Saturday, April 28, 2007

Backlash 2007

Wrestling doesn't work in seasons - as the pre-recorded commentary on Smackdown vs Raw 2 all-too-accurately informs us, these people keep going until they physically can't go on. But Wrestlemania is the biggest show of the year and, in spirit at least, marks the annual season break. So with Backlash, we enter the 2007/8 season.

The post-Wrestlemania period tends to be a bit of a lull. There are two reasons for this. One is that after the huge climax of the previous show, you've simply got to dial back a bit. The other is that by all appearances, the WWE tends to wake up the morning after Wrestlemania, blink for a few minutes, and mumble "Uh... what shall we do now?" The usual solution is to do a few rematches for Backlash, rather than diving straight in to any new storylines.

So it's a holding show. In past years this has been a Raw show, but apparently there's now been a change of policy. The WWE is getting a little worried about the buyrates for the minor shows, and it's decided that from now on all the shows will feature wrestlers from Raw, Smackdown and ECW. This rather undermines the goals they were trying to achieve by running three separate brands in the first place. Partly, they wanted to create their own competition in the absence of WCW, meaning that wrestlers would be able to jump from show to show occasionally, and freshen up their act with a new set of opponents. Partly, they wanted to free up space on the PPV schedule for more wrestlers. On the other hand, it's good news for the ECW roster, who at least have some vague prospect of getting a PPV payoff now.

If they're sticking with this, though, they really might want to consider consolidating the titles. There are six matches announced for Backlash, all of which are title matches, and three of which are for the Raw, Smackdown and ECW world titles. You can't have three world titles in parallel on the same show; it's silly. Not that that's likely to bother anyone at the WWE.

1. WWE Title: John Cena v. Shawn Michaels v. Randy Orton v. Edge. This would be the Raw title, and John Cena is still the champion, having successfully defended against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania. Orton and Edge have been added back into the mix to provide some actual villains for this story, but the focus is still primarily on Cena and Michaels. The story is that Michaels is taking his defeat last month with amazingly poor grace, and is still pursuing a personal feud with Cena. Since Cena is once again provoking divided crowd reactions, this works quite well. Cena and Michaels are both technically good guys (in Cena's case, unequivocally so), but the crowd is split. That always makes for a much better atmosphere.

The match itself should be great. Michaels is one of the best wrestlers of his generation. Edge is very good. Orton is fine when he's trying (and he has every reason to try right now, for reasons which I'll come to). And Cena isn't the greatest wrestler in the world, but he has plenty of charisma and can usually hang in there at the level of his opponent. These four should have no trouble putting on a quality main event.

As for the winner... since the focus is on Cena and Michaels, I'd be very surprised if Edge or Orton came through to win. It wouldn't make much sense in terms of story flow. Then again, it's the beginning of a new season, so I wouldn't completely rule out Edge stealing the title to start a new storyline. Orton is completely out of contention; he was kicked off the European tour halfway through, allegedly for destroying a hotel room and racking up the sort of bill that would suggest he was either in a very, very luxurious place, or he was assaulting a structural wall with a sledgehammer. This sort of thing happens from time to time with Orton, who is, by all accounts, a bit of a dick, and rather stupid. But he does have talent and presence, and the WWE are very wary about releasing big names who could jump to TNA, so he's not going anywhere. That said, they're hardly going to trust him with the world champion role.

A Michaels win is a more realistic possibility, but he beat Cena clean on Monday night, which is usually a pretty good indication that he's not winning on Sunday. So I'm betting on Cena to retain in a good match, probably by pinning Orton.

2. ECW World Title: Bobby Lashley v. Umaga, Vince McMahon & Shane McMahon. This is the sequel to last month's hair-versus-hair match at Wrestlemania, in which Lashley represented Donald Trump, and Umaga represented Vince. Lashley won, so Vince is now wearing a hat, and out for revenge. The result is this rather bizarre match in which Lashley will defend the ECW title under three-on-one handicap rules against Umaga, Vince and his son Shane.

They haven't done a great job of explaining the rules for this thing, but I believe the normal approach would be that the heels work as a tag team, and whichever one pins Lashley gets the title. Logically, Vince would actually have been better booking the match as a four-way, but they've already got one of those, so...

Without the bizarre celebrity angle, this feud has gone a little bit cold over the last month. The match will probably be okay, but not great - Lashley's still fairly inexperienced, and the McMahons are basically gifted amateurs. I'm not quite sure about the outcome, though. Lashley is on a major push at the moment, and this would seem an inopportune time for him to lose the belt. But then again, a 3-on-1 handicap match lets him save face, and he's had the belt since last December. And Umaga randomly dropped the Intercontinental Title to Santino Marella a couple of weeks ago, which might suggest that they're freeing him up to jump to ECW as the new champion. Also, the WWE's booking formula normally suggests that the guy who's losing at the PPV is made to look strong on the immediately preceding weekly show - and Lashley decimated the bad guys on Tuesday. So history suggests he's losing this weekend.

Tentatively, I'm going for Umaga to win this, but I wouldn't be remotely surprised if Lashley retained. If either of the McMahons wins, they've lost their minds.

3. World Heavyweight Title, Last Man Standing: The Undertaker v. Batista. The Undertaker won Smackdown's world title at Wrestlemania in a match that was generally considered to be unexpectedly good. This is the rematch, and since it's highly unlikely that the Undertaker will simply give the belt back after a one month reign, it's virtually certain that he'll retain.

Last Man Standing matches look good on paper, but have all sorts of problems in practice. In most matches you want to pick up the pace as you approach the finish, but with these things they inevitably slow down as the "near falls" have to be replaced with "the referee counting very slowly to nine while nothing happens." I don't really like them.

Although the Wrestlemania match exceeded expectations, this sounds like two big guys thumping one another very slowly for twenty minutes, and I'm not particularly interested.

4. World Tag Team Titles: Matt & Jeff Hardy v. Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch. These would be Raw's tag team titles, although just to confuse matters, Matt Hardy is still on the Smackdown roster. Don't ask. The Hardys won the titles from Cena and Michaels a few weeks ago in a ridiculous battle royal, when Michaels threw the match in a fit of pique. This sort of thing does nothing to help the credibility of the titles, but at least the Hardys still have a huge personal following.

Cade and Murdoch have been hanging around the fringes of the roster for a while now, and seem to have been wheeled out simply as a convenient heel tag team for the Hardys to face in their first title defence. They're okay, but I'm not expecting wonders from this match. There's no earthly reason to move the belts twice in such quick succession, so the Hardys should retain.

5. United States Title: Chris Benoit v Montel Vontavious Porter. Benoit and MVP had a good match at Wrestlemania, in which Benoit retained the title, somewhat to my surprise. This is the rematch, and it seems a reasonably safe bet that MVP should win this time, to begin his first reign as a singles champion. Frankly, this storyline has been in a holding pattern for weeks, and there's not much to be said about it. I'd have put MVP over for the title at Wrestlemania, personally, but all logic says they have to do it now. Benoit doesn't need the title; MVP's momentum will be damaged if Benoit beats him clean twice in a row.

So, MVP to win, and the match should be good.

6. Women's Title: Melina v Mickie James. I don't even remember when this match was announced, but apparently it was mentioned somewhere on the Milan show. Really, this is about giving Melina an actual wrestler to defend her title against, now that the promotion for Ashley Massaro's Playboy shoot is over. Amusingly, they did a three-way women's title match on a house show in Paris earlier in the week which they botched spectacularly - Mickie James pinned Victoria, who forgot to kick out, meaning that Mickie won the title. They did a rematch later in the night so that Melina could get her title back.

This sort of thing happened in WCW from time to time - the company developed a remarkable habit of having titles change hands during overseas tours and then not acknowledging it on TV. Naturally, this just annoyed local fans. The WWE has actually included this screw-up in its official title history, so at least they're making the best of it. (Planned title changes at untelevised shows are also not entirely unknown, although for obvious reasons they're extremely rare.)

These two should have a passable match and, in the absence of any other half-decent women to fight, Melina should retain through evil trickery in order to set up another rematch.

Worth buying? Doesn't matter, it's on Sky Sports 1. Overall, it's not bad for a Backlash show, and the Cena/Michaels/Rated RKO fourway should be very good. There are other matches on here with potential, but the stories are decidedly underheated.