Saturday, November 04, 2006

WWE Cyber Sunday

Another week, another pay-per-view. This is the annual "interactive" show, now in its third year, where the WWE show that they're down with this new-fangled internet thingie by allowing fans to vote on what the matches should be. It goes without saying that there is something terribly ironic about taking a show which is designed to make them seem modern and cutting edge, and then giving it a name like Cyber Sunday, which practically screams "1998."

One of the WWE's more endearing traits is that they simply won't admit when an idea is a failure. There's always an explanation for why it didn't quite work, and they just plough on until reality can't be denied any longer. In its first two years, this show was held on Tuesday nights (uniquely in the wrestling pay-per-view calendar) and it rejoiced in the name Taboo Tuesday. The buyrate was dire in both years. In year one, they blamed the baseball. In year two they couldn't blame the baseball, so they blamed the day.

And to be fair, the day was a terrible choice. Because it was a weekday, if you lived on the west coast and wanted to see the show live, you had to leave work early. Not exactly realistic. So moving it to the weekends is sure to help.

But it doesn't solve the other fundamental problems with this concept. For one thing, it means they're promoting a card full of mystery matches, and asking people to pay money without actually knowing what's on the show. For another, the WWE is (at least in theory) all about storytelling. So they really only have two options: try to steer the audience on how to vote, or make the voting irrelevant. And for the most part, that's what we see on this year's card - a few storyline matches where they're presumably hoping for the right result, and some other stuff to pad out the card where either the vote is inconsequential, or the match itself doesn't matter. In fact, we even have one match where the whole gimmick is that the vote is irrelevant, which suggests they haven't quite got their heads around the concept of the show.

So, this will probably do better than the last two years, but it still won't be a success. On the other hand, it can be quite a fun show for fans like me, because you get some straightforward matches without much in the way of silly storylines holding them down. Besides, it's airing on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I don't have to pay extra for it.

Nominally this is a Raw show, but in practice it's rather broader than that. They're building up to a much more major show, Survivor Series, later in the month - that show will feature all three rosters, and so they've got to start some storylines here.

1. Champion of Champions: John Cena -v- King Booker -v- The Big Show. In other words, the Raw champion versus the Smackdown champion versus the ECW champion. It says a lot about the quality of current storylines that this match hasn't generated more interest. Problem is, nobody takes the ECW belt terribly seriously, and King Booker is basically a comedy character who shouldn't be anywhere near a world title (at least, not while doing that particular gimmick). So the notion that it's three equals from different shows is purely theoretical.

That said, it should be a decent match. Big Show is good in his role as a giant bad guy, and he's been working hard in recent months on ECW. Cena is a good-but-not-great wrestler, but makes up for it with charisma and an intense connection with the crowd - the phase where half the audience was booing him seems to have burnt out. And Booker is a solid veteran who should keep it all together. It'll be just fine.

The online vote decides whose title is on the line. They haven't been pushing for any particular result, so presumably they don't have a storyline in mind, and the title won't change hands. It's unlikely the fans will vote for the Raw title, even though it's the most credible belt, because it's held by Cena and he's meant to be the hero. So presumably they'll go for the Smackdown belt. It's not inconceivable that Booker could lose it for a few weeks to set up Survivor Series, but I wouldn't bet on it. If they vote for ECW then Big Show can't possibly lose (unless they've lost their minds) because he's already involved in a storyline where Rob Van Dam is chasing him for the belt, and that story doesn't pay off until December.

So, my prediction: the fans vote for the Smackdown belt, Booker retains, and the match is above average.

2. D-Generation X -v- Edge & Randy Orton. This is the semi-main event, and the other major match for ongoing storylines. Even though it should have ended months ago, DX's feud with the McMahon family drones on because the company is convinced it's their hottest storyline. Ratings do not bear this out. But then, the company is run by Vince McMahon, and his son-in-law Triple H is one half of DX, and if they want to believe that they're the biggest stars on the show, who's going to tell them otherwise?

The problem for DX is that they're a tag team with nobody to fight. They've already comprehensively destroyed the entire tag division, including the tag champs. You'd think that logically they should have the tag belts, if that's how they're going to be written. But apparently the tag belts are beneath DX, so we find ourselves in this situation - a decimated tag division where the title belts mean nothing, coupled with an A-list tag team who have nobody to fight.

The solution is to pair up two main event bad guys, Edge and Randy Orton, so that they can fight DX. Unfortunately, in the build-up, DX have pretty much been destroying them without much difficulty too. God only knows why anyone thinks it's good for the long term health of the company - which, after all, Triple H and the McMahons own. It's a terrible waste of Edge and Orton, both of whom could be used much more effectively, but who are probably about to have their credibility and momentum sacrificed to the ego of the boss's son-in-law.

The online vote is to decide on the referee - you can have Vince McMahon, his sidekick Jonathan Coachman, or former evil manager Eric Bischoff (who they had to get onto the show because he's got an autobiography to plug). In other words, you've got a choice of three bad guys, so it doesn't matter. That's supposed to be the point - it's rigged against DX - but it's an absurd thing to do for the semi-main on a show where the whole concept is audience voting.

Still, there are four talented wrestlers in here, so it's almost sure to be a good match. The only sane finish is for the bad guys to win thanks to the biased referee, but regrettably DX matches have been awfully short on sane writing lately, so there's about a 40% chance they'll just squash these guys too.

3. Intercontinental Title: Jeff Hardy -v- mystery opponent. Your options are Carlito, Shelton Benjamin and Johnny Nitro. History shows that the fans always vote for the good guy, even when that means the resulting match has no baddies. On that basis, they'll vote for Carlito, and he'll have a straightforward wrestling match with his fellow babyface Jeff Hardy. Jeff's been surprisingly good since returning to the company a few months ago. Carlito, on the other hand, has been terribly hit and miss. Now he seems to be trying to sell himself as a high flyer, even though he's not exactly the most graceful exponent of the art.

Still, both guys are very popular, and Jeff might get a decent match out of him. This is a match where they could possibly do a title change in order to sell the importance of the fan vote, since it wouldn't cause any problems with ongoing storylines, and Jeff will be fine without the title. I suspect a title change, but it's 50-50, really.

4. World Tag Team Titles: The Spirit Squad -v- Ric Flair & mystery opponent. As noted above, the tag titles are a bit of a joke these days thanks to DX trashing the whole division. So here are the nominal champions - five male cheerleaders, under a bizarre arrangement where any two can defend the belts - versus the well-preserved veteran Ric Flair and a partner who you can vote on. Your choices are Dusty Rhodes, Sgt Slaughter and Roddy Piper, all of whom had their heyday back in the Reagan administration. Still, they all know how to connect with the fans. The WWE seems to be hinting that they want us to vote for Dusty Rhodes, so I strongly suspect that there may be a tag title change here depending on whether we vote for somebody who's going to be around for a few weeks more. The Spirit Squad have been so badly crushed that a loss to two geriatrics won't do any more harm, and in any event they're in the throes of a break-up angle where Kenny Doan is going to try and rehabilitate his career by blaming his teammates for the disastrous few months they've had. (And again, what does it say about the writing where the tag champs are doing an angle based on the fact that they're total losers?)

It'll be a short old-school comedy match relying in large part on a nostalgia reaction. Americans who remember these guys from the 80s will probably have fun; I'll take the opportunity to make a cup of tea.

5. Umaga -v- mystery opponent. Everybody's favourite jawdropping racial stereotype has issued an open challenge to wrestlers from the other two shows. They've done very little to set up this match, other than some generic promos from the challengers, but here it is anyway. Your options are Chris Benoit, Kane and the Sandman.

There's a storyline with Kane - he lost a "loser leaves Raw" match to Umaga, with no real build-up, because they needed an excuse to get him onto Smackdown and fill out the roster. Logically, then, Kane should be out for revenge and this should be his opportunity. But they've been very quiet about that, perhaps because it creates a booking problem. Umaga is still unbeaten and really ought to stay that way. There's no point in his undefeated streak ending at the hands of a wrestler from another show, since the storyline ought to continue. On the other hand, Kane can't possibly lose to him twice.

So... if the fans vote for Kane, it'll probably be some screwjob non-finish. Brace yourself for Umaga winning by disqualification, or a double countout, or some such nonsense.

If the vote is for Benoit or Sandman, then it'll just be a match, and Umaga will undoubtedly win. Umaga/Benoit is the best match in technical terms; Benoit can get a good match out of anyone, and Umaga is better than you might think. The Sandman seems to have been inserted simply as a representative from ECW; he's a technically poor wrestler who somehow still puts on a compelling performance due to his remarkable charisma in a role best described as "loveable violent alcoholic." He's really at his best in weapons matches where his limitations can be concealed. This would be a straight match and to be honest, I imagine it would be a train wreck. Part of me is morbidly curious to see it.

Prediction, though: Kane gets the vote, they do a power match which'll be okay but nothing special, and it'll end with some sort of DQ finish.

6. WWE Women's Title: Mickie James -v- Lita. The Women's Title has been vacant since Trish Stratus retired as champion. This is the final of a knockout tournament to crown a new champion, although really it's just served to show how depleted the women's roster is these days. After all, to reach the final, Lita had to get past Playboy model Candace Michelle, and Maria, the backstage interviewer. I know she's the villain and she's supposed to have the easier path, but really...

Lita is also coming up for retirement, but they've got a little while to go. The obvious way to go is for Lita to win the title in controversial fashion, and Mickie to finally win the belt in Lita's retirement match.

At least these two are both proper wrestlers, albeit of terribly erratic match quality. Unfortunately for them, the vote here is on the match type: a submission match, a no-DQ match, or a lumberjack match (which means a load of other women surrounding the ring, nominally to stop them running away). The final two options should be passable. The submission match would be an outright disaster - I can't remember the last time either of these women applied a submission hold, and I strongly suspect they can't either.

7. Cryme Tyme -v- The Highlanders -v- Viscera & Charlie Haas -v- Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch. Ladies and gentlemen, the beleaguered remnants of the tag team division. A sorry sight. In fact, this match was never even announced on television, only on the WWE website. That's how much they care about these guys.

Cryme Tyme have only just debuted, and they're being pushed at the moment, so they'll win. They're an interesting example of the WWE's dodgy grasp of race relations. The gimmick is supposed to be that they're minor league gangstas from Brooklyn. They beat up lost yuppies who've wandered into their neighbourhood. They steal bits of the set. Things like that. What interests me is that the WWE feels the need to stress, at every opportunity, that Cryme Tyme are "a parody of racial stereotypes." The odd thing is, really, they're not. They're just a pair of inner city criminals who happen to be played by black guys. You could do exactly the same gimmick in the UK with white wrestlers playing chavs, and several indie promotions do. Ironically, the WWE's disclaimer seems to contain far more questionable assumptions than anything in the original skits.

(You could also note that they're in the ring with Cade & Murdoch, the stereotypical rednecks, and the Highlanders, who seem to come from a version of Scotland that has yet to be equipped with electricity or running water. In comparison, and when you factor in the WWE's dreary track record of casual sexism and xenophobia, Cryme Tyme are practically a shining beacon of multicultural realism. And yet they're the ones the WWE feel obliged to make excuses for...)

Anyway, the match. The vote is on the format - either it's a four-way match with the first pin winning, or it's a Texas Tornado match (which means all eight guys in the ring at once) or it's a gauntlet (in other words, three matches in a row). Some of these guys are very inexperienced, and I'm confident that a Texas Tornado would be a complete mess. It's just too many people to keep track of, and even a group of veterans would struggle to make it work. The gauntlet means three very rushed matches because they won't get any more time. So the best option is the four-way, in terms of likely match quality. But I still wouldn't hope for much from these guys; they won't get much time and they're terribly new.

Worth buying? Hmm. The likely matches aren't too bad at all, but there's nothing that seems like a potential show stealer either. It'll probably be a solid but unexceptional show. A borderline one, but then I don't have to pay for it...