Saturday 30 April 2011

PG: Era or Error?

WWE’s PG rating. It’s a polarising subject. Many fans (or members of the WWE Universe, whichever you prefer) feel that without blood, profanity and a nauseating amount of chair shots the WWE product isn’t worth watching,. These same fans see the move to PG as a way for the company to constantly push John Cena and willingly present a dull and monotonous television product.

On the whole I disagree with this viewpoint. WWE is still more than capable of presenting a relevant, enjoyable product while still working within its PG code. More importantly, the new measures have been put in place to provide a safer working environment for the wrestlers. Surely if it’s prolonging careers the PG Era can’t be all bad.

The trouble is that a lot of fans will have started watching WWE (or the WWF as it was then known) during the Attitude Era. That’s considered a golden age of WWE programming, so anything dissimilar to it is going to receive a frosty reception from the before being given a fair chance. I started watching the WWF during that time, so I understand how easy it is to become accustomed to chair shots and blood being regularly featured. But such things were shortcuts. Everyone in the company realised taking a chair shot prompted a reaction from crowds and made wrestlers look extra tough, so they became increasingly frequent. It eventually got to the point where a main event was considered incomplete if it didn’t feature someone getting their head smashed in with a foreign object and at least one man bleeding.

Moving away from this approach helps wrestlers work more safely and decrease their reliance on shortcuts in matches. Theoretically this should lead to better wrestling, and isn’t that what we want?

The profanity being scaled back is not much of an issue. If you look back over the last fifteen years of WWE and WWF programming you’d be hard pressed to find much coarse language being used. Even ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, a man known for bad language and questionable hand gestures, never really swore much. He didn’t need to do any of that to get over: his charisma is what made people react to him. Besides, this behaviour was taboo within the company when Austin first rose to prominence and still got permission to do it. If management thinks an act should be allowed to break the company’s self-imposed rules then they’ll let them. That always has been and always will be the case.

Don’t believe me? Look at The Rock’s recent return. He was permitted to flout certain rules of the PG Era because those in charge knew that was what the audience wanted. To me that indicates they’re willing to make exceptions to the new rules on occasion, if it means the product is bettered.

Claims that the PG Era has nothing to offer but the same storylines we’ve been seeing for the last five years, starring John Cena, aren’t without merit, but it’s not a result of the Attitude Era being over. Super Cena may be one of the company’s most pushed acts, but that’s been the case since 2004, long before WWE went PG. The booking is uninspired and samey, but this is more to do with the stagnation of the creative team and a failure to take risks. It’s not because of a more child-friendly approach.

To say that the PG Era has nothing to offer is untrue. Look at Undertaker’s highly praised WrestleMania bouts with Shawn Michaels and Triple H, the booking of the Cody Rhodes and Rey Mysterio feud, the initial formation of the Nexus, and acts like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, The Miz, and Alberto Del Rio. All have been relevant and enjoyable parts of the PG Era while conforming to its rules.

The Attitude Era isn’t coming back any time soon, but we don’t need it to. WWE is capable of working just fine the way it is.

Friday 29 April 2011

Fantasy Booker: WWE part two

This is the second of four blogs in which I will lay out what I’d do if I were put in complete control of every aspect of WWE. Last time I discussed the restructuring process I’d put the developmental system through. You can read that here. This time I’ll discuss the changes I’d make behind the scenes and who would be coordinating the developmental system with the central WWE office, before continuing in parts three and four with the creative direction I’d take with RAW and SmackDown.

I’ll begin back on the subject of my revamped developmental leagues. The system would have had a massive revamp because it has not been running as well as it should have been. While it’s not solely his fault the man that has to shoulder most of the blame for this is John Laurinaitis, WWE’s current head of talent relations. Among his current responsibilities is the overseeing of FCW and any similar feeder groups, as well as finding and hiring new talent to be trained for the big time.

It is under Laurinaitis that the system began to falter. Fewer main event calibre stars have been called up to the main rosters since he took over in the role following the departure of Jim Ross, and WWE has been affiliated with several satellite promotions in a relatively short amount of time. These are serious issues. WWE needs to be able to rely on this system for new stars and the system itself needs stability. As Laurinaitis has failed to provide these things over the course of several years I would relieve him of his duties immediately. He wouldn’t be fired. I’ll get to his new role later.

The question is: who do you replace him with? While I’d be adding new federations to developmental I’d need someone evaluating and hiring talent to keep the process moving. It’s an area of the business Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque has recently taken an interest in, but I think his strengths lie elsewhere. He’s a very good talker and judging by his recent match with the Undertaker he’d make an excellent match layout and finish man, so I would move him into a senior agent role as he approaches retirement. That way he would still be on hand with the main roster for his light schedule of TV appearances and to help others develop.

In my mind the natural person for the role is Jim Ross. He performed the job very successfully for a number of years, but retired to spend less time in an office and more at home. Having had several years away from the position (as well as his other passion of commentating) I think he’d return to the head of talent relations position for a limited time. My aim would be to get him to agree to three years of heading up the team, with a promise that he’d have a say in who succeeds him when he leaves.

By giving JR a team to head up it alleviates a lot of the pressure on him and means he doesn’t have to act alone and allows him to work at his own pace. The team would consist of Gerry Brisco, Jim Cornette (in addition to Cornette’s other role mentioned in part one), Shawn Michaels, Adam ‘Edge’ Copeland (once he’s ready to take on a role behind the scenes, as I’m sure he will be at some point), and Mick Foley (as soon as he could be signed away from TNA), as well as any other individuals JR felt would be a good addition. These are all men with minds for the business and all men JR is known to get along with. It would be a calm, productive and, I think, successful working environment for all involved.

Rather than insist on all of these people relocating from their homes around North America I would ask them to hold meetings at RAW, SmackDown or pay-per-views two or three times a month, with the rest of their time spent attending live independent events, college wrestling events, and evaluating talent on DVDs. This would allow the team to not only discuss wrestlers they’d been paying attention to but also schedule tryout matches for new talent at Heat or Velocity tapings or in dark matches. I would attempt to establish, or ask JR to, relations with leading independent companies such as Chikara, PWG, SHIMMER, CZW, JAPW and RoH. These are proving grounds for young talent trying to crack the big leagues, and I think it would be best for all involved if there were a system in place for approaching talent in these promotions that didn’t leave them scrabbling for a new main event star because someone had signed a developmental deal. I like the idea of allowing newly signed talent to appear for major independent companies for the first few months of their developmental deal. It gives the smaller promotions a chance to build new stars whilst still having their old one around, lets the talent leave the right way, and allows WWE to give something back to the business at large.

Laurinaitis would still have a role in the department. In addition to working as a talent scout alongside the rest of the team he would be responsible for organising talent moves between the feeder groups. The goal would be to have developmental talent work in a satellite league for a minimum of nine months before moving on to another group or the main roster. In the case of moving to another of the territories Laurinaitis would agree departure and start dates with the booking teams, at least a month in advance, and help the wrestler find new accommodation and organise travel. It’s something he’s been criticised for being bad at in the past but I think with a lightened workload and JR to oversee things he’d be able to focus on the task better and perform it well.

Jim Ross would hopefully find this system attractive enough, and the work and travel schedule light enough, to agree to return to the role. I’d be banking on him coming back to train up either Edge or Foley for the lead role. Both of those men would do a fine job of running such a department but neither currently has enough experience and won’t for a few years.

I’d also be asking Ross to return to the RAW announce desk full time. Michael Cole is not a bad commentator, but he cannot do that job and be a heel. He’s demonstrated that over the last year. I think he’s of more use to the company as an on-screen character. This brings me neatly to the commentary teams in general and the shows I’d be promoting.

RAW and SmackDown would still be the company’s two main shows (how could they not be?). NXT and Superstars would be cancelled to be replaced by Heat and Velocity. They would be affiliated with RAW and SmackDown respectively. These shows would air on WWE’s website in the US and would continue to air on TV for overseas broadcasters.

RAW’s announce team would be Jim Ross and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler. That’s a reunion fans have wanted to see made permanent for a while now. Ross cannot be bettered when it comes to selling pay-per-views and getting across key moments in angles. RAW stars appearing on Heat would have Todd Grisham and William Regal calling their bouts. Grisham’s not someone I rate but he does an adequate enough job for a secondary show and could be used as a backstage interviewer on RAW. Regal would either wrestle part time or work as an agent, whichever he chose. Finally, I’d assign Scott Stanford as a secondary backstage interviewer.

Over on SmackDown I’d use a three man announce team of Josh Mathews, Booker T and Joey Styles. I think all three are tremendous, and the long term goal would be to have Mathews and Booker move to RAW once Ross and Lawler decide they want to wind up their announcing careers. Meanwhile Velocity would have a commentary team of Jack Korpela and CM Punk. Korpela would have a chance to improve over time while Punk has proven his ability on colour commentary both on RAW and in Ring of Honor. I’d be using Matt Striker as a backstage interviewer alongside Korpela.

Currently when you tune into WWE programming you will not hear what you see described as wrestling. That would change immediately. Commentary teams would be allowed to use the terms “wrestling” and “wrestler” whenever they wanted. The terms “superstar” and “diva” could stay, but I would be banning one term: “WWE Universe”. It sounds ridiculous and stilted whenever it’s said. WWE would acknowledge that it has “fans” again. Basically, all of the irritating, silly phrases you currently have to put up with would go. I understand they were introduced to establish WWE’s brand and set it apart from wrestling, but I think the brand identity is already very strong. The company is synonymous with wrestling and it should be embracing that, not shying away from it.

The PG era of WWE would be quietly dropped. I would attempt to retain as many sponsors picked up from this initiative as possible but I think it’s inevitable some would be lost with this decision. I’m not being a pig-headed fan and saying there’s nothing good about the PG product. I just feel the quality of the product should come before the appeasement of sponsors. Sometimes the product is going to require blood or a particularly violent street fight to get over the importance of a match, angle or feud. Wrestlers need to be able to act and react naturally during interviewers, not be constantly worried about doing or saying something that will upset the director of another company. Basically the wrestling business is not designed for a PG audience, and while I wouldn’t immediately be promoting first blood or barbed wire matches I do feel the company works better when there are more adult themes included.

This theme would continue in backstage interviews. There would be no more vignettes in which wrestlers have private conversations while a camera crew stands four feet away filming them. I would want the majority of backstage interviews taking place in front of a set specifically erected for the task, or in front of dressing rooms as they used to. Backstage interviewers should be used to get the required information out of the talent, they shouldn’t all be trying to make us laugh and forcing men and women to deliver unnatural dialogue. If we desperately need to have two wrestlers have a row backstage then one can simply interrupt another’s interview. If a group or tag team is plotting something they can be shown form a distance huddled together, with the commentary team wondering what they’re planning. That works far better than the group discussing their plans openly, because it doesn’t give specifics but let’s viewers know something is being planned.

In short I would want increased realism in the TV product. An emphasis would be placed on not broadcasting anything that’s filmed in front of a camera without acknowledging it’s there. Audiences would still be getting the information they need from backstage segments but without the company or wrestlers looking silly. Everything that doesn’t make sense from a realism point of view would be looked into, from the amount of time wrestlers sell big moves for to entrance music blaring from the speakers when someone does (an allegedly unannounced) run-in.

I will quickly say at this point that I think the current standard of production is very high on WWE programming. Shows are generally well edited and the pyrotechnics, video packages and general flow of the show could not be better. The team would be working to my new creative guidelines of a more realistic approach, but there would be no personnel changes as everyone involved seems to do a solid job.

Then we come to the backstage staff. The referees would be split amongst RAW and SmackDown, with each show having its own set of officials. This would be done for aesthetic and practical reasons. The touring schedules I’ll be discussing below would work better with brand specific referees and agents, and I’d want to re-establish the brand extension (which I’ll be discussing in greater depth in part three): referees appearing on just one show would help to do this. I wouldn’t make drastic changes to the way the agents work, but I would give talent more freedom to call and plan their own matches, particularly at house shows. This is a vital skill that they need to pick up. It would be happening in developmental, but it shouldn’t stop when wrestlers get promoted to the main roster.

I’m also keen to have two groups of agents, one for RAW and one for SmackDown. I’m not fussed about who goes where, as long as each show has the same number. Doing this would mean the agents only influence matches on one brand, further helping each show have its own feel. Triple H, heading towards semi-retirement, would oversee the agents of both shows in a supervisor role, alongside Pat Patterson, who is generally credited with being one of the best layout men for match finishes in the business. They would work alongside one another until Patterson decides to retire, with Triple H continuing solo. I’d also move Chavo Guerrero, Mark Henry and Dustin ‘Goldust’ Runnels off of television and only use them in the ring at house shows, to allow them to begin training as agents.

I’d be altering touring routines as well. At the moment WWE broadcasts a live pay-per-view on Sunday (If required), a live RAW on Monday, and then records SmackDown on Tuesday evening for broadcast later in the week (Friday night in the States, various other days in other countries). House shows then take place throughout the week. Clumping TV shows together is cost effective, but I believe being taped is detrimental to SmackDown’s ratings. By taking it live you would create a fresher, more dynamic feel to the show and be able to surprise viewers. I would go live on Friday nights with SmackDown for these reasons (and discontinue the lazy From the Vault segment). It would increase costs and create the need for the TV crew to travel more but I feel it would be worth it to improve the product.

House shows would be switched to weekends. I’ve never understood why so many take place on weeknights. Wrestling necessitates a night out for the audience, so we would switch house shows to the latter half of the week and weekends. Both SmackDown and RAW would run separate house shows on Saturday and Sunday, with SmackDown starting their weekly tour with a house show on Thursday and RAW starting on Friday. I’d also be aiming to work out schedules that allow everyone on the roster a week (or possibly two) off from house shows every two months. With enough planning and foresight I think this system could work, and would allow wrestlers to plan breaks with families or simply enjoy a week where they don’t have to travel so much. This would help to keep people healthy for longer, which is better for everyone involved.

That covers everything I consider major concerning backstage policies. In the third and fourth parts of this series I’ll detail how I’d organise the creative team and reveal the creative direction I’d take the company in, including the next several host cities for WrestleMania, numerous roster changes and exactly what would be happening on TV.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Extreme Rules predictions

This Sunday WWE brings us Extreme Rules. It’s their annual pay-per-view of gimmick matches, booked whether feuds really require them or not. I’m against a couple of aspects of this show. I think using gimmick matches because of what a show has been named is detrimental to the match type, the wrestlers, and the show itself (you can read more of my thoughts on the subject here). I’m not a fan of the name either. It doesn’t sound like a pay-per-view name, it sounds like a subtitle. That’s because that’s exactly what it started as. I preferred Backlash as a name for WWE’s post-WrestleMania event as it would often feature rematches and fallout (the backlash, if you will) from ‘Mania. It made sense. Sadly, Vince McMahon prefers Extreme Rules.

At the moment there are six matches scheduled to take place (one of which will be announced on SmackDown so stop reading now if you don’t want any spoilers). I believe at least one more will be added, or a lengthy in-ring angle or promo will take place, to bulk the show up a bit because the current card won’t fill the typical amount of air time the company usually gives such shows. I’ll run through the announced matches and then suggest a few extras we could see added before show time.

Falls Count Anywhere – Cody Rhodes v Rey Mysterio

The fact that this feud still has legs having started in January shows how well it’s been received by both fans and the creative team. As I’ve said several times before it’s been good to see Cody get a push. With Rey moving to RAW this will be the feud ending bout, and as much as I’d like to see Cody go over I think Rey will get the win. Cody won on the bigger stage (WrestleMania) last month so it will be his turn to lay down here. There was also some sort of mask thievery teased by Cody on RAW, which makes me think Rey will need to be physically capable of fighting the heel off after the match concludes.

This match should really open the show as the rules mean they can go all over the building and get the crowd involved straight away. That’s how Paul Heyman used to book ECW and it worked out okay for him. It should be one of the best matches of the night and will hopefully keep Cody strong in defeat to set him up for his next feud (ideally against Daniel Bryan).

Prediction: Rey Mysterio

No Disqualification – Layla v Michelle McCool

I’m not really looking forward to this one very much. I think the two women worked better as a unit. Layla is a good wrestler but isn’t too good on the stick (though I suspect Cody Rhodes would disagree) while McCool is a very good talker but only average in the ring. They complemented one another well and won’t be as enjoyable as separate acts.

There’s an additional stipulation that the loser must leave SmackDown. Presumably that means they’ll end up on RAW. There’s been talk that Undertaker is going to be moved to RAW at some point so I think McCool (Undertaker’s real life wife) will lose here and resurface on RAW after a couple of months at home with ‘The Dead Man’. I’d be happy if that happened as I think Layla has more to offer SmackDown than McCool. It’s not going to be the best match of the show, but it could be decent if they’re given enough time. With the card looking light that could happen, and they could give us a good match.

Prediction: Layla

World Heavyweight championship Ladder match – Christian v Alberto Del Rio

I think this has the potential to be the best match of the night. Both men are very good workers and elicit the right reactions from the crowd, while Christian’s experience in ladder matches should ensure some good spots are thrown in. The winner of this one is more about which show’s going to have the World title than anything else. If Del Rio gets it then it means both WWE’s world titles are on RAW, while if Christian has it the shows continue to have one each. If the rumours that the company is planning on unifying the world titles are true (they’ve been going on since last summer, so there’s probably something to them) then Del Rio winning the belt and eventually getting into a champion v champion match on RAW would be the most likely way of booking it.

I don’t think that’s going to happen though. Having two world titles benefits WWE far too much for them to want to get rid of one. Del Rio could win at Extreme Rules without it meaning a title unification is happening, but I think this could be the start of an experiment with Christian as a headliner. If it is then I hope he succeeds. He deserves a spot at the top and SmackDown as a show needs him there.

If Christian does leave with the belt then I think he’ll be in a program with Randy Orton for SummerSlam. They’re the brand’s two biggest stars and WWE is reportedly thinking about SummerSlam now, showing they’re serious about making it a big show this year.

Prediction: Christian

Last Man Standing – Randy Orton v CM Punk

I’m a big fan of Punk, but this feud has dragged on too long. Their match at WrestleMania was good but aside from that nothing really memorable has happened. Punk’s given his regular strong promos, Orton has played the valiant babyface battling overwhelming odds, an actress pretending she’s married to Orton has watched agog as Punk stomped Orton’s head onto a concrete floor, and Orton’s kicked some lackeys in the head. The feud’s been going since the Royal Rumble and they’ve had one good match. I’m not blaming the workers, I’m blaming the writers for not playing to the men’s strengths and booking them to wrestle more often.

This should be another decent outing for the two, and with the Nexus having resurfaced on RAW they will probably make an appearance. This will most likely happen at the conclusion of the match, with the group doing something to prevent Orton from standing up without having been knocked out by Punk. Orton would be kept strong because it wasn’t a clean loss and Punk would get the win by cheating, keeping him over as a heel.

Prediction: CM Punk

Country Whipping match – Michael Cole and Jack Swagger v Jim Ross and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler

To quote JR, this match will be bowling shoe ugly. JR injured his hand on RAW by punching Cole so hard in the face that Cole’s tooth went through to the bone of his hand, limiting JR even more as a performer. With Michael Cole in there as well it doesn’t stand much hope of being a Match of the Year contender. That said Cole always gets a massive amount of heat so the fans will almost certainly be into it.

A few weeks ago there was talk of turning Swagger face by having him attack Cole. I think that would be for the best: Swagger shouldn’t be in his current role for much longer as he’ll end up looking weak. I imagine Lawler and Swagger will carry the majority of the match and JR and Cole will get more involved when it comes to the finish.

My prediction is JR and ‘King’ to win, setting up another berating of Swagger by Cole, which will lead to Swagger snapping and laying out Cole. There may be an Ankle Lock involved too. Having said all this, the WrestleMania match involving ‘King’ and Cole featured some of the most illogical booking ever, so just about anything could happen in this one.

Prediction: Jim Ross and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler

WWE championship Cage match – John Morrison v John Cena v The Miz (c)

This is the second Miz pay-per-view bout in a row in which a winner’s been hard to predict. WWE are apparently set on Cena and Del Rio clashing for a world title at SummerSlam, which would indicate that Cena will win a belt sometime in the next few months. But I also think they want to keep the belt on Miz for a lengthy title reign. He’s had it for five months now, which is not an insignificant amount of time in today’s WWE, but I’ve felt for a while now that they want to give him something more epic. That would mean having him retain in this match.

What about John Morrison? A lot of fans think he’s ready for the main event and want to see him as champion, but the key WWE decision makers disagree. I think he could progress to the championship sometime this year, but I don’t think it will be as soon as this Sunday (something I wrote about in greater detail at this link). More surprising things have happened in WWE before though, so it’s not impossible.

I’m going to predict Miz as the winner of this. If they want to have the belt on Cena for a summer feud with ADR they have months left to do it. Miz to win, with the feud continuing until at least Over the Limit on May 22nd.

Prediction: The Miz

Will there be another match added to the broadcast? A four-way bout between the Corre for Barrett’s Intercontinental title doesn’t strike me as impossible. Neither does anything involving Daniel Bryan, Sheamus or Mark Henry, because I expect all of those men to start being featured prominently on SmackDown.

It’s also worth noting that the Friday night brand currently has both the US and Intercontinental championships. That’s not something I imagine will go on much longer, so an inter-promotional match between either champion and a RAW star like Kofi Kingston or Evan Bourne in which SmackDown loses a belt could happen. Of those scenarios I think Kofi taking the US title from Sheamus is most likely, as Kofi got knocked out with a boot from Sheamus on this week’s SmackDown.

One final note: Chris Jericho has been eliminated from Dancing With The Stars and has implied through Twitter that he may make an appearance at Extreme Rules. I don’t think a comment on a social networking site is enough to say he’ll definitely be in Tampa on Sunday, but it is a possibility. If he does return I expect it will be as a face, and probably on RAW. We’ll see him cut a promo before a RAW heel comes out to interrupt and start a feud.

On the whole Extreme Rules strikes me as distinctly average on paper and I don’t think there’s enough potential to change my mind once it’s aired. Orton v Punk, Rhodes v Mysterio and the ladder match should all be watchable, but the women’s and commentators’ matches will drag the show down. There’ll be highlights, but nothing major. And there certainly won’t be anything “extreme”.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Getting Drafty

Last night on RAW WWE presented its annual Draft lottery. It’s the company’s way of switching people between the RAW and SmackDown rosters to create new feuds and instigate or restart fresh pushes. The current method of switching people is to hold an inter-promotional match, with the winner earning a “randomly chosen” talent for their show. Years ago they used to simply pick a name from a tumbler. That was scrapped for the current system. Both ways are predetermined (as is almost everything in WWE) but the tumbler method always felt somehow more believable. Anyway, it’s not a flawless process but it achieves the results needed.

This year’s Draft had originally been planned for its regular slot in June but was brought forward when Edge’s retirement left SmackDown with gaping holes at the top of its roster. The show was struggling with him, without him things were only going to get worse.

The first draft of the evening was John Cena, which was a big shock to me. For the past six months or so Orton and Cena have been presented as babyface equals. With SmackDown losing its top face I was sure one of those men would be moved from RAW to replace him, and with Cena being WWE’s biggest merchandise seller and having a huge match against The Rock set for next year’s WrestleMania I didn’t see him being moved. WWE likes its top guy on RAW, and I can’t imagine Rock being used for (or agreeing to appear on) a taped show. I was suspicious of that Cena move from the moment it happened.

The rest of the show saw RAW gain Rey Mysterio, Big Show and Alberto Del Rio, before Cena was moved back with the final “random selection”. Why did this happen? Partly it was to fill air time. It was also to maintain the status quo whilst propagating the lie that “anything can happen” in the Draft. Meanwhile SmackDown gained Randy Orton, Mark Henry and Sin Cara and we were told to stay tuned to WWE’s website on Tuesday for the supplemental Draft (which is basically all the changes that are not considered important enough to be announced on television).

So who came off better in the televised exchange? Well, each show got a dud in the form of Mark Henry and the Big Show. This could signal a renewed push of Mark Henry, which will peter out within a couple of months as the creative team realise (once again) that he is not cut out for a top spot. The Big Show will continue to appear on SmackDown as a tag team champion alongside Kane, which is good for the blue brand because it means they won’t be losing him just yet. Ultimately RAW came off better in the dud swap because Show’s a more charismatic worker.

Mysterio and Del Rio are far bigger losses to Friday nights. Del Rio has been built up on the show since last year and had a promising feud with Christian on the cards. Had he stayed put he would have been in a better position to step into a key position and help carry the brand. With The Miz occupying the top heel role on RAW and talent typically getting less exposure there, Del Rio will find it harder to be noticed. That’s not to say he will be forgotten, but a lessened role is a possibility. I think it’s a shame because he was a good fit on SmackDown and had worked hard to work his way to the top. Rey was a good fit too, and one of the show’s top babyface workers. In his case I think the move is good. He’s been on SmackDown for the majority of his WWE career and there are several fresh opponents for him on RAW, most notably The Miz.

The transfer of Randy Orton to SmackDown should have been huge. In its way it still is, but I’d envisioned men like Jack Swagger and Alberto Del Rio remaining there as opponents for him. Orton’s never feuded with either man and I was fully expecting a confrontation between him and ADR over the summer. Perhaps something will happen at Extreme Rules or tonight’s SmackDown taping to keep Del Rio on the show, but it’s unlikely. If Christian wins the World Heavyweight title on Sunday I think he would make an excellent opponent for ‘The Viper’ and the two could really carry the show. It would help to establish Christian as a top guy too.

Then there’s Sin Cara. His move was shown on TV to put emphasis on him as a rising star. Tucking his move away in the supplemental Draft wouldn’t have had the same effect. WWE need him to succeed as the next Rey Mysterio and that’s probably the thinking behind the switch. Sin Cara gets Rey’s spot on the show people are accustomed to seeing a masked wrestler on while Rey gets fresh opponents. I think it’s an intelligent move that should work out well in the long run (they just need to stop Sin Cara doing that trampoline entrance because it’s not working out).

What about the supplemental Draft that was hosted on WWE’s website? As usual it was fairly anti-climactic. The big moves all occurred on RAW so the focus of the supplemental Draft was mid-card performers.

While it’s a long-winded process with a lot of tedious switches it does give an idea of what sort of rosters are being put together. This year RAW gained Jack Swagger, Kelly Kelly, JTG, Drew McIntyre, Curt Hawkins, Chris Masters, Kofi Kingston, Tyler Reks, and Beth Phoenix, while SmackDown got Daniel Bryan, the Great Khali, Jimmy Uso, Alicia Fox, William Regal, Yoshi Tatsu, Natalya, Jey Uso, Ted DiBiase, Tyson Kidd, Tamina, Alex Riley, and Sheamus.

I’ll do a simplified list of all switches here:

Complete draft list:
Rey Mysterio
Big Show
Alberto Del Rio
Jack Swagger
Kelly Kelly
Drew McIntyre
Curt Hawkins
Chris Masters
Kofu Kingston
Tyler Reks
Beth Phoenix
To SmackDown:
Randy Orton
Mark Henry
Sin Cara
Daniel Bryan
The Great Khali
Jimmy Uso
Alicia Fox
William Regal
Yoshi Tatsu
Jey Uso
Ted DiBiase
Tyson Kidd
Alex Riley

With so many people having changed shows it’s difficult for every switch to have the desired impact. Had WWE limited the supplemental Draft to around twenty moves then it would have felt more meaningful. Less is more, as they say. Did we really need to see JTG, Tyler Reks and Chris Masters moved? They’re going to keep losing no matter what show they’re on.

Some people should benefit from their new surroundings. Daniel Bryan is the most likely candidate. He’s the best technical wrestler on the WWE roster, can work with opponents of any size and skill level (useful on a show where Heath Slater is known to lurk), and managed to form a bond with mainstream fans despite Vince McMahon’s best efforts. With more time allocated to in-ring action on the blue brand it’s a move that suits Bryan very well. And with so few main event names on the show I think there’s a good chance he could move up the card very quickly.

Jack Swagger, Kofi Kingston and Drew McIntyre could all potentially take key positions on Monday nights. Swagger has gained TV time lately as Michael Cole’s trainer/henchman. Turning on Cole could make him a huge babyface overnight. That was hinted at a few weeks ago and I’d like to see it happen. The alternative is that Swagger continues playing second fiddle to a commentator, which would be detrimental to his career. The story’s served its purpose, time to move on.

Kofi is already a face, and with those thin on the ground on RAW he’s in a good position to stay relevant. McIntyre may currently be a heel, but he got treated like a babyface at the London SmackDown taping last week and played the role well. Based on that outing I think a turn could work in his favour. He’s been a heel for years and this would let him do something new. Maybe they could resurrect the Drew and Kelly Kelly storyline as a way of turning him. It may not be that interesting, but it would make fans more likely to cheer when he comes to the ring and would give Kelly something to do.

For a while it looked as though the women’s division was going to be seriously beefed up and become a major part of SmackDown. But just after Natalya had been moved onto the show Beth Phoenix was moved off. They swapped one talented female worker for another. It’s frustrating that WWE insists on trying to promote two women’s divisions when they only have enough workers for one, and don’t even book that properly.

Behind with Daniel Bryan I think Sheamus could benefit the most from being on SmackDown. I would have enjoyed him in a feud with Kofi Kingston or Drew McIntyre, or even a babyface Jack Swagger, but I think he’s better off on SmackDown. His in-ring ability and mic skills should ensure he’s always near the top of the card. Already I’m looking forward to a segment between him and Christian. Both men can use comedy very well in their promos and that’s a feud I think loads of people would enjoy.

How about everyone else? Nobody really stands out as someone I think will make a huge impact. Alex Riley could surprise me, but I have a feeling he’s going to get saddled with a rotten gimmick and plummet down the card. I hope I’m wrong because he’s got potential and WWE needs everyone to succeed right now. Ted DiBiase will hopefully be given the chance to get his career back on track and start wrestling some longer matches. He needs to move away from his current gimmick though: it’s too similar to his father’s (by design) and he doesn’t have the flare to pull it off. The only outside chance for success I can see on RAW is Curt Hawkins, and that would be reliant on a reunion with Zack Ryder. It’s not impossible, but because of the company’s dislike of tag teams it’s not terribly likely.

The biggest question is: who will become the new face of SmackDown. Initially it’s going to be Randy Orton, but I think over time Christian could move into the role, particularly if he gets the title at Extreme Rules. I also think Sheamus has a chance of doing it if he turns face in the next six months. As I mentioned his use of comedy in promos is good, he’s a solid worker and he’s got a great range of facial expressions. Don’t be surprised if he surpasses Christian and becomes ‘The Man’ on SmackDown. You heard it here first!

Sunday 24 April 2011

Fantasy Booker: WWE part one

If Vince McMahon were to call you up out of the blue to admit that he’d lost touch with his audience and offered you the job of WWE chairman with his full financial backing, what would you do? Obviously you’d very likely take the job, but beyond that what would your plans be? If you were in charge of every aspect of WWE, from which city would host RAW next Monday to who holds the WWE championship, what would you do?

This is a question I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Right now I’m going to attempt to get all my thoughts written down, across four blogs. There’s too much to realistically discuss in just one. In this first entry I’ll be focusing on the developmental system I’d put in place, before moving on to the behind the scenes changes I’d make to RAW and SmackDown in the second entry, and the booking system and creative direction I’d take in the third and fourth.

My belief is that in order to get everything else functioning correctly I would have to get the developmental system running correctly first. What is the talent developmental system? It’s a training facility used to help newly signed wrestlers hone and perfect their craft. Almost all new signings, male or female, no matter their wrestling background, are placed in the system upon first joining the company. It’s considered part of earning their way onto the main roster and paying dues in the business. They’re also taught how to wrestle the WWE style, helped to create a character the writing teams of RAW and SmackDown will want to use, and gain experience working in front of television cameras. With a knowledgeable team of retired wrestlers and wrestling personalities in place as teachers I think WWE has a tremendous starting point for such a system. But that’s all it currently is: a starting point.

The system currently consists of one small promotion, Florida Championship Wrestling. Wrestlers will be based there from signing with the company until they get promoted full time to the main roster. There is usually a transitional period where youngsters will travel with the main roster competing in untelevised matches, being evaluated by road agents, the management team and the writing team, to assess whether they’re ready for the move to the big leagues. The way in which people go from developmental to the main roster is fairly solid. There’s a lot of evaluation going on by people who will look at different aspects of a worker, which is good. I’d be more insistent on calling up people who are ready for the move than the current regime is but the process itself seems fine.

The area in which the system is failing the main rosters is in its size. The feeder system is far too small. One promotion is not enough. New signees all learn from the same group of teachers, in one place. It doesn’t matter how good these teachers are (and I think they’re very good), not everyone will learn what they need to being taught the same way. Different people are more receptive to different teaching styles.

So what’s the solution? In my mind it’s to recreate the old territory network, on a smaller scale and funded by WWE. Vince McMahon originally put the territories out of business by taking their top stars and invading their areas of business. He took his company from a regional promotion to a national one at their expense. So how can I make that old system work alongside the juggernaut that grew at its expense?

Firstly, I wouldn’t be trying to recreate it on the same scale. Those old territories used large buildings and toured around set towns. I would want the feeder groups to stay in one place, in a building holding somewhere around 600 to 800 fans. They would be designed as small time outfits intended to attract a loyal audience for weekly or bi-weekly shows. I wouldn’t be trying to recreate the ability of the territories to draw money, it would be more about having options for deploying new signings.

Under my system a newly signed talent would work for at least two of these promotions before being considered for a position on a main roster. This would give everyone in developmental access to a larger number of teachers and wrestling minds from whom to pick up different aspects of the business and be exposed to different styles of wrestling and booking.

I can see the benefit of every contracted performer knowing how to work WWE’s patented sports entertainment style: it ensures everyone on the roster can work with everyone else, avoiding style clashes thereby reducing the likelihood of bad matches. But it makes WWE’s television product predictable and formulaic and doesn’t play to the strengths of the talent. By exposing youngsters to different wrestling styles you give them wider experiences to draw on, and while I wouldn’t wildly deviate the main rosters’ style away from sports entertainment at first it would allow everyone to add manoeuvres or little tricks from different styles, giving viewers more variety and making the product more organic.

I also mentioned booking styles. That’s something I think WWE is desperate for. Using writers with more TV experience than wrestling experience for so long has damaged the company. I’m not saying TV experience is a bad thing but every member of the RAW and SmackDown writing teams should be familiar with wrestling too. That’s what they’re going to be writing so that’s what they should know.

I’ll be discussing the writing teams for the main rosters in part three, but a key change I’d make ties in with the developmental system. Writers (or bookers, call them what you will) would be sent to the territory system to learn their craft just like the wrestlers. Well, new ones would. I’m not going to hire Jim Cornette and insist he spend six months in developmental before coming to work for me.

Young writers just starting out would be taught how to put a show together, how to book a feud from beginning to end, come up with ideas for everyone on the roster, and pace a show so as not to burn an audience out. They’d also become versed in the process of structuring a match, cutting a promo and developing a character, so as to understand the process from a wrestler’s perspective. Most importantly they would need to understand how to make the audience come back the next week.

As with the wrestlers, writers would be called up as and when they were seen as ready. I would probably invite them to attend RAW and SmackDown script meetings, see which roster and stars they were most passionate about and on which show their ideas fit best. As with calling up a wrestler it wouldn’t be an immediate promotion, it would be a gradual process of acclimatisation to find the writers’ strengths and weaknesses. Jim Cornette would be hired to oversee this process, touring round the promotions and recommending times when a young writer would benefit from moving to a new territory to work with a different group of people or a tryout with the main rosters writing teams. As one of the most celebrated booking minds of all time I think he’s perfect for such a role.

What about the promotions themselves? Where are they going to be based? Who’s going to book them? Who’s going to be working in them? Firstly, FCW would remain. It’s already set up and doing the best work it’s capable of. I would leave it to operate as it does now, but I would take somewhere between a third and half of its training staff to be dispersed amongst the new start-ups, replacing them with a handful of new trainers. The same would happen to its roster as I feel it’s slightly unwieldy at the moment and could do with downsizing, plus the new promotions would necessitate such moves. Dusty Rhodes and Ricky Steamboat would remain in place as head writer and trainer respectively, as I see them as key forces in the current success of the group.

The first new promotion would be established in either Philadelphia or Chicago. Both have big wrestling markets that could sustain regular shows with passionate fans. This company would be loosely based on ECW. I don’t mean the hardcore style, the blood and profanity (though of all the feeder promotions this would be the one to feature those things if any did), I mean more the style of booking. Paul Heyman’s greatest strength was finding something in every wrestler that could be turning into a gimmick. He was also very talented when it came to pacing feuds and creating a big match atmosphere. I’d offer him the job of getting this promotion up and running before joining the RAW or SmackDown writing team, because he’s such a phenomenally talented wrestling mind, but realistically I don’t think he’d accept. Anyone else I name in this series of blogs I feel would be willing to taking whatever job I’m attaching to them or could be persuaded to do so, but I just can’t bring myself to say I’d get Heyman because I think he’s moved on from wrestling and would have no interest in coming back.

In place of Heyman I’d hire Shane Douglas. He’s long been thought of as a man who could have made a good booker and having spent years in ECW he’d be familiar with the style I’d want for this league. I’d hire Bill DeMott, Brian ‘Road Dogg’ James, Monty ‘Billy Gunn’ Sopp and Peter Polaco as the key trainers, with them being joined by whoever seemed a good fit from FCW. Dave Prazak and Dave Lagana, as experienced bookers who have worked in the production side of wrestling, would be hired to join Douglas on the booking team to help him format things and temper his relative inexperience, with an eye to bringing Lagana to one of the main rosters and touring Prazak through the feeder groups in an aide role.

FCW wrestlers posted there would need to be able to work a slightly stiffer style and be prepared to work a larger amount of gimmick matches than they’re currently used to. One of the aims of this promotion would be to prepare the talent for those aspects of wrestling.

The second feeder group would require more technically sound wrestlers, with the emphasis being more on technical wrestling and sportsmanship. Ideally this league would be based in Canada around Lance Storm’s wrestling school. My knowledge of US and Canadian visa law is rusty but I’m assuming the majority of American signees would be able to work in Canada without much hassle. If that were the case I’d go with this plan. If legal issues became too problematic I’d establish the company in Detroit.

The reason I want to base a group around Storm’s wrestling school is because the man’s a great teacher and wrestler, and the school has been up and running for a number of years. Lance Storm would be hired as the head trainer and would be joined by Dean Malenko from the main roster. I’d hire Austin Aries and Mike ‘Nova’ Bucci to provide insight from men with different experiences to Storm and Malenko. Aries would be working as an active member of the roster too, with the aim to call him up to one of the main rosters once this feeder group were established. As with the first league the numbers would be filled out with relocated FCW staff who would be familiar with the incoming talent and WWE head office personnel. In an effort to make the deal seem more attractive to Storm I would not only be leaving him full ownership of the school but also signing all the trainees he already has there to developmental contracts. Along with the men and women relocating from FCW this would give the group a sizeable roster to work with.

Booking this would be Adam Pearce and Gabe Sapolsky alongside Storm and at least one newly signed developmental writer. The plan would be for Gabe to help get things up and running (he was the first Ring of Honor booker so he’s familiar with being with a promotion from the start) before joining the main roster’s writing team, at which point Pearce would take over with longer term plans, assisted by Storm and the newcomers.

That puts me at three feeder groups. I would attempt to re-establish ties with former successful developmental federation Ohio Valley Wrestling, because they always did great work. This would be a partnership rather than an acquisition. If a deal was made I would leave it to operate exactly as it currently does, only requesting that one or two new writers be posted there to learn the role. Again I’d sign all current members of the OVW roster to developmental contracts to get a good core roster. OVW would give me a more old school group to send talent to. That’s something I feel the current system is really lacking, a less rushed approach that has a well paced logical approach to booking.

Finally, I would set up a league in Britain. Ireland and Britain have produced a number of stars for WWE (and the WWF) over the years, and with no language barrier I think we’ll see WWE looking here more in the future. I know I’d be looking not just in Britain and Ireland, but in Spain, Italy, Germany and Switzerland too, as wrestling is so popular there. A British training facility would also have the handy bonus of being able to provide extras and jobbers during WWE’s European tours.

The group would run bi-weekly shows at Bethnal Green’s York Hall or Broxbourne Civic Hall in Hoddesdon. Buying a gym in London to function as a training area and HQ shouldn’t be difficult, and it would be close to both venues.

The downside is that Britain doesn’t have local TV stations as America does, so getting a TV deal would be harder (most WWE developmental territories of the past have had a deal with a local TV station). It’s possible a late night slot could be found on Freeview but I’d be more inclined to have the group do a webcast, allowing a wordwide audience to see the product, including WWE’s management, agents and writers.

I’d sign an entirely new roster to avoid relocating people from Florida to Britain, and would hire Mark Sloan, Flash Barker, Jody Fleisch, Greg Lambert, and Dean Ayass as trainers, with the latter two also helping out with the writing. There’s only one man I’d want heading up the booking of this promotion and that’s Alex Shane. He’s had modest success booking British indies in the past, only ever coming unstuck due to financial restraints and a keenness to grow too quickly. As a WWE subsidiary he’d finally be able to produce the product he’s always wanted, without needing to worry about national expansion.

I think what I’ve outlined here is a fine in-house system for training the next generation of WWE wrestlers and writers, not to mention referees, commentators and various on-screen personalities. It wouldn’t be set up quickly but I think within six months most of it could be in place. A lot of new signings would need to be made and it would need to be accepted that some would never make it to the main roster full time. I think that’s okay. The developmental system would be comprised of five separate federations so even if a talent was in each for just two years it would still be ten years before they’d been everywhere. At that point they could start the journey again, passing on advice and pointers to newcomers and segueing into an agent or trainer role. Or they could leave and try their luck in Japan, Mexico or the US indy scene as a well rounded performer.

I feel I’ve adequately explained the training system, so we’ll draw part one to a close here. In part two I’ll look at the behind the scenes workings of the main roster, as well as detailing the talent scouting system I’d put in place to keep new blood pumping into developmental. I’ll give one spoiler for that: John Laurinaitis will be getting demoted.

Friday 22 April 2011

Developing the Nonstop Action

A couple of weeks ago I posted about WWE’s inadequate developmental system. For a company their size one feeder promotion cum training facility is not enough. But at least they have something in place.

TNA, the company that so desperately wants to be taken seriously as North America’s number two wrestling promotion, has no system in place for developing its own in-house talent. They have (or have had) agreements with independent promotions and regularly hold tryout sessions for young hopefuls already working in the business (who have to pay for the privilege of being considered for a job, ludicrously) but there’s no official feeder promotion in place.

With the wrestling business the way it is it’s not a good idea to be operating without a reliable source for new talent. Any promotion hoping to operate on a national stage needs a training facility it can rely on to feed the stars of tomorrow onto the main roster. With no territories for wrestlers to work their way through, learning and improving along the way before making their way to one of the bigger companies, in-house training has become the best option.

When TNA first started up it used a mixture of established names from WCW and WWE and top independent stars. It was the best way to go: the big names got people tuning in so that the younger talent could gain air time and begin making an impression on the audience.

The number of big names being used should have gradually decreased as the younger wrestlers established themselves as the true stars of the show and moved up to the top of the card, being replaced by a fresh batch of new indy stars. That didn’t happen. Most of the young guys TNA brought in for its first few years are still there, and still being overshadowed by men who made their names in the mid- to late-90s. Nobody has really progressed much at all.

Admittedly, part of the problem comes down to the booking. Establishing the home-grown talent as the real stars of the show has taken a backseat to signing men and women released by WWE. That said there has been no effort to find a group of men and women that can be groomed to become the stars of tomorrow.

By starting a training promotion TNA would be able to promote matches featuring wrestlers that have not been seen in any other major promotion before. They would have stars of their own.

With talented veteran performers like Styles, Samoa Joe, Chris Daniels and Kurt Angle under contract Dixie Carter is spoilt for choice when it comes to trainers. Mick Foley remains under contract (until WWE dangles the Hall of Fame carrot in front of him at least) and is one of the best people to teach the art of cutting a successful wrestling promo. A developmental territory would even create a use for Hulk Hogan (beyond talking nonsensically for twenty minutes during each episode of iMPACT), as he knows how to get over and stay over as a babyface, something that is far harder to do than becoming a heel.

They’ve got the means to set this up, and it would only be helping themselves. So why aren’t they? With even Ring of Honor having a developmental system in place it’s time TNA started building for its future, while it still has one to build for.

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.