Wrestling Review: WWE Raw 5/25/15

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Dean Ambrose is a cop you idiot

I know, I know. I haven’t reviewed an episode of Raw since February. In truth, I just haven’t watched that much wrestling since the build into and great release of WrestleMania. I can’t afford the indies like I used to, and beyond NXT and Lucha Underground, everything I watch (even New Japan Pro-Wrestling) seems content to remain in a post-big show holding pattern that isn’t going to cure me of the fact that, for whatever reason, I’m just flat burnt out on the stuff. World Wrestling Entertainment’s main programming has been stuck in this holding pattern since Survivor Series, for whatever that’s worth, and, heading into this Sunday’s surprise Elimination Chamber special, the company is only capable of manufacturing one or two moments or matches that pique my interest. This Sunday, that match is Kevin Owens vs. John Cena, a dude I stumped hard for when he was on the independents against a guy who I think ranks among the all-time greatest. So, wearily, I turned on Raw to see how that program would build, and was greeted by the WWE roster reciting a speech by Ronald Reagan, who is this (and every) year’s hot president for Vince McMahon, beacon not only of that shining city on a hill, but for the last time McMahon’s now incredibly dated concept of narrative storytelling worked without anybody wondering why nobody on his staff had the guts to tell him “no.”

In a month, it’ll have been four years since C.M. Punk dropped his famous “pipe bomb” promo, the worked shoot where he went off on John Cena and Vince McMahon and Triple H and anybody else he perceived as having held him back despite being the best in the ring, on the microphone, and so on. This ushered in what Grantland‘s The Masked Man dubbed “The Reality Era,” but that’s never really panned out. If anything, what Punk’s sudden ascent marked was the beginning of WWE’s Indie Era, which, like the much maligned WWF New Generation era that launched with the departure of Hulk Hogan in 1993, has had its share of ups and downs. At no other point in wrestling history was it possible for someone like CM Punk to become a star on mainstream television, or Daniel Bryan, or Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, or, if the Internet has its way, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. All of these wrestlers had careers, great careers, before they came to World Wrestling Entertainment, but the fact that they don’t exactly build wrestlers like Hulk Hogan anymore means that it’s possible for somebody who used to toil in an Indiana barn for a bunch of hillbillies who paid $10 to see some blood to rub elbows with Jon Stewart or main event a WrestleMania despite the clear wishes of those writing the show. Punk has, obviously, since left wrestling, disgruntled to the point that he’d rather get wrecked in the UFC and write comic books. Daniel Bryan, who will go down as the biggest success story of the Indie Era, has injured his neck to the extent that he probably shouldn’t wrestle again. NXT is currently a warehouse for former indie darlings to keep wrestling while waiting for a call-up to the main roster, a WWE-built alternative to WWE that, giving credit where credit is due, has largely convinced folks that the WWE, finally, is on the road to something that looks like real, substantive change. That, or everybody is so pleased with NXT that they actively hope that their favorites won’t get the call, because the main roster might take a good thing like Kevin Owens and ruin him.

Kevin Owens John Cena

Those fears are perhaps unfounded, as Owens is showing up on Raw in basketball shorts destroying Cena with his wicked pop-up powerbomb like he’s not a 15-time WWE Champion, but, then again, looking at Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose as they head into a WWE Championship match at Elimination Chamber, perhaps not. This Raw was booked around that match, made unofficial last week when Ambrose threatened to crush Rollins’ head on a pile of cinderblocks—a nice callback to last year’s goofy angle that took the beyond-hot Ambrose out of action for a few months so he could film a movie nobody is going to see. The Authority, which, by now, is Rollins and a bunch of old dudes in suits, opened the show by giving Ambrose the evening to put his name on a contract to make the match official, first inviting him to an obvious ambush (spoiled by Ambrose’s running buddy Roman Reigns), then conspiring to have him arrested for accidentally assaulting a camera man. With Ambrose in jail, all Raw had to do was kill time until the end of the night, when he would obviously be freed and sign the contract. Saved at the last minute by a WWE staff member uploading a video to YouTube (reality!), Ambrose either stole or was allowed to borrow an NYPD van and officer’s uniform, whereupon he returned triumphant to the Nassau Colosseum to rescue Reigns and ink his name on the contract. It was an angle straight out of the Attitude Era, Stone Cold Steve Austin commandeering a zamboni or a beer truck or his own skull-festooned pick-up to ruin Vince McMahon’s night, but the Austin character (and the McMahon one, for that matter) was able to command “reality” in a way the Ambrose one isn’t, or isn’t allowed to. Of all the ex-Shield members, Dean Ambrose has unquestionably been the worst-written since that unit’s dissolution last year, but he’s the one that fans have most latched on to. He’s teflon-coated, whether he’s rolling a hot dog cart to the ring or threatening to make J&J Security work barefooted, like Hobbits. His continued popularity is a testament to the sort of connection that WWE’s indie-bred stars are able to foster with an audience that likely isn’t aware that indie wrestling exists, but it’s a complete mystery to me after a year of goofy, go-nowhere promos that are way too light on the fact that his ex-friend Seth Rollins tried to end his career once.

That said, assuming the goofy garbage of a marquee Dean Ambrose match is left to the side, the in-ring quality of this Sunday’s match will be hard for anything else on the card to live up to. In Raw‘s opening contest, a tag match that saw Ambrose joined by Reigns and Rollins by Kane, the two brought a lot of flash to the now beyond-tired Roman Reigns vs. Kane formula, going so far as to exchange the signature moves of Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, two of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s ace performers who are also, more often than not, rivals. And that Ambrose won the match with a backslide and not his finishing maneuver or through disqualification suggests that his match against Rollins, however uninspired Raw‘s storyline was, won’t just be a throwaway title defense on a show otherwise devoted to Cena vs. Owens and the titular Elimination Chamber match.

Given the decidedly low-stakes of both Chamber matches, that’s good. I’m generally not a fan of WWE booking pay-per-views around specific match genres beyond the Royal Rumble—in a medium that requires the occasional bit of surprise spectacle, calling an event Hell in a Cell and giving us three Hell in a Cell matches on it robs us of both—and the return of the Elimination Chamber for a Tag Team Title match and to decide the once-again vacant Intercontinental Championship only reveals how weak the tag team division is beyond the champions and their primary challengers, and how low the current writer’s rooms energies are ebbing. The Intercontinental Championship was just decided in a multi-man ladder match at WrestleMania, and, with June’s Money in the Bank approaching, yet another multi-man ladder match, likely involving a fair number of the men featured in the Elimination Chamber, will take center stage. Thus the build for the Chamber isn’t on the danger of the match itself or the struggle to get into the match, but on the fallout of the John Cena vs. Rusev I Quit match from this month’s Payback, which saw Lana throw in the towel for her man when she heard him say “I quit” in his mother tongue. Their promo on Raw was half-amazing, half-train-wreck, a pile-up of cold war and sitcom marriage cliches largely sold by the fact that Rusev is one of wrestling’s more engaging characters on the microphone, and Lana a rare great managerial presence whose character, sadly, will not work with anybody but her now former charge. Once Rusev convinces Lana to come to the ring, he starts plying her with rhetoric so pig-headed that even the crowd knows they’re watching something sexist, saying that Lana clearly just wants Rusev’s attention, and that he is ready to give it to her. In what is unquestionably the best thing said on WWE TV since Nikki Bella said she wished her sister died in the womb, Rusev tells Lana “I know you want to crush America and the American spirit just as bad as I,” and he means it. The two embrace, and, just as I’m starting to get misty-eyed for this pair of crazy kids, Rusev asks Lana to admit that she was wrong. This, obviously, she does not do. Rusev goes off, saying that he’s done being nice and that, well, he owns Lana. Lana has none of this, says “I am no longer your victim,” and leaves. Here’s the thing. World Wrestling Entertainment has set the bar so low for female characters that this isn’t just a step in the right direction, it’s Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. But then Lana leaves the ring and makes out with Dolph Ziggler to “get back” at Rusev, and that fantasy is over right quick because it’s 2015 and women on Raw can only be defined by how much they hate other women (see every Diva’s Championship feud, including the current issue between Paige, Naomi, and the Bella Twins), or their relationship with a man. The small blessing here is that Rusev would later return fire by beating Ziggler up in front of Lana, putting him in the Accolade while screaming “KISS HIM NOW!” That ruled.

Raw didn’t cure what ails me when it comes to professional wrestling, and, in truth, I’m not sure Elimination Chamber will, either. I know that NXT is out there tearing it up (and yes, Unstoppable was another impressive live special from that crew), and my beloved indies soldier on though I am currently unable to pay for them. WWE thrives because it is the easiest wrestling program to access, and ease-of-access breeds complacency. For too long now, it feels like there’s been talk of “grabbing the brass ring” and little actual follow-through. Owens changes that, maybe, but then again, maybe not. His fellow NXT alum Neville is currently wrestling good-to-great matches on the main roster in near-silence because some idiot decided to call him “The New Sensation” instead of just letting him grow organically. Too much of Raw feels perfunctory, there in hopes that a familiar face or move will get the live crowd to pop, and, as such, it feels like I’m watching the most talented wrestlers in the world do battle in a pool of molasses. It’s gotten to the point that John Cena’s usual pandering to the WWE Universe now includes a caveat that it may, in fact, be time for something new. He was talking about the “LET’S GO CENA/CENA SUCKS” chant finally giving way to a name his detractors could believe in, but I’m not sure the solution is as drastic as having Kevin Owens come in and destroy an already barren planet. Nah. If the roster were doing half as much as Zack Ryder did in his match against John Cena, pushing his envelope way beyond what any reasonable person expected of him because he was wrestling his last match in the arena where he learned to love wrestling, we’d be doing just fine. Sure, Ryder ate shit on his 450 splash, but I’d rather watch a beautiful failure than a wrestling promotion in cruise control.

 


WWE RAW 5/25/15 – Long Island, New York

  1. Dean Ambrose & Roman Reigns def. Seth Rollins & Kane via pinfall. GRADE: B

  2. Rusev def. R-Truth via submssion. GRADE: N/A

  3. Ryback def. Wade Barrett via pinfall. GRADE: B-

  4. Neville def. Stardust via pinfall. GRADE: C

  5. Dolph Ziggler def. Sheamus via pinfall. GRADE: C+

  6. UNITED STATES CHAMPIONSHIP: John Cena (champion) def. Zack Ryder via pinfall. GRADE: B

  7. Tamina def. Paige via pinfall. GRADE: D

  8. 10 VS. 3 HANDICAP MATCH: The New Day def. Tyson Kidd & Cesaro, The Ascension, Los Matadores, The Prime Time Players, and the Lucha Dragons via disqualification. GRADE: N/A

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