Saturday, March 31, 2007

Wrestlemania 23

Yes, yes, I know. It's been a busy week. So for those of you who rely on me to post links to other stuff I write, here's last week's X-Axis, and here's the February 2007 Marvel sales analysis.

But now, wrestling. It's been a few weeks since the last WWE pay-per-view, because they wisely leave a longer gap than normal before the biggest show of the year. Why is Wrestlemania the biggest show of the year? Well, partly because it's one hour longer than the others. Partly because it's been around for 23 years and it's been a landmark of the schedule for as long as most viewers can remember. And partly just because they say so. But also, it tends to be the pay-off for a lot of major storylines, and if all the characters believe it's the biggest show of the year, then it kind of becomes true by definition.

And yes, it is a terribly corny name, I know. But then, the show was launched in 1985. It probably sounded fine then. And if you're a wrestling fan, you just hear the name often enough that it stops sounding rubbish. (In much the same way that many comics fans seem to think that "Doctor Doom" is somehow a good name for a non-comedy villain, and many British people thought "Top of the Pops" was a perfectly fine title for a music programme.)

There are eight matches announced for this four-hour show, and two of them really have to be kept short due to the extreme limitations of the participants. So the rest will probably be quite long. I also wouldn't be shocked to see some sort of bonus match thrown on at the last moment. They could always do something with the Cruiserweight Title, and it'll be a terrible injustice if the hard-working tag team champions, Paul London and Brian Kendrick, make their only appearance on the show by accompanying Ashley for the Women's Title match.

The official sub-title of the show is "All Grown Up." Nobody knows why. It's prompted a series of adverts with the WWE wrestlers as kids, which range from excruciating all the way through to mildly disturbing. Hopefully we won't have to put up with much of this on the night.

And now, the card.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Batista v The Undertaker. This would be the Smackdown world title. Now, in theory, this is the main event. The Undertaker won the Royal Rumble back in January, which gives him the right to challenge for any of the world titles in the main event of Wrestlemania. In practice, the WWE has already started shifting their ground and talking about triple main events, so in practice it sounds like John Cena and Shawn Michaels will be going on last. But notionally, this ought to be the final match.

The story here is nice and straightforward. Mercifully, this has been a feature of recent WWE writing. Pick a basic idea and do it right. Nothing too ornate or fancy - it almost never works anyway. This, by the way, is where the number two promotion, TNA, keeps going wrong. They want to tell bizarre stories about family breakdown, weird cult leadership and so forth. They see the wrestling as a means to an end. But that's the wrong way round. The point of the stories is to create a context in which the wrestling matches "matter." And that's all. The stories are the means, the wrestling is the end.

The Undertaker has been around for donkey's years, and he's never lost at Wrestlemania despite 14 appearances. In fact, this started off as pure coincidence, but in the last few years the writers have seized on it and made it seem important. At this stage, it's fair to say that for anyone to beat the Undertaker at Wrestlemania would be a very big deal indeed.

Reportedly, the original plan was for Batista to defeat the Undertaker and break the winning streak. That was a very bad idea, and it seems that they may be rethinking. The guy who beats the Undertaker at Wrestlemania should be a rising star with real long-term potential. Done right, it should give somebody the momentum to become a main eventer. Opportunities like that don't come along every day, and you shouldn't waste them on Batista. He's already a two-time world champion, an established main eventer, and his character has all the credibility he needs. On top of that, his injury record and age suggest that he isn't a long-term proposition as a main eventer, and frankly most of his matches this year have been a bit rubbish.

Ideally the guy to beat Undertaker would be somebody on the cusp of the main event like Bobby Lashley or Ken Kennedy. You could even justify it with Edge or John Cena - established main eventers who are at least long-term prospects and would still gain something from the win. But Batista? No.

So the correct result here is that Undertaker wins and starts a fifth title reign in the autumn of his career. Batista then turns heel, to justify a rematch, and to reinvigorate his rather stale character. Hopefully this is what they'll do. I'm not expecting wonders from the match, but a big crowd reaction should cover many of its flaws.

2. WWE Title: John Cena v Shawn Michaels. The Raw title match sees John Cena defending against the veteran Shawn Michaels. Michaels has been unexpectedly thrust into this position after his tag team, D-Generation X, was forcibly broken up by an injury to his partner Triple H. The show has been all the better for it, because DX just trampled everyone, while Michaels (the solo act) makes people look good.

Cena and Michaels are both meant to be the good guys, and just to complicate matters further, they also hold Raw's version of the Tag Team Titles at the moment. For weeks, they've been teasing the possibility of Michaels turning on Cena, which they finally delivered on last Monday's show. But Cena remains a divisive figure with some fans, who still think that he's not good enough to justify his high-profile place on the card. This is just fine. It means there will be a divided crowd, and divided crowds mean enormous passion.

Michaels is one of the best wrestlers of his generation, and can get a decent match out of virtually anyone. Cena isn't one of the best wrestlers of his generation by any stretch of the imagination, but he's got plenty for Michaels to work with. The probable result is for Cena to retain his title in a very good match. I don't see Shawn Michaels as a long-term champion at this point in his career, and I'm not a fan of short-term title switches. On that basis I'd rather see Cena hold the belt. Of course, since they still hold the tag titles together, the story isn't over no matter what the result is.

3. "Battle of the Billionaires": Umaga (w/ Vince McMahon) v. Bobby Lashley (w/Donald Trump). Logically you'd expect the third main event to feature ECW Champion Bobby Lashley defending his title. But really, the beleaguered ECW brand - stranded with its one hour a week on the Sci-Fi Network - doesn't have the star power to offer a title match that would justify a main event slot. And yet, if they defended the title as a mid-card match, that would be even more damning. It would send the message, clear as day, that the ECW Title is indeed nothing more than the Velocity Inter-Jobber Championship.

So instead, Lashley finds himself in this very odd match, a cross-promotional effort with The Apprentice. Quite why somebody thought it was in the interests of The Apprentice to promote Wrestlemania is a bit of a mystery, considering that the shows clash. But it's happening.

The story is meant to be a feud between Donald Trump and the WWE's owner Vince McMahon. Since Vince is now pushing sixty and unwilling to get into the ring himself, they've each chosen a wrestler to fight on their behalf. Trump has Bobby Lashley, leading to lots of amusing promotional interviews on radio stations in which Trump struggles desperately to remember the man's name. Vince has Umaga, the Samoan Stereotype, who is so over the top that it just about works even in 2007. Oh, and the losing billionaire gets his head shaved.

Some mainstream media coverage is actually suggesting that there is a possibility that Donald Trump might lose. Well, there isn't.

The retired Steve Austin has also been thrown in as special guest referee, partly to boost the star power further, and partly because he's got a movie coming out soon. They need to tread carefully here, because the story won't work if Austin seems to be biased against Vince. Lashley has to win fair and square. This match is supposed to be helping to make his career.

As a technical match, I'm not expecting wonders; Lashley is still relatively inexperienced. But Umaga's had decent matches with John Cena, and Lashley certainly has talent, so I think this should be fine as a wrestling match. Mainly, though, it'll be a freakshow. And that's just fine, because it'll be a stupidly entertaining freakshow.

4. The 2007 "Money in the Bank" Ladder Match: Edge v. CM Punk v. King Booker v. Jeff Hardy v. Mr Kennedy v. Finlay v. Matt Hardy v. Randy Orton. This is the third annual "Money in the Bank" ladder match, a concept originally invented to create a space on the show for upper-midcard wrestlers who weren't doing anything else. It also serves to kickstart the storylines for the next year, which is a valuable concept in itself.

It's a simple idea: there's a briefcase dangling above the ring. Winner is the first person to retrieve the briefcase. Inside the briefcase is a contract which can be used to claim a world title shot at any time in the next year. That means the winner of this match automatically becomes a main event wrestler. Two years ago, Edge won the inaugural match and, being a villain, waited until after a six-man PPV main event to cash in his title shot and pin the champion John Cena in 30 seconds. Last year, Rob Van Dam won the match and, being a good guy, chose to fight the champion John Cena on home turf - where he won. So going into year three, it's now been clearly established that this is a very, very worthwhile prize. Who will recover the briefcase and go on to beat John Cena this year?

Three of these guys are former world champions - Edge, Orton and Booker. Edge is also undefeated at Wrestlemania and there's a school of thought that says this should be protected. I can see some logic in that, but by the same token, I think it's allowing the tail to wag the dog. It's a nice long-term benefit if things work out that way, but we already did the "Edge wins the title shot" story two years ago. Orton would be a more realistic possibility, since he's in a semi-regular tag team with Edge, and it would set up interesting tensions there. It's been a while since he was the champion, too, so he's relatively fresh as a main eventer.

Booker has already had his run at the top, and I don't see much point in having him win. As for the others, in order for the story to work, the character has to be somebody you can imagine as world champion. You have to believe that when they cash in the title shot, they could win. For my money, that eliminates Finlay and the Hardys. ECW's CM Punk is apparently not completely out of the running, but I really can't see it, and he's supposedly alienated enough people within the company that I'd be astounded if he was put in this position.

Kennedy, a rising star on Smackdown who's hovering on the fringes of the main eventers, is a definite possibility. I'd put my money on him, but Orton wouldn't shock me either.

The match will be a total trainwreck of insanely dangerous-looking ladder spots. Done right, this sort of thing can be great fun, and they've wisely kept the rest of the card free of anything similar. I'm looking forward to this one.

5. The ECW Originals (Rob Van Dam, Tommy Dreamer, Sabu & the Sandman) v. the New Breed (Elijah Burke, Marcus Cor Von, Kevin Thorn & Matt Striker). This is the token ECW match. With their champion Bobby Lashley off in the Donald Trump storyline, the show has largely been based around a feud between the surviving old guard from the original 1990s ECW, and a motley collection of random new bad guys arbitrarily slammed together as "the New Breed." The New Breed have nothing whatsoever in common besides the fact that they weren't in the original ECW; it's two generic guys, a vampire, and a wrestling schoolteacher.

Some of these guys really don't belong at Wrestlemania, and I have trouble believing that this is going to work. Rob Van Dam is the only one of these guys who legitimately qualifies as a star. Sabu still works very hard but can be hit or miss. Sandman and Dreamer succeeded in the first place on the strength of character-driven stories which the current ECW hasn't been able (or even seriously attempted) to replicate. Of the New Breed, Elijah Burke is a legitimate prospect for the future, and Marcus Cor Von - formerly TNA's Monty Brown - has a glimmer of promise. Matt Striker has natural heel charisma, but he's stuck in a ridiculous "evil teacher" gimmick, and he's more of a manager than a wrestler. And Kevin Thorn just isn't up to scratch.

The New Breed will win; it won't be much good.

6. Women's Title, lumberjack match: Melina v. Ashley. The annual cross-promotional exercise with Playboy, which shows you the levels that the Women's Division has plummetted to following the retirements of Trish Stratus and Lita. Ashley is one of the WWE's many generic blondes, and she displays no aptitude for wrestling whatsoever. But she's getting her tits out in Playboy this month, so she's getting a title shot at Wrestlemania anyway. Melina, the defending champion, is at least a trained wrestler, but she'll be struggling to get anything remotely worthwhile out of Ashley. If there's any justice in the world, Melina wins.

A lumberjack match, if you're wondering, is a match where the ring is surrounded by other wrestlers in order to stop the participants running away. It's a gimmick that was used ages ago as the pay-off to "wrestler X keeps getting counted out rather than take a beating" angles, in the days before the cage match took over. Nowadays, it's just an excuse to have total chaos going on on the outside of the ring, with all the other girls fighting for no reason. If they're lucky, this might distract from the atrocious action going on inside.

7. Kane v. The Great Khali. Ah, the Great Khali. Widely acknowledged as perhaps the worst major-league wrestler in the industry today, Dalip Singh is a seven foot tall man who has absolutely nothing else going for him. He can't wrestle. He can't even attempt anything beyond the most simple and basic manoeuveres - and he can't even get those right. He can't speak English. And that doesn't mean "his speech is heavily accented." He's literally incomprehensible.

The Great Khali is so bad he's good. This will be no consolation to poor Kane, who is expected to wrestle him on the biggest show of the year. It's going to suck. On general principles, Khali ought to win, because the loss would hurt him more than Kane. But really, at some stage they need to take a long hard look and ask seriously what the hell Khali is doing on this show and what they can possibly do with him. They're pushing him as a serious threat, but the reality always comes down to the same thing: he can't wrestle, so there's no pay-off.

8. US Title: Chris Benoit v MVP. Added to the card as something of an afterthought, the rookie bad guy Montel Vontavious Porter will be challenging veteran Chris Benoit for the US Title. All logic says MVP should win here, because he's genuinely got better over the last few months, and he's actually got some momentum behind him. Winning this match would truly help him, and a title run is the next sensible move for his character.

Benoit and MVP have been wrestling each other on house shows for a while now, in preparation for this match, and reportedly the matches have been quite good. They've also been quite long, which suggests that they're bracing themselves for a huge time slot on this four-hour card. MVP isn't exactly a technical wrestling prodigy, but there's enough there for Benoit to work with. I'm cautiously optimistic about this one.

Worth buying? Well, it's Wrestlemania, and if you don't buy Wrestlemania, you're probably not in the market for wrestling pay per views at all. But yes, there's enough good material on this card to make it worth buying. It's not a perfect card by any means, but the two really bad matches are bound to be kept short.