Monday, May 23, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/23/05

I was hoping WWE would perform some sort of minor miracle this week, delivering an outstanding episode for my final RAW Review contribution, but some dreams are meant to be left unfulfilled. RAW's been on a skid all month long, it would seem, with the Gold Rush tournament actually losing momentum after the surprise elimination of Triple H in the first round and the staggeringly stupid Viscera face turn / push. With a World Title match already booked and a rematch of last week's disappointing Benjamin / Jericho vs. Hassan / Daivari tag match in the cards, as well, this week's episode looked to be an improvement. At least on paper, that is.

The airing opened up with an otherworldly heel promo from the newly-united tandem of Edge and Lita, where the two lovebirds took the time to tell us how envious we were of them as individuals, not to mention the copious amounts of sex they've been having together. The addition of Lita has really helped to round Edge out, at least momentarily, and to fill in some of the gaps in his character, but on her own the former queen of extreme is just dreadful as a heel on the stick. I have trouble buying anything she says, because she's never varying the tone of her voice or her own emotions... whether she's announcing to the world that she's pregnant and about to marry the love of her life or spitting out insult after insult at her scorned lover just after siding with another man, her words are always delivered with a dry, cocky monotone. Half of her lines and reactions to the crowd's chants felt like they were carefully scripted days in advance, rather than something she came up with on the spur of the moment, but that could've had more to do with their delivery than anything else. Her heel character is basically the same as her face character, she just wears darker clothes and makes out with a bad guy now. And, while that's something I've been preaching about for years now, (the constant altering of a character from top to bottom upon a change of allegiance) Lita just wasn't that interesting to begin with.

This whole thing just felt like one big, long insider barb at Matt Hardy, though, as Lita was careful to rarely mention Kane by name as her previous beau, and to leave the jabs and insults open for the audience to fill in on their own. That anonymity made me squirm a bit on one or two occasions, though, so I suppose it's mission accomplished on that front. I guess WWE's botched dozens of ready-made feuds that were dropped in their laps in the past, why not try to make a run of it this time?

I got a laugh out of Bischoff making such bizarre requests of his backstage intern between matches. "Hey, I've got a great idea... what I need is for you to miraculously produce a wreath made of barbed wire with the ECW logo printed on it. My segment's in little under an hour, so you're going to have to work fast." And the dude responds like it's no big hassle. Where, exactly, does one go to procure a barbed wire wreath at 9:15 on a Monday night? I think Home Depot is usually sold out by then.

Hassan and Daivari were next in line, challenging Shelton Benjamin in what became a handicap match due to Chris Jericho's late arrival. This was actually an improvement from last week's straight-up tag match, but that's not to say it was really all that good. Chris Jericho carried the load for the team last week, and in a side-by-side comparison I'd say Benjamin put in twice the effort with his showing this week. Daivari looked both confused and awkward in the ring, botching more than one spot, but Shelton was quick to cover for him and then march right into the next sequence as though nothing had happened. Seriously, Khosrow has some decent offensive maneuvers and good speed, but if he's messing up a simple irish whip or arm drag, I've got to question his game. Hassan's beginning to develop into a solid load-carrier for the team, though, especially so opposite somebody like Jericho or Benjamin, so maybe all his little buddy needs is some extra development time between the ropes. This wasn't great, but it accomplished everything it needed to without killing anyone's momentum. I like Hassan and Daivari in the tag division.

Damn, Jericho was stylin' upon his arrival in Green Bay. This "rockstar sellout" thing they seem to be doing with him is a decidedly different flavor than his usual heel act, so I'm interested in seeing where he goes with it. He's needed a big character shift for years now.

I was surprised to see the Richards / Masters feud blown off so quickly and so decisively. "The Masterpiece" has obviously been working on his moveset during the months this Masterlock Challenge thing has eaten up, as he displayed much more of a personality during his match against Richards than he had upon his debut not all that long ago. He's focusing more on a heavy-hitting big man style than before, with those nice back-to-back-to-back backbreakers (damn, that sounds like the name of an MC from the early 90s or something) and he actually had the crowd interested for the first minute, minute and a half of his match, but had lost them again by the time it wrapped up. This quickie could turn out to be a godsend for him, as Richards seemed to have built some momentum coming in and Masters simply crushed him here, surprising the live crowd.

Grenier vs. Jericho followed that, and was just terrible in every sense of the word. Grenier was all over the place, falling against his own momentum more than once and testing out new moves in bizarre places, (was there really a call for a human fucking torture rack in the middle of this match?!?) and Jericho wasn't at his finest, either. If they're serious about moving forward with this split of La Resistance, Grenier needs to either head back to OVW for another year or receive his walking papers. This guy's been on RAW for more than two years and still looks like he's trying to figure out the very basics of working a match by himself. The ability to sing in French shouldn't be your sole claim to fame on a wrestling program, and this kid hasn't progressed in the slightest since his debut.

Eric Bischoff was in the ring when we returned from the commercial (With his beautiful ECW wreath in place! The intern came through!) and wasted little time, diving headfirst into a diatribe about his hatred for the defunct promotion and his determination to obliterate their chances once again. And, as if the screenshot hyping this segment weren't strange enough, (Eric Bischoff standing next to a casket with the letters "ECW" printed on it, as the Undertaker's old theme music played... just think about seeing something like that on television five years ago) out stamped Vince McMahon and Paul Heyman to completely send my "holy shit" meter off the charts. The three heads of the biggest wrestling promotions of the '90s, all standing in the same ring together, chatting about the good ol' days on live TV. I never, ever thought I'd see that.

As with any Heyman promo where he's given something to dig his teeth into and really cut loose with, this was just phenomenal stuff. McMahon and Bischoff didn't even need to say anything once Paulie had a mic in his hands; their visible bewilderment was more than enough. I was just waiting for Bischoff's complete disdain for everything ECW to pay off with a wild, open-palmed slap in the face courtesy of Paul Heyman, especially when he wouldn't even look the guy in the face halfway through the segment, but I guess they're saving that for the PPV. The "mad scientist," as JR put it, can still captivate me like no other.

Unfortunately, the Benoit / Tajiri "ECW Plug Match" that followed didn't get much of a chance to use the momentum that the previous segment had established. I loved most of the big spots here, especially the insane amount of mist that coated the Wolverine's body and that sick transition from a standard crossface into one utilizing the singapore cane, but there wasn't enough time to space them out adequately to maximize their impact. This would've been an outstanding match, given another ten minutes, but as it was it felt extremely rushed and spotty.

The sick one-two punch of that Kane interview, followed by the Viscera / Maria / Lilian / Coach affair, was just brutal. No two ways about it, I've gotta paraphrase Matt Spence here; watching that stretch of RAW was "like being kicked repeatedly in the groin by a mule." Kane looks to be doubling up on the shitty feuds this year, if this promo was any indication. Hey, WWE writers! Come over here for a second and let me explain something for you. I'm not tuning in to watch a psychologically scarred, half-chrome-domed, deranged individual in red spandex go through every emotion in the dictionary, seated backstage in a forbodingly-lit locker room all his own. I'm here to watch some wrestling and, if necessary, some backstage skits to heighten my enjoyment of the eventual matches. Imagine if PRIDE tried to stick Cro Cop or Emelianenko into a setting like that. Somehow, I don't think the buyrates would go up.

The Viscera song and dance once again managed to drag some serious laughter out of me, in a bizarre "why am I still laughing at this" kind of way. I think I probably could have made it through the segment without a smile until JR came out of left field, shouting "King, he's dancing and eating at the SAME TIME" in a deadpan. Still, my amusement with just how unbelievably bad these things are has been anchored by the knowledge that they'll continue long past the point where they've stopped being funny.

The World Title match was nothing special, with Batista running out of things to do a couple of minutes in and Edge slowing the pace while in control a bit more than I'd have liked. It wasn't particularly bad, really, and it's nice to see new faces in the main event, but these guys didn't bring their A-Games and the match suffered. Near the end, just before the ref bump, outside interference and foreign objects, (the holy trinity of poor booking, if you will...) both guys seemed to catch a second wind and turn it up a bit, but by then it was a case of too little, too late. Flair holding his own against the two guys who had his number last week, not to mention the number one contender for the World Title, was a little odd, as was the way Edge was pinned cleanly in the center of the ring when the match finally concluded. Post-match, the ring emptied, Batista and Flair had a little pow wow, and Hunter returned from the unemployment line to swing a sledgehammer around like a man possessed. Oh yeah, and Flair turned heel again, demobilizing the Champ with a low blow while Trips had him distracted. After all the times you've seen him do it, how do you stand there in the ring with Ric Flair, completely oblivious to the fact that he's right at crotch level and only a wild muscle spasm away from literally busting your balls? C'mon, Dave, you were in Evolution for nearly two years... you've seen the guy work. You know better than that.

Wow, this feud sure feels fresher now that they took those three weeks off from one another. I thought the point was for Hunter to let RAW fail in his absence, then come crawling back to him so he could return triumphantly and carry it on his back once again, but apparently I got the wrong message. After seeing identical situations with Orton and Goldberg in the last year and a half alone, I'm having trouble getting excited for this same old "Hunter mad, Hunter smash with sledgehammer" business this time.

This week's RAW continued the trend of slow, steady improvement from last week, and while there are lots of areas in need of improvement, the general feel of the program is getting better once again. If they could just cut out those ridiculous segments with Viscera and Kane, release Sylvain Grenier's worthless ass and give Paul Heyman a forum to voice his concerns on a semi-weekly basis, this show could be outta sight. As is, it's just a step below average.

I guess it's only fitting that my last RAW writeup should end with an untouchable Hunter standing tall as the program fades to black. Thanks for the memories, guys, and take good care of yourselves.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.6

Monday, May 16, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/16/05

After last week's heavy emphasis on vignettes, promos, backstage interactions and in-ring time-killers left little time for actual wrestling, (Viscera spent more time chewing on nachos and hitting on Lilian than was granted to half the night's matches) I can't say I was optimistic about RAW's direction heading into this week. None of the storylines were clicking for me, I wasn't all that thrilled about the names and faces being pushed, and I was losing hope for the once-glimmering Monday night product in the ring. Let's see what this week's episode had in mind as a suitable follow-up...

Incredibly, we kicked things off proper with a match, pitting Chris Jericho and Shelton Benjamin against their common enemies; Hassan and Daivari. Even more incredibly, the match actually got some time. Daivari and Jericho seemed to be carrying the brunt of the load for their teams this week, but weren't impressing me together. Khosrow is still hesitant between the ropes, which led to a few minor missteps, and Jericho seems to be wallowing in the pits of disinterest this month, because his usual effort just hasn't been there. The finish was convincing, if nothing else, but I don't think I can overstate how sick I am of seeing the heels win through cowardly, underhanded means every week while JR (or Michael Cole, depending on the program) screams "NO! My god, no! Not this way! Not this way!" Is a match on RAW really something worth getting that worked up over? Maybe if wins and losses were directly tied to a wrestler's progress up the ladder in the hunt for a title shot...

Not a bad showing, really, but nothing head-turning. It made for a decent opener at best, with Jericho showing signs of some much-needed character development after the fact. Strange how he was all up in arms about giving everything up for just one more chance at the title before his first round match in the Gold Rush tournament, and now he's telling Shelton Benjamin backstage about how he's got other pots on the stove and the title doesn't mean what it used to in his eyes. I'd be excited about a potential Y2J heel turn in the works if they could keep their story straight.

The whole series of events that led the camera from Benoit to Tajiri to Regal to Coach to Bischoff to Flair to Batista were extremely well-done last night, and while it did play out a little more theatrically than you'd expect, it wasn't exactly ninja cameramen and "private secrets" between two wrestlers and the million fans watching around the world. Everybody was soundly in-character and believable, from Benoit getting excited at the prospect of a unique match later in the night to Coach sprinting full-speed to Eric Bischoff's office so he could squeal on the superstars to Flair's fury over Bischoff's decision to Batista's attempts to make nice with the Nature Boy. It's really coincidental that everybody ran into each other at precisely the right moment, but I can learn to ignore that. And hey, they found the pre-WrestleMania Batista character whose loss I'd been lamenting over the last few weeks! Instead of cracking cheesy jokes, sucking up to the audience and wearing weird white uniforms, he was chilling out backstage, mocking his own inability to cut loose with a proper "WHOOO" and standing up for what he believes in out in the arena (which, interestingly enough, also coincides with the kicking of some serious ass.) Fun segment that furthered about half a dozen storylines in a single pass.

Moments later, Flair and Christian finally met in the squared circle, the end result of an outstanding mini-feud over the last month, and hit a few rough patches but came out OK in the end. Christian initially looked out of place out there with the living legend, but made up for it by selling his backhands as though they were razor blades and attempting to steal a page from the Nature Boy's book with a dirty finish. This felt more like a filler match thrown onto the card on a whim than the blowoff to a series of shared anxieties backstage, which is a shame, but at least it was kept competitive. Once you saw the two of them in the ring together, the difference in stature and confidence was daunting.

After the match, the heels attempted a beatdown on ol' Naitch, only to be taken to school by the World Heavyweight Champion, Batista. I really enjoyed this, and if you had a set of ears pointed at the television at the time, you'd agree that the live crowd did as well. This is precisely how they should be using the big man; short on words, but heavy on impact. He obliterated Tomko and Christian with power moves, involved the crowd with a few short, Goldbergian bursts of energy and excitement, and left the viewers at home with a few things to contemplate as far as his relationship with Ric Flair. I wish more face turns were handled this logically; Batista never quit respecting and admiring Flair for his contributions, both to the sport and to his own career, regardless of the fact that they had almost instantaneously become enemies when "the Animal" chose to challenge Triple H at WrestleMania. Now it's doing a great job of furthering the blur between heel and face in Flair's status, with Hunter momentarily out of the picture. Yeah, I got all of that without the champ even uttering a word on the subject. It's called subtlety, and it's refreshing to see in action for once. Gimme more, bookermen!

I like that they're carrying over Stevie Richards' involvement with "the Masterpiece," when I'm almost positive he wasn't meant to be more than just the first victim in the rookie's path prior to their initial meeting. It's become a ready-made rivalry, and it's nice to see that taken advantage of for a change, but at the end of the day this is still Chris Masters we're talking about. All of the sound storytelling in the world couldn't make this kid worthwhile in the ring right now.

The Benoit / Tajiri match was a decent way to build interest in the ECW PPV just around the corner, although I'm worried by the garbage cans and parking signs they stuck at ringside. Sure, there was an awful lot of garbage brawling in ECW's day, but that was usually anchored by some outstanding wrestling and some really quality storytelling in the end. Benoit, in particular, wasn't the kind of guy you'd see swinging cookie sheets, lighting things on fire and throwing opponents into barbed wire... he'd look to end the match quickly and decisively, but he'd go about doing so with a firm grasp of what makes a great match connect with the fans. What they showed us last night, in the three minutes or so that we got, was a series of unrelated spots, along with the tease of a huge, death-defying payoff that I seriously doubt they'll even come close to matching at the show itself. They're right in building this as something that the bigwigs don't want you to see, but they're giving the wrong impression by implying that ECW was all tables, highspots and "HOLY SHIT" moments.

And then, for no particular reason, there was a lingerie pillow fight. Nice, guys. Nice. It cracked me up to see JR and King calling this as though it were a legitimate competition, though. How long do you think we've got until they surprise us all with a "Lingerie Pillow Fight" World Title?

After that unforgettable technical classic, Viscera stamped a mean path down to the ring, intent on continuing his wooing of ring announcer Lilian Garcia. This was straight-up hallucinogenic. It got to the point where I was just howling in simultaneous pain and laughter from the pure bizarreness of it all. Seriously. A six hundred pound black man in an inhumanly large brown suit, with albino contacts, bleached blond hair, terrible dental hygiene and an unyielding appetite, reclining on a bed, surrounded by feathers, in the center of a wrestling ring, being cheered on by thousands of paying spectators as he croons to selections from Barry White's greatest hits and cracks the thinnest of sexual innuendoes to a woman one quarter his size. Holy crap, that was one of the most excruciating, mind wrenching, unbearably funny things I think I've ever seen. If this weren't a serious storyline on RAW, I'd send it directly to the comedy goldmine. But, sadly, it will continue.

The tag team titles were up for grabs, as Rosey and the Hurricane defended their gold against the combined powers of Simon Dean and Maven in a disappointing little clash that, I guess, was meant to let the crowd down a bit after the wild success of Viscera's love ballad, in time for the main event. If you were told to close your eyes and envision the kind of match that Simon Dean and Maven would put on with the Hurricane and Rosey with about five minutes to kill before the main event, this is almost exactly the kind of match you'd imagine. Very by-the-books stuff, with Stacey weakly shaking up the status quo by appearing at ringside. Why are these guys still wearing capes and cowls?

Out of nowhere, Randy Orton popped his head in the ring to let us all know he was still alive and to prompt the inevitable McMahon rebuttal by bringing up the draft lottery. Orton was strikingly smaller than at WrestleMania here which, as he was quick to tell us, was due to his shoulder surgery and subsequent time off from the gym. He didn't seem to have lost a step on the mic, which is relieving, and set about tearing into the crowd without remorse until Vince's music hit. The genetic jackhammer informed us that the draft would be taking place over the course of a full month of WWE programming, which sounds like a bad idea to me. Dragging out what was successful as a one-night attention grabber last year seems like it'll kill a lot of the appeal and result in some disappointed potential airing-by-airing viewers. I guess it's a little early to say, though, so I'll refrain from making any sort of final judgment until I see how they actually wind up handling it. It was nice to see both Orton and McMahon, who have been making themselves rare on TV since the big event, and they delivered a nice bit of verbal sparring together.

Finally, the last round of the Gold Rush tournament came and went, as Edge met Kane in a "which way will they decide to turn Lita on her 'husband'" match. That's right, a stipulation so special it needed two completely different sets of quotation marks. As I mentioned in last week's RRC, Kane hasn't been all that impressive over the last... well, the last year and a half... and this match didn't do anything to break him from that trend. Edge is a great talent when he's in there with somebody who knows how to show off his strengths and cover for his weaknesses, but he's not the first guy I'd choose if my task was involving Kane in an important, main event match with big-time ramifications. This was slow and plodding, with two spots that could've really helped to improve the televised match taking place during a commercial and glazed over in a rapid-fire instant replay orgy. The Lita turn was painfully obvious last week, and had begun to gather flies and vermin by the time the match actually took place at the end of this week's show. Of the two available choices, the right man went home with the win and the girl, I guess, so thank god for small miracles, but on the whole this was a disappointment.

A bizarre about-face for RAW this week, with matches that failed to deliver and were largely uninspiring, and backstage segments that were above and beyond my expectations. Well, aside from that whole Viscera / Lilian Garcia thing. Which was just.... yeah. A below-average broadcast once again, although there was some improvement from last week.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.9

Monday, May 9, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/09/05

This week's RAW opened up with a Triple H promo (good god, how many times do you think I've said that in the on-and-off six years I've been reviewing the show?) and surprised me by cutting right to the chase, bitching about his loss last week and claiming the whole idea of a tournament was bogus. I really liked the way Hunter included the front row ticketholders in this segment, teasing that he'd go off the deep end and start throwing punches, and allowing the camera to showcase just how much joy the fans had taken in his submission loss at the hands of Chris Benoit and Batista last week. This is something I've noticed him toying with in his promos over the last month or so, taking personal exception to the chants of the crowd, and I'd love to see more of it. Not only does it motivate people to head out to the arenas and see the shows, (and, conceivably, spring for ringside seats) but their excitement about being on-camera and their emotional responses make Hunter look like that much more of a hated individual and encourage chants from the rest of the stadium. A short, succinct, powerful and ultimately successful promo from the Game, eventually interrupted by World Champ Batista in a blindingly white suit.

"The Animal" really is a completely different creature than he was a month ago. While still a member of Evolution he was subtle, well-spoken, nicely dressed and explosively powerful. Now he's like a rock star. He's blatantly cracking jokes, pandering to the audience, standing up for himself without hesitation and wearing... stuff like that white suit. I'm not saying that I dislike his current character, because it's nice to see a confident, dominating face at the top of the heap for a change, but it's a pretty wild shift in direction all the same. Hunter's decision to walk off of RAW at the end of this segment made sense, given the amount of taunting he's taken in the last month alone and his legendary on-screen ego. It fits nicely into the conclusion of the Gold Rush tournament, too, as it's tough to buy a fresh face in the World Title scene with Hunter busy elsewhere on the card. His face has been that completely ingrained into the RAW title scene since the brand split.

Jericho and Daivari didn't fare too poorly together, and I'd bet they could've pushed out something worthwhile if given a little bit more time. Problem is, Y2J's been on such a bad streak of losses lately, he needed the convincing win here just to regain some of this last year's worth of lost momentum. Putting on a competitive match with somebody as far down the ladder as Daivari at this point would do more damage to Jericho than good to Khosrow. Daivari has the tools to become a solid worker in the ring, but still seems hesitant and uneasy in big situations. Then again, I can't say I wouldn't be equally nervous if my first matches in a WWE ring came against Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho, respectively. Nice to see Jericho worked in the legendary finish from his match with Juventud Guerrera way back in his WCW heyday, sitting down on an attempted top rope hurricanrana and cinching in the Liontamer, although it didn't look nearly as fluid and impressive this time around.

I like the idea of a La Resistance split, since Conway could use a singles push and a break from Grenier, while Sylvain himself could do with some dark matches against the Benoits, HBKs and Flairs of RAW while he tries to gain his bearings in the ring. If it worked for Randy Orton and Batista, it could work just as easily for him. It's a tough call at this point, though, since the bookers seem to have suddenly remembered the tag division and no other team on the active roster has their kind of credentials. Personally, I'd have rather seen Conway sent to the high profile singles slot on Smackdown during last year's draft, and Dupree left to tag with Dupree, his original partner. Conway was primed to explode at this point last year, and I can only imagine where he'd be right now if he'd been sent to feud with John Cena on Thursday nights instead of Rene.

I don't think I can find a better example of why Grenier needs some tutelage between the ropes than that match with Viscera. Grenier knows how to take a bump or two, but when it comes to keeping the audience interested and staying competitive without reverting to restholds, he's lost. To his credit, I don't think I've ever seen anyone put on a good match with Viscera, Benoit included, but I'd also never seen Viscera buttfuck anybody in the middle of a match, either, so I guess nothing's impossible. This match was nearly as long as Jericho's crushing of Daivari earlier in the card, and a little more than half as long as Conway's match with Shelton Benjamin later on the card, if that tells you anything about how serious they are about La Rez as singles. Post-match, Vis showed a little personality and (gasp) charisma(!), stealing a plant's nachos and hitting on Lilian Garcia. It's mildly entertaining, sure, but my conscience just keeps screaming about how I'm just gonna have to watch him wrestle again in the end.

What, exactly, is his gimmick supposed to be right now, anyway? Where does the vinyl trashbag suit, bleached mohawk, albino contacts and black lipstick meet up with the gyrations, midring "activities" and pickup lines?

Benoit vs. Kane was disappointing, and not just because of the finish. Kane's been unmotivated in the ring for months now, with no sign of letting up, and his performance here reeked of it. There was no pace or reasoning to this match, nobody felt comfortable taking control for any extended amount of time until the Crippler hit the rolling germans near the end of the match. It was just a lengthy string of punches, transitional moves, reversals, punches and big moves, like watching two boxers take turns throwing jabs, one after the other, for four minutes. Benoit was mildly selling the after effects of the storyline concussion he portrayed beautifully last week, but it was overly subtle and didn't factor into the finish of the match, and the final series didn't make any sense to me. Even if Benoit did feel responsible for knocking Lita off of her feet on the floor there, (which he shouldn't have, since he never made contact with her and Kane's lack of coordination is what made her hit the ground) what good it would have done to yank her arm until she was vertical again? When he broke Sabu's neck, did he roll out to the floor and start tugging at his opponent's wrist in a senseless effort to pull him back to his feet? A big let-down, both in terms of booking and performance, and nowhere near their Title match on PPV about a year ago.

Flair vs. Tomko was shorter than the Viscera match a few segments before, and utterly useless. Maybe if Christian had done something of consequence before being banned from ringside, I'd have seen this as a good momentum-builder for the fun little Flair / Christian feud they've had simmering for a couple of weeks. This was like joining a twenty minute match in progress, as Flair locked in the figure four at something like fifteen seconds and Tomko seemed ready to tap at just under half a minute. It's sad that they had to protect both guys by keeping the overall length so short here.

The whole segment with Stacey Keibler, "Droolin' Todd" Grisham, Simon Dean, Maven and the tag champs was straight out of the heyday of the Circus Era WWF. I almost expected Doink the Clown (post Matt Boone) to come out to the ring and spray people down with his lapel flower. This was seriously some of the worst cheap heat generation I've seen in years, with clean-cut, cookie cutter faces and heels going through the motions without remorse. Good thing all of the match times were cut in half so we could have time to squeeze this in, right alongside the John Cena music video!

Unlike Benoit and Kane, Conway and Benjamin were really starting to get into a groove out there last night, right up until the finish landed like a boulder from an airplane, killing the match at under three minutes. Honestly, what the fuck is the deal tonight? Was there some sort of ruling that came down without my knowledge, limiting accumulative match time for a two hour wrestling program to under half an hour? I'd love to see a rematch between these two, and I've got a feeling I will, sooner or later, but I can't compliment anybody on a match this short.

Finally, Shawn Michaels and Edge hit the ring for the second semifinal "Gold Rush" match, and I was almost sure HBK had blown out his knee on the entryway when trying to rise from his knees. In retrospect, it's evident that his wardrobe was caught in the ramp, which is why he threw his vest off so quickly, but I was sure he was favoring his left leg right up until the moment he hit the kip up without incident. Continuing the trend established by the preceding matches, this was rushed and unstructured, trying to tell a thirty minute story with a ten minute match, but the finish was outstanding and effective, so in a few weeks that's all you'll remember anyway. They were both trying, but it just wasn't happenin' here.

I don't know how I didn't realize it last week, but when this week's show started and they displayed the brackets, followed by that bizarre Kane / Lita segment backstage, I knew they were going with Kane vs. Edge in the finals and that Lita would be jumping sides. Kind of an underwhelming conclusion to a story they've been developing for nearly a year and a half now, but what can I say? It isn't often they get a hot gimmick dropped into their laps like this, so they may as well run with it if they want Edge to get the kind of heat he'll need to be a main eventer.

An almost universally poor episode of RAW. Matches were brutally short, almost to the point that I'd rather not have had them at all, they're burying Grenier and Conway before the body of La Resistance is even cold, the tournament matches didn't deliver, and there was an excess of filler throughout the broadcast. I can't endorse this.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3

Monday, May 2, 2005

WWE RAW Review: 05/02/05

I like the idea of a tournament to crown a new number one contender, especially considering it's a device that just about every other professional sport in the world today uses to decide their yearly championships. It's a nice system, in that there's always the chance for a surprise upset or two, and not everything is a foregone conclusion. There's a reason to watch each tier of competition, really. Can you imagine watching the NFL for four months when none of the games counted as much more than weekly exhibitions, as the champion and number one contender were arbitrarily decided beforehand? Of course, there's no Intercontinental Title or Tag Team Title in the National Football League (although there are divisional titles) but the ultimate goal is the same.

I'm still not sure how much I like Batista's new, more audience-friendly personality. His sudden tendency to crack jokes and break into a goofy smile in various backstage segments causes him to come off as an uncomfortable and uneasy champion, which isn't quite the image I'd imagine they want for him right now. He doesn't seem like the same killer that ran wild through the main event in the early months of 2005, but neither did Chris Benoit at this point last year. The little bit of intimidation he threw at Bischoff last night was particularly strange, since Bischoff had been handling such pressures and attempts at intimidation impressively since losing his hair to Eugene at Taboo Tuesday. He was standing up to Triple H's blunt threats later in the show, and had even been doing so when the Game was World Champion himself, but all of a sudden he's backing down from Batista? Strange...

It's tough to figure out where they're going with Christian right now. One minute, they're giving him the big opportunities to establish himself on the stick (where he's succeeding beyond all expectations) and it seems like a sure thing he'll be going to Smackdown to emerge as a fresh challenger to John Cena's WWE Title, but the next he's being crushed like an afterthought by Kane or Batista and tossed aside. This wasn't the match Christian needed to be fighting, and honestly I'm surprised they didn't put him in there with Triple H, to take advantage of the mild rub he got from Evolution last week, while the opportunity is still there. Both guys have had much better matches in the past, and I'm all set to climb aboard the "repackage Kane's boring ass" bandwagon.

Interesting new direction with the Hassan / Daivari storyline, as I'd always imagined it was Daivari pulling the strings behind the scenes, taking advantage of Muhammad's blind commitment to their cause, and not the other way around. I don't think they'll be moving forward with the full breakup for a while still, because the tandem still has a lot of potential together, but this provided some much-needed fresh direction to their partnership. If they play their cards right, (and avoid that infamous "flying carpet" finisher) Daivari could come out of this as a huge star, undoing all the stereotypical reinforcement the gimmick's done to American Arabs thus far.

I can feel my brain cells imploding right now, as I struggle with the question of how, exactly, Viscera is now supposed to be a face. Seriously, my eyes are starting to roll back into my head. He agreed to attack Kane, a face, (whose own turn is another issue entirely) because he wanted to "git wit" Trish, and when he failed to hold up his end of the bargain and Trish, in turn, refused to sleep with him, he beat the shit out of her and moved on to harass other ladies. I can't really blame the audience for reacting the way they have, because this is a largely chauvinistic demographic we're talking about, but I'm sure the writers had a pretty good idea of what they were doing here. This ain't Stone Cold Steve Austin's anti-hero badass we're talking about glorifying, it's a five hundred pound, talentless wanna-be rapist who doesn't respond well to hearing the word "no." With that said, Simon Dean's crazy bump near the end of the match did a pretty decent job of getting him over with the live crowd on its own.

You've gotta know I loved that Shelton Benjamin / Shawn Michaels match, and not just because of the actual work contained therein. This was a great surprise that I hadn't even considered when Benjamin got into the ring, and should go down in history as one of the few times Shawn Michaels has gone out of his way to really put a younger talent over in almost every possible meaning of the word. Although he did eventually wind up winning the match itself, it wasn't before he'd done everything in his power to establish Benjamin as a true World Title contender and a genuine force to be reckoned with in the very near future. He wasn't wrestling Shelton Benjamin, the guy who beat Triple H a few years ago and isn't nearly on his level just yet, he was wrestling a peer, and equal. I'm at a loss for words in describing just how solid this match really was, from the slow-paced opening moments that flawlessly set the stage for the wild five minutes of near-falls at the climax, to the insanely cool "everything you can do I can do better" double kip-up at the halfway point, to the incredible bits of body language that easily conveyed the feelings of frustration both guys were feeling after hitting almost everything in their arsenal and still failing to gain a three count. Shelton was as on here as he's ever been, timing everything precisely and pulling out a few of the insanely athletic new spots he's becoming known for, and Shawn was in rare form himself. There were some interesting parallels between these two that I was surprised JR and the King didn't mention on commentary (like Benjamin's previous association with HBK's recent nemesis, Kurt Angle, and both men's history with Chris Jericho) but I'd forgotten all about that a few minutes into the contest. And after that intense series of near-falls near the end, I thought there was no way they were going to be able to convincingly wrap it up... and holy shit, how wrong I was. That final spot was probably the most convincing finish I've ever seen, and it looked like the live crowd was in almost complete agreement. Seconds after Shawn had landed the pinfall, the cameras panned the audience and almost everyone was sharing the same open-mouthed, hands-on-the-head expression of pure shock and awe. It's great to see that a few guys still understand that, by getting your opponent over throughout the match as a major league competitor, you're also getting yourself over when you eventually score the decisive pinfall. These guys will meet again, and it'll be another classic.

After that instant-classic of a first round tournament match, I don't think I'd be alone in pitying the Hurricane, Rosey and La Resistance for having to follow it up. You could zap Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat through time from the late '80s and I don't think they'd have an easy time of capturing that audience's attention after that kind of a match, and the sorry state of the current tag team scene wasn't helping matters. I don't know about the Superheroes as champs quite yet, and this match didn't do much to convince me of the merit of that idea.

Chris Jericho and Edge met up in the third first-round tournament matchup of the night, and while they've had much better matches together in the past, I hardly think they deserved the loud "boring" chant that sprung up near the finish. I guess you can't spoil a crowd with a brilliant semi-main event at the one hour mark without suffering some of the consequences a little bit later on. Jericho looked confused at times out there, nearly getting himself counted out on one occasion and having trouble mounting much of an intelligent attack, but he was kept strong in the end by refusing to go down quietly. The briefcase shot that led to the end felt a bit hackneyed and unnecessary, and the end result here (combined with the backstage "I'd give it all up for one more chance to be champion" promo that preceded it) garnered some sympathy heat that's gonna make it hard to turn Jericho full heel any time soon.

Are they planning to, you know, innovate during these Masterlock™ Challenges at any point in the near future? And when I say I'm looking for innovation, I'm not really talking about changing up the prize he's offering to the live audience. Why would you call somebody up and push them so strongly if you're so completely embarrassed by their abilities in the ring that you've gotta protect them with incessant segments like these? The aim is to convince the fans to pay for his matches at some point, isn't it?

The main event of Benoit vs. Hunter wasn't the best they've ever had in terms of ringwork, but it worked well within the context of the story itself. I wondered if they were going to mention Benoit's KO from the previous night, and would've honestly been a bit disappointed if the match had gone down as if Backlash had never happened, and the Crippler's handicap changed the dynamic of this fight completely. Hunter's disgusted facial expression when Benoit's music hit told volumes, and Benoit's desire to grab an immediate advantage right away worked brilliantly in tandem with his eventual injury. He knew his head wasn't at 100% coming in, so rather than working the kind of slow, physically grueling match he's defeated Hunter with in the past, he moved in for the kill almost immediately, fearful that he'd never be able to regain control if his injury flared up. And, when the inevitable happened and Hunter took advantage of the handicap, the open-eyed, glazed-over expression Benoit fixed the camera with was seriously freaking me out. It's like he was looking into my soul, thinking it over, and then german suplexing it. Which, aside from totally scaring the hell out of me, also did a pretty good job of quickly establishing the basic story of the match. Benoit was too gutsy for his own good here, insanely deciding to hit the diving headbutt after suffering through a pronounced head injury the entire match, and looked like he really had no idea where he was from time to time. That made Batista's eventual run-in, which effectively saved his ass, a lot easier to swallow.

Honestly, the only way this tournament could've remained fresh was for a major upset to go down in the first round, and with Shawn Michaels, Edge and Kane already victorious, the duty fell to Hunter. And, even though it was Batista's interference who swung the momentum back into his favor, Benoit put the match away on his own (Trips wasn't quite close enough to grab the ropes when the champ pulled them away, so while it was a cool visual, that action didn't directly impact the outcome of the match) when Hunter realized he was in trouble now that the sides were evened. It was surprising at the time to see the clean submission, but in retrospect it was the right call and greatly improved my interest in the outcome of this "Gold Rush" tourney.

After last week's lame showing, it was great to see a return to form for RAW this week, featuring an outstanding Michaels / Benjamin match, the most recent in a series of superb Benoit / Triple H matches and some really solid storytelling elsewhere. This wasn't perfect, but it was a lot closer than the episode that aired seven days prior.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.1