Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Wrestlemania 22

(Originally posted Thursday 30 March.)

Right, let's get things back on track.

Wrestlemania 22 is on Sunday, so it's time to run down the card for that. Wrestlemania is one of those titles which no doubt seemed very catchy in 1984, but continues to exist because the WWE have successfully pushed it as the single biggest show of their year. In theory, this is the most important pay-per-view, and everything comes to a peak here. The WWE doesn't have seasons in the same way as other television, but this is their equivalent of the season finale. They like to compare it to the Superbowl, which is hubris, but somewhat valid within the wrestling context.

This is not a particularly good year on paper. As we'll see, there are some bizarre booking decisions on this card, in large part due to the increasing tendency to treat the whole company as a vanity promotion built around the McMahon family (who genuinely own it). To be fair, this happens in wrestling all the time, but they really do seem to be blinding themselves to the bigger picture.

There are also some notable omissions from this show. The Intercontinental Title isn't being defended, although the champion, Shelton Benjamin, is wrestling in another match. The Smackdown Tag Titles aren't being defended, and the champions, MNM, aren't on the show at all. No Cruiserweight Title match either, although they've got the excuse that Gregory Helms is off having his broken nose fixed. (A job which would have been much easier if they hadn't shoved him into a match with Chris Benoit before he took time off. Benoit's finishing move involves pressing down hard on the nose. Well done, WWE.)

Nor do we have the Hulk Hogan/Steve Austin match which was being planned at one point, although I can't say I'm shedding any tears about that. Austin never agreed to this one in the first place, and any prospect of him agreeing it went out the window when they asked him to lose a match to Jonathan Coachman. Not surprisingly, Austin was not up for losing to an announcer, and went home instead. The WWE held out for this result as part of a storyline designed to get rid of lead commentator Jim Ross at all costs; they've now realised that they don't have any replacements in the same league, and so Ross will be doing the commentary at Wrestlemania anyway. It's real playground-level politics. Which is good, in a way, because it means wrestling is always entertaining, even when the shows aren't.

So... what do we have on this four-hour show?

1. WWE Title: John Cena -v- Triple H. Ah, absurdity straight off the bat. Crowds have been turning on Cena for months, despite the fact that he's meant to be the crowd-pleasing hero. It's been slightly better in recent weeks, but not by much. Basically, the hardcore fanbase see Cena as somebody who simply isn't good enough at the technical side of things to merit a year-long run as champion. The problem is that the casual audience, especially the kids, love him. He's one of their big merchandise sellers, so they're very reluctant to give up on him. And yet live crowds keep booing him out of the building. If anything, Wrestlemania is likely to draw a more devoted live crowd than usual, so there's a big prospect of this going horribly wrong.

Back at the start of the year, things seemed to be getting on track again. Edge, who won his "Money in the Bank" title shot back at last year's Wrestlemania, cashed it in at the end of a PPV, and beat Cena for the title. Edge's elevation from the midcard actually sent ratings up, and audiences finally started to cheer the unjustly defeated Cena. More by accident than design, they'd stumbled onto a match people actually wanted to see.

But the plan, all along, was for Cena to lose the title to Triple H at Wrestlemania. And Triple H is the owner's son-in-law, so we're getting that match whether we like it or not. Edge lost the title back to Cena within a month, and normal service was promptly resumed.

Triple H is almost certainly winning here, because that's just the way things are. The build-up to this match has been fairly lacklustre, and has mainly involved Triple H completely misreading the audience by making exactly the criticisms of Cena that the crowd already agree with. Poor Cena is then scripted to respond by explaining that, sure, he's not very good at wrestling - but boy, he's got heart. It's gloriously inept, and you can sometimes see Cena suppressing a smirk during these segments. Even he can't quite believe it.

The match quality is likely to be shaky. Cena isn't that good, and his best matches are gimmicky and short. But there's a lot of gimmick matches on the show already, so the pressure will be on to deliver a quality straight wrestling match. And, if HHH is in his normal mood, he'll want it to be long, just to prove that he can have a good long match with Cena. He probably can't. At worst the match will be average, but it would be a real surprise if this was a seriously good match. A massive crowd backlash might elevate it into compelling trainwreck TV, if we're lucky.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Kurt Angle -v- Randy Orton -v- Rey Mysterio. Over on Smackdown, the writers have kind of lost interest in the whole thing. The original plan here was for Randy Orton to win the title from Batista. Then Batista got injured and Kurt Angle was drafted in to replace him as champion. Unusually, Angle isn't playing face or heel; he gets cheered or booed depending on who he's fighting at the time. In this match, that makes him the tweener, with Rey as the hero and Orton as the villain. Angle has long-running health problems and it's virtually certain that he'll be dropping the title here.

Rey Mysterio ended up in this match by a bizarre route. The first plan was to cynically exploit the death of Eddie Guerrero. Mysterio would dedicate his career to his late friend, win a title shot at January's Royal Rumble show, and then lose it to Randy Orton in February. This, in theory, was meant to make Orton a bigger villain. In practice, there has been a change of heart somewhere along the line. References to Eddie have been drastically toned down in the last month or so, and they did a screwjob finish in February to justify allowing both men into a three-way title defence.

Since that point, the writers seem to have become very confused about what story they're trying to tell here, and the plot has just sort of drifted over the last month. Consequently, there's not nearly as much momentum behind this match as there ought to be. On the other hand, on paper this is the best technical wrestling match on the card, and these three guys should be capable of putting on something genuinely memorable.

If they had any sense they'd put the belt on Mysterio and take advantage of his popularity - Orton really isn't ready for this role yet, despite their best efforts to groom him. Plus, they've probably got HHH winning the other world title, so a Mysterio win would send the fans home happy. But the WWE never has any confidence in smaller wrestlers, no matter how popular they are, and Orton has been the planned champion for ages. So he's probably getting the win even though it's completely the wrong decision.

Oh, and for some bizarre reason, Rey Mysterio's theme music will be played live by POD. Since POD didn't have anything to do with his theme music - a cod-reggaeton effort which rejoices in the name "Booyaka 619" - this should be a cover version from hell.

3. United States Title: Chris Benoit -v- JBL. I'll say one thing for the booking of Smackdown's #2 title - with Benoit, JBL, Booker T and Randy Orton all fighting over it in recent months, at least they've made it look like a title the top guys care about. We're got two former world champions here fighting over the B-title, which is unusual. And it's worth doing a run like this from time to time, so that it looks meaningful when a rising star gets the title instead.

There's no real story to this match; they've tried to build something around JBL's legitimate broken hand, but really there's only so much that can be done when one of the wrestlers is out of action until a couple of weeks before the match. Besides, this is really just a filler programme for both Benoit and JBL, designed to get them both on the show rather than achieving anything more. Benoit is almost guaranteed to retain; I can't see any possible purpose in a JBL win.

The match should be pretty good - JBL's capable of having quality matches with the right opponent, and Benoit tends to get good matches out of almost everyone. It's also a much-needed straight wrestling match on the undercard.

4. World Tag Team Titles: Big Show & Kane -v- Carlito & Chris Masters. These are the Raw tag titles; the Smackdown ones aren't on the show at all. Big Show and Kane won the titles in January, and the giants have been destroying everyone else ever since. Frankly, Raw doesn't have much of a tag division to speak of, and there aren't any credible opponents for them. So here are Carlito and Chris Masters, who have a longrunning storyline based on the idea that they keep teaming up, and Carlito keeps screwing Chris over. Of course, as Carlito points out, he's hardly going to do that when they're both on the same team, is he?

The bad guys have been portrayed as totally ineffective over the last few weeks, which is often an indicator that they're going to have a surprise win. Personally, I'm thoroughly bored of Kane and Big Show squashing any remotely credible opponent, and I'm rooting for the bad guys. The match is likely to be pretty poor.

5. WWE Women's Title: Trish Stratus -v- Mickie James. This is the latest step in the long-running storyline where the psychotic and obsessive Mickie James stalks champion Trish Stratus. Mickie turned on Trish altogether earlier this month after the penny finally dropped that Trish just wasn't interested. Strangely, despite being a women's match (normally booked as an afterthought), it's actually the only match on this card to have a real, long-term plan behind it. Since Mickie's only just become a full-blown heel, it's way too early for the storyline to end; therefore, logic says Mickie is winning here, to set up rematches down the line.

Unfortunately, although the storyline works well enough, most of the wrestling in this feud has been wretched. That's partly because the storyline has placed Trish and Mickie on the same side until relatively recently, and there's almost nobody else on the women's roster who can actually wrestle (except Victoria, who seems to be out of favour for some reason, given how infrequently she's being used). The one time we saw Trish and Mickie wrestle before, it wasn't much good, and the general consensus is that Mickie has seriously underperformed since joining the main roster. She's had much better matches on the indie scene.

There's a possibility that we'll see something better tomorrow night, but I'm not holding my breath.

Right, on to the non-title matches.

6. No holds barred: Vince McMahon -v- Shawn Michaels. For fuck's sake. This is really silly even by wrestling standards - Shawn Michaels, still more or less at his peak, will be fighting the WWE's real-life chairman and majority owner, Vince McMahon. Vince is sixty. He's also a bodybuilder who should thank god he's not technically a contracted performer, and therefore he's exempt from the WWE's new steroid testing policy. Vince has wrestled occasionally in the past, and while he's a lot better than a 60-year-old non-wrestler ought to be, he's not so good that he ought to be wrestling main eventers on the biggest show of the year. But it's his company, so.....

The storyline here has Vince tormenting Shawn for reasons that have never been entirely clear. Loosely, there seems to have been some plan to bring in Bret Hart here, and play off the infamous Montreal screwjob. The Montreal screwjob was in 1997, but Vince hasn't shut up about it yet. Bret Hart has made it clear for years that he has no interest in doing any sort of storyline based around it (besides which, he's long since retired from wrestling due to a series of concussions). But they started a storyline around it anyway, and now there's no Bret to pay it off. Presumably, Shawn will finally defeat Vince to end the storyline, and about time too.

The "No holds barred" stipulation is there to let them do a load of brawling and disguise Vince's lack of actual wrestling ability. They'll need it. Shawn can probably get a decent match out of Vince - he almost got a decent one out of Hulk Hogan last year, and Hogan is virtually immobile these days. And I mean that literally. This should probably be above average.

7. Money in the Bank Ladder Match: Shelton Benjamin -v- Ric Flair -v- Rob Van Dam -v- Bobby Lashley -v- Matt Hardy -v- Fit Finlay. This is the second annual MitB Ladder Match. The idea is that the winner gets a contract which gives them a title shot at any time they want during the next year. Last year they did it right - Edge won the title shot and sat on it for nine months until he could attack the champion when he was vulnerable. Since Edge actually won the title that way, the stipulation has some automatic credibility to it this year; in 2005, it was seen as a device to get some guys without storylines onto the show.

The selection of wrestlers is, to put it mildly, a bit random. It's the only "interpromotional" match on the show, with three guys from Raw and three from Smackdown. The presence of veterans Ric Flair and Fit Finlay in a six-man ladder match is downright weird, although Flair had an unexpectedly good ladder match against Edge back in January. Basically, Flair and Finlay are there to hold the match together; Van Dam and Hardy have the experience of doing demented stunt matches; Shelton Benjamin doesn't have anything better to do, even though he's the Intercontinental Champion, and he was really good in last year's match; and Bobby Lashley is there to look impressive and smash things. I have high hopes for this one.

As for the winner, my money's on RVD. He hasn't fought Triple H before, fans have always wanted to see him pushed at a higher level, and there's an obvious storyline to be done with him cashing in the title shot at this year's ECW memorial show. (Yes, they're doing another one. No, it isn't a good idea.) The downside is that RVD hasn't been anywhere near his best since he came back from injury, but that's never stopped them before.

For the others... it's way too soon for Lashley to be in the title hunt. Shelton Benjamin is the IC champion already and doesn't need the win. Ric Flair winning a ladder match at his age would be silly. Matt Hardy is not going to be headlining shows any time soon. Finlay is a possibility, mind you, because he's been getting unexpectedly good reactions on Smackdown. The WWE might wish to reflect that this is because he's a very, very good veteran wrestler, and not because he's got a fucking leprechaun in his entrance video.

8. Casket match: The Undertaker v Mark Henry. This year's annual win for the Undertaker, who hasn't been beaten at Wrestlemania since he first appeared on the show in 1991. Okay, so if you want to nitpick, he wasn't actually on the show in 1994. Or in 2000. And because they hadn't worked out yet that his winning streak was going to be a big deal, the 1993 match was actually a DQ win. But still. Undefeated at Wrestlemania. They've realised over the last few years that this is a big deal and they've built it up appropriately. At some point, some rising star will beat the Undertaker at Wrestlemania and it will do wonders for his career, instantly cementing him as an A-list wrestler.

It won't be Mark Henry, who's nearing the end of his contract with the WWE, and is presumably here to use up the remains of the credibility he acquired during his brief feud with Kurt Angle earlier this year. The World's Strongest Man (a title which he actually has some legitimate claim to) is undoubtedly powerful, and he's not bad on the mike, but he's a thoroughly underwhelming wrestler. Oh, and it's Undertaker's gimmick match - winner is whoever puts his opponent in a coffin. So Undertaker will win, and the match will be dull and too long.

9. Hardcore match: Edge v Mick Foley. After losing the title, Edge has drifted into this slightly underwritten feud with Mick Foley. The idea, in theory, is that Edge is bitter because the retired Foley was the referee in the match where he lost the title. Except Foley didn't actually do anything to cost him the title, so it doesn't really make sense. They've also realised that years of being a cuddly comedy figure have finally eroded most of the credibility Foley acquired over his career as an insanely violent risktaker. Quite rightly, they've confronted that head-on over the last few weeks, and done a reasonably good job of re-building the feud around the more interesting question: does Foley still have the old fire?

Foley's last televised match, against Carlito, was thoroughly disappointing and you could tell his heart wasn't in it. This time he seems to be up for it, and for once the Hardcore Rules stipulation plays into the storyline rather than just being a device to cover up the wrestlers' limitations. Hopefully Foley isn't going to do anything too silly, because he's been known to push his luck in the past, and he's got enough talent as a in-ring storyteller that he really doesn't need to take repeated unprotected chairshots to the head. Not that this has ever stopped him in the past. Edge has rather more regard for his own safety, fortunately.

Foley's recent matches have been erratic, but he's usually good value when he's motivated, and I expect this to be good. By the way, if you're wondering what the difference is between a Hardcore match and a No Holds Barred match, a NHB match still has to end in the ring.

10. The Boogeyman -v- Booker T & His Wife Sharmell. The demented Boogeyman gimmick is actually getting over, despite his total inability to wrestle. They've disguised this carefully for months by focussing on the gimmickry and keeping matches very, very short. And that's what'll happen here. They'll do a load of comedy spots, and then Booker will get pinned. It's a breather between real matches. Reportedly the Boogeyman injured his bicep at a house show in the last couple of days, but he should be okay for this "match", because he won't actually have to do any significant wrestling. It's a Boogeyman segment, we all know the deal by now.

11. Pillow fight: Torrie Wilson v Candice Michelle. Yes, well. The loose justification here is that Candice is on the cover of Playboy this month, and so was Torrie once upon a time. So they're going to hit one another with pillows. Again, it's a filler segment. For what it's worth, Candice will almost certainly win, because Torrie is, shall we say, nearing the end of her useful lifespan in her present role.

Worth buying? It's almost academic, really, because this is the big show of the year and wrestling fans buy it anyway. There's a number of promising matches on here, most of the bad ones will be short, and when Mark Henry comes on, there's always the fast forward button. Despite the poor build-up, Angle/Orton/Mysterio should be good, the ladder match ought to work, Benoit is always reliable, and Edge/Foley is promising. And HHH/Cena could be a wonderful trainwreck. I'm buying.