Starting this week, I will be releasing a new column here at TJR Wrestling that I certainly hope you’ll enjoy. In it, I’ll take a look at each week’s Monday Night Raw and break down the four elements I enjoyed most and the four I enjoyed least. As many of you know from reading this space, it’s a crapshoot from week to week on just how good the show can be, so I expect it to be tougher more often than not. And as with just about anything we post here, I fully encourage you to add your two cents (or monetary equivalent) on what you liked and loathed.
This week’s show from Pittsburgh had the makings of a historic night. We were teased with The Undertaker’s potential answer to Bray Wyatt’s constant challenges, told that Sting would be making his first remarks prior to his upcoming tete-a-tete with Triple H, and assured that Brock Lesnar himself would be making an appearance following the odd behind-the-scenes goings-on that marred previous weeks. On top of all that, it was once again time for the infamous guest host, Wiz Khalifa. That’s more than enough real estate to cover, so let’s get to it.
Four That Scored
*Welcome Back, Randy Orton: Last night was mainly based around the tease of the last several weeks that returning Randy Orton might potentially feign all logic whatsoever and join back up with The Authority, who had summarily (and literally) kicked him out of their group following interminable amounts of in-fighting. Orton appeared on camera a bit and seemed generally reserved as he offered his advice to Seth Rollins, with the clearly simmering bubble and background brew that the times would eventually be a-changin’. That plot thickened Monday, as Orton and Rollins teamed up handicap style to face Rollins’ former bandmate Roman Reigns. The “reunion” to open the show was frankly a bit of a bore, as was the normal bait-and-switch tactics used to strip the overconfident Rollins of any and all assistance before the eventual Viper turn. That didn’t make it any less of a solid payoff when it occurred.
With Reigns being legitimately booed by the vocal majority of the Steel City crowd (a fact not acknowledged by the announcing team but not lost on me as I endured hype after hype of WM’s main event), Rollins attempted to tag and found air as Orton refused him. Following the Reigns squash and pin, Rollins was then on the receiving end of one of the more brutal beatdowns to close a show in recent memory. In fact, it was eerily reminiscent of The Shield’s destruction of multiple superstars during their excellent run. Orton was in full crazypants mode here, as is his wont, talking smack to the Future of the Biz as he beat him pillar to post and into the crowd before RKOing him through the announce table cleanly and perfectly. Even with the telltale signs that Orton would be squared off with Rollins in a couple of weeks, this was violent and effective. Orton has always delivered his lines with suitable aplomb, but his seething and unhinged explosion of emotion carried the evening in a major way. In a few short minutes, this became the match to see. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
*The Ultimate Award: Sometimes it seems that in a sport where just about everything is scripted, it’s the unscripted moments that turn out to be the best and most remembered. Nowhere is that irony more present than in the induction of The Ultimate Warrior to the Hall of Fame last year, followed by his untimely and heartbreaking demise. It was almost oddly poetic that a man who spent his entire life fighting causes real and imagined would earn the respect and accolades that eluded him during most of his professional career, only to have his fight suddenly and unfortunately ended just a short time later. Before that time was out, however, Warrior had achieved something that was far less tangible to him during his stellar WWF run: he made valid and cogent points about the state of affairs in Connecticut and in pro wrestling in general on a national scale, both at his HOF speech and the following night’s unforgettable in-ring promo where he discussed paying it forward. These powerful moments served to demonstrate that he had truly buried the hatchet with the company that simultaneously made him famous and infamous all at once.
That’s one of a myriad of reasons why last night’s decision by the company to begin a Warrior Award at the late man’s behest was all the more welcome. UW had discussed creating a category for the true heroes in life, folks whose real-life accomplishments took the trials and travails of ring workers and celebrities alike and dismissed them in one fell swoop. This is an often-overlooked element of the business we enjoy that needs to be brought to the forefront more. There are so many great stories to be had, and with the gargantuan amount of charitable work done by the WWE and its stars, now is unquestionably the time. I was also touched that the choice for induction was Connor “The Crusher” Michalek, whose story has been told in emotional and heart-rending detail by both his family and the wrestlers he idolized. There is quite frankly no better choice for the Warrior label than Connor, who epitomized that description as he battled a foe too frightening and dangerous to be imagined even as he refused to enjoy life less for one fraction of a second. Stories this moving and inspirational are rare to come by and should be treasured. Moving and inspiring stuff.
*Diva Dedication: I’ve discussed on Twitter and elsewhere my feelings on the #GiveDivasAChance movement, which is a topic we’ve pushed for since seemingly the dawn of time. Despite the traction and the real-life frenzy of attention AJ Lee likes causing (wonder where she gets that from?), the company has thus far refused to give the hashtag any mainstream credibility, much less incorporate it into storylines. That leads us to situations like Monday, where the Bella Twins are primarily used as a vehicle to sell a Flintstones crossover movie featuring an animated caveman that reminded me of the late Phil Silvers. Hardly the emancipation of the modern woman, particularly in spotted miniskirts, no? Fortunately, there were developments made that spoke of possibilities for the future in the underutilized Divas division, so even if they’re not verbally answering the challenge, we can all settle for just doing something about it already and giving us better product in the ring itself.
Those involved yesterday included Summer Rae’s better-than-expected performance against AJ Lee and Naomi’s defeat of Natalya. Summer Rae’s had little to do outside of this season of Total Divas since being introduced as Fandango’s dance partner, and she has shown that she is athletic and skilled when given the chance, so I appreciated the opportunity to watch her actually mount some offense before falling short to the class of the division. It always strikes me as odd that the WWE seeks out athletic women and then essentially presents them as valets. It’s an odd idiosyncrasy that needs to stop. As for Naomi, she’s been heavily involved in her feud with Natalya, which smartly incorporates the reality elements of both of their marriages while playing up the Total Divas controversy the company adores. Lost in all of that has been developing Naomi as a wrestler, which did occur to some degree last night. While the win served more to cement the issues nagging at Natalya’s real union with Tyson Kidd as well as the pitfalls awaiting the tag team champions she walks to the ring, it was a moment in time appreciated for not being simply another throwaway waste of three minutes. Tell effective stories and make characters worth caring about. The gender is irrelevant. Let’s hope for another couple steps forward in the weeks to come, hashtag or otherwise.
*Oh Yeah, Those Guys: It seems all but a certainty that much of the WWE’s best talent will be used in this year’s version of the WM MITB match, the Intercontinental Ladder match for Wade Barrett’s title. While it’s not necessarily my favorite way to utilize guys of this caliber, it does get them onto the card, it does elevate a title that sorely needs it, and it should provide some of the more exciting moments of the evening. Embroiled in this sequence of events are two crowd and personal favorites in Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose, who have put out stellar work since the beginnings of their WWE runs and been too infrequently rewarded. While the build to this match has been nothing short of insane, focusing primarily on R. Truth’s commentary and creative ways to abscond with Barrett’s belt, the in-ring action should deliver the goods. One welcome side effect of all of this is that most of the participants of said match are working their way onto our screen each and every week, as was the case last night with Bryan squaring off against Barrett himself and Ambrose dueling with Stardust, rumored to be in the match as well and a natural rival since his surprise attack on the Fringeman one week ago.
Barrett’s booking as champion since his return has been odd to say the least and not quite befitting of a man who lost his spot to injury, but he may just be suffering from a case of too many solid rivals with crowd support. He has dropped matches left and right, even to midcarders like Truth, so the fact that Bryan got the drop and the pin on him was perhaps not a surprise but welcome nonetheless. As for Ambrose, wins and losses have had little to nothing to do with his overall persona since the end of his Shield days, and the company overall doesn’t seem to know what to do to him. That’s no surprise given their past history, but it does make even little victories like Monday’s over Cody’s Frank Gorshin clone a little bit sweeter. I can’t say I feel good for Rhodes, who hopefully can ditch the gimmick following his eventual exorcism of his older brother, but I’ll take it for now. The victories have been few and far between for Ambrose, so let’s take what we can get and see what happens in the ladder match.
Four That Snored
*Guest Hostility: I can’t say I’ve ever been too much for musical performances in wrestling, as it strikes me like a prearranged marriage where the dowry sucks for everyone involved and you don’t even get an open bar. I still have nightmares about Limp Bizkit, and the WWE’s been trying to shoehorn the music industry into what they do since the Rock ‘n Wrestling era. That’s why I didn’t have high hopes for last night’s host (and Pittsburgh native) Khalifa, particularly depending on how music-heavy the show would be. I confess that it’s not my cup of tea anyway, but I’m assuming that Steely Dan and Squeeze were booked elsewhere. Khalifa’s “hosting” that was in any way wrestling-related involved exactly one backstage skit with Damien Sandow, the hardest-working man in show business, as he continues to bravely soldier his way through his B-reel semi-feud with Miz. While I’m always a fan of Sandow’s trips to the wardrobe department, this seemed like a simple throwaway to show us last week’s SNL-ish male enhancement commercial again. Because, you know, you laughed so much the last time.
Once that was concluded, fans in attendance and those watching at home were treated to a sampler of Khalifa tunes in front of a semi-disinterested crowd that likely paid to see wrestling matches and not rapping solos. Khalifa’s frequent removal of clothing was most appreciated when he rid himself of his handily-placed John Cena tee (available for sale right now!) but otherwise not so much. As I’ve never claimed to be an aficionado of the genre, I have no idea whether his performance was considered good or not. What I’m far more sure of is that it made little sense to do it during a show that was primarily focused on building the seminally important WrestleMania card. The guest host strategy has missed much more than it’s hit. While I don’t entertain any fantasies that WWE will stop with this anytime soon, they could at least save the 15-minute music extravaganzas for a four-hour PPV. I’ll take my Wiz without, thanks.
*Dr. Claw Speaks: You know how I mentioned that Sting would have his first comments on his impending match with the “Schnozz of Schnozzes” earlier? Well, much of that buildup and tenseness was caused by the WWE themselves, who didn’t fail to tell us several times that we’d finally hear from the silent one himself after weeks and weeks of having stunt doubles fill in and enduring Triple H bloviation. That’s big news, of course, so when the moment came, we saw a graphic package that involved more Photoshopping of Trips (hey, keep going, don’t stop there) and a really strange voiceover that sounded sort of like the Shockmaster meets Inspector Gadget’s offscreen nemesis Dr. Claw. Whereabout of Ole Anderson have yet to be determined, so I don’t have that information for you just yet. At one or two points, it actually did manage to sound like Sting himself, but mostly it was just strange. I guess that’s what they were going for, since they piped in old Halloween Havoc muzak during the matchup graphic promoting the showdown.
In a way, I appreciate that they at least sort of explained why Sting is pissed off at Triple H. We’ve heard way too much of HHH’s version on life, the universe, and everything at this point, so a break was appreciated. He did his part by staying off the show completely, but this still seemed like a letdown that was recorded over the weekend rather than fresh buzz of some kind. And the whole rationale was a bit too grandiose and symbolic, even by WWE standards. He’s there to fight injustice! He still hates Eric Bischoff! He got really bad catering! I’m fairly positive the company is concerned about using Sting too much before the big dance, and I get that, but having him appear and say a word or two doesn’t seem all that taxing. If you’re going to build up a big moment, at least do your best to not make it lame. Avoid the sins of the past and what not? Sting was there for the Shockmaster’s debut, after all. Live and learn.
*Brock’s Back: It’s been a big deal for days that Lesnar would actually be at this week’s Raw, so surely we could find something for the champ to do. Perhaps he could leave challenger Reigns in bits and pieces, thus furthering the remote possibility that he might actually win at WM? A guy can dream. Instead, Lesnar was there to do what he almost always does in these appearances, which is smile awkwardly at the camera and take up lots of room while Paul Heyman kills it on the mic. The problem with that strategy, naturally, is that Heyman can do that even without his champion present, and that makes the whole charade a bit less relevant to say the least. Heyman was game, naturally, delivering another pipe bomb on the state of affairs in WWE, casually ripping a Roman Reigns promo to shreds and doing his best to say what plenty are thinking in the way only he can.
Lesnar, on the other hand, pretty much stood there and looked cocky. Which is fine, as he’s quite good at it, but pretty much a colossal waste of money. One would think the WWE does not enjoy writing out that check each and every time. If you believe the backstage speculation, VKM has washed his hands of the whole thing to some extent, assuring his lackeys that Lesnar will make his dates or be in breach and either re-up with the company or take his licking and walk away. Monday didn’t do much to prevent the general idea that Lesnar is a man waiting for something to happen rather than a cunning champion making something happen. That, unfortunately, might be the hallmark of the Second Era of Lesnar. How much of that is his fault is debatable, but what’s far less in question is that they didn’t give their own bestial champion anything substantive to do. Then again, he doesn’t sing.
*Lackeys of the World, Unite: If you’re one of those who get excited every time you see Kane and/or The Big Show on screen, this next paragraph or two won’t be for you. I also doubt your existence. The two have done their jobs admirably enough as enforcers for the Authority. Think of them as bigger versions of Brisco and Patterson, if you will. Rollins himself has Boss Man’s Authority enforcer vest, though in a smaller size, but I digress. Show’s big turn on John Cena way back at Survivor Series made him relevant again temporarily, but boy have those days gone away. It only takes a quick spin through the Network to harken back to a time when a Show match was a big deal. Now it’s a snooze-worthy excuse to get snacks. Ditto Kane, who mercifully has taken a break from his endless feud with Daniel Bryan to show up and serve at bended knee on the whim of Rollins and company. Their prolonged exposure at the Royal Rumble highlighted the sad fact that times have passed and this should no longer be something on which we spend ample screen time.
This would be chapter two of that sad book, as Kane and Show involved heavily in the promo with Orton to start the show, before dropping their tag match to Ryback and Erick Rowan later in the evening. Communication was an issue between the two, and this brought Heel Stephanie to the ring, who delivered her usual impressive amount of vitriol before casting them out. Big Show did not cry, but other than that no major news was made. One thing that was painfully obvious is that nobody really cared, either about who won the match or what happened after. I can’t imagine that’s what they were going for. With both men slated for the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, I suppose we’ll see what shakes out, but there’s no winners here. I’m not campaigning that they cease to be, but less is clearly more and they’ve yet to get the message.
There you have it: four picks on each side of the ledger for what worked and what didn’t on Monday’s Raw. Please feel free to share your thoughts on the matter below and thanks for reading. See you again next week at the Raw Bar!