Monday, May 23, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/23/05

I was hoping WWE would perform some sort of minor miracle this week, delivering an outstanding episode for my final RAW Review contribution, but some dreams are meant to be left unfulfilled. RAW's been on a skid all month long, it would seem, with the Gold Rush tournament actually losing momentum after the surprise elimination of Triple H in the first round and the staggeringly stupid Viscera face turn / push. With a World Title match already booked and a rematch of last week's disappointing Benjamin / Jericho vs. Hassan / Daivari tag match in the cards, as well, this week's episode looked to be an improvement. At least on paper, that is.

The airing opened up with an otherworldly heel promo from the newly-united tandem of Edge and Lita, where the two lovebirds took the time to tell us how envious we were of them as individuals, not to mention the copious amounts of sex they've been having together. The addition of Lita has really helped to round Edge out, at least momentarily, and to fill in some of the gaps in his character, but on her own the former queen of extreme is just dreadful as a heel on the stick. I have trouble buying anything she says, because she's never varying the tone of her voice or her own emotions... whether she's announcing to the world that she's pregnant and about to marry the love of her life or spitting out insult after insult at her scorned lover just after siding with another man, her words are always delivered with a dry, cocky monotone. Half of her lines and reactions to the crowd's chants felt like they were carefully scripted days in advance, rather than something she came up with on the spur of the moment, but that could've had more to do with their delivery than anything else. Her heel character is basically the same as her face character, she just wears darker clothes and makes out with a bad guy now. And, while that's something I've been preaching about for years now, (the constant altering of a character from top to bottom upon a change of allegiance) Lita just wasn't that interesting to begin with.

This whole thing just felt like one big, long insider barb at Matt Hardy, though, as Lita was careful to rarely mention Kane by name as her previous beau, and to leave the jabs and insults open for the audience to fill in on their own. That anonymity made me squirm a bit on one or two occasions, though, so I suppose it's mission accomplished on that front. I guess WWE's botched dozens of ready-made feuds that were dropped in their laps in the past, why not try to make a run of it this time?

I got a laugh out of Bischoff making such bizarre requests of his backstage intern between matches. "Hey, I've got a great idea... what I need is for you to miraculously produce a wreath made of barbed wire with the ECW logo printed on it. My segment's in little under an hour, so you're going to have to work fast." And the dude responds like it's no big hassle. Where, exactly, does one go to procure a barbed wire wreath at 9:15 on a Monday night? I think Home Depot is usually sold out by then.

Hassan and Daivari were next in line, challenging Shelton Benjamin in what became a handicap match due to Chris Jericho's late arrival. This was actually an improvement from last week's straight-up tag match, but that's not to say it was really all that good. Chris Jericho carried the load for the team last week, and in a side-by-side comparison I'd say Benjamin put in twice the effort with his showing this week. Daivari looked both confused and awkward in the ring, botching more than one spot, but Shelton was quick to cover for him and then march right into the next sequence as though nothing had happened. Seriously, Khosrow has some decent offensive maneuvers and good speed, but if he's messing up a simple irish whip or arm drag, I've got to question his game. Hassan's beginning to develop into a solid load-carrier for the team, though, especially so opposite somebody like Jericho or Benjamin, so maybe all his little buddy needs is some extra development time between the ropes. This wasn't great, but it accomplished everything it needed to without killing anyone's momentum. I like Hassan and Daivari in the tag division.

Damn, Jericho was stylin' upon his arrival in Green Bay. This "rockstar sellout" thing they seem to be doing with him is a decidedly different flavor than his usual heel act, so I'm interested in seeing where he goes with it. He's needed a big character shift for years now.

I was surprised to see the Richards / Masters feud blown off so quickly and so decisively. "The Masterpiece" has obviously been working on his moveset during the months this Masterlock Challenge thing has eaten up, as he displayed much more of a personality during his match against Richards than he had upon his debut not all that long ago. He's focusing more on a heavy-hitting big man style than before, with those nice back-to-back-to-back backbreakers (damn, that sounds like the name of an MC from the early 90s or something) and he actually had the crowd interested for the first minute, minute and a half of his match, but had lost them again by the time it wrapped up. This quickie could turn out to be a godsend for him, as Richards seemed to have built some momentum coming in and Masters simply crushed him here, surprising the live crowd.

Grenier vs. Jericho followed that, and was just terrible in every sense of the word. Grenier was all over the place, falling against his own momentum more than once and testing out new moves in bizarre places, (was there really a call for a human fucking torture rack in the middle of this match?!?) and Jericho wasn't at his finest, either. If they're serious about moving forward with this split of La Resistance, Grenier needs to either head back to OVW for another year or receive his walking papers. This guy's been on RAW for more than two years and still looks like he's trying to figure out the very basics of working a match by himself. The ability to sing in French shouldn't be your sole claim to fame on a wrestling program, and this kid hasn't progressed in the slightest since his debut.

Eric Bischoff was in the ring when we returned from the commercial (With his beautiful ECW wreath in place! The intern came through!) and wasted little time, diving headfirst into a diatribe about his hatred for the defunct promotion and his determination to obliterate their chances once again. And, as if the screenshot hyping this segment weren't strange enough, (Eric Bischoff standing next to a casket with the letters "ECW" printed on it, as the Undertaker's old theme music played... just think about seeing something like that on television five years ago) out stamped Vince McMahon and Paul Heyman to completely send my "holy shit" meter off the charts. The three heads of the biggest wrestling promotions of the '90s, all standing in the same ring together, chatting about the good ol' days on live TV. I never, ever thought I'd see that.

As with any Heyman promo where he's given something to dig his teeth into and really cut loose with, this was just phenomenal stuff. McMahon and Bischoff didn't even need to say anything once Paulie had a mic in his hands; their visible bewilderment was more than enough. I was just waiting for Bischoff's complete disdain for everything ECW to pay off with a wild, open-palmed slap in the face courtesy of Paul Heyman, especially when he wouldn't even look the guy in the face halfway through the segment, but I guess they're saving that for the PPV. The "mad scientist," as JR put it, can still captivate me like no other.

Unfortunately, the Benoit / Tajiri "ECW Plug Match" that followed didn't get much of a chance to use the momentum that the previous segment had established. I loved most of the big spots here, especially the insane amount of mist that coated the Wolverine's body and that sick transition from a standard crossface into one utilizing the singapore cane, but there wasn't enough time to space them out adequately to maximize their impact. This would've been an outstanding match, given another ten minutes, but as it was it felt extremely rushed and spotty.

The sick one-two punch of that Kane interview, followed by the Viscera / Maria / Lilian / Coach affair, was just brutal. No two ways about it, I've gotta paraphrase Matt Spence here; watching that stretch of RAW was "like being kicked repeatedly in the groin by a mule." Kane looks to be doubling up on the shitty feuds this year, if this promo was any indication. Hey, WWE writers! Come over here for a second and let me explain something for you. I'm not tuning in to watch a psychologically scarred, half-chrome-domed, deranged individual in red spandex go through every emotion in the dictionary, seated backstage in a forbodingly-lit locker room all his own. I'm here to watch some wrestling and, if necessary, some backstage skits to heighten my enjoyment of the eventual matches. Imagine if PRIDE tried to stick Cro Cop or Emelianenko into a setting like that. Somehow, I don't think the buyrates would go up.

The Viscera song and dance once again managed to drag some serious laughter out of me, in a bizarre "why am I still laughing at this" kind of way. I think I probably could have made it through the segment without a smile until JR came out of left field, shouting "King, he's dancing and eating at the SAME TIME" in a deadpan. Still, my amusement with just how unbelievably bad these things are has been anchored by the knowledge that they'll continue long past the point where they've stopped being funny.

The World Title match was nothing special, with Batista running out of things to do a couple of minutes in and Edge slowing the pace while in control a bit more than I'd have liked. It wasn't particularly bad, really, and it's nice to see new faces in the main event, but these guys didn't bring their A-Games and the match suffered. Near the end, just before the ref bump, outside interference and foreign objects, (the holy trinity of poor booking, if you will...) both guys seemed to catch a second wind and turn it up a bit, but by then it was a case of too little, too late. Flair holding his own against the two guys who had his number last week, not to mention the number one contender for the World Title, was a little odd, as was the way Edge was pinned cleanly in the center of the ring when the match finally concluded. Post-match, the ring emptied, Batista and Flair had a little pow wow, and Hunter returned from the unemployment line to swing a sledgehammer around like a man possessed. Oh yeah, and Flair turned heel again, demobilizing the Champ with a low blow while Trips had him distracted. After all the times you've seen him do it, how do you stand there in the ring with Ric Flair, completely oblivious to the fact that he's right at crotch level and only a wild muscle spasm away from literally busting your balls? C'mon, Dave, you were in Evolution for nearly two years... you've seen the guy work. You know better than that.

Wow, this feud sure feels fresher now that they took those three weeks off from one another. I thought the point was for Hunter to let RAW fail in his absence, then come crawling back to him so he could return triumphantly and carry it on his back once again, but apparently I got the wrong message. After seeing identical situations with Orton and Goldberg in the last year and a half alone, I'm having trouble getting excited for this same old "Hunter mad, Hunter smash with sledgehammer" business this time.

This week's RAW continued the trend of slow, steady improvement from last week, and while there are lots of areas in need of improvement, the general feel of the program is getting better once again. If they could just cut out those ridiculous segments with Viscera and Kane, release Sylvain Grenier's worthless ass and give Paul Heyman a forum to voice his concerns on a semi-weekly basis, this show could be outta sight. As is, it's just a step below average.

I guess it's only fitting that my last RAW writeup should end with an untouchable Hunter standing tall as the program fades to black. Thanks for the memories, guys, and take good care of yourselves.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.6

Monday, May 16, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/16/05

After last week's heavy emphasis on vignettes, promos, backstage interactions and in-ring time-killers left little time for actual wrestling, (Viscera spent more time chewing on nachos and hitting on Lilian than was granted to half the night's matches) I can't say I was optimistic about RAW's direction heading into this week. None of the storylines were clicking for me, I wasn't all that thrilled about the names and faces being pushed, and I was losing hope for the once-glimmering Monday night product in the ring. Let's see what this week's episode had in mind as a suitable follow-up...

Incredibly, we kicked things off proper with a match, pitting Chris Jericho and Shelton Benjamin against their common enemies; Hassan and Daivari. Even more incredibly, the match actually got some time. Daivari and Jericho seemed to be carrying the brunt of the load for their teams this week, but weren't impressing me together. Khosrow is still hesitant between the ropes, which led to a few minor missteps, and Jericho seems to be wallowing in the pits of disinterest this month, because his usual effort just hasn't been there. The finish was convincing, if nothing else, but I don't think I can overstate how sick I am of seeing the heels win through cowardly, underhanded means every week while JR (or Michael Cole, depending on the program) screams "NO! My god, no! Not this way! Not this way!" Is a match on RAW really something worth getting that worked up over? Maybe if wins and losses were directly tied to a wrestler's progress up the ladder in the hunt for a title shot...

Not a bad showing, really, but nothing head-turning. It made for a decent opener at best, with Jericho showing signs of some much-needed character development after the fact. Strange how he was all up in arms about giving everything up for just one more chance at the title before his first round match in the Gold Rush tournament, and now he's telling Shelton Benjamin backstage about how he's got other pots on the stove and the title doesn't mean what it used to in his eyes. I'd be excited about a potential Y2J heel turn in the works if they could keep their story straight.

The whole series of events that led the camera from Benoit to Tajiri to Regal to Coach to Bischoff to Flair to Batista were extremely well-done last night, and while it did play out a little more theatrically than you'd expect, it wasn't exactly ninja cameramen and "private secrets" between two wrestlers and the million fans watching around the world. Everybody was soundly in-character and believable, from Benoit getting excited at the prospect of a unique match later in the night to Coach sprinting full-speed to Eric Bischoff's office so he could squeal on the superstars to Flair's fury over Bischoff's decision to Batista's attempts to make nice with the Nature Boy. It's really coincidental that everybody ran into each other at precisely the right moment, but I can learn to ignore that. And hey, they found the pre-WrestleMania Batista character whose loss I'd been lamenting over the last few weeks! Instead of cracking cheesy jokes, sucking up to the audience and wearing weird white uniforms, he was chilling out backstage, mocking his own inability to cut loose with a proper "WHOOO" and standing up for what he believes in out in the arena (which, interestingly enough, also coincides with the kicking of some serious ass.) Fun segment that furthered about half a dozen storylines in a single pass.

Moments later, Flair and Christian finally met in the squared circle, the end result of an outstanding mini-feud over the last month, and hit a few rough patches but came out OK in the end. Christian initially looked out of place out there with the living legend, but made up for it by selling his backhands as though they were razor blades and attempting to steal a page from the Nature Boy's book with a dirty finish. This felt more like a filler match thrown onto the card on a whim than the blowoff to a series of shared anxieties backstage, which is a shame, but at least it was kept competitive. Once you saw the two of them in the ring together, the difference in stature and confidence was daunting.

After the match, the heels attempted a beatdown on ol' Naitch, only to be taken to school by the World Heavyweight Champion, Batista. I really enjoyed this, and if you had a set of ears pointed at the television at the time, you'd agree that the live crowd did as well. This is precisely how they should be using the big man; short on words, but heavy on impact. He obliterated Tomko and Christian with power moves, involved the crowd with a few short, Goldbergian bursts of energy and excitement, and left the viewers at home with a few things to contemplate as far as his relationship with Ric Flair. I wish more face turns were handled this logically; Batista never quit respecting and admiring Flair for his contributions, both to the sport and to his own career, regardless of the fact that they had almost instantaneously become enemies when "the Animal" chose to challenge Triple H at WrestleMania. Now it's doing a great job of furthering the blur between heel and face in Flair's status, with Hunter momentarily out of the picture. Yeah, I got all of that without the champ even uttering a word on the subject. It's called subtlety, and it's refreshing to see in action for once. Gimme more, bookermen!

I like that they're carrying over Stevie Richards' involvement with "the Masterpiece," when I'm almost positive he wasn't meant to be more than just the first victim in the rookie's path prior to their initial meeting. It's become a ready-made rivalry, and it's nice to see that taken advantage of for a change, but at the end of the day this is still Chris Masters we're talking about. All of the sound storytelling in the world couldn't make this kid worthwhile in the ring right now.

The Benoit / Tajiri match was a decent way to build interest in the ECW PPV just around the corner, although I'm worried by the garbage cans and parking signs they stuck at ringside. Sure, there was an awful lot of garbage brawling in ECW's day, but that was usually anchored by some outstanding wrestling and some really quality storytelling in the end. Benoit, in particular, wasn't the kind of guy you'd see swinging cookie sheets, lighting things on fire and throwing opponents into barbed wire... he'd look to end the match quickly and decisively, but he'd go about doing so with a firm grasp of what makes a great match connect with the fans. What they showed us last night, in the three minutes or so that we got, was a series of unrelated spots, along with the tease of a huge, death-defying payoff that I seriously doubt they'll even come close to matching at the show itself. They're right in building this as something that the bigwigs don't want you to see, but they're giving the wrong impression by implying that ECW was all tables, highspots and "HOLY SHIT" moments.

And then, for no particular reason, there was a lingerie pillow fight. Nice, guys. Nice. It cracked me up to see JR and King calling this as though it were a legitimate competition, though. How long do you think we've got until they surprise us all with a "Lingerie Pillow Fight" World Title?

After that unforgettable technical classic, Viscera stamped a mean path down to the ring, intent on continuing his wooing of ring announcer Lilian Garcia. This was straight-up hallucinogenic. It got to the point where I was just howling in simultaneous pain and laughter from the pure bizarreness of it all. Seriously. A six hundred pound black man in an inhumanly large brown suit, with albino contacts, bleached blond hair, terrible dental hygiene and an unyielding appetite, reclining on a bed, surrounded by feathers, in the center of a wrestling ring, being cheered on by thousands of paying spectators as he croons to selections from Barry White's greatest hits and cracks the thinnest of sexual innuendoes to a woman one quarter his size. Holy crap, that was one of the most excruciating, mind wrenching, unbearably funny things I think I've ever seen. If this weren't a serious storyline on RAW, I'd send it directly to the comedy goldmine. But, sadly, it will continue.

The tag team titles were up for grabs, as Rosey and the Hurricane defended their gold against the combined powers of Simon Dean and Maven in a disappointing little clash that, I guess, was meant to let the crowd down a bit after the wild success of Viscera's love ballad, in time for the main event. If you were told to close your eyes and envision the kind of match that Simon Dean and Maven would put on with the Hurricane and Rosey with about five minutes to kill before the main event, this is almost exactly the kind of match you'd imagine. Very by-the-books stuff, with Stacey weakly shaking up the status quo by appearing at ringside. Why are these guys still wearing capes and cowls?

Out of nowhere, Randy Orton popped his head in the ring to let us all know he was still alive and to prompt the inevitable McMahon rebuttal by bringing up the draft lottery. Orton was strikingly smaller than at WrestleMania here which, as he was quick to tell us, was due to his shoulder surgery and subsequent time off from the gym. He didn't seem to have lost a step on the mic, which is relieving, and set about tearing into the crowd without remorse until Vince's music hit. The genetic jackhammer informed us that the draft would be taking place over the course of a full month of WWE programming, which sounds like a bad idea to me. Dragging out what was successful as a one-night attention grabber last year seems like it'll kill a lot of the appeal and result in some disappointed potential airing-by-airing viewers. I guess it's a little early to say, though, so I'll refrain from making any sort of final judgment until I see how they actually wind up handling it. It was nice to see both Orton and McMahon, who have been making themselves rare on TV since the big event, and they delivered a nice bit of verbal sparring together.

Finally, the last round of the Gold Rush tournament came and went, as Edge met Kane in a "which way will they decide to turn Lita on her 'husband'" match. That's right, a stipulation so special it needed two completely different sets of quotation marks. As I mentioned in last week's RRC, Kane hasn't been all that impressive over the last... well, the last year and a half... and this match didn't do anything to break him from that trend. Edge is a great talent when he's in there with somebody who knows how to show off his strengths and cover for his weaknesses, but he's not the first guy I'd choose if my task was involving Kane in an important, main event match with big-time ramifications. This was slow and plodding, with two spots that could've really helped to improve the televised match taking place during a commercial and glazed over in a rapid-fire instant replay orgy. The Lita turn was painfully obvious last week, and had begun to gather flies and vermin by the time the match actually took place at the end of this week's show. Of the two available choices, the right man went home with the win and the girl, I guess, so thank god for small miracles, but on the whole this was a disappointment.

A bizarre about-face for RAW this week, with matches that failed to deliver and were largely uninspiring, and backstage segments that were above and beyond my expectations. Well, aside from that whole Viscera / Lilian Garcia thing. Which was just.... yeah. A below-average broadcast once again, although there was some improvement from last week.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.9

Monday, May 9, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/09/05

This week's RAW opened up with a Triple H promo (good god, how many times do you think I've said that in the on-and-off six years I've been reviewing the show?) and surprised me by cutting right to the chase, bitching about his loss last week and claiming the whole idea of a tournament was bogus. I really liked the way Hunter included the front row ticketholders in this segment, teasing that he'd go off the deep end and start throwing punches, and allowing the camera to showcase just how much joy the fans had taken in his submission loss at the hands of Chris Benoit and Batista last week. This is something I've noticed him toying with in his promos over the last month or so, taking personal exception to the chants of the crowd, and I'd love to see more of it. Not only does it motivate people to head out to the arenas and see the shows, (and, conceivably, spring for ringside seats) but their excitement about being on-camera and their emotional responses make Hunter look like that much more of a hated individual and encourage chants from the rest of the stadium. A short, succinct, powerful and ultimately successful promo from the Game, eventually interrupted by World Champ Batista in a blindingly white suit.

"The Animal" really is a completely different creature than he was a month ago. While still a member of Evolution he was subtle, well-spoken, nicely dressed and explosively powerful. Now he's like a rock star. He's blatantly cracking jokes, pandering to the audience, standing up for himself without hesitation and wearing... stuff like that white suit. I'm not saying that I dislike his current character, because it's nice to see a confident, dominating face at the top of the heap for a change, but it's a pretty wild shift in direction all the same. Hunter's decision to walk off of RAW at the end of this segment made sense, given the amount of taunting he's taken in the last month alone and his legendary on-screen ego. It fits nicely into the conclusion of the Gold Rush tournament, too, as it's tough to buy a fresh face in the World Title scene with Hunter busy elsewhere on the card. His face has been that completely ingrained into the RAW title scene since the brand split.

Jericho and Daivari didn't fare too poorly together, and I'd bet they could've pushed out something worthwhile if given a little bit more time. Problem is, Y2J's been on such a bad streak of losses lately, he needed the convincing win here just to regain some of this last year's worth of lost momentum. Putting on a competitive match with somebody as far down the ladder as Daivari at this point would do more damage to Jericho than good to Khosrow. Daivari has the tools to become a solid worker in the ring, but still seems hesitant and uneasy in big situations. Then again, I can't say I wouldn't be equally nervous if my first matches in a WWE ring came against Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho, respectively. Nice to see Jericho worked in the legendary finish from his match with Juventud Guerrera way back in his WCW heyday, sitting down on an attempted top rope hurricanrana and cinching in the Liontamer, although it didn't look nearly as fluid and impressive this time around.

I like the idea of a La Resistance split, since Conway could use a singles push and a break from Grenier, while Sylvain himself could do with some dark matches against the Benoits, HBKs and Flairs of RAW while he tries to gain his bearings in the ring. If it worked for Randy Orton and Batista, it could work just as easily for him. It's a tough call at this point, though, since the bookers seem to have suddenly remembered the tag division and no other team on the active roster has their kind of credentials. Personally, I'd have rather seen Conway sent to the high profile singles slot on Smackdown during last year's draft, and Dupree left to tag with Dupree, his original partner. Conway was primed to explode at this point last year, and I can only imagine where he'd be right now if he'd been sent to feud with John Cena on Thursday nights instead of Rene.

I don't think I can find a better example of why Grenier needs some tutelage between the ropes than that match with Viscera. Grenier knows how to take a bump or two, but when it comes to keeping the audience interested and staying competitive without reverting to restholds, he's lost. To his credit, I don't think I've ever seen anyone put on a good match with Viscera, Benoit included, but I'd also never seen Viscera buttfuck anybody in the middle of a match, either, so I guess nothing's impossible. This match was nearly as long as Jericho's crushing of Daivari earlier in the card, and a little more than half as long as Conway's match with Shelton Benjamin later on the card, if that tells you anything about how serious they are about La Rez as singles. Post-match, Vis showed a little personality and (gasp) charisma(!), stealing a plant's nachos and hitting on Lilian Garcia. It's mildly entertaining, sure, but my conscience just keeps screaming about how I'm just gonna have to watch him wrestle again in the end.

What, exactly, is his gimmick supposed to be right now, anyway? Where does the vinyl trashbag suit, bleached mohawk, albino contacts and black lipstick meet up with the gyrations, midring "activities" and pickup lines?

Benoit vs. Kane was disappointing, and not just because of the finish. Kane's been unmotivated in the ring for months now, with no sign of letting up, and his performance here reeked of it. There was no pace or reasoning to this match, nobody felt comfortable taking control for any extended amount of time until the Crippler hit the rolling germans near the end of the match. It was just a lengthy string of punches, transitional moves, reversals, punches and big moves, like watching two boxers take turns throwing jabs, one after the other, for four minutes. Benoit was mildly selling the after effects of the storyline concussion he portrayed beautifully last week, but it was overly subtle and didn't factor into the finish of the match, and the final series didn't make any sense to me. Even if Benoit did feel responsible for knocking Lita off of her feet on the floor there, (which he shouldn't have, since he never made contact with her and Kane's lack of coordination is what made her hit the ground) what good it would have done to yank her arm until she was vertical again? When he broke Sabu's neck, did he roll out to the floor and start tugging at his opponent's wrist in a senseless effort to pull him back to his feet? A big let-down, both in terms of booking and performance, and nowhere near their Title match on PPV about a year ago.

Flair vs. Tomko was shorter than the Viscera match a few segments before, and utterly useless. Maybe if Christian had done something of consequence before being banned from ringside, I'd have seen this as a good momentum-builder for the fun little Flair / Christian feud they've had simmering for a couple of weeks. This was like joining a twenty minute match in progress, as Flair locked in the figure four at something like fifteen seconds and Tomko seemed ready to tap at just under half a minute. It's sad that they had to protect both guys by keeping the overall length so short here.

The whole segment with Stacey Keibler, "Droolin' Todd" Grisham, Simon Dean, Maven and the tag champs was straight out of the heyday of the Circus Era WWF. I almost expected Doink the Clown (post Matt Boone) to come out to the ring and spray people down with his lapel flower. This was seriously some of the worst cheap heat generation I've seen in years, with clean-cut, cookie cutter faces and heels going through the motions without remorse. Good thing all of the match times were cut in half so we could have time to squeeze this in, right alongside the John Cena music video!

Unlike Benoit and Kane, Conway and Benjamin were really starting to get into a groove out there last night, right up until the finish landed like a boulder from an airplane, killing the match at under three minutes. Honestly, what the fuck is the deal tonight? Was there some sort of ruling that came down without my knowledge, limiting accumulative match time for a two hour wrestling program to under half an hour? I'd love to see a rematch between these two, and I've got a feeling I will, sooner or later, but I can't compliment anybody on a match this short.

Finally, Shawn Michaels and Edge hit the ring for the second semifinal "Gold Rush" match, and I was almost sure HBK had blown out his knee on the entryway when trying to rise from his knees. In retrospect, it's evident that his wardrobe was caught in the ramp, which is why he threw his vest off so quickly, but I was sure he was favoring his left leg right up until the moment he hit the kip up without incident. Continuing the trend established by the preceding matches, this was rushed and unstructured, trying to tell a thirty minute story with a ten minute match, but the finish was outstanding and effective, so in a few weeks that's all you'll remember anyway. They were both trying, but it just wasn't happenin' here.

I don't know how I didn't realize it last week, but when this week's show started and they displayed the brackets, followed by that bizarre Kane / Lita segment backstage, I knew they were going with Kane vs. Edge in the finals and that Lita would be jumping sides. Kind of an underwhelming conclusion to a story they've been developing for nearly a year and a half now, but what can I say? It isn't often they get a hot gimmick dropped into their laps like this, so they may as well run with it if they want Edge to get the kind of heat he'll need to be a main eventer.

An almost universally poor episode of RAW. Matches were brutally short, almost to the point that I'd rather not have had them at all, they're burying Grenier and Conway before the body of La Resistance is even cold, the tournament matches didn't deliver, and there was an excess of filler throughout the broadcast. I can't endorse this.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3

Monday, May 2, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/02/05

I like the idea of a tournament to crown a new number one contender, especially considering it's a device that just about every other professional sport in the world today uses to decide their yearly championships. It's a nice system, in that there's always the chance for a surprise upset or two, and not everything is a foregone conclusion. There's a reason to watch each tier of competition, really. Can you imagine watching the NFL for four months when none of the games counted as much more than weekly exhibitions, as the champion and number one contender were arbitrarily decided beforehand? Of course, there's no Intercontinental Title or Tag Team Title in the National Football League (although there are divisional titles) but the ultimate goal is the same.

I'm still not sure how much I like Batista's new, more audience-friendly personality. His sudden tendency to crack jokes and break into a goofy smile in various backstage segments causes him to come off as an uncomfortable and uneasy champion, which isn't quite the image I'd imagine they want for him right now. He doesn't seem like the same killer that ran wild through the main event in the early months of 2005, but neither did Chris Benoit at this point last year. The little bit of intimidation he threw at Bischoff last night was particularly strange, since Bischoff had been handling such pressures and attempts at intimidation impressively since losing his hair to Eugene at Taboo Tuesday. He was standing up to Triple H's blunt threats later in the show, and had even been doing so when the Game was World Champion himself, but all of a sudden he's backing down from Batista? Strange...

It's tough to figure out where they're going with Christian right now. One minute, they're giving him the big opportunities to establish himself on the stick (where he's succeeding beyond all expectations) and it seems like a sure thing he'll be going to Smackdown to emerge as a fresh challenger to John Cena's WWE Title, but the next he's being crushed like an afterthought by Kane or Batista and tossed aside. This wasn't the match Christian needed to be fighting, and honestly I'm surprised they didn't put him in there with Triple H, to take advantage of the mild rub he got from Evolution last week, while the opportunity is still there. Both guys have had much better matches in the past, and I'm all set to climb aboard the "repackage Kane's boring ass" bandwagon.

Interesting new direction with the Hassan / Daivari storyline, as I'd always imagined it was Daivari pulling the strings behind the scenes, taking advantage of Muhammad's blind commitment to their cause, and not the other way around. I don't think they'll be moving forward with the full breakup for a while still, because the tandem still has a lot of potential together, but this provided some much-needed fresh direction to their partnership. If they play their cards right, (and avoid that infamous "flying carpet" finisher) Daivari could come out of this as a huge star, undoing all the stereotypical reinforcement the gimmick's done to American Arabs thus far.

I can feel my brain cells imploding right now, as I struggle with the question of how, exactly, Viscera is now supposed to be a face. Seriously, my eyes are starting to roll back into my head. He agreed to attack Kane, a face, (whose own turn is another issue entirely) because he wanted to "git wit" Trish, and when he failed to hold up his end of the bargain and Trish, in turn, refused to sleep with him, he beat the shit out of her and moved on to harass other ladies. I can't really blame the audience for reacting the way they have, because this is a largely chauvinistic demographic we're talking about, but I'm sure the writers had a pretty good idea of what they were doing here. This ain't Stone Cold Steve Austin's anti-hero badass we're talking about glorifying, it's a five hundred pound, talentless wanna-be rapist who doesn't respond well to hearing the word "no." With that said, Simon Dean's crazy bump near the end of the match did a pretty decent job of getting him over with the live crowd on its own.

You've gotta know I loved that Shelton Benjamin / Shawn Michaels match, and not just because of the actual work contained therein. This was a great surprise that I hadn't even considered when Benjamin got into the ring, and should go down in history as one of the few times Shawn Michaels has gone out of his way to really put a younger talent over in almost every possible meaning of the word. Although he did eventually wind up winning the match itself, it wasn't before he'd done everything in his power to establish Benjamin as a true World Title contender and a genuine force to be reckoned with in the very near future. He wasn't wrestling Shelton Benjamin, the guy who beat Triple H a few years ago and isn't nearly on his level just yet, he was wrestling a peer, and equal. I'm at a loss for words in describing just how solid this match really was, from the slow-paced opening moments that flawlessly set the stage for the wild five minutes of near-falls at the climax, to the insanely cool "everything you can do I can do better" double kip-up at the halfway point, to the incredible bits of body language that easily conveyed the feelings of frustration both guys were feeling after hitting almost everything in their arsenal and still failing to gain a three count. Shelton was as on here as he's ever been, timing everything precisely and pulling out a few of the insanely athletic new spots he's becoming known for, and Shawn was in rare form himself. There were some interesting parallels between these two that I was surprised JR and the King didn't mention on commentary (like Benjamin's previous association with HBK's recent nemesis, Kurt Angle, and both men's history with Chris Jericho) but I'd forgotten all about that a few minutes into the contest. And after that intense series of near-falls near the end, I thought there was no way they were going to be able to convincingly wrap it up... and holy shit, how wrong I was. That final spot was probably the most convincing finish I've ever seen, and it looked like the live crowd was in almost complete agreement. Seconds after Shawn had landed the pinfall, the cameras panned the audience and almost everyone was sharing the same open-mouthed, hands-on-the-head expression of pure shock and awe. It's great to see that a few guys still understand that, by getting your opponent over throughout the match as a major league competitor, you're also getting yourself over when you eventually score the decisive pinfall. These guys will meet again, and it'll be another classic.

After that instant-classic of a first round tournament match, I don't think I'd be alone in pitying the Hurricane, Rosey and La Resistance for having to follow it up. You could zap Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat through time from the late '80s and I don't think they'd have an easy time of capturing that audience's attention after that kind of a match, and the sorry state of the current tag team scene wasn't helping matters. I don't know about the Superheroes as champs quite yet, and this match didn't do much to convince me of the merit of that idea.

Chris Jericho and Edge met up in the third first-round tournament matchup of the night, and while they've had much better matches together in the past, I hardly think they deserved the loud "boring" chant that sprung up near the finish. I guess you can't spoil a crowd with a brilliant semi-main event at the one hour mark without suffering some of the consequences a little bit later on. Jericho looked confused at times out there, nearly getting himself counted out on one occasion and having trouble mounting much of an intelligent attack, but he was kept strong in the end by refusing to go down quietly. The briefcase shot that led to the end felt a bit hackneyed and unnecessary, and the end result here (combined with the backstage "I'd give it all up for one more chance to be champion" promo that preceded it) garnered some sympathy heat that's gonna make it hard to turn Jericho full heel any time soon.

Are they planning to, you know, innovate during these Masterlock™ Challenges at any point in the near future? And when I say I'm looking for innovation, I'm not really talking about changing up the prize he's offering to the live audience. Why would you call somebody up and push them so strongly if you're so completely embarrassed by their abilities in the ring that you've gotta protect them with incessant segments like these? The aim is to convince the fans to pay for his matches at some point, isn't it?

The main event of Benoit vs. Hunter wasn't the best they've ever had in terms of ringwork, but it worked well within the context of the story itself. I wondered if they were going to mention Benoit's KO from the previous night, and would've honestly been a bit disappointed if the match had gone down as if Backlash had never happened, and the Crippler's handicap changed the dynamic of this fight completely. Hunter's disgusted facial expression when Benoit's music hit told volumes, and Benoit's desire to grab an immediate advantage right away worked brilliantly in tandem with his eventual injury. He knew his head wasn't at 100% coming in, so rather than working the kind of slow, physically grueling match he's defeated Hunter with in the past, he moved in for the kill almost immediately, fearful that he'd never be able to regain control if his injury flared up. And, when the inevitable happened and Hunter took advantage of the handicap, the open-eyed, glazed-over expression Benoit fixed the camera with was seriously freaking me out. It's like he was looking into my soul, thinking it over, and then german suplexing it. Which, aside from totally scaring the hell out of me, also did a pretty good job of quickly establishing the basic story of the match. Benoit was too gutsy for his own good here, insanely deciding to hit the diving headbutt after suffering through a pronounced head injury the entire match, and looked like he really had no idea where he was from time to time. That made Batista's eventual run-in, which effectively saved his ass, a lot easier to swallow.

Honestly, the only way this tournament could've remained fresh was for a major upset to go down in the first round, and with Shawn Michaels, Edge and Kane already victorious, the duty fell to Hunter. And, even though it was Batista's interference who swung the momentum back into his favor, Benoit put the match away on his own (Trips wasn't quite close enough to grab the ropes when the champ pulled them away, so while it was a cool visual, that action didn't directly impact the outcome of the match) when Hunter realized he was in trouble now that the sides were evened. It was surprising at the time to see the clean submission, but in retrospect it was the right call and greatly improved my interest in the outcome of this "Gold Rush" tourney.

After last week's lame showing, it was great to see a return to form for RAW this week, featuring an outstanding Michaels / Benjamin match, the most recent in a series of superb Benoit / Triple H matches and some really solid storytelling elsewhere. This wasn't perfect, but it was a lot closer than the episode that aired seven days prior.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.1

Monday, April 25, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 04/25/05

We're live from the UK this week, which seems a little odd, since it hasn't really been all that long since WWE made their last swing across western Europe. I guess ticket sales are still down in the US, so they're taking the opportunity to visit (and, in this case, revisit) certain parts of the world that didn't get all that much TLC when the product was hot. What is this, two European trips, an Australian trip and a Japanese trip all within about six months of each other? Regardless... live from England this week, as the dual Union Jacks can surely attest, in front of a nearly riotous crowd. That's a good initial sign.

Batista opened things up for us on the microphone this week, and seemed to be a completely different person than I'd ever seen before. It's not that his speech was noticeably better than usual, (or worse, for that matter) but his mannerisms, expressions and straight-up attitude were like those of another person entirely. He seemed to have misplaced his dry, intelligent sense of humor and personality this week, coming off instead as this weird, aloof, slightly uncomfortable individual in search of a cheap pop. Very odd to see this guy, who only recently stood up to the biggest name in the fed without flinching, all of a sudden going out of his way to come across as likeable and cool.

It wasn't long before good ol' JR was out there with him, followed shortly by Triple H, who was still fuming over his loss to the Oklahoman announcer on last week's program. The storyline they were trying to run here wasn't all that bad, although I have trouble believing anybody would get as theatrically angry about a fluke pinfall as Trips was last night, but Batista just wouldn't drop that bizarre new character direction. It's tough to take this segment seriously, to say nothing of the individuals participating, when the World Champ isn't taking it seriously himself. Batista got over as the big guy who carefully chooses his words, who actually says something when he speaks, and now he's moving away from all of that at full speed.

Trish and Viscera then treated us to the first of many "live updates" from their dinner date at an undisclosed location, and good lord did they bring the ugly. These two have absolutely zero chemistry together, which caused the comedic moments to come off as painfully unfunny, and the dramatic moments to slowly steamroll their way to their point without bothering the audience with any of that "emotional involvement" nonsense. Any segment involving food and an outside location is like the kiss of death to your average WWE storyline. Remember two years ago, when Shane and Kane casually discussed their plans to dismember one another over a formal-attire meal at a fancy restaurant? How about Mark Henry's date with Chyna? What about Booker T and Steve Austin's little run-in at a Supermarket, or Book's meeting of the minds with Goldust at the local Seven-Eleven? I guess Trish and Viscera are keeping good company after all.

To summarize each of last night's dinner segments in one fell swoop; ten accumulative minutes of my life I'll never get back again. Just horrible, which (I guess) means it's everything I expected of them.

Chris Jericho and Sylvain Grenier kicked things off in the ring for us this week, in a match that I don't think either will be putting at the top of their "best of" lists any time soon. Grenier had a little more snap in his work this week, but the good things I've got to say about him just about end right there. Y2J wasn't much better off this week, as he appeared to be suffering from one of his infamous bouts with "mailitinesis" (wow... that actually looks like a real medical term. And here I was trying to be all inventive in my accusations that he mailed it in this week.) and visibly slowed things down on more than one occasion. Really short, almost surprisingly so as Grenier tapped to the Walls almost before Jericho had them applied, and I can't say I'm unhappy about that. Post-match, Shelton Benjamin saved his upcoming opponent from certain doom at the hands of the evil Canadians and the two exchanged harsh words / physicalities. The British crowd was enthusiastically pro-Jericho, to the point that they turned on Benjamin almost immediately for fighting back when the former Undisputed Champ went after him. These two have been extremely hit-and-miss throughout this short feud, and last night they hit. Jericho's beginning to show some frustrations in the ring and on the stick.

Backstage, Christian makes his first appearance of the night and just knocks the ball out of the park, tearing Ric Flair and Triple H (conspicuously absent) a new verbal asshole and standing on his own two legs for probably the first time in his career. This was exactly the kind of promo Christian needed to cut to avoid looking like he was totally out of his league opposite Batista, and seemed to have caught everyone (Flair included) totally off-guard. The Nature Boy didn't even need to lift a finger to help this one along, it did wonderfully on its own. You knew those comments about Hunter were gonna come back to haunt him later in the night, (as, I'm sure, did he... which is why he was relying on Tomko, his "problem solver," as his backup) but that didn't make it any less entertaining at the time.

I would've thought they'd drag out Tomko's assassination and Christian's subsequent about-face a little longer into the night, but that's me nitpicking again. Using Kane to obliterate the problem solver and to send Christian scurrying to the back, straight up to Evolution's door, was a great little device that suited the one-night-only main eventer's character perfectly. Hunter and Flair played their roles here, but there's no denying Christian and Batista were the focus.

Moments later, Chris Masters was strolling down to the ring and slaughtering the momentum the previous backstage segments had built. Should I really put together an original paragraph about this guy's gimmick every time he comes down to the ring, selects a "muscular wrestler fan" from the crowd and shakes him around for a few seconds? I think not... there was nothing to distinguish this week's "masterlock challenge" from last week's, aside from the accent of the plant.

Shawn Michaels and "the immortal" Hulk Hogan were in the building... or, rather, backstage after last week's RAW... to cut a promo hyping their upcoming battle with Muhammad Hassan and Daivari. I actually enjoyed their interactions with Coach and Mean Gene (and Gene honestly put Coachman in his place, filling the role of the backstage interviewer as only he can) but one thing really bugged me about both this week's segment and last week's, storyline-wise. What I don't understand is why Michaels has no qualms about trusting the Hulkster in this tag match. Take a look at his track record as it pertains to huge tag teams and their eventual dissolution. He teamed with Paul Orndorff, and "Mr. Wonderful" turned on him, leading to a series of legendary singles matches in the mid 80s. OK, that wasn't Hogan's fault, right? No harm, no foul. Then he teamed with and eventually befriended Andre the Giant. Something inside of Andre snapped, as he aligned himself with Bobby Heenan and made a move on Hogan's title. They fought for over a year. Again, not Hogan's fault, right? A couple of years later, Hogan's teaming with then-champion / "good friend" Randy Savage. The Hulkster abandons his partner in the middle of a match to carry an injured Miss Elizabeth to the back, and never returns. Savage is understandably pissed, and Hogan inflames the situation by making kissy faces at the Macho Man's wife. They embark on a heated rivalry, which culminates in Hogan recapturing the belt from Savage. He's a little bit at fault there. Not one year later, Hogan's teaming with the Ultimate Warrior when again disaster strikes. Hogan and the Warrior come to blows and collide. Noticing a trend? Years later, Hogan had jumped to WCW, befriended Sting and Lex Luger, and mended fences with Randy Savage. He blatantly turns on them in their hour of need, aligning with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to form the original nWo. Yeah, who was at fault in that situation? And what wound up happening to the nWo? Hall and Nash broke away from Hogan to form their own unit. Years later, they reunited in WWE and didn't last two months before Hall and Nash had parted ways with the Hulkster.

My point is this; considering Hogan's insanely poor track record with tag team partners, why would Michaels have the first reason in the world to trust him this Sunday night? Sure, there's the thrill of rubbing elbows with a living legend, but is it worth the consequences?

Regal and Tajiri joined us, accompanied by the RAW Slut Brigade and their UK chapter, the Star Slut Corps, in an effort to push sales of Regal's autobiography. I found it humorous that he's credited as "William" Regal on the cover, since he spent the better part of his career as "Steven," but here I'm nitpicking again. Then again, looking back, it's truly amazing how much of a European icon Regal seems to have become since hitting it big in WWE, compared to the relative nobody he was in WCW. Maybe embracing the recent first name is the way to go after all. The tag champs converse for a few minutes, and invite us to watch them dance with a dozen beautiful women in the middle of the ring. The live crowd's dead silence told the story. "So... what do you want us to do again...?"

Fortunately, Hassan and Daivari were here to save the day for us, challenging the champs to a non-title match and evacuating the lumpy, gyrating ladies from the ring. Nobody looked all that impressive in this tag, although Hassan is slowly becoming more comfortable in the ring with a broad range of opponents. The finish was extremely telling, as the American Muslims tore into the hometown hero and Hogan was nowhere to be found. They're really doing their best to smother Regal's popularity on that side of the pond by jobbing him in two straight high-profile TV matches like this.

Edge and Val Venis were up next, and if you ever had any questions about Val's chances as a single in this federation, they were pretty much answered here. The crowd basically ignored him, never bit on his nearfalls, and didn't even bother to make a noise when he climbed the ropes for his splash and the false finish. The actual work was about as good as you can get for three minutes of airtime, but taking the characters' current situations into consideration, you can't blame the audience for refusing to give a shit. Post-match, Chris Benoit saves the porn legend from a crossface, hits the Germans and removes "Mr. Money in the Bank" from the ring. I'm thrilled about their match this Sunday night, but I truthfully forgot it was "Last Man Standing" rules until JR mentioned it. Think they might have wanted to do something to reinforce the necessity of that gimmick here? Nahh....

Finally, main event time as Christian's intro takes second stage to those of Triple H (did his introduction come before Coach's, even?) and the current World Champion, Batista. The match was almost exactly what Christian didn't need, basically treating him as a non-threat and killing his better chances at using this opportunity to break through, either on RAW or on Smackdown, and had a lot more to do with Hunter being at ringside than Christian using his mind to overcome Batista's strength. It's what I was expecting going in, so I'm not all that bent out of shape about it, but considering the killer promo he'd cut earlier in the broadcast I'd hoped Christian might get a chance to build some traction for himself here. As it were, Hunter wrapped the show up for him, hitting the Pedigree from out of nowhere and putting Batista down for the count. The big man did a great job of selling it, too, straining to lift his head before collapsing in a bruised heap, and I'd say this short angle promoting the strength of the maneuver was very successful.

So that makes two substandard episodes in a row, boys and girls. Despite a superb backstage promo from Christian and a solid closing minute or two, this was below average in almost every aspect. Hogan and Trish were obviously not on the continent, the Divas got a nice juicy segment to kill, Chris Masters continued his pathetic "I'm stronger than the modern fan" gimmick and Christian's efforts were for nothing in the end. I miss the RAWs of a year ago already. I really do.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.1

Monday, April 18, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 04/18/05

I just finished a somewhat heated discussion with the alpha female upstairs, who seems to have taken offense to the note Autumn and I stuck on their door asking them to quit throwing their shit off the balcony and onto our porch. She started off all apologetic, and when I mentioned it wasn't the first time we'd had this problem with them, just the first time we'd brought it up, she went immediately into the defensive and then lashed out. No, surely, I don't know how I could have made the assumption that those were YOUR empty beer cans in our bushes, when the rest of the twelve pack is empty, rolling around on your balcony, a strong breeze away from joining their brothers and sisters in the brush. So, uh, yeah. I'm in a perfect mood to review the shitfest that was last night's airing of RAW, live from the pro wrestling mecca of Madison Square Garden! I'm as pissed about the ignorance of my neighbors as I am at the ignorance of the WWE bookers! Hooray! Exclamation mark!

Chris Benoit and Edge got the ball rolling this week, immediately boosting my anticipation and casually reminding me of the great set of matches Benoit had put on with Edge and Christian over the last couple of weeks. The crowd felt a little blown out from the preceding Smackdown taping, but it didn't take long for Edge and the Wolverine to grab their attention and start them buzzing once again here. Unfortunately, once they did reawaken the slumbering NYC audience, it was just about time to roll out of the ring and brawl backstage to a no-decision. I guess I can understand the idea that this match shouldn't be going to a definitive conclusion with their showdown at Backlash just around the corner, but surely there were better options than this. It was particularly confusing that the ref decided to throw his arms up in the air and call for help, rather than just letting them settle their differences backstage, since we've seen dozens upon dozens of similar predicaments end that way in the past, both on RAW and on PPV without help arriving to pull the combatants apart. Benoit's arm was noticeably less of an issue here, which is disappointing, because it had become such a great centerpiece during his last two matches, but I guess they don't need the additional drama for a match that's already shaping up to be pretty dramatic, based off of the gimmick alone. A hot start and a quick let-down.

The Lita / Trish segment would've bombed entirely if not for the insane smarktitude of the New York audience and their brutal anti-Lita chants that constantly had me craning my neck (a totally effective subliminal technique) to try to figure out what exactly they were saying. The Natural Born Killers vibe I thought I was picking up with Lita and Kane last week was completely missing here, with Lita shifting back over into her trite "smug, badass chick" face act and Kane filling the role of the big, dumb big monster who gives chase to every fleeing female within eyeshot. Neither one of these girls knew what to do when the crowd took control of the segment, much like Bill Goldberg and Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XX, and were understandably nervous about the situation. They handled it as best they could, trudging forward with the original plan and looking really stupid in the process, as Trish tried to insinuate they were booing her and Lita's big statements were met with dead silence or boos.

And then Kane came out, prompting Lita to take Trish down (but not out) with her crutch and the women's champ to lead what has to have been the slowest high-speed pursuit since OJ and his white bronco. And! And! As if the segment hadn't already shot straight to hell, Viscera then arrived to kick off what looks to be a fresh feud for Kane. I guess the big red machine's fourth annual "WHY THE FUCK AM I WATCHING THIS" feud is upon us already. I mean... Kane vs. Viscera?! Are you serious? Is the promotion's ultimate goal still to entertain the fans?

But the glory wasn't finished just yet! We, the lucky home viewers, were then whisked away backstage to witness Viscera putting the moves on an obviously uninterested Trish. Wow. Just... wow. This went on for what felt like an eternity, nearly turned Trish face just from the sympathy of it all, and was really, really awkward. In a bad way. As if there's a good kind of awkward.

The tag title match was on next, in a futile attempt to rescue a show that was already several minutes into a full tailspin, and didn't manage to accomplish much. Tajiri and Regal didn't look comfortable with the fresh recruits, the storyline that led to their introduction was tacked on at the last possible moment and the new team's gimmick's been done to death. Nothing totally off-putting here, really, but nothing worth getting worked up over and certainly not anything that was going to single-handedly turn the show around. The Heartthrobs have a little more personality than we'll usually get out of somebody right out of the minors, but they've got nothing to set them apart in the ring. They're like a weird mesh of Too Much, (Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor's homophobic pre-gangsta gimmick) II Cool and Three Count (I swear, I didn't pick three teams with numbers in the first half of their names on purpose), without the same capabilities in the ring. Even Three Count's much-maligned original leader, Evan Karagias, had a better in-ring game than these two.

Hassan vs. Michaels was a paint-by-the-numbers affair and that isn't enough to get me excited about their upcoming tag team match for America. Muhammad's moveset is slowly expanding, which is nice to see, but this is something that should've been there before his big debut, not something that should be just now arriving, several months in. Of course, this one couldn't possibly have ended cleanly, so Daivari causes the DQ for little or no reason and the beatdown commences as the entire crowd simultaneously stands and looks at the entryway, expecting Hogan's imminent arrival. Sure enough, after what must've been deemed as appropriate dramatic tension, "Real American" finally blared across the speakers and the red and yellow goblin was there in living color. Funny, you'd think a guy who's concerned about his future tag team partner's health might be in a little bit of a hurry to get to the ring and stop his lynching, but not Hogan. Not only did he move at a Nash-esque pace on his way to the ring, but he actually took the time to pose and cup his ear, soaking up every last bit of adulation before turning his attention to the ring.

I'm sorry, I just couldn't get into this whole schpeel again. About two years ago, in the build to Hogan's match with Vince at WrestleMania XIX, (I believe) Hogan showed up on Smackdown and got a standing ovation that seemed to go on forever. Despite my own opinion about Hogan as a man, I thought it was a legitimately cool, memorable moment seeing as how it was the big man's last run with the company. I bought into the retro appeal of it, the genuine adoration the audience had for him, the tears that were welling up in his eyes. I loved the moment. Guess what... it's twenty six months later, and he's back for his latest farewell tour. Remember the build to his match at WrestleMania VIII? I do. I was there in person, and I distinctly remember the promos building up to it, where Hogan flat out said "this may very well be my last match." Vince even thanked the Hulkster on behalf of himself, his family and the fans as a whole. That was thirteen years ago, and they must've realized what a big appeal "one more match" had, even then. I've bought that old line time after time after time, and this time I'm just not feeling anything any more. I don't care if it really is Hogan's last run, I've said so many goodbyes to the man over the years that I'm pretty much deadened to the idea of a world without Hulkamania. Sure, it was cool seeing HBK completely flip out in the ring, to see these two company-supporting legends in the ring together for the first time, but it wasn't anything I'd deem to be worthy of the five solid minutes of posing and celebrating that followed. Did these two just win individual World Titles? Did they cure cancer? Did they save the world? So why were we treated to such an elaborate celebration?

Straight up, I'm through buying into this shit. Hogan can come and go as he pleases for all I care, he's killed the importance of his own farewell tour by hanging on well beyond the point of no return. Why would I be interested in watching a match that features a man who needs a weightlifting belt to keep his gut in check, a bionic knee to keep from completely collapsing in the entryway and a bandana to mask his leathery, wrinkled, bald scalp?

Chris Masters jumped the shark in his opening vignette. I think that's some kind of record. He hadn't even debuted yet and already his best days were behind him. I got nothing out of the clicheed "Masterlock Challenge" last night, and I still think the character sucks, the finisher sucks and the angle sucks. Why should I be pulling any punches?

Not even Chris Jericho and Shelton Benjamin could get it together last night, as Jericho belted out a super-corny rendition of "Shelton Benjamin is a Little Bitch" that initially drew a smile but eventually overstayed its welcome and made the whole segment feel like a bad joke. Even Benjamin was grinning like a gimp while Y2J was trying to insult him, which speaks volumes about how silly the idea was to begin with. The first half of their interaction in the Highlight Reel last week was very forced and uncomfortable, while the second half did a complete about-face and came across as really interesting and compelling. This week's segment was entirely forced and uncomfortable. It feels like they're letting two friends work together and they're both too timid to really cut loose on each other.

I was surprised to see Vince out there, strutting to the ring no less, although I did notice the long cut-away the cameras pulled when he got to the ring steps. It was almost long enough to make me think something had gone wrong again and he'd be cutting his promo from the floor. Christian and Tomko fared remarkably well opposite McMahon, who's seemed to make a habit out of imposing himself on rising midcarders over the last few years, and Tyson even pulled out some great comedic timing, frantically covering up Christian's mouth after Vince threatened to make him "Captain Unemployed." This was harmless fun, and probably the only wholly entertaining segment of the evening.

And, to cap things off, here comes that anticipated singles match between JR and Triple H. Hey, remember how I harped on a few paragraphs back about hating the Hogan return because we've seen it half a dozen times before? I'd make that same comparison to JR in the ring, except seeing the Oklahoman in the squared circle has NEVER been entertaining. The prospect of JR in action has always been a groan-inducing proposition, but up until this point we'd always been given some sort of last-minute reprieve or the beating has been kept short. This week, for whatever reason, we were 'treated' to an elongated beating, a blade job that I vocally predicted a full minute before it actually happened, the in-ring heroics of Jerry Lawler and a Batista run-in that could serve as a beautiful illustration of the term "anticlimactic" in any number of dictionaries. I don't even know where to begin.

Jim Ross should never be an active competitor in the ring. That much should be obvious. You'd think that, after a career comprised entirely of one-sided beatings, he'd manage to figure out how to fall down, bleed and grimace convincingly. Nope. Likewise, in the last three years, Jerry Lawler has gone over Al Snow, Raven and Val Venis, just to name a few, but when he went out to the ring to defend his buddy, Triple H tossed him out as an afterthought. I'm not bent out of shape about the King being treated as an over-the-hill old fart so much as I am pissed that Hunter's the only one on the show who's been able to handle him as such.

I'm going to quit before I get much more long winded... just rest assured that I'm about as disappointed in this week's RAW as I've ever been. At least the Katie Vick episode had a few matches worth watching before the infamous corpse-screwing. This episode didn't have even that mild luxury. Easily one of the most lackluster programs I've ever witnessed, which is made twice as sick when you realize they wasted one of the hottest crowds in the country in the holy land of Madison Square Garden. This should've been special, and it was a self-indulgent, mindless pile of steaming bullshit.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1.4

Monday, April 11, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 04/11/05

I didn't know Molly was released until I read John's writeup, checked WWE to make sure he wasn't making a joke (oh, cruel JC$, how you mock me) and then posted an intelligent response of "fuck me directly in my ass" on the thread that had already sprung up about it on the forums. So if I'm a little more bitter than usual this week, forgive me. Chances are, I won't be... but you never know what's gonna happen at this point of a writeup.

Of course, I can't make any promises about the opening match, seeing as how it involved Molly directly and served to end her four and a half year run with WWE flat on her back, jobbing to Christy Hemme of all people. Boy, am I thrilled about the prospect of another one of her running wild on the women's division by the time we reach 2006. I guess the dream was already over for the women's division when Jazz and Gail Kim hit the bricks last year, but the nails are pretty well completely buried into the casket now. Rushed match, with Molly and Trish covering for Christy's limitations whenever she was in there and Victoria continuing her year-long cold streak.

I liked the ongoing segments with Kane chasing Trish throughout the building as the night went on, and although I could've gone without the "cackling villains in love" segment between he and Lita that spelled it all out for us, I really don't mind the direction they're going with the angle from here. Lita and Kane really do seem to make a good faux Natural Born Killers kind of on-screen couple, and while that might be kind of strange to see at the moment, it could be something noteworthy if and when they're turned heel. Both characters have been painfully stale over the last few years, and any kind of mutual development like this is good to see.

Hunter's promo almost put me to sleep this week, (no, really... I faded in and out a couple times while he spoke) and marked a return to the same old "cocky (former) champ holding the keys to the kingdom" style I was hoping to god he'd abandoned with last week's unusually-fiery speech. God damn was this a boring promo... he really didn't make a single point to differentiate this message from those he'd been delivering for the last three months. If there's nothing new to say, why are you wasting my time?

That, of course, led to the on-the-spot handicap match, pitting Triple H against Rosey and the Hurricane, which was precisely what you'd expect upon reading the names of the participants. Hurricane looked a bit more motivated than usual tonight, and was bouncing around the ring like mad for Trips' offense, but I was having trouble buying their chances from the very get-go and nothing really happened to sway me from that way of thinking as the match progressed. I can't believe Helms worked "It's clobberin' time" into a serious wrestling promo. It sounded as hokey and retarded on-air as it looks on the page.

Cool to see the brief coverage of Benoit congratulating Batista backstage while the announcers hyped the rest of the night's action. These are the kind of shots I'd like to see more of, little interactions and conversations that you could believe two guys would have backstage at a wrestling show, that you could imagine a cameraman might be interested in filming. Give me something like this to set up every random backstage beat-down or storyline advancement, or to fill the screen while Lawler and JR are rambling on about something, and I'll be a much happier camper. Keeps the talent from seeming totally isolated from one another backstage.

Chris Masters still hasn't impressed me. Actually, between he and the jobber he was obliterating last night, I was twice as impressed with the jobber and his willingness to kill himself to make Masters' work look good. The jabroni put in twice the effort of the WWE-backed "star of the future" with the million dollar body and the fourteen cent moveset. If I had any confidence in the writers' abilities to take advantage of the one positive possibility inherent with an angle like this proposed Masterlock Challenge, I might find myself getting a little bit excited. As is, I remember their mishandling of the white boy challenge a little bit too clearly. How long until Goldberg makes a guest spot and blows a couple months' worth of build for a quick pop? Or Batista, maybe.

Besides, Kurt Angle's doing something very similar over on Smackdown with his gold medal challenge. Let's try to limit the rehashed gimmicks from the past to one at a time, please.

Michaels vs. Daivari was a nice little swerve that caught me off-guard, not to mention most of the live crowd considering the complete stunned silence that filled the place after the ref counted three. This was pretty much exactly the kind of match they needed to work, with Daivari catching HBK off guard with his speed and some high flying, then allowing his mild success to go to his head. When he tried to take advantage of his momentum by throwing some punches, Michaels (the visibly bigger man) absorbed them and quickly recaptured the driver's seat. I don't think this could've gone much longer without getting monotonous, and it revived my interest in the issue between Michaels and Hassan, so mission accomplished.

The Highlight Reel was in trouble early, with both guys coming off as extremely lame and forced on the stick, but once the gears finally started turning and they began hurling insults, it caught fire. Jericho's misdirected anger over the direction of his career and Benjamin's overabundance of confidence and willingness to defend his title on a regular basis could prove to be an interesting dynamic, and I loved the pull-apart that ended this first little run-in. This is the kind of thing Jericho should be using the Highlight Reel for more regularly. When Bischoff won't book him in a match he wants, just call the guy out in the ring, throw a few barbs and wait for him to request the match personally.

I'm glad the premise of a Hogan / Michaels tag team is a one night only kind of affair, because I can see that schtick getting old REALLY fast. Personally, I thought Michaels was going to pick Sergeant Slaughter when he started in on all the hyperbole about being a super-patriotic patriot of patriotic patriotism, but quickly wised up when it got to be obvious. It'll be interesting, I guess, to say the least... part of me wishes this was 1997 pre-born-again Shawn Michaels and not the one that's out there every week in 2005, though, just so I could see the fireworks.

Christian and Benoit surpassed even my expectations out there in what was effectively the night's true main event, which is saying something because I'm really high on both of these guys right now. It truly says something about the quality of the guys in the midcard right now that Benoit was able to work two different matches with with two different guys that told roughly the same story, but in the end were almost completely different. It would've been super easy to recycle a few spots from last week's match between Benoit and Edge, slip in a couple of transitions and replace the finish, but neither Benoit nor Christian opted for that route. Another exceptional show-saving match from the workhorses of the roster.

Batista fell flat on the stick again to close the show, and although he regained most of the lost heat by foiling Hunter's attempted pedigree and removing him from the ring, the whole experience was subsequently tripped up by Hunter's oddball request for a match with Jim Ross. I was just waiting for Maven to pop up on the Titan Tron to announce "Yeah... JRKO!!!" or Benoit to translate it as "Just Rhyno," so the bizarro-world experience could be complete, but it never happened. Seriously, why wouldn't Ross just burst out laughing after a proclamation like that, considering his contract presumably doesn't read "professional wrestler" and Hunter isn't the man in charge of such decisions? This can only end in tears.

Not a good showing this week at all, despite a concentrated effort from Benoit and Christian, with Edge providing some rare entertaining celebrity commentary. I liked where the HBK / Hassan thing was going until they mentioned the name "Hogan," and Jericho / Benjamin looks like it could be interesting, but that's pretty much it for the positives this week. Two quick squash matches, a poor women's tag, a few bad promos and an uninspiring bookend mean this was several marks below average.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.6

Monday, April 4, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 04/04/05

The RAW immediately following WrestleMania has almost grown a legacy all its own over the years. Usually there's a leftover surprise from 'Mania that they'll save for the next night, such as last year's announcement of the draft lottery. Goldberg and Sean Waltman both made a tremendous impact by debuting the night after WrestleMania. The episode is also used as a sort of indicator of which feuds really blew off the previous night and which were only getting warmed up. So it was interesting to see Hunter out there in the opening segment, telling us all about how he'd be challenging for the title at the next available opportunity.

Trips has had better promos, but he's had plenty worse. It was nice to see some genuine emotion coming out of his mouth for a change, rather than the usual mock anger or quasi-fright I'd been accustomed to. This week his attitude was so refreshingly different that I actually had to blink a couple times to make sure Hunter was the one speaking and they hadn't accidentally spliced in a promo from backstage. Of course, the dialogue was nothing new, but I'll take what I can get. This didn't feel like it went any longer than it needed to, but I'm a little confused about why they'd opt for this instead of a Batista celebration or something. Even an appearance here to rebut Hunter's comments and chase him off to the back would've sufficed. Weird logic to let Hunter go unchecked like that.

Fortunately, the RAW midcard was ready, willing and able to get the show back on the right track almost immediately in an unbelievable three-way dance for the Intercontinental Title. This was pretty much the definition of a hot opener, as Benjamin, Jericho and Christian came with something to prove and pulled out all the inventive spots they didn't have time for the previous night and then some. About halfway through this one, I caught myself staring with my mouth agape, shut it, and then caught myself doing it again a few minutes later. These guys just clicked together, worked in unique ways to punish the limbs they'd each injured in the ladder match at 'Mania and never seemed to slow down for a breath. I like that Benjamin went over in the end, too, on a spot that was both original and convincing. Even the replays couldn't kill the impact of that move, Jericho seemed to go nose-first right into the mat. One of the best three-ways I've seen since last year's Backlash main event. Just outstanding stuff, between three guys who only needed something to do with themselves.

The post-Undertaker promo from Randy Orton wasn't all that convincing, and felt really awkward and strangely apologetic. Orton had no passion or desire behind his words out there, unlike his promos the previous two weeks, and seemed like he was moping more than anything else. His transition from "I lost to the Undertaker last night" to "I want to fight Batista" was far from seamless, although it would make sense for him to try to overcompensate for his failure by immediately challenging the next best thing. It shouldn't have been a difficult thing to say, but Orton had trouble with it all the same. What may have been a tough thing to get across was why he's suddenly opposed to Batista's break from Evolution now that it's actually come to pass. Remember his passionate speech just after the Survivor Series, where he was basically begging and pleading with "The Animal" to drop the zeroes and get with the heroes.

The women's title segment was actually pretty well done, for a change. I haven't been all that crazy about Trish's heel run for the last six months or so, as she's basically regressed into a prissy valley girl heel that I don't find even remotely interesting, but she was ON last night. Challenging Christy to a rematch just so she could land a couple extra cheap shots and rub her nose in the WrestleMania match was a beautiful bit of storytelling, and taking advantage of Lita's natural reaction was the icing on the cake.

I thought the Hassan / Michaels segment ran a little long, especially considering we saw these guys together in singles action just last week. HBK wasn't in any kind of a groove on the stick and Hassan just covered the same ground he always does, so despite the beating and Shawn's nice "dead body" selling after the fact, this wasn't anything memorable.

Keeping the show's pace at hot-n-cold, Chris Benoit and Edge went out there to get things moving again with their simply outstanding singles match. Just a simple story, Edge working over Benoit's injured arm ruthlessly from start to finish, that these two pros managed to stretch over a fifteen minute match without repeating themselves or dragging their feet. This was exactly the kind of match that the Wolverine excels at playing the face in, the kind of fights that would get him instant appreciation and wholehearted support back in WCW, when he had less than no mic time to establish a bond with the audience. If you get the chance to check this one out again, take a listen to the support he got from the crowd upon his introduction and then compare it to the noise that same audience produced when he finally got the pinfall. He may not be the best at establishing himself vocally, but he's the best in the world at shaping a crowd's reaction with his body language and Edge was no slouch in this one, either. I loved the little hints Benoit kept throwing in that his arm was far less than 100%, like the variety of single-armed offense he introduced and the way Edge broke the formerly unbreakable crossface, because it relied heavily on that same previously-injured arm. Both of these guys came out of this one smelling like roses, Benoit for fighting through tremendous adversity and emerging victorious and Edge for getting the last laugh. Great, great upper midcard match between a former champion and a future one.

The Simon Dean / Maven / Austin segment wasn't anything I hadn't already seen before. Dean's done this exact same cheap heat setup each of the four or five times they've gone to the trouble of setting his little booth up in the ring, and every bit of his interaction with Austin was lifted straight out of the "must be physically provoked" chapter from Austin's co-GM story. I don't think Dean and Maven were really threatening to crack the main event any time soon, but with Stone Cold little more than a utility player at this point, I don't know what this was supposed to accomplish. I mean, one night earlier you've got Hogan out there no-selling chairshots and group beatings from Hassan and Daivari (which was so special it needed to be REPLAYED the next night) and now Austin's out there flattening both Maven and Simon Dean with absolutely no retaliation. Take a look around... they're drawing a pretty significant line between the stars of yesterday and the potential stars of tomorrow. It's like they aren't even in the same league. The waters get even muddier when you think about how Hassan and Daivari managed to oblierate Shawn Michaels earlier in the episode WITHOUT the aid of a chair. Sure, Michaels was selling the injuries he sustained during his match with Kurt Angle at the time, but Hogan's close to sixty years old and wearing a knee brace the size of a Mini Cooper.

Finally, in the last segment of the show, the new World Champ made his appearance, to surprisingly little fanfare. The poor guy didn't even get any pyro to celebrate his arrival before jumping right into a sincerely underwhelming singles match with former Evolution stable-mate Randy Orton. Just like in his promo earlier in the night, Orton looked severely unenthusiastic and uninspired in the ring. He laid down for the new champ within minutes, which caught me by surprise, injury or no, because this guy's a former champion himself. Not even David Arquette lost a match in that short an amount of time. Weird match that neither guy looked comfortable working, and didn't exactly get the big man's run at the top off on the best foot.

All in all, a strange night with a definite up and down rhythm permeating each segment. You'd get a great match or promo like the three way dance or the Benoit / Edge warzone, then it would be immediately followed up by something similarly deflating like the Orton promo or a senseless Austin beatdown. Fortunately, the matches got a lot more time than the promos and were almost universally outstanding. Good show, but not great.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.2

Saturday, April 2, 2005

The World's Greatest WWE Wrestlemania 21 Preview

Awwwww yeah, it's WrestleMania time again. Pro wrestling's last true holy grail in North America, now that NWA / WCW institutions like Starrcade and the Great American Bash are dead and gone (or, in the latter's case, nothing more than a name slapped onto a run-of-the-mill WWE PPV). In a sport that has always seemed to place more of an emphasis on the current flavor of the month than on its own history, it's remarkable to see a show like 'Mania still hanging around, twenty one years after its premiere. More than that, it's amazing to see it handled with such care and reverence every single year. It's a clicé to call this the Super Bowl of pro wrestling, but that's really the only thing even remotely comparable. And really, if you think about it, even the Super Bowl isn't an entirely appropriate comparison. It's like a weird blend of the regular season with the championship game. Or maybe it's more like three Super Bowl games and half a dozen playoff games all rolled into one. NFL Championship games have, in the past, been less than exhilarating experiences, and the same can be said for WWE Championship matches. What sets WrestleMania apart is the number of fail-safes in its arsenal. Even if the main event sucks balls, (like, say, Sid vs the Undertaker at WrestleMania XIII) it's got a whole roster of tremendously motivated athletes backing it up in the undercard (like Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at that same event). All the Super Bowl's got is a bunch of commercials, a trendy halftime show and the possibility for a streaker or a wardrobe malfunction or something.

Unfortunately, this year's event just hasn't captured my attention as well as in years past. Most of that is due to this year's 'Mania serving as a sort of transitional event, with names challenging for the federation's dual titles that haven't quite established themselves as well as the challengers in years past. Batista and John Cena, hot properties as they may be, just don't feel like the same caliber of athletes as Michaels, Benoit, Angle, Lesnar, Booker, Hunter, Rocky, Foley, the Big Show and Austin were. They don't feel as established, as ready... they just seem to be guys who were in the right place at the right time, Batista much moreso than Cena. Likewise, excepting the top non-title matches, the undercard seems underdeveloped and thrown together. Matches like the Guerrero / Mysterio face-off and the Ladder match will certainly deliver the goods in the ring, but lack the emotional tie I'm used to sharing with the card of a WrestleMania. I'm not saying this year's event is going to be on the same level as WM IX, but I'm also not expecting anything like a WM X7, and I'm taking it for granted that no main event, WrestleMania or not, will be able to match the way they ended the show last year.

Eddy Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio

A nice nod to the shared history between these two, the similar paths their careers have taken (Mexico and Japan, then ECW, then WCW and finally WWE) and the historic matches they put on back in WCW. Unfortunately, that's not being pushed as the real motivation behind the match in front of the cameras, so much as it is behind them... but I can honestly live with what they're giving us over the air, too. Chavo's been great as the devil on Eddie's shoulder recently, whispering into his ear and trying to convince him to return to his old ways while Mysterio, who will forever be a sympathetic face due to his size, remains oblivious. This story's actually been building for some time, if you'll remember the string of losses Eddie suffered, both in singles and in tag action, to Rey for the better part of two months before they teamed up and won the tag team titles
as a tandem.

Any excuse for Guerrero and Mysterio to cut loose together is a good one, and with the added motivation of the year's biggest card hanging over their heads, along with the potential for a prolonged feud not long after, I can't even begin to imagine what these two are capable of this Sunday. These are two undisputed legends of the ring, who have proven on several occasions in the past that their styles work magnificently together, as well as two of the more prominent faces on all of Smackdown. With Chavo thrown in to play the heel alongside Eddie's tweener and Rey's face, this could be something to really look forward to as the spring develops. I'm thinking a high profile loss is just what Guerrero needs to throw his world (and his ego) into turmoil right now.
Winner: Rey Mysterio

The Big Show vs. Akebono
Sumo Wrestling Match

I'm not too crazy about this one. Typically, if you take a worked sport and a legitimate sport and try to amalgamate them into some sort of new beast, the results are extremely ugly. Ali / Inoki should have taught promoters that. Brawl For All should've taught Vince McMahon that personally. But yet he's trying again this year, pitting the Big Show up against sumo wrestling legend Akebono in a sumo match on the big stage. This can end in one of three ways; a) Both guys shock the world and put on a genuinely entertaining, if worked, sumo match that shockingly doesn't involve the illegal use of Japanese salts. b) They work a legit sumo match, Big Show is completely outclassed, his knee blows out and he misses a year of action. c) They perform a worked shoot, Big Show loses the match, turns heel and goes on the warpath. Whichever path they take, Akebono's the winner. File this in the same category as the Mr. T / Roddy Piper boxing match and the Butterbean / Bart Gunn toughman fight.
Winner: Akebono

Trish Stratus vs. Christy Hemme
Women's Title Match

Hey, do you guys read the RRC? You do? Oh, that's right, what am I thinking? The RAW Review is the Oratory Award Winner for "Best TV Review," of course you read it every week. You read it religiously. So in your dedication to the RRC, you've probably already read my opinion of this match. Buuut... in fairness to the sad sacks that steer away from the green pastures of our television review team, I'll just go ahead and recap really quickly. Surprise, I'm not interested in the least. It was one thing when WWE was sending the active champion into the Playboy mansion and then elongating her reign to bump the issue's sales. It's something else entirely when they're picking and choosing the challengers for the year's biggest show based entirely on their willingness to disrobe for the infamous mag. Granted, there isn't much of a women's division left after the roster cuts pretty much obliterated it this past year, but I've gotta imagine they can do better than Christy in the challenger's slot. Or is there some unwritten rule I'm not aware of that says no two women can appear in consecutive WrestleMania Women's Title matches? With luck, this will be short and the bookers will resist the urge to hotshot the belt onto Christy's waist. But I'm not expecting any miracles.
Winner: Trish Stratus

Chris Jericho vs. Chris Benoit vs. Shelton Benjamin vs. Edge vs. Christian vs. Kane
First Annual Money in the Bank Ladder Match

Probably the toughest match on the card to predict, not to mention the one with the most potential. With the exception of Kane, who regressed in 2004 (both in the ring and in character) more than at any other point in his career, every one of these guys are coming off a phenomenal 52 weeks with no signs of slowing down if the stipulation is to be believed. Likewise, any one of these athletes could conceivably win the match without killing the credibility of the others. RAW's upper midcard has been that rock solid and competitive of late, with a balance of talent so well-managed that I'd even say it's on par with the women's division of late 2003. In that long-ago day and age, any one competitor could potentially win the World Title on any given night without shaking up the status quo one bit. The matches were that competitive, the athletes that well matched. Of course, we all know what became of that great division in the end, as overbooking and a swift de-emphasis took the wind out of the ladies' sales going into last year's WrestleMania and roster cuts all but smothered all hopes of resuscitation. But I'm not here to be pessimistic. At least not in this match writeup.

Edge and Christian are the obvious favorites, due to their experience and unparalleled success in similar situations, while Kane must also be considered a probability thanks to his huge size advantage and his perception as one of the two unstoppable monsters of RAW. Shelton Benjamin has the credibility of the Intercontinental Title on his side, while Chris Benoit just went toe-to-toe with the World Champion on RAW. Chris Jericho's the longshot, as he's been basically shut out of the main event since dropping the World Title to Triple H at WrestleMania X8, but the match was his idea and he's had some success in gimmick matches in the past as well. These guys have proven their ability to work together, both in one-on-one and various tag team / free-for-all situations, and there's no doubt in my mind this has the potential and the probability to steal the show from the more heavily promoted matches further up the card. I sincerely can't wait to see what kind of a ride they'll take us on. I'm going with Jericho, if just due to the amount of time he's been kept away from the main event, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Edge or Benoit walking away on top either.
Winner: Chris Jericho

Stone Cold Steve Austin & Roddy Piper
Piper's Pit

It'll be cool to see these guys out there together for the first time, but the novelty is beginning to wear off on each guy's big return(s) to WWE, Austin especially. There's only so many times you can push the same button before the fans start to get sick of it and while it's not quite to that point yet with Austin and Piper, I fear that it's getting close. The best thing they could possibly do here is just let these two legendary mouths verbally spar with one another for a good chunk of time before going into whatever SURPRISE INTERRUPTION they've planned and working from there. Part of me wants to think that it would be too obvious to involve Muhammad Hassan, that he couldn't possibly gain anything by cutting off an interview segment headed by two guys who haven't worked a match in years... but another part of me knows these bookers and their tendency to ignore future ramifications. So long as Piper and Austin haven't miraculously forgotten how to speak english, this should be entertaining at worst.

Randy Orton vs. The Undertaker

There've been bits and pieces of this build that I've really enjoyed and bits and pieces that I've absolutely loathed. I love the dynamic of the aging legend, defending his legacy against the young upstart who's made a name for himself by succeeding in nearly identical situations. I love Orton's "testicular fortitude" in calling out the Undertaker and vocally refusing to be intimidated by his bag of circus-like tricks. And I love the way they've used this match to softly, effectively turn Orton heel again, where his character is much more at home and effective. On the other hand, despite the big talk, Orton's fallen into the same cliched trap that caught each of the Taker's previous "deadman era" WrestleMania opponents. He's dove out of the ring and stared, jaw agape, as the ringposts caught fire and the arena lights went out... immediately going back on his promise to cut through the phenom's mystique and confront the man himself. It hasn't enhanced my anticipation of the match so much as it's killed Orton's momentum going in. If he'd stood tall and laughed off the phony lightning storms and pyrotechnics displays, he would've had the unique ability to claim he's never been intimidated by the old man's song and dance. He would have the mental higher ground to counter the Taker's undeniably impressive 12-0 record. Instead, all he's got is an empty promise, a weak hearted slap and a desperation RKO in his favor.

I'm not all that optimistic about this match's chances. Randy's been steadily improving in the ring for literally years now, but he's had a lot of great opponents to help him since he arrived on RAW. The Undertaker isn't going to be doing his ringwork any favors this Sunday, and I'd be really surprised to see him selling the effects of one of Orton's infamously aggressive chinlocks. Make no mistake about it, this is a huge test for the Legend Killer... if the match succeeds and he gives the crowd the impression that he hung with the bigger man from the beginning, it might just be the spark he needs to begin another climb to the top of the card. If it fails, however, if he looks completely out of place in there against the much larger opponent, I'd be surprised if we see him anywhere near the title picture again before WrestleMania 23.

This whole situation is ideal for young Randy. It's precisely the kind of win, the kind of notoriety, he needs to get up off his ass and start picking up the pieces of his failed face run. I've picked against the Undertaker at WrestleMania many times in the past, but I've never been quite as certain about doing so as I am this year. Orton needs the kind of rub this match can deliver.
Winner: Randy Orton

Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels

Easily the best build of the show, which shouldn't be much of a surprise to anyone who's seen the work these two have done individually in the past. They've both really brought their "A" game this month, and in so doing have crafted a feud that honestly feels like the epic it's being advertised as. Although I was a bit let down by the methods Kurt Angle employed in his quest to replicate HBK's entire career in four weeks, (I'd have to argue that much more of Michaels' impact came in the ring than the Olympian portrayed) the segments were far from weak and Angle more than made up for the lack of actual matches with some unthinkably good promos. Michaels has been stagnant as a face for well over a year now, but this feud has managed to force out a great deal of the fire that had been missing from his performances recently and I don't think he's about to let go of that quite yet when he gets to the ring this Sunday.

Simply put, this is the match I'm most excited about on this year's card, and with good reason. While I mentioned earlier that the six-man ladder match has the potential to surpass this one in terms of ringwork if a few things go right, there's no question involved with this one. It's going to deliver. The only question, really, is how long it'll go and just how good it'll get. With the possibility that this will be Kurt Angle's final match, (although recent rumors have claimed otherwise) I just can't imagine it being anything less than legendary. Both Angle and Michaels are well known for going out of their way to put over their opponents' offense, and I think that, combined with their combined drive to put on an excellent match every time their feet touch the canvas, will be more than enough to launch this one into the stratosphere. I'm going with Angle, if just because his character's spoken with that much more conviction over the preceding five weeks. Michaels has relied on his tried-and-true cocky, legendary, big show performer attitude while Angle has really amped it up over the last month. It's like he's got something to prove, and I'd like to think that's going to give him the advantage here.
Winner: Kurt Angle

John Cena vs. JBL
WWE Championship Match

There isn't a doubt in my mind that Cena's leaving this show as WWE Champion. Which, really, has been one of JBL's biggest strengths as champion from the very beginning. He's excelled at convincing the viewer that his reign as champion is on its last legs, and then miraculously overcoming all the odds to retain by the skin of his teeth. It's chapter one in the New York Times best seller "How to be a Heel Champion in Three Easy Steps," titled "always convince the audience of your fallibility." He's been a successful champ because he's constantly allowed his challengers to wield the advantage over him, giving fans the impression that, if they bought the upcoming PPV, they'd finally get to see him lose the gold. And it didn't hurt that he plays a great conceded prick that could get on your nerves with just a glance. The fact remains, however, that Cena's been put into a position where a loss at this point would be paralyzing.

I don't expect much out of the match, since neither guy is near the top of the roster in terms of ringwork, but I'll give credit where it's due; both have been working their asses off to improve on that weakness. The issue isn't a lack of effort so much as it is the lack of an well-versed ring technician to improvise should something go awry. I don't have a lot of faith in either of these guys were the ring ropes to snap or an errant blow were to knock the wind out of the other guy, and considering the fact that they're competing for the most prestigious belt on the program, that's quite a problem. In the rush to get this next generation up to speed and into the main event, I feel like an important step was missed in allowing the talent time to fully develop in the ring. It's a fact that sometimes great adversity breeds great ingenuity, and there's certainly the possibility that Cena will flower in the main event and silence the critics, but that's quite a gamble for a program that's struggling to compete as it is.
Winner: John Cena

Triple H vs. Batista
World Heavyweight Championship Match

As much as I enjoyed the tease of this feud just before and after the Royal Rumble, I can't honestly say I haven't been a little let down by its execution. Part of what made Batista so interesting in those weeks before the meltdown of Evolution was the way he defied the traditional big man role's negative stereotypes and embodied the positives. He was explosively powerful in the ring, but surprisingly well spoken backstage. He didn't fall into the same simple-minded traps that others of similar stature encountered in the past. He maintained an opinion of his own, even beside two overbearing personalities like Triple H and Ric Flair, and seemed to say what he felt, rather than what was expected of him. After the outstanding full turn that went down during the main event contract signing, a lot of that was lost. His comments didn't seem as off-the-cuff and witty as they once did, and instead came off a little forced. He was paired in the ring with guys like Gene Snitsky and Kane, who couldn't sell his offense as the spectacular, crippling, life-threatening variety it needed to be. And, while he never backed down from the remaining members of Evolution, he wasn't exactly taking the fight to them at all times, either. His character changed ever so slightly when he powerbombed Triple H through that table, and he lost a lot of traction as a result.

I'm a bit more confident in how these two will fare together in the ring than I am with the Smackdown Championship Match, if just because Triple H has had a very strong year in the ring and can fill the void that I'd mentioned in the Cena / JBL match. Hunter knows how to work, whether he's on offense or defense, and aside from Chris Benoit or Shawn Michaels, there isn't another man on the RAW roster that I'd rather have in the ring for a match of this importance. He knows how to pace a match, so Batista doesn't blow all of his high impact offense in the early goings but the fight doesn't drag, and he knows the right places to do the right things. This'll be good... not on the level of last year's main event, but good all the same. As for who's leaving with the belt... well, Batista just doesn't have a lot of options as champion, while Hunter's got a whole crop of hungry midcard talent that matches up with his style exceptionally well. They've done a fine job of building Batista as a believable challenger, but I just can't see Hunter losing this one cleanly.
Winner: Triple H


I'm afraid my intro may have been a little harsh on this year's card. It's not a bad lineup by any means, and in the scheme of things I'd rank its potential going in right around the middle of the pack, historically. It's most certainly a better card than WM2, WMIX and WM13, but it can't hold a candle to the potential (and eventual delivery) of WMIII, WMX7 or WMXX. It's right above WMXV and right below WMXIX, going in. A lot of guys are getting the chance of their lifetime at this year's event, and it'll be interesting to see who thrives off of the risk and who falters.
until next time, i remain