Neville, Seth Rollins

There’s always a certain momentum to WWE’s shows coming out of Wrestlemania, especially when it comes to Monday Night Raw. It’s the start of a new wrestling “season” and often represents possibility, with the company debuting some new stars and hitting the refresh button on a bunch of storylines. Last week’s episode had all of that momentum and more (yes, I’m purposely ignoring that main event). There was the debut of NXT talent like Kalisto and Neville, some all-around great wrestling matches (John Cena vs. Dean Ambrose; Daniel Bryan vs. Dolph Ziggler), and a hot (and, in at least on instance, extremely offensive) crowd. It was a promising post-Mania show, and as LaToya pointed out in her review, showed just what WWE could do if it put in a modicum of effort into booking and commentary.

This week’s show doesn’t have the same glow of last week’s, but that’s mostly because it isn’t hot on the heels of one of the best Wrestlemania shows in some time. Still, this Raw does present a fair amount of fresh matchups and even one of Vince McMahon’s most hated things in the business, wrestling for wrestling’s sake! There’s still plenty of time for WWE to fall into a predictable pattern (represented by last week’s horrendous main event), but for now, it’s nice to revel in the fact that Raw is engaging in some fresh angles–that is, every angle that doesn’t involve the Authority.

In terms of storytelling, The Authority may be WWE’s biggest problem right now. It’s not that the individual players are bad–Triple H, Stephanie, and the rest are great characters doing some of their best work–but that their stranglehold on kayfabe booking is pretty worn out at this point. Leading up to last year’s Wrestlemania, the Authority was the perfect foil to Daniel Bryan’s run at the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Even though Seth Rollins now has the title and is a member of the Authority, he’s hardly representative of them. Instead, the Authority is mostly defined by Kane and the Big Show, and while those guys are still great workers, their presence on every show, and their insistence on being in matches as obstacles for the babyfaces, is territory that feels completely stale, especially considering they lose almost every match they’re in. There’s no real reason that Kane, being the Director of Operations, can’t screw Randy Orton by putting him in a match against anyone else on the roster, perhaps someone (or multiple someones) younger and with a better win-loss record in the past few months.

Thankfully, everything happening outside of the Authority storyline feels consequential and important. More specifically, the pre-Mania idea that Bryan and Cena holding the Intercontinental and United States Championship, respectively, would make the upper-mid card matter again is holding true. Sure, you could lament the fact that Bryan isn’t in contention for the World Heavyweight title, and you could say that Cena won’t lose the U.S. title anytime soon, but that’s looking too far ahead and missing the point. For now, those two belts matter in a way they haven’t in about 10 or 12 years, and through two episodes of Raw post-Mania, there have been great matches with each title’s relevant players.

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You don’t need to look any further than the second (and ridiculously named) U.S Open Challenge issued by John Cena, who looks determined to defend the title on every episode of Raw leading up to Extreme Rules. Tonight, he has a stellar match with Stardust. Both guys end up looking like legit contenders for just about any title on the show, with Cena busting out another springboard stunner and Stardust showing some serious grit and determination against the company’s most decorated superstar. There was very little chance that Cena would lose the match, but wins and losses here aren’t the point. Putting on compelling matches, where there’s no feud or motivation outside of “I want that title,” is the point, as it elevates the title and the upper-mid card performers at the same time.

Throughout the show, there are plenty of promising signs that WWE is looking towards the future. Seth Rollins practically carries the entire first hour by himself, and then has an amazing match with Neville. Some will be quick to suggest that Neville was “buried” by being paired with Rollins and suffering the loss, but that’s just not true. By having Neville wrestle Rollins, and really wrestle him and hang with him for 15-20 minutes, WWE is showing tremendous faith in their young talent, and showing the audience that Neville is a guy who’s an immediate threat to the entire roster. If he can almost take down the champ, then everybody else needs to watch out. That’s smart booking.

The theme for most of the night was a bunch of solid wrestling matches, but some lackluster storytelling. The Bellas vs. Paige and Naomi did little to advance that storyline, Miz vs. Mizdow was really just a placeholder for a bigger PPV match, and Ryback vs. Harper, despite being a tremendous hoss vs. hoss match, felt like a re-hash of the Survivor Series storylines we’ve been seeing again and again since that PPV. The main event was perhaps the lone all-out dud of the night. It felt completely rushed in terms of storytelling, there was little doubt that Orton would win and go on to face Rollins at Extreme Rules, and we had seen all three wrestlers on the show already.

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One of the night’s better storytelling moments though comes in the form of the New Day (no, seriously). For the first time since debuting them, the WWE creative team is realizing that this is a heel stable. By having New Day acknowledge the “New Day sucks” chants, and having Big E cut a hilarious but sinister promo that includes the line “we clap or we snap,” WWE has instantly created a more compelling version of this stable. In the span of a few minutes you’ve taken their boring, borderline-racist gimmick and turned it into something combustible and threatening. I’m very ready for those three to start working heel.

That kind of booking, and that kind of attention being paid to letting the characters develop organically and based on crowd reactions, makes the three hours of Raw all the more bearable, and for most of tonight, fun and engaging. From Neville and Rollins to the winning Lucha Dragons, the heel tendencies of New Day, and the wonderful Cena-Stardust showdown, tonight’s Raw showed that WWE has more than enough talent on its roster to fill three hours of television with compelling storylines and matches. Let’s hope that as the weeks roll on, and as the Extreme Rules matches get locked down, that this aura of possibility and confidence can be maintained.

Stray observations:

  • First off, thanks to LaToya for letting me fill in for her tonight on the Raw beat. I’ll always jump at the opportunity to put over John Cena on the internet.
  • There was no way this Raw was going to top last week’s, especially considering the Brock freakout, but all in all, this was a show that kept the ball rolling in the right direction.
  • Mark Henry!!!
  • This version of Sheamus is perhaps my favorite version of him in his career so far. He’s getting real heat from the crowd, and that’s rare these days.
  • Can we get the Prime Time Players wrestling a match please? Those promos are fun and all, but let’s see them back in action.
  • All hail Big E’s “geek” voice.
  • In kayfabe terms, it’s ridiculous that Kane would put Orton in a match early in the night like that. Doesn’t he want him to lose later? Wouldn’t he pit him against someone right before the main event?
  • I think Naomi is one of the best wrestlers in the Divas division, but she desperately needs some new finishers. Neither of those two moves are convincing, and they’re rarely executed precisely.
  • Can we all just sit back for a moment and revel in the fact that we just watched an episode of Raw where John Cena didn’t appear until the second hour, and that he only had the one segment? I’m a known John Cena fan, but this is good news for the direction of WWE. Time to promote that young talent!

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