Sunday 29 May 2011

Criminally Misused Punk

There is nobody on WWE’s roster more underutilised than CM Punk. Being a tremendous wrestler with great ring psychology and a unique (in WWE) set of moves, not to mention one of the best talkers currently in the business, should make him invaluable to the company. But that’s not the case. WWE has seemingly gone out of its way to do nothing with Punk.

For the last several months Punk has been lumbered with the leadership role of the Nexus. Revealed as their leader on the December 27th edition of RAW, it originally looked as though the faction was going to receive a renewed push and become a relevant part of WWE’s programming again. But it wasn’t to be. Punk embarked on a bunch of weird backstage segments in which the various jobbers of the group (everyone except Punk himself, really) beat each other up, sometimes with weapons, seemingly for Punk’s amusement.

This was probably intended to establish Punk in a cult leader role, but it never really took off. Part of the problem was that the Straight Edge Society was still fresh in the minds of fans. That faction saw Punk in an almost identical role, the main difference being that he was leading a band of wrestlers apparently battling various addictions, with his promos centring on his straight-edge lifestyle. As I say, basically what he’s doing with the Nexus now.

The recent downplaying of Punk’s real life beliefs could be a contributing factor in the cheers he receives every week on RAW. As he’s no longer cutting preachy promos in which he tells people he’s better than them there’s less reason for him to be disliked. Being talented, passionate and deserving of his spot means some fans are going to cheer him no matter what.

Since making his debut in WWECW CM Punk has shown himself to be someone capable of having a good match with anybody on the roster and being effective as either a face or a heel. Fans rallied behind him as the gutsy underdog and loathed him as the arrogant heel with the superiority complex. The trouble is that he’s been a bad guy too long, and with RAW light on babyfaces a heel needs to turn to even the numbers. It seems like the fans are trying to take the decision out of WWE’s hands and force a turn for Punk.

This is a good thing. It’s time Punk turned face again anyway. He has not had a sustained main event push since his series with Jeff Hardy in summer 2009. When that ended he was been relegated to leading factions in the mid-card. The smartest thing WWE could do right now is embrace the fans reaction and arrange for Punk to swiftly split from Nexus to feud with Alberto Del Rio or The Miz. Both of those men are top heels that would benefit from working with someone of Punk’s status and ability, and the new direction would help to freshen up WWE’s stale TV output.

At a time when WWE is starved for star power I find the refusal to push Punk to the top baffling. He’s a proven headliner who can draw crowds, handle mainstream interviews well, and help build new stars. He’s got a unique gimmick and fans want to embrace him. Two words: push him!

Saturday 28 May 2011

NXT Generation

When WWE cancelled their ECW show and decided to replace it with a new format most people greeted the news positively. WWE’s lacklustre ECW was a pale imitation of the original that was dispiriting to watch. It needed to end but it seemed the company had made the decision without giving enough thought to what the replacement would be. That lack of attention was a big concern.

Over the following weeks details of the new show, dubbed WWE: NXT, gradually began to leak out. It would feature talent from the FCW developmental league paired up with established stars in a rookie/pro dynamic. The rookies would compete in matches and challenges for a spot on the RAW or SmackDown roster. We would get an insight into their lives away from the ring and find out what had attracted them to the “sports entertainment” business whilst also seeing what skills established stars felt were necessary to become successful.

Is that the show we’ve ended up with? Erm... sort of.

NXT, like all WWE programming, is scripted. That means that nothing anyone ever says on the show can ever be taken at face value. While it doesn’t surprise me that they didn’t experiment by trying something other than the proven formula it does seem like a wasted opportunity. NXT was the perfect chance to take a more old school, hands off approach: the rookies could have been given the gist of their promo and the finish of their match and filled in the blanks themselves. This approach would have provided the pros with the chance to have genuine input and made for a more varied product than RAW or SmackDown, as well as allowing the rookies to succeed or fail on their own merits.

The tasks the rookies have been made to complete included running assault courses, participating in arm wrestling contests, and racing each other around the ring carrying kegs. Invariably the tasks have been an utter waste of time for the wrestlers and the viewers. They serve no purpose other than to bore the crowd and demean the participants.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with NXT: it does not elevate the new wrestlers. Unfortunately this is across all WWE programming but it’s particularly prevalent on NXT because that it supposedly the whole point of the show. The rookies are supposed to appear on the show and impress the audience enough for them to want to see more. The ritualistic humiliation and nonsensical storylines make the rookies look foolish and uninteresting, they don’t create a desire to see any of them succeed, or even wrestle again. WWE seems to want us to view them as comedy figures but also empathise with them. Does that mean WWE sees its viewers as comedy figures? Quite possibly, there’s more than enough evidence to support the theory. The current approach is one that simply won’t work, especially when Michael Cole is obnoxiously screeching (as per Vinnie Mac’s instructions) that anything these people have accomplished before reaching WWE doesn’t matter.

It all boils down to this: if the rookies are presented as losers they will be perceived as losers. And nobody will back a loser for long.

The show’s not been a complete waste. NXT has been the platform Wade Barrett, Alex Riley and Broadus Clay needed to convince management they were ready for a spot on the main roster, and it introduced the WWE audience to Bryan Danielson. Perhaps the show’s biggest achievement was the original “NXT invasion” angle. Yes it fell flat, but think back to how exciting and filled with potential it felt at the time. It should have turned out differently but its failure is the result of there being no long term plan, not NXT as a show. It couldn’t even have been attempted if it weren’t for the NXT format.

It’s certainly seen more failure than success so far but that doesn’t mean NXT should be condemned. There’s room for improvement. A return to having bigger names as pros would be a good start. We’ve gone from Chris Jericho, CM Punk and Christian to Vladimir Kozlov, JTG and Hornswoggle. Who do you think is going to have more of an air of legitimacy as a pro? If the relationship between pro and rookie were not just for TV then I think the right pros could provide genuine help for the rookies, and that’s something WWE should be aiming for.

A greater emphasis on bringing out real personalities would be a good move too. I believe just being himself is what helped Broadus Clay attract attention. It worked out well for him, and it would for others. Letting newcomers be themselves (or a character of their own creation) eases the pressure on them and increases the possibility of them forming the desired bond with fans.

NXT could be an invaluable tool for WWE when it comes to introducing new talent, but it’s clear at the moment they have no faith in the system they’ve created. That’s why hot prospects Alberto Del Rio and Mason Ryan bypassed NXT: the writing team realised they would look stronger and be taken more seriously if they avoided being linked to the flailing show. A few improvements could change all that, not to mention give experienced acts something fresh to do in their role as mentors. If WWE can put in the time and effort now they’ll reap the rewards in the long run.

Thursday 26 May 2011

The Blow by Blow: RAW 23.05.11

I’ve been considering doing a blog on an episode of RAW for a week or two, and this week’s episode taking place the night after a pay-per-view made it seem like the perfect time to try it. This isn’t intended as a report on the show, more views on what was shown and where things may lead.

The show opened with a promo segment involving Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, Bret Hart, R-Truth and John Cena. Lawler and Cena both got very nice responses from the crowd (surprising in Cena’s case), whilst Hart got what was probably the pop of the night. Truth was loudly booed. He’s surprised me by being great as a heel. Giving Bret’s glasses to a “little Jimmy” at ringside then snatching them back was amusing, as were his “Help me, help you, help me” and “Use’ta is a rooster from Brewster” lines. The latter made no sense, and I hope spouting such nonsense develops into a Truth trademark.

The sign that Truth is really being accepted as a heel by WWE fans is that Cena did not receive his usual mixed response. It was all cheers for him, and at least part of that has to be attributed to Truth. If adult male fans are cheering Cena then you know the heel’s working well.

Looking back on RAW there seems very little reason for Bret Hart to have been involved. I suspect that the original plan was for him to mention the twelfth anniversary of Owen Hart’s death (which occurred on Monday), possibly to set up Owen being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame next year. But with Randy Savage having passed away on Friday those plans were changed. There’s no way to be certain, but that would be my guess. If that’s the case I think WWE and Hart made the right decision.

Once the RAW GM had emailed in to set up Truth and CM Punk v Rey Mysterio and John Cena for the main event we were treated to a backstage segment in which Big Show and Kane tried to look casual while delivering clearly scripted lines about how the Nexus would interfere in their match. It was painful. Then Show sat on Alberto Del Rio’s car and Ricardo and ADR turned up to chastise him. In Spanish. It was a weird addition to the show, but it would only get weirder later.

The first match of the night was Big Show and Kane defending the tag titles against Michael McGillicutty and David Otunga. I was disappointed that nobody mentioned that Otunga is a former tag champion with John Cena. The highlight of the match was CM Punk being on commentary. The match itself was instantly forgettable, but Punk kept viewers amused by telling Josh he’s terrible at his job (he’s not, but it was funny to hear) and referring to Big Show as King Kong Bundy. New tag team champions were crowned, but it didn’t really mean anything because WWE doesn’t try to present a competitive and worthwhile tag team division.

I got my first look at the Capitol Punishment poster whilst watching RAW. There’s nothing to like about it. It’s poorly drawn and doesn’t help to sell the pay-per-view it’s supposed to be promoting. Naturally Lawler and Josh harped on about what a great poster it was. Just when you thought RAW couldn’t get any more tedious they showed a video of Randy Orton doing a merchandise signing. There was literally no reason for this, other than to push Randy Orton as the second coming of Lex Luger and show a mindless teen sobbing about how meeting Orton was the greatest moment of their life. I’ll also point out that Orton is a SmackDown guy, and nothing related to RAW was mentioned in the video. This is more proof that the separate rosters mean nothing.

Just when I thought the propaganda couldn’t get any worse Lawler topped off the segment with the line “I’ve seen Randy Orton’s film not once, but twice!” As Lawler is not in a boredom induced coma I could only assume he was lying.

Backstage, Big Show started ranting at Scott Stanford because Stanford had the audacity to do his job and ask Show a question about losing the tag belts. Del Rio appeared, slapped Show, and then ran away, sending the cameraman flying as he did so (which was done so some obviously false static effects could be played, allowing WWE to switch to pre-taped footage). The cameraman followed Kane as he gave chase. The next thing we saw was Kane stopping and wailing, in a surprisingly camp fashion, “Show!” It was revealed Big Show had lumbered in front of the car from earlier and his leg was jammed between the tyre and the frame. It was the most unintentionally hilarious thing WWE has aired in months. It became even more amusing when the car reversed, dragging Show along the ground. Show shouted at medical personnel (more people just trying to do their jobs) and somehow managed to oversell, no mean feat when he’s supposedly been hit by a car.

This angle was presumably shot so that Big Show can take some time off. He may be injured or it could be an age issue. It looks as though he’ll return to a feud with Alberto Del Rio, which is good for him but bad for Del Rio. The way Del Rio’s been used since moving to RAW has done nothing to convince me the move was right for him. The company would have benefitted more from keeping him on SmackDown.

On the plus side it does open up new directions for Big Show’s character. He could come back and do a gimmick where he gets knocked down by a car every week but insists he’s fine and just needs to “walk it off.” Alternatively, he could feud with people just trying to do their jobs, such as ring announcers and lighting technicians. It’s an exciting time to be a Big Show fan!

The second match of the evening was Jack Swagger v Evan Bourne. Both men should be a big part of the company’s plans for the future, particularly Swagger with his size, style and look. The match didn’t get too long, but Bourne was allowed to look fairly competitive in the time they got. After the match Evan kicked Swagger then ran away. If this is the start of a feud between them then it could have been done better: Evan currently looks like a weak coward, not that best situation for a babyface to be in.

Next was the Michael Cole segment. Cole apologised to the fans, the ring crew and the commentary team, and we got to see a still of him utterly humiliated at Over the Limit. This provoked a decent reaction from the crowd, but there were no others positives to be taken from the promo.

If you look back at this feud, which has been going for six months, it can only be seen as an a failure. It dragged on too long, put an unneeded spotlight onto a man who will not help WWE improve TV ratings or pay-per-view buys, and made no new stars. Cole’s comeuppance should have come at WrestleMania, with him getting a punch from Lawler or a Stunner from Steve Austin. The next night Cole should have berated Swagger for not helping him win, causing Swagger to turn face on Cole and slap on the ankle lock. A new babyface star would have been created and there would have been a reason for the storyline. As things stand now it’s all been a colossal waste of time.

Miz then came to the ring to accuse Alex Riley of costing him the WWE title on two occasions. When the RAW General Manager emailed in to deny Miz’s request for a title shot the former champion flipped out and slapped his apprentice, then fired him. Riley fought back and worked Miz over at ringside, then booted him in the head and left. It was a simple segment that accomplished what it needed to (the split of Miz and Riley), but I’m not sure where it will go from here.

A feud with Riley would be a big comedown for The Miz straight after a run as the champion. The best thing that could happen is for Riley to move to SmackDown (he was supposedly drafted there a few weeks ago) and use the momentum from attacking his former boss to become a babyface. That would leave Miz free to work a more high profile feud on RAW. I’ve got a feeling we’ll see a Miz v Riley feud though.

Eight divas came to the ring for an eight woman tag match, but about twenty seconds after the opening bell Kharma came to the ring. The divas surrounded her as she cried and a man in the audience shouted “Give her a hug!” There was no commentary during this so viewers were left to wonder what was going on. This is apparently a result of Kia ‘Kharma’ Stevens being pregnant and WWE needing to write her off of TV. If that’s the case then congratulations to her.

Maybe this will come as a lesson to WWE that they need to spend some time strengthening their women’s division using the talent they have left at their disposal. If and when Kharma returns she’d make a far bigger impact if she was demolishing divas that have shown they can compete in competitive and entertaining matches.

Kofi Kingston defeated Drew McIntyre in a match that should have been far better. Kofi was sloppy in places and McIntyre showed little charisma. The match didn’t have much reason to be taking place (although I suppose you could say that for most television matches WWE airs), and the addition of a post-match shot of Dolph Ziggler and Vickie Guerrero sitting on a couch was just baffling. On the plus side Dolph is now bleaching his hair again. This is a good thing as it helps him stand out.

WWE then aired its tribute video to Randy Savage, introduced by Jerry Lawler. As always the video was well produced, and it did a good job of paying respect to a very talented wrestler. It’s a shame that the animosity between McMahon and Savage was never sorted out, because it would have meant so much to a lot of people for Randy to attend an induction ceremony for a spot in the Hall of Fame.

The main event of CM Punk and R-Truth v John Cena and Rey Mysterio was refereed by Bret Hart. It was an enjoyable match but there was nothing fancy going on and no need for Hart to be officiating. The finish of Hart putting Punk in the Sharpshooter and Mysterio doing a leg drop on him was bizarre, as faces shouldn’t need help from other faces to beat heels. But it happened anyway. That’s modern WWE for you.

Overall, it wasn’t the best episode of RAW you’ll ever see, but it wasn’t the worst either. What struck me most was how little the RAW writing team is doing with men who were previously standing out on SmackDown. Dolph Ziggler and Alberto Del Rio were confined to backstage segments (in Dolph’s case he got about five seconds of screen time). Both men were highlights of the show when on SmackDown, and if they’re not even going to set foot in a wrestling ring they should be moved back there. While Jack Swagger did get to wrestle it’s clear there’s nothing big planned for him. He’s another man who should have stayed on SmackDown, where he could have played a more important role.

One the plus side we got to see the beginning of a fresh new feud in Truth v Cena, which will hopefully lead to a pay-per-view match between the two. The addition of Bret Hart was random but welcome, and Big Show segment provided some comedy relief. Hopefully next week’s episode will follow on logically from this and start shaping Capitol Punishment. Keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Hollywood Ambition

Hulk Hogan. Despite the popularity of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock, the merchandising success of John Cena, or Ric Flair’s status as wrestling’s greatest worker Hulkamania’s peak, Hogan will always be the world’s most famous wrestler. There have been bigger draws and many better workers, but Hogan is the man who led wrestling into the mainstream and so remains the wrestler non-fans are most likely to have heard of.

It’s this status as an immense cultural icon that makes his current predicament so sad. His back is an absolute mess, he’s been through a messy divorce with his first wife Linda, and he’s burnt numerous bridges with the multi-billion dollar WWE. ‘The Hulkster’ was left with no choice but to sign with TNA, North America’s very distant number two promotion.

When Hogan signed with TNA in autumn 2009 it was talked about as the turning point for the organisation. A year and a half later everyone can see the deal for what it was all along: a broken down, past his prime, former leading man doing whatever it takes to keep his name alive and money rolling in.

In his time with the company Hogan has smartly limited his number of matches and physical angles. Well, I say smartly, but it would have been better for all involved if he had simply stuck to a spokesperson role, appearing every few weeks to hype matches and put over talent in promos. That would have allowed his first match to be built naturally over a course of months, creating a sense of anticipation rather than apathy.

By jumping into his first match just two months after his television debut, and having that match take place on iMPACT, TNA signalled to fans loud and clear that there was nothing special about the occasion. It was business as usual: no aura, no sense of purpose and no big match feel. Considering Hogan’s status it would have been simple to create all of those things for his first TNA match. But, as always, TNA got it wrong.

Making matters worse is the fact that ‘The Hulkster’ had to have back surgery later in 2010. This resulted in him being off TV for several weeks, meaning he couldn’t even appear in the limited capacity he should have been used in from the start. It was a further drain on TNA’s finances.

As things stand right now Hogan is being told by numerous doctors that he should never wrestle again. Typically, Hogan has stated in several interviews that he plans to wrestle again. His target is to have his next match in summer or autumn this year.

He could not do anything more stupid. If doctors are telling him not to wrestle then there are clearly very serious medical concerns surrounding the issue. TNA pay-per-views attract only around 10,000 buys each, and typically take place in a studio that holds only a few hundred people. Is it worth risking paralysis for such small numbers?

My hope is that Hogan realises this before it’s too late, scraps his current plans and waits his contract out while doing everything he can to get TNA and its wrestlers (the people who will hopefully be carrying the company long after Hogan’s gone) as much mainstream media attention as he can. With his established name and status that is the one thing Hogan can do for the struggling company with greater success than anyone else.

Getting the rub from Hogan in an interview can still mean something in the wrestling business. Getting a win over him means nothing now. The sooner he, Vince Russo, Eric Bischoff, and Dixie Carter realise and accept this, the better things will be for everyone.

Monday 23 May 2011

Making an IMPACT

TNA is a company that does not shy away from telling its audience when it’s reinventing itself. While most wrestling promotions are content to make this process a gradual one that viewers don’t really notice, Florida based TNA makes a point of announcing even the smallest of changes. In the last eighteen months alone there have been four attempts at convincing the audience that an angle on one specific show will change TNA forever.

In the case of the of the “They” angle which culminated on October 10th 2010 (the writing team decided on this date just because it’s all tens, that is the level of baffling insanity they function on) and the March 3rd 2011 “game changing” iMPACT, neither stood a chance of having the effect they were hyped to. “They” turned out to be Hogan, Bischoff, Jeff Hardy and a bunch of jobbers forming what was probably intended as a wrestling version of the Illuminati but was more akin to the WWF’s JOB Squad. The March 3rd iMPACT had the shocking (and I use that term quite wrongly) revelation that TNA was now “owned” by Hulk Hogan, as well as the return of Sting, which had been hyped in videos so similar to those produced by WWE for the Undertaker’s return just a few weeks before it’s a wonder Vince McMahon didn’t sue.

On the other hand, the January 4th 2010 and May 19th 2011 editions of TNA’s Thursday night show stood a real chance of helping the company do what it wanted to: press the reset button.

The January 4th 2010 iMPACT featured the much publicised debuts of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff. The show was main evented by a tremendous match between Kurt Angle and AJ Styles, but there was no attempt to elevate new acts or give new viewers just tuning in to see Hogan a reason to watch the following week. Jeff Hardy and Rob Van Dam both made surprise appearances, which may have received healthy reactions from the crowds but was a short sighted decision. Had they debuted separately over the following weeks with their first appearances hyped by videos packages beforehand, they would have benefitted TNA far more.

The May 19th edition of the newly titled IMPACT Wrestling was what Hogan, Bischoff and TNA President Dixie Carter have been striving for for months: a genuine chance to start from scratch and establish a new creative direction for the company. But when push came to shove they didn’t actually go through with it.

The new name came about (as is the case so often with TNA) as a result of something WWE did. In this instance it was Vince McMahon’s decision to change the name of his company from World Wrestling Entertainment to WWE and distance himself even further from the wrestling business. TNA’s reasoning is sound: by having the word wrestling in the name of their weekly show it will immediately become more obvious to the average person casually flicking through a television guide what their show is about.

But it will take far more than a renamed TV show, a new set, and some blue lighting to halt TNA’s plummet into oblivion. It’s all a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough on its own.

TNA should have done all it could to make it clear on May 19th that a new age was dawning in the company. The six-sided ring, which always allowed people to tell TNA and WWE apart at a glance, should have made a return. A big name, such as Goldberg, Monty Brown, Bret Hart, or Roddy Piper, should have made a surprise appearance on a short term deal. Talent the company has no plans for should have been released from their contracts and new wrestlers signed in their place, with a concerted effort to have a plan for everyone on the roster. Most importantly, the show should have clearly demonstrated a new creative direction that stressed wrestling over talking. That was the point of the rebranding after all.

None of that happened. On the plus side, it has been confirmed that the six-sided ring will appear at the Destination X pay-per-view on July 10th. While it’s not clear whether this will be a one night return or a permanent one it’s a step in the right direction. Similarly, rumours are circulating that Goldberg has been in talks with Spike TV. Personally I don’t think there’s much chance a deal will be reached, but if it is then he could add something to TNA’s product. It’s just a shame they couldn’t hold off on their rebranding stunt until they had something in place to show that they were a revitalised promotion.

Had Monty Brown or Chris Harris returned on May 19th and got into a scuffle with Sting, or perhaps even beaten him for the world championship, it would have shown that TNA was going to start putting greater emphasis on younger, home grown stars. It would have also stood a chance of getting people talking about the new TNA show. It would also have been a more effective way of reintroducing Chris Harris.

Why no new talent was introduced on the show is a mystery. Austin Aries or Kevin Steen (or both) could have been signed to add some much needed fresh blood to the X Division. TNA could easily have prepared videos to hype a debut at Slammiversary IX and begun airing them on May 19th. Not doing so just demonstrates how blasé they are about finding and introducing new talent to their roster.

The show was a golden opportunity to start rebuilding AJ Styles and Samoa Joe as the best wrestler in the world and the monster heel respectively. AJ could have cut an impassioned promo, ideally in the ring, about how he’s proud to represent TNA and be its most talented athletic wrestler, saying that he takes great pride in having the best match on every show. Joe could have trashed the fans for turning him into a joke character that runs around with a mask-wearing sidekick when he used to be an undefeated, unstoppable juggernaut. He could say that the moment he started pandering to the fans is the moment he started losing. These directions are simple to understand and relate to, and set the two best home grown talents up as natural rivals for a storyline in a few months time. These ideas are better than having AJ work a storyline with Tommy Dreamer or Joe win a brief face versus face squash match, which is what TNA decided to show.

The first episode of IMPACT Wrestling started with an in-ring promo from the Immortal faction. That’s hardly the ground breaking new direction fans had wanted and expected. We were told that IMPACT Wrestling was a show on which wrestling mattered, but saw no evidence that this was the case. It was the same product we’ve had for years.

Another blown opportunity. But don’t worry. I’m sure TNA will crudely construct another reboot angle in a few months time and we can all get out hopes up again. I just hope that when that happens they not tell us they’re all about wrestling. They need to show us instead.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Under New Management

Good news for wrestling fans: Ring of Honor will be returning to US television in September following a sale to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. While a new television deal had been rumoured for several months, the sale of the company comes as quite a surprise. Thankfully, while it’s surprising it also sounds quite promising.

Specifics of the new TV show and future of the company are still relatively scarce. It’s known that the Sinclair Broadcast Group is available in a much larger number of homes than HDNet (the cable network that showed Ring of Honor programming until April this year), meaning that RoH will be available for a wider audience across the United States. The new parent company’s main television markets are on the east coast and in the mid-west, but for those who live outside of these areas, including those of us who live outside of the United States entirely, the show will be made available on Ring of Honor’s official website. On the subject of the website, it will be getting revamped, presumably in time for the launch of the new weekly show.

The first set of tapings will take place in Chicago Ridge in August. Considering all but six episodes of RoH on HDNet were taped at The Arena in Philadelphia this announcement makes me think that tapings will now take place from different locations. If that’s the case I think it’s a good decision as it will increase the likelihood of RoH upping the number of towns it promotes shows in.

Not only will there be more money going into the promotion from the sale but there will also be new personnel working behind the scenes, some of whom have experience working in or alongside the NWA and WCW. These people will be improving live events, promotional techniques and helping the promotion expand into new markets. Personally I’m hoping it will result in a return to Britain some time later in 2011 or, more likely, 2012. Former WWF Saturday morning show play-by-play announcer and backstage interviewer Kevin Kelly will be donning the headset for commentary duties. It’s a rare example of RoH using a former WWE personality. It’s understandable why the decision’s been made: Kelly is a far better play by play announcer than Michael Cole and will call the matches in a manner befitting Ring of Honor’s intense, realistic style.

A press conference has been announced for the mainstream and wrestling press alike on June 24th, so we can expect more details then. In the meantime there’s the official press release which can be read at the company’s official website.

This is good news for a company that has always prided itself on the quality of its matches and passion of its wrestlers. In a business infuriatingly dominated by a company that refuses to even acknowledge what it promotes, it’s nice to see a promotion like Ring of Honor get the success and recognition it deserves.

Bring on September!

Friday 20 May 2011

Over the Limit preview

Just three weeks ago WWE gave us Extreme Rules. While it wasn’t the greatest WWE event ever it surprised a lot of people by being an above average show. Unfortunately the latest pay-per-view offering, Over the Limit, doesn’t look likely to replicate the that success. The trouble is that three weeks just isn’t a long enough amount of time to justify another pay-per-view. Making matters worse is the fact that nowhere near enough time is being spent penning feuds that people will want to spend money to see. Miz versus Cena has been rumbling on since February, and this will mark their third pay-per-view main event in a row. Meanwhile Ezekiel Jackson and Wade Barrett have had a falling out in the three weeks since the last supershow. One feud has dragged on too long, the other has been rushed. Is it too much to ask for something in the middle?

It’s not all bad though. There are some feuds on the show that have, so far, gotten everything right. Randy Orton and Christian look as though they’re heading towards something pretty big, and R-Truth v Rey Mysterio, whilst thrown together fairly quickly because of a sudden injury to Truth’s planned opponent John Morrison, should be a solid mid-card match. Truth’s new heel character has not been universally accepted but I like it. Truth has excelled as a whiney heel that refuses to accept responsibility for his own shortcomings. He’s blamed everyone but himself for his problems, as all heels should, and sounded convincing doing it. He’s not my favourite wrestler on the roster but he’s reliable, and being in the ring with Rey will raise his profile and should provide an enjoyable contest.

What interests me is the long term plans for Truth. He was originally going to face Morrison at Over the Limit (and presumably Capitol Punishment as well) and then go on to face Rey at SummerSlam. Looking at recent booking I would guess that Mysterio’s original opponent for OtL was Alberto Del Rio. That match getting bumped is unfortunate for ADR, but I would imagine he’ll still make an appearance. WWE have spent too much time building him up to not use him on the show. The most likely scenario would be ADR costing Mysterio the match. Hopefully that would lead to Morrison and Mysterio v Del Rio and R-Truth at Capitol Punishment.

Whatever the result I’m pleased to see evidence of the company attempting to elevate some of its underutilised talent. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for the women’s division. Kelly Kelly has recently been featured in Maxim so I can understand why she’s appearing, but Brie Bella is a different story. The fact that she hasn’t dropped the Divas’ championship to Gail Kim, Melina, Beth Phoenix, Layla or Natalya can only be taken as yet another sign that WWE has no interest in promoting a serious and competitive women’s division.

This match exists only to capitalise on Kelly’s current popularity and as an excuse to have Kharma (formerly Awesome Kong) do another run-in. The story is that Kharma has attacked every diva she’s encountered except for Kelly. We’re supposed to wonder why this is, but I find it hard to care. The match will probably end with Kharma helping Kelly win the title and then doing some creepy staring at her.

Another match done a disservice by the writing team is Chavo Guerrero v Sin Cara. This bout has apparently been planned for a while but has been given very little in terms of television build. On the plus side it should be another example of just how good Sin Cara is and be a standout match for the event. There’s no way Chavo will win but it should be fun to watch.

Sticking with the theme of people the writing team is not using to their full potential let’s look at CM Punk. It’s true that not everyone can be in the main event all the time, but it’s been far too long since Punk was given a run as a credible singles performer with no baggage at ringside. I enjoyed the Straight Edge Society but it never really amounted to anything. It’s the same with the Nexus: the initial shock of seeing him put on the group’s armband was great, but since then he’s basically been commanding a team of green jobbers. He needs to sever ties with the Nexus and be given a singles feud with someone with whom he can produce top matches. Evan Bourne, Jack Swagger or John Morrison would be the people I’d consider for the role, before having Punk turn face and work as the first title challenger for Del Rio after SummerSlam.

CM Punk and Mason Ryan v Big Show and Kane could be decent if it doesn’t overstay its welcome and Ryan’s involvement is kept to a minimum. Show and Kane are best used as a team at this point in time, and if anyone can give them a good tag match it’s Punk. I think the original plan was probably to have Punk and Ryan win the belts, but with the amount of fluffs the Welshman has made in the past couple of weeks I now think the champions will retain.

The match that most intrigues me is Ezekiel Jackson v Wade Barrett. I don’t think it will be especially entertaining or memorable, but I want to see how Jackson is booked. If he makes short work of his former teammate and wins the match decisively it would help to reinvigorate him as a babyface. He was working out quite nicely in the role last year on RAW and I’d like to see that push resumed. SmackDown could do with another popular face and there are worse people than Big ‘Zeke for the role.

At the very bottom of the “things I’m looking forward to about Over the Limit” list is Jerry Lawler v Michael Cole. There’s just no appeal left. The feud should have ended at WrestleMania with Lawler decisively winning their match by knocking Cole out cold. Instead of that they subjected viewers to fifteen minutes of wrestling so bad it is best described as “punishment for the eye”. Not only that but they topped it off with the obnoxious heel winning. Over the Limit will, ridiculously, be their third pay-per-view clash in a row. The fact that this is currently the promotion’s longest running feud tells you one thing: it needs to stop. I hope the match is quick and that Cole finally loses. With all the whacky stipulations involved in the match I think that’s unlikely.

Appropriately, it’s the two world title matches that are going to carry the show. Miz has managed to drag bearable matches out of Cena several times now (most notably their 2nd May bout on RAW) which bodes well for Over the Limit. I expect Cena to retain so he has the title for the rumoured SummerSlam feud with Alberto Del Rio, but I don’t know how he’ll do it. Over the years Cena has been booked to win gimmick matches in a variety of weird and wonderful ways, from threatening JBL with an exhaust pipe at Judgment Day 2005 to (ludicrously) taping Batista down at last year’s Extreme Rules in their Last Man Standing match. He will win, but it’s impossible to predict how.

While Cena v Miz is expected to go on last it’s Christian v Orton that will almost certainly be the better match. Christian’s world title win was greeted warmly three weeks ago, fans were pleased that he had finally achieved the big win after such a long time with the company. His loss of the championship two nights later originally seemed like a mistake, but hopefully it was the beginning of the best feud SmackDown’s roster has to offer. I predict Christian will lose again at Over the Limit and then either refuse to shake Orton’s hand or jump him from behind, the result of frustration at not being able to win the title back. Christian would blame the fans for his bad luck against Orton as they were the ones who selected Orton to challenge him for the belt in the first place. I had hoped Orton would be the one to turn heel and Christian would remain as a face, but it looks as if the reverse will be true. They’ll have great matches no matter who the heel is. Hopefully Over the Limit will be the first of a few PPV matches for them.

The omission of Sheamus, Daniel Bryan, Alberto Del Rio and Cody Rhodes is frustrating as they’re the men that should be getting built up for the future. Del Rio and Cody in particular had a lot of momentum until a few weeks ago, and missing a pay-per-view is a setback neither man needs. Let’s hope WWE has plans for both at Capitol Punishment.

On paper it’s a show that doesn’t look amazing. Only Christian v Orton and Mysterio v Truth are going to definitely get the time they need to impress. The rest of the card will either be short changed on time or is a poor match to begin with. WWE could surprise us as they did with Extreme Rules, but I won’t hold my breath. This is one show that I can’t see exceeding WWE’s limits.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Supercard of Honor VI preview

This Saturday Ring of Honor will return to Chicago Ridge for their sixth annual Supercard of Honor. With a world title rematch two months in the making, the first RoH singles matches for Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas, and the progression of high profile feuds, Supercard of Honor VI looks like a great show on paper. I’m sure it will be even better in the ring.

Personally I’m most looking forward to seeing Haas and Benjamin in their first singles matches in an RoH ring. Shelton Benjamin is one of the most athletic men on any roster and can do amazing things inside a wrestling ring. WWE only really utilised his phenomenal ability once a year for their Money in the Bank spotfest, but RoH is the sort of company that will encourage the former ‘Gold Standard’ to work his ability into a proper wrestling contest. Claudio Castagnoli is the perfect opponent for him, being superbly conditioned and a strong worker. It makes sense storyline-wise as the Kings are trying to get themselves a rematch for the tag team titles. I imagine this one will be a standout match for the show.

Meanwhile, Benjamin’s tag partner will be in the ring with Davey Richards. While Benjamin v Castagnoli will probably be a more athletic, big-bumping affair, I imagine Richards v Haas will be a technical showcase. Their styles complimented each other nicely at Honor Takes Center Stage and I think a singles match will be just as rewarding. I suspect Davey will go over to keep him strong, with Benjamin taking the win against Castagnoli.

Elsewhere on the card we have plenty of House of Truth action to look forward to. Television champion Christopher Daniels will be in a non-title match against Colt Cabana. The storyline announcement that RoH will not be booking TV title defences until a new television deal is secured has been applauded by the heel Daniels, which makes me think that Cabana will win this match in order to set up a championship challenge sometime in the next few months. Title aside, I think Cabana needs to win here because he’s currently in danger of looking weak through too many losses.

Truth Martini’s rookie monster Michael Elgin (who still reminds me of Rhino at the start of his ECW career) will face Homicide. Homicide is in a similar position to Cabana in that he needs to get a win soon. Hopefully he’ll go over clean, but if Elgin does somehow win then it should be Truth Martini and at least one other person getting involved. It should be a decent match, but it won’t be a show stealer.

I have a feeling the House will get involved in the Chris Hero v El Generico match. I still think we’re going to see Cabana and Generico v Roderick Strong and Christopher Daniels at Best in the World in June, and having the heels cost ‘The Generic Luchadore’ a match against Hero would keep the feud alive. Forgetting storylines, I think this will be another solid outing for both men. I think Hero is probably the best all-rounder RoH has, with Generico solidifying his spot as one of the company’s most reliable stars. Both are contenders to be the next RoH champion. I predict Hero winning this and it being one of the best matches on the card.

Unfortunately I can’t say I’m as optimistic about the street fight between the All Night Express and the Briscoes. I enjoy the ANX and think they’re due for a tag title reign, but the Briscoes don’t do anything for me. I’m pleased they’ve gone heel as they seem better suited to that role, but I can’t ever get excited about them. They’re matches tend to blur together and they’ve been treading water for a long time now. There just doesn’t seem to be anything new for them to do. A street fight between the two teams has the potential to include some good spots so it could be enjoyable, but I can’t envisage it being my favourite match of the show.

Further down the card are Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly v the Bravado Brothers and Steve Corino v Mike Bennett. Cole and O’Reilly have traded wins with the Bravados in the past, but I think the storyline of their match this weekend will be how much they’ve improved through facing the likes of the ANX, the Kings, the World’s Greatest and the Briscoes. I like both teams, but Cole and O’Reilly have far more potential and need a decisive win. If they don’t get it against the Bravados something, somewhere, is very wrong.

The Corino v Bennett match interests me more for the promise that Corino’s “sponsor” will be attending the event than it does for the chance to see either man wrestle. This sponsor is the person who has been helping Corino on his road to recovery, helping him to stop all his heel mind games and cheating shortcuts. I think it’s a clever, logical and easy-to-follow plot, but I have no idea who the sponsor will be. I suppose that’s the point. When ‘The King of Old School’ has mentioned the person at previous events he has hinted at it being Kevin Steen. I’d love it to be him but it just seems too obvious. The match itself will be the typical Corino offering, likely with the audience caring more about the unveiling of the sponsor than the wrestling.

The main event of Eddie Edwards making the third title defence of his reign against Roderick Strong, the man he took the belt from two months ago, should be tremendous. I’ve not yet watched Eddie’s title winning effort, but I’ve read everywhere that it was a great match. With two men this good how could their first match, or this rematch, not be great?

Will we see Roderick become Ring of Honor’s second two-time world champion? I doubt it. I think Eddie’s going to have the belt for at least a few more months. A defence against Davey Richards at Best in the World in June seems likely. That’s a match I think Eddie would win (although an hour draw would be a good move as it would keep the rivalry between the two growing) before going on to face Davey again at Glory by Honor or Final Battle. It’s in the rematch that I think Davey will stand the better chance of winning the belt, whenever it takes place.

But that’s the future. As for Supercard of Honor VI, I think it will be a solid show. It’s the first time in a while that there have been this many impressive singles matches on one show, what with the recent emphasis on tag teams. It makes a nice change. While this show isn’t likely to go into the history books as a title change night I think it will advance two of the company’s top feuds and give us a great title rematch. What more could you ask for?

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Destined for Greatness

When Alberto Del Rio was first introduced to WWE audiences last year it was immediately clear that he was going to be getting the star treatment. While most newcomers to the WWE roster in 2010 started out on NXT Del Rio was introduced through a series of typically well produced vignettes. It was made clear that he was an arrogant, self-aggrandising heel, and when he finally made his debut in front of a live crowd he got one of the best reactions a WWE newcomer has had in years.

The vignettes were one sign that the company had serious plans for him. His inaugural feud being with Rey Mysterio was another. Being shown as equal to one of the company’s top babyface draws demonstrated the faith and hopes the company had in him.

With crisp verbal skills, an intense, realistic wrestling style, and his own personal ring announcer, Del Rio quickly stood out in the eyes of fans, his Mexican aristocrat persona quickly becoming one of the highlights of SmackDown. He was routinely involved in the best segments and matches on the blue brand and had enjoyable matches with everyone from Rey Mysterio to Matt Hardy to Daniel Bryan to John Morrison, and was receiving healthy heel responses from crowds.

At the Tables, Ladders and Chairs pay-per-view in December he faced off against Mysterio, Edge and defending champion Kane for the World heavyweight championship in a TLC match, signalling that he was now seen as someone who could be trusted to not let the company down in a main event setting. He didn’t win but he carried himself well and didn’t look out of place.

A few weeks later Del Rio started 2011 by defeating Mysterio in a highly enjoyable two-out-of-three falls match, ending their feud. From there he went on to win the Royal Rumble, hyped as the biggest match of its kind ever, and announced that he would challenge for Edge’s World heavyweight championship at WrestleMania. This was yet another good sign: not only was ADR to be involved in one of the biggest matches on the show but his opponent was going to be one of the hardest working men in the company. He was sure to have a good match.

Despite the build-up to the WrestleMania bout featuring enjoyable matches (in particular the Christian v Del Rio cage match on the March 8th SmackDown) and an Edge and Christian reunion, it didn’t become the white hot feud it should have. When the two men opened the biggest show of the year I hoped it would work to their advantage: the crowd was hot and fresh. But the match they had, while by no means bad, didn’t have the big fight feel it should have done. It certainly didn’t feel like a man fulfilling his destiny, because ADR didn’t win.

In the days following ‘Mania the decision for Edge to win was attributed to Vince McMahon feeling that a Del Rio win was too obvious, and I imagine the back troubles Edge was having at the time played a part too (with nobody knowing for sure whether that would be his last match it’s possible Vince felt Edge deserved to go out on a high). No matter the reason, not winning hurt Del Rio’s momentum. He managed to get his heat back in his brief feud with Christian, but losing at Extreme Rules, his second World title challenge in as many months, made him look weak.

The switch from SmackDown to RAW could work to is advantage, but it’s by no means guaranteed. ADR had carved out a niche for himself on SmackDown and become the show’s standout performer. The show has already been weak without him. On RAW he faces a much tougher battle for screen time (especially with John Cena on the show), as he attempts to continue his rise to the main event scene.

The move to RAW has seen the resurrection of ADR’s feud with Rey Mysterio. As good as their matches were it’s only been four months since they ended their SmackDown program. Personally, I feel it’s too soon for them to be paired with one another again and would have preferred to see Del Rio going against someone like a babyface CM Punk or Jack Swagger. Maybe we’ll get to see that soon, the heels currently outnumber the faces on RAW considerably, so a prominent heel turning face will probably be happening before too long.

The good news is that there is supposedly very serious talk about promoting a John Cena v Alberto Del Rio WWE championship match at SummerSlam. With The Rock likely to be involved in some capacity (my guess would be that he’ll be a guest referee) this would be huge for Del Rio. It’s very easy to imagine this being the match in which he finally gets his first world title. I hope it is, because the man has been deserving of a big win for several months, and WWE desperately needs to capitalise on how over he is before it’s too late.

Del Rio in the main event? It’s destiny.

Monday 16 May 2011

Next World Champ

When Eddie Edwards pinned Roderick Strong to win the RoH World championship it came as a huge shock. Not only was Strong only six months into what many had thought would be a lengthy title reign (in a company that has featured numerous reigns in excess of one year), but it was Eddie’s first time challenging for the belt. Only a handful of people had ever won the belt on their first attempt.

It was also surprising because it was Eddie’s American Wolves tag team partner Davey Richards that had been seen as the most likely candidate to topple Strong for the gold. So fervent was this feeling that Richards had been bombarded with chants of “Next world champ!” for months on end.

Ring of Honor is a promotion that does not take title changes lightly. They are built to logically, only the company’s very best workers being considered for championship glory. It doesn’t just take in-ring ability to be the RoH champion, it requires a connection with the audience and a dedication to the craft of professional wrestling.

At Honor Takes Center Stage chapter two, two weeks after Eddie had won the belt, Richards heard the “Next world champ!” chants again after an in-ring altercation with the champion closed the show. As good as Davey is I’m not entirely convinced the chant is accurate. I think there are a lot of men on the roster that it could apply to. Davey is certainly one of them, but he’s heard that chant during the reigns of Tyler Black, Roderick Strong and now Eddie Edwards. He wasn’t the next world champ when either Black or Strong held the belt, why should things be any different now?

Who else is there to take the gold from Eddie? I think El Generico has a good chance. His popularity has exploded in the last year thanks to his memorable, long running feud with Kevin Steen. His recent performances against former champion Strong have helped to establish him as a man who’s at the top of the card to stay. In other promotions his unimposing look and lack of verbal skills would limit progression but in Ring of Honor they can be overlooked. The pale complexion and mask only help to set him apart from the rest of the roster. Over the years he has shown himself to be a talented and versatile performer, the very characteristics an RoH world champion needs.

A slightly less likely candidate is Kenny King. While he may not be someone who could become champion immediately he could become a serious contender if Eddie’s reign lasts into 2012 or beyond. Crowd reactions to him have grown steadily louder and more positive this year, and looking back at his matches from twelve months ago shows he’s matured as a performer.

King is already a good enough athlete to win the title, he just needs to spend a little longer solidifying his more serious demeanour and polishing his mic skills. I think he and Rhett Titus are due for a run with the RoH tag team titles before the end of this year. Once that’s accomplished I think he’d be ready to become a featured star in the singles ranks.

Then there’s Chris Hero. Over the last two years I don’t think anyone in wrestling has overhauled themselves as successfully as ‘That Young Knockout Kid’. He got into shape, changed his look, got new ring gear, updated his style with a series of convincing strikes, and, most significantly, reformed the Kings of Wrestling with Claudio Castagnoli.

The Kings have brought a “real sports” air and big match atmosphere to their matches, risen to the top of Ring of Honor’s tag team division, and travelled to Japan for several successful tours with Pro Wrestling NOAH. I believe that if they carried their current personas with them into solo careers both would do very well. Hero could become a serious contender to the world crown very quickly if the company needed him to.

Finally there are former champions to consider. The promotion has shown a reluctance to give champions second reigns in the past, preferring to use them as challengers for bigger shows. They’re almost a rite of passage for their successors. But Austin Aries became a two time champion, so it’s not inconceivable that Roderick Strong or Homicide could regain the belt at some point. In fact, Strong is scheduled to get his rematch at Supercard of Honor VI on May 21st. Personally I don’t think he’ll regain the belt so soon after losing it, it would make Eddie’s victory look like a fluke (not the sort of approach Ring of Honor would take) and his burgeoning feud with El Generico and Colt Cabana won’t need the championship involved. But I wouldn’t rule him out as a contender.

It could be someone else entirely that dethrones Edwards. The longer his reign continues the more likely it is viable successors will rise up the card and present themselves. Building title challengers has always been one of the promotion’s strengths and I can’t see that changing now. Of course, it could turn out to finally be Davey’s time after several failed attempts. But the best indication of who the next world champ will be remains that chant the audience love so much. Next time you hear it be sure to make a note of who it’s directed at.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Dominant to the Core

Judging by recent developments on SmackDown it looks as if Ezekiel Jackson may have bagged himself another strong push. He’s split from the Corre and is set to challenge Wade Barrett for the Intercontinental championship at Over the Limit. There’s still another week of television to be recorded before that match, but at the moment I think Big ‘Zeke has a good chance to win the belt.

What’s frustrating about all this is that he could have been placed into a higher position on the card last year. He may not be the most amazing wrestler anyone’s ever seen, but he’s got an impressive physique, impressive power moves and decent verbal skills (that I believe could become pretty good with time and practice) to use to his advantage. WWE could do far worse than him when it comes to creating a new main event wrestler.

When he was first introduced to WWE audiences he didn’t have a surname, and was acting as a henchman to the super-talented Brian Kendrick. The idea was to pattern their relationship on that of Shawn Michaels and Kevin ‘Diesel’ Nash. Presumably this would have meant Kendrick capturing the Intercontinental or United States title before Ezekiel gradually turned face and then defeated him for the belt. In the notoriously mercurial WWE of the 2000s, that didn’t happen.

After several false starts and periods of time wasting Ezekiel, now with that scintillating Jackson surname, was brought onto RAW. Winning quick, decisive squash matches he caught the fans attention and gradually began receiving genuine babyface reactions. At the time I thought he could amount to something if they stuck with that approach and slowly let him demolish larger names, working his way through the roster to a mid-card or world title.

But it wasn’t to be.

For no apparent reason he was switched from RAW to SmackDown in December 2010. The change was hyped with video packages for a few weeks, but when he began appearing in-ring it was clear there was nothing lined up for him. He was a founding member of the Corre, which was just a reboot of the bungled Nexus angle. That meant it was going to be tough for the faction to get over. So tough, in fact, that they still haven’t several months later.

What was irritating about the move is that it was so short sighted. Ezekiel had been built up for months on RAW and was beginning to get over. Moving him to SmackDown served little purpose and turning him heel served less.

The recent booking of SmackDown looks as if ‘The Personification of Domination’ is now seen as a prospective face draw again. I hope that’s the case. His run on RAW proves that people will react to him if he’s booked correctly, something WWE should be hoping for from all its talent right now. The jump to SmackDown and inclusion in the Corre may have been bungled and halted his momentum, but it looks as though it was only a brief setback. With Intercontinental title matches rare on pay-per-view these days I think the upcoming Barrett v Jackson match shows that WWE’s booking team sees potential in both men.

He’s not to everyone’s tastes, and he’s not ever going to be named as my favourite wrestler, but I do think he’s got enough positive attributes to make it to the top. Doing so wouldn’t just be good for him, it would be good for WWE in general.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Sacrifice predictions

Last month I wrote a lengthy blog looking at TNA’s Lockdown pay-per-view. Despite being a creative dud Hulk Hogan was on Twitter in the days following the show claiming that it had set new highs for wrestling on pay-per-view. Sadly, Hogan very probably really believes that drivel and is under the impression that Lockdown is the sort of event fans want to see. I’m sure there are a few diehard TNA (or IMPACT Wrestling if that’s what it’s being called now, it’s yet to be made clear) fans who found the event enjoyable, but I can’t imagine anyone picking it as their favourite ever wrestling show. It’s hard to believe it would even be someone’s favourite ever TNA show. Even favourite TNA show this year is a stretch.

I was so unimpressed by the event that I considered not doing a write-up for the company’s next show, Sacrifice. In the end I decided that I would look at the show, but not go to the lengths I have with previous prediction blogs. TNA simply doesn’t warrant the energy.

Nine matches have been announced for the card. By far the least appealing of these is Crimson v Abyss. I’ve never really understood the appeal of Abyss and haven’t really seen anything to suggest that Crimson is someone to watch so I’m not expecting this to be anything memorable. Similarly, I don’t think we’ll see a great match from Mexican America v Ink Inc. Hernandez is a sloppy worker more concerned with looking cool than giving fans a decent match, Anarquia is new and likely won’t have enough time to make much of an impression, and Jesse Neal, while talented, has little ring psychology. The only man in the ring that means anything to me is Shannon Moore, but this match won’t get go long enough to allow him to produce anything meaningful.

On a more positive note, Mickie James v Madison Rayne should be another good match in their feud. I’d hoped that they’d start working with other people after Lockdown, but their program lasted another month and it looks as if Sacrifice will provide the setting for their blow off match. The stipulation is that if Mickie wins Tara no longer has to work for Madison. They could have Mickie win and Tara and Rayne move on to feuding with one another, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the match was marred by Tara swerve turning and helping Rayne win. As much as I’ve enjoyed the matches of these two it’s time they moved on to new angles.

Beer Money Inc v Matt Hardy and Chris Harris is going to be one of the night’s better matches. The commentary will likely feature unfocused blathering about Matt Hardy’s history of tag team wrestling with his brother Jeff and the fact that James Storm and Chris Harris used to team together as America’s Most Wanted. I think these aspects deserve a mention, but Tenay and Taz will probably witter on for the majority of the bout, only breaking the monotony to hype the main event.

I think Chris Harris’s return to TNA is far more interesting than the match itself. He was with the company for years and did some incredible work with Storm as AMW, but he reached a certain level and was never permitted to go higher. That was a shame. Harris deserved a top spot and had worked hard for it. He jumped to WWE, where he wrestled a handful of TV matches on their ECW show (wearing a singlet to disguise the fact that he’d put on weight due to not working out) before being released. I imagine he’d wanted to go there, make a name for himself (to show that he didn’t need TNA), and then head make to the iMPACT Zone for more pay than before and a lighter schedule than he’d have in WWE.

That didn’t work out for him. I hope his return to TNA does. He’s someone that should be used as a singles star.

AJ Styles is being wasted in a pay-per-view match with Tommy Dreamer. This match has been presented before and while it was okay it didn’t go so well that fans were left clamouring for more. It also doesn’t make sense to have Styles working with a man of Dreamer’s status as it makes him look like a disposable mid-carder when he should be the centrepiece of the company. It would have been better if Dreamer were booked to face Robbie E, who will clash with Brian Kendrick. Kendrick and Styles would have had a far more enjoyable match that could have elevated Kendrick, leaving Dreamer to do the inevitable job to Robbie. That second match wouldn’t have been great, but at least it would have provided a better opponent for Styles.

Kazarian and Max Buck will stand a good chance of being match of the night. There will probably be some sort of interference from Jeremy Buck or Robbie E, but even that won’t be able to stop this match from standing out in the ring. Twelve minutes would be a nice amount of time to give them. As far as a winner goes I’d go with Kazarian. He’s the best man to have the X Division belt right now.

As with Rayne v James, I’d expected Jarrett and Angle’s feud to wrap up at Lockdown. It feels like they’ve been feuding forever. Part of the problem with that may be that elements of this feud are tied to 2009’s real life revelation that Karen, Angle’s ex-wife, was living with Double J (they’ve since married). This hasn’t been helped by Joanie ‘Chyna’ Laurer being brought in as Angle’s tag partner for Sacrifice, with the storyline being that Kurt was having an affair with her whilst still with Karen. The inclusion of Chyna has made an already tricky to follow feud even more complex, made worse by the fact that Chyna and Jarrett feuded with one another in the WWF in 1999 (twelve years ago!).

This is another fine example of TNA bringing in stars from the WWF’s Attitude Era instead of giving the spot to one of their own stars or bringing in someone new for the role. It must be very disheartening as an employee. I know it’s disheartening as a viewer.

Chyna was never a great worker, but she wasn’t bad, and with Angle and Jarrett likely carrying the bulk of the match it should be okay. I’m concerned that Chyna’s involvement could mean this feud will continue for even longer, but hopefully I’m wrong. Angle is of far better use to the company as a star maker: the sooner he’s allowed to do that the better.

 Finally, there’s the main event: TNA World heavyweight champion Sting defending against Rob Van Dam. Yes, they’re expecting people to pay good money to see a match they previously gave away on free TV as RVD’s debut in the promotion (and it wasn’t even in the main event). Worse, that debut match lasted under ten seconds and showed that Van Dam could easily beat Sting. If they’d just held on then this match could have really meant something. As it is it’s going to be marred by their previous encounter.

I’m unsure what roles Mr Anderson, Hogan and Bischoff will play on the show. Presumably Anderson will be involved with the Sting and RVD match in some capacity and either Bischoff or Hogan will appear to cut a promo. It’s likely Mick Foley, revealed as a new babyface authority figure, could get involved in that too.

This show really doesn’t do anything for me. There are some matches that I’m sure will be good, but not featuring anyone that means much to wrestling in 2011. Samoa Joe, Matt Morgan and Christopher Daniels being left off the card is ridiculous, and is a perfect example of what TNA’s been doing wrong for years: focusing too much on performers with established names at the expense of creating their own. The sooner they sort their priorities out and start writing a product people can care about, the better.

Double Trouble

Tag team wrestling, according to WWE management is dead. Despite the tag ranks being the proving ground for men such as Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Edge and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin the company feels promoting a competitive tag team division is more trouble than it’s worth. This has been the feeling within WWE for several years now.

The belief within the promotion is that their audience aren’t interested in watching tag team wrestling. Why they think this has never really been made clear, but the fact that no tag team has gotten over in a big way in a long time is almost certainly a strong contributing factor. The last teams that truly became name acts for the company were Edge and Christian and the Hardy Boyz, and that was over ten years ago. Before them it was the New Age Outlaws, and that was fourteen years ago.

To say WWE fans don’t want to watch tag team wrestling isn’t true, they just don’t want to watch the tag team wrestling the company currently offers. It’s an area of the business that can be highly entertaining in its own right. You need look no further than Ring of Honor to see how easy it is to construct an entertaining tag team division. All that’s required is care and attention.

Being part of a tag team is the ideal way to put inexperienced wrestlers to use. In a tag team they get just as much time on TV as they would in a singles match, but only spend half of it competing. It alleviates some of the pressure and ensures that there’s always someone spurring an underachieving wrestler to improve. Heath Slater and Justin Gabriel are the perfect example: Slater is destined for a career in the mid-card while Gabriel isn’t ready to become a singles star yet. Putting them together gives them both something to do and allows them to mature as performers at a natural pace.

WWE currently has a large number of guys on its main roster that aren’t being used for anything worthwhile. Placing them in a team would not only give them something to do, it would give the tag team ranks a boost, provide more options when it comes to filling television time and, if everyone involved is lucky, create a fresh act that the audience are eager to see more of. Not every draw in wrestling has to be a singles star: look at the Road Warriors, the Dudley Boyz, the Freebirds, America’s Most Wanted, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express (to name a few off the top of my head) to the duos I listed above.

WWE aren’t alone in their mismanagement of doubles acts. TNA has recently begun nonsensically breaking up some of their most promising and useful tag teams. They’re nowhere near the dangerously low levels WWE seems content to operate on but they’re not heading in the direction either.

Going back to what I said about Ring of Honor, they saw that gap in the market and decided to fill it. It’s paid off for them. Rhett Titus and Kenny King have benefitted from the exposure granted to them as a tag team, going from lower card comedy heels to popular babyfaces on the verge of championship success. Claudio Castagnoli and Chris Hero have stepped up to fill the void left by the departures of Nigel McGuinness and Bryan Danielson to become main event draws for the company, and have used their success to solidify their international reputations in the business, which also benefits RoH. The Briscoes, a team that have been with RoH for a long time, have benefitted from the influx of new tandems to face, reenergising their act. It’s even provided a chance for Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas, men who had previously achieved the greatest success of their career as a team in WWE, to be a relevant part of the business again.

Those are just four teams, but the promotion’s tag division is one of its biggest selling points. At a time when WWE are desperate for new stars and ways to make money, a strong tag team division would be ideal. In my opinion they cannot do this quickly enough. In fact you could say they need to do it on the double.

Monday 9 May 2011

Reaching for the Stars

It’s no secret that WWE is desperate for star power. Retirements, office jobs and injuries have taken their toll on the roster, to the point where there are barely any workers left capable creating a ratings boost. This is why The Rock, Undertaker, Triple H and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin were called back in for WrestleMania. The company realised it could not promote a satisfactory show without them.

Rock’s affiliation with the company is going to remain strong until at least next April when he faces John Cena. During the intervening months he will presumably make appearances on RAW every once in a while to keep interest in their feud alive. As long as these appearances are announced in advance they should help with the ratings struggle. If the booking team are smart major angles will be saved for shows on which Rock is set to appear, giving viewers who have only tuned in to see ‘The Great One’ a reason to tune back in the next week.

Austin is in a similar position to his former rival. Both are essentially retired and concentrating on acting careers. Rock has been confirmed to return to the ring for at least one match next year, and while nothing has been mentioned on air regarding the possibility of an Austin match ‘The Rattlesnake’ did mention in interviews before ‘Mania XXVII that he would be physically capable of wrestling a full time schedule if he wanted. While I don’t think he would actually agree to doing so I do think he could be convinced to wrestle a one off match at a suitably prestigious event. WWE should attempt to get something arranged now, ideally for this year’s SummerSlam. Austin returning to the ring would be a big draw in itself: against the right opponent it could be massive.

But Austin’s return is currently nonexistent and Rock’s appearances are going to be irregular. Neither man is the immediate solution that’s needed. Creating new main event talent is the obvious answer and something fans have been crying out for the company to do for years. But that process takes time.

Besides The Rock and Steve Austin there are a handful of people outside the company that could be brought in to help reverse the slumping ratings. The biggest name on the list is Brock Lesnar. While he’s currently under contract to UFC, and will be for some time to come, he would bring a lot of UFC viewers and media attention to WWE if he returned. When he left the promotion in March of 2004 he was one of the biggest names in wrestling, and his UFC career, and reign as heavyweight champion, has only enhanced his profile. If Vince McMahon could convince Brock to re-sign with his company when the opportunity rises then Brock would be worth his weight in gold.

More readily available are Chris Jericho and Batista. Up until a few weeks ago Jericho was on TV every week as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars. Doing that show has exposed Jericho to a new audience who found out what wrestling fans already knew: Jericho is a talented, witty individual and a natural showman.

As the most likely man to return to WWE there’s a lot of talk as to whether his first appearance back should occur on pay-per-view. There are arguments for and against that move. There’s potentially a lot of money to be made in making people to see his first appearance in a wrestling ring this year. But if the market being targeted is those people who first saw Jericho on DWTS (and that’s who the return needs to be aimed at if viewership is to be increased) then having his return on RAW is the best option. I don’t think too many people would buy a pay-per-view just to see the appearance of a guy they found reasonably amiable on a dancing show, but I do think they’d tune in to a free TV show for it.

Ideally Jericho would return as a babyface. It’s true his best work has traditionally been done as a heel, but right now popular guys that make you want to tune in every week are what are needed. Jericho telling people they’re morons for watching is not going to have the desired effect.

As for Batista, he’s not done too much since leaving to embark on an MMA career twelve months ago. At the tender age of 42, and having spent a year trying to sign a deal with an MMA organisation and meeting no success, a return to wrestling is the best chance he has of making a living.

He has his detractors, but Batista is easily a better addition to WWE’s television product than John Cena or the majority of bland big men that the company has in developmental. Over the years he has participated in many memorable matches and angles, been smart enough to stick to what he’s good at in the ring, and been a hit as both a heel and a face (just look at how over he was as a narcissistic heel before he left last year). He’s underrated as a talker and as someone who can carry opponents. His return may not create the same buzz as Chris Jericho’s, but he would be a welcome addition to a very thin line-up.

Both Jericho and Batista are likely to return in the near future. Jericho’s comeback has been rumoured ever since he was voted off DWTS, partly because he said he would be returning to the world of wrestling once he was eliminated. While that return has yet to happen it’s surely imminent. Batista, as noted above, has spent a year attempting to get signed by an ultimate fighting group. That he has name value, a great physique and has apparently begun training for his first fight and still hasn’t landed a deal should tell everyone, including ‘The Animal’ himself, all they need to know about how good his chances are.

I hope Batista and Jericho both return soon. They would freshen things up and, with any luck, start helping to create the new batch of stars that the company desperately needs. These men are not going to be around forever, they need to be used to build new acts whilst the chance is still there.