Monday, July 26, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 07/26/04

Seems like every week I'm sitting here telling you about how I enjoyed last week's show, how I couldn't wait for the previously-announced matches from this week's program, but I was still a little worried about how well they'd manage to put the whole thing together and execute it without something going wrong. My faith in WWE at the moment seems to be wobbly at best. Well, I can't exactly say that same introduction verbatim this week, because I honestly didn't think too highly of last week's show. It was the first program in quite some time that I rated to be below average, and while I could not WAIT to see the much-anticipated Iron Man Match between Benoit and Triple H this past Monday night, my mind was worrying about how they'd fill the rest of the program. I thought they were crazy for insinuating the match would open the show at 9PM EST sharp, rather than flowing through the entire second half of the program from ten to eleven. It sounded a little bit screwy to me, like something was going to happen that would be debated throughout the rest of the program and possibly resolved right around the eleven o'clock hour. And that's not what I wanted from this Iron Man Match. I wanted a clear winner that wouldn't be overturned within the hour, nothing more and nothing less.

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.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.1

Monday, July 19, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 07/19/04

After last week's substandard performance, bucking yet another apparent upward swing for RAW into the dirt without a second thought, I was wary going into this week's show already. The focus of last week's episode was unquestionably Eugene, popping up on-screen or in discussion at least once in each and every segment of the program. At best it was simple overkill, at worst it was a point of emphasis in precisely the wrong place. On one hand, the character had enjoyed a healthy run of popularity, due in no small part to his associations with William Regal, The Rock, Chris Benoit, Triple H, Eric Bischoff and the Coach. He had achieved more in his first handful of months than I'd ever assumed was possible with such a seemingly stupid, unusable gimmick. On the other hand, recent booking suggested that the higher ups were getting a little carried away with the character's lifespan and ongoing potential, and had lost sight of the fact that this shouldn't be an program-dominating storyline. It was entertaining because it was different, but if you fill the whole show with it, it's become the standard. I'm getting carried away, but you get the point. In small doses, Eugene is very effective, almost bafflingly so. As a central focus of the show, he burns out quickly and when completely removed from the program as a whole, we were soon to find out, it feels like something's missing.

We opened up with, of all things, a lengthy, LENGTHY Triple H promo. I'll concede two things: First, it's been a while since the last long-winded, rambling, "killing time until they cut me off" Trips promo. His work on the mic has, generally, been very much improved since WrestleMania as he's concentrated on getting to the point and making an impact. Like him or not, it's true. Before last night, his work with the stick was significantly more interesting than than the promos he cut when he was the champ. Second, he had good reason for going on a bit longer than usual, considering the developments with Eugene at the end of last week's program. Sure everybody in the world knew it was coming and there was no mistaking his motivations, but the piece needed to be said. He needed to rub salt into the wound to really get this story where they're determined to take it, and hey... mission accomplished.

With that said, holy god above what a terrible interview that was. Hunter seemed to be reaching back into his days as the leader of DX with some of his mannerisms and statements (which is NOT a good thing in my book) and dealt more damage to the Eugene story than anything. Everyone with half a brain cell knew that he was being facetious in front of Eugene the whole time for his own purposes, but we accepted it because Eugene was there in person and it made Trips look like that much more of a cock. Speaking into the camera, cheesing it up beyond the point of good taste, he came off as grating, almost unbearably so. It was no longer something I found entertaining, it stepped across that line into annoyance. I felt stupid watching that promo, and it just went on and on and on. Likewise, how does it make any sense for Triple H as a character to poke fun at Chris Benoit and William Regal for "crying" last week when Randy Orton was doing the same thing not twenty four hours beforehand at Vengeance? And why the hell didn't any of the faces even bring that up?

William Regal gave the segment a nice little boost at the tail end, as did Eric Bischoff with his announcement of next week's Iron Man match, but it was too little too late at that point. A minute of excitement and a call to security is not worth the twenty minutes of droning, monotonous speaking that led up to it. Still... you gotta love Regal abandoning any sense of illusionary fighting and going for the less flashy, yet more believable series of straight jabs to the face. And while we're remotely on the subject, what's with Jerry Lawler claiming RAW has an "exclusive" claim to the sixty minute epic we'll be getting next week? Is it me, or did Smackdown air an Iron Man match not even a year ago? Nevertheless, I'm pumped for the big match next week although I'm a bit puzzled about the advertised 9PM-sharp bell time.

Tajiri and Grenier pounded out a stinker moments later, reminding me again why I believe Grenier is worlds away from being ready to go as a singles competitor. He's improved a bit as a tag team regular, but he looked totally lost and inept out there on his own, and it wasn't even a very long match. The botched handspring they pulled out right out of the gates highlighted, at least to me, how far exactly we suspend our disbelief for these matches. Were this a shoot, Tajiri's handspring elbow would look like that more often than not, and he'd usually find himself in a heap on the ground, enduring a shower of shots to the back of his head. Maybe it was that spot combined with those straight shots Regal was throwing that I mentioned earlier, but my eyes opened a little wider to just how contrived some of these moves really are last night. This was not a good match by any stretch of the imagination, but the finish was at least inventive.

Last week I mentioned that I wouldn't count against the diva search in my regular grading, because I didn't really consider it to be a part of the broadcast. This week they stepped over that line, involving the girls in a number of segments and introducing them to regular characters on the show. How, exactly, it was deemed that this deserved so much time has truthfully blown my mind in the twenty four hours since I initially watched, speechlessly. Not even the vocal talents of Chris Jericho could save this trainwreck, and the thought that we've got eight more weeks of that in our future has me infuriated. Hell, in my opinion even two more weeks of that would be too much to handle, and judging from the live crowd's reactions last night I'm not alone. Honestly, that was the only part of the segment I found even remotely entertaining. Add up the minutes eaten by this waste of time and Triple H's verbal circle-running at the top of the hour, and you've got a sizable chunk of air time that could've been used to benefit any one of half a dozen deserving angles, potential matches or possible rivalries. I don't tune in to RAW for reality TV, I don't tune in for the ladies, I don't plop down on the couch to take in a Playboy centerfold and nine other Playboy hopefuls acting nervous in the ring. I turn on RAW because I want to see wrestling. This wasn't what I was looking for.

Even Tyson Tomko's physique is betraying him. He looked noticeably less chiseled on his way to delivering another completely forgettable match last night. So now, instead of "the big guy with the good body, interesting goatee, trendy tattoos and no wrestling ability whatsoever," he's become "the big guy with the flabby body, interesting goatee, trendy tattoos and no hope of every being carried to a memorable match." Seriously, Hurricane's entire job description over the last two years has been, basically, "bump around for the big guys so they look more intimidating." It's all he's done for twenty four months, and he's usually pretty good at it. Even he couldn't make this match interesting. Tomko's hopeless. To borrow a line from Casey Kasem, "fucking PONDEROUS, man.."

I liked the premise behind the Batista / Benoit match, but the execution itself was largely terrible. This was, without a question, the worst match Chris Benoit's been involved with since coming to RAW. And I'm including his match with Mark Henry in that generalization. It's a great idea to continue building Batista as the irresistible force on RAW, even if it does seem to conflict with Kane's slot, because he looks the role, has halfway decent skills on the mic and can be carried to good matches on a regular basis. That said, this isn't the way to get him there. By breaking the rules on such a consistent basis this week without repercussion, Batista made the referee and the rules themselves look inconsequential. Hebner let him get away with blatant breaking of the laws of the ring for upwards of five minutes before he finally decided enough was enough and disqualified the man. It wasn't any fun to watch, it didn't make Batista look stronger, Triple H smarter or Benoit more vulnerable, it just made the enforcement of the rules less important than ever. This could've been just as effective in softening Benoit for next week if they'd worked a competitive match and Batista, frustrated, had tied the champ up in the ropes and clocked him several times with a chair.

Didn't mind the Jericho / Kane rumble, as neither guy looked weak in comparison to the other and Jericho in particular came across as effectively intelligent and strategic. I didn't even mind Batista's interference at the end of the whole schebang, since he still had a standing issue with Y2J, saw an opportunity and took it. This wasn't amazing, especially considering it transformed into a run of the mill "falls count anywhere, meaning fight into the crowd" kind of brawl by the time things were through, but it wasn't awful either. It just felt kind of out of place on a RAW in 2004, when it would've been much more at home during the heyday of the Hardcore division in the late '90s.

And, finally, Edge and Randy Orton ran out there to close the night off on an up note. I was honestly surprised by the quality of this one, since these guys had been misfiring together on RAW for quite some time, but I'll give credit where it's due. They pulled it together and put on a really solid main event out there last night, in what proved to be the only wholly positive segment on the show. I'm getting really sick of the screwjob endings, but the wrestling, near-falls and drama that led up to this one were too good to discount. Both of these guys emerged with elevated stocks after kicking out of numerous finishers and reviving the crowd with an unpredictable ending sequence. Neither of them feel like World Champion material quite yet, but I think they justified their respective spots on the card with a strong showing last night. A fun, solid way to close out the evening that lends credibility to both the competitors and to the title itself.

Unfortunately, that's about all the good I can say about this show. For whatever reason, the segments that were booked intelligently came off badly and the segments that were booked poorly came off even worse. Barring the main event, there's nothing on this show that I'd ever want to see again. And honest to god, ENOUGH WITH THE FUCKING DIVA SEARCH.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 2.7

Monday, July 12, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 07/12/04

I was underwhelmed by the actual impact of Vengeance this past Sunday night, which means I was also a little bit nervous in anticipation of the fallout. I went into this show with the full knowledge that Eugene would be featured front and center (yet again) and I didn't really know how I felt about that. I'll make no illusions, I've been difficult to win over as far as this gimmick is concerned and it seems like every time they take a step forward with him, (booking him believably as GM in last week's opening segments) they immediately take another step back (overusing him throughout the rest of the program). I don't like Eugene as a main event player, and I honestly don't like an oversaturation of anyone, regardless of athletic ability or the strength of their character. I was even getting a little fed up with the non-stop promotion of Chris Benoit heading into WrestleMania, and he's without question at the top of my list of favorite wrestlers.

I'm getting off track again (seems to be a trend). The point is, Vengeance featured Triple H and Chris Benoit in the main event, and we didn't get a clear winner. Eugene interfered, tainted the finish of the match and convoluted something that should've been crystal clear. I had major apprehensions going in that he'd be the central focus of the show, as usual, and that was casting a bad light on RAW even before the opening pyro had been lit.

And, right off the bat, my fears were justified by a backstage segment between Euge and the whole of Evolution. I actually didn't have a problem with this, since they had to pay off the angle they'd started in the main event last night and it effectively set a tense air for the rest of the night. You knew something was rotten, and you knew it had to come to a head sooner or later (or, rather, you did after you saw Randy Orton, Ric Flair and Batista's faces after Trips let him pass through their locker room unscathed) and you knew something was gonna go down. I'm enjoying the little hints of tension amongst the members of Evolution they're throwing in from time to time, as it makes their savage beatdowns a lot more believable (they need a way to release said tension without tearing the group apart, so the beatings they hand out are a little longer and more brutal than those of the other heels on the show) and Orton's body language in particular is making some great progress. He's still no Flair, but he's well on his way. All things considered, this was the opening segment they needed to air, confronting the issues of last night's main event and leading into the brawl that would close the show.

It felt strange to see Batista out there so soon after Evolution's backstage promo. Not sure why... maybe we're just conditioned to expect a lengthy walk between the backstage setting and the ring. I couldn't get crazily into Edge's defense against Evolution's big monster, but it was far from the worst outing from either guy. I really like that they're shaking up Edge's repertoire, reintroducing a lot of his self-titled maneuvers from the past so he's got a little more to work with near the end of a match than that notorious spear. Both of these guys seem to be in the right place on the card for the time being, as they're big enough names to merit upper midcard status but haven't honed their skills enough to be considered main event players. At the time it seemed weird that this was non-title, since defeating every member of Evolution with a belt on the line would add a little more salt to the wounds Edge seems bound and determined to inflict, but it made sense later on when we were told Benoit would be defending his title in the main event. What's the purpose of paying for Vengeance if almost all of the same belts will be on the line the very next night on free TV?

In case you're wondering, I haven't commented on the Diva Search segments yet because I TiVo RAW every week and skip right over them. They don't count as part of the program as far as I'm concerned. Go buy yourself a TiVo, kids! You too can scoot right past lengthy Joe Schmo promotional spots and needless, unrewarding T&A segments.

The Flair / Helms interactions were incredible, incredible stuff. I've made no secret of the fact I'm constantly finding myself astonished by Ric Flair's ongoing evolution (no pun intended) as a character, and his momentum didn't slow down a bit here. This made so much sense for both guys and their recent mindsets, with Helms making an effort to approach one of his idols and Flair bullying the younger guy just because he can, eventually getting in the last word. Helms looked and felt as though he was having a hard time justifying his superhero character to both Flair and himself, which hopefully means the end of the Hurricane gimmick in the near future. I've always felt it was way too over the top and thus could never get into it, but I've gotta admit he's been a lot more recognizable with it, and the fans were certainly not biting when he initially came in with the wCw invasion as "Gregory Helms."

Rhyno and Rob Conway didn't get a lot of time to work with, and as a result the match felt cluttered and tough to buy into. The high kick Tajiri speared across Sylvan Grenier's head was beautiful, though, and thank god they're taking steps toward building a true tag division once again.

I've yet to see one redeemable value about Tyson Tomko, and last night's match didn't do him any favors. Seriously, why do they keep calling these guys up if they're just going to stink up the place for a couple weeks, mysteriously vanish from the program without a trace and head back to the minors? I guess they're hoping something will click, they'll stumble upon a happy accident and the next big star will be born, but the guys they've been bringing in recently (Dinsmore, obviously, is an exception) are so far away from ready I've got a better chance of being struck by lightning and winning the lottery on the same day. Pretty tattoos and impressive facial hair does not always equal an interesting character.

I loved the Highlight Reel segment with Lita and Kane, as they took a chance and actually surprised me with a new direction in the ongoing "who's the daddy" story. I honestly believed they were going to run with this "Kane threatens Lita, Lita cowers, Matt gets angry, Kane hits Matt, repeat" method for the entire length of the storyline, since it wouldn't be the first time they've done something like that, but this was a welcome change. Lita cut the best promo of her life out there, not only saying the words but doing so with conviction and fire in her eyes. I'm intrigued to see where they can take it from here, which is a whole lot more than I ever thought I'd be able to say about this angle.

Jericho kept the ball rolling, entertaining the crowd and infuriating Kane as only he could, but then the entire segment was almost spoiled when they cut to commercial just as the two were about to butt heads. Seriously, first we go to the advertisers when Randy Orton appears and wanders down the entryway during Edge's match, and now we hit the break only a few seconds before Kane and Jericho go face to face. Talk about anticlimactic. It didn't help any when we came back to live TV and found Y2J on the mat, suffering in the grip of Kane's side chinlock. The match these two worked was so completely at odds with the story they were trying to tell, it was almost comedic. Kane looked ready to shoot steam out of his ears when he came back down that entryway, as well he should've been, but something was lost in the transition from promo to match. Instead of coming to the ring hungry for blood, blindly throwing everything in his repertoire at Y2J in a fury, Kane just sat there and worked a traditional wrestling match. If you're as pissed off at someone as Kane was with Chris Jericho, you don't march up to them and start slowly wearing them down, hoping they'll make a mistake and you can cover them for three somewhere down the line. You tear into the ring with no regard for the rules, no strategy of your own, and attempt to erase them from the ring. This could've been a great way to further Chris Jericho as an intelligent guy (working Kane into such a frenzy he'd become easy pickings for a level-headed former champion such as himself) and Kane as a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off in Lita and Matt's faces. Instead, it was just confusing, awkward and stupid. The low blow that ended the match made sense, since Kane was getting desperate, but the rest of the match was totally inappropriate.

The Hurricane / Flair match was painful to watch. I've been a fan of both of these guys at one time or another, and this was just disappointing on both fronts. The lack of crowd heat destroyed the momentum these two were carrying from their previous backstage segment, and instead of creating some heat on their own through a hot series in the ring, they panicked and started almost pandering to the audience. Flair wasn't at the top of his game, and after a minute or two of inspired attempts to kick start the match, Helms threw his hands up into the air and just went through the motions the rest of the way. The psychology was there, with Flair grounding the lighter man throughout the match and eventually putting him away with a solid figure four, but that's about the only compliment I can pay this.

Finally it was time for the main event, which I found to be more than a little bit rushed. I had no problem with the World Champ selling Eugene's offense as a legitimate challenge, because they made a big deal of pointing out Benoit's residual bruised sternum from the previous night's match. That's why it made sense when the rabid wolverine, a guy who's laughed in the face of some of the finest knife-edge chops in the world, was gasping for breath and howling in pain when Eugene started to lay in with some knife-edges of his own. Watching this was seriously like watching the first minute and last ten minutes of a long, drawn out, exhausting sixty minute marathon between two masters of their game. They started out on the right foot, but after a minute or two they were already running through the nearfalls and false finishes. I felt like I missed something substantial, like we were seeing all the flash without any of the substance. And when Evolution strolled out to the ring before the bell had even sounded, it pretty much summarized the entire night. Strangely timed, somewhat confusing and occasionally surprising. I'm interested in seeing how this pays off with Eugene and Regal next week (not to mention Chris Jericho, who was conspicuous in his absence) but they've really got to get to the conclusion of Dinsmore's story soon. That beatdown and eventual bloodying at the hands of Evolution was just about the last heart string they had available for pulling.

It's funny how completely a good crowd can transform a bad show into something memorable and vice-versa. That's one aspect of the match that always seems to be taken for granted until it's overly good or bad, and then the shift of emotion is just as readily visible in the actions and mannerisms of the guys in the ring as it is in the roars or silence of the crowd. Last night's show was a great example of the wrong kind of crowd, and it unquestionably drained the show of any emotion or spark it might have had going in. The fans weren't cheering anyone, they weren't booing anyone and they weren't making much of a fuss about being there. Even though the vibe was kind of strange going in, as a result of the odd booking at the end of Vengeance, this could've been halfway entertaining if it were held in a different arena. The audience's apathy took what was probably a show I'd have ranked similarly to last week's performance (at the very least) and knocked it down several notches, due to both the atmosphere it presented and the havoc it wrought on the matches and athletes themselves. This wasn't amazingly booked by any stretch of the imagination, but its cold reception made it that much worse. I'm calling it a step below average.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.1

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The World's Greatest WWE Vengeance 2004 Preview

RAW's been giving us an interesting ride of late, fluctuating wildly from incredible highs to unspeakable lows. The booking is extremely hit or miss, the matches are completely hot or cold and the program has been a roller coaster ride as a result. How do you go from a ridiculous "who's the baby's father?" angle with Kane, Lita and Matt Hardy to an incredible, well worked, dramatic six-man elimination tag that puts the World Champion over as a superior athlete? It's like they're completely separating the elements of sports and entertainment, cordoning them off to two different portions of the program. How long before we've got superstars who are dedicated to backstage vignettes and superstars who are there only to work matches?

Regardless, despite the short length this card looks like it could really deliver. Molly and Victoria have always worked well together, Jericho's usually at his best when working with a guy who's much larger or much smaller than he is, Matt and Kane could be a surprise, they're keeping Eugene interesting alongside Flair, Orton and Edge won't be terrible and the World Title match should be stellar. On paper, this absolutely blows away Smackdown's paltry Great American Bash card, which is really a pretty accurate representation of the performance of these shows over the last three months. A lot of these could go either way, and we could conceivably see either no title changes or three title changes without causing too much of a stretch. That's a good sign you're building up both the competitors and the champions correctly, establishing credibility in your belts without totally alienating them from the rest of the card.

Victoria vs. Molly Holly

Like I said, these two have always worked rather well together, so there's no question they'll deliver the goods this time around. Their big title match at WrestleMania didn't get as much time as I'd hoped and was really bogged down by the gimmick of Molly potentially shaving her head, so putting them back together on a card of this size was a good call. Of course, there's always the chance that the match will focus on Molly's recycled wig gimmick, but I'm hoping they'll have realized that the train has already left the station on that one. I liked the little flickers of life they gave her character a month or so ago, when she quit being ashamed of her short hair and took violent personal offense to any opponent who jokingly tore it off, but it wasn't long before that angle was forgotten and she'd stepped backwards into the same, "I won't let anyone see my hair" angle again. So long as they resist the urge to fill the ring with crappy contenders for the women's title (I'm thinking of Stacey and possibly Gail when I say this) and let these two run to a clean non-gimmicked finish, I'll be happy. I'm assuming this is for number one contendership to Trish's women's title somewhere down the line, so the rest should write itself.
Winner: Victoria

La Resistance (C) vs. Ric Flair & Eugene
World Tag Team Championship

Flair and Eugene have been absolute gold together lately, though I have to admit the Nature Boy's to thank for a lot of it. The stylin', profilin' one has been on a tear of late with his body language, his facial expressions and his depth of character, and his reactions to those various encounters with Eugene over the last couple weeks have more to do with the character's success than, perhaps, Nick Dinsmore himself. I can't wait to see how that carries over to their teaming together Sunday night.

With that said, there's no way in HELL they should be winning the tag titles from La Resistance right now. The tag division is only now beginning to recover from the long string of makeshift champions that had dominated the division since before WrestleMania and the breakup of almost every tag combination at the Draft Lottery. Resistance is beginning to re-establish themselves as able champions, cleanly defending their titles on two separate occasions on RAW and beginning what looks to be an interesting story with Rhyno. If a couple new faces are called up from and teamed on a regular basis and a few new permanent teams are sculpted out of the existing players on RAW, the division stands to make a healthy turnaround some time in the near future. Putting the belts on Flair and Eugene would make for an interesting segment or two, but would erase all the work Conway and Grenier have done thus far. I like the continuity of putting Eugene back in there with the first guy who really took issue with him, but I think it's about time Eric's special nephew picks up his first loss.
Winners: La Resistance

Chris Jericho vs. Batista

I'm actually expecting this to be surprisingly good. Jericho's been extremely solid for well over a year running, despite a noticeable lack of decent storylines and an attempted de-emphasis on the roster. Batista, meanwhile, has shown steady improvement working alongside Orton, Flair and Hunter in Evolution. Thus far he's been much more effective in tag matches than as a single, but now's as good a time as any to overcome that hurdle. It's been a fun ride watching him develop from an extremely green, boring big man to a surprisingly well-spoken, increasingly effective monster heel over the last six months, and I think Jericho's the right man to help him finish that transition. I've got my doubts that this feud will end here, as it seems a lot more likely for Summerslam, and a decisive Jericho victory wouldn't be doing anyone any favors here. They did a great job of stressing the impact of Y2J's worked concussion during the rematch the next week on RAW, and I'd be surprised if they don't carry that story over to this Sunday's singles match between the two. If Batista's ever going to have a shot at breaking through on his own, it's going to be Sunday night. I've got him going over in convincing fashion, leading to a full blown feud going into Summerslam.
Winner: Batista

Kane vs. Matt Hardy
No Disqualification Match

As I said in this week's RAW Review, this could either be really good or really bad. Nobody with a cell left in their brain is going to buy Matt Hardy as a straight up challenge to Kane, even after all the jobbing the big red machine's been doing over the last twelve months, so their best bet is to use him as a madman, seeking vengeance (HA) in imaginative ways with a weapon. If they can convince us he's really got nothing left to lose and is in a completely different mindset than Kane, the match will benefit undoubtedly because of it. If they set them up side by side and let them start swinging with the wild punches and cookie sheets, fans will notice the two foot size difference between the two, roll their eyes and make a break for the restrooms. The storyline calls for emotion and fire, the match needs something different to make it enticing to viewers, and god knows both these guys need the exposure of a good match on a big card, Hardy perhaps moreso than Kane. I've got Matt pulling out the surprise win, enraging Kane as a result and eventually paying the price somewhere down the line.
Winner: Matt Hardy

Randy Orton (C) vs. Edge
Intercontinental Championship

It's a mixed bag with these two. On one hand, their work together in various tag matches has been nothing short of outstanding. Edge remains a very solid tag team worker and Orton is beginning to really grasp the concept behind his teaming with Batista, handling most of the wear and tear himself and tagging in the monster when it's time for a big move or a finishing sequence. I could watch Jericho or Benoit and Edge take on Batista or Flair and Orton from now until the end of time. The teams just click, both with their partners and with their opponents, and the end result is a string of matches that are totally different from one another, despite the identical ingredients, each one every bit as good as the last. On the other hand, neither Orton nor Edge are what I'd call accomplished, possibly even reliable, singles stars. It's obvious that the "powers that be" (to steal a phrase) were all about getting Edge into the main event as soon as possible upon his return to RAW, but for whatever reason he just hasn't been up to the challenge. His character's lost a step, both inside and outside the ring, and audiences aren't getting into his current run. He feels forced, like he's only saying things because they'll make him look more "main event," and that's not a good way to crack the top of the card.

Orton, too, has been somewhat unreliable on his own. While he's much more than carryable when opposed by an established face, who can fill him in on the lay of the land and alter the plans if the audience doesn't respond as they're expecting them to, he's not quite to the point where I'd feel comfortable watching him call a match from start to finish. The first meeting between Edge and Orton, on RAW about a month back, left a lot to be desired. There were some flickers of potential shining through, and I thought for a while they might pull out a decent match after all, but when the dust settled it was just disappointing as a whole. There's still a good chance they'll take the added momentum of a high slot on a big card and use it appropriately to propel the match, so don't think I'm poo-pooing this before it's even happened, but I'm having trouble remaining optimistic. Here's hoping they give me a reason to get excited about their next collision when they meet this Sunday. I've got Orton retaining, because that title is an integral part of his character right now. It wouldn't help Edge nearly as much as it would hurt Randy.
Winner: Randy Orton

Chris Benoit (C) vs. Triple H
World Heavyweight Championship

I honestly can't wait to see this one. Benoit hasn't slowed down since winning the title, although he's been in some hairy situations, and Trips has been a completely different man since dropping the gold at WrestleMania. His character did an about-face and has been extremely entertaining on the mic (both as the oppressive leader of Evolution and as the double-faced liar, manipulating Eugene for his own gains) and markedly improved in the ring (opposite Benjamin, Tajiri and Michaels, respectively). Likewise, Benoit has led the way for RAW, involving himself in about two thirds of the show's outstanding string of main events since WMXX while constantly improving by leaps and bounds, both as a character and on the stick. Though their interactions have been limited due to the various storylines both are involved with, this still feels like a clash of the titans, a match worthy of the World Heavyweight Championship it's deciding. Either guy could conceivably step away as champion without completely catching me by surprise, and I wouldn't wish for it any other way.

These two haven't had many singles matches. In fact, the only ones that I can recall off hand are the first match Benoit had after jumping to the WWF (on the very same, fateful Smackdown that Eddie Guerrero dislocated his elbow) and a tremendous, yet oft-overlooked match from No Mercy 2000, both of which saw Hunter emerge victorious (and good lord, we've been doing these previews for a long time). I've read good things about the house show matches these two have been having since April, and I can't help but believe them judging by the excellent work they've done together in multiple-participant matches and on their own. As for a winner, I'm gonna go against the grain and pick Benoit. Hunter isn't focused, and I think this Eugene thing's going to bite him in the ass. I'll concede that he's likely to regain the title by Summerslam, but I don't think Vengeance is the place he's going to get it done.
Winner: Chris Benoit

In Closing...

Like I said in the introduction, this looks like and all around solid card. There's a few opportunities for something to suck, but there's more than enough good potential to make up for the chance misstep and then some. If Hardy / Kane and Edge / Orton can surprise me, there's a good chance this card will be very good to great from head to toe, perhaps even better than RAW's last PPV, Bad Blood. I'm eager to see how several of these matches turn out, and I'm excited to take in the aftermath this Monday on RAW. Big thumbs up from me, let's hope RAW's hot streak continues.
until next time, i remain

Monday, July 5, 2004

WWE RAW Review: 07/05/04

Good lord, is it really just six days before the next PPV? This increase in major shows is really ramping up the accelerator on both RAW and Smackdown, which is most certainly not a good thing when you think about how quickly things were moving in the first place. Sometimes the best angles in the world come from slow-burning or year-spanning feuds and storylines. What kind of story would Steamboat / Flair have told if "The Dragon" had shown up out of nowhere one week, challenged Flair for the next week's PPV, lost that and been on his way? It's been said time and time again that the chase is much more interesting and emotionally captivating than the capture, and by cutting down on the time between blowoffs, I fear these rapid-fire PPVs will rob us of the meat of many upcoming feuds and angles. But that's an issue for neither here nor now. The cold, hard fact is this: RAW has a big event, Vengeance, coming up and they don't have a lot of matches set in stone. This was their last chance to really sell fans on the concept of blowing a hundred fifty bucks on wrestling events in just a handful of weeks. Let's take a peek at how they did.

I'm sure if I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes I'd be killing myself for saying so, but that opening game of musical chairs was genuinely one of the funniest things I've seen on RAW in recent memory. Ric Flair absolutely made that whole segment, from the initial fury over being involved in such a stupid stipulation (and the subsequent, anger-dripping removal of his sports coat) to his eventual enjoyment of it (doing the Flair strut to wild fanfare behind Stacey) to his determination to win near the end (throwing Kiebler to the floor even though she didn't seem to have much of a chance anyway). Flair's character work over the last few months has been utterly breathtaking, as he runs a gamut of emotions with staggering ease and no lack of credibility. There aren't (m)any guys on the roster who can work such successful comedy one moment and then turn around and fire up some crippling intensity the next, but Flair does it effortlessly. I'm really happy to see him slowly moving away from an active role in the ring, even though he's teaming with Eugene this Sunday, and focusing more on selling the action in the ring as a manager / mouthpiece. The guy knows how to read a crowd like no other, and lending some of his heat to Randy Orton or Batista will do nothing but good for Evolution as a whole.

Truth be told, that entire musical chairs segment was just WAY too good to be true. It made sense as a means for selecting a challenger later in the night, since Eugene was the one doing the booking, it put Jericho over as a quick thinker in front of probably the loudest crowd support he'll ever enjoy, it gave Flair, Tajiri and Coach a stage upon which to showcase their comedic assets and it ended up delivering a solid match later in the night. This was a great, lighthearted way to start RAW. I wouldn't want to see it trotted out there every other week, but for a one-time joke, this was very successful.

I was impressed with Rhyno's hunger for action last week, when he was tossed out there as an afterthought alongside Sergeant Slaughter, but I can't say the same for this week's match. No question about it, he was still busting his ass out there, aching for a chance to make a serious run once again, but something just wasn't clicking between he and Venis. They obviously didn't function as a team, since this is the first time I can recall ever seeing them together (off the top of my head, at least) but the match as a whole left me feeling underwhelmed. I honestly have a lot of faith in the abilities of Conway, Venis and Rhyno, but they didn't give me anything to justify those opinions last night. Still, I like that they're giving the tag division a bit more focus, with Rhyno seeming to begin a weekly hunt for the titles.

Unlike the musical chairs number, I thought the bits with Eugene's office and his decisions therein were overkill and not really all that funny in the first place. I can understand the need to give a little more attention to the commissioner this week, since it was a one time thing, but the combined exposure of that role plus his spot in the main event was too much for me to handle. If I'd ordered this program as a dish in a fine restaurant, I'd send it back to the chef, complaining "Too much Eugene." Well... it sounded good in my head, anyway. Damn this stream of consciousness writing style.

Edge and Triple H's face-off wasn't doing anything for me, and I know I'm not in the majority in saying so. I've never had a problem with Edge, just to get the records cleared, and I actually think the guy had the momentum to possibly become a main eventer when he went under the knife a year and a half back. He'd had a series of good to great matches with Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle, he had the crowd support and his character was at least somewhat fresh and entertaining. Since his return and subsequent trade to RAW, I haven't seen any of that. His matches haven't been even close to the level of those he'd had on Smackdown prior to his injury, his character's reverted into a dull, typical badass face and worst of all, his audience support is waning rapidly. Yet they keep putting him in situations like the one we saw last night, where the bookers are all but begging the audience to get behind him and chant his name... to little response. I still think the guy has all the tools to make a run of it at the top of the card, but they're all still sitting in his toolbox. If the very idea of standing up on his own to the most dominant, convincing heel faction in WWE history doesn't get a crowd behind him, it's time to do some serious re-evaluations about his use.

Kane and Batista didn't even get out of the gates before Matt Hardy caused an early disqualification, attempting to beat the life out of the big red machine. If they build Sunday's match like that, as though Hardy's got a chance if he catches Kane by surprise, uses his head and uses everything in the environment as a weapon, the match could surprise us all and really spin an interesting yarn. If they shove them out there to hit one another with cookie sheets, throw each other through tables and wrestle one another as though they're both over three hundred pounds, I'll be able to smell the stink from here.

I really liked what I saw of the Jericho / Orton match, but I've got to admit my attention was elsewhere during parts of it. The crowd was simply outstanding in this one, and really did their part in turning what would've been an okay match under normal circumstances into something special. This is why it's stupid to transplant everyone's location, since you'll never get as loud a reaction as when you put a guy in a major position on the card in his home town. Jericho and Orton have worked well together in tags in the past, and aside from the crappy, lame finish that carried over into their singles work here. I'd love to see an ongoing feud between these two, more for the promos than for the work, but the matches would be nothing to sneeze at either. And you've gotta love the return of the "come on baby" muscle cover.

I can't say I liked much of anything about the women's title match. Aside from the somewhat unpleasant surprise of putting Nidia over, (especially right in front of Molly like that) the booking was stupid and the match didn't get any time. I like the attempt to get Trish over as a serious heel, rather than a valet who also happens to be women's champion, but it seems to be too little too late since she'll be nursing that broken hand for the foreseeable future.

The main event wasn't bad at all. They told a great story here, with Benoit furious at Triple H and Flair for their promises earlier in the program and their ongoing manipulation of Eugene, and Evolution taking full advantage of the champ's uneasiness at facing off with Eugene himself. This wasn't technically as strong of a main event as we've been getting for the last few months, but the story and booking more than made up for it. Benoit and Triple H still have a significant beef with one another heading into Sunday's Title match, and Eugene's loyalties are still in question. They kept Benoit strong as the champion who had Hunter ready to tap before Dinsmore's intervention while not burying Hunter either. It's been argued that the crowd turned on Eugene midway through this match and upset all of the bookers' hard planning, but I'd disagree. There's no question in my mind the audience was supposed to boo Eugene, as he gave in to his darker side and assaulted the faces after a brief moment's thought. They weren't booing the gimmick or the storyline, they were booing the character's choice. They were engrossed in the story, and for that one moment before he decided to go ahead and break up the champion's sharpshooter with a steel chair, they were in stunned silence. That's the sign of a connection with the crowd, when they're holding their breath in anticipation of what's just around the corner. Not a bad match at all, though Dinsmore still hasn't shown me anything worthwhile and Edge is still a pale impression of what he was a year ago. I can't wait to see how the World Title match plays out Sunday night.

This was above average. The bookers are extremely hit and miss right now, tossing out some real shit one minute and following it up with a unbelievable, compelling drama the next. Last night they were more "hit" than "shit," but the balances weren't exactly tipped entirely in that direction. Better than last week, but still not far above average.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5.65