Saturday, May 20, 2006

Judgment Day 2006

Another week, another WWE pay-per-view. Judgment Day is a Smackdown-only show, and it's suffered from a build-up so inept that most wrestling fans seem to have given up on it already. In fact, there are some matches on the undercard which might be okay, if they're given time - but given that they're on the undercard, they probably won't be given time. The main event is dead in the water thanks to bad writing, and there are two more matches which, on paper, should be unbearably terrible. All told, there's a good chance that this will be the WWE's worst show of the year.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Rey Mysterio v JBL. Mysterio is the defending champion, having won the belt in March at Wrestlemania 22. It's difficult to express what an awful job the WWE have done with him as champion. Standing a meagre 5'6" tall, tiny little Mysterio isn't even technically a heavyweight - he's actually sixty pounds under the limit for the cruiserweight division - but such technicalities have never much concerned the WWE. Mysterio was given the belt for several good reasons. First, wrestling is big with the hispanic audience, and Mysterio is Mexican. Second, he was a close friend of the late Eddie Guerrero, which allowed them to do a thoroughly tasteless tribute storyline. Third, he's a very good wrestler who can be relied on for decent matches. Fourth, the crowd has always loved him. Fifth, with a spate of injuries at the top of the card, they desperately needed a fresh face.

So far, so good. But tiny little Mysterio is, unavoidably, the underdog champion. The WWE claim to understand this point, but they don't really. Their approach has been to book Mysterio into the ground, where he loses match after match. A couple of weeks ago this reached the height of absurdity, when the Great Khali defeated him clean (in his home town) in a mtch where he got no offence whatsoever. Last week, the show ended with Mysterio and JBL both being laid out by Kane, who isn't even on this pay-per-view, but who does a movie to promote. That's how far down the pecking order the Smackdown title has fallen.

The point that the WWE seem to be missing is that they don't need to make Mysterio look vulnerable. The man is literally half the size of some of his opponents. He will always be the underdog. In fact, he needs to be booked strongly, in order to maintain the illusion that he can beat these people in a fair fight. In reality, the WWE has unintentionally created the impression that Mysterio is an utterly undeserving champion who could be slaughtered by 90% of the roster. Some live crowds have started to turn on him.

JBL seems to be a more or less random choice as opponent. He's the current United States champion (although that belt isn't on the line), which would normally suggest that they're not planning to put the World Title on him as well. But then again, the Rey Mysterio experiment is failing badly. On top of that, Batista is due back from the injured list in the foreseeable future. When that happens, he'll presumably go straight after the World Title (which he vacated due to his genuine shoulder injury, meaning that he never really lost the belt). So they really need to get the belt onto a heel for Batista to challenge. JBL is as good a choice as any - at least he's a former world champion, and it's been over a year since he had the belt, so he's still relatively fresh.

My money is on JBL to win on Sunday; if he retains, it's because the WWE think they can salvage something from Rey, and I respectfully disagree. They need to get the belt off Rey so that they can start rebuilding him. The actual match will probably be good but not exceptional; we've seen these two wrestle many times before, and it's usually around that level.

2. King of the Ring Tournament Final: Booker T v. Bobby Lashley. The annual King of the Ring knockout tournament used to be a pay-per-view in its own right, but they dropped it several years ago. This year, it's been brought back as a tournament running on Smackdown itself, with the final on pay-per-view. Personally, I always thought the knockout tournament format was a nice gimmick that made the show stand out, but the writers don't seem to like it much. It also requires the same wrestlers to work several times in a single night, but given the lack of depth in the Smackdown roster, I don't consider that a major problem.

The King of the Ring tournament has a degree of credibility because historically, a lot of winners went on to long runs at the top of the business. It's been presented, with some legitimacy, as a win that elevates a midcarder and helps him break from the pack. Previous winners include Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Triple H and Kurt Angle, in each case before they made it to the main event. Mind you, previous winners also include Viscera and Billy Gunn, but they've successfully edited those guys out of history.

Booker T is a veteran and Lashley is a relative novice, so unless they've completely missed the point of the tournament, Lashley is presumably winning here. This might actually be a bad move, because although Lashley has obvious potential, he's still very inexperienced, and probably not ready to move to the next level yet. Booker T, on the other hand, has been out of the main event scene for years but has been doing some very entertaining material lately, and might be worth another shot at the top of the card. That said, I don't see him carrying Lashley to a particularly good match here.

3. WWE Tag Team Titles: MNM (Joey Mercury & Johnny Nitro) v. Paul London & Brian Kendrick. London and Kendrick do have a shared entrance video, but it doesn't seem to be on the WWE website (which is very erratic about keeping these things up to date). Still, I love Kendrick's solo video, so I'm not complaining.

A rare example of a match where the build-up is relatively sane. London and Kendrick, the plucky underdog babyfaces, have repeatedly beaten the champions MNM in tag matches and singles matches, but have never been given their title shot until now. And that's it.

On paper, this should be alright. The wrestlers are decent, and for some reason the WWE suddenly seems to have realised that Paul London is worth their attention, despite being a cruiserweight. London is very good indeed, but rarely gets the opportunity to show it. Having said all that, this will be a very one-sided feud if London and Kendrick win this match too, so presumably MNM will win by a screwjob to set up a rematch down the road.

Nothing wrong with that - within reason, the longer London and Kendrick chase the titles, the more it means when they finally get them. And frankly, on a show where the writers often seem to be trying far too hard to be innovative (and getting it badly wrong), it makes a pleasant change just to have a feud based around the fact that one team is simply better than the other one. If it's given time, this should be good.

4. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Gregory Helms v. Super Crazy. I doggedly insist on listing the title matches first, but really this will be some way down at the bottom of the card. Super Crazy is one of the Mexican wrestlers who they haven't buried yet, and since he's good, he's worth pushing. It's worth noting that Super Crazy and his fellow Mexicools were turned babyface by force of the hispanic audience, who simply refused to acknowledge them as the bad guys and cheered them anyway. And this despite the fact that they came to the ring on lawnmowers. In a sane world, you take advantage of performers who are that popular with the audience.

On the other hand, the entire build-up for this match is that Super Crazy won a title shot, and this is it. So unless they've completely given up on Helms (and there's no reason why they should, because he's decent as well), he really ought to retain here, building to Super Crazy winning a rematch down the line. However, the WWE seem to book the Cruiserweight division as an afterthought, so there's a fair chance that Crazy will just win the damn belt here, and the writers will expect it to mean something just because it's a WWE belt.

Potentially a good match - as long as it gets some time, which is unlikely, because it's a Cruiserweight Title bout way down on the undercard.

5. The Undertaker v. The Great Khali. God help us. The WWE has always had a weakness for signing really big men simply on the grounds that they're really big, without much regard to their talent levels. The Great Khali - or Dalip Singh to his mum - is the latest beneficiary of this ill-advised policy. He's been a professional wrestler for years, getting by purely on the fact that he's a seven-foot powerlifter. According to those who are familiar with his work, he's one of the worst wrestlers on the planet. (It's also widely suggested that he's unsafe to work with, although that may be somewhat exaggerated as a result of the tragic death of Brian Ong in 2001, who suffered a fatal head injury while training with Khali.)

Thus far the WWE have kept him in very short squash matches, which tends to suggest that they know he's not up to the job. But on Sunday, he's fighting the Undertaker, and there's no way he's squashing the Undertaker. This will have to be a competitive match, and that's just a horrible thought. He's been wrestling for six years now with no obvious improvement, so if this match scrapes the bar of "competent", that'll be an achievement in itself.

All logic says Khali ought to win here, since it'd be a total waste for him to lose his first competitive match after all this build-up. In fact, he really ought to win convincingly, but WWE politics means that the Undertaker will be protected, so it'll probably be an inconclusive finish. Brace yourselves for a DQ. Barring a miracle, the match will be one of the worst of the year.

6. Kurt Angle v. Mark Henry. Angle and Henry previously fought for the World Title at the Royal Rumble show in January. This was arguably the worst match of Angle's career, although in fairness, he was working through a lot of injuries at the time and was severely limited in what he could do. Kurt Angle very, very rarely has bad matches, so this one was particularly notable.

He's still working through a lot of injuries, and the only real question is whether Angle's come up with some better ideas in the intervening months. It'll probably be better than January - Angle simply takes too much pride in his work to allow a repeat of that fiasco - but it won't be good. The less said about this the better, really. With any luck, Mark Henry wins and they do an injury angle to justify giving Kurt some much-needed time off the road. I'd really prefer not to think about this any further.

7. Chris Benoit v. Finlay. Two upper-midcarders who have been feuding ever since they got each other eliminated from the King of the Ring tournament. Benoit, as a former world champion and top-quality technical wrestler, is usually reliable. Finlay is a veteran who's been retired since the WCW days, but recently returned to the ring after a stint helping to train the women's division. Despite the obnoxiously Oirish entrance video, he's had a successful return simply by being a convincingly violent bastard. There's an aura of credibility to both these guys, which might explain why they got away with a remarkable match on Smackdown a couple of weeks ago featuring almost no cartoon pro-wrestling moves at all - just fifteen minutes of exchanging holds on the mat.

Unfortunately, some people in the WWE don't understand that that's the reason for Finlay's success and think that the Irish gimmick is being mysteriously underplayed. Hence, we can apparently expect this match to feature the debut of Finlay's new sidekick - a midget dressed as a leprechaun. No, I'm not making this up. To say that this spectacularly misses the point of the character would be an understatement.

Still, on paper this is by far the best match of the show. It also, inadvertantly, illustrates the single biggest tension in professional wrestling these days. The WWE's real competition doesn't come from other wrestling promotions, none of which are big enough to matter, but from mixed martial arts and in particular the UFC. UFC pay-per-views are now regularly beating WWE ones, and even no-name mixed martial arts shows are drawing remarkable live crowds in the parts of the USA. This is the new competition.

The question is how wrestling responds to that. Do you move in a more realistic direction, and attempt to appeal to the MMA audience with a more plausible, sports-based product, or do you go in the other direction and play up the insanity of professional wrestling? To judge from their last match, Benoit and Finlay vote for option 1; WWE management votes for option 2. The match will probably be excellent, and the winner will probably be Finlay through (oh god) leprechaun interference.

8. Melina v. Jillian Hall. Token women's match, the point of which is less than clear. Jillian Hall has been a heel for ages, but apparently became a babyface by default when she was sacked as JBL's sidekick a couple of weeks ago. Now she's feuding with Melina from MNM because... er, because... well, yeah. Nobody cares about this match, and it won't be any good. It doesn't matter in the slightest who wins.

Worth buying? Christ, no. Benoit/Finlay should be very good but will probably be marred by a leprechaun. The main event is dead in the water, Angle/Henry was dire last time round, and Undertaker/Khali will probably be legendarily bad. On paper the Cruiserweight and Tag Team matches should be decent, but I doubt they'll get the time to develop. Booker/Lashley is unlikely to be particularly memorable, and the women's match doesn't really count. Steer clear.