Monday, 25 July 2016

The U.S. Championship – A Legacy Of Greatness

Image Source: Amazon
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Running Time: 450 Minutes
Certificate: 15
Number Of Discs: 3
Studio: Fremantle Home Entertainment
Released: May 9 2016

This DVD looks at the 40-plus year history of the United States Championship. Unlike previous "title" releases, which allowed fans to vote on the bouts or which included a documentary, this compilation is more basic, and provides a straightforward selection of matches, hosted by John Bradshaw Layfield (and to his credit, JBL does a good job of explaining situations and storylines, and of filling in the blanks between matches). The American flag backdrop for JBL's links is a nice touch, as is the presence of both the original and the current United States prizes during his scenes. In other production notes, it is interesting that each disc has its own mini-video playing during menus, which is not normally the case (each clips reel shows highlights of the bouts on that disc).

Disc one, which covers the 1975-1989 period (from Mid-Atlantic to Jim Crockett Promotions to World Championship Wrestling) is the weakest of the three. A rare Ric Flair-Ricky Steamboat match with Andre The Giant as referee sounds good on paper, but the grainy footage is awful, and as it's shown in a series of clips, one can't quite work out what has happened. Greg Valentine vs. Roddy Piper is better, but the presentation of the finish is poor, and why include this instead of their famous Dog Collar match from the first Starrcade? Fortunately, we do get a different memorable U.S. Title scrap, the rather violent I Quit Cage match between Tully Blanchard and Magnum TA from Starrcade 1985.

There is interference before the finish or causing the finish of the next four matches: an exciting Magnum-Nikita Koloff showdown (before which JBL recaps their Best-Of-Seven series), a good Dusty Rhodes-Lex Luger Cage match from Starrcade 1987, a decent Dusty-Bobby Eaton bout from 1988 which has a very confusing finale, and a superior Sting-Lex Luger battle from 1989 which ends in a big schmozz between Luger and the Faction name and the Four Horsemen.

Onto disc two and the WCW era (which technically began before Sting-Luger, although for the sake of simplicity the DVD acknowledges it as it covers the 1990s), Sting vs. Rick Rude from 1991 is preceded by an angle which both ECW and the WWF would later use, as an injured Sting returns to the arena in an ambulance. Once more, though, interference mars the conclusion of a pretty good story-based bout. Even the all-babyface clash between Ricky Steamboat and Dustin Rhodes from 1993 has outside involvement from a heel Barry Windham. And the Steve Austin-Great Muta battle from Spring Stampede 1994 - a slightly underwhelming affair - has a controversial ending instigated by - you guessed it - third party interference. I'm not one of those fans who groans at a ref bump or a DQ ending, but when you see seven consecutive interference-riddled matches on a "Best Of" DVD, it becomes rather tiresome.

And, yup, the all-face meeting between Diamond Dallas Page and Eddie Guerrero for the vacant prize at Starrcade 1996 is another victim. In this case, the nWo make their presence felt by influencing the outcome of what was, up until then, a strong match, and they end up leaving both men laying, which may have set up the subsequent Guerrero-Syxx feud, but ultimately left both looking like chumps. It is a massive relief when we get a no-nonsense bout between Dean Malenko and Chris Jericho from Nitro the following April, even if it is too short to be on a compilation like this. Curt Hennig vs. The Giant reverts to the nWo interference formula, although on this occasion Sting is there to save the day. The good action on the majority of this disc is definitely hindered by the overwhelming amount of interference.

Fortunately, outside involvement plays a key role in the enjoyment of the next bout, as Goldberg looks to tear through Raven and his Flock en route to the title, in front of a hot-as-hell crowd. That it is Raven's Rules guarantees a proper outcome, and the one we get is very well-received. This has to be the highlight of the entire 1990s for the U.S. prize, or at least the highlight of the Nitro era for the title. From there, we have a pretty good Bret Hart-DDP bout from 1998, a confusing Bret-Goldberg bout from 1999 (Vince Russo had just taken creative control, so the puzzling outcome shouldn't be a surprise), an okay Lance Storm-Mike Awesome clash from 2000 (before which Awesome unnecessarily refers to the Canadian national anthem as "s--t"; another sign of Russo's writing) and Rick Steiner vs. Booker T from Greed 2001, the last ever WCW Pay-Per-View, which is a justifiable inclusion due to what was about to happen in the world of wrestling, but which has one final dose of interference at the finish. Perhaps that is the TRUE legacy of the United States Championship, at least from the mid-1980s to 2001.

With the opening of disc three, JBL explains the WWF takeover of WCW a few days after Greed, which to cut a long story short for the purpose of this review, brought the United States Title onto WWF television. The first WWF match here, a forgotten Kurt Angle-Undertaker bout, is okay but has yet another screwjob ending. Thankfully, interference takes a burden for a while as we get a very good Edge-Test battle to unify the U.S. and Intercontinental Titles from Survivor Series 2001. For a long time, this was the death knell of the U.S. crown, but it would be revived when Eddie Guerrero won a tournament at Vengeance 2003 (his triumphant moment isn't shown here, because the man he defeated was Chris Benoit), leading us to WrestleMania XX where John Cena captured the title from Big Show. This bout isn't bad, but its importance has been overstated by WWE, since Cena arguably should have already been main eventing at this point, meaning his title run only delayed his headline ascension.

After that, the next few matches skip through several years of WWE history. It is two years before the next bout (Bobby Lashley vs. King Booker, or KING BOOKKKAAAA!, in a Steel Cage from a 2006 edition of SmackDown), and nearly two more years before the subsequent battle. That one, MVP vs. Matt Hardy from Backlash 2008, is a good match that culminated a long storyline between champion and challenger stretching back many months, and included everything from a basketball game to a cameo by Evander Holyfield to an uneasy reign as WWE Tag Team Champions. Before John Cena's Open Challenge (more on that shortly), the MVP-Matt storyline was arguably the high point for the United States Title during the WWF/WWE years.

Next up, it's a fairly good MVP vs. Kofi Kingston from 2009 (they have a promo beforehand, and it's so weird to hear Kofi speaking that faux Jamaican accent now after all of his segments with The New Day using his natural voice), and then we move onto the feud between The Miz and Daniel Bryan. Since Miz's U.S. Title reign did more to prepare him for a main event run than for anybody else in the last 15 years, it would have been nice to have a Miz-as-champion match, but instead we get Miz vs. Bryan vs. John Morrison in a Triple Threat Submissions Count Anywhere bout from Hell In A Cell 2010 (phew!). To be fair, this is very exciting, a rare gem during a fairly dull period in WWE, so it's nice to revisit that match here. We suddenly jump to October 2012 and Antonio Cesaro defending his U.S. crown against Tyson Kidd in an overlooked match filled with quality from NXT, during that phase where NXT was no longer a "reality show" but had yet to truly embark on the path which would make it the hottest wrestling show around.

From there, it's a Sheamus-Rusev clash from November 2014, which was shown exclusively on the WWE Network. It's alright, but coming after a three-hour Raw, the crowd is clearly worn out and has less enthusiasm than they would have an hour or two earlier (which may explain the lack of Network-exclusive matches broadcast after Raw since then). Rusev would lose the prize to John Cena at WrestleMania 31 (we get quick highlights of that moment), and that takes us to Cena's weekly Open Challenge, which allowed a fresh opponent to face Cena each week for the title. (Quick side note: this had to be the inspiration for the DVD in the first place, given that Cena is the cover star.) Beginning with Dean Ambrose the night after Mania (this match is included on the DVD; it's a very good match, but is slightly tainted by Byron Saxton's atrocious commentary; it was so bad that Jerry Lawler was sent out during the bout to assist him), the Open Challenge guaranteed a good or a great match on Raw every week for months, with Cena's challengers including Neville, Sami Zayn, Cesaro and others, not to mention opening the door for Kevin Owens to face him in a fantastic series of PPV encounters. You have to get the Blu-ray to see one of those gems, though (Cena vs. Cesaro, the week before an even better rematch which was on the Best Of Raw & SmackDown 2015 DVD); instead, we're taken straight to Hell In A Cell 2015, and Alberto Del Rio's shock return to dethrone Cena as champion, which closes the DVD. This led to a decline in importance for the championship, save for one or two notable matches; right now, the U.S. crown is once again considered just another mid-card title.

This is a hard DVD to summarise. There are some good matches, and one or two great ones. We are shown most of the memorable moments for the title, whether that be in the form of complete bouts or references by JBL between bouts. And with the selection of matches covering four decades, two promotions (three, if you consider WCW to be different to Mid-Atlantic/NWA/JCP) and plenty of former, current and future big names, along with some nice cameos by forgotten mid-carders of the past, on paper this spells a pretty good DVD collection.

However, the amount of outside interference is infuriating, and the action isn't quite as exciting as it should be, given that it covers four decades of wrestling history, essentially. Of the four title-based compilations, this is the weakest from a match quality standpoint. Perhaps this is because, compared to the Intercontinental Title, the U.S. Title has had fewer true stand-out moments, despite it being around a few years longer. And yet, there aren't that many key matches or aspects of the title's history which aren't at least acknowledged here. The Dog Collar match between Greg Valentine and Roddy Piper from Starrcade 1983 is the obvious one, but the Ricky Steamboat-Rick Rude and Steve Austin-Dustin Rhodes feuds from 1992 and 1993 respectively, and Zack Ryder winning the title from Dolph Ziggler at TLC 2011 following a lengthy chase, are arguably the only other key chapters of the title's lineage which don't get coverage here.

Considering that the U.S. Title and IC Title are often considered equals, this DVD only suggests that the IC crown is more important, even during its weaker years; for the U.S. prize, its peak years appeared to have been 1975-1987, for the significance of the championship seems to take a drop-off in the late 1980s that it doesn't quite regain; in fact, one could argue that John Cena's U.S. Title adventures in 2015 were the most important thing to happen to the title in decades. Think about it: even in the last 10-15 years, a good number of former Intercontinental Champions have gone on to become World Champion (Randy Orton, Rob Van Dam, Christian, Jeff Hardy, Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose are amongst those whose IC Title runs would help lead them to future World Titles), with Kevin Owens being a likely future World Champ; and that number would have been higher had WWE not mishandled certain reigns (Drew McIntyre, Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes etc). In contrast, the U.S. Title has only really benefitted The Miz, and MVP had he gone on to become World Champion; and its recent title history includes a five-month reign for Santino Marella. Even Dean Ambrose's almost year-long reign as champion is rarely considered an important step for the Lunatic Fringe to his current status as WWE Champion. But WCW's handling of what was supposedly its second-biggest title was insignificant enough that one could argue WWE has handled the championship better than WCW did, even though it has had plenty of low points in the last decade-and-a-half. Seriously, during the Monday Night War years, only the aforementioned Raven-Goldberg match could have been considered an important moment for the title.

But we'll discuss the importance and future prospects of the United States Championship at another time, and instead return to the analysis of this DVD. This three-disc compilation has its moments, but not enough to be considered an essential purchase. Yet its history on the whole hasn't had the number of standout matches whereby this would really be considered a disappointment, so who the hell knows what to make of this DVD? I will say that it is fun to relive several decades of history and some important incidents, such as the growth of Starrcade and the WWF purchase of WCW, and in between the unmemorable matches and the annoying finishes, there is a generous amount of wrestling action to savour. Overall, though, I would suggest that casual fans probably won't consider this to be a great three-disc set. Hopefully, its legacy will reach new heights in the years to come, but with this run-down of its legacy so far, die-hard fans and collectors are most likely to look at buying and enjoying this DVD.

Overall Rating: 6.5/10 - Okay

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