I was itching to see where they carried the ball from here. I thought there was definite potential that Benoit could regain the title just one night after losing it, and I knew there were bound to be some fireworks in the Evolution camp. I had no idea just how bright they'd shine, but explosions were imminent.
Naturally, the show kicked off with the new champion strolling to the ring for his first promo with the belt. I've always found it interesting to watch how a first-time champ carries himself during that initial trot to the ring with the belt around their waist... some guys merely clip it to their hips and act as if nothing's different, others sling it over their shoulder and carry it as a trophy, still others alter their choreographed ring introduction to show off their new prize (Chris Jericho, in particular, springs to mind). It's almost a way to gauge how successful they'll be with the title; if they look uncomfortable or unprepared, they typically won't be a very good champion. If they allow the gold to lend a certain sense of credibility and confidence to their manner, they might have a long history together. Orton, for the record, landed somewhere in the middle. He still carried himself with confidence, but he also shifted his eyes from side to side, allowing his inexperience and age to peek through.
Regardless, this was an above average promo from the champ, and I was glad to see him working as a heel right out of the gates. I'll be interested to see if they shift him away from this style of promo in the near future, as he establishes himself as a face, or if they allow the crowd to gather behind him without changing a thing about his character. That's one thing they always did poorly with Angle; he was such a tremendous heel that fans slowly started to come around to him, and when the back office heard his reactions slowly turning more and more positive, they decided to turn him. But rather than sticking to their guns and allowing the fans to continue cheering the same guy they'd rallied behind, his character took a jarring turn into left field and lost all of his momentum in the process.
Man, I'm just all over the place this week. I loved the interaction with the audience (the repeated pans of the crowd and closeups on the hundreds of 24-year-olds lifting their shirts were a nice touch) and he covered ground that was relatively new to him. Rather than strutting out to the ring and basically saying "I'm cocky, don't you hate me!" he had a point, which is refreshing to see. Benoit's interruption and subsequent challenge was well executed, with the former champ sticking by the character that had carried him so well since WrestleMania. He never gives up, not even the night after one of the biggest losses of his career. You could tell that these two respected one another, but that there were also some unresolved disputes between them. Great fodder for a main event.
Rhyno and Sylvain Grenier went into the ring with a tag-title-related stipulation, which usually means instant victory for the non-champs. However, in this instance the outcome was cast into a little more doubt thanks in large part to the Rhyno / Tajiri team's loss in last week's "win in two minutes and get a title shot" match. I like booking that works toward casting doubt over the outcome of a later match. Not the best match I've seen from Rhyno, and Grenier's slowly improving but he's still far from worthwhile as a single... but I still like this feud. It's keeping the ECW alumni in the picture, building La Resistance as lengthy champions and (most importantly) keeping the belts in the picture. This was an off match, but the feud still gets a thumbs up from me.
I loved the little meet and greet between Lita and the heel Divas... but it's not something I'd want to see on-air again. Kind of like the Diva Search / Kamala segment, only a tad better, since the women involved actually have a future in the industry. Fun fact; every woman in the room was a past or present Women's Champion. That's how stiff the competition in that area could be right now if the bookers cared enough to give them time to do their thang. Almost every active woman on the roster is a former champ, and hasn't been buried to the point that her winning the title would come as much of a shock. Well, except maybe Molly. Poor Molly.
I'll give them credit where it's due, however, the Gail vs. Victoria match was probably the best we've had out of the division since 'Mania. There's no question it was Gail's best match since arriving in the fed, and though it did come off as a hair too short, it told a surprisingly detailed story in that time. I particularly liked the little nod to the history these two had together, with Gail locking in her sick tangling, climbing, reverse-octopus-lookin' submission maneuver and Victoria finally figuring out a logical escape to it. Remember when she tapped to that a few months back, while carrying the women's title? Monday night's similar circumstances proved that not only is Gail a relentless competitor, focusing on what she's doing, but also that Victoria can and will learn from her past mistakes. I loved that finish.
I'm also loving this Stevie Richards in drag angle, but for all the wrong reasons... it's great to listen to the guy in the front row clearly and eloquently stating "That is Steven Richards," while the rest of the audience chants "STEVIE STEVIE" and Victoria still acts as though she hasn't a clue. Actually, that reminded me of the Blue Blazer gimmick they were running with just prior to Owen Hart's death, which despite the tragic conclusion was actually a pretty humorous little angle. Let's just hope next week Koko B. Ware doesn't come out to the ring wearing that same wig and dress.
Unlike his last few outings on free TV, I just couldn't get into Edge's title defense with Kane this week, even after it'd had enough time to gain speed and barrel on into the closing moments, which is usually the IC Champ's strongest point. These two just weren't clicking, and the additional inclusion of Lita and Matt Hardy to the picture only complicated things. Maybe if Edge had done a baseball slide on Lita for no particular reason halfway through the match, simultaneously turning himself full heel and throwing Kane off-balance, it would''ve woken me up. As is, I've seen better from both guys. Off nights happen to everyone.
Likewise, Jericho and Batista were similar in their failed efforts to get the ball rolling... although to be fair, they didn't go a dozen minutes. Batista's still improving, but much like Grenier, I wouldn't say he's there quite yet. Flair was great in this one, offering a distraction whenever Y2J so much as glanced in his direction and ultimately finishing the match by draping his jacket over the ropes, causing Jericho's Lionsault to slip and slide and the ref to call for a DQ. They're biding their time with this Edge heel turn, which is something I'm glad to see. I'm enjoying him more now as the bitter, "you did it to me first," vindictive asshole tweener than I think I would as a full-blown heel, and it's working as a great transitionary period for his character. So many times you see a face suddenly, inexplicably turn heel and basically spit on all the moral values he'd demonstrated as a face... which doesn't make sense. At least with Edge they're allowing that betrayal to be a gradual one, not to mention an almost-acceptable one thanks to Y2J's past actions.
Finally, the main event... which, again, I loved. I'm constantly humbled by the tremendous string of main events RAW has put together this year. No matter how bad the rest of the show may be, no matter who the participants may be, this show has delivered at least one outstanding match per week for nearly all of 2004. That's got to be some kind of record. Anyway, I loved the build to this one, I loved the action itself but I questioned the message they sent by putting Benoit over so hard on the kid they're betting so much on at this point. Like I said, I had serious doubts Orton would be retaining here (and, honestly, after a couple very long-standing championship reigns, perhaps a set of competitive, unpredictable title changes is finally in order) which boosted my enjoyment of the match by several notches. Benoit stepped out to the ring and just obliterated Orton, essentially from start to finish. He darted into the ring with something to prove, systematically disassembled the new champ, refused to release the crossface after more counter attempts than I can honestly recall seeing in recent memory, then finally laid down for the RKO after fending off three additional men. If anything, this match reinforced the stereotype of a lucky-as-sin, inexperienced, fluke champion that's already starting to hover around Orton. Don't get me wrong, I loved watching it as a die-hard fan of Benoit, but I was left questioning the logic of it when the dust had settled, Benoit had been deposited on the floor and Orton had moved on to his ultimate fate at the feet of Triple H.
These guys worked their asses off in there, and despite the strange booking, put on quite a show. I'd absolutely call this the best match Orton's had on RAW and may even venture so far as to call it the best match he's had in his career thus far. He was selling the leg relentlessly, grimacing in pain with each offensive maneuver and almost crying from the pressure of it all, moments before finally reaching the ropes while locked into the sharpshooter. He still didn't quite look like a champion out there, but he absolutely looked like an upper-tier talent.
Post-match, I truthfully didn't see the turn coming until the moment Hunter turned his thumb down. Sure, I knew the explosion would be coming sooner or later, but I really didn't expect it this soon... and I'll praise them for handling it in such a manner. Think about it, if they'd drug this turn out like everyone seems to be wishing they would've, the monotony would've been overwhelming. How long can you believably hold onto an "everybody hates him now that he's the champ, and wants to kick his ass" mentality without killing the whole kit n' caboodle? Realistically, a guy like Triple H would strike early and decisively, ripping the base out from under his usurper before he could gain any more ground. Great closing segment that's got me eager for next week's show.
In all, this was just the next in line of an offbeat series of shows for RAW. Parts were outstanding, parts were weak and parts were just sort of "meh." A really hot main event and closing angle, and not much more worth remembering this time next year. This was a head above last week's show, and they seem to be on the verge of some ass-kickin' stuff, but that's not here just yet.
Overall Score: 6.1