Monday, August 17, 2009

Review of WWE Smackdown ... August 14, 2009 ... AKA The Jericho Dare




A brief explanation: as time permits, I tend to hang out over at the Wrestling Classics Message Board (www.wrestlingclassics.com). One of the regular members, Wild Rover, issued a challenge to yours truly: watch WWE RAW (and Smackdown), then post your thoughts on what you’ve seen. Specifically, Chris Jericho.

It’s Mr. Rover’s contention that Jericho’s current work as a heel is absolutely sublime at this stage in his career. An “intelligent heel,” so to speak. Which, by the way, is the title of a chapter in my book, A Fool for Old School … Wrestling, That is. (I know, I know … nothing but a sneaky insertion of a plug for the book).

We kicked the idea back and forth, with numerous other folks joining in and helping out. Ultimately, the “Jericho Dare” came down to this: I agreed to watch both Smackdown and the following Monday’s RAW. However, I reserved the right to fast-forward as much as I felt necessary (except for anything involving Chris Jericho’s participation). This was a mandatory provision on my part, so as to keep the bile from rising. After a cyber-handshake, the deal was consummated.

So, here’s a full review of Smackdown, which aired two nights ago. Please keep in mind that I did skip past some parts of the show rather hastily, but I managed to see at least parts of everything that took place. Point being, if a few details are missed, out-of-order or otherwise imprecise, I trust you'll cut me some slack. As always, I was hoping to be as accurate as possible by taking hastily written notes, figuring I’d not want to watch the proceedings more than once. Anyway, from my scribblings:

This week’s show is hosted by Jim Ross and Todd Grisham (I presume they’re the regular announcers). After a brief and breathless recitation of the major issues to be addressed at the SummerSlam PPV (coming up in two Sundays), we’re treated to a slick promo for the ultra-violent feud between recently-turned-heel C.M. Punk (who holds the WWE world title!) and the beloved-by-screaming-girls-everywhere, Jeff Hardy. Apparently, Mr. Punk had impolitely beaten the holy crap out of his nemesis the week before, concluding his exuberant display by wrapping a chair with great force around his foe’s head. Then, he rudely ran Hardy, with the chair stubbornly dangling around the victim’s head and neck, into the ring post. Hey, OW!

C.M. Punk starts the proceedings from the ring, and delivers a fairly effective heel rant. After a couple of minutes of this, General Manager Teddy Long interrupts him by strutting down the aisle. (It’s good to see Long still working and in pretty good shape). He interrupts Punk’s speech by confirming that the SummerSlam match between the two would be a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match. Cuz nothing determines who the better wrestler is than loading the ring up with lots ‘n’ lots of weapons.

Long also informs C.M. Punk that he’ll be facing John Morrison (Jeff Hardy’s pal and tag partner, I’m led to believe) in the main event this very night! As Punk rants and displays the usual heel displeasure upon receiving such news, somebody’s entrance music blares out, and C.M. is once again interrupted. (I have the feeling that THIS is why he now has such a nasty temper. He can never complete a thought without somebody interfering!)

Who’s this at the top of the ramp? Why, it’s a Black man! No, wait! It turns out to be Jeff Hardy himself. He only appeared as he did at first, thanks to the combination of multi-colored face paint and the equally multi-colored gel-encased spotlights that illuminated him in the dark.

Jeff approaches the ring as the crowd spunks hard for him. In my estimation, he’s doing a lousy job of selling his neck injury. Yes, I know he was pushing the idea that he was badly hurt from the chair/ring-post skirmish; yet, he would now prove to Punk that he could summon up the strength and come to the ring for a chat. A very unconvincing performance, in my estimation.

Clips of Kane, who apparently abducted the Great Khali’s manager, Runjin (or Ranjin) Singh the week before. I guess nobody except perhaps Khali gives a damn, probably because what follows is cheesy as hell. Kane is verbally terrorizing the man, but at least the victim’s been allowed to keep his nice threads. Goes to show us Kane ain’t all THAT bad.

GM Teddy Long is back in his office. Coincidentally, he receives a phone call right when the camera is there to catch it. (It’s the same deal with Kane and his abduction of Singh. I mean, could no one be bothered to hunt for the missing man at some point over the past seven days? Hell, just follow the cameramen! They have amazing instincts and somehow know just where to set up in case something meaningful occurs).

Anyway, the call that Teddy got was from the head honcho hisself, Vincent K. McMahon. (Before the show started, I wondered if he’d be able to avoid making some sort of an appearance on Smackdown. After all, several years ago, I vividly recall that he was all over RAW). McMahon, still perfectly comfortable in his omnipotent heel role, insists that Jeff Hardy, who has already been acknowledged as “definitely too injured to fight tonight,” would indeed appear in a match. And not your average one-on-one encounter, either. Nope, Mr. McMahon is waaaay too evil for that. Long must serve up Jeff Hardy in a HANDICAP bout this very evening! Hardy will face … the Hart Dynasty! What a fiend!

Clips of Fit Finlay and Rey Misterio, Jr. on a collision course with Mike Knox a week or two before. Far too convoluted … when are the writers going to realize that compelling storylines come from basic emotions, not convoluted soap opera dramatics? The failed TV writers dispensing this stuff don’t have a clue what makes pro wrestling work AS wrestling. Instead, they’re churning out short playlets designed specifically for TV audiences, as opposed to crafting a pseudo-sporting event. The fact is, even granting that this is the way the modern version of grappling is done, their output is embarrassing, insulting and puerile.

This leads us into a match between Fit Finlay and Dolph Ziggler. Never heard of the latter, at least under that name. But the exchanges are sharp and crisp, and for the first time I stop jumping forward and begin watching with interest.

It is indeed a good, solid match that unfortunately has a crappy finish. When Mike Knox arrives to stand at ringside, who among us doesn’t know that he’d become involved? Which is what happens, of course. I give them credit for pulling it off as well as they did … Findlay remains a consummate pro, and Knox looks capable and comfortable in his role. Well done though it was, I hate the failure to use a clean finish as the standard. (I know, I ask for the impossible sometimes).

Now we’re back to the ongoing plot featuring Kane and his captive, Ranjin Singh. More verbal abuse and physical intimidation from the formerly mute-and-masked man. This storyline is ridiculous, unnecessary and distasteful.

Three divas act (?) the part expertly. I have no idea what they’re talking about, but it’s oozing with bitchy attitude. Irritating, at the very least. There’s nobody to root for, as they all come across as whiny and bland simultaneously. Okay, I suppose that takes some skill.

Ah, good. Another actual match is about to take place. It’s the promised bout between C.M. Punk and John Morrison. (BTW, the level of heat Punk receives grows with each piece of footage they show or appearance he makes. Which is what SHOULD occur with a good-to-great heel). Happy to see it.

So, with the background of the animosity between the two explained, I’d call this another highly watchable match. To my surprise, it comes complete with some damn fine psychology. The exchanges go back and forth smoothly and credibly. My only complaint (and it’s a minor one) is that there are a few too many false finishes. Tiny gripe, really, and no big deal. So, that now makes two matches I’m glad I saw. Huh … live and learn.

But, it’s now time for a reality check. It seems that every time I find something to like about Smackdown, the pointless junk factor is inserted to mute my enthusiasm. To wit:

Melina and Layla are now having a match. Mostly punching and kicking, with a few half-decent (and very obviously choreographed) hints of wrestling. No question that these two women are genuine athletes. The finish comes when, for no apparent reason, Melina screeches at a level that causes banshees to recoil in horror. Ross or Grisham mention in passing that it’s a primal scream, an indication that the finish is at hand. Why? It’s a gimmick for sure, but again … why? Is this supposed to enhance Melina somehow? Yuck. Even more irritating than the stupid Kane and Diva stuff that preceded it.

Now, it’s Cryme Tyme’s moment in the sun. They are two Black men (Shad Gaspard and JTG) who look like good athletes decked out in slick urban fashions. Well, they’re either going to be nasty-ass heels who have a problem with White people or they’ll play the street-wise-but-still-babyface gangstas. Stereotyping in the simplest of terms has long been an accepted practice in pro wrestling, likely from the very beginning. The attire and presentation makes it easy for the crowd to identify what an individual or a team represents without a word spoken. In this case, the clothing and wise-guy attitude is all we need to know in order to pigeonhole them.

Anyway, they’re good guys, cuz they slap hands with the fans, smile a lot and act friendly. They then perform a well-rehearsed and highly stylized verbal routine that I found entertaining … once. What with the constant “yo yo” refrain, I keep expecting one of them to yank an old Duncan Imperial out of his pocket and start walking the dog from turnbuckle to turnbuckle, all-the-while not missing a beat of his rap.

After the break, we find that Cryme Tyme is still in the ring, patiently waiting for something to happen. Ah, here we go. A bald Big Show (haven’t seen him like this up ‘til now) is approaching with a surly expression etched on his face. Accompanying him is his partner and fellow tag team champion ... the guy that is the main reason I’m watching Smackdown this week. I’ll get you for this if it’s the last thing I do, Chris Jericho!

Jericho is not wrestling tonight, wearing a nice suit and all, but he’s brought along his mouth. So, co-announcing the match between Big Show and JTG justifies why he’s there. Well, that and probably so he could interfere at some point. When’s the last time a heel came down to “watch a match” without getting involved?

The bout is a bonafide squash that only lasts a few minutes. Big Show is too much for one man to handle, and JTG is disposed of quickly. Chris Jericho, throwing out comments meant to undercut Cryme Tyme, makes it clear that he and Show will be putting their belts on the line against them. Of course, they’ll have no difficulty retaining, Jericho says cockily. Given the destruction of JTG in the one-on-one confrontation, I suppose that means that the underdogs will pull off the upset win to claim the tag title. Isn’t that how it’s usually done in WWE? *shrug*

About Jericho: he did just fine on the mic, talking coherently, primarily selling the championship match to come at SummerSlam, with little bits of sly humor thrown in. Wild Rover is right … Chris Jericho IS an intelligent heel. (Say, did I happen to mention that this was a chapter in my book?) The predictable wild confrontation at the end involving all four participants achieved its purpose leading up to the PPV encounter.

And then … damn it! Another installment in the never-ending serial about Kane and his prisoner. Except this time, Khali has become aware that his manager/brother is in great peril and requires his assistance, if he's not too busy. (What the hell’s the big dope been doing up to now? Why isn’t the FBI involved? Or at least Donald Trump!)

So, Khali wanders into the smallish supply room in the bowels of the building where at long last he finds Runjin Singh. His manager is hanging upside down, courtesy of a chain attached to the ceiling (I think). But, it’s all a big set-up, doncha know. Kane had been hiding in the shadows, only to lunge at Khali as he turns his back to free Singh. Whack! Kane smacks Khali on the back (or perhaps the back of the head) with a metal pipe. The ambushed man loses his balance and looks effectively loopy as he goes down to his knees. With Kane whacking and smacking him over and over again, I decide to move forward. Sorry, but I really don’t like this stuff at all. If you have to go to these lengths to sell a match, then you need to make changes in your creative direction.

Oh, great. Now, one of the most horribly unfunny skits I’ve seen in many-a-year splays out across the screen. See, Triple H needs his old buddy, Shawn Michaels, to return to action and … re-form DX. The performances by all concerned would have failed to make it out of junior high school. And I’m completely convinced that the obnoxious little girl in the piece was modeled after Stephanie McMahon as a child. I’m betting the McFamily viewed this crap as cute and priceless.

Anyway, the skit played as if it was being staged at a burlesque theater in the 1930s. Unfortunately, it lacks the wit and maturity of the original knockabouts. Near as I can tell, the whole thing makes two points.

1: Michaels and Triple H have no problem humiliating themselves before an audience. In that, they were wildly successful.

2: DX is coming back. Tell me … does the idea of two men in their 40s acting like smug, practical-joking teenagers appeal to anyone? I guess so, because WWE knows how to give its followers what they want. Even utter shash.

But finally, my patience is rewarded. The handicap match with the injured Jeff Hardy taking on The Hart Dynasty is ready to go. I was delighted to see Harry Smith (David Hart Smith here, in case someone couldn’t make the connection to his father, his mother and his family background). I was also just as glad to see T.J. Wilson (Tyson Kidd here) as well. During a brief summer visit back in the late ‘80s, I first saw the two young boys, working out and wrestling in Stu Hart’s backyard ring.

The two Stampede graduates are accompanied by Nattie Neidhart. A real sweetheart, she is, even though my introduction to her resulted in receiving a pie in the mush at a Calgary restaurant. Like I said, the girl's a real sweetheart.

I’ve more-or-less followed their development from a distance and know how good they are. Too bad that they look to be severely limited by the WWE style, which discourages the use of clever wrestling holds and strategy in favor of the ultra-boring punch/kick formula. (In the entire show, I don’t recall seeing one collar-and-elbow tie-up or anything like that. One guy kicks the other in the stomach, then follows it up with something equally as banal, like an Irish Whip (excuse me … “The Ride”).

Jeff Hardy did very, very well athletically, although he was clearly out-manned. He got in some impressive offense along the way, eventually succumbing to the sheer onslaught of The Hart Dynasty. Harry is working the strong-man gimmick and TJ is the technician. Both performed admirably despite the constraints placed on them.

Just as before, I had a problem with Jeff Hardy’s selling of his neck injury. It seemed to me that he was touching his neck and grimacing occasionally. But now, in this match, it’s forgotten almost immediately. He’d do one of his spectacular aerial stunts that wouldn’t be possible with the damage he supposedly suffered; after which, he’d remember to touch and grimace for a second or two.

If I’m calling the shots, I’d want Hardy to make like he can barely stand up without suffering greatly. The deeply etched evidence of his pain would never leave his face. Which means he wouldn’t be able to withstand the Hart assault at all. Assuming he comes across convincingly, the crowd leaves with concern for Jeff’s well-being after yet another thrashing. The fans should fear for how he could possibly compete at SummerSlam in his quest to take the title from C.M. Punk.

THAT’S the question the fans should be pondering … ya gotta give people incentive to become emotionally involved. Instead, Jeff Hardy looks like he’s dealing with a minor inconvenience off and on, which depletes the heat factor exponentially.

But I have to say that the match itself is as good as it had any right to be. As soon as the bout is over, C.M. Punk hits the ring to inflict further damage on the just-defeated Jeff Hardy. His intent is clear: put him out of the PPV once and for all. Man, the fans are REALLY hating on the Punker!

After the typical minute or two of pounding without anybody arriving to break it up, Hardy is rescued by his brother, Matt. After researching the story a bit, it seems the two had a falling out over Jeff’s alleged reliance on drugs. Which is reasonable justification for Matt to BURN DOWN JEFF'S HOUSE and KILL HIS DOG! (I know that this event really did take place in Jeff Hardy’s life, although the Matt-as-miserable-bastard part is pure WWE fantasy).

The show fades out with the duo cautiously shaking hands and talking to each other in the ring. Hmmm … if I were keen to project, I’d say they’ll definitely rekindle their brotherly ties. If Jeff takes the belt off Punk, then soon thereafter Matt turns on him again, cuz he wants his shot at the title. Should Punk retain, then it might be awhile before one or the other turns. But you have to believe that it’ll come to pass. Because, as we all know, people go through radical and severe personality changes all the time.

In grading this one episode, I felt it only right to divide the show up into sections.

The Wrestling: B
The Skits and General B.S. : F
Combined Grade: C-

Next up: Monday Night RAW.

God help me.

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