Saturday, June 24, 2006

Vengeance 2006

Time for another PPV. Vengeance is a Raw show, in theory, but there's a complication. The WWE have only just launched ECW as their third brand, and there's no way they're passing up the opportunity to plug it on PPV. So in fact, three of these matches are Raw/ECW, following on from ECW One Night Stand.

The ECW relaunch is, shall we say, a work in progress. The whole idea is riddled with problems. The brand has a one hour weekly show... on the Sci-Fi Channel. Having taken the bizarre step of commissioning a wrestling show in the first place, the Sci-Fi Channel have decided that it must contain some sci-fi/fantasy content, which is why there's a vampire in the car park. No, really. You'll note that the commentators consistently deride this stuff, and the WWE are obviously hoping that Sci-Fi will take the hint and stop whining. ECW is, after all, their highest-rated show.

But the problems run deeper than that. In order to legitimise ECW as a relaunch of the cult 1990s promotion (which went bust several years ago), the WWE have brought back a load of old ECW wrestlers. Some of these guys haven't worked on any sort of major stage since ECW went under, and frankly, it doesn't take a genius to see why. Mainstream audiences never really watched ECW in the first place and don't quite understand the point. Even if they did understand it, they probably wouldn't like it, because ECW was the vaguely anarchic underground alternative to the WWF and WCW - in other words, it's defined precisely by its opposition to what most wrestling viewers enjoy watching on Raw and Smackdown.

In a bold and possibly misconceived move, ECW has been portrayed in exactly that light, as an anti-"sports entertainment" group. Not surprisingly, a lot of WWE audiences have concluded that ECW are meant to be the bad guys. This is fine up to a point; if you can cultivate separate audiences for the two shows then you can do something really interesting with factions who aren't simply good or bad, but represent two different types of show. That's how an invasion angle is supposed to work, and the indie promotions ROH and CZW are currently doing something very much along those lines.

But the WWE isn't prepared to spend the money for a third night of television tapings every week, so the ECW show is being filmed before the audience that came to see Smackdown. (If you're wondering why you can't see the giant Smackdown fist set, it's because ECW's fixed camera is sitting in Smackdown's entrance aisle; the Smackdown set is behind it.) The upshot is that the live crowd is baffled, indifferent, or actively hostile. They don't recognise the established ECW guys, and they only react to the WWE guys who have been drafted in to pad out the roster, or who are making guest appearances to plug the PPV.

Oh, and the first ECW show on Sci-Fi was widely acclaimed as one of the all-time worst professional wrestling shows in the history of broadcast television. In fairness, it wasn't quite that bad - people were expecting much more on the strength of the ECW pay-per-view and were hugely disappointed. But it wasn't what they needed to launch the new show. This week's effort was apparently better (it doesn't air in the UK until tonight). There's still a lot of work to be done.

Meanwhile, the rest of the card brings us a revival of an old gimmick, and a bunch of filler material...

1. WWE Championship: Rob Van Dam v Edge. Somewhat to my surprise, ECW veteran Rob Van Dam actually beat John Cena to win the title at the ECW pay-per-view earlier in the month. My money was on a disputed finish allowing both guys to claim the title. It seems that they're going for a slightly better route - a disputed finish tonight, leaving Van Dam stronger because he'll still be a legitimate former champion on any view. The crowd reaction to this should be interesting, because Edge is a heel, but a lot of the live crowd have interpreted RVD's defection to ECW as a heel turn as well. RVD is meant to be the good guy here, but I'm not sure the mainstream audience have noticed.

In an obvious set-up for the disputed finish, RVD is now carting two belts around - John Cena's gimmicky WWE title with the silly spinning logo, and a more sensible-looking ECW title belt. This is, nonetheless, explicitly a match for the WWE Championship and not the ECW belt. The worst of all worlds is to simply have Edge win, and then announce that, yeah, but RVD's still got the ECW title. This feud hasn't really been written very well, and I wouldn't completely rule out that finish.

RVD is past his prime and hasn't looked that good in several months. Edge, on the other hand, is on a roll, and his style should be a decent fit for Van Dam. In terms of match quality, this is very hard to predict; if they're allowed to go crazy and play to Van Dam's strengths, it could be great fun.

(Oh yeah... the reason Edge is getting the title shot is because he was already the number one contender before Rob Van Dam jumped into the queue and claimed the title shot he won at Wrestlemania. They really ought to be making something of the fact that Edge is the last guy with a chance to bring the WWE title back to Raw, but for some reason they're ignoring that whole side of the story.)

2. Intercontinental Title: Shelton Benjamin v Johnny Nitro v Carlito. Carlito is the de facto good guy here, since he's gone from an outright villain to a sort of antihero who feuds with other bad guys. Shelton Benjamin is the defending champion, still doing the cocky athlete routine (and his mother seems to have vanished completely, even though she's still clogging up his entrance video). Johnny Nitro has recently been transferred over from Smackdown, along with his manager Melina. They were both members of MNM; the third member, Joey Mercury, is reportedly in rehab at the moment. Proud possessor of the cheesiest name in wrestling, Johnny Nitro has actually come along tremendously over the last couple of years, and seems to be showing a bit more personality in his brief run as a solo act. That said, challenging for the IC belt is about his level.

There's not much story behind this, and frankly, any winner is probably acceptable. Like the main event, it's not a surefire great match, but there's enough talent in the ring that it could be good if the stars align. It's a chance for three midcard guys (especially Nitro) to show what they can do. Given the lack of an actual story, I suspect the plan here is to get the belt onto Nitro, and the only reason it's a triple threat match is because they can't book two bad guys against one another.

3. Handicap match: D-Generation X v The Spirit Squad. They're back, and they've got two words for you: Midlife Crisis. Triple H and Shawn Michaels used to do the DX anarchic rebel gimmick back in the mid-1990s when wrestling was in its boom period. To be honest, they were pushing the age range for it at the time. They're now around 40, and I'd have thought there's a limit to far they can take the nostalgia act before that fact becomes obvious. Both have been wrestling regularly in main events for years, so unless they're planning to start adding new members and building a new stable around the gimmick - probably a bad idea - it's really just a chance to enjoy the old D-Generation X entrance again. (And it's a great entrance, to be sure, with the in-house music people doing their very best Rage Against The Machine pastiche while garbled DX graphics keep cutting into the camera feed.)

They'll be facing all five members of the Spirit Squad, perhaps the most un-DX gimmick imaginable. The Squad are the current henchmen for WWE's evil management, and their gimmick is that they're male cheerleaders. When this gimmick was announced, the conventional wisdom was that it would kill the careers of all involved. The conventional wisdom has proved to be wrong, as the Spirit Squad have thrown themselves into their ludicrous gimmick with shameless abandon, and have turned out to be unexpectedly entertaining. (They're also the current tag team champions - yes, all five of them - although the belts don't seem to be on the line here.)

Although it's five on two, realistically three of the Squad members will carry most of the match. 19-year-old Kenny Doane is genuinely seen as a big prospect for the future, and they've started positioning him as a breakout star. Johnny Jeter is another guy with real potential, and Mikey's not bad either. The other two Squad members are really there to make up the numbers - regular viewers will have noticed that Nicky rarely gets to wrestle (it's the same guy who used to be Kerwin White's caddy), and Mitch never does anything. (They once even did a four-on-one handicap match and left Mitch out of it, which shows you how much confidence they have in him.) But the three Squad members who wrestle are good at it, and they should be able to have a really good match with DX. DX will win, presumably setting up a rematch for the tag titles, and I expect this to be fun with huge crowd reaction.

4. "Extreme Lumberjack Match": John Cena v Sabu. Cena, the former WWE champion, is a straightforward crowd-pleaser who runs through his standard moves to the joy or hatred of the crowd, depending on their mood. ECW's Sabu is traditionally billed as "homicidal, suicidal, genocidal", and the first two might be accurate. He's notorious for wrestling matches with insane stunts that demonstrate, even by wrestling standards, a terrifying disregard for his own safety and a less than average concern for the wellbeing of his opponent. It's not that he's trying to hurt people, he just has a different view from most as to the level of injury risk which is acceptable in the name of a good show.

Frankly, it's incredible that Sabu can still walk given some of the matches he's wrestled over the years. But he's still in surprisingly good shape. Unlike many of the ECW alumni, Sabu has still been wrestling over at TNA for the last couple of years. His matches in the new ECW have been unexpectedly decent. He's tremendously useful to ECW because, like Van Dam, he's legitimately associated with the original company, and there's some life in him yet.

On paper, Cena/Sabu is a horrific style clash. They booked it anyway for the WWE/ECW special a few weeks back, allegedly in part because some people in the company were hoping to expose the shortcomings of both wrestlers. In fact, the resulting match was perfectly okay, hence this rematch. It's a lumberjack match with ECW guys surrounding the ring, so we're probably looking at a massive ECW beatdown leading to a borderline meaningless Sabu win. I don't think they've particularly thought this through. It'll have some fun stunts, though, assuming that Sabu makes it through the match without breaking his neck.

5. Kurt Angle v Randy Orton. Nominally another interbrand match, since Angle is now an ECW guy. They already fought at ECW One Night Stand a couple of weeks back, in a perfectly adequate match which Angle won clean. There's nothing else left for them to do, and it's just a midcard filler match to get both guys on the card. It'll be good, but there's no real point to it.

6. Best of 3 falls: Mick Foley v. Ric Flair. A truly baffling undercard match, and a classic example of booking the show on the assumption that everyone involved is a hardcore fan. Ric Flair is the legendary champion of the 1980s, while Mick Foley embodies the insane, stunt-driven heights of the mid-1990s. Flair can't stand that sort of thing, doesn't really regard it as wrestling, and wrote in his autobiography that Foley was just a glorified stuntman. (There is a degree of truth to this view, although it overlooks Foley's abilities as a storyteller.) A token attempt has been made to explain all this to the live crowd, but really, they're just assuming we know why these guys don't like one another.

This show is coming from Charlotte, Flair's home town, so it's pretty obvious where the crowd's sympathies will lie. The bizarre storyline has Flair challenging Foley to a match of his choice (for no desperately clear reason), and Foley nominating the most old-school gimmick imaginable - the two-out-of-three-falls straight wrestling match. Foley claims that the match will be a fiasco and that this will embarrass Flair in his home town.

Yes, that's right. The storyline is that they're advertising a bad match.

Foley did something vaguely similar to this during his ECW run in the 1990s, when he presented himself as the champion of traditional wrestling and proceeded to deliberately put on the most boring matches imaginable to the outrage of the crowd. That succeeded before an ECW audience because they knew how wrestling worked and they got the joke. I'm not sure a WWE audience would understand it, or recognise the difference between an Andy Kaufman-style deliberately boring match and a genuinely bad one.

If they do a straight wrestling match, it'll probably be quite good. If they try something weird and gimmicky, it could go horrendously wrong.

7. Kane v Kane. Another bizarre story, in which Kane is haunted by a man wearing his old costume (complete with the mask) who attacks him from time to time. This has been a downright horrible feud, and the duplicate Kane, a guy by the name of Drew Hankinson, really isn't very good. The whole storyline seems to have been contrived in an attempt to allow people to keep saying "May 19" - the release date of Kane's movie See No Evil - and unfortunately they've now got to have a match. This should be brutal and, hopefully, short. With any luck the real Kane wins and we put an end to this awful storyline.

8. Eugene v Umaga. Battle of the offensive stereotypes! This month's victim for the Samoan islander is Eugene, the mentally handicapped wrestler. Don't ask. Umaga will win in two or three minutes. It'll be a filler item between more important matches.

Worth buying? Actually, yes - there are plenty of promising matches here and several where I'm genuinely curious to see what they do. It could easily go horribly wrong, but I can see this being a quality show.

Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking is the debut film from writer/director Jason Reitman, a man who has certain obvious advantages in the movie world (his dad directed Ghostbusters). Inevitably, there's a lot of pressure on people in Reitman's position to prove that they've actually got some talent and haven't simply jumped the queue on the basis of their industry connections. Luckily for Reitman, he certainly passes that test.

The film is an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel, which I haven't read, although apparently the plot deviates quite significantly. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a tobacco lobbyist, and the public face of smoking. As you might expect, he isn't a very popular man. But he's very good at his job, not because he can actually win any of the key arguments about tobacco, but because he knows how to charmingly sidestep them altogether.

There's a loose, but somewhat half-formed, plot - not so much a story as a collection of ideas that provide a backdrop for Naylor's character arc. He's feuding with his unappreciative boss. He's trying to get smoking back into films. He has to persuade ex-employees to keep quiet. He bonds with his son and teaches him the noble arts of spin. He argues antiheroically against warning labels on cigarette packets. There's a subplot with a reporter.

Many of these threads don't really go anywhere. A couple come to the foreground to create an artificial crisis as we go into the final act, and then quietly get dropped. Strangest of all, we never actually find out the identity of the people threatening Naylor. It doesn't matter, because they're just a metaphor, but it's still a bold move to leave such a major plot point unresolved.

Reitman gets away with it, though, because the heart of the film is Aaron Eckhart's strong central performance as Naylor, and his relationship with his son (a child actor, but a largely acceptable one). Crucially, Naylor isn't evil, he's just totally amoral. He loves his job simply because he's good at it. In his world, everything is up for debate, and once you've opened a debate, there isn't a right or wrong answer any more. How you frame the debate is more important than what you're actually saying. We're not supposed to admire him for this, but he's allowed to be somewhat sympathetic by virtue of being open about what he does, and because his feelings for his son are plainly sincere.

The standard resolution of this story would be for Naylor to have an epiphany and start using his abilities for good. Reitman goes the other way, as Naylor overcomes adversity to achieve precisely what he set out to do at the beginning of the film. Since his opponents are politicians whose anti-smoking policies are adopted for reasons just as cynical as his own, and he's allowed to frame his big speech as a defence of freedom of choice, it's possible to get behind him on this. On reflection it's a rather manipulative finale, since instead of changing Naylor himself, Reitman changes the specific issue that he's debating, in order to allow him to be the pseudo-hero in the final scenes. But then perhaps that's the point; Naylor is neither good nor evil, he's just an attack dog who'll argue either side as an end in itself. If anything, he prefers being wrong because it's more of a challenge.

It's often very funny, and Reitman is clearly doing something right if he can make me root for the pro-smoking lobbyist, no matter how ironically. It's not quite the devastating satire some critics would have you believe - allowing Naylor to remain an anti-hero isn't that groundbreaking - but if anything it's stronger for presenting Naylor as the morally neutral embodiment of content-free argument. A very good debut.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


See, I said I'd get around to reviewing this in the end.

Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is this year's oddball non-fiction hit. It bears the curious sub-title "A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything", and doesn't really explain very clearly what it's about.

Levitt is an economist. Dubner isn't. He's a journalist, who wrote an article about Levitt a while back, and ended up doing a whole book on it. Basically, the point of this book is to bring Levitt's work to a mass audience. This probably sounds extremely tiresome, because even though we all know we should pay more attention, our eyes tend to glaze over at the words "deflation" and "supply-side economics."

But that sort of thing is macroeconomics - the big picture of the economy. Levitt doesn't do macroeconomics. He does microeconomics, looking at how people behave on the small scale. Frankly, a lot of the work covered in this book wouldn't even be recognised as economics by most people. In layman's terms, he's really more of an applied statistician. He takes mounds of indigestible data and picks them apart to discover unlikely and counterintuitive cause-and-effect relationships.

Levitt acquired a measure of notoriety in 2001 for his paper The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime, in which he (and his co-author John Donohue) examined various possible explanations for the drop in American crime rates in the 1990s. Freakonomics helpfully explains the paper in layman's terms. In a nutshell, their analysis of the data showed that, alongside other factors, a significant part was played by Roe v Wade. Thanks to that 1973 decision, an awful lot of people who would previously have existed never got born. Those people skew disproportionately to the social groups with high crime rates, and hence a whole load of potential criminals were averted. (It's a bit more complicate than that, but you get the general idea.) They then cross-check this against the states which legalised abortion earlier on, and it confirms their findings.

Whether you actually agree with this analysis or not - and frankly, you'd have to know an awful lot of statistics to verify it for yourself - it's certainly an interesting idea, and a compelling example of what you can prove with statistics. One of the book's key strengths is its ability to explain fairly complicated statistical ideas in lay terms without completely copping out and saying "We proved it, but you'd never understand how." You won't find the detailed statistical analysis here, but you'll at least find the shape of the argument, and get some understanding of how this sort of thing works.

By the way, Levitt has never suggested that the drop in crime rate means that abortion is a good thing. On the contrary, he also points out that the effect on crime is pretty tiny compared to the number of abortions required, which means that if you place any real value on the unborn child, it's not worth it just for the social engineering consequences. He simply observes that it's an unintended benefit of a practice that goes on for completely separate reasons. Unsurprisingly, but depressingly, many people think it's distasteful to consider this sort of thing, even if it's true.

Other chapters are rather less confrontational. Levitt examines the economics of drug dealing and demonstrates why people would bother entering a profession that generally pays less than minimum wage and carries a worryingly high risk of getting shot dead. He uses statistics to prove that teachers and sumo wrestlers cheat. He argues that what you do as a parent actually makes virtually no difference to the outcome of your child; it's your qualities that affect your child (class, job, wealth) rather than anything specific that you happen to do with your kid (make them read books, take them to the museum...). Dubner, meanwhile, makes sense of all this for the layman, without losing sight of the main point - which is to explain the way Levitt thinks.

Officially, Freakonomics lacks any sort of unifying theme. It jumps around all manner of oddball subjects, partly because Levitt is recycling research that he's already published in academic papers. It's Steven Levitt's Greatest Hits, not exactly dumbed down, but certainly rendered less technical and infinitely more accessible to the non-specialist.

In reality, the main theme is Levitt's methodology itself. It's a book that tells us, with wide-eyed enthusiasm, about all the great things you can achieve through the power of critical thinking and logical analysis. It's carefully presented with a tone of intrigued fascination that reassures the reader about the reasonableness of his preconceptions before carefully dismantling them over the course of a chapter. I rather suspect that one main point of the book, which they won't point out explicitly, is to try and encourage people to think more, and to think more critically. But if you say that outright, the audience get insulted, so it's better just to try and engage their imagination.

Whether you categorise Levitt's work as economics or statistics, it's the sort of mathematics that most people find incredibly dry. The strength of this book is its ability to make it seem engaging and to give you at least the illusion that you understand what Levitt's doing. In reality, as I say, he's giving you the shape of the argument but you're really taking the results on faith. But that's inevitable in a book of this sort; if you want to go and check the small print, you can always go and read the original academic publications.

The ability to make dry academic subjects accessible and interesting without oversimplifying them into oblivion is something to be applauded. Yes, it's a bit patchwork. Even so, it sells its subject very well indeed.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

ECW One Night Stand

Okay, so we'll get to Freakonomics shortly. ECW One Night Stand is on in a few hours time, which means I'd better get the preview done.

This is a strange show, and intriguing for a number of reasons totally unrelated to the actual matches. Incidentally, it's not a pay-per-view in the UK, so the question of whether to buy it doesn't arise, although sheer curiosity value would probably have led me to make the purchase.

For those among you who may not be familiar with them, ECW ("Extreme Championship Wrestling") was the number three wrestling promotion during the late 1990s wrestling boom. Numbers 1 and 2 were the WWF and WCW, and as you can probably imagine, it was a pretty steep drop down to number 3. ECW effectively served as the indie alternative to the two corporate monoliths, with a much more violent, intentionally controversial and low-budget feel. The promotion has acquired a somewhat undeserved reputation for "hardcore" garbage wrestling, relying more on weapons than actual moves, which is a little unfair - there was plenty of normal wrestling in ECW. Then again, it's true to say that the hardcore angle was one of their unique selling points.

ECW went out of business several years ago, at which point the WWE picked up the rights to the name. Opinions vary as to quite why the company went under, given that its programming was undeniably very influential in wrestling circles. Broadly speaking, the company had expanded to a point where it was trying to compete on a national scale but didn't really have the resources to do so, in terms of production value or - increasingly - paying the wrestlers. It's also fair to argue that ECW was a niche product that needed to be watered down in order to have wider appeal.

After losing their TV show (they were dumped to make way for a WWE show), ECW just sort of petered out. The WWE brought them back last year for the first One Night Stand pay-per-view - more of a nostalgia show designed to pay tribute to the ECW brand and give it the send-off that it never really had. They already had Paul Heyman, ECW's owner and mastermind, on staff, and they hired back a load of former ECW wrestlers for the night. The show was generally considered a huge success, not so much because of the actual wrestling as the unique atmosphere.

This year is different. Rather belatedly, the WWE has decided that the time has come to revive the ECW brand permanently, setting up a third show in addition to Raw and Smackdown. This would have been a great idea - eleven months ago. In fact, One Night Stand more or less put the lingering ECW fans to bed, and for the most part, the build-up to ECW's return has played to confused and uninterested crowds in towns which never had much interest in ECW to start with. (It was more of a north-east regional promotion, so the idea of shooting major ECW angles at shows taped in California left something to be desired.)

Nonetheless, ECW will indeed return to the air next Tuesday with a weekly one-hour live show on, of all places, the Sci-Fi Network. Quite how this is going to work is a little unclear. The show will be recorded at the Smackdown tapings, which seems a terribly bad idea - ECW needs to look and feel different, and the Smackdown set is rather distinctive. The roster is a curious mix of old ECW wrestlers from the glory days and WWE wrestlers arbitrarily shoved into the group for star power. Apparently there will be new talent brought in as well, which is essential if the group is to have any chance of building its own identity. They need the old guard for purposes of continuity, but you can't realistically build a company around guys like the Sandman in 2006. His prime was a decade ago, and it's not as though his wrestling abilities were good enough to get him a job with any other company over the last few years. He's there because he legitimates the promotion as ECW, and that's about it. The same goes for people like Balls Mahoney, also under contract.

Of the ECW wrestlers who actually are decent, some already work for the WWE, the most obvious example being Rob Van Dam. Al Snow and Tommy Dreamer have also been dragged out of retirement for the purpose. Others are already under contract to TNA, and unavailable for the present show - so no Dudley Boyz this year, for example. The tricky balancing act is to make this promotion feel like a proper ECW continuation without filling the screen with has-beens or confusing the hell out of a mainstream audience. The trump card is the presence of Paul Heyman as the figurehead of the new show, since he pretty much was ECW. If he says it's ECW, that goes a long way to making it so.

While last year's show was pure nostalgia, this is the beginning of a new ECW season, and so the storylines are much more significant. They've only really pushed a few matches - presumably, more will be announced in the course of the show itself. (This in itself is very ECW - many of their PPVs didn't bother to announce the undercard in advance, since it really didn't make any difference.) But here's what we have so far.

1. WWE Title: John Cena -v- Rob Van Dam. Yes, John Cena is still the champion, and still dividing crowds. But he won't be dividing the audience on Sunday night, since he's arguably the single least ECW wrestler you could imagine. Crowd-pleasing catchphrase-chanting babyfaces never really went down well in ECW, and everyone is expecting Cena to be booed out of the building. Van Dam, on the other hand, was always a hero to the ECW crowd, partly because he was the star who stayed with the company to the dying day. Frankly, RVD isn't the wrestler he used to be, and his matches haven't been especially impressive since he returned from injury a couple of months back. But he's the closest they've got to a legitimate ECW star who's also popular with the mainstream viewers, and they've really got no choice but to push him as a leading figure in the new ECW, at least at first.

Van Dam got his title shot at Wrestlemania back in March, when he won the "Money in the Bank" ladder match, giving him the right to challenge Cena for the title whenever he wanted. Tonight he cashes in that title shot, dragging Cena to the ECW show to defend his championship before a hostile crowd under ECW rules (which, even by wrestling standards, were astonishingly relaxed). That's the storyline, and it's pretty much all we need as long as they can pull off the authentic ECW vibe. They managed it last year - complete with cheap graphics and tiny venue - so they'll probably pull it off tonight. Technically the match probably won't be that great, but the crowd will really lift it.

The general assumption is that this will be a disputed finish, leading to Van Dam and Cena both claiming the belt, and Van Dam becoming the first ECW Champion of the new era. An outright win for Van Dam, taking Raw's world title off to ECW, is a possibility if they're really prepared to go to town in pushing the new TV show. In the unlikely event of Cena retaining with a clean pin, brace yourself for a riot.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Rey Mysterio -v- Sabu. Shoved out there without much promotion, Smackdown's champion Rey Mysterio also defends his title against the veteran high-flier Sabu. Mysterio actually was an ECW wrestler back in the day, so his presence on the card makes a little more sense. On the other hand, he was on the show last year and got heavily booed for doing all his Smackdown signature moves instead of his ECW stuff. Presumably they're going for the same result tonight, with Sabu as the hero for the ECW crowd. Like Van Dam, Sabu is a veteran who, frankly, isn't what he used to be. Commentators often like to say that wrestlers act with a total disregard for their own safety; Sabu is one of the tiny minority where they might actually be right. Decades of this abuse have taken their toll. Still, Sabu still has good matches from time to time, and once again the crowd reaction should be enough to cover any shortfall in the match quality.

Mysterio is presumably retaining here - ECW doesn't need two titles, and it's something of a mystery why they're even putting Mysterio's title on the line. Normally it would be a bad move to pin Sabu on his first PPV match with the company, but frankly, his reputation is solid enough with ECW fans already. My bet would be that Mysterio wins with some sort of outside interference to set up a feud for Sabu on ECW's weekly show.

3. Kurt Angle v Randy Orton. Arguably the single least ECW match imaginable, and I wonder how the live crowd are going to react to this. Angle, one of the best technical wrestlers of his generation, has been reassigned to ECW to give them star power, and also to send the clear signal that it won't just be ultraviolent craziness. Fine so far as it goes. But they really need to establish him as an ECW guy, and the wisdom of putting him in the ring with Randy Orton on this particular show is questionable. Technically it'll be a good match - it usually is with these two - but it simply doesn't belong on this show. If the crowd have the same attitude as last year, then I think there's a real risk of them turning on this match because it isn't "real" ECW. Angle will presumably win, because Orton isn't coming to ECW, and therefore they can't continue the feud.

4. Mick Foley & Edge -v- Terry Funk & Tommy Dreamer. The other match that's been heavily pushed for this show. Foley and Edge fought one another in a hardcore match at Wrestlemania, and the story is that they're so pleased with it that they've declared themselves the living embodiment of hardcore wrestling. (That means Foley becomes a bad guy - a dangerous move for somebody generally seen as a loveable muppet - but they seem to have got away with it.) Funk and Dreamer are the ECW veterans representing the true hardcore tradition. This, at least, is the general idea of the feud - the actual plotting is so bizarre and incoherent that it's difficult to make sense of quite what they're fighting over. Somewhere along the line, Foley and Edge have declared themselves co-holders of the long-dormant WWE Hardcore Title, although the WWE doesn't actually seem to recognise it and there's been no suggestion that it's actually on the line in this match.

I have deep reservations about this match. Edge is the only one of these guys who's still in his prime. Foley retired several years ago and works sporadically as a special attraction - although his Wrestlemania match was indeed extremely good. Dreamer is also long retired, and perhaps embodies the sort of ECW wrestler who never achieved much in the larger promotions because frankly, he didn't have much going for him besides a willingness to take stupid amounts of punishment. Hardcore legend Terry Funk was billed as "middle aged and crazy" in ECW's heyday ten years ago, and by this stage really should be clinically dead. He turns 62 later in the month. Even more than Hulk Hogan, his matches are only really credible if viewed through a misty haze of nostalgia.

In practice, then, Edge and Dreamer will have to carry most of this match. And they had a match on the WWE/ECW special on Wednesday which, er, wasn't great. I'm braced for this to be a disappointment. As the climax of the feud, all logic says the ECW team should win.

5. Tazz v Jerry Lawler. When commentators collide! Lawler is the colour commentator on Raw and (in storyline, at least) has hated ECW for years. Tazz has just jumped from Smackdown to ECW to serve as their commentator. (If you're wondering who's going to do his job on Smackdown, by the way, the leading rumour is Simon Dean. Which might just work, actually.) Again, Tazz is a retired ECW wrestler who's been behind a commentary desk for years. Lawler, to be fair, still wrestles regularly down in Memphis. By most accounts this will be a short confrontation rather than a real match. And all the better for it.

6. Super Crazy & Tajiri v The FBI (Little Guido & Tony Mamaluke). Quietly announced on the WWE website without any mention on television, this is a card-filling tag team match, and there's not much else to be said about it. The wrestlers are decent and since the FBI are sticking around in the new ECW, while Tajiri is here for a guest shot and Super Crazy is getting pushed on Smackdown, logic says the FBI should win to give them momentum on the weekly show. And yes, Little Guido is the guy who spent the last few years wrestling as Nunzio, but he's going back to his original character in ECW. Should be okay.

7. Masato Tanaka v Balls Mahoney. A hardcore bloodbath for the ECW fans, in all probability. Tanaka had an excellent, if terrifying, brawl with Mike Awesome that stole last year's show, and this might actually be good fun in a "Jesus, he's going to die" kind of way. By the way, you may be wondering where this match was actually announced, since it isn't mentioned on the WWE website itself. The answer, believe it or not, is that it's listed on the card on the back of the commemorative T-shirt which you can buy from WWE Shopzone, although nobody seems to have thought to mention it anywhere else. That gives you a good indication of the effort they've put into promoting the undercard. The usual reliable news sites confirm that this match is indeed happening, despite the striking failure to actually tell anyone.

Overall, this should be a fun show - not all of the wrestling will be great, but it doesn't matter if they can capture a fraction of last year's atmosphere. Crucially, it has to feel different from the normal WWE shows, and they got it right last year. I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Some administrative announcements

Not a review of any sort, but an attempt to avoid answering the same e-mail questions more often than strictly necessary. Some of these are already coming in, and some of them will probably be coming in the next few days, so maybe I can save myself some time by pre-empting them.

1. What's happening to Article 10?

As you probably know by now, is closing on June 19th. Quite a few of you have e-mailed to ask what's going to happen with Article 10, my fortnightly column there. The short answer is "nothing." I've been writing the column for five years without a break, and frankly, there isn't a great deal about the state of comics that I'm still itching to say. This seems a very good and sensible time to stop. As I understand it, will remain online as an archive site, so you needn't worry about past columns disappearing into the ether.

Monday's column will be my contribution to the "Top Nine" series. The final Article 10 will go up as part of the site's final update, and obviously it's going to be a wrap-up column.

However, since I won't be writing those pieces any more, I'm going to lift the "no comics material" rule for If Destroyed... That doesn't necessarily mean you're going to start seeing lots of comics material, and you certainly won't be seeing any reviews, but there might be the occasional Article 10-style piece here.

2. Are you going to review X-Men 3?

Probably not. Work commitments mean I'm going to struggle to find time to see the film for at least another week, and to be honest, I'm not really that interested. Actually, the next proper posting here is likely to be a review of Freakonomics, followed by another PPV rundown for the ECW show. If I get around to seeing X-Men 3 before it closes, and I actually think it's worth writing about, then I might do something. But I never reviewed the first two films, so don't hold your breath.

3. What's happening with the X-Axis indexes?

This is the one where I'm trying to pre-empt some questions. I'm planning to get the X-Men: The Hidden Years index finished and posted in the next few days, and that usually prompts some questions about what's coming next - specifically, are we getting to the Claremont run at last? The answer is "yes, but not right away", since we're still alternating with X-Men itself, and there are some other things to cover before we get to Claremont. The current plans run like this:-
  • X-Men: The Hidden Years #16-22 (concluding the series)
  • X-Men vol 2 #81-85 (up to the end of Joe Kelly's run)
  • Early 1970s X-Men: a guide to the reprint issues, plus a rundown of all the stories they appeared in during that period. Also, because I've been meaning to get around to it for a while, a complete rundown of the X-Men roster (since the one given in the recent Handbook is out of date, and contained some very questionable material to start with).
  • X-Men vol 2 #86-90
  • Giant-Size X-Men #1-4, plus the back story listing for (god help me) Wolverine.
  • X-Men vol 2 #91-95
  • And then we reach the start of the Claremont run, which will also touch on Classic X-Men in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone.

So there you go. Hopefully, that's saved a bit of e-mailing over the next week...