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

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