Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summerslam 2009

Supposedly Summerslam is meant to be the WWE's second biggest show of the year after Wrestlemania, but if that's true, it's invariably a very distant second. That's particularly true at the moment, where the company seems to be more concerned about the ratings for Raw than it is about selling any pay-per-views. This has resulted in a string of bizarre and logic-free shows built around celebrity guest hosts, a format which is apparently set to continue for the rest of the year. (As for the other two shows, Smackdown and ECW, they seem to drift along perfectly happily beneath the company's radar. Worryingly, there seems to be an inverse correlation between how much attention the company pays to a show, and how good it is.)

I'm not buying Summerslam, mainly because I honestly have no idea when I'd get time to watch it before going on holiday next week. But there's some interesting stuff going on here, from a booking standpoint, so let's run down the card.

1. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. John Cena. What, again? Actually, to be fair, these two haven't wrestled in a singles match on pay-per-view since February 2008. But they've been in three-ways, tag matches and so forth, often enough that this seems like a very overfamiliar match.

The problem is - and it's one of the company's biggest problems right now - that the main eventers on Raw are terribly stale. Every conceivable combination has been done, and they need to introduce some new blood to freshen things up. Unfortunately, the company has not been planning for the future, and so there aren't many wrestlers well placed to serve that role. One option would be to get rid of the brand split, or at least unify the world titles, so that they could draw on the Smackdown main eventers - some of whom have also been at the top since time immemorial, but at least it gives you more combinations to work with. Alternatively, they've got to try and elevate some of Raw's midcard wrestlers like MVP - but they haven't laid the groundwork to do that. So we're stuck with matches like this.

As a match, it'll probably be good. It just doesn't feel particularly exciting, that's all. And the usual principle applies: since there's no real benefit to a title change, Orton should retain, so that when he finally loses the title, it means more. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Orton retained by disqualification to avoid beating Cena decisively... which, oddly enough, was what they did in February 2008.

2. World Heavyweight Championship, TLC Match: CM Punk v. Jeff Hardy. Now this is more like it. Hardy has been around for years, but has only recently been elevated to the main event. Punk has been working his way up through the ranks since 2006, when he started off on ECW - but he's only recently turned heel and jumped to Smackdown, giving him a whole range of fresh opponents, and a relatively uncluttered show where he can be the star. Punk made his name on the indie circuit as a heel - he's genuinely "straight edge" (no drink, no drugs) but developed an effective heel act by being preachy and smug about it. Since Jeff Hardy's views on the subject of recreational pharmaceuticals are well known to differ, there's a natural fit here.

They've built this feud quite well. Punk began his heel turn by cashing in his "money in the bank" title shot (which he won at Wrestlemania) immediately after Hardy had won the World Title, effectively stealing it from him. Hardy won the title back at Night of Champions, by which point Punk had turned full-blown heel. Now, the usual news sources have been reporting for a while now that Hardy is planning an extended break from wrestling, but he seems to keep extending his contract for a little longer. We're told that he really is honestly, truly heading off in a week or so. Well, we'll see.

Complicating matters further, Jeff's brother Matt has been reinserted into the storyline. Matt turned heel a few months back, when he turned on Jeff and cost him the title (thus ending his first title reign). This didn't really work. Matt has a natural connection with the crowd as a babyface, which seems to keep him popular no matter how badly he's written. In part, it's because there's something quite believable about him as a put-upon babyface. He doesn't have that as a heel, and feuds with his brother have never seemed to work. So this time, Matt has apparently switched sides again, and is helping Jeff out.

This means one of two things: either Matt's being groomed to take Jeff's place (which would be sensible), or he's going to turn on Jeff in an attempt to cement the heel turn (which is risky, but might work). Either way, he's bound to crop up somewhere in this match, especially because it's no-disqualification, so there's nothing to stop him from interfering.

Oh yes... it's a TLC match, which is basically a ladder match with added hardware (tables and chairs, to be precise). Jeff's great at ladder matches. We haven't really seen Punk in many gimmick matches, but with Jeff there, I'm sure it'll be very good. It's really impossible to predict where they're going with this - there are plenty of possible outcomes, many of which would work. I think this is one of the most promising matches on the card.

3. D-Generation X v. Legacy. It's time for the seemingly annual D-Generation X reunion, with Triple H and Shawn Michaels reforming their tag team and dusting off the entrance video one more time. And I admit, I've always liked that entrance, with the strobing on-screen graphics. Nonetheless, we've been here quite a few times in recent years, and it doesn't feel like it's been that long since the last DX reunion. I don't sense quite the level of interest that the company was probably hoping for.

The other problem with DX is that they're a main event tag team in a company which treats tag team wrestling as a midcard sideshow. As a result, they've got nobody to wrestle - or at least, nobody who's credibly in their league. And this is a big problem. This time round, at least there's a makeshift main event heel team with the tag titles - Chris Jericho and the Big Show. But for the first match, we're getting the Legacy, Randy Orton's henchmen. These guys usually struggle to take out a main event wrestler in a two-on-one handicap match. Realistically, they're going to get annihilated. The only question is how thoroughly they get buried in the process. I don't expect this to be particularly good; the result is a foregone conclusion, but it's being presented as a main event, so it's got to go fifteen minutes or so. And that makes it very hard for even the likes of Shawn Michaels to have an entertaining match.

4. Unified Tag Team Titles: Chris Jericho & The Big Show v. Cryme Tyme. The other tag team match illustrates a similar problem. The Tag Team Champions get to appear on all three shows, so the belts are rather useful for spreading out the main eventers. And so we've got Chris Jericho and the Big Show as heel tag team champions, complete with the most irritating piece of entrance music in years. (It just randomly fades back and forth between their respective themes, which are wholly unrelated, and run at different speeds in a different key. It's truly abominable... although since they're heels, this might actually be deliberate.)

As heel champions, they must defend against a babyface tag team. But they're thin on the ground, to put it mildly. So here's Cryme Tyme, a midcard comedy act who've been doing the "loveable rogue" schtick on and off for a couple of years now. These guys have never even been particularly dominant within the midcard tag team picture, so all logic says they're completely out of their depth here. If they actually win, it'll be a miracle.

And again, that leaves the wrestlers with the problem of how to do an entertaining match, at pay per view length, when nobody believes for a nanosecond that the result is in any doubt whatsoever. One possibility is that they try to advance Cryme Tyme's other storyline, which involves white southerner Jesse ineptly trying to repackage himself as "Slam Master J" in order to join the group, to the Brooklyn duo's bemused horror. But I'm not sure how you'd actually work that in - he can't just cost them the match, because nobody believes they were going to win it in the first place.

Oh, yes... the company is trying to line up a Big Show/Shaquille O'Neal match for free television later in the year. If they've actually managed to sign Shaq up, they might do something here to advance that story. That's just about the only scenario in which I can imagine the babyface challengers winning: a run-in from their world-famous mate. (And we did establish a link between Shaq and Cryme Tyme when he guest-hosted Raw, to be fair.)

Otherwise... the heels win, and probably take twice as long to do it as they probably should. Jericho and JTG try their best and have a technically good match; it's not so great when the two big lugs are in the ring.

5. Intercontinental Title: Rey Mysterio v. Dolph Ziggler. Again? Rey already fended off the challenge of upstart heel Dolph Ziggler last month, and while Ziggler was at least allowed to have a competitive match with his main event opponent, he still lost cleanly. We seem to be in an odd storyline where the rookie heel is chasing the babyface champion. It's usually the other way round. Supposedly there's a degree of backstage politics involved here, because Rey was promised a respectably long title reign as Intercontinental Champion, and really, he hasn't reached that point yet. But somewhere along the line, this storyline really ought to pay off with Ziggler beating Mysterio and elevating himself to the next level. It might be tonight, given that they'll probably want at least one title change on this show. But I wouldn't count on it.

6. ECW Title: Christian v. William Regal. Added to the show very late in the day, when the company belatedly decided they really needed to get the ECW Title onto the card after all. ECW is the C-show, and its championship is something of an afterthought.

The show exists largely as a training ground for rookies recently called up from the developmental promotion in Florida. However, it has a few more experienced wrestlers to help them out, and these two fall into that category. Christian, as defending champion, is a great all-rounder. Regal has been around forever - he made his debut on World of Sport as a teenager - and works in a European style that doesn't always connect with modern American audiences. He is, however, a master of that style, and he's peerless with a microphone.

These two should have an excellent match - quite possibly one of the best on the show, if they're given time, and if the audience connects with their style. And I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Regal winning. The company's always been unsure about his style, but it's only the ECW Title, and he does have his supporters... and this show could use a couple of title changes, and the writers were only just saying that they'd run out of ideas for Christian as champion. So there's a good chance of a change here, I'd say.

7. Kane v. The Great Khali. God help us. This is one of the WWE's periodic "two very big men fight" matches, which tend to be lousy at the best of times. But Kane and Khali? Kane is a veteran, and perfectly fine in his role of huge, dominant, psycho baddie. Khali, on the other hand, is an Indian giant of, let's be frank, limited mobility and limited talent. About all he has going for him is his freakshow aspects of his size, so putting him in the ring with somebody built to his scale seems a terrible error. Actually, putting him in the ring with anybody at any time is questionable judgment, but he's under contract, so the writers have to find something to do with him.

Pray that this is kept short, because it certainly won't be any good. Khali will win, and Kane will probably vanish for a while, before returning at the same time as his "brother" the Undertaker, later in the year.

8. MVP v. Jack Swagger. Two midcarders from Raw who have been feuding since they were drafted to that show. The problem here is that these are both wrestlers that the company should be trying to elevate. Instead, by default of being a match with no titles, no established main eventers and no gimmicks, this is down at the bottom of the card. If anything, it cements their position as preliminary wrestlers.

There is no easy way out of this booking corner, and to be honest, I wouldn't have booked them on this show in the first place. I'd have pushed it as a first-hour main event match on Raw or something. At least then you'd be saying that they were wrestlers on the fringes of the world title scene.

Even then, there's a real problem with who wins. MVP is the only guy on Raw who could plausibly be shored up and elevated to the main event within a couple of months. So really, he needs a couple of decisive wins to rehabilitate him after a period of bad writing. But Swagger is a new arrival to Raw, from the much-less-watched ECW, and also needs a chance to establish himself. This is not the time for him to lose clean to a guy who's been pegged as a midcarder. It's a no-win situation, unless they manage to have a match so spectacular that both guys are elevated just from being involved - and down at the bottom of the card, that's unlikely. My inclination would be to go with MVP, because the staleness of the main event roster is a major problem that needs addressing urgently... but I wouldn't pretend it's an ideal outcome.

Worth buying? Well. Other than Kane/Khali, these are likely to be decent matches. The problem is that one of the main events is stale, and both of the tag matches are foregone conclusions. But Punk/Hardy, Christian/Regal and Swagger/MVP have promise, and some intrigue. It's not the card you'd expect from a show which was seriously intended to be the second biggest of the year, but there's some interesting stuff there.