Saturday, August 25, 2007

Summerslam 2007

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Summerslam is meant to be one of the WWE's more important shows. It's been around since the late 1980s, and you can always tell the long-running shows by their rather dated names. (Most of the PPVs didn't come along until the nineties, which is why they all have names like Unforgiven. But that's for next month.)

In theory, this is the big show for this part of the year, and it ought to be a bigger deal than normal. In practice, they've run into a bit of trouble with the booking. The original plan was, of all things, Umaga versus the entire cast of Jackass. They got as far as promoting this on air a couple of times before the deal fell through; Johnny Knoxville got cold feet after the Chris Benoit affair. Most people agree that the match will not be missed.

Meanwhile, after a brief ratings scare on Raw, we've had the triumphant return to television of Vince McMahon and the revival of the "Vince is Dead" storyline. Of course, Vince is no longer dead, but they're ploughing ahead with what would have been the next part of the angle: one of the wrestlers is Vince's illegitimate son, who could it be? (In the original story, this would have come out in Vince's will.) This is now the lead story on all three shows, but it doesn't actually connect to a match on the show.

But in fairness, we are seeing some signs of long-term planning. There are a few slow-burning storylines which are being held back from this show on the logic that they aren't needed. That's probably smart. We don't MVP and Matt Hardy fighting for the US title on this show; they might as well be used to help Unforgiven's card. The Undertaker is also ready to return from his injury, but they're holding him back for a month to avoid overloading the card. Fine by me. This is how you're meant to do it.

So... what is on the show?

1. WWE Championship: John Cena v. Randy Orton. This is the Raw world title. It's a pretty good match-up, and they've had a bit of luck in terms of building up Orton. Over the last few months, there have been several opponents available who happened to be taking extended breaks, or just leaving the company altogether. This was ideal, because it meant Orton could be shown beating them decisively and putting them out of action. As a result, they've been able to make Orton look dangerous again, and they've made him an entirely credible challenger. They haven't done much beyond that, in story terms, but it's enough to be getting on with.

Cena has held the belt since last September, and he's overdue for a break. Meanwhile, Triple H is back as a solo babyface, and he kind of needs a heel champion to work with. The usual sources are all betting heavily that Orton will win the title on Sunday, so it looks good for Cena to get his long-deserved holiday. If Orton does win, it's likely to be a transitional reign, because he's proved terribly unreliable on the road in the past.

Reports from the untelevised house shows say that Cena and Orton have been putting on good matches, so this looks like a solid main event.

2. World Heavyweight Title: The Great Khali v. Batista. The lumbering giant Khali was given the Smackdown title last month in a desperation move after the previous champion, Edge, was injured. But Khali is not a long-term solution because, well, he's not very good. His selling point is his size - he's a legitimate giant and he does look very impressive. Until he moves.

Unfortunately, Khali isn't very good at moving, let along wrestling. They'll do their best to disguise his limitations, but there's only so far you can go. The latest idea is to change his finisher. He used to use the tree slam, which was kind of dangerous if he botched it. Now he's using the Iron Claw, one of those ridiculous nerve holds that were popular back in the seventies. Why the Claw? Because it's a move so simple that even Khali can't screw it up. You just put your hand on the guy's head and pretend to squeeze. The opponent sells the hold, and does all the work for you. Even Khali can do it.

The WWE have so much confidence in this match that they haven't even been running it on house shows. They've been announcing it, but what actually happens is that Finlay and Kane run in after a few minutes, and it turns into a tag match. Think about that - the WWE is putting this match on PPV, because they kind of have to, but they have so little confidence in it that they won't even inflict it on a paying crowd in the obscure venues that get house shows.

The smart money is on Batista winning here, simply because Khali just isn't good enough for the role. Unfortunately, there are no other obvious contenders lined up - Edge is injured, Mark Henry is programmed against the Undertaker, MVP is programmed with Matt Hardy, and Finlay just isn't at the right level - so the WWE will be crossing their fingers and hoping that the match is good enough to have a rematch next month. It probably won't be, although John Cena did manage to drag two watchable matches out of Khali a few months back, so nothing is impossible.

3. ECW World Heavyweight Title: John Morrison v. CM Punk. Because you demanded it: another chance to see this match, which has already been on PPV twice. But this time, it's different, because the stipulation is... oh, hold on. It's not different. It's just the same match again.

The betting seems to be that Punk will probably win, which would at least move things on somewhat. But the booking of the weekly show has been so haphazard that it's hard to work out quite what's going through the writers' minds. Who could possibly have thought it was a good idea to write a show, two weeks ago, where Morrison lost by DQ to the Boogeyman (a novelty act), and Punk was completely squashed by Big Daddy V (his entire offence consisted of two knees in the corner)? It's almost an object lesson in how to make a supposed world title look like a technicality, even within wrestling-world logic. I suppose the idea is that Punk wins the title and V is then automatically in place as a title contender, but there are better ways of doing it.

It'll be good but not great, and it'll be buried some way down the running order, because it's only the C-show. ECW only has one match on this card... but then, it's only got about 15 active wrestlers, which is another reason why we're getting this same match yet again.

4. Intercontinental Title: Umaga v. Carlito v. Mr Kennedy. With the Jackass story kaput, the next plan was for Umaga to defend his Intercontinental Title against Jeff Hardy for the second month in a row. But Hardy is unavailable - he claims that he's been sent home for injury rehabilitation, although the usual sources have expressed a considerable degree of scepticism about that. So plan C is to turn Umaga babyface.

This is a tricky act to pull off, because Umaga is a monster heel. His schtick is that he ploughs through people and destroys them. He's been very well protected; after many months on TV, only two guys have beaten him, and they were both main eventers. This doesn't transition very well to a babyface role, because traditionally the good guy needs to spend a lot of time taking a beating so that he can make his heroic comeback and triumph. It can be done - the Undertaker's made a career of it - but it's not easy.

Still, so far so good, as Umaga has successfully embarked on the first phase of a babyface turn. Without changing his character, he's just started fighting the bad guys, and the crowd is cheering him. This hastily-booked three-way match puts him up against two heel opponents, and under WWE rules, whoever gets the first pin wins the title. In other words, it's a wonderful device to relieve Umaga of the Intercontinental Title - which is a midcard belt - without anyone defeating him. They have big plans for Kennedy, and Carlito is expendable cannon-fodder, so I'm betting that Kennedy pins Carlito to win the title.

Match quality is tricky. Umaga is very good; the other two are hit and miss at best. The plot justification for the three-way is a number one contender's match between Kennedy and Carlito on Raw which ended with one of the worst possible finishes, a draw by simultaneous pinfall. (It's almost impossible to do without looking contrived, even by wrestling standards.) The match was pretty wretched, so I don't have high hopes for any period when they're working together here.

5. Triple H v King Booker. Triple H returns to the roster after a long absence rehabbing an injury. He was in D-Generation X when we last saw him, but from the promo videos, it looks like he's gone back to his normal persona. In the WWE's mind, by the way, this is meant to be the big draw for the show. I'm not sure they've really got it to that level.

In an interesting approach, Triple H hasn't appeared on TV to promote this match at all. They're holding him back for the show. Instead, the feud has been based entirely on segments featuring Booker and commentator Jerry Lawler. Booker's gimmick, ever since winning the "King of the Ring" tournament last year, has been that he's unaccountably convinced that he's a real king. Or maybe he's just winding people up. It's hard to tell. Anyway, he's laying exclusive claim to the word "king." Jerry Lawler used to be called the King, so he had to go, and Triple H used to call himself the King of Kings, so he's next.

As wrestling goes, this makes a certain amount of sense - you've got two guys with overlapping gimmicks, and they're going to fight over it. Triple H should get a good reaction for his return, and they're both solid veterans who could potentially have a very good match together. Triple H certainly isn't losing in his return match, but I'd have thought they wanted to pursue this feud further. I'm betting on a non-finish - Triple H by DQ or something along those lines.

6. Rey Mysterio v. Chavo Guerrero. Another former world champion returning from an extended absence. The last we saw of Rey, he was losing to Chavo Guerrero. So Chavo gets a temporary promotion from the undercard in order to appear in Rey's comeback match.

Again, Rey hasn't appeared on TV to promote this match, and instead Chavo has been doing segments where he runs down Rey and beats up other cruiserweights. But nobody really takes the cruiserweight division seriously - the current champion is a midget, for heaven's sake - and Chavo doesn't exactly become a credible opponent by pinning low-grade wrestlers like Funaki.

Although they're claiming that this is Rey's first match back from injury, he actually worked a couple of matches on the recent Mexican tour. Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see what sort of shape he's in. Rey is obviously winning this match, and Chavo will be back down with the other cruiserweights in no time.

7. Kane v Finlay. Added to the card at the last moment, this is a curiously rushed match that seems to be there to fill time. They're feuding because Finlay accidentally spilled coffee on Kane. And that's not even an original story; Kane already did the same angle with Chris Jericho years ago. It'll be okay - Finlay is very good and I'm sure he can have a decent match with Kane. But I'm not expecting anything great.

There's one oddity to this pairing. Kane is clearly one of the good guys. Finlay is a slightly ambiguous tweener, but basically leans heel, and would normally be the heel in this match. But his midget sidekick Hornswoggle (I know, I know), the Cruiserweight Champion, has his own storylines where he's clearly the babyface. So Finlay and Hornswoggle are now a mixed-alignment duo, though neither of them seems to have noticed it. It's possible that this match could end up being the backdrop for an angle involving Hornswoggle and his current opponent, Jamie Noble, although if that was the plan, they'd probably just do it on Smackdown.

8. WWE Women's Title, #1 Contender: Women's Battle Royal. Exactly what it says on the tin: a battle royal where the winner gets a shot at the Women's Title. All the women from all three shows are in the match except, obviously, Candice Michelle, because she's the champion already.

The key thing here is that the Women's Title is a Raw belt, so the women on the other shows don't normally get to fight for it. So, in storyline terms, if they've got the slightest sense, everyone from Smackdown ought to join forces and make sure they get the title shot for their show. (The ECW girls are all dancers, so they're clearly not winning.) On the other hand, that doesn't mean they have to succeed.

Since Candice is a babyface, logically the winner is almost certain to be a heel. The obvious candidates are Victoria on Smackdown, for the inter-show angle, or Beth Phoenix on Raw, simply because she hasn't had a turn in the spotlight yet. As a battle royal featuring some participants of dubious ability, the match will probably be terrible.

Worth buying? Hmm. Orton/Cena is a safe bet. The two comeback matches should be decent. On the other hand, the IC Title match is questionable, the ECW match wasn't that great the last two times, the women's match will be diabolical, and Kane/Finlay is probably filler. Three good matches is probably enough to make it worthwhile for fans, but it's not the strongest card in the world.