Thursday, April 27, 2006

Backlash 2006

Back to wrestling for the monthly pay-per-view rundown. Backlash is a Raw-only show, and in years when the shows were better written, it usually dealt with the fallout from Wrestlemania (which, in turn, tended to have the big climax to long-running storylines). These days, the standard of long-term planning has gone down a bit. This year's show is a mixture of genuine long-term stories and... well, inexplicable weirdness.

It's also a free show in the UK - which is to say it's airing on Sky Sports 1, a subscription channel that I've already got, instead of being a proper PPV. So I'm watching it anyway. Still, let's go through the card.

1. World Heavyweight Title: John Cena -v- Triple H -v- Edge. Despite unrelenting hostility from the live crowds, John Cena remains the ostensibly heroic champion. Leaving aside Edge's three-week reign, Cena's now held the belt for over a year. They've shifted tack slightly and started to acknowledge the crowd reaction; the official line is that Cena is now "controversial." Nonetheless, that leaves us in the odd position of having a three-way match between two bad guys and a supposed hero who half the fans hate. Those fans seem to have decided, by default, that they're going to support Triple H, possibly because he bends over backwards to make himself look good, while Edge seems content to do his job and ensure that the fans hate him.

The Wrestlemania main event last month was Cena versus Triple H for the title, and it came as something of a surprise when Cena retained. We all know Triple H is getting the belt back at some point - he's the owner's son-in-law, for god's sake - and I expect it's happening on Sunday. As for Edge, he appears to be in this match simply to prevent it being the same main event two shows running. Come to think of it, they never even did a proper storyline to explain why he's in this match; it was just quietly announced one day.

(By the way, yes, I know Edge's entrance video is months out of date. don't seem to have noticed yet.)

Chances are Cena will lose on Sunday, because they need a heel champion for Rob Van Dam to fight - more on that later. Edge would be the better choice, if only because he'd have a better match with RVD. But my money's on Triple H. The match will have tons of atmosphere simply because the crowds always get violently passionate when Cena's in the ring, and chances are it'll be pretty decent on its merits so long as HHH and Edge take the lead.

2. Intercontinental Title versus Money in the Bank Title Shot: Shelton Benjamin -v- Rob Van Dam. Shelton Benjamin seems to have dropped his "momma's boy" gimmick, and gone back to playing the cocky heel champion. Unfortunately they haven't got around to changing his entrance video yet, which makes for an odd clash, since he comes out dressed up for his new character, with a big background image of a large fat woman wiping his chin. Urgent editing is required.

This is for Shelton's Intercontinental Title against the "Money in the Bank" title shot that Rob Van Dam won at Wrestlemania. The MitB shot allows Rob to challenge for the world title at any time. Conventional wisdom says Van Dam should win here to keep his title shot and win the IC belt, simply because the long-term storylines require RVD to have the title shot. Then again, Van Dam pinned Shelton clean in a six-man tag on Monday night, and in the whacky world of wrestling reverse psychology, that usually indicates he's going to lose on Sunday. If so, they're planning a swerve, and Van Dam will win the title shot back in due course.

There are worse ideas, because RVD can't use his title shot until June, and they need a good plot reason for why he hasn't cashed it in. Why can't he use it until June? Why, because that's when they're holding this year's ECW tribute pay-per-view. Now, since many of you reading this don't actually follow wrestling, a word of explanation about ECW may be required.

Back in the happy days before the WWE had a virtual monopoly over North American wrestling (which TNA is only now starting to challenge), there were three big companies. The WWF is the one survivor. WCW was the long-time rival eventually brought low by a combination of big egos and mindboggling incompetence. And ECW was the alternative offering - an overgrown indie promotion operating largely out of Philadelphia with a rabidly loyal fanbase and driven by its gifted but erratic owner Paul Heyman.

One of Heyman's great skills as a promoter is to make the best of what he has. He couldn't afford the top stars. He couldn't afford top quality production levels. So he went the other way, using a combination of rising stars, quality technical wrestling, unprecedently violent brawls, downright insane storylines, and aggressively low production values - even lower than he could actually afford - to make ECW the street-level alternative. To use one of Heyman's own comparisons (from years after the fact), if the WWF and WCW had become hair metal, ECW was wrestling's equivalent to grunge.

Unfortunately, ECW was still playing out of its financial league and ultimately got annihilated. Nonetheless, it was hugely influential, with many of its stars moving on to lucrative careers with the other two companies, and Heyman's innovative storylines becoming the template for both of its rivals in the late nineties. ECW continues to be a massive influence on modern North American wrestling, and still has an enormously loyal fanbase.

Hence, last year the WWE ran an ECW tribute show (having picked up the rights to the name from the bankruptcy a few years ago). It did awfully well, but Rob Van Dam - one of ECW's biggest stars - wasn't able to wrestle on the show because he had a broken leg. This year he'll be able to participate, which is fortunate, because some of the other guys have since been snapped up by TNA.

But there's more; over the last week, word leaked out that the WWE is planning to bring back ECW permanently as a third WWE brand to run alongside Raw and Smackdown. Paul Heyman is apparently going to be in charge, and the plan is to fill the new ECW with a bunch of veterans from the original together with some upcoming wrestlers from the training league OVW. (That presumably means a big role for cult indie wrestler CM Punk, who's been on the verge of a call-up for a while now.) All of this means that this year's ECW show won't simply be a tribute, but it'll be the big storyline that kicks off the all-new ECW.

Now, the general assumption among wrestling fans - as supported by some less-than-subtle on-air hints - is that Van Dam will cash in his Money in the Bank title shot at the ECW show, dragging Raw's heel champion in to be annihilated before a hostile crowd. Van Dam then presumably wins the title and possibly even carts it off with him to ECW to begin the new promotion. An alternative possibility is that Van Dam wins the title but refuses to accept it, declaring himself ECW Champion instead - a homage to the defining storyline that launched ECW back in the early nineties when they (legitimately) double-crossed the NWA in the same way during a jointly-promoted show. Perhaps a little too in-jokey for the casual viewer to understand, but I suspect that wouldn't stop them.

Anyway. Rob Van Dam might well lose on Sunday so that he can feud with Shelton Benjamin and eventually win the title shot back in time to use it at the ECW show. Sunday's match will be hit or miss; if we're lucky it'll be an entertaining trainwreck of athletic stunts, and if we're not, it'll be a rather awkward wrestling match. RVD's not as reliable as he used to be, and he still seems to be shaking off the ring rust following a very long break from action. Fingers crossed that this one lives up to potential.

3. Women's Title: Mickie James -v- Trish Stratus. Last month, as predicted, Mickie James did indeed win the Women's Title, allowing this storyline to plough on with a rematch. You'll recall that the storyline here had Mickie as an obsessed stalker and Trish as the bemused defending champion. On winning the belt, Mickie went even more insane and declared that she actually was Trish Stratus. Unfortunately they haven't bothered updating her entrance video in ages either, since cloning the opening of Trish's music was a neat touch.

Anyway, at this point the storyline goes off the rails, with Trish dressing as Mickie, and both girls doing bizarre and wildly unfunny segments impersonating one another. Nonetheless, they haven't exhausted the possibilities here yet, and Trish has no obvious challengers in line, so hopefully Mickie wins so that they can get full mileage out of the feud. Trish can afford another loss before getting her revenge. Match quality is tough to call; Mickie's general match standard has been uninspiring, but the Wrestlemania match was surprisingly good until the awful botched finish. They'll be looking to get it right this time.

4. Vince McMahon & Shane McMahon -v- Shawn Michaels & God. I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

As you watch Vince's entrance video, just remember: this guy really owns the company. Would you want to work there? The storyline here is that after being soundly thumped by Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania, Vince has gone mad, and insists that Shawn only beat him because of divine intervention. Therefore, in order to make the sides even, he has booked this tag team match, where he and his son Shane will fight Shawn Michaels and God. Michaels is a genuine born-again Christian, and his views on this storyline have been the subject of some speculation.

Now, you might think that this is just an unusual way of doing a two-on-one handicap match. Then again, a couple of weeks ago we had Vince being struck by pyrotechnics, so something tells me God really will be putting in an appearance in this match. It's either going to be wacky genius or hopelessly embarrassing, and my money's on the latter. There's also the possibility of seriously offending the live audience, given that the show's being held in the south. (Lexington, Kentucky, to be precise.)

"Invisible man" gimmicks have been tried in wrestling before and they don't work. Since everything has to be done for the live crowd, there's a limit to the sort of special effects that you can safely pull off. Mind you, they've done some odd things for the Undertaker in the past, so you never know. Vince being struck by lightning is a real possibility.

Assuming we actually get some sort of match in here, it'll be fine as long as Shawn and Shane carry the workload. Given that he's a company director and the boss's son, and he's never worked a regular wrestling schedule in his life, he's actually remarkably good at wrestling, at least to the level of carrying off a convincing garbage match. (That's a brawl with plenty of weapons and minimal technical hold-and-counter-hold stuff, for those who may not know.) Vince is aged 60 and should be kept out of action as much as humanly possible. Hopefully Shawn finally wins convincingly to kill off this storyline once and for all, given that it really should have ended after Wrestlemania.

5. Kane v The Big Show. They just love their big guys at the WWE, and this match comes around periodically to plague us. It's never any good, but they, it's two giant guys in the ring punching one another. And what better way to use a giant than to put him in the ring with a man his own size so that you don't have any sense of scale?

Kane and the Big Show used to be the tag team champions until losing the belts a few weeks ago to the Spirit Squad. (Don't ask.) Now we're doing the obligatory team break-up angle, but with a twist! The story is that Kane goes mad every time somebody mentions the date May 19th. By a happy coincidence, May 19th is the opening date of his new movie, See No Evil, a bargain-basement horror film which is the first effort from WWE Films. We're all assuming it's going to crash and burn. In the meantime, Kane and the Big Show find themselves in a ludicrous storyline which exists principally to drum the date "May 19th" into everyone's heads.

Kane presumably wins, to maintain his momentum leading up to the release of his movie. The match will suck.

6. Carlito v Chris Masters. A rare example of long-term planning. The storyline of Carlito continually screwing over fellow-heel Chris Masters has been running for months, and finally led to their break-up a few weeks ago. Normally at this point one or other guy would explicitly turn babyface. All logic suggests it should have been Chris Masters, as the wronged party. Instead, neither guy changed personality, and the fans chose to back Carlito, presumably on the logic that he's much more entertaining and they want to cheer for him anyway. Masters is just a warm body, at the end of the day.

So Carlito finds himself making the rare and tricky anti-hero turn, where he's now fighting the bad guys, but isn't actually doing anything very heroic himself, relying purely on charisma to remain popular. He's even kept his gloriously petty entrance video, which shows him spitting in the face of the insufficiently fashionable, and destroying a small child's sandcastle.

Since he's entering into a new phase for his character, Carlito ought to win here for the momentum, although leaving room for a rematch down the road. On paper this isn't a good match - Carlito's middling and Masters needs a more talented wrestler to lead him gently by the hand. Still, Carlito has his good days, so you never know.

Regular viewers watching Masters' entrance video may note the remarkable, and no doubt entirely coincidental, change in his appearance ever since the steroid ban was announced.

7. Ric Flair v Umaga. Look, kids! Racism!

Much-loved veteran Ric Flair will presumably be lying down gracefully for the new monster villain Umaga, recently introduced into the show. It's Umaga's first PPV match and if he loses, they're insane. Umaga is, god help us, the sort of stereotypical Samoan wrestler I thought we'd seen the back of in 1978. Somewhere in the TNA studios in Florida, Samoa Joe must be watching and silently thanking god that he went with the number two company.

Meanwhile, the WWE has a barefoot savage with warpaint, whose authenticity starts and ends with two facts: (i) Umaga is indeed a real Samoan name, and (ii) the guy who plays him is indeed Samoan. You might remember him as Jamal from 3 Minute Warning. Well, he's ethnically Samoan, at least. He's actually from San Francisco. In all other respects, it's the sort of character that makes you bang your head against the wall in frustration, and probably leaves Umaga himself wondering whether he might have been better off staying in Japan, where he was getting rather good reviews.

In a curious piece of randomness, Umaga's manager is Armando Alejandro Estrada, whose gimmick is that he's Cuban. He's not, of course. Hazem Ali is actually ethnically Palestinian, and spent a while down in OVW wrestling as - ahem - "Osama." Paul Heyman defused this horrible gimmick by repackaging him as Osama Rodriguez Alejandro, the half-Palestinian half-Cuban dictator, who wanted to rule Kentucky. This made him far too silly to be offensive, and he turned out to be an unexpectedly entertaining comedian. He's reportedly an absolutely terrible wrestler, but it doesn't matter as long as he sticks to the manager role - because he's great on the mike.

Despite the awful gimmick involved, Flair is a legendary wrestler and Umaga is, reportedly, quite decent these days. This might be alright (technically, at least).

Buy? Hmm. No surefire good matches, and one guaranteed dog. But quite a few where I'm honestly curious to see what happens. It's not the strongest card on paper and I'd probably let it slide if it was a PPV over here... but there's enough of interest to make it borderline.