I was disappointed to have missed out on covering last week's post-WrestleMania edition of Raw. Usually the most entertaining episode of the year, the first half of the broadcast more than lived up to expectations with two great television matches and a killer angle involving the man of the moment Brock Lesnar. Unfortunately, the second half somewhat fell off a cliff thanks to crowd sabotage and an insipid same-old-shit main event featuring HoW favourites The Big Show and Kane. Now that show is out of the way and WrestleMania season has been and gone, we are back to normal. Hopefully this year WWE will kick the usual unfortunate habit of falling into a post-Mania malaise.
Hosts tonight are Byron Saxon, JBL and Booker T. Pleasingly the reports on WWE.com that Michael Cole would return this week following the Lesnar attack last time out proved to be inaccurate. So good news then, though Saxton's performance last week was pretty damn appalling if truth be told. Hopefully it was merely the pressure of having to go it alone (a foolish decision, I must say) that got to him. Let's give the guy another chance.
Promo Time: Seth Rollins
The first image I see is that of the god awful Big Show, standing with his arms folded next to the Andre the Giant trophy. All that does is remind me how vastly inferior Show's aura is compared to that of Andre.
Tangent: A word on Show's battle royal win at WrestleMania: I was watching with a group of friends and it was noted that "anything could happen", with one reveller joking, "Remember, it's Vince McMahon making the call. He will probably have the Big Show win it." We all laughed heartily. Then he went and did it! My first response was the punch line of a great Jim Cornette story about an unscrupulous promoter fixing a raffle to win a pony: "Gee, wouldn't you know it? Look who won the pony!" It was his son.
Back to Seth then, who is out here with his usual entourage. He has to fight through a chorus of boos a'la Vickie Guerrero, making him the only wrestling heel in the company who the casual fans actually despise enough to boo. He drops a delightful bombshell: Stephanie and Hunter aren't here tonight because they are on vacation! No Cole and no Steph!? I am in hog's heaven. Seth plays company shill for a few minutes parroting WWE lies about WrestleMania; the usual stuff, fake attendance number, social media success, that sort of thing. Big Show is especially impressed with how much the card trended, letting out a hearty laugh when Seth reveals the bogus, meaningless number. They really do put far too much stock in social media. "The biggest takeaway from WrestleMania was that the Authority always wins." No kidding. They have always won for the last two unwatchable years. Rollins claims that Show cemented himself as the greatest giant of all time with his battle royal win, which is such a ridiculous claim that Lillian Garcia rips up her notes in disgust. "And Kane... he was there too," says Rollins disparagingly. You can't beat the top heel in the company making ha-ha jokes. I guess he is turning babyface soon to feud with... oh please not Big Show.
Randy Orton gets bored and comes out to speed through his scripted lines like he always does. He is the worst culprit for delivering the awful pre-written verbiage badly. He doesn't ever pause for breath because he is scared of saying something wrong and losing track, so he just blurts out a massive, unintelligible run-on sentence. The gist is he wants Seth, but Kane shouts him down and tells him to show some respect. According to Kane, there are others worthy of consideration for a title shot at Seth, so there will be a triple threat tonight to determine the number one contender between Roman Reigns, Ryback (!) and Randy Orton. Wait. Wasn't Randy already announced as the number one contender? In addition, all three guys are wrestling tonight in singles matches too, guaranteeing we will all be sick of the sight of them come main event time. Tragically, Orton's match is against Kane right now.
Randy Orton vs. Kane
"This is a main event anywhere in the world!" attests the clearly insane Booker T, shattering his already flimsy credibility. WWE really do think Kane is a main event guy too. It's remarkable. Do I really need to waste time writing anything about this? It is Orton and Kane, two guys who have done everything possible in WWE and who rarely change anything about their act. You know the moves, you know it slows down when Kane is in control, you know WWE refuse to put anyone over Kane and Show in their desperate attempt to protect their perceived yet nonexistent auras. In this case Kane is protected with a DQ finish, thanks to a Kane chair shot on the outside. How unbelievably drab.
Final Rating: 1/2*
I'm already reeling in horror at the prospect of three hours of this mundane garbage, and then an onscreen graphic causes me to develop a spasm brought about by despair: Roman Reigns vs. THE BIG SHOW. Why don't they ever learn!? Working with Show damaged Reigns beyond repair prior to WrestleMania, so hideous were their matches and so idiotic was the booking. Reigns needs to be Goldberg now, no more fanny-footing around. Putting him with Show guarantees he will fail. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
WWE acknowledges on air that AJ Lee has decided to retire, which was perhaps the least surprising breaking news of the year when it came out. I have sensed that AJ was on her way out of the company for some time, ever since Punk departed actually. Working conditions must have been frosty for her at best, but Dr. Ammann deciding to sue her husband was probably the final straw. How could he possibly treat her should something happen? Talk about a conflict of interests. Rumour has it that AJ is leaving the biz because she is expecting a baby Punk, thanks to a photo tweet from NXT star Bayley showing her holding AJ's stomach with the word "expecting" used in the caption. Who knows. All it means is that WWE now has a grand total of one competent female worker on the main roster (Paige) and that a hole has suddenly opened up for Charlotte, Sasha Banks and the other superior NXT women to fill. Knowing WWE, they will probably turn to Eva Marie instead.
Backstage, Brad Maddox makes his long-awaited (ha) return in a segment with Kane. He doesn't say a word, he just stands there and gets a bollocking from the large red one. Seth barges in and yells at Kane for not pulling his weight, which is a little out of leftfield. I guess they suddenly have an issue because they need to have an issue. Standard fare for this company these days: all effect and no cause. They shout at each other for a while, Seth wants Kane to step down, Kane wants respect, so he puts Seth in a match next. "The unpredictability continues," claims Saxton. Come off it, pal.
Michael Cole's Lesnar-induced injury has been changed, thankfully, to a bulging disc in his neck. WWE showed their true colours last week when they gave Cole the same injury as what tragically killed Perro Aguayo Jr., just over a week earlier. Saxton notes that Cole is considering legal action, which about sums up the little germ's persona doesn't it? He was already a detestable little shill who put himself over at every opportunity, and now he is a litigious baby as well. We see footage from that unbelievably great angle, probably my favourite piece of WWE business in years, though it is tainted somewhat with the standard WWE revisionist history. Now the angle ended with Steph berating Brock and shouting him out of the ring, because she has to have the last word, you see. Truth is she bollocked him and then Lesnar beat up the cameraman some more in an act of Steve Austin-like defiance, and only stopped because Paul Heyman talked him down. This is going to become another renegade babyface against omnipotent heel authority figures angle isn't it? Jesus, that stuff was passé by 1999, yet it's been going on ever since!
WWE continues to hotshot its network, offering April for free, just like February was, and November before that. It makes sense from a business perspective because they have added Nett subscribers each time they have done it, and they want to avoid the expected post-Mania drop off. But it will be a law of diminishing returns. You can only hotshot for so long before the tactic stops working.
Seth Rollins vs. Neville
To my absolute delight, Seth Rollins' unannounced mystery opponent is NXT standout Neville. Formerly Adrian Neville. Formerly PAC to those who knew him from the Indy scene. I have been a huge admirer of the guy since he debuted on the UK circuit a decade ago, so I am overjoyed to see him given such a plum spot. Adam Rose and Fandango certainly didn't get to mix it up with the WWE Champion when they were called up, that is for sure. Could it be that WWE actually have faith in the guy? For once, can they see what everyone else sees? Showing that NXT is not just over with the smart mark audience, the crowd tonight breaks into an "NXT" chant in support of Neville. They work a long, smart match, with the story being that of Rollins increasingly irked that he is unable to put the plucky underdog away. With each passing minute Rollins in more riled that Neville is able to counter him, and eventually he just starts punching him in the face. Neville shows plenty of fire and gets a decent amount of support from the crowd considering his status as relative nobody in main roster terms. His cause his helped by his tremendous ability and propensity for flashy offence, such as a delightful powerbomb counter into a rana that sends Seth upside down in the buckles. Bungled J&J interference appears to give Neville the opportunity to hit his red arrow finisher, but Rollins moves out of the way and survives a pinfall attempt before hitting the powerbomb into the buckles that he was trying for earlier. He follows that with the curb stomp for the win. For a moment there, I almost believed WWE were going to put Neville over the WWE Champion. I would have loved it if they had been brassy enough to do that and make a star instantly, but I am not overly annoyed that they didn't. Rollins should be protected as champion given the cheap way he won it, and in defeat Neville looked better going out than he did coming in. The announcers put him over big too, especially JBL who describes him as " the wunderkind". I am pretty sure that was Alex Wright... Post match, Seth gives Neville another curb stomp for his insolence at lasting so long and daring to step into the ring with him in the first place. Not quite Bret Hart vs. 1-2-3 Kid, one of the more famous examples of the champion beating the underdog challenger in a believable, back-and-forth, gripping encounter, but a fine match nonetheless.
Final Rating: ***1/4
John Cena vs. Stardust
For the second match running on this show, we have an open challenge. Cena's new gimmick is that the US Title represents "opportunity" and like last week he is letting anyone in the back come out and wrestle him for the belt. I like it. It makes the title feel important because Cena cares about it, and it gives him different guys to work with because anyone could theoretically accept. It's a shame that the embarrassing Stardust is the man to answer the call. At least it is a fresh match up I guess, which are a rarity in this era of six hours of first-run weekly television. The lack of familiarity does cause a few problems with timing and leads to the odd clunky looking spot, such as Stardust poking Cena in the eye and visibly annoying him. It bruises him up quite noticeably almost straight away. It's those damn spiky gloves that Stardust wears, they are a health hazard. Cody seems to be a step off for everything, and Cena has to quite obviously shout instructions at him throughout. It's odd, because as most everyone knows the heel generally calls the match. Despite the accidental potato, Cena still gives Stardust plenty of offence and willingly sells for him, even letting him flip out of the AA and hit an Alabama slam. They go to near falls and the crowd actually buy them, which is pretty impressive given it is the unbeatable Cena against the joke character Stardust. Another follows when Stardust evades the five knuckle shuffle and drills Cena with a DDT for a close count, as the level of performance begins to take a noticeable upswing. Stardust escapes the STF and hits what used to be called Cross Rhodes, and again it is a close two count. Cena busts out his wacky WrestleMania springboard stunner in response and then finishes with the AA to retain. Credit to Cena, he was a ring general in there tonight and worked through an early setback to pull a very watchable match out of what is essentially a comic relief character. This midcard role and open challenge gimmick might win Cena a few fans. He is certainly starting to win me over after consecutive good matches on this show.
Final Rating: ***
The Bellas vs. Paige & Naomi
At least it is not Eva Marie, huh? I keep hearing about how athletic and talented Naomi is, but outside of her flying arsehole attack, I haven't seen much evidence that she can actually work. I am sick to death of the Bellas too. Those horrid nasal voices, hand-slappy clotheslines and contorted B-movie grimaces are the reason the Divas division is such a joke. It's strange, because I abhor them on Raw but I think they are a riot on Total Divas. WWE should treat them like Rosa and Eva: keep them both strictly on that show and well away from a wrestling ring. The whole match is Paige taking heat before an apathetic hot tag, which Naomi manages to make a real hash of when she jumps off the top rope and lands on her ample ass. She moves gingerly afterwards, but still manages to put away Nikki following a really ugly looking version of her head scissors DDT move. If searching for the positives, one can at least be pleased that WWE are using throwaway tag matches to build to a title match rather than using titles matches to build to a throwaway tag, as they did with the Divas at WrestleMania. Nikki vs. Naomi is going to be goddamn horrible though. As this was.
Final Rating: DUD
Byron Saxton jumps his cue and goes into a plug for Miz vs. Mizdow tonight (yes, they really are giving away months of storyline build to do a throwaway Raw match in the middle of the show), but gets cut off by a pre-recorded Prime Time Players VT. Remarkably, it's pretty funny. After mocking my least favourite team in history, the New Day, they turn their attentions to the Ascension. For that they don plastic Legion of Doom shoulder pads and mock their one-dimensional promos, and it's great. Not so much for the Ascension - though there is no coming back for them now - but it sure made me like the PTP more. Actually I think Titus is seriously underutilised. The guy is a witty, comic genius on Total Divas (it's a good show, really, it is!) and looks impressive in the ring around the new breed of pint sized stars. I am surprised Vince hasn't pushed him to the moon already, thinking about it.
Luke Harper vs. Ryback
This doesn't last long. They clubber away at each other for two minutes in their usual match, Ryback shows a few impressive displays of power and then finishes Harper with the Shellshock. They went at it the whole time at least, which made it watchable.
Final Rating: *
Backstage, Rene Young interviews the New Day and brings up the crowd having turned on them. They are on the road to going heel, which is absolutely the best thing for them. "We clap or we snap," says Kofi. Big E tells a story about signing an autograph for a rude kid at a restaurant and they all do some clapping. It's an interesting take; smiling through hatred. Rene doesn't buy the explanation and wears an expression like someone just asked if they could take a dump in her mouth.
The New Day vs. The Lucha Dragons
All of the colourful outfits whisk me back to my eighties and nineties childhood. Big E and Woods are the duo on the New Day side tonight, which is an odd one. Surely Kofi would be the best opponent of the three for the flashy masked duo to shine against? "It's an exciting time in the tag division here in the WWE," says the increasingly ridiculous Saxton, who evidently started watching wrestling in the last decade and has no knowledge of the real great teams that populated the ranks in the eighties. Even though it is now okay to book the New Day in WWE world, the fans don't really bother. They are still apathetic towards them, and they probably always will be. After a match where it feels like nothing happened outside of a few Kalisto flips, the Dragons score the win thanks to Sin Cara. They are moderately over at least. Champs Cesaro and Kidd watch from the back, so presumably the Dragons will be next in line for a title shot. That could be really entertaining if they are given time to have a good match, and if WWE don't splurge it on Raw for weeks on end before the pay-per-view.
Final Rating: 3/4*
Roman Reigns vs. The Big Show
Oh man, I had forgotten about this. Much like Orton-Kane, we have seen it all before. About a dozen times on this very show already this year, it seems. The highlight is Reigns saying, "Oh fuck!" after Show jumps on him while he is lying in the ropes. The rest is the same match they always do, with Big Show dominating beyond any logical comprehension. Just go back a few weeks and read the review of one of their matches from earlier in the year. It's the same! Reigns' new gimmick is laughing at pain, like a modern day Al Snow, and he does that again her after taking a pounding for around three hours. A bunch of superman punches don't knock Show down, but the spear does the trick and Reigns gets the win! To a huge pop, no less. I am amazed that Show was pinned. Pleased, but amazed. Now get rid of him...
Final Rating: 1/2*
Backstage, Natalya, Summer Rae, Alicia Fox and Cameron pester a perturbed Kane for a battle royal to determine the number one contender to Nikki's Divas title. Kane gets a headache from their shrill voices (I know how he feels) so agrees to book the match for next week to shut them up. Kane has been fairly amusing in these backstage segments tonight. He is quite good in the role of put-upon reluctant authority figure. Away from the ring, he is a harmless addition to the broadcast. You know, that battle royal sure would be a great place to debut one of the NXT girls and give them a big win...
Sheamus vs. Mark Henry
Sheamus having dispensed with his terrible "shameful lobster head / too many limes" theme has instantly made him more appealing. His new track is really good. Much less goofy. I quite like his new look too. At least it is different. The crowd don't agree, and copy last week's audience in telling him he looks "stupid". Ouch. Sheamus mocks the little people on the roster like Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan, and points out that not many people are bigger than him. Naturally that leads to someone bigger than him coming out when Mark Henry answers the challenge. I am not sure why they insist on doing things like this. Sheamus should be running through people to re-establish him and get him over again, not backing off from someone like Henry. He struggles to do much with the immobile behemoth before finishing things with the brogue kick. Another clear finish! They are doing quite well tonight in that regard.
Final Rating: 1/2*
In a darkened room, Bray Wyatt makes his first Raw appearance since WrestleMania and it is as if nothing ever happened at the supershow. Wyatt cuts his usual cryptic promo, challenging someone or something. Who know; his promos are just a stream of well delivered drivel.
The Miz vs. Damien Mizdow
There is so much about this that I don't understand. I still can't believe they are throwing it away on Raw for one, but there are more equally confounding questions too. Such as: why is Mizdow still coming out to the Miz's music? Why is he still wearing Miz tights? Why for that matter, is he still called Mizdow? He is noticeably far less over now than he was a few weeks ago too, making the decision not to put him over in the Andre the Giant Battle Royal even more foolish. It's sad really, because they guy was on the cusp of being a star, yet the company had no faith in him. Not for the first time, either. Making matters worse, Miz goes over her to the sound of groans thanks to a tights-assisted roll up. Knowing how WWE book, they will now wrestle week after week and then have a payoff on PPV long after anyone cares anymore. Poor Damien.
Final Rating: *1/4
Randy Orton vs. Roman Reigns vs. Ryback
This is fairly brief as far as main events go, but entertaining regardless. The triple threat rules mean there is little time for resting or faffing around, so they just get right to hitting a bunch of moves. Things really heat up at the finish when Seth Rollins and his buddies head down, and Roman Reigns hits an impressive dive on the lot of them. He almost gets his hands on Seth, but Big Show smashes him in the face with two knockout punches to take him out of the match. Orton manages to get hold of Rollins briefly before J&J save him, so Ryback takes them out in amusingly vicious fashion. J&J are two of the best bumpers in the company, they make everyone look great. Then, as is becoming his thing around eight months after it really was his thing, Orton hits the RKO out of nowhere on Ryback for the win. Immediately, without missing a beat, Rollins smashes him with a curb stomp, erm, out of nowhere, setting the ball in motion for their feud... even though they were already feuding.
Final Rating: **1/4
THE RAW RECAP:
Most Entertaining: Seth Rollins. He did a great job with Neville, giving him far more offence than you might expect the WWE Champion would against a rookie.
Least Entertaining: The Big Show. No explanation needed in 2015 I would hope.
Quote of the Night: "Size matters" - JBL, courtesy of Vince McMahon in his earpiece. You could put that on Vince's headstone.
Match of the Night: Seth Rollins vs. Neville. Not quite the exceptional breakout display that it could have been, but a solid effort from Neville in his biggest match to date, and a pleasing show of faith in the talented youngster from WWE.
What We Said: It was wonderful not having to endure Michael Cole and Stephanie McMahon, but the lack of Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, Bray Wyatt, Rusev and Dean Ambrose hurt the in ring and star power on the show a little. I can't verify this, but I assume they are either already on the European tour or on the road somewhere. What was left was mainly the big guys, and thus the wrestling was a little lacking in some of the bouts. However, the performances of Seth Rollins, Neville and John Cena saved the show, as well as the hot finish in the main event. Not the best episode of Raw by any means, but two decent matches make it better than many this year.