There was one memorable cultural difference I couldn't keep myself from laughing over last night, come to think of it. Every time they'd cut to a wide shot of the crowd, some sort of music was playing and the audience was almost exclusively clapping along with it. So instead of the usual mulling audience we see during these shots on the typical episode, the Japanese fans looked like automatons, all clapping at exactly the same time, all showing exactly the same amount of emotion. It's like the effect the Hypno-Toad had on the audience in an old episode of Futurama.
They stomped through the door this week, with Benoit and Jericho facing off in the opening bout after a hilarious bit of interaction between Bischoff, his Japanese interpreter and the audience. The interpreter's translation of "HBK" to "HKB," along with the crowd's amusingly ravenous hatred of him, made me wonder if he wasn't turning heel and cutting a promo on the local sports team, rather than simply repeating Bischoff's speech in his native tongue. Somebody has to have understood what he was saying, right? Was that just a trick to get the audience hot right off the bat?
Benoit and Jericho delivered exactly what you'd expect, and even though the match was shorter than I'd expected, I loved it to pieces. The moderately quick finish actually spoke volumes about the legitimacy of submission wrestling rather than the weakness of Jericho for losing the match. Benoit was the first to actually lock in a definitive submission for any memorable period of time, with his crossface near the end, and though Jericho managed to escape it by reaching the ropes, his shoulder was weakened enough that he had no choice but to tap out when Benoit went back to work on it moments later. The shoulder actually factored into the spot before the Crippler's match-winning "modified crossface," as Jericho attempted the Walls and his injured joint couldn't keep Benoit's foot from wriggling free. This wasn't what I was expecting, but the more I've thought about it and the more I've theorized it, the more I've really begun to appreciate it. Sometimes great things come in small packages.
Triple H's work promoting the eventual Batista turn have really taken a nosedive over the last couple of weeks. He's changed from a snide, self-centered, egotistical prick that audiences couldn't wait to see get what was coming to him, into a predictably bad liar, sucking up to Batista whenever possible and trying his damndest to make this "who played the Smackdown promo" storyline as obvious as humanly imaginable. The interest is starting to wane, and these clever allusions to a distant conflict somewhere down the line are starting to wear thin.
Batista's really starting to look like Goldberg part two, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, Goldberg became a household name based off of his impressive string of dominating victories, his undeniable charisma in the ring and his imposing physique... but he slowly became one-dimensional and ran out of fresh opponents to squash. And WCW had about twice the underutilized talent WWE has at the moment. Maven's taken some big steps forward, both in the ring and on the mic, and while I'd have to be a permanent resident in the crazy house to say he deserves a big role in the midcard, he certainly deserves more of a chance than this.
The Tag Title match was mostly fluff, and if it weren't for the violently hot crowd I don't think this would've been anything worth remembering. I like Regal and Tajiri, have for years now, but they weren't on the top of their games this week, despite the added incentive of winning the tag titles. The best thing about this match is it means we won't have to see quite as much of Sylvain Grenier over the next couple of weeks. I really don't think I've seen anyone more consistently inept and flavorless in the ring.
Flair and Michaels, on the other hand, put on one of their better singles matches that used the audience's interest in the participants to heighten the drama, rather than relying on it (coupled with a hometown title change) to carry a below-average match as the tag teams had. Michaels is really starting to make a habit of playing the desperate face in peril, as he seems to have been absorbing offense all month long, although I can't complain about that this week because it tied perfectly into the story Flair was trying to tell. These two obviously have a great feel for one another after a dozen meetings in the past, and have reached the point where they could just hop out there on auto-pilot and deliver a great match. I loved Flair's furious disassembly of HBK's leg, the audience's anticipation of the Nature Boy's signature spots (they erupted when Flair just GLANCED at the top rope) and Michaels' selling. My only qualm with the match itself was the finish, as Shawn completely forgot about the knee Flair had been obliterating all match, landed on it while delivering his top-rope elbow, pounded it into the mat for his kip-up and stood on it while hitting his sweet chin music. This could've easily gone another ten minutes at the steady, impressive pace it had maintained, and the leg should've folded on Shawn once or twice in high-impact situations like those.
What? They had a Diva "Fashion Show" last night? Yeah, I wasn't paying attention during that part of the airing. I guess I thought it was an extended "Axe" ad.
Edge busted out a very nice promo that did everything it needed to; focused the audience's attention on the upcoming World Title match, maintained consistency with his character's past and earned himself a little bit of validity as challenger. I've always wondered why they bother defending the belt on TV when the PPV ads are already running for that week's big WWE PPV event. I'm amazed it's taken this long for someone to mention that convincingly in a backstage interview. Good stuff from the Edgester, it's nice to see last week's stupid, contradictory interaction with Christy was a one-time deal.
Tyson Tomko's still showing signs of improvement, but he's not nearly to the point where I'd throw him into singles action against somebody like Randy Orton. Orton's decent, but not up to the task of carrying somebody like Tomko, and this match gave us a pretty good indication of that. It wasn't good, it wasn't bad, it just... was. I really like the groundwork they seem to be laying for a potential Christian / Orton faceoff at WrestleMania, however. That's a match I don't think we've ever seen before, between two guys on the cusp of becoming something excellent, and the build could be tremendous. Both are much better talkers than they are workers, although I wouldn't call either a slouch in the ring, and I think they could actually learn a thing or two about themselves in there under the brightest lights of 2005. The "Randy's Knocked Out" storyline isn't really bothering me yet, although I'm starting to wonder if getting a concussion is his equivalent to Hulking Up. Nobody should be winning consecutive matches with a supposed serious head injury, let alone performing a wild flipping pinning combination in the corner like Orton used at the end of this one.
I really liked most of the action in the Triple H / Edge match, and both guys seemed to be going out of their way to deliver something they've never done before. It's amazing how fresh a match can be, when you see two guys who have run through almost the exact same move sets for three straight years finally branch out and try something new. It was refreshing to see a match with no clear-cut crowd favorite, something that actually seemed to further emphasize each man's effort in the ring, and if it weren't for the goofy series of events that surrounded the finish I'd have called this a better match than Benoit / Jericho. This was such a nice, uncharacteristically free-flowing match, that the gimmicked interference at the end just stuck out like a sore thumb. Rather than worrying about his opponent, Edge's glance kept darting to the corner of the ring in anticipation of Batista's interference, and when the big man didn't get there precisely on time his spinebuster came off as awkwards and a lot less impressive than usual. The eventual outcome of this one was about the only really predictable spot of the night, and it sucked to end the show on that kind of note.
This felt like a much looser, less rigidly structured program than what I've become accustomed to over the last few years. The interview segments felt a lot more fluid and believable. The wrestling, aside from a few noteworthy exceptions, wasn't overbooked and felt unsupervised... as if, god forbid, they actually let these guys go out there and WORK, rather than paint by the numbers. This felt more like a sporting event and less like a TV drama, which was a welcome change of pace, and even though I didn't think as highly of it as the entirety of the forums seem to have, I still wholeheartedly enjoyed a lot of it.
Overall Score: 7.7