Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Vengeance 2007

Thanks to the WWE's mayfly attention span, Vengeance looks to be the worst-promoted pay per view that they've put on in months. It's not quite down there with last year's notorious ECW show, for which only two matches were announced ahead of time, but it's getting there.

The problem is that the WWE completely lost interest in the show a couple of weeks ago after they hit on an exciting new storyline. The exciting new storyline has absolutely nothing to do with any of the matches booked for Vengeance, but it's exciting and new, so they're giving it all the TV time they can find. And poor little Vengeance has become an afterthought.

What is this exciting new storyline? Why, simple - WWE chairman Vince McMahon has been blown to smithereens by a car bomb. He's dead. We've just suffered through two bloody weeks of mock tribute shows, which basically involve the exact same inserts being shown, in full, three times a week. They're excruciatingly dull.

Now, some people find this rather offensive, because the WWE actually mimicked some of the trappings of their own genuine tribute shows. And admittedly, it is a little tasteless to produce a show that could at least be construed as a parody of the tribute shows for Owen Hart (died on live TV) and Eddie Guerrero (found dead in his hotel room on the morning of a show).

But I don't have a fundamental problem with that. Wrestlers deadpanning their way through tributes to the evil Mr McMahon is not a big deal to me - not when they're as ludicrous as William Regal's solemn account of an anecdote involving some midgets, or Edge's missing-the-point-completely monologue. ("When I think about the death of Mr McMahon, I think about me... and what I've accomplished...") But the shows have increasingly veered towards trying to make us take this storyline seriously, and that just doesn't work. The live crowds clearly don't have the faintest interest in taking it seriously (and they certainly don't want to see it taking up quite this much of the show). The aching chasm between the way the characters have to behave and the way the audience reacts is a real problem. A storyline in which Vince McMahon meets a fiery doom is not amenable to being taken seriously, but the WWE don't seem to fully appreciate that. At best, they haven't figured out what tone they're trying to hit.

By the way, Vince's body hasn't been found. So he'll be back in a month or so, depending on the ratings. So far, ECW is up. Smackdown was down. And Raw was kind of up this week.

Meanwhile - Vengeance was supposed to be another themed show featuring all three brands. The big idea was "A Night of Champions", in which all nine of the WWE's title belts would be defended. This isn't much of a gimmick, which might explain why they're phoning it in so blatantly. Most of these matches have no real story to them, a situation that's been exacerbated by the 2007 Draft - a reshuffling of the three rosters which took place a couple of weeks ago and basically resulted in most stories going on hold while the writers tried to figure out which characters would still be around in a fortnight's time.

It's all a bit of a mess. So: in plot terms, there's pretty much nothing leading into this show. It's conceivable that some new stories might start on the show (although rumour has it that this really is primarily a placeholder show), and the best hope is that there might be some decent matches. You never know.

1. WWE Championship: John Cena v. Randy Orton v. King Booker v. Bobby Lashley v. Mick Foley. The high concept here is that John Cena is defending his WWE Championship against every former world champion on the Raw roster. Night of champions, you see.

Except, of course, it's slightly more fiddly than that. The draft took place over two days - Monday 11 June, as part of that night's Raw, and Sunday 17 June, in a gloriously tedious online event that consisted of them updating a web page every twenty minutes. To qualify for this match, you must have been on the Raw roster at the end of day one. Wrestlers drafted on day two do not qualify. The WWE website says otherwise, but this is indeed the rule that they announced on TV.

It's an important rule, because the Sandman was drafted on day two. Without this convoluted technicality, he would be eligible, because he was ECW Champion, ooh, ten years ago. Even in his prime, you wouldn't have allowed him to main event a WWE show. And his prime was a while back.

Triple H and Shawn Michaels theoretically qualify for this match as well, but they're both out with injuries. Steve Austin is notionally on the Raw roster too, but he's been retired for years (and he isn't medically cleared to wrestle anyway).

So that leaves this motley crew, thrown together for no particular storyline reason. Let's just run down their qualifications. John Cena is the reigning champion. Randy Orton had a brief run as World Heavyweight Champion a couple of years back. King Booker was the five-time WCW Champion back in the day, and had a run as World Heavyweight Champion last year. Mick Foley is semi-retired, but he was a three-time WWF Champion before the name change, and he's still under contract to wrestle a couple of matches per year. And Bobby Lashley was the ECW Champion until being drafted to Raw and forced to relinquish the title.

Remember that bit. It'll be important later.

There's no rhyme or reason to the match, and it'll probably be a bit of a mess. They're probably relying on Booker and Foley, as the veterans, to hold it together. They'll brawl around a bit, Cena will retain, and conceivably they might try to spin some storylines out of it. I'm not expecting much.

2. World Heavyweight Championship, "Last Chance": Edge v. Batista. We've already seen this twice, and it was so above average that they've decided we'd like to see it a third time. The stipulation is that this is Batista's last chance against Edge - if he doesn't win the title this time, then he can't get another title shot for as long as Edge holds the belt. This stipulation usually telegraphs that Batista will lose on a screwjob (or even win by disqualification, in which case the title doesn't change hands), thus establishing the cowardly villain as an undeserving champion.

The previous matches weren't bad, but in no way do they fill me with the desire to see a third. Edge will win, and the match will be okay.

3. ECW Title: Chris Benoit v CM Punk. This is for the vacant ECW Title, which Bobby Lashley was forced to relinquish after being drafted to Raw. It was thrown together at the last minute on Tuesday's show. They could have booked it the previous week, but that was a Vince McMahon tribute show and no other storylines were allowed a look-in.

Benoit, one of the best wrestlers of his generation, was sent to the C-level ECW brand in the draft. CM Punk is the rising star and indie darling who's been with ECW almost since it was relaunched a year ago, and he's somehow managed to get over with the crowd to some degree despite the feeble nature of most ECW shows. Both are meant to be heroes, but they're fighting one another anyway.

Reportedly, the current plan for ECW is to use it principally as a training ground for inexperienced wrestlers who have only just been brought up from the developmental territories in Kentucky and Florida, and as a testing area for midcarders who might have potential to move up to the main event. That's what they did with Lashley. Reputedly there's a similar plan with the talented Johnny Nitro, although you wouldn't know it from Tuesday's show, where he had a competitive match with long-time loser Nunzio in front of a crowd who seemed to think they were attending a funeral.

Benoit is in ECW because they have no intention of using him as a proper world champion again, and they figure that he can give the brand a bit of credibility while helping to teach the rookies. Most of the other veterans are there for the same reason.

Fundamentally, the ECW Title doesn't matter, and at this stage it's probably only marginally more credible than the developmental OVW Title. Still, Benoit's great, and Punk was impressive on the indie circuit, even if he's never quite looked as good on television. They should have a fine little match.

Who do you give the title to? It doesn't really matter a great deal - if you put it on Benoit, then at least you have a champion who's indisputably credible, which should theoretically help the brand. On the other hand, there's a real risk of ECW being perceived as a show with one credible champion and a bunch of other dorks who aren't even in his league. Putting the belt on CM Punk at least tries to elevate someone. But something tells me that's not happening. Benoit will win and, I suspect, segue politely into a feud with either Elijah Burke or Johnny Nitro - both of which, come to think of it, could be good viewing.

4. World Tag Team Championships: Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch v. Matt & Jeff Hardy. Cade and Murdoch won the Tag Team Titles a few weeks ago on Raw in a convoluted storyline where they've been pretending to be nice. Naturally, they seized the opportunity to turn on the Hardys by cheating, and won the titles. This was actually built up rather well, and could have established Cade and Murdoch as credible heel champions. Unfortunately, they haven't bothered to set up any challengers for Vengeance, so the Hardys have been wheeled out for a rematch.

Now, this doesn't make sense. Matt Hardy is on the Smackdown roster, and has been for months. So apparently Matt Hardy's eligible to hold a Raw title even though he's on Smackdown... but Bobby Lashley isn't eligible to hold an ECW title, because he's on Raw. Uh-huh. There's been some vague muttering about executive discretion and rematch clauses to try and explain this away, but nothing that really hangs together coherently.

It'll be a good match, though, and Cade & Murdoch will retain. From there, the obvious challengers are Cryme Tyme (who are still somewhat popular despite chronic underuse) or Paul London & Brian Kendrick, who used to be the Smackdown champions. They've also got the Highlanders and Haas & Benjamin wandering around, which is plenty to work with. The division looks reasonably healthy.

5. WWE Tag Team Championship: Deuce & Domino v. mystery opponents. These would be the Smackdown tag titles. We know they're being defended and, er, that's it. With London, Kendrick and William Regal all drafted to Raw, the only regular tag team on the Smackdown roster is the rookie Major Brothers, who were inexplicably drafted from ECW on day two of the draft. They're so rookie that they still hold the OVW Southern Tag Titles, although that hasn't been acknowledged on air.

(OVW is very, very rarely mentioned on air - although during the draft show, JBL did express the wistful hope that his co-commentator Michael Cole might get sent there. The WWE seems nervous about drawing too much attention to it, even though OVW itself openly promotes itself as a WWE affiliate, and wrestlers tend to come up from OVW with their characters intact. There was a plan a couple of years ago to give an OVW wrestler a shot in the Royal Rumble, but it was changed at the last moment - and it would have been a terrible idea unless it was somebody who was just about to be brought up to the main roster, anyway. Even though OVW stands for Ohio Valley Wrestling, the operation is actually based in Louisville, Kentucky, and you'll sometimes hear snide remarks being made about the place as inside jokes. When the Spirit Squad were written out, for example, DX shoved them in a box and posted it to Louisville. Eugene, the mentally handicapped character, has Louisville listed as his home town, seemingly for the sole purpose of childishly taunting the OVW staff. As Nick Dinsmore, he used to be the OVW champion.)

Anyway, the Major Brothers. Their gimmick was supposed to be that they were huge fans of the original ECW, so quite what they're meant to do on Smackdown, I have no idea. I can't imagine they're seriously going to put the Major Brothers on the pay per view, but they're desperately short of credible contenders.

Since Deuce & Domino are heels, the challengers ought to be two babyfaces. Face/face matches sometimes work, but heel/heel matches almost never do (unless one of the villains is clearly on the verge of switching sides, in which case it's a standard device to give the audience a chance to cheer them). So, you're looking at any two male good guys on the Smackdown roster, who aren't injured, and who aren't already on the card. That leaves: the Major Brothers, Eugene, Funaki, Kane and... er, Shannon Moore. Throw in Finlay at a push, since he seems to be turning. It's a pretty dreary range of options.

6. Intercontinental Championship: Santino Morella v. Umaga. Another weirdly misfiring storyline. Santino Morella is supposed to be a guy from the crowd who beat Umaga for the title during a show in Milan a couple of months back. Well, I say "beat." What actually happened was that Vince McMahon issued an open challenge to the crowd, for any paying customers to face Umaga for the Intercontinental Championship. Morella accepted. Umaga then beat him up a bit, before Vince decided to make it a no-DQ match. (The idea might have been that Morella had Umaga on the ropes so Vince had to step in and change the rules - but it certainly didn't come across that way on screen.) Then, thanks to the no-DQ rule, Bobby Lashley ran in and demolished Umaga, all as part of April's Lashley/Vince feud, before putting Morella on top for the pin.

So Morella won the title because somebody else knocked out the champion with three chair shots to the head. Whoo.

Umaga didn't get a rematch because he was caught up in the Vince/Lashley feud for weeks afterwards. As for Santino, he had a desultory feud with Chris Masters, which only served to establish that, at a push, he was capable of beating a low-level midcarder. They have now created a no-win situation. If Umaga wins, Santino is dead as a character. But Santino has been booked so weakly that if he wins, it'll be seen as a fluke - it won't help him, but it will badly damage Umaga. Umaga is meant to be a virtually unstoppable monster who can plough through most of the roster. By all logic, Santino shouldn't be in his league.

I suspect a screwjob finish - probably a DQ. Umaga really has to destroy him, but I'm not sure a title change is a wise move. The match won't be much good.

7. United States Title: MVP v Ric Flair. The veteran Ric Flair was drafted to Smackdown on day one of the draft, and now he gets a shot at the United States title because... er, because MVP's got to face somebody. There's no earthly way that a rising star like MVP is losing to Flair, so they probably see this as a safe match. If they're lucky, they might get a couple of months' worth of feuding out of this, because there's a lot MVP could learn from working with a guy like Flair - and his long feud with Benoit suggested that he does improve rapidly when working with better wrestlers.

MVP will win. The match will be okay, and it'll probably go on some way down the card.

8. Cruiserweight Title: Chavo Guerrero v Jimmy Wang Yang. Chavo Guerrero inexplicably won the Cruiserweight Title from Gregory Helms in a convoluted gauntlet match several months ago, and has proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it whatsoever. Jimmy Wang Yang, the comedy Asian redneck, has at least got a few wins under his belt. So they're going to fight. And that's about it.

Both of them are very good wrestlers, so the match itself should be fine. Personally, I'd have Chavo retain, and build up the chase a little more before Jimmy finally gets his big title win.

9. Women's Title: Melina v Candice Michelle. Announced almost in passing, this one, but at least they've been fighting for months and Candice has consistently been beating the champion in non-title matches. I expect Candice is probably winning here. By the standards of WWE women's matches, this should be fine.

Worth buying? Not really, no. Some of the wrestling should be okay, but I'm not expecting any of it to be fantastic. Besides, it's patently obvious that the WWE has lost interest in this whole show, and already has its eyes on the next one.