If not for this Tuesday night’s WWE draft and the uncertainty of the future that comes with that, this week’s RAW would do very little to differentiate from the typical WWE go-home show. It’s got frustratingly short matches, wrestlers fighting each other to hype the pay-per-view where they fight each other, and unnecessary shenanigans that make the audience (both at home and in attendance) question their commitment to the show and product. It’s not even that it’s the most maddening or particularly frustrating RAW in recent memory either. It’s just that the Tuesday night draft is really the only thing that matters, and this feels like a roadblock on the way to greener pastures. In making SmackDown! (well, SmackDown! Live) truly important, RAW’s wheel-spinning only makes the anticipation for SmackDown! even greater.

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For what it’s worth, this week’s RAW tries really hard to keep itself relevant in the context of SmackDown!’s soon-to-be even more relevant presence. Daniel Bryan as Shane McMahon’s pick for SmackDown! General Manager is no surprise—honestly, that decision has been rumored since around the time Bryan retired—but the Mick Foley pick from Stephanie is delightfully out of left field. The idea of both McMahon-appointed authority figures being beloved fan favorites is so, so refreshing, especially as Bryan and Foley’s “friendly” competition quickly becomes one of the most fascinating and unexpected results of said choices.

As for the rest of RAW’s choices, it makes some very good ones with regards to the set-up of the WWE Championship main event (not so much the aftermath). Before it occurs, Seth Rollins versus Dean Ambrose is honestly treated with all of the importance it deserves. In fact, the pre-tape and the match itself both capture that “big fight feel” JBL always talks about but never actually sells. Seth Rollins’ monologue in the empty arena is a perfect character choice, just as Dean Ambrose’s throwback Shield promo is the perfect way to truly close out this chapter in these men’s careers. With all the talk of this brand split and Battleground being the end of certain feuds and match-ups, Rollins and Ambrose actually sell that finality in these segments in a way no one else has quite been able to.

Now for the part that I wrote before I (as well as plenty others, I’m sure) found out WWE Network showed post-RAW footage of Dean Ambrose regaining (well, retaining) the WWE Championship:

The finish, of course, completely kills the audience’s reason to care to a great match. Seth Rollins “winning” isn’t the problem. The crowd is evenly split between him and Dean the whole time, and he was honestly the favorite to win this going in. The double pin and the idiotic “what just happened?” interactions between the four authority figures RAW just spent three hours trying to paint as competent is the problem. Plus the fact that this is the one instance where WWE refuses to just do a replay.

The audience is already tired of over three hours of RAW, but they want to give this match their all. That’s why the entire crowd deflates with the finish. “What a waste,” you can practically hear the crowd say with just their body language alone. To think long-term, this finish is probably to set up different heavyweight champions for the brands, but at the same time… WWE could just set up different heavyweight champions for the brands. Stephanie just decided the Cruiserweight Championship is coming back, so it’s not like this is rocket science and everyone’s creatively backed into a corner. Hell, until this week’s RAW, Stephanie had been treating Seth Rollins like crap in his return, so it’s not like anyone is creatively backed into a corner with regards to consistent characterization.

What makes it even worse is that there’s precedent and context for all of this that WWE has either forgotten itself or (unfortunately, given this being the week of the draft and brand split) expects the audience to have forgotten: Triple H’s entire “Reign Of Terror” began with him being handed a shiny new belt as a result of the brand split. So all WWE literally has to do is make sure not to book another wrestler like that ever again. Or they could book Seth like that that and at least show an awareness that is already severely lacking in this finish.

But the thing that makes the shenanigans especially frustrating is the unnecessary ref bump aspect of it all. In trying to make sense of it, I came to the conclusion that the story WWE is telling is that the referee was still out of it when he counted the pin, which is why he counted the double pin. But counting the double pin isn’t something a referee is supposed to stop in the first place. In fact, in the result of a double pin, the champion retains. My main source on the subject? The aforementioned “Reign Of Terror.” Plus, for a slimy heel, Seth Rollins arguably “won” this match clean too. In terms of characterization, it’s not his fault if his boss doesn’t understand how this particular scenario works.

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Within the safe space of the match itself though, it really, really helps that commentary doesn’t spend most of its time talking about how Dean Ambrose is a “lunatic” who “doesn’t even know what he’s doing” during the match. Oh how that helps. The opening part of the match is Ambrose convincingly out-chain-wrestling Rollins; it’s not the first time Ambrose have ever shown technical proficiency, but it’s the first time in a long time it hasn’t been ruined by cries of “lunacy.” Ambrose’s wrestling style has always been deliberate and clearly laid out, no matter how wild and crazy he supposedly is. That’s why it’s been so frustrating that for so long, commentary has been at odds with that truth. Honestly, it probably will be at odds with it again. But for this match, it thankfully wasn’t. I realize praising WWE main roster commentary (especially on RAW) is a rarity, but it’s hard not to point out the good. (The women’s match had a mention of “jealousy,” so not all is perfect.)

However, commentary being at odds with the story at hand isn’t always commentary’s fault. Case in point: this week’s New Day situation. Michael Cole clearly wants to tell the story of how New Day has possibly changed in the aftermath of the “Compound Fracture” (WWE’s words, not mine), and in a disappointing turn of events, the answer is not at all.

Pre-New Day/Wyatt confrontation, I praised Xavier Woods’ work, with the added worry that the worst thing WWE could do is have it all mean nothing because “haha, booties.” That was of course before I knew how over-produced “Compound Fracture” would be, but still: That was a traumatic situation where backwoods cultists tried to kill three happy-go-lucky black men with axes. That’s the type of thing that should change a person or character. So while this week’s RAW takes its time in letting talented talkers talk (Cena’s old man confusion over Enzo and Cass’ entire schtick is pretty great), the anticipation of adding a New Day that’s been through some shit to the mix (as well as a post-“victory” Wyatt Family) is built by Cole’s concerns about what New Day will be like and how they’ll behave post-attempted deletion.

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Unfortunately, they’re absolutely the same—just with more masturbation jokes—as though they didn’t just go through a war. It’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence, an insult (yet again) to The Wyatt Family’s entire mystique, and an insult to what was surely both teams’ attempts at doing something interesting (which, again, already suffered from being overly-produced). Even John Cena in all his “fine speech” and “pull-it club” glory reacts appropriately to Wyatt Family ghost children—and no Wyatt Family ghost child ever even came at him with an ax. And it’s not as though any signs of wear and tear reveal themselves in the match itself, as The Club and The Wyatt Family have more of a story within the match—two teams that couldn’t be any more different, really—than The Wyatt Family and New Day do. New Day has no problem bringing the fight to those men who just literally tried to murder them at their compound, and while the six men take the fight to the back, it’s just because the show needs a way to “sell” the Battleground match.

But really—who cares? And why should anyone care? The Wyatt Family continues to be a joke and can’t even be drafted as a team despite being a supernatural backwoods cult. As for New Day, it’s lazy to say that them being babyface is the problem. The solution to everything is not to just turn someone heel, especially when they’re actually popular. But in order for characters to actually work, no matter the alignment, there needs to be character evolution. Xavier Woods’ work pre-the “Compound Fracture”was excellent, but he (and everyone involved) simply went back to where they started post-confrontation. At least, that’s the story they’re (with the exception of commentary) telling.

Vince McMahon says again and again that WWE is storytelling, plain and simple. Yet time and time again, basic aspects of storytelling are ignored, to no particular gain.

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These past couple of weeks of Shane/Stephanie interaction, for example, have included the worst instincts when it comes to McMahon storytelling—which is actually part of what makes it surprising that the GM choices work as well as they do. You see, Shane is a man, with testicles, which makes him more deserving of a position of power than Stephanie. Because Stephanie is a woman, without testicles, who married a man (with testicles) to get ahead, no matter how little sense that makes and how much she actually did for the company. Around WrestleMania, there was an argument that the McMahon storyline wasn’t just about Shane asserting himself as the true heir to the throne because he’s a man—despite how often he said it was. It’s kind of impossible to make that argument now, right?

Professional wrestling, as much as it may evolve in terms of inclusiveness, will probably always have an inherent problem when it comes to matters of gender and race (at the very least). That’s sadly just the nature of the beast, as much as that hurts to acknowledge. But for all of Shane’s cheers because he’s calling his mean sister out for being mean (because she’s so mean, you guys!) and also being his sister, moments like Stephanie saying “lady balls” (as terrible as that is) getting cheers clearly from the women in the crowd at least show that all hope isn’t lost in terms of different voices wanting to be heard in this industry. Shane’s entire promo to Stephanie—which begins with him interrupting her RAW introduction, despite it not being his show—is so aggressively patronizing and drenched with disdain for her basic existence as his sister. Not as his sibling—as his female sibling. He goes full-on misogynist with his opening promo, yet it’s apparently alright, because he’s the “good” guy. The Shane McMahon character is so terrible at this point (sorry, nostalgia) that “lady balls” is better than him. For all the very necessary talk about Stephanie putting herself over everyone and how bad that is for business, there’s really nothing she can do here unless the draft features a surprise castration for Shane. If so, then it’ll be the best draft ever.

Moving on, and to use commentary as the key to this week’s RAW one more time: During Rollins/Ambrose, Michael Cole specifically brings up that Ambrose has yet to beat Seth one-on-one in a “full-length match.” But given the flash-in-the-pan matches in this RAW, the very definition of a “full-length match” is clearly left up to a certain interpretation. Baron Corbin versus Sin Cara is a dud. I’m not actually sure which is more counterproductive: Lucha Dragons amicably splitting when a Commissioner/GM could’ve gotten more bang for their buck with them as a team (or just chosen one member in the first place—either way, the split could have waited) or WWE supposedly starting a Baron Corbin/Kalisto program before the draft (especially given how often WWE plans change up to the last minute). Darren Young versus Alberto Del Rio is a stiff match but lacks any sort of chemistry between the two wrestlers and is too short to matter. Rusev and Sheamus versus Zack Ryder and Dolph Ziggler has three key points:

  1. Lana’s war crimes against fashion.
  2. The classic ZR/DZ sticker that ends up on the ring apron (TitanTron side).
  3. Sheamus was there too.

This RAW really drives home the fact Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio need the draft to work if they’re ever going to maintain relevance again. In fact, saying this will probably come back to haunt me: If that means another year (like 2012) of them only wrestling each other at every possible pay-per-view, then so be it. The League Of Nations: This Time, It’s The Last Time Tour really isn’t cutting it. Del Rio has especially been in this weird limbo since the League’s split, where the crowd obviously wants “permission” to cheer him regularly, but maybe WWE is waiting until he can kill Santa (“SAAAAAAANTAAAAA”) again to pull the trigger on that face turn. Sheamus was just in a huge movie, and WWE did nothing with that. That’s just dumb.

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For the women’s tag match, Natalya ruins it all with her interference, but the bright side is that she doesn’t ruin it with guest commentary a la last week’s Main Event and Superstars. Honestly, the women’s tag match falls into the “especially ill-advised” category of WWE’s lapses of logic when it comes to having wrestlers fight each other in order to get people hyped to see them fight each other. Sasha Banks and a partner (which is supposed to be difficult for her to find) versus Charlotte and Dana Brooke is the match at Battleground. The women’s tag match here is literally Sasha Banks and a partner (Becky Lynch, not-so-hard to find) versus Charlotte and Dana Brooke. It’s the pay-per-view match, just with one variable changed, even though Sasha and said partner technically win. I realize that the assumption is that Sasha’s partner at the pay-per-view will be Bayley (or any possible new draft pick), but Sasha already won the match on RAW. Via DQ, but WWE has made DQ wins count for far too much at this point. It’s basic comprehension.

As far as the only other good-lengthed match in the show goes, there is literally nothing I can say about Sami Zayn and Cesaro versus Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho that has not been said by myself, Kyle Fowle, or even WWE. It’s good. It’s fun. They all just get “it.” These are four fantastic wrestlers who all bring something different to the table, but what is there to say anymore. If nothing else, the promise of the draft brings a light to the end of their WWE-mandated (which is different from crowd-requested) “fight forever”-based purgatory. This right here? This is why people are so adamant that the draft has to work—Sami Zayn, Cesaro, Kevin Owens, and Chris Jericho in a ring together shouldn’t feel like an obligation. None of these wrestlers should, really. It’s that simple. So much of this is simple, yet WWE misses that. That’s why so much faith is being put into this draft. Things have to get better, right?

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Sami Zayn and Cesaro defeated Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho; Darren Young (with Bob Backlund) defeated Alberto Del Rio; The Club (AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, & Luke Gallows) and The Wyatt Family (Bray Wyatt, Erick Rowan, & Braun Strowman) defeated John Cena, Enzo and Big Cass, & The New Day (Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods, & Big E); Baron Corbin defeated Sin Cara; Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks defeated Charlotte and Dana Brooke (via DQ); Rusev (with Lana and her crime against fashion) and Sheamus defeated Dolph Ziggler and Zack Ryder; Seth Rollins versus Dean Ambrose (c) went to a draw (WWE Championship)
  • Is Stephanie McMahon’s fundamental misunderstanding of Chucky and the Child’s Play canon one of those weird McMahon pop culture blindspots? You know, how Vince knows absolutely nothing about pop culture outside of WWE? I hope so.
  • Apples and oranges of course, but the tag team promo segment took my mind to this particular RAW segment for Survivor Series 2006. Remember when DX got back together and Shawn Michaels’ gimmick was being R-Truth before R-Truth was R-Truth?
  • Have you noticed how the people who are buttering up the respective Commissioners and General Managers for RAW and SmackDown! aren’t even close to being number one draft picks. That being said—Breezango should be the number one draft pick. And Jack Swagger should continue to show up backstage in his street gear, so everyone can keep asking: “Wait, is that Swagger?”
  • Speaking of potential draft picks, Titus O’Neil clearly still hasn’t learned not to grab authority figures. Do not draft.
  • Also, Big Show: Daniel Bryan could never draft you after this. You monster.
  • I know Kyle Fowle wants Braun Strowman to lose the shirt, but I’d much rather the guy focus on his in-ring skills first. Or at least work on catching guys flying at him. That’s literally all he needs to do well at this point. He’ll probably get drafted first.
  • Don’t believe what anyone says (and yes, that’s a plug): My true number one draft pick is #BROKEN Matt Hardy. Everyone else is obsolete. By the way, you should probably check out Kyle Fowle’s top draft picks as well.
  • While it was hard to catch through his slurring, during the women’s tag match, JBL brought up both The Cabinet and Orlando Jordan. Obviously this means the Bashams will be surprise draft picks.
  • The actual Rollins/Ambrose match is really only “hurt” by the same thing that hurt the Finn Balor/Shinsuke Nakamura match from last week’s NXT episode: commercials. I could say the same about the 12-man tag match as well. At RAW has the burdens of traditional television to “blame” for such a hindrance; NXT literally airs on WWE’s own network.
  • As I pointed out how Dean’s pre-match promo brought things full circle with him and his former Shield brother, I should also point out that it ends up being another example of Roman Reigns’ post-Shield problems. Dean going back to the Shield camcorder for this moment is special and compelling storytelling. Roman having the hand-me-down gear and catchphrase and music (and entrance, when he did) are the antithesis of special or compelling storytelling. Evolution is the key to this whole thing. Two-thirds of The Shield evolved. The one who’s not connecting didn’t. That’s also not rocket science.

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