Sunday, July 20, 2008

Great American Bash 2008

WWE pay-per-views aren't exactly renowned for their brilliant names, but every year I have to suppress a shudder on typing "The Great American Bash." "Wrestlemania" may not be a great title, but it's got a certain 1980s charm. GAB also dates back to the eighties - it's an old WCW brand name that they picked up in the fire sale - but even by wrestling standards, there's something intangibly crap about the name.

Anyway, this show is on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I get it as part of my regular subscription. Which is handy, because there's some interesting stuff on here. There's also some hastily thrown-together filler. But that's par for the course.

1. WWE Title: Triple H v. Edge. Now pay attention, because this gets complicated. As you all know, the WWE has three separate shows - Raw, Smackdown, and the distant C-show ECW. Each show has its own roster. Just before the last pay-per-view, they held a draft to reshuffle the rosters and freshen things up. This resulted in Raw's champion being drafted to Smackdown, and Smackdown's challenger being drafted to Raw. So Smackdown had both the titles - but Raw had the chance to win them both back. With me so far?

Triple H is the WWE champion, who was drafted to Smackdown. He successfully defended his title against John Cena, and so the title goes with him to Smackdown. Edge was the World Heavyweight Champion, who was on Smackdown to start with. And he successfully defended his title against Batista, which should have meant that Smackdown kept both titles. But the next night, CM Punk cashed in the "Money in the Bank" title shot he won at Wrestlemania, beat Edge, and took the World Heavyweight Title off to Raw. So the main titles have switched shows, Triple H is now the Smackdown champion, and Edge now gets his shot at that title.

I told you it was complicated.

The build for this match has largely involved Edge's storyline with Smackdown general manager Vickie Guerrero, culminating in their marriage on Friday's show, and Vickie discovering too late that Edge has been sleeping with the wedding planner. And if you're wondering where Triple H fits into this... um, yes.

These two should have a good match, but the storyline hasn't really been about them. That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see a title change here. Triple H's title reign hasn't done much for the ratings, and besides, Smackdown still has a shortage of heels for him to fight. A title change leaves Edge to fight a replenished selection of main event babyfaces (thanks to the drafting of Jeff Hardy and Mr Kennedy), and Triple H to take the more natural role of chasing the title. On the other hand, the WWE tends to have a very optimistic view of the drawing power of Triple H, and on that basis I'd expect him to retain - not because it's a good idea, but because it's the sort of thing the WWE tends to do.

2. World Heavyweight Title: CM Punk v. Batista. Meanwhile, over on Raw, we have a very strange match. Now, this is not the direction they originally planned to go in. The "Money in the Bank" gimmick has been running for four years. A bunch of upper midcard wrestlers fight in a ladder match at Wrestlemania. The winner gets a title shot that he can cash in at literally any time over the next year. Edge has used it twice to attack beaten-down champions and win their belts. The other year, Rob Van Dam (as a babyface) just demanded a match on his home territory. But he won too. So: four years in, we've pretty much established that if you win the MITB ladder match, you're probably going to get a brief run as champion, on either Raw or Smackdown.

The plan this year was for Jeff Hardy to win, but immediately before Wrestlemania, he was suspended for failing a drug test. So they had to pick somebody else, and they came up with CM Punk. Punk is an indie darling who had a run as ECW Champion last year, and who's had a stop-start career in the WWE. The fans seem to like him, and cheer for his entrance, but also tend to go a bit quiet during the actual matches. The writers can't seem to figure out whether he's a big star of the future, or just another guy in the midcard. He loses an awful lot.

But he has two main things going for him: charisma and novelty. Punk's "straight edge" gimmick is apparently genuine; and indeed, he doesn't look like the typical WWE wrestler. However, that cuts both ways; from a certain angle, he could be seen as an indie wrestler curiously out of place on the national stage. And since winning the MITB title shot, Punk has been drifting aimlessly, and losing regularly.

Now, Edge retained his title against Batista last month by blatant cheating, and showed up on Raw to gloat about it (which should have been a warning sign right there). Batista responded by beating the hell out of him, and then CM Punk raced out to cash in his title shot and pin Edge in six seconds to win the belt. Normally this wouldn't be much of a babyface move but... well, it's Edge, and he's done it to the good guys twice before, so what goes around comes around.

All this came as a surprise, because Punk's string of defeats didn't exactly make him look like a champion. And that's basically the direction they've taken for the last couple of weeks. Punk may have the belt - but is he just a paper champion? Is he out of his depth? We're clearly meant to think that the answer is "Yes, Batista's going to rip him apart." But ratings were up with Punk as champion, and the WWE tends to go for reverse psychology in its booking. I suspect Punk retains here - possibly by the skin of his teeth, and possibly setting up a slow-burn heel turn. By all accounts, he's always been better working as a smug, holier-than-thou bad guy, and a run as a questionably undeserving champion could be just the way to get him there.

The match quality... I don't know about this, to be honest. Punk is inconsistent at best when he's working a WWE-style match, and I suspect a massive style clash between these two. Could be a train wreck, might be a pleasant surprise.

3. ECW Heavyweight Title: Mark Henry v. Tommy Dreamer. Mark Henry won the ECW title from Kane last month, which is probably the best use of him at the moment. He's never been much of a wrestler, but he's a huge guy with some presence, and on the C-show, he can happily plough his way through smaller men without having to face off against the real top stars. (Because bluntly, Mark Henry just isn't good enough to be in the main event on the top shows - and it doesn't make much sense for the world's strongest man to be floundering in the midcard.)

Tommy Dreamer has been around for years, doing the "heart and soul of ECW" routine. Henry will squash him dead in three minutes or so.

4. WWE Tag Team Titles: John Morrison & The Miz v. Finlay & Hornswoggle v. Curt Hawkins & Zack Ryder v. Jesse & Festus. A four-way match for the tag titles, announced on Smackdown with no logical build at all. John Morrison and Mike Mizanin have been great heel champions and I have no particular desire to see them lose - certainly not to any of these guys. Finlay and Hornswoggle are an Irish veteran and his midget. The less said about them the better. Hawkins and Ryder are Edge's sidekicks, promoted from the undercard mainly on the grounds that they looked a bit like him. They're okay for rookies. Jesse and Festus are a bizarre novelty act, based on Of Mice and Men. Festus is a big guy who wanders around in a daze until the bell rings, when he flies into a rage. Jesse seems to be under the delusion that everyone else might not have noticed this. They're quite fun, but they seem to be a random inclusion in this match.

Miz and Morrison are clearly the best of the bunch. But they're on the ECW roster, and ECW tapings are being moved to Mondays, which will put an end to their appearances on Smackdown. So at some point, they'll have to lose the Smackdown tag titles. A four-way match looks suspiciously like a device to have them do so without being pinned.

Finlay and Hornswoggle are also technically on the ECW roster, so there's no point in them winning. My guess is that Ryder and Hawkins get the titles, in a chaotic match.

5. WWE Divas Title: Natalya Neidhart v. Michelle McCool. Oddly, both of these alliterative names are real. Well, Natalya's actually called Natalie, but close enough. This is a new women's title for Smackdown, and yes, they really are calling it the Divas Title. And if you think that's bad, you should see the belt, which looks like it was designed by a San Francisco drag queen.

The WWE doesn't quite get women's wrestling, and still seems to think that T&A makes a difference to their ratings. In fact, there's very little evidence to support this in recent years. T&A segments don't do much for the ratings; compare the rival promotion TNA, whose women's division actually does draw viewers, largely because it's built around wrestlers, or at least strongly defined personalities. The women who have succeeded in the WWE in recent years have tended to be the ones who worked hard to become proper wrestlers (thus earning the fans' respect), or the ones who could be entertaining as characters (nobody cared about Maria until she stated doing her "idiot" gimmick and turned out to have comic timing).

None of this seems to have registered with the WWE, who apparently haven't figured out that one of their biggest draws is John Cena, and his core fanbase is women and children. Even the male audience is significantly less neanderthal these days than the WWE seems to think. Well, either that, or they've all got the Internet these days.

Natalya ought to win this, partly because she's a better wrestler, but mainly because she's a heel, and if she wins, McCool can carry on chasing her for a while.

6. WWE United States Title: Matt Hardy v. Shelton Benjamin. Announced in an obscure link in the news section of Presumably filler. Should be decent. Matt Hardy is another ECW guy holding a Smackdown belt which he needs to lose at some point; this could be the night.

7. Parking Lot Brawl: John Cena v. John Bradshaw Layfield. Nothing enthralls the live crowd more than a match taking place backstage, but that's what we're getting here. Basically a load of gimmickry to distract from the fact that JBL's got a chronic back injury and is fairly limited in what he can do. They've been pushing this very hard on TV, leading up to a cliffhanger on Raw where JBL seemingly ran over Cean in a car. (Official line from the website: he missed. No, really.) I'm not expecting much from this, and if they've got any sense, they'll keep it short. These two have been feuding for too long already, so Cena should probably win and move on to something else.

8. Shawn Michaels v. Chris Jericho. The latest instalment of the long-running feud between two former champions. Jericho has just turned heel again, for the same reason he usually does: those damned fans insist on cheering other people more than him. How can this be? The bastards! Jericho's always been great in this role. Most people just do the "I'm great, cheer me" schtick, but Jericho manages to come off as genuinely hurt and bewildered by the fact that he isn't the most popular guy on the show. It's still been a tough sell, because he's reaching the point in his career where audiences respect him too much to hate him. But it's a good storyline, which has actually made sense - if you think about him rationally, Michaels is a total dick. Of course, in reality, the fans are cheering the performer more than the character; but from the point of view of Jericho's character, everything he's saying is pretty much fair.

Michaels apparently has some sort of genuine eye injury, which is why they've been pushing the eye so heavily in the storyline. I expect this to be a great match, and the feud has plenty of long-term potential; Jericho should win, either to set up a rematch, or if need be, to write Michaels out while he gets his eye seen to.

Worth buying? Triple H/Edge and Jericho/Michaels should be good. Punk/Batista should at least be interesting, and most of the rest should be okay. It's a pretty good card for a second-tier show.