Sunday, September 16, 2012

Trash from the Past - Championship Scramble

In honor of tonight's Night of Champions pay-per-view, I look back at 2008's September PPV event, Unforgiven. 

Multi-man title matches have been a staple of wrestling since the mid-90s. There are of course pros and cons to such matches, especially when conducted under "sudden death" rules where the first person to score a fall wins the match and the title. On the plus side, Triple Threats and other such matches allow for psychology, strategy, and drama not possible in one-on-one matches, forcing competitors to constantly be on guard not only to try to pin their opponents, but also to prevent them from pinning each other. In addition, one-fall multi-man matches allow bookers to take the title off a champion indirectly (since the champion need not be pinned or submit to lose the match), allowing storylines to advance without making the (former) champ look weak.

On the negative side, the fact that champions can lose their title without being beaten, and the fact that a wrestler can win a championship without beating the champion, takes away the prestige of the title. Also, matches involving more than two (and especially more than three) competitors tend to turn into a clusterf•ck with lots of action going on but no focus or story being told.
In 2008, WWE decided to create a new match type that took all the negatives of multi-man matches (damage to the title, lack of psychology, no focus) and raised them to the power of five. Enter the Championship Scramble. In this type of match, five wrestlers compete for a title, starting with two men and adding another man every five minutes. Falls can be scored at any time, on anyone, by anyone, and result in that person becoming "interim champion." Additional falls can be scored, again by anyone on anyone (interim champ or not), resulting in a new "interim champion." At the end of twenty minutes, the interim champion wins the match and becomes the real champion. Are you following this?

That's whoever, Matt, not whomever.

A few things should be clear by reading those rules.

  1. The only fall that matters is the last fall before the time limit. Each fall nullifies everything that has happened in the match up to that point. 
  2.  If you're the interim champion, the only thing you ought to do is break up pinfalls, since you can't benefit from pinning people when you're already champion. 
  3. If you're not the interim champion, there is no need to break up any pin or submission hold, even if you're the one being pinned or forced to tap out. If you're Batista, for instance, and Kane is pinning Rey Mysterio, there is no point in stopping Kane from becoming interim champion, as long as you're not the champ already. You can just pin someone else right afterward, even Rey, who has just been beaten unconscious by the Big Red Machine. Likewise, anyone trying to escape a submission hold is an idiot, unless they're the interim champion. The smart thing to do is tap out immediately when locked into a hold. Sure, the other guy becomes interim champion, but that doesn't affect you. The rules of the match mean that it's all offense, no defense.
  4. If you're not the interim champion, it doesn't matter who is. Say big bad Kane is the interim champion. In a saner world, that should mean that you have to beat the big man in order to become champion. In the world of the Championship Scramble, however, you need not alter your strategy regardless of who is the champion. Sure, Kane may be tough to beat, but you don't have to beat Kane, ever, even if he is the interim champion. Just work on Rey Mysterio the whole match and pin him any time you're not interim champion. 
  5. Unlike the Royal Rumble, where the later your draw, the better your odds of victory, in the Scramble match, the earlier you enter the match, the more likely you are to win. If you start out the match and beat your one opponent in the first five minutes, you could win the match if no other falls are scored. Basically, you have twenty minutes to score a fall and then prevent anyone else from scoring a fall for the rest of the time limit. If you enter last, however, you only have five minutes to score a fall or else you lose, even if you're the champion.  
With these rules in place, and their unfortunate implications, it's no wonder that the Championship Scramble matches were confusing, unengaging, and unsatisfying. Let's look at some of the Scramble matches at Unforgiven 2008, which featured all three "world" titles up for grabs in this bizarre fashion.

The WWE Championship Scramble match starts out with Shelton Benjamin versus Jeff Hardy. In the early going, each tries to pin the other, but they keep kicking out of each other's roll-ups. This makes no sense, since neither man can be eliminated, so if Jeff pins Shelton, Shelton can just pin Jeff right back. The only one who should be resisting pinfall at the beginning of the match should be Triple H, who is the reigning champion, but he is not even in the match yet. On the other hand, if Jeff does manage to pin Shelton in the first five minutes, Hardy could just simply run around the ring avoiding pinfall until the next competitor enters, so there might be some logic in not wanting to lose the first pinfall, but either way, the action is going to be ridiculous.

Jeff pins Shelton while already champion.
Jeff is the kind of guy who goes to a restaurant and buys
two all-you-can-eat buffets for himself. I have no idea why he
would be so hungry, though...
Jeff does manage to score a pinfall after pinning Brian Kendrick, meaning that Hardy does not need to perform any offense, but merely break up any potential falls. Regardless, Jeff goes on the offensive against Benjamin, even scoring a two-count on Benjamin. This pinfall would be absolutely meaningless, however, since Hardy is already the champion and Benjamin can't be eliminated by being pinned. JR has to be careful not to point this fact out, lest he alert the fans to the fact that most of the action in the ring is futile and that the competitors are being really stupid. Case in point: As Shelton Benjamin is about to score a pin on Jeff Hardy, Brian Kendrick breaks up the count by kicking Benjamin in the head, then tries to pin Hardy. Knocking Shelton out of action is all well and good, but there is no urgency required. If Shelton had scored the pin, Kendrick could still pin Jeff and become interim champion. Kendrick hits Sliced Bread #2 on Hardy to get the pin and the interim championship, which he could have done, I remind you, even if Benjamin had scored a pinfall seconds before. Later, Kendrick becomes the first man in the match to demonstrate some cognizance of the rules by breaking up other pinfalls in order to hold onto his title.

Triple H, who was the champion before this match started, enters fifteen minutes into the match, meaning that in order to retain his title he must beat somebody in five minutes' time. Triple H scores a quick Pedigree and pinfall on interim champion Brian Kendrick (though he could have done it to anybody), making him the interim champion and rendering the previous sixteen minutes of action pointless. Jeff Hardy then scores a pin on MVP, becoming interim champion without having to pin Triple H. He then stupidly goes for a high-risk move off the top rope, despite not needing to score another pin. HHH trips Hardy and pins Kendrick, but then takes a breather, allowing Hardy to swanton Kendrick and become interim champion again.  

The wrestlers are all finally starting to catch on to the rules of the match, so instead of the match being full of pointless action, it is now full of logical but laughable action, with wrestlers pinning the same guy over and over because they can. MVP takes down Kendrick and Benjamin with a tower of power, powerbombing Shelton, who superplexes Brian. With only a few seconds remaining, Triple H and Jeff Hardy crawl back into the ring. Triple H covers MVP, while Jeff Hardy (who is the current interim champion, does not need to pin anyone, and will win automatically if no more falls occur) opts not to break up HHH's pin but to cover Benjamin instead. Triple H gets the three-count just in time for time to run out. JR declares that HHH is now a 13-time world champion, forgetting that Triple H had retained the title he already had.

In summary, Jeff Hardy won the title with 1:45 remaining, leaving HHH that much time to score another fall and win the match. That means that the first 18:15, or 91.25% of the match, was utterly pointless.

Now let's look at the World Heavyweight Championship Scramble, which saw champion CM Punk replaced at the last minute by Chris Jericho. Presumably, if no falls occur in the 20 minute time limit, CM Punk retains the title. However, with matches like this, it's best not to think about them logically.

JBL and Batista start off the World Title match trying to pin each other and kicking out, even though kicking out is not really that important at this point and will be even less important as more participants enter the match. Once Kane enters the ring, nobody has to kick out of anything; even if Kane wins the first fall, Batista and JBL can still pin each other to become interim champion. Indeed, the Big Red Machine chokeslams JBL and becomes interim champ after a pin, but anybody could still pin the prone JBL to become champion. 

Rey Mysterio enters at the ten-minute mark wearing a ridiculous mask with built-in mohawk. Mysterio double-crosses Batista by trying to roll him up instead of executing a double-team on JBL, but the Animal, who is wearing a thong under his trunks to go with his tramp stamp, kicks out. Batista had no reason to kick out here, though, and this wasn't really a betrayal by Rey, because Batista wasn't champion already, nor can he be eliminated from the match. JBL then tries to pin Batista, who again pointlessly kicks out to retain the interim title for Kane. Mysterio, who is at this time engaged in the Wrestling Observer's Worst Feud of the Year with Kane, kicks out of JBL's pin attempt, a kickout which benefits Kane alone.

The final participant is Chris Jericho, filling in for the incapacitated CM Punk. Jericho himself was beaten senseless by HBK earlier that night, but as long as Jericho can get a pin (and three of his opponents shouldn't care if they're pinned, anyway), he can win. Batista tries to pin JBL, who already has his arm clearly under the ropes, but Bradshaw gets his foot on the rope, thus saving Kane's interim title reign and doing zilch for himself. Batista then covers Kane, but it is broken up at the last second by Rey Mysterio for no good reason. Now is when Batista should get angry at Rey Rey. Kane, whose best strategy right now would be to clear the ring to prevent any more falls from scoring in the last 1:30 of the match, instead takes it to Batista and even tries to pin him, despite Kane already being the champion. Batista manages to kick out, thus preventing Kane from becoming even champion-er than he already is, I suppose. Even the announcers, who have only a minute left of this crap to put up with on this night, point out this fact. With 35 seconds left, Batista scores a pin on Kane. While Batista fends off a dive by Mysterio, Jericho (who has not scored any offense tonight) scores a pinfall on the fallen Kane with 8 seconds left, thus proving to all of us what a meaningless match this is.

Let's figure this one out: It took Chris Jericho 35 seconds to unseat Batista and hold onto the title, meaning that the first 19 minutes, 25 seconds of the match were utterly pointless. That's 97.1% of the match which might as well not have happened.

When you factor in the ECW Scramble (which saw Finlay pin Matt Hardy with 3:50 remaining, only for Hardy to unseat the interim champion with a pin on Miz at 3:20 and hold onto the title for the rest of the match), there is shockingly little in any of the matches that had any bearing on the final outcome. A mere 6 minutes and ten seconds (10.2%) of a combined sixty minutes of action that night had any relevance to who would win the match.

After Unforgiven 2008, where three such matches took place, WWE would only revive the Scramble match once more, for the ECW title at The Bash 2009. The fact that the match would not return the following September is saying a lot, considering that in 2009, WWE decided to throw subtlety out the window and rename most of their "B" pay-per-views after gimmick matches. No Way Out became Elimination Chamber, One Night Stand became Extreme Rules, No Mercy became Hell in a Cell, and Armageddon became Tables, Ladders, and Chairs. Unforgiven was not, however, renamed "Championship Scramble," but was instead christened "Breaking Point," a one-time pay-per-view event emphasizing submission matches and reenacting the Montreal Screwjob. If there were any justice in this world, WWE would feed Josh Matthews and Road Dogg one-liners to rip the Scramble match apart on "Are You Serious?"


  1. Indeed, a truly idiotic format that any intelligent 7 year-old can realize the flaws of. Amazing that someone gave this the green light.

  2. I like seeing interesting matches like Chikara's Cibernetico or the silliness in the Japanese promotion DDT but like TNA's reverse battle Royal the Championship Scramble was just dreadful.
    A much less bad version of this was at Wrestlemania 2000 when they did the Hardcore match where only the champ could be pinned for a title win until the time ran out. This worked because it was the Hardcore Title which was a joke anyway and it was a mad scramble to see who could beat up the poor sap who happened to be champ for 12 seconds. Plus, it had Tazz.

  3. The wrestlers should break up the pins. That way instead of Kane pinning Mysterio, Batista could break up Kane's pin and pin Mysterio himself. If Batista waits for Kane to pin Mysterio, Batista would be wasting time and Mysterio could recover by the time Batista got rid of Kane.

  4. Saw this linked in Ask 411 - it's a good read, but I don't agree with the argument.

    Wrestling has always, to some extent, assumed the competitive spirit of the people involved - even the heels. By that, I mean that (a) they will generally try to win any match in which they are booked, (b) they will try to kick out whenever they're pinned and (c) they won't try to "game" the rulebook.

    If you get rid of those assumptions, quite a lot of wrestling stops making any sense. Why don't champions carry a bat to the ring for every match, smack the other fella over the head and take the DQ but keep their title? Why don't people booked in "punishment" matches with Kane/Ryback/whatever where they have nothing to gain just run off into the sunset and take the countout loss? Why doesn't everyone on the show before a PPV agree with their opponent not to bother, and risk getting injured before the upcoming fight that they actually WANT? Why doesn't anyone in the Royal Rumble wait until everyone's looking the other way, slide out under the bottom rope and then hide until there's just one guy left?

    Of course, those things DO happen from time to time - but they're always then noted and remarked upon as part of the given wrestler's character, and they are absolutely not the norm. BTW, I still think they should do this with Otunga - have him take advantage of all the odd rules and the decisions they've made over the years. But that's a side point.

    So I think you're asking too much for all the participants suddenly to start eating pinfalls, or stop breaking up other people's falls, just because it doesn't do them any harm. It wouldn't be consistent with the rest of wrestling if they started behaving entirely rationally in these matches!

    As to the waste of time point - do you feel the same way about the first two falls of Flair/Steamboat at Clash VI? Everything other than the last fall in Steamboat/Rude at Bash at the Beach 92? The first six matches of Magnum/Koloff? I do see your point, but I think it's harsh to say that everything other than the final decision is a waste of time (although I do agree whenever an Ironman match goes to overtime...).

    Having said all of that, I completely agree that the matches failed. What I'd argue, though, was that the terminology was what killed them - all this "interim champion" nonsense. It should have been simple - whoever scores the last decision before time expires becomes the champion, full stop. The announcers can put over "If this match ended now, Kendrick would become the new champion!" or what have you, but having in-arena announcements and all that was just pointless and cheapened the belts as you say.

  5. I disagree with you on the point about multi-fall matches, such as 2/3 falls or best of seven series. Remember, by scoring a fall in a 2/3 falls match, a wrestler is half-way to victory, and his opponent is half-way to loss. The same goes for a best of seven series; for each match you win, you are 1/4 of the way closer to winning it all. When you tie a series, you aren't actually negating your opponent's previous falls; every fall was necessary to bring the match or series to that point, and each fall is an incremental step towards victory for one man or the other.

    Now look at the Scramble match; if you score pinfall after pinfall after pinfall, only the most recent one brings you any closer to victory, looking back. Each time someone else scores a fall, it's as if all the falls you scored never happened.

    Thus, a more apt (though not perfect) comparison to the Championship Scramble match would not be a best 3 falls match or a best of seven series, but rather a *last* of 3 falls match or a *last* of seven series.

    1. I'm not sure I understand the difference you're trying to draw between the previous pinfalls in a Scramble and my other examples. Yes, the previous falls in those match types help to tell a story (Magnum battling back from the deficit, Rude taking the intentional DQ etc.) but I'd argue that the previous falls in the Scramble matches do as well.

      Equally, they all become irrelevant to the same extent - because in all of those scenarios you end up in a position of "next fall wins" regardless of what has gone before.

      I can see that there is a difference in that you don't NECESSARILY end up in that position (I've seen 2/3 falls matches end 2-0 and Ironman matches where the face is going for the tying fall as time expires) but in general you do, don't you? How is the typical Ironman match, which is tied going into the last minutes, any less "last fall wins" than a Championship Scramble?

    2. The difference is that those falls add up in a best of 3 falls match, a best of 7 series, or an Iron Man match. Each fall makes a difference. If I score a bunch of falls in a row, that puts me that much further ahead of my opponent and that much closer to victory. If we are both tied and there is one last deciding fall, those previous falls still served there purpose. The fact that I scored those falls puts me in a position to win the match, and the fact that my opponent scored an equal number of falls puts him in the same position. Take away any of those falls and the match changes complexion completely. You can look back and say, "It was really important that so-and-so won that second fall."

      In a Scramble, however, the previous falls do not make a difference once another fall is scored. I could pin a guy 5 times, but as long as someone else has scored a fall more recently, none of my pins count. If I score a pin at the end of the match and win, my 5 previous pins still contributed nothing to my victory. I could have won the match just as easily without any of those 5 previous pins.

      On the other hand, if I win the final fall in a 2/3 match or best-of series, the previous falls I won have everything to do with my victory and were absolutely necessary to my winning.

      It's the same reason why in any sports game, every previous point or goal matters when the game is tied. When a basketball game is tied, it is only because both teams made all of the shots they did. One more or fewer missed shot by other team would have resulted in an uneven score. If it were simply a matter of scoring the last shot, then all previous goals a team scored might as well not have happened, and that's why no sport uses that scoring system.

    3. I see what you're saying, but in terms of the actual narrative of the match I don't think it makes a difference. The typical structure of an Ironman match sets up exactly the same situation - next fall wins.

      I take the point that the accrued falls still "count" in getting you to that situation, whereas the previous falls in a Scramble are irrelevant because you're effectively in that situation from the start, but my point is that they're both "irrelevant" in so far as you end up in the position where (regardless of what has gone before) the question is only whether you can fit in another fall before time expires.

      I think the Ironman match is the better example than the 2/3 falls, because I do understand your point a lot better in that context.

      Anyway - interesting talking to you. Keep up the good work!

  6. As for the competitive spirit of wrestlers overriding the logic of match stipulations, think about elimination matches, such as the Elimination Chamber or fatal four way matches without sudden death rules. You will seldom see anyone break up a pin in any of those matches, but this is not held against them. Nor is it held against them when they let wrestlers be eliminated in a battle royal or Rumble. It's just written into the rules of the match. No one thinks any less of John Cena if he doesn't break up a pin in such a match, nor should he think any less of himself.

    Faces and heels alike adjust their styles according to the stipulations of a match, and not just in elimination matches. When there are no DQs in a match, they will use weapons. When there are no countouts, they will take their time outside the ring. Most importantly, though, even if the wrestlers aren't using weapons every single second or staying outside the ring the entire match, they won't go out of their way to avoid breaking those non-existent rules to keep from losing a match. If John Cena is outside the ring for nine seconds during a street fight, he's not going to rush into the ring in the nick of time to avoid a countout, nor is he going to wait until the referee's back is turned to use a steel chair to avoid a DQ. Yet, in a Scramble match, by breaking up other people's pins, wrestlers are playing by rules that don't exist to avoid losing in impossible ways. Breaking up someone else's pinfall in a Scramble match is as silly as rolling in and out of the ring to restart a non-existent 10-count in a match with no countouts.

    While it's understandable for a wrestler to kick out of pins in a Scramble match for the sake of pride, it's not understandable for them to break up other people's pins when they don't need to, to keep certain big men from scoring falls, or to try to score falls when they are already "interim champion," as evidenced by other gimmick matches with special rules. That's crossing over from pride to idiocy.

  7. Some good points there, and thanks for the responses.

    To be clear, I wasn't trying to suggest that the unwritten rules of wrestling logic demand that wrestlers behave in the exact same way regardless of match stipulations. To some extent of course they'll change their behaviour - my point is that there needs to be some core behaviour in wrestling, or else the whole thing just falls over. I'd put kicking out of pinfalls into that category, regardless of whether or not that pinfall would make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

    I completely agree, however, that the "interim champion" shouldn't go for pinfalls. That must be right. I haven't watched the matches as recently as you have, but I don't remember a MASSIVE amount of that - but any is too many, I agree. It's a new match type, and I guess I'd put those down as botches. Not great, but not unprecedented - I've seen matches without countouts in effect where people have "broken the count", and I'm pretty convinced Randy Savage went for a pin in a Royal Rumble once, didn't he?

    As for breaking up other people's pinfalls - that's an interesting one. I can see all sorts of different reasons why a given wrestler might do it in a given situation, or even why it might always be perceived as the better thing to do, but equally I can see it might not be the default position. I get why it bothers you, put it that way, but it didn't particularly strike me as odd.

    Interesting that you mention the Rumble/battles royale - you frequently get wrestler A hanging on for dear life as wrestler B tries to lever him out, then wrestler C comes across and attacks B. Yes, sometimes C is A's friend or B's enemy, but often there's no obvious connection (other than maybe the broad face/heel lines). what's the logic there, and why doesn't it apply to this (or does that also annoy you, but it doesn't happen often enough to be a concern)?

    Hope that makes sense.

    1. In the Rumble/battle royal, sometimes it's a case of getting a cheap shot in on wrestler B, and I would imagine that Wrestler C would like Wrestler A to be eliminated, but not as much as he would like to sucker-punch Wrestler B. It's sort of like how in the first Elimination Chamber match, Shawn Michaels superkicked Jericho when he had Triple H in the Walls. Michaels wasn't trying to break up the fall, and would have preferred if HHH had tapped out as well, but he wanted to knock out Jericho.

    2. I think the idea of last-fall-in-the-time-limit wins could be a good idea for a one-on-one match (or, at most, a three-way match) so as to make pinfalls and break-ups much more urgent and relevant to all competitors. It's the fact that there are always at least three people unaffected by any fall that kills the five-man Championship Scramble match (that's one reason, at least).

    3. But why doesn't the same logic apply? You'd rather get in a shot on the guy doing the pinning than have to deal with him once he's won the fall (and, presumably, is therefore more motivated or whatever)?

      It's a failing if the announcers haven't put that over (and I guess they haven't!) but it's only four matches, which is a pretty small sample size.

      For me, the match type would create enough potential stories that it would be worth using it occasionally - probably not two or three on the same PPV(!), but it could be done as long as they did a better job of presenting it.