Wednesday, June 27, 2007

So... Chris Benoit.

Well, then.

When the WWE embarked on its controversial "Vince is dead" storyline a few weeks back, even those who weren't offended by it wondered what on earth they were going to do if somebody important actually died. People die in wrestling with depressing frequency. The lifestyle is not conducive to a long and healthy retirement. The chances of somebody dying during the course of this storyline were, frankly, much higher than anyone would really like to admit.

And somebody did indeed die - Sherri Martel. This was about as bad as anyone had seen coming. They gave her a token on-air acknowledgement and moved on.

Even in the world of wrestling, where premature death appears to be seen as an occupational hazard, nobody remotely anticipated the horrific fate of the Benoit family - a story which is staggering in its own right, and all the more so for featuring perhaps the last wrestler in the industry that anyone would have expected.

Chris Benoit's reputation, according to pretty much everyone who worked with him, interviewed him, or even just met him at an autograph signing, was as a thoroughly pleasant, decent, hard-working dedicated professional, who loved wrestling passionately, and did his utmost to help teach the next generation. He was hugely respected by the other wrestlers, and almost universally acknowledged as one of the best in-ring performers of his generation, and quite possibly of all time. After twenty years in the business, nobody seemed to have a bad word to say for him - and there are very few wrestlers you can say that about. By all appearances, the man was practically a saint.

On Monday afternoon, the Atlanta police announced that Benoit had been found dead in his home alongside the bodies of his wife Nancy and seven-year-old son Daniel. It appears that Benoit had strangled Nancy late on Friday, and then choked Daniel to death on the Saturday. At some point on Sunday, he committed suicide by choking himself to death using a cord attached to his weight machine.

Obviously, this has staggered everyone involved in wrestling, and everyone with more than a passing interest in it. Not only is it a horrific crime, but it's so drastically at odds with everything people thought they knew about Benoit that it's difficult to get your head around it. Allegations of domestic abuse are also now emerging, which seem to have been a very well-kept secret even within the wrestling industry. It seems completely inexplicable, except perhaps on the grounds of serious mental illness.

The prevailing theory in the mainstream media seems to be steroid-induced rage. No doubt Benoit had been using steroids for years, and the post mortem will probably reveal some very uncomfortable things for the wrestling industry. But the steroid rage theory has its problems. The deaths took place over several days, which doesn't fit neatly with a sudden mood swing. Moreover, wrestlers and mainstream athletes have been using steroids for years, and nothing remotely like this has occurred before. On the other hand, Benoit is not the first man to kill his family and then commit suicide. It seems, at least, not unreasonable to suggest that the root causes probably have more in common with other similar killings.

On the other hand, if you do want to blame the wrestling industry, you could point out that Benoit took a hell of a lot of blows to the head over the years. These things mount up, and arguably provide at least as likely an explanation for Benoit's bizarre mental state as the steroids do.

The WWE found themselves in the horrible position of putting on a three-hour tribute to Benoit in place of Monday night's Raw show, only to learn about the murder-suicide announcement while it was still airing on the west coast. Not surprisingly, the USA network has received some complaints about airing a three-hour hagiography to a child-murderer. The WWE's official line is that when they put the show on the air, they didn't know the circumstances of the death.

This is slightly disingenuous - they were sufficiently worried about his stability to call in the cops in the first place. One of the wrestlers who reportedly received Benoit's erratic text messages was William Regal. Tellingly, Regal's contribution to the tribute show was an extraordinarily tentative speech to camera in which he spoke of his admiration and respect for Benoit's work, but stated outright that he wasn't going to speak about Benoit as a person right now. With the benefit of hindsight, one could easily infer that the penny had dropped for Regal if for nobody else.

But the events were so bizarre and unexpected that the WWE can be forgiven for spending a few hours in a state of denial until the police released more details - after which they busily set about removing all tribute pages from their website, as well as deleting all mention of the "Vince is dead" storyline. (Vince appeared to open the Monday night tribute show, to make abundantly clear that this was for real.) Interestingly, Benoit's matches have also suspiciously disappeared from the track listings on the DVD catalogue. One can only wonder what the hell they're going to do now with shows like Wrestlemania 20, a completely innocuous show which, unfortunately, ends with Benoit winning the world title in the main event. They can't exactly cut him out.

Then again, there may not be very many people who will want to see the end of Wrestlemania 20 any more. Regarded at the time as a touching and heartwarming moment, it featured Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero celebrating together as the Raw and Smackdown world champions - two smaller wrestlers who had seemingly overcome the odds to reach the top of their profession through sheer hard work and talent. Guerrero, a recovered drug addict who had come back from the brink to reclaim his mind, his family and his career, died of heart failure in 2005. Benoit is a murderer. The celebration is rather hollow now.

Somewhat surprisingly, the WWE has decided that the best approach is to plough on with this week's ECW and Smackdown shows, prefacing them with a statement explaining that they didn't know the facts when they ran the tribute show, and in the circumstances they'll just say nothing more about them. Personally, I'd have run a week of Best Of shows. But there is no workable answer here.

I'm even more surprised that they're apparently going to run with Johnny Nitro as ECW Champion - a belt that he won on Sunday night after being parachuted in to replace Chris Benoit at the last minute. To my mind, that belt is a poisoned chalice right now. It's held by a character who only won the title because Chris Benoit was busy at home his murdering his wife. This is a difficult thought to put out of mind. If I were Nitro, I'd be desperate to get rid of the thing. Instead, it seems he's defending it against CM Punk on the next PPV. I might not have made such an announcement the day after the family were found dead.

It would be nice, in some ways, to think that Benoit was indeed the basically decent man that everyone always claimed he was, and that he and his family were the victims of a tragic descent into mental illness. But it seems increasingly as though that may not be a safe assumption after all.

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.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


The first genuinely interesting announcement of the comic convention season: Marvel are merging all three Spider-Man books into a single title with the upcoming creative reshuffle. The mechanics are that they're cancelling Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man and upping Amazing Spider-Man to three issues a month - but in practice, it's a merger. There will still be several creative teams, but they'll work on alternating arcs.

I'm a huge supporter of this move, and I've been saying for years that they should do it with the X-Men. The usual counter-argument is that it involves a massive investment of time and capital to build up the first few months' stories, which is a fair point. But the current format, where all three books try to exist independently of one another, simply doesn't work as a storytelling device.

The reality is that Amazing Spider-Man has dictated the direction of the line while the writers of the other two books - Peter David and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa - have been left to squeeze their stories into whatever books are available. Because the modern tendency is to write five-issue storylines, which take five months to get through, it's never entirely clear what order things are meant to be happening in. Events in other books - save for the real agenda-setting stuff in Amazing - are just ignored in the other titles. There's absolutely no sense that the stories in Sensational or Friendly matter on any level, since we can see for ourselves that they have no impact on the characters.

This just doesn't work. Creative freedom is vastly overrated; if you're going to maintain the idea that all of these stories take place in the same universe, and feature the same lead character, then it's simply not on to have three competing books trying to tell different stories and dragging him in different directions. If the market will bear this volume of Spider-Man comics, all ostensibly featuring the same character, then your options are twofold. Either you run a single, co-ordinating story and make sure things fit, or you resign yourself to the fact that the B- and C-titles will have to tell completely inconsequential stories. Marvel have tried the latter option and the sales figure for the satellite titles speak volumes. Now they're going to really face up to the implications of a shared universe - and a shared title character - and have a single book with collaborating creators.

In an ideal world, perhaps, I'd rather have one book done by one creative team. But if the economic reality compels more Spider-Man comics than one creative team can produce, I'd rather they were heavily co-ordinated and working as a team to tell a single story. There's still scope for creators to have some freedom within this format, just as individual Dr Who scriptwriters can still tell their own stories within the wider framework of the show - it just means that everything has a clear thread and direction.

Hopefully it works. Hopefully, if it does, they'll take the hint and kill off two of the X-Men titles as well. The X-Men books have been plagued by spectacular lack of direction ever since Grant Morrison left, and they've been suffering for it in terms of sales figures. One team, one title, one direction. Any more is a mistake. Marvel has been demonstrating why for the last few years.

So - if you actually buy all of the Spider-Man books at the moment, and you intended to keep doing so after the creative reshuffle, then this is a good thing. Without question.

The fly in the ointment is what this means for the readers who don't buy all three books at the moment - which is where the whole thing could go catastrophically awry. Amazing's direct market sales fluctuate according to crossovers and events, but it's been consistently over 120K for months now. Sensational and Friendly sell less than half that amount, because readers (quite correctly) perceive them as totally superfluous.

That means that in the direct market alone, there are presently some sixty thousand readers who have decided that they don't want to buy three Spider-Man books a month. How will they react? Will they buy into the glorious new era and shell out extra money for the privilege? Or will they see this as a shameless device to make them pay triple the money - which, on one level, it plainly is?

We're not talking about a few people round the edges, here - we're talking about half the Spider-Man readership. And one has to assume that they're the half who were less interested in Spider-Man to start with. Many of them are only around because of Amazing's seemingly neverending string of crossovers. Marvel will need a very strong opening storyline to hold them.

But that said, Marvel can afford to lose a fair chunk of them. Suppose the new Amazing drops 40,000 readers. That'll still translate into a big sales rise for Friendly and Sensational - and it'll make the exercise worthwhile.

I really hope this works.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fry and Laurie predict the future.

From the far-flung year of 1992, when President Bush was in power...

Saturday, June 02, 2007

One Night Stand 2007

A mere two weeks after Judgment Day comes the bizarre scheduling anomaly of One Night Stand. Those of you not familiar with the world of wrestling may wonder what on earth is going on here.

This is the third annual One Night Stand show. In 2005, it was meant to be a one-off tribute to ECW, a highly influential indie promotion that never quite got a proper send-off when it went bust. The WWE was well-placed to put on that show. They had already bought the rights to ECW from its liquidators in order to use them in the Invasion storyline a couple of years earlier. Many of the ECW wrestlers were already under contract. And they employed ECW's former owner Paul Heyman.

The show went rather well, and in 2006 Heyman and Rob Van Dam managed to persuade the WWE to bring back ECW as a full-time third brand. So that year, One Night Stand was the launch for the new ECW. Again, the show did quite well. But the new ECW, marooned in a one-hour weekly slot on the Sci-Fi Network, was almost universally regarded as a terrible show. The big name wrestlers parachuted in to prop up the aging ECW roster quickly disappeared, and it began to look like a decidedly third-rate affair compared to Raw or Smackdown.

The writing was dreary, and the point of no return was reached with last December's December to Dismember PPV, a show so abysmal that the crowd was chanting for a refund during the main event. The show was so incontrovertibly terrible that the WWE removed Paul Heyman from television the next day and gave the in-story explanation that he had resigned in despair because his show was so bad.

By this stage, nobody would seriously suggest that ECW could carry its own pay-per-view. And in any event, the WWE is going through its annual post-Wrestlemania panic phase, where it looks at the decline in business after the biggest show of the year, and decides to throw random stuff out there to boost the ratings, instead of taking a long-term view. This year, among other things, they've decided that all three brands should appear on every PPV, in the belief that this will boost ratings. So an ECW-only PPV is doubly unacceptable to the company right now.

In fact, the company seems generally rather confused about the status of the three brands. They've announced a reshuffle of the rosters in a couple of weeks time, but it's hard to see why anyone should care when the rosters haven't been kept separate in months. Matt Hardy, nominally a Smackdown wrestler, still holds one of the Raw tag team titles. Bobby Lashley, the ECW Champion, appears on Raw all the time. Randy Orton, from the Raw roster, was in ECW's main event last week. So really, who cares if there's a reshuffle? Unfortunately, when the WWE - read, Vince McMahon - is in this sort of mood, they tend not to think things through logically.

And so, we come to One Night Stand 2007 - a show that was entered onto the schedule many months ago when they expected it to be an all-ECW show, and which now has no particularly good reason to exist. The WWE's latest big idea, however, is that PPVs should have themes. So, in an echo of its ECW origins, ONS 2007 will feature matches contested under "extreme rules." This is the WWE's pet term for the original ECW rules, in which there were no count-outs and no disqualifications. In effect, this meant that there were no rules aside from the winning stipulations (since the referee still had to verify that a pinfall had occurred).

This might have worked as a theme, if they'd actually done it. Instead, they've produced a show where virtually every match has a gimmick attached as well, and where the "extreme rules" theme has been lost as a result.

So - One Night Stand 2007. A completely superfluous show which they've probably rather not be doing, and with a notional theme that isn't properly implemented. And just to make matters worse, the WWE is also contractually obliged to produce an episode of Saturday Night's Main Event this Saturday for NBC. Previous episodes have been ratings disasters and so the show is going out at 11.30pm on the east coast. It was taped on Monday night after Raw, and suffice to say that nothing of importance will be taking place.

1. WWE Title, Falls Count Anywhere: John Cena v. The Great Khali. The Raw title, in other words. This is a rematch from Judgment Day, where John Cena defeated Khali by submission, using his finisher, in a match that wasn't anywhere near as bad as some people were predicting. It was watchable, largely because it was short. The booking, however, was bizarre. They were always planning to do a rematch at One Night Stand, but instead Cena just defeated the big guy. Notionally, the excuse for the rematch is that Khali's foot was under the bottom rope, and therefore the submission didn't count. But that's not the point. That's a story that you do with a cowardly villain who relies on technicalities. Khali's schtick is that he's an indestructible monster who powers through all his opponents. That's not really consistent with Cena getting him to submit, whatever the technicalities might be. If they wanted Cena to win inconclusively, they would have been better off just having him pin Khali with a roll-up. Then, you can at least say that Khali was outwrestled for three seconds, but wasn't actually beaten up.

But this is the position they're in, and so we're having the rematch anyway, with an arbitrary "falls count anywhere" stipulation. That should at least allow them to do plenty of gimmickry with the set, to further disguise Khali's huge limitations. In an attempt to rebuild Khali, by the way, he'll be pinning John Cena tonight on Saturday Night's Main Event. Nobody will be watching, so it won't make any difference.

Cena will win, and the match will be short and watchable.

2. World Heavyweight Title, Steel Cage Match: Edge v. Batista. The Smackdown title, and another rematch from Judgment Day. The previous match was perfectly good, and ended with Edge pinning Batista with a roll-up after his leg gave out. That's a more effective way of protecting the challenger. There's not a great deal of story here - Edge was parachuted onto Smackdown at the last moment because of a spate of injuries, and they haven't had much time to get a proper feud under way. But at least it's likely to be a good match.

The steel cage stipulation is completely arbitrary. Traditionally, the point of a steel cage match was supposed to be to ensure that there was no outside interference in the match, but there's been no history of outside interference in this feud. So it's just there to add a bit of drama.

Edge will retain, probably by escaping the cage rather than by decisively defeating his opponent.

3. ECW World Title, street fight: Vince McMahon v. Bobby Lashley. The latest instalment of Bobby Lashley's attempt to regain the ECW Title from company chairman Vince McMahon. Vince, you'll recall, won the title at Backlash by pinning Lashley in a three-on-one handicap match where his partners Shane and Umaga did all the work. At Judgment Day, Lashley won a rematch, but pinned Shane instead of Vince, which Vince used as an excuse to hold on to the title. Now, for extremely shaky plot reasons, Vince has finally decided to fight Lashley himself - although with the rules on this show, there's nothing to prevent a thousand hangers-on from running in. Which is undoubtedly what will happen. There's no way on earth Lashley is really going to have a match with Vince, who is in late middle age. It will be a cartoon story segment.

The story hasn't exactly been setting the world alight, so it's probably time for Lashley to finally overcome the odds and regain his title.

This is being billed as a "street fight", even though every match on the show is already being contested under "extreme rules." I have absolutely no idea what the difference is meant to be. I'd always understood them to be the same thing in the WWE.

4. World Tag Team Title, ladder match: Matt & Jeff Hardy v. Shelton Benjamin & Charlie Haas. Another rather arbitrary match, since Shelton & Charlie have been on the margins for ages, and haven't done much to earn themselves a title shot. Still, it's the Hardys defending their tag titles in a ladder match, which is usually good. And while the challengers may be minor characters, they're great wrestlers. This should be a fine match.

The main storyline with the tag titles at the moment is that Lance Cade and Trevor Murdoch are trying to buddy up to the Hardys, but since we all know they're villains, they're bound to turn on them at the end. There's been some attempt to suggest that Cade and Murdoch are unhappy that they aren't getting the title shot (even though they've already fought the Hardys and lost twice). There are two logical finishes to this match - either the Hardys win clean, or Cade and Murdoch interfere and cost them the match. I could live with either. A clean win for the challengers would just be bizarre.

5. Melina v Candice Michelle. In custard. Er... really? This illustrates just how wildly erratic the behaviour of WWE management is, since it's only a couple of weeks ago that they were reportedly insisting that the women should be more classy from now on. These two have actually been feuding over Melina's Women's Title (which, mercifully, is not on the line in this T&A segment), and I can't for the life of me figure out why somebody thought this was a good idea. I mean, if you really want to do this sort of thing, why not do it with Smackdown's Jillian Hall and Michelle McCool? They're already feuding, and their storyline is ridiculous to start with.

It is what it is. Candice will win.

6. Tables match: The New Breed (Elijah Burke, Matt Striker & Marcus Cor Von) v. CM Punk, Tommy Dreamer & the Sandman. In other words, it's ECW's main heel faction, the New Breed, against three random ECW midcarders. CM Punk is meant to be a rising star, and so are the New Breed. They've been feuding for a while. Dreamer and Sandman are veterans from the original ECW and are only there to fill out the roster. The match was announced in passing on Tuesday's ECW show, and so it's not the pay-off to anything. It doesn't take a genius to figure out who's winning.

I'm not sure the New Breed are really cut out for this sort of match - where, basically, the winners are the first team to do some ludicrously contrived spot that involves throwing an opponent through a cheap plywood table. Wrestlers who are into insane stunts love cheap plywood tables, because they absorb the impact while looking as though they ought to hurt a lot more than they do. They were massively overused in the late 1990s, which was the heyday of this particular gimmick match.

The New Breed will win. The match will probably be undercard filler.

7. Stretcher match: Randy Orton v Rob Van Dam. I forget the details of how you win one of these things, but it's something along the lines of "strap your opponent to a stretcher and wheel him out of the arena." It's an attempt to capitalise on the awkward "match" that they did with Orton and Shawn Michaels at Judgment Day. Shawn was too badly injured to do a proper match, so they did an angle where Orton simply annihilated him and kicked him repeatedly in the head. Then, this week, they did something similar with Orton and Van Dam.

Orton was meant to be in the doghouse after getting himself kicked off the European tour for unprofessional behaviour, but with the number of recent injuries to high-profile wrestlers, his stock has risen again. Van Dam, on the other hand, is still far and away the most popular wrestler on the ECW roster. But, according to the usual news sources, he has decided to leave when his contract expires, and this is due to be his final match. So he's losing, then.

It should be okay, and I suspect Van Dam may want to make an impression on his way out. There's every chance that he'll sign with TNA and work a couple of days a month at their TV tapings.

8. Lumberjack match: Kane v Mark Henry. Another random last-minute addition from the Smackdown brand, as the returning strongman Mark Henry takes on Kane in a rematch from, er, Friday. That match ended in a count-out when Kane was knocked out and couldn't return to the ring. This suggests that somebody on the writing crew hasn't understood the point of a lumberjack match. A lumberjack match, traditionally, involved surrounding the ring with other wrestlers who prevented people from leaving. It's what you did as the pay-off to a story where the bad guy kept getting himself counted out in order to retain his title, in the days before steel cages became commonplace. Nowadays, it's usually just an excuse for an incoherent brawl around the ringside area. This won't be very good, but it's far enough down the card that it ought to be short. Henry will win, since he's only just back from a long absence, and Kane will always have credibility with the fans.

Worth buying? Well, it's airing on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so it's an academic question. There are actually some matches on this that could be decent - Edge/Batista and the ladder match - but otherwise I'd probably give it a miss if I had to pay for it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Marvel sales: April 2007

For those of you who are interested enough to click the link, but not interested enough to actually keep watch on the Beat, here's the April Marvel sales column.