Quietly, the WWE has done a very good job of building up to Fastlane, which they’re billing as a “new pay-per-view concept” though, really, it’s just a regular pay-per-view without the usual February Elimination Chamber main event. The lack of a Chamber match, I think, is the reason why Fastlane is so compelling. The WWE calendar is littered with pay-per-views that are branded by one kind of match or another that the matches themselves, no matter how violent or how good, feel more inevitable than special. Without the crutch of putting six guys in a goofy chain-and-plexiglass rig with the absent WWE Championship on the line, instead what we have is the supposed fast lane on the road to WrestleMania. Considering how slow that road has felt thus far, having a date on the calendar where everything will supposedly get back in gear feels like a blessing. “Quietly” in this case also means “glacially,” especially compared to the stretch between last year’s Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, when nearly every Raw had a standout match or segment. Raw will need to pick up the pace sooner rather than later, but, as the last show before a pay-per-view that looks, on paper, like the strongest card since SummerSlam, the WWE does a good enough job of getting everybody in place.
That includes Rusev, who gets trucked by John Cena in the opening segment. This is not the first time a foreign monster has charged the 15-time WWE Champion with losing a step before Cena Rises Above Hate and proves him wrong. I doubt it will be the last. Since the beginning, it seemed like the endgame for Rusev was going to be a loss to John Cena, who, quite honestly, is going through the motions at the start of Raw. Every John Cena promo from 2007 forward is thrown in the blender. Cena loves the WWE. He loves when fans cheer him. He loves when fans boo him. He hates that there is a monster out there who isn’t from America and who can’t be beaten, and he promises to destroy him. This brings out Rusev and Lana, who are, really, a politicized make-over of the old Armando Estrada/Umaga pairing from 2008, an act that has risen above cartoon parody to become one of the most enjoyable aspects of a show that is frequently hard to enjoy. Lana in particular continues to evolve, relying less and less on the merits of Vladimir Putin and the Raw audience’s hatred of being told to shut up (by a lady who ain’t from here to boot!) and more on the merits of her freakish charge, who I also enjoy on the microphone. Rusev is a blunt object used to smash the opposition, a warhammer who only knows how to kill. John Cena’s gambit is that bringing Rusev down relies on taking the fight to him, which he does by charging up the ramp and hurling the burly Bulgarian into a panel of LED lights. Beyond some shoddy camerawork (really, why would you zoom in and out on bodies in motion?), the physicality of Cena vs. Rusev was quite satisfying. Cena proved his point about his strategy, but wrestling matches don’t work like street fights. Whether or not his plan will work when a referee calls for the bell is the story now, and it’s a good one. Rusev’s mystique isn’t compromised unless he’s pinned or he taps out to the STF. Only an idiot would pull the trigger on that at Fastlane.
The rest of Fastlane‘s undercard was built solidly here, as well, with the exception of the upcoming match between Paige and Nikki Bella. That should be a good match (Nikki Bella is easily the most improved wrestler on the main roster over the past year), but its plot is stuck in the muck and mire of the past ten years of the Diva’s division. It was actually somewhat brilliant when the Bella Twins attacked Paige and spraytanned her, as Paige had been clinging to the frankly stupid notion that simply not looking like a model made her better than all the other Divas. But now we’re in the usual Bella Twin holding pattern where they’re “pranking” (read: assaulting or stealing from) Paige in a variety of ways designed to brag that they look better than her. This week, they steal Paige’s clothes, which forces her to wrestle a match against Summer Rae while dressed in a Rosebud’s clothes. Considering that Paige kills Summer Rae handily, it hardly matters. Women have also factored into the Tag Team Championship storyline between The Usos and Tyson Kidd and Cesaro, as a blown double date between Kidd and Jimmy Uso and their respective wives Natalya and Naomi (sample line: “I’m here trying to respect this dinner”) led to a husband and wife mixed tag team match. The mainstream format of such matches is really dated, but Kidd’s unwillingness to wrestle Uso leads to three good minutes between Natalya and Naomi. Naomi, as is standard in non-title Divas division matches, wins with a roll up, allowing The Usos to celebrate that they got one over on their rivals while continuing to build on the will-they-or-won’t-they saga that is the relationship between Kidd and Natalya. Right now, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Kidd left Nattie and got an apartment uptown with his buddy Cesaro, but I’m probably just authoring mental slash-fiction. Probably. The tag team division has been a long-running quagmire, but the Usos vs. Kidd and Cesaro match looks enticing, and the Prime Time Players reunited when Titus O’Neil stormed to the ring to help his returning buddy Darren Young escape a whooping at the hands of The Ascension. With the Miz/Mizdow team slowly breaking up, The New Day entrenched in the wasteland that is their racist gimmick, and tonight’s official dissolution of the Rhodes Brothers/Stardust and Goldust, a full-time return of the Prime Time Players, who always seemed on the verge of making some noise in the division, is a good thing.
Speaking of Stardust and Goldust, this Raw, like most, was built around promos. There was John Cena’s opening promo, Triple H’s Ric Flair-assisted promo about a confrontation (read: promo) with Sting at Fastlane, and the promise of Dusty Rhodes addressing the problems between his sons (not to mention the usual Seth Rollins interview). Only Dusty didn’t speak much and, of all the interviews, tonight, the one that most stole the show was Stardust’s declaration that Cody Rhodes was dead and never coming back. Dusty Rhodes’ are shoes no man can fill, but Stardust stood there, painted purple and silver and wearing a rubber suit, and delivered fire right in his father’s face. Stardust has, to this point, felt like a needless, pandering rip-off of Goldust, which was unfortunate given their role in the early iteration of the Authority storyline, but on Raw Stardust was given a purpose and a mission. It’s obviously impossible to separate the character from the Rhodes lineage, but it’s good heel motivation coming out of a brother/brother tag team, and this all should culminate in the Rhodes vs. Rhodes match that Goldust has been rather open about wanting to retire on.
Dusty looked (and is) old, but still acquits himself rather well. That’s less true of his lifetime rival Ric Flair, who surprised Triple H mid-speech to remind him that Sting, ancient old man or not, is still Sting and needs to be respected. Flair sounded drunk, but getting drunk and talking about his glory days is pretty much his job now, so he did well enough that Triple H shoving him on his ass felt sad because The Game was disrespecting a legend he openly admires, not because Flair’s condition continues to darken his legacy. Fallout from Sting’s debut at Survivor Series continues to be the theme heading into Fastlane, as Dolph Ziggler and Seth Rollins seem to be moving into a singles program. Rollins’ promo, unnecessary though it was, signaled that he is being shifted away from the WWE Championship for the time being to focus on the Zigglers, Rybacks, and Rowans of the card. Ziggler continues to be an unconvincing babyface on the microphone, (I’m not interested in white meat, I guess) but an incredible one in the ring. The match between Rollins and Ziggler was good. Not up to the pace they established at Survivor Series, but a good teaser for what the two should be able to do without distraction. They’ll wrestle on SmackDown! in this week’s Raw rematch, though another contest at Fastlane (and perhaps another at WrestleMania) isn’t out of the question.
Beyond Rollins/Ziggler and the main event between Big Show and Daniel Bryan, most of the wrestling on Raw this week as an afterthought. Even a singles match between Dean Ambrose and Luke Harper, while solid, existed more to set-up a later contest than to tell its own story. There were plenty of good spots, but Harper is wandering aimlessly at the moment, and WWE doesn’t do a very good job of protecting big dudes who aren’t in an active storyline. Harper lost clean to Ambrose to establish Ambrose’s credentials against current Intercontinental Champion Bad News Barrett, who beat Damien Mizdow in a match that nudged forward the issue between Mizdow and The Miz. Barrett was fantastic when Ambrose ziptied him to the ringpost and forced him to sign the contract, screaming for a knife to cut himself free and how it wasn’t his signature on the sheet and that the contract wasn’t legal. Had they cut bait on a weird skit where Ambrose “auditioned for Weekend Update,” announcing that he’d make Barrett sign the contract, everything on this front would have been great. Barrett is an effective heel, and, well, if Ambrose is going to be a goofy dude whose popularity the writing team doesn’t understand or know how to harness, he’s best when his goofiness is channeled through a bit of menace, rather than a bad suit. The Intercontinental Championship is always on the verge of meaning something. What matters more than Barrett vs. Ambrose at Fastlane is whether or not the issue continues to build, or if the title reverts to its usual miserable pattern, where the champion loses every non-title match until he is required to defend the title.
The confrontation that will set up Sting vs. Triple H at WrestleMania is an important part of Fastlane. Bray Wyatt’s continued promos that are (vaguely) about The Undertaker (this week he hammered some nails into a coffin) continue to be important. Those are two of the marquee matches at WrestleMania. They are happening. There is no turning back. Less certain is the fate of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, currently held by Brock Lesnar. He’ll be there, defending, but his opponent is yet to be decided. Roman Reigns earned a shot by virtue of winning the Royal Rumble. Daniel Bryan feels that he deserves one because he was stripped of the championship in 2014 without having lost it and, as he points out, made only one fewer defense of the championship. Reigns wrestled Kane and Bryan wrestled Big Show, but the matches and results were secondary to the simmering issue between the two men, which threatens to boil over into something personal in the main event of Fastlane. After an interview where Reigns questioned the manhood of Bryan for going about a championship match by asking for one instead of earning it, Bryan came to ringside for Reigns match and participated on commentary, where he did a very good job of making clear how slighted he felt by Reigns’ assessment of the situation. He thought there was mutual respect between the two, but there clearly wasn’t. When Reigns had an advantage over Kane, Bryan would stand and lead the Orlando crowd in a YES! chant, which succeeded in distracting his man. Reigns won the match, but not in his usual dominant fashion, and Bryan would later say that, if he wants to beat him, Reigns had better get used to the crowd being in Daniel Bryan’s pocket. During the main event match between Big Show and Bryan, Reigns sat at ringside and watched (he didn’t join the commentary team, for good reason). Reigns took to the crowd, signing autographs and giving away t-shirts, and this caused Daniel Bryan no end of distraction. An exchange near the announce table led Big Show to spear Reigns, who would recover and hit Show with the Superman Punch with Daniel Bryan perched on the top rope for a missile dropkick. With the match over, Bryan would instead hit Reigns with the dropkick, sparking a brawl that closed the show.
This sequence was fantastic, a sprint around the ring and through the crowd that ended in a pull-apart with Reigns bleeding from the mouth and Bryan seething. Initially it looked as though they were going to do with Roman Reigns what they did with Batista last year, turning the hand-chosen WrestleMania main event guy into a heel due to the overwhelming popularity of Daniel Bryan, but this year is much more vague than last. Batista was universally despised from the moment it was clear that Daniel Bryan was not in the Royal Rumble, but Reigns plays pretty well in all but the hottest towns in wrestling. And where Batista had little reason to respect Bryan, Reigns has some respect for the former champion, not only for his in-ring accomplishments and what history they had together when The Shield clashed with Team Hell No, but for his resilience in the face of a career ending injury. But both men want to fight Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, and it doesn’t look like there will be an opening for a third man in the main event, so that respect had to give way towards animosity with so much on the line. Daniel Bryan is a master at his craft, so the reemergence of his pre-rise mean streak has been subtle and brilliant. The wrinkle that they’ve added to Reigns’ story, that he’s trying to accomplish something not even the most legendary member of his family could achieve, is the most compelling angle Reigns has had since The Shield folded, and has managed to find some interesting space here, too (the t-shirts he was throwing to the crowd were Uso shirts, after all). What initially seemed like a capitulation on the part of WWE in the face of post-Royal Rumble fan revolt has turned into their best story since the SummerSlam domination of John Cena. The match at Fastlane will be telling in Reigns’ ability to become what the WWE so obviously wants him to be, but for now, the table is set. Sunday night will be an interesting one for a number of reasons, none moreso than this. For the WWE to pull itself out of the rut it has so clearly been stuck in since September, Fastlane is going to need to be that rare February pay-per-view that’s more about wrestling than WrestleMania. For once, the uncertainty surrounding a pay-per-view event feels like a good omen.
- Dean Ambrose def. Luke Harper via pinfall. GRADE: B-
The New Day (Kofi Kingston & Xavier Woods w/Big E) def. Goldust and Stardust via pinfall. GRADE: C+
Roman Reigns def. Kane via count out. GRADE: C
Paige def. Summer Rae via pinfall. GRADE: C-
Dolph Zigger def. Seth Rollins via disqualification when J&J Security interfered. GRADE: B
Darren Young & Local Talent vs. The Ascension never officially started. GRADE: N/A
Bad News Barrett def. Damien Mizdow (w/The Miz) via pinfall. GRADE: C
Jimmy Uso & Naomi (w/Jey Uso) def. Tyson Kidd & Natalya (w/Cesaro) via pinfall. GRADE: C+
The Big Show def. Daniel Bryan via disqualification when Roman Reigns interfered. GRADE: B-