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.
Overall Score: 3.9