As of late the once vibrant and exciting Raw show, which once upon a time was must-see programming for all wrestling fans, has become a drab, uninspired chore. In an era where the success of television due to the revenue it generates means more than ever, WWE had managed to turn fans off its product in droves with repetitive, predictable programming, intensely dislikeable acts and a dearth of fresh ideas. Vince McMahon recently told his roster to reach for a brass ring and make a name for themselves, but the very nature of the micro-managed, overly-scripted world of Corporate Wrestling makes that an impossibility.
Hosts are the newly announced permanent announce team of Michael Cole, JBL and Booker T, with WWE having announced midweek that Jerry Lawler would now be on SmackDown! They have been looking to get him off of Raw for ages, though why they would choose Booker as his replacement is something I can't explain.
Promo Time: John Cena
And speaking of a lack of fresh ideas, here comes John Cena in the opening segment. Last week his decision to save Edge from Seth Rollins by bringing back the Authority resulted in his Survivor Series team mates Ryback, Dolph Ziggler and Eric Rowan getting fired. He cost three men their livelihoods. Tonight, naturally, he is all smiles, bouncing to the ring with the pep of a cheerleader. Apparently Triple H will only be remembered as a "slimy, power-hungry sociopath" because of his decision to fire the aforementioned trio. I am pretty sure most fans are going to remember him that way anyway. Cena thinks it is still December and invokes pantomime season by asking the fans to sing along answers to his questions. "Do you like Dolph Ziggler?" "Yeah!" "Did he deserve to be fired?" "Noooo!" What is this? Cena wants us to express our collective outrage by having the term "Authority Sucks" TREND ON TWITTER! Yes folks, on Twitter. Can you imagine Steve Austin in his pomp settling a score by trying to start a trend on social media? Hell no, he would grab a crossbow and go hunting. In fact, that is exactly what he did! Cena decides that he will win his three-way at the Royal Rumble and then... will fuck off and not turn up at WrestleMania, leaving WWE without a title match. Way to take a big fat dump all over the fans, dickhead. What a babyface.
Bored of listening to Cena's endless ramblings which everyone knows are all hot air and no action, Smug and Smugger, otherwise known as the Authority, wander out for a confab. Steph, of all people, mocks Cena for the Twitter threat, which has to be a new low for Cena. Why does he agree to let himself be booked to look like such a complete moron? Hunter carries on the Cena burial, noting that he knew the terms of the Survivor Series stipulation so he has nothing to complain about. Which is true. Hey, why is Hunter getting himself over at the expense of the company's top babyface? Give yourself a point if you answered, "Because the writers are brown-nosing sycophants." Hunter tells Cena that he can nullify last week's firings if he wins his match tonight against Seth Rollins. Wow, ONE WEEK and they are already voiding their own stipulations. I guess we should be please that the Authority were off TV for as long as they were. Triple H amuses me by contradicting himself almost within the same sentence, telling us the match between Cena and Rollins is a simple one-on-one match... which is now a lumberjack match! So, not a simple one-on-one match at all. All of the heels come out to serve as the jacks and the match is taking place right now.
John Cena vs. Seth Rollins
Even though we have been at commercial break for three minutes, we still have to sit through Seth Rollins' entrance when we return. Couldn't they have just done that already to get it out of the way? If you took the entrances out of Raw, it would shave at least twenty minutes. Given that they are wrestling each other on pay-per-view in a few weeks, this is pretty basic. The story is the age old "lumberjacks favour the heel and attack the babyface", though at this point you could put Super Cena in a handicap elimination match against the lot of them and he would still come out on top. Nobody buys him being in any peril, and frankly no-one cares. I have never seen the response to WWE so tepid at this time of the year. Not just tonight, but for the past few months. There is every chance that WrestleMania will be an absolute washout unless they get their act together soon and make people care about the product again.
Cena mounts his usual comeback and they do a fairly tasty sequence by WWE standards into the AA, but then Cena manages to undo it all by throwing two of the phoniest looking punches you will ever see when J& J Security jump on the apron to prevent the count. Honestly, there for feet rather than inches between his fist and their face. Cena brings the lucha with an unrefined top rope dive onto the jacks, which does actually get a reaction from New Orleans. They exchange near falls, then Cena cuts Rollins off up top with another lame punch. Rollins manages to switch again and powerbombs Cena into the buckles, and the real-life Superman responds with a sloppy powerbomb of his own for another two count. A trade of fisticuffs occurs which would be embarrassing for kids pretending to wrestle in the playground, then Rollins evades the AA and hits a standing sliced bread for a two. Cena recovers, again, and connects with the AA but gets pulled out by the lumberjacks. "It's a mugging," screeches Cole. It means nothing though because Cena immediately avoids the curb stomp and locks on the STF. The jacks get involved again and Big Show hits his knockout punch, which finally gives Rollins the win. Jesus Christ it only took a dozen guys. This was so sloppy that it was hard to suspend any disbelief whatsoever, and structurally it was all over the place. Just moves and then selling, but not in a dramatic way at all. Hey, let's take the positive from this: at least the firings still stand and might yet last longer than a week!
Final Rating: *1/2
"Cena is not the hero tonight," laments Cole, but then happily reminds us that he will be back later on for a contract signing with Lesnar and Rollins. Great. The first forty minutes of the show have been all Cena, but by all means let's wheel him out again.
Backstage, the Usos are stood with Steph. She tells them that any resentment they have towards the Authority for firing their friends should be directed at Cena, because it is his fault. "Is that it? No other punishment?" asks Jay like a naughty schoolboy pleased to have escaped from teacher with only a lecture. Steph says it is, but tells Jimmy to inform his wife Naomi that she will be wrestling tonight with one hand tied behind her back. In the middle of this, Dean Ambrose appears and waits his turn. He gets told off for being unruly and erratic. Dean plays innocent, but Steph introduces a doctor who is there to assess his psychological profile, warning he might be kicked out of the Royal Rumble. Ambrose, like all unhinged lunatics, listens quietly and meekly accepts his fate. Three emasculations of top babyfaces from the non-wrestling female heel in one segment? Impressive.
Elsewhere, The Miz and Damien Mizdow impress put over the Slammys ahead of the Golden Globes.
Now to Dr. Corbett and Dean Ambrose. Ambrose is told to relax, but a ticking clock causes him some sort of seizure and he stares into it unblinkingly while pulling a whimsical facial expression. A few months ago some were championing him as the next Steve Austin, a sure-fire main event star who could be the anti-hero of the Millennial generation. Those fools.
The New Day vs. The Masters of the WWE Universe
Time for the standard "generic tag match" that always gets put in this pre-channel hopping spot. At least it is screen time for the horribly underutilised Cesaro and Tyson Kidd. Hey remember this time last year when some were championing Cesaro as... Oh, forget it. The New Day duo today is comprised of Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods! Yes, Woods gets to wrestle! The Masters have all the intangibles need to make a great team, and if WWE had any faith in either of them or a clue how to book tag team wrestling, they would flourish. I will be amazed if they are even still together in six months. Scratch that: three months. They do a sweet giant swing into a Kidd low dropkick, and a bunch of other neat double team stuff that shows great chemistry for a relatively newly formed team. Apparently they have been to the Performance Center all week working on new stuff, which is a creditable dedication to the craft. How are they rewarded for that? By losing cleanly to the anachronistic no-hope team. The New Day desperately try and get the crowd into their gimmick, but no one gives a tiny rat's ass. Not a single one. What even is their gimmick anyway? They are all black guys who dress in blue, and they shout the name of their team a lot while doing a funky dance. Why should I care? Why should anyone care?
Final Rating: 3/4*
Michael Cole then shares the news of the announcement broke by TMZ and WWE.com earlier in the day that Macho Man Randy Savage is "expected to be" announced for the annual Hall of Fame later in the broadcast. What a strange way of putting it. We then cut to a series of pre-taped mini-vignettes of current roster members doing Macho Man impressions. Roman Reigns is tremendous at it, Daniel Bryan doesn't seem to know where he is, and the New Day go for comedy but fail miserably. More on this later I guess, but my God is this long, long overdue.
[Note: For the full story about why it has taken so long for Vince McMahon to finally bow to public pressure and accept Randy Savage in his Hall of Fame, check out Titan Sinking, which dedicates an entire chapter to delineating the tale]
We get footage of some football team doing Ric Flair's full "limousine riding" routine courtesy of TMZ, used as a promotional vehicle for "Raw Reunion" next week which features Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels and Scott Hall. Not Kevin Nash though, because WWE pulled him from the line-up following his unsavoury Christmas Eve bust up with his son which landed him in jail. Mitigating circumstances or not, WWE is ultra protective of its image and carte blanche refuses to use anyone facing charges for domestic abuse. So, no nWo reunion next week, sadly. The use of this Flair footage does beg the question why WWE refused to use any of the similar and far more pertinent Daniel Bryan stuff that was doing the rounds last year though.
Promo Time: The Big Show
Is he going to turn for a thirty-third time? No, he is going to talk about being at the top of the food chain. Yeah, whatever, maybe at the front of the queue in a food court. Show tries to make himself relevant by referencing having beaten Hulk Hogan on his debut. TWENTY YEARS AGO! "You're losers," he tells the crowd, in a desperate attempt at generating cheap heat. He talks about attitudes towards new employees at work, which leads him in a roundabout way to Roman Reigns. He is hardly a "new guy", he has been around for over two years now. When Show says he "dominates the WWE," he is barely able to keep a straight face. The moral of this story is that Roman Reigns fans are losers. That son-of-a-bitch! How dare he. Cue Reigns' music, and good lord he has a mic in his hand. For those who missed it, on SmackDown he used the phrase "sufferin' succotash". The poor guy is then forced to regale us in a squeaky voice with the tale of a little boy called Roman, who planted some magic beans and grew a beanstalk, but the cowardly giant ran away. "This is ridiculous," mouths Big Show, and for once I agree with him. Reigns is absolutely dying out there. Vince has turned him into an organically popular badass into a pandering John Cena facsimile. And the fans are beginning to turn on him too, as evident from the smattering of boos he is getting here. I foresee a repeat of last year's Royal Rumble in two weeks, with Reigns in the Batista spot and Daniel Bryan once again as the man the fans are determined to get over. Hey remember a few months ago when Roman Reigns was... Oh, what's the use?
Roman Reigns vs. Luke Harper
Harper has also suffered a major downturn in fortunes this year following his random and unexplained split from the over and effective Wyatt Family. WWE just keep knocking them out of the park don't they? Reigns shouldn't be working long matches with big stiffs, he should be doing hot matches with good workers who can carry him or demolishing opponents a'la Goldberg, Ryback, Kane when he first started, or anyone else who has ever got over. Reigns was great in the Shield because they were dominant. Now with each passing week he is losing momentum and being made to look like a chump, thanks to the inanely penned ramblings of an out-of-touch Vince McMahon. Unless there is an insurgence, which will never happen, Vince and his stubborn ways will do serious damage to this company before he dies. He needs to realise that as a near seventy-year-old man, he cannot write scripts for thirty-year-old guys, or connect with audiences two or three generations removed from him. This match helps Reigns none at all. It is plodding and boring, lacking in any heat or intensity. Back at Elimination Chamber in February last year they were on opposite sides of the ring for one of the best WWE matches of the year, a trios match pitting the Shield against the Wyatt Family. Harper looked good, some even (wrongly) compared him to the late, great Bruiser Brody. Back to this "great match-up" (JBL) and Big Show is still at ringside and gets involved, nearly causing Reigns the match. He is the chosen one though, so like Cena he cannot be beaten easily. He breaks out his standard arsenal but another Show distraction causes him to get drilled with a Harper superkick for a near fall. Reigns counters with a spear and that is it. Show jumps Reigns after the match and knocks him out with his fat fist of fury, which is just another swell way to build the man destined for the WWE Title.
Final Rating: 1/2*
Backstage, there is no audio but it looks for all the world like Jimmy and Naomi are playing a frustrating game of charades.
Elsewhere, Miz and Mizdow again talk the Globes. Mizdow tells Miz that he had cameras all over his house that he has been using to secretly film him. Oh, I cannot wait for that surely rib-tickling footage.
Naomi vs. Alicia Fox
Naomi had one hand tied behind her back as previously stipulated, but even with that handicap she remains twice the worker that the obnoxious Fox is. She really winds me up, because she has been around the main roster for more the seven years and yet she still appears to have a limited at best grasp on what pro wrestling even is, never mind how to perform it. Her facial expressions, body movements and selling are so forced and unnatural that it makes me cringe. Even by the abyss-low standards set by the Divas division, she is the shits. Backstage, the Usos stand and watch the monitor and shake their head. Why does no one ever sit and watch the monitor? And why is no one ever watching it when secret devious schemes are afoot? The crowd is utterly silent for this crap, though credit to Naomi for trying to work within the limitations. She actually does a decent job of it, until Alicia wins with a scissors kick to the back. That means we get the delight of hearing the frankly unacceptable aural assault that is Alicia's music. Double win!
Final Rating: 1/4*
Back in the doctor's office, Deranged Dean is given the old picture association test. Rather than ink blots that look like butterflies, Dr. Corbett shows him pictures of members of the roster. Triple H? "Irritable bowel syndrome". Seth Rollins? "Scumbag". Roman Reigns? "Brother". Kane? "Toothpaste". Hacksaw Jim Duggan? "Hoooooo". Stephanie McMahon? "Hoooooo" Ha, I like that. This was fairly funny actually. Dean Ambrose is one of a very select few who can make the WWE's puerile scripted comedy come across as mildly entertaining.
Promo Time: Brock Lesnar & Paul Heyman
Well, just Paul Heyman really with Brock standing there looking cross. He is probably embarrassed to be a part of this farce of a promotion and counting down the days until he can walk free and back into a series of big money UFC matches. Heyman reminds us that Lesnar beat the Undertaker at WrestleMania, not that anyone who saw it will ever forget. They sure have done a good job of promoting Lesnar since he ended over twenty years of a legacy haven't they? Is he a bigger star now than he was going into that match? No. Hell, is he a bigger star than he was when he first returned a few years ago? Not at all. Heyman reminds us of Lesnar's various accomplishments, but we have heard it all before. When your champion only appears sparingly he should be utilised in the best possible way, not performing the role of nodding automaton. Literally ever program he has been involved in since he came back to WWE has followed the same strict, linear progression. He beats someone up once in a while to set up a match, Heyman puts him over, they do the match, he disappears. What a waste of money. The point of this segment? To hype the contract signing later in the night. Talk about a redundant use of time.
More Macho Man impressions next. Miz is great, the Bellas suck, Santino is unbearable, Dean Ambrose coughs, Jimmy Uso is good. Cena isn't bad, Kane won't play along.
The Mix vs. Jey Uso
As usual the brilliant Mizdow steals the match with his genius comedy on the outside, though frankly he is not a patch on Kota Ibushi, one of the finest wrestlers on the planet who once showed his whimsical side by contesting an epic contest with a blow-up doll in madcap promotion DDT. This lasts all of two minutes before a Miz skull crushing finale for the win. Nothing match.
Final Rating: DUD
Next week the WWE Network arrives in the UK, at the higher price point of £9.99. Believe me, anyone in the UK who wanted the Network has already got it.
Promo Time: Daniel Bryan
New Orleans is into Bryan, far more than anything else on the show but with nowhere near the level of visceral passion that he was generating a year ago. He reminds us - after pretending to forget - that last time he was in the city he won the WWE Title in the main event of WrestleMania. He says he is not only in the Royal Rumble this year, but that he intends to win it. The nails on chalkboard opening strains of Stephanie McMahon's music hits, and she wanders out clutching her new fitness DVD to an amusing chorus of "Hoooooooo" catcalls from the crowd. Nice one, Dean. Steph condescendingly offers him a copy of the DVD so he can keep fit, because mocking real life serious injuries is fun, folks. Steph does her best to belittle Bryan, reminding us that last time we saw him in April he was getting stretchered out after a ringside attack from Kane, and noting that an "A+" player not only wins the big one but defends it. Bryan doesn't take the bait and leads the crowd in a "Yes" chant, before deviating from the script and channelling Hacksaw with a "Hooooooo" shout and the trademark thumbs up. I hope this little taunt stays around. Steph tells Bryan that he won't be returning at the Royal Rumble but rather on SmackDown against Kane. I get why they are doing that, because it is a good way to push the move to Thursday and it makes sense to pay this off. It also gives Bryan a chance to get into ring shape before the Rumble. Kane heads out and the two have a wild brawl, with Bryan doing some fairly risky things for a guy fresh out of recovery. It is going to be hard watching him for a few weeks because his style lends itself to potential injury, and based on this he has no intention of slowing it down at all. Decent enough for a segment involving Steph.
Backstage, Brock Lesnar bumps into Seth Rollins and the two exchange barbs. It's good, the closest thing to intense on the whole show. Rollins says he is the future, and Lesnar tells him that he will decide when the future starts. Which will be in about eleven weeks when his contract expires. Heyman tells them to work together to take out Cena and then fight each other. Not that you can do that in a WWE triple threat match.
Paige vs. Brie Bella
This exists to shoot angle footage for Total Divas, which will then morph into some sort of alternate reality "real-life" story. The way they do Total Divas is wacky, but it is actually the best scripted entertainment show WWE have, far more interesting than Raw and an enjoyable guilty pleasure if you take it for what it is. The problem it has is the quality of the wrestling it is partly built around, and Brie is a prime example of that. On the show she is likeable and interesting, with a personality and everything. On Raw she is vapid and pointless, a template Diva cut and paste job complete with a routine that doesn't change. The most cringe worthy is her bizarre Hulking Up on the ropes as she shouts "BRIE MODE" like a video game character activating her special move. You would think being married to super-worker Daniel Bryan would rub off on her, but no. To further a Total Divas angle, Natty and Tyson Kidd are at ringside with Paige, and wouldn't you just know it they are involved at the finish. Following a Paige superkick, the twentieth on this show, Tyson jumps on the apron thinking the match is over, but he is premature. In the confusion Brie scores with a roll up. Blergh. Afterwards Paige decks Tyson, who laughs it off. Natty walks off amused.
Final Rating: 1/4*
In an unknown dark location, Bray Wyatt does his usual promo, this time warning everyone in the Royal Rumble to run from him. He needs an injection of inspiration pronto, because a once superb gimmick has been WWE-ified to the point of becoming mundane.
Randy Savage is officially announced as the first 2015 Hall of Fame inductee... even though they pretty much announced it earlier. Skewed logic as ever, but now, finally, this Hall of Fame is bordering on legitimate. A shame it comes four years after Randy's tragic, untimely death, but WWE even acknowledging him at all has to be considered a huge victory for Savage supporters who have been campaigning for a decade for him to be put in. It will be interesting to see if Hunter or any of the McMahons comment on him at all. I guess Lanny Poffo will accept the award, which will be an interesting speech to say the least if he does. It is of note but no surprise that they didn't honour his wishes of inducting the rest of the Poffo family with him, which I think they should have. Hell, if Drew Carey and Chris Von Erich are in there, anyone is fair game. Hulk Hogan is announced as inducting Savage, which is a goddamn loaded choice to say the least. Perhaps that is a final parting shot from McMahon, who is well aware of the real-life bad blood that simmered between the two for their entire careers.
The Ascension vs. Jobbers
Under the file of baffling WWE logic, last week the Ascension did a promo running down the vastly superior Demolition and Road Warriors duos, which resulted in JBL burying them on commentary in response. That was the idea, apparently. WWE felt that by bashing two great tag teams, the Ascension would generate heat, and JBL's shredding of them would get them over. How? I don't know. Once again they are fed jobbers here, which I approve of, but JBL evidently does not. He spends the duration of the minute-long affair making racist comments about the unnamed pair, and then continues to bury the Ascension for only beating nobodies. Cole tries to justify the booking by pointing out they don't choose their own opponents, but JBL won't have it. It is the strangest attempt at getting a badass team over that I have ever witnessed. The Ascension murder their hapless opponents, impressively actually, but JBL rags on them following the win anyway. Utterly bizarre.
Final Rating: SQUASH (Not rated)
In the now epically long psychological evaluation, Dr. Corbett is on the couch and Ambrose in counselling him. I am not sure what this says about the quality of medical professionals that WWE use, but I am sure CM Punk has a few thoughts on it. Ambrose makes Corbett sign his papers then buries him with childish insults and horrible jokes, ending the occasionally amusing but mostly naff segment on a low note.
Promo Time: Rusev & Lana
Lana thanks the Authority for firing Ryback, and Rusev calls him spineless. I like these two, but it's the same played-out crap every week with them. Rusev mentions Cena, briefly, setting up their inevitable WrestleMania match, then Dean Ambrose comes out for a confrontation. He gets a good pop, despite having been demolished week after week on TV and PPV for the past few months. He is Teflon.
Dean Ambrose vs. Rusev
We return from commercial and apparently this is a match now. Rusev targets Ambrose's dodgy leg, which was hurt by Big Show on SmackDown. It makes for a slow paced match. The crowd dies during this, sitting in silence despite Ambrose's believable selling and Rusev's strong monster status. I guess they don't give Ambrose a hope, rightfully so, and thus refuse to waste their time becoming invested in this. The finish is a joke, with the referee calling a halt to proceedings because he felt Ambrose was too hurt to continue. Surely that is why being able to submit exists as a rule? This did nothing for either guy.
Final Rating: 3/4*
Royal Rumble Contract Signing
Main event promo time with the Authority, Seth Rollins, John Cena, Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman. Heyman starts things off, pointing out unfair (and stupid) the triple threat rules are, because it means Lesnar can lose the title without being pinned. And he probably will too. WWE are running the risk of a Bret Hart / Montreal type situation with Lesnar, so I fully expect they will change course and abandon Lesnar-Reigns WrestleMania main event plans and go in a different direction, then just have Lesnar put over Daniel Bryan or something. Heyman put over Rollins for bringing back the Authority and masterminding the whole thing, and Rollins thanked him. Heyman snapped, yelling at him for cutting him off before he was finished to an "Oooh" from the crowd. When Seth was allowed to speak and Heyman cut in, he barked back that he wasn't finished, and the crowd popped it. Shit's on! Lesnar briefly did his own talking, noting that he has conquered Undertaker, Triple H and John Cena, and that Rollins will be next. Cena has heard enough and tells Lesnar that even though Lesnar doesn't need to be pinned to lose the belt, he intends to pin him. Again, I have no doubt that he will. Cena has been made to look like a promise-breaking, spineless, friendless chump these last few weeks. They don't harpoon their top guy unless there is a reason for it, so all signs point to a Cena title win over Lesnar, then Rollins cashing in immediately to set up a return. Probably. Things break down into a scuffle, as they always do, with Cena putting Lesnar through the table but Rollins laying out both guys with his curb stomp. He looks like a star as the show ends, on the level of the two megastars he is rubbing shoulders with. Let's sit back and watch them make a bollocks of it.
THE RAW RECAP:
Most Entertaining: Daniel Bryan. His encouraging of the crowd to chant "Hoooo" at Steph was fun, and his brawl with Kane was believable. It's good to have him back.
Least Entertaining: Stephanie McMahon. For being involved in half a dozen segments including three interviews in the ring, and for making the babyfaces look like simpering whelps, bowing to her presence. She is a cancerous polyp on the wrestling anus that is Raw.
Quote of the Night: "Hooooooooooooooooo" - Dean Ambrose / Daniel Bryan
Match of the Night: Hot diggety, nothing deserves this. Cena vs. Rollins technically, but the wrestling tonight was the drizzling shits.
Verdict: Bad. Actually not so much bad, as just mind-numbingly dull. The writing is so inspired that every promo sounds forced to the point of making you want to turn off. Wrestling has become deeply un-cool, akin to how people viewed it pre-Attitude era once the boom period ended around 1992. Stupid, played-for-laughs nonsense like Roman Reigns telling fairytales, Dean Ambrose making shit (literally) jokes and all of the other tongue-in-cheek stuff that no one can take seriously, just drives people away in droves. Casual fans don't want to be associated with something that makes their friends question why the hell they like this in the first place. And the hardcore fans, well they have long since grown weary of it all, and though they stick around, they don't care anymore. About anything or anyone. A year ago the company was riding a wave of momentum courtesy of Daniel Bryan, The Shield, The Wyatt Family, Cesaro's weekly great matches and the return of Batista. This year they look rudderless and seriously lacking in inspiration. Everyone is just going through the motions, too scared to challenge their position or the way things are done, quietly sitting there while their careers get damaged irreparably out of fear for their jobs. This show, while not their worst of recent weeks, exemplifies that. Avoid.