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.