The long and short of Sunday’s Wrestlemania is this: The matches that were meant to deliver, delivered. The matches that were going to be OK, were OK. The match that was going to suck, sucked. The only thing I had against what may possibly be the WWE’s biggest show (and perhaps its best) since Wrestlemania X7 was that Daniel Bryan lost his World Heavyweight Championship in 18 seconds, and, to be honest, I can’t complain about that either, given how that turned out. But, no matter how successful any given WrestleMania is, the RAW following is just as important, if not more so. While Wrestlemania is the cumulative blow-off of an entire year’s worth of build and anticipation, the Raw the night after serves as a platform upon which the company launches its new year, usually by bringing in new faces, re-debuting old ones, establishing the upper-echelon going forward, at least for the first quarter of the year.
I don’t have a crystal clear memory of every post-Wrestlemania episode of Monday Night Raw (or Wrestling Challenge or whatever), so pardon me if there are several hidden gems out there that go unaccounted for with this statement: Last night’s episode of Monday Night Raw might be the best one in a decade. For all I know, it may be the best episode of Raw ever. That’s not hyperbole; Raw, with nary a mention of the classic encounter between The Undertaker and Triple H that took place the night before, was better than all the hype, speculation, and drama leading up to or coming out of any Wrestlemania I can remember watching. It had, as its hook, the re-debut of a much maligned former WWE superstar, the return of a main event wrestler from injury, and a return so mind-bendingly improbable that I saw a picture of him in Miami hours before the show and kind of assumed he was just there to go on vacation. This was a Raw so good that I’m writing about it right now, as opposed to writing about it at the end of the week or, like every Raw this year, simply letting it dissipate, like mist. So yeah, here’s how everything went down:
The Crowd Was Insane
The crowd at Wrestlemania 28 was great, but the thing that happens when you take a roof off a stadium and put a wrestling crowd in there is that there’ll be long stretches of time where the crowd seems silent. The opening stretch of Chris Jericho vs. CM Punk, for example, seemed quiet, but in any other arena there would have been a fairly audible buzz. With 50,000 fewer people, the American Airlines Center seemed like it was going to explode the whole evening, as the fans chanted “YES! YES! YES!” for Daniel Bryan the entire night, even when The Rock was out there, even when John Cena was out there, and changed it to “SI!” for the return of Alberto Del Rio. I’ve watched a ton of wrestling and have heard a lot of crowds, and few compare to the sustained bombastics of tonight’s bunch. They were absolutely high on wrestling, making everything that happened seem important. That’s good, because most everything that did happen was, indeed, important.
Johnny Ace and “People Power”
Ace’s team won at Wrestlemania and, as such, he’s the GM of Raw and SmackDown! His speech opening Raw was brief, but it let us know exactly the kind of guy Ace was going to be, without the fear of losing his job hanging overhead: Smug and vindictive. Those are the two qualities that make the whole general manager thing work, and it gives guys like Zack Ryder and Santino a smarmy jerk to work with when, previously, the only thing they had working in their favor was how well-liked they are. It’s a good move with the potential to be made better, should the split between the two shows be brought to a merciful end. There’s been little distinguishing the two for years, and now, there’s even less. Do it! Pull the trigger.
The Rock won at Wrestlemania in a match that didn’t quite live up to the Once in a Lifetime hype, but it was still a good encounter and, hey, nothing was going to live up to the expectation placed upon it. And on Raw he came out and said exactly what I wasn’t expecting him to say, which was that Wrestlemania 28 was under no circumstances The Rock’s match. No. He want’s more. Specifically, he wants the WWE Title.
I’m not sure why “Christ” is a bleepable word or why “JHC” wound up being chanted (other than that the crowd was up for anything), but The Rock, once again, seems serious about this whole wrestling thing and is looking for an eighth reign atop the WWE. Something I didn’t mention while writing about Wrestlemania 28 is that The Rock, simply by being in the building, merely by being on the show, gives every wrestler on the roster more exposure than they’d receive were the Rock merely sipping bloody Marys in his trailer on the set of G.I. Joe. John Cena, as we’ll later learn, is pretty much occupied, leaving The Rock with some slim pickings when it comes to worthy championship opponents: Should The Rock go one on one with CM Punk or Daniel Bryan, for example, I will absolutely lose my mind. Moreover, a feud against a guy like CM Punk would probably elevate him to the sort of godhood only reserved for men like John Cena and The Rock himself, particularly if Punk does what Cena couldn’t and wins the thing.
That being said, The Rock will probably end up in a feud against Randy Orton or something, but a man can dream.
I love Brodus Clay, to the point that his five minute dance number with Mamma Clay and the Bridge Club wasn’t an unnecessary intrusion on a night where I really didn’t want unnecessary intrusions. But if there’s something that Clay needed, it was a chance to expand beyond the three minute matches he’s been exclusively featured in since his re-debut. At the conclusion of a triple threat match for the United States Championship, Brodus came out and rescued Santino from the combined forces of Jack Swagger and Dolph Ziggler (Swaggler, as the kids say), absolutely leveling Ziggler with a headbutt that Ziggler made look like the very image of death. If that’s a one-off, for shame. If Clay ends up being part of an extended angle with either Ziggler or Swagger, that’s good. Santino, I’m convinced, will never be a useful figure to me again, but if he gets Brodus a seven minute tag match on Raw or a pay per view, I’ll do him a solid and pretend that his stellar heel run ended before the whole Santina farce.
Re-debuts of old characters rarely work, as wrestling fans have a longer memory than promoters believe and, usually, when a wrestler is making his second or third reappearance on the main show under his second or third gimmick, fans tend to know and are merciless about the past. As an example, fans still chant “Sexual Chocolate” at Mark Henry, despite how awesome he is as a giant, unstoppable monster. To my mind, there’ve been very few good redebuts in the history of wrestling. Two spring to mind immediately: Umaga, a drastically new look and style for a guy who was formerly a member of a sibling gangster Samoan tag team, and Kane, who had to suffer stints as a more popular wrestler’s doppelganger and as an evil dentist before settling into the role that will define his entire career. It’s early, but I’d like to add Lord Tensai to that list after one match, if only because the basis of the gimmick is so surprisingly unique. Look at this teaser video:
For the past few weeks, I’ve been under the assumption that A-Train (the artist formerly known as Prince Albert, he of the team T&A, both things being about as “Attitude Era” as you can get while still being forgettable) was returning with the gimmick that he was Asian, which would probably have been one of the worst ideas ever considering just how white he is. But Lord Tensai, who was once only distinguishable from other monster wrestlers by the fact that he had a ton of hair on his back, comes out to the ring dressed like an early 90s Great Muta and Michael Cole flat out acknowledges what everybody knows: That this guy used to go be in the WWE and that he went to Japan. Not only did he go to Japan, but he adopted the Japanese lifestyle because, get this, it made him a better wrestler. It wasn’t the sort of praise I was expecting. It was exactly the sort of praise this character deserves.
The match itself is simple brutality; one guy roughing up another. Brodus Clay was probably pushed into a feud because they can’t have two guys out there indiscriminately squashing the Alex Rileys and Heath Slaters of the world, but this here is one of the more impressive squash matches I can recall seeing. As opposed to just being a few moves leading to the star’s finishing move, Riley pretty much takes everything Tensai has to offer, to the point that he literally can’t continue. How good was this, as a re-debut? The fans, initially torn between making fun of A-Train’s past and cheering for Daniel Bryan, come around for Tensai’s butterfly suplex and are firmly in his pocket as he drills Riley with the fatsplash and his old Baldo Bomb finisher, which will surely get a better name. Also, Tensai appears to be bringing Asian Mist back to the WWE, which is amazing because I really love Asian Mist, and it’s unprecedented that a white guy can do it without looking stupid. A promising start, to say the least.
This was just a good match, which is important, because that’s pretty much what wrestling is about. Punk and Henry really have little reason to be fighting, but Mark Henry has established himself as a solid title threat and, after calling Johnny Ace a “toolbox” (hard to believe that’s the best Punk could come up with), what other means of punishment would be more suitable for a WWE Champion with a hurt back than a title defense against a huge dude whose whole game is crushing spines?
There’s more to the match than the above, but you get the picture: Punk looks like a valiant champion, Henry looks like a killer, and the world keeps turning. The way the match ended, and with rumors that Chris Jericho was going to take time off (already!) to do a Fozzy tour, I was actually thinking that this’d be a good way to get a short, meaningful feud between the two started. But things didn’t turn out that way, and Mark Henry looks to be part of an angle to bring back Abraham Washington, who might end up being—shock of shocks—a manager in a managerless era.
Yes, Punk and Jericho continue to re-do one of Punk’s seminal indie storylines—the feud with Raven that ran through Ring of Honor and several other promotions—but to me, it’s different because of the essential difference in Raven and Chris Jericho’s characters: Raven was always looking to bring his opponent down to his level; Jericho is always seeking to elevate himself above his. Jericho failed in his Wrestlemania bid to prove to the world that he was a better wrestler than CM Punk (that not really being one of Raven’s objectives), and, as such, is resorting to prove that he’s the better person, if only because he won’t compromise his moral values, whatever those may be. With Punk down and out because of his match against Henry, Jericho has the opportunity to do what he said he was going to do and make Punk drink:
Call me crazy (or an apologist), but I like that Jericho slipped in the booze on the ground. Most dudes, given that situation, would freeze. Jericho pivots and starts beating on Punk. I won’t go as far as to say that it adds a shade of realism to the segment, but it’s nice to know that these things can’t flap some people. And Jericho’s promo was really quite good. The only thing totally unbelievable about the whole thing (beyond the fact that the second bottle of Jack Daniels breaks in Jericho’s hand) is how much booze Jericho felt was necessary to be a dick. I mean, Punk is pretty freakin’ straight edge. A travel-sized bottle of Jack from the airplane probably would have been shameful enough. But I guess if we’re going to have metaphors on Monday night, they need to be as big as possible.
Literally the only bad thing about Alberto Del Rio returning on Raw is that it might mean pushing Daniel Bryan out of the title picture. Sheamus is still a big, oafish Irishman despite carrying around the World Heavyweight Championship, and, in order to establish himself as a true championship level face, he needs an opponent who is both talented and decidedly a heel. Outside of the American Airlines Center, where the crowd booed Sheamus because he was in that eighteen second match against Daniel Bryan—an eighteen second match that might have done more to get the Bryan over than anything he’s done in his WWE career—Del Rio will play exactly as he’s meant to, and will give SmackDown! a needed shot in the arm.
The return of Del Rio also meant the return of Ricardo, whose introduction of Del Rio, complete with the blaring trumpets, the cars, and Del Rio’s scarf, has been sorely missed. The guy has been doing breathing exercises, too, as his “RIO” lasted almost a full minute. If we end up getting a Del Rio/Sheamus feud, it’ll be pretty good. If Daniel Bryan is somehow still involved, it’ll be utterly fantastic. Better, Christian’s momentary return before Wrestlemania hints at him being ready to make a return, as well, meaning that both brands (should brand distinctions somehow continue to matter) carry a rich assortment of top guys for the first time in awhile.
I mostly know Brock Lesnar as a video game character, an action figure of freakish size and strength. I saw him debut, a whole ten years ago, the day after Wrestlemania X8, and it was obvious that he was going to be something special. I just never got to see most of his significant matches, as they mostly took place after the dreadful Kane/Triple H Katie Vick angle that chased me away from wrestling for four years. I don’t know if it’s my lack of interest in a bald Kurt Angle or my fear that much of Brock’s run may have been overrated or hasn’t aged particularly well, but Lesnar’s reign atop the WWE is one that I haven’t gone back and visited, despite really liking his match against The Rock at Summerslam 2002. I’d rather have him be an exaggerated figure of other people’s memories than another in a long list of potential disappointments I’ve faced as a fan.
But when John Cena asked the Rock to come out for a handshake and Lesnar’s music hit instead, I nearly leaped out of my chair. This was big. This was huge. The crowd, who had been loud all night, somehow got louder. And Cena, usually so cool in the face of danger, looked like he was cracking, even if only a little. The beauty of this segment is its simplicity:
Lesnar says nothing to Cena, at least nothing he can hear. He gets into the ring, points to the name on his shirt, offers Cena a handshake and, before Cena has time to react, Lesnar puts him in the F5, which remains one of the coolest finishing moves ever devised. The fans, no longer able to express their joy with mere chants of “YES! YES! YES!” resort to the now little-heard “HOLY SHIT” chant. Michael Cole claims that the entire landscape of the WWE has changed, and for once he’s not lying.
This was a great swerve. A GREAT swerve. I was expecting Cena to ask for a rematch against The Rock, an opportunity to redeem himself in the face of failure. After Wrestlemania, he doesn’t like The Rock; he wants to show the respect he has for him, and hopes The Rock will do the same. Instead we get Lesnar. Lesnar who so obviously does not respect anybody. Lesnar whose mere presence tells the fans that things have very much gotten real. Brock is wordless, but he doesn’t need words when he’s got the F5, when he can get up and kick Cena’s stupid little hat across the ring like he was toying with a child.
This is a challenge, the sort of thing John Cena can’t remain stagnant against. The Rock and John Cena were opposites, sure, but The Rock didn’t hate Cena and certainly didn’t hate the WWE. Brock Lesnar hates everything and is the WWE’s prodigal son, leaving for the NFL, for a stint in Japan, for a successful-if-short run in the UFC. He hated the traveling, hated the life, hated everything about professional wrestling. Cena, by contrast, loves the life and loves the WWE more than anything in the world. Brock is a world-destroyer, a man built of pure rage, and it’s not the gimmicky rage of Kane. This is real. This is a threat. This is a guy who is either going to kill John Cena or turn him into something he doesn’t want to become.
When I was complaining about the build-up to Cena’s match against The Rock, I said that, in terms of clear, effective storytelling, the feud between Rock and Steve Austin pretty much encapsulated everything that’s great about wrestling, and that’s true. This, too, is clear and effective storytelling, and in one short, deafening utterance. Music. F5. Hat kick. Brock Lesnar hates John Cena. Brock Lesnar wants to fight John Cena. Brock Lesnar can destroy John Cena. What does Cena do? Where does he go from here? I have no idea, and that’s exactly why I love professional wrestling: Even when things seem clear as day, it retains the capacity to shock, it still manages to surprise.