This week opened up with an outstanding six-man tag match pitting Benoit / Jericho / Michaels against Christian / Tomko / Edge. I know there's big-time history between Jericho and Christian, as well as an obvious current conflict between Edge and HBK, and I guess Benoit and Tomko weren't really doing anything, so they got thrown in to pad the numbers a little bit. Though it took a little while to get moving, this turned out to be a much better match than we usually get to see on TV. The heels were working together tremendously, reminding me of the old Minnesota Wrecking Crew by isolating Shawn Michaels early and always managing to clamp on a desperation ankle lock on the occasion that HBK gained a little momentum, keeping him away from his own corner and further exhausting him with each successive failed attempt. That kind of fluidity as a team makes sense, both for Edge and Christian (who worked together for years, achieving anything and everything they set their minds to) and for Christian and Tomko (who have been teaming together off and on for nearly nine months now, and should have a pretty firm grasp on each other's strengths and weaknesses). Unfortunately, whenever your team isolates a single member for that lengthy a period of time, there's always the potential for a backfire and I'm glad to see that when that inevitably happened, the end wasn't too far off. It makes sense for a guy who's rested since the opening bell to make short work of two or three guys who've been active the entire match. Great opener, with some really nice subtle storytelling when Edge and Shawn were in the ring together, and Tomko continues to slowly improve. I'm hoping this means they learned their lesson with Batista / Orton and understand the benefits of sticking a struggling rookie into a series of tag matches opposite any mix of Benoit, Jericho, Michaels, Flair, Edge, Christian and Hunter.
I wasn't a big fan of the JR Day ceremony when it went down, but in retrospect I can see what they accomplished with Evolution's involvement. What I still can't understand is why the wild, wacky, community-themed congratulatory segments that preceded Hunter's interruption went on for as long as they did. The fact that Oklahoma declared an honest-to-godness Jim Ross Day is nice and all, and I'll agree that some sort of acknowledgment was totally appropriate, but to go on and on about it for nearly ten minutes is almost inexcusable. I like JR, sure, but I'm not from Oklahoma City and the "hometown boy done good" aspect of this was lost on me, especially considering they run a segment exactly like this one every time the show's anywhere near the state. They've done so many of these, I think every possible end result has been covered three times over. JR's suffered a gruesome beating, he's made a defied all odds by holding his own and forcing the villains out of the ring, he's been embarrassed in front of his friends and family, and he's triumphantly returned to spite his enemies. About the only thing that would've surprised me about this segment was the possibility of hearing RAW's top PBP guy call the rest of the show in a high falsetto, selling the effects of Ric Flair's cowardly nut shot.
Like I mentioned above, Evolution's involvement here didn't bother me a bit, after I saw how it played out only moments later. Triple H and Flair were every bit the cocky high school quarterbacks here, and Batista all but called them out on it when they filled him in on what they'd done. This segment makes me wonder what the heels' conversations are like in the locker room after the show, when they're bragging about their actions and in the process of explaining to those who didn't see it, realize that what they did was actually pretty lame. "Yeah, and then I videotaped myself in a Kane mask having sex with a corpse! LOL! Wait..." One of those little things you always wonder about, I guess. The timing on this final dissolution of Evolution (I'm a poet, don't you know) has been outstanding thus far, and I can't applaud the bookers enough for not giving in to the potential of an immediate cheap pop and maintaining the slow pace of Batista's split from the group. The potential for his face turn has nearly ripened, and I can't wait to see the turns this story will take at the Royal Rumble.
I'd rather they didn't waste my time at all with the Tajiri / Viscera match. Seriously, there are ways to get a big man over as a legitimately monstrous opponent without allowing him to no-sell his opposition's big spots. I can understand the need to feed guys to Viscera, so it means something when he taps out to the crossface or nearly goes through the mat with a spinebuster, but this didn't really do that for me. I would honestly rather see Mark Henry in the ring than Viscera.
I had no problem with the way La Resistance was initially fed to Batista, as he caught both off-guard and pressed his advantage to the point that neither could've had much of an idea of where they were or what was going on. It actually said a lot about Batista's strategic mind in the ring and his ability to keep his opponents off-balance with a variety of dizzying power moves. Once his shoulder collided with that ringpost and the tag champs took over on offense, however, it was a completely different story. With both guys regaining their bearings and zeroing in on the big man's arm, Batista's struggle to regain control of the match, let alone to win the thing, should've been outrageous. Instead, he crouched on the mat for a couple seconds, forgot about the shoulder and showed off some more power moves. I guess the match accomplished what it set out to, but Conway and Grenier, along with everyone they've ever managed to defeat in the past, looked completely inept. Post-match, Batista "shoved the flag up his ass," which I guess could've been a lot more graphic than it was. The problem with a crazy patriotic spot like that is... people LIVE in Quebec, and they're going to remember this when Batista's a face and RAW rolls into town sometime later in the year. And JR will again write it off as just those crazy Canadians and their "bizarro world."
Muhammad Hassan finally participated in a halfway worthwhile match this week, working against poor Val Venis in a Royal Rumble qualifying match while Daivari (hah, I just typo'd and called him "Daria") screamed into the house mic. OK, on one hand that idea worked wonderfully, because the crowd grew more and more angry with the heels as the match progressed. It really got some heat into a match that probably would've struggled otherwise, and made Val's short-lived comeback into a rallying point for the home crowd. On the other, somebody's going to get the idea that this should become an ongoing part of the gimmick and it's gonna get old really quickly. Val looked decent, if extremely bland, in his annual televised RAW match and Hassan seems to have loosened some of the butterflies from his stomach in the ring. Not a bad segment at all, as the crowd was venomously opposed to Hassan and Daivari.
Man, they really must have little to no faith in Maven's abilities in the ring anymore, because they keep booking him into situations where he talks for an unusual amount of time, gets as little offense as possible and jobs as quickly as imaginable. Of course, one wouldn't expect him to have a chance in hell of claiming a Royal Rumble slot last night opposite Kane and Snitsky, and who tunes in on Monday nights to see surprises, anyway? This could've been an unexpectedly interesting segment that saw Snitsky or Kane screwing his arch-rival out of a spot in the Rumble and Maven picking up what scraps were thrown his way. Neither man was in danger of losing any of his precious credibility with the obvious injuries, and things could've become even more interesting if things escalated and Maven eventually wound up with both entries in the Rumble match, while Snitsky and Kane were left in the cold. No, but instead this time was better spent jobbing a new heel (which, in case you haven't noticed, is something RAW's kind of lacking at the moment) to a couple of monsters with no ties to him whatsoever. I'm far from Maven's biggest supporter, and doubt I ever will be, but is there even a reason to keep him employed if they're just going to toss him into slop like this?
Finally, the evening wrapped up with a singles match between former running buddies Randy Orton and Ric Flair, which felt like like two stock cars racing side by side with the cruise control set at forty. Neither guy looked particularly motivated to make this a special evening, especially with Orton's head such a mess coming in, and the match wound up being two guys hitting their usual maneuvers with half as much passion as usual. I liked the illusion of reality Orton's wound lent, as it opened up and started oozing blood almost immediately after Flair started throwing punches, but that's about the most remarkable thing I saw about this match. I loved where they were going with it, with Hunter setting his crosshairs directly on the back of Orton's leg and Flair, drooling at the prospect, immediately going to work in preparation for the figure four, but that didn't mean anything two minutes later, when Orton sprung to life and hit the RKO for the win. Not a bad match, really, but not up to snuff when compared to the last twelve months or so of show-closers.
Despite the hot opener, I liked last week's episode a bit better. A lot of this felt like filler, especially the JR Day celebration and the lengthy Austin press conference highlights, and that's precisely what I was afraid of going in. The stage is set for the big Batista turn, and it's do-or-die for Edge / Michaels, but I'm not all that thrilled about Orton / Hunter, and tonight didn't try to light much of a fire on that front. Most of tonight's matches were needless squashes and that, coupled with a few mediocre backstage segments, really drug down what was easily an above-average program.
Overall Score: 6.2