Thursday 21 April 2011

Laying the SmackDown

On Tuesday night I attended my first ever WWE TV taping. I've been to wrestling events before, I've even been to TV tapings before (remember that truly horrendous episode of Nitro from London the year before they went under? Yeah, I subjected myself to that), but I'd never seen RAW or SmackDown live. It came about through work. I was offered tickets by a publishing rep. I work in a bookshop that stocks WWE books, so we get free tickets. I was lucky enough to get tickets to a RAW house show in 2009 too.

I was, naturally, pretty excited at seeing my first SmackDown taping. While RAW has Randy Orton, The Miz, CM Punk, and John Cena (who I heckled so much in 2009 I could barely speak by the end of the evening) SmackDown has Edge, Christian and Alberto Del Rio, guys I enjoy and had never seen wrestling live, though I had seen Edge and Christian do that cake-cutting segment at WWF New York (who remembers that place?!) during a trip to NYC in 2001. It was a highlight to see them then but I'd always wanted to see them wrestle.

The bad news came when Edge announced his retirement. On a purely selfish level I was disappointed I wouldn't get to see him in action. Things improved when it was revealed he'd joined the roster for the tour because he was advertised to appear. That shows why fans have so much respect for him: he takes pride in fulfilling his schedule even when retired. So even though I wasn't seeing Edge wrestling live I'd still get to see him in a ring, in his element. It's probably the last time he's going to be on a UK tour so it was nice I had that chance.

I arrived at the O2 just before the Jubilee line imploded. Considering their location in one of the world's biggest cities and how savvy they usually are when it comes to merchandise I'm surprised WWE hadn’t organised a bigger sales area. A small counter to the side of the entrance area had been commandeered for the selling of bright red t-shirts with Cena's meaningless slogans on them. There were dozens of children wearing the natty combo of this shirt and Rey Mysterio mask. They all looked ridiculous, but society's conventions prevented me from saying so aloud. Outside the arena was an American school bus with a Triple H cut-out in front of it. Yes, The Chaperone is still being pushed at WWE events.

Inside we were quickly and efficiently told where our seats were and settled down for some sports entertainment action. The staff at the O2 were all very professional and deserve praise for making the event run smoothly. Our seats were just to the left of the hard camera, giving us a great view of both the ring and the entrance area. We had a great view of the action and also the TV equipment, which provided an interesting insight into how the company puts a TV episode together. It looked as though everything was edited as it aired, which would seem natural for a live RAW but surprised me with SmackDown's pre-recorded nature. They have a large amount of equipment for this, naturally, and various agents and referees visited the position throughout the night, the first one I noticed being Charles Robinson.

The event kicked off with a dark match (a match that's not recorded for TV) between Layla and Beth Phoenix. I'd hoped we would see some British workers getting tryouts but with Superstars, NXT and SmackDown being recorded I suppose there wasn't time. I would imagine any tryouts took place before RAW on Monday.

Tony Chimel welcomed us to the show. I popped for him. Layla was the first wrestler of the night to make an appearance and got a mainly negative response from the crowd. I think that could be a combination of the effectiveness of LayCool as heels and not many people knowing Layla is actually from London. I clapped her though (me supporting heels was a recurring theme of the evening). Beth Phoenix got a subdued but polite response. The match itself was good but didn't do much to involve the audience. I think everyone was pacing themselves for a long evening and didn't want to tire early. Beth won with the Glam Slam.

The first show to be taped was NXT. There was no Striker, which disappointed me as I'd hoped he would become my heckle magnet of the evening. Maryse was on solo presenting duty and there was no way I was going to heckle her. William Regal and Josh Mathews were introduced as commentators before the cameras started rolling, with Regal getting one of the biggest pops of the night. It was heartening to see him get such a warm and respectful reaction.

The rookies started off competing in a tug-o-war contest for immunity points and/or a bye to the finals. It wasn't really clear. Conor ultimately won after Lucky Cannon was disqualified for cheating. The crowd was pretty responsive to this segment, which surprised me. I'd expected most of NXT to be met with either apathy or hostility. I suppose this may be one of the benefits of doing the show without Striker.

In total there were three matches taped for NXT: Jacob Novak (in his JTG-style ring gear) v Conor O'Brian, Darren Young v Hornswoggle, and Yoshi Tatsu and Byron Saxton v Tyson Kidd and Lucky Cannon. The first match was not terribly good, with the highlight being a “we want wrestling” chant during one of the evening’s many rest holds. Darren Young and Hornswoggle’s match was intended as comedy. Chavo challenged Young to wrestle the match wearing a blindfold and with one hand tied behind his back. Why Chavo wanted his rookie at such a disadvantage was left a mystery. It didn’t really make any sense. Chavo “just happening” to have a blindfold and some rope in his pockets made even less sense. After an age was spent applying the blindfold and rope Young lost a pathetic match to the leprechaun. If this is WWE’s idea of building talent for the future then it’s no wonder they’re in the state they’re in. Young would not even make it as a mid-carder at this point.

Maryse came out to sit at ringside during the tag team main event. I originally thought she was doing guest commentary but I later realised she was just sitting there observing the bout. Byron worked the majority of the match for his team, setting up a hot tag to Yoshi for the finishing sequence. The action was pedestrian, but I was impressed by Lucky Cannon’s ability to work the crowd. Throughout the entire evening nobody spent more time doing this than Cannon. Before this match I’d liked his look, his gimmick and his promo delivery but thought he was merely average in the ring. While he didn’t showcase any fantastic moves here, he showed he understands the importance of interacting with the crowd. That’s what’s going to get him noticed and earn on a place on one of the main rosters. I am now even more convinced he’s a man to watch.

The match ended when Lucky approached Maryse at ringside as Yoshi was preparing to hit his finisher on Tyson Kidd. He had a choice between either saving Maryse from unwanted male attention or winning a wrestling match. Despite the fact that Maryse has shown she can take care of Lucky Cannon on several occasions Yoshi felt compelled to step in. This allowed to Tyson to get the victory and Yoshi to look like an idiot.

Following the NXT taping the ring crew and some referees came out to exchange the yellow ring ropes for blue ones. Regal and Mathews left and Superstars began with no commentary team present. The lone match taped for the show was Tyler Reks v JTG. It was a surprisingly lengthy match but not especially memorable. I was pleased to see the entire crowd turn against JTG: his gimmick is not appreciated in London. Tyler Reks went over. There was no sign of Zack Ryder, sadly.

Following a brief pause the SmackDown taping began, including the recap video you’d get at the start of the TV episode. This surprised me, but I suppose it makes sense to get the arena audience caught up on the product. The ring crew also made a return to hang the World Heavyweight championship above the ring for an angle later in the night.

The show opened with the formerly dashing Cody Rhodes telling us all that deep down we know we’re all ugly and scarred, and that he doesn’t want to look at us. That was the gist of it anyway. He took an age to get to the ring and got a very good heel reaction from the crowd. After Cody had spent several minutes telling us how much he disliked us he asked three men who he’d brought to the ring with him to start giving out paper bags with eyeholes and mouths cut in them to people at ringside. This was hilarious. It’s an inspired idea as it easily gets Cody across as a heel, and it’s also something people can recreate themselves when coming to events. I’d like to see it take off.

Rhodes continued to blast us until Rey Mysterio came out to interrupt him for their advertised WrestleMania rematch. The match was very well received and probably the best of the night. Rey beat Cody with a reversal, which I think was the right decision: Cody went over on the biggest pay-per-view of the year and Rey needed a win to keep the feud alive for Extreme Rules.

Following the match Cody attacked Rey and the two brawled around ringside for several minutes. The crowd were hot for this, despite it lasting far longer than most ringside brawls. If and when you watch SmackDown look for the bump Cody took when being thrown back onto the ringside mats following their second excursion into the crowd. The guy flew through the air and landed very hard. It looked great and he deserves a lot of credit for it. It was a great performance by both men, and I still think it’s the best feud in WWE right now.

Following a break we got a backstage Corre promo. It begun with Wade Barrett and Justin Gabriel discussing last week’s battle royal and how Gabriel eliminated Barrett. They bickered over who should have won. Then Heath Slater sidled in and joined in on the bickering. On a side note, Heath’s ‘One Man Rock Band’ moniker is the most inappropriate in wrestling. If his gimmick were somehow related to rock music or the commentators acknowledged its absurdity then it would be okay, but as it is it’s just a title for the sake of a title. Heath claimed he, not Barrett or Gabriel should have won the battle royal. Then Ezekiel Jackson came in and said he should have won. The fact that none of them did win didn’t seem to dent their confidence. There were tense stare downs all round before, bizarrely, they all relaxed and became friendly. I’m not sure if the relaxation moment was in character or not. If it was it should be edited out of the broadcast because it was just confusing and made it look like the entire argument had been a joke for them all at the audience’s expense. I suspect it was simply that the cameras kept rolling a little too long.

Another skit aired almost immediately, this one featuring LayCool back at their psychiatrist’s office. It was very similar to last week’s and was probably filmed at the same time as McCool isn’t on the European tour. They both told the doctor to shut up before McCool attacked Layla and stormed out. Layla was left looking dejected and teary-eyed. The segment did what it needed to but I think it was very ill-timed. Firstly, it should have been done in the ring to involve the audience more and to help Layla get the babyface empathy the writing time are clearly seeking. I also think it would have been wise to have the turn occur at a pay-per-view. Turns like this should always be saved for larger events. The only real reason I can see for them not waiting is that the storyline is going to continue with Layla in an abused partner role. I don’t think that will make for pleasant viewing but it seems like the direction they’re going in. If that’s what they do it could still be a few months before we see McCool v Layla in the ring. SummerSlam would be a nice show to do it on if they’re waiting to do it properly.

Trent Barretta made his way down to the ring, to little reaction from the crowd. Had this been Zack Ryder there would have been a huge pop. Trent got into the ring, faced the entrance way for a moment and then climbed out of the ring and loitered at ringside. We were left to puzzle over this for a moment, but all became clear when ‘Sir’ Michael Cole got into the ring. He got tremendous heat and was left standing awkwardly for a moment as the camera crew prepared themselves. When they started filming we got his “Can I have your attention please?” catchphrase, which earned huge boos (though I clapped and cheered it). He recapped his segment from RAW, which got him yet more heat. It was the first chance I’d had to see it and I thought it was pretty amusing. I don’t dislike the Cole character, I think he makes a very effective heel. I just don’t think he should be on commentary, he should be a manager helping a mid-card heel act that needs an edge. Currently he just ruins every act that isn’t Jack Swagger, and his job is to help get everyone over with the viewers.

Cole introduced Swagger to face Barretta. It was clear from the start who’d be winning. The match was short and one-sided, with Swagger winning easily via the Ankle Lock. He did the victory lap celebration afterwards.

After a shot of Big Show and Kane walking along backstage and the Awesome Kong vignette (her WWE ring name will apparently be Kharma) it was time for a WWE tag team title match. Kane’s pyro is hot. I wasn’t sitting especially close but I could really feel the heat of it. The challengers got a huge response from the crowd, based on their size and tenure in the company. The match was, as JR would say, bowling shoe ugly. It was fairly short and ended up seeing Ezekiel mis-time his interference, letting Kane and Big Show pick up the win. I can now say I was there the night Big Show and Kane won the WWE tag team titles. I don’t think I’ll be mentioning it much though. The WWE tag titles don’t mean much and Show and Kane may be big, but they’re not as good as teams in most other companies.

Everyone went backstage, with the new champions coming back out to pose with their belts. That was a nice touch. At this point I was wondering if anyone else in the building remembered their previous reign as tag team champions five years or so ago. I’m sure some did, but we were in the minority. With the lack of teams in WWE the new champions could have a lengthy run, as long as the Spirit Squad don’t reform.

Backstage we saw the Corre, minus Barrett, arguing. Again. Gabriel ended up getting shoved to the ground by Slater after Ezekiel Jackson had stormed off. They’ve been teasing this breakup almost as long as the group’s been together, which begs the question why they were put together in the first place. I suspect either Slater or Gabriel will be drafted to RAW next Monday, otherwise they’d have been kept together as a unit.

Straight after that promo Drew McIntyre’s music hit and he came out to an immense babyface reaction. People loved the guy. I’ve no idea why. He’s a heel and not the sort that encourages a level of respect that makes you want to cheer him. But the crowd loved him and his generic move set. He faced Chris Masters, who bumped around and oversold like a lunatic. The impressive bumps were welcome, the overselling was not. It was the standard mid-card SmackDown match: there was no real reason for it to take place and it didn’t lead to anything. The crowd may make it seem more special on TV though. Drew won with the Future Shock DDT. The reaction to his win was equally positive. I am still unable to explain this reaction. I know I booed him.

As far as wrestling went the main event was an Intercontinental title match between Kofi Kingston and champion Wade Barrett. Kofi came out to a solid response from the fans while Barrett came out to boos. Ezekiel Jackson was with him, which immediately signalled there was going to be another Corre miscommunication. The match was very good, second best of the night behind Cody Rhodes v Rey Mysterio. The crowd slowly switched their allegiance from Kingston to Barrett, but Kofi won them back with a phenomenal moonsault from the top rope to the outside. That’s the sort of move Kofi should be allowed to do with greater frequency to make himself stand out as a guy who’ll put his body on the line to win. He needs to be allowed to do something because he’s one of the men that the company needs to advance into a main event position.

As the tag team title had changed hands there was a feeling that this match could see a second title change, with the Corre losing all their belts in one night. This feeling grew when Big ‘Zeke clotheslined Barrett at ringside and Kofi went on the offensive inside the ring. The title switch didn’t happen but they did a great job of building up near falls.

As with the LayCool split I’m not sure the Corre are officially done. In their case the Draft could be used to split the group, rather than have them feuding. That’s the sort of approach WWE tends to prefer when ending their groups. I don’t think the foursome will be missed. As I said, they’ve not really done anything memorable.

The final segment was a retirement party for Edge hosted by Alberto Del Rio. Gold balloons and a black carpet were installed in the ring and Ricardo Rodriguez and Broadus Clay came and waited for the cameras to turn back on. Chimel introduced Ricardo and he did his regular routine. I have no idea what he said, but I think it’s a great gimmick. He’s like a Hispanic Joel Gertner. Alberto came out to a mostly negative reaction, though I could see a few people joining me in cheering him. I tried to start an RoH style “Next world champ” chant but the crowd didn’t get behind me. I hadn’t expected them to, to be honest.

Del Rio said he had gifts for Edge. The first two were a grandfather clock and some adult-size nappies/diapers. I’m not sure how it will come across on TV but the segment seemed to start out quite flat. It picked up when Del Rio introduced Lita, though in typical heel fashion he’d simply paid a large woman to stroll to the ring. She didn’t bear any resemblance to Lita at all. Broadus held the ring ropes open for her as Del Rio did a comical little dance. He then unveiled a Zimmer frame and a shop mobility scooter (driven out by Ricardo) as his final gifts to Edge.

The shenanigans ended when Edge’s music hit and he came out to the biggest pop of the night. It was a great moment, and I’m pleased I was there to see him. He cut a typically enjoyable promo, making fun of ADR and his ECW-esque entourage. Del Rio didn’t appreciate being made fun of and dispatched Broadus to take Edge out. This backfired when Christian appeared from somewhere with a ladder (I’m not sure but I suspect he’d been hiding under the ring) and battered the henchman. Del Rio was sent running and Christian set up his ladder to retrieve the title belt still hanging over the ring. The crowd loved seeing that. Edge headed backstage and Christian posed with the belt to send SmackDown off the air.

But the show wasn’t over! In place of a dark match main event Christian took a microphone and said he loved coming to London. That could just be the standard babyface cheap pop, but in Christian’s case he may say it with sincerity because Londoners have always given him a warm reaction, even when he’s been a heel. He talked up his Extreme Rules ladder match with Alberto and then got Edge to come back out. He told Edge that without him there would be no Christian and that he would miss him. It was a touching moment.

Then it was Edge’s turn. He gave another retirement speech, showing how good he is on the mic by not reusing material from his RAW or SmackDown speeches. He said when WWE management realised he had to retire they pulled him from the tour as a precaution, to help avoid wear and tear on his neck, but that he insisted on coming because he was advertised. He returned the compliments Christian had paid him, saying that without Christian there would be no Edge. The two then embraced to a loud ovation.

They ended on a five second pose, something I’d been waiting eleven years to see live. This was the highlight of the evening for me, and it was made even more special by knowing that they hadn’t actually been allowed to do it at every event on the tour (a decision I think is completely wrong). I can’t say enough how pleased I am I had the chance to see the two men together one final time before Edge finishes up. 

Overall, it may not have featured the best wrestling I’ve ever seen live, but it gave me the chance to see some of my favourite all-time performers. In that regard, the show was a big hit.

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