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.
Rating: Stray Observations:
- 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.