In the eastern time zone, where I live, WWE Raw begins at 8:00 and ends, on average, around 11:15. This, I’ve realized, is a lot of time to devote to a weekday wrestling show. And I mean that; I’ve only just now realized this. Maybe it’s because WCW Monday Nitro was three hours when I was a child, or maybe it’s because I was more actively engaged with Raw before I had a Monday night class, but the fact of Raw‘s three hours never felt more real, more oppressive, than last night’s pre-taped episode from Liverpool, England. For this, I’m also going to blame the fact that last week Vince McMahon, WWE’s big bad for half of my life, the swaggering symbol of things mattering on weekly television, came out and said that he was going to shake things up. He said this in reference to the WWE Network being free to new subscribers in November, and in reference to the main event of the upcoming Survivor Series pay-per-view, which will pit John Cena‘s makeshift team of allies against a team of surrogates for Triple H in a match that determines whether or not Vince’s family gets to continue running Vince’s company, but he said he was shaking things up, and I believed this. And then Raw this week from Liverpool started with a 20-minute John Cena interview.
I get it. I do. John Cena, as has been said for months now since Daniel Bryan went on the shelf with a shoulder injury, is the face of the company, and when the company is producing a show overseas, you begin with that face. But everything about this Raw felt exactly the same as the last time I was able to watch the show, only it was in England, which meant that it also felt exactly the same as the last Raw to emanate from there, what with its gigantic Union Jacks hanging from the rafters to compensate for a smaller tron, the red phone booth and old Rolls Royce on the entrance ramp to let those of us in America know what England is, and the crowd chants that are so routine and oppressive that, at this point, they may as well be the Goldberg chants that used to get pumped into dead WCW arenas. John Cena comes out, he tells the crowd that he enjoys the fact that they feel free enough in this, today’s modern society, to sing along mockingly to his theme song, and then he gets real serious, as he always does. The Authority is out to get him. They’re injuring his friends, like Zack Ryder. They don’t want to make Survivor Series fair. The odds are against John Cena because of course they are, but he’s got Dolph Ziggler, he’s got Jack Swagger, and he’s got hope. He’s gonna rise above hate, as only he can, but he needs help to do it. So he calls out Ryback, who he will be wrestling in the main event. Ryback comes out, but since he isn’t trusted with a live microphone, The Authority make their way to the ring and introduce their new teammate, Mark Henry. From there, everybody recaps what happened last week, sets up tonight’s matches, then plays tug of war with Ryback’s soul. See, even though he said upon his return that the WWE Universe needed a hero and that he was going to be that hero, nothing that happens on YouTube is cannon, so Ryback says that he doesn’t need The Authority behind him, but that he doesn’t see John Cena paying his checks. He gives Cena a spinebuster, Stephanie McMahon taunts Cena by mocking Daniel Bryan’s “YES!” chants, and we have us some more odds for Cena to overcome. Or do we? This is something the announce team bickers about all night, because Cena needs a team but joining him would be career suicide, so the story of the evening is a will-he-or-won’t-he affair with Ryback’s fresh face turn (and the surprising amount of support that garnered him) hanging in the balance. Oh, and the left-field choice of Jack Swagger as a member of Team Cena, which leads us to…
Seth Rollins vs. Jack Swagger: Swagger is something of an aimless face (further made plain by his manager Zeb Coulter‘s xenophobic American gimmick seeming completely out of place when folks are meant to cheer for it), but he and Seth Rollins are pretty good against each other, which makes Swagger’s normal awkwardness moot. Swagger gets some impressive height on a leg drop and is in control of the match, the Liverpool audience chanting “WE THE PEOPLE” for him, but Rollins hits him with a dropkick. This only angers Swagger, who throws Rollins around the ring like a rag doll. Rollins gains the advantage during the commercial and when we come back, the crowd is bored enough already to start chanting for the announcers, who are already hinting that Ryback might not be on Team Authority after all. Swagger gets the Swagger Bomb in for a two and kicks out of a sunset flip attempt by transitioning into an Ankle Lock, which is very pretty. Rollins gets to the ropes, then sends Swagger to the floor. He rushes him, but Swagger trips him mid-air and goes for the Ankle Lock again. Rollins escapes from the barricade, allowing his security team of Jamie Noble and Joey Mercury to distract Swagger. Rollins leaps over the barricade and shoves Swagger head first into the turnbuckle, which stuns him to the point that Rollins is able to hit the Curb Stomp for the win. Rating: B-
The match was built around the spot where Rollins shoves Swagger into the ring post, and until that point the whole thing felt like the two were stalling for time. The referee calls for the ringside physician to check Swagger for a concussion, but he is pulled away by Rollins’ goons so that Rollins can hit Swagger with another Curb Stomp. Jack Swagger, it’s safe to say, is no longer on Team Cena. After recapping a confrontation between Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt that happened on SmackDown!, they cut to a pre-taped backstage interview with Ambrose, who responds by telling Wyatt about his mile-long rap sheet in professional wrestling. Ambrose says that he isn’t anybody’s hero, and that he fights demons and ghosts that are scarier than Bray Wyatt. It’s a good promo, but I have no idea why Ambrose is in the back talking to a camera when he is one of the best on the roster at playing a live crowd. He never shows up live, which probably contributes to the crowd’s quickly deflating mood, and they announce that Ambrose and Wyatt will wrestle at Survivor Series, which will likely be the best match of the night. Backstage live, Ryback flexes and grunts while Kane (who I will not call Corporate Kane) talks about what’s on the line. Ryback says he wants to be alone, but Kane is all like “I’m a business man and this is a business, so let me manage you,” and Ryback is like “fuck you, meatbag,” and now we have drama.
Alicia Fox vs. Paige: Michael Cole says that Alicia Fox is “slightly off,” which means “CRAZY BITCH” in WWE-speak, and Lawler says that she “has more curves than a race track” because he is a 64-year-old bag of garbage. Paige gets a very nice response from the crowd and Lawler talks about how attractive a woman a third of his age is because that’s what really matters here. Fox attacks immediately with a Thesz press because they have an actual issue that gets less coverage than their bodies, but Paige takes the advantage quickly, kneeing Fox in rapid succession from the apron. Paige is wearing Union Jack Doc Martins for Queen and Country, and they do not look like they’d be fun to wrestle in. Fox hits a nice Northern Lights Suplex and quickly moves into a Bow and Arrow hold, which she uses to slam Paige face-first to the mat. Paige kicks out of a backbreaker, counters a tilt-a-whirl slam into a cross body, hits her Rampaige DDT, and that’s it. I guess the Fox/Paige feud is over in three minutes because writing for women is hard. Rating: C+
Backstage, the evil Russian Rusev and his handler Lana are walking around with our United States Heavyweight Championship, those bastards. Stephanie McMahon sees them and calls them over so she can ask Lana if Rusev will be on their team at Survivor Series. Lana says that she’ll have to check with Vladimir Putin (which is such a great gimmick), and Stephanie snaps. Rusev looks a bit pissed when Stephanie calls Lana a “stuck up Russian twit,” but things blow over because it’s time for Rusev to celebrate his conquest of America in England. Before we can get to that, though, we get a promo for Xavier Woods’ new gimmick, which is a James Brown/gospel preacher riff. While Woods is obviously charismatic enough to pull something like this off, coming from a (mostly) white writing team (I assume) and a company that has had its history of embarrassing gimmicks for persons of color that involve singing, dancing, and other racial stereotypes, I’m not entirely looking forward to his re-debut. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H aren’t watching Xavier, though, because why would they? They’re talking about why Vince McMahon is challenging them and figure that they’re gonna crush Cena like they crush everything. “What if?” Steph wonders. What if, indeed?
Rusev and Lana hit the ring to gloat over our fallen American heroes, which is my favorite thing in professional wrestling in 2014. Seriously, Rusev plays the awkward super-athlete so well that you’d figure he was born and raised in a lab somewhere, and Lana, though she’s as Russian as a cartoon character, she’s the best regular manager on television right now. Some chump says that the Kremlin is proud of Rusev and puts up the world’s most awkward picture of Putin, who has never heard of any of these people. Rusev demands respect for and plays the Russian national anthem, which rules. Sheamus interrupts this with his terrible theme song, and we have us a rematch.
WWE United States Championship – Sheamus vs. Rusev (Champion): After letting them clear the ring, Sheamus and Rusev pick up where they left off on last week’s WWE Network exclusive match, beating the absolute hell out of each other. Rusev is a tank, an absolute throwback of a human being who is beautiful and terrible to behold, and Sheamus is one of the more underrated wrestlers on the WWE roster because he is John Cena without a tan: Capable of classic matches against anybody, but stale. Everything about this match looks painful and great. Sheamus starts the match with his hair gelled and spiked, but midway through it is a sweaty, orange mat on top of his head. That never happens to Sheamus, but that’s how hard he and Rusev are going. Hammer blows, headbutts, knee lifts, side kicks—this is a fight, and a very well-paced one. Rusev is one of the best in WWE at selling the effects of a match, and everything you do to Sheamus shows up on his skin. They keep developing Rusev’s in-ring offense, too, as he breaks out a guillotine choke hold that he hasn’t used before. I’ll probably never get tired of his throwback gimmick, but his matches are another story. So long as he keeps developing as a wrestler, he’s gold to me. Sheamus and Rusev continue trading strikes into the commercial, but Rusev is pretty clearly ahead on points. when we come back. Rollins’ goons show up at ringside to watch what’s going on, and Sheamus dazes Rusev with a series of strikes. But Rusev responds with a dropkick of surprising grace, given the man’s size. Sheamus hits Rusev with a powerslam for a two-count and JBL, on commentary, pronounces “Putin,” “PEW TIN.” This mispronunciation gives Sheamus the strength he needs to try a cloverleaf on the champion, but in a nice twist you don’t see very often, Rusev’s legs are too thick for Sheamus to figure out the move. He eventually hits White Noise, but again, Rusev kicks out. Rusev ducks a Brogue Kick and rolls out of the ring, but Sheamus climbs the turnbuckles and dives onto him! Rusev makes his way back into the ring at an eight count, Sheamus is attacked by Noble and Rollins, and Rusev wins via countout. Rating: B+
No clean finish, but eventually the two will get a pay-per-view match that settles their excelent feud. Right now, what’s important is that The Authority has managed to convince Rusev and Lana to join their team. Stephanie McMahon doesn’t care about Vladimir Putin, because everybody in WWE hates the very idea of Russia. But she loves saying the word “CRUSH” like she’s on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Seth Rollins visits Ryback in his locker room, where he is doing some resistance band exercises. Rollins goes on and on about teamwork and The Authority, and Ryback only listens when Rollins brings up their problems in the past. Then Rollins says Ryback can take orders from him, “okay big man?” Ryback’s response: “It’s not big man. It’s The Big Guy.” Ryback is the greatest.
Los Matadores vs. The Miz and Damien Sandow: Sandow is still firmly in “Damien Mizdow” mode, and his impersonation of The Miz is the most popular The Miz has ever been. Because Los Matadores are accompanied by El Torito, Hornswoggle accompanies Miz and Sandow to the ring as “Mini-Miz,” and the Torito/Hornswoggle feud rolls on. Hornswoggle isn’t as good at The Miz’s mannerisms as Sandow is, but that’s part of the joke. The crowd chants for Mizdow, and the Miz is upset about it. On the ring apron, Mizdow is stunt doubling Miz’s mannerisms and reactions to moves, as he has been doing for some time now, only when he bumps for something Los Matadores do to Miz, he has to fall off the apron. It works in continuing to irk The Miz, who finally tags in his stunt double to rapturous applause. It’s a tease, though, as he blind tags back in. Mizdow is cool with it though (the first time this has been true of any tag team in history), and goes back to falling off the apron as Miz takes abuse. He’s eventually responsible for the win, holding down the foot of one of the Matadores while Miz has him pinned. Unlike when he was the fourth member of Three Man Band, Hornswoggle didn’t really add anything to the act, but it looks like Miz and his stunt double are heading towards a Tag Team Championship match. Rating: B-
Dolph Ziggler points out that at five on two, his and Cena’s odds aren’t looking so good. Cena offers Dolph a chance to back out, but Dolph refuses, saying that The Authority has been holding too many people down for too long. “You’re telling me,” Cena says, completely serious despite his being a fifteen time WWE Champion. Cena says he’ll be at ringside, but Triple H was eavesdropping and puts the kibosh on that. Then he does a little dance.
Dolph Ziggler vs. Mark Henry: Usually this would be a very exciting match. Ziggler against any large man usually results in Ziggler bouncing around the ring like a pinball. Before Mark Henry comes out, a video of Luke Harper‘s eyes plays, threatening Dolph. Then Three 6 Mafia plays Mark Henry to the ring, which, honestly, is scarier. Henry throws Ziggler around, negating Ziggler’s speed advantage at every turn. There’s a very awkward attempt at a schoolboy into the turnbuckles that goes nowhere, and another hard-to-describe flying whatsit that doesn’t look good but stuns Henry regardless. Once they go outside the ring, Henry tosses Ziggler into the barricade, but he’s able to move out of the way of a charging World’s Strongest Man, who ends up flying over the barricade. Henry picks up a chair and throws it into Ziggler’s face, giving the Intercontinental Champion the win by disqualification. Rating: C
Henry continues to wear Ziggler out after the match, putting the ring steps into the ring and setting his opponent up for a World’s Strongest Slam upon them. Having suffered this last week, The Big Show saunters his way down to the ring, ribs taped, and the two have a slow battle of behemoths over the stairs, which Show eventually throws at Henry. Show gets on the mic, calls Henry a hoss, and announces that he’s joined Team Cena. We get another New Day promo for Kofi Kingston, who embraces and welcomes pressure, because pressure makes diamonds, haw-haw. I’m glad a choir got a payday, I guess, but man. Big Show catches up with John Cena backstage, who can’t believe Show is on his side. That’s fair since they’ve only fought each other a billion times. Big Show says that nobody hates The Authority more than he does, which is also fair because they shredded a pretty sweet contract the old regime gave him and made him cry a lot last year. Gallons of tears. Sheamus joins the squad because Rusev, handshakes are had, and Big Show says “I think business just picked up a little bit here,” which, along with “hoss,” makes him either the eager dude in the action movie who gets killed first, or a small town boy visiting the big city gay bar for the first time. Either way, I’m a fan.
AJ Lee vs. Brie Bella: Brie Bella is her sister Nikki‘s personal assistant for the month. Tonight, that means that she was made to wear a suit and serve tea. I’d say this is embarrassing, but Brie’s little butler suit is actually the least embarrassing thing either Bella Twin has worn in ages. Nikki stands outside the ring and yells stuff at her sister, like “HARDER!” and “WIN!” and it’s all mean, I guess. Nikki has a Diva’s Championship match against AJ Lee at Survivor Series, and so Brie’s task is to soften AJ up. The mutants in the crowd chant “CM Punk” because that is who AJ Lee is married to, but the match is aimless and short, so I guess they have to amuse themselves somehow. The Bellas have vastly improved in the ring, but I think my problem with them is that they punctuate every move with a big, exaggerated grunt, like children doing karate. AJ, who has actually been pretty listless since her return, picks up the win with the Black Widow in about three minutes, because that’s what women get. Rating: C-
Nikki gets into the ring and blindsides AJ. She takes off her tiny varsity jacket and hurls it at her sister, yelling “YOU’RE A LOSER!” like she’s trying to score a role on Pretty Little Liars. She then hits AJ with the Rack Attack, which is a good looking, terribly named maneuver. “That is how the number one Bella does it,” she says, but the jersey she’s wearing has the number two on it. Jerry Lawler asks if Bruce Wayne did everything Batman said to do, but JBL also mucks up Alfred’s name, so the two bicker uselessly about comic books because Brie couldn’t follow her sister’s orders and win. Mark Henry visits Ryback in his locker room, and this is the best segment of the night in Ryback’s dimly lit rage cavern because The Big Guy is all weird charisma and Mark Henry is the best in the world at what he does, which is talk shit and be amazing. It’s the best. Grumpy Cat is going to be on Raw next week, so hopefully that meme is dead.
Adam Rose vs. Tyson Kidd: Adam Rose is my least favorite gimmick in the history of wrestling. Tyson Kidd has been the most underrated member of the WWE Roster for his entire tenure. Right now, they’re turning Rose heel by having him in a disagreement with member of his entourage that dresses like a bunny. He keeps getting involved in matches, which costs Rose. It’s actually interesting, which is something of a shock. Rose and the bunny dance around like nothing is wrong. Kidd and Rose get things going, and Erick Rowan walks down to the ring, looking for a woman. This…is the kind of gimmick that gets you future endeavored. The fans are really into Adam Rose’s theme song, more than Adam Rose. Regardless, Rose gets the advantage and the bunny gets involved, climbing the turnbuckles for a frog splash. Rose waves him off because that’d be a disqualification and yells at the idiot, and Tyson Kidd quickly locks in the Sharpshooter for the win. Grade: C
While Kidd’s terrible theme music plays, the bunny tries to make good with Rose. Rose replies to the bunny’s hopping around by kicking him in the gut. Michael Cole tries to say how terrible this is, but dude, it’s a man in a bunny costume, and he is fucking Adam Rose over. A close-up of Rose’s face makes him look like a man absolutely worn-down by his non-stop party, and it’s, again, interesting. We’ll see how interesting it is in three months when they’re still doing a will-he-or-won’t-he thing with Rose and the bunny. The announcer plug the WWE Network’s being free for the month, which seems cruel since the UK doesn’t have it yet. Team Authority meet backstage, and Mark Henry asks if he has to stand next to Rusev because, oh my God, he remembers that he had a serious issue with Rusev a month ago. Kane says that Ryback has an attitude problem, and Triple H starts to worry because nobody is on the same page. Ryback shows up angry that everybody is gossiping behind his back, but Triple H doesn’t care about that. Just go out and crush John Cena. That’s all Triple H wants. He bans Cena’s team from ringside. Stephanie McMahon tries to rally the troops, but egos, man. Bray Wyatt cuts a promo on Dean Ambrose and society. It’s good because Bray Wyatt is good, but the decision to have the two most interesting characters on television not appear before the crowd? Terrible.
John Cena vs. Ryback: John Cena is secretly one of the best wrestlers in history. I happen to be one of the biggest Ryback fans on the planet. This match, one would think, seems right up my ally. But part of the reason Ryback’s huuuuuge push in 2010 stalled out was because nobody really knew how to work with him for more than eight or nine minutes. That’s still a problem in 2014, which is too bad because Ryback has actually evolved quite a bit as a character since then. They play this match smart at first, having Cena try to figure out Ryback’s otherworldly strength, but no match is just its feeling out process, so things fall apart when Cena stops running into Ryback’s shoulder. That being said, the first few minutes are pretty good, and while I’ve come to expect people reversing Cena’s signature moves, I’ve not seen his bulldog turned into a powerslam. Kane tells Ryback to do his job while Ryback is doing his job, and Cena manages to knock Ryback off the apron into Kane. Drama. Ryback pulls out some new moves, both of the uranage variety, but everything is so slow and awkward that those moves, which should get big reactions, play to silence. Ryback goes for his finish but Cena counters and tries to go for his shoulder blocks, only to be taken out with a powerslam. The two counter each other until Ryback comes out on top. Kane keeps yelling at Ryback while Seth Rollins astutely points out that Ryback has everything under control. Then Ryback powerbombs Cena across the ring, which is just ridiculous. Ryback goes for a Razor’s Edge, but Cena counters into the STF. This is unquestionably the best match Cena and Ryback have had (and is maybe the best match of Ryback’s career), but it still doesn’t feel right for some reason. Cena gets Ryback in the STF again, but Ryback muscles Cena up into the Shellshock. Cena wiggles out and hits Ryback with his powerbomb, Kane gets involved, and before Ryback can finish Cena off, Kane climbs into the ring and attacks Cena, ending the match. Rating: B-
Ryback gets into Kane’s face and Kane takes off his jakcket and tie. Seth Rollins tries to break things up, but Ryback decks Rollins and Kane takes Ryback out with a big boot. Team Authority mugs Cena in the ring, so Team Cena responds with the smart wrestling strategy of emerging one at a time so they can all have their asses kicked by five much fresher men. Some of Team Authority’s combinations look like they might be fun within the context of a match, so there’s that. Ryback gets back into the ring after hanging out for a bit and wipes out the entirety of Team Authority, who are quickly without a fifth member. Cena watches all of this from the corner, but Ryback is out of there before he can join Cena’s team. Still, just when things are starting to look even, Raw ends backstage, with Dolph Ziggler thrown at the feet of Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. Luke Harper is there when the camera pans over to him, clutching his denim vest like a proud nerd might hold the straps of his suspenders. “A’hm a team playuh” is what he says, because he’s from the swamp, and Triple H and Stephanie look at the dude real confused. They don’t want any swamp people on their all-beefcake team.