After Raw last week, the big question was whether or not Roadblock, the Network-only PPV from Toronto that aired on Saturday, would change anything about the plans for Wrestlemania. WWE had done a good job building up Dean Ambrose as a potential winner on Saturday, which would completely change the main event of the big show. Some fantasy booked a Triple Threat match, or perhaps a Fatal Fourway with Brock Lesnar thrown in there. Alas, such fantasies were merely a defense mechanism, a reaction to basically nobody wanting to see Roman Reigns in the main event. Yes, WWE stayed the course at Roadblock, with Triple H walking out as champion.

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With all that hype and fantasy booking out of the way, WWE can get back down to business, and Raw wastes no time getting to the action. The first hour of Raw tonight is consistent and simple, which usually makes it good. It’s as if every now and then WWE remembers that they actually have to tell stories and not just throw guys into match after match with the same person and hope that it leads to something interesting. Fresh off beating half of the League of Nation on Saturday, New Day are back to do battle with the other half. They take on Rusev and Alberto Del Rio for the Tag Team titles, and it’s one hell of a match. With Woods on the apron for the match for once, the matchup feels fresh and exciting, and the match itself is fast-paced and fun.

More than that though, the appeal of the nearly 30-minute segment is the fact that New Day’s turning babyface at the perfect time. Their time as obnoxious heels was quickly running out. Crowds were either cheering to much for them—you see that reaction in Toronto on Saturday?—or tuning out their heel shtick. The beauty of the gimmick though is that it doesn’t need to be changed to be a babyface gimmick. The trombone, the colors, the Dave Chappelle references; they all make for a perfect babyface team, and I couldn’t be more excited for a New Day babyface run at the top of the tag division. League of Nations is the perfect foe to move New Day towards babyface stardom too. They get legit heat and all four of those guys can put on great matches. Those seven together could do some magical things.

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That’s followed by an Ambrose promo that, while a lot like all of the other Ambrose promos, still signals his rise within the ranks of WWE. He’s operating with renewed urgency for the past few weeks, and it’s absolutely captivating. We’re watching a star being made, one beatdown at a time, one crazy-eyed, angry promo at a time, and it’s remarkable. It’s the type of organic, smart, patient character build that WWE didn’t bother with for Roman Reigns. This is the look of your top babyface. This is the look of a guy who connects to your audience and makes you feel things. He’s out there mouthing off to Brock Lesnar and it isn’t funny, or goofy, or stilted. It feels real and pointed. When Brock and Ambrose are done with their street fight at Wrestlemania, no matter the outcome, one thing is for sure: Ambrose will walk out a star.

After that first hour, Raw kind of goes off a cliff. Or maybe a slight hill, because it’s not nearly as bad as previous weeks, and yet is plagued by the same kind of lackluster storytelling. Sami Zayn and the Miz get in a good little match, but they don’t get nearly enough time to really build much of anything. Is WWE building towards Owens-Zayn at Wrestlemania for the Intercontinental Championship, or is there a multi-man match on the way, with the Miz and Neville potentially filling some spots? Obviously the former would be preferred, but it’s kind of looking like the latter is the safe bet. After all, WWE loves nothing more than sabotaging a hot feud with muti-man matches! After that, Raw is mostly a series of predictable Wrestlemania set-up matches. Brie Bella falls prey to the old ringside distraction from Lana and loses her tag match, the Usos absolutely squash Bo Dallas and Adam Rose, and Y2J vs. Neville ends with a potentially real injury to Neville, making the post-match beatdown from AJ Styles on Jericho feel rather rushed and out of place. These are all stories that work on some level, and yet tonight it feels like WWE is just stalling. The matchups are set and it seems like they don’t know what else to do other than kill time until Wrestlemania.

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That kind of sluggish, listless feeling extends to the last hour as well. Sure, the hour kicks off with a stunning match between Dolph Ziggler and Triple H, but it’s bogged down by a weird stipulation that ultimately goes nowhere. The idea is that if Ziggler can beat Triple H, he can have any match he wants at Wrestlemania other than a match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship—after all, that’s Roman Reigns’ spot for now and forever, apparently. When Ziggler loses, the stipulation just vanishes, and it’s unclear what the point of it all was. I assumed they’d find a way to put Ziggler in the Shane McMahon spot—and they still might—but alas, Ziggler is back where he was. If we’re looking on the bright side though, it’s nice to see Ziggler in that spot on Raw, and he takes full advantage of it, putting on one hell of a show and showing ONCE AGAIN that he can hang with the talent at the top of the card.

Then, the inevitable happens in two segments and we’re all reminded why we’re not particularly excited for Wrestlemania. First, Roman shows up and beats the ever-loving hell out of Triple H after his match. In fact, he loses it on everyone. He punches refs and security guards before throwing garbage cans at Triple H and then hitting him with a TV backstage. It’s a great version of Roman Reigns, but here’s the thing: who cares anymore? Who cares if he lays a beating on the boss? Who cares if he gets revenge for his broken nose? Who cares about him wanting a shot at the title? The quick answer: just about nobody. Look at the reactions Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose get tonight, and then compare it to the muted reaction from the crowd when the company’s supposedly top babyface makes a surprise return after being off TV for two weeks. WWE has done everything they can to mold and shape circumstances in order to have Roman Reigns get over with the crowd and it’s not working. Not remotely. At this point, the only solution may be to take him away form the World Heavyweight Championship scene for awhile and let him regain some momentum and audience connection in a more organic, meaningful way. You know, after he headlines the biggest wrestling event of the year.

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Unfortunately, if you were relying on Shane McMahon and the Undertaker to make up for the black hole that is the Wrestlemania main event, tonight’s segment shows that there’s still a long way to go to make that feud into something compelling. It’s a case of the stipulation within the match being more intriguing than the match itself, and tonight’s in-ring interaction doesn’t make the match look any more appealing. The problem is that WWE has still failed to really explain what this match is about. We know why Shane is back, but why did Vince agree to the match? They mentioned something about a contract and a lockbox, but why not tease that out more? Also, why is Undertaker willingly wrestling for Vince? He’s coming out to the ring, putting his hands on the boss, and saying he only does what he wants to do, but then he turns right around and goes after Shane. What’s his motivation? What’s his end goal? These are questions that don’t need thorough answers, but they need answers nonetheless.

If anything though, WWE is in a fascinating position right now. The two marquee matches at Wrestlemania are shaping up to be absolute trainwrecks, while the mid-card is punching far above its weight. If nothing else, WWE has assured that I’ll keep watching, if only to see how they try and get themselves out of this corner they’ve written themselves into.

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Stray observations

  • Results: New Day (c) defeated Rusev and Alberto Del Rio (WWE World Tag Team Championship match); Ryback defeated Sin Cara; Sami Zayn defeated the Miz; Naomi and Tamina defeated Brie Bella and Alicia Fox; The Usos defeated Bo Dallas and Adam Rose; Triple H defeated Dolph Ziggler; Neville defeated Chris Jericho via DQ.
  • Okay, I was kind of stoked to see Mick Foley give his barbed-wire bat to Dean Ambrose.
  • Vince just keeps cutting the exact same promo. We get it, he won’t be your son anymore!
  • I was at Roadblock on Saturday when the arena exploded for Nattie putting a Sharpshooter on Charlotte and then chanted “THIS IS AWESOME” when they put on the match of the night. So, seeing the Lana-Brie feud bringing in Alicia, Tamina, and Naomi made me sad.
  • It’s so easy to get the crowd to cheer for Dolph. Why don’t they do that more often!?!?
  • Hey, it’s Paige! Umm, that’s all.
  • Dear WWE: never, ever, ever give me a Ryback vs. Sin Cara match again.

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