The confetti fell. The official announcement was made. The reality began to sink in. This was not a swerve. It really happened this time. Chris Benoit was World Heavyweight Champion. Moments before, he was battling "Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels and Triple H in what was one of the greatest Wrestlemania main events ever. A true match of the year contender. A bout with so much emotion and so much on the line. It was privilege to watch it live on Pay-Per-View and to see its result. As the match ended, fellow champion and long-time friend Eddie Guerrero joined Benoit in the middle of the ring. The fans lost their minds and screamed at the tops of their lungs. I was most pleased but contained by excitement to a reserved smile.
After nearly two decades of waiting, Chris Benoit was the man. Coincidentally, I have followed professional wrestling approximately that lenth. Though, specifically, I had been a fan of his for considerably less time, but since 2002 when I began to buy tape after tape of his old work, he became my favorite wrestler. His World Championship reign was something I had wanted so badly. I wrote of it in one of my earlier (and, frankly, too short) columns. I spoke of it with fellow wrestling fans. I followed Benoit through every step of his reign. I watched every televised match from Raw to Pay-Per-View. I recorded most of them. As much as I love the fact that my man won the gold and held it a fairly long time, I am of two minds about this reign because I am also largely disappointed in the way WWE booked a lot his time as World Champion. I am unsatisfied. Perhaps nothing could live up to the eighteen-year hype of what Benoit could be as World Champion, but I honestly believe more could have been done. Yes, I am going to pick apart this championship reign in this column, and I am going to pick apart the most recent decision to hand over the belt. I'm an opinions columnist, and that is what I do. Give opinions. It is going to be long, and it is going to be critical. So, if that does not sit well with some of my readers, please turn back now.
Still with me? Excellent.
Wrestlemania was in the books. It was time for Chris Benoit to stride confidently down the ramp, into the ring, and deliver a speech on how he has worked his entire life for this moment. Well, not quite. The first post-Wrestlemania Raw began, not too surprisingly, with Triple H. The former World Champion did his best in his promo to say that one win did not make Benoit the man. It should have been Benoit's moment in the sun, but I was not ready to blast WWE for this minor grievance after the amazing confetti party the night before. Chris Benoit was World Heavyweight Champion, and at the time, that was all that mattered. Triple H and Benoit exchanged words in the ring. The Game insisted that Benoit could not beat him one on one and that it took two men to take the World Championship. Not exactly the way to build on a new Champion, but Triple H is a heel, and that was his role. I could live with it, even though I believe a great promo puts over both men. Again, a minor complaint that did not bother me at the time. It eventually led to the Raw main event that night: Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit vs. Evolution. Nice match if memory serves. Batista tapped out to the sharpshooter. Things were looking up.
Next week's Raw was the (in)famous Draft Lottery. The focus of the show, again, was not on the World Champion, but that could be explained away due to the nature of the show. Wrestlers were about to be drafted to the other side, so nothing was status quo. In the main event? Triple H vs. Eddie Guerrero with Benoit nowhere to be found. Of course, the champ did have a match with Rhyno somewhere in the middle of the card. That counts for something even though this World Championship match only lasted about six minutes. Why wasn't Chris Benoit vs. Rhyno the main event instead of Triple H vs. Eddie Guerrero? Was it because they could not have Triple H vs. Benoit again so quickly, but at the same time, Triple H wanted in on the main event....again? Beats me. Ask McMahon. I do not always blame Triple H (I admit I will blame a little later in this column) when it looks like his backstage sway is coming into play, but I would be a fool to say it never happens. For now, I'll leave it open to interpretation. At any rate, Benoit won clean against Rhyno. That counts for something. Later in the show, Eric Bischoff announced that the main event at WWE's next Pay-Per-View event, Backlash, would be Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit for the World Heavyweight Championship. A dream match. Two of the best wrestlers of their time in a one on one match. I could not wait.
On the last Raw of March, there was good news and bad news. The good news was that Chris Benoit and Shawn Michaels won a tag team match against Ric Flair and Batista. The bad news was that, somehow, he still was not the main focus of the show. The main event was Triple H vs. Shelton Benjamin. Now, maybe I am just an old school wrestling fan, but I believe that the World Champion should be the top dog and that he should be the primary focus of the show or at least on par with one other. By definition, that should be true. It simply was not happening. Still, at the time, I was not yet ready to complain. After all, Benoit had the gold around his waist. So what if he did not main event Raw in the two weeks following the biggest night in his career? It was still all good, right? Right?
April came and Backlash was almost upon us. In the first Raw of the month, Triple H opened the show with a long promo. With Backlash so near, Triple H's mind was on that event. Much to my chagrin, the main event was changed to another Triple H vs. Benoit vs. Michaels triple threat match for the World Championship instead of the Michaels vs. Benoit match we were promised in March. I guess Triple H was feeling left out. The worst part of this inclusion was that the Michaels/Triple H feud was still hot and the two overshadowed the Champion in the build to the PPV. Oh, well. I knew the match would still be great, so I put it aside and waited for Benoit's Raw match. I did not have to wait long. Chris Benoit, the World Heavyweight Champion, was jerking the curtain with Rob Conway, a tag team wrestler. Benoit vs. Conway? That is what the World Champion does on Raw? It all felt very wrong to me. Maybe it was my undying love of Benoit or maybe the World Champion really was not going to receive the spotlight.
The following Raw was much better for the champ. Leading up to the big Pay-Per-View, Raw was main evented by Chris Benoit (finally), Shawn Michaels, Shelton Benjamin, and Mick Foley vs. Ric Flair, Batista, Randy Orton, and Triple H. It was about time Benoit saw the Raw main event in his title reign. He had to share it with seven other men, but I did not care too much. The match was very strong. Benoit's team came out on top. It was time for Backlash in Edmonton, Alberta. Michaels vs. Triple H vs. Benoit II was another match of the year contender. The mood was electric. Not only because of the wrestlers but because of the fans in attendance. Alberta wanted their boy Benoit to retain so badly. In the end, Benoit made Shawn Michaels tap out to the sharpshooter. Earlier in the match, Michaels locked in the hold on Benoit to tremendous heat from the Alberta crowd. Considering HBK's rocky standing with Canadian fans, the arena erupted with delight at that finish. They were satisfied, and I was too.
The post-Backlash Raw was a good show. For Benoit, it was fantastic. He was in the main event again. This time with tag team partner Edge. After a strong match against Evolution members Ric Flair and Batista, Benoit and Edge captured the victory and the Tag Team Championship. Benoit became a double champion. It look a little while, but this month, it looked like Benoit was finally the focus of the Raw brand. If there was any doubt, the next week on Raw, he and Benoit retained the titles in a rematch with Evolution. It felt like it was all falling into place.
May 3rd, 2004. The dream match that I feared eluded us finally came: World Heavyweight Champion Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels. One on one. Two of the very best ever. This had all the makings of a five star classic. We were all in for a treat. It was darn near perfect....until Triple H jumped in. That is not entirely out of the ordinary, though. Triple H is a heel, and it made sense for him to interfere with Shawn Michaels' title match. I know that. It is obvious. However, there were three problems here for Benoit: 1) Michaels vs. Benoit is the kind of match that should have a clean finish. 2) Benoit won, from the fan perspective, only because of Triple H's interference, which made the Champion seem less credible considering Michaels insisted earlier that Benoit could never defeat him one on one. 3) It prolonged the Michaels/Triple H feud making it near impossible for Benoit to take center stage. More on Michaels/HHH later.
A week had gone by. Time for Raw again. "Looking good," I told myself. "Jericho vs. Christian in a steel cage and Edge vs. Randy Orton." From what my memory recalls, it was very good show from top to bottom. Yet, something was missing. What was it? Triple H? No, of course not. He was there front and center. La Resistance? No. The tag team made an appearance as well. Let's see. What was it....oh, yes. Now, I remember. Chris Benoit. He was not on the show. At all. I'm glad I remembered because it seems like WWE forgot to put their World Champion on their flagship show. Let me say that again so everyone takes the journey with me:
The World Champion did not have a match on Raw.
Hmm. Even boldfaced, it just does not seem real. How could this have happened? Arguably Raw's greatest wrestler and champion off of the main show? Wait a minute, wait a minute. I know. He had a match on the secondary show Sunday Night Heat, right? Occassionally, that happens. Triple H, while World Champion, faced Maven on Heat once. Let me go through the archives and find Benoit's match. Well, that's odd. It seems Val Venis had a match on Heat. Steven Richards had a match on Heat. Chris Benoit? Completely absent.
The World Champion did not even have a match on Sunday Night freakin' Heat.
What the hell was happening? Was he injured? Did he miss his flight? No, I do not think so. He just....wasn't there. Why not? Again, maybe I am just an old schooler here, but the World Champion should be on the show. This was inexcusable. I am not the only one who thought so. Everyone I know who reviewed Raw had the same comment. We can all speculate as to what had happened. Benoit was hugely over with the crowds, so it could not have been a decision based on whether or not he could help the show. Benoit always worked hard and is said to be professional backstage, so this could not be a disciplinary action. What is left is so obvious that even I can figure it out. Did someone not want him on Raw? Did someone decide Benoit had been in the main event long enough and that...I don't know...someone wanted him out of the way? Maybe someone with sway with the McMahons who, from the time of its inception in September 2002 until Benoit's win, had been World Heavyweight Champion approximately 80% of the time during three reigns? I hate to spin a conspiracy theory, but when all the common possibilties are removed, what is left, however unusual, must be the reason. I learned that from Sherlock Holmes, baby.
Next week, Chris Benoit was back on Raw as it should always have been. Not in the main event but tagging with Edge to defend the Tag Team Championship against Randy Orton and Batista. Benoit and Edge retained the belts in another solid match. In the main event of the evening, Kane won a #1 contender's battle royal. The match was set. Kane vs. Benoit at the next Pay-Per-View, Bad Blood. At a glance, not a bad idea for a match. Kane has the experience to put on a decent main event brawl here and there, and Benoit consistently brings good matches out of nearly anyone. On the following Raw, WWE thought it a good idea to team Benoit with short-term ratings and merchandise draw and long-term waste of talent, Eugene. Nick Dinsmore, previously wrestling at WWE's farm in Ohio Valley Wrestling, was brought up to the big time as Eugene, the mentally challenged wrestler. The true main event of the evening, unfortunately, was a fight between Triple H and Michaels setting up their Hell in a Cell match at Bad Blood.
Next week on Raw, in the opening match, Benoit and Edge lost the Tag Team Championship to La Resistance. It made sense. Give the belts to the only tag team that is actually a real, semi-permanent team. Benoit and Edge were able to move on to other conquests. In the main event, Kane was disqualified for bringing a chair into his match with Eugene. Benoit came in to make the save. With less than two weeks before Benoit vs. Kane at Bad Blood, they finally saw each other. Not a good build for a Pay-Per-View World Championship match.
On the Raw before Bad Blood, Chris Benoit and Edge lost to the team of La Resistance and Kane. I have no problem with this. Lose on Raw, win on Pay-Per-View is generally true. Not that I had any doubts about the outcome of Bad Blood. Benoit won as predicted. Good match too. My problems are as follows: The non-build to both Benoit's match and the Triple H/Michaels HIAC massively overshadowed our World Champion. First, Benoit's match was against Kane, who was actually in a much deeper feud with Matt Hardy and Lita. Hardy vs. Kane had more spotlight than Benoit vs. Kane, despite the World Championship being involved and Benoit being more over with the crowds than Hardy. Bear in mind, I like Hardy a lot and am not saying anything against him. Only the booking involved in which he (as well as Benoit and Kane) had no say. Am I overthinking this? Why am I so unhappy with Bad Blood? Here's why: Once again, Benoit is out of the main event. This time on a Pay-Per-View event. Who takes his place? Triple H and Michaels. Now, I know an argument can be made that a HIAC match is so huge that anything else would pale in comparison. That being said, why are Triple H and Michaels having the HIAC match in the first place? To blow off the feud that had been seemingly blown off four times before in the last year or so? The bottom line here is Triple H once again was positioned into the main event to make it seem like he is the star of the show and not the World Champion, and that, my friends, is no way to build a Champion who had worked eighteen years for this reign.
With Bad Blood dead and gone, Raw gave us more of Benoit's title reign. The bad news was that he was in yet another tag match. The good news was that it was a very good tag match. Benoit, Jericho, and Edge vs. Flair, Orton, and Batista. The main focus at this time, however, was not any of these men. In June, the storyline involving Triple H and Eugene took the center ring. The story was that if Triple H aligned himself with this simpleton, who apparently was the nephew of General Manager Eric Bischoff, so he could manipulate him into getting what he wanted. Namely Benoit's World Championship. This made Benoit part of the story, but he was mostly in the background. It was not exactly Shakespeare, but it was a reasonably good angle. I do not care much for the Eugene gimmick, but I will give credit where credit is due and say that most of the fans ate it up.
On June 21st, Raw presented us another show without our World Champion having a match. That's twice. Absurd. Nothing left to say here that I did not say before. Moving along, Benoit won the rematch with Kane a week later. It was actually, shockingly, the main event.
Another month rolled around and the Eugene/Triple H story was there in the forefront. Benoit was involved but only as a third wheel. After another tag match of Benoit and Edge vs. Evolution, it was time for the next big Pay-Per-View event, Vengeance. The main event was Benoit vs. Triple H for the World Championship, and even though Eugene was a more central figure in this story (especially when calculating actual air time), I was content to just watch the match and enjoy it. I've given some negativity to Triple H is this column, but when it's all said and done, he's a good wrestler. He wasn't always, but he is now. The match was great. Triple H worked Benoit's sternum. I love a good take-a-body-part-and-work-it match. At the conclusion, as it was getting very interesting, Eugene showed up. The story was that by accident, Eugene nailed Triple H in the head with a steel chair, costing him the match. Benoit retained only through a very screwy finish made more annoying by the presense of Eugene. Was Benoit ever going to beat Triple H cleanly one on one? For those who like to skip to the end of the book and see the last page first, the answer is no.
The next Raw featured Triple H still manipulating Eugene. This time into a match with Benoit. The match was decent, so no complaints there. Eugene nearly besting the eighteen-year veteran World Champion was, as another reviewer put it, "potentially damaging." In fact, Benoit did not even win. It went to a no contest due to Evolution's interference. The next week, Benoit wrestled Batista. Another no contest. Benoit was made to look very weak against the somewhat green Batista. Sympathy is one thing. This was a little too much in the same show that had footage of Benoit crying (literally) about Eugene. The best part of this show was that it set up next week's sixty-minute Iron Man match between Benoit and Triple H. Truly, if Benoit went go over Triple H cleanly, I would not be writing this column. He did not. It was an excellent match that should have stayed one on one. It did not. In the final ten mintues, there was a lot of outside interference including, but not limited to, Eugene crushing Triple H over the head with a chair. Eugene was being made out to be more of a threat to Triple H than Chris Benoit.
Also on the Iron Man episode of Raw, Randy Orton won a #1 contender's battle royal to earn a match against Benoit at Summerslam.
--THE PROBLEM WITH ORTON--
With very little build, Orton walked into Summerslam a midcarder and walked out World Heavyweight Champion after soundly and cleanly defeating my champion, Chris Benoit. WWE jumped the gun on his superstardom. They handed him the greatest prize in the business, what Chris Benoit worked all his life to attain, in Orton's fourth year as a profession wrestler. Trained in OVW in 2000, Orton has been given something at the age of twenty-four that only a handful of wrestlers ever achieve. There is no lack of wrestlers who could realistically main event on Raw. Triple H, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, and Kane. Possibly even Edge once his heel turn is complete. Why did this happen? Is he ready? No. Is he deserving? Not really. Will this work in the short term? Possibly. Will this work in the long term? I don't know. Let's go through this one by one...
-Is he ready? No. Before I go further, let me say that I have been a fan of Orton's since the first time I saw him wrestle on Smackdown. He had a good sense of timing, and his lean figure is something I like to see in wrestlers these days. He has improved by leaps and bounds due to working with men like Shawn Michaels, Chris Benoit, and Mick Foley. That being said, he is not one of the best wrestlers in WWE. He is not a proven main eventer. He is good. He is not great. Not yet anyway.
-Is he deserving? Not really. The World Championship should not be a test. One should not receive it to see if you are man enough. One should receive if after you've proven you already are. Otherwise, it is risky both in terms of the quality of your being champion and the after-effects. If you blow up too big too soon, there might be nothing left. Think I am exaggerating? Look at the others who received their World Championship too soon. The Rock. WWF/E ditched the idea of the slow build, threw the belt on him, blew him up so huge so fast that he became too big for the business one day. Brock Lesnar. More or less the same thing only faster and worse in terms of how he left. The Big Show. First big match: beat Hogan for the WCW Championship. Became an egomaniac by his own admission. Hurt him from improving until coming to WWE. He has only recently shown signs of giving it his all. Kurt Angle is an exception. He was better than Orton earlier, but that was in part due to his long history of athletics and wrestling knowledge. Besides, with his neck in bad shape and facing more trouble down the road, it was a "now or never" situation.
-Will this work in the short term? Possibly. A feud with Triple H for the World Championship could be good, but the smart money says Triple H regains soon. Shortly before Orton took the belt, the rumor mill was buzzing about Triple H vs. Orton at Wrestlemania. That may still happen, but based on how Raw ended, it looks like they're starting this feud very early. Jumping the gun again.
-Will this work in the long term? I don't know. History says it does not look good. When Orton drops the belt, what is he going to do? Still stay in the main event picture for the next fifteen years? Doubtful. Few stay in that area that long. Orton isn't Hogan or Flair. When Orton loses the belt and WWE realizes he may not be the total package after all, he'll be sent back to the midcard and his title reign will seem like a tease or a joke. When you reach the apex of your career (not in terms of ability but in title), what can you do next? There's only one direction to go.
I'm writing about this in length in this predominantly Benoit-centered column for a reason. The story of Chris Benoit's career is amazing. He went through so much. Wrestled all over the world. Mexico, Japan, Canada, America, and more. He wrestled for every major promotion. Stampede Wrestling, NJPW, ECW, WCW, WWF/E, and more. He was the best for years and years....and finally, after a lifetime of wrestling, he became World Heavyweight Champion....and he loses the belt to some kid who is good but not great and has not proven himself nearly enough. He isn't even in Benoit's league. Keep in mind, I'm not blaming Orton. He does not make decisions, and I sincerely doubt he has any kind of stroke backstage. I blame short-sighted booking. Hit 'em now and hit 'em fast, and worry about the long-term rammifications later. It is the same kind of mindset that led to Eugene. Very popular at first, so they gave us an overdose. Now, people are chanting "Eugene sucks" even when he is supposed to be the ultimate babyface.
Think, WWE. Think harder. I'm only a reasonably smart man, but I usually can tell about these things. If even I can spot it, you should be able as well.
Quick Benoit title reign rundown:
-Two Raws in which he did not have a match.
-Rarely went over anyone clean one on one.
-Took a backseat to Triple H.
-Took a backseat to Shawn Michaels.
-Took a backseat to Eugene.
-Not the main event of many Raws.
-Not the main event of a Pay-Per-View.
-No crying in wrestling unless it is when you win the title.
-Lost the championship to someone who should still be in the midcard.
Raw ended about an hour ago as of this writing. I've rewatched the main event. Really good match. Randy Orton is a natural, but he missing certain essential keys. He has not learned nearly enough in four years of wrestling and only two on a big show. He doesn't have all the answers in the ring. The World Champion should be a ring general. Orton is more like a gifted soldier who is not quite there yet. Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler made some good comments during the main event. I'd like to reprint one nugget of wisdom because I think, even in their kayfabe conversation, there speaks real truth. It makes the point of both my arguments in this column. Both the one for a better Benoit title reign and against Orton's recent capture. With that, I'll say good night.
Ross: There's the cover. It could be over here. Benoit, in desperation as if his life, and maybe it does, depend on it. The World Heavyweight title means as much to Chris Benoit as it can mean any human being.
Lawler: It doesn't mean as much to Benoit as it does to Randy Orton. Randy Orton's the youngest World Champion in history. Man of destiny. Means everything to Randy Orton. You know that.
Ross: Well, King, in all respect, it can't mean that much to Randy Orton.
Comments? Thoughts? Send them all to Trophar@Lycos.com
Read the archives of Beauty in Wrestling at LeonThomas.Net Update coming soon.
Special thanks to Lords of Pain, the Rajah TV reviewers, and The Oratory reviewers for match dates.
MAILBAG -- THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE
"Beautifully done.... I broke into tears by the education your gave me... its touching... and its true. I just.... it touches my heart cause you never know anymore..... with the constant stream of wrestlers dying.... you never know when your favorites gonna be next. And its awful knowing the numbers (percentage) of wrestlers abusing drugs or alcohol. To me its horrible knowing that one of my wrestlers could be next...."
"I believe I have a solution for some of the drug problem in wrestling. Instead of a complete off season, where there is NO wrestling for 8-16 weeks a year, which would be financially devastating to the WWE, or any other organization, I would recommend a ROTATING ROSTER offseason. For example, everyone would work 3 months on and 1 month off. Title reigns could either come to an end or title matches could be "scripted" to be put on hold when it is the champion's turn to take a month off. For example, the focus could be a heated fued for the #1 contender spot at one pay per view, while the champ is on offseason, and when the champ comes back, he could defend the title against the person who won the #1 contender match at the previous pay per view. During the month off, they could rest and heal from their injuries and do any rehab work they need to do. One fourth of the roster would be in off-season, while the other 3/4 would be working. I think this would work. It could also get some people a good push that normally wouldn't get one, and possibly elevate some good talent that otherwise wouldn't get a chance to shine."