Sunday, January 27, 2008

Royal Rumble 2008

After a break of a month, it's time for the first PPV of the year. This is the 21st Royal Rumble show, hence the rather corny late-1980s name. It's one of the major shows of the year, partly through venerable history, and partly because the winner of the titular battle royal gets a world title match at Wrestlemania. So basically, this is the point where somebody breaks from the pack to become the Heroic Challenger, and begins a three-month build for the main show of the year.

It's also the first PPV in HD, at least if you're an American. All of the WWE programming shifted to HD this week, complete with a shiny new set. However, Sky is still running everything in standard definition, because the WWE airs on Sky Sports 3, and that channel isn't available in HD. We'll have to see how long that lasts.

Actually, it doesn't make much of a difference to me, because I don't own an HD TV. At the moment, the technology is in a rather awkward phase over here, where the picture quality is wonderful, but there's not much being transmitted in HD. There's the film and sport channels, but I hardly ever watch those, and I can't justify getting HD just to watch the occasional show on Sky Arts.

Although they've been singing HD's praises publicly, the WWE are privately rather ambivalent about the technology. They certainly accept it as the way things are going. But professional wrestling is the art of not hurting your opponent, as convincingly as possible. It's designed to be viewed from halfway back in the stalls - preferably through a smoky haze by somebody who left their glasses at home. It's not entirely TV-friendly to start with.

High definition pictures only make it easier to see lack of contact - not to mention other embarrassing features such as mysterious forehead scarring. Apparently, there's also an increase in sound quality which makes it easier for the audience to overhear wresters improvising by "calling spots" in the ring.

The upshot is that the wrestler on HD television will spent a lot more time being legitimately punched in the face in the name of verisimilitude, while the director is careful to switch camera angles at crucial moments to disguise any moves that might not look convincing. (Hey, if it looked good after all, they can always run a replay.)

But on to the card. Since the Royal Rumble itself is an hour long, and takes up at least a third of the show, the card is on the short side.

1. The 2008 Royal Rumble. For those of you who don't follow wrestling: the Royal Rumble is a 30-man battle royal. Notionally, everyone "draws a number at random" before the show. Wrestlers #1 and #2 start the match, and everyone else enters in sequence in two minute intervals. Elimination occurs if you're thrown over the top rope and BOTH feet touch the floor (because if one foot counted, it would be terribly risky to tease eliminations). Last remaining wrestler is the winner and gets a shot at the world title - or, in these multi-brand days, a shot at whichever world title he chooses - in the main event of Wrestlemania.

The match is, of course, logically ridiculous, because it blatantly favours the wrestlers who enter later, and theoretically ought to result in some bozo headlining the main show of the year because he drew number 30. In practice, naturally, this never happens.

The Royal Rumble more or less sells itself, and the WWE have been quite relaxed about attaching storylines to it this year. The philosophy for 2008 seems to be that this is the start of the story, not the end, and therefore they only need to remind us that the match is happening and that it's always cool. And it usually is.

They've been running "qualifying matches" on live shows for the last few weeks, in an attempt to make the live crowds think they're seeing something meaningful. Naturally, this is a bit of a swizz, and they've been repeating the same qualifying matches on multiple shows. Nonetheless, as things stand, 25 participants have been announced, leaving five slots for surprise guests. One of those is probably the Big Show, who has decided to return to wrestling after all.

Of the 25 announced wrestlers, the most plausible option from Raw is Triple H, who's been floating around as a main eventer for months with nothing much to do. Shawn Michaels is an outside possibility. From Smackdown, Batista or the Undertaker would make sense. The main storyline on that show is Edge scheming to stop them getting a shot at his world title. From ECW, CM Punk was entered into the match last night, but I can't imagine him actually winning.

It's a silly match, but it's always fun. I'm looking forward to it.

2. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. Jeff Hardy. Well, this is a surprise. Lifetime midcarder Jeff Hardy won this title shot on the last PPV by defeating Triple H in an upset, which got a rather underwhelming reaction from the live crowd. However, over the last few weeks, the audiences on Raw have really got behind Jeff, to the point where it's conceivable he could actually win. Reportedly, some people internally have been lobbying for a title change.

That said, the Royal Rumble is always a weird show, because you want the top guys in the battle royal. Jeff Hardy is a stopgap challenger, and he's getting a shot tonight so that the big names will be free for the big match. That's the reality. Stranger things have happened, but I think Orton's retaining (probably on a DQ screwjob), with Hardy being set up as a credible main eventer for the future. The match will probably be very good.

3. World Heavyweight Championship: Edge v. Rey Mysterio. Similar considerations apply here. The big story is that Edge is trying to get out defending his title against Batista or the Undertaker. But he's clearly got to defend against somebody, so here comes Rey Mysterio, the number three babyface on Smackdown. There's no way Mysterio is winning. His job is to keep Edge occupied while Batista or Undertaker pursues their chase for the title. Edge has only just been inserted into a stable alongside Chavo Guerrero, Zach Ryder, Curt Hawkins and Vickie Guerrero, the idea being that they collectively control the Smackdown and ECW titles (which Chavo won on Tuesday). That would be out the window if they had a title change now.

It'll be a straightforward match in which Edge defeats Rey through devious trickery. And it'll probably be a great match, so I'm fine with that.

4. ECW Championsh... oh, hold on, this isn't on the card. Chavo Guerrero won the belt from CM Punk on the weekly TV show on Tuesday, but they're not doing the rematch. How weird. Chavo isn't scheduled to be on the show at all, although I expect he'll show up at ringside in Edge's match.

Chavo Guerrero as ECW Champion is, er, an odd choice. He's got a lot going for him as a technical wrestler, but he's never struck me as having the charisma for a main event spot. Still, if they're acknowledging the reality that the ECW World Title is a D-list championship, there's nothing wrong with putting it on Chavo, I suppose. The long-term future of ECW is a little bit up in the air, because it's only got a TV contract from year to year, and nobody really knows why it's on the Sci-Fi Channel in the first place.

4. Ric Flair v MVP. MVP is the United States Champion, but his title apparently isn't on the line here. Instead, this is the latest instalment in a wonky storyline where the idea is that veteran wrestler Ric Flair must retire the next time he loses a one-on-one match... for no adequately explained reason. It isn't really working, and the haywire selection of opponents suggests nobody's given proper thought to the build.

In fact, the WWE do know where this is heading. Flair is planning to retire, for real, at Wrestlemania in the spring. I think a large part of the problem is that audiences either know he's retiring at Wrestlemania, and therefore don't take these matches terribly seriously, or they don't know, in whch case they don't believe that he's retiring at all. Either way, this needs a rethink.

MVP is one of the most promising younger guys on the roster, and Flair (despite his advanced years) still knows how to put a match together. I'm sure this will be fine. Flair will win.

5. Chris Jericho v JBL. Last month, Jericho was about to beat Randy Orton for the WWE Title when JBL cost him the match. This turns out to be the set-up for JBL's return to the ring, after months as a commentator on Smackdown (where he was often the most entertaining thing on the show). However, this feud is a weird piece of booking. Jericho has yet to convincingly beat anyone of importance since he returned to wrestling late last year. He really should be winning convincingly tonight. Except he's facing JBL, who is also in the position of needing a big win with his return to the ring.

The feud hasn't really taken off, and I suspect a clumsy fudge in the finish in an attempt to protect both characters. The wrestling itself will be good, but the writers have done it no favours. JBL has been sufficiently dominant in the lead-in that I suspect Jericho gets the win, and then gets destroyed after the bell. Or something like that.

Worth buying? Actually, yes. This looks like a solid show from top to bottom. The worst thing on the card is Jericho/JBL, which should still be comfortably above average in terms of the in-ring work. They'll probably chuck in something else at the last moment to fill out the card - most likely another defence of the Women's Title - but it's hard to imagine this show disappointing.