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The Nature Boy, Ric Flair

Shelton Benjamin

Trish Stratus

Slobberknockers abound
The Oratory RAW Review Crew: 03/29/04

Gliding off of one of the biggest ratings successes in recent memory, RAW needed to take the bull by the horns this week and give those fresh, new viewers an excuse to tune in again next week. They needed to really embrace Vince McMahon's request that the draft lotto "shake things up" and launch the "new rivalries, new superstars and new directions" the CEO had promised in that fateful promo. Not only that, but they needed to get those gears turning in a hurry for the rapidly approaching Backlash PPV, which was only three shows away at the time of those opening fireworks. It was a perfect example of the writers having their work cut out for them, not only accomplishing the big semi-relaunch that Vinnie Poo had demanded but also doing so in an extremely short period of time. Basically, they needed to deliver results without hesitation. I'm usually their harshest critic, but even I was feeling for them coming into this week.

Evolution started the show off, with Ric Flair firmly planting the stable's two youngsters under his wing and displaying the proper method of delivering a promo, interesting the crowd in an ongoing feud and living his character. Flair was absolutely on fire last night, both in this segment and in the main event. The guy's interaction with the live crowd, his body language and his facial expressions are still completely unheard of. He's such a master of his art that it's borderline scary. Orton played his role as well as could be expected, since all he really needs to do is stand around and act conceded to be successful, but I really can't get over how perfect a team he makes with Flair. Evolution really could've survived without Triple H, and more than likely would've thrived in his absence. I miss Flair's seamless mockery of the ringside crowd on a regular basis.

Tajiri and Coach were hysterical together last night, but it's not really something I'd like to see drug out across more than a single night. As Brett noted, sometimes the slapstick stuff works given the situation, and this was the right time and place to use it. Coach's totally over-the-top reaction to getting misted was great stuff.

The whole "Molly Holly losing streak" thing is getting to be overplayed. They spent nine months establishing her as a competent, experienced Women's Champion and gave her clean defenses against countless opponents, before handing her a couple months of endless losses. I can understand the need to shake up the names on top of the division, but it doesn't make sense to push Molly that strongly and then abandon it without an end in sight. Her feud with Victoria appears to be over, and I'd imagine the only reason she's still on TV is because she was willing to shave her head and they feel bad about letting her do it without planning any kind of payoff for her. Nidia looked decent enough... at the very least, she's carryable... which means she should do fine in the division, provided they continue pairing her off with competent ladies.

I don't remember a thing about the Triple H promo aside from the freaking World Title match he booked for himself at Backlash, which I guess is par for the course. The guy has the ability to spew words with little or no purpose like few in the history of the industry. Honestly, he and Hogan are in a league of their own, though the Hulkster's were a little more abstract while Helmsley's are more blatantly self-serving and egotistical. But I think I've harped long enough in the past about my dislike for long vocal circle-running in lieu of lengthier matches and more substantial storyline development. Needless to say; less talkie, more workie = Q more happy. I think about 75% of my writing can be simplified into that one statement.

I didn't mind the booking of the tag title match, but the work itself seemed too rushed and breakneck stop-and-go to me. I think they worked through half their combined signature maneuvers and big spots in the first minute with little or no build, spent a couple minutes exchanging rest holds and submissions, went back to another series of explosive big spots and then back to the rest holds. It was really bizarrely paced, is what I guess I'm trying to say. I'm a fan of all four guys involved with this one, (yes, even Batista) but I think they're all capable of much better. I don't understand why Shawn and Chris are all buddy-buddy now, either.

The Highlight Reel segment was sucking air until Jericho jumped in with all his face catachphrases and a couple new ones. It was gratifying to see Y2J say to Trish what every guy who's ever been cheated on has wanted to say to his ex, but the whole "trashbag ho" thing was getting stale when he abandoned it a few years back, so I really hope he isn't planning on breaking that old line out for the long run again. The audience participation bit was fun, no doubt about it... I wish more segments took advantage of the live crowd in this fashion, because it simultaneously makes for good TV watching from home and a fun experience for the ticket-holders themselves. Trish sounds disturbingly like Officer Gunderson in Fargo when she's trying to be a mean, deceitful bitch. On top of that, her whole act came off as really canned and poorly performed in general. She's improved in the ring since her debut, no doubt about it, but her acting chops are beyond poor.

Kane and Tajiri were genuinely awful in their little pseudo-match last night, which is a real shame because both guys can be tremendous assets if they're motivated, driven by a great storyline and / or opposed by somebody who knows what they're doing. Tajiri, in particular, has been extremely versatile in the past, putting on a great show opposite heavyweights and cruiserweights alike while in his prime in ECW. Like anybody else on the roster, though, he's absolutely wasted in a match like this. There's no reason to waste ANY athlete's time with a dumbass, meaningless, treadmill match like that one. Yeah, all right... let's all go out to the ring, no-sell for twenty seconds, attempt to run into a ringpost (and miss by a good six inches) and then wrap it all up with a convoluted, gimmicked finish that doesn't get anyone anywhere on the card. Huh, when I put it that way I guess I can understand why neither of these guys were motivated last night.

Finally, the match that defined the show in everyone's minds; Benjamin vs. Triple H. Shelton's been tearing up the competition in the ring lately, with a great couple of weeks on Smackdown up to and including the three falls in one night he fought in the infamous "gauntlet," and he really pulled out all the stops last night. Everything they did with this guy was spot-on, from the nervous face-off with Batista and blindsiding by Triple H to the blunt rubs from three of the show's most popular faces to the booking, pace and outcome of the match itself. They told, in two hours, the kind of story we've been demanding for the last year. They gave that Cincinnati audience a motive to get behind the kid, the endorsement to justify their motive, the momentum to elaborate upon those endorsements and the payoff to catapult him into instant recognition. I won't even attempt to give the match itself a star rating, since that issue's been debated to death over the last twenty-four hours and I don't put very much faith in star ratings to begin with, but I will say it was above average. It was a wonderful surprise, with Benjamin doing much more than pulling out the fluke win and delivering an excuse for JR to get all loud and excited at the end of the night. He didn't just splash Trips at the right moment and roll him up for the cheap win, he matched the eight time former champion move for move, countered everything The Game had to offer and won the match without outside interference. This was a great story, and that was enough to keep me interested throughout the match, no matter how much it seemed to lag while in Triple H's control.

And, no matter how much I hate his promos, I've got to hand it to Triple H. The guy's been undeniably on since WrestleMania. That's three great main events in a row, putting over deserving young talent in each instance. And you'll note that I didn't just say he laid down for new faces... he actually went out of his way to put them over. Benoit is a much more credible champion right now because Triple H was the one to tap out at 'Mania. Guerrero looks every bit like a legitimate World Champ, since he went blow-for-blow with Triple H one week ago and didn't fall victim to the pedigree. And now Benjamin is the real deal in the eyes of the fans, thanks in large part to the efforts of Helmsley. Surely it takes two to tango, but HHH deserves just as much credit for that match's success as Shelton.

I think the thing I liked best about this match was the number of directions they could potentially go with it from here. Shelton's character has so much potential at this point, with the momentum and dedication that put him over Triple H this week making him a great face, but his cockiness and natural heel charisma making a heel run inevitable. They never have to change this guy's character, they just have to play up one aspect of his personality more than the other. Then again, they've messed up far more promising situations than this one in the past...

All in all, this was the very definition of mediocrity aside from Flair's performance and Benjamin's elevation. I'm really enjoying this string of solid main events, and I hope to god it continues, but the actual guts of the show could still use some work. Needs less lengthy, meaningless promos, less worthless, forgettable little thirty second matches, and more stuff like the beginning and end of the program.

Score: 6.2 / 10


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