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Wrestlemania Countdown: 21

(2012 Scott sez:  My Wrestlemania memory here is that this was the first PPV I ever saw in a theater, since I had moved away from Edmonton and my usual wrestling fan crew in 2004 and needed a new venue.  The only specifics I remember is that they were having trouble working out the color timing and blood was showing in kind of a grey color, but it was a pretty awesome first experience with the theater viewing.  Sadly, the theater was demolished just a couple of years after this to make way for the latest and greatest Cineplex Galaxy theater, thus giving the city only one viable place to go to watch movies.  The Canadian monopoly on first-run movie theaters is really depressing.) 

The SmarK Rant for WWE Wrestlemania 21

- I was going to do No Way Out first, but I figured I'd get less e-mails bugging me about this one if I took care of it first, so since that's the kind of guy I am, here you go.

- Live from Los Angeles, CA.

- Your hosts are JR, King, Cole and Tazz.

- The set is probably one of the best they've ever done, where it truly says marquee on the wrestling, to quote Arn Anderson.  (That was an actual bungled Arn Anderson quote from Nitro, by the way.  I’ve had people e-mail me after I posted this rant and be like “shouldn’t that say wrestling on the marquee?” but no, it’s correct as is.) 

- Opening match: Rey Mysterio v. Eddie Guerrero.

Rey's mask troubles are immediately apparent, and Eddie takes him down with a headlock to start. Rey overpowers him for two, but Eddie takes him down again, this time with an armdrag. Rey comes back with a sunset flip for two, but Eddie slingshots him out of the ring, and they exchange highspot fakes before Eddie heads back in, no harm done. They do the lucha sequence with the wristlock bridge and Eddie takes him down from there, but Rey breaks free and they criss-cross into a Rey monkey-flip, as he continues having mask troubles. Rey charges and Eddie dumps him and follows with a pescado, as Rey AGAIN fumbles with the mask afterwards. Back in, that gets two. Backdrop suplex gets two. Eddie tries to take him into the bow-and-arrow, but they're not on the same page and it goes nowhere. He goes to an STF while Rey adjusts his mask again, getting a little OCD about it at this point, and Rey falls out of a powerslam attempt as they botch it pretty badly. Rey comes back with an armdrag that sends Eddie out of the ring, and Rey baseball slides him (after fumbling with the mask again) and follows with a pretty spectacular corkscrew plancha. Rey springboards back in with a buttdrop and then runs into an elbow, however, and Eddie takes over again. Rolling verticals are countered into a rollup by Rey. Eddie stops that rally with a backbreaker for two. Back to the rolling verticals, but this time Rey counters to a headscissor takedown, which puts Eddie in the 619 area code. It misses, and Eddie gets another backbreaker for two. Yet another try at the rolling verticals, which he gets to finish this time, and that sets up the frog splash. It misses, however, and Rey plays with his mask again despite all the pain. He still manages to roll up Eddie, but it gets blocked for two. Eddie tries to counter a rana with a powerbomb, but he gets sent into the ropes again and Rey hits him with the 619. West Coast Pop is blocked with a nasty powerbomb for two. Eddie charges and hits elbow, and Rey reverses another of his backbreaker attempts into the West Coast Pop for the pin at 12:37. Eddie plays nice afterwards, much to my surprise. An entertaining opener, but you had feel like they were feeling pressure to top themselves from years past, and the result was Rey worrying more about his mask and not enough about the match at times. It got going near the end, but not enough to be a classic or anything. ***1/4  (Yeah, you’d think if you were gonna pick one night to make sure your mask was properly fitted, it would be this one.  Sadly, this was the last Wrestlemania match for Eddie Guerrero, and it’s too bad he had to go out on such a disappointing note.) 

- Money in the Bank: Edge v. Chris Benoit v. Chris Jericho v. Shelton Benjamin v. Christian v. Kane.

(Oh, for the days when a mere six people would compete in these matches.)  Everyone smartly attacks Kane before he can make it to the ring, but he fights them off, so Benoit and Benjamin suplex him on the floor. Christian makes a try for the ladder in the chaos, but Jericho see-saws it into his jaw as the match starts proper. Benjamin attacks Jericho in the corner, but gets bulldogged for his troubles. Jericho stops to dropkick Benoit and Edge off the apron, and then follows with a pescado on Edge. Christian joins the highspot party with a springboard crossbody, then Benjamin with a tope con hilo, and then Kane, just for the hell of it, with a dive from the top onto everyone. Kane, the only survivor of all that, brings a ladder into the ring and fights off the puny little midcarders, but Jericho dropkicks it in his face. Jericho makes use of the ladder, fighting off the others with it and dropping it on Edge. Benoit then gets the visually amazing spot of the night on any other show, hitting Jericho with a german suplex while Jericho was holding the ladder. The fact that it's not even the spot of the MATCH is something else. Benoit tries to climb, but Kane catches him, so Benoit calmly takes him down with a crossface. Edge breaks that up, so it's crossface for him, too. Kane hits him in the face with the ladder to break that up. Minus ten points for subtlety, plus several million for effectiveness. Kane wrecks Benoit's shoulder in the ladder, but Edge breaks that up, and Edge & Christian briefly reunite for a Ladder Concerto on Kane. Benjamin springs in out of nowhere and clotheslines them afterwards, however. This is crazy, non-stop stuff. He spinkicks the ladder into Christian, but Edge gets the ladder back and sets it up in the corner, whipping Benjamin into it. He tries to follow with a spear, but gets flapjacked into the ladder for his troubles. Shelton follows with the stinger splash into the ladder, another visually amazing spot when you think about it, and he's left alone with the ladder. Up he goes, but Jericho returns from the ether to climb up there with him and slug it out. (I think scientists should track where wrestlers in multi-man matches go between spots and see if the space can be utilized for other means.  Like, since people obviously vanish into thin air when forcefully thrown out of the ring, are they hiding under a trap door?  Disappearing into a portable wormhole?  Going to the same place where Optimus Prime’s trailer goes to?  Can we funnel excess garbage from the major cities there or hardened criminals, ala the Phantom Zone?) 

Christian sets up another ladder and follows them up, and Benoit slugs it out with him. The crowd is 4 steps ahead of them here and knows what's coming, which is great. Edge gets his own ladder and heads up, so they start doing highspots, as Christian takes Benoit down with a divorce court (further buggering the arm) and Jericho goes down as well, leaving Benjamin to get the exploder off the ladder onto Edge. Both visually astonishing and relatively safe, which is great to see. So Jericho is the last survivor and he climbs, but Christian tries to hit him with a ladder. It misses and the ladder gets wedged into the main one, making a ramp. Shelton then runs UP that ramp to knock Jericho off, which is just about the most fucking amazing spot I've ever seen in one of these matches. I can't believe the kind of timing it takes to set up that spot without looking more contrived than the plot of Star Wars Episode I, and then pull it off smoothly. (Perhaps Shelton was flush with midiclorians at the time.)  Shelton climbs for the spoils, but Christian uses his ramp ladder to knock him off. Kane then returns from the dead and chokeslams Shelton into the ropes, tying him up there, but Tomko interjects himself now. He helps Christian up the ladder with a piggyback ride (A great simple spot you don’t often see in ladder matches for some reason), but Kane breaks that up and follows him up the ladder. He can't get him down, so he goes for the direct approach and pushes the whole ladder out of the ring, with Christian on it! Kane now climbs up, but Jericho follows him up and slugs it out with him, and they both go down hard. So Benoit, selling the arm like a crazy man (Poor choice of words there), sets up another ladder in the corner and goes up to the top of it, hitting Kane with the diving headbutt from the top of THAT. WHILE SELLING THE ARM. And then he continues selling it afterwards. His previous forehead injury also opens up again, resulting in a nice flow of blood, but Kane sits up. They fight it out on the ladder, then there's some nice continuity, as Kane tries another chokeslam off the ladder, and Benoit unleashes the machine gun headbutts this time to block him. Benoit gets to the contract, but Edge hits him in the arm with a chair, knocks him off, and wins the match at 15:22. Probably one of the greatest examples of the carwreck genre that I've ever seen, second only to the original TLC matches, which hold up surprisingly well too. ****3/4  (I don’t think the subsequent MITB matches really managed to top this one, unless maybe in degree of spot difficultly or most people crammed into one match.) 

Reasons why this match ruled so hard:

  1. Everyone hit their spots energetically instead of the usual "stop and think about it" of other ladder matches recently.
  3. Benoit selling injuries from start to finish.
  4. Innovative spots in a stale genre, set up intelligently without making the audience think that a spot is coming.

- Muhammad Hassan comes out to beat up Eugene on behalf of those who hate midgets and Americans, and Hulk Hogan saves, because apparently he was dressed up in wrestling tights for just such an emergency. As a one-time appearance this was fine, but they really need to let Hassan get some heat back off Hogan at Backlash if they don't want to turn the character into (any more of) a joke, and I don't see that happening.  (And of course Hassan got crushed by Hogan & Michaels at Backlash.  I will say that Hogan making the save here was a tremendously memorable moment and if the character wasn’t so ridiculously offensive they might have had something with the whole deal.) 

- Undertaker v. Randy Orton.

(First year where the Streak was played up as something where a heel was trying to end it.)  It's too bad that Orton is heading off for surgery again now that he's hitting his stride as a heel again. It's like all of us know-it-all internet geeks were actually, gasp, RIGHT or something when we said he sucked as a babyface. (Although now he’s the #2 babyface in the company.  Go fig.)  Never mind, that's just crazy talk. Orton tries avoiding Taker to start, then fights over a lockup with him and gets headlocked. Criss-cross and Orton gets the dropkick for two. Backdrop and he criss-crosses again, but Taker opts for a punch to get out of that. Orton does a good job selling the effects as he bails to the corner, but then ducks a charge and gets a rollup for two. RKO is blocked early, however, as Taker dumps Orton and then chases him out there. We head to the apron for UT's guillotine legdrop, and back in for the ROPEWALK OF DOOM. Into the corner, but Taker misses a charge and gets dropkicked off the apron, taking a nice bump into the railing as a result. Back in, Orton hammers away on him and gets a clothesline for two. Taker comes back with a DDT for two. Sideslam gets two. He pounds him in the corner with a clothesline as things slow down a lot, and Snake Eyes follows, but Orton does the All Japan delayed sell and hits Taker out of the corner with an elbow for two. He pounds on him, but Taker sits up, so he tries more punching. You'd think 20 years of Popeye cartoons and Hulk Hogan matches would teach heels SOMETHING. Taker comes back with a clothesline for two. He goes to a dragon sleeper after an awkward moment where they seemed unsure of where to go, but Orton fights free and counters with a DDT, for two. He goes to the chinlock, forcing Taker to fight out of it, but Orton grabs a sleeper, so Taker fights out of that quickly with a suplex. Orton comes back with a powerslam for two. Orton tries the slugging in the corner, but Taker counters with the powerbomb, which Orton escapes. Ref is bumped as a result and they seem to mess up the Last Ride spot, but Cowboy Bob Orton runs in and KO's UT with the cast. That's one slow-healing injury. Orton gets two. Taker sits up again and comes back, booting Bob off the apron and chokeslamming Randy, but Randy reverses to an RKO in what would be the finish were he winning. But he's not, so it gets two. Orton gets cocky and decides to try a tombstone on Undertaker, but that's pretty dumb, and of course it backfires. And UT is 13-0 at 14:11. Crowd was mightily into this one by the end thanks to the super-smart booking and pacing, although I found there was too many dead spots in the middle and awkward moments. Still, better than I was expecting, by far. **3/4  (This match would probably be a thousand times better now, since Orton is pretty much a top level worker at this point.  Major props to Cowboy Bob for continuing to sell the broken arm 20 years after his retirement, though.) 

- Women's title: Trish Stratus v. Christy Hemme.

Trish is apparently the latest casualty of neck surgery, which pretty much puts the nail in the coffin of the whole division, as if Christy as the #1 contender didn't do that already. (At least Trish has her yoga.  Poor Christy ended up as TNA’s ring announcer.)  Trish offers her a free shot to start and then casually takes her down and dumps her like the joke she is. Outside and Christy meets the stairs, and then back in Trish whips her into the corner and throws some chops. Her mocking of the Christy Dance is one of the spots of the night. Christy blocks the chick kick and goes low to come back, drawing boos, and then does some amaturish looking takedown and kick stuff for two. Trish calmly comes back with more chops, but Christy comes back with a sunset flip for two, so Trish spears her down and sends her outside again. Trish blatantly calls spots on camera to keep Christy going and brings her back in for the obvious "heel gets distracted and rolled up spot", which cues Christy's lame comeback with kicks. Well, at least she's not trying to punch. Christy continues her simple comeback attempt and gets the Twist of Fate, but it gets two. Christy punches away, looking terrible and obviously blown up, and then they screw up a rollup spot, which was clearly a pin for Hemme because someone forgot that Trish was supposed to kick out. Finally Trish just finishes this mess with the chick kick at 4:41. DUD The storyline was all messed up too, as usually the idea is that the heel doesn't take the plucky face seriously enough and discovers that they're really quite good. However, this was Trish treating Christy like a joke, Christy looking like a joke, and Trish squashing her like a bug at will. Hemme may be game, but this wasn't the place to debut.  (Oh, the Diva Search.  Source of so much ill will and terrible workers.  It also marked an important turning point where the entire division switched from finding women who could be trained to work matches to finding women who were willing to pose naked and might possibly do a match eventually.)

- Kurt Angle v. Shawn Michaels.

Oh man, they have to follow THAT classic women's title match? Shawn takes him down with a headlock to start and hangs on tenaciously. I always like that spot for some reason. In fact he hangs on for the better part of two minutes, as Angle is unable to escape by any means and the fans pick up on the TNA chant of "Let's Go Angle / Let's Go Michaels". Angle finally goes to the ropes to break, but Shawn grabs the headlock again, frustrating Angle. Finally he elbows out of it, but Shawn uses the frustration to get a hiptoss and a short-arm scissors. The move was invented only for the visual of seeing someone counter of it, or so my theory goes, and this is no exception. Shawn, however, counters that with a sunset flip instead of taking the bump, and then follows with a backslide for two before going back to the headlock again. They slug it out in the corner until the ref forces the break, as Angle's frustration is evident again. Finally he batters Shawn down and gets the anklelock, but Shawn counters and takes him out with a Cactus clothesline. Shawn preps the announce table and they slug it out on the floor, but this backfires on Shawn, as he gets Angle Slammed into the post. This was a horrifying-looking spot, until subsequent replays show that his back missed by two feet. Just goes to show: Editing IS important. Angle works the back over and they head back in, where Angle gets a suplex for two. Angle goes to a bodyscissors and the crowd starts the dueling chants again. Shawn fights out and starts throwing down, but gets whipped into the corner and suplexed out with the overhead belly to belly. I guess it's legal again now that Brock is gone. Another suplex gets two. Angle goes to a rear chinlock. Shawn fights out and gets into a slugfest, but Angle clotheslines him down again, a rather wicked one too, and they fight up to the top. Angle tries a superplex, but Shawn slugs him back down again and tries dropping the elbow. Well, that doesn't work so good, and Angle pulls down the straps and goes for the kill. Angle Slam is countered by Shawn with an armdrag, however, and he dumps Angle with a crazy backdrop. Shawn follows with a high cross to the floor, but it looked a little off. Angle recovers fast and tries his often-teased german suplex off the apron, and it looks a lot gay if taken out of context. Shawn goes low to break, however, drawing boos from the increasingly-partisan crowd. He boots Angle to the table and follows with a moonsault, but the table is even more resilient than Michaels and won't break. If it was 1997 then Shawn probably would have had the table fired and Bischoff would have signed it for Nitro the next night. (Shawn also would have thrown a tantrum mid-match.) 

At this point Shawn has basically opted to start ignoring the back injury, which is one of the only blemishes on the match. Back in, both guys are in rough shape, but they both stand toe-to-toe and slug it out. Good visual. Shawn gets the flying forearm and kips up, making the comeback with a clothesline and going up for the flying elbow. He goes for the superkick to finish, but Angle was just goldbricking him, and counters the kick by catching the ankle and applying the anklelock. Fun fact: According to Bret Hart, that was his original pitch for the ending of the Iron Man match. He even suggesting making a prosthetic foot for Shawn that would "snap", thus giving Shawn a way to submit without looking weak. Anyway, Shawn is right fucked here, as Angle hangs on tight, but Shawn makes the ropes. Angle is PUMPED now and tries an Angle Slam, but Shawn reverses, so Angle coolly reverses to the anklelock again. Shawn counters with a rollup for two, but Angle puts him down with the Angle Slam for two. Awesome sequence of stuff there. Angle then pulls up the straps so he can PULL THEM DOWN AGAIN, and goes up with the Anglesault. It misses, but really if there was ever a time for it to hit, this was it. Shawn goes up again, having not learned his lesson, and Angle catches him with a Pop-Up Angle Slam for two. That was a hell of a near-fall. Angle picks him up and slaps him around, so Shawn, in another spot of the night type spot, pushes him away and superkicks him out of nowhere, driving the crowd nuts. Sometimes you don't need a ladder to steal the show. So both guys are dead and buried, but Shawn is alive enough to crawl over and get two. Another hell of a near-fall there. Hell, I'm going nuts watching this again and I've already seen it twice. Shawn struggles up, but Angle is goldbricking him again and suckers him into an anklelock. And this time there's no escape. Shawn tries to fight him off, but perhaps as a callback to the never-ending headlock, Angle counters everything he has and pulls him back into the center, turning into the deadly heel hook that no one has ever countered. Shawn withstands as long as humanly possible and nearly makes the crowd believe that he can escape, and probably longer than was good for the move, but he finally does the right thing and taps out at 26:14. Shawn's usual selling issues aside, I enjoyed this even more upon repeat viewings, especially Angle's incredible intensity, as he's one of the few guys that you really believe CARES about the match he's in. Just fantastic. ****3/4  (I deducted 1/4*  for the elongated anklelock but I’ve got no issues with anyone going ***** for it.) 

- Things go down a few notches from there, with Piper's Pit, as we get some silliness with Piper getting pissed off at the crowd's "What" nonsense, and Carlito gets over a little bit before Austin stuns everyone again and it's like the bad old days all over. Really, Austin's time and place has come and gone.  (Although they can still release DVDs about him forever.) 

- Sumo Match: I still don't get the point of this. Next.  (To give Cody Rhodes comedy material 7 years later, clearly.) 

- Smackdown World title: JBL v. John Cena.

The crowd clearly regards this as the secondary belt, although the JBL dollars falling from the ceiling was a nice touch. Really, given the nature of the characters and the buildup, plus the wrestling-based match that was Angle-Michaels, this was the point where you pull out of the Russo-riffic stops and do the craziest Austin-era-style hardcore match possible. You have the Cabinet running in and breaking up pins at the last second, Cena hitting JBL with bull-horns and slamming him through the limo, tons of blood, someone new debuting for the Cabinet and turning on Cena to give JBL a near-fall, whatever.  (That was what the rematch ended up being, more or less.)  Instead, we got this. JBL grabs a headlock to start but gets overpowered by Cena, so he knocks him down and pounds away in the corner. JBL keeps kicking and punching and gets a neckbreaker, then another one for two. Tazz's analysis of this: "JBL used the move, saw it wasn't effective, then went back to it again because it was the move that worked. That's why he's so successful". Uh, yeah. We get some choking on the ropes and JBL slingshots him under the ropes, but Cena fights back. JBL misses a charge, but catches a spinebuster. Well, he's no Batista. That gets two. Another neckbreaker, even though Cena has no history of a bad neck and the move has failed to get a pin twice before, and it gets two again. Cena tries to fight back again as I wonder if there's an actual story to this match or if they're just making it up as they go along. JBL gets the corner clothesline and a short clothesline for two. So basically he's got clotheslines and neckbreakers in his arsenal tonight. JBL drives an elbow into the back as the crowd starts turning on the match, and a sleeper doesn't help things any. They fight outside and JBL gets another one of his dreaded neckbreakers, and back in they head up top and it's a superplex. That's about the biggest highspot of the match. That gets two. JBL goes up to finish, but Cena catches a shoulderblock attempt and turns it into a powerslam. He comes back to the non-delight of the bored crowd, slugging away and getting his clotheslines and backdrop. Hiptoss sets up a backdrop suplex and the five-knuckle shuffle. FU finishes and gives Cena his first World title at 11:25. The finish was so unexpected that fans simply thought it was the first of a series of near-falls, and barely popped for it. This was somehow worse than I feared, being not only bad, but dull too. Not even a good TV match. *1/4 Cena's limitations were pretty severely exposed here.  (As it turns out, JBL was the one limiting things, given Cena’s run of **** matches in the main event that followed.)  And really, after 8 months as champion, JBL almost deserved a better ending to his title reign.  (No he didn’t.) 

- RAW World title: HHH v. Batista.

To show where the power really lies, HHH gets to make his entrance with Motorhead doing the live version of his song (although Lemmy forgets almost every word) and then jams with the band before coming to the ring. Batista can't possibly follow that entrance, and his anaemic pop shows it. They fight over a lockup to start, and that goes nowhere. Another try at the lockup and this time Batista shoves HHH out of the corner and overpowers him. HHH tries a headlock and quickly goes for the Pedigree, but Batista counters with a press slam and nearly drops HHH on his head in the process. Whoa, calm down there, big guy. Next time drop him STRAIGHT down on the head. You have to stop and think about that stuff, because otherwise he might come back after surgery. Batista fights off some punching and gets a backdrop, but HHH gets the high knee and Batista bails. Back in, HHH catches him with an elbow from the middle rope and starts stomping and choking. Flair gets a cheapshot in and HHH starts working the back outside, ramming Batista into the railing and apron. Of all the booking strategies I would have tried, "Batista selling for extended periods of time" would pretty much be at the bottom of the list. HHH continues hammering on the back and gets a suplex for two. He stays on the back with a backbreaker and necksnaps Batista off the apron, as the pace gets really SLOOOOOOOW. Even JR comments on it, with his usual "deliberate pace" codeword. They slug it out in the corner and HHH gets the MAIN EVENT SPINEBUSTER for two. Well, of course HHH has to use a spinebuster in Dave's big coming-out match. God forbid he DIDN'T. Neckbreaker gets two. Batista fights back slowly, but HHH goes for another Pedigree, which Batista backdrops out of. HHH cuts off another comeback with a facecrusher, and that gets two. HHH goes up and gets caught with a clothesline as a result, and Batista finally makes the comeback. Sideslam gets two. HHH cuts him off again with a foot in the corner, but Batista whips him out of the ring. The psychology here is all ass-backwards, as the first 10 minutes of the match should have been Batista whipping HHH like a dog and showing that he can counter all of his signature stuff, and then HHH getting some sort of desperation move to take over. Instead we get Batista, who the crowd was desperate to get behind as a smart babyface, looking like a raw rookie who's intimidated by the big stage and can't figure out his former mentor. Let me put it this way: They NEVER booked Steve Austin to take 15 minutes of punishment to start a match. Or Hulk Hogan. Hell, they never booked Hogan past 10 minutes, period.  (Batista turned out OK.)  Anyway, they brawl outside and HHH tries a Pedigree on the stairs, but gets catapulted into the post as a result and starts bleeding. Back in, Batista starts throwing down, getting a corner clothesline but not showing the kind of fire that a guy in this position should be showing. A third corner clothesline knocks HHH down, setting up a powerslam for two. HHH retreats outside and grabs a chair, but the ref steals it from him. Back in, they stall while Flair gets into position, as he runs in and walks into a spinebuster from Dave. However, HHH gets the belt and knocks Batista out with it, getting two. The crowd seemed far more upset at the idea of HHH winning than that of Batista losing. Batista makes the final comeback with the spinebuster, but HHH cuts THAT off too with the low blow and it's KICK Pedigree. Batista blocks it, powers him into a sideslam, and gives the thumbs down before finishing with the demon bomb to win the World title at 21:34. HHH was NOT the guy to move the title onto the next big thing, as the match was insanely long and HHH took way too much of the offense for most of it. (Batista turned out OK.)  The ending was well done, with the usual dramatic near-fall, but I think this was the worst thing that could happen to Batista, as he was completely exposed by HHH and overshadowed by Austin and Hogan, and it's going to prove a deadly combination to his run as champion.  (Batista turned out OK.) A major disappointment to say the least. **3/4

The Inside Pulse:

If this was a regular 3-hour PPV, it's one of the greatest ever. But with the fourth hour dragging it down, it's still firmly behind X7 and XX on the "Greatest Wrestlemanias ever" list. Although it's too soon to say that Batista's title run is flopping, the signs don't look good already, and I think this may be a good place to point to when the second-guessing begins and HHH gets the belt back.  (Batista turned out OK.)

Still, a pair of ****+ classics makes this an easy thumbs up.