Last week’s RAW was bad, and as a person who usually makes sure that the members in her immediately family are as caught up to WWE as she is, I found myself informing my brother to spare himself and just soldier on with SmackDown and the supplemental gems of Superstars and Main Event. This week’s RAW is certainly not reinventing the WWE wheel, but as Michael Cole would say, it’s “building momentum” (and quite possibly “creating separation”), which is absolutely key when it comes to something called “the road to WrestleMania.” The upcoming Roadblock is another house show turned WWE special, and while WWE’s probably not going to call an audible with it—even though they very much could—at least the main shows are currently doing well to pretend that they will.

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Let me get past that negativity. Yes, it’s a predictable RAW. In fact, at a certain point during this RAW, my aforementioned family had questioned if I had stolen the script for RAW because of certain calls I’d made with regards to the narrative. (With the exception of Kalisto/Tyler Breeze, since I didn’t call Breeze as the opponent, but I did sing the wonderful lyrics “Call to me / Call to me” seconds before Summer “The Diva’s Revolutionary” Rae came out to face Brie “The Bella Dragon” Bella.) But it’s an episode that does predictable while also going by pretty quickly and logically, which isn’t typically the case with the three hour slog that it definitely was last week and usually is.

The biggest in-ring highlights are toss-up between the first match between Kevin Owens and Neville and the Tag Team Championship match between The New Day and Y2AJ, both for the matches themselves and that momentum-building I brought up. Saying that either match is good or even great is redundant, but the aftermath of both of them make it all even better.

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For the former, Neville continues to be so insanely good in the thankless role of “insanely good wrestler,” which is also the case for this week’s criminally shorter Kalisto/Tyler Breeze match. His loss is necessary to move the story along without WWE going to the unfortunate well of Kevin Owens suffering the dreaded non-title loss, and to put it in perspective, his place in the company is far greater than Breeze’s. But he rarely exists outside the space of the nonexistent “ESPN highlight” moment and honorary Lucha Dragon when it comes to the main roster. Watching his fantastic match with Finn Balor on last week’s NXT makes it even more apparent that a ball is being dropped, even though he has people in the front row of RAW absolutely losing their shit at his work.

As for Kevin Owens, he deserves everything he has so far in this company and even more, including his WrestleMania/KO-Mania moment—and hopefully that’s exactly what he will be getting with this Sami Zayn feud on the main roster. Since his (sorry, kayfabe) El Generico days, I’ve always described Sami as pure sunshine and rainbows in wrestler form, and that doesn’t change even when he’s hockey fighting the crap out of Kevin Owens. I was there for Kevin’s last match at PWG, crying and throwing streamers and chanting “ROLL STEEN ROLL.” So now, that WWE ska music hits, the Chicago crowd pops, and something I and plenty of other hardcore wrestling fans have been waiting for since Kevin Owens signed to the WWE is finally coming to fruition. Now Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are having their WrestleMania debuts against each other. That’s a big deal, and as a wrestling fan, that’s the kind of thing that makes a lot of the “abuse” and mind-numbing parts worth it.

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Honestly, this whole RAW is worth it for Sami Zayn’s official main roster debut and the “road to KO-Mania” finally getting underway.

He actually looks like a superhero here, which reminds me that Ryback will be discussed in Stray Observations.

On another end of the spectrum is the Ziggler of it all. This week, instead of having a nothing match with The Miz, Dolph Ziggler is the fodder in WWE’s transparent attempt to build up the League Of Nations enough to make their eventual match(es) against The New Day worth a damn. Like in most instances, Rusev is actually the MVP of this match, and after last summer’s fart of a love quadrangle plot, the irony that Rusev of clearly topping Dolph in the ring really just puts more dirt in that wound. The impetus of this match—a deleted tweet and Dolph Ziggler bringing up his showstopping performance from Survivor Series 2014—implies that something more may happen as a result of all of this.

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But that was honestly what people believed would happen after Survivor Series, and WWE made sure no one would ever believe anything would be made of Dolph Ziggler.

By this point, it’s pretty common knowledge that what should have been a career-defining moment for Dolph was actually meant for Roman Reigns, and the aftermath is one of the greatest modern examples of Vince McMahon and WWE sabotaging themselves and their talent to move forward with their own set-in-stone plans instead of actually adapting and going with what works. So while this RAW is finally the right time for WWE to do something and have Dolph overcome or at least come close to overcome for a shock, what do we get? Dolph pinning Wade Barrett? That’s the opposite of overcoming anything, because as unfortunate as it is, Barrett is more expendable than every man in the Social Outcasts at this point in his career, and he has been for a long time. Dolph puts in the work after beating the easiest man on the roster to beat, but his attempts are futile. All of his attempts are futile. So what is the point of his character?

In fact, “what is the point of his character” is a question I had been asking as soon as Chris Jericho made his latest return, and I was just as disappointed asking it of him as I am with Dolph Ziggler. Chris Jericho has always been my guy, my favorite wrestler, and seeing him in this incarnation—with a barely-clothed “dad bod” and trying way too hard to be cool instead of simply being cool—has been extremely frustrating and, quite frankly, embarrassing. His feud work with AJ got me interested in him and his in-ring work during this work again, but he still wasn’t fully back, especially in coining the team name “Y2AJ” (“Gold and Stardust 2.0” as far as I’m concerned).

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The Jericho in the tag title match (a phenomenal match, especially with that end sequence) is the one who was missed. The Jericho in the post-match beatdown is the one who was missed. The Jericho in the backstage segment with Renee is the one who was missed.

Despite the crowd reaction shots, the heel turn isn’t actually surprising, given everything before the formation of Y2AJ. But one of the most interesting parts of it all, which is elaborated on in the backstage segment, is how Jericho and WWE had basically hid this all in plain sight from the beginning: During this entire Jericho/AJ situation feud, WWE has constantly brought up Jericho debuting in Chicago in the middle of The Rock’s promo, in a way they never have before. Yes, this company loves to repeat things, but that’s a talking point that never got as much play as the Undisputed and Intercontinental Championship ones. Having Jericho then be overcome with jealousy over AJ being beloved in “his” city brings it all together.

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By the way, for a company whose owner is supposedly so anti-“wrassling,” you’ve got to admit that producing shirts for a team that barely lasted a week is such a carney, money-grubbing tactic. An impressive, carney, money-grubbing tactic but still a carney, money-grubbing tactic.

This RAW has matches featuring Kalisto, Tyler Breeze, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Dolph Ziggler, the League Of Nations (sans Del Rio), Dean Ambrose, and Bray Wyatt. Hell, even the Social Outcasts. In fact, the lowest match on the rung is the Brie Bella/Summer Rae match, and that still moves the story along. The reason I bring this up isn’t even the NXT element of it all but the fact that this RAW could arguably be called “the workhorse RAW.” For that point, it’s a bit of a disappointment that most of the matches with these characters are too short; but that’s also impressive in how it all manages to fill up a pretty productive three hours. Plus, there is no Big Show. There is no Kane. There are no “PLEASE RETIRE” chants. Part of that shows an awareness on WWE’s part of the audience they have in Chicago, but the part that draws my attention is the one that will surely inspire some eyerolls: If there is a case for another brand split soon, it might be this RAW.

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That’s not even addressing wrestlers who aren’t on this RAW (in a wrestling capacity or otherwise) but will no doubt be on this week’s Main Event or Superstars, like Zack Ryder, Stardust, and that whole crew. That’s not even addressing more-than-ready for network primetime players over in NXT. WWE has so much talent and so much content both onscreen and online, and yet it still feels like everything is being stretched thin. Because everything and everyone is being stretched thin! For whatever reason, the idea of “trying” is treated like a taboo by WWE (which has been a problem for better wrestling “B-show” SmackDown, even though it has been consistently good lately), and that’s what eventually got the brand split into trouble before it was eliminated. But with so many talented competitors in this company, it feels negligent not to eventually try to make a genuine, well-thought-out brand split in the future when the injury plague rolls away. Think about Neville’s role in this week’s RAW again and try to see what I mean; try to think about how a brand split could help him. Think about how it could possible save Tyler Breeze.

Then again, I’m a person who liked King Booker during the character’s run, so I’m used to wrestling society not instantly agreeing with me.

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Speaking of genuine and well-thought-out, that actually kind of describes the two men who couldn’t be any more different but are probably the most beloved in the company right now: Shane McMahon and Dean Ambrose. One’s the son of a billionare and the other is the messed-up everyman, and somehow, they’re mirror images. Shane even opens up the first hour of RAW while Dean opens up the second, each man with engaging promos that contain all the conviction that has been missing from the main event in the Roman era/experiment/whatever you want to call it.

RAW opening with a Shane McMahon promo is a new twist on a very stale format in current WWE, and honestly, it’s the best way to start the show in Chicago other than: 1. A Dean Ambrose promo, 2. A less-expected Kevin Owens promo, or 3. The return of CM Punk from the wrestling dead. When Shane speaks, the people listen, which is a major win when it comes to the WWE “WHAT?” Universe. That video package of Shane’s wrestling career? Absolutely perfect when it comes to hyping up a match that really isn’t as great as the initial shock made it sound and getting all of the casuals and children to really understand why it’s such a big deal that Shane is back (and that he might actually be a “threat” to the Undertaker).

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As for Dean Ambrose, like Shane, he’s on a whole other level with fan support. However, it is bittersweet that his promo and main event match against Bray Wyatt (as well as the rest of the show, kind of) confirm one thing: The crowd wants to see Dean Ambrose versus Triple H. The crowd wants to see Bray Wyatt versus Triple H for the title. The crowd would probably want to see Dolph Ziggler versus Triple H for the title. The New Day versus Triple H for the title. AJ Styles versus Triple H for the title. Chris Jericho versus Triple H for the title. Sasha Banks versus Triple H for the title. The Social Outcasts (“YEE”) versus Triple H for the title. Kalisto versus Triple H for the title. The League Of Nations versus Triple H for the title. You know why? Because those are interesting dynamics. Those are fresh dynamics. Yes, even Chris Jericho, as it would be the contemporary version of those two characters, and they know what the hell they’re doing.

Simply put, there is nothing interesting and fresh about Roman Reigns versus Triple H for the title, because there is nothing interesting and fresh about Roman Reigns. Do I sound like I’m beating a dead horse? Well that’s apparently the way WWE and Vincent Kennedy McMahon like it. It’s not even maddening on that side anymore, because it’s oddly fascinating to see the square peg/round whole character and narrative fail every week—while brief flashes of something else succeed in mere moments. The Triple H/Dean Ambrose conclusion to the Royal Rumble honestly could have been the last moment between the two of them on the “road to WrestleMania,” and it still would have been the more over babyface moment than anything Roman has done since then with Triple H. Hell, it still is. As I praise this episode of RAW, the sad truth that one most avoid in order to give such praise is a lot like Dolph Ziggler versus the Authority. Maybe this time things will be different, but WWE’s patterns tend to say “don’t count on it.”

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Kevin Owens defeated Neville; Summer Rae defeated Brie Bella; League Of Nations (Sheamus, Rusev, and an eliminated Bad News Barrett) defeated Dolph Ziggler (Elimination Handicap match); Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks defeated Naomina (Naomi and Tamina); The New Day (Big E and Kofi Kingston) (c) defeated Y2AJ (Chris Jericho and AJ Styles); Kalisto defeated Tyler Breeze; Ryback defeated Curtis Axel; Dean Ambrose defeat Bray Wyatt (DQ)
  • Sign Of The Night: The “I <3 WRESTLING” sign where the person put too much space before the “I” and the “G” had to be beneath the “N.” It’s the little things.
  • The Owens/Neville false finish of the second rope Phoenix Splash (a Hayabusa tribute) is one I’ve seen argued as frustrating and even unacceptable, but this isn’t actually the first time Neville has done that move only to get a two—it’s just the nature of the non-finisher beast, and that’s WWE style through and through.
  • Dolph really should just try to seduce Stephanie. It worked for him with Vickie Guerrero. Yes, in addition to the brand split, I miss Superstars and Divas trying to seduce their employers.
  • Goldust and R-Truth is so Vince’s sense of humor that it physically pains me.
  • On the other hand, Shane calling Vince a “bastard” is also so Vince that it made me laugh each time they replayed it.
  • For those cool people who watch Superstars/Main Event, I hope you also got excited when Curtis Axel’s anti-Ryback “YEE” made it to RAW. Ah, Rybaxel is never getting back together. Now to get Zack Ryder in a proper match, since he’s currently doing the best in-ring work of his career on those shows (and Stardust is cutting some very good, “bizarre” promos in their feud) and deserves more than Stephanie telling him to “stay hyped.”
  • Remember last week when Ryback compared himself to the movie Spotlight, clearly not knowing what it was about? He also clearly doesn’t know whether he’s a heel or face, as he goes from telling Kalisto to drop the dead weight of Sin Cara (which is the most intelligent thing Ryback has ever said), to saying that we don’t live in a superhero world, to listing superhero… actors and comparing himself to them, to calling Kalisto a superhero, to… I think Ryback challenged Paul Rudd to a fight? He definitely missed the point of Ant-Man, if he even saw that one.
  • Why aren’t you in the main event of WrestleMania, Ryback? Um, you lost the Royal Rumble, the match that would have given you the spot in the main event of WrestleMania. Never has a character deserved all of those derogatory “CM PUNK” and “GOLDBERG” chants more than Ryback.
  • The Lana part of the Brie Bella/Lana feud is actually the only interesting part of said feud, because as hard as Brie tries, at this point, her wrestling is aggressively mediocre, at best. Lana, on the other hand, has the benefits of being an unknown quantity in the ring and a good talker (another thing Brie is rather weak at). Plus, based on this RAW, Lana also hits Brie’s own finisher better than Brie. Then again, I really want Lana to pull a bait and switch on this whole thing, with Rusev showing up at WrestleMania in a wig, ready to crush Brie. As long as he has a tank, it’ll actually be better than his fate at last year’s WrestleMania.
  • I’ve been saying all season that Total Divas has run out of ideas, but this week’s episode having Nikki be mad at Brie for buying a scooter—and Michael Cole trying to sell that as “drama”—confirms it.

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