Saturday 27 September 2014

Unforgiven 2008 review

Ahead of the WWE Network’s British release on Wednesday I thought I’d get into the spirit of things by watching and reviewing an old WWE pay-per-view. I selected Unforgiven 2008 for two reasons. One, I remembered it being a pretty sloppy show. Two, I found a DVD of it in a cupboard. I didn’t (and still don’t) remember buying it or being given it so I took it as a sign that it was the right thing to watch.

All set? Let’s begin…
Opening video

Before getting started it should probably be pointed out that Unforgiven 2008 was built around a new kind of gimmick match. Vince McMahon, so the story goes, felt that the company had become complacent with regard to creating exciting new gimmick matches. It had been twenty years since the Royal Rumble had been created, eleven since the first ever Hell in a Cell, and six since the inaugural Elimination Chamber. Vince wanted a new toy, dammit!

The creative team, and probably a fair number of agents and senior wrestlers, went away to see what could be dreamed up. They returned with a match that was part Royal Rumble, part five-way dance (because those are always popular), and part Elimination Chamber (a gimmick match which is itself a collection of various other matches). Two men would start. Another would join them every five minutes. There would be a five minute period at the end. Guys could pin and submit one another throughout, with anyone doing so becoming the “current” champion. Whoever was the “current” champion once the twenty minute time limit expired would be recognised as the official champion.

They called it… the Scramble.
It had its good points, in theory. It would allow numerous title change pops in one match without actually having the title change hands, protecting the prestige of the prize while still getting the audience to pop. It could, with a bit of thought, tell a story you couldn’t in many other matches. We’d get a couple of examples of that. It also gave guys outside of the main event the chance to look more competitive than usual, although in practice the one real attempt at that made just didn’t work.

In practice the concept was a shambles. As we’ll see below. All you need to know at this point is that this show was built around this convoluted new gimmick match and the intense feud between Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho. Again, more on that below. The opening video concentrated on these two things, though mostly the latter. Amusingly it began with the words “Tonight is the first ever championship Scramble." There hasn’t been another since.

ECW championship Scramble

In the arena we were greeted by the strains of Motörhead. Todd Grisham and Matt Striker welcomed us to the show, immediately confirming to me that I’d made the right choice in my search for a disappointing pay-per-view. Tony Chimel announced the ECW Scramble and then Matt Hardy came out.

Matt was still fairly over at this point, although that perception was helped at least in part by a healthy application of the Crowd Roar Noise Machine™ what with this being a DVD. Striker informed us that there was an eighty per cent chance of a new champ being crowned in each Scramble. Because if there’s one thing Striker loves it’s maths! Apparently experience, health and other things used to measure form don’t factor into WWE. Everyone has a fifty-fifty chance of winning any given singles match, no matter who they are or what they and their opponent have accomplished.

As Striker ran through the rules (winding himself in the process). The Miz came out as entrant two. This was trilby hat, fingerless gloves era Miz. A Miz who wore a bandana underneath his hat because that’s what the cool kids do. He’s not great in the ring in 2014, but he is considerably better than he was back in 2008. Seeing that he was involved in this match was not a good sign.

The opening five minutes featured basic exchanges with a strong focus on headlocks. The crowd were into that for some reason. Perhaps Cleveland is a big headlock town. Or maybe Matt Hardy was so popular in the early autumn of 2008 that people went crazy for him doing anything, even a headlock.

Chavo's impressed. And Chavo is not easy to impress.
Chavo entered third, wearing a poncho which he immediately handed over to Bam Neely. Yeah, Bam Neely. I’d completely forgotten his existence too. He was Chavo’s henchman for a couple of months before getting released or demoted to Deep South or something. He was so dull he’d make Justin Gabriel look full of charisma. This was the calibre of performer then head of talent relations John Laurinaitis went for. It’s no wonder WWE was so uninspiring for so long.

Continuing the obscure seconds theme Mark Henry waddled out with Tony Atlas. I am not the biggest fan of Mark Henry but at this point I was actually pretty pleased to see him. It felt like a legitimate star had arrived, although I wouldn’t have thought that when this first aired. Henners was still a year and a half away from opening his Hall of Pain.

Henry, the reigning champion, quickly pinned Chavo off a World’s Strongest Slam to become the “current” champion. This brings us to the first problem of the Scramble gimmick. Any reigning champion is a current champion. That they chose that as the term to denote the man currently on track to win was confusing and didn’t convey that the man in question wasn’t the official champ until the final bell. Interim champion would have been better. Anything would have been better!

While we’re at it I’ll mention the second trouble with the format: the audience seemed unclear on whether the title was changing hands or not. While I could be wrong on that it seems like the safest way of explaining their tepid reaction to some of the results throughout the night. The rules weren’t indecipherable but any gimmick match with as many stipulations as this is probably not going to do well.

Henry slowed things down so everyone could catch their breath. After Striker had described him as "the strongest... human being... on... the... planet” Finlay came out as final entrant. He was a wildly over babyface with jaunty panpipes for music. Hornswoggle was with him. I’d completely forgotten this era of Finlay’s career, which would include him doing jigs with Hornswoggle in the ring on a semi-regular basis, and didn’t appreciate being reminded of it. Finlay was over, which speaks volumes about roster depth at this time.

Hornswoggle distracted Henry and the referee, allowing ‘The Belfast Bruiser’ to sneak his shillelagh out of the corner and smack Henry in the head with it. Then, in the most confusing spot of the night, Finlay and Hardy teamed up to throw Henry over the top rope, as though they were in a battle royal. Striker and Grisham, being a pair of stone cold pros, didn’t even acknowledge that.

Finlay immediately hit the Celtic Cross on Hardy, pinning him to become the “current” champ. Hardy recovered fairly quickly and hit a Twist of Fate on Miz to take the title for himself. The final two and a half minutes were an omnishambles of moves, pin attempts and breakups. The match ended with everyone but Miz (he was busy lying at ringside with a nasty hard way gash on his face) piling on top of each other writhing around in one of the most shambolic displays I’ve ever seen in a wrestling ring.

Your winner and new ECW-but-not-really-actual-ECW champion Matt Hardy.

Striker talked about Hardy climbing the cliffs of Dover and standing at the apex as the champion. Stuff like that is why Striker was fired. Thankfully he would not appear on this show again.

Backstage segment one

New champ Matt hugged his brother Jeff, who was at this point the most popular man in wrestling about to embark on a quest to win the WWE championship. Matt said he wanted a Hardys clean sweep and declared it the greatest night of his life. I wonder if he even remembers this show now.

A split screen showed WWE champion Triple H and World Heavyweight champion CM Punk in corridors preparing for their respective title defences. Both had long hair. It was weird.

Question time fun with Jim Ross

Back at ringside Tazz and JR introduced themselves and rambled about the show a little. JR asked whether SmackDown GM Vickie Guerrero should have let Big Show compete in the WWE title Scramble match and told viewers they could vote on their answer on the WWE website. No Twitter here. Presumably there was some controversial aspect to this topic. Whatever it was it wasn't made clear.

And then... "Yo yo yo yo! Shad Gaspard and JTG, it's Cryme Time! Brooklyn, Brooklyn!"

Tag team championship: Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase v Cryme Tyme

Yes! Everyone’s illiterate gangsta thug wrestlers were on this show! Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler were both massively excited by this entrance. I felt nauseous. Ted DiBiase and Cody Rhodes came out to face them. This was blue boots with the Triforce on them era Cody Rhodes. He also had trunks with 'The Prince of Pro Wrestling' scrawled on the back. That nickname should have caught on.

Cryme Tyme were more over than I remembered and had more double team spots too. With a better gimmick, better timing, and an understanding that speaking out against the way you’re booked doesn’t help your standing if you’re a guy in WWE’s mid-card, they could have gotten somewhere.  

Dripping with charisma...
The match was decent. Cody and Ted cheated to isolate JTG. Shad came in fired up off a hot tag and threw his foes around like a hoss. The Legacy lads thwarted a double team move which looked like it may have been More Bang For Your Buck (it definitely wouldn’t have been) then Ted flipped a small package from JTG over, giving Cody the win.

After the match the debuting Manu ran in to save Cody and Ted from a post-match beating from Cryme Tyme. Cole described him as a "mysterious violent stranger.” This was about as good as it got for Manu. He was chastised on-screen and off- by Randy Orton for being lazy and having a bad attitude. You know you’re in trouble when Orton’s knocking you for being unmotivated. He was released in February of 2009 having accomplished nothing of note.

Backstage segment two

A doctor told Shawn Michaels that he would risk making his injured tendon worse by competing. Michaels didn’t reply. We’d find out what the silence and disregard for safety was about in a video recap.

At this point the Michaels and Jericho dispute had been going on for around six months. It had started when Michaels super kicked his friend and mentor Ric Flair into retirement at WrestleMania XXIV. Batista, another friend and student of Flair’s, took issue with Michaels retiring ‘Naitch’ and challenged him to a match. Jericho offered his services as a guest referee for that match, which HBK won by faking a knee injury.

Batista moved on to other things after that, leaving ‘Y2J’ to take Michaels to task for cheating. Even though Michaels had cheated in a face versus face match he was seen as the good guy in this scenario, with Jericho as the villain. The pair had a match at The Great American Bash during which Michaels received a cut near his eye which Jericho targeted, giving him the edge and allowing him to win the match.

Michaels announced his doctor had advised him to retire, so serious was the eye injury. During his farewell speech he knocked Jericho, saying that he’d never achieve the success ‘The Showstopper’ had. This led to a meeting where Jericho verbally laid into Michaels and accidentally struck his wife. Because he exhibited no signs of remorse for this accidentally blow Michaels announced his plans to remain an active wrestler so that he could take on Jericho in a non-sanctioned street fight to gain retribution for his family.

Non-sanctioned match: Shawn Michaels v Chris Jericho

This match is the saving grace of this entire show. It’s the only match on it that’s worth watching. While the latter two Scramble bouts did some interesting things and featured some memorable moments this is the only match that is good from start to finish. Without this on the show it would have been far closer to train wreck levels than it is.

Lilian Garcia kicked things off with a reminder that both combatants had signed paperwork that ensured they could not hold each other or WWE responsible for what would happen in the match. Michaels immediately got a takedown on Jericho and then lamped him with his boot. They went out into the crowd and round ringside before Jericho floored Michaels with a DDT, introducing a chair to the match and setting up a table outside the ring.

Michaels escaped a suplex through table and choked Jericho. He stopped a Sweet Chin Music attempt because he wanted to hurt ‘The Highlight of the Night’ more, sinking in a Crippler crossface to do just that. Cole understandably didn’t name it, the Benoit incident having taken place just a year before. Jericho staggered to his feet and sent Michaels head first into a chair.

Jericho fired off jabs at Michaels’ injured eye before applying the Walls of Jericho. With no rope breaks in an unsanctioned fight Michaels had to use a technical counter to escape: a fire extinguisher to the face.

He learnt that from Jose.
Jericho’s protégé Lance Cade showed up to interfere for a bit, eventually getting wiped out with Sweet Chin Music. Michaels then smashed Jericho with a chair, sending off the top rope through the table standing at ringside. He followed that up by draping him on an announce desk (he was spoilt for choice with three at ringside) and elbow dropping him through it. Jericho got back into the ring (because wrestling) and Michaels whipped him with his belt (because southern justice). ‘King’ chose this point to suggest Michaels may have been possessed by the devil. His sense of timing never fails.

Michaels trapped Jericho in an armbar and pummelled his eye, retribution for Jericho’s unsportsmanlike attacks. With Jericho unconscious the referee stopped the match and awarded the victory to Michaels.

Jericho did a great job of selling unconsciousness. Michaels pummelled him more after the decision.  The ref yanked him off (to stop Jericho getting hurt) and got a super kick for his trouble. More officials showed up (including Mike Chioda) to protect Jericho as he was taken backstage. The segment ended with Michael Cole wandering aloud if God would ever forgive Michaels for what he’d done.

Backstage segment three

Cody, Ted and Manu were joined by Legacy boss Randy Orton. At this point in time the group was having problems, although my memory of the group is that it was always having problems and never really felt like the cohesive, Evolution 2.0 it was probably meant to. Cody formally introduced Manu, telling Orty that the new boy recognised and respected talent when he saw it.

Manu piped up at that point, revealing another reason he would ultimately be released: he is not a natural at wrestling speak. He told Orton that Cody ‘n’ Ted were in a different class in the most bland, hollow, passionless voice imaginable. He said the words because he was scripted too, not because he believed them. Fair enough, he didn’t believe them, but he should have tried to make viewers feel like he did.  

Orton cut a promo memorable only for its abundance of shoulder movements. He rambled a bit but seemed to feel the lads had gotten lucky. It ended with him saying he wasn’t impressed with them. At all. Over at the commentary desk JR said Cody and Ted didn't want to hear that. Then Tazz put over Motörhead and JR asked his Big Show question again.

WWE championship Scramble

The second championship Scramble is remembered for one thing: ‘The’ Brian Kendrick pinning Jeff Hardy with Sliced Bread Number Two to become the “current” champ. It was the sort of surprise this match was probably designed to incorporate. Ultimately it was nothing more than a token shock that accomplished nothing.

What this match should be remembered for is its final five minutes. It marked the beginning of a friendly rivalry (by which I mean a face versus face rivalry) between ascending babyface superhope Jeff Hardy and WWE champion Triple H. Entering last ‘The Game’ quickly pinned Kendrick to keep his title reign on track but Hardy would become the “current” champion by pinning MVP with a Twist of Fate. They exchanged the lead a few more times and although Triple H ended the bout still the champion Jeff Hardy was just seconds way from pinning Shelton Benjamin at the final bell.

It was a story that could only be told as effectively in a match like this. Hardy and Helmsley were shown to be on a similar level, essentially trading the title back and forth, desperately trying to retain the upper hand until the time limit expired. It could have gone to either of them. A good feud in which Hardy would win his one and only WWE championship would come out of this. Sadly the rest of the match dragged and Kendrick, MVP and Benjamin were made to look like the enhancement guys they clearly were, with Kendrick and MVP taking a cumulative six losses between them.

Backstage segment four

In the back Todd Grisham asked Michaels how he was feeling. That was a slap in the face to the Brand Extension: Grisham was supposed to be an ECW guy! Michaels said it was the first PPV in three months which hadn’t resulted in him being hospitalised. He said he was going home to his wife and kids, content but not satisfied and with no sense of closure. The worst, he said, was still to come for Jericho.

The location of his smile was not touched upon.

Somewhere else in the building Eve Torres (here just an interviewer) channelled Matt Striker and reminded WHC CM Punk that the odds were against him successfully retaining his belt. Punk started the standard life of adversity promo before Orton showed up and called him a fluke champion. DiBiase, Rhodes and Manu then attacked Punk, roughing him up and throwing him against a plastic container. Kofi Kingston (who at this point still had the potential to become a somebody) tried helping Punk out but didn’t get far. Orton gave Punk a Punt kick and told his cronies that was how to make an impression.

There’s a more relevant point to discuss this segment below…

Divas championship: Maryse v Michelle McCool

I’d love to say that they surprised me and had a great match, but they didn’t. It was Maryse and Michelle McCool. Did you really expect anything else?

Promo segment spectacular

JR revealed that seventy seven per cent of viewers felt Vickie Guerrero had made the right decision not allowing Big Show to compete the WWE title match. Once again they provided no context for why this question was being asked. Looking into it I’ve found out that Show had interfered in a qualifying match for the Scramble and had been generally disrespectful to heel GM Vickie. It was also very clearly designed to play into what would happen between the two minutes later.

And then he appeared: Mike Adamle. Dim-witted, wooden, vacant, clueless Mike Adamle.

He didn’t really do enough to warrant me going into much detail on him here but it was a pleasure to see him fumbling his way through a promo he probably didn’t understand. Basically he was there to announce that CM Punk might not compete. With any other babyface that would be the setup for them making a gutsy comeback in their scheduled defence. That wouldn’t be the case here. But again, I’ll get to that. Adamle said if Punk couldn’t compete he’d find a suitable replacement.

Adamle left and Big Show came out. Full-on babyface Big Show, high-fiving, waving and smiling. He volunteered his services for Punk’s vacant spot and then awkwardly plugged the SmackDown Your Vote campaign (something that was done to help ease the McMahon name into the political sphere ahead of Linda’s failed attempts at getting elected). Vickie came out and had a go at him for disobeying her instructions.

Then The Undertaker’s druids came out. Dimmed lights, hooded robes, smoke machine, eerie music, the whole deal. Show loled it up, literally holding his sides because he found it so funny that Vickie was going to finally be caught by The Undertaker. A gross oversimplification: ‘The Dead Man’ wanted revenge on Vickie for costing him the World Heavyweight championship and using him as a weapon against her ex-boyfriend Edge.

All this was done so we could get to this thrilling piece of work at No Mercy.
The druids parked a casket at ringside and ‘Taker appeared on the Titantron, telling Vickie to get in. She didn’t so he came out to ringside to get her, Big Show happily holding her in place to stop her escaping. When ‘Big Evil’ arrived in the ring Show swerve turned on him, giving him a big ol' right punch to the face. Show smacked Undertaker around for a few minutes before giving him a second KO punch. Then he held 'The Dead Man' up for Vickie to slap him.

No context was provided throughout any of this. It was just stuff that happened.

Backstage segment five

William Regal and Mike Adamle had a chat about Punk's status for the World title match (which was next). Regal wanted in on the action and reminded Adamle he’d pinned Punk to become the 2008 King of the Ring. Adamle made his excuses and left.

World Heavyweight championship Scramble

The future Drax the Destroyer and John Bradshaw Layfield started the main event. That may sound alarming but they actually had a pretty enjoyable five minutes together, the highlight of which was Batista using a figure four (because it looked so strange to see him do it). Batista was massively over as a face. JBL was well established as a heel. His limo entrance was still a thing and helped him come across as a big deal. Unfortunately there was no hot stepping from him. I was gutted at that.

Bald headed evil Kane was third. JBL had been wiped out by a collision with the ring steps, so we were treated to Kane and 'The Animal' for several minutes. He got back into the match just in time to break up a Batista bomb and get pinned after a choke slam. Yes, Kane became the “current” champion.

Kane thinking he's flying. Mysterio's hair mask. There's so much going on here.
Rey Mysterio was the fourth man introduced, wearing a mask with a thoroughly ridiculous Mohawk headpiece attached to it. This could well be where my problems with Rey started. Broadly speaking it was Kane and Layfield v Mysterio and Batista during this portion. The faces busted out some double team moves. Rey cheekily rolled Batista up from atop his shoulders and the two had a few heated words but JBL thumped them before they could come up blows.

Entrant number five’s time arrived and CM Punk did not come out. Instead it was Chris Jericho who got the spot. Yes, the same Chris Jericho who’d been beaten and left unconscious by a vengeful Shawn Michaels earlier in the night. He was clearly in a bad way but he had been deemed fit and healthy enough to compete in a second match. Meanwhile Punk had been on the receiving end of a generic backstage tussle and blasted with Orton’s Punk kick. True, the Punt has been built up as a particularly devastating move since this show but even so it didn’t seem like much to take out a world champion, especially when compared to what Jericho had been through.

At the time this move was interpreted as a burial of Punk. I can see why people would think that but looking at the bigger picture I don’t think that was the case. Rightly or wrongly Punk had been portrayed as a man who’d broken into the main event a little too early and had found himself out of his depth. He would regain the WHC in 2009 and be presented in a far better light. His falling to a single Punt was one aspect of the story being told at the time rather than a single incident designed to make him look bad. It’s also obvious with hindsight that the World title was transferred onto Jericho to freshen up RAW’s title scene and boost the status of his feud with Michaels.

Punk being written out of this match was bad. But it was at least done for a reason.

Come on, baby!
The closing moments of the match were very good. Batista escaped a choke slam attempt and floored ‘The Big Red Machine’ with a spinebuster. Mysterio sprung into the ring and tried a hurricanrana on Batista but Batista countered it into a Batista bomb. With the clock ticking down ‘The Animal’ made the pin… just a little too late and seconds after Jericho had snuck into the ring and pinned Kane. The final klaxon rang out and Batista was left to despairingly sink his head into his hands as ‘Y2J’ was awarded the championship.

It was another example of how the Scramble format could be used for interesting storytelling. But it was also the last example. In one night WWE did everything they were realistically going to with the Scramble match. Which is why we haven’t seen one since.

Final thoughts

This was a shambles of a show that benefited greatly from hosting one of the most memorable encounters of the Jericho v Michaels feud. Without that it would have been awful. The Scramble match concept was flawed and presented poorly. Although it is something I think could work somewhere like Ring of Honor or if WWE had a deeper mid-card and were willing to put the time in constructing a five way feud for the IC title.

The show would have been better had they been scrapped entirely. Triple H and Jeff Hardy could have had a singles match. Benjamin, Kendrick and MVP could have had a three-way for Benjamin’s US title. Mark Henry could have had a weapons-laden brawl with Matt Hardy. The only thing they would have lost by swapping the Scramble matches around was Jericho’s surprise title win, and they still could have found a way to get to that if it was what they wanted.

There are worse shows out there. But none of them have the Scramble match to offer. And for that we should probably be thankful.

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