April 18, 2004
Live report: Benoit homecoming rocks Rexall
By JASON CLEVETT -- SLAM! Wrestling
Edmonton - For fans who jammed Rexall Place, just off of Wayne Gretzky Drive, last nights Backlash show was memorable for three reasons. First was the return to action of Ric Flair. "The Nature Boy" has only wrestled in Edmonton once, a 1992 bout with Roddy Piper. Seeing a rare match from Mick Foley was the second, and Chris Benoit's homecoming the obvious third.
It was evident early in the night how fans would treat the main event. Any time video footage showed of HHH, it was met with scattered boos. Michaels on the other hand received a very strong reaction, the entire arena would boo at the mere sight of him. Hometown hero Chris Benoit, as expected, received a huge ovation.
The Canadian crowd was solidly behind Ric Flair in the opener against Shelton Benjamin. Much like in Madison Square Garden a month ago, the former world champion could do no wrong in the fans eyes and every chop of the night was met with a "whoo."
The crowds enthusiasm died somewhere during Coach's match vs. Tajiri, coming alive when the Japanese Buzzsaw made his comeback. The match was better then expected live, although the deadly punch by Garrison Cade left many in the crowd scratching their heads. Things picked up with the fantastic all Canadian bout between Dungeon grad Chris Jericho, Christian and Trish Stratus. Poor Trish couldn't get a break as the crowd ruthlessly chanted "Slut." Jericho on the other hand had a grin a mile wide as the Alberta fans chanted his name and gave him one of the loudest ovations of the night.
As is usual with woman's matches, Lita vs. Victoria was used by many as a chance to head to the concessions and purchase more of what arena's pass off as "beer", stretch their legs and hit the bathrooms. They didn't miss much as Lita's continued sloppyness was something not even Victoria could overcome.
The advantage those who left also had was they were wedged into their chairs and ready to go for the match of the night, the classic hardcore match between Mick Foley and Randy Orton. The crowd was into every blow and every brutal move, cheering on Foley despite the fact that most realized it would be a losing effort. By the end of the match, many in the audience were standing in appreciation of both men's efforts. An interesting note is that in addition to Foley not lighting the bat on fire, when Kane made his entrance there was no ring post pyro. Eric Bischoff's promo about the fire marshal may have been more than just an angle. While many fans were disappointed that Chris Benoit won the World Title at Wrestlemania rather than in his hometown, the Hardcore match made up for it.
One thing that WWE does smartly is to give fans a "cooling off" period between high intensity matches like Foley/Orton and the main event. The "just there" tag match between La Resistance and the Superheroes was met with apathy for the most part until the appearance by Eugene. As much as many fans and wrestling journalists are critical of the character, and rightly so, the sad truth is that the fans pop for him and seem to like his antics.
Edge vs. Kane was met with total apathy after the entrances, which had to be disappointing for Edge in his first match back. While the two were in the ring fighting, a group of fans on the floor tried in vain to start a "You screwed Bret" chant. When it didn't work, they turned on the crowd in the stands, facing them and chanting "You guys suck." Not going to take that, the stands responded back at them with the exact same chant, likely causing Edge and Kane to worry they were about to have a recreation of the Lesnar/Goldberg audience reaction last month.
However the audience couldn't really be blamed for not getting into the two matches, they were saving their energy and voices for the Main Event finale. Chris Benoit has wrestled in Edmonton at Intercontinental Champion and Tag Team Champion, but surely returning to the "City of Champions" as World Champion had to be his proudest moment. It was for the fans who were solidly behind him the entire match. The Edmonton crowd however couldn't seem to get onto the same page at times while chanting, resulting in a mush of chants that came across at times sounding like "You tapped Bret," "You screwed out," or "Let's go screw." Fans were also distracted briefly when a fight broke out on the floor, and a fan was hauled away by security.
As predicted, Shawn Michaels paid his long due penance for the Montreal Screwjob, tapping out cleanly to the Sharpshooter as the crowd screamed at him to tap. While the ending may have been foreseeable, the journey there was a rollercoaster of great wrestling and a heated crowd. Having not yet seen the tape I don't know how much the WWE commentary team talked about Montreal, but if it wasn't in the plans, it seemed forced by the crowd. Also interesting to note is that much like in Madison Square Garden, a number of fans frequently looked expectantly and hopefully at the entrance way, especially when Michaels had Benoit in what could loosely be referred to as a sharpshooter. Fans hoping to see Bret Hart make an appearance would go home disappointed, but they would be the only ones.
When the cameras went off air, Benoit blasted the hated Michaels, stating "Pack your bags and get out of here, they don't want you here. Not only did you screw Bret, but tonight you tapped out!" This prompted another loud "You Tapped Bret" chant as Michaels fought against the referee to get back into the ring before telling the Edmonton fans off and heading to the back. Fans making the trek to Calgary tonight for RAW are hoping for Benoit and Michaels to go one-on-one, but since the crowd would react just as strongly to Michaels in Hart's hometown, that is a big question mark. Michaels' departure prompted Triple-H to return to the ring.
"I may have tapped once, but no way in hell will a hillbilly redneck Canadian make me tap twice" the Game said before charging Benoit, who sidestepped, locked on the crossface, and made the former champion tap in 15 seconds. As Benoit used to say, he proved Hunter wrong.
As the fans streamed out of the arena into the spring air, fans expressed their excitement at their first PPV, and undoubtedly the best RAW-Only PPV since the concepts inception nearly a year ago. Watching from home may have been a different experience, but live, Backlash was worth every penny to pay tribute to a hardcore legend, and a champion we can call one of our own.