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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

WWE SummerSlam 1994 Review

WWE SummerSlam
United Center - Chicago, IL
August 29, 1994

**1/2 out of ****

Think of SummerSlam 1994 as an exercise in extremes. The night begins with probably its lone moderate: The Headshrinkers taking on Irwin R. Schyster and Bam Bam Bigelow in a rather innocuous, formulaic tag team match that you weren't going to remember in a half hour. The match was certainly fine, but other than the futuristic note of Fatu's kids nullifying the henchmen of IRS's son at a Chicago PPV twenty years later, there was literally nothing worth committing to memory.

By default, that makes the opening tag team match the fourth best encounter of the night out of seven. Three matches exceeded this acceptable benchmark (one majorly so) while the other trio clawed into the recesses (one majorly so).

The notion that a five-star match automatically makes any PPV a thumbs-up event is put to test here, as Bret and Owen Hart pretty much culminated the best feud of 1994 inside of a steel cage (and a blue barred one at that). The set-up was perfect: Owen turns on Bret, Owen beats Bret clean, Bret wins WWE Title two hours later, Owen enlists Jim Neidhart's help to stick it to the relative they equally envy most, Owen wins King of the Ring to make case for a title shot, and wrestling's greatest family feud goes into overdrive.

As for the match itself, Bret was onto something in his exhaustive 2007 autobiography when he referred to it as the greatest cage match ever that didn't involve blood. While much of his memoirs have had its hyperbole deconstructed by armchair know-it-alls that can't appreciate a good story, that's a hard claim to dispute. Bret and Owen gamely exchanging escape attempts in lieu of a skin-ripping melee still brings the thirty-plus minutes to a perfect rating. Even Dave Meltzer, who hoards five-star ratings for WWE matches to the point where he's only awarded five Stamford matches the honor, made this one of the five.

The aftermath, with Bret escaping, and then Neidhart striking dishonorably (wiping out a returning Davey Boy Smith and wife Diana in the process) only adds to the charm. Neidhart and Owen went postal on Bret back inside the cage, while every living Hart brother (sans Keith) tried storming the joint, only to be knocked off one by one. That's when Davey Boy, shirt now torn off, burst in like Tarzan on quaaludes, and saved The Hitman.

From opening video package to Owen's final spiteful promo, that ate up about a third of the show. Good thing too, because it saved the event. Bret and Owen were used to doing so in 1994, anyway.

Admittedly, there were two other really good matches that night: Razor Ramon winning the Intercontinental Title from a motivated Diesel (seriously, in 1994, Kevin Nash has the work ethic of someone like Cesaro or Sheamus, albeit with physical limitations). The treat: Shawn Michaels' constant interference was nullified by Chicago Bears icon Walter Payton, a rare celebrity who didn't shrink or choke under the wrestling lights. Safe to say that "Sweetness"  wasn't the most embarrassing member of the 1985 Bears to make a wrestling appearance.

Also notably, Alundra Blayze retained the WWE Women's Title over Bull Nakano in something resembling Sting vs. Vader with estrogen. I'd write more, but this lack of words sums up how little the division meant to the company afterward. Still, the match did its part.

The three title matches equate a good show unto themselves, but when we spin the wheel the opposite way, we receive two certified WrestleCrap inductions.

Getting Jeff Jarrett vs. Mabel out of the way (a harmless filler match that just simply wasn't worth much), first you have Lex Luger vs. Tatanka, in one of the more inane stories WWE's ever presented. In short: Tatanka accused Luger of selling out to Ted Dibiase. Luger was all 'nuh uh!' and Tatanka was like 'ya huh!" and this went on for about the length of a hockey season, until Dibiase cost Luger the match, and revealed that he and Tatanka were in cahoots.

Allegedly, the moral of the story was that even though nobody believed Luger, he still stuck to the truth the whole time, and that this was a metaphor for Vince McMahon's 1994 steroid trial. So Luger was basically Vince's avatar, but I don't recall Vince leaving for WCW a year later....

As far as the Undertaker vs. Undertaker match, let's just say that comparatively speaking, the 2014 Royal Rumble was like an orgasmically-good deep tissue massage that you've only dreamed about. Leslie Nielsen can't save everything. Spy Hard, for instance.

The up-and-down nature of the show reads like a polygraph print-out, with the hack work of the braintrust being bailed out by the efforts of a motivated roster. It's difficult to giving a glowing recommendation when there's speedbumps covered in jagged glass all through the course, but that's what skipping ahead's for.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

WWE/ECW One Night Stand 2006 Review

WWE/ECW One Night Stand
Hammerstein Ballroom - New York, NY
June 11, 2006

***1/2 out of ****

There is a moment of unintentional consequence that perfectly summarizes the mood and aura of One Night Stand, a venture into a pit of fandom not there to cheer for one or two wrestlers and buy up their novelty flair, but to cast judgment on outsiders. Like an Apollo Theater crowd, or scores of Motorhead faithful scorning the poor-bastard opening act, if you're not welcome in ECW, you're going to find out.

Take John Cena, to whom a restraining order disallows him to come within 500 feet of the ECW Arena in Philadelphia. Cena was booked to defend his WWE (Spinner) Championship against opportunity-casher Rob Van Dam in front of Van Dam's extreme constituency, and a hostile reaction was expected for the walking WWE Shop commercial.

No one will forget Cena engaging in his ritual of tossing his shirt into the crowd, only to have it tossed back as an act of disapproving regurgitation. Several more throws, several more thunderous rejections. The last man to throw it back appeared to be a security guard, resembling a fitter Chi McBride. No matter who he was, his rejection of Cena was punctuated with two middle fingers, and the raucous approval of 2500 fans. Everyone was against Cena, and with such hostility. Had a Make-a-Wish child been present, he may have swung an oxygen tank at Cena's kisser.

Latter-day WWE fans tend to treat the events they attend like television shows, in part because they *are* television shows. Commercials air between matches, which serve to deaden the mood. Younger fans may only be there to see John Cena or Daniel Bryan, stifling fan reactions during other matches.

ECW One Night Stand in 2006 showcased a *wrestling* crowd, there to cheer, boo, curse out, and show respect for anything presented as part of the product, because with ECW, the fans were part of the show, an organic laugh track, to turn a phrase. When the crowd is that rowdy, it can elevate bad matches into absurd masterpieces, good matches into memorable affairs, and great matches into the five-star tier. Pick any match you consider to be 'five stars', and hold it in front of 15,000 mannequins. Suddenly, it's merely a nice exhibition of moves, isn't it?

Had One Night Stand 2006 been held before the prototype WWE audience, something would've been lost in translation. Some decent matches like The FBI vs. Super Crazy and Yoshihiro Tajiri would been met with scattered enjoyment, while restless kids held out for Cena and Rey Mysterio. Instead, 2500 diehards were hanging on every spot Tajiri and Crazy came up with in torment of Little Guido and Tony Mamaluke. What a difference the scenery makes.

Jerry Lawler getting choked out by Tazz in the opener while 2500 strong chant "TAP! TAP!" wouldn't look right on an episode of Raw in Omaha, where Lawler's place as an aged icon is set. Tazz would merely be seen as out of his head, a twisted hellion showing his mean side for no reason.

These are authentic ECW reactions, from an authentic populace all too happy to slip on the Airwalks and No Fear shirts, and relive 1997. As such, they were given authentic ECW action, with little anachronism aside from the WWE invaders.

What elevates this show was the WWE regulars getting into the spirit of things, and breaking their usual paint-by-numbers mold. Edge channeled Raven with sickening sadism. Cena did away with the nice-guy propping-up and leveled referee John Finnegan. Mysterio donned his classic garb and went violence-to-violence with Sabu. Randy Orton reveled in the hatred against an aggressively-robotic Kurt Angle in Angle's last real WWE hurrah.

It's not enough that One Night Stand was the "and now for something completely different" event on WWE's calendar that gives it special feeling; the action backed it up. Edge, Mick Foley (turned heel with feeling), and Lita's six-person war with Tommy Dreamer, Terry Funk, and Beulah was as gory as you could hope for from an ECW clash. The two World Title matches (Cena vs. Van Dam, Mysterio vs. Sabu) would be considered among the better matches on most WWE events. One Night Stand would've been a thumbs-up card, even with Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler underselling the action with bee-like droning.

If every PPV crowd were this lively, would that dilute the PPV quality as well? Twelve events a year, and some of them have to suck for us to appreciate the good ones more, I think. That's a bad outlook for your wallet, but if you like for history to be definitive, it makes sense.

One last note: just before the main event, The Sandman made a cameo appearance in order to malevolently cane Eugene, who innocently recited an inane poem about his affection for ECW's brutes. During the thrashing, Sandman demanded the distraught Eugene to beg for mercy, and the crowd chanted his order along.

It seems cruel, but it's a good summary of the event at large: unapologetic about punishing the inanity that hardcore fans endured for so long in their love of the show. It's not like Eugene had a shirt to throw back at him, is it?

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

WWE Payback 2014 Review

WWE Payback
AllState Arena - Chicago, IL
June 1, 2014

**1/2 out of ****

The second incarnation of WWE Payback feels a lot like angel-hair pasta. Yes, you can make a satisfying meal with a plate full of angel-hair pasta, but its of a rather thin consistency. Beef ravioli or fettuccine alfredo would be far heartier than noodles easily mistaken as the thread in the hem of your cargo shorts.

How thin can pasta be to a) still be considered pasta and b) still be filling? The feud between John Cena and Bray Wyatt has been stretched so thin that's lost its elasticity, and Wyatt reciting the same chorus in a breathy drone every week only deadens its snap. Evolution and The Shield have had enough staredowns in the past two months to fill a WWE release on Blu-Ray.

That's been a common criticism of late-era WWE, that the storytelling grows so uninspired and elementary, that a feud stretched across three PPVs is beyond lifeless by the rubber match. The company could pass out black armbands and hold a tribute show for said feud the next night on Raw.

That was the ill that induced some gags and wheezes out of a so-so event in front of usually fiery Chicago, who slipped in and out of silent paralysis through the night (to be fair, there was probably anxious tension toward the result of the Blackhawks-Kings seventh game, which Chicago ultimately lost in overtime). WWE's last three PPVs in 'The Windy City' (Money in the Bank 2011, Extreme Rules 2012, Payback 2013) are all memorably superb, and the crowd played a role in each's success. If WWE was relying on the crowd to bail out weak storytelling going in, they should've pulled harder for the Kings in game six.

The best match of the night was the main event, The Shield vs. Evolution in an elimination-style no holds barred match. After the six men tore down North Jersey with a show-stealer at Extreme Rules, this one didn't quite pack the same punch. The schizo-paralysis worked its way in and out through the match, which itself alternated between frenetic and basic.

Rollins continues to fit seamlessly into the opening of "young heartthrob who throws himself off of high places" that Jeff Hardy vacated five years back, which goes a long way in letting him stand out amongst loose screw Ambrose and chosen beast Reigns. Evolution getting swept out is less surprising in 2014. Had Batista (in his best 1986 Rougeaus ensemble) and Orton bowed out in 2003, I'd be wryly thinking, "So, Hunter's pulling this off 3-on-1, eh?" Triple H needing happy fans to stabilize the company under his thumb is more apt to lock the ego away.

Cena and Wyatt's Last Man Standing bout was considerably less satisfying, but at least it was several rungs above Cena going full Popeye spinach bender on all three Wyatts alone, only to be felled by the kid who punked out Cam Newton.

Fans who may have lost power during a storm, only to have it come back on during the match, may have been wondering when The Usos signed to face Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. Wouldn't have been a dumb thought, considering all four men carried about half the body of the match. Cena-Wyatt wasn't insulting like it was at Extreme Rules, but 'scattered' is a good label for the deciding match. I still think anyone that could write a coherent flow chart detailing every point of the feud, without blowing their retinas out, should win free WWE Network for a year.

Speaking of scattered, there was reportedly a meeting before the Memorial Day Raw in which Helmsley and McMahon clashed over the use of the midcard, with the son-in-law wanting more focus on their storylines as a way to make their eventual elevation easier. Apparently, Helmsley also believes Raw lacks "flow", and I'll assert that belief. Raw most weeks is like a three hour arthouse flick edited by someone with horse blinders and an eye-patch.

What we get are decent midcard battles for gold like Barrett vs. Van Dam and Sheamus vs. Cesaro, with no attachment aside from our prior feelings toward the characters. Yeah, they're fine matches, but I'd like to think emotional attachment goes a longer way than workrate.

I don't have hard data at hand, but I'd wager that the midcard serves as a microcosm for how a company projects creatively. In 1995, WWE was largely awful, and the midcard was one WrestleCrap entry after another. In 1998-2000, WWE thrived, and the top 20-25 guys on the show had a purpose AND were coming through in action. In 2003, WWE hit a slump, and much of their midcard was filled with stale Attitude cogs and uninteresting OVW call-ups.

In 2014, the midcard's all dressed for the dance, but there's no dance to speak of. Shows like Payback, for as mostly solid as it was, tell me, "The dance was weeks ago, and we're still talking about it."

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Charlotte and Natalya Did What the "Big Boys" Never Do

Prior to Charlotte and Natalya's tournament final for the vacated NXT Women's Championship on Thursday night, I don't think I gave an ounce of a damn about Ric Flair's daughter. Maybe it was the way Ashley Flair was handpicked for training without prior wrestling experience (the same thing we'd frown on Eva Marie for, to a degree).

Maybe the issue's a little closer to WWE just handpicking someone they can identity as the offspring of wrestling royalty, thus justifying their push with, 'Ya know, Jerry, so-and-so is the such-and-such of so-and-so', which is the basis of Tamina Snuka's entire WWE existence. To further degree, that was the purpose of Legacy, although Cody Rhodes could do what Ted Dibiase couldn't, and that's develop a personality away from his father's shoes.

Point blank, Charlotte, up until Thursday, was basically her brother David with a little more in the category of natural ability. It's eerie enough looking at a woman that looks just like her father, from outsize teeth to steely glare, that I rolled my eyes at WWE once more riveting the parent's jumbo-sized boots to her feet at first blush.

Then again, I cared less about Natalya than most. When you drift between being the ugly duckling patsy for other 'Divas' to find a foothold in (both on vapid reality television and in the ring) and being a vessel for whatever juvenile idea Vince can concoct (the flatulence angle), interest can be beaten out of any character. All too recently, Daniel Bryan was the subject of "must-flee" TV whenever he and wife Brie were stalked in Voorheesian fashion by Kane. What chance did lifelong midcard act Nattie Neidhart have of keeping interest, aside from underdog advocates pulling for her?

Then the match happened, and I quickly forgot whatever gripes I had with their character geneses. That is to say the characters they played within the championship final are so unlike the norm for their ilk and history, that they resonated with jaded eyes.

I go back to the figure four spot, Charlotte forging her father's signature. Natalya ratchets up the selling of her leg pain to an impressive zenith. Submissions aren't out of the realm of possibility; hell, Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, and Natalya's uncle Bret (who passively stood ringside to add notability to the ceremony) have all won World Championships with a hold. We waited to see if Natalya would tap, but she fought to reverse the hold. Charlotte reversed it back. The reversals continued. Then with the advantage, Charlotte smacked Natalya across the face to demean and break her spirit. Natalya did the same in return, her slaps defiant.

From this point on, I was hopelessly sucked in. Christ, they *want* that belt, don't they? Forget my cynical labelings of an inexperienced fortunate child and the written-off oddball. I'm enjoying a wrestling match because it means something to me to see who wins it, even if they knew hours ahead of time who was winning and I didn't know for certain.

To wit, what's the last John Cena or Alberto Del Rio or Sheamus match that made you so invested? That's kind of the point, actually. WWE lacks such humanity on the vital levels of celebrity that at times, the pre-selected heroes already have park statues erected in their honor. The statues generally seem to be the ones wrestling. Nobody cares if you throw a rock at the statue, save for the society trust (in this case, the office). Throw a rock at a human, and humanity winces.

Charlotte and Natalya conveyed more humanity in one match than has been seen in WWE over the past several years outside of Daniel Bryan's earnest fighting of the power. And even then, we were all pre-inclined to pull for Bryan as we as fans of wrestling other than WWE had stock in him. Charlotte and Natalya didn't come with that sort of worshipping.

Instead, they earned it with one match.

Once the figure-four spot was exhausted, Charlotte went to reapply it, but had a mid-match epiphany. It's always good when a character expresses a thought, especially subtly. Makes you think that it's not an act, even when you know it is. After staring down aged cornerman Bret, Charlotte locked the injured niece in something resembling a Sharpshooter (which is still arguably better than Rock's version). You won't submit to my Dad's hold?, thinks Charlotte. Here, submit to your uncle's.

Natalya didn't, ultimately going down in defeat to Charlotte's flip-cutter finisher, but the point had been made: there's emotion to be mined out of the educated, willing rube. WWE, namely Vince McMahon, choosing to go the easy, paint-by-numbers route in hitting emotional buttons (the kneejerk variety) fails to connect us to a product we've only come to watch out of habit. Sheamus and Del Rio and Cena, they're just people we watch because we reason something more enjoyable could be waiting on the format sheet beyond them. We tolerate "Panama" and its second encore because we wanna hear "Jump".

Real tears were shed after the match, perhaps with none blubbering more than Ric Flair. No doubt he was proud of his daughter's breakout performance, but I'd like to think he was just as hooked by the tilt of the story being told as we were. I didn't cry, but I was touched by how much the two women cared. If they care enough to make me believe their story, I'll do my best to believe it. I didn't have to put much effort in here.

The art of the work is fascinating, in that if they don't try, fans still go along with it (the nature of the diehard fan), but are less inclined to connect. You can't plug in the cord with the outlet that isn't there. When you *do* try, and you're earnest about it, the connection is automatic.

We want to care. That's been the gripe of the fan ever since WWE went into its Hollywood-bound cruise control several years back. Charlotte and Natalya made me care, and it'd serve to WWE well to ask why that happened.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

NXT Takeover Provides the Action Worth Holding

Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville's cautionless leaps are everything that Damien Sandow's random costumes are not, and that is to say welcome. We'd let the former moments bury us up to our necks in sand at the beach, while "D-Sizzle" can go kick a live horseshoe crab.

While who calls what shot in WWE is subject to speculation, a blurry photo left to interpretation by anyone capable of typing, the prevailing thought is that Vince McMahon's fingerprints are smudged all over the three hours of overkill that is Monday Night Raw, while Triple H sits one throne over, constructing NXT's genetic make-up like a ship in a bottle.