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The Crippler, Chris Benoit

The Heart Break Kid, Shawn Michaels

Eddie 'Latino Heat' Guerrero

Slobberknockers abound
The Oratory RAW Review Crew: 02/16/04

With time running out and a string of great television only recently behind them, the pressure was on for RAW to continue to deliver the goods this week, especially in the shadow of Eddy Guerrero's emotional title win at Smackdown's No Way Out the night before. With a surefire hit in the previously announced match between Chris Benoit and Shawn Michaels, inevitable confrontations between Randy Orton and Mick Foley, as well as Chris Jericho and Christian, and the possibility of the Rock's return, this looked to be yet another episode of "Can't-Miss" programming. So how was the follow-through? Read on, my friends. Read on.

I loved the opening promo, though it's not really something I want to get used to. Triple H had a legitimate reason to voice his frustration, as did Chris Benoit, and when the two of them finally collided in the ring it was sheer beauty. This is an example of exactly the way they need to use the Crippler, not as a guy who likes mind games or even as a colorful character, but as a worker who comes to the ring with the intention of expressing himself through his own actions. I've been waiting for WEEKS to see Benoit yank the mic out of Triple H's hands, and it was still every bit as surprising and impressive as I'd hoped when that finally came to pass this week. I wish these two could've had a one on one at WrestleMania, because judging from their brief tussle to open this show, it would've been Trips' best singles match since No Way Out '01.

There wasn't a lot of entertaining character development on last night's show, save for two shining exceptions; Christian and Eric Bischoff. In Bischoff we saw, up close and personal, just how stressful, hectic, non-stop and unrelenting a day as General Manager can be on the night of a RAW broadcast. The guy was taking shit from every direction throughout the course of the show, and it was extremely interesting to watch his demeanor decay from initial excitement to eventual disgust and frustration. Whether from faces or heels, enemies or allies, Bisch could NOT catch a break last night, and that's something I'd love to see turned into a full fledged storyline next week when he faces off with Vince in the center of the ring. Take all the hell he's been through since accepting the position more than a year ago, multiply that by the shit he took last night, add in a bit of the heckling he took for the death of WCW and smack Vince McMahon's head on top of the whole stinking pile... you've got what's known as a scapegoat, boys and girls. I want to see Eric lose it during that little face off, stop censoring himself and verbally tear Vince a new asshole.

Likewise, Christian almost carried the whole backstage portion of the show by his lonesome last night. While Jericho's spot on RAW and budding romance with Trish Stratus has cooled since he inexplicably turned full face a couple of weeks ago, Christian has made up for the slack with his delivery, a few well-written lines and a great story arc that's got the legs to last well beyond WrestleMania. I honestly can't wait to see how this is continued next week.

I wasn't impressed or even really interested in the tag title match, even though the belts somehow changed hands. As I mentioned in my writeup of last week's main event, Booker T and Rob Van Dam have been visibly uninspired between the ropes for a short time now, and didn't seem to put forward much in the way of extra effort when armed with the added thrill of winning the belts in their near future. I'll be the first in line to praise these two guys when they put on a great match, as I've been a vocal fan of both in the past, but I also won't overlook the instances where they're to blame for putting on a weak, boring match. This week was just such an instance. Not one of the four guys in the ring looked interested in doing much more than mailing an effort in here, and the finishing sequence went on for way too long, to boot.

I can't help but echo the seemingly universal sentiments about the Evolution / Mick Foley obliteration segment. I thought they did a great job of portraying the kind of sick, personal, pointed atmosphere this segment needed to succeed... but they just drug it on for an eternity. Orton and Flair were both laying some fat potatoes on ol' Mick here, with Flair hitting poor guy directly on the nose, and I'll admit that it lent big time sympathy points to the former champ. In a way, I guess, this was probably the most realistic beating we've seen on RAW in ages, due in large part to the fact that a chunk of it wasn't worked, but on a sports entertainment show, violence this drawn out and realistic sticks out like a sore thumb. You can't go from an uncomfortable car-wreck of a guy getting his face systematically peeled from his skull to a bald "bionic redneck" riding an ATV to the ring, drinking beers and sucker punching the talent nearly a year after retiring from active competition. It's gotta be one or the other.

The women's match was good, if much shorter than I'd have liked, and I'm getting a little tired of seeing Victoria pin Molly without much difficulty. It's not that I have that big of a problem with the higher-ups deciding that the time has come to switch the momentum to somebody else... Molly's had a very good run, and done a lot for the division during her tenure as champion, and Victoria has improved so greatly over the last twelve months that she deserves to be the one to dethrone her... it's more that I don't understand why they're building one woman as this undeniable threat to the belt, then refusing to give her either a title shot or a moment or two outside the ring to explain her position. I still love this division, though, and pray nightly that the same kind of success comes to the men's division one day.

The main event, as I'd hoped, was tremendous. They gave these two much longer than I'd hoped they would, appropriately reminded us of the reason they have such a passionate and immediate hatred for each other, and let JR and Lawler actually call the action instead of talking about another, unrelated storyline or uninvolved athlete. Though Benoit's still a little too reliant on the chops, this was a very good first encounter, and really served to whet my appetite for lengthier meetings between the two in the near future. Benoit was booked to keep up with and, in many cases, outclass the multiple-time champion, and was in position to put the whole thing away when Triple H meandered to ringside, ruined all the internet fans' hopes and dreams and ultimately cost the Crippler the match. Michaels went a long way toward establishing the Crossface as a genuinely painful maneuver here, frantically scrambling out of the ring or into the ropes on the two occasions Benoit went for it, and legitimately put the new guy over as his equal, if not his better. Sure, Benoit took the pinfall in the end... this was still about as close to a torch passing as we're going to see on free TV.

As for Triple H's involvement in the match... well, I know it's hard to admit it, but the guy is playing a great heel. He's kayfabing everyone in the world by ruining the clash of the titans we'd all expected, not just the so-called "marks" but also the "smarts." If you've got a couple minutes and don't mind coming back, I covered the whole scenario about six months ago in an issue of Ringside Shadows. Read it with an open mind, then apply what I was saying in September to what Triple H and Shawn did last night. They simultaneously solidified the heel champ as a genuine asshead, laid more roots for the full-blown Michaels heel turn at or just after WrestleMania, and all but gave Benoit an open invitation to either retain or win the World Title opposite HBK in Edmonton. Come on, just think about it... an arrogant, cocky heel champion Shawn Michaels... defending his belt in Canada... against the hometown boy, the new national hero, Chris Benoit. My interest in that possibility more than compensates for the disappointment about the way last night's match wound up.

Oh yeah, and it didn't really fit anywhere else, but I loved the spots where those two were struggling over the German Suplexes. Michaels told volumes with his body language, like he knew the match would be over if Benoit hit the rolling Germans, and Benoit knew the same thing. Just a great bit of silent storytelling between two of the masters.

So it's four weeks to WrestleMania, aka Crunch Time. Time to ramp up, to add a nitrous boost, to put pedal to medal, or any number of other overused "acceleration" cliches you can imagine, as the unyielding hard sell for the year's biggest event becomes more and more frantic. These last few weeks have, traditionally, been among the most exciting and entertaining of the entire year for fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, as the bookers have a finish line to shoot for with their writing and the athletes have a pinnacle to reach towards with their efforts. It's one of the few opportunities you'll ever get to see a flawless melding of anticipation, desire, frustration and precision in sports entertainment, as those four planets very, very rarely align in this violent little corner of the world. It's the month-and-a-half-long time viewers look forward to with no exceptions.

So why did it feel like such a let-down this week?

Maybe it had to do with the incredible roll RAW had been on for the last several episodes, or perhaps the furious anticipation with which we'd all waited for this week's Benoit / Michaels dream match. Maybe it was just a bad week for the writers, or a transitional RAW that had been planned from the start as the framework of an even bigger picture. Whatever the cause, this week's show came off feeling flat, especially in comparison to what we took in last week. I can't give it much more than an average grade, superb main event or no. For every heated exchange between the Heart Break Kid and the Wolverine, there was a spontaneous rainstorm on the entryway, for every sharpshooter a missed spot in the tag title match. Sure, the big match itself delivered... but the undercard fell flat.

Score: 5.25 / 10


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