I don't have a great deal of time today, so rather than go too deep into Wrestlemania stuff - I still want to talk to you about my favourite Wrestlemanias and my thoughts on this year's show yet - I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on Raw this week.
I was hugely impressed with some many facets of this week's Raw. From the build - they expressly told their audience that Rock and Taker would be on the show - to the execution, the show delivered in nearly every way. An extra positive to it will be if a buyrate comes in and Mania has eclipsed recent editions and perhaps jup back about that magic one million mark.
A lot about the Raw this week was about the timing of certain things. I watched Wales v England at the weekend, and I was surprised at how negative the reaction was to England's performance. I felt England were dominant, in control and played some nice football. However, most of their chances and exciting play came in the first half. The second half, I'll admit, was nowhere near as exciting as the first. I think if the halves had been reversed, and England had played their best stuff in the second half, people would have gone away thinking better of the performance.
A month or so ago, The Rock returned to WWE and reminded us all of how (go on, I'll say it) electrifying he is, and ignited a feud with John Cena. A week later, the well built Undertaker cabin segments came to a head with Taker's return and Triple H's surprise involvement. Their initial, silent face-off was captivating.
Both feuds, though, lost a bit of steam after that. HHH/Taker in particular was only kept alive by virtue of some wonderful video packages. However good those initial scenes were, there was a danger of Wrestlemania arriving without the fans recapturing that excitement level which naturally dwindled after the opening gambits.
This week, though, both feuds suddenly became current, interesting and relevant again. I personally can't wait to see what happens on Sunday.
A big return on a TV show often offers conflicting views on how you promote it. Do you keep it quiet and enhance the surprise, yet risk not adding extra viewers? Or do you plug that Superstar X will be around but lose that surprise factor in an attempt to add 0.1 to your rating?
Shawn Michaels appearing on Raw was a terrific moment, and the fact that the promise of Rock and Taker on the show had already done the work of bringing in the people made it all the easier. HBK, hall of fame or no hall of fame, is so massively respected by the WWE Universe that anything he is involved with instantly lends it more credibility. The fact that one of the big Mania matches happens to feature his best friend and his best opponent makes things all the more perfect.
When three men and a microphone can make a 10,000+ crowd go 'ooooh' several times in a promo, you know you are onto something. HBK's "what make you think you can do what I can't?" to Hunter was good. Taker's "ask him" in reference to Shawn hit the spot too. That crowd had forgotten they were at a pro wrestling show and had suspended their disbelief. That's when wrestling is at it's best.
I wasn't expecting The Rock to get physical before Wrestlemania. In fact even at Mania I was only expecting a Rock Bottom and a People's elbow. On Raw he got attacked, hit a comeback, nailed a fabulous DVD. I would say he hadn't lost a step if wasn't for him stumbling when nipping up. He even took an Attitude Adjustment from Cena. The beatdown of Miz might not have helped him too much, but it isn't like Miz has been built as a phenomenal wrestler. He's an opportunist and an annoying figure on the mic, and can easily get his heat back. Being involved with Rock for a few months won't do him any harm at all.
Rock's physical work, especially the last bit, with Cena attacking him, means that now speculation for his involvement on Mania centres on a different purview entirely. I, like many others, had it down that Rock would find his way into this match and find an excuse to attack Miz, either pre- or post-bell, and symbolically pass the torch to Cena. Now though, I'd see this as a letdown. Rock needs to look strong in reacting to Cena.
In another Blog entry later in the week I'll discuss what I think might go down in the matches in Mania as a whole, but just quickly I think there is a possibility that Rock promises, during the night, to not get involved at all in the match. He lives up to his word, save for maybe getting rid of Alex Riley forcibly, and after Cena reclaims his belt, The Rock attacks him.
On Raw, you could go with one of two things, depending on how involved Rock wants to get. He either challenges Cena for the title (highly unlikely, still, though, I feel) or offers Cena his hand in respect. The latter incident could either mean a handshake to try and get Cena over with Rock fans, or Cena viciously attacks Rock and turns properly heel. It would make a fantastic post-Mania, first Raw angle.
I liked a lot of the rest of this week's Raw, too. I particularly liked the Punk v Orton action, with Punk getting a great deal of heat back and creating a story for their match. Really, really solid and logical booking creating a situation where you want to see a match.
The Mania line-up is an interesting one. Almost every contest has a chance to be good to very good. It's how much they live up, and how many potentially good ones make it to the great level.
But that is all for another day...............
Thursday, 31 March 2011
I don't have a great deal of time today, so rather than go too deep into Wrestlemania stuff - I still want to talk to you about my favourite Wrestlemanias and my thoughts on this year's show yet - I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on Raw this week.
Wednesday, 30 March 2011
As part of my quest to give you a blog each day before Wrestlemania 27, I thought that today I would give you my story of the only Wrestlemania that I have seen in person.......so far.
If you have stumbled across this blog by accident, a quick catch up on who I am. I am currently the lead wrestling writer for top UK newspaper The Sun's website. I have been writing for the site for around five years, and started under the stewardship of Simon Rothstein, the Wrestling editor, who now works in PR for TNA.
Simon got to visit many Wrestlemanias, and was expected to go to the 25th incarnation of the Sports Entertainment phenomenon in 2009. However, he was invited to TNA Lockdown, which is typically scheduled near Mania, and could not justify a second trip to the States in a short space of time. I had been with Simon to TNA Bound for Glory the previous October, and was delighted when he said that I could attend Mania in his place.
Wrestlemania took place that year in Houston, Texas. I was delighted to learn when my travel details arrived that Joel Ross was also attended. For the uninitiated, Joel is one half of TV and radio duo JK and Joel. These days he is my co-host on The Sun's Wrestlecast, but this was long before I took Simon's place on that show. I had met Joel and his lovely girlfriend, Kat, on several occasions, so it was nice to know they would be attending, too.
Sadly, though, Joel inadvertently played a part in lessening my experience to a certain extent, though no blame ought to go to him or Simon, whose Wrestlecast with Ken Kennedy weeks before Mania hurt my trip from a work perspective.
Mr Kennedy - or Mr Anderson as he is now - joined the boys in the Wrestlecast studio and said one or two controversial things, as he is prone to doing. I like Ken; he's an interesting guy to chat to, and I've enjoyed meeting and interviewing him on several occasions, but he did say one or two things in that interview which were questionable, including some things about the Wellness Policy. Now if WWE don't like him saying that, then that's their issue to take up with Ken. As it was, they requested that The Sun edit out some of the more controversial statements. Simon - quite rightly, in my view - refused, and WWE prompted decided that we were to have our rights to interviews such as this taken away.
Of course, I stood by Simon's editorial decision. Not out of loyalty, but because I felt it was correct. However, this did me no favours. I was now travelling to Houston and staying in a very nice hotel on WWE's buck, but they were not allowing me any interviews while I was there. I don't really understand to this day why they did not pull the plug on my visit entirely. It would have saved them a few quid. Anyway, I'm not complaining.
I met Joel and Kat at Heathrow on the Thursday and we headed to Texas. I was delighted that my seat with my requested extra legroom was nice and roomy - but my TV didn't work. Thanks British Airways. They told me I could claim compensation. I never did get any money for that.
We arrived in Houston to blistering sunshine (I've spent just under three weeks in America, and I've yet to see it rain) and found Houston to be...........well, rubbish frankly. It's a bit of an urban, nondescript functional entity, really. However, I found my hotel to be very nice (The Hilton, if you must ask.) and noted it was directly opposite the arena for Raw and adjacent to the convention center where Ring of Honor and a Booker T wrestling convention were situated. After a pleasant evening where I was taken to dinner by our PR, along with a couple of guys from Sky Sports, Thursday was over. Mania weekend started in earnest on the Friday.
I met up with my good friends Richard and Matt Parr, who had traveled over as fans for the show. (Matt is a brilliant magician - http://www.mattparro.com/ - and would occasionally, during the weekend, entertain us all with close up tricks) Together we went into the Booker T convention, taking in some of the stands inside and watching as some great names from wrestling's past signed autographs and interacted with fans and each other. The atmosphere was great, and it was clear that Mania fever was in the air.
It was here that I met James Caldwell for the first time. James is the assistant editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch site (http://www.pwtorch.com/), a good writer, a great wrestling mind and most importantly a really nice guy. Now this meeting happened to be two media guys, but it does encapsulate the great thing about Wrestlemania in that you know that literally thousands of people are in close proximity being wrestling fans. There is a actually a liberating feeling about being able to express yourself as a true fan, sometimes. I'm sure many of you find in life that you aren't able to truly talk passionately about wrestling lest someone looks down on you or, perhaps worse, laughs at you. Here, it was total freedom. James and I spent a great while talking about all facets of wrestling, and have kept in regular touch since. I've been fortunate enough to participate in the PWTorch Livecast, an excellent radio call-in show, twice as a guest host. It's a great site.
Convention over with, Rich, Matt and I wandered upstairs to where Ring Of Honor was being held that night. Sadly I never got to see either of the ROH shows held that weekend due to scheduling conflicts, but the guys that did go gave the shows rave reviews. Perhaps my only regret of that weekend is that I didn't go to ROH instead of Axxess (we'll come to that).
We met Bryan Danielson as he was arriving at the building, and had a brief chat. He was very friendly, although didn't remember meeting me a few months previous. I mean, we were drinking together in a cricket club in Wolverhampton for goodness sakes. Who forgets nights in glamourous surroundings like that?? I also had a chat with D-Lo Brown, who I'd met previously when he was working with British fed VPW and was booked with ROH that week. D-Lo is a class act, and I've encountered him many times since in his capacity with TNA. A real gent.
Friday night saw a media dinner at the very swanky House of Blues establishment. As we were leaving our hotel in a convoy, a familiar face appeared at the front of our group. Think "Here comes the money" and you may have an idea of who I mean. It was of course Shane O Mac, and he showed, depending on your perspective, a sense of making young fans happy or a sense of seeing an opportunity in front of media folks as he dashed ahead of our group and chatted to a family or two emblazoned in WWE merchandise. I never got the chance to chat with Shane personally, but he seemed another class act throughout the evening.
On arrival in our exclusive bar, Joel and I asked advice on what WWE International head honcho Andrew Whittaker (nice guy, ridiculous slicked back haircut) was drinking. He called the beer "Dos Equis" (which I think means two horses) as the best beer, so Joel and I set about drinking the bar dry of it. (This was before I was Gluten Free, of course)
Now I can't remember what the topic of conversation was, but I know at some point I was talking to Joel and I mimed a headbutt. At exactly that moment, the beautiful Natalya (and she really is beautiful - TV doesn't do her justice) and Tyson Kidd approached us. They introduced themselves as Nattie and TJ, and we spoke with them informally for ten minutes or so. Nattie said she could tell I was British because of the headbutt. Flamin' cheek!
TJ was a little quiet, even shy, but Nattie was very sweet indeed. Could be a great interview someday. Carlito was also in attendance, but we never got to chat to him. Shane and other did short speeches thanking the international media, and then we ate. Well, we drank and there was some food around. I recall trying to eat prawns and forgetting to shell them. It was a good night.
On Saturday I did some of the less glamourous stuff which occurs on Mania weekend. In the morning I was at the finals of the Wrestlemania reading challenge, at which Layla, MVP, Mark Henry and Matt Hardy did their bit, and Linda McMahon was in attendance. I won't lie to you - the morning spent in the Houston Library for this event wasn't the most exciting I've ever had, but it was still cool to see kids (and parents actually) starstruck by some of their heroes, and learning at the same time. WWE get a lot of flak for certain things (sometimes by me, and sometimes quite rightly) but they do a lot of things which are for the betterment of their fans and society which they do no need to do.
In the afternoon, as a unit (which by then included then XFM DJ and now TV star in his own right Alex Zane) we went to Axxess. It was fine for what it was, but I'm not sure it was worth paying a great deal for. I've obviously got a nerve, because I didn't pay a penny, and maybe it's because I've always been a different type of fan, but I didn't find the selection of stalls (and the staggering hike in price of the food and beverages) all that interesting. There was quite a cool interview someone (Lillian I think) did with Randy Orton in a set up ring (they had some Velocity level matches in it) where he broke character a little, but on reflection I may have bunked off this and gone to ROH.
On Saturday evening we took our seats in the Toyota Center for the Hall of Fame. One of the first things that struck me was that the dress standards in the building was a little less than I would have liked. That might sound a bit stuffy, but TV's Joel Ross (I like calling him that), Kat and I had all popped on a whistle and flute or an appropriate dress (you can decide who wore what) for the occasion (Joel did buy the Stone Cold HOF shirt, though) and I liked the idea that it could feel like a formal occasion.
That aside, it was a nice night, seeing some major legends of wrestling (and Koko B Ware) inducted into the Hall, although the huge countdown clock did take some of the sheen off things, where you could see that certain talent were being forced to keep it briefer than they would have liked. That said, Michael Hayes, who was inducting The Von Erichs, did not seem all that concerned about time constraints!
The nicest thing about The Hall of Fame was that it made the whole Wrestlemania experience feel like a festival, or at least a multi-day event. It actually feels like part of Mania, and I love the tone of it, which is to acknowledge those that have (cliche time) paved the way for what Mania has become..........and Koko B Ware.
We left, on a snazzy luxurious coach (well, when I say "luxurious coach", I mean "luxurious mini-bus". And when I say "luxurious mini-bus", I of course mean "Mini-bus") for the Reliant Stadium at about 3pm on Sunday afternoon. While I don't wish to sound like a whiner - I have to keep reminding myself this was a freebie to Wrestlemania - we did spend about an hour just standing outside the stadium, and then a further hour or so sitting around inside a suite at the top of the building. It did lend itself to a funny story, though.
A room that we were hoarded into to begin with was rather nondescript, but soon someone discovered a door which led to a small box, which in turn looked onto the arena. In turns, many of us wandered into this box to look into the arena. A great many of the talents involved in Wrestlemania were preparing for their big night. It was an interesting insight.
However, fairly soon a WWE official caught some people (not me, I was well out of it) inside the room and demanded not only that they get out, but they show any pictures taken and delete them. Needless to say this was a tedious and unnecessary process. Talk about control freaks.
The media throng gradually increased as time wore on, and I'd say there were maybe a hundred journos assembled when we were introduced to first Nicole Scherzinger (she was singing America The Beautiful - and while she may be from the former, she isn't as close to the latter as you may think. She was 50% cardboard and 50% bitch. Ok, that's a bit harsh, but she was very dull and not at all attractive) and then the combo of Mickey Rourke, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. Ok, that was pretty cool. I never got to ask any questions, though.
My seat for the event was a perfectly decent one, in the first balcony as I recall. Now I've been to many football matches with huge crowds, but this was an impressive sight. 72,000 people in a roofed stadium was phenomenal.
I don't need to recall the event for you. Needless to say it was a pleasure to be present to see Shawn Michaels v Undertaker. From the elaborate entrances to the match itself, it was compelling from bell to bell. When Taker flew over the top rope and landed on his head, I thought the match was over. More than once I bought a false finish. It was truly the best spectacle I've ever seen at a wrestling event.
I mentioned this in yesterday's entry, but there is just something about Wrestlemania that brings out the best in wresting crowds, and I found myself watching the crowd almost as often as the ring. A very special occasion.
On Monday, after breakfast/lunch at House of Blues, Joel and I decided that it was only right to explore the cultural history and architectural delights that Houston had to offer. About four minutes later we were in a pub which, I'm not kidding, must have had 400 taps on the wall. The beer menu was four pages of A4, in small writing. It was amazing - check it out. http://www.beerknurd.com/stores/houston/
After sampling plenty of the beers on offer - it would have been rude not to, wouldn't it? - explaining Joel several times that the pink beer in the slim glass I bought him was a mistake (he drank it though) and beating him hollow on a golf arcade game, we stumbled in the direction of the hotel, which was the meeting point for Raw. A couple of swift bottles of Corona with some WWE suits later and we headed for the arena. After some dark matches, Lillian launched into a splendid rendition of the US National Anthem - so splendid that Joel and I joined in. Loudly. I thought we were bloody marvelous, offering harmony and dignity to the anthem. Apparently, others thought differently, as a WWE suit (Australian) told us to be quiet and show some respect. Even Kat told us to shut up.
Looking back now, I wonder if perhaps we were a little drunk. :-)
Raw was fun though. Batista's shock return was the headline of the night, but my enduring memory will be not only seeing Rick Steamboat and chanting for him (see yesterday for grammatical accuracy) but watching CM Punk and Jeff Hardy on the apron openly grinning and basically marking out for Ricky. A fantastic moment.
On Tuesday, we flew home, but not until late in the day. It gave us time to check out the massive mall on the edge of the city, and I gave an interview to The Fight Network's John Pollock from the windy car park, while Ross tried to put me off. Prick.
It was a tremendous experience, and I would very much hope to get the opportunity to be invited again someday soon. I will certainly envy those in Atlanta this weekend.
Monday, 28 March 2011
There are five events in the sporting calendar that bring out excitement in me above all else. Four of them are The World Cup (football/soccer), The Ryder Cup (Golf), The Ashes (Cricket) and the Cheltenham Festival (Horse Racing).
Can you guess the other?
That's right. The Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race.
No, just kidding. It's Wrestlemania. You can dispute the use of the word 'sport' all you like, but to me wrestling brings together my favourite elements of sport than no soap opera or film drama ever could. It's about establishing a contest, a reason for a competition between people or teams. You watch those concerned for an amount of time, knowing that the build-up is all for a peak at a certain time.
Wrestling happens to be scripted - but the journey is the same.
Take Horse Racing. In National Hunt racing (for the uninitiated, that's British and Irish racing where horses jump obstacle) a horse only has to win a low-grade race at an obscure racecourse in October and already people start asking 'Will it go to Cheltenham?'
The Festival is a collection of the very best horses in training coming together in the biggest races in the Jumps calendar. It produces some fascinating clashes and asks sports most important question. When those considered the best in their field meet, who or what is best?
There is a race at the Festival called the World Hurdle. It is run over three miles, and was won for two years in a row by a horse called Big Buck's. A brilliant, enigmatic horse that dominated it's field for a couple of years.
In October, a contender emerged. An animal by the name of Grands Crus won a race over similar course and distance to the World Hurdle in terrific style. Before the Festival in March it won two more races in style, and the horse racing world buzzed about the first meeting of Grands Crus and Big Buck's. Would the newcomer beating all before it be the real thing? Would the long term champion be able to retain the crown against his most dangerous challenger yet?
Does all that sound familiar? You don't have to be a racing fan to see aspects of a good wrestling angle in there. I think it most closely resembles Hulk Hogan defending against The Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania 6. You could also draw comparisons with Taker v Triple H, right now. But whichever you think fits best, it is undeniably a classic angle. The lovable champ challenged by the talented newcomer.
As it happens, Big Buck's won by a couple of lengths from Grands Crus. But it was a great race. It was fascinating to think about, interesting to watch and it had a great pay off. Even better, I want to see a rematch. Can Grands Crus learn from the defeat? Can it mature and beat the champ next time?
The Gold Cup saw the young horse Long Run beat veterans Denman and Kauto Star. It was a passing of the torch. Maybe it was Benoit beating HBK and Triple H at Mania 20. The horse that many thought could never do it, did it. The two that were vanquished still came off like legends.
In contrast, take Hurricane Fly, which won the Champion Hurdle. Hurricane Fly only raced in Ireland before coming to Cheltenham. He kept beating a horse called Solwhit. I didn't believe Hurricane Fly would win, because I had no proof that it could cut it over here. You could equate that to building up to Mania by only winning squash matches against the same opponent. That's a little tenuous, but it is along the same lines.
Any of the sports mentioned feature various stories that get you excited for the main event. The Ryder Cup has golfers battling to qualify over a two year stretch. It's what it all builds to. You look at each golfer's record in the competition like their Mania record. (Colin Montgomerie's singles streak was never broken) You want to see which players will meet, who the wildcards will be. The crowd is special. It is a contest like no other in golf. It is almost never a let down.
The World Cup and The Ashes both also have such history. Some of the biggest moments in football history have happened in World Cups. The greatest players have played there, memories are made. The Ashes is a symbolic rivalry etched in the ages. A series of epic contests which are looked forward to for some time.
I could go on but you get the point. There is perhaps nothing inherently different about Wrestlemania. It is just a wrestling card with matches and a crowd. It's the same guys who compete at any other PPV. The same basic set-up. Wrestling matches happen all the time, don't they? So why is it different.
Cricket matches, golf tournaments, football matches and horse races take place all the time, too. But the contests highlighted have that little bit extra to them. It's either an epic rivalry or a meeting of the very best at the respective sports. The history of excellence and excitement adds to the theatre of the occasion.
And so does the crowd. It's what you might term a virtuous circle. The crowd's excitement and involvement adds to the viewing pleasure, which makes the spectacle better. A better spectacle means the crowd get more excited, which means they make more noise and so forth. Think of the amazing crowd response at the Ryder Cup in Wales last year. Or the Barmy Army's involvement at the Cricket. The roar of the crowd as the first race of the Festival sets off. You get good crowds at other events in those sports, but nothing like those. It is the feeling of knowing you are somewhere special and experiencing something special.
The Rock v Hulk Hogan, had it taken place in an empty arena, would have been a very average match indeed. It was the crowd playing off the importance and history of both men that made it feel like such a big deal. But part of the reaction was that it was at Mania. Had the first meeting between Hogan and Rock been at No Mercy or Armageddon in front of 13,000 people it would have been good, but wouldn't have been Mania-good.
As this Sunday gets nearer I have found myself watch old Mania DVDs, watching matches on Youtube, even reading the ten-year-old WWE book on Wrestlemania which is filled with inaccuracies. It's because, certainly in recent years, Wrestlemania has been the show that has delivered above others. Not every year, but most of the time you can expect to see a huge crowd, a couple of great matches, people you don't see at other times.
WWE has done a terrific job of enhancing this feeling. The Hall of Fame ceremony has helped terrifically. You can rightly have reservations about the Hall itself, but surely you can't deny that hearing speeches from Bret Hart, The Rock and Steve Austin at the ceremonies, as well as the Ric Flair hoopla, made the thing special.
I was fortunate enough to be at the Hall of Fame ceremony and Wrestlemania 25 in Houston. As good as Michaels v Taker was, my abiding memory of that weekend was watching one of my all-time favourites, Ricky Steamboat, wrestle at Mania and at Raw. He was phenomenal, but what made his performances so much better was knowing the stage on which he was doing it. I was one of the thousands that chanted "You Still Got It" (Actually no I was wasn't. I was one of the few people that used the grammatically correct form of "YOU'VE still got it". But then that is me.)
If it had happened at another PPV it would have felt like WWE running out of ideas and delving into the past. But it was Mania. It helped that Jericho was awesome too, but the combination of Mania and Steamboat gave me an enduring memory.
Here's hoping the people in Atlanta get some of that this week, too.
Posted by Rob McNichol at 19:55
Sunday, 27 March 2011
Posted by Rob McNichol at 22:10