WWE has been going in a somewhat different direction since WrestleMania, and it is now coming up on its first Pay Per View since Roman Reigns ascended his throne as WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and also since Shane McMahon somehow ended up in control of Raw. While TV ratings haven’t shown it, Raw has been on something of a streak of consistently good shows lately, and with Payback one week away, we were hoping for a good go-home show to really sell what is looking like a pretty good show, at least on paper. And while Raw wasn’t a bad show by any means, it seemed to lack that certain energy that the last few weeks have had. Rather than a hot show to get people hyped up for Payback, WWE seemed content to put on a show that featured lots of segments that, while fine, were just kind of…there. It didn’t ruin the good work they’ve been doing on Raw in the past month, but it certainly wasn’t the show we were expecting to get right before a Pay Per View.
10. The First Person To Say “Brand Split” Gets Smacked
All right, so finally they’ve kind of acknowledged that Shane McMahon remaining in charge of Raw just because he happens to keep showing up doesn’t actually make any sense, and we’re going to waste time on a Pay Per View (which becomes less important because they’re only ten bucks a month now) letting Vince McMahon decide who gets to be in charge of Raw (and presumably Smackdown, but, you know). Obviously, because Vince is evil, he should choose Stephanie and thus re-institute The Authority’s reign of terror that has depressed wrestling fans everywhere for well over two years. But, of course, because this is WWE and they just can’t help but continue to turn Vince into less self-aware parody of C. Montgomery Burns, complete with trademark sudden changes of heart, we expect he’ll laud Shane’s social media support and somehow we’ll end up with Shane permanently in charge (well, barring any future matches with Triple H for control, which we totally expect to happen by SummerSlam at the latest). It’s too bad he can’t just point to Raw ratings to justify the move, because they’ve continued to go down, but it’s not like they haven’t made plenty of on-screen decisions without having to rely on actual facts. Although, WWE.com is running a poll asking who fans would rather see in charge, and when this was published, Shane had a 90-10 advantage over Stephanie, so it would be a chance for WWE to actually give the fans what they want rather than just pretending to.
9. The Macho Man Formula Match
We’re referring here to the matches that Randy Savage was known for as a face, where he would take a beating for 95% of a match, then hit the flying elbowdrop at some point and win. Styles-Sheamus felt like that sort of match, as Sheamus basically manhandled Styles for the majority of the match, then Styles hit the Phenomenal Forearm literally out of nowhere and pinned him. Sure, you can talk about a match designed to build sympathy heat for a smaller competitor against a bully, and draw parallels to Styles’ match with the larger Reigns at Payback. However, the fact of the matter is, no matter how many World titles Sheamus has on his resume, he’s spent the last several months as part of an incredibly inept faction that couldn’t win a match if you spotted them a two-count, and he should not be dominating AJ Styles, one of the best wrestlers in the world, in a meaningless Raw match that’s supposed to be building Styles up on the go-home show before a Pay Per View. That match should have been Styles, well, styling on Sheamus, going through a short segment of peril, and then a hot comeback into a finish, not “Sheamus counters all of Styles’ moves because he’s big and strong, before slipping on a banana peel and losing”.
8. The NXT Tag Division
While we’re a little worried that New Day’s face turn has started to result in less creative promos and more references to booty, it’s hard to argue with a tag division that results in a ring containing New Day, The Vaudevillains, and the Realest Guys In The Room. The fact that the segment seemed cut way down, with Enzo and Cass barely getting enough time to hit their catchphrases, is a disappointment, but collectively, the division looks so strong right now. Say what you will about the Vaudevillains and the possibilities they may not succeed on the main roster (and we have), but they’re making the most of the opportunity and, for now, they’re still getting a chance to show off their stuff. The strong tag division, of course, will be handy once Gallows and Anderson start running wild on it, following their prolonged destruction of The Usos. We’re not sure how that makes them bad guys, but that might be because we don’t particularly care one way or the other about The Usos.
7. When Kevin Met Sami
Granted, there’s a ten year gap in WWE’s history of the Zayn-Owens feud, likely because they don’t want to have to explain El Generico at this point, but the video package that aired, in addition to Owens getting in another sneak attack on Sami after his match with Rusev (Sami, by the way, is a guy who actually does excel by using the Macho Man formula we discussed earlier, because of his underdog nature), did a great job of establishing the bitter rivalry that has even extended for years inside WWE itself. Sure, we’re not thrilled that the first Zayn-Owens one-on-one match in WWE is happening at a B show like Payback, but it’s not likely to be the last time they go at it on Pay Per View. The video also did a great job of fleshing out the characters of both men. You could see how Sami is a good guy who feels betrayed by someone he thought of as family, and how Owens just can’t stop valuing himself and his career in relation to Zayn, and thus will never be happy, because every small success that Sami earns is one that Owens feels should be his instead. The fact that both of them could be successful doesn’t even occur to him, and Owens blames Sami for everything, because if Zayn would just stop wrestling, Owens wouldn’t have to see him succeed and could finally feel better about himself. In a way, it’s almost a shame that those two can’t just feud forever, because nothing they do will ever be as real and personal as when they fight each other.
6. Two Paths Diverged
That’s right, we’re making Robert Frost references in a wrestling article. Anyway, we’ve been following the progression of two big NXT projects, Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews, since they’ve debuted on the main roster, and it’s interesting to see the different direction their first months have gone. After winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania, Corbin has been placed in a high-midcard feud against Dolph Ziggler. leading to a PPV match at Payback. The problem is, because Dolph is somewhat protected, Corbin hasn’t looked as dominant as he was allowed to be in NXT, and while he’s hung in there admirably against Ziggler, he also is missing the imposing nature of his character that worked so well in developmental. Meanwhile, Crews is taking the scenic route, working enhancement matches against WWE’s denizens of the lower card, and scoring some easy victories that show off his impressive capabilities. He isn’t going to be wrestling at Payback and may not even move up the card for a while, but if you had to ask us which of the two NXT graduates looked more like a future star, we’d have to go with Crews, who has really shone against inferior talent, while Corbin has quickly assimiliated into the dreaded “just another midcard guy” spot that might stunt his growth significantly.
5. Eon Productions Is Gonna Sue Somebody
That would be the studio that makes James Bond movies, if you’re curious. We have to imagine that WWE is paying someone some serious royalties at this point, because they’re not even pretending that Cesaro isn’t literally cosplaying as the world’s most famous secret agent at this point. Personally, while his Bond impression is decent, to us, he’s got more of a Jason Statham look going for him (as a side note, has anyone seen that phone commercial starring multiple Stathams? How insane is that thing?), but whatever gets him a prominent position on Raw. This week’s talking segment with Miz and Maryse wasn’t as good as previous efforts, and at some point it’s going to get pretty annoying listening to them quoting movie lines at each other, but the fans are into it, so what are you going to do? What we really wanted to mention, however, is that when Maryse threw herself onto Miz to prevent Cesaro from using the Giant Swing, there was a part of us that legitimately believed that Cesaro might be able to pull it off anyway, despite the extra person. Obviously, that would have been horribly unsafe and probably impossible, but now we can’t help but want to see him try.
4. Remember The US Title?
Remember a few months back when we were thrilled that WWE was giving Kalisto a chance to show what he could do as a singles competitor, freed of the shackles of Sin Cara? Well, since winning the US Title, Kalisto hasn’t exactly been given an opportunity to shine. In fact, we had to find a generic photo of him to accompany this entry, because there aren’t any recent photos of him from Raw! We could sort of understand moving his match with Ryback to the WrestleMania pre-show, simply because it meant at least one of the pre-show matches would be somewhat important, and besides, nobody cares about Ryback anyway. However, apparently that feud is still going on, despite Kalisto winning cleanly at Mania, and the only appearance of either Superstar on Raw was the Lucha Dragons getting eliminated in the first round of the #1 Contender Tag Team Tournament (sponsored by Booty-O’s). So, when Michael Cole announced that Kalisto would be defending the title against Ryback on the Payback pre-show, we were both surprised, because we’d basically forgotten that the US Title existed, and disappointed, because Ryback again. Apparently, if John Cena isn’t holding the US Title, it literally means less to WWE than anything else going on in the company. In fact, we’re pretty sure Ambrose’s potted plant has had more screen time than that title in the past month. If WWE is just going to waste all the prestige Cena tried to give the title last year, and it appears that they’re fine with doing that, maybe a unification match with the Intercontinental title isn’t the worst idea in the world.
3. A Faction In Name Only
We spoke earlier about Sheamus and his lame faction of international buddies, and as reported, it looks like the League of Nations will be quietly going their separate ways. Sure, Lillian Garcia still announced them all as “League of Nations member”, but she’s already in trouble for calling Big Cass by his full name, so you can’t trust anything she says. Meanwhile, every member of the League entered to their personal themes, without any sign of their apparently former teammates to be seen. They even stopped wearing their new shirts, and Lana suddenly remembered she’s supposed to be hanging around Rusev all the time again! Of course, the stench of the League was not quickly erased, as all three lost cleanly, including a particularly limp effort from Del Rio, who’s back to sleepwalking through main event matches and couldn’t even beat a distracted Roman Reigns. But the important part is that it’s over, it probably won’t get mentioned ever again, and it will go down in history as one of the least effective stables of all time. We’d say they were worse than the original League of Nations, but that organization failed to prevent the rise of Hitler and a second World War, so some people might think we were being needlessly hyperbolic. That doesn’t mean we’re not thinking it, though.
2. Too Little, Too Late
There was very little chance that WWE would not run some sort of tribute to Chyna after her tragic death last week. She was a massive figure in wrestling who was closely associated with WWE and the Attitude Era, and it would have looked odd from a PR perspective for WWE to not at least acknowledge her passing. However, the video package WWE ran on Raw seemed symbolic of how poorly Chyna’s contributions have been handled by the company. It was a perfunctory video, showing some highlights of her accomplishments, and a few Tweets of recognition, but it lacked the polished nature that WWE’s video editing crew is known for. Where were the talking heads of wrestlers reminiscing about her contributions to the industry, or how she inspired them to become a wrestler? Well, there weren’t any, because WWE hasn’t acknowledged Chyna’s existence since roughly six seconds after she left the company in 2001, so there’s no archived footage from other documentary pieces to put into a tribute video. There might well be a Chyna documentary, and even a Hall of Fame induction, in the future, but it all seems so meaningless now that she’s not around to actually receive the honors she deserves. For whatever reason, WWE dropped the ball in a huge way with Chyna, and now they can never truly make it better, which makes the sad way in which her life ended all the more tragic.
1. But Whose Side Is He On?
We’re not actually talking about AJ Styles here, because we’re pretty sure he’s getting betrayed by Gallows and Anderson on Sunday. We are going to talk about Roman Reigns here, though, because after a few weeks of seemingly allowing Reigns to fill his natural role as an arrogant jerk who can back it up by being champion, WWE slipped back into the old habit of pretending that Reigns is actually a beloved good guy who inspires children everywhere and will totally be able to fill the shoes of John Cena (who, you’ll notice, received several mentions of his impending May 30th return on the show, almost as if WWE can’t wait to have him back to take the load off Reigns). We get it, Reigns does charity work, just like every other WWE Superstar, but spotlighting it, and having him walk over and acknowledge the Make-A-Wish kids at ringside, while boos rained down around him, seemed like an odd move. It’s not like WWE hasn’t ignored charitable appearances by Superstars when it doesn’t suit their character before, after all, you never heard a peep on TV when Erick Rowan was visiting a terminally ill kid a few weeks ago, so why do it with Reigns, who is definitely not in a position to be the face of the company at this point? We thought WWE might have decided to somewhat acknowledge Reigns’ lack of popularity and work it into a better character for him, but it seems like every chance they get, they can’t help but try and make him into the Cena replacement that he just isn’t capable of being right now.