By Mike Mooneyham

Sept. 12, 2004

Anyone know of a good main event to headline a Smackdown pay-per-view?

I didn’t think so.

To say the brand is suffering would be a gross understatement. There isn’t a matchup on the current roster that would produce a strong pay-per-view buy rate, the Thursday night program’s ratings are dipping and domestic house show attendance is down.

One of the major problems is that the brand lacks a strong champion that fans will pay money to see.

As much as WWE owner Vince McMahon apparently likes John Bradshaw Layfield, the experiment just isn’t working. Layfield is well-spoken, comes across credibly as a company representative (with the exception of that one ugly incident in Germany), but just doesn’t have that intangible “it” to be a major player and seems destined to be a career mid-carder.

JBL’s predecessor, “Latino Heat” Eddie Guerrero, carried the Smackdown banner as well as anyone possibly could have, but the shortage of money-drawing contenders doomed his title run. The stress and strain of the reign exacted a heavy physical and mental toll on Guerrero, who appears to be in dire need of a respite in which he can recharge his batteries.



Without an abundance of options, the plan now appears to be a shift in direction toward mainstays Kurt Angle and The Undertaker, a pair of tried-and-true main-eventers with a lengthy track record. With both performers wielding considerable backstage pull, it’s a virtual lock that the future top Smackdown storyline will revolve around the two. It’s not a particularly attractive match-up on paper. Not taking away from Angle’s remarkable ability in the ring and strong presence on the mic, there’s not a compelling enough issue to warrant an Angle-Taker PPV headliner.

Angle is coming off an uneventful run as Smackdown general manager, and Undertaker is way past his prime. Many of Taker’s previous programs have been more gimmick-oriented than issue-oriented, and the returning Angle desperately needs a program with some teeth in it. John Heidenreich, who was slated for a high-profile program with Taker following the last pay-per-view, has been scratched from that role, reportedly at Taker’s request, with the consensus being that the 6-5, 275-pounder is far too green and not yet ready for prime time.

The Smackdown roster drops sharply from that point. Booker T is biding time until a likely retirement next year. Rene Dupree remains an unproven and underachieving commodity. Rob Van Dam seems to have settled in nicely in the WWE doghouse. The returning Big Show is receiving his usual big push along with an obligatory group of squash victims, but fans have seen it many times before. And Kenzo Suzuki, who once was earmarked for a main-event Raw program with Chris Benoit, has fallen far short of the company’s early expectations.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is John Cena, who has failed to reach the level of Raw counterpart Randy Orton, despite an initially successful rap gimmick that has grown tired and stale with each passing week. While missing some ring time while filming in Australia, Cena may be able to re-invent himself with a lead role in an upcoming WWE production, “The Marine,” whose main character was at one time reserved for Steve Austin.

A ray of hope for Smackdown is that Paul Heyman has been reinstated to the creative team, possibly to fill a void left by Bruce Prichard (co-writer of Smackdown with Dave Lagana), who recently took a leave of absence. Heyman and Vince McMahon have butted heads on a number of occasions in the past, and the leverage given to him in his current role may well determine how Smackdown fares in the coming months.

Another positive sign is the brand’s success overseas. The most recent Smackdown tour in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, Australia, at the end of August broke box office records in those venues while grossing more than $3.4 million for three sold-out events. Smackdown has scheduled a tour of Italy next month.

– WWE’s Raw brand is offering its Unforgiven pay-per-view tonight and headlining it with a Triple H-Randy Orton title bout that could have been a main event at next year’s Wrestlemania. With ratings slightly dipping, however, WWE brass pushed the panic button and turned Orton heel. Sacrificed were months of internal tension among members of Evolution and a possible strong buildup to Wrestlemania XXI.

WWE needs to be careful in developing Orton’s character if he is to approach the levels of success attained by superstars like Steve Austin and The Rock. For Orton to reach that next tier, he shouldn’t be perceived as being in the shadow of a nemesis like Triple H (Paul Levesque). Austin and Rock were their own men, playing off their own characters rather than playing off other stars.

“Randy’s future is potentially as viable as any athlete we have ever had in the WWE,” company talent chief Jim Ross told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week. “Time will tell, but if Randy can avoid the injury bug and continue to make the right choices outside the ring, he could end up as the most prolific superstar in the long history of the WWE.”

– John Tenta, the former Earthquake, Avalanche, Shark, Golga and other assorted characters, attended a recent WWE house show in Beaumont, Texas, with his wife and children. Tenta, 41, announced several weeks ago that doctors had given him 13 to 18 months to live due to cancer.

“The first person we saw was Ric Flair, and he immediately came over to hug me and ask how I was doing,” Tenta wrote on the message board. Tenta said he also was approached by veterans Triple H, Kane, Chris Benoit, Christian, William Regal, Val Venis, Steven Richards, Dave and Earl Hebner, Steve Keirn and Arn Anderson, as well as newcomers Randy Orton, Shelton Benjamin, Batista, Rob Conway, Sylvan Grenier, Eugene, Chuck Palumbo and Jonathan Coachman.

Tenta, who called the gathering a “memory-making” day for his family, said he was overwhelmed by the concern and well-wishes from the WWE locker room. He wrote that Triple H sent the agents to put his family in good seats, while he stayed in the back where Triple H gave him a T-shirt for his son and a Lita T-shirt for his daughter, along with programs that he got the entire crew to sign.

“Chris Benoit was awesome to my son,” wrote Tenta. “He gave my daughter a T-shirt, but to my son, he gave a pair of his ring-worn tights. Then he thought my son would want to just ‘play’ wrestler in them, but no, my son got him to sign them because he wants to display them. My son was so honored.”

Tenta was physically unable to stay for the duration of the show, but said Triple H assured him that a letter to Vince McMahon would be personally delivered.

– “Dr. Death” Steve Williams underwent a laryngectomy (removal of the voice box) for throat cancer last week in Texas. The surgery was deemed successful.

WWE plans to honor Williams and other former Mid-South Wrestling stars Sept. 17 at a house show in Bossier City, La. Among those expected to attend include Jim Ross, Michael Hayes, Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Williams is not expected to be there in person.

– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Unforgiven pay-per-view tonight beginning at 8 p.m. Cover charge is $5.

– Matthews Sports Bar and Grill, 613 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., also will air Unforgiven tonight at 8 p.m. The $5 cover charge includes a Carolina Pro Wrestling Association show at 5 p.m. at Twin Rivers Lane Plaza featuring Farmer Funk vs. Solitude for the Lowcountry title, and Titan vs. Xavier Knight for the CPWA title.

– The Tonga Kid (Sam Fatu) will headline a Wrestling for Jesus show at 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at Sea Harvest World Outreach Center, 1033 St. Andrews Blvd., West Ashley. Fatu, who appeared in WCW as The Samoan Savage, is the brother of Rikishi (Solofa Fatu) and the nephew of “Wild Samoans” Afa and Sika Anoia. For more information, call 402-5878.

– TNA has canceled next week’s Impact taping at Universal Studios in Orlando due to weather-related concerns.