Sunday, October 26, 2008

Cyber Sunday 2008

Of all the WWE pay-per-views, Cyber Sunday rejoices in both the worst name and the worst concept.

This is the annual "interactive" show. Now in its fifth year, it's never really worked, and it's never really drawn money. But for some reason the WWE still thinks there's some merit in the idea. Basically, the idea is that you have multiple-choice options for each match, and the fans vote on it. You can probably figure out for yourselves why this is a bad idea. It means a card full of TBAs, which hardly encourages people to pay money for the show. If the fans vote for a match that the company doesn't want (and it's happened before), then the storylines are temporarily derailed, or you get two surprised wrestlers improvising their way through a match. And if you preserve storyline control by making the options meaningless, then what's the point?

There's never been a clear answer to any of these points. But this year the company has an all-new angle: instead of using the website, they're going to do most of the voting by text message, and charge money for it. (And yes, they're still calling it Cyber Sunday - a title now both dated and inaccurate.) Of course, that means only Americans can vote - thus reducing the international appeal even further.

There's also, frankly, the question of whether you'd trust the WWE to run a premium-rate voting line. Because, let's face it, there is no vote too trivial for the average TV producer to rig.

Surprisingly, though, the WWE has apparently honoured the results of the voting in the past (and the appearance of some meaningless votes and some blatantly improvised matches tends to confirm that). So let's give them the benefit of the doubt here and see what might or might not be on the show this year.

Oh - I should have covered this stuff last month, when some of you migrated from the X-Axis website. But for those of you who don't know: the WWE has three shows, Raw, Smackdown and ECW. Each has its own roster and its own champion (as well as a bunch of secondary belts), and yes, that means there are three world champions, and yes, that is stupid, isn't it? Raw is meant to be the A-show, although they're giving more attention to Smackdown at the moment, because of its recent network jump. ECW is a very distant third, and exists mainly as a transition for rookie wrestlers who've just been called up to the roster (plus some more experienced guys who are there to help them develop, or who are being tested out for possible main event roles).

1. World Heavyweight Title: Chris Jericho v. Batista. The Raw title. Jericho's title reign continues with what looks like a filler defence. Although his feud with Shawn Michaels didn't seem to do much in the ratings, he's been a solid heel champion, and with John Cena due back soon, you really want a well-established villain for him to face. A Batista win doesn't really lead anywhere. Jericho is very good and Batista is perfectly fine, so I expect a decent match here.

The vote is to choose the referee, and the options are Randy Orton, Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin. Orton is just there to make up the numbers: he's a heel, there's no conceivable reason why you'd vote for him, and he hasn't even been lobbying for votes. Michaels has been in a long-running feud with Jericho which really deserved a better audience reaction than it received; he makes the most logical sense. Austin is making his annual contractual obligation appearance, which doesn't extend to actually promoting the show. Still, he was one of the biggest stars of the nineties, and they're clearly assuming he'll win. (If he doesn't, it'll be something of a surprise.)

I'm not a big fan of guest referees. If the referee plays it straight, it's generally a waste of time. If he sides with the heel then you have to explain why he doesn't just declare a submission victory thirty seconds in. And if he sides with the babyface, then you create a situation where the heel faces unfair odds - if he triumphs, he's a hero, and if he loses, the babyface becomes a lame duck champion. Best outcome is that Jericho wins and Austin disappears back into his cupboard for another year.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Triple H v. ???. This is the Smackdown title, and your options are Jeff Hardy, Vladimir Kozlov, or both of them at once. Hardy is a babyface who already fought Triple H last month in a good match. He lost, but it was close, so all logic says the fans would want to vote for that again. However, the company clearly wants fans to vote for Vladimir Kozlov, a stern-looking Russian who's been beating up midcarders for a while now, but has had very few extended matches.

Putting him in a main event match is a bit of a risk, and his all-business persona makes it very unlikely that the fans will vote for him over Hardy. If the company's lucky, they might get the three-way. My bet would be that if you vote for Hardy, he's going to lose. If you vote for Kozlov, it'll be a DQ finish, to set up a rematch (though I wouldn't completely rule out a Kozlov win for the shock value and to put even more heat on a rematch). And if you vote for the three-way, Triple H will pin Hardy to kick him firmly out of the title picture for the moment. Triple H/Hardy will be very good; it's hard to know what a Kozlov match would be like.

3. ECW Title: Matt Hardy v. ???. Your options here are Mark Henry, Finlay and Evan Bourne. Henry certainly won't win: he's a heel, and he's fought Hardy several times before. That leaves the veteran Finlay and the rookie high-flyer Evan Bourne. The company has made it abundantly clear that they'd like us to vote for Bourne, and so has Matt Hardy on his own website. I think there's a fair chance they'll get it; it's a fresh match, it's unlikely to come up again any time soon (since it's face/face) and it should be an excellent match. If you vote for Finlay... well, that'll be fine too. Hardy's almost sure to retain, either way: Bourne's clearly not ready for a title reign.

4. Undertaker v. Big Show. Your choice is between a "Knockout match", and "I Quit match" and a "Last Man Standing match." Since a Last Man Standing match already involves winning by knockout, two of these options are essentially the same. I don't much like Last Man Standing matches, which tend to drag horribly (because of the length of time it takes to do a false finish), and to be honest, I've been fast-forwarding past this feud, which feels horribly stale. I've just got no interest in seeing these two together. I suspect some sort of screwjob finish, probably involving the return of Edge, in order to drag this story out further, because Undertaker has nowhere else to go.

5. Kane v. Rey Mysterio. Hopefully the last match for this horrendously misconceived feud, which is mainly based on Kane whining about Rey's mask. Your options are a Falls Count Anywhere match, a No Holds Barred match or a Best of 3 Falls match. The commentators have been pushing for the Best of 3 option, but the fans almost invariably vote for the brawl. That doesn't play to Rey's strengths as a performer, but hopefully it can at least allow him to get a decisive victory over Kane so he can move on to more interesting things (for example, he'd be another good interim challenger for Jericho while we wait for Cena to come back).

I don't expect wonders from this.

6. United States Title: Shelton Benjamin v. ???. This is actually airing on the website, 15 minutes before the show starts. Benjamin is a midcard heel with tons of technical ability but a slight charisma deficit. Guys like him tend to remain stuck in the midcard until they hit on a character that works for them (if they ever do), and there's no sign of that happening. Your choices are R-Truth, MVP and Festus. The first two have been in a three-way feud over Shelton's belt; Festus is just there to make up the numbers. He's a tag team wrestler with a very odd gimmick, where he's docile until the bell rings, when he flies into a rage. It works better than you might think. But he's got nothing to do with this storyline, so if he wins the vote, it'll be a bit embarrassing.

MVP is a heel, so he probably won't get voted in (though he's the biggest star of the three, so I wouldn't completely rule it out). A shame, actually, since the match would be quite good. He's doing a losing streak story at the moment, so even if the fans do vote for him, there's zero chance of him winning the title.

That leaves R-Truth, who's an interesting wrestler. He had a brief stint in the WWE at the turn of the decade under the name "K-Kwik", as a rapping wrestler. After being laid off, he ended up at TNA, and spent a good few years there working a similar gimmick as Ron "The Truth" Killings. Now, he's become the first wrestler to jump from TNA to the WWE, with his gimmick intact. His time in TNA isn't being openly acknowledged, but he's using the same entrance music (apparently he owns it), and he's getting a reasonably serious push.

Which makes it a waste to put him in on the pre-show for his first PPV match. This is a bad idea, and a lose-lose scenario. If he wins, then you've thrown away a title change on a web stream nobody watched. If he loses, then you've blown his winning streak for no good reason. The outcome pretty much has to be a disqualification to set up a properly promoted rematch next month.

7. WWE Intercontinental Title: Santino Marella v. ???. Comedy heel Santino Marella has held the Intercontinental Title more through luck than skill for a couple of months now. He's determined to break the record for the longest ever IC Title reign. That record is currently held by the Honky Tonk Man, an evil Elvis impersonator who held the title for 64 weeks in the late eighties, largely by getting himself disqualified or counted out (and so retaining the title on a technicality). The idea of Santino getting a title reign of that length in 2008/9 seems highly unlikely, but you never know.

Your options here are Roddy Piper, Goldust and the Honky Tonk Man himself, all of them former IC champions, and all long since past their prime. Goldust is a makeweight, so the question is whether the fans will vote for Piper (as the biggest star) or Honky (as the guy Santino's been banging on about for the last few months, even though very few fans will have much idea who he is). Either way, it'll be a short comedy match - particularly if it's Honky, who's nursing a rather nasty hand injury at the moment. The title is inexplicably on the line, but I think the downsides of a title change outweigh the advantages, so Santino ought to retain.

8. ??? & ??? v. ??? & ???. Setting new standards in vagueness, this is a choice between three completely different tag team matches. Option 1 is William Regal & Layla v. Jamie Noble & Mickie James, but there's virtually no chance of that getting voted in: it's been treated as an afterthought on recent shows. Option 2 is John Morrison & The Miz v. Cryme Tyme, based on a feud running on their respective web pages, which the WWE optimistically thinks viewers might have seen. It would probably be a decent match, and there's an outside possibility that people will vote for it on the strength of the personalities. If it runs, then Miz and Morrison will win, because they're being set up for a match with D-Generation X on an upcoming Raw special.

Option 3 is Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase defending the Raw tag titles against CM Punk and Kofi Kingston. It's probably had the strongest build, it's likely to be decent, and it features a recent former world champion, so I'd say it's the most likely outcome. And on the principle that they always like to have one of the minor title change hands, I can see this one as a good candidate.

Plus... the WWE Diva's Hallowe'en Costume Contest. Sixteen women in costumes. You vote during the show for your favourite. Utter waste of time.

Worth buying? Well, it's on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I don't need to worry about that. There are some potentially good matches here, but also some potentially dreary ones, and they're going to be taking up a lot of time with minor matches and costume contest nonsense. Probably one for the completists, but it could surprise us.