Saturday, September 16, 2006

Unforgiven 2006

Another WWE pay-per-view, this time from the Raw roster. Normally these single-brand shows tend to be fairly throwaway, but this is an exception. One reason is that, after years without any real competition, the WWE is now being regularly thrashed in terms of PPV audiences by the UFC, the one-time cage-fighting pariahs who have rehabilitated themselves over the last few years as the leading American promoters of mixed martial arts. The WWE don't know quite what to make of this; they've never really understood other approaches to wrestling, let alone real sports that compete for their audience. So, by the standards of single-brand shows, Unforgiven sees them wheeling out the big guns, with two high-profile gimmick matches on the same show.

There's also some relatively mediocre stuff on the undercard, but nonetheless, this is one I'm actually looking forward to. Especially because it's airing on Sky Sports 1, so I don't have to pay for it.

1. WWE Title, TLC Match: Edge -v- John Cena. This is the blow-off match for the long-running Edge/Cena feud. In theory, the story goes something like this: Edge is the bad guy, and in order to get one last shot at his title, Cena offered to let him choose the match stipulations and promised that if he lost, he'd leave Raw and join the Smackdown roster instead. Edge has chosen the little-used TLC gimmick - basically, a ladder match with tables and steel chairs also legal for use. Come to think of it, you can't get disqualified in a ladder match anyway, so it's really just a ladder match where they're promising particularly spectacular and dangerous stunts.

The TLC match was originally devised for the seemingly interminable late-90s tag team feud between the Hardy Boys, the Dudley Boys and Edge & Christian (since their signature weapons were ladders, tables and chairs respectively). That makes it Edge's personal gimmick match, and he's never lost one. On top of that, the show is in his home town of Toronto. Combine that with Cena's usual mixed reactions and we ought to get a perverse crowd cheering enthusiastically for the bad guy.

This one should be good. Edge and Cena have had strong matches in the past, and Edge has got a surprisingly amount of mileage from the gimmick in previous shows. The conventional wisdom is that Cena will win, since he's got a dreadful-sounding movie to promote, but I wouldn't completely write off the possibility of him being parachuted to Smackdown - the show desperately needs help, with particularly bad ratings in recent weeks even after pre-emptions are taken into account, and Cena could add some much-needed star power to their first show on the new CW network. (And let's not even think about what the WWE is implying about their own show by having "go to Smackdown" as a forfeit for the loser.)

But most likely, Cena will win an entertaining match, and the live crowd will be furious. It should be fun.

2. Hell in a Cell: D-Generation X (Triple H & Shawn Michaels) -v- Vince McMahon, Shane McMahon & The Big Show. The semi-main event is a 3-on-2 handicap match continuing the "please god, aren't we finished yet?" feud between the reunited DX and the McMahon family. Since this feud involves the de facto owner of the company (Vince McMahon), his son (Shane McMahon) and his real-life son-in-law (Triple H), the WWE has basically convinced itself that this is the hottest feud in the company, despite debatable evidence in terms of ratings. In fact, the Vince/DX segment on this week's Raw got the lowest ratings of the show.

This feud should have been blown off at least two PPVs ago and DX should have moved on to fight some actual wrestlers rather than the 61-year-old chairman of the company. Ego has evidently got the better of all involved - with the possible exception of Shawn Michaels, who by all accounts isn't too thrilled about having to re-enact the obnoxious frat-boy gimmick he was doing ten years ago before he became a born-again Christian. To liven it up this time, we have the Hell in a Cell cage match gimmick, on which diminishing returns long since set in, and the completely arbitrary inclusion of current ECW champion the Big Show, who is at least a decent enough giant with the right opponent.

It'll be an over-extended brawl with a lot of blood and not much actual wrestling, I imagine. Shane will doubtless do some suicidal stunt. He usually does. In theory the good guys ought to win so that we can end the sodding story. I wouldn't be entirely shocked to see the McMahons actually win this, but to be honest, I don't care - I started fast-forwarding through everything involving this feud several weeks ago.

Even so, the WWE think this is a big-money match (however questionably), and its very presence on the same show as a TLC match is interesting in its own right.

3. WWE Intercontinental Title: Johnny Nitro -v- Jeff Hardy. Back in more normal territory, Johnny Nitro, proud owner of one of the cheesiest names in wrestling, will be defending the secondary singles title against Jeff Hardy, recently returned after a lengthy absence that the WWE hasn't chosen to explain. The usual version of the story is that towards the end of his time with the company, Jeff Hardy had rather less interest in wrestling, and rather more interest in recreational pharmaceuticals. After drifting around aimlessly for a while and working the occasional indie show, he started making semi-regular appearances for rival promoter TNA ("semi-regular" because he was remarkably erratic at actually showing up for work).

To be fair, Jeff does seem a little more motivated in recent weeks than he has in the past. He had a decent enough match with Nitro on TV a few weeks ago, and this will probably be solid as an undercard match. That's assuming Jeff has his eye on the ball - if he doesn't, it'll be a trainwreck, although Nitro is a solid enough wrestler these days, and might get something watchable out of him even in the worst case scenario.

As it's Jeff's first PPV match since returning to the company, and he's getting an enormous push as a returning star (even though he was only really a midcarder in the first place), I expect he'll probably win.

4. WWE Women's Title: Lita -v- Trish Stratus. This is an odd one, but I'm rather looking forward to it. Lita used to be a regular wrestler in the women's division, but she's spent the last couple of years mainly standing next to Edge and nodding. Out of nowhere, they've put the belt back on her, and she'll be defending it against Trish Stratus.

But this match is really the Trish Stratus show, and Lita is really just there as a much-hated villain who's relatively fresh as an opponent. Because this is Trish Stratus' retirement match. They've made this abundantly clear on TV, although I still wonder whether the audience actually believes it, given how often fake retirements happen in wrestling. But this one is genuine - Patricia Stratigias is now aged 30, she's been on the road as a wrestler for seven years, she's about to get married, she's done everything there is to do as a woman wrestler in the USA, and she's decided not to renew her contract. She's about to become one of the tiny minority of professional wrestlers who voluntarily walk away with their health intact and their lives in front of them. This used to be virtually unknown, and although it's become slightly more common in recent years - Chris Jericho chose not to renew his contract last year, in favour of enjoying his savings and having fun with his rock band - it's still unusual.

I have a lot of time for Trish. She was obviously hired on the strength of being a pneumatic blonde, since god knows in her early appearances she couldn't do anything. But unlike most of the bimbos who've passed through the WWE over the last decade, she made a proper effort to become a real wrestler, in the face of total indifference from her employers, and despite having to work with some abominably inept opponents. And she's become pretty good, clearly taking more pride in her work than most people in her position do.

This is the right time to be leaving - she's done everything, and it's just endless repetition and slow decline from here on. It's rather bizarre for her to challenge for the Women's Title in her last night with the company, but not entirely unprecedented - if she wins, she'll retire as champion. I hope that's the ending they go with, because it's deserved, and god knows it's a rare opportunity to make the belt mean something.

Trish is a Toronto native, so she'll be performing her last match before a hometown crowd. We'll miss her.

5. WWE Tag Team Titles: The Spirit Squad -v- The Highlanders. Down to earth with a thump here, as comedy Scotsmen the Highlanders will be facing comedy male cheerleaders the Spirit Squad for the tag team titles. (Well, strictly speaking they'll be facing two of them. For reasons too dull to go into here, the Squad are theoretically all co-holders of the titles, although only two can actually defend them at a time.)

The Highlanders have done some reasonably amusing sketches setting up their characters, but their actual wrestling is rather dull. As for the Spirit Squad, they've had their credibility torn to shreds by months spent losing 5-on-2 handicap matches against DX. Who, apparently, couldn't be bothered actually taking the tag titles off them. So the champs are total losers, and if the challengers don't annihilate them in early course, they won't look like anything special. Oh, and given the gimmicks, it'll be a comedy match. And there's nothing to make a title belt seem important like a comedy match.

In the best case scenario, Squad members Kenny or Johnny might get a reasonably decent match out of this. Chances are the Highlanders win and the Squad move on to a break-up angle which has been rumoured for weeks now.

Sadly, still hasn't posted the Highlanders' entrance video, so you'll just have to imagine their irritating bagpipe drone for yourselves.

6. Carlito -v- Randy Orton. This month's obligatory "two top guys who weren't doing anything else" match. Carlito is stuck in a romance angle with Trish which, obviously, has just been derailed by her retirement. He hasn't really been that impressive of late, but he does have some momentum behind them, and if they're serious about trying to present him as a major character, he should probably win over Orton, who can certainly afford the loss. Match quality is difficult to predict, as both guys can be alarmingly hit-and-miss.

7. Kane -v- Umaga. Thrown-together monster-versus-monster match in which Kane, whose career is also reportedly in the closing stretches, will probably be the latest person to lie down for Umaga, a jawdropping Samoan wild-man stereotype who seems to have fallen through a timewarp from an era every other form of entertainment was proud to leave behind. The less said about this character the better, to be frank, but the old-fashioned "keep beating people until the fans accept you as a credible threat" approach seems to be working with him. It'll probably be short and, as a six-minute filler match goes, I suppose it's likely to be okay.

Worth buying? Hmm. The main event will be good, and I think Trish Stratus' retirement match is also something of a draw. The McMahon/DX thing has long outstayed its welcome and the undercard is a bit erratic, though some of it could be good. It's certainly an intriguing show which I'm more than happy to watch for free. On balance, I probably would pay for this one if I had to, although I'd be bracing myself for sheer tedium when the cage match came on...