Tony Schiavone: “This is the man they call ‘Unpredictable’. I’m talking about Dick Slater”
Dick Slater: “Who named me that name? I’d like to know where does that name come from?”
Tony Schiavone: “I don’t know”
Dick Slater: “Well, if the shoe fits wear it. I was scheduled to wrestle on TV today. But I changed my mind because I don’t want to give anyone my itinerary. Let ‘em come scout me ‘cause if I’m gonna be unpredictable, that’s what I’m gonna be. So ya never know what I’m gonna do. Where I’m gonna come from. Or who I’m gonna come after. But the Kollofs are in my big plans, Ole and Arn Anderson are in my big plans. Who I get for a partner? You’ll never know that either. So why should I sit here and tell everyone what I’m gonna do if I’m gonna be unpredictable?”
(NWA/JCP, back when wrestling was unpredictable)
Welcome to the debut of Now That’s What I Call Wrestling.
Now for those of you who don’t know me I am your new hero, your party host and most importantly the most charismatic showman to ever enter your living rooms via a television screen.
For those of you who DO know me all hail the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla…
Oh, that was someone else.
In this column I’m going to look at unpredictability in wrestling, with relation to the current scene.
One of the main reasons those who don’t understand the appeal of this form of entertainment, when compared to legitimate sports, has always been and will always be: “How can you watch something where you know what the result will be?”
Some have even attributed the cross-over appeal between pro wrestling and MMA to it’s being the closest thing to wrestling but with uncertain results. Is pro wrestling predictable? Often it is. And often that’s not a bad thing.
Logical booking dictates that sometimes the expected is the pay-off that fans want to see. However it doesn’t have to be that way. Over the years there have been plenty of surprises. Certain performers have gone to any lengths to try and keep their latest angles as secret as possible and promoters have even gone to the extent of leaking false information to the newsletters to mislead the hardcore fans.
The problem is in recent years those surprises have been harder to conceal with the rise of the internet, often combined with a more ‘open’ attitude from promotions and performers in post-kayfabe era news of returns make keeping surprises a surprise difficult.
A few years back an interesting attempt at creating that often missing feeling of unpredictability and combining it with the widespread use of internet technology came from the usually formulaic WWE.
They called it Taboo Tuesday (and later Cyber Sunday). I love the idea behind Cyber Sunday/Taboo Tuesday I just wish they'd have more than one plausible option for the voting. I mean the idea behind it is that it's supposed to at least feel unpredictable.
In theory the concept of an interactive pay-per-view allows fans to go on line and vote on the participants, matches and stipulations from a series of choices offered by WWE. Sounds like a gamble? Yes and no. From a promotional viewpoint, nine times out of ten WWE can control the outcome of the voting through the way television is booked leading up to the event. For the minority who have speculated it is all ‘fixed’ (something which has been denied by the major wrestling news sources), I only ask why would WWE need/want to?
With five/six hours of first run television available each week, the powers that be can use storylines and angles to persuade people to vote for what they want. Also there's another factor in that no-matter what you vote for they can still work whatever important spot they had planned into the equation. For example, at Taboo Tuesday 2004 the fans voted "Chain" (rather than Chair or Pipe) for the weapon of choice in the Kane/Snitsky match but it was irrelevant to the finish as they used the Chair anyway.
That’s not to say that the fans always follow what the promotion wants. Although still fairly predictable, the first year threw up a few surprising results. Even I wasn't sure Shawn Michaels would get voted into the match with Triple H. Coming off Chris Benoit’s title loss at SummerSlam I thought there was a distinct possibility ‘The Wolverine Machine’ would have gotten the vote, although my actual vote was for Edge.
Similarly, I didn't know what the weapon would be in the Kane/Snitsky match (not that it made a difference). Or who would face Chris Jericho for the Intercontinental title. The options for Jericho’s opponent were actually the widest for any vote included at the event thus far. Y2J himself includes his match with Shelton Benjamin as one of his best since he didn't know who it was going to be with a choice from sixteen guys. He couldn't prepare properly for all of them! Christian, Batista and Benjamin were in with a shot. Since then Jericho has commented he spent the most time preparing for was what to do if it was Coach in case the masses voted for him as a joke.
The problem is that since then the choice of stipulations (normally one decent choice and two with about as much appeal as a Snitsky/Khali Iron Man Match) and has often made this the most predictable PPV of each year. In 2005, they even went to the extent of having Ric Flair beg fans to vote for his match with Triple H to take place inside a Cage.
On the 28th October 2007, WWE presented the latest edition of Cyber Sunday. Of the four annual events held thus far, I found this year’s the most unpredictable since the original.
The first surprise of the night for me came when the fans voted for a Stretcher Match between Finlay and Rey Mysterio. Although their previous match at No Mercy lead into this kind of stipulation, I was expecting the Shillelagh on a Pole match to get the nod. I’m pleased it didn’t. Whereas Nightstick/Bikers Chain/etc. on a pole matches tend to limit rather than enhance the action, the stretcher allows for some neat spots - like at the beginning where Finlay sent Mysterio flying to the outside and straight onto the stretcher which moved in the direction of the white ‘finish line’.
Ah, the finish line. Whereas the traditional idea of the Stretcher Match was to incapacitate your opponent to the extent they had to be wheeled out of the arena, in contemporary WWE it’s a case of trying to just get your opponent on there long enough to shove it across the finish line. Kind of like scoring a try.
JBL was right: all three matches favoured Finlay and that’s something they could have played up throughout the match but didn’t. I’d have had Finlay work over Mysterio for most of the match, trying to pulverize him so he can then dump him on the stretcher and give Rey little hope spots along the way. Like the bit where the ‘Belfast Bruiser’ worked on his leg with the shillelagh only for much longer. Don’t get me wrong it was a good match but the talent involved leads to high expectations. The somersault Centon onto Finlay on the stretcher looked so good it seemed like that was meant to be the ‘go home move’.
Instead we got what was (presumably) an improvised finish thanks to the cable getting caught on the wheel of the stretcher. As far as improv goes it was pretty good as Mysterio caught Fit running shillelagh-in-hand and delivered a flapjack onto stretcher which then slid across the ‘finish line’.
The biggest surprise of the night came in the ECW Title Match where The Miz was voted in to face CM Punk over the options of Big Daddy V (who had received the most favourable booking in the lead-up to the match) and former champion John Morrison.
I guess the audience was tired of seeing Punk/Morrison and didn’t want to see Big Daddy V squash Punk (which would have had to be the story of that match) either. Miz himself looked a little too shocked at this turn of events.
They kept things basic, which is a good job since even then some of the exchanges looked awkward. It could have been a botch-fest if they’d tried to run instead of crawl. Fortunately, they pulled things together nicely for the finish and the successful Punk defense.
Shawn Michaels getting voted into the WWE title match was no surprise. HBK had been voted into World title matches in 2004 and 2005 and is by far the more established name compared to other ‘candidates’ Mr. Kennedy and Jeff Hardy. No, my surprise here was at how strongly Hardy was put over on television in the lead up to the PPV. When the candidates were announced I was confident they would do everything they could on TV to try to get people to “vote Michaels”. Instead, that backstage promo Hardy did with Michaels not only showed he has more potential as a promo guy than I would have thought but also allowed him to express his motivation going into Cyber Sunday without being buried by HBK.
Again they kept things basic, possibly too basic since this came across as more of a TV-caliber match than a PPV one. Funny hearing JR harp on about how intelligent Kennedy is out of the ring, considering his ill-advised comments in the wake of the Benoit tragedy and subsequent suspension for steroid use. The closing moments were very good from Jeff’s comeback with his version of the Clothesline from Hell (from a guy Hardy’s size and build he really “put some stink on it” as a certain Rattlesnake might have said) to the near fall after Whisper in the Wind. I’m probably in a very (very) small minority here, but I didn’t mind the finish at all. It seemed like Hardy was in control then BAM! he made one mistake and Kennedy capitalized. It fitted both men’s characters. Hardy’s loss was another surprise because Jeff seems destined for a BIG push but judging by crowd reactions in the month since, this has done nothing to damage The Rainbow-Haired Warrior’s credibility.
Brother Matt Hardy’s inability to compete was not a surprise to anyone who had tuned into SmackDown! the previous Friday and the choices offered for a suitable replacement (Mark Henry/Great Khali/Kane) in the U.S. Title Match with MVP brought new meaning to the phrases “Group of Death”.
No not surprising. More than anything it was disappointing since I was interested to see what the result of the original poll for type of match would have been. A wrestling match would have resulted in the best actual ‘match’ and strengthened the card even more. I was interested to see how they would have worked, a worked MMA match. Less so a worked boxing match because we have seen those in the past and they have invariably stunk.
For some reason the thought of MVP/Khali intrigues me. If that (or even MVP vs. Mark Henry) had happened it would have added to the unpredictability of the night. Instead we got the safe choice of Kane. These two have had some good matches in the past. This wasn’t one of them.
The WWE Title Match between Randy Orton and Shawn Michaels was a slow-paced. Not that it’s a bad thing (Michaels’ arm-work was quite creative by WWE standards) and given HBK’s physical state it was a smart plan to work the match the way they did. Up to this point Michaels had looked unsteady on his knees since his return. I cringed when he executed that somersault plancha at the beginning.
As much as I’d been hoping for Hardy to get the vote, they were able to drag me into it before the finish. I thought it built well because the most tension and loudest crowd reactions were for the closing sequence. The low-blow was perfectly timed. Orton knew he was about to lose and reverted to the only available thing he could think of to counter Sweet Chin Music, knowing full well the referee was watching and he’d keep his belt on a Disqualification.
I’m not a fan of DQ finishes on PPV (surely that’s where the weekly main event caliber matches on TV come in handy?) but in this case it allowed the feud to continue and allowed JR to get in the Eagle’s reference (Peaceful Easy Feeling). Post-match it was poetic justice as well to see Michaels counter Orton’s kick, just as Orton had done
The Streetfight pitting Triple H against Umaga was one of the better Hunter single’s match since WrestleMania XXII… Although still not a patch on Umaga’s match with Cena from the Royal Rumble.
As we found out then, this kind of environment fits Umaga’s character like a glove (not a Coal Miner’s glove, that’s one stipulation match that wouldn’t have enhanced this match). It was a very good match which benefited from the fact it felt like a PPV match. The image of the two fighting on the giant keyboard was one of those little things that distinguish a match like this from something that would happen on TV. As were Triple H’s spear through the wall and Umaga’s running splash through the ECW table.
Whilst the stipulation was unpredictable the result was not. At least Umaga was put over relatively strongly, before going down to the sledgehammer-Pedigree one-two combo. With a match of this quality they could have given Umaga the surprise win setting up a third and final PPV collision in which Triple H would have gotten the clean win. Since the Cage option wasn’t voted in here they could have saved that for the next chapter. Instead Trips went 2-0 up.
Which brings us to the Main Event. SmackDown! headlining a show? Surely not!
The voting for Guest Referee from choices of Steve Austin, Mick Foley and John Bradshaw Layfield was only ever going to go one way. That said it had to surprise many that Foley received just ONE PERCENT more of the vote than JBL. As a Foley-fan it was sad to see the (lack of) reaction towards the Hardcore Legend prior to Foley taking the Stunner and then just rolling out of the ring. There was more unpredictability in the pre-match shenanigans due to the amount of offense JBL was able to get in on Austin before taking the Stunner. I’ve a feeling this is leading to something more.
Back to the match at hand: Batista and The Undertaker have had the most consistent main event rivalry of the year on pay-per-view. I thoroughly enjoyed their match at WrestleMania and felt it would have been the perfect way to close the show. Here they were given that chance and did so in style.
I worried the referee gimmick would hamper the chances of them recreating that, with the possibility of Austin overshadowing the match before delivering Stone Cold Stunner’s to both men – instead he was almost unobtrusive. Or at least as unobtrusive as a super-over, mega-star can be.
The looks exchanged between Austin and Undertaker during Undi’s entrance displayed the type of subtle psychology we could do with more of. Again the match was slow and deliberate. Again it built to a climatic finish.
The match felt unpredictable because there really was no obvious winner. Given that I was enjoying his reign as champion prior to his biceps injury, I was hoping The Undertaker would be the one to go over. At times it looked like that was on the cards.
The ten-count-punch in the corner spot has been used in Undertaker matches on too many occasions now. When he used it to beat Triple H at WrestleMania X7 it was the kind of thing that looked like it came out of nowhere – a brilliant counter by the veteran. In other words, it looked unpredictable.
Now it is becoming a cliché. Having been used on the likes of King Booker, JBL, Mark Henry and even Batista in previous matches you would think opponents would see it coming. It would make more sense if the person doing the old ten-count-punch routine, actually did that as part of their regular routine. Someone like Brutus Beefcake.
Still while the move itself might have been telegraphed, the result of the match was not - when ‘The Dead Man’ delivered the Last Ride out of the corner I thought we could have had a new champion. When Undertaker kicked out of the Batista Bomb, I knew he was going to make a comeback and we were looking at a new champion.
That didn’t happen and I found myself surprised for a final time that night. Surprised to see a clean finish.
So a night with it’s ‘fair share of surprises’ then.
Certainly is still could have been more unpredictable. WWE could have offered more options. Jericho turning up would have made the event seem special and created that feeling that, as Vince McMahon himself used to remind us, “Anything can happen in the WWF!”
At the end of it all, I was left with a positive feeling.
Because if mainstream wrestling can still surprise a hardened fan like myself there is hope for all of us.
Feel free to disagree, but Now That’s What I Call Wrestling.
Carl ‘TheBigBoot’ Robinson