Sunday, February 15, 2009

No Way Out 2009

Traditionally, the WWE's February pay-per-view used to be something of a stopgap. It has an awkward slot on the schedule, between the Royal Rumble in January and Wrestlemania at the start of April. Since the main purpose of the Royal Rumble is to select the challenger for Wrestlemania, they didn't really need an extra show in the middle. But they were doing a show in every other month, so...

This problem was partially solved when the brand split happened. That left the company with two world titles, one for Raw and one for Smackdown. The Royal Rumble chose one challenger, and No Way Out would choose the other. Fine.

But this year, the WWE seems to have taken its eye off the ball so far as the title matches are concerned. To no great surprise, Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble - but instead of building for his world title match, we're getting a story where he feuds with the McMahon family. Meanwhile, the champions are defending their titles in random six-way Elimination Chamber matches tonight - which they're apparnetly hoping will sell on the strength of the gimmick.

One plausible theory is that the WWE has figured out that they simply don't have a particularly strong world title match for this year's Wrestlemania, so they're hoping to sell it on gimmickry such as a Mickey Rourke appearance (and more on that next month, I suspect). Still, they're not doing a good job of promoting their top storylines right now, and they've only got a few weeks to sort it out before the biggest show of the year.

Anyway, let's see what we've got on this show...

1. World Heavyweight Title, Elimination Chamber match: John Cena v. Chris Jericho v. Kane v. Kofi Kingston v. Mike Knox v. Rey Mysterio. An eyebrow-raising list, to be sure.

The Elimination Chamber is a convoluted variant on the cage match. Basically, though, you've got six wrestlers. Two start, and every five minutes another one enters. Elimination by pinfall or submission. Last one left wins the title. An utterly ludicrous way to pick your champion, of course, but hey, that's wrestling for you.

This one is for the Raw title. But with three of Raw's top stars tied up in other matches, they've had to descend some distance into the midcard to pad out the match. Actually, come to think of it, they could also have used CM Punk, who's at least a former world champion, even if he's been relegated back to the midcard. Unless he's going to show up in a last-minute addition to the card, defending his Intercontinental Title, it's hard to think of a good reason for leaving him out.

Anyhow, it's not too difficult to pick a winner here. Whoever leaves with the title goes on to defend it at Wrestlemania, so this is not the time for a shock win by an outsider. And with that knowledge, we can work through the list pretty easily.

Kane is an upper midcarder who held the title for one day (yes, one day) eleven years ago. He's the sort of guy you use to pad out matches like this. He's hardly likely to become the top star on Raw overnight. Mysterio is a more credible choice, but he's stuck in an unresolved feud with Mike Knox, which isn't exactly main event material.

Knox and Kingston are midcard wrestlers who you wouldn't normally expect to see in this sort of match. It's a big opportunity for them, but neither can sensibly expect to win - the question is whether they look out of place with the main eventers. Knox is a big thuggish heel who's perfectly okay in that role. Kingston is a guy from Ghana inexplicably being passed off as a Jamaican. He's got some impressive moves but his match quality is hit and miss.

Chris Jericho would be a plausible winner, except he's clearly being set up for a match at Wrestlemania involving Ric Flair and Mickey Rourke, which rules him out. And that leaves Cena retaining.

There's enough variation in these guys that they should be able to have a decent match, but it's terribly easy to predict the ending.

2. WWE Title, Elimination Chamber match: Edge v. The Big Show v. Jeff Hardy v. Vladimir Kozlov v. Triple H v. The Undertaker. Well, this is a bit more like it. Four established main eventers, the recently-elevated Jeff Hardy... and, yes, Vladimir Kozlov, but in a match like this they can disguise his limitations.

This is the Smackdown title match. Last month, Jeff Hardy lost the title back to Edge after his brother Matt turned on him. This came as a bit of a surprise to most people, since the role was generally assumed to have been reserved for the returning Christian. But apparently the WWE decided that this was far too obvious and put Matt in the bad guy role, with Christian returning to ECW this week as a babyface, effectively filling Matt's role on that show. This seems a terrible waste of Christian, who deserves better than to be stuck on the C-show helping to train the rookies. Mind you, a roster reshuffle is already scheduled for April, so he might not be there long.

Anyway, Edge is the defending champion, and in theory his chances don't look good, with a whole load of strong opponents. Common sense says he should retain, since he's the strongest heel character on Smackdown, he only won the belt last month, and he'd be better off as a defending champion at Wrestlemania. But the trouble is, none of the matches on this show obviously lend themselves to a title change, and the WWE will probably want one somewhere. Hopefully they'll add something to the bottom of the card - MVP vs Shelton Benjamin for the US title would be an obvious bet.

Otherwise, there's the dreary possibility that Edge might lose the title already, simply because somebody has to. An awful idea, but then Smackdown has rather written itself into a corner by exhausting most of the possibilities for interesting title matches. I suspect, though, that we're heading towards Edge retaining here, and then losing the title to Triple H at Wrestlemania.

Match quality should be pretty good, given the level of experience in this one.

3. ECW Title: Jack Swagger v. Finlay. Swagger won the title from Matt Hardy last month (an hour or so before Matt turned heel), and is now the rookie heel champion on the C-show. He's got a lot of promise for somebody so new, and the WWE obviously think highly of him.

All common sense says Swagger has to retain, so that he can move on to defend against Christian at Wrestlemania and against Tommy Dreamer beyond that - they've launched a long-term storyline with Dreamer pledging to win the title one last time before his contract expires in June. All this demands a heel champion. As for Finlay, he's a veteran who's on ECW to train the rookies, and that makes him the perfect opponent for Swagger. Chances are this will be pretty good.

4. No holds barred: Shane McMahon v. Randy Orton. So, here's the story. Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble, which means he's due a title shot at Wrestlemania. WWE Chairman Vince McMahon tried to fire him, so Randy beat him up and kicked him in the head. And that's him out of the picture. Vince's son Shane is now out for revenge.

Shane has wrestled before, and he's actually not bad for an amateur, though he also has the advantage of using tons of smoke and mirrors, and working with very good opponents. On the other hand, he's also pushing forty, and hasn't looked to be in brilliant shape during the build-up to this match - which included a notoriously unconvincing scene of him beating up Orton and his lackeys singlehandedly, the sort of vanity television that does nobody any favours.

Orton has to win here, since he's advancing to Wrestlemania. I suspect the idea is that he takes out Vince and Shane, and then forms an alliance with Stephanie. Or something along those lines. Anyway, this will probably be okay if they've worked it out properly in advance, and Shane will be leaving on a stretcher.

5. Shawn Michaels v. JBL. This appears to be the premature end of the logically impenetrable storyline in which Michaels was reluctantly working for JBL in order to raise the money for his family that, apparently, he somehow wasn't getting from his day job as a professional wrestler. Don't think about it, it really doesn't make any sense at all.

This is a long-term storyline which looked as though it was heading through to Wrestlemania, but out of nowhere we have a match where Shawn either wins his freedom or ends up working for JBL forever. That probably means they've belatedly come up with a new plan for Shawn at Wrestlemania, and they need this match out of the way - although I suppose there's always the outside possibility that Shawn loses, only for everything to get sorted out next month.

Shawn's very good, but JBL's matches have been unimpressive of late. He's on his last legs, really, and he was never the greatest wrestler in his prime. With no gimmickry to hide behind - this is meant to be a straight wrestling match - I suspect this could be ugly.

Worth buying? Um. Most of these matches should be decent, but none of them are likely to be great, and there are no particularly mesmerising storylines being advanced here. Then again, they're likely to do something to start the build for Wrestlemania - they've got to, really.