Saturday, October 29, 2005

Taboo Tuesday 2005

More wrestling! We're back with Raw this time, so prepare yourselves for the annual trainwreck.

Those of you who don't follow wrestling are probably thinking "Taboo Tuesday? What the hell kind of godawful name for a show is that?" Rest assured that everyone who does follow wrestling has been asking exactly the same thing. Even in an industry where Wrestlemania and Summerslam are considered good, solid names for pay per views, Taboo Tuesday is remarkably bad.

In fact, virtually everything about this show is either dizzyingly bizarre, self-evidently absurd, or probably disastrous. But this one's on Sky Sports in the UK, so I get to see it anyway.

TT is a gimmick show, which they tried for the first time last year. It stands out from the rest of the WWE shows for two reasons. First, it's on a Tuesday, instead of the usual Sunday. This is stupid. It's stupid because it means that on the west coast, the show starts at 5pm on a weekday, so in order to catch the whole thing you'd have to leave work early. Of course, there's always the replay, but that's not really the point.

Second, it's "interactive." What this means is that, for every match, is having a public vote to determine either the wrestlers or the stipulations. The winners of that vote will be announced on the show itself. At first glance this sounds mildly amusing, but the problem is that they're asking fans to buy the PPV on the strength of an unknown line-up. And, you know, it's a lot of money for a mystery main event.

The cynics among you may be wondering whether the WWE actually bothers following the results. Strangely enough, the answer seems to be yes. That's why last year's show was headlined by Shawn Michaels with a serious leg injury (one of the weirdest main events I've ever seen, as Michaels proved that he really can have a good match on literally one leg), and why many of this year's votes are either irrelevant or idiot-proof, meaning that either it doesn't matter what you vote for, or it's so predictable that they're not too worried about it going off the rails. All of which, of course, only serves to undermine what value the gimmick has in the first place.

Last year's show was a commercial disaster, drawing the lowest buyrate in the history of WWE pay per views. But WWE chairman Vince McMahon hates admitting defeat, and so he's perversely determined to prove that this time round, it'll work. To that end, we have potentially interesting feuds being rushed into a match before they're ready, and major semi-retired wrestlers being brought back for strange, throwaway matches. It's a damned weird show, from top to bottom.

The card:-

1. WWE Championship: John Cena -v- Kurt Angle -v- TBA. Cena has held the title since March, more on a wave of popularity than because of the strength of his matches. Even then, he's still plagued by the problem that hardcore fans don't particularly like the guy, and feel he isn't good enough to be headlining shows. Consequently, there's often a noticeable undercurrent in the crowds cheering for his opponent - especially when it's somebody as talented as Kurt Angle. These two already fought on the last show, when Angle won by DQ to set up a rematch. (Titles don't change hands on a disqualification.) It was a surprisingly good match, largely because Angle is so talented that he can still put on a good show even with a rather average performer like Cena.

Simply letting the fans vote on a challenger wouldn't work because, as we found out last year, they have an irritating habit of voting for the good guys, and the WWE would rather have Cena fighting a villain. On top of that, John Cena improvising a match with a lesser talent would not be a pretty sight. So Angle gets his shot automatically, and instead the vote is for the third guy in a three-way match.

The voting options are Shawn Michaels, the Big Show and Kane. Michaels was world champion in the mid-nineties but has made a surprisingly effective comeback in the last few years to put on a string of good matches. He's forty now, but unlike a lot of veterans still hanging around in wrestling, Michaels still entirely deserves his place at the top of the card. He's been using that horrible music for about fifteen years now, but the fans kind of expect it.

Big Show and Kane are really just there to be credible enough to make it seem like a real contest, without actually posing a real threat of winning. Big Show is a genuine giant, thanks to the wonders of acromegaly, who was WWF and WCW champion for a while before settling into a comfortable existence as a roadblock in the midcard. Historically, giant wrestlers tend to be huge immobile lugs who can do very little. In comparison, Big Show is surprisingly mobile for such a huge man, and can have good matches when he's motivated. The operative phrase being "when he's motivated."

Kane is another big guy (but just a normal big guy) who's currently stuck in continuity hell after an entire storyline about him marrying Lita was thrown out the window in order to clear the way for Edge and Matt Hardy's feud. In fact, Kane's whole character is a bit of a mess - suffice to say he's meant to be the Undertaker's younger brother, and slightly disturbed. Complicating matters further, he suffered a serious back injury at a house show this week and he's probably out of action. Look for a last-minute substitution on Raw on Monday.

Cena, Angle and HBK - the likely match - would probably be very good. The other two options would be shaky. Angle can carry one average wrestler to a good match, but two at once is pushing it. Given the WWE's insistence on getting Angle into the match, and their determination to make this seem like an important show, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he won the title.

2. World Tag Team Championship: Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch -v- TBA. You can see where this is heading, can't you? Actually, there's no separate vote for this one - the two wrestlers who lose the vote for the World Title match get a shot at the Tag Team Titles instead. This is strange booking, because it's the first major title defence for Cade and Murdoch, the evil cowboys, since they won the titles last month. It would kill the characters if they lost the belts now, but equally it's hard to imagine the WWE letting them beat any of the possible opponents. The likely match is that they take on the two big guys, which will probably be awful. The usual result where neither team can afford to lose is a DQ finish, but in this case it's also possible that Kane and the Big Show turn on one another to set up a feud (and boy, that's not going to lead to any match I want to see).

3. Women's Title, Battle Royal: Trish Stratus -v- Victoria -v- Ashley Massaro -v- Mickie James -v- Candice Michelle -v- Torrie Wilson -v- Maria Kanellis. And you can vote on... their clothes. Fascinating. So basically it's a T&A segment. If they've got any sense, nothing of any importance will happen, and Trish Stratus will retain her title. If they do insist on advancing a storyline, then they'll do something involving rookie Mickie James, who turned up a couple of weeks ago proclaiming herself to be Trish Stratus' biggest fan (in blatantly stalker-esque terms). James is supposed to be one of the good guys, and in awe of Trish, which is why she's the only person listed above who doesn't have her own entrance music - she uses Trish's, because it's so great. Any logical storyline involves Mickie costing Trish the title, either by winning it herself, or by getting Trish eliminated and allowing heel wrestler Victoria to win. Ashley, Candice and Torrie can't really wrestle and are just there to make up the numbers. Mickie is at least a proper wrestler, but not a particularly good one.

Quite what Maria Kanellis is doing in this match is something of a mystery. She's the backstage interviewer, and as far as I know, she's never had a match in her life. After a shaky start, she's settled into a "cute but dumb" gimmick, which has clicked a little better. Hopefully they won't break her.

With this many inept women involved, plus the fact that it's just a T&A stunt, the match will probably be horrific. Basically, it's a mixture of women who ought to be above this sort of thing, and women who are so bad they shouldn't be in the ring under any circumstances. But they fired so many of the women who could actually wrestle that they need the bimbo squad to fill out the match. (If their entrance video consists of nothing but bikini footage... there's a reason for that.) It's slightly odd that Lita, a former women's champion who regularly appears on the show, isn't in the match. Perhaps the injuries from her rather reckless ring-work have finally caught up with her.

4. Ric Flair -v- Triple H. Flair is the Intercontinental Champion, but this appears to be a non-title match. This usually means the other guy's winning but they don't want to give him the belt. "Triple H" is short for Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a hangover from a much earlier incarnation of the character. In reality, he's Vince McMahon's son-in-law and pretty much has carte blanche to do what he wants, which tends to result in storylines built around telling us what an impressive and intimidating villain Triple H is. He tends to win the world title a lot. Odd, that. He also tends to wrestle matches five or ten minutes longer than they really need to be, because he believes a longer match is the sign of a more talented performer. (Which it is, if you can pull it off. Triple H has a habit of trying it with opponents who aren't up to the job.) He's talented, but the audience has become tired of his overexposure, and a recent break for a couple of months hasn't entirely refreshed the character.

By all accounts, however, Triple H idolises Flair, who he grew up watching. And as one of the best wrestlers of the last twenty years, Flair can still have a good match even in middle age. On paper this could be quite good. On the other hand, it's a storyline which has only just begun, with Triple H turning on Flair in frustration that his last remaining sidekick from his Evolution faction has started emerging from his shadow. This needs some time to build, but instead it's been raced onto PPV to try and boost sales.

The voting options are for the type of match, and they've idiotproofed it by giving a choice between a steel cage match, a submission match and, er, a completely normal match. And then having Flair go out on Raw and say, repeatedly, that you should vote for a steel cage match. Conventional wisdom says you do at least one normal match to start the feud and then build to using the gimmicks in rematches. But they're desperate to boost sales for this show, so there you go. The actual match could still be okay, and Triple H will probably win.

5. Edge and Chris Masters -v- TBA. This is a Raw versus Smackdown match, furthering the inter-show feud which was meant to be building for Survivor Series, the next show down the line. But we must have sales to prove that this show was a good idea, so here's a match right now. The WWE make little effort to conceal the fact that they consider Raw the A-show, and so this feud has largely consisted of Raw guys beating up Smackdown guys, who then complain bitterly about the injustice of it all. They could rectify that by giving Smackdown the win on Tuesday, but I suspect they won't, because they want this storyline to continue for Survivor Series. That means the bad guys ought to win, to justify a rematch - and that means the Raw team wins.

To make matters worse, reports are that Edge has a partial pec tear, which will keep him out of action for a while. So either they'll have to replace him, despite him being a major player in this storyline, or he'll gut it out and let Chris Masters do most of the work. Which wouldn't be pretty, because Chris Masters is a mediocrity.

The vote decides which of five guys will be on the Smackdown team. The options are evil Republican stockbroker JBL, Latino underdog Rey Mysterio, Edge's nemesis Matt Hardy (who got kicked off to Smackdown after Edge beat him on Raw and won their feud, despite being the bad guy, and whose entrance video link doesn't work), the consistently underrated Christian and long-serving midcarder Hardcore Holly. The writers seemed to be pulling for Rey and JBL, which is bizarre considering that JBL's a villain and he was obviously never going to get votes. A more likely outcome is Rey and Matt Hardy - in which case there's something to be said for letting Matt destroy Edge, and giving him the credit for putting Edge on the shelf for months. If, of course, Edge is capable of working the match at all.

If they get a remotely unexpected result from the voting, the match will probably be mediocre at best, because I can't imagine Chris Masters being able to improvise very effectively. He's not much good when he's working from a script, after all. Rey and Matt would be a good team, but without knowing who's really going to be on the other side, and who's going to carry the workload, it's very hard to say what this is going to be like.

6. Steve Austin -v- Jonathan Coachman. Now things are just getting weird, on every level. This is the most blatantly idiotproofed vote on the show, as in theory the fans are supposed to decide what sort of match it is. The options, believe it or not, are a street fight, an arm wrestling contest, and a debate. Yes, a debate.

But it gets sillier! On the one hand, we have Stone Cold Steve Austin, the former champion who dominated the WWE at the turn of the century until retiring on medical grounds two years ago. On the other hand, we have Jonathan Coachman, who is a commentator. Bizarrely, this is not Coachman's first pay per view match - he actually beat Yoshihiro Tajiri a couple of years back - but in no way is he a proper, trained wrestler. He's the guy who used to stand around backstage and get heckled by the Rock until he finally lost patience and turned heel, becoming an Evil Commentator. Strangely enough, this kind of worked, because while Coachman is a hopelessly mediocre commentator, he's got genuine charisma as a bad guy.

These unlikely opponents are fighting because of one of the most demented storylines in recent months, and it only gets weirder when you know what's going on behind the scenes. Basically, the story is that in a fit of pique, the evil McMahon family have fired long-serving, much-beloved commentator Jim Ross, and installed the infuriating prick Coachman in his place. The official stipulation here is that if Austin wins, Ross gets his job back; if Austin loses, he's fired. (Which rather begs the question "Fired from what?", but the WWE writers don't think in that much detail.) Conventional wisdom would be that Austin annihilates the upstart Coachman, and JR makes his triumphant return on the next Raw.


Vince McMahon - and yes, he really does run the company - has genuinely turned on JR for reasons nobody's entirely clear about, and is looking to get rid of him. A few weeks ago he made a big offer to UFC commentator Mike Goldberg to take JR's job. This was despite the fact that Goldberg didn't actually know anything about professional wrestling. Eventually, after realising that he was being asked to take the job of a guy who'd just been fired for no reason, Goldberg turned down the job. Nonetheless, Vince went ahead with the planned firing storyline despite having no replacement lined up. Instead, Coachman has basically been shoved out there to die, in a job he's not particularly good at, in a storyline where everyone's invited to hate him for not being JR. Oh, and on top of that, he's got to try to do commentary in character as a villain. It's a hopeless task, and the results are as ugly as you'd expect. Given the way he's presented, though, it's clear that Coachman is not being thought of as a permanent replacement.

JR's on-air firing, which was basically just done to humiliate the guy without giving him the opportunity to say goodbye, naturally provoked a huge backlash, and the course of storylines suggests that Vince is re-thinking. But, according to all sources, Vince is still telling everyone, including the writers, that JR is gone and he's never coming back. Nobody seriously believes this, but that's what Vince insists. Quite what the long term plan is... nobody knows.

What's certain is that JR certainly can't make a triumphant return a week on Monday, because he's presently laid up at home recovering from colon surgery, and he won't be ready to return to any sort of work for another few weeks. So Austin really can't win on Tuesday because they can't deliver the pay-off. On the other hand, Austin surely can't lose to an announcer. This suggests that we're looking at a huge screwjob finish where Coach gets a technical win by cheating. Hopefully Austin can then destroy the guy to clear the way for somebody else to take over as commentator. Anybody else.

Throwing away Steve Austin's return match on a minor pay per view in a match against an announcer is a ludicrous decision; but that's the sort of thing they're doing in an attempt to boost sales. The match is highly unlikely to be any good.

7. Mick Foley -v- Carlito. In another example of a high-profile wrestler's return being utterly squandered, the legendary, much-loved and largely retired Mick Foley is fighting... midcard bad guy Carlito. And why are they fighting? Er... well... for no particular reason, frankly. I can only assume this is going to be another match where Foley does everything in his power to make Carlito look good, and try to create a star. He'll have his work cut out. Could be okay, but a ludicrous waste of Foley. He came back from writing novels for this?

Oh yeah - you get to vote on whether Foley wrestles the match as Mankind, Cactus Jack or Dude Love, all different characters he played at various points in his career. Unless Dude Love wins (which is highly unlikely, since he was a comedy character), it makes little difference.

8. Handicap match: Rob Conway -v- Eugene & mystery partner. God help us. This match hasn't even been announced on Raw, which tells you how much importance they place on it. Rob Conway, whose gimmick involves claiming to be a conman while dressing as a narcissistic gimp, and was inexplicable to begin with, has now complicated matters even further by declaring an open-ended feud with everyone in the WWE Hall of Fame, ie a bunch of retired guys. It seems to have escaped the WWE's notice that Randy Orton already did this gimmick, and he's still doing it. But apparently the WWE feel there's room for two guys who beat up retired wrestlers.

In a classic sign of writers who don't know what they're doing, Conway will be outnumbered two to one despite being the bad guy. So if he loses it doesn't mean anything, and if he wins, he's triumphed over the odds. Brilliant.

He'll be facing one of three old guys who passed their prime years ago (Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Jimmy Snuka or, god help us, Kamala the African Stereotype Who's Okay, Honest, Because It's Ironic Nostalgia For A Pre-PC Era), together with Eugene, whose gimmick is that he's mentally handicapped. No, really. I swear. Actually, Eugene is slightly less offensive than you might think - the idea is that he's a savant who has the mind of a child but enough innate talent that he's still an effective wrestler. As a savant, he has no signature moves of his own, and simply copies everyone else's. He never has a plan, and gets by on moment-to-moment wrestling skill alone. With a degree of charity, this all makes borderline sense.

But he's still essentially a comedy character, and condescending enough to press all sorts of buttons for Guardian-readers like me. And moreover, audiences have started to noticeably tire of the joke - he actually got booed in a recent match against Kurt Angle, which is a real warning sign. For some time, wrestling fans have discussed how on earth the talented performer Nick Dinsmore can be extricated from this dead-end gimmick. Hopefully somebody at the WWE is working on the same question as well, because this character has reached the end of its natural lifespan.

Overall: the main event will probably be good. Flair/HHH has promise. The Women's title match will be a joke and the tag title match will be no good (unless by some miracle Shawn Michaels ends up wrestling in it). The Raw/Smackdown match is going to be seriously compromised if Chris Masters has to do all the work, but has glimmers of potential. Everything else looks either average or mindbendingly bizarre. The whole thing looks like a last-minute panic attempt to turn a minor show into a major one, without actually thinking through any of the stories. I wouldn't pay for it if it was a PPV over here, but fortunately it isn't, because it's bizarre enough that I'm curious to see how on earth it turns out.