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

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