Saturday, June 28, 2008

Night of Champions 2008

Until last year, the WWE's June pay-per-view was called Vengeance. It was one of those forgettable C-list shows. But last year they gave it a gimmick, and renamed it Night of Champions. The idea was that every title in the company would be defended. Since this had more or less already happened at Backlash 2007, it wasn't altogether clear why this was meant to be special. This year, they've been a little more sparing in defences of the minor titles, which makes an entire show of title matches a little more meaningful. (If you care about such things as the Raw tag titles, anyway.) However, while Night of Champions 2008 is certainly an entire show of title matches, it's not entirely clear whether all the titles are being defended this year. I'll come back to that later.

To complicate matters further, last week saw the 2008 WWE draft, the company's annual HR masterclass. Once upon a time, a wrestler whose act was getting a bit tired could freshen things up by jumping to another company or another part of the country, for a fresh audience and fresh matches. But the WWE has driven most of the competition out of existence, leaving three shows that are essentially interchangeable. Raw is the A show, Smackdown is the B show, and ECW... well, ECW tails in at somewhere around F or G... but they're all essentially the same formula. In theory each show has its own roster, and the draft reshuffles those wrestlers to provide fresh combinations. For no particular reason other than to show them who's boss, the WWE generally don't bother to tell the wrestlers in advance.

This year's draft seems to have been a decidedly last-minute affair. They did a first round of draft picks on Monday night's Raw, but then did a second round on their website on Wednesday - with virtually no advance publicity. This might explain why the writers seem to have been spinning their wheels; it's hard to do much long term planning when you don't know who the cast will be next week. The general thrust of the roster was to gut ECW, which is a lost cause, and reinforce Smackdown, which needed the help.

The extensive roster reshuffle means that a lot of the matches on this show no longer entirely make sense. Of course, if they play it right, that can work to their advantage.

1. WWE Title: Triple H v. John Cena. Now, pay attention, because this gets complicated. This is Raw's world title match. But the champion is Triple H, and he was drafted to Smackdown. If he retains, he takes the belt with him to Smackdown. So it's important to the whole brand that Cena retains here.

Except... well, except Raw also has a chance to pick up the Smackdown world title, as we'll see below. And the ECW world champion was drafted to Raw, taking his belt with him. So there are all sorts of potential outcomes here. It's a fairly safe bet that the ECW belt will make its way back to ECW sooner or later, but Raw and Smackdown could well swap their titles. Or one show could end up with multiple titles for a couple of months; that could start the build to Summerslam in August (one of the major shows of the year).

Basically, there's a whole load of stuff they could do here, which makes it tough to predict. My bet would be that Triple H retains and Smackdown gets both belts for a couple of months, if only because it's the sort of lopsided story that the WWE tends to like.

Triple H's move has apparently been planned for months, so it was the last opportunity to do the match. They've been trying to bill it as a long-awaited match for the ages, but nobody takes that seriously. I'm sure the match will be good, but if they're expecting the audience to treat it as an all-time classic match-up, they're likely to be disappointed.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Edge v. Batista. This is the Smackdown title, currently held by Edge. Batista was drafted to Raw on Monday, so if he wins, he takes the title with him to Monday nights. Aside from that, it's an unmemorable feud. It's basically filler, and I can't see much advantage in having Batista win the title here. My guess would be that Edge either gets himself disqualified (thus retaining on a technicality), or wins with the help of his cronies. Either way, Batista's protected, and Edge can move on to deal with the new arrivals on his show. Match should be good.

3. ECW Title: Kane v. Big Show v. Mark Henry. This was originally going to be Kane versus the Big Show, with Mark Henry hanging around in the background waiting to take on the winner. But Kane was drafted to Raw, and the Big Show is on Smackdown, so that wouldn't make sense. They've solved that problem by adding Mark Henry to this match and making it a three-way... er, except that Mark was also on Smackdown, so they had to move him to ECW in the supplemental draft.

Now, in storyline, there's supposed to be an ongoing exchange deal where ECW and Smackdown wrestlers can appear on one another's shows. Effectively, they've been one single roster. But that's going to change, as the plan is to tape ECW on Monday nights alongside Raw. That means the "talent exchange" is probably ending soon, and the division between Smackdown and ECW will become meaningful again.

Of course, nobody's explained this on air, so quite why casual viewers are supposed to care about wrestlers being drafted between Smackdown and ECW, I have no clue.

Anyway, this looks like a rather lousy match between three enormous guys. Logically, Mark Henry ought to win, since he's on the ECW roster and the other two aren't - but that's almost too obvious, so I suspect misdirection of some sort.

4. WWE Tag Team Titles: John Morrison & The Miz v. Finlay & Hornswoggle. Yet more utter confusion. These are the Smackdown tag titles, but the champions, Miz and Morrison, are from ECW. Their opponents, Finlay and his bloody midget, were drafted to ECW on Wednesday. So whatever happens, the Smackdown tag titles are apparently going to ECW. I don't quite understand that either.

This will be a comedy match. There's a midget in it, for heaven's sake. The WWE doesn't take tag team wrestling particularly seriously, which is a shame, because Miz and Morrison have developed into a very good heel team. But I have a nasty feeling the midget's winning. I'm not looking forward to this.

5. World Tag Team Titles: Hardcore Holly & Cody Rhodes v. Ted DiBiase Jr & mystery partner. Holly and Rhodes, doing a "veteran and rookie" gimmick, have held the Raw tag titles since last December - largely because they never defend the things. Almost literally - almost five months passed without a televised title defence.

Cody is the son of 1980s star Dusty Rhodes, and he's a rather bland babyface. Ted DiBiase Jr is also the son of a legendary eighties wrestler, and for some reason (the implication is bribery, but they haven't really gone into it) he's getting a title shot in his very first match. The identity of his partner is a secret, which has led to a lot of speculation that they're going to do a stable of young second-generation villains. However, most of the obvious candidates were sent to Smackdown in the second draft. A lot of people are now betting that the mystery partner is Cody, switching sides. The alternative is that it's somebody completely random, like Paul Burchill.

DiBiase's an unknown quantity in the ring, so I have no clue what this will be like - if it's even a proper match at all.

6. WWE United States Title: Matt Hardy v. Chavo Guerrero. Hardy was drafted from Smackdown to ECW on Monday, taking his United States title with him. Strangely, Chavo is also on the ECW roster - but he's supposed to be part of Smackdown's La Familia faction, so I suspect some sort of storyline where he switches shows.

Common sense says that Matt is newly arrived on the ECW roster, and ought to retain his title. But common sense rarely plays a part when they're writing Matt Hardy, so I expect him to lose, partly because it's obviously a bad idea, and partly because it would pave the way for Chavo to jump back to Smackdown with the US title. This should be a fun undercard match.

7. WWE Women's Title: Mickie James v. Katie Lea Burchill. Mickie is the defending champion, and I believe this is the first time we've seen Katie in a singles match since she was called up to the main roster. She used to wrestle on the British indie circuit, and is now doing a brother-and-sister gimmick with Paul Burchill, putting on her best Chelsea accent. Initial plans reportedly called for this to be an incest gimmick, but fortunately that seems to have fallen by the wayside.

By the standards of WWE women's matches - which are admittedly not high - I think this should be quite decent. They're both experienced wrestlers, and Katie's got some presence. I'd have Katie win here, if only because there's not much more to be done with Mickie as champion.

8. WWE Intercontinental Title: Chris Jericho v. mystery opponent. They haven't announced this, but the Wrestling Observer seems to think this is happening. Jericho is caught up in a feud with Shawn Michaels, who is way too far up the pecking order to be wasting his time with the Intercontinental Title. In storyline, Shawn is injured, so my guess would be that he interferes to help one of the Raw draftees win the belt. That would free up Jericho and Shawn to fight at Summerslam without the encumbrance of this unwanted midcard title. It would also set up a tag match for Raw (Shawn and the new IC champion versus Jericho and his new buddy Lance Cade). The most obvious potential challenger is CM Punk, who could really use a title to rebuild his credibility, although Kofi Kingston wouldn't totally shock me.

Worth buying? It's a solid card but it doesn't have any obvious blowaway matches. If you're interested in the storylines as well, though, that may be enough.