We start with (most of) the roster on the ramp, showing solidarity with France after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday evening. They share a moment of silent reflection with the crowd, as the now iconic Paris peace sign by Jean Jullien adorns the big screen. A classy move from WWE, who actually had performers in the city during the attacks. The Bella Twins were both there on vacation, and had been walking distance away from where some of the attacks took place only an hour earlier in the day.
We are only one week away from Survivor Series, a card which has suffered a tumultuous build due to the injuries to Seth Rollins and Randy Orton, the absence of John Cena, and the general fan apathy towards to product in general. The WWE World Heavyweight Championship tournament is in full swing, with the first round having been completed on television last week, in a largely underwhelming set of matches. They were disappointing because of the lack of effort WWE put into the tournament. It didn't feel special, important, or really anything other than a series of thrown together matches. It wasn't helped by the participants being a ragtag bunch of midcarders, jobbers, comedy acts, and tired acts. Splurging the bracket immediately took the excitement out of everybody too, because immediately it was evident that Brock Lesnar hadn't been convinced to do some extra dates, that John Cena hadn't been talked into cancelling his long-planned time off, that Vince McMahon was willing to roll the dice with Daniel Bryan and have him come back, concussion concerns or not, or that WWE would take the opportunity to call up someone from NXT such as Finn Balor, Samoa Joe or Apollo Crews. Hell, they didn’t even cancel pre-booked matches featuring The Undertaker, Kane (who wanted the title desperately last month and worked in the title match on pay-per-view), or Bray Wyatt (whose whole feud with Roman Reigns revolved around the title). Why wouldn't those guys be in it? Also, on that note, why is Wyatt allowing Reigns to progress through the bracket, given his promise for the past six months of “anyone but you, Roman”. It’s all nonsense, slap-dash, half-assed booking, with WWE proving that when they get backed to the fences they wilt and take the beating. There is no fight in them. Satisfyingly, WWE’s apathy towards the tournament for its supposed richest prize was reflected in the ratings, with RAW dropping below three million viewers in its third hour for the first time since the days of Nitro whipping its ass, and the show overall scoring one of the lowest ratings in the last two decades. In another era you might expect a reaction tonight, but there is nothing that can shake this company out of its creative lull. Thank god for the primo workers they have up and down the card, keeping the place afloat.
Promo time: The Brothers of Destruction
Undertaker and Kane are given a protracted, dramatic entrance, with druids, chanting, darkness, lightning, the works. It takes them ten minutes to get to the ring, giving folk at home tuning in late time to get comfortable and make a quick brew. You know, it strikes me, wouldn't the demonic pairing’s entrance be that much cooler if they coordinated their magic and had the lights come on at the same time that Kane makes the posts explode?
With Undertaker’s “twenty-fifth” anniversary coming up at Survivor Series, a fact that has been heavily promoted by WWE, you could be forgiven for thinking he would be involved in something monumental. But alas, no, instead he is teaming with his storyline brother for a tag team match against two random members of the Wyatt Family. That’s right, a generic tag bout, not a traditional Survivor Series elimination match, nor even a 2-on-4 encounter with the odds stacked against he and his sibling, but a bog standard, throwaway tag team encounter. Which begs the question, why would anyone want to see that now after Taker and Kane already destroyed all four of the Wyatts last week on RAW, exacting their revenge in full for the attacks they suffered at the hands of the clan? In kayfabe world, having already beat them up do Undertaker and Kane now feel the need to score a pinfall victory over one of them in order to fully move on and get over the ordeal? The character motivation doesn't make sense.
Even worse, Bray himself challenged the BoD to the straight up tag match, stacking the odds against himself and halving his resources after having already seen the duo smash through his entire clan. Sometimes I think WWE don't give its fans any credit and assume they are all so dumb that they won’t pick up on things like that, but they do, of course they do, and that is just one of the many reasons why nobody is invested in any of the characters on this show. None of them are consistent, none of them do logical things, they just do whatever random nonsense they are scripted to do that particular week, with nothing holding over and running on into the future. So the result is a tag match that nobody wants to see, a complete waste of Undertaker on his “special night”, and another feeling of being completely underwhelmed by WWE’s directionless creative.
The one positive I can say about this opening segment is that the staging, for once, is very good. As the brothers discuss their feelings in an unintentionally tongue-in-cheek Addams Family manner (darkness, hell, evil, demons, etc), they are bathed in an eerie blue light while the rest of the arena is in darkness, which makes for a rather satisfying eerie surrealist effect. The Wyatts predictably show up to retort, but refrain from entering the ring immediately, and instead wait around at the stage while Bray sits in his rocking chair and rocks back and forth, explaining that he is the new Big Bad in WWE, before commanding the forces of thunder and lightning with the power of his mind. He makes the lights go out, and when they come back on the druids from earlier, who I had forgotten about, are now surrounding the ring clad in sheep masks. Creepy as hell, but probably could have been even cooler if they had already been surrounding them in the ring. Bray seems quite satisfied with himself, but like Wile E. Coyote, his master plan turns out to be a bust. Taker and Kane handily destroy the tiny druids, with Taker planting one of them so hard with a chokeslam that his mask comes off with the impact. The Wyatt disciples head to the ring, but Bray calls them off and instructs them to wait until Sunday. Why would he do that? Why would the Bray Wyatt character care about saving the fight for a Network special? This was standard WWE match building fare really, with a whole lot of empty threats but little actually happening.
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Tournament Quarter Final
Neville vs. Kevin Owens
This could be a television classic, and indeed it was on the indies a couple of times. Kevin Owens is so good because he is blessed with that rare combination of having exciting, variant offence, much of it unique -in WWE at least- but he can also take everyone else’s spots, and he moves around incredibly well for a big guy. He is one of the best bumpers in the company, which is impressive for someone his size. Neville is similar in that his work is always smooth, exciting, and occasionally jaw-dropping, plus his bumping and selling is almost second to none. It makes for a great match up on paper, and indeed tonight. But of course, in the eyes of WWE Owens in tubby and Neville is short, so they will never be allowed to get over past a certain level. They will always be the guys that the top guys beat on their way up, they are not top guys.
The action is as solid as you would expect, with the excitement levels increasing after a gentle start when Neville cuts it real close breaking a ten count, causing Michael Cole to get flustered and declare that the close nature of the near win “infu-ree-a-rated” Owens. Neville brings some nice stuff such as a snap German in the corner after ducking a charge, and a corkscrew moonsault which gets a near fall and has the fans right into it. He makes a few attempts at the Red Arrow, but Owens knows his game and finds ways to prevent it. Neville avoids Owens’ pop-up powerbomb with a superkick right on the money, followed with a sick reverse rana. Owens takes it beautifully, perhaps better than anyone I have seen take that move. Neville tries to follow up off the top again, but Owens sees it coming and moves, but Neville sees that and changes in mid air. Nice. Unfortunately for him, he isn't quick enough to avoid a brutal wild bomb version of the pop-up powerbomb for the Owens win. An exciting, high impact match, with plenty to enjoy from bell to bell. It probably needed another five or ten minutes to really be something special though.
Final Rating: ***½
Backstage, Triple H has an unheard conversation with Owens, and they shake hands. Is he Authority bound? It would certainly be a huge boost to his career if he was.
Tyler Breeze vs. R-Truth
Truth continues is his role of jobber to the midcarders, and he has been such a terribly written character this year that nobody cares one iota about him anymore. It wasn't all that long ago that he was main eventing Survivor Series at Madison Square Garden opposite John Cena and The Rock. Breeze takes far too much of a kicking for a new guy who should be booked strong and getting a push. Especially from a no-hoper like Truth. When he takes a shot to the face, he collapses in the corner so his valet Summer Rae can put lip balm on him, which draws uproarious laughter from the announcers. Yeah, let’s all bury the NXT grad, just like with poor Adam Rose and The Ascension. Hell, just like Cole did with Daniel Bryan for years, until he got over and Cole had to shut his gormless mouth. Breeze gets aggressive after that and targets Truth’s leg, going to work on it with vigour. After a brief Truth flurry, in which he does at least remember to sell the leg, Breeze puts him away with his Beauty Shot finisher. It is already quite apparent that Breeze is going to suffer on the show from the usual problems. His gimmick doesn't translate to the main roster, partially because Vince McMahon has no damn clue what a selfie even is, plus Breeze is a little guy. He looks so generic and lifeless on this show compared to NXT that it is sad. I bet he would rather be back down in Florida. I cannot fathom for a moment why anyone would want to move from NXT to RAW right now
Final Rating: ¾*
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Tournament Quarter Final
Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler
This is another good match-up on paper, though it is an all-babyface affair so it could split the crowd. The winner will face Kevin Owens at Survivor Series, and frankly either would be a strong choice. Ziggler can take his moves well, whereas Ambrose would bring the smash-mouth brawler side out of Owens. They can also both talk up a storm, so it is a shame there will be almost no TV time prior to the card to promote the bout.
They start out with some solid mat work, giving Ambrose a rare chance to display his technical wrestling acumen. They look like they are having a lot of fun out there and being given the chance to work. Ambrose is by nature more aggressive, which comes into play when Ziggler starts avoiding his offence and frustrating him, then outwrestling him with snazzy submission holds. It’s good wrestling. Ziggler tags Ambrose on a dropkick and knocks him daft, but he regains his bearings and returns the favour from earlier by going for submissions. Resident wrestling philistine Byron Saxton is bored, calling it “methodical” because he doesn't understand slow-burning wrestling and intelligent match pacing. Nobody establishes a period of control at any stage, which makes for a really well-worked back and forth contest. Not in the typical WWE big match style where everyone involved just hits finisher after finisher either, but rather with intelligent wrestling.
They have some nice sequences such as a series of pin switches, and a double crossbody that puts them both down, not to mention a bout of fisticuffs on the top rope that both men take a spill to the outside from. There is plenty to like about this, with both guys countering each other’s more well-known spots, and ramping up the volume of the big moves as the bout progresses. The counters and transitions into their bigger moves are excellent. A turning point comes when Ziggler hits an X-Factor off the top and tweaks his knee, so Ambrose rolls to the outside knowing Ziggler can’t follow him, buying himself some time to recover from the move and saving the match. More smart wrestling.
Back inside they exchange near falls again, then any remaining niceties cease as they engage in a good old fashioned fist fight. They switch and switch again into the Dirty Deeds, and Ambrose wins it clean in the middle. Corking match. Far different from what I was expecting, and executed at a high level throughout. There wasn't a single dead spot or dull moment, and it was a real showcase of what two talented guys can do when they are allowed to just go out there and wrestle. Dean promises to turn WWE upside-down if he wins the belt, and guarantees more action and less talking. Suddenly, based on that tantalising statement, every wrestling fan in the world wants him to win.
Final Rating: ****
The New Day vs. The Usos & Ryback
This is filler. We do get a pre-match promo from New Day where they mock Jey Uso’s shoulder injury and change the Uso chant to, “When we say uce, y’all say oww”. Excellent. Considering Jey is just back from that injury, one which has had him on the shelf since WrestleMania, his decision to hit a wild dive over the ropes -which he overshoots and goes crashing into the barricade- is a fairly boneheaded one. It leads to heat, as tag formula takes over. The announcers get bored and start talking about Dirty Dancing. Big E amuses me at least by mocking Ryback throughout, repeatedly slapping his own head and yelling “stupid”, just like the big lunk himself does. They run the old fake tag spot that the ref misses, and the ever-intelligent Ryback takes an age arguing the toss about it, with Jey taking more of a kicking with each second that passes. Seeing Ryback as an easy target, New Day rile him further when Big E slaps him, leading to the big guy coming in all angry and full of bluster, and in his exuberance he shoves the referee and gets his team disqualified. Duh. To compound the idiocy, Ryback and his partners celebrate the loss afterwards. Good to know that wins and losses mean absolutely nothing.
Final Rating: *½
Backstage, Triple H gives Cesaro a pep talk. “Very few guys can do what you can do in that ring,” says Hunter, before suggesting that he might need that little something extra to take him to the next level and grab that brass ring. Oh, insider comments. In this context he means The Authority. This merely serves as a ploy to take a little of Cesaro’s popularity away from him prior to his match with the chosen one, Roman Reigns, sewing seeds of doubt in the minds of fans on the fence with the suggestion that Cesaro might turn heel and side with the WWE powers that be. Like Owens, it wouldn't be the worst move for his career if he did.
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Tournament Quarter Final
Roman Reigns vs. Cesaro
As pleased as I was to see Cesaro defeat Sheamus last week, if I was WWE I maybe wouldn't have done it. They want Reigns as their guy, there is no doubt about it, so putting him in with the always-popular Cesaro when he is already struggling for fan approval seems detrimental to his growth. Roman struggles through some scripted lines before the match, reminding everyone that he turned down the chance to take the easy route to the title when he rejected The Authority. Pandering. My suspicions that the fans may turn on Roman turn out to be incorrect, thanks to a primo carry job from the incredible Cesaro. Watching him lead Roman through intricate spots with the greatest of ease reminds me of guys like Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, and Bret Hart in their pomp. Like Ambrose-Ziggler, this is another triumph in the ring, with two babyfaces not confined by the shackles of bad script writing going out and working for twenty minutes. The match is a total throwback in the sense that they tell a story in the ring, with Cesaro targeting Reigns’ arm, and at the same time favouring his own after a few weeks of having it worked over. It’s simple, but effective. Cesaro turns things up a few notches with a series of incredible feats of athleticism, including a majestic cartwheel from the top rope, and a sequence where he evades the Drive By, pulls Roman right into the giant swing, turns it into a Sharpshooter, then counters Roman’s attempts to reverse it by hooking a crossface. The man is a machine, and there is nobody in the company working at his level. Of course JBL, the proxy voice of Vince McMahon don't forget, is more interested in the impressive power displays from Reigns, such as a one-armed powerbomb with the injured arm, a move that by rights he shouldn't be able to do after the hammering the appendage has taken. JBL then comes out with a corking line, “That is impossible to do! Try it at home and see for yourself!” Michael Cole quickly chimes in, recommending that nobody should try this at home, but rather should leave the moves they see in the ring to the professionals. What a goof JBL is. The bout concludes with a series of well-timed, believable counters, ending with a Reigns Superman punch followed by the spear for the inevitable victory. Predictable result or not, this was another awesome match on what has been the strongest RAW of the year as far as in-ring goes. Every bit as good as the Ambrose-Ziggler match, but worked in an entirely different fashion, this is probably Reigns’ finest singles performance since WrestleMania.
Final Rating: ****¼
The Dudley Boyz vs. The Ascension
It’s matches like this which serve as a reminder that no matter how good RAW is, it is still far too long and needs too much filler to pad it out. This match-up is completely worthless, with the Ascension long past the point of no return, and the initial excitement that greeted the return of the Dudleys having long since died down. They are just another badly used act in a promotion filled to the brim with them. They have been off TV for a couple of weeks since failing to get the job done against New Day, which was the right thing to do because they had been immediately overexposed and grew quickly tiresome. Bringing them back to beat the Ascension in a nothing match does little for them, and literally the only purpose this served was to eat up time.
Final Rating: ½*
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Tournament Quarter Final
Alberto Del Rio vs. Kalisto
This is a foregone conclusion, as indeed all of these quarter final matches have been, but this more so than the others. Del Rio’s return so far has been a total bust. He has gone from one of the hottest guys on the Indy scene to someone working without any passion for what he is doing. It is hardly a surprise given how he has been booked since coming back, with his wacky pairing with Zeb Coulter failing on all fronts, and his work having the feel of someone phoning it in. There is no intensity to anything he does. Things go from bad to worse for Del Rio when he accidentally rips off Kalisto’s mask during a spot on the top rope, which draws an audible “ooh” from the crowd and a “Woah!” from JBL, ever one to channel Bobby Heenan in WCW and point out a botch. The next thirty seconds see the pair desperately try and put the mask back on, which gets them booed out of the building, and the rest of the match is played in front of total silence. Del Rio scores the win with a messy double foot stomp off the top for the win, to end another Del Rio disaster.
Final Rating: ¾*
Contract Signing: Paige and Charlotte
There is no women’s match on the show, but we do get a Main Event Contract Signing, which I guess is a first for the female folk on RAW. Clearly WWE saw Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm draw a record crowd for UFC in Australia and thought, “Well golly gee, we can do that too!” Only, they can’t, because Mmes. Rousey and Holm had genuine real-life stories to tell, and an intense professional dislike. They also won, all of the time, which made a showdown between them a tantalising prospect. Paige lost last week to Becky Lynch in her home country, for no other reason than... well, I cannot even give an explanation as to why that was a good idea. WWE thinks that my shoehorning its female talent into main event spots then they will become de facto main eventers, but that is not the case. You can put anyone in the main event slot, but that doesn't make them a draw. Just ask Diesel. This is as transparent an attempt to piggyback off UFC’s success with its female fighters as WWE have tried, and the results are part pretty good, and part revolting.
The segment is hosted by Michael Cole, who plays question master as Charlotte and Paige stare holes in each other from either side of a table. Charlotte gets emotional delivering her obviously scripted verbiage, struggling to juggle the task of remembering her lines while having to “act” on national television. The results are mixed, and her shaking hand betrays the fact that she is nervous as hell up there on the main stage. Charlotte makes the claim that she doesn't care about anything in wrestling except having a successful career in tribute of her late brother Reid Flair’s memory. Oh no. Paige in turn throws barbs, mocks Ric Flair for his silly jacket-attacking promos, then utters a line that is sure to help WWE win the “Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic” award in this year’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards; “Your little brother didn't have much fight in him, did he?”
And so, after a few weeks of terrible ratings, WWE reverted to what is known as the Vince Russo Tactic: shock TV. They did the same thing in 2002 with the infamous Katie Vick angle, in which Triple H accused Kane of accidentally murdering his high school sweetheart. If that wasn't bad enough, he then shot a skit wearing a Kane mask where he simulated coitus with Vick’s long-mangled corpse. The outrage was such that simple questions like, “Why was she still in a funeral home decades after her death?” were not asked. It turned out to be a Triple H laugh-fest anyway, because he was really screwing a blow-up doll. Oh, that cad. This happened around the same time as Al Wilson, Torrie Wilson’s father, was introduced to viewers. Dawn Marie ended up entrapping Torrie and engaging in a lesbian tryst with her in a desperate effort from Torrie to keep Dawn away from her father. It didn't work, and Dawn married Al, oversexed him on their honeymoon, and caused him to have a heart attack and die. At Al’s wake, the two had a cat fight and the casket containing poor Al came tumbling to the ground. It was vile. Paige mocking Reid, who tragically died in 2013 from an accidental heroin overdose at the age of just twenty-five, was every bit as bad.
You cannot blame Paige. She was given the line, Charlotte knew about the line, and they delivered it. They did what they had been written to do. In Vince McMahon’s world it is perfectly fine to make light of the death of the young son of a wrestling legend, because in his world the news, and real life, is all just another form of “entertainment”. He has showed similar levels of crass before, allowing C.M. Punk and Paul Heyman to mock Paul Bearer just weeks after his death in order to sell a program between Punk and The Undertaker. And let’s not forget how WWE exploited the death of beloved star Eddie Guerrero for years after he died as they desperately tried to get Rey Mysterio over as a main eventer. Why should Reid be any different? In the twisted logic of WWE’s mindset, anything and anyone is fair game.
Evidently Reid and Charlotte’s mother Elizabeth was outraged by the use of Reid’s death as a storyline plot point in an effort to build heat for a wrestling match. Taking to Twitter, she slammed WWE for “lazy” writing, which it is, and called it “cheap heat”, “disgusting”, “disrespectful”, “cruel” and “sad”. And looking at the bigger picture for a moment, is this of all weeks the right time to be using real-life death as a means to sell tickets? Yes, the post-comment brawl that follows the comment is pretty damn good, and it does give a match that few cared about a dose of real heat, but was it worth it? A really sour end to an otherwise excellent night of wrestling.
THE RAW RECAP:
Most Entertaining: Cesaro. Give that man a raise. He achieved in one night what WWE have failed to do for eleven months; he made Roman Reigns look like a star.
Least Entertaining: Paige. While not in any way to blame for the line she delivered, the fact is she did deliver it, and someone has to take the heat for it.
Quote of the Night: “If you had chapped lips Byron, you wouldn't have a job.” - JBL sheds some light on the reason for Byron Saxton’s continued employment.
Match of the Night: Cesaro vs. Roman Reigns, though the competition tonight was fierce.
Summary: It was a great show in the ring, the filler matches aside, but the great wrestling action on the broadcast was sandwiched between two rancid slices of sports entertainment. The opening segment with the Wyatts and the Brothers of Destruction achieved nothing at all, while the main event chat was one of the most disgusting things that WWE have done in the PG Era. It is hard to be positive about a show that ends in such an unsavoury manner. Still though, let’s take the positives, which were three excellent TV matches, and a star-making turn from the criminally undervalued Cesaro. This night belonged to him. At a time when WWE are desperate for guys to step up and grab one of Vince’s brass rings, he has as good a chance as ever of breaking through the glass ceiling and getting the headline billing he so richly deserves. Unfortunately, we have written the same thing many times before.