This week, Raw was a mix of everything wonderful, weird, and awful about World Wrestling Entertainment. After an underwhelming pay-per-view redeemed by a fantastic main event that still left people wanting the other guy in the WrestleMania main event, Raw finally started moving towards its usual killer January-March pace. The show was bookended by two very good wrestling matches. There is some intrigue at the top of the card, depending on how one reads the post-Fastlane interaction between Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns. Despite that, and despite some offbeat, enjoyable stuff from unexpected contributors, Raw is still a two-hour show trying and failing desperately to fill a third hour. Writing that third hour, according to Triple H, is the hardest job anybody in the WWE has. It’s also one they routinely, consistently fail to achieve. I’m hardly one of those “It says wrestling on the marquee!” kinda guys (though I do cringe whenever they refer to me and my ilk as “sports-entertainment” fans), but when certain members of the roster are in the ring watching a music video that has nothing to do with them longer than they’re in the ring wrestling, then there are big, big problems with pacing that not even the most cheerful advertisement for one’s place in the zeitgeist can patch up.
The opening promo, at least, felt fresh, if only because Randy Orton hadn’t been in it for about four months. At Fastlane, Orton returned to exact his revenge upon Seth Rollins, who purposefully injured Orton because he, as the “face of the WWE,” felt that The Authority were trying to push him out of the picture. Orton says that he’s not the type of dude to talk for twenty minutes (not true) and gets right to the point: He wants Seth Rollins’ ass. Out comes The Authority—Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Kane, and Big Show—without Seth Rollins. Triple H is all sad, besuited muscle, his tuff guy leather jacket having led him to an ass kicking at the hands of the old man called Sting. He doesn’t say anything during the segment, which is actually pretty great. Stephanie McMahon thus takes charge of the situation. She, for one, is really excited to see Randy again, and in the killer mode The Authority was begging for last year and didn’t get. She’d be glad to welcome Randy back into The Authority, provided he can find forgiveness in his heart for Seth Rollins. But this is Randy Orton, and he has no heart. All he wants is to bash Seth Rollins’ brains in. But Stephanie, she thinks things can still be smoothed out. Big Show tells Randy that joining The Authority again is the right move, the best one he ever made, and that was after a year of Stephanie and Triple H making him cry and threaten to foreclose on their house. Besides, Stephanie says, it’s not like Randy Orton is a nice guy. As a matter of fact, he once physically assaulted Stephanie in order to get to Triple H. But she can forgive him for all of that, because this is business. Stephanie McMahon is such a great heel. Everything she says is logical and true, and is thus absolutely heinous. And that’s why, when she offers Randy a business meeting with Seth Rollins, he takes it. The crowd, obviously, would have loved for Orton to RKO the hell out of everybody in that ring, but we’re all about delayed gratification for the moment, even when it doesn’t make much sense for Orton to reconsider joining a group that’s been largely useless without him.
Because the opening promo didn’t go twenty minutes, we head straight into a non-title match between Intercontinental Champion Wade Barrett and Dolph Ziggler. Barrett is without his title because Dean Ambrose stole it after being disqualified at Fastlane. Dolph Ziggler is without a feud after losing cleanly to The Authority in that show’s opening match. Oh, and R-Truth is out there doing guest commentary because he beat Barrett in a non-title match on SmackDown! and he wants a shot at the championship. This is the most significant microphone time he’s had since 2011. And you know what? He’s pretty good when he’s not being asked to play a heartless stereotype. He tries and succeeds in getting the hashtag #GiveTruthAChance trending, which will become important later in the evening, too. Meanwhile, Ziggler and Barrett have a good match, which is only something of a surprise since Barrett has largely struggled to find himself since his return. At this point, Dolph Ziggler can be trusted to have a good match with just about anybody. This, and his undeniable charisma, are why the crowd react to him as though he’s being booked much better than he is. There is no good outcome here: Either Ziggler continues losing or Barrett continues losing, and both, honestly, deserve better. Ziggler continues to be one of the best on the roster at picking up a match’s pace towards the end. After taking a hideous looking powerbomb, he avoids Barrett’s finishing elbow and nearly scores the win with a roll-up. He misses a fameasser, ducks Barrett’s boot, then gets taken out with a huge slam. Ziggler gets the Zig Zag after moving out of the way of a charging Barrett, and gets the win. Now, it seems, there are three contenders for the Intercontinental Championship. And hey, here’s Dean Ambrose with the title. He just shows up, taking Ziggler’s spotlight, and seethes in Barrett’s general direction. Barrett continues to do his whiney big man routine, deadpanning “That’s my title!” from the corner. Ziggler checks the title out, and Ambrose mean mugs him before leaving. R-Truth doesn’t get involved at all, so he’ll probably lose to Barrett on SmackDown! and shuffle off to the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal by the time WrestleMania comes around.
Backstage, we’re privy to The Authority’s business meeting with Randy Orton. This, if you’ve never been in a business meeting before, is what they look like:
Everybody gathers in the corner of a tableless, chairless room, squeezed together and standing at a three-quarter turn to the camera that must, of course, be there to document the business. A good negotiating tactic is to show up to these things in a t-shirt and a pair of briefs. Try it at your next job interview. Seth Rollins is thrown off by Orton’s gambit, interrupting Stephanie to say that he doesn’t want him back. Stephanie goes on a tear once Rollins interrupts him—what he wants is not the issue. The Future and the Face of the WWE can and should coexist. Kane isn’t too convinced, but Stephanie doesn’t care what Business Kane thinks. She wants Randy and Seth to bury the hatchet. She throws Rollins under the bus while Triple H pouts about his fateful meeting with Sting, who is pretty much the templar from the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Orton doesn’t think too long about rejoining The Authority. It’s a good business move, this is a business meeting, and it’s all business. He shakes Rollins’ hand. Stephanie is so hyped up about this that she books the reunited Authority against Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan for the main event. Orton isn’t exactly a character actor, but man is he good tonight, smugly lording it over Rollins while making it pretty clear that he’s going to drop him and The Authority the first chance he gets.
The Prime Time Players reunited last week on Raw, the formerly promising tag team coming back together because The Ascension needs more mid-card tag teams to make them look worthwhile. Michael Cole says that there’s a reason the two are back together, but never gets to say it. Oh well. The reason why they broke up wasn’t that good, either. Meanwhile, The Ascension heard that The Bushwhackers got inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and they’re pretty sure they could destroy those guys. They’re totally right, but oh man is it hilarious to see two painted-up weirdos in terrible leather gear cut a straight 1980s promo on a couple of goofballs who wandered around the ring during their matches to like people’s heads. “HALL OF FAME?” one of them yells, setting up the other for “MORE LIKE HALL OF SHAME!” They should do this on every old tag team, every week. This match is nothing, really. The Ascension beat up Darren Young, who has gotten beaten up exclusively since making his return from an injury. Titus O’Neil gets involved for a little, which lets his partner score a roll-up win. This is The Ascension’s first loss, but that’s not exactly impressive since they got their asses kicked by JBL a month ago.
Roman Reigns’ victory over Daniel Bryan was the expected outcome at Fastlane. It was also a very good match, showing a side of Reigns that I honestly didn’t know existed, which is that he could remain interesting and look good for the duration of an entire match, not just when he punches and spears his opponent for the win. The bigger problem with Reigns, though, is that he can’t speak. He just can’t do it. And the only thing that’s made him seem interesting in the space beyond his matches was The Shield, which he already leans on so heavily that it’s like the group ended for him. All Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had for his cousin was “Roman I make it Reigns in this bitch” and the look of a man who would rather be anywhere but next to the albatross of a forced WrestleMania main event push.
But Reigns is going to have to learn how to speak for himself to really make it as a top-tier draw, so here he is with a hot mic in front of a live crow. And you know what? He does pretty well. After a month of being booed in favor of Daniel Bryan, he has a nice, organic talking point to go through, and before he can go on for too long, Daniel Bryan comes out to address his loss. Obviously, he’s there to put Reigns over, which is not what the crowd wants. Until that point, he really tears into Reigns’ shortcomings as a title contender, in this vicious, mean way that reminds one of how great Bryan was as a heel and would be again if he wasn’t so universally beloved. But that match at Fastlane made Daniel Bryan a believer in Reigns, regardless of what he felt beforehand. Honestly, it’s pretty depressing watching Daniel Bryan just roll over and die for Roman Reigns, but maybe it’s going somewhere unexpected. Bryan, after all, is still without an obvious match at WrestleMania, and maybe knowing that he gave it his all and came up short will make him desperate enough to interject himself in the main event in some fashion. Bryan’s effort to put over Roman Reigns isn’t enough, so Paul Heyman hits the ring and really goes over the top. In a match, he would have picked Reigns over Bruno Sammartino. He would have picked him over Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. He would have picked Roman Reigns over Steve Austin or The Rock, John Cena or Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan or his brothers in The Shield. Heyman lays all of this on so thick that he has legitimate heat with even the smart fans in the crowd. His point isn’t so much that Roman Reigns is a smart bet, but that all of those men were just that… men. Brock Lesnar, his client, the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, isn’t a man. He’s a beast. It’s the same promo Heyman has been cutting since Brock Lesnar defeated The Undertaker at last year’s WrestleMania, but it’s a really good promo and continues to be, even with Roman Reigns at its center. Reigns tries to get sassy with Heyman, but after a heartfelt promo by Bryan and the cold, harsh light of Paul E. Dangerously’s truth, all he’s got is his catchphrase. Whatever. I am in for whatever physicality there will be between Lesnar and Reigns, especially given Lesnar’s ability to flip the switch between merciless destruction and awe-inspiring superhuman selling within the same match. Still, if Reigns’ victory at WrestleMania is etched in stone (and I’m not convinced that’s the case), he’s going to need to figure out how to look good even when he’s being outshined on the microphone.
Every WWE championship has, buried within the unseen contract the champions sign upon clinching the title, a rematch clause. It’s a bit of lazy storytelling that allows an ongoing championship feud continue without having to stop and think of what a title change really means, the faux-strategy often being that cashing in on that clause early will give the former champions a mental advantage over their rivals. That’s why The Usos used their clause on Raw, one presumes, and hey, the story plays out that they really do have an advantage early, befuddling Kidd and Cesaro with their high impact, tag team offense. It’s immediately a better effort than at Fastlane the night before, as the chaos that let the match down at the pay-per-view actually comes to define this contest, both teams throwing caution to the wind because they really want that pair of big pennies. There’s a lot of good double-team stuff here, even if what’s happening isn’t tag team wrestling in its classical sense. And, as Naomi and Natalya finally got physically involved, there’s a chance that this issue may evolve into a showcase for them, as well. Natalya shoved Naomi to the ground for stopping Tyson Kidd from cheating, then got her team disqualified by getting involved in the match. The post-match altercation between the two women, while brief, got a good reaction from the crowd. If this becomes a six-person tag team situation in time for WrestleMania, and if Natalya and Naomi aren’t kept to their own corner of the ring, this might yet become the interesting Tag Team Championship feud the division has been sorely lacking.
The tag team match is a spike in a show that begins to drag pretty severely. The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal from last year’s WrestleMania has not been forgotten, so The Miz and Damien Mizdow’s ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they over their odd partnership is part of that match, now. Stardust and Goldust appear to be moving towards another singles match, but now they’re in the mid-card singles feud holding pattern where the way to continue things is to distract somebody with your music. Curtis Axel still hasn’t been eliminated from the Royal Rumble some twenty-nine days and counting, which rules. He is going to put his experience in not losing battle royals (and not entering them, either) to good use in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. His old buddy Ryback comes out and says that he and the AX-MAN were one of the greatest tag teams of all time, which is legitimately hilarious. RyBaxel explodes…in a thirty-second squash match. Ryback is a good pick for that battle royal. If you put Roman Reigns against Ryback, my money is on Ryback.
Raw has to deal with a lot of Fastlane fall out. Bray Wyatt fooled the crowd in Memphis when he came out with The Undertaker’s druids and music. I can’t say that his promo that night or any of his pre-tapes about vaguely defined dark forces were anything that much better than Wyatt’s usual schtick, but with his intentions finally public, he cuts a scorching promo about how the evil that once possessed The Undertaker was now calling on Bray Wyatt to put him down. I wish there was more faith in Wyatt to deliver without the use of spooooOOOOOoooOOooooky props (tonight: a smoking funeral arrangement—oooooOOOOOoooooOOOoooo), but it’s not like Bray Wyatt is the only guy being given unnecessary props. His opponent at last year’s WrestleMania, John Cena, is now ALL ABOUT AMERICA, JACK after his loss to Rusev. Though he hit all of the expected John Cena beats, he actually did a tremendous job playing the role the announcers discussed during the actual match during Fastlane, an aging master of wrestling coming to terms with the fact that he really can’t win them all anymore. He was cheated, but he failed. Rusev, though, has nothing to be proud about, winning after a low blow, and if he’s the kind of person Russia props up as a hero (he isn’t), then, well, everybody there should be ashamed. This brings out Rusev and Lana, the best full-time act in wrestling. After his victory, what he wants from John Cena is an admission that America is inferior to Russia. That really gets Cena’s dander up. “Watch your ass when you run down the United States of America,” warns the star of The Marine, before praising the men who took Iwo Jima as heroes to Rusev’s garbage. That… that’s a fair point, maybe, but Russia also did stuff in World War II. Like, they exhausted Nazi forces on the eastern front and eventually took Berlin. Compared to that, John Cena is garbage, too. He challenges Rusev to a WrestleMania rematch, but the burly Bulgarian says no. Then he drops his flag from the ceiling and leaves John Cena standing there like he just found out he was grown in a lab and his memories are a lie. That’s what you get for shameless patriotism, John. Oh, and the Rollins/Orton thing continues to play out, with the two having a meeting where they hash things out. Orton hasn’t put anything behind him, but he’s willing to give Rollins a chance, if only to show that Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan were lucky he wasn’t in the Royal Rumble. They’re going to have to compress this a lot with their destined singles match just over the horizon, but an Orton/Rollins team could be quite compelling over a long stretch. It seems like Orton is playing his rejoining The Authority much straighter in this segment, which is a confusing narrative decision, but all roads lead to him finally landing an RKO on Rollins.
Because Triple H vs. Sting is happening at WrestleMania, and because many of WWE’s most passionate fans weren’t alive when WCW folded, they play a Sting highlight package. It is quite good, as most WWE highlight packages are, but man, it is not encouraging. The last great Sting match happened in maybe 1994, and his biggest year, 1997, was him not talking and not wrestling. A lot of people you’ve heard of do their best to put over how great Sting is and was, and it’ll be really great when they play this again in the context of inducting Sting into the WWE Hall of Fame. Maybe by then we’ll be past the new World order being the primary narrative engine of professional wrestling and we can look back on the year Sting laid everybody out with the Scorpion Death Drop more fondly than we do now. Maybe the hero, whoever that is, will be allowed his triumph over The Authority, which will then fade away and never return
The problem with the Sting video, the Bushwhackers Hall of Fame Video, and the newest version of the Seth Rollins/John Stewart video is that they exist on live television in an era where a YouTube video (or a 24/7 online streaming network/on-demand service) could present this information at any time. TMZ did WWE’s job of playing that John Stewart video. Some website in New Zealand announced The Bushwhackers. Meanwhile, the sequence of events on the live show is this: Paige’s music hits, and she does her entrance. Sting video. Emma is suddenly in the ring with Paige. The Bella Twins enter. The bell rings after Emma keeps Paige from attacking Brie. Nikki knocks Paige from the apron, kicks Emma in the gut, delivers a facebuster, and wins. Paige and Emma spent more time in the ring watching a video about Sting than they did wrestling from bell to bell, or continuing to develop the Paige vs. Bella Twins storyline. This did nothing for nobody, and, at the risk of sounding like I’m overreacting, reflects rather poorly on a company that is supposedly in the business of promoting strong women. This did not go unnoticed on social media, where R-Truth’s hashtag became #GiveDivasAChance and trended, of course, without mention. The fact that I gave the match an F isn’t a reflection upon the performers involved, but on the way the situation was presented. It suggests either a belief that what the women are doing isn’t valuable, or that they don’t have faith in their ability to perform up to a television standard. I’d suggest that both are wrong and misguided and, if the fault lies anywhere for the lack of a reaction the Diva’s division is getting this early in 2015, then it’s on whoever decided to shutter the program between Nikki and Brie from last year, re-teaming them without explanation, and moving them into yet another storyline that’s a mashup of the Bellas’ usual we-look-better-than-you angle, the challenger’s usual I-don’t-look-like-your-typical-Diva angle, and liberal doses of both the Crazy Chick gimmick and a character’s insistence that her rival(s) can’t wrestle. Last year, Brie Bella and Stephanie McMahon had a match that was practically one of the main events of SummerSlam. It was good, it told a story, and, when it ended, the earth upon which the loser stood was not salted. Live audiences popped huge for that angle, were engaged with AJ Lee and Paige, and so on. But you don’t even have to look that far back in history (or to the alternate universe that is NXT) for an example of a women’s match on the main roster that was good: On the 1/6 edition of Main Event, Nikki and Paige had a very good match that should be used as the measuring stick for the division. Instead, it’s an exception, a thing that’ll happen once every few months for a couple dozen people who look for that kind of thing. #GiveDivasAChance is a warzone (predictably), as trending on Twitter doesn’t equate to unanimous support. But the main arguments against the division, at least when I dipped into the feed, is that the workers aren’t good and the product won’t draw. Well, you can’t prove either with a kick and a facebuster, and you can’t improve on it, either. Regardless of their function as Vince McMahon sees it—eye candy, a rest between big matches and angles, or a trojan horse for a lucrative reality television show—the potential is there for so much more. It’s not about women being given a chance. It’s about giving them a platform.
That being said, the main event was great, full of character development and worked at a similar level as Fastlane‘s main event. Seth Rollins is out first with Kane, Big Show, and J&J Security, and he gives Randy Orton a custom ring introduction befitting a prodigal son. The Authority hang around outside the ring, clapping and cheering Orton, giving his fragile, permanently bruised ego as much of a lift as they can. Meanwhile, Bryan and Reigns continue their own fragile partnership, something that’s a staple of WrestleMania season though not at all stale since this partnership is entirely new. They’ve got some good ideas as for how to work together as a unit, too. Daniel Bryan starts by putting Rollins in a surfboard, then tags in Reigns, who throws his former Shield ally to the mat from that position. The announcers seem to mostly forget that Reigns was in the middle of a program with Rollins when he was lost to a sports hernia, and Reigns wrestles Rollins like nothing too bad happened between them, but Rollins is a smart heel and tags out to Orton as soon as he can. When Reigns tries to outpower Orton, Orton responds to his veteran savvy. He takes a shoulder tackle and responds with a dropkick. During a commercial break, The Authority take over, running a distraction on Roman Reigns that allows Rollins to sneak in a few cheap shots. They work in a rolling series of hot tags and outside interference spots from The Authority that keep the crowd engaged. Though they’ve both been back for a few months, Bryan and Reigns seem much fresher than before, and Orton, in this weird, in-between space where the fans want him to crush The Authority but he’s still just thinking about it, feels like a wrestler worth watching for the first time since he and Evolution feuded with The Shield. Rollins, feeling pretty good about himself because he has a tag team partner who moves a bit quicker than the glacial titans The Authority usually sticks him with, makes a blind tag on Orton while he’s in the middle of a DDT. Orton bails and complains to Kane and Big Show, sitting the rest of the match out. Rollins takes too long to hit the Curbstomp and gets a Superman punch from Reigns. Bryan tags in while Reigns is setting up the spear, and, for the first time in the history of blind tags, Reigns laughs it off and lets Bryan take the victory with the running knee. When Orton gets back into the ring to confront Rollins, J&J Security try to get between the pair. Jamie Noble takes an RKO, and then nothing happens. Seriously. The announce team recaps what just happened, complete with replays, and that’s it. Good thing they only gave the women two moves, because that post-match angle was hot.
Dolph Ziggler def. Wade Barrett via pinfall. GRADE: B
The Prime Time Players (Darren Young & Titus O’Neil) def. The Ascension (Konnor & Viktor) via pinfall. GRADE: C
WWE Tag Team Championships: The Usos (Jimmy & Jey, w/Naomi) def. Tyson Kidd & Cesaro (champions, w/Natalya) via disqualification. GRADE: B
Jack Swagger def. Stardust vis submission. GRADE: C
The Bella Twins (Nikki & Brie) def. Paige and Emma via pinfall. GRADE: F
Ryback def. Curtis Axel via pinfall. GRADE: C
Daniel Bryan & Roman Reigns def. Randy Orton & Seth Rollins (w/The Authority) via pinfall. GRADE: B+