Nikki Bella

Take a moment to acknowledge the fact that this episode of RAW is the go home show, the last episode of Monday Night RAW before WrestleMania. It’s the show that basically has to sell you, the audience, on watching the pay-per-view and, more importantly in WWE’s eyes, sell you on subscribing to the WWE Network “for just $9.99.” Sure, there’s SmackDown and Superstars (and Main Event, for some) to do that, but WWE makes it clear on a weekly basis that those supplemental shows don’t matter. This is the episode of television—of WWE’s patented brand of sports entertainment—that is supposed to be the audience’s final push in the direction of whether or not they’re excited for WrestleMania. Of whether or not they’re going to even watch it instead of just tune into the following RAW. Of whether or not they’re going to watch it with earnest excitement instead of ironic detachment. (That last point doesn’t really matter to WWE, actually.)

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Based on all of that criteria, this RAW does not exactly deliver.

The funny thing is, this is the best RAW has been in weeks, if not months. That’s probably because it very much reads like a RAW where actual effort was put into it by more than just the Superstars themselves.

Unfortunately, one week of effort (that’s still not a great deal of effort) doesn’t make up for months of complete mishandling, ball-dropping, or what-have-you. In fact, it makes it slightly more frustrating that WWE didn’t think to put in even this slight amount of effort for a decent to good product until now. At the risk of starting an argument I can’t finish, it’s comparable to the point that The Walking Dead is finally good now. Five seasons in. A viewer shouldn’t have to wait that long for a television show to finally get good, nor should a wrestling fan have to wait for a product that should automatically be good (at least during WrestleMania season) be “okay.” The effort to make quality entertainment should always be there, as long as the entertainment itself is around. WWE doesn’t have off-seasons, so while that is a difficult task, it should be expected. Then again, maybe what I consider effort and what WWE considers effort are two completely different things. But my definition also involves actually listening to the fans.

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Speaking of listening to the fans, the honest-to-God highlight of the night (besides the commercials for Dig) has to be the Divas’ Championship match between Nikki Bella and Paige. For maybe the first time in the weeks since #GiveDivasAChance became WWE’s latest “project,” this match is where it feels like WWE might possibly get it. It is a good match that the crowd is very much into (between the dueling chants for the Divas and the “THIS IS AWESOME”—that’s right—chant), and it’s proof that a WWE audience will respond positively and seriously to the work of the women if WWE gives them a reason to (both with in-ring work and commentary). Michael Cole isn’t a brilliant commentator, but he even points out that giving the Divas a chance is partially just about all of these women having their own personalities and wanting to have a chance to display them on a large stage. (Ignore for a moment that he also describes AJ as “quirky and cute” and almost tries to define what a “Goth” is.) Booker T even mentions how this is also about the future of the division. In the match itself, Nikki Bella continues to show doubters that she has become a great worker, and she and Paige honestly kind of blow the roof off the place.

Then the match ends, JBL yells “PAIGE IS CRAZY,” and the audience chants “CM PUNK.” But for about 10 minutes, WWE RAW showed the world what the Divas’ division could be (and it could honestly be even more).

I’m also not exaggerating in saying that—on a card with Daniel Bryan versus Dolph Ziggler—this was the best match on the card. The “problem” with Daniel Bryan and Ziggler is that, after having a terrific competition in a terrific gauntlet match (once Luke Harper showed up) on SmackDown this past Thursday, WWE attempts to catch lightning in a bottle again with a do-over on RAW. But they don’t. And it’s not as though Bryan gets his win back over Ziggler this time—Ziggler wins both matches. Only this time, there’s the added Lunatic Fringe factor with Dean Ambrose as the Special Guest Referee, which takes away something from the match, because then it also becomes about how “CRAZY” Dean Ambrose is. The match opens fantastically, with Bryan and Ziggler reaching a stalemate in straight-up wrestling before they both get frustrated and crank out the ruthless aggression. But then it all gets somewhat lost in the middle, and then it’s easy to believe that they’re holding back before Sunday’s big show. That’s the thing about this episode of RAW: With the exception of the Divas’ match (since WrestleMania won’t be a singles match for them) none of the matches are allowed to be their best selves. For that, you have to purchase the WWE Network or the pay-per-view itself.

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It needs to be said though, it’s at times interesting to watch this episode of RAW through the lens of character motivations heading into Sunday. The biggest example to come to mind for me here is the case of Bad News Barrett. Barrett’s role in all of this Intercontinental Championship kerfuffle has really made him look like a fool, despite being the champion, but tonight’s RAW finally allows him to be a real character. The fact that it took Barrett this long to be on guest commentary in this storyline is certainly one of the arguments for “This is stupid,” but having it finally happen does add something to all of mess of a storyline. Based on tonight’s RAW, it becomes apparent that Barrett is honestly insecure because everyone is “hilariously” stealing his belt. This isn’t Wade Barrett being a shit heel who waxes on about his “hard-earned” belt and doesn’t want to defend it because he’s afraid. After all, he beat Dean Ambrose clean in a championship match. And he never even went against R-Truth in championship match after R-Truth beat him in the original non-title match that started all of this. Whether you like how he won the belt or not, the fact remains that everyone coming for it is being a disrespectful jerk. None of these men—besides maybe Dolph Ziggler—have any true claim to the belt, and yet they pretend like they do, and they make it clear that Barrett can lose his belt at any moment, even if he doesn’t really lose it in competition.

Having said all of this, there is now honestly nothing about Bad News Barrett that makes him a heel. Even dispensing bad news never really made him a heel. In this RAW, The Authority—through Kane—threatens to just plain strip him of his title because they can. That right there should be an instant face turn.

Instead, RAW doesn’t actually care to confirm or deny any of this, because it’s all gearing up for the big finish of the go home storyline—the melee in which everyone in the upcoming match attacks each other, looks like doofs, and ends failing miserably. Are we to assume the ladder match will end in the same way? Spend your money to see, why don’t you.

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While the Intercontinental Championship storyline is apparently a war of attrition with a surprising (perhaps unintentional) depth at times, there’s also the reminders of the Monday Night War (maybe you’ve heard of it), with the Triple H and Sting feud. I’ve admitted in the past that Sting is a wrestler who is “Not For Me” (I spent most of the opening segment thinking about how Sting sways like they tell you not to in public speaking class, how bad I kind of felt for TNA, and why WWE wants us to believe bats are scarier than sledgehammers) but RAW opening with a Sting promo is something I can understand people being hyped for. Stephanie McMahon showing up and confusingly comparing Sting to a dog (or not) only elevated the segment. Triple H not actually confronting him but the live crowd chanting “THIS IS AWESOME” almost made me feel it. But again, Sting is not for me. However, to those he is for, this was probably the coolest thing in the world.

However, after weeks of practically losing the plot, the actual coolest thing in the world is now Bray Wyatt’s final RAW promo directed at The Undertaker. Bray Wyatt controls the weather inside the arena, and trust me, that’s really the type of thing that sticks with you as a kid watching this crazy circus of characters. Bray Wyatt is real, everyone else is a fraud and a liar, and that’s something you can grab on to when you’re trying to connect to a character. That’s what made him a captivating cult leader, his ability to twist the truth. It’s a fantastic promo that doesn’t have people “WHAT”-ing every moment, and if anything’s going to sell you on the WrestleMania match between Bray and Undertaker, it’s that. But like a lot of this episode, it shouldn’t have taken this long for something to sell you on WrestleMania.

Now, at the risk of sounding like an armchair booker for a moment, Rusev and Wyatt need to win their matches at WrestleMania. For the latter, the only way he can truly remain credible at this point is to defeat The Dead Man. For the former, Rusev is basically a made man if he beats Cena and Cena doesn’t come back to get his win. Then the person who goes on to beat Rusev is set, because he can do what even Cena can’t do. Honestly, Cena winning the United States Championship doesn’t necessarily elevate it so much as it has Cena potentially hold a mid-card title hostage and away from the future of the company.

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But while there’s the very real possibility of the future actually being invested in come Sunday, there are still segments like the Axelmania / Snoopmania / Hulkamania one that beats the idea that WWE doesn’t like its Superstars getting over organically into the “smart” audience’s brain. Much like Barrett, there’s really no reason for Axel to be a heel at this point, especially with the crowds really getting behind him. But he is and he remains a joke. JBL cracks comments about wanting to change the channel when Axel’s onscreen and a 100-year-old man beats the crap out of him easily, because that’s cool. We passed the Genesis of McGillicutty ages ago, but moments like this show that WWE, for some reason, refuses to allow one of the great things about professional wrestling/sports entertainment/entertainment to happen—character growth. Once a “nerd,” always a “nerd” (or a “turd”).

In fact, WWE appears to reward stagnation and de-evolution, based on the final moments of this RAW (and the main event of WrestleMania). All of this wishful thinking and optimism doesn’t change the fact Brock Lesnar versus Roman Reigns might be even more of a train wreck than once imagined after tonight’s RAW. Roman Reigns doesn’t even show up on RAW until 11:08 ET, and he punctuates that by playing the least intimidating game of tug of war ever with Brock Lesnar and the WWE World Heavyweight belt. This, again, is not exaggeration—go back and watch some old episodes of game show era NXT for confirmation. Johnny Curtis/Fandango would have looked more intimidating in this situation, and he would have also sold the sexual tension with Brock Lesnar a lot better. We might as well all start working on our Roman Reigns conspiracy theories, because the ending to tonight’s RAW does nothing to sell the match or his place in said match.

WrestleMania is Sunday. WWE (and LL Cool J) classifies it as a “4-hour spectacular.” WWE product sells it as being… on Sunday. At least it’s not all bad. Not all the time. But watching hints of good things within underwhelming things that should be great things—that’s the problem with which this RAW leaves us.

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Stray observations:

  • I’ll probably never get to go backstage for a WWE event because I’m a criticizing mark who’s never laced up a pair of boots, so watching RAW and seeing Max Landis’ Twitter feed about being backstage drove me a little crazy. And then…
  • For the first time in a long time, I decided to not turn off USA after RAW. In doing that, I accidentally found myself watching Dig. It was a life-changing experience, to say the very least.
  • The Intercontinental contender tag team match was bizarre for teaming up Dean Ambrose and R-Truth, but I think we should all be happy it also brought the joy of Luke Harper covering Stardust’s ears to protect him from the “CODY” chants. Wade Barrett may be Cody Rhodes’ best friend, but Luke Harper is Stardust’s best friend.
  • Until this very moment, I completely forget about the jobber 10-man tag to battle for supremacy in the Andre the Giant etc. I don’t know how I could forget, seeing as how Special Guest Star Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons took to awkwardly smarking up the commentary booth for the entire match. Also, after WWE’s hyping of the “feud” between JBL and Simmons, JBL immediately backtracked everything he said about how much he hates Simmons.
  • This gif of Stephanie McMahon ascending from the depths of Hell with a sledgehammer honestly made the opening segment all worth it for me.
  • Tyson Kidd and Nattie have allowed a third into their (make-shift backstage) bedroom, and it’s not Cesaro—it’s Burger King’s chicken fries. This is wrestling. Clap, clap. Clap, clap, clap.
  • You give me Snoop Dogg, WWE, but you don’t give me The Boss. You don’t give me The Boss.
  • Call me when Kevin Nash is inducted into the Hall of Fame for all of his work in the X-Division with Alex Shelley. Or at least for Magic Mike.
  • By the way, I will be reviewing WrestleMania, assuming I survive watching it.

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