Flipping through channels on Super Bowl Sunday is an exercise in futility. Unless you’re a fan of “counter-programming” like the Puppy Bowl or the Lingerie Bowl, odds are that, if your TV is on tonight, it’s tuned in to CBS. Advertising, football, glimpses of the summer’s upcoming tentpole blockbusters, it’s all kind of a drag. Tomorrow, an endless stream of articles will go up collecting the best advertisements, .gifs, Tweets, and plays from the game and the clock will reset: another year until the next Super Bowl, Puppy Bowl, Lingerie Bowl, and round of Doritos ads. It’s audacious to suggest that more networks run original content against the Super Bowl, but if Animal Planet has the guts to do it every year, why not, say, the USA Network?
When Beyoncé took the field to perform during the Pepsi Halftime Show tonight, USA Network was halfway through an episode of an interminable marathon of NCIS episodes. In 1999, with the WWF at the zenith of the Attitude Era, they aired Halftime Heat, a 20-minute special that butted heads against Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Stevie Wonder, and Gloria Estefan, an odd hydra of acts that served as a “Celebration of Soul, Salsa, and Swing.” The Super Bowl halftime show has grown in size and scope since then, becoming a celebration of whatever company shells out the most cash. Running a wrestling match against Beyoncé sounds like a daunting proposition, but as evidenced by Aaron Rodgers’s “discount double-check” championship belt move, scads of athletes mimicking John Cena’s “You Can’t See Me” hand gesture, and The Rock appearing in multiple Super Bowl commercials this year, the crossover potential of World Wrestling Entertainment has never been more apparent. With The Rock, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and CM Punk on the roster, the time has come for Vince McMahon to once again sell the general television audience on the brilliance of sports entertainment. It’s an easy, three step process.
1. The Commercial
As crazy as it seems, the WWE has, at this point in time, as many unique characters as it did during the Attitude Era. Sure, Daniel Bryan, Damien Sandow, Brodus Clay, Antonio Cesaro, and The Shield aren’t as immediately recognizable as Kane, Mankind, or Sable, but they’re different from just about any other characters on TV, and against a sea of bro-celebrating beer ads, slow-mo car commercials, and This Year’s GoDaddy.com Advertisement, the WWE’s stable of characters would pop out against the mundanity of the modern Super Bowl commercial. This year, the cost of a Super Bowl ad was roughly four million dollars. That’s a lot of scratch. But an ad next year would be in prime position to promote the 30th edition of WrestleMania, the further involvement of guys like Lesnar and Rock, and perhaps Triple H and The Undertaker. It’d get the lesser-known guys before the largest television audience of the year, once again establish the WWE as a purveyor of unique pop culture moments, and legitimize the company in ways that direct-to-DVD movies, wellness policies, and celebrity cameos during WrestleMania ultimately can’t.
2. The Competitors
If The Rock vs. Steve Austin was the feud of the Attitude Era, The Rock vs. Mankind ran a close second place. At Halftime Heat in 1999, that feud was chosen to represent the WWF during their version of the Super Bowl halftime show. Though the resulting empty arena match was hardly among the best Rock/Mankind encounter that happened between Survivor Series 1998 and WrestleMania XV, but The Rock’s charisma and Mankind’s ability to withstand tremendous abuse were important things to showcase going forward, and 2/3 of the era’s triumvirate of big stars were put before a large audience in an important match.
For a rebooted Halftime Heat to work, that’s the template the WWE would need to work with. In 2013/2014, the three most important men in the WWE are The Rock, John Cena, and CM Punk. Despite his popularity, The Rock is no longer as emblematic of the WWE as he once was. Cena and Punk, whose feud in various permutations defined the bulk of 2011 and 2012, are the obvious choice for a halftime wrestling match. There are no two men on the regular roster who have the same effect on the crowd as Punk and Cena, nor is there a better main event combination going.
3. The Match
Say what you will about the empty arena match, but it signified everything about the Attitude Era, good and bad. Vince McMahon, while never the greatest announcer in WWF history, was at the peak of his abilities in terms of his evil boss character, and when he wasn’t shilling for the company, his cheerleading for The Rock is among the match’s highlights. My favorite exchange happens relatively early in the match, after The Rock whips Mankind into a bunch of chairs and incapacitates him with a barely protected chairshot to the head. With The Rock extolling his virtues to the crowd, Mankind’s Mr. Socko-clad arm rises from the wreckage like Jaws’s fin from the ocean. As Rock keeps speaking, McMahon notices the approaching Mankind and alerts his champion just seconds before the deranged challenger shoves a sock down his opponent’s gullet. Rock’s muffled screams through the play-by-play headset are great. McMahon complaining that Mankind interrupted The Rock’s “eloquent” speech is even better. In combining the brutality and comedic aspects of the WWF at the time, it’s the Attitude Era in a time capsule.
To get it right in 2014, the match would need to be taped before a live audience. Rock/Mankind taking place in an empty arena makes sense within the context of its being another in a series of increasingly crazy gimmick matches designed to test the unbreakable will of Mankind and the cunning intellect of The Rock. There’s nothing the WWE is more proud of right now than their ability to connect with their fans, who are collectively referred to as the WWE Universe and who have the ability on any given Monday to dominate the trending topics on Twitter. It’d be unreasonable from a budgetary standpoint to air the match between CM Punk and John Cena live, but an audience is almost necessary. Best case scenario, film the match in Chicago and get a crowd something like this:
If the match between the two is even half as good as their Money in the Bank 2011 match, then you’re talking about a contest that’d immediately qualify as one of the best of the year. Furthermore, it’d be a match that showcases two sides of the WWE’s product, the two they most emphasize during any given broadcast. In John Cena, you have the larger-than-life, PG, kid friendly specimen of masculinity, the unquestioned face of the company. In Punk, you have the emblem of the WWE’s so-called “Reality Era,” a dangerous man whose offense is a combination of realistic submission holds and strikes and classic wrestling showmanship.
Every Monday, the WWE produces a number of PowerPoint-style bumper graphics that promote the company as a pop culture juggernaut. They trumpet the virtues of their various public relations outreach projects, big events, and bigger personalities. With five TV shows and the occasional pay per view card, they sometimes do this six times a week. They are preaching to the choir. Signing The Rock and Brock Lesnar are good steps to entice casual fans and snakebitten diehards to watch the product again. Putting Snooki in a WrestleMania match ensures that the media continues to cover professional wrestling like the freak-show it’s been perceived as since the rock ‘n wrestling era. It’s beyond time for the WWE to marry those sensibilities and reach out to casual fans in a way that it hasn’t in over a decade. It’s time to bring back Halftime Heat, to do it bigger and better than before. The company has little to lose, and the USA Network has the time. John Cena vs. CM Punk during the Super Bowl would be a once in a lifetime event, something wrestling fans would talk about enough to distract from the ridiculous plays, overproduced pop concerts, and potential power outages the big game provides. To me, it’s not a question of when the WWE will put on another Halftime Heat, but why the idea has gone untouched for fourteen years.
And if John Cena hits CM Punk in the head with a gigantic bag of popcorn, so much the better.
In WWE, the episode of Monday Night Raw before a pay-per-view is colloquially referred to as the “go home show,” the company’s last opportunity to embellish the storylines going into the weekend’s big matches. For me, that description has never worked for any episode of Raw besides the one before WrestleMania, which is, of course, the show, the one that events like this Sunday’s Hell in a Cell serve as a pyrokinetic PowerPoint presentation for, building up a year-long resume for the evening’s stars before the Monday after WrestleMania, where everything resets in order to build up to next year’s show. Regardless, this is the internet, and once nerds like me catch glimpse of phrases like “go home show,” every episode of Raw is evaluated not in terms of entertainment or plot, but in terms of how well it sells the upcoming pay per view.
On that level, tonight’s episode of Monday Night Raw was a puzzling mishmash of bizarre elements, the WWE’s signature brands of comedy and mock seriousness colliding with the otherworldly realness of “Best in the World” C.M. Punk and angry, glowering giant The Big Show. As a sales pitch, Raw is perhaps shackled by the fact that Hell in a Cell offers as its main attractions three first-time encounters in an environment that calls for the end of long-standing beef, but in the business of live, active entertainment, you deal with the cards you’re dealt, and the WWE had been given fan indifference in the face of another Sheamus/Alberto Del Rio encounter, and an injury to John Cena just as his feud with C.M. Punk began hurtling towards finality. The lead-in to Hell in a Cell and the pay per view itself have felt like a shuffling of the cosmic deck. Substituting for John Cena is Ryback. The Big Show has been called in as an audible for Alberto Del Rio. A tournament led to the establishment of a tag team division so that one new tag team could battle another over the tag team championships. This Sunday promises a few return bouts—Kofi Kingston vs. The Miz, Alberto Del Rio vs. Randy Orton, Eve vs. either Kaitlyn or Layla, and perhaps Antonio Caesaro vs. Justin Gabriel—but despite how good those match-ups have proven to be (Kingston/Miz and Caesaro/Gabriel have been pleasant surprises, as has Eve’s run as queen jerk of the WWE Divas), they’re afterthoughts to the ongoing championship reigns of Sheamus, Punk, and Team Hell No.
Stacked up against a presidential debate, Monday Night Football, and Game 7 of the NLCS, the approach taken to building these confrontations, with the exception of Punk/Ryback, played like the WWE’s oft-belittled writing staff throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks to the pre-match hype video. The prime example of this ethic is the story between Team Hell No and the Rhodes Scholars, a feud that’s been simmering since before Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow won the tag team tournament, way back when WWE let the fans christen Daniel Bryan and Kane “Team Hell No,” as opposed to the meme-worthy “Team Friendship. On the good end of this feud, Daniel Bryan and Kane both had and lost matches due to one dynamic of their partnership or the other: Bryan’s insecurity and Kane’s goofing around in the case of the excellent Bryan/Dolph Ziggler contest, and the Rhodes Scholars vulture-like mentality during Kane’s umpteenth encounter with The Big Show. Less impressive was WWE’s spin on The Newlywed Game, which promised a game of wits between the two tag teams and, instead, served as a platform for WWE afterthought Matt Striker to wish harm upon Team Hell No before getting chucked across the stage by The Big Show. The WWE has oddly succeeded with bits of anti-comedy like this before—as proof, look up their version of The Price is Right—but The Newly Tag Game, awkward name and all, was executed like something thought up on the fly and scratched during the commercial break. Luckily Rhodes Scholars closed out the tag team tournament with a strong match against Rey Mysterio and Sin Cara, so there’s still plenty off intrigue.
This schizophrenic approach has also permeated the issue between The Big Show and Sheamus, but to better effect. Sheamus is an interesting fellow, a big, tough, amiable champion who has grown leaps and bounds in the ring but whose reliance upon broad-stroke comedy has ranged from awkward (Irish stereotypes) to uncomfortable (Mexican and Jewish stereotypes). Against The Big Show, Sheamus has employed a simpleton’s logic: Daniel Bryan beat the big man 45 seconds into his reign as World Heavyweight Champion, Sheamus beat Daniel Bryan in 18 seconds at WrestleMania, therefore the outcome is clear. He’s joked around with Show, grappled with the futility of his Brogue Kick finishing maneuver against a man much taller than any of Sheamus’s prior opponents, and generally goofed around as The Big Show glowers, punches things, and reminds Sheamus that he’d best be serious if he stands a prayer of retaining his title. Tonight, in a clip that’ll just kill me if it sees any further airtime, Sheamus shilled his new Brawlin’ Buddy toy, which was quickly punched across the state line by The Big Show. Luckily, Show’s involvement in Sheamus’ lumberjack match against C.M. Punk did the job of building towards this Sunday’s championship bout.
Speaking of the lumberjack match (and I’ll probably speak more about it this weekend, as the “Wrestling Worth Watching” feature returns to cover individual matches from the week in a way that’s not appropriate in a regular review), it was billed as the largest such match in history, boasting some three dozen men surrounding the ring. I didn’t count them, but that sea of humanity was there for one reason: to part like the Red Sea before an incoming Ryback. It was an impressive image, the WWE Universe vacating one side of the ring to make way for the challenger to C.M. Punk’s title, and Punk’s attempt to get away from Ryback, only to be fed back to the ring by a cadre of good guys for one of Ryback’s impressive power moves, begs the question of what will happen when the two face each other in the cell, which is exactly the question the WWE wants you to ask.
What they don’t want you asking, hence the reshuffling of the deck, is why, exactly, John Cena gave up an opportunity to face Punk mere weeks after insisting, sling and all, that Hell In A Cell was the only way for C.M. Punk to validate his lengthy WWE Championship reign. While serving as Ryback’s cheerleader, Cena wound up being interrupted by Punk, who (in typical heel fashion) claimed it was evidence that Cena had come around to Punk’s overall superiority. Not so, said Cena. He just wasn’t medically cleared. It was incredibly confusing—Cena advocating one moment for the change Ryback represents, then claiming he only did it because he wasn’t cleared—made more confusing when Cena flexed his mighty arm, touting that he’d been cleared and was ready for a fight right-the-hell-now. Naturally, the match didn’t happen (Paul Heyman to Punk: “You don’t fight for free!”), and Cena was quickly called elsewhere, his presence for Hell In A Cell’s main event no longer required.
That “elsewhere” happened to be the ongoing saga of A.J. Lee, the WWE Diva who went from nerd-baiting background occupier to the most popular woman in WWE not named Kelly Kelly to oddly-written authority figure through a dizzying array of personal relationships, uncalled for attacks, and strange business decisions. This week, before her home town (never a good place for a wrestler to be, C.M. Punk excluded), she unceremoniously resigned from the post of Raw General Manager amid rumor that she’d been fraternizing with the boys in the back, namely one John Cena. A.J.’s resignation was one of the more odd, strangely affecting segments in recent WWE history, a curious mix of A.J.’s real history and the bizarre turns her storyline had taken. With her thanking the fans and hugging Vince McMahon (nobody hugs Vince McMahon!), it was a moment simultaneously real and unreal, something that could either go nowhere or herald A.J.’s long-awaited reentry in the Diva’s division.
Instead, she’s now caught up in an alleged affair with John Cena, who has made a habit of appropriating elements of other wrestler’s storylines. After WrestleMania, it was Cena who went against C.M. Punk’s sworn enemy Johnny Ace. It’s Cena who’s taken to the occasional “YES!” or “FEED ME MORE!” chant. And now it’s Cena with A.J., a woman who once carried the promise of being the WWE’s first autonomous female character who now finds herself loosely tied to the affections of another of the WWE’s titans of masculinity. Cena’s constant refrain—he and A.J. had nothing more than a “business dinner”—was as inauthentic as the thought of his being romantically entangled with any of the WWE Divas, and heaps an unnecessary amount of drama onto the role of General Manager, a position that’s best when the character occupying it is conniving and sly, or otherwise invincible. Sure, there are other elements to the story, and Cena needs something to do until his elbow is fully recovered, but none of those elements are clicking, and this isn’t it.
I mentioned it in the post, but the feature “Wrestling Worth Watching” will be returning this week, sometime after the conclusion of Hell In A Cell. There’s a vast difference between the narrative structure of a television show and the merit of an individual wrestling match. Of note here, for the interested: Rhodes Scholars vs. Sin Cara and Rey Mysterio, Dolph Ziggler vs. Daniel Bryan, and the C.M. Punk vs. Sheamus lumberjack match.
Daniel Bryan, on Kane: “You love rainbows!”
Bryan’s reaction to winning The Newly Tag Game was great, a return to his bombastic celebrations as World Heavyweight Champion, but the crowd just wasn’t buying the segment.
For weeks now, the narrative of WWE Monday Night Raw has been this: to cement his legacy as an all-time great champion, CM Punk would need to defeat John Cena within the confines of Hell in a Cell, WWE’s steel cage warzone that’s seen its fair share of company defining moments. On one level, this makes sense: many of the company’s top feuds, from The Undertaker’s battles with Shawn Michaels and Mankind to Triple H’s beefs with Chris Jericho and Cactus Jack, have wound up there, and Cena/Punk is certainly worthy. On another, it’s a complete mystery: Punk’s been involved in two Hell in a Cell matches and hasn’t outright lost to John Cena since before last year’s WrestleMania. The cell has mostly loomed in the background as another specter of WWE past, taunting the long-tenured WWE Champion like Bret Hart, Mick Foley, Jim Ross, and Vince McMahon have over the past few weeks. Tonight was billed as the night CM Punk chose between John Cena and Ryback as his eventual challenger, and also as an evening during which Vince McMahon would potentially choose Punk’s opponent. In a move unsurprising to folks who follow injury reports but inconsistent in terms of overall narrative, neither Punk nor McMahon chose who would be stepping into Hell in a Cell, but John Cena, who abdicated the ring and led the audience in Ryback’s chant of “FEED ME MORE.”
This swerve came despite Cena telling Vince McMahon that he was ready, if need be, for the challenge of the Cell. Despite weeks of him telling Punk that respect and a lasting legacy would only be his if he agreed to the match. Obviously, Cena’s elbow is still an issue, but stepping away from a fight he was previously begging for is something completely outside his character, even when he was a white rapper of questionable associations nearly a decade ago. Ryback, fortunately for the WWE, is an able substitute. Listen to the response he gets, even after failing to lift up the monstrous Tensai for his finishing maneuver a week ago. There is no hotter act in wrestling. The only thing the WWE has to fear is that Ryback’s luster is diminished by a loss, or that a championship victory is too much, too soon. It’ll hurt the narrative a little, but not enough to seriously damage Vince McMahon’s unsinkable ship.
Ryback, love him or hate him (I’m a fan), is the best example of the WWE’s seemingly newfound ability to turn its new stars from awkward newcomers into characters worth investing time into over a short period of time. The law of diminishing returns has effectively caused the Funkasaurus to go extinct, but acts like Damien Sandow and Antonio Caesaro have done well for themselves; Kofi Kingston, The Miz, Cody Rhodes, and Sin Cara have gotten a new sense of purpose; and the much maligned Tag Team and Divas divisions have had an energy to them that has been largely absent for years.
A lot of this, oddly, has been a side-effect of Jerry “The King” Lawler’s heart attack and subsequent hiatus from the broadcast position. That night forced play-by-play announcer Michael Cole to drop his evil ways and return to simply reporting on matches, rather than actively picking favorites. He’s been joined at the table by Jim Ross and John Bradshaw Layfield, both of whom are gifted analysts with whom Cole has tremendous chemistry. Layfield was not on Raw tonight, but Ross has a way of connecting with wrestling fans that, as an announcer myself, is both enviable and hard to describe. Cole, sitting beside him, is tremendously effective in making Ross’s points digestible to the WWE’s young demographic. If the aim of broadcasting this format is to make the wrestlers in the ring look as good as possible, few recent matches have befitted as much as the one between Kofi Kingston and The Miz, which was meant to hype a title fight between the two on WWE’s new Wednesday night show. I’ve been disinterested in Kofi Kingston for some time and have never really been a fan of The Miz, but listening to Ross talk about Kingston’s history and Cole put over The Miz’s accomplishments, it really felt like their match meant something. Considering that the issue sprung from an incident where Larry King’s wife through water in The Miz’s face, that’s saying a lot about both the commentary and the match itself.
Similarly, the WWE has found a way to make The Big Show a compelling character again: a disgruntled carnival strongman with a right hand that’s literally lethal, facing down a grinning goofball Irishman whose most compelling argument for success is that a mutual opponent once beat Show in 45 seconds. Tonight, The Big Show demanded to face Daniel Bryan in a match so he could “erase the memory” of his 45 second title reign and handily defeated the WWE Tag Team Champion. The match achieved the dual purpose of establishing Show as a legitimate threat (something that’s proven hard in the past, despite the man’s size) and further gelling the team of Bryan and Kane, the unlikely champions who belittle each other but are growing into a semi-functional unit. The odd man out here is World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus, who would probably be one of my favorite wrestlers were he not involved in a mind-boggling amount of lame sketches that’ve resorted to bullying, racial stereotyping, and grand theft auto, none of which have utilized his natural charisma, nor the size and strength that make him so impressive.
The result of this episode of Raw is that the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view is now much more full, though it remains unclear as to what matches will actually end up in the cage. There’s Punk and Ryback, as mentioned by Vince McMahon, and I presume Big Show and Sheamus will also end up there. Daniel Bryan and Kane may face the winners of next weeks Rey Mysterio/Sin Cara vs. Damien Sandow/Cody Rhodes encounter in Hell in a Cell, but that’d be three first-time matches taking place in a structure formerly reserved for the end of a long-standing conflict.
In this regard, give CM Punk and manager Paul Heyman most of the credit for selling the upcoming show. Punk, as always, has really taken to the role of smarmy jerk, and if anybody deserves to go through the crucible of Hell in a Cell, it’s him. Punk has been through two such matches, as previously mentioned, but neither of them were classics. Paul Heyman, though, was a big part of one of WWE’s best such brawls, a bloodbath between his client Brock Lesnar and Hell in a Cell staple The Undertaker. He may be pivotal two weeks from now, worrying outside the cage as his man stares across the ring at a young challenger with nothing to lose, unheard of momentum, and an unbeaten record. The vitriol aimed at Punk since he attacked Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on the thousandth episode of Raw crossed into the realm of reality last week, when Punk punched a fan, retaliating to a hostile crowd trying to push him down a flight of stairs. The WWE Universe is out for his blood, meaning that there was no bad choice for Hell in a Cell. If only that choice had followed the WWE’s already established logic.
Raw General Manager A.J. Lee has become less and less essential to the show since she was given power and granted a last name, but they’re still portraying her as an emotionally unstable woman who doesn’t like the word “crazy.” This resulted in an odd verbal gaffe by Michael Cole, who noted that he shouldn’t “call A.J. the ‘C-word.’” That’s a basic rule of thumb for all women, Mr. Cole.
Vince McMahon’s reply when Ryback said “FEED ME PUNK?” “I’ll take it under consideration.”
Paul Heyman is perhaps the greatest slimeball manager in wrestling history. The way he tries warming up to Vince McMahon while also setting him up for a match against Punk was great. His response to Vince when McMahon said he’d only take a match against Heyman (“That’s not what I pitched! That’s not what I pitched!”) was golden.
I like Wade Barrett a lot, but I can never tell if he has a new theme song, or if they’ve just given him something that bland and generic. Considering how many times they changed Barrett’s music when he was a member of Nexus and The Corre, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just haven’t settled on one generic rock song or another. Entrance music is a big part of professional wrestling (for one, it lets the audience know exactly how to respond the moment a wrestler enters the arena), and Barrett’s considerable mystique would only be enhanced by something recognizable.
At times, last night’s episode of WWE Raw felt like it was being piped in from several alternate universes, which, I suspect, is just the nature of the “family reunion” style of show the company is fond of putting on when it meets and eclipses certain milestones. If, like me, you have an oddly (sadly) precise memory for the goings-on of World Wrestling Entertainment, things like the Degeneration X reunion—which saw Triple H and Shawn Michaels join forces with X-Pac and the New Age Outlaws for fifteen minutes of passable, PG jokes about how old the quintet has become—are head-scratching affairs due to giant, gaping holes in continuity. Yes, the Triple H/Shawn Michaels configuration of the group wore the same t-shirts as the Triple H/X-Pac/New Age Outlaws iteration, but Michaels had considerable beef with those dudes once he was ousted from the group, and said beef was never satisfactorily resolved. Read more
The long and short of Sunday’s Wrestlemania is this: The matches that were meant to deliver, delivered. The matches that were going to be OK, were OK. The match that was going to suck, sucked. The only thing I had against what may possibly be the WWE’s biggest show (and perhaps its best) since Wrestlemania X7 was that Daniel Bryan lost his World Heavyweight Championship in 18 seconds, and, to be honest, I can’t complain about that either, given how that turned out. But, no matter how successful any given WrestleMania is, the RAW following is just as important, if not more so. While Wrestlemania is the cumulative blow-off of an entire year’s worth of build and anticipation, the Raw the night after serves as a platform upon which the company launches its new year, usually by bringing in new faces, re-debuting old ones, establishing the upper-echelon going forward, at least for the first quarter of the year.
I don’t have a crystal clear memory of every post-Wrestlemania episode of Monday Night Raw (or Wrestling Challenge or whatever), so pardon me if there are several hidden gems out there that go unaccounted for with this statement: Last night’s episode of Monday Night Raw might be the best one in a decade. For all I know, it may be the best episode of Raw ever. That’s not hyperbole; Raw, with nary a mention of the classic encounter between The Undertaker and Triple H that took place the night before, was better than all the hype, speculation, and drama leading up to or coming out of any Wrestlemania I can remember watching. It had, as its hook, the re-debut of a much maligned former WWE superstar, the return of a main event wrestler from injury, and a return so mind-bendingly improbable that I saw a picture of him in Miami hours before the show and kind of assumed he was just there to go on vacation. This was a Raw so good that I’m writing about it right now, as opposed to writing about it at the end of the week or, like every Raw this year, simply letting it dissipate, like mist. So yeah, here’s how everything went down:
The Crowd Was Insane
The crowd at Wrestlemania 28 was great, but the thing that happens when you take a roof off a stadium and put a wrestling crowd in there is that there’ll be long stretches of time where the crowd seems silent. The opening stretch of Chris Jericho vs. CM Punk, for example, seemed quiet, but in any other arena there would have been a fairly audible buzz. With 50,000 fewer people, the American Airlines Center seemed like it was going to explode the whole evening, as the fans chanted “YES! YES! YES!” for Daniel Bryan the entire night, even when The Rock was out there, even when John Cena was out there, and changed it to “SI!” for the return of Alberto Del Rio. I’ve watched a ton of wrestling and have heard a lot of crowds, and few compare to the sustained bombastics of tonight’s bunch. They were absolutely high on wrestling, making everything that happened seem important. That’s good, because most everything that did happen was, indeed, important.
Johnny Ace and “People Power”
Ace’s team won at Wrestlemania and, as such, he’s the GM of Raw and SmackDown! His speech opening Raw was brief, but it let us know exactly the kind of guy Ace was going to be, without the fear of losing his job hanging overhead: Smug and vindictive. Those are the two qualities that make the whole general manager thing work, and it gives guys like Zack Ryder and Santino a smarmy jerk to work with when, previously, the only thing they had working in their favor was how well-liked they are. It’s a good move with the potential to be made better, should the split between the two shows be brought to a merciful end. There’s been little distinguishing the two for years, and now, there’s even less. Do it! Pull the trigger.
The Rock Once Again Has My Hopes Up
The Rock won at Wrestlemania in a match that didn’t quite live up to the Once in a Lifetime hype, but it was still a good encounter and, hey, nothing was going to live up to the expectation placed upon it. And on Raw he came out and said exactly what I wasn’t expecting him to say, which was that Wrestlemania 28 was under no circumstances The Rock’s match. No. He want’s more. Specifically, he wants the WWE Title.
I’m not sure why “Christ” is a bleepable word or why “JHC” wound up being chanted (other than that the crowd was up for anything), but The Rock, once again, seems serious about this whole wrestling thing and is looking for an eighth reign atop the WWE. Something I didn’t mention while writing about Wrestlemania 28 is that The Rock, simply by being in the building, merely by being on the show, gives every wrestler on the roster more exposure than they’d receive were the Rock merely sipping bloody Marys in his trailer on the set of G.I. Joe. John Cena, as we’ll later learn, is pretty much occupied, leaving The Rock with some slim pickings when it comes to worthy championship opponents: Should The Rock go one on one with CM Punk or Daniel Bryan, for example, I will absolutely lose my mind. Moreover, a feud against a guy like CM Punk would probably elevate him to the sort of godhood only reserved for men like John Cena and The Rock himself, particularly if Punk does what Cena couldn’t and wins the thing.
That being said, The Rock will probably end up in a feud against Randy Orton or something, but a man can dream.
Funk Is In A Feud
I love Brodus Clay, to the point that his five minute dance number with Mamma Clay and the Bridge Club wasn’t an unnecessary intrusion on a night where I really didn’t want unnecessary intrusions. But if there’s something that Clay needed, it was a chance to expand beyond the three minute matches he’s been exclusively featured in since his re-debut. At the conclusion of a triple threat match for the United States Championship, Brodus came out and rescued Santino from the combined forces of Jack Swagger and Dolph Ziggler (Swaggler, as the kids say), absolutely leveling Ziggler with a headbutt that Ziggler made look like the very image of death. If that’s a one-off, for shame. If Clay ends up being part of an extended angle with either Ziggler or Swagger, that’s good. Santino, I’m convinced, will never be a useful figure to me again, but if he gets Brodus a seven minute tag match on Raw or a pay per view, I’ll do him a solid and pretend that his stellar heel run ended before the whole Santina farce.
Re-debuts of old characters rarely work, as wrestling fans have a longer memory than promoters believe and, usually, when a wrestler is making his second or third reappearance on the main show under his second or third gimmick, fans tend to know and are merciless about the past. As an example, fans still chant “Sexual Chocolate” at Mark Henry, despite how awesome he is as a giant, unstoppable monster. To my mind, there’ve been very few good redebuts in the history of wrestling. Two spring to mind immediately: Umaga, a drastically new look and style for a guy who was formerly a member of a sibling gangster Samoan tag team, and Kane, who had to suffer stints as a more popular wrestler’s doppelganger and as an evil dentist before settling into the role that will define his entire career. It’s early, but I’d like to add Lord Tensai to that list after one match, if only because the basis of the gimmick is so surprisingly unique. Look at this teaser video:
For the past few weeks, I’ve been under the assumption that A-Train (the artist formerly known as Prince Albert, he of the team T&A, both things being about as “Attitude Era” as you can get while still being forgettable) was returning with the gimmick that he was Asian, which would probably have been one of the worst ideas ever considering just how white he is. But Lord Tensai, who was once only distinguishable from other monster wrestlers by the fact that he had a ton of hair on his back, comes out to the ring dressed like an early 90s Great Muta and Michael Cole flat out acknowledges what everybody knows: That this guy used to go be in the WWE and that he went to Japan. Not only did he go to Japan, but he adopted the Japanese lifestyle because, get this, it made him a better wrestler. It wasn’t the sort of praise I was expecting. It was exactly the sort of praise this character deserves.
The match itself is simple brutality; one guy roughing up another. Brodus Clay was probably pushed into a feud because they can’t have two guys out there indiscriminately squashing the Alex Rileys and Heath Slaters of the world, but this here is one of the more impressive squash matches I can recall seeing. As opposed to just being a few moves leading to the star’s finishing move, Riley pretty much takes everything Tensai has to offer, to the point that he literally can’t continue. How good was this, as a re-debut? The fans, initially torn between making fun of A-Train’s past and cheering for Daniel Bryan, come around for Tensai’s butterfly suplex and are firmly in his pocket as he drills Riley with the fatsplash and his old Baldo Bomb finisher, which will surely get a better name. Also, Tensai appears to be bringing Asian Mist back to the WWE, which is amazing because I really love Asian Mist, and it’s unprecedented that a white guy can do it without looking stupid. A promising start, to say the least.
CM Punk vs. Mark Henry
This was just a good match, which is important, because that’s pretty much what wrestling is about. Punk and Henry really have little reason to be fighting, but Mark Henry has established himself as a solid title threat and, after calling Johnny Ace a “toolbox” (hard to believe that’s the best Punk could come up with), what other means of punishment would be more suitable for a WWE Champion with a hurt back than a title defense against a huge dude whose whole game is crushing spines?
There’s more to the match than the above, but you get the picture: Punk looks like a valiant champion, Henry looks like a killer, and the world keeps turning. The way the match ended, and with rumors that Chris Jericho was going to take time off (already!) to do a Fozzy tour, I was actually thinking that this’d be a good way to get a short, meaningful feud between the two started. But things didn’t turn out that way, and Mark Henry looks to be part of an angle to bring back Abraham Washington, who might end up being—shock of shocks—a manager in a managerless era.
Chris Jericho Forces CM Punk to Drink
Yes, Punk and Jericho continue to re-do one of Punk’s seminal indie storylines—the feud with Raven that ran through Ring of Honor and several other promotions—but to me, it’s different because of the essential difference in Raven and Chris Jericho’s characters: Raven was always looking to bring his opponent down to his level; Jericho is always seeking to elevate himself above his. Jericho failed in his Wrestlemania bid to prove to the world that he was a better wrestler than CM Punk (that not really being one of Raven’s objectives), and, as such, is resorting to prove that he’s the better person, if only because he won’t compromise his moral values, whatever those may be. With Punk down and out because of his match against Henry, Jericho has the opportunity to do what he said he was going to do and make Punk drink:
Call me crazy (or an apologist), but I like that Jericho slipped in the booze on the ground. Most dudes, given that situation, would freeze. Jericho pivots and starts beating on Punk. I won’t go as far as to say that it adds a shade of realism to the segment, but it’s nice to know that these things can’t flap some people. And Jericho’s promo was really quite good. The only thing totally unbelievable about the whole thing (beyond the fact that the second bottle of Jack Daniels breaks in Jericho’s hand) is how much booze Jericho felt was necessary to be a dick. I mean, Punk is pretty freakin’ straight edge. A travel-sized bottle of Jack from the airplane probably would have been shameful enough. But I guess if we’re going to have metaphors on Monday night, they need to be as big as possible.
ALBERTO DEL RIO
Literally the only bad thing about Alberto Del Rio returning on Raw is that it might mean pushing Daniel Bryan out of the title picture. Sheamus is still a big, oafish Irishman despite carrying around the World Heavyweight Championship, and, in order to establish himself as a true championship level face, he needs an opponent who is both talented and decidedly a heel. Outside of the American Airlines Center, where the crowd booed Sheamus because he was in that eighteen second match against Daniel Bryan—an eighteen second match that might have done more to get the Bryan over than anything he’s done in his WWE career—Del Rio will play exactly as he’s meant to, and will give SmackDown! a needed shot in the arm.
The return of Del Rio also meant the return of Ricardo, whose introduction of Del Rio, complete with the blaring trumpets, the cars, and Del Rio’s scarf, has been sorely missed. The guy has been doing breathing exercises, too, as his “RIO” lasted almost a full minute. If we end up getting a Del Rio/Sheamus feud, it’ll be pretty good. If Daniel Bryan is somehow still involved, it’ll be utterly fantastic. Better, Christian’s momentary return before Wrestlemania hints at him being ready to make a return, as well, meaning that both brands (should brand distinctions somehow continue to matter) carry a rich assortment of top guys for the first time in awhile.
I mostly know Brock Lesnar as a video game character, an action figure of freakish size and strength. I saw him debut, a whole ten years ago, the day after Wrestlemania X8, and it was obvious that he was going to be something special. I just never got to see most of his significant matches, as they mostly took place after the dreadful Kane/Triple H Katie Vick angle that chased me away from wrestling for four years. I don’t know if it’s my lack of interest in a bald Kurt Angle or my fear that much of Brock’s run may have been overrated or hasn’t aged particularly well, but Lesnar’s reign atop the WWE is one that I haven’t gone back and visited, despite really liking his match against The Rock at Summerslam 2002. I’d rather have him be an exaggerated figure of other people’s memories than another in a long list of potential disappointments I’ve faced as a fan.
But when John Cena asked the Rock to come out for a handshake and Lesnar’s music hit instead, I nearly leaped out of my chair. This was big. This was huge. The crowd, who had been loud all night, somehow got louder. And Cena, usually so cool in the face of danger, looked like he was cracking, even if only a little. The beauty of this segment is its simplicity:
Lesnar says nothing to Cena, at least nothing he can hear. He gets into the ring, points to the name on his shirt, offers Cena a handshake and, before Cena has time to react, Lesnar puts him in the F5, which remains one of the coolest finishing moves ever devised. The fans, no longer able to express their joy with mere chants of “YES! YES! YES!” resort to the now little-heard “HOLY SHIT” chant. Michael Cole claims that the entire landscape of the WWE has changed, and for once he’s not lying.
This was a great swerve. A GREAT swerve. I was expecting Cena to ask for a rematch against The Rock, an opportunity to redeem himself in the face of failure. After Wrestlemania, he doesn’t like The Rock; he wants to show the respect he has for him, and hopes The Rock will do the same. Instead we get Lesnar. Lesnar who so obviously does not respect anybody. Lesnar whose mere presence tells the fans that things have very much gotten real. Brock is wordless, but he doesn’t need words when he’s got the F5, when he can get up and kick Cena’s stupid little hat across the ring like he was toying with a child.
This is a challenge, the sort of thing John Cena can’t remain stagnant against. The Rock and John Cena were opposites, sure, but The Rock didn’t hate Cena and certainly didn’t hate the WWE. Brock Lesnar hates everything and is the WWE’s prodigal son, leaving for the NFL, for a stint in Japan, for a successful-if-short run in the UFC. He hated the traveling, hated the life, hated everything about professional wrestling. Cena, by contrast, loves the life and loves the WWE more than anything in the world. Brock is a world-destroyer, a man built of pure rage, and it’s not the gimmicky rage of Kane. This is real. This is a threat. This is a guy who is either going to kill John Cena or turn him into something he doesn’t want to become.
When I was complaining about the build-up to Cena’s match against The Rock, I said that, in terms of clear, effective storytelling, the feud between Rock and Steve Austin pretty much encapsulated everything that’s great about wrestling, and that’s true. This, too, is clear and effective storytelling, and in one short, deafening utterance. Music. F5. Hat kick. Brock Lesnar hates John Cena. Brock Lesnar wants to fight John Cena. Brock Lesnar can destroy John Cena. What does Cena do? Where does he go from here? I have no idea, and that’s exactly why I love professional wrestling: Even when things seem clear as day, it retains the capacity to shock, it still manages to surprise.