Saturday, January 28, 2006

Royal Rumble 2006

PPV time again. This is one of the big shows of the year, so really, watching it is almost compulsory for wrestling fans. It's a show normally sold on the annual gimmick match - which has generally delivered. And that's particularly lucky this year, because most of the rest of the card is shocking.

It's also an interesting show in terms of the direction of the company. Traditionally, the Royal Rumble is the show where the WWE starts the build to Wrestlemania, their biggest show of the year. But there's a problem. At least as of a couple of days ago, there was no plan. There used to be a plan, but a combination of sudden changes and unpredicted injuries has thrown everything up in the air. Nobody really knows where we're going from now. They'd better have it worked out by Sunday.

Oh, and if you're wondering: yes, this is a show that's been going every year since the 1980s, when the name sounded a little less silly. For wrestling fans, it's one of those Top of the Pops titles that's too familiar to sound stupid.

1. The 2006 Royal Rumble. The big selling point of the show, and boy, it's got its work cut out. Basically, this is a 30-man battle royal. Elimination occurs by being thrown over the top rope and landing on the floor. The winner gets a shot at the world title in the main event of Wrestlemania. (Following the brand split, the winner now gets to choose which title to go for.) The gimmick is that the wrestlers enter at 2-minute intervals. This avoids the usual torpor of having 30 guys in the ring doing nothing very interesting, and means that it's usually possible to keep up the excitement for a solid hour thanks to the turnover of wrestlers.

Of course, it's also horrendously unfair, because the guy who comes in first is in real trouble. But that's fine, for wrestling purposes, because it means they can give somebody a huge push for surviving most of the match without the inconvenience of actually having them win.

The contestants for this year:-
  • Rob Van Dam, returning from a lengthy absence on the injured list. The fact that he's coming back in a 30-man battle royal suggests the WWE doesn't exactly have big plans for him, because he's certainly not winning.
  • Kane and the Big Show, the Raw tag team champions. They're certainly not winning.
  • Shawn Michaels. The plan, ludicrously, is for Shawn to fight WWE chairman Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania. Vince apparently feels he's got one last match in him, despite being over 60 by now. Anyhow, Shawn obviously can't win, so chances are Vince will screw him somehow to continue their rather bizarre feud.
  • Triple H. The original plan was for Triple H to win here and face John Cena at Wrestlemania. But Cena doesn't have the belt any more, and they can't really do Triple H versus Edge (two bad guys). The sensible move would be to abandon the idea altogether, but Triple H is the boss's son-in-law, and if he wants to headline Wrestlemania...
  • Chris Masters. Not in a million years.
  • Carlito. Ditto.
  • Trevor Murdoch. Cannon fodder.
  • Shelton Benjamin. Currently caught up in a curious angle where they're trying to turn him into a hated mummy's boy by having Thea Vidale accompany him to the ring, claiming to be his mother. Don't ask. It's actually working slightly better than it should.
  • Viscera. Token big fat guy so that somebody else can look good by eliminating him.
  • Chavo Guerrero. Half-hearted attempts to push him after his uncle Eddie's death have come to nothing, so he's not going to last long.
  • Jonathan Coachman, which at least means he won't be on commentary. Coachman has also just been allied with the horrendously ill-advised Spirit Squad, a gimmick which has appalled hardcore wrestling fans everywhere. The Spirit Squad, who debuted on Monday to total silence, are male cheerleaders. It's a lame comedy gimmick. The unlucky five members are Nick Nemeth (formerly Kerwin White's wrestling caddy, so this may be a step up), Nick Mitchell (from Tough Enough season 4), and Ken Doane, Johnny Jeter and Mike Mondo (newly called up from the WWE's training league, OVW). Doane and Jeter are considered to be big talents with genuine potential for the future. I've seen some of their OVW matches, and they're pretty decent. But this gimmick certainly looks like a career-killer. Everyone is baffled about what the WWE could possibly be thinking. If anything.
  • Ric Flair, because he's not doing anything else.
  • Chris Benoit, who's still feuding over the US title, so he won't be winning.
  • Rey Mysterio. An outside possibility here, because Rey winning the title at Wrestlemania could really work. Audiences love him, and it hasn't been done before.
  • Randy Orton. Also a possibility, but Orton just doesn't seem like somebody who should be headlining the biggest show of the year. He'd be the wrong choice, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.
  • Matt Hardy. Still being ritually destroyed for having had the nerve to criticise the company in public - and the foolishness to go back to work there.
  • Orlando Jordan, who is apparently about to be repackaged as a bisexual in a menage a trois. No, really.
  • Bobby Lashley, whose momentum has completely stalled now.
  • Sylvan. Cannon fodder.
  • Road Warrior Animal. Can't win for legal reasons - he's only insured for tag matches.
  • MNM, the Smackdown tag champions. Obviously, neither of these guys is winning.
  • Simon Dean, the evil fitness guru. Comedy cannon fodder.
  • Booker T, the US champion. He's got a belt already.
  • The remaining two Mexicools (after Juventud Guerrera was laid off).

That leaves three blank slots to be filled on the night. It's probably nobody particularly important. My money's on Triple H to win, not because he should but because they're too short-sighted to realise he shouldn't. Rey Mysterio is the only other sensible choice, and it's clearly crossed their mind (even though they seem to see it as a "Tribute to Dead Eddie" story). But they usually panic about pushing small guys and change their minds at the last moment. I'd rather see Rey, though.

2. WWE Title: Edge v John Cena. Actually, that video for Edge is out of date, but the WWE haven't updated their website yet, so it'll have to do. The new one is full of juddering logos saying "Rated R Superstar", if you're curious.

Edge is Raw's new WWE champion, having won the belt at New Year's Revolution - despite not being scheduled to fight for it. To the amazement of fans everywhere, the WWE finally remembered that back in March 2005, Edge won a ladder match which gave him a shot at the Raw world title at any time of his choosing within the next year. So, after watching John Cena successfully defend his title in a six-man match lasting half an hour, Edge bounces happily out, cashes in his title shot, and pins the exhausted Cena in two minutes to win the title. Obviously, the angle is that Edge is a totally undeserving champion and all-round asshole, so this is Cena's rematch.

The decision to put the title on Edge was a last-minute change of plans - Cena himself apparently didn't find out until the day of the show. As I've previously noted, audiences had been turning violently on Cena for the last few months. But the problem for the WWE was that he still had a massively loyal audience of women and children and sold more merchandise than anyone else on the roster. So the hope was that by taking the title off him they might turn things around.

Remarkably, it's worked. Almost the next night, audiences swung straight back to cheering for Cena again. It seems the crowds weren't implacably opposed to Cena himself, they just hated having him as champion. It'll be very interesting to see the reaction during this match, since while the crowds have been on Cena's side in this feud, they apparently don't want him to win the belt back. Meanwhile, after being catapulted from the midcard to the top of the show, Edge is doing rather well as champion. For no apparent reason, ratings have actually gone up. He's a fresh face on top, he's a decent enough wrestler to carry the show, and common sense says he should win here.

The fly in the ointment is that if Edge retains the title then Triple H can't have his coveted main event slot at Wrestlemania (because he can't challenge another bad guy for the title). Obviously, that shouldn't be a factor, but it probably will be. They're certainly hedging their bets to some degree, because Edge is still carrying around the ludicrous Spinning Bling title belt that Cena commissioned when he won the title last spring. (If you're wondering what happened to the real title belt, the previous champ JBL kept it, and I believe it ultimately got destroyed for storyline purposes. Not that anyone in the WWE is likely to remember that.) If Edge wins here, he should switch back to a proper title belt. For the moment, of course, it's in their interests to give the impression that Edge might be an overnight champion- title changes sell pay per views.

As for the match itself, it won't be fantastic - Edge isn't good enough to lift Cena to that level. But it'll probably be solidly above average. If the crowd are with them, it'll be good entertainment.

3. World Heavyweight Title: Kurt Angle v Mark Henry. Over on Smackdown, it's time once again for the annual Mark Henry Memorial Push. And everything has gone horribly to pot.

Mark Henry was signed by the WWE some years ago to a ludicrously long-term deal. He's billed as the world's strongest man, and while these claims are always disputed, Henry's claim is certainly as good as anyone else's. He's huge, and genuinely enormously strong. For some reason, back in the nineties, the WWE thought this would easily translate into a powerful monster wrestler.

Unfortunately, despite years of desperate attempts to train him, it has been painfully apparent that Mark Henry is a dreadful wrestler. He has the agility of an obelisk, and a distressing tendency to accidentally injure opponents for real. So for years now, Henry's career has oscillated back and forth between the main WWE roster, and the OVW training league. They call him up, they push him to try and recoup the absurd sums of money they're paying him, they realise he sucks, and they send him back to OVW until memories fade. And then they try all over again. He's finally nearing the end of his contract, and this bizarre challenge for the world title is their last desperate attempt to recoup their investment.

As noted, Henry is a brutal son of a bitch, and not somebody who should be allowed anywhere near a fragile opponent. Ever convinced that things will work out fine, the WWE decided he should feud with Smackdown's world champion Dave Batista, already nursing a serious back injury which would have merited surgery in its own right. Reputedly, Batista felt that the roster was so depleted due to injury and the death of Eddie Guerrero that he couldn't let everyone down by taking the time off. So off he went to do matches with Mark Henry... who promptly screwed up his shoulder too. Batista duly vacated the title and sloped off to spend six months recovering from major surgery.

With the Smackdown roster now decimated, and the bookers in panic mode, Kurt Angle was parachuted in from Raw and duly won the title in, of all things, a 20-man battle royal. Angle is a magnificent wrestler and automatically credible as champion. They immediately turned him into a hero since, frankly, Smackdown was running desperately short on them. Fortunately, this has manifested largely in Angle kicking out his villainous sidekick and fighting bad guys, rather than a total rewrite of his personality.

Besides, audiences always wanted to cheer Angle anyway. They respect him too much to hate him. The WWE pretty much caved in to this after a rather embarrassing period near the end of last year when they tried to position Angle as a traitor to his country who hated the troops in Iraq. Nobody bought it, and Angle looked noticeably relieved when he got to kill off the whole thing with a glorious interview in which he solemnly explained that he was so good that the people would cheer him no matter what he said. And then he proved it. ("I hope we lose the war in Iraq. My favourite country is France. I'm not a fan of the black people. And if I had a time machine, and I could go back and apply my ankle lock to any figure in history... I'd choose Jesus.")

But... yes, you guessed it. Angle is injured too. In fact, Angle has a history of chronic health problems, combined with a worrying tendency to ignore medical advice. His regular claim on TV that he won an Olympic gold medal with a broken neck is basically true. He appears to have an utter conviction that injuries are something you just work through. He has had neck surgery twice and suffers from sporadic numbness in his arms. He openly admits that he takes painkillers daily. (This, by the way, is why he spent so many months in a non-wrestling role as Smackdown general manager, and went on to do the very undemanding "Angle Challenge" segments where he'd beat up local wrestlers in 20 seconds.)

And guess what happened in one of his untelevised matches with Mark Henry? Bingo. Back injury.

Angle, being Angle, simply will not stop unless he is physically unable to continue. Henry is not a credible champion and should not win here. But Angle is so screwed that a Henry win is a serious possibility. Angle seems determined to put himself in a wheelchair by the time he's 45, and it would be nice if the WWE would stop encouraging him. They're not totally indifferent to the welfare of their wrestlers - they've actually got a fairly good record of helping wrestlers when they're badly injured - but they tend only to recognise the issue with hindsight. Angle ought to be one of the great talents in the history of wrestling, but he's also on course to turn himself into one of the business's great tragedies.

Anyhow, the match will be okay - even seriously injured, Angle is so talented that he can have a good match with anyone. If Henry wins, it means Angle's injuries are reaching terrifying levels that even he can't ignore.

Oh, and incidentally, Henry has inherited Angle's former sidekick Khosrow Daivari as his manager (since the newly non-evil Angle has no further need for him). Daivari

Right, those are the big matches. And now, filler...

4. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Kid Kash -v- ???. In a glorious example of chaotic, last-minute booking, this match was announced on Velocity, a show which isn't even broadcast on American television. Kid Kash, the defending Cruiserweight champion, has an arm injury, but he's been wrestling again in the last couple of weeks (with his arm in a cast!), so apparently it can't be that bad. Compared to some people, anyway.

Kash will defend his title in an "Open Invitational", which could mean anything. They haven't announced who the opponent is, or even how many opponents there are. It appears to have escaped the WWE's notice that Kash is a bad guy, and booking him in a mystery match against unknown opponents while he's legitimately injured means he will be fighting against genuinely unfair odds. That's stupid. That's what you do with the heroes, so that they either triumph over evil, or look like they've been screwed when they lose.

There are no storylines at all in the Cruiserweight division, so unless this is a device to get the belt off Kash due to his injury, he ought to retain. More likely, this has been thrown onto the card to fill time, because they've finally worked out that the other two matches simply cannot go longer than three minutes each. And that leaves an aching stretch of time to fill. The Cruiserweights are perfectly capable of putting on great matches, but the jury is out about whether anyone will care. Audiences have pretty much been trained to treat the Cruiserweight Title as an afterthought, and relegating most of the division to Velocity - a show Americans can only watch on the Internet - doesn't exactly help.

5. Ashley Massaro v Mickie James (special guest referee: Trish Stratus). Gloriously idiotic. This is the latest stage in the Trish /Mickie storyline. For those coming in late, the story is that Mickie is an obsessive fan of the women's champion Trish Stratus, and after trying to mentor her for a while, Trish has finally tired of Mickie's stalkerish tendencies. Instead she's focussing her efforts on Ashley, largely because all the other women on the roster are baddies. Mickie is consumed with jealousy. Hence, match.

As a storyline, there's basically nothing wrong with this. The problem is that it involves a match between Ashley and Mickie James, which is a horrible concept. There's only one good wrestler in this match, and she's the referee. Mickey has been okay in the past but seems to have completely lost it since joining the main roster. And Ashley is comically awful. She won the ludicrous Diva Search contest last year, and while she's plainly trying to learn to wrestle, the reality is that she obviously has no aptitude for it at all. She's truly dreadful. Her last TV match was described by one leading reviewer and ex-wrestler as "second-day-of-wrestling-school awful", and I'm in no position to disagree.

The match will be horrifying, especially because logic says Ashley has to win. Hopefully, it'll be short.

6. The Boogeyman v JBL. For those of you who demanded more Boogeyman... well, you're about to find out why you haven't been getting it. The Boogeyman has been hovering around the fringes of Smackdown with his utterly bizarre gimmick for months now. I'm not even going to try and describe this nut. Click on his name to watch his entrance video, and you'll get the general idea. Anyhow, in all that time, he's done nothing more than wrestle some two-move squash matches. Can you guess why that might be?

Precisely. He can't wrestle either. In fact, he's done one proper match on OVW television against Bobby Lashley and, er, it wasn't very good. He's got almost no experience, and he's also very injury prone. Unless he's improved enormously, this is going to be genuinely painful. It's also likely to expose his serious limitations as a wrestler, which could seriously put the brakes on his momentum. Admittedly, it's unclear what you really do with the Boogeyman... but having him wrestle former champion JBL is certainly not the answer. If JBL gets a good match out of this schlub, it'll be a miracle.

The storyline, by the way, is that the Boogeyman has been stalking JBL for no particular reason, and JBL has accidentally talked himself into this match by demanding something be done about it. They've also used it as an opportunity to finally rid JBL's aide Jillian Hall of her ridiculous facial growth, which was never remotely entertaining to anyone, and could only be safely disposed of in the context of a storyline as stupid as this.

Boogeyman has to win, really. It'd kill the character dead if he got pinned.

So... to buy or not to buy? On paper it's a dismal undercard - the women's match and JBL/Boogeyman will be shockingly bad, unless they're kept literally to under three minutes bell to bell. The Cruiserweight match could be anything, although the possibilities are there for it to be good. Angle/Henry and Cena/Edge could be good but are unlikely to be great, and even that depends on Angle being able to work around his injuries. But the Royal Rumble match is almost invariably good fun, and while the two world title matches won't be technical classics, this is a genuinely huge show in storyline terms - we'll find out tonight where on earth the company is going. Somewhat against my better judgment, I'm buying, but that's more of a fan decision than a genuine recommendation.