It’s almost ironic that the upcoming televised Network special on March 12th has been renamed “WWE Roadblock”, because that’s exactly what Raw felt like. After getting all the momentum in the world last week, between Shane McMahon’s return, a highly charged feud between Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar, and a women’s division that’s finally showing real signs of progress, coupled with a general sense of unpredictability, WWE ran head-first into a brick wall plastered with flashing lights, erected smack in the middle of their Road to WrestleMania. Let’s take a look at how everything went so drastically wrong in just one week.
10. Roman Who?
So, it is established right away that Roman Reigns, despite being one-half of the main event of WrestleMania, which is only five weeks away, is at home recovering from (elective) nasal surgery. Although Dean Ambrose does mention that he still has access to his phone, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Reigns these past few weeks, it’s that he loves texting on his phone. So, last night’s Raw was about Roman’s far more interesting sidekick, Dean Ambrose, whose WrestleMania opponent is also not in attendance, but to be fair, it’s Brock and we knew that going in. Despite having been attacked in a parking lot, thrown into a car window, being carted off in a neck brace only to steal the ambulance and drive it back to the arena, taking another F5 on the arena floor and having Brock Lesnar literally stand on his face last week, Dean is here and ready to fight. So Roman Reigns kind of looks like a big ol’ wuss right about now, doesn’t he? Don’t worry, though, WWE has a live Network “special” (also known as a “televised house show”) to promote, so Raw is spent building up to a match that many fans probably wouldn’t mind actually being the main event of WrestleMania, Ambrose vs Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Title, while Reigns is barely mentioned at all. Once again, we find ourselves wondering how WWE can claim that Roman Reigns is their big star of the future while continuing to book him like this. If you have so little faith in how live audiences are reacting to the guy that you’ve actually invented a reason to keep him off TV while building to what is allegedly the biggest match of his career, maybe he isn’t actually the guy you want in that role?
9. Is It Still A Recap If You Just Replay Last Week’s Show?
The first hour and fifteen minutes of Raw contained approximately ten minutes of actual wrestling, nine of which was the women’s match, which was broken up by a commercial break and was, at least, good. The rest of the opening hour consisted of a twenty minute promo to kick things off, a recap of the finish of the women’s match, a Miz-Dolph Ziggler promo that set up a match which lasted less than a minute, an entire segment devoted to a video package that was literally just replaying the entire opening segment of last week’s show, all capped off by Stephanie McMahon cutting a long promo on her brother in the guise of her acceptance speech for the award she “won” last week to kick off the second hour. Don’t get us wrong, they were good promos, but buried in there is the fact that Miz and Dolph Ziggler, two guys who can actually wrestle fairly well, had a match that lasted less time than your average commercial. Instead, WWE decided that time would be better spent an entire segment of Raw showing nearly every second of Shane McMahon’s return from last week, only set to ominous music with a color filter over it. The sheer amount of time that was wasted on last night’s show boggles the mind, and that’s not even counting the usual dose of replays of things we just saw two minutes ago. To everyone who thinks WWE should bring back the brand split, you need to watch last night’s Raw and realize that by calling for that, you’re asking WWE to fill a three-hour show that already spends a decent portion of it on time-wasting segments, only with half the roster they have now. How does that sound to you?
8. Right Message, Wrong Person
We will admit that few people can cut a heel promo like Stephanie McMahon. It’s got to be in the genes, or something. And her vitriolic assault on her brother Shane was just great, full of fire and anger, and it almost made you forget that Stephanie isn’t actually going to wrestle Shane at some point and thus will once again, likely receive no real comeuppance. But that’s beside the point we’re trying to make, which is that, somewhere in the middle of her hate-laced diatribe, Stephanie started to drop some truth. The fact is, there is definitely a gender equality problem in professional wrestling. Shane getting allowed “back in line” for the McMahon family dynasty probably is, in part, because he’s a man, and that’s not right. It’s also true that Shane’s sons and Stephanie’s daughters should have equal opportunities to show that they can inherit the family business from their parents. And yes, Stephanie has almost certainly had to fight harder for her position because she’s a woman in a male-dominated business. Those are all excellent points worthy of further discussion in this new, more enlightened age of human existence. The problem is, Stephanie’s on-screen character is a bad person. And while bad guys say all sorts of things to justify their actions, they usually aren’t supposed to be a platform for reasoned discourse on a real social issue that actually merits further introspection. It’s been a constant problem with Stephanie as an on-screen character, in that she wants to play an evil corporate overlord, but still maintain the progressive, socially conscious public image that goes with her real job. Heels shouldn’t be raising social awareness in the same promo where they threaten to destroy their enemies and wade in their blood.
7. Rusev Has A Good Idea, Nobody Cares
Hey, did you hear about the Rusev Bodyslam Challenge, where anyone who could slam the Bulgarian Brute during last night’s episode of Raw would win his prized possession: a sweet Maserati sports car? No? Well, that’s because the whole idea and implementation took place on Twitter and didn’t actually appear on TV, or get mentioned at all. In a three hour show that we’ve already mentioned was chock-full of filler, somehow WWE couldn’t find time to work in a series of segments which literally played out in under five minutes worth of video on Twitter, which would also have given a drastically under-utilized member of the roster something interesting to do and even been entertaining to watch, if the clips we actually did get to see online were any indication. Yesterday, WWE was quick to trumpet that they now have over 10 million YouTube subscribers, and that’s impressive and speaks to their dedication to their online strategy. However, the actual revenue from things like YouTube subscriptions, even 10 million of them, is a drop in the bucket compared to where the real money comes from. That would be their gigantic TV deal with NBC Universal, which pays WWE a significant amount of money to create original content and air it on the USA Network. For months, some of the most creative stuff we’ve seen coming out of WWE has shown up on Twitter, Instagram, and their YouTube channel, instead of on the one thing that actually pays the bills, and will do so for quite a long time in the future: Monday Night Raw. An online presence is a great thing to have, but let’s talk about priorities here, people.
— Rusev the MAESTRO (@RusevBUL) February 29, 2016
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) March 1, 2016
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) March 1, 2016
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) March 1, 2016
6. Oscar References Without Context
We’ll let Dean Ambrose suggesting that Brock Lesnar is the bear from The Revenant slide, because frankly, we’d believe it. But in their constant quest to pretend that they are relevant to mainstream pop culture, WWE tends to go way too far overboard and end up looking even more out of touch as a result. For example, the film which won Best Picture at the Oscars is called Spotlight, and is a well-crafted drama based on a true story about a team of journalists running an investigation into reports of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area during the early 2000’s. That is some seriously heavy subject matter, which makes the promo cut by the newly heel Ryback, where he claimed to be “just like the movie Spotlight“, so comically absurd that it’s almost unbelievable that it happened. We’re not suggesting that Ryback hasn’t actually seen Spotlight (although we’re fairly certain he has not), but we’re pretty sure it isn’t asking too much for whomever was in charge of scripting that promo have at least a working knowledge of the plot of the movie they’re referencing and why Ryback probably shouldn’t compare himself to it? That was like something you’d see on The Big Bang Theory, which often randomly references something from “nerd culture” in lieu of actually making a joke. The entire thought process behind it was clearly “What movie won Best Picture? Okay, make sure we reference it some way so we sound cool and in touch with pop culture. No, we don’t need to know what it’s about, just the name of the movie.”
5. How Not To Use The Best Wrestler In The World
Here’s a hypothetical situation. You run a wrestling company, and you’ve just signed one of the best wrestlers on the planet, who just main-evented one of the biggest wrestling shows of the year for another company, for a whole lot of money (we don’t know how much WWE is paying AJ Styles, but given that he was making serious money in Japan, it would have had to be enough to pry him away from a guaranteed top position there). Sure, he’s never worked for your company before, but you’re paying him a lot, so you put him on TV, and the fans go nuts for the guy. You give him a warm-up feud with one of your veterans so he can get used to the new environment, and he not only adapts, he thrives, and puts on shockingly good matches that have people talking. His merchandise sells out the instant it becomes available. So, with your biggest show of the year coming up, how would you showcase this phenomenal talent? If you said “Ehhh…stick him in a tag team, despite the division being incredibly thin and the Tag Team Champions already feuding with somebody else”, then congratulations, you could work for WWE! Seriously, if WWE wastes one of what will almost certainly be a limited number of WrestleMania matches for AJ Styles on some sort of multi-man tag team mess just to get him on the card, instead of actually building him a one-on-one feud where he can showcase his talents on the biggest stage possible, then we’re not entirely sure why the heck they spent all that money to get him.
4. Arrive. Take A Long Time To Get To The Ring. Leave.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the man whose entrance wastes more time than anyone in the history of pro wrestling would appear on this show, which clearly stretched five minutes worth of thought into three hours and came up about fifteen minutes short. After a week of speculation, wrestling fans were ready and waiting for The Undertaker to return to Raw and answer so many questions, chief among them “Why on earth is The Undertaker suddenly subject to the revenge plots of Vince McMahon?” We assumed that an explanation would be forthcoming, but clearly we once again overestimated the abilities of WWE’s writing staff, because what we got was a brief speech from The Undertaker, where he intimidated Vince, told him whatever he did to Shane would be Vince’s fault, and then…quietly left without incident. We didn’t think it was possible, but we now know even less about The Undertaker’s motivations going into this WrestleMania match than we did last week. But hey, at least Vince used the airtime to confirm that if Shane loses, he will disown him and Shane will no longer be able to inherit anything, which we’re certain a lot of people cared about. We know that we’re incredibly worried that the independently wealthy and established businessman Shane McMahon might not end up getting a chunk of money someday that won’t affect us in any real way. Does WWE even know what this feud is about, or did they hear the pop for Shane last week, rub their hands together, and say “Well, now we don’t have to do anything else to sell WrestleMania”?
3. Man Getting Hit In Groin
Well, after wondering where the Intercontinental Champion, Kevin Owens, was last week, we found ourselves somewhat wishing he’d just remained off TV, if it means he can escape this fate of being trapped in a 50/50 feud with The Big Show. Show can say whatever he wants on the Stone Cole Podcast about being the reliable guy who can put anyone over, and how he still has years left in his wrestling career, and he actually seems like a really great guy. But it’s 2016, and we have seen absolutely every permutation of a feud with The Big Show and there is absolutely nothing new under the sun. There are a dozen wrestlers who could put on incredible matches with Kevin Owens, starting with the guy we mentioned a few paragraphs ago who is stuck in a tag team for no reason and moving down from there, so you can probably understand why watching The Big Show hit Kevin Owens in the crotch with the ring rope to ensure their feud continues might make us a little disgruntled, especially if this continues all the way to WrestleMania. And if WWE just wanted another throwaway feud for Owens before his real feud for Mania, couldn’t they just have extended his thing with Dolph Ziggler, or put someone like The Miz in there, so there’s a chance the matches would be worth watching?
2. There Is No Third Hour
At some point in the recent past, we joked that it seemed like WWE was slowly giving up on the third hour of Raw due to the constant drop in viewers over the course of the show, and making sure their really important stuff happened at the end of the second hour instead. After the last few weeks, it’s looking less and less like a joke and more like reality, with the alleged main events of Raw featuring less and less “marquee” matches, and the hour leading up to the end full of low card filler involving less important wrestlers like R-Truth, the Social Network, and non-Horsewomen Divas. While the fans may love Dean Ambrose, a match with Alberto Del Rio isn’t exactly something you’d consider the biggest match of the show, and sounds more like something that would be, say, a match for the top of the second hour, with names involved that are just big enough to be important, but not the match the night is based around. Meanwhile, the first hour ended with Stephanie spitting hot fire about Shane, and the second hour with the heavily advertised return of the Undertaker for the first time since Survivor Series. Either of those are arguably big enough segments to be the “main event” of the show, especially over Ambrose-Del Rio, but instead happened earlier in the evening, when viewership has remained far higher than the abyss that is the third hour. We can’t prove this is some sort of long-term strategy by WWE to make the final hour increasingly irrelevant until USA stops paying them for it, but we also wouldn’t blame them for doing so.
1. Whoa. Deja Vu. Except, Not.
The end of Raw this week was almost a carbon copy of the end of Raw from last week, with one significant difference. Just like the previous episode, the plucky babyface fought a League of Nations member and got overwhelmed by the numbers game and a distraction by Triple H, who proceeded to beat the crap out of the babyface. Except this time, the crowd booed the actions of the heels and cheered when there was a brief moment where it looked like Dean Ambrose might actually fight his way out of the situation. Triple H came off as a sadistic heel, and Ambrose got a ton of sympathy for getting beaten down repeatedly and continuing to get up, even getting another cool line where he thanked Triple H for agreeing to a title match while he lay crumpled in a heap from the beatings he’d received. In the span of one week, WWE managed to showcase why Dean Ambrose is a big star, someone the fans want to cheer for, and a hugely sympathetic character, while Roman Reigns is none of those things. And in the process, WWE has taken the guy who is headlining a throwaway televised house show in a match he’s almost certain to lose, and made that match more anticipated, in the eyes of the fans, than the main event of WrestleMania. Something about that just doesn’t seem right.