Saturday, April 25, 2009

Backlash 2009

A mere three weeks after Wrestlemania, we're already on to the next show. This is more an act of stubbornness on the part of the WWE than any sort of common sense, but there you go.

Traditionally, Wrestlemania is the climax of the year's storylines. This year's show had a decidedly last-minute feel to it, but still had to try and feel like a resolution to 2008/9. Nonetheless, Backlash is not the start of the 2009/10 season. It's more like the end of a transitional period where the company catches its breath before kicking off a new direction in May. In the meantime, they've done the annual draft allocating wrestlers to different shows - but that doesn't come into effect until Monday. (In fact, everyone's been appearing on every show for a while now, but they assures us that come Monday, they'll be taking the roster split seriously again. More on that later.)

This sort of programming doesn't lend itself to building a pay-per-view card - and there's some pretty glaring filler on the show. But let's run down the show...

1. World Heavyweight Title, Last Man Standing: John Cena v. Edge. As you know by now, the WWE has three "world" titles, one for each show: the WWE Title, the World Heavyweight Title and the ECW Title. Nobody cares much about the ECW belt, and they've stopped even paying lip service to the idea that it's equal in status. The WWE Title is currently held by Triple H. And the World Title belongs to John Cena, who won it from Edge three weeks ago.

Triple H and Cena are both on Raw. So as things stand, Raw has two titles, and Smackdown has none. Obviously that won't last. This is Edge's rematch, and since he's on the Smackdown roster, it's virtually a lock that he has to win - if he doesn't, it's probably because the company decided it was too obvious. We've seen Edge and Cena many times before, and the writers are making a half-hearted attempt to turn that into a strength by positioning this as the culmination of an epic feud (which it isn't, it's a revival of a feud from a couple of years ago). The matches are generally good, though.

I'm not a huge fan of Last Man Standing matches, where you can only win by knockout. The problem is that the equivalent of a near fall is to have the referee counting very slowly to ten, so they tend to slow to a crawl by the end. But I think these two should be able to make it work.

2. WWE Title: Triple H, Batista & Shane McMahon v. The Legacy (Randy Orton, Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase). Yes, that's right - a singles title on the line in a six-man tag match. Promoters do this from time to time for the novelty value, but generally the silliness outweighs it. In fact, they had an obvious storyline coming out of Wrestlemania, where the stipulation was that the title could change hands by disqualification. Since Triple H blatantly cheated behind the referee's back, Orton has a pretty good case for saying that he deserves a straight rematch. Unfortunately, he's meant to be the heel, so we're supposed to ignore all that...

So, through a string of logical contortions and stipulations added by evil people from middle management, we end up with this rather confusing match instead.

The idea is meant to go something like this. The babyfaces are all past victims of Orton. Triple H pretty much got his revenge at Wrestlemania. Shane McMahon was attacked by Orton as part of the build-up to Wrestlemania. And Batista has just returned from a lengthy absence due to an injury which, for storyline purposes, was credited to Orton. The villains, meanwhile, are the Legacy stable - Orton and his two generic lackeys - whose unifying gimmick is that they're all second-generation wrestlers.

If Orton's team wins, then he gets the title. Orton also gets the title if the babyfaces are counted out or disqualified. None of this makes the slightest sense as a means of determining your world champion, of course. But it's the sort of story you end up with when writers start treating the title as a macguffin.

It all makes for a very strange main event. For one thing, the WWE are teasing the possibility of a main event ending in disqualification or count-out. But what kind of draw is that? "Tune in on Sunday and see Randy Orton win the title on a technicality." For another, it means we have some wrestlers not normally seen in the main event. Shane McMahon, the owner's son, is an occasional wrestler with some star power, and a 6-man tag can use him in a way that plays to his strengths. But he really ought to be the weak link on the babyface team, and that's not how they're playing him. As for Rhodes and DiBiase, they're generic henchthug characters whose main job is to get beaten up by babyfaces who are trying to get to Orton. As a result, they have little credibility in their own right. They're actually quite promising performers, but we've been given little reason to care about them.

Which gives rise to a further oddity: whatever the company may think, the average viewer will see this as a match where two main event babyfaces and an upper midcarder team up to face one main event heel and two bozos. So the heels are the underdogs. That's not how it's supposed to work.

Screwball matches like this are often a device to switch the title without the champion being pinned clean. Another possibility here is that one of Triple H's teammates turns on him - the obvious candidate being Shane, who would fit Legacy's second-generation gimmick. It's certainly time to end the current storyline, which has been getting an increasingly lukewarm reaction from the crowds. A title switch to Orton, and Triple H feuding with the teammate who betrayed him, achieves that goal. Also, Raw has a plethora of main event babyfaces, and a shortage of heels - so a heel champion makes more sense.

I can't believe they'll do anything as stupid as a DQ or a count-out for the finish of a PPV main event, and I'd be very surprised if Rhodes or DiBiase picks up the pin. There are some stories you can do with Orton's sidekicks winning the title for him, but it doesn't seem like the right time for those plots. So I'm betting that Orton pins Triple H to win the title, thanks to a ton of interference and Shane switching sides. Seems to make the most sense.

The match will have to be storyline driven; it'll probably be above average, but there's a risk that the live crowd simply won't care about the story.

3. ECW Title: Jack Swagger v. Christian. Didn't they already do this match on free television in Christian's second week back? Oh well. ECW's heel champion defends his title against the brand's top babyface. There's no real story, besides Christian challenging for the belt. Nothing wrong with that - it's only the C-show, after all, and in wrestling the simplest stories are usually the best.

Swagger and Christian have been wrestling one another on live shows for a while now, and by all accounts the match has been very good. If they're given a little time - and they may well be, given the need to fill time - then this should be decent. It seems too early for a title change. Also, there's a running subplot about veteran Tommy Dreamer trying to win the ECW title one last time before his retirement later this year. They need Swagger as heel champion for that story. So Swagger's probably retaining on a screwjob in order to set up rematches down the line, and keep Christian strong.

4. "I Quit" match: Matt Hardy v. Jeff Hardy. This is the second time the Hardy brothers have feuded with one another, and it's the second time that it hasn't worked. The WWE has cut its losses and moved Matt to Raw, so this match is the blow-0ff. That suggests Jeff is winning. Not only is he the good guy, but he's one of the biggest names on Smackdown after the draft. On the babyface side, in fact, only Rey Mysterio and the Undertaker are bigger - but neither of them works a full schedule, so they really do need Jeff kept strong. Matt, on the other hand, will be a midcard heel on Raw.

All logic, then, says Jeff wins. There's a slight catch, though. Back in the real world, Jeff Hardy has been making noises about not renewing his contract when it comes up later in the year. That might lead the WWE to back off on him and give the win to Matt. I don't see it, though; if it's still up in the air on Sunday, then it makes no sense to drive him away.

Matt and Jeff work fairly well together; the problem is that nobody really buys them feuding with one another. It's probably for the best that they're moving on to other stories. Technically, it should be a decent match. An "I Quit" match is normally just a chaotic brawl, but they can't go too far in that direction, because Edge and John Cena will be doing the same thing later in the night. That might give them some problems, but I'm sure they'll figure something out.

5. Chris Jericho v. Ricky Steamboat. At Wrestlemania, Jericho took on three aging wrestlers in a handicap match: Jimmy Snuka, Roddy Piper and Ricky Steamboat. He beat them all. He's supposed to be the villain. It was all a bit upside down. And it didn't help that Snuka and Piper are both virtually immobile; depending on your mindset, their parts of the match were either excruciating or just plain sad.

Steamboat was another story. He's in his mid-fifties now, and his prime was almost twenty years ago. He hadn't wrestled in years. But he's still in pretty good shape. The psychology was still there. He actually looked like he still belonged in the ring. This came as something of a surprise. Before the match, he was probably the least known of the three legends; by the end, the crowd loved him.

So now, thrown onto the card at the last moment, they're going to do a proper match between Jericho and Steamboat. On the assumption that he's going back to retirement afterwards (which is probably for the best at his age), he should get his moment in the sun and win. It does Jericho no harm, and it's the ending everyone wants to see.

6. CM Punk v. Kane. I don't understand this at all. CM Punk won the Money in the Bank ladder match at Wrestlemania, which gives him a title shot whenever he wants it. He's also been drafted to Smackdown, which is light on main eventers, and where he'll be used prominently. So on paper, it makes sense to build him up with a win over a midcard heel like Kane.

But we already saw this match on Monday night's episode of Raw - and it wasn't much good then. It also ended with Punk getting a clean win (albeit in a botched sequence which they had to re-shoot). So they've achieved their goal. We don't need to see it again.

This is probably just here to pad out the card. But there are better candidates. For example, next week's Smackdown has MVP v Dolph Ziggler for the US Title - a match which violates the draft, because MVP's supposed to be on Raw now. At least if they did it tonight, they'd be getting it out of the way before the draft came into effect. Instead, we're getting a repeat of a match we saw for free six days ago. Why?

Plus... a comedy sequence with Santino Marella in drag kissing the Great Khali, which sounds utterly hellish. Putting that sort of thing on pay-per-view is a pretty glaring sign that they're desperately trying to fill the time.

Worth buying? Well, it's on Sky Sports 1 over here, so that's not really my concern. Overall, most of the matches will probably be decent, but the build-up has been terribly lacklustre, and I wouldn't be wildly enthusiastic about paying money for a comedy skit.