Thursday, September 15, 2005

And now, wrestling.

Yes, wrestling. I said the tone was going to go precipitously downhill, didn't I?

The WWE is a profoundly frustrating organisation. It employs a lot of very talented performers. It also employs a lot of musclebound lunkheads. And it generally seems to have trouble telling them apart. They employ one of the best writers of TV wrestling shows in the business in Paul Heyman, but instead of having him write their TV shows, they sent him off to run the trainer league Ohio Valley Wrestling (which, despite the name, is in Kentucky). Meanwhile, the shows are written by Stephanie McMahon (because her dad owns the company) and a bunch of scriptwriters who mostly don't seem to have a clue what they're doing. Oh, and Triple H will be at the top of the card forever, because he's married to Stephanie. And the chairman of the board is a bodybuilder, who doesn't understand the appeal of anyone under 250 pounds.

Oh, and the company has some extremely questionable views on foreigners, women, and homosexuals.

And yet... despite this, decent performers still sign up to work for the biggest promotion in America, and decent matches sometimes ensue. But boy, you have to slog through a lot of crap to find them. Which brings us to the monthly exercise: Shall I Buy This Month's PPV?

For those of you who don't know how this works: the WWE has two weekly 2-hour shows, Raw and Smackdown. They split the roster in half a couple of years ago, so they're now both separate little mini-companies in their own right, with their own (increasingly meaningless) titles. Every month there is a Pay Per View. The economics of wrestling are that you use the TV show to set up matches for the PPV, and encourage people to buy it. Because people are more likely to buy a show if they care about the story. Ever since wrestling abandoned the last vestiges of pretence of being a real sport, the WWE's stories have become increasingly bizarre and elaborate, and generally far beyond the acting abilities of 90% of those involved. This, in itself, is often compellingly entertaining, albeit for entirely the wrong reasons.

Anyhow, this means that once the card has finally been announced, you sit down and decide whether it's worth buying. Sunday's show is Unforgiven, which is a Raw-only show, and it's actually on Sky Sports 3, so I get it anyway. But that's no reason not to go through the motions. Besides, some of this stuff is just so perversely stupid that I like writing about it anyway.

Let's start at the top of the card and work down. For those of you who really don't know anything about wrestling, a face is a goodie, a heel is a baddie. I'm sure you'll pick up the rest.

1. WWE Title: John Cena -v- Kurt Angle. Reigning champion John Cena, who's held the title since April, is a wrestling rapper, from the mean streets of West Newbury, Massachusetts. In fairness, this was originally conceived as a comedy midcard heel gimmick, the idea being that he was obviously the least hip-hop man in the world and had lost touch with reality. They were thinking Vanilla Ice. Unfortunately, Cena was so good in the role that the crowds started cheering him, and he's mutated into a strange, crowd-pleasing face, complete with ludicrous blinged-up customised title belt. He's also released a rap album, which was surprisingly decent by the standards of musical wrestlers. The hardcore fanbase have turned on Cena a bit since his face turn, since his material was much more imaginative as a heel, and he's an okay wrestler at best. And he doesn't seem to be getting any better. But the kids like him, so he's the champ.

Kurt Angle is a genuine Olympic gold medallist wrestler who, unusually, turned out to be a fantastic pro wrestler as well. In fact, he's one of the most talented and entertaining wrestlers of the last decade, both in terms of his matches and his self-righteous character (who still won't shut up about winning that medal, even though it was in 1996). He's getting a bit banged up with permanent injuries these days - he's had major neck surgery twice - but he's still one of the best guys on the roster.

It'll probably be a good match - despite Cena's limitations, he can be carried to a good match by a talented opponent, and Angle is the definition of a talented opponent. Cena's had the title for months and he's the sort of character who's more entertaining when he's chasing the belt, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if he loses on Sunday. On the other hand, Triple H must be due back from his holiday soon, and he'll probably want to win the title straight away, in which case Cena would have to retain (because Triple H is a heel, and he can't face Angle for the title, because that would be a heel-versus-heel match, and they never draw any money). Could go either way, depending on how long HHH is going to be out of circulation. Hopefully Angle wins.

2. Intercontinental Title: Carlito -v- Ric Flair. Yes, Ric Flair. Yes, the guy who was World Champion in 1981. Yes, he's still going. He's semi-retired, but he's still going. And unlike a lot of veterans who can't quite shake the bug, he's still mobile, and he still has the odd decent match. He's not the man he once was, but then he was one of the top guys of the 1980s, so he can fall a long way and still be very watchable. Plus, he's had the decency to drop back down into the midcard instead of facing men half his age for the main title.

Instead, Flair will be fighting for the Intercontinental Title, a sort of secondary singles title which used to make sense when it was treated as a really big deal, but has drifted over the years into a sort of "champion of the midcard" belt. The current champion is the gloriously obnoxious Carlito, a self-proclaimed icon of cool who has connected with the crowds by the simple device of taking a potentially awful gimmick and grafting a proper character onto it. By the way, Carlito's the heel here, even though Flair was a bad guy for most of his career. At this point, audiences just won't boo Flair - they respect him too much - and he's reluctantly settled into playing the face in the twilight of his career.

The problem with Carlito is that the character's great, but the wrestling's a bit vanilla. He also spent the last couple of months playing second-fiddle to Chris Jericho and not defending his title at all, which is no way to build up a champion, even a secondary one. Anyhow, Carlito really needs to get a good PPV match under his belt, to convince the audience that he's worth watching after the bell rings too. Flair will probably have a good match with him, and if they've got any sense, Carlito will retain.

3. WWE Tag Team Titles: The Hurricane & Rosey -v- Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch. The Hurricane and Rosey are superheroes. Cade and Murdoch are cowboys. Welcome to 1983. The superheroes are the champions, although nobody cares, because there are so few other teams for them to fight, and they've spent the last couple of months losing singles matches on a regular basis. Basically, the tag division has been appallingly written for at least two or three years now, and it's now at the stage where it needs desperate help if anyone's going to care about the belt again. Nobody in the WWE seems to have noticed this. (Except the wrestlers, but nobody listens to them.)

Cade and Murdoch debuted a couple of weeks ago. They're presumably meant to be heels because they only fight faces, but they haven't actually done anything very heelish. Quite why anyone's supposd to care about a cowboy gimmick in 2005 is something of a mystery. We're also all apparently supposed to have forgotten that Cade has already been around for years as Garrison Cade. But it's totally different this time, because he's wearing a hat. Hurricane and Cade are the best workers in the match - Murdoch is a 1970s throwback and Rosey is a big fat guy, albeit a fairly agile one. These teams fought on Raw a couple of weeks ago and it was nothing special. Conventional wisdom in these situations suggests that the newcomers will win the titles in a short match. By the way, although I'm listing this at the top because it's a title match, chances are it'll be way down near the bottom.

4. Shawn Michaels -v- Chris Masters. Yes, Shawn Michaels. Yes, the guy who was World Champion in 1996. Yes, he's still going (despite the supposedly career-ending injury which caused him to retire for a few years a while back). Yes, he's still calling himself the Heartbreak Kid. And yes, he's clearly far too old for that gimmick. But Michaels is still good enough to merit his place at the top of the card - he's another wrestler who can carry anyone to a passable match, as we saw last month, when he somehow managed to have a watchable match with Hulk Hogan, who has an artificial hip.

He'll need all that talent on Sunday, because he's wrestling Chris Masters, a useless great lump of a bodybuilder whose big signature move is the Full Nelson. The WWE love him, because he's a huge bodybuilder, and they think that's a good thing (even though he has the charisma of a recently-varnished plank, and bodybuilders tend to make dreadful wrestlers due to limited mobility and susceptibility to injury). The match won't be bad, but it'll be a miracle if Shawn can drag him much above average. Needless to say, Masters will be winning, because there's no earthly point to the match otherwise, and the loss won't do Michaels any harm with the fans.

5. Steel cage match: Edge -v- Matt Hardy. Ah. Yes. Now. This gets complicated. Where do I start?

Edge (Adam Copeland) and Matt Hardy used to be friends in real life. Matt's long-term girlfriend, Amy Dumas, also worked for the WWE as Lita. The WWE management had Edge marked for stardom, but didn't really get Matt (because his speaking style's a bit odd, by their standards, and he's a smaller guy), and had him marked as Midcard 4 Life. A few months back, Matt took a few months off to recover from knee surgery. Since Lita was still on the road working, Matt gave her his blessing to travel with Edge instead. After all, Edge was a good friend, and besides, he was married. You can probably see where this is heading, can't you?

After Lita dumped him for Edge (who duly left his wife), Matt vented his feelings at length on his website. This was a very ill-advised move, because the WWE promptly decided he was surplus to requirements and fired him. All of the above, I'll remind you, is not the storyline (which, at this point, had Lita in a forced marriage with Kane - don't ask).

Once word of this leaked out, fans turned violently against Edge and Lita. This wasn't a big problem for Edge, who was playing a heel anyway, but caused real problems for Lita, who was meant to be a face but was being booed out of the building in a lot of venues. So eventually they gave up, turned Lita heel, and put her with Edge on TV as well, with Kane being quietly shunted out of storylines. Still the crowds didn't shut up, and eventually the WWE gave up and re-hired Matt Hardy. After all, if the crowd was that worked up about this story, they'd pay money to see Matt Hardy versus Edge, right?


Well, yes, but through a combination of incompetence and internal politics, that's not how it turned out. What we have, in theory, is a feud where Matt Hardy keeps getting beaten down but bravely comes back for more. What we have, in reality, is a feud where Matt Hardy gets the shit kicked out of him at every turn. Their first PPV match, last month, ended after five minutes when the referee stopped the match on the grounds that Edge had beaten Matt so badly that he was unable to continue. One good TV match has somewhat rekindled interest in this story, but basically the writers have done everything in their power to kill it stone dead - an outcome which benefits absolutely nobody.

Matt and Edge are capable of having a very good match. Whether they'll get to do one or not depends on whether somebody has another smartarse brainwave and decides Matt needs to get his head kicked in yet again. At the very least, Matt needs to dominate this match and get screwed out of the win, in order to establish that he can beat Edge. But many in the WWE appear to see him as an uppity little shit who needs to be taught a lesson, having committed the ultimate crime of not doing as he was told. And something tells me he'll be getting taught another lesson on Sunday. But maybe they've finally wised up.

6. The Big Show -v- Gene Snitsky. Guaranteed to be awful. There's no real point to this match - it exists because the writers belatedly noticed that they'd brought the giant wrestler Big Show over from Smackdown a month or so back and done nothing with him, so they ought to get him into the PPV somehow. His opponent is Gene Snitsky, a slightly smaller and far less talented big guy whose role in life is to lose to people higher up the card than him. (Big Show has good matches from time to time. Snitsky doesn't.) It'll be two large men punching one another, and the best that can be hoped for is that it might be short.

7. Shelton Benjamin -v- Kerwin White. Or "Hey, we created this Kerwin White character a month back, and we'd better do something with him." Kerwin is a bizarre repackaging of long-serving Latino wrestler Chavo Guerrero, the idea being that he's inexplicably decided that he'll do better in life as a white middle class guy. Unfortunately, Chavo's idea of the white middle classes is stuck somewhere in 1956. I'm in a tiny minority in finding this idea perversely entertaining, although the catchphrase "If it's not White, it's not right" is alarmingly misconceived on every level. But how can you dislike a character with entrance music like this?

Shelton Benjamin, his opponent, was the previous Intercontinental Champion, and a solid in-ring performer who needs a bit of work on the spoken side of things. He's seen, probably correctly, as a big prospect for the future. Nonetheless, he's not the guy trying to establish a new gimmick here, so common sense says he'll be losing. Shelton and Chavo/Kerwin are both talented and agile wrestlers who could have an excellent, technical, fast-paced match, but something tells me Chavo will spend the match stalling and doing comedy spots in an attempt to sell his character. This might also be entertaining, in a way.

8. Trish Stratus & Ashley Massaro -v- Torrie Wilson & Victoria. Meet the Women's Division. They fired most of the women who could actually wrestle last year, and then Trish, the women's champion, promptly got knocked out of action with an injury. And Lita's been tied up in the Edge/Matt storyline. All of which has left Victoria, the only other proper female wrestler still on the roster, to sit in the back and dream of better days.

This is Trish's return match following her injury. For the avoidance of doubt, we approve of Trish Stratus, because she was hired as yet another generic blonde bimbo, could have coasted on that until time caught up with her, and still insisted on learning to wrestle properly. And she's pretty good. We approve of such things. Victoria's not bad either, and the two of them could have a good match. Unfortunately, the WWE has just finished this year's ludicrous Diva Search competition, in which an assortment of bored models compete to win a job of unspecified description. Last year's winner, Christy Hemme, is now on Smackdown, and at least had a bit of charisma. God only knows what they're going to do with Ashley Massaro, a woman of no discernible talent besides the ability to look good in a dress. She wrestled Torrie Wilson, another very occasional wrestler, on Raw last week, and it was fucking awful, amateur hour stuff - to the point where the crowd turned on them badly, and started booing them as performers, rather than as characters. Which is unfair on Ashley, actually - it's not her fault that some idiot decided to make her wrestle a match on TV after a fortnight's training, and she was trying her best.

None of which alters the fact that she can't wrestle in the slightest, and the moment she steps into the ring, this match will be abominable. Basically, with Trish and Victoria, it'll be good. With Trish and Torrie, it'll be just about tolerable. And with Ashley and anyone, and it'll be embarrassing. But the point of the match is to get the Diva Search winner onto the PPV, so she's got to tag in, and... it hurts just to think about it.

So... worth buying? Cena/Angle will probably be pretty good. Carlito/Flair and Michaels/Masters will probably be okay-to-good. We've seen the tag match on Raw and it was nothing special. Big Show and the women's match are sure to be awful. The wildcards are Benjamin/White (which could be good but will probably be at the bottom of the card and won't get much time), and Matt/Edge (which could be very good but is likely to be hobbled by inept writing again). There's only two matches here with really high potential, and I've got no confidence in them to write Matt/Edge properly. So, no, I probably wouldn't bother with this if it wasn't on Sky Sports 3. But I get it as part of my regular package, so we'll find out on Monday whether I'm judging right...