Saturday, February 18, 2006

No Way Out 2006

Time for another pay per view. This one's on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I don't have to pay for it. Which, as we'll see, is fortunate. There's some damned odd stuff on this card, one match which is genuinely uncomfortable to contemplate, and an all-pervading sense of last-minute panic. As with a lot of recent WWE shows, the backstage insanity - sometimes literal - is frequently much more compelling than the actual programming. Indeed, for a lot of fans, the main reason to watch the shows is to ensure a full understanding of the gossip.

No Way Out is a Smackdown-only show, and we're now firmly into the lead-in to Wrestlemania, always the biggest show of the year. Unfortunately, through a combination of injuries to major performers and dementedly poor writing, plans are not very far advanced - and those plans that exist are often strikingly odd. As we shall see...

1. World Heavyweight Title: Kurt Angle -v- The Undertaker. Kurt Angle was parachuted onto Smackdown to fill the gap left when Dave Batista had to take months off for shoulder surgery. (Surgery which was filmed and broadcast on TV in full meaty detail, just in case anyone thought that this was a storyline of some sort.) He's also nursing some fairly serious injuries which appear to be limiting him quite badly, but Angle doesn't believe in medical advice, so he's ploughing on regardless. Unless sanity or physical incapacity intervene, the plan is for Angle to remain as champion through to Wrestlemania. They don't actually have anything for him to do this month, so instead they've just wheeled out the Undertaker as a big name opponent and left it at that. There's no storyline here and it's really just a filler match.

I've never been a big fan of the Undertaker and his silly zombie gimmick, but he's had reasonably good matches with Angle in the past. But Angle is suffering, and last month's match against Mark Henry was one of the worst pay per view matches he's ever had . Granted, Mark Henry is terrible, but Angle wasn't looking too good either. He'll do better with Undertaker, who has more range, but I'll be surprised if this makes it much above average.

(Incidentally, these guys have two of the best entrance videos on the roster, if only in the sense of hammering home the character in the first ten seconds. As always, just click on the names to see them.)

2. World Heavyweight Title, #1 contender: Rey Mysterio v Randy Orton. This is the real main event, in terms of having a big storyline behind it. Winner headlines Wrestlemania as the challenger for the title. But it's also far and away the dodgiest, and undoubtedly the weirdest, match on the card.

Rey Mysterio already won the right to headline Wrestlemania by winning the annual Royal Rumble battle royal in January. He's a tiny Mexican wrestler playing the classic role of underdog hero. Rey has, for purposes of this story, dedicated his career and the upcoming Wrestlemania match to the memory of his (genuinely) close friend, the late Eddie Guerrero, who died of heart failure last year. Orton, as the up-and-coming bad guy, has provoked Mysterio into putting his title shot on the line by repeatedly defiling Guerrero's memory, starting from a remarkably tasteless scene where he tried to murder the Undertaker with Eddie Guerrero's car (broadcast around a fortnight after Guerrero's sudden death), and leading up to a recent segment where he informed the audience at length that Guerrero was burning in hell.

All of this has gone down rather badly backstage, but the McMahon family think it's a great idea. The logic is that by exploiting Guerrero's death for his cynical ends, Orton will be established as a massive villain. But the WWE seem to have missed the point that Guerrero really is dead, and that by exploiting his death to boost pay-per-view buyrates, they're essentially doing the same thing that's supposed to make Orton a villain. Hardcore fans are, for the most part, appalled by the whole thing. The live crowds seem to be rather more receptive, for some reason, although the jury is still out on whether this is really going to draw money.

Now, you may be wondering what the problem is. After all, this looks like a fairly classic wrestling story. Orton is an asshole, the hero challenges him and emerges triumphant, and Rey then goes on to triumph at Wrestlemania in a touching tribute to his late friend. Right? Right?

Er... wrong. Because the WWE don't have faith in Rey to headline Wrestlemania. So the plan, bizarrely, is that he will lose this match, and Orton will proceed cheerfully to face Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania. There is no fairy-tale pay-off planned. The whole thing is just to make Orton more of a villain.

At one point the plan was for Guerrero's widow and children to be at ringside. Cooler heads seem to have prevailed on that point, and the Guerrero family will now be represented by widow Vicky and nephew Chavo (who is under WWE contract and can't refuse, but is reputedly far from happy about the whole storyline). Given the history, I'm expecting a reasonably good match marred by tasteless exploitation of a dead guy at every opportunity - look out for Rey trying to do Eddie's signature moves, for example. Technically, it might not be bad, but I don't expect to enjoy watching it. In fact, if this were a PPV, this match alone would be enough to put me off buying it.

The WWE, by the way, like to claim that Eddie Guerrero would have been delighted to see his name used in storylines after his death. Not surprisingly, nobody has been able to trace any recorded comment by Guerrero stating his views on the subject. He did, however, refuse on several occasions to participate in storylines exploiting the death of his long-time tag team partner Art Barr, which he considered to be a tacky idea. This rather suggests he would not have been thrilled.

3. US Title: Booker T v Chris Benoit. Or, "Is this feud still going?" Booker T and Chris Benoit have been fighting over the US title for months now. The storyline was originally meant to end with the Best of 7 series a while back, but that ended in total confusion when Booker was legitimately injured halfway through the series and the last few matches were won by Randy Orton on his behalf. This will be Booker's first match back after injury, and the first time he's actually defended the US title. I can only assume this match is intended to finally draw a line under this unintentionally extended storyline, in which case either Benoit is winning, or he's going to be screwed out of the title by a third party and can move on to feud with him. Conventionally the hero wins to end the storyline, but Booker as defending champion probably has more possibilities. The match will be good, but we've seen these two so many times now that it's no longer a fresh pairing.

Incidentally, there's a token stipulation in place that Booker forfeits the title if he doesn't wrestle the match, but since they established on Friday that he's fit, I can't see that coming into play.

4. JBL v Bobby Lashley. Former champion JBL has been on a losing streak of late, to such a degree that some have wondered whether he's done something to piss off management. Equally likely is that there's just no room for him at the top of the card right now, and the time has come to cash in some of his accumulated credibility by letting younger guys beat him. Last month it was the Boogeyman, which was faintly silly, but this month it's Bobby Lashley, which is more reasonable. Conventional wisdom is that Lashley has plenty of talent but not nearly enough experience, and really ought to be back down in the training league OVW for the moment. Nonetheless, they're trying to build him as a star, so the sensible result is for him to win here (unless JBL wins on a monumental screwjob to set up a rematch, which would also be acceptable). JBL winning clean would achieve nothing and damage Lashley.

A more interesting question is the quality of the match. This is the first time Lashley's really been put in there with a top guy and expected to do a full-length singles match instead of just annihilating his opponent inside five minutes. I think these two could potentially have a good match, and their styles ought to be compatible - both power wrestlers with reasonable speed. The big question mark is whether Lashley is ready, and we won't really know that until Sunday. I'm cautiously optimistic here.

5. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Gregory Helms v Kid Kash v Psicosis v Super Crazy v Nunzio v Paul London v Brian Kendrick v Scotty 2 Hotty v Funaki. A last-minute filler match and a classic example of nobody thinking things through. In fact, you have to slog through even to find out what the rules are here (first pinfall takes it, but half the time these things are elimination matches).

The story, such as it is, is that Gregory Helms won the Cruiserweight Title at the Royal Rumble in January and immediately jumped to the Smackdown roster to defend it. As an arrogant outsider, everyone hates him. Helms insists that he can beat any of the other Cruiserweights, which somehow leads to him defending the title against eight of them at once. Since Kid Kash and Nunzio are the only other heels here, and even they don't like him, the obvious implication is that he's facing virtually certain defeat.

This is a bad idea for several reasons. Helms is a villain, so what's the point of putting him in a match where he's at an unfair disadvantage? That's what you do to the good guys. If he wins, he triumphs over adversity and therefore doesn't get over as a heel. Worse, he squashes all of his possible contenders and the rest of the roster look like chumps. If he loses, on the other hand, then a new champion is crowned in a match so screwy that it won't mean anything (even by Cruiserweight division standards, which are low to start with). It's utterly pointless. The action could be quite good if they're allowed to go nuts, which is debatable in itself. But I suspect it'll be the usual ending for these things, where Helms steals a win after everyone else has beaten one another to the ground, and nothing is really achieved.

Incidentally, the only Cruiserweights not in this match are Daivari (primarily a manager), Rey Mysterio (competes with the heavyweights) and Jamie Noble (haven't a clue). Oh, and congratulations to Scotty 2 Hotty, looking remarkably well preserved for a man now entering his sixteenth calendar year with the WWE, and surely the last man on the roster still sporting an entry video with shots of the Smackdown Ovaltron that hasn't been seen in about four years. Come to think of it, Sho Funaki's been doing his comedy Japanese act for a decade or so, as well...

6. WWE Tag Team Titles: MNM v Matt Hardy & ????. Thrown together at the last minute, this looks suspiciously like a last-minute re-write. Two weeks ago, MNM's manager Melina invited Matt Hardy to join the stable. This week, for no apparent reason, Matt suddenly accepts MNM's standing open challenge (which I don't recall ever previously existing) and declares that he will fight them for their tag team titles on Sunday, with a partner to be announced.

If this was the original plan then I have no idea where they're heading with it. There's not much point doing "mystery partner" angles with so little build-up, so I suspect they may genuinely not have decided yet. However, there is supposed to be a plan in the works to pair Matt with Road Warrior Animal - who needs a partner, because they fired John Heidenreich, and Animal can't wrestle singles matches for insurance reasons. They may be trying to vaguely hint at Matt's brother Jeff, who is a free agent again after being released by TNA, but given his perennial problems with timekeeping, motivation and generally showing up for work, I doubt the WWE would be that interested.

I have a suspicion that Matt's winning here, in which case he's finally served his time as a perennial loser and, in typical WWE style, is going to get a proper push just as they've finally killed off any credibility he had. When Matt Hardy decided to rejoin the WWE rather than sign with TNA, many argued that he was making a very bad career move, and that he would be stranded in the midcard forever in the WWE when he could be a top star with the number two promotion. This theory has now been put to the test, after another long-suffering WWE midcarder, Christian, allowed his contract to lapse and jumped ship. Christian duly won their world title and, with the promotion about to get a primetime slot in April on the WWE's old network, it looks very much as though he made the right call. And Matt Hardy didn't.

On the other hand... the WWE do pay better, and TNA isn't really a full-time job. This is a positive boon for Christian, who's also trying to get into acting, but not so great if you just want to wrestle, because you'll end up topping up your income by working the indie circuit. So hey, maybe things turned out alright for Matt after all. Regardless, the WWE have stubbornly ignored the fan support for Matt for months now, and he's long overdue for a push.

Overall: six matches announced, of which none are bad on paper, and some have real potential. But the whole Eddie Guerrero deal leaves such a bad taste in my mouth that I wouldn't spend money on it. As it happens, I don't have to, but that's the only reason I'll be watching.