Sunday, April 27, 2008

Backlash 2008

Traditionally, Wrestlemania is the WWE's biggest show of the year. Backlash is the one that comes next. It's not an enviable position on the calendar, and as the name suggests, it's generally treated as a sort of epilogue to Wrestlemania. That's what we have tonight; it's a mixture of loose ends and generic PPV filler. Luckily for me, it's on Sky Sports 1, so I get it anyway.

But before we get to the matches, let's pause to consider the current state of the WWE's announce teams. For those of you who don't actually watch wrestling, this might call for a little explanation. Even though Raw, Smackdown and ECW are basically the same show with different names - they even have the same set - nonetheless they each get a separate commentary team. One guy does play-by-play, the other does colour. It's a well-worn format. But finding six decent commentators appears to be beyond the wit of the WWE.

Raw is fine. Raw has Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler. Lawler is a perfectly acceptable colour commentator when he isn't drooling over the women - which, at his age, long since passed "sexist" and entered the realm of "downright creepy" - and thankfully, the WWE have apparently told him to pack it in. Ross is the best commentator in the business, perhaps because he has credibility; if it's bad, he won't try to tell us otherwise. He's so good that the WWE continue to use him on their flagship show despite the fact that he doesn't fit the corporate image at all - he's a middle aged man from Oklahoma with a partly paralysed face. But he's so good at his job that he holds on regardless, and the periodic attempts to shift him always fall through.

Smackdown, until relatively recently, had Michael Cole and JBL. Cole is not fantastic, but he's perfectly adequate as a foil for a good colour commentator. He was fine with Tazz. He was fine with JBL. But now that JBL has returned to active wrestling, Cole is partnered with Jonathan Coachman. Coachman is actually pretty good as a heel manager, but he's a lousy commentator. The show increasingly features aching stretches of embarrassing silence - and that's saying something, considering that it's taped. The WWE have apparently figured out that this isn't working, as the Wrestling Observer reports that Mick Foley has now been offered the job. He's not the greatest colour commentator in the world either, but he'd be a massive step up from Coach.

And then there's ECW. Until recently, ECW had Joey Styles and Tazz, both of whom were associated with the original, indie/alt ECW. Tazz has matured into a very good colour commentator. Styles has had more of a rocky ride with the WWE. His style never really fit in with their programming, and they never got his sense of humour. In an attempt to fit in, he's been neutered to pointlessness, but he was still adequate. However, Styles has now been moved into the website team, and reportedly he's genuinely delighted to be away from that awful show. But in his place, we have Mike Adamle from the original run of American Gladiators, a man refreshingly untained by any knowledge whatsoever of the product. And when I say "any", I mean "any."

He doesn't know the names of wrestlers. He doesn't know their moves. He doesn't know that when you make contact with your partner to change places, that's called a "tag" - he spent an entire match calling it "touching out". He's staggeringly incompetent, and the joke wears thin pretty quickly. Is this a storyline, or have they lost their minds? I give him a month, unless he improves dramatically.

Anyway. Let's move on with the matches...

1. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. Triple H v. John Cena v. JBL. Last month at Wrestlemania, Orton unexpectedly won and retained his title. I suspect this is probably the end of the road for him; he's run out of challengers, so it's time for a change. And if he loses the title, he could always jump to Smackdown, which is short on top-level heels.

JBL seems to have been added as filler to stop this being a straight rematch from last month. I can't see him winning. Cena was champion for most of last year. So it's probably Triple H time, and actually, it's been long enough since his last major title reign that the time has probably come to cycle back round.

This was originally announced as a one-fall match, but for some reason they've changed it to elimination rules. Those are usually better, if you ask me; they give the match more focus as it goes on. I think this will be good, and they'll get a decent title change out of it. I think they protect Cena with a screwjob elimination, to save him as a strong challenger; Cena/Triple H is a feud with some promise for the summer.

2. World Heavyweight Championship: Undertaker v. Edge. Undertaker won the Smackdown title from Edge at Wrestlemania. This is Edge's rematch. He won't win. And that's about all you can say about it, really.

They had a good match last month, so this should be good. The main question is whether they want to keep the feud going any longer; Undertaker is desperately short of credible heel opponents, and that may force them to do a screwjob finish in order to set up a third match in May.

3. ECW World Heavyweight Title: Kane v. Chavo Guerrero. Kane won the ECW Title at Wrestlemania by pinning Chavo in five seconds - which, to be fair, got a bigger reaction than they would have been likely to get by doing a proper match. This is Chavo's rematch.

I'm not quite sure about this one. Logic says Kane retains, but Kane as ECW champion is a bit weird, and I can see some possibilities in having Chavo regain the title with the help of his La Familia group. This bizarrely eclectic grouping consists of Chavo, Vicky Guerrero (his aunt) and Edge (her boyfriend), along with three flunkies. If they're losing Edge/Undertaker, then it makes some sense for them to win against Kane. We'll see. I'm picking Kane, but I wouldn't be shocked if Chavo wins.

The match... sounds like a godawful style clash, to be honest. Kane is much bigger than Chavo, which makes for an odd match when Chavo's meant to be the heel.

4. United States title: MVP v. Matt Hardy. Matt Hardy returns from a lengthy absence due to injury, and picks up his feud with United States champion MVP where it left off. As you'd expect, an interruption of many months hasn't done it any favours. Still, Matt and MVP have had some good matches in the past, and I'm sure this will be fine.

There are two ways they can go with this. If they want a lengthy feud between the two over the summer, then MVP wins to set up a string of rematches. Or, if they're worried about the desperate shortage of main event villains, MVP loses to Matt right now, freeing him up to challenge for the world title.

Actually, there's a third option: MVP beats the heroic Matt Hardy decisively, keeps his title, and goes on to challenge the Undertaker as the reigning US champion. That would make no sense at all and would bury Hardy six feet under - but poor Matt has a habit of getting his legs chopped out from under him for no good reason, so I wouldn't rule it out.

On balance, I think MVP wins. There's at least a couple of rematches in this before Matt finally gets his title.

5. Shawn Michaels v. Batista. This is an epilogue to last month's Wrestlemania match, in which Shawn Michaels pinned the legendary Ric Flair and ended his career. Batista isn't happy about that and thinks Shawn should have thrown the match. Shawn says Flair wanted him to fight, and he did the right thing. Hence, fight.

Or at least, that's where they were going at first. They've meandered off the point into a general squabble about obscure events from Shawn Michaels' past continuity - no doubt fascinating if you remember him break up with tag team partner Marty Jannetty in 1992, but a bit less immediate than the perfectly adequate "you should have thrown the match" feud. Nonetheless, this is probably the match that's attracted most interest from wrestling fans.

For some odd reason, Chris Jericho has been added to this match as special referee. Technically, that's three babyfaces in the same match, but Jericho has been acting a bit strange lately, taunting both competitors, and seems to be on the verge of turning heel. Jericho's inclusion suggests that we're getting a storyline match, and that the finish probably involves him turning on somebody and costing them the match. A heel turn for Batista isn't out of the question either, as the crowds have generally been siding with Shawn in this feud.

I'm expecting a good match; Shawn loses after Jericho screws him, and the two of them go on to have a feud on Raw, which should be fantastic.

6. The Big Show v. The Great Khali. Giant versus giant, in a match which should demonstrate the awesome gap in ability between the two. Khali, bless him, is just a big lug with not much more to him. The Big Show, on the other hand, happens to be quite talented anyway, and can have really good matches when he puts his mind to it. This will not be one of them, because almost nobody can get a great match out of Khali - not without the sort of bells and whistles that they won't get on the undercard.

Khali is taking some time off after this show, which virtually guarantees the Big Show winning.

7. Six women against six other women. You want names? Oh, alright. Deep breath. The babyface team is Mickie James (who won the Women's Title out of nowhere on Raw two weeks ago), Maria (Playboy cover girl, not great), Ashley (Playboy cover girl, utterly useless), Michelle McCool (not great either), Cherry (1950s sock-hop girl whose matches mostly consist of her whimpering in a corner) and Kelly Kelly (has her moments, but generally not very good). So that's one decent wrestler out of six. Good luck, Mickie!

The heel team is Beth Phoenix (the ex-champion, perfectly good), Melina (who's fine), Jillian Hall (stuck in a series of comedy gimmicks, but an okay wrestler), Layla (er... oh, the other dancer from ECW - well, she's better than most of the babyfaces), Victoria (veteran heel wrestler, and she's usually good), and Natalya (newly debuted heel wrestler, who also seems decent). So that's five decent wrestlers out of six. Huh. Didn't know they employed that many.

You can probably see, in that light, why they put the title onto Mickie James. She has five viable contenders - six if you add Katie Lea, who hasn't set foot in a ring yet, but is a proper wrestler with years of experience. (YouTube has several of her OVW matches, if you're curious.) Beth, on the other hand, basically had the option of wrestling Mickie James ad infinitum. The idea was presumably for Beth to lose the belt back to Candice Michelle, but she's injured, so it's time to move on.

This will be a mess. I would assume that the heels win, probably to set up somebody as a challenger.

Worth buying? Well, it's Backlash. A lot of it's recycled from last month. But Shawn/Batista should be good, Matt/MVP has promise, and both of the Raw and Smackdown title matches were decent at Wrestlemania. It'll be average to good, and there's a strong chance of a title change. But there's nothing much to really grab the casual fans.