Saturday, July 21, 2007

Great American Bash 2007

Welcome to the first pay-per-view of the post-Benoit era.

For those of you who've been living under a rock, a recap: Chris Benoit didn't show up at last month's pay per view, and the next day it turned out that he'd murdered his wife and child before committing suicide. This has sparked an awful lot of media attention in which, for the most part, the press has been trying to draw a connection between the steroid use which is notoriously rampant in the wrestling industry, and the fate of the Benoit family. The problem with this angle is that the truth lies somewhere between the two. Steroid and drug use are most probably a major contributing factor to the alarmingly high rate of premature death among professional wrestlers; but they're probably not the proximate cause of Benoit's killing spree.

The WWE's PR strategy, in a nutshell, is to keep their heads down and hope it all goes away once the media move on to another subject. This is taking rather longer than they might have hoped.

In the meantime, Chris Benoit has been effectively erased from history - the WWE website still acknowledges him as a former champion, but that's about it. The shows have gone back to business as usual. The storyline about Vince McMahon's murder, which was supposed to be the big plot of the summer, has also been quietly dropped. (It's slightly unclear whether Vince is still meant to be dead in storyline terms, but at the very least, it's no longer being discussed on air.) Instead, we have a curious month with some frankly strange booking decisions - strange in their own right, and especially strange when you consider that the company's steroid policy is attracting an awful lot of attention right now. You might think this would be a poor time to push all the really, really big guys to the top of the card. But that's not the way Vince McMahon sees the world.

The Great American Bash started life as a WCW pay per view, and the WWE dusted off the brand name when they decided to expand the PPV line-up in 2004. Originally there was some vague gimmick that the US military got to see the show for free, although they haven't been making much mention of that lately. The WWE's shows under this name have been pretty dire. GAB 2004 was headlined by the notoriously stupid Concrete Crypt Handicap Match, of which the less said the better. The 2005 show had a DQ finish in the main event, the final match of Muhammad Hassan, and undercard title wins for Orlando Jordan and the New Road Warriors. Last year's show, arguably the best of the bunch, still had the ridiculous Punjabi Prison match, and three last-minute card changes due to wrestlers suffering from, ahem, "elevated liver enzymes."

Basically, the show is a bit of a byword for crap. Fortunately for me, it's also a show that airs on Sky Sports 1, so I don't have to shell out more money to see it.

1. WWE Championship: John Cena v. Bobby Lashley. The Raw world title match is clearly headlining this show, given the state of the rest of the card. This is a relatively rare face/face main event, although it's always possible that Lashley is going to turn heel somewhere along the way. Cena, you'll recall, has held the title since last September, and although his popularity with the crowd has been intermittent, he generally seems to have them on side these days. Some audiences have tended to turn on him when they perceive his opponent as a better performer, more deserving of the top spot. Frankly, that's not been an issue in the last few months, when he's been fighting guys like the Great Khali. (Of whom, more later.)

Bobby Lashley was the champion of ECW, the company's C-show, until being brought to Raw in the recent draft. The angle, such as it is, is that Lashley is now an uncrowned champion who deserves his title shot. There's been a concerted attempt to present this as a clash of the titans even though audiences seem unconvinced by Lashley as a main event wrestler. But Lashley is a large, large man - remarkably so, when one considers the weight at which he wrestled as an amateur. Even more remarkably, the WWE has actually drawn attention to this fact in video packages. Presumably we're supposed to conclude that Lashley has stepped up his workout regime.

Lashley was one of the wrestlers pulled from last year's show due to eleveated liver enzymes.

The video packages on Monday's show seemed to be suggesting that Cena is the favourite, and given the WWE's usual reverse psychology, that's often an indication that he's losing. Even though Cena has had the belt for almost a year and it's arguably time for a change, Lashley is not the man - at least, not yet. He's big, he's agile, he's not bad in the ring, but he just doesn't have the charisma and presence to be the champion and to carry the show. Not without a manager to do the talking for him, at least.

The match will probably be decent. I have a sinking feeling that Lashley will win, although he really shouldn't.

2. World Heavyweight Championship: The Great Khali v. Batista v. Kane. Now this gets complicated. On last month's pay per view, Edge defeated Batista (albeit on a technicality) to retain his title, with the stipulation that Batista wouldn't get another shot for as long as Edge remained champion. The idea was that Edge would have a long title reign. Kane was inexplicably announced as the new number one contender, despite the fact that he's been a midcard wrestler for years, and hadn't really done anything to earn the title shot. Technically he's a former world champion, but that was for one day in 1998.

Meanwhile, Batista was booked in a match against the Great Khali, the Indian giant recently drafted from Raw. Since Batista is generally a bit ropey, and Khali is utterly horrible, this sounded like a truly wretched prospect, in keeping with the Great American Bash's high standards.

Kane, Batista and Khali are, however, all very large, and therefore terribly popular with WWE management. And to be fair, they're all reasonably well established and semi-credible characters, if you can look past the sheer terribleness of Khali's matches to see the way he's been written.

Unfortunately, during a build-up segment on last week's Smackdown, Edge tore his pectoral, and he needs surgery. He'll be out for four months. So Edge has had to vacate the title, and some hasty reshuffling took place on Friday's episode of Smackdown. Khali won the vacant title in, of all things, a 20-man battle royal, and Batista and Kane were set up as his opponents for Sunday.

This is going to be dreadful. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Batista regaining the title, because Khali really is abominably bad for a main event wrestler. Admittedly John Cena got two watchable matches out of him, but there's only so much you can do with the guy before his chronic weaknesses will become apparent. In fact, given his limitations, there's only so much you can do with the guy, period. He only really makes sense as a transitional champion. But my bet would be that Khali pins Kane to retain, and sets up a rematch against Batista at Summerslam - traditionally a much bigger show.

Khali is also one of the guys who had "elevated liver enzymes" this time last year.

3. ECW World Title: John Morrison v. CM Punk. On last month's show, CM Punk was supposed to fight Chris Benoit for the vacant title. When Benoit no-showed, midcarder Johnny Nitro took his place and won the title. This is fairly standard booking - the substitute wins so that the audience don't feel like they've been watching a placeholder match.

So, Johnny Nitro is now the ECW World Champion, for what little that title is worth. This is a problem. Benoit as champion would have made sense. He would have been an indisputably credible world champion and it would have meant something to beat him. But without Benoit, the ECW roster is desperately short of credible headliners. This is why Johnny Nitro has got the call. Nobody would remotely have considered making him champion on Raw or Smackdown, but on ECW, he's the best they've got.

The trouble is, they now have to try and convince us that Nitro is a proper world champion even though there's nobody particularly credible for him to beat. His list of babyface challengers is miserable - indie stalwart CM Punk, indie veteran Tommy Dreamer, novelty act The Boogeyman. It doesn't mean a great deal to beat any of these guys. So how do you convince us that Nitro is anything more than the champion of the Bozo Squad? (Especially when it's true?)

Their solution is: repackage him! So Nitro has suddenly and inexplicably dropped the stage name and is now calling himself John Morrison. This may be perhaps the worst wrestling name I've ever heard. "Johnny Nitro" is cheesy, but at least it sounds somewhat flamboyant. "John Morrison" sounds like he ought to be a middle aged fishmonger from Kirkcaldy. It's not even his real name - that would be "John Hennigan," which is better than either.

It seems that this may be intended as some sort of Jim Morrison gimmick, although the mind boggles as to how that's supposed to work.

Anyway, "John Morrison" (dear god) is going to defend his title in a rematch against CM Punk. The usual format with CM Punk matches is that everyone cheers when he comes out, and then they sit in deathly silence during the match itself before waking up for the finish. This will probably be the same. Morrison will retain.

4. Texas Bullrope Match: Dusty Rhodes v. Randy Orton. Randy Orton returns to his sporadic "legend killer" gimmick by taking on long-retired veteran Dusty Rhodes in his signature Texas Bullrope match. The point of the gimmick is to suggest that even though Rhodes is plainly some decades past his prime, at least he's fighting on home turf.

I've never liked this match. The gimmick is that the two guys are tied together by a rope around each of their wrists, and they can use the rope as a weapon. Halfway along the rope is a cowbell. This means that we get to enjoy listening to a sodding cowbell ringing continually for as long as the match lasts. It's also one of those matches that depends in large part on you having nostalgic recognition for Dusty Rhodes, but he's an American wrestler from the 1980s, and so it doesn't mean a great deal to me. Viewers whose memories don't go back far enough to remember Rhodes in his prime could be forgiven for thinking that Rikishi's looking a bit rough these days.

The actual point of this match is that they're going to introduce Dusty's real life son, Cody, as a regular character. So Orton will win, and that will set up Cody's revenge at some point down the line. I expect this to be slow and awful.

5. Intercontinental Championship: Umaga v. Jeff Hardy. Umaga regained the Intercontinental Title on Raw a few weeks ago by squashing Santino Marella, the ill-thought-out Italian character who never really caught on. As it happens, Marella was annihilated only a couple of days after Raw was dropped by an Italian TV station. Mind you, the storyline had already begun by that point, and Santino was clearly a flop, so the plan may well have been in hand anyway. Umaga is supposed to be fighting the cast of Jackass at Summerslam, and they may well want him as a champion for that angle.

(This is apparently a cross-promotional stunt dreamed up by the USA Network. It sounds like a horrible idea, and the trailers seem to have disappeared post-Benoit, so it's possible that the concept has been abandoned. The WWE are reportedly not too thrilled about the idea - the last time they had these guys on, they no-sold Umaga's offence, resulting in a segment that looked utterly awful. The WWE also reportedly came close to aborting the whole thing after a spending a day on a photoshoot with Steve-O and deciding that the little twerp wasn't worth the hassle he was going to cause - apparently he showed up with his own film crew in order to get footage for a DVD he was making, and spent the day running around trying to persuade people to put him in submission holds. If the whole thing has fallen through, it's probably for the best.)

Jeff Hardy is the random challenger for the belt, and Umaga will beat him in a moderately competitive match. It'll be an okay undercard match.

6. United States Championship: MVP v Matt Hardy. This is MVP's first major feud after winning the US Title from He Who Shall Not Be Named. Matt Hardy had peculiar value during Edge's title reign because of their long personal history, and the audience's knowledge of that feud. While Hardy was never going to become world champion, the prospect of him challenging Edge for the belt was by no means unrealistic, and could have drawn real money. A sudden winning streak suggests that the WWE may well have had something along those lines in mind. Matt seems to be an indestructible character who audiences continue to believe in and root for, no matter how badly he's written, so in theory he could work as a solo wrestler.

His main weakness is that he's not very good at talking, at least as a babyface. He was rather better during his heel run, when he presented himself as the world's leading exponent of "Mattitude", led beleaguered undercard followers around, and fought one-legged men. Still, you can do something with Matt Hardy.

A feud with MVP for the United States title is no bad thing, and I think it's got legs. So, MVP retains, but in sufficiently controversial fashion to set up a rematch. With these two, the match itself should be good - if they're given time, it ought to be the best thing on the card.

7. Women's Title: Candice Michelle v Melina. This is the obligatory rematch after Candice won the title last month. Not much more to be said about it, really. The match will be fine for what it is, and Candice will retain. After that, she presumably moves on to feud with Jillian Hall or Beth Phoenix.

8. Singapore Cane on a Pole: Carlito v. The Sandman. A last-minute addition to the card, after the two major Smackdown matches were conflated into one. This is an undercard feud from Raw which has at least got some story behind it. The idea is pretty simple. Former ECW champion the Sandman (from back in the days of the real ECW) was brought to Raw in the draft, where he is of course ridiculously out of place. He doesn't care. The typical Sandman match goes like this: he wrestles his opponent for a while, then gets annoyed, whacks the opponent over the head with the cane, and gets disqualified. I think I'm right in saying that every single match he's had since coming to Raw has ended in a DQ.

Sandman is meant to be the good guy, by the way.

So: in this match, Sandman will be wrestling the obnoxious midcard heel Carlito, and if he can get his cane from the pole, then he can use it legally. In other words, the psychology is that Sandman, the hero, will lose against this middling villain, unless he can get the weapon and beat the crap out of his opponent with a stick. This really shouldn't work, but there's something oddly endearing about the guy that lets him get away with it.

I'm thinking that Sandman wins in a match that could potentially be quite an entertaining train wreck.

Worth buying? Dear god, no. Only three of these matches - Cena/Lashley, Umaga/Hardy and MVP/Hardy - really have plausible chances of being seriously good. And I'm not expecting all three of them to pull it off. The Smackdown title match will be dreadful, Orton is wrestling a pensioner, Sandman is endearingly awful but awful nonetheless, the girls are the girls, and we already saw the ECW title match last month, when it wasn't anything to write home about.

But it's on Sky Sports 1, so I get to see it anyway...