Sin Cara, or Chris Jericho in a Sin Cara mask?

After a mostly successful PPV with Roadblock, which boasted a number of solid matches despite some shoddy storytelling, Raw had a few options for how to hit the reset button and start moving towards the Royal Rumble. A few stories found their natural conclusions at the PPV, including New Day’s historic tag team reign coming to an end, and the Sasha vs. Charlotte feud coming to a close once and for all, so the table was set to move things in a different direction. And let’s be honest, Raw is in desperate need of some new energy. While the show has been fitfully solid for the last few weeks, something needed to change to really cement the show’s importance leading into what’s meant to be the most significant part of WWE’s calendar year. What’s interesting is that in these last few weeks Raw has been embracing an “edgier” version of itself, really leaning into the tropes that defined the Attitude Era and hoping to find a little spark of creativity. For better or worse, a lot of those tropes moved to the forefront tonight.

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Essentially, this week’s Raw is largely defined by both the best and worst of the Attitude Era. The best of the Attitude Era is the feeling that anything can happen, the idea that the performers in the ring are part of a live performance, working to capture magic on a nightly basis while moving their stories forwards. The worst of the Attitude Era? Characters reduced to nothing but cheap gimmicks, and a blatant sexism that has no place in wrestling in 2016.

The best part of the Attitude Era is embodied in the opening segment. Universal Champion Kevin Owens and his best friend Chris Jericho are in the ring not only celebrating Owens’ victory at Roadblock, but also the rekindling of their friendship. Having Owens and Y2J back together as best friends immediately changes the tone of the show, harnessing some of the magic the two have been bringing to the show ever since they decided they’re better off together than apart. So, they’re shouting at the monkeys in the truck, laughing at the idea of Santa handing out “Michael Coles” to all the bad kids at Christmas, and then calling Santa a “stupid idiot” and putting him on The List. It’s the type of in-tune, hilarious performance we’ve come to expect from these two, their very real chemistry shining through even as the segment gets a little messy when Mick Foley makes his way to the ring.

So, while the segment does go off the rails a bit, with Mick confusing what town he’s in, and Y2J and Owens occasionally fumbling over each other as they improvise, there’s an energy in the messiness that’s been missing from Raw. Wrestling is a live performance, and half the fun of tuning in each week is watching the performers adapt to new situations and deal with all the unpredictable moments. The opening segment with Owens, Jericho, and Foley is absolute chaos, but it’s the type of chaos that’s engaging and entertaining. It’s a change of pace that’s absolutely needed, and when your show runs for three hours or more every Monday night, a messy but lively opening segment is hard to argue with, flaws and all.

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If the energy of the Attitude Era is flowing through that opening segment, the worst parts of that previous era are found in two seriously misguided stories that seem to have no end in sight. First, there’s the ongoing story of Enzo being a total dirtbag while his slow-talking friend defends him against an honorable man named Rusev. On the surface, a feud between Rusev and Big Cass sounds like a fun holdover until both are given something more substantial in the future, but as it stands, it’s an often offensive, consistently dull feud that yet again sees Lana as the mostly silent centerpiece. This week’s segment, which sees Enzo forced to attend sensitivity training, isn’t nearly as retrograde as it could have been, but it’s still another example of how WWE is misusing Enzo, Cass, Rusev, and Lana. They’re all formidable performers, and yet the best Raw can come up with is jokes about “Italian sausage.” While the Women’s division is transforming itself into one of the more complex, emotional, and entertaining parts of the show each week, Lana, Rusev, Cass, and Enzo are stuck in an endless cycle of dick jokes and meaningless matches.

Alicia Fox may have it even worse. She’s over in the Cruiserweight division as the silent—notice a theme here?—girlfriend of Cedric Alexander. According to Noam Dar, Cedric’s opponent on 205 Live and this week’s Raw, Fox is the prize he’s fighting for. But…why? Even if we accepted that Fox was an object Dar was fighting for—which we really, really shouldn’t accept—what’s his motivation? What is it about Alicia Fox that Noam Dar feels compelled to fight for? If you’re going to craft a love triangle angle, you need to have reasons for everyone involved to feel conflicted and passionate. Instead, this all feels like a case of WWE only knowing how to handle one divisional story at a time. This is a three-hour show largely filled with lengthy segments, not matches; there are only five on tonight’s card. Why not swap out one of those segments for Alicia Fox vs. literally anyone on the Women’s roster? The terrible aspects of the Attitude Era that Raw seems to be embracing lately can be fixed with simple decisions, and yet here we are, watching as Dar creepily says “FOOOOXXX,” and Enzo tries to slide into the DMs of the woman conducting his sensitivity training.

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As bad as those segments are, Raw delivers on the whole by embracing chaos and a sense of possibility. There’s Angry Neville coming out and blasting the audience for taking pity on him, then turning around and destroying Rich Swann and TJ Perkins with a little help from Brian Kendrick, a whole division reinvigorated by one simple heel turn. There’s Sasha selling the hell out of her match with Charlotte while also talking about losing her confidence, all before Nia Jax comes to the ring with exactly ZERO sympathy for her. Along with Bayley’s sneaky win over Charlotte, it’s all part of the Women’s division moving in a new direction, and that’s exciting, and a credit to the way Charlotte and Sasha have sold their feud these last few months; everyone in the division can reap the benefits now. Then there’s Braun Strowman, who single-handedly brings some life to the stale main event scene. I don’t know how long Strowman will hover around Jericho, Owens, Rollins, and Reigns, but having him disrupt the main event and lay waste to the former Shield members was a welcome breath of fresh air. If Raw can keep that momentum rolling into the Royal Rumble, we may be in for a stellar Road to Wrestlemania.

Stray observations

  • Results: Rusev defeated Big Cass via DQ; Cedric Alexander defeated Noam Dar; Cesaro, Sheamus, and New Day defeated The Shining Stars, and Gallows and Anderson; Bayley defeated Charlotte; Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns defeated Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho via DQ.
  • Other highlights of the opening segment include a fanny pack containing Mick Foley’s teeth, WWE getting to re-use the Paul Ellering cage from NXT Takeover: Toronto, and Kevin Owens talking over the still photos from Roadblock.
  • Raw has new Tag Team titles, red strap and all.
  • Big E’s shot at Charlotte consistently losing and then winning back her title was maybe the best part of the episode.
  • Sheamus only has one question for the Shining Stars’ vacation getaway package: “Does it come with free sunscreen?”
  • Braun is now a babyface because he stopped a Sin Cara vs. Titus O’Neil match from happening.
  • Not sure I like Bayley getting the tired “competitor has pinned the champ” win here. WWE has gone a long way to set this story up, and Bayley works so much better as an underdog. Why not let that feeling simmer by giving Charlotte a shady, or even decisive, win, and then have Bayley pull out all the stops when she finally gets that title shot?
  • The match itself is great though, and a terrific showing for Bayley, who hasn’t been given a lot of time to show off her in-ring work on Raw.
  • “Instead of ‘begin,’ can we say ‘Bo-gin’?” I missed Bo Dallas.

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