Of course, this was all building to the inevitable RKO, which the live crowd spit all over. I complained about Orton's beating of his tweener GM last week, but now that I look back on it, I can see that it was merely the first seeds of his eventual heel turn being planted. I liked that this wasn't a total disrespect to Jake, as he got in probably twice as much offense as any of the other semi-retired legends who have suffered an RKO in the past, while at the same time it didn't kill Orton's momentum. He was caught off-guard by Roberts' sudden strike, almost driven into the mat by that famous DDT, but pulled a reversal out of his ass and flattened the old man at the last possible moment. A really strong opening segment that lent a little more legitimacy to the Undertaker's record at WrestleMania, and should've given Orton something to think about in the days before that contract signing on Smackdown. The Taker beat this guy twelve years ago, when the Snake was still in competitive shape and the deadman was still a rookie. If Jake could catch Orton by surprise today, well out of his prime, what does that say about the legend killer's chances at WrestleMania, where he faces an Undertaker who's still in ring shape?
The Christian / Tomko vs. Kane handicap match was about what I expected going in, if not better. I don't see how this puts Christian on any kind of level playing field going in, when every other guy in the ladder match has been built as a serious threat and a near-equal to the other men involved in the "money in the bank" six-way, but I guess we've still got a few weeks left to build him back up. If anything, that's been one of Christian's strengths as a character; he can get completely obliterated for a month running, then come out and have an unbelievable match with somebody like Randy Orton, Chris Jericho or Shelton Benjamin, and wind up just as hot as he was before, if not more so. I thought Tomko had blown Kane's knee out with that ugly running kick, since he slid right into it and Kane seemed to be favoring it for the rest of the match, but by the time he hit the chokeslam it was back to supporting most of his weight again.
Gene Snitsky looked like he fell into a mountain of fire-ants last night. Holy god, what a nasty collection of pimples and sores he's got covering his chest, face, shoulders, back, legs and hands. It's like he's a poster boy for signs of steroid abuse. And maybe it was his presence, maybe it was a change of character or maybe it was just a bad night, but Ric Flair was just terrible alongside Snitsky last night. His promos were forced and out of character, his words trailed off with no real meaning behind them, and he kept throwing in that nervous laugh when Batista showed up. It's weird to see the Nature Boy falter like that, but I guess even legends have bad nights here and there.
I really enjoyed the match between Edge and Shelton Benjamin, and both guys seem to have been on a real tear lately. I loved the hot opening they gave it, with Edge jump starting the fight, effectively cutting out the whole "feeling out" process that eats up the first five minutes of a match, and Benjamin almost heroically telling the ref to start the match despite his injuries. That's not something I'd like to see every week from this point forward, but it was cool to see a match thrown right into the fire for a change. Edge wound up looking like he had the better gameplan, as he knew Shelton would continue the match in his ongoing quest to prove himself as a deserving IC champion, (which is how they explained away his constant title defenses against, seemingly, every possible challenger on RAW over the last few months) while Benjamin showed a lot of heart and established himself as much more interesting face as a result. I've really enjoyed the way the Intercontinental Champ has been shaking up his moveset recently, allowing for regular reversals of his signature maneuvers (ie; his opponents are learning to duck his spin-kick, and to move out of the way of his Stinger Splash) and making up for them with an equally inventive counter-reversal. It's beginning to lend that much sought-after sense of unpredictability to his matches, and gives some added emphasis to those big moves if and when he does manage to connect with them.
This match told a great story at a neck-snapping pace, the two athletes involved worked their asses off, and I loved the finish. Additionally, I think that was the first time I can ever remember a heel winding up on the short end of the "ref's knocked out when you hit your finisher" stick, and I'm always one for a fresh take on something that's so overused. RAW's midcard is absolutely insane at the moment, and these guys are a big part of the reason.
The retro kick from the opening segment continued with the reunion of Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels as the Rockers, as they faced off against former champs and perennial fall guys La Resistance. It was really cool to see these two working together again, especially considering how long it really had been since the last time they hooked up, and it was obvious just how much fun they were having in there together. Marty looked a lot better than I'd expected, although those dropkicks had seen better days, and it was exciting to see him getting so completely into the moment, allowing the audience's growing enthusiasm affect his work positively. La Resistance worked well together again, with Conway clearly carrying the brunt of the load for his team, but wound up looking largely ineffective, since they spent most of the match on their backs. HBK and Jannetty looked like it had only been a couple of weeks since the last time they'd teamed up, as they slid right back into a few fluid double team maneuvers and tossed in that retro exit from the ring as a cherry on top. Not the best match I've ever seen, but you can't top the historical significance or the atmosphere that surrounded it. It was a little sad, though, when they both botched their simultaneous kip-ups.
The real story, though, is how huge Jannetty's match with Kurt Angle will now be this Thursday night. Previously, it came off as a little lame... the Olympic Champ calls out somebody from years and YEARS in HBK's past, toys with him and finishes him off. Whoopdeedoo. Now that Michaels and Marty have kissed and made up, it's likely to be that much more personal and intense when Kurt tears him to pieces this week on Smackdown. Great stuff... this feud is quickly becoming one of my favorites on either brand, and I'm extremely relieved they didn't kill the whole thing here by going the obvious route and turning Marty on Shawn.
I can't tell you how tight that Benoit / Triple H match really was. Between the constant flashbacks to last year (simultaneously reinforcing Benoit's chances and referencing a spot near the end of the match) and the big-show atmosphere both guys brought with them, this seemed almost destined to succeed even before the opening bell rang. If you can watch that opening staredown and tell me there's no money left in an ongoing feud between these two, you're missing some nerve endings or something. Hey, JR even made up for some continuity problems earlier in their rivalry, amending his previous statement that Hunter had never beaten Benoit and admitting that he merely hadn't beaten him "since Benoit returned to RAW." That's a little more historically accurate, while not taking away the weight of the statement itself. Hunter hadn't beaten Chris Benoit in years, and considering the Game's stranglehold on RAW during that time, that's still a pretty impressive fact.
The match was just a beauty from two masters, really. I loved the nods to previous encounters, like Benoit's reversing the pedigree multiple times (once into the crossface, in an exact repeat of the method he used to win the World Title) and the Game's eventual low-blow that led to the finish. I loved the strict characters both men stuck to, Benoit as the confident aggressor (I was in awe as he tried to lock in the crossface three or four times within the first five minutes) and Hunter as the spooked, backpedaling underdog. Most of all, I loved the time and free reign they were given to work the match with little outside interference, no ref bumps and nothing that felt overbooked. I've been constantly screaming for the writers to let the wrestlers do their jobs in the ring, and that's precisely what happened here. Benoit came out looking just as strong as ever, like a guy who could take the belt from Hunter any day of the week if given the opportunity, and Hunter finally managed to emerge one step ahead of the Crippler after a lengthy string of high-profile losses. This has the potential to become one of the all-time great rivalries, and the bookers aren't doing anything to ruin that possibility. Great, GREAT free TV match. I really can't gush enough about it.
It felt a little awkward to move from that to the "real" main event of Batista vs. Gene Snitsky, especially when Hunter came out to interfere only a few minutes after the bell had rung. You'd imagine the champ would be exhausted after a trial-by-fire the likes of which Benoit had put him through, but here he was, distributing chairs and attempting to intimidate Batista from the ringside area. I suppose the phrase "perception is reality" might be appropriate, as it's totally possible that Hunter would be putting on a tough face to convince his 'Mania opponent that he wasn't feeling a thing after a tough match with Benoit. But then I'd be reading too much into things. Throwing a slower-paced match like Batista / Snitsky into the main event slot after three super-hot matches had built the crowd into a frenzy was a tough spot for everyone involved, but I think they did as well as could be expected. I'm noticing the crowd support for Batista dissipating, which can't be a good thing as the build to WrestleMania goes into high gear, but I guess that goes hand in hand with his opponents of late. Somebody like Gene Snitsky isn't going to cover for his weaknesses nearly as well as somebody smaller like Rob Conway, and it doesn't look like they've learned any kind of lesson since they're booking him with Kane next week. A misstep of a main event in what was otherwise a phenomenally written and performed show.
What can I say? A great, mild retro theme that didn't get to be obnoxious or forced, two outstanding matches, one superb promo, a bucketful of build to the big WM21 and a reunion we never thought we'd get to see. The segments building to the women's title match, an off night for Ric Flair and the bizarre placement of the Batista / Snitsky match are the only things holding this episode down from perfection. I'm a little relieved to see RAW is finally getting serious about exciting me for WrestleMania.
Overall Score: 9.1