Well, my first concern that the match would end with some sort of controversy, carrying through the entire program before being neatly wrapped up at the close of the program... yeah, that was erased from my mind, and I immediately felt good about the show's potential. I've read all of the remarks about the fans who felt burned by JR's "lies" about putting the match on right after the opening credits, and I'm not paying them any mind. These same names and faces would be screaming bloody murder right now if the match HAD gone on before the battle royal, and rightfully so. Nothing should be forced to follow up an hour of Benoit / Hunter, because nothing's going to be able to hold a torch to it. OK, maybe if Kurt Angle jumped to RAW immediately following the conclusion and challenged Shawn Michaels to an Ironman Match of their own... but I'm being realistic here. They wanted to grab a larger audience than usual, hook them with a very strong #1 Contender's Rumble and possibly interest them in coming back to see how Orton / Benoit will kick off next week. I've got no problem with those tactics.
So yeah, we started the show with a battle royal and I absolutely loved it. I'll agree with the camp that's out there saying they prefer the Royal Rumble, because it shines a brighter spotlight on the individuals and eliminations are fewer, further between and more important. By that same token, though, winning the Royal Rumble can be perceived as an easier obstacle than winning a straight-up battle royal like we saw on Monday night. While the match itself is more entertaining, the Rumble suffers from the bias that's lendt to the later entrants in the match. While the #30 entrant has never won the Royal Rumble, it's still a much more noteworthy feat to hang with twenty other guys from the opening bell, overcoming those odds, than to work through a Rumble roster one man at a time. The risk of elimination is much higher if you're in the ring with twenty guys than it is if you're in the ring with one guy. This was meant to be an unbiased, unpredictable war with the top billing at the promotion's second-biggest show of the year at stake, and it came off that way. By narrowing the field to Jericho and Orton as the battle came to a close, they kept the home audience guessing until that last kick to the head was delivered. Either one of those guys could've honestly taken the win and kept the outcome of the main event in question. No questions asked, I'd pay to see Jericho / HHH or Jericho / Benoit just as readily as I'd pay to see Orton / HHH or Orton / Benoit. Each matchup has a unique appeal to it, has a long road of history behind it upon which to build, and has the potential to really steal the show with a solid in-ring performance. While the outcome of most Royal Rumble matches is usually very easy to predict once it's down to the final four, this one could've really gone either way and it put me on the edge of my seat.
The match itself was very entertaining, not quite the best free-TV battle royal I've ever seen but certainly in the top three or four. It felt a little hurried from the outset but eventually settled into a nice pace that didn't spend too much time on the usual "fifteen guys standing in the corner, trying to rest while they hump the air in an attempt to eliminate Kane" segment. Really, this was almost perfectly booked for TV, with eliminations never happening too quickly after one another and the big stars taking turns hitting their signature spots. I loved the Kane / Batista face-off, since every good over-the-top match needs a standoff like that to rile the crowd up. These guys have a certain chemistry together that just sets the live audience ablaze, no matter where they are, and they milk it for everything it's worth. It got even better when Batista took the upper hand with a spinebuster, turned to celebrate and was just obliterated by a gore from Rhyno. I'm not sure why they haven't done more with that guy since his return, as he was over like gangbusters before going under the knife and has been busting his ass in the ring since coming to RAW in the draft lotto. He's one of those guys you can tell loves his job, just from the look on his face when he celebrates a big move. Probably the biggest development of the match was Jericho and Edge teaming up to eliminate Batista, and then Y2J taking advantage of the situation to throw his running buddy out of the ring as well. You've gotta love it when shades of a character's heel tendencies come out in the middle of a run as a big fan favorite, it ties the two extremes together so well and makes the whole product that much more believable. I know they're going somewhere with this, and I'm roughly two hundred percent more interested in the build since they started it that way, rather than having Edge mess up a finish during a tag match or something. When Chris nonchalantly threw Edge off the apron, I was legitimately surprised, shouted and smiled. I love it when wrestling catches me off-guard like that, and it all but made the match for me.
Finally, those closing minutes between Y2J and Randy Orton were serious quality. Like I mentioned earlier, it was tough to pick an obvious favorite here, and though they were cheesing it up from time to time with their near-slips from the apron, it never got too out of hand. Everything from Jericho's multiple skinnings of the cat to Orton's RKO in the ropes was perfectly timed and executed, and about the only thing they could've added to make the finish any more exciting is a liontamer mixed up in the ropes. I'm not going to nitpick that one, though, as this was just a tremendous finish to a tremendous battle royal. Great way to kick off the show, waking the crowd up and establishing that this will be the final match between Benoit and Helmsley for quite some time.
The Diva Search segments, honestly, didn't bother me that much. To be honest, I was laughing more than I was shaking my head in disbelief and embarrassment. While I'll agree that it went on a little too long, and it would've been nice to see a little variety (maybe switch off Kamala with Kim Chee every other girl or something) I really don't have a problem with the way they handled this. Some of the girls were funnier than others, and while none of them were particularly seductive, it was an entertaining segment at the very least. If one participant was lame, it was only another twenty seconds until we got the next one. While this killed the momentum they'd built with the live crowd, it did provide a break from all the tension and drama in the air. Every good drama needs a moment or two of comedic relief, and that's all this bit was there to provide. They went long, but life goes on.
A little more wasted time, some promotion of their work at the Democratic Convention, another Diva Search segment... basically they were treading water at this point before the OMFG IRON MAN MATCH ROTFLMAOBBQ AWESOME. While the previous "potential divas meet Kamala" bit was a welcome change of pace, these bits really slowed the show down and further wasted the live crowd's energy. Why not throw in a women's title match or a quick backstage face-off between Benoit and Hunter? Maybe a poll of backstage superstars asking who they think is going to emerge victorious tonight, maybe a staredown between Jericho and Edge. Why not an edition of the Highlight Reel? Hey, why not twenty minutes of commercials so we have less to endure during the main event, while giving the crowd a jobber match to keep their eyelids open? Something. Anything but the dull, obvious clock-killers they aired.
And then there was the main event, and all was well. This match took my breath away and left me speechless. Every literary cliche in the book could be applied to my feelings about this match. I can't rave enough about it. Everything from the slow start that's so uncommon from both guys (as they were naturally afraid to make the first mistake) to the concentration on psychology to (yes, I'm actually about to say this) the booking of the finish... it was all sensible, believable and amazingly performed. This was, for my dollar, anyway, the best TV main event I've ever seen. It lived up to the hype.
Each fall, barring the final one, was clean and worked wonderfully within the larger story of the match itself. Benoit caught Hunter napping with that first pinfall, and the Game responded furiously. While the champ went to work on Triple H's leg, (setting up for another fall about thirty minutes in the future) Hunter remembered the bruised sternum he'd given his opponent a couple of weeks ago at Vengeance. Like great analysts, JR and Lawler picked up on it immediately and reminded the home audience of that match, and the fact that Benoit had never been given a chance to recover from it. If you merely read the recap of the match, the endless chest-first whips into the turnbuckle may have looked repetitive and unnecessary, but in the heat of the moment itself they went a long ways toward giving Hunter the momentum and were too violent and horrific in appearance to grow boring. By the time Benoit had recaptured the momentum and climbed the top rope to try for his diving headbutt, I was already wincing in pain. I almost felt the wind knocked out of my own lungs, watching the champion sent into corner so many times with such velocity. It made the pedigree and pinfall that followed the missed headbutt almost elementary. No way Benoit was rebounding from that in time to counter Hunter's finisher. Likewise, he showed the heart of a champion when he'd rolled out of the ring to recover, nearly managing to regain his footing after a brutal chest-first drop into the ringsteps before slipping to the floor and being counted out, appearing as though he was fighting a battle for every breath.
When we came back from commercial, Benoit was in control but Hunter was just relentless with his pursuit of that sternum and the champ sold it as though bricks were being dropped directly on his chest, over and over again. That made the spinebuster that made the score 1-3 that much more buyable as a finisher, as all of Hunter's weight seemed to come down right on the center of Benoit's chest. I loved the battles these two fought over the sharpshooter, with Triple H playing the role usually occupied by Shawn Michaels when facing Benoit; legitimately afraid of his submissions, desperate to avoid them almost to the point of making a mistake. It went a long way toward validating the champ's mat skills when HBK did it, and to see Triple H respond in the same way stamped the point home. He was scared to death of seeing that injured leg folded in half and crossed over again, bent into position for the sharpshooter... and when Benoit finally did get it locked in, he sat down on it with ferocity. I thought Hunter's leg was going to pop out of joint, that his back would arc just a little too far, the champ had so much torque on them. Hunter played his part beautifully, telling volumes with his determination to reach the ropes and, eventually, his facial expressions as he debated the pros and cons of tapping out vs. losing the use of his legs for the next couple of months. He finally admitted defeat and Benoit had a rush of energy. About four minutes later, the Wolverine was exploiting Hunter's shoulder and neck in the crossface. He'd locked one in earlier, which Trips had escaped, but only after he'd suffered in its clutches for about a minute, minute and a half. The damage had already been done, and when HHH's escape only led to yet another crossface application, he couldn't help but tap out. Tie game.
Finally, the interference. The match wouldn't have been as believable if Evolution didn't come to ringside, not after the unity they'd shown over the last year. It would've looked as though the entire stable had turned their back on the ringleader, not just Orton (conspicuous in his absence.) It's a bit too soon for dissention to be showing in the ranks of RAW's top heel stable, so down Flair and Batista came. I was truthfully expecting them to sacrifice a disqualification so Hunter could take advantage and pick up a couple of wins in rapid succession. Instead, Benoit fought the numbers for the majority of the match's closing minutes, with amazing success. He wasn't in control, as he had been before the arrival of Hunter's buddies, but he wasn't down and out yet either. He not only stood up from the beating he took outside of the ring, but he hit the rolling germans directly afterward. If that's not the definition of a fighting spirit, I don't know what is. He'd basically taken out all of Evolution before Hunter cracked him with that nasty chair shot... and still he managed to kick out. Eugene naturally made the save, since the refs were down and out, and much to my surprise didn't accidentally cause a disqualification to cost Benoit the strap. Eugene's interference wasn't so much about redemption, about the opening chapters of his feud with Triple H or about an apology to Chris Benoit, it was a counterweight to balance the interference of Evolution. I've heard complaint after complaint about the finish of this match, but the facts are simple: After fighting three men, taking a sick bump into the ringpost and a disgusting chairshot to the back of the head, Chris Benoit still kicked out. After fighting TWO men, taking a rock bottom and a chairshot to the head, Triple H couldn't get the shoulder up... after almost a minute on his back. Interference-laden finish or no, if you don't see this as a huge, HUGE boost to Benoit's credibility, desire, drive and fighting spirit, you're on crack. Plain and simple. You're looking for an excuse to complain. This was a tremendous match, the finish made perfect sense within the stories of each character (it would've seemed less epic had Evolution NOT been involved) and put Benoit over huge as the strongest champion the company's had in years.
All things considered, this was the best episode of RAW I've ever seen. The Kamala segment went on a hair too long, and the company hadn't prepared adequately for the dead time they had just prior to the main event, but aside from that this was flawless. They killed the better part of the opening hour with a great battle royal that managed to keep me in suspense until the very closing moments and added another layer of intrigue and suspense to the main event, and topped the show off with the best RAW main event of all time. It had its flaws, however minor, but I can honestly say I've seen no better. There's room for improvement, albeit not much.
Overall Score: 9.1