Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Future Presidents appears on RAW; King of the Ring returns!

Political theatre jumped in the squared circle on Monday night as all three major Presidential Candidates appeared on RAW in taped speeches laced with wrestling catchphrases. Also on this special three-hour episode, WWE held a one-night King of the Ring tournament crowning the first champion since King Booker’s 2006 win. (Prior to that, the tournament had been retired since June 2002 when Brock Lesnar defeated RVD in the finals. Trivia note: only five of the sixteen men in that 2002 tournament – Edge, Hardcore Holly, William Regal, Val Venis and Chris Jericho – are still working for WWE now.)

WWE did not announce the participants for this tournament in advance. The news that the Presidential Candidates had each taped a message for the show was also late-breaking. No doubt, with a very close primary in Pennsylvania, any efforts to target young voters (Obama appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Monday as well), were being pursued aggressively. The overnight ratings for the show were not released yet but are expected to be higher than normal for the last two hours.

The timing for a one night, three-hour RAW directly preceding Sunday’s Backlash PPV is interesting. Typically, these specials are directives from USA. A seven-match one-night tournament like King of the Ring is an excellent way to fill the time but on a go-home show directly prior to a PPV, is it dilutive to selling Backlash? PPV storylines were woven into the tournament as well as promos for the RAW main event. However, the tri-focus of KOTR, promoting the upcoming pay-per-view and the messages by Obama, Clinton and McCain gave the show a very odd feeling.

First round was Chris Jericho (Intercontinental Champion, RAW) and Montel Vontavious Porter (US Champion, Smackdown). This pairing is especially interesting because Jericho honed his skills as one of the last modern wrestlers to really tour the world (Europe, Mexico, Japan, North America) prior to joining WWE. MVP joined the professional wrestling community much later in his life, but has shown a veracious ability to learn and improve ever since Kane literally lit a fire under his ass during their inferno match. Both have expressed a deep appreciation for Japanese strong-style wrestling. With these expectations, the match was okay but not incredible. Surprisingly, MVP submitted to the Walls of Jericho after Y2J escaped from the Play of the Day. Considering that Jericho is the referee for the Batista/HBK match and MVP has a singles match with Matt Hardy, I would have thought MVP would continue. However, seeing the rest of the matches, the decision must have been made that face-face matches would play better than heel-heel matches.

Next match was “Never say Die” Matt Hardy and “Mr. Money in the Bank” CM Punk. Considering MVP’s loss, it seemed evident that Hardy would be doing the job. Another match that would play very well in front of a ROH audience, Punk was able to get the pinfall after Hardy escaped from the G2S (KENTA’s Go 2 Sleep).

Fit Finlay and Great Khali had a short match ending in a disqualification. Khali was killing Finlay and destroying his leg by wrapping it around the ringpost. Eventually, Big Show appeared and the two had a short confrontation. I was surprised they had Khali giving Big Show the Tree-Slam on Smackdown last week. Personally, the allure of these two giants fighting one another (in my mind because Big Show had to take Khali’s place in the awful Punjabi Prison Match several years ago) is only special if we can’t see them taking bumps on free TV.

Finlay and son Hornswoggle were leaving when William Regal came out and it was announced that the diminutive former bastard son of Vince McMahon had been entered into the King of the Ring tournament. Regal made quick work of Hornswaggle by applying the Regal Stretch and immediately garnering a submission victory.

CM Punk defeated Chris Jericho in the KOTR semi-final match in the best match of the evening. These two men met just three weeks prior on Monday Night RAW during the build-up to the Money in the Bank Ladder match at Wrestlemania. In that encounter, Jericho landed the Code Breaker to defeat CM Punk in an excellent match. On Monday night, CM Punk avenged that loss when he managed to nail the G2S for the win. With a tournament which has the possibility to create new stars, CM Punk seemed like the right person to get some additional momentum. However, since he already holds the “Money in the Bank” title shot, it’s questionable whether he really would have needed to win this tournament as well.

William Regal and Fit Finlay had their usual face-bustingly violent affair. It was terrific to see them working over each other with their brutal strikes. Eventually, Regal managed to destroy Finlay with a devastating combination of senton-punches-knee lift and Regal stretch for another submission victory. Because of Finlay’s knee injury from the Khali match, I was surprised this one went as long as it did.

The finals for the 2008 King of the Ring tournament was William Regal versus CM Punk. Again, in another promotion, given sufficient time, this could be one of the finest matches of the year. On RAW, this was merely a good, albeit too short, final for a one-night tournament. In the end, Regal matched to apply the Regal Stretch for a third consecutive submission triumph.

A tournament such as King of the Ring offers an opportunity to make new stars. One of the main problems with the WWE Brand Expansion is that with the multiplying number of belts, it becomes harder and harder to establish anyone but the very top tier of the company: Triple H, Randy Orton, John Cena, Undertaker, Batista, Shawn Michaels and Edge. When you remove these players from a major tournament, you are only left with faux-main event contenders (JBL), Tag Champions (Hardcore Holly), Intermediate Belts (US Champion MVP & Intercontinental Champion Chris Jericho) and ECW “Superstars” (Kane & Chavo Guerrero). The Fit Finlays of the roster are people whose sole job is really to be a credible opponent without really being a major contender. Wasting a slot on Hornswaggle, especially without a storyline about Regal being a conniving GM stacking the tournament in his own favor, is a real shame. Instead, elevating a young star such as Lance Cade or re-establishing a potential powerhouse such as Umaga would have had far more impact. William Regal’s transition to King of the WWE will hopefully be a productive adventure. He definitely has the skills and background. The real question is – who will he defend his royal title against?

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