Saturday, April 04, 2009

Wrestlemania 25

It's the biggest show of the year - at least notionally. Dating back to the mid-eighties, Wrestlemania was the first of the WWE's major annual shows, and it's still regarded as the biggest of the year. Clocking in at four hours rather than the usual three, this is supposed to be where the top storylines pay off after months of build.

But the general consensus is that the build-up to Wrestlemania 25 has been pretty lousy. We have main events thrown together in the closing weeks; we have a decided lack of anything very special; we have an incoherent and erratic build-up which seemed to change direction from week to week. Basically, they've made a total hash of things - so, if nothing else, we're going to find out what the Wrestlemania brand name is worth on its own. To be fair, most of the actual matches should be entirely decent; but there's little on this card that seems particularly special.

Two general points to keep in mind with this show: first, are they going to do anything with ECW champion Jack Swagger, who inexplicably isn't booked on the show at all? True, they have no obvious challengers for him right now - but that's because they forgot to write him any stories. Something tells me he's bound to show up somewhere. Second, who's doing the commentary? Tazz, the Smackdown colour commentator, has decided not to renew his contract, and made his last appearance on Friday night's show. That gives them the choice of having Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler do all the matches, or, I suppose, bringing in Matt Striker from the ECW show to take Tazz's place. (Frankly, it'd be a trade up; Tazz has been phoning it in for a while.)

Anyway, the matches.

1. WWE Title: Triple H v. Randy Orton. Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble in January, guaranteeing him a title match at Wrestlemania. Then he took forever and a day to decide which title he was challenging for. Eventually, we've ended up with a curious stop-start storyline in which Orton lays out various members of the McMahon family, leading Triple H to come to the rescue. Triple H is Stephanie McMahon's husband, something which has been occasionally alluded to, but never openly acknowledged because it's not part of the storyline. There's been no real effort to explain this; suddenly, we're just all supposed to know that they were married all along.

The company seems entirely unclear what story they're trying to tell here. Is it about Orton beating up the non-wrestlers until he has to face Triple H? If so, it's mystifying that the McMahons all showed up alive and well in the final build-up to the show. Or is it a story about Orton getting revenge for the time Triple H kicked him out of the Evolution group after he won the world title for the first time a few years ago? There are problems with that story: Orton is the heel and Triple H is the babyface, but at the time of the Evolution story, it was the other way round, so Orton's quest for revenge would be entirely justified. (Oh, and they can't show the archive footage of Orton winning his first title, because the opponent was Chris Benoit, and We Don't Talk About Him.) For a week or so there was a stipulation that they couldn't make contact until Wrestlemania, but that was forgotten about. It's an utter mess, basically.

Orton should win - despite the inept writing, he still has momentum, and they should capitalise on that rather than dragging out another lacklustre Triple H title run. There are plenty of story directions if he wins - Orton has his own lackeys, Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase, so you can do a six-man feud with Orton and co versus Triple H and Vince and Shane McMahon. If he loses, I can't see where you go next. The only really good argument for Triple H winning is that the babyface traditionally wins in the final match on the card, but I think the bigger picture outweights that. Whatever happens, it'll probably be a good match.

By the way, technically this is Smackdown's version of the world title, even though Orton is on the Raw roster. But it's all pretty meaningless at the moment, because there's a roster reshuffle scheduled to take place in two weeks time. If all the titles end up on one show, they can sort it out in the draft.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Edge v. John Cena v. The Big Show. This is the Raw world title, currently held by Edge (from Smackdown) and now tied up in a Smackdown feud. Basically, at the February show, Edge lost the Smackdown title, inveigled his way into Raw's title match, and won the Raw title. Confusing? Yes, it is.

Cena is here because he's owed a rematch (convoluted soap opera roadblocks notwithstanding). But they've done Edge versus Cena many times before, hence the three-way with the Big Show. This builds on a long-running Smackdown subplot where Edge and Big Show, two of the main heels, vie for the affections of Smackdown's general manger (and Edge's wife) Vickie Guerrero. Cena couldn't care less about that; he just wants the belt.

This is a midcard comedy storyline, and has no business in a title match for a major show. And they know it - it was more or less acknowledged last week when Cena was scripted to deliver a speech denouncing the heels for making a joke of the title. But they're committed now, so there you go. Cena should probably win, so that they can end the show with one of the good guys winning the title - except that this match really doesn't deserve to go on last. Then again, a Cena win ends the storyline, and who doesn't want to see that? Chances are it'll be okay; Edge is very good, Cena usually comes through for the big matches, and the Big Show is as good as giant wrestlers get.

3. Intercontinental Title: JBL v. Rey Mysterio. A completely random pairing of two wrestlers with no particular issue. The Intercontinental Title is the secondary title on Raw, and John Bradshaw Layfield won it from CM Punk a few weeks ago. He will defend it against Rey Mysterio... just because. Inexplicably, they had a non-title match on Raw this week, which was fine.

The only angle here is that JBL has promised some sort of big historic moment. The prevailing wisdom is that he'll win and retire as champion; his back has been troubling him badly, and he has a lot of other things to occupy his time. It would also free him up to return to the Smackdown announce desk - and if we're really lucky, they might just allow the IC Title to lapse altogether. There are too many championships floating around the WWE at the moment, and they need to start thinning the herd if audiences are going to care. There's some reason to think the WWE might be planning to do just that. For example...

4. WWE/World Tag Team Title Unification Match, lumberjack match: John Morrison & The Miz v. Carlito & Primo Colon. Raw and Smackdown presently have separate tag team titles (though for maximum confusion, the Raw titles are currently held by John Morrison & The Miz, who are on the ECW roster). This match should unify the belts, although it's always conceivable the match will end with a DQ, in which case both teams retain their titles.

Morrison and Miz are clearly the top heel tag team in the company at the moment; Morrison in particular is very good. Primo and Carlito aren't quite in their league. But the build-up for this match has been surprisingly solid: they're feuding over which team is best, and also over who gets the Bella Twins.

Ah yes - the Bella Twins. Nikki and Brie Bella are identical twin wrestlers, a gimmick which would be an awful lot more useful if there was such a thing as a women's tag team division. They're not desperately good, but they're identical, which gives them some novelty value. As matters stand, they've split, and one is hanging around with each time. I can never remember which is which - they have no personalities. I think Nikki is the heel. It doesn't really matter. An obvious finish, though, is for Brie to turn on the Colons and cost them the match.

Morrison and Miz should win this; they're the best choice of tag team champions right now. Unfortunately, the match is likely to be dragged down by the addition of a random stipulation: this is a lumberjack match, which means that the ring is surrounded by other wrestlers. Basically, it's a blatant device to get everyone on the show. Lumberjack matches are usually a waste of time, but hopefully they'll do as little as possible with the gimmick and focus on the match.

5. Shawn Michaels v. The Undertaker. The Undertaker has never lost at Wrestlemania, as the company never hesitates to remind us. This year, Shawn Michaels is challenging him. We all know Shawn won't win. It makes no sense for him to win. Undertaker's winning streak has been built up as a big thing. It would be a big deal for a rising star to break that streak. But not for Shawn, who's already one of the biggest stars of the last 20 years. So they should preserve the streak in case it can be cashed in more effectively next year. And they almost certainly will (unless they have one of their periodic panic attacks about being too predictable, which almost always leads to them making bad decisions).

The match is bound to be excellent, and the build-up has been pretty decent, based around Undertaker trying his usual mindgames and being outwitted by Shawn at every turn. The general consensus is that this is the de facto main event, and that's hard to argue with.

6. Extreme Rules: Jeff Hardy v. Matt Hardy. The long-running storyline of Jeff Hardy being harassed by a mystery attacker was supposed to lead to Christian (Edge's storyline brother) returning to the company and debuting as the villain. Then they decided everyone knew it was coming, and plugged Jeff's brother Matt into the role instead. Matt has been an effective midcard heel in the past, but he's maybe not so suited as a serious, main event heel. More to the point, history has shown consistently that fans just don't want to see the Hardys fighting one another. They don't buy into it, and it doesn't work.

That's the main problem with this feud. Technically, it'll probably be a very good match; but it's not one that fans particularly want to see. They'd have been so much better off sticking with the original plan, but there you go. Matt should probably win, because it's his first major match since turning heel - however, there's reason to think they might want to cut their losses and move on, in which case Jeff has to pin his brother to end the story.

7. Money in the Bank Ladder Match: Christian v. Finlay v. MVP v. Shelton Benjamin v. Kane v. Mark Henry v. CM Punk v. Kofi Kingston. The Money in the Bank Ladder Match has been running for a few years now. It's an eight-man ladder match. You win by climbing a ladder and retrieving a briefcase from above the ring - in other words, it's a stunt show. The winner gets a title shot which they can cash in at any time over the next year. Usually it's used to ambush a champion who's just been beaten up (a heel tactic, but even CM Punk used it as a babyface last year). Everyone who's ever cashed in the title shot has won, and gone on to at least a brief reign as world champion, so this is a reasonably important match in storyline terms. The winner is practically guaranteed elevation to the main event scene.

However, the eight participants seem to have been selected more or less at random, or at least as a reward for loyal service rather than with an eye to the quality of the match. Ladder matches, traditionally, call for high-flyers. Rey Mysterio should arguably be in here, although he tends to work around his injuries these days, and I can understand keeping him out. John Morrison would be a good inclusion, though he's tied up in the tag title feud. Jimmy Yang is too far down the pecking order to be credible. But what about Evan Bourne or Brian Kendrick?

Instead, we have a motley selection of mostly ground-based wrestlers, which suggests there could be trouble afoot. Kane and Mark Henry are all-purpose Big Guys; the match really doesn't need two of them. Neither would make sense as a potential world champion. They're both upper midcard blocking heels by nature, and that's where they are already. Finlay is a veteran midcarder who's probably in there to help hold the match together, but isn't a credible world champion either. Kofi Kingston is too junior to win; he needs more time in the midcard. Shelton Benjamin is technically very good but lacks the charisma to be a main eventer (at least without a serious repackaging to give him a character he can play more convincingly). I don't see him winning.

That leaves CM Punk, MVP and Christian. Punk won last year, and he's already back in the midcard, so I highly doubt they'll give it to him twice. MVP and Christian are both viable, though. MVP has just come off an inordinately long losing streak as a heel, and is now being rebuilt as one of the good guys. Christian, a heel for most of his WWE career, has recently returned to the company after several years away, and is going through the automatic phase of being cheered by crowds who missed him. My feeling is that the money in the bank title shot is a heel gimmick, in which case Christian is the better choice: he's likely to turn heel sooner or later, and cashing in the title shot would be a great way of doing it.

Of course, there are other things you could do with the title shot, if an outright babyface won it. He could use it to add himself to the main event on a major PPV; he could technically insist on main eventing Wrestlemania 26; he could set out to unify the Raw and Smackdown world titles by winning one belt the normal way, and then cashing in his title shot to force a unification match. But I'd still go with Christian turning heel; it's what they tend to do.

The build-up to this match has been extraordinarily lacklustre. The participants have done a bunch of tag matches, none of which was very impressive. It doesn't inspire much confidence in Sunday's match.

8. Miss Wrestlemania battle royal. Twenty-five women in a battle royal (or, quite possibly, 24 women and Santino Marella). The idea here was to get all the women wrestlers on the show, however briefly, and to bring in some retired women for guest appearances. Unfortunately, most of them declined the invitation, which has led to some scrabbling around to make up the numbers. Reportedly, they're so desperate that we may well be faced with the spectacle of Vickie Guerrero trying to wrestle.

A running subplot has been teasing a match between the Raw and Smackdown women's champions - currently Melina and Maryse - which would suggest they're moving towards unifying those titles as well. Presumably they'll try to do something on Sunday to advance that plot. As for this... well, it'll be dire. The winner could be anyone; it doesn't matter.

9. Chris Jericho v. Jimmy Snuka, Roddy Piper and Ricky Steamboat. Finally, we have the match that went terribly awry. At one point, this was supposed to be Chris Jericho versus Mickey Rourke, cashing in on Rourke's appearance in The Wrestler. This would have made sense. Jericho is one of the best heels in the company, and one of the best talkers. His character sees himself as a man who speaks the truth that the audience doesn't want to hear. So the idea was that Rourke would be friends with the sort of aging wrestlers who inspired The Wrestler, and Jericho would mock them all for missing the point of the film, which was really about old guys refusing to admit when their time was up, and the audience not really caring about them. (Which is kind of true - but positioning it as a heel interpretation was supposed to de-fang it.)

Unfortunately, in a rare moment of lucidity, Rourke realised that this was a terrible career move and thought better of it. Cue panic. In the meantime, Jericho continued to do weekly segments with random elderly wrestlers, building up to who-knew-what. And finally, it turns out that the best they could come up with was Jericho versus Snuka, Piper and Ricky Steamboat. Jericho has to pin all three to win. Ric Flair, who retired last year, will be in the legends' corner. Which is ironic, because most people would rather see him in the ring.

Piper isn't up to much these days. Snuka is barely mobile and hopefully they'll just get rid of him quickly. Any hope for this fiasco rests on Ricky Steamboat, who hasn't wrestled in years, because he actually did retire at a sensible age. He's way before my time, and but by all accounts he was brilliant in his prime, and he still seems to be in pretty good shape for 56. With an opponent as good as Jericho, he just might have it in him to salvage this.

The obvious finish is that Jericho pins two of the legends and loses to the third following interference from Flair and/or Rourke (who's supposed to be there, but has done nothing to promote it). Any hope of it being worthwhile rests on Steamboat.

Worth buying? Um. Not for the storylines, that's for sure. Most of the matches will be good, so it's still got that going for it. But the ladder match looks like trouble, and we've been given little reason to care about the other main events. It's one for the hardcore, I'm afraid.