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The Raw Bar: Monday’s Scores & Bores

Greetings, wrestling fans, and welcome to another installment of the Raw Bar, where we take a long look at the four things that worked (and four more that didn’t) from last night’s episode of Monday Night Raw. This week’s episode was particularly important, as it was the “go-home” episode, the last chance for World Wrestling Entertainment to set the table for what’s sure to be an interesting WrestleMania weekend. Go-homes are interesting in that they have to tell some of the tales for the event itself, while not giving away the farm in order to encourage viewership of same. Now that WWE has transitioned quite a ways away from the traditional PPV model, it’s been fascinating to watch the development of their storytelling as it relates to this point. With WWE’s fortunes being less tethered to traditional PPV revenue streams, perhaps the idea of a seminal Raw to close out the upcoming angles has lost some of its proverbial shine. All of that said, WrestleMania season is still a special time, and the company definitely pulled out quite a few stops yesterday. From celebrities to ringside appearances to championship staredowns, there was some of just about everything on this show. Was it enough to make it better than your average Monday night addiction? Let’s see.

Four That Scored

*Sting Makes A Splash: I recorded here last week some of my misgivings about the big Sting reveal, which was hokey enough to be beyond predictable and didn’t get good until after hours on the Network. The WWE, to their credit, amended things a bit this week and started off the show with WCW’s brand ambassador himself. Sting’s full entrance is pretty cool, and I think creative did a good job taking the elements of his Crow-like evolvement and adding in their own storied graphic and audio excellence to produce a very solid result. That’s one thing that will add to what is already slated to be an excellent WrestleMania moment. The only downside for Sting is that many WWE faithful are likely even more interested on the health and wellness of that OTHER returning guy, The Undertaker, and that could indicate a slight waning of the excitement for an otherwise truly historic and seminal moment.

The other big elephant in the room is that Sting’s motivations for suddenly appearing out of nowhere to challenge Triple H haven’t been addressed, certainly not in the “explore it till you bore it” standard of big WWE storylines. There’s a tangible connection to the Survivor Series, of course, but that was ages ago, and with Sting being absent and H’s role being reduced of late to Seth Rollins patron, one can be forgiven for not sensing the passion here that we’ve got elsewhere on the undercard. While I’ve never been a gigantic opening promo segment fan, I’ll admit that last night’s delivered. Sting had plenty of energy as he delved a bit into his past and acknowledged the Monday Night Wars, and while it was all a little glossed-over, it was still solid writing and above average delivery. Sting was always kind of cartoony for me on the microphone, but his darker persona carried the mail here in a major way. He would be interrupted, naturally, but it was an intriguing decision to have it be Trips’s wife (and, more importantly, Vince’s daughter) Stephanie who carried out the task. Stephanie has been an excellent and underrated heel for years, and her reactions and banter with Sting were well-done and top notch. Failure to utilize her properly has been far too frequent, and I for one was glad to see her show up and step in.

By the time Triple H himself came down to the ring to defend the honor of the Mrs., we had already established a dramatic moment or two leading into this weekend’s showdown. What came next was the typical grandstanding, and in this case a smart move. With some doubt on how good the actual match itself can be between these two part-timers, there wasn’t a need for things to get physical before Sunday. While it flies in the face of logic a bit that Trips wouldn’t bring his backup to lay out the Stinger, I can be thankful for less of Kane and The Big Show, and it wasn’t hugely noticed as the actors played their roles accordingly. Fans can relate to anyone looking to take out the head of the Authority, and the build for this match was much improved in ten or so minutes of time. I’d say that’s a successful way to begin an important evening. On a side note, don’t underestimate the importance of this match itself for Triple H. He’s always pushed himself to be one of the best performers, and while there’s no doubt Sting can still go, one wonders what type of match it will be. If it’s very solid, he deserves serious kudos.

*Shooters and Ladders: For me, it doesn’t get any better on Sunday’s card than the ladder match for the Intercontinental Title. I’ve no idea whatsoever if the WWE is truly buying into their own hype over making the belt important again, but from an obvious standpoint, it’s given them something to do with Daniel Bryan. That’s crucial, and while I’m not necessarily on board with the whole thing, if it produces solid wrestling I am all in for that. The idea that the WWE itself knows this match has high expectations was evident Monday, as the fingerprints of it were all over the evening, and not surprisingly it produced some of the best moments. Most of the participants of Sunday’s match were paired up early on, as Dean Ambrose and R-Truth took on the tandem of Luke Harper and Stardust. Given the abilities of those four, the match itself was pretty good, with Truth finally getting off of commentary and doing an impressive job in the match itself, eventually securing the win over Stardust. Replacing him at the announcing position was an upgrade in champion Bad News Barrett, who I personally wouldn’t mind hearing more from on a regular basis, even if his raised podium segment went the way of the dodo due to its popularity. Nice teaser for some of what we’ll see this weekend.

The second half of this story took place right before the final segment of the show, as crowd favorites Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler went head-to-head, playing off of last week’s big moment when the two went at it in the middle of the ring. Both guys can be rightly perceived as getting short shrift from the company of late, so the idea of one of those two capturing the I-C Title and elevating it whets the collective appetite for sure. The match itself played up many of the angles you’d expect, from Ziggler’s resilience and underdog status to Bryan’s frustration and injury history. At its core, though, it was exactly what it should be: an opportunity to watch two guys who have consistently raised the bar in whatever they’ve been asked to do have a great time tearing into each other in front of a passionate crowd. The fact that fans voted in Ambrose to be special referee (an obvious choice given the options, but whatever) just worked even more effectively, as the fringe barely made efforts to maintain order. Things were bound to get out of control, as they should. Ziggler’s victory over Bryan (again!) was a sidenote to the larger perception that this match will kick some serious ass. The aftermath of the pinfall, involving more one-upsmanship moments and changes in allegiance, was WWE’s normal technique to set up an event like this, but it didn’t take away from some solid wrestling and further proof that this is where the magic will happen. The rest of the roster was once again served notice that, no matter what the WWE will or won’t allow to happen in their on-paper main events, the fanbase knows who is capable of delivering the goods.

*Rusev Rage: On the opposite side of the scale, John Cena’s quest to end the reign of terror that is Rusev as United States Champion has been tepid at best. We’ve seen it all and heard it most before, and while Cena has done his level best to make it a bigger deal than it really is, not much traction has been gained. Part of that is due to Rusev himself, who’s never been gold on the stick to put it mildly, but even a larger part has been the recent absence of Lana, a lapse in judgment on the part of the WWE in order for her to fill her movie commitments. While they have dug into the reasons why, it hasn’t been effective enough for my taste, but Monday’s showdown between the two made up a good bit of the ground largely left uncovered. Rusev had a very unimportant match with Jack Swagger (speaking of lapses of judgment), which ended predictably before Cena showed up to force Rusev to break the Accolade. Lana’s absence caused the over-hyping announce team to push the idea that Rusev may become more brutal now that she’s out of the picture temporarily, which I found reasonably effective, but the bigger story was yet to come.
Rusev and Cena did indeed have their anticipated physical confrontation, and while Rusev has had the upper hand in that before, it was usually due to some sort of devious underhanded tactics. In this case, while the big man did indeed employ the use of many objects at ringside, the start of it was just the Bulgarian Brute being dominant, in a way that Cena has rarely encountered as he’s headed into each and every phone booth to don the Superman guise. When the two men last squared off, it was a low blow that allowed Rusev to get the win, a move straight out of the wheelhouse of creative as a way to preserve Cena’s legacy while making sure Rusev holds the gold. This was a dominating and impressive performance, as Cena was beaten from pillar to post and broken in Rusev’s finisher before being attending to by medical folks and officials. These kind of things are critical in any match featuring Cena, as the WWE has booked him so ridiculously strongly during his unprecedented run that most fans no longer see him as actually able to lose. Regardless of what happens Sunday, I appreciated the effort to present Cena’s opponent as even stronger without his manager, as well as the willingness to put Cena in a beatable position without over-the-top theatrics. Good, old-fashioned aggression that leaves quite a few of the fans stunned? I’ll take that anytime. Sunday’s match has a lot to live up to.
*Bray of Hope: In terms of overall challenge, no build has been harder on anyone than Bray Wyatt leading into his faceoff with the Undertaker. Taker’s last memory for fans is a painful one, as he was surprisingly and totally decimated by Brock Lesnar out of nowhere, and therefore his return this year is even somehow a bigger deal. In addition to those issues, there have been some logistical ones. With Taker absent from any of this, it’s fallen to Lesnar to convince us of his intentions and the possible excellence of this match. If that was anyone else, they might find themselves ill-equipped for the task, but Wyatt’s promos are unbelievable and unique, and he’s taken on the thankless task of carrying the mail while not really letting us behind the curtain long enough to notice that he’s essentially performing a ventriloquist act. He’s used the character and the props of the Taker to do it, from the coffin to the fabled urn, all the while giving us insights into why he wanted this match in the first place.
Last night, much of what Bray did was exactly the same. He came down the ring, discussed metaphorical and literal demons at length, and had a grand time while letting the crowd know that it was falling to him to finish off the living legend. He also finished off the Mount Rushmore of effects, utilizing the climate change special effects of the Deadman and even stealing his poses and gestures. Given the fact that Undertaker himself did not make an appearance, it was an impressive display. There can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that this match exists purely for the Undertaker to rack up a victory and send the fans home happy. Wyatt is in essence being fed to him in order to gain back a little of the luster lost in last year’s result. Bray has told his side of the story so effectively, though, that it allows us to see the possibility that he’s right and Taker is really over and done with. Undertaker has a deserved reputation for elevating the younger guys, and while it could be true that WWE is keeping him off television until WM in order to avoid discussing his physical status, I think it’s equally if not more likely that he’s doing it in order to make the upcoming moment more powerful and allow his opponent to do what very few on WWE’s roster can: tell an effective story with very little help. That quality makes Wyatt special and turns a match with a lot of question marks into a far more definitive statement. Wyatt is a throwback and a vision of the future all at once. And it’s a damned good one.

Four That Bored

*Diva Dropoff: The WWE has turned their female empowerment hashtag into its own storyline, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Last week’s episode of Raw gave us more solid wrestling from this division than we’ve seen in a while, so what’s the encore? Pretty much back to basics. While I appreciate the contribution of the Bella Twins to the wrestling landscape, they are exactly what they appear to be: athletic women who have way more in common with reality television than they do with women that have wrestling in the blood, like Natalya and Charlotte. That’s not to fault them, but rather to point out that things have devolved to this point largely under their stewardship. They just, frankly, aren’t that interesting. If their upcoming tete-a-tete with Paige and AJ Lee, two far more fascinating characters, seems to have a sleepwalking quality to it, it’s understandable. We’ve seen these four in various iterations over the years, and this one doesn’t seem much more epic. Monday’s twist of the Bellas allowing their opponents to pick Nikki’s challenger for her title was a decent variant, but likely better suited for the event itself rather than the Raw before.

The match itself worked out as the Bellas had planned, ostensibly, with AJ “accidentally” hitting Paige during a spot in the match and therefore allowing Nikki to secure the win. Following the match, the two challengers attacked each other, reinforcing their uncomfortable alliance. But hasn’t every bit of this ground been covered previously? From AJ and Paige’s frenemy status to the Bellas ridiculously outsmarting their opponents to them managing to win once more, there wasn’t a subtext of this effort that marked a departure from writings of recent times. It also even further reduced the possibility that the one opportunity to truly give divas a chance this weekend will actually happen. Hell, Natalya’s backstage interaction with husband Tyson Kidd while hawking fast food was a better use of talent. Lengthening the matches is a big step, but it’s just that, a step. Now comes the hard part of adding drama and tension and new boundaries, let alone utilizing the very obvious amount of ability between the big roster and NXT. Until then, the Give Divas a Chance thing is just lip service.

*Stars and Gripes: Did you guys and girls know that the WWE loves celebrities? I’m not sure if you’ve been made aware that there’s nothing they like better than the cheap pop, but it’s alive and well and California presented a boundless bundle of possibilities for Titan Tower to rent out a few more spaces. I’m not here to tell you that none of it worked. Unlike a couple of weeks ago, we were spared the musical performance, and Snoop Dogg’s segment with Hulk Hogan and his “pretender” to the throne, Curtis Axel, was oddball enough to be entertaining. Unfortunately, the overproducing of the announce team led to yet another feeling of missing the point on how awesome this all really was. It was one thing when we had a bizarre backstage skit with Ron Simmons crashing it with his meta “Damn!” to give a wink to some of the booking decisions of the past. This was something of a different sort, a chance to push Snoop’s CD and let Hogan cash another royalty check while not adding to our enjoyment of what’s to come Sunday. When Hogan is his own walking gimmick, doing a Hogan gimmick is pointless.

Even worse was the WWE’s desire to appear like a counterpart to “real” sports, ferrying in Bill Simmons and dropping names like John Gruden in a vain attempt to add prestige to the proceedings. The complete opposite of playing up wrestling’s counterculture edge, which worked out pretty darn well for them, everything comes across like a bloated promo, expect the guy selling himself is the whole company. Simmons is knowledgeable about the biz, which is a good thing, and obnoxious, which is likely also a good thing in this business anyway, but didn’t have much to do besides exchanging a few half-hearted potshots with JBL (my particular favorite was Bradshaw’s dig that Simmons dressed up for the occasion) and acting like he was super excited to have anything to do. Even Miz & Mizdow’s movie segment with Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell was less an opportunity to celebrate big names having anything to do with you than a chance to further deduce what we already knew, that Mizdow is one of the funniest people on the roster and that WWE loves to tell you how to spend your entertainment dollar on anything that will get into bed with them. I’m not looking forward to that being turned up to eleven in a few days. It wasn’t unwatchable, it was just overdone. As per usual.

*RKNo: With several of the aforementioned matches reaching critical mass, the Randy Orton/Seth Rollins matchup has been reduced to a bit of a sidenote. While that could be a calculated move on the part of the WWE to set Rollins up to cash in his briefcase, it’s more likely that we’ve once again pushed the current talent out of the way to allow for the dominance of past glories, something the company has been far too guilty of far too many times before. This match was built on one of the interactive App features the WWE adores so much, as fans overwhelmingly chose to have Rollins (along with J&J Security) do battle with the Viper rather than the choices of Kane or The Big Show. Aside from the fact that anyone in their right mind would rather Rollins get what’s theoretically coming to him before Sunday early, it speaks to the popularity of the other choices. I have a feeling it could have been just J&J and they’d have won. They are the current-day Mean Street Posse. In any case, WWE once more propped up a vaguely interactive notion to land the result they wished, and we were off to the races.

The match itself went as the blueprints indicated, with Orton laying out Rollins’s security team while he attempted to set Orton up for a curb stomp and used his bodyguards to take the abuse before backing off and getting out of Dodge to avoid the decision. It also highlighted the general perception that Rollins is in pretty good shape for Sunday, as he’s been physically overwhelmed by Orton, who’s done one heck of a job since returning from the disabled list to continue his feud with his former Authority brethren. The problem is that, as much as we’ve focused our attention on this feud with Orton’s violent outbreak several weeks before, it fails to be as compelling as several other things the WWE has going on. Rollins should always have the specter of cashing in the briefcase looming over any event he’s associated with, and he’s got his hands full at WrestleMania with just making it out in one piece. It removes a layer of intrigue from a main event that the company has a ton invested in, and that’s a severe misstep. Will this match be good? No doubt. Will it be as good as it should be? Not with this level of buzz.

*A Hard Reigns A’Gonna Fall: Unquestionably the majority of the night existed to satisfy our curiosity over the biggest match on Sunday for all the right (and wrong) reasons, WWE Champion Brock Lesnar defending against Roman Reigns. While they have had verbal confrontations before, one reasonably assumed that this would be the best in order to set the table. And one was very, very wrong. What irritated me most about this whole affair was that it wasted another in a long series of A plus performances by Paul Heyman, who continues to set the standard for talkers in the biz by giving a grandiose performance in which he said no more talking was necessary and proceeded to do a ton of it. Brilliant. Heyman did what he’s done the entire time (and his entire career), taking the very palpable reality of the fans’ pushback over the selection and promotion of Reigns to potential WWE savior and turning it on its ear to support his own devices while simultaneously pushing the very agenda he is decrying. There are textbooks to be written here and notes to be taken.

Unfortunately for him and us, it didn’t stop there. Heyman’s call to arms was answered by Reigns, who came through a semi-hostile crowd in order to look the Beast in his eyes and challenge him in some sort of wildlife mating ritual gone wrong. Much has been said about the potential quality of Sunday’s ultimate match, and as with anything, we won’t know until it happens. What I do know is that the decision to have the two behemoths engage in a title belt tug-of-war was completely unsatisfying. While I fully admit that the company isn’t crazy enough to give either man a tactical advantage heading into WM, this felt unfinished and hollow, an epic staredown in a battle of mostly hot air. Whether that’s due to Lesnar’s extended absences or the much more interesting behind-the-scenes battle between Lesnar and Vince McMahon’s contract peeps, I’m unsure, but it was one of the lamer ways to end a big show before the most important event on WWE’s calendar that I can remember. The WWE has painted itself into a bit of a corner here, particularly with Rollins reduced to a sideline player. If Lesnar wins, it reasserts the audience’s dissatisfaction with Reigns and indicates the company has defined itself as a promotion dominated by someone who is a part time guy. If Reigns wins, the moment is somewhat muted by the way we got there. It’s created the truth of what was symbolized here, a moment of big men being generally angry with each other but not doing anything of importance about it. The real staredown is between the WWE and much of its fanbase. And they aren’t giving an inch.

Feel free to let me know below what the highs and lows of Monday’s show were for you. Even with gripes and grievances abounding, it is indeed another WrestleMania season, and I’m cautiously optimistic about what some of the matches can bring. There will definitely be more than enough hot topics to discuss one week from now. Until then, the Raw Bar is closed. Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy the Brandy Alexander.

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell

Email: coffeyfan@hotmail.com

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