Since Wrestlemania 31, WWE Monday Night Raw has been going through a weird transitional period, one where the storytelling, both contained within the matches and on a much larger, show-to-show scale, has been lackluster to say the least. The momentum that Wrestlemania 31 built by crowning Seth Rollins, the kayfabe and shoot future of the WWE, has been all but wasted in the time since then because of bad booking and inert storylines. That stagnant feeling is mostly due to the fact that the WWE remains dead set on using The Authority, and specifically Kane and Big Show, as foils to the babyfaces on the roster. With that said though, I’d suggest that the underwhelming nature of so many Monday Night Raw’s lately also has a lot to do with the fact that the WWE is moving from established to new talent. It’s been jarring (but not unwelcome) to see guys like Rollins, Reigns, Ambrose, Neville, and a number of others circling the main event and upper-mid card. It’s taken a few weeks to become acclimated to the new (or in the case of guys like Ziggler, fan favorite) talent being the focus of big storylines.
Maybe the smarky Montreal crowd had a lot to do with the booking this week, but for the first time in awhile, Raw felt energized and promising, like the WWE understood the talent that they have and are giving the people what they want. You want Kidd and Cesaro to wrestle babyface? You got it. You want to see New Day doing expert heel work and celebrating backstage throughout the whole show? You got it. You want to see NXT talent get put over by the greatest sports entertainer of his generation, and even have the notoriously terrible commentary team put him over? Here’s Sami Zayn putting on one hell of a match with John Cena. This is the first time since the day after Wrestlemania that Raw hasn’t felt like a slog, like a chore we have to finish because we’ve been promised some unknown reward some time in the future.
As bad as WWE’s booking and commentary has been in the past few weeks (or months or years, depending on who you ask), there’s no denying that the roster at their disposal is perhaps the deepest it’s ever been. On any given Raw you have numerous main event-level talents wrestling matches, and when you let storylines evolve organically, or at least present the illusion that they’re evolving organically, you’re doing right by that depth of talent. Tonight’s Raw perfectly blended wrestling for wrestling’s sake with storyline motivations that ramp up the feuds leading into Payback in two weeks.
The most notable, and most exciting Zayn-less segment of the night sees Dean Ambrose fighting Seth Rollins. Kane, being the meddler that he is, decides that the match will have a unique stipulation: if Ambrose wins, he’s added to the Payback main event, making it a Fatal 4-Way for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Rollins and Ambrose have long had great chemistry and it shines through in this match. Montreal is firmly behind Ambrose, and when he rolls up Rollins for the win, it’s one of many genuine pops throughout the night. By adding Ambrose to the Payback main event, WWE has not only pushed one of its most beloved superstars, but also opened up a ton of storytelling possibilities. At the end of Raw, Ambrose stands tall, towering over Orton, Reigns, and Rollins. That’s exciting stuff.
Also promising is the way the commentary team seems to have learned some lessons from the way they buried The Ascension, because the way they put over Sami Zayn in his match against John Cena tonight is remarkable. It’s a trend of legitimizing new talent that really started with Neville a few weeks ago, and as obvious as it is that the WWE should be putting over their next generation, putting that into practice has been a struggle in the past. It’s heartening to see Cole and the rest of the team put Zayn over, and to even have Cena give Zayn his moment in the ring after the match, allowing him to revel in the moment. It brought tears to Sami Zayn’s eyes, and mine too, and that kind of genuine emotion is the result of smart booking.
Smart booking is really the theme of the night. If you book your talent as important, then the audience will see them as important, and thus cheer or boo as necessary. It’s the reason Ambrose finally reached a new level (or his late-2014 level) tonight, because he was booked as an unhinged wrestler with a purpose, not just a crazy guy that pushes hot dog carts. It’s the reason the U.S. title is more important than it’s ever been, because the open challenge is compelling television. Good booking is the reason the New Day have turned a corner and found their calling as a heel team, and why Cesaro can look like a actual superhero while uppercutting an Ascension dude over and over again.
Tonight’s Raw was booked in a way that highlighted the immense talent of this WWE roster. It felt like a recalibration of sorts, or maybe a settling. Tonight’s Raw, other than the Wyatt-Ryback segment, suggested that the future is in fact now. Ambrose, Rollins, Neville, Reigns, Zayn, Cesaro, New Day. These are the new faces of WWE, and that’s unbelievably exciting. If WWE can keep this momentum going next week on the go-home Raw, it will have regained the focus and storytelling clarity that had many wrestling fans excited about the product following Wrestlemania.
- I’m all for Lana “Fandangoing,” but since when is her character a pushover? She’s always been a Russian badass who’s stood up for herself and Rusev. Her sudden timidity, while necessary for the inevitable break between her and Rusev, feels very out of character.
- This Raw was so full of great wrestling that even the Stardust vs. R-Truth match was solid, including the fact that Stardust brought out a bag of fake spiders to scare Truth. That’s the kind of comedy/ridiculousness that works as an outlier on Raw; too often WWE makes a whole show of it.
- This sentence is an obligatory reminder that Cesaro is a god amongst men.
- Orton bobbing along to the New Day music is going to be your go-to gif for the foreseeable future.
- “Montreal Boo Hoo Job.” Get that heat, Xavier Woods!
- Booker T does not understand what the Freebird rule is. That’s a shame.
- “We did it, Kane!” New Day is the best, that’s all I have to say.
- Even though they lost, I thought The Ascension looked pretty good in the ring. I hope that’s the start of WWE rebuilding them after doing them no favors when they debuted.
- Tamina is back, and teaming up with Naomi. That’s something, I guess.
- Thanks again to LaToya for letting me fill in for her on the Raw beat tonight! Hopefully she gets a Raw as good as this one to review next week.