And right out of the gates, Bischoff made certain that the majority of tonight's emphasis was going to be on the workers involved with the Elimination Chamber match. I guess on second thought it's not really that big of a deal, since six guys are tied up in this one match and by the time RAW's next solo PPV comes around, only two of them are likely to still be involved. Regardless, they're still charging admission at NYR, both in person and over the airwaves, and to ignore the rest of the card while the main event's already set in stone leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There are more than a dozen guys backstage who aren't doing anything and could really use both the exposure and the opportunity to exceed the expectations with a brief feud and a longer-than-usual PPV blowoff, and it's a shame to see them remaining there despite this golden opportunity.
Enough. I'll bitch about that when John, Dave and I get together for the "World's Greatest" preview later in the week. While the midcard has been almost completely forgotten, the main event scene really has never been better. I've yet to complain about the slow rotation of Benoit, Jericho, Batista, Hunter, Orton and Edge in singles feuds with one another over the last year, and a big throwdown between the whole lot of them seems like a great way to wrap up last year's season and allow for a clean break into the new year. In addition, the stars' familiarity with one another and individual progression both as characters and as athletes is resulting in some damn fine television. Last week's race for the quickest pin not only enhanced the importance of the Elimination Chamber match, but also gave that episode of RAW a great competitive thread that's been missing for quite some time... and this week's episode followed in kind. Pairing off the six main eventers into singles matches not only produces some potentially excellent matchups, but also once again gives a subtle nod to the Elimination Chamber match this Sunday night. Everyone would naturally look for a decisive victory here, not just to incapacitate a potential opponent for the big match, but also to send a stern message to the others that they are not to be fucked with. By booking those three matches so early in the evening, Bischoff set a tone and pace for the evening that would've been almost perfect if the midcard hadn't already been so neglected over the last few weeks.
Right out of the gates, Benoit and Batista rushed out to face off with one another, in what turned into a sort of coming out party for Batista. Just in time for Sunday's big match, Evolution's enforcer turned in an excellent performance, not just in terms of technical proficiency, but also as a character. He's slightly shifted his in-ring persona from a traditional slow, stupid, powerful big man into a ferocious, easily-upset monster with more strength and volatility than he knows what to do with. For instance, once he'd done everything in his power to force Benoit to submit to a single-leg crab and the Crippler still refused to submit, Batista grew frustrated, grabbing his opponent's arm and slamming it repeatedly to the mat in a sort of simulated tap-out. When Benoit went to the top a bit prematurely and the big man caught him, he hit a crazy delayed fisherman's suplex that took the wind out of the Crippler's sails. When he's calm and collected, as he was for most of the match, Batista uses his strength wisely with impressive maneuvers that dish out the punishment without totally wearing him out in the process. When he's frustrated and angry, he makes mistakes, wastes energy and occasionally connects with something horrifyingly brutal. It's like a Jekyll and Hyde personality, only his body never shrinks and grows in proportion to his mind. This was an excellent way to further push Batista's personal agenda this Sunday night, and Benoit went out of his way to make sure it succeeded. Easily the best singles match I've ever seen out of Batista, great pacing, an intriguing story from both guys and an excellent finishing sequence that didn't kill the Wolverine's credibility just before the big match.
Backstage, Batista just couldn't stop kicking ass, as he basically wrested verbal control of Evolution from both Flair and Hunter, dangled it in front of their eyes and then gave it back with a snicker. This slow turn has been a dream to watch, as they just keep putting Batista with precisely the workers he needs to be around to make his segment(s) work. Though I hated them together when their association was first cemented, Flair and Hunter have really formed a great chemistry together, with Hunter easing into the role of the natural leader and Flair constantly on top of his game with the emotion, the body language, the facial expressions and the snide comments. This segment wouldn't have been nearly as important, nor as impressive, if Batista had unflinchingly stood up to any other tandem in the entire federation. Well done.
Oh, man, and then it's all followed up with another shitty Gene Snitsky interview. Worse still, he's being questioned by Maria, one of the half dozen Diva Search rejects that seem to be popping up all over the program these days. I've never understood what they see in Snitsky... the only thing he's done well consistently is waste my time.
Jericho and Edge followed that beauty up with the second match of the evening, which happened to be the second of the three major singles matches of the evening. I didn't really understand why they rushed this one out there so soon, instead of waiting until the top of the second hour and spacing the three matches out evenly. Scheduled as it was, the show wound up being really heavy during the opening hour and quite light throughout the second. As far as the match goes, I've seen better from both of them in the past, but that isn't to say it was a bad match by any stretch of the imagination. It seemed to drag out a teensy bit longer than was necessary, the commercial was badly timed and the finish was missing something. Like I said, not bad, but this wasn't the best match they've ever had together.
Not long after, Shelton Benjamin and Sylvain Grenier hit the ring, with Maven providing some surprise commentary alongside the King and JR. Maven's really starting to impress me by nailing this new heel character and losing all of the hesitation and bashful nature that made him so bland as a face. He's speaking his mind now, and while I'm not sure Shelton is the right foil for him at the moment, it's great to see a little bit of personality peeking through all the same. The match that happened to be going on while Maven was chatting away in the booth was pretty bad, honestly, likely the worst I've seen from Benjamin since he came to RAW, although I don't think he deserves the criticisms himself. Grenier stood out like a sore thumb here, miscommunicating on a set of spots near the end, falling on his ass while attempting a kip up and then forgetting to kick out of a false finish. When it rains it pours, I guess.
When the show returned from commercial, JR and the King were waiting for us in the squared circle, which meant... yep... it was time for the much-maligned "debate" between the RAW Broadcast Team and Muhammad Hassan. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, since the great majority of it actually did seem to resemble a serious debate, and neither side came across as overwhelmingly right or wrong. I know JR and the King were meant to be the voice of reason here, but when Hassan verbally tore them apart and Ross's only comeback was the old "Love it or leave it" line, I started to lean more toward Muhammad's point of view, if just because of the inherent stupidity of that crusty old line. There's a little American liberty that makes that statement completely null and void... it's called freedom of speech. You don't HAVE to love America to understand its potential, and you don't automatically loathe it just because you feel it could stand to be improved. I could seriously go on for hours about this, though, so I'll steer us back on course.
I'm enjoying Hassan's character, for many of the same reasons I enjoyed Teddy Long and D'Lo Brown's short run together near the end of D'Lo's WWE career. That pairing stood up to racism in America, which is still a legitimate, serious issue that I can honestly picture two grown men disagreeing over so fiercely that they feel there is no alternative but violence towards one another. I can say the same thing about Muhammad and Khosrow today; it's an issue that's being confronted all around the country, with individuals arguing passionately for each viewpoint. Unfortunately, the whole gimmick is being overshadowed by WWE's track record with previous gimmicks and storylines that had similar potential and ultimately failed because the bookers got cold feet. The only way this gimmick is going to work is if they stick to their guns and ride out the storm it's bound to generate, and I have no confidence in their ability to do that. But we'll see, I suppose. If it's handled correctly, this could be a big momentum-shifting storyline. If it isn't, well, c'est la vie. For right now, I'm really enjoying this character, his abilities on the mic and the audience's rabid reaction to the subject matter.
Oh yeah, and if you're vehemently opposed to the character as a whole, I'm curious; were you equally as outraged about Nikolai Volkoff, the Iron Shiek, Nikita Koloff and Boris Zukhov, back in the 80s? It's a very similar gimmick, but it stands out today because its surroundings are much less cartoony and it's being treated with a little more respect. Sure, at the end of the day Muhammad and Khosrow are heels and their primary goal is to make the audience scream for their blood. So what happens when one or both of them turn face without conceding their stances on this issue?
I'm beyond the point of concern for the women's division now, and have pretty much accepted the fact that things will never again be the way they were at this point in 2004, but that doesn't mean I've resigned myself to applauding matches like this week's Trish vs. Victoria workout. Not only have both lost the edgy characters that made them a big part of the division's heyday, but they seem to have lost some of their desire in the ring, as well. So let me get this straight... there are now four active competitors in the division, and it's been MONTHS since I've seen Molly or Victoria get a clean win. So, basically, until they start introducing failed Diva Search contestants to the mix, (and believe me, it's only a matter of time) the most competitive match we're probably going to get is this Sunday's title match between Trish and Lita. Ugh. This was uninspired at best, and didn't really mean anything when all was said and done.
Maintaining that theme, Christian and Eugene followed up with a match of their own that didn't quite meet my expectations. I know this is supposed to be getting me all antsy for their match this Sunday, when the tag titles are on the line, but it didn't. If anything, it showed be that Christian and Eugene don't mesh all that well together, and that neither guy is exactly thrilled about their spot on the card. The Steamboat fan in me liked seeing the double chickenwing submission Eugene pulled out, but that's about all I care to remember about this one.
Finally, the evening trudged across the finish line on the backs of Triple H and Randy Orton, who worked a surprisingly unspectacular main event, especially considering all the time and money they've invested in promoting these two as a big money-drawing rivalry. Nothing about this match thrilled me; I wasn't biting on the nearfalls, I didn't feel much tension in the air, and neither guy went out of his way to make me cheer or boo him. I was surprised to see Orton pick up the clean win, especially after all of the outside interference, but the bigwigs backstage couldn't have been happy with the way this one turned out. It felt like they were treading water at times, floating out in the open sea without much of an idea about where they wanted to go with it.
Basically, your opinion on the whole show really boils down to whether you liked the direction they took with Hassan's character or not, because I don't know how you can be opposed to Batista's work in the opening hour or in favor of Sylvain Grenier's horrific showing not long afterwards. For my money, this show started out extremely well, but sagged big time in the second hour and was missing a major league main event to bat cleanup after the outstanding debate segment had worked the crowd up into a frenzy. I can't wait to see the main event of Sunday's PPV, and I'm mildly interested in seeing how they handle Hassan's in-ring debut, but the rest of the card's looking extremely weak. The quality was there in several segments this week, ensuring an above-average grade from yours truly, but this could've been so much more than a low seven...
Overall Score: 7.1