BRRRRROOOOOOCCCCKKK LEEEEESSSSNAAAAARRR

For the unaware, the episode of WWE Monday Night RAW after WrestleMania is praised for being the single best episode of RAW of the year. The crowd is full of hold-overs from WrestleMania, there are debuts and returns of Superstars, there are changing allegiances—everyone is supposedly on their game. Even if you’ve given up on WWE programming, the allure of the #RAWAfterMania is often times too strong. It’s all a part of the love-hate relationship that comes from being a WWE fan. The RAW after WrestleMania being the best episode of RAW has become something of a joke, because in all honestly, there’s no reason why the same amount of effort, if not more, can’t be put into a “regular” episode of RAW. There’s also the question of why, in a lot of ways, RAW is more of a step in the “right” direction than the biggest show there is—WrestleMania.

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But those are questions for another time, because we are officially on the Road To… Extreme Rules/Axe-treme Rules/Nowhere. The next big WWE show isn’t until August (SummerSlam), but until then, this is a new start to WWE storylines, to new character dynamics, to new. Just new. After the build to WrestleMania, that freshness is more than welcome.

This right here is that episode of WWE Monday Night RAW, and while a lot of it ticks off the boxes of what one expects to see in such a setting, it doesn’t quite stick the landing with the finish (and the crowd of hold-overs don’t do it any favors). In fact, if WrestleMania was a show with an ending that was so fantastic it theoretically made the rest of the card better in retrospect, then this RAW’s main event (and the crowd) kind of tarnishes the show prior to the main even in a way.

From the jump, RAW is off to a hot start with a re-signed Brock Lesnar dressed to wrestle, which isn’t exactly something you get on a typical RAW. Heyman cuts another fiery promo, this time shifting the narrative to the simple fact that Seth Rollins didn’t defeat Brock Lesnar, and Brock Lesnar is going to kill him tonight. He even bluntly states that, for him at least, the times of telling the world just how perfect Roman Reigns is are over; in fact, he mentions the fact that Reigns can “sink or swim” at this point and he moves right the hell on to saying “suplex” a dozen times and requesting Brock’s rematch right there, right then. For the faintest moment, there’s the thought that this match will actually happen, and that thought is what translates to the best part of this type of RAW: the endless possibilities and the belief (especially in the night’s best matches) that things can go in the truly unpredictable route.

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Where things get amazing is when Rollins says he’s too jet-lagged and hurt to have the match. Brock wants to get his hands on Seth, but Brock Lesnar isn’t going to be on WWE TV on a weekly basis. He’s still got a limited schedule for all the money he’s making. If WWE is going to use him, they really should use him in the most memorable way possible. And they do, by having him kill the commentary team (which the crowd pops for every time there’s a mention of Michael Cole eating an F-5), J&J Security, and some local wrestler who apparently moonlights as a WWE camera man. It’s great, because Brock’s an “ass-kicker.” He says it all the time, sometimes while also referencing the bodily functions of urinating and vomiting. Stephanie McMahon may be the Queen, as her disturbingly catchy theme song reminds us, but she should know that she can’t control the Beast. Suspending him indefinitely and fining him—shoot or in kayfabe—won’t change the fact that he already gets paid a lot to not be there. It just makes the anticipation for him to come back even greater, and it also works better now that there’s not the added worry of him holding the WWE World Heavyweight Title hostage and making WWE feel off-center because of it.

But RAW isn’t just Ass-kicker City, because RAW after WrestleMania isn’t just one thing. The time to get over the fact that Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler didn’t go one-on-one against each other at WrestleMania has passed, but now you get two athletes who get to have extremely athletic, extremely intense matches against each other. Their match this time around is like their match from last RAW, only turned up to 11 and for the Intercontinental Championship. It starts with the same back-and-forth, stalemate wrestling, transitions to a frustrated Dolph Ziggler getting some cheap shots in the corner, transitions to a pissed off Daniel Bryan returning in kind, and then it becomes two of the best wrestlers on the show (if not the two best wrestlers on the show) giving it everything they have to beat (and out-wrestle) the other. It’s honestly a great match to watch, partially because it feels like the culmination of Ziggler finally getting more believable offense and not just being the rag-doll we fell in love with.

When Daniel Bryan wins, it’s because he hits the knee too quickly for Ziggler to win, because the only way anyone was going to win was to unleash the final shot too quickly for their opponent to know what was coming. Neither one of them turns heel, neither one of them is booed, and the crowd eats it up. The commentary eats it up. Bad News Barrett is on guest commentary (before Brock Lesnar destroys the commentary), and he does a fantastic job of putting over these two rivals but making sure to also point out that they’re doing his job for him in beating the crap out of each other. Barrett just got out of a storyline where he was the bad guy for not wanting people to steal his hard-earned property, and now he has a chip on his shoulder because he wasn’t even technically defeated for the title.

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Sadly, he doesn’t even get to have his moment in the sun for jumping Daniel Bryan from behind after the match, because Sheamus (who the crowd chants “YOU LOOK STUPID” at, because he really does, people) shows up to destroy Daniel Bryan and then remove any little bit of fight left in Ziggler (who he mocks for being “the show-stealer”). It sounds very much like typical contrarian wrestling fan to say, but Sheamus not returning as a face is the best thing for him. Sheamus as a face is a racist, childish, bully. Sheamus as a heel just beats the crap out of everyone and barely speaks. Sheamus is a solid worker either way, but the latter is what WWE’s mid-card needs right now.

WWE’s mid-card might also need John Cena, if John Cena being in the mid-card officially means he’s going to put on his metaphorical worker boots (and even literally, because sneakers are not regulation) and put on matches like the one he had against Rusev at WrestleMania and the open challenge he has against Dean Ambrose on this RAW. This match sees Cena throwing out knees and kicks and absolutely being taken to the limit by Dean Ambrose, who fights out of an STF, kicks out of an AA, and almost makes Cena tap to an STF himself. Really, the only true criticism from a match perspective that I can give Cena is the fact that his STF does not look good (or effective) and never has. What he does is a face hug, which is not what the move is, and it’s very disappointing when the person who is copying the move (Ambrose) does it so much better than the person who has made it his signature move.

Surprisingly, this match also adds some interesting (hopefully intentional) character moments. Ambrose legitimately looks like he’s going to cry over how upset he is after he loses, but Cena is the story here. He starts things off by baiting the crowd with their “John Cena Sucks” sing-a-long chants, but near the end of the match, as he’s getting more and more frustrated with this powered-up Ambrose, the chants appear to get to him as well. He’s seriously busting his ass, and still they’re giving him nothing. That can lead to a compelling story. Will it? Or will he go back to brushing it all off?

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Because while Cena just might be flourishing in this new position, the man he beat for the United States Championship—as of this episode—looks dangerously close to floundering. Jerry Lawler’s implies that Rusev will just start up a new winning streak, which is the definition of Rusev having nothing to do. There’s no Lana, there’s no laser focus, there’s no focus. That was the fear; that is the fear.

It’s a smaller one though, especially when the episode ends with a typical six-man-tag you could find on any RAW with Ryback/Randy Orton/Roman Reigns versus Seth Rollins/Kane/Big Show. The crowd (which is very hit or miss—see the Stray Observations) turns on it, with the best case scenario being NXT chants (“BREEZE IS GORGEOUS” and “HOW YOU DOIN’?” as the peaks), the worst being the “SAME OLD SHIT,” and the obnoxious “WE ARE AWESOME.” Randy Orton looks to be a second away from flipping off the crowd at any given moment—again—but at the same time, it’s deserved in this match. While the rest of this RAW is making a statement, this shows grave lack of foresight for what will go over well with a specific crowd. Much like Roman Reigns winning the Royal Rumble, the writing is on the wall for the reaction. Only here, nothing about the match is spectacular at all. Roman gets a win, and then it’s over. That’s the end of RAW, and it’s somehow more underwhelming than a tug of war.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that, in true RAW after WrestleMania fashion, this is a good show. After the months of mediocre to bad episodes of RAW, this was just needed.

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Stray observations:

  • I never really got a chance to mention it pre-WrestleMania, so thanks to RAW for confirming my belief that Mizdow is Single White Male-ing Miz and is a jerk. He quit working for Miz at WrestleMania and he is now his own man, and yet he still does the Miz bit completely. (Perhaps WWE worries as I do that Sandow is not over, only Mizdow is. Just please don’t make this become a match for claim to the Miz character.) Luckily, what makes Miz a great heel is that, while he’s justified in his problems with Mizdow at this point, he goes full-on abusive with it.
  • After weeks of being a fixture on Main Event, Kalisto makes his debut on the main roster (with his teammate Sin Cara). The crowd is hot for the Lucha Dragons, and as usual, Cesaro is the best guy in the world when it comes to smaller opponents.
  • Neville’s (R.I.P. first name) hooded cape is a mix between stereotypical Dungeons & Dragons devotee and badass. Luckily the commentary wasn’t able to go to the Lord Of The Rings, Hobbit well with it. None of it matters though, because Neville is on the main roster!
  • I’ve seen some complaints about the “New Day Sucks” chants (which go as far as to call people who do those chants “racists”), so allow me to say that the reason people are chanting that has nothing to do with Big E, Kofi, and Xavier. It has everything to do with the gimmick for New Day sucking and actually being the racist thing here. I’m not even talking about the black choir and all of that; they literally pantomime shooting dice when they get into the ring. Enough is enough and it’s time for a change. Plus, whenever they do the New Day clap, it’s too easy to do “New Day Sucks.”
  • I didn’t notice it during the Divas’ tag match, because I was very much into it, but I noticed a lot of people on Twitter (especially people who were at RAW live) calling out the crowd for some really horrible, misogynistic chants. The chants I heard (and enjoyed) were “WE WANT BAYLEY,” “LET’S GO DIVAS,” and “THE BELLAS SUCK” (in Cena form). For the last one, the Bellas are heels who still do the “Loser” sign in the 21st century as grown adults, and honestly, they could use a lot more boos. But from what I hear, there were some really bad chants about who each Diva was in a relationship with, and no one needs that.

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