Sunday, January 25, 2009

Royal Rumble 2009

The Christmas break is over, and the 2009 WWE pay-per-view calendar is underway. Traditionally, the Royal Rumble is one of the big shows of the year - partly because it's been around since the eighties, partly because it has a beloved gimmick match as its centrepiece, and partly because it begins the build to Wrestlemania in the spring, the biggest show of the year.

For those of you who don't know (and yet still inexplicably care sufficiently to read these posts), here's how it works. The Royal Rumble match is an annual 30-man battle royal. Wrestlers choose a number at *cough, cough* random. Numbers 1 and 2 start, and everyone else enters in sequence at two minute intervals (or thereabouts). If you get thrown over the top rope and both feet touch the floor, you're eliminated. Last man left is the winner, and gets to challenge for the title at Wrestlemania. Since in theory anyone could win this ridiculously random match, it's traditionally a good place for somebody to break from the pack and be positioned as the big star leading to Wrestlemania.

Complicating matters, the WWE now has three weekly shows - Raw, Smackdown and ECW - each with its own version of the world title. The winner gets to choose which one to wrestle for. In practice, nobody takes the ECW title seriously, and there's no way it's going to headline Wrestlemania. So it's between Raw and Smackdown.

Because the Royal Rumble match itself takes up over an hour, the show usually has a fairly small card. And this is no exception...

1. The 2009 Royal Rumble. It's hard to screw this match up. Something is guaranteed to happen every two minutes, and the trick is to have enough turnover of wrestlers in the early part of the match to keep it entertaining. They've announced 21 participants, leaving 9 free spaces. A couple of those will probably go to retired wrestlers making surprise guest appearances. A couple will go to people returning from injury or recently signed back to the company. And the rest will go to whoever's standing around backstage.

They haven't done much to build for this match on Raw or ECW. Smackdown seemed to be building to a story with Triple H being forced to enter the match at number 1, but that seemed to have vanished when the show aired on Friday. The usual sources are reporting some last-minute re-writing of the show, though nobody seems quite sure why. One prevailing theory is that Randy Orton was meant to win and, for some reason, plans have changed - possibly because they now need him in a different role at Wrestlemania.

This would at least explain why Rev Theory, who perform his entrance music, were first booked for Raw on Monday, and then told that their services wouldn't be required. On the other hand, Orton/Cena strikes me as the biggest match they've got for Wrestlemania, which would make Orton the natural winner. Well, we'll see.

The participants can usually be divided pretty easily into established main eventers (who could plausibly win, even if it might be a bit of a surprise in storyline terms) and everyone else.

The big names: Triple H, the Big Show, the Undertaker, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, and Kane. The latter two would be very strange choices, but they're still positioned as main event wrestlers.

Everyone else: Finlay, Mark Henry, CM Punk, R-Truth, Carlito, Brian Kendrick, Vladimir Kozlov, Shelton Benjamin, Kofi Kingston, John Morrison & The Miz, Cody Rhodes & Ted DiBiase and Santino Marella. It'd be a miracle if any of these guys won; I can see John Morrison being elevated to main event status in the course of 2009, but my bet would be on him winning the Money in the Bank match at Wrestlemania rather than getting his title shot here.

Of course, it's always possible that one of the unannounced participants will win. Tough to call, really. But the match is usually a good hour's television.

As for the rest of the card:

2. World Heavyweight Title: John Cena v. John Bradshaw Layfield. This is the Raw world title, but the match is actually a backdrop to an ongoing storyline with JBL and Shawn Michaels. The risibly implausible set-up is that Shawn has lost all his money in the stock market crash, and has reluctantly signed up to work for JBL as a result. The minor fact that he already has a job as a headlining wrestler for the WWE seems to have entirely slipped past the writing team. But anyhow, that's the deal: Shawn needs money, so he's going to help JBL win the title and hold it through to Wrestlemania. This puts Shawn in a strange limbo position - no longer quite a babyface, since he's voluntarily helping a heel, but also not quite a heel, since he continues to act normally whenever he's not under direct instructions.

As you'd imagine, audiences were initially rather confused by this, but seem to be getting into the story now. The idea this time is that JBL has Shawn in his corner, and with Shawn's (obviously illegal) help, he should be able to win the title.

Gaping logic holes aside, it's not a bad story, and at least it's different. But there are several problems here. For one thing, we've seen plenty of Cena/JBL matches before, and they've never been brilliant. For another, the match obviously can't end until either Shawn interferes or he clearly passes up an opportunity to do so - and that makes it hard to get the crowd into the match. And the plot seems to demand that JBL should win, which means months of JBL title defences - not a particularly enticing prospect, though if they're kept short and used as a backdrop for the Shawn Michaels storyline, you never know.

I'm in two minds about this. I'm curious to see where they're going... but I don't expect the actual match to be much good.

3. WWE Title: Jeff Hardy v. Edge. Jeff won the Smackdown title at Armageddon in December, after months of chasing. This is Edge's rematch, though matters are complicated by a slightly odd story in which his wife Vicky, the Smackdown general manager, inexplicably ran a series of matches to establish whether he should get the title shot. Quite where they're heading with that, if anywhere, remains a mystery - but it's an odd choice to make the villain struggle to get his rightful rematch.

They're going with Jeff as an underdog champion, and playing up his various personal problems, and general eccentricity, to position him as a misfit overcoming adversity. Jeff's never been particularly good on the mike, and it's probably wise to programme him against Edge, who's excellent.

The story here is that Jeff has been plagued by mysterious incidents - hit-and-run attempts, pyro malfunctions - which suggest that somebody's trying to take him out. We're obviously meant to think that it's Edge, who denies everything. And most likely he's telling the truth, because by all accounts this slot is reserved for his old tag-team partner, recently re-signed from TNA...

Always loved that entrance video. Not that it's an especially brilliant piece of music - but it's precisely the right level of pretentiousness for the character. Anyway, look for him to show up in the title match, probably costing Jeff the title and setting up a feud through to Wrestlemania. Which, come to think of it, probably leaves Edge free to feud with Triple H. Oh lord.

The match should be excellent, anyway.

4. ECW Title: Jack Swagger v. Matt Hardy. Jack Swagger is a rookie heel who they've been steadily pushing on the C-show for a few months now. He's actually pretty good for his level of experience, and won the title from Matt on the regular show a couple of weeks back. This is the rematch. Normally, I'd say that was a bad move, but the ECW Title is a different beast - nobody really cares about it, and it makes no real difference to how many people buy the pay-per-view, so they were probably better off giving Jack his big win on a show which more people would see.

There's no way he's losing the title back after two weeks, so this is just the formality of Matt getting a rematch. Their first match was good, and this should be about the same standard.

5. WWE Women's Title: Beth Phoenix v. Melina. Beth is the defending champion, and she's currently caught up in a stalker storyline with crazed fan Rosa Mendes, whom her boyfriend Santino has inexplicably hired as an intern. That means Melina is more or less a token challenger, serving as a backdrop to that story. It's always possible, I suppose, that Rosa could cost Beth the title, but it seems too early for that. Probably a short match with Beth winning, to break up the card.

Worth getting? Well, it's always one of the big shows of the year, and in storyline terms, there's plenty going on here. The quality of the actual wrestling is harder to predict, but the Rumble itself is usually reliable, and Jeff and Edge should be good.