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.
Overall Score: 8.1