, max. Tajiri vs. Coach? Unless they take the opportunity to debut somebody fresh, that little pseudo-feud ends Sunday. Even Benjamin vs. Flair is only there to keep Shelton busy while he's hot. This will be a fun little card, but they need to really get on the ball with the new faces, new rivalries and new matches Vince promised us a couple weeks ago.

Tajiri vs. Jonathon Coachman

This has actually been a much more entertaining storyline than I ever would've given credit for going in. Coach is becoming an excellent character with time, and I'd really like to see him in front of the crowd more often than not. As I mentioned in this week's RRC, he's an ideal managerial talent in that he can talk and bump, he's got an immediately recognizable personality and he's accumulating a rather sizable chunk of heat. He's got the kind of audience interest that rubs off on others around him, and I think that's a key element they've been overlooking thus far, by making him nothing more than Eric's mouthy flunky. Tajiri's certainly benefited from his short rivalry with Coach, but they shouldn't have rushed into the immediate physical confrontation like this. Unless, as I alluded to in the introduction, they job Coach convincingly to the Japanese buzzsaw this Sunday, and then use that as further motivation for Coachman to find a diamond in the rough to sic on his mortal enemy.
Winner: Tajiri

Victoria (c) vs. Lita
Women's Title

There's absolutely no build to this one. Nothing behind it whatsoever. It's really too bad how they've handled Victoria's character since she began seriously challenging for the women's title, because she'd honestly improved by leaps and bounds in the months before that. Slowly transforming from a horrible actress with a stupid, one-feud gimmick (remember her hatred of Trish?) and very spotty ringwork to a surprisingly solid heel who explored her initial gimmick in ways I couldn't have imagined and stepped it up notably in the squared circle, she deserved another title reign when they delivered it to her. However, instead of maintaining the aspects of her personality that had begun to shine and allowing the audience to grow to appreciate those details on their own, they shoved her into a nonsensical about-face. Gone was the mentally unbalanced former champion who would constantly rip and tear at shreds of her own hair, and in her place was a shiny, smiley, generic face who took personal offense when Molly took out a few strands of her mane. It's disturbingly reminiscent of what they did to Kurt Angle when he pinned Steve Austin for the World Title in Pittsburgh a couple years ago. Audiences had grown to love him for being the goofy, way-too-serious heel and started to cheer him for it, and instead of capitalizing on that, the writers spun him in a totally new direction and subsequently killed his heat.

If you've been watching TV over the last couple weeks, there's no question in your mind who's winning this one. Trish and Lita have all but already begun their feud over the title, and Victoria's been lost in the shuffle. Sunday night, the right woman won't come out on top.
Winner: Lita

Shelton Benjamin vs. Ric Flair

It never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly Ric Flair can detour a short feud from a last second addition to the card into a "can't miss" marquee matchup. If you saw RAW last week, you know they never had Flair vs. Benjamin planned for this card up until the very last minute. They tested the waters with the former tag champion with his initial win over Triple H, liked what they saw, but then remembered that Hunter was already occupied in the main event. Can you imagine the backlash they'd suffer (no pun intended), both from the internet and from the casual fans, if Shelton wasn't a part of this card now? Fortunately enough, tag team wrestling is dead and Ric Flair was, as such, not involved in a title defense at the same PPV event. They slapped the two names together, gave Ric about fifteen seconds of air time to promote it, and wrote it off... but Flair took that minsicule amount of television time and crafted a masterwork out of it, just as he did with Chris Benoit at the Royal Rumble and Booker T leading up to last year's WrestleMania. He made Shelton a star, just by association, and legitimated his opponent's capabilities as an athlete through sheer body language as the younger superstar assaulted him backstage. It's magical, just watching this man work.

Unfortunately, though Flair hasn't lost a step on the mic or backstage, his ringwork is becoming more hit and miss than ever. He'll go out and wrestle an astonishingly good match one night, then suck wind and miss spots from start to finish the next. If he's on this Sunday night, there's no doubting the way this match will turn out. Shelton's a sound technician, but he doesn't seem confident enough to carry the match by himself. Flair's gonna have to carry his own weight. He can't have an off night, or the match will suffer undeniably. I'm uncertain of who gets the victory here, whether Benjamin continues his unprecedented win streak or Flair gets the V with dirty tricks, help from the back and /or a little luck. I'm gonna go with the new star, as Ric doesn't have anything to gain with a victory here.
Winner: Shelton Benjamin

Edge vs. Kane

This feud doesn't really make sense for either guy. Edge needs to be making a big statement about his potential at the top of the card right now, and Kane needs to be solidifying himself as a guy who really doesn't give a fuck about his opponents' safety. Edge needs an opponent who can make him look like a million bucks and a future World Champion, all the while keeping his health in mind, and Kane needs somebody who can bounce around the ring and make his offense look life-threatening. Is it obvious yet why these two aren't a good fit for one another right now?

I'm really uncomfortable with how this might turn out. These are two guys who should be instrumental in the federation's plans in the near future, given their exposure and ability, but I'm fairly certain they won't match up well with each other and may put on a bad performance Sunday night at Backlash. I guess time will tell on that little hunch. I'll go with Edge here, as Kane continues floundering in the midcard despite his notable improvement since losing the mask.
Winner: Edge

Christian & Trish Stratus vs. Chris Jericho

This one's started to tread water over the last couple weeks, which is par for the course where this storyline is concerned. The ongoing storyline involving Jericho, Christian, Lita and Trish has drug on for so long that it's difficult to remember how, when or why it started and who's still buddies with whom. Hell, up until last week I had no idea that Trish and Lita weren't still storyline pals. To their credit, though, all of the involved faces have worked to keep things at least somewhat fresh, even if the story itself isn't going anywhere. Jericho seems to be enjoying his renewed face run, even though he doesn't appear to have hit full stride yet, and Christian is just reveling in the attention. I wasn't all that enthused about this rematch, despite a strong outing at WrestleMania, until this past Monday's RAW when Y2J and Christian really tore into one another. If they can maintain that kind of ferocity, emotion and outright rage, this blowoff could be a doozy. The crowd went nuts when they tore into each other Monday night, since their emotions were being worn so snugly on their sleeves, and I think that's the key to success in their Mania rematch. I like Christian here, but I can't really explain why. Y2J needs to move on to bigger and better things.
Winner: Christian & Trish

Randy Orton (c) vs. Mick "Cactus Jack" Foley
Intercontinental Title: No Holds Barred

This has been a wonderfully planned, perfected and executed feud. With little exception, Orton vs. Foley has been a barnburner from start to finish, and I know I'm not alone in saying it needs to end right here. They've told the story they set out to tell, Orton has benefitted tremendously from the experience, and now it's time for him to go off on his own again and begin defending the Intercontinental title on a regular basis. The only problem is, I have no idea who needs to win this blowoff. If Orton wins it, the fans are left dejected. Their hero laid down to the cocky young asshead on two occasions, and will not be exacting the kind of revenge they had expected. On the other hand, Orton loses the rub that this feud seems to have been built to deliver. If he can't defeat Mick Foley, four years into retirement, on his own, then this whole "legend killer" facade will collapse in on itself. You can't have your cake and eat it, too... at least, not with this rivalry. One guy's gonna lose a lot of face here, and I'm having a really difficult time deciding who that might be.

I'm anxious to see how these two square off together, I can't wait to see Foley in that classic "Dead or Alive" T-Shirt again, and I'm chomping at the bit to see what extremes these two will go to for that final bit of personal justice. Both of these guys have a completely legitimate reason for disliking their opponent, which might have a good bit to do with why I've enjoyed the build so thoroughly. It's a feud that's decorated in various shades of grey. Orton's just doing what comes naturally; biting and scratching his way to the top, and Foley's defending his own legacy, which is something I'm sure he's been called upon to do once or twice since leaving the federation. I can only hope the writers are witnessing this feud's success and taking notes, because I'd love for this to be a catalyst for a more realistic writing style in the near future.

As for a winner, I've gotta go with youth over experience. Foley loses a little credibility and the crowd doesn't exactly get what they want, but Orton benefits tremendously from the monstrous feather this win will put into his cap.
Winner: Randy Orton

Chris Benoit (c) vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H
World Heavyweight Title

I won't lie and say this wasn't the match of the night the first time around. These three poured their hearts out in that match and produced an outstanding, back and forth battle, worthy of the main event slot at the twentieth anniversary of WrestleMania and borderline legendary. Likewise, I won't lie and tell you my feelings about that match didn't have anything to do with the winner or the method of his victory. That first match was an epic, a collision of past, present and future, and it presented the undeniably authentic sense that something really was on the verge of changing in World Wrestling Entertainment. It had a tremendous beginning, middle and end, and when the dust had cleared, the right man was left holding the title. It was what the live crowd wanted to see, no doubt about it, and it was the conclusion to a story that focused on Chris Benoit's inability to win the big one. There isn't any question in my mind; I've never seen a better three-way. But, then again, that doesn't really say enough to do it justice, especially when you consider my general dislike of matches that aren't one on one or two on two.

I'm not sure how they aim to improve upon that this Sunday in Edmonton. It seems they've done so much in the past that anything they try this Sunday will be rehashed or revisited. However, if I had to choose three guys to face off multiple times in similar matches with the World Title at stake... well, Benoit, Michaels and Triple H would all be in the top ten. They're each extremely good at what they do (yes, even Triple H), seem to know each other's tendencies by this point, and have the momentum and credibility to do a match like this justice. With rumors and speculation flying about potential appearances, possible swerves and turns, upcoming commitments outside of professional wrestling and future plans and main events, this is every bit as difficult to predict as the first Title match between these three. I'm having trouble shaking my suspicion that HBK turns heel and takes the belt here, but the one thing that nags me more than anything else is that I believe they'd have turned him by now if they were going to. Sure, he'll be despised by the Canadian fans Sunday, just as much as he's ever been, but that emotion would've been two fold if he'd turned on Benoit last week instead of cheering him on. I've got Benoit retaining and Michaels, perhaps, turning after the match or the following night in Calgary. Send the crowd home happy.
Winner: Chris Benoit

In Closing...

This looks like a short card on paper, but in reality I think several of these matches will run long and eat up most of the extra time. The triple threat, in particular, could easily eat up a third of the show just by its lonesome, and Jericho / Christian and Foley / Orton could each go well over half an hour. It may fall a couple minutes short of three hours, but I'm honestly not worried. Like I mentioned in my introduction, this is a relatively solid little lineup, with several matches showing more than a little bit of potential, but I hope they've got plans laid to get those wheels movin' right away the next night on RAW.
until next time, i remain

Monday, April 12, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 04/12/04

It's been a strange couple of weeks to be a RAW viewer. Following a thrilling elevation for Shelton Benjamin just one week after the Draft Lottery and a weak follow-through on last week's airing, I came into this week's episode perhaps a little worried about the direction of the show. RAW has a PPV in just six days, and as the opening bell was tolling only four matches had been lined up for that big event. In addition, what storylines they HAD established hadn't quite been developed in as much detail as you'd expect of a big time, post-Mania pay per view. They had a lot of ground to cover in a very short period of time, and that hasn't really been one of RAW's strongest abilities over the last couple of months.

Though I've never been a fan of obnoxious face stables, (see post-HBK DX, not to mention The Union) I'm really not minding the segments with Benoit, Foley, Michaels and Benjamin thus far. They don't seem like the cookie cutter, pandering idiots that the other set of groups did, at least not yet, and their individual personalities actually bounce off of one another in interesting and original directions. Hm... on second thought, HBK has been cheesing it up a little more than I'm comfortable with recently, but he'll be turning heel this weekend anyway so that's not really a big deal in the long run.

I wasn't really all that thrilled about Mick Foley's promo, same as last week, until he broke out the old Cactus Jack mantle and basically forced me into a mental double-take. Looking back at what I wrote about his promo last week, I can't believe I didn't see this little turn coming but it honestly caught me completely off-guard. What a great little tweak of the storyline to fix the one aspect that wasn't really working; the audience's willingness to buy Mick as a bloodthirsty maniac again, after years of goofy antics and funny promos had conditioned them to see him otherwise. I'd almost forgotten, not only about Foley's darkest alter ego, but also about how easily and effortlessly he could control an audience's emotion with just a slight change in wardrobe. This match could be epic.

Lump me into the crowd that was surprised, perhaps unpleasantly so, to see Brian Lawler back on RAW opposite Kane last night. I was a big fan of the guy back when he was teaming with Scott Taylor as "Too Cool," he hadn't gained forty or fifty pounds of pure chunk, and he still cared more about his wrestling than his dance on the way down to the ring. Ever since he swapped those old tights for cow-print and hip hop, however, the Grandmaster has gone further and further downhill. If last night was any indication, he's even worse off than he was the last time we saw him on WWE airwaves... which makes it all the more confusing why they brought him back after all this time. At the very least, his return was unhyped and he was jobbed quietly and convincingly to Kane, a guy who needs all the momentum he can get going into his match with Edge this Sunday night.

Al Snow's another guy who's really gone backwards over the last half decade or so. He used to be an interesting character, a very good promo and an above-average worker. After missing his chance at the big time when the cords were cut on his make-or-break feud with the Rock, he's lost just about everything that made him interesting in the first place. Snow looked horrible in the ring last night, opposite Tajiri, to the point that I almost felt bad for him. Coach, on the other hand, is just dying for somebody to manage. He's got both the charisma and the mouth to make something out of nothing, both for himself and for somebody in need of a little extra boost in their careers. There's no shortage of athletes who meet that description hanging around HeAt, Velocity or OVW right now. Get this guy a couple of athletes to promote, get them some air time and get the bank deposit bags ready.

I loved the minute-long interaction between Flair and Shelton, moments after the Nature Boy was granted a match with the former Tag Champ. Ric's incredible... he can go from over the top and goofy one moment to deadly serious, as we witnessed in this spot, at the drop of a hat. The best part? He has such a firm grasp of the audience that they're drug along for the ride every time.

Trish and Lita didn't exactly turn any heads with last night's little impromptu matchup. Trish is only good when she's opposed by somebody who knows how to push her in the right direction, no matter how much progress she's made since her debut, and Lita is... well, let's just say she's in the same boat as Al Snow and the Grandmasta. What's worse, they missed a key opportunity to involve the audience in this match by playing up the on-screen friendship they'd established between the ladies just a few months ago, before turning Trish full heel on her old buddy. From the looks of things, this is the Women's title match we'll be seeing in a couple of months' time, which is nothing but bad news for what had been RAW's most consistent division prior to the Royal Rumble.

I did really enjoy the post-match segments with Y2J, Christian and Ms. Stratus, though, as the audience was absolutely rabid for the physical confrontation and both guys were going full throttle, out for blood. I loved the emotions we saw out there after Lita's match had been thrown out, but what was up with the way those two were running the ropes? Jericho bounced off the north ropes to gain momentum running... east? I didn't know physics worked that way.

Horrid, horrid matchup between Sylvan Grenier and the Hurricane. Shane Helms? Yep, you guessed it... same book as Grandmasta Sexay, Al Snow and Lita. At least Shane's got a chance, though... they just need to get all that green off of his back ASAP.

I said last week that I didn't think Mick Foley's promo was as great as everybody else was making it out to be, but this week... with the aid of the incredible WWE production team, I'm ready to go back on that statement. That was one hell of a promo, I just didn't see it for what it was with the bizarre setting and the mystery of what Foley had in the box on his lap. Thumbs up on the decision to re-air it this week, accompanied by clips from many of the matches, moments and memories Mick had referenced in the promo itself.

Finally, the show wrapped up with another jaw-droppingly good main event. To be fair, I don't think I would've enjoyed this as much as I did if the crowd hadn't been so completely out of its mind, but that's part of what's so cool about professional wrestling; it's not just a performance put on by the athletes themselves. If you purchase a ticket to the event, you're putting on a big part of the show as well. When they're performing in front of a rabid, electrified audience, the workers themselves turn it up two-fold and the match itself improves vastly. Such was the case with last night's eight man.

I think my favorite part of the match itself came when Benoit and Triple H finally met, face to face, in the center of the ring. The fury those two portrayed with their body language alone sold me on the Backlash main event without need of any further elaboration. The combination of Benoit's mocking Helmsley (and his willingness to tap out at WrestleMania) and Triple H's overwhelming fury worked magic, not only for the fence-sitting PPV audience at home, but also the Chicago crowd. Once those two exchanged words and dove headfirst into their attempts to completely cripple one another, the air in the arena got a little heavier and the seats got a lot lighter.

I wouldn't go as far as Brett did in his writeup, but I will say that was one kickin' main event, and I hope to god this little top of the hour trend continues next week. Awesome main events rule! Whooooooo!!

In retrospect, I had nothing to worry about with this show, since it worked itself out fairly nicely, several storylines fell together in time for the big PPV, (including a few I hadn't anticipated, but made sense in hindsight) and the show returned to glory with the third strong main event in four weeks. I won't call this outstanding, since there was more than a little dead weight hanging from last night's bones, but all in all it was a better performance than last week. It got the job done, which is more than I'd given it credit for going in.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.3

Monday, April 5, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 04/05/04

Just seven days removed from what's likely the biggest upset of the year, I know I wasn't alone in my anticipation for this week's show. I was caught completely off guard by last week's big main event, as Trips had participated in so many "underdog fights uphill the entire way, only to job in the end" matches over the years that a loss was almost completely out of the question. In Helmsley vs. Benjamin, RAW had a great, episode-spanning storyline that put a new face into a refreshing situation and culminated with not only a big moment, but also a very solid main event. Though part of me was dreading this week, as I'd seen way too many similarly promising situations wasted away by the inept writing team, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little bit excited about the story's continuation this week. Not to mention the other stories that would surely need to be set into place, with a pay per view just around the corner and a handful of new stars to establish.

It only took a couple of minutes, really, to deflate that little high I was riding. Triple H came out and belched out another of his remarkably unremarkable opening monologues, failed to show any sign of weakness and basically worked to slow down the blistering momentum behind three of the show's faces with all of his might. One might expect Hunter to storm down to the ring, demand a rematch with Benjamin, curse his family's name, hunt him down in the locker room... hell, ANYTHING but just stand there with a smirk on his face and gloss over last week's events. I can understand the value of the show's top heel playing a cocky, arrogant bastard that fans love to hate. There's no questioning the fact that Triple H was attempting to do just that last night. He's proven, over the years, that he's very good at that job. The fact of the matter, though, is that the fans are meant to be salivating at the thought of this guy actually dropping the facade and losing control. They'll spend their money on a pay per view if they believe the heel has honestly been thrown for a loop by the actions of the face he's opposing. They'll bite if they believe there's a chance the heel will be soundly defeated. Hunter worked against that logic last night, by not only brushing off last week's loss as though it were nothing but also doing the same to Chris Benoit and Shawn Michaels. Hunter looks like he really couldn't be any less concerned with the outcome of his main event match at Backlash. It's a foregone conclusion in his mind. And, honestly, that personality worked wonders for him when he had the title around his waist and we were still building toward WrestleMania XX. Now that he's lost the title, cleanly, in the center of the ring, and has been booked into a rematch opposite that very same man, it just looks ridiculous. Cockiness only works if you've got a sound resume to back it up. Opposite Chris Benoit and Shelton Benjamin, Hunter's track record doesn't look all that great right now. Thus, the cocky act just makes everybody involved look like one giant collective ass.

It was bizarre to see the World Champ active in the opening match of the night, especially with little or no fanfare regarding his arrival... but no, any lack of crowd interest we might be seeing in the World Title picture is entirely Chris Benoit's fault, and not these ingenious booking decisions. Honest to god, hand a chimpanzee a pen and a pad of paper and you'll see stuff that makes a little more sense from time to time.

I was actually really looking forward to the Benoit / Conway match once I learned of the competitors involved. Conway's a guy I've been enjoying ever since he debuted a year or so back, though he's still a little inconsistent, and Benoit is... yeah. Unfortunately, the length of the fight and the eyebrow-raising inclusion of Johnny Nitro (appearing this week for the first time without changing his name on the spot) really screwed with the pacing of the whole thing. As I watched these two exchange blows in the center of the ring, I wondered if it would be a good idea or a bad idea for Conway to establish himself as more of a legitimate threat with some clean offense and a couple minutes in the driver's seat of this match. On one hand, there's this perception that Benoit would look like a wussy champ. He's out there, facing guys that I'm positive Triple H would have smothered to death in an instant, if given the chance, while he was still champion... and he's not exactly dominating the action. It makes the Crippler look a little less convincing, just by the association. On the other hand, by sending out the message that even a World Champion is fallible and could potentially fall to an unexpected upstart at any time, RAW would become an infinitely more competitive and exciting environment. I'd love to see Benoit's title reign return the idea of competition to professional wrestling, now that the viewers have been conditioned to believe that anybody without lyrics in their entrance music and a whole line of catchphrase-plastered merchandise isn't anything of a threat to the gold.

Oh yeah, and I loved that Johnny Nitro was using TNT's old Monday Nitro theme as his entrance music. What a great little touch that added to his ass-kissing character... now all they need to do is bust out the old diamond plate metal, flames, burnt out cities and explosions for his Titan Tron and he'll be completely awesome. I'm seriously impressed with the kind of character he's been playing, and the conviction with which he attacks the role. This guy could really be something in the future. It's an interesting little side-feud they're running with him and Benoit at the moment, but it's got to wrap up quickly because it's making the champ look less and less main event with each passing day.

It didn't bother me all that much when they changed Chris Benoit's hometown a couple of weeks ago. I was wary of it, as I thought it might be leading to a heel turn in Canada at Backlash, (which would be among the dumbest things I've ever witnessed) but now that almost everybody on the roster is shuffling locations it's getting a little out of hand. Honestly, how many people have switched hometowns in the last week? Gail Kim's now from "...Korea," (as Lilian put it) Rob Conway's from north of the border, Chris Jericho lives in New York, Renee Dupree no longer calls France his home, Nidia has relocated to Puerto Rico and... yeah, Benoit's from Atlanta. This's gotta be leading to a storyline or something.

Jericho and Matt Hardy were looking good last night, which caught me off guard. I've been a mild fan of both guys for quite a while now, but both have been in kind of a funk over the last set of months. Regardless, they overcame that here and put on a nice little match for the time they were allotted. I'd like to see these two face off again somewhere else down the line.

I didn't go as wild for the Foley promo as everybody else seems to have. It was solid, no doubt... better than the vast majority of the other guys on the roster... but it all came off as really forced and unbelievable. I don't know if it's because we've seen so much of the happy, jovial, goofy Mick Foley to take him seriously as a mentally disturbed individual or what, but there was something that didn't set right with me during that whole segment. It's like the happy Mick was still trying to climb out and dominate the preview, that it took all his energy to scowl, swing around a barbed wire baseball bat and talk about blood. I want to see the same guy who fought in all of those insane brawls overseas, who fell off the steel cage in Pittsburgh, but something tells me he retired in 2001.

Foley / Orton is still a great feud, but it's getting to be time to wrap it up.

Shelton vs. Hunter wasn't nearly as good as last week's showcase. Trips had been on fire over the last month, but it all ended here. This was way too rushed to do much good, with both guys basically recycling the same stuff they put to use last week in a slightly different order. Shelton was missing the whole cockiness that set him apart last week and made him such a great rallying point for the live audience, and the match really revolved around Flair, Orton and Batista's involvement. Poor Shelton took some major punishment from bell to bell, too, with that nasty, nasty bump off the barrier (and subsequently headfirst to the floor) and his man-sized blade job to close the fight. Between Shawn's blade at WrestleMania and this cut last night, I think RAW has spilled more than its share of blood for all of 2004.

Good call on airing each of the women's introductions but then slicing out the entirety of the match itself. Before long, we won't even have to bother with this "wrestling" thing. We'll just watch big, sweaty guys flex in the ring, flap their gums and perform dramatic introductions. Then they'll get to the ring, we'll go to commercial, and they'll go through the finish a couple of times in the ring so the cameramen can get it from all angles in time for the show to come back from break. That was an unbelievably nasty fall Gail took, though, basically just going limp on her way to the floor and slapping, chest first, onto the concrete.

I have very little to say about Eugene, since we haven't seen much of the way they're going to handle it yet. I will say this, though... his introduction was met in my household with the kind of silence usually reserved for Katie Vick, the Alliance "Wind Beneath My Ring" sing along and anything involving Mae Young and Mark Henry. It's not funny, it's not controversial, it's not something that's going to get anybody talking about WWE at the water cooler (unless it's something along the lines of "Gaw DEM! I'm glad I don't watch that crap no mo")... it's just stupid, and I don't see the up side to something like this. You'd think they would've learned from their experience with Zach Gowen that such obvious handicaps have a limited storyline lifespan. You can only watch a guy overcome the odds so many times.

That whole segment with Kane, Rhyno and Edge was a disaster from the beginning. I did bump the TiVo back a couple of times to watch the rope spontaneously collapse upon itself again, but that was the only portion of the match that was really worth watching in the first place. These guys just threw their hands up and panicked when the rope fell, hurried to the finish (basically killing Rhyno's heat for the gore in the process) and stumbled their way through the Edge run-in. I loved the look on Kane's face when he was trying to prop the chair up in the corner, but couldn't due to the missing middle rope. He looked like a hungry animal whose master had just taken his dinner away from him. Scared, confused and more than a little angry.

And, of course, we wrap the show with yet another unnecessary Evolution beat down. It's funny, for a guy who just dropped the World Title and seems to be all about elevating a few new names for a change, (not to mention the fact he'll soon be taking some time off to shoot a movie) Hunter was involved with just about every freaking SECOND of this show. I almost expected him to turn up to bury Jericho during the Women's battle royal, or to be hiding under the ring with a pair of scissors during the Kane / Rhyno slopfest. This was NOT the way to end the show, no matter how you look at it. The show's top three faces look like complete idiots now, not to mention completely ineffective athletes, after patiently waiting for Evolution to assault them from behind and then barely putting up a fight before falling before their collective might. Seeing Hunter ascend the ropes with the World Title in his hand just doesn't seem like that imposing of an image right now. Maybe it's got something to do with the goddamned two YEARS he's been doing the exact same thing. Three weeks of a Chris Benoit title reign doesn't exactly eliminate that twenty four months' worth of domination from your mind right away.

On the whole, this was a substandard show. They had a lot of momentum behind them coming in, with an extremely successful angle with Shelton Benjamin going full steam, and basically smothered it right off the bat. The World Champion looks more than ever like a place holder until Hunter decides he wants to be champ again, and there isn't really a lot I'm looking forward to at Backlash. Not all that entertaining of an episode, all things considered.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.2