Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Way Out 2008

No Way Out, the WWE's February pay per view, has historically tended to be a filler show. For years, the WWE calendar ran like this: the Royal Rumble in January decided who would get the title shot at Wrestlemania in March/April, so you got two or three months of build for the big match. When No Way Out was shoved into the middle, it wasn't immediately obvious what should happen at the show - especially as they stuck to the format of determining the Wrestlemania main event in January.

When they split the promotion into two shows, that helped somewhat. They had two world titles, and two world title matches to fill - so one of them was determined at the Royal Rumble, and the other one at No Way Out. But this year, they're making a peculiar effort to push No Way Out as a major show in its own right. I'm not altogether sure why.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Edge (c) v. Rey Mysterio. Or maybe not. Last month, Edge defended his title against Rey in a perfectly acceptable filler match. You'll recall that with all the major contenders trying to get the title shot at Wrestlemania, Edge needs somebody else to fight in the meantime. Rey Mysterio, the number 3 hero on Smackdown, is being plugged into that role. He will not win. His only function is to keep Edge occupied for a couple of shows until the real challenger emerges, and to have entertaining matches while doing so.

Unfortunately, Mysterio tore his bicep on Wednesday, during a tour of Chile. They haven't been able to address that on TV, because this week's shows were taped before the tour. There's an obscure article on the WWE website acknowledging the injury, but you really have to hunt to find it. Apparently Mysterio is intending to wrestle injured, which means it'll probably be very short, and Edge will win with some sort of injury angle to explain Mysterio's absence from TV.

2. WWE Championship: Randy Orton (c) v. John Cena. Now this is strange. John Cena, you'll recall, was Raw's champion up until last October, when he suffered a pec tear and had to take several months off. He vacated the title which (after a night of chaos) ended up on Randy Orton. Given the recovery time for pec surgery, Cena was expected to be out until at least the spring, and quite possibly later.

Then Cena showed up as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble, won the match, and (theoretically) won the title shot for Wrestlemania. This might just about have made sense; they could keep him out of the ring for a couple of months while his recovery continued, leading to the big comeback. But instead, Cena has offered to take his title shot this month in order to get the title back as soon as possible. The storyline has Orton, understandably enough, accepting that challenge in the hope that Cena's not 100% yet.

While the story just about makes sense for Cena and Orton, it makes absolutely no sense for the company. If Cena really is fully fit to go after this little time, the man's a machine. If he isn't, he's risking re-injury. What's more, Cena/Orton is a match that makes sense and would work for the Wrestlemania main event. Why do it in February? The answer seems to be that for reasons of internal politics, Triple H must be in the Wrestlemania main event, which is a very bad reason indeed. Hunter/Cena and Hunter/Orton are both weak main events for Wrestlemania - although he might not see it that way.

Having got to this point, the sensible thing to do is a non-finish, setting up a three-way next month between Cena, Orton and whoever wins the qualifying match. But they shouldn't have got to this point in the first place. Both guys will work hard and the match will probably be good... unless Cena goes down with a fresh injury after five minutes.

3. ECW World Title: Chavo Guerrero (c) v C.M. Punk. It seems they've finally abandoned any pretence that the ECW Title is a "real" world title, and started booking it as a midcard belt. That makes more sense, really. Nobody truly thinks it counts as a proper world title, so characters just sound a bit silly when they pretend otherwise.

CM Punk lost the title to Chavo Guerrero on free television a few weeks ago, setting up an angle where Edge's faction control both the Smackdown and ECW titles. There's no point in having Chavo lose the title back at this stage, and Punk has been beating him decisively for the last few weeks, which is usually a strong signal that he's going to lose on PPV. Supposedly, Punk wavers in and out of favour with the WWE - on the one hand, they recognise that the crowd likes him, but on the other hand, they regard him as an indie wrestler who isn't quite up to scratch technically. Hence his strange, on-and-off presentation on ECW.

Chavo and Punk have wrestled plenty of times on the weekly ECW show and I have no particular interest in seeing it again. The match is always middling-to-good, but let's move on.

4. Raw Elimination Chamber: Triple H v. Shawn Michaels v. Chris Jericho v. Jeff Hardy v. JBL v. Umaga. The first of two Elimination Chamber matches, with the winner moving on to face the WWE Champion at Wrestlemania. The Elimination Chamber is a rather convoluted cage match, which almost reminds me of something rival promotion TNA would come up with. (For those who don't follow wrestling and yet are still inexplicably reading this: TNA is notorious for inventing gimmick matches with rules that take five minutes to explain, such as their "King of the Mountain" match, a reverse ladder match also featuring pinfalls, eligibility criteria and a penalty box. Amazingly, they're convinced that this is a good idea, and they keep running it on a regular basis.)

The Elimination Chamber is basically a steel cage match with six wrestlers. Two start in the ring, and the other four start in little pods inside the cage. Every five minutes, a pod opens at (cough) random. Elimination occurs by pinfall or submission (at which point they have to open the cage to let guys out, rather spoiling the image). After five guys have been eliminated, the last man left is the winner.

The WWE think the Elimination Chamber is a really fantastic signature match, and something that might take over from the slightly tired Hell In The Cell gimmick. I've always thought that it sounds like a Victorian toilet, but they don't seem to have noticed that.

The Raw match is actually pretty good, on paper. You've got six credible contenders, and the weakest of the bunch is probably JBL, who's still perfectly fine. The crowd is likely to get behind Jeff Hardy, who is bumping along the boundary between headline act and midcarder. Having Jeff win and advance to Wrestlemania in the biggest match of his career would not be a bad idea at all, and would probably draw money. Personally, I'd do that, and have Triple H in the Ric Flair match next month. But I don't expect that to happen; more likely, Triple H wins, and moves on to a lacklustre Wrestlemania match because that's just the way things are.

5. Smackdown Elimination Chamber: Batista v. The Undertaker v. MVP v. Finlay v. The Great Khali v. Big Daddy V. God help us. This doesn't look good at all. The giant Great Khali is virtually immobile and was never any good to start with. Big Daddy V is just a large fat guy, who doesn't actually win that much, and who's never been any good. I'm not sure quite what you do with these guys - conventional wisdom seems to be that you have them enter last in order to minimise their contribution, but that begs the question of whether they'll actually fit in the pods. I'm inclined to think you get them over with as soon as possible, but that still means a good ten minutes of awfulness.

Once they're out of the way, the match should improve. But this will pale in comparison to the Raw match, to the point where it's a very bad idea to do it at all. Undertaker will almost certainly win and challenge Edge at Wrestlemania - they're both undefeated on that show, and I think this could well be the year for Edge to break the streak while it still means something. (It surely can't be that long before Undertaker shuffles off into semi-retirement.)

This is as good a place as any to note that the CW network cancelled Smackdown last week, and the show isn't being renewed past September. It's actually one of their better rated shows, but apparently it doesn't fit the target demographic. The WWE don't have another network lined up yet, and they're limited by existing contracts in terms of which networks they can approach. It's virtually certain that Smackdown will end up moving to an inferior network - I've heard MyNetworkTV and Bravo seriously described as options.

Smackdown is also presently suffering from another bout of the WWE's recurring delusion that Jonathan Coachman is a good commentator, or even an adequate one. With JBL returning to wrestling, Coachman has taken over as colour commentator, and has been unremittingly awful. Painful silences and banal truisms abound. Even Michael Cole, who isn't that great himself, seems openly embarrassed. Coach is fine when he's playing a comedy heel - in fact, he's quite good in that role - but he's one of the worst commentators imaginable.

The last time this happened, when they had Coach doing lead commentary on Raw, it lasted about two months before they bowed to the inevitable and brought in Joey Styles to take over. Place your bets now on how long Coach lasts. And pray we don't get Mike Adamle. But it's not like they don't have better options on the payroll; even Josh Matthews would be better than Coach.

6. Ric Flair v. Mr Kennedy. Finally, another match in the "Oh god, this really isn't working, is it?" storyline, in which Ric Flair must retire the next time he loses a singles match. The crowd doesn't seem to buy it, and I suspect they won't buy it when he loses either. What they should have done was a story in which Flair lost one of these matches and was allowed to come back to avenge his loss in one last match at Wrestlemania. That would have worked. Too late now, though. Flair wins, the match is probably ropey, and the whole thing is buried so far in the undercard that it doesn't seem important at all.

Worth buying? Um. Cena/Orton is probably good, and the Raw Elimination Chamber match should be fun. The Smackdown title match probably won't happen, the ECW match has been on free TV several times already, and the Smackdown Elimination Chamber will probably be mediocre at best. Luckily for me, this is on Sky Sports 1 in the UK. But as a PPV... er, no.