We’re in Memphis, Tennessee. Hosts are Michael Cole, JBL & Jerry Lawler. This is the WWE’s latest PPV concept, a worthless February PPV event to milk the Elimination Chamber gimmick elsewhere in the year. It reminds me of PPV’s from February’s gone by where nothing happened bar the Wrestlemania title shot being on the line.
Dolph Ziggler, Ryback & Erick Rowan vs. Seth Rollins, The Big Show & Kane
They set this up on Smackdown three days ago. Rollins and Ziggler are too good to be hanging around in the opener but at least that means we don’t have a straight up tag featuring Show & Kane. I was hoping Ziggler & Rollins just wouldn’t tag out as they open the match and it’s pretty darn good. Show vs. Rowan is dreadful. They keep looking around at their surroundings to make sure they don’t botch anything but in working that safe it makes everything look so fake. Crowd chant for Ziggler and Ryback, which is bad news for Rowan, who got no reaction when the teams came out here either. Not that the WWE have done much of a job of getting him over but he’s not connecting with the fans. Unfortunately the heels work heat on Rowan to no reaction. Whatever happened to switching a match up if something wasn’t working? Is the whole match planned out and depends on this particular section being so boring? Ryback gets the hot tag and Rollins is the man to sell for him, which makes the Big Guy look a lot better than he is. Ryback is an idiot. He gets distracted going for Shellshock by J & J Security. Just hit your finisher and win, you mug! If they come in the ring it’s a DQ and you still win, you Muppet. Ziggler gets himself over by beating up guys bigger than him but Show knocks him out and Kane hits the chokeslam for the win. This deflates the crowd but aside from the tiresome heat on Rowan this was a solid opener.
Final Rating: **
Post Match: The Authority lay out the faces allowing a returning Randy Orton to run down and hit a bunch of RKO’s. Rollins legs it out of the building to sell Orton’s assault. Video Control takes us backstage to see Dusty Rhodes chatting with Goldust. “Try not to hurt him…because that’s the very end of it”. Goldust counters by saying he’ll beat Stardust, not Cody, and he’ll beat him so bad he won’t want to wear the Stardust gear ever again. “I’m bringing Cody home”.
Stardust vs. Goldust
If you’d told me in 1996 I would be watching Goldust wrestle a singles match in 2015 in the WWE I would have asked what the hell the WWE was…and then told you I didn’t believe it. Michael Cole gets confused by JBL referencing the Godfather because it’s a MAN’S FILM! “It’s like Michael and Fredo” - JBL. “You mean Frodo?” – Cole. Another mark against Cole and his pop culture knowledge being so effeminate. Being brothers Gold & Stardust know each other well and the chemistry is what you’d expect from a family feud. I love the crowd chanting “Cody” to wind Stardust up. It’s a pity Goldust is so broken down that he can’t run this match at any kind of pace. It results in a lot of psychological staring and pauses, which seem to be lost on the audience. After Goldust said he’d “beat him so bad” he’s taking it easy. The match is carried by personalities, rather than moves and the commentators suggest Cody has lost his original persona and become his alterego. Stardust’s reaction to the Cody chants is suitably maniacal but the match grinds to a virtual halt. Goldust gets a fluke roll up pin, which the ref botches the count of or Cody botches the kick-out on. I’m leaning toward the ref who didn’t actually count three. I’m aware this was more about the ongoing storyline than actual wrestling but the actual wrestling in this sucked. The botched finish did not help.
Final Rating: ½*
Video Control gives us clips of Seth Rollins bad-mouthing Jon Stewart, which gets him a video riposte from Jon Stewart himself. “I’m coming for you Rollins!” Seth offers Jon to come and get him whenever he wants, he’s not hard to find. Elsewhere the Rhodes family have another chat but Stardust attacks Goldust to ruin that. “Here’s the news Dream, you killed him” says Stardust regarding Cody Rhodes and points out Goldust is an albatross who dragged him down. Good storyline, shame about the wrestling.
WWE Tag Team Championship
The Usos (c) vs. Cesaro & Tyson Kidd
This whole thing is such a waste of Cesaro. He doesn’t need to be there. The storyline is all about Kidd & Natalya vs. Usos & Naomi. Cesaro is just making up the numbers and for a man of his ability, that’s not acceptable. The match never really clicks. The crowd seem a bit distant and the wrestling is ok but nothing more. Cesaro occasionally wows with his power, like the superplex from the apron to the inside. The Usos manage a Samoan drop into the rail on Kidd, which is pretty cool. The match picks up after that with Kidd going after the win and the Sharpshooter gets a lot of support. Cesaro runs distraction and Kidd hits the Moss-Covered Family Three-Handled Credenza for a somewhat surprising title change. This took a while to get going but the latter stages made me genuinely excited for the potential of a tag division with Cesaro & Kidd on top. They need competition though and if this just exists as a way for the Usos to win the belts back at ‘Mania it’s a bit of a waste.
Final Rating: **1/4
Triple H vs. Sting
I’m not entirely sure what this is all about. Hunter has called Sting out but for what purpose exactly? For a fight? For a heart-to-heart? What everyone isn’t thrilled about is a mid-PPV promo from Triple H. Luckily he keeps it short and out comes Sting (not “String” as WWE.com recently typoed). Hunter repeats a lot of what he said last week, about Sting going down with the WCW ship and how he admired Sting for doing so. “My legacy is putting your legacy out of business”. “I guess at the end of the day, failure is what you do”. Hunter offers Sting the chance to walk away so they can do business, giving Sting DVD’s and action figures and maybe the Hall of Fame. It’s all a little condescending. Or he can get his ass kicked and his legacy erased (like Chris Benoit). Hunter goes for the sledgehammer but gets met with a baseball bat under the chin. Sting then does the ‘pointing at the Wrestlemania sign’ thing. I like that Sting didn’t say anything here as it hurts the illusion that Sad Mime Sting brings with him. Scorpion Deathdrop puts the exclamation point on things.
Video Control gives us clips from The Miz interviewing Paul Heyman on the pre-show. Heyman’s analysis of tonight’s main event is that it doesn’t matter because whoever wins will lose to Brock Lesnar and you can “believe that”.
WWE Diva’s Championship
Nikki Bella (c) vs. Paige
Paige must be begging for someone else to get called up from NXT so she has someone to work with. The Bella’s are the worst aspect of the WWE’s “diva” division and are presumably deemed important because of their famous partners. That and the Total Divas TV show, which is the pits. I actually can’t tell Nikki and Brie apart but they are both quite dreadful in the ring. Paige tries to bump around to make the match work but Nikki’s offensive moveset is dreck. She does manage a big powerbomb out of the corner but the fans don’t respond to this at all. Unless Paige is on the verge of winning. The reaction to the PTO being ‘almost’ put on and then Nikki breaking with the ropes is indicative of that. Nikki wins with a roll up, complete with a handful of tights and the divas division continues to be utterly worthless. Paige did manage to carry Nikki out of negative stars though, proving there’s always a place for wrestlers on a wrestling show. Paige has a great character too. Nikki is a pair of tits in tight clothes so naturally she’s the champion. I can only hope for some kind of Wrestlemania resolution to this feud but seeing as one half of the feud is the Bellas, there will never be a good pay-off.
Final Rating: ¼*
Video Control gives us Breaking News: Triple H vs. Sting is signed for Wrestlemania.
WWE Intercontinental Championship
Bad News Barrett (c) vs. Dean Ambrose
This title is death. Winning the IC title turns you into a jobber. It’s like the belt is cursed. My hope is the WWE will elevate the IC title, making it actually worthwhile so the belt can headline shows. Although it would have been a good idea to do that BEFORE booking the WWE title onto a guy who’s never here. There are two ways to do this; 1. book the title onto someone who the fans already care about and have the wrestler care about the title or 2. make the champion a big deal. They’ve done a good job of this with Rusev but the IC title remains the title the WWE don’t seem to care about. If they don’t care about it then why should we? Also any champion doing a job should be a big deal, not something that happens every week. This is not complex booking. Barrett does good work in this; not looking at pinfalls when the ref is counting, thus not telegraphing his kick-outs. Ambrose takes it to him for most of the match until running into Wasteland. When Ambrose kicks out and hits his rebound lariat Barrett decides to take the count-out loss, which is the champion’s advantage. Ambrose gives him a kicking for that and the ref calls it a DQ. Bullshit. If you’re going to do a cheap finish then have Barrett get himself counted out. Put the heat on the heel, not the referee. Moronic booking. Cole suggests Ambrose got “more frustrated throughout the match” even though Barrett only tried to run at the end. Ambrose lays Barrett out with Dirty Deeds, just to reinforce that the IC champion is a jobber, and nicks the title belt.
Final Rating: *
Promo Time: The Undertaker?
Well, that was unexpected. Out come druids with torches and the BONG signals the arrival of…Bray Wyatt in a coffin. Wyatt talks about how Undertaker made him tremble but now he’s weak, broken and a shell of what he was. He claims Taker is “in limbo” and he needs to send him home. “At Wrestlemania I will claim the soul of the Undertaker”. This was a decent promo but the fans didn’t seem interested as soon as it was revealed there was no Undertaker. But they did all the cool parts of his entrance!
From there we go to Renee Young and the kick-off analysts, which is a bit weird but it reminds me that Renee is a far superior links person than Michael Cole. They should throw to these guys after every match. For starters it makes the whole thing feel like a legitimate sporting event with commentary and analysis.
WWE United States Championship
Rusev (c) vs. John Cena
Rusev is unbeaten. He owes a lot of that to Lana, whose promo skills have made the gimmick work. Every time I see her, it’s like watching Rocky IV all over again and if there’s a guy who needs a monster foreigner to fight it’s John Cena. And even against an evil Russian there are still loud “Cena sucks” chants. They try and work a shoot-style, which Cena isn’t suited to, so they quickly abandon it and just do Main Event Style instead. Rusev is booked strong here and gives Cena a solid beating. JBL tries to cover for Cena getting caught talking on camera by saying he “talking to himself”. When Cena does mount his comeback it’s all so familiar. Part of the frustration of watching Cena is seeing him do all the same shit in the same order in every match and nobody ever seems to counter anything. Then we’ve got Michael Cole and his newest irritating verbal tick of yelling “FOR THE WIN” on every near fall. Cena gets the Crossface and there he is talking on camera again. Rusev gets a major rub for powering out of the Crossface, breaking Cena’s freakishly powerful grip. And that’s how to get guys over. Cena gets the Struggle Snuggle instead and this time Rusev has to grab the ropes. FU…for 2. The weird thing with Cena is how he sells like he is dead and then he magically comes back to life. He did that again in between finishers here. Cena comes off the top, gets planted with the powerbomb and strapped in the Camel Clutch. Cena stands up out of it but Lana jumps in there, Rusev kicks him in the balls, then the face and Cena is unconscious apparently so the Camel Clutch finishes. They shot for epic here but neither man is particularly good at that. The match was sluggish, slow-paced and Cena’s DEATH sell on the finish was utterly ridiculous. He spends a good 3 minutes breathing in canvas. The fans supportively chant “you tapped out” at him. I was pleased to see the WWE not pull the carpet out from under Rusev but I sense his unbeaten run might not survive Wrestlemania. They booked him like a star here though, which is important as it might mean they’ve finally grasped how to get guys over again.
Final Rating: ***
WrestleMania Number One Contender's Match
Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan
A few truths before we get going. Firstly, I like Roman Reigns. I have nothing against him at all. He’s a good big man with a solid moveset and a great personality but the booking made him look like a knob and that’s why the fans turned on him. He didn’t do anything wrong, the writers did. He’s not a cartoony babyface like Cena, he’s his own damn thing and they have to write him that way. Secondly people didn’t boo Roman at the Rumble, they booed the Rumble because it was just awful booking. The fact the WWE came out of it discussing why people booed Roman and suggesting that he “wasn’t ready” for the spot is laughable. I would say whoever booked the Royal Rumble wasn’t ready to book a PPV. Send them to developmental to learn something.
Duelling chants to kick off, which is great news for the WWE because despite Bryan being the #1 face in the company (no matter what they think) there are people chanting against him. Bryan establishes the story very early with a headlock. The story being that he’s a better wrestler and Roman promptly powers out. Bryan then tries for a surfboard and Roman powers out of that too. Roman gets to look very dominant as he also shrugs off Bryan’s kicks. Bryan’s attempts to work over Roman’s legs is met with yet more power, in the form of punches. There are some fun counters like Bryan getting a 360 flip lariat for charging into the corner and Bryan booting Roman to block the Superman Punch. The kick lands right in the area where Roman had a hernia, which is solid psychology. Again Roman brings the power, blocking a super rana into a superbomb. The story they tell is a smart one of the wrestler versus the powerhouse. The clever storyteller versus the immovable object. Yes Lock and Roman gets into the ropes. “I have till five” – Daniel Bryan. YES!
They get into a nice rhythm of Bryan’s flying assaults being countered into power moves and then Bryan dodging follow up charging assaults. Bryan dives right into the Superman Punch…for 2. “Reigns is like really, are you kidding me?” – 12 year old valley girl Michael Cole. Spear is countered into an inside cradle for another near fall and the fans really erupt into the YES chants. Busaiku Knee Kick…gets 2. That makes Roman the first man to kick out of that particular move. Bryan goes for kicks and slaps but Roman no sells so he drags him down into an armbar into the Yes Lock. Reigns gets out and starts to land some serious lumber, at least I think it is through the dodgy zoom-in, zoom-out camerawork. Roman looks like a mega-star when he’s beating someone down. Bryan lines up the Busaiku Knee a second time but runs right into the Spear and Reigns regains his title shot.
Final Rating: ****
Verdict: The crowd did this show no favours at all. They didn’t respond to anything and turned their noses up at the last two matches despite them largely delivering. I thought the card in general was a hard sell but if there’s one thing that makes a bad thing better it’s crowd participation but Memphis didn’t seem too interested. The main event will leave a lasting impression as it’s the first time Roman Reigns has looked really good in singles. Daniel Bryan’s ideas carried the match and I did enjoy the little throwbacks to his American Dragon persona. Rusev vs. Cena was better than I was expecting but the uneven nature of Cena’s selling made the match hard to watch. The only other match that delivered was the tag title match but that was largely down to the title switch as the actual action wasn’t great. Elsewhere there were storylines to enjoy but everything is heading somewhere else. Which is the problem with the Road to Wrestlemania. Fastlane is just another stop off on the way to somewhere more interesting. With the WWE giving it away for free it was never going to be a home-run show but I don’t understand the mentality of having good shows and bad shows. Just try and put on the best show you can, every show.
Last night at Fast Lane we learned that WWE are sticking to their guns and pushing Roman Reigns to the main event match with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, having been quite successful in cutting the legs of Bryan and causing fans to get bored of him over the past month. We also found out that Sting will wrestle Triple H at the supershow in an "Icon vs. Icon" match that nobody wants to see. Nobody on the planet without the surnames Levesque and McMahon thinks that Hunter is the WWE's most iconic figure. Hey, you know who might fit that role? The Undertaker. I cannot fathom why WWE won't give fans a match they have been desperate to see for two decades. Who cares if it sucks? It's about the theatre. Sting is yet to wrestle for WWE yet, I have been waiting for him to do so for a lifetime, and because he is programmed with Triple H, I am already bored. Oh, Randy Orton returned, finally, last night as well...
Promo Time: Randy Orton
The man himself joins us first, noting that he is "not a man to talk your ear off," before heading into a length promo. Randy's interviews always make me very uncomfortable because he struggles more than anyone with the word-for-word scripting of WWE broadcasts. He speaks way too fast to try and keep his train of thought. Randy reminds everyone why he was out for four months (Seth Rollins did a number on him) and then calls him out. He doesn't respond, because The Authority head out instead. And here was me thinking we would go two consecutive episodes of Raw without Triple H and Steph in the opening segment.
Steph wants Randy as the face of WWE, but he is unconvinced. He refuses to forgive Seth Rollins, instead promising to smash his face in. Steph won't take no for an answer, but Orton wants to kick ass rather than kiss it. Big Show takes a turn at changing his mind and espouses the virtues of life with the Authority. Listening to him speak in that big dumb drawl is almost as tough as watching him lumber around the ring under the pretence of wrestling. Steph tries again, telling Randy he is a bad man and that he has done awful things to her and her family. He smiles. Because it is PG and it was man-on-woman violence, we can't see it. How ridiculous. Steph can't show footage of herself getting beaten up! WWE are so overly careful that they come across to me as trying too hard. We sign off with some nonsense about Randy attending a "conference" with the Authority to discuss his future. That will keep people watching. Triple H doesn't say a word during this, which Cole decides is because he is sulking about what happened last night with Sting. This was every generic opening Raw segment from the past two years.
Wade Barrett vs. Dolph Ziggler
Barrett is the reigning IC champ, but he doesn't have his belt because Dean Ambrose stole it, the little tyke. R-Truth is out to do commentary, because sure, why not, and his new game is campaigning for a title shot by asking people to force a trend on Twitter. Hey, remember the days where guys would get title shots based on the matches they won? Of course, I also remember a time when the IC champion was booked like a superstar and never lost. Naturally, Wade does lose here. Cleanly no less, following the usual well-crafted Ziggler Raw match. Wade has lost to everyone since winning that belt: Sin Cara, R-Truth, Dolph, Ambrose... It's an utter farce. Dean Ambrose comes out following the bout carrying the stolen title, stares at Barrett for a bit and then barges into Dolph. "Ooooh, interesting," offers Cole like an intrigued child. Looks like a multi-man match at WrestleMania for the title then, though whether it makes the main show remains to be seen. Decent enough TV match once it got going, but hampered by the usual nonsensical WWE booking.
Final Rating: **1/2
The announcers recap the Sting-Triple H story and Michael Cole uses the word "vigilante" around eight-hundred times. We are promised "Sting like we have never seen him before," later tonight. Which means a video package.
Backstage, the Authority have their little conference (all stood unnaturally facing the camera in one of those hilarious semi-circles that WWE folk love to stand in), with supposed hated rivals Randy Orton and Seth Rollins stood right next to each other. Last night, Rollins was so scared of Orton that he legged it out of the arena. I'm just saying. Rollins interrupts Steph, who lays into him and completely emasculates him like a feeble jobber. "Is it because I'm a woman!?" she demands. No, it's because you are an intolerable foaming twat. Steph makes Seth look like a chump schoolboy in belittling him - the one thing she is good at. Kane thinks even considering Orton in the group is a bad idea after his attack last night, so Steph shouts him down too. She just talks and talks and talks until her words become meaningless. Blah, blah, blah, Randy shakes Seth's hand and rejoins the Authority, a move blatantly designed to lead to Orton battering him later on and building their program for WrestleMania. Sure enough, they are working together in a tag match later on in the show. Gee, I wonder if Randy will hit Seth with the RKO. I mean, just half an hour ago he wanted to smash his skull in.
The Prime Time Players vs. The Ascension
In their weekly cringe-worthy insert promo, the Ascension run down new WWE Hall of Fame team the Bushwhackers. It's the first time I have ever agreed with the dress-up wrestler pair. The Bushwhackers may well have been an violent and entertaining team pre WWF, but in Titanland they were one of the most hideous things to ever pollute a ring. How they are in when Demolition, the Bulldogs, Midnight Express, Freebirds, etc are not is comical, really. Oh Jesus, I hope this doesn't lead to an Ascension-Bushwhackers match! The Ascension dominate, then in the most hilarious booking of the evening so far, get pinned by Darren Young following WWE's favourite finisher: the roll up. Was this a way to keep Young quiet after his recent Twitter rants against the company? I wouldn't be surprised. WWE sure got bored of these two useless mooks quickly, huh? The worst thing is, nobody is surprised. Being called up from NXT is career suicide. The Ascension beat up Darren Young after the fact to get their heat back, rendering the result utterly pointless. I guess we can look forward to endless rematches across all of WWE's television over the next few weeks. Yippee.
Final Rating: 1/2*
Promo Time: Roman Reigns
After almost making himself appear to be a star last night thanks to a great rebuilding job by Daniel Bryan, Reigns comes out to undo all of that hard work by cutting another McMahon-penned promo. He doesn't get much of it out and thus doesn't ruin himself too much, before Bryan comes out. He waits for the crowd to chant, but they don't care anymore. Bryan says he was the biggest Roman Reigns doubted of all and he booed with everyone else when he won the Royal Rumble, because for all of Reigns' athletic prowess, he doesn't have half the heart that he does. "That is why they like Daniel Bryan, and that is why they don't like you," he says... Then puts him over for having heart the night before and earning his shot. Erm, okay. This was really muddled and counter-productive, and some fans even started to boo Bryan for it. Congratulations WWE, you had a guy that people cared about and have made him the same as everyone else. After ripping Reigns to bits, Bryan then champions his cause and asks him to beat Brock Lesnar, supposedly giving him his blessing in the eyes of the fans. I am sure it was a good idea in theory. At least him being out here stopped Reigns talking...
... Only the segment is not finished, because out comes Paul Heyman. Bryan heads to the back as Heyman congratulates Reigns for his win last night. He goes on to list a number of opponents (Sammartino, Austin, Rock, Cena) that Reigns could have faced in previous eras and says his money would have been on him every time. The crowd are furious at the notion he could defeat Austin and with the thickly layered on praise. It's the same force-feeding that turned fans on Roman in the first place. Why is he suddenly "the guy"? Why could he have beaten all of those legends? Because he is Vince's flavour of the month. His career so far has striking parallels with that of his blood cousin The Rock. When he debuted in 1996 he was given the same over-push that caused a visceral reaction of intense hatred from the masses. He had the same family and was given his spot due to the same athletic build and good looks that Reigns has. Just as they did with Rocky Maivia, fans hate that sense of entitlement that surrounds the Roman Reigns project. WWE won't stray from the course though, they didn't with Rocky (though they did turn him heel for him to get over, which they should have done with Reigns based on his reactions, his own mannerisms and the fairly twatty things he says in interviews), they didn't with Hunter in 1999/2000 and they didn't with Brock in 2002. They want you over, you get over eventually. Well, apart from Lex Luger...
Back to the promo and the moral of Heyman's story is that despite how super-brilliant-great Reigns is, he is certain that the chosen one can't beat Brock Lesnar. I am quite certain that he will. Reigns says as much too, in another of his typically aloof over-confident promos. You can see why fans don't like him; he is unlikeable! At least there were some signs of that smouldering coolness that got Reigns over in the first place evident here.
Side note: Where, oh where, was Brock Lesnar? He was announced to be appearing just twenty minutes before the show started, yet didn't appear here and indeed on the rest of the show. There is something fishy going on there. I am not sure it will matter to WrestleMania because let's face it, Brock isn't missing that payday, but and it doesn't look great for WWE. Little is known as I write this, but according to Meltzer he was there in the building and, "There is a story there, something happened." I am sure all will be revealed in due course. Maybe he hated the script so much that he pulled an Austin and left. That sure would be ironic given that when Austin did it his primary reason was because he had been booked to put over Lesnar cleanly in a nothing match on Raw.
WWE Tag Team Championship
Cesaro & Tyson Kidd (c) vs. The Usos
Naturally we must have rematches from the pay-per-view on Raw tonight. It's another good match between two very good teams, but there is a definite feeling of déjà vu. I saw this match already last night. Sure, I enjoyed it, but not to the extent that I want to see an instant rematch. I need to stop off to mention, as Arn did last week, Michael Cole's new impossibly annoying new trait of screaming "FOR THE WIN" on every cover. Sometimes he substitutes in "victory" if he has overused "win" in a particular bout. Fans of drinking games, try doing shooters during Raw each time he says it. You will be bouncing off the ceiling before the first hour is up. The finish here sees the respective valets/wives getting involved, with Naomi stopping Kidd cheating so Natalya shoving her to the floor in response. The distraction allows an Uso to climb the ropes for the splash, but Natalya shoves him off for the DQ. Cole acts shocked, as if she has just done something dastardly and out of character. He should watch Total Divas, she is always a bell-end on that show. After the decision Naomi pulls Natalya off the apron and she smashes into the floor with her knee. The way she sells it I almost suspect she has hurt it for real. It looks way more realistic than her usual level of clunky selling.
Final Rating: **
Backstage, The Miz has big news: he is going to win the Andre the Giant Battle Royal at WrestleMania. Mizdow has news of his own: he is going to be the lead in a commercial. Miz is not happy and smiles through gritted teeth then pouts. Mizdow is winning that battle royal for sure.
Backstage, Bray Wyatt caresses a casket and tells Undertaker to find him. Not much more to this than what he has already said in the past few weeks. I sure hope Undertaker "finds" himself and comes back as the real 'Deadman', not seen since 1997. I want the gloves, tie, hat, the works.
Stardust vs. Jack Swagger
Stardust is back to his all-over bodysuit tonight after having donned tights and no shirt at Fast Lane, which was a much better look for him actually. He looks just like the gimp from Pulp Fiction in his proxy Goldust garb. Taking me to a level well beyond frustration, WWE pull the "distraction" finish for the millionth time in 2015 already by having Goldust head out to his music and distract Stardust, allowing Swagger to make him tap to the ankle lock. Brief, predictable, pointless and lame.
Final Rating: 1/2*
Promo Time: John Cena
It's excuses time. "I found myself stuck in the Acolyte..." says Cena, taking a brief interlude to presumably make reference to a frisky shower incident with JBL. Hmm, perhaps he meant Accolade. Cena admits that he lost last night to Rusev's in the smarmiest way possible. He does it like a bratty child who has lost and is being forced to admit it. "I loooooooost. Rusev woooooooon". Like it matters, Cena will soon cut the legs of that push. No one is safe from Super Cena and his insane levels of WWE protection. Has anyone ever won a feud with Cena in the end? Of course not, Cena always wins. The words John Cena says in promos no longer matter - it is always the same structure, the same style and the same delivery. At least he refrains from making jokes. The gist is, Cena wants a chance for revenge at WrestleMania and a rematch so he can bring the US Title "home". Rusev, quite rightly, points out that he doesn't deserve it and turns him down. That will change. Chances are it will be a stipulation match of some sort, or probably a title versus career affair. Cena has been in plenty of those before, and lost some of them. He knows the loopholes.
Backstage, Randy Orton and Seth Rollins get all pally-pally in the locker room. Orton reassures Rollins that he doesn't hate him, and while he won't forget what he did to him, he is willing to let bygones be bygones for the sake of business. How is this making me want to see Orton vs. Rollins at WrestleMania again? Orton has been back five minutes and in just four segments (including Fast Lane) I am already bored of him. This writing team could take tips from Vince Russo and learn something, they really could.
In a strange piece of business, Paige heads to the ring for her match and we cut to commercial. Then when we return WWE shoehorn in the Sting video that was promised earlier. Maybe Paige just wanted to watch it on the big screen. All the video does is remind me how hot Sting was in 1997 and how unbelievably cool his gimmick was back then. The watered down, old WWE version with crappy red jacket and receding hairline hardly compares. Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled that Sting is in WWE, I am just so disappointed that he is in this WWE rather than being there a decade or more ago. As I said in the intro, WWE in programming him in this nonsensical, revisionist history feud with Hunter have managed to drain all of my enthusiasm for Sting.
Paige & Emma vs. The Bellas
Oh, it's a tag match. Well, at least Paige had someone to talk to while she waited in the ring for around ten minutes. What a waste of time that turns out to have been too, because the match legitimately goes for thirty seconds. You can understand why the Bellas deviated from the WWE script a few weeks back and said that the main roster are all super-resentful of NXT because they all get so much time to shine. Hell, send the Bellas to NXT, then at least I wouldn't have to watch them every week stinking up the ring. I have no issue with a Bellas match going thirty seconds, but apparently the general public did. Following the match, #GiveDivasAChance was trending around the world, and continued to do so for many hours afterwards. They do have the talent (in NXT) to do that. Forget the wastes of space like Layla, Summer Rae and Eva Marie who have had their chance and were incompetent. Get rid of them all, bring up the NXT girls and have a real, competitive women's division that can be taken seriously. It needs to be a quick shift in ideals, like pulling off a band aid, because doing it slowly and half assed will just lead to the usual problem of no one being over because no one cares. As Kevin Nash says, "You can't be half pregnant". WWE is half pregnant on every idea it goes with.
Final Rating: N/R
The Bushwhackers Hall of Fame video airs, with nothing shown from outside of their WWE run late in their careers. When they joined WWE they had already been working for over twenty years. I would be amazed if anyone on that writing staff and most in the locker room even realise they existed as anything but the Bushwhackers. I see their induction as a joke entrant on par with Drew Carey and James Dudley, no matter what they did prior to their WWF run.
Curtis Axel vs. Ryback
WWE have to be very careful; Curtis Axel is going to accidentally get over if they are not careful. He does a brief promo pre-match, wearing an outstanding #AxelMania shirt in the style of Hogan and noting how many days he has been in the Royal Rumble for now without being eliminated. He reminds me a little of Positively Kanyon being so delusional. I don't remember that Ryback and Axel used to be a team until Michael Cole jogs my memory, which shows how memorable a unit they were. It was only last year! Ryback cuts a terrible promo pre match in which he repeats a Skip Sheffield NXT promo word for word, which lasts longer than the match. What are they playing at tonight?
Final Rating: SQUASH (Not Rated)
Seth Rollins & Randy Orton vs. Daniel Bryan & Roman Reigns
It is almost impossible to get excited about any main event on Raw for two reasons. 1. By the time they roll around the show has been running for three excruciating hours, and even the prospect of Steamboat-Flair struggles to have any appeal to me now, so broken is my spirit by this point. 2. They almost always end in a crappy DQ anyway, so why even watch the stuff prior and pay it any lip service when it all proves to be ultimately pointless and merely a means to set up the show closing angle of the week. Even worse this week is the jarring nature of it all. Last night I was expected to believe that Reigns and Bryan hated each other, as did Orton and Rollins. Tonight, they are all happy families after having talked it out. It's inconsistent and silly.
The action is fine of course, because all four guys are good hands at the least (Orton and Reigns) and stellar workers at best (Bryan and Rollins), though I could have done without Big Show and Kane at ringside, in their gear no less. Just the sight of them these days terrifies me because there is always the possibility they could somehow end up wrestling. Michael Cole does his usual terrific job of making me wish he was on fire by endlessly repeating that Rollins is "the future", Orton is "the face [of WWE]" and Reigns is "the powerhouse" and "the man main eventing WrestleMania" any time there is a pause in the commentary. It is so irritating that I long for Shane McMahon behind the announce desk. His habit of reiterating everything the viewer already knows over and over again ruins every single thing he announces. He commentates like he is hyping the match rather than calling it.
Bryan takes the heat, naturally, leading to Reigns getting the hot tag and doing a pretty good job of beating the piss out of naughty schoolboy Seth. Despite looking like it should be the finish, Seth rallies and tags Orton, so this show continues! My God, this show has taken up a good portion of my day! Orton goes for his draping DDT but Seth tags himself back in and that riles up the perma-angry Orton. He decides to vent at Big Show and Kane, meanwhile Reigns avoids the curb stomp but Bryan blind tags himself in before he can hit the spear. Reigns laughs it off with a condescending sneer. Like he is teaming with Eugene rather than Daniel Bryan. Orton is still boiling and paces at ringside. Everyone expects him to lay out Seth, but then the screen goes black... It is not Sting, or Undertaker, just good old technical difficulties. Orton opts against beating on Rollins, instead dropping Jamie Noble with the RKO. Yeah, lets drag this shit out as long as possible.
Final Rating: **
THE RAW RECAP:
Most Entertaining: It is not an easy one this week. Dolph Ziggler can have it for putting in his usual solid display.
Least Entertaining: Stephanie McMahon. Another banner day for Steph, who managed to make everyone around her look subservient and pathetic.
Quote of the Night: "I found myself stuck in the Acolyte" - John Cena. The big doofus.
Match of the Night: Wade Barrett vs. Dolph Ziggler
Verdict: Useless. What a drab, samey, generic way to start on the "official" Road to WrestleMania. Rather than building excitement for the big show, it just felt like the same old repetitive drek that we are force-fed every week. The show focused far too much on Randy Orton and his impending program with Seth Rollins, a program which would barely generate interest for a television main event never mind a WrestleMania match. Cena did his usual, Sting wasn't there, Undertaker wasn't there, Brock wasn't there. Do they realise WrestleMania is only a few weeks away? Every episode of Raw should be crammed full of can't miss segments and angles, things that make viewers willing to do almost anything to see the supercard. In the nineties the then-WWF used to do a far better job of hyping some pretty terrible match-ups for their In Your House series, to the point where you had to see them. This year's WrestleMania? I couldn't care less.
We’re in Orlando, Florida. Hosts are Michael Cole, JBL and Booker T. This is the go-home show for the WWE’s newest PPV extravaganza Fast Lane (yay?). The show so exciting the WWE gave it away for free along with the Network this month. The main event is Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan for the WWE title shot slot at Wrestlemania. Also on the card is John Cena vs. Rusev, Paige vs. whichever Bella is the Divas champion and not a lot else.
Promo Time: John Cena
At least it isn’t the Authority again. Cena has a “scratched cornea” thanks to Rusev’s assault last week. He’s selling that by doing…nothing at all. Where’s the eye patch John? Where’s the storyline? Cena yacks for a bit until finally addressing the concept of “Cena changing” by saying nothing of note. Killer stuff from the WWE’s “franchise”. Eventually Rusev gets tired of listening to it and comes out here. Lana calls Cena’s spiel “tiring rhetoric”. Amen. Rusev steals the segment by doing the ‘you can’t see me’ hand wave so Cena runs up the ramp and kicks his ass. Cena pummelling an unconscious Rusev is joined by nauseating camera-work. I don’t know what made me feel more ill, the booking or the production. However there is one positive and that’s they didn’t talk for 20 minutes before fighting.
Video Control takes us Dean Ambrose aping the “Weekend Update” from SNL. I think the WWE missed the point of Saturday Night Live. It’s a comedy, guys. If this was supposed to be funny they clearly don’t have the same writers. Hire Tina Fey! She can write for crazy old rich men and insane Alpha Males. She’d be perfect.
Dean Ambrose vs. Luke Harper
These two have a little chemistry and less of a plan. Harper impresses by catching Ambrose on a tope and then booting him in the face. The crowd seem into Ambrose and they’ve been reacting strongly to everything so far. Always a good sign. As the pace picks up they start to develop some better chemistry, although it’s largely just back and forth strikes. Harper’s timing is essential and he slides into position quite nicely and delivers better strikes than Ambrose. Black Hole Slam doesn’t finish as Ambrose gets over being the plucky underdog. Jawbreaker Lariat sets up Dirty Deeds and Ambrose gets the win. This got suitably energised after a sluggish beginning. Harper actually came across much better than Ambrose but both of them are not being booked particularly well. Their characters are not well defined. As was evidenced by Dean’s attempt at comedy and Harper’s…what does Harper do?
Final Rating: **3/4
Video Control takes us backstage where Kane and Big Show are disagreeing. Kane calls Show selfish and stupid. Oh, is it 1995 again? Show makes a quip about Sting so he’s turning face, again.
Elsewhere Bray Wyatt has more words for the Undertaker, without mentioning his name. He’s not scared, he only has pity.
Elsewhere Goldust and Stardust are interrupted by Dusty Rhodes. “Damn it, Cody”. Stardust shakes hands with his brother as Dusty preaches they “stand together”.
The New Day vs. Goldust & Stardust
New Day are represented by Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston. JBL lists off a load of brother tag teams. “But they weren’t brothers” says Booker. The Steiners? The Funks? The Briscos? Might want to look those up Book. Unless he was thinking of Jimmy Jack Funk and Flash Funk. Goldust is starting to look a bit ropey and apparently he’s got injuries. His bumps don’t have any snap to them. He looks like he’s coasting through the match. Stardust misses off the top and the distraction is enough for Kofi to floor Goldust with Trouble in Paradise. After the match Goldust suddenly becomes weak and frail so Stardust lays him out, clearly misunderstanding the “stand together” instruction of his father just moments ago.
Final Rating: ¼*
Video Control catches up with Roman Reigns. He’s not thinking about the journey but rather the destination; Wrestlemania. Roman sticks it to Daniel Bryan by saying if he was eliminated at the Rumble he would have “taken it like a man” and not whined about it. He’s given Daniel Bryan an opportunity at Fast Lane and he’ll take it away too. Dusty catches up with Stardust, who says “Cody Rhodes is dead and so is my father”.
Roman Reigns vs. Kane
Daniel Bryan joins us at ringside to loud “YES!” chants. Sticking Roman in with Kane is about as smart as putting him in with Big Show. These big lummoxes cannot bump for Roman. They cannot make him look good. The only thing they’re good for is generating sympathy and it’s too late for that. Plus Roman doesn’t do sympathetic, he does ‘quiet cool’. Michael Cole reiterates all of Roman Reigns’ points, just in case we missed them, and Bryan points out he never lost the title and that’s why he wants a title shot. “I was out here just to enjoy the show but after what Roman said I don’t know what I’ll do now”. The crowd ignore the match and chant “YES!” instead with Bryan. This allows Kane to deck Reigns. “Did I do that, or did Roman just get distracted?” Bryan is superb here. He’s subtle, genuine and when he speaks relevant things come out of his mouth. Like when Cole gets on his case about disqualifications as the title shot is like a title match and Bryan casually points out “when’s the last time I got disqualified?” It’s a good job Bryan is there to distract the home audience as the arena audience dies watching this terrible match. The crowd eventually turn on it by chanting “you can’t wrestle”. The match is so phoney and it’s ugly as sin. Roman hits a spear on the floor and beats the count to win. Reigns looks like a choke-artist for failing to pin Kane and the match beforehand was so dreadful it begs the question; why would they put Reigns in a match that’s pretty much guaranteed to suck?
Final Rating: DUD
Video Control goes backstage where Daniel Bryan is asked about playing mental games with Roman and Bryan points out Reigns will have to get used to the chants because there will be more at Fast Lane. Elsewhere the Bella’s have stolen Paige’s gear. She’s got no clothes so she needs to borrow someone else’s gear. As no one else is around she kidnaps one of the Rosebuds.
Summer Rae vs. Paige
Paige’s alternate gear is a pink fairy costume, which is easily the most colourful piece of clothing she’s worn since childhood. Paige takes out her frustrations on Summer and beats the piss out of her. Summer is fairly clumsy and uncoordinated. Wrestling probably isn’t a career choice for someone with her skill-set. PTO puts Summer away in short order. At least this was brief. “Oh no, the Bellas” says Cole as the Bellas turn up. “Oh no” is exactly what I think every time I see the Bellas. Paige cuts them down for their superficiality and claims she’ll win the title at Fast Lane.
Final Rating: ¼*
Video Control gives us a promo for Sheamus. He’s coming back.
Seth Rollins vs. Dolph Ziggler
Rollins gets the microphone pre-match to call himself the “most valuable asset in the WWE”. He calls Rowan, Ryback and Ziggler beneath him. “Seth, why are you so mad bro? Sounds like you had a bad Valentine’s Day?” referencing Seth’s Twitter hack where his girlfriend posted naked photos of him. Seth calls Ziggler’s career the real joke. Them’s fighting words!
We forego the shine and go right into Rollins working heat, which is too bad. The ref decides to toss J & J Security to the back for the actual pop. With the extras out of the way they get into the meat of the match, a back and forth contest with quick pinfall attempts and dramatic kick-outs. It’s only really hurt in any way by Michael Cole’s newest irritating verbal tick, shouting “FOR THE WIN” on almost every near fall. Oh, and the unforgivably bad camera work. Take away their zoom if they can’t use it responsibly! They run some terrific near misses before the Zigzag and J & J Security run back in for the DQ. Brisk but tremendous action. Rollins vs. Ziggler should be a major PPV event. If they’ve got no Wrestlemania plans for these guys they could do a lot worse.
Final Rating: ***
Promo Time: Triple H
They’re certainly listening to the audience, or Steve Austin’s podcast, and not starting the broadcast with a droning 20 minute promo. Hunter recaps that he’s going after Sting at Fast Lane before being interrupted by Ric Flair. Normally Hunter is enraged to be interrupted but Flair was his mentor and friend so they hug it out. “You can’t get mad at me. We’re in Orlando, you inducted me into the Hall of Fame here!” Flair warns Triple H not to take Sting lightly. Hunter recites Sting’s history, being a student of the game. “Sting was and is WCW”. “Sting’s legacy was built on Ric Flair’s reputation and that always pissed me off”. Flair points out Sting is already getting to Triple H. A wrestler’s worst enemy is time off says Flair. Hunter says he won’t need to wrestle, he’ll just kick Sting’s ass. Flair mouths off some more and Hunter heels it up by pushing him over. “If someone steps between me and this company I’m kicking their ass”. Good, intense promo from Hunter and nice work from Ric Flair in bringing the emotional punch to proceedings.
Video Control shills Parks and Recreation as John Cena is a guest star tomorrow on NBC.
Darren Young & Jobber vs. The Ascension
The Ascension have a moderate step up in opponents as Darren Young makes a guest appearance as a celebrity jobber. Titus O’Neil runs in and he teams with Young to take out the Ascension. There’s no match and the Prime Time Players are back. A double negative.
Final Rating: N/R
Video Control has The Miz offering to watch Bad News Barrett’s back if he gives Mizdow some tough love tonight.
Damien Mizdow vs. Bad News Barrett
JBL references the Man Utd-Preston FA Cup game and shows his sports knowledge. No reference to Wayne Rooney being a no-good, cheating sack of crap sadly. Mizdow gives Barrett a shoeing but Miz rings a bell to stop Damien, his man-servant, and makes him buff Miz’s shoe. Miz has a further issue with his sunglasses causing Barrett to win with the Bull Hammer. All storyline. Dean Ambrose runs out here, with Miz chickening out on watching Barrett’s back, and zip-ties Barrett to the ring post. Then he forces Barrett to sign a contract for them to wrestle for the IC title at Fast Lane.
Final Rating: ½*
Jimmy Uso & Naomi vs. Tyson Kidd & Natalya
This is a husband & wife tag team match. It is part of the build for Kidd & Cesaro challenging for the Uso’s tag titles. The ladies have a friendly rivalry whereas Kidd cowers and avoids Jimmy. I don’t understand why so many heels have to be abject cowards. A competitive wrestler like Tyson Kidd should not be booked that way. It’s a personality switch. With the men not wrestling at all it’s left for Nattie and Naomi to have a decent match, which Natalya loses. Cesaro is unimpressed and Kidd suggests Nattie should have beat Naomi with the Sharpshooter and even stops off to demonstrate how it’s applied.
Final Rating: ¾*
Daniel Bryan vs. The Big Show
You know how Bryan totally took over the situation during Roman Reigns’ match? How he was far more entertaining than Roman and brought the responses and the pops? Here Roman comes and sits his ass down and ringside and does nothing while the crowd cheer along for Bryan’s spots. Which is the difference between the two. Bryan can be entertaining at the drop of a hat. Roman cannot. They’ve put him in bad matches and destroyed his persona with worse promos. Now the only thing he can do is sit there doing nothing. He ends up signing autographs to keep himself amused. Bryan does a good job of working around Show’s limitations but nobody cares about Show (or Kane) as Authority bullies. When Show takes over, after Bryan is distracted by Roman taking selfies with the ringside fans, the match rapidly goes to shit. It becomes so slow and dour. Show accidentally spears Roman after Bryan side-steps the big man. The crowd is dead with Show in charge and only comes to life when Bryan makes his comebacks. Roman Reigns then runs in to Superman Punch the Big Show and cost Bryan the match. Bryan and Reigns get into it after the match with the fans into the action, which is good news for Fast Lane. Should be a good match.
Final Rating: *1/2
THE RAW RECAP:
Most Entertaining: Daniel Bryan
Least Entertaining: The Big Show and Kane. They’re both tedious.
Quote of the Night: "Cody Rhodes was destined to live in the shadow of his polka-dotted wearing freak of a father" – Stardust.
Match of the Night: Seth Rollins vs. Dolph Ziggler
Verdict: The show started out with a hot crowd and after a few segments a hot product. The Rollins-Ziggler match was really good and Hunter’s promo with Ric Flair was excellent. But the WWE’s insistence at booking Show and Kane as anything of relevance is a bigger crime than the rest of the booking in the Rumble. People weren’t just moaning about Bryan’s booking but all the booking. Show and Kane shouldn’t be going over anyone of note. The good news is that Roman Reigns looked better working Daniel Bryan than in months. Yes, his match with Kane was terrible but that’s Kane for you. They can rebuild Roman Reigns. It’s not too late. They just need to stop playing him like a superhero babyface because that’s not him. He’s a main event if he’s kept cool. If he stays in that grey area. People cheer, they boo, it doesn’t matter. He just needs to be cool and people will come around. I keep coming back to Diesel in 1995 after he lost to Bret Hart. He couldn’t get face pops because he was too big and too much of a bully against smaller guys but he couldn’t work big guys because the matches sucked. The switch came by having him acknowledge his fans but be himself. He came across as more relaxed and the character vastly improved. He got so good WCW poached him. The only difference is that Kevin Nash was a great talker and Roman Reigns isn’t. But if he’s allowed to be himself, and not a cartoonish babyface, he can still get there.
What’s really worrying about the WWE at the moment isn’t the main event scene even, where they have Lesnar, Reigns, Bryan and Rollins but rather the undercard. Wrestlemania isn’t taking shape in any kind of positive fashion. The potential card is a string of poor match ups and unless the WWE has some sort of miracle planned, like handing the undercard over to NXT, that won’t change. This show had moments that worked. You look at Bryan and Reigns and they are both capable of being ‘the man’ so at least the WWE has options. It’s a bit like when Luger & Bret Hart co-won the Royal Rumble. I wonder if they could *both* win a title shot at Wrestlemania? Then Bryan could work twice (Ziggler wants that match). Is anyone in the WWE listening? Because they should be.
Hype for this show includes the NXT women’s four-way match and the NXT title match between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. I love the atmosphere of NXT. The whole arena, here in Orlando, Florida, has a different vibe to it than any other WWE show. The crowd chanting “NXT” makes it feel like an ECW show or ROH. I dig the set up as well with it being a ‘dark’ version of the WWE. Different lighting, a smaller arena, even different ring ropes. It helps to distinguish the product. Kevin Dunn must hate it. Hosts are Rich Brennan, Corey Graves and Jason Albert.
Hideo Itami vs. Tyler Breeze
Itami came up short against Finn Balor last week only to get jumped by Tyler Breeze, upset that Hideo beat him but couldn’t get past the former Prince Devitt. Tyler has a selfie-stick so he can tape his own entrance, which is suitably douche-baggy for a heel. Breeze deliberately appeals to the ladies, which guarantees him heat with the men-folk. Itami is toned down from his NOAH-based character KENTA but he still throws plenty of kicks. The basic structure of the match is Itami beating the shit out of Tyler until Breeze goes after the leg to eliminate the kicks. That includes the Ringpost Figure Four of Bret Hart, followed by a modified Sharpshooter. You think he was a Hitman fan as a kid? Hideo gets in another GTS teaser, which the fans go nuts for. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him ‘taking it back’ seeing as CM Punk isn’t even wrestling anymore and freely admitted to stealing the move off KENTA in the first place. Hideo bringing the Fighting Spirit is pretty cool, as you never see small guys no-sell in the WWE. Tyler gets dropkicked in the corner and finished with the Busaiku Knee Kick. They tried a little teaser psychology with the knee but Hideo just shrugged that off and finished the match with ease. It’s clear who’s being booked as a big prospect and who’s being booked as ‘a guy’.
Final Rating: **1/2
Bull Dempsey vs. Baron Corbin
This is NXT’s equivalent of a hoss-fight with the two biggest guys in NXT smacking each other around. The effort levels are superior to the main rosters big guy fights. Corbin has hardly broken a sweat in NXT so this is a chance to get a look at how he’ll fare long term. He’s been well protected. Corbin is further protected here by kicking out of Dempsey’s arsenal although he botches a lariat over the ropes and the crowd get on his case a bit. There is an unforgiving element to any hardcore crowd. It’s all part of the experience. Dempsey grabs a chair but runs straight into End of Days. Corbin picks up the win. It’s hard to tell which one of these guys will be a big break-out star based on this but they are both trying hard to look strong. The concern of course is that they’ll be dwarfed by the real ‘big guys’ (Dempsey is 6’ 2”, Corbin 6’ 6”) on Raw but hey, that’s New York for you. Odd they did nothing with the no DQ stipulation here.
Final Rating: *3/4
NXT Tag Team Championship
Blake & Murphy (c) vs. The Lucha Dragons (Sin Cara & Kallisto)
Blake & Murphy recently upset the Lucha Dragons for the titles, just 2 weeks ago. Buddy Murphy is Australian, part of the WWE’s eclectic global recruitment policy. Wesley Blake is from Texas. Sin Cara, botchmaster that he is, blows one of his first spots to the ire of the crowd. Kalisto then botches a dive to really piss the crowd off. Lucha-libre can be very clanger heavy. The Lucha Dragons have to work hard to get the crowd back, which had been electric before Sin Cara’s error. Blake & Murphy are a solid enough team and don’t let the Lucha Dragons drag them down. Kalisto finally gets his act together and starts popping off spots. Once the mojo has been found, the match is significantly better and involves a lot of quick pins and counters. Murphy puts Sin Cara down with a brainbuster and Blake, who’d tagged in blind, hits a frogsplash to retain the straps. Good choice of champions. They’re better than the Lucha Dragons. Blake & Murphy looked good. Shame about the early mistakes.
Final Rating: **
#1 Contender’s Match
Finn Balor vs. Adrian Neville
It’s been a privilege to watch these two develop from Indy stars in the UK, who always looked destined for greatness, into NXT superstars. I remember getting Neville booked in Birmingham and paying for the privilege of watching him steal the show. Balor I got to see a lot less when he wrestled in the UK but as Prince Devitt he became a phenomenon in New Japan, almost cracking their glass ceiling by competing with the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, despite being a cruiserweight. Balor’s NXT entrance is sensational and he already has the showmanship of the Undertaker or Triple H in that respect.
Neville has certainly slowed his match down since joining the WWE but Balor never worked at an insane pace, instead intent to make his spots mean something. So he carries that over and combined with the face-paint it gives him that X-Factor. The crowd are expecting them to use the ropes but instead they trade on the mat, showing healthy technical skill. I like that when either man goes up top, they’re knocked off by their speedy opponent. Balor starts to bring the personality and him stalking Neville around ringside reeks of stardom. The crowd are drawn into the match more as they go for strike duels, and Neville is the second person tonight to do Fighting Spirit, no selling a Pele Kick in order to flatten Balor with a superkick. Corkscrew Phoenix Splash off the second rope from Neville, which is ludicrous but the kind of thing he’s capable of, gets 2. Balor comes firing back but nothing will keep either guy down. Red Arrow gets knees with Balor hooking a cradle…for 2! I love the desperate kicking of the legs from Neville making it look like a definite finish. Balor goes up, hits the Double Stomp, and he’s the #1 Contender. Interesting match, which started out slow but built into something worthwhile. I dig the sheer number of near falls they put in there. The crowd chanting “match of the year” may be a bit presumptuous as I can think of three matches from January that were better. Still, a fine effort and the second best WWE match of the year so far.
Final Rating: ****1/4
NXT Women’s Championship
Charlotte (c) vs. Bayley vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch
I bet Paige is begging for at least one of these girls to get called up to the main roster. Probably Charlotte, who’s an outstanding wrestler and genetically superior, considering her Dad is Ric Flair. The crowd are into all of them but it’s Charlotte who dominates. “Bayley’s gonna hug you” is a wonderful PG chant by the way. Becky and Sasha form an alliance but they can’t both pin Bayley, which is where trouble starts. Sasha takes some slick bumps, often landing either on her neck or flying through the air into a massive flatback. It’s commendable but likely to lead to neck surgery. Charlotte’s powerhouse destruction of everyone is remarkable business. They are all good characters but Charlotte is different class. Sasha is perhaps the most inventive of the four though and hits her knee drop in the corner on Charlotte and Becky. Bayley plays the role of plucky underdog and she’s popular due to this. Super rana on Charlotte is perfectly executed. All these girls take good bumps. As they knock lumps out of each other the crowd go for another “NXT” chant. The tension builds as the falls get closer and closer and the psychology of the way it comes together is cool. Like Bayley hitting the Hug Superplex, Sasha stealing the pin but Charlotte kicking out anyway. Charlotte almost goes out to Sasha’s Crossface but as she’s flagging Sasha switches to a roll up for the pin and the title. There were moments where someone had to stay down selling for too long. That’ll always be an issue in multi-person matches but all the girls were booked perfectly. Perhaps only Becky Lynch’s angle came up short. Banks certainly earned her win with the bumps and creativity. Sasha hugs it out with Charlotte only to shove her away and hold the belt high. Charlotte’s teary-eyed dismay is sensational. She wanted to pass the torch, Sasha just wanted to take it.
Final Rating: ***3/4
NXT Heavyweight Championship
Sami Zayn (c) vs. Kevin Owens
I like the way the WWE has pulled the personal history of Zayn & Owens, Indy darlings, together to make this far more epic than it would have been if a newcomer had just walked into NXT and challenged the champ. The back-story is what makes this. Their history together, as a tag team, as best friends and as enemies makes this special without any work from the WWE. They had this rich history handed to them, going back over 10 years, and they used it. Not just fabricated a new story but used the existing one. It’s something I’ve been begging for WWE to do for years.
They milk the crowd right at the start, listening to the noise and building tension without contact. It’s some seriously old fashioned heel work from Owens and leads to Sami hitting a dive over the ref onto Owens on the floor. Which is perfect; a dive must have a logical reason for existing or it’s just a random high spot. Zayn knows his best tactic to get the match over is to take massive bumps off everything Owens does. He rag dolls every single spot to make Owens look like a monster. For me Owens plays this too Old School and is very deliberate not to steal anything from Zayn in terms of reactions, even though the crowd is big on duelling chants and cheering heels anyway. The crowd get a “kill, Owens, kill” chant going too, clearly familiar with Kevin Steen’s prior career on the Indy circuit. Owens dismantles Zayn, cuts off his air supply and crushes his ribs sporadically. Sami’s wobbly legged selling makes it look like a matter of time before he’s beaten. Owens continues to destroy Zayn with bigger and bigger spots like the Cannonball. Sami’s spots are desperate by comparison, like a fluke half & half suplex where Owens lands on his head. To see this sort of thing in a WWE ring is both absurd and wonderful. Swanton from Owens! Knees up from Zayn! That can’t be good for Sami and his knees. Owens bails to avoid the big HELLUVA Kick. Sami swaps out for the Arabian press to the floor. Sami bounces his head off the ramp on that and staggers during the follow up Helluva Kick. The idea being he’s been knocked silly by the ramp. POPUP POWERBOMB! Sami kicks out. With Sami selling his head, Owens pounds his face in with punches. It’s great storytelling as the fans are genuinely concerned about Zayn’s wellbeing. Two powerbombs leave Sami almost motionless and the girls in the front row are in tears. Owens continues to hit powerbombs and the ref calls it as Zayn can’t continue. Crowd begin to chant “bullshit” for the non-finish but Owens is awarded the belt via referee stoppage! Holy shit, what a ballsy booking decision that is! Some of the fans have a look on their face like Ellis Mbeh (the wide-eyed guy in the front row) after Brock Lesnar broke the streak. This was the Vader-Sting of NXT. It’s one of the most brutal babyface annihilations seen in mainstream wrestling. Comparable to Lesnar’s destruction of John Cena last year.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Verdict: I must admit I was a little worried after the first three matches, fearing for the overall quality of the card and that pressure would cause a lot of mistakes with more eyes on the product. I shouldn’t have been concerned. NXT are determined to put on the best wrestling show possible and they’re doing a superb job of booking ongoing storylines, building characters and having great matches. It’s exactly what you want from a wrestling promotion. It makes me clamber for the day when William Regal is picking talent for the entire company and Triple H is booking it. He’s got a combination of an Old School mentality and an urge to take the best moves of young guys and turn it loose on the WWE’s audience. Trying to change audience mentality isn’t easy and won’t happen overnight but every time NXT put on a show that annihilates the quality of the other WWE programming it’s a wake up call to the main roster. The only problem the WWE have is that nobody is fucking paying attention to this! Apparently Vince McMahon has NXT on in the background when he’s “working”. Is the future of the company not considered relevant to work? What the hell “work” is so important to Vince that he’s ignoring his own shows? His own contracted talent? Maybe I should be relieved he doesn’t care about NXT as it allows it to carry on like this and not get ruined by his outdated mind-set. Thumbs up, obviously, like every NXT special.
Promo Time: Roman Reigns
Roman Reigns starts things off, heading out to a John Cena-like mixed reaction. There are plenty of cheers, but a whole lot of boos too. They must turn him heel if they are going to put him in with Daniel Bryan. He is going to get booed in that match, there is no doubt about it. Actually, once he starts talking here he gets nothing but boos. He does a Bret Hart circa 1997/Diesel circa 1996 promo, complaining about his lot and cutting a fairly heelish promo, threatening to cut down anyone in his way. Daniel Bryan heads out to his usual decidedly unmixed reaction
Via his conduit JBL, Vince McMahon tells us exactly what he thinks of Daniel Bryan: "I can describe him in one word: 'cockroach'. He just won't go away." I don't doubt for a second that McMahon feels that way. "Goddamn this kid who doesn't eat meat, why do these people like him? He is short and ugly! He doesn't look like a WWE Superstar!" Conversely with Reigns, I suspect he has the same attitude as he did with Sid Eudy in 1996. When asked for his justification in putting the title on him despite his inability to work to any degree of quality, Vince just replied, "Well, look at him!"
The story is that Vince has recently done one of his trademark about-turns and ceded to pressure, agreeing to put Bryan into the main event at WrestleMania. Y'know, I understood it last year because the crowd was just SO into Bryan that he had little choice, but this year the swell of support on the live shows just doesn't seem anywhere near the same level. It certainly was in heel town Philadelphia for the Royal Rumble, but it hasn't really been since. It's a strange one.
Bryan doesn't say much, he merely outlines once again the permutations of the match at Fast Lane, then calls himself a "wrestler". Dirty words for this show. That brings out the Authority, clearly annoyed that Bryan forgot he was a sports entertainer. Triple H deals with the two by... talking about Sting. Demanding that he give him an answer about their Fast Lane confrontation tonight. A challenge to accept a challenge to meet for a challenge to a match. That is what we have been reduced to with WWE booking all of these part-time guys.
To the joy of all, Steph gets to speak and says idiotic things about Bryan being vile for stuffing Kane into a casket on SmackDown. Of course, it was a casket match and they are the rules, as Bryan quickly points out. He then delights all long-time fans by noting, "Considering what your husband has done in caskets, I thought you would appreciate it." A Katie Vick reference! Wow. The gist of this is the usual pre-babyface PPV match tactic of dumping them together in an odd couple tag team. Their opponents? Why Big Show and Kane of course! Oh Jesus Christ, no!
Daniel Bryan & Roman Reigns vs. The Big Show & Kane
How much more flogging can this long-since deceased horse endure? Reigns takes a slow beating before making a hot tag to Bryan, who batters Show with kicks and causes him to bail out of the ring. Bryan decides to dive onto both opponents, which is obviously a really silly idea. He gets caught and thrown neck-first into the ropes, which I don't enjoy seeing given his well-noted injuries. When Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin were both injured going into WrestleMania XIV they were protected and kept out of the ring. Bryan gets put with two bumbling giants. I guess that says everything about either the era we are in or the attitude towards Bryan's worth. We head to commercial and return with Show boring everyone with restholds. Swell. The effort of it all makes Show sweat like a hog, Kane too, actually. How? They haven't done anything! Like I have said before, both of these guys need to be put out to pasture. At the very least they need to have their roles reduced. What they do not need to be doing is working top line programs with the headline stars. This rumbles on, and they miss a good opportunity for a hot tag by having Kane knock Reigns off the apron. Bryan makes his own comeback, putting the Yes Lock on Kane but getting pulled out of the ring by Show and hurled into the timekeeper's table for the DQ. What a flat finish. At least one of these guys is headlining WrestleMania, you would think they could be the tedious tenured twosome.
Final Rating: *1/4
Post match, chairs come into play in an assault on Reigns, but he fights both guys off. Bryan returns to the ring and tries to deck Kane, but he moves so Bryan takes out Reigns. That causes the expected problems, much to the delight of the Authority. Hunter is so tickled that he puts them in another tag match later tonight against... Big Show and Kane! And J&J Security. And "this man", as if it is some sort of surprise that it's Seth Rollins. Two Show and Kane matches in one night! What have I done to deserve that? Why do I always get the terrible shows? They are following the generic booking manual to a tee tonight, they really are.
Seth Rollins vs. Ryback
Michael Cole spends the first minute of the match trying to establish his street cred by confessing his fandom of Eminem. Booker T thinks it's hilarious and calls him on it, asking him to name some tunes. Good one, Book. He spends the next few minutes giving pointless history lessons about who Seth Rollins is, why he has the briefcase and what it means. It's like he is speaking to new fans every week rather than the established audience. Believe me, this show is so bad that it doesn't have new fans. It barely still has the old ones. Nothing happens at all in this before J&J run in for the second DQ in as many matches. It's awful. Ryback gets hit with the curb stomp afterwards, because god forbid Rollins hit him with it in the match and actually beat him. There would be too much risk of it making him look good and helping him get over further as a top star. We can't be having that now, can we?
Final Rating: 1/2*
A video plays hyping the return of Sheamus. I can barely wait. I see an Andre the Giant Battle Royal in his imminent future.
Paige vs. Brie Bella
Earlier today came the sad news that Drew McDonald, a legendary British wrestler who got Paige her break in WWE, passed away at the age of sixty from cancer. Because she wears black anyway and an armband wouldn't be obviously visible, she has written "RIP DREW MCDONALD" in stencilled font on both arms. JBL references it, though he very nearly accidentally says "McIntyre". The worst thing about the Bellas reunion after their pointless split last year was that Brie didn't ditch her remarkably crap music. I don't know if I am just getting old or what, but to me that is not what music sounds like. It's what screeching, dying cats sound like, sure. Despite Paige's usual efforts, she isn't given a lot to work with here and this is the usual Divas crap. Brie is horrendous. She could really do with some tips from her husband. Paige wins with an elevated DDT after Nikki accidentally hits Brie in the back with her Divas title. At least it was short.
Final Rating: DUD
Promo Time: Rusev & Lana
Lana talks about how great John Cena was, but says he is vulnerable after so many years of abuse. We even get a video package highlighting the various tribulations he has endured (and survived) over the years. Rusev says Cena's fighting spirit and ruthless aggression are gone, and now he is weak. This is going to make him look pretty bad when he inevitably does the job to Cena at Fast Lane or more likely, WrestleMania. Cena comes out, with his right eye looking even worse than it did last week, questioning why he is being labelled as an old has-been. It is a good question, actually. Cena looks exactly the same now as he did when he debuted, he has barely aged at all.
It is a strange route for WWE to go down. The more sensible option that pushing him as an old superhero, which is doomed from the get go, would be to give him the Undertaker role. Reduce his schedule on television (not house shows because he is the biggest draw and merchandise seller) and make his appearances special. Make his matches mean something. Create a new line of fresh opponents that he hasn't worked with repeatedly. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and one of the reasons Cena has always generated such a mixed response is because he has been on top repeatedly without a break. As his brief hiatus prior to the 2008 Royal Rumble proved, if he goes away and comes back, people will be more willing to cheer for him. Well, for a few weeks at least.
This segment is fairly good, with Cena calling Rusev out and telling him to fight, and Rusev taking him up on it. They meet in the aisle and Rusev gets the better of it, attacking Cena's eye and then hurling him into the set, leaving him out cold. Officials drag him away, bringing to an end one of the more satisfying heat-building segments on the show in a while.
Dolph Ziggler vs. Bray Wyatt
There is another unintentionally amusing exchange between the announcers at the start of this, when Michael Cole tries to do his cringe-worthy quotation of Wyatt's promos (he does the same thing with Stardust's tweets), but gets continually cut off by Booker and JBL talking over the top of him. He doesn't relent, chipping away until he can get it out. He comes off as such a complete goon. The crowd do duelling chants at the start but soon get bored once Wyatt takes over. Wyatt bleeds a little from the nose from a Dolph dropkick, and Cole actually mentions it. In a bizarre visual, the referee is donning rubber gloves to protect himself. What would he have worn in a Ric Flair match from the eighties? A full hazmat suit? Katie Vick and blood on the same show though; a landmark night to be sure. The hot crowd are now silent thanks to Bray's chinlocks and Dolph's limited offence, but they wake up when he makes a comeback with a big DDT. "This has been an incredible match-up," says the pre-programmed automaton Cole. He is lying. Ziggler hits the Fame Asser followed by a superkick, but Wyatt kicks out. Yeah, he isn't losing again until he puts Undertaker over at WrestleMania. "This is awesome," chant three people in the crowd, who clearly don't know what "awesome" wrestling is. As expected, Wyatt wins cleanly with the Sister Abigail, then looks around after the match, as if expecting someone. Following the win he pulls Dolph out of the ring and exposes the concrete under the ring mats, but the referee and a similarly gloved second throw it back down and tell him not to do it. He doesn't, he just crouches next to Dolph and smiles. What was the point of that?
Final Rating: *1/2
This week's black history month feature focuses on Junkyard Dog, one of Bill Watts' favourites. Naturally his worst run was with WWE, like most major stars who were big names elsewhere. WWE think it was his best run, because they have a very skewed view of pro wrestling history.
Promo Time: Brock Lesnar & Paul Heyman
Another promo that doesn't require the use of one of Lesnar's limited dates, because as ever it is primarily Heyman speaking. He calls Bryan and Reigns liars for claiming they have a chance against Lesnar. Heyman covers Reigns first, claiming he pissed himself when the two went face to face two weeks ago. Then Bryan, who he thinks is deluded for thinking he can beat Brock. Heyman does put Bryan's ability over, something he didn't do for Reigns, but still laughs off his chances. See, the fact that Heyman is essentially burying their chances means only one thing: Lesnar is losing the belt. Heyman is too smart to belittle guys who are going to be getting beat anyway. Why was Lesnar even here? He didn't say a word. He just stood there. Why not have him in a match? That would guarantee the quality of this show improved significantly. This was not one of Heyman's better promos.
Goldust & Stardust vs. The New Day
Oh, this match again. "Say New Day" *silence* "Say New Day" *silence*. You can't beat a repackage job that manages to destroy three careers in one fell swoop. I think they are my least favourite thing on the entire roster. The irony of WWE celebrating black history month while also presenting a gimmick like New Day has been pointed out before, but it is worth reiterating. After less than a minute, Stardust leaves, just like he did on SmackDown, and Kofi rolls up Goldust for the win. The entrances lasted longer than the bout.
Final Rating: N/R
Backstage, Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns agree to get along tonight to fight a mutual enemy. Yeah, this never ends well.
Elsewhere backstage, Goldust talks "as Dustin" and tells "Cody" things have got out of hand. Stardust pushes him into a wall.
Promo Time: Triple H
"For years I have stayed here when everyone else has left." Well, yeah! But Vince only had one daughter to marry pal. Apparently Sting stayed away from WWE for fourteen years because Triple H would "personally expose him". What? What logic is that? He goes on about wanting an answer to his call out, but it makes no sense. He has called him out for Fast Lane, surely by very definition that is where he should appear. Imagine a playground scenario. "Hey I call you out for a fight later tonight after school" Do you then hound the guy to see if he will turn up, or go to the place of the call out and see if he shows up? Anyway, baffling logic aside, the lights then go out, apart from in the ring, and a host of fake Sting's are spotlighted in doorways around the arena. Then a freaky video plays which shows Hunter talking and his face getting possessed by Sting's face paint. It's pretty cool, actually. The lights go completely off and a blatantly fake Sting gets in the ring for all of one second, then the lights go off again and he is gone. On the video, the words "I accept" flash up. Okay, so the only explanation for the existence of said video is that it is a magic video. Otherwise, how and why would he have had it produced at such short notice? Yes, I know I am reading far too much into this, but when you start using magical powers in storylines, questions arise. I am being a little harsh though, because this was the kind of silly nonsense that I used to enjoy about Sting in WCW. What a shame WWE are wasting him by booking him with Hunter. Who cares if a match with Undertaker would stink? The sheer spectacle alone would be enough to carry it, and I can guarantee far more people would buy the Network to see that than they will Undertaker-Wyatt and Sting-Hunter.
The Usos vs. Tyson Kidd & Cesaro
Kidd and Cesaro are so underneath the radar that their entrance isn't even shown. We do see footage from SmackDown though and a double date that Kidd and Natalya went on with Jimmy and Naomi. It went as well as you would expect. "I was just trying to do something nice!" whines Natalya in her brassy stilted voice. It was inevitable that this match would take place tonight following a brace of singles matches between the guys involved, because that is how WWE book; always A to B with no detours. Kidd does some impressive spots, but because WWE couldn't care less about him the announcers ignore them completely, and the camera even cuts away from one of them. It's almost criminal the way he and Cesaro are used. Hey, how about WWE put them in the Authority and have them work with Bryan and Reigns, and put Kane and Show in these pointless tags instead? I know, a laughable prospect, but it would be so much better. Do WWE think ratings would dive if they did something like that? Because Kane and Big Show are such proven draws? They are not. Both have been around forever and have not drawn a dime in years. Decades, actually. Following Jimmy's hot tag to Jey the pace quickens, and Kidd is even allowed to kick out after he gets nailed with a superkick following a springboard. Cesaro pushes Jey off the top allowing Kidd to cover for the win and a tag title shot, probably at Fast Lane. Like I said, generic booking 101. It is the same format they follow for every program.
Final Rating: **
Rikishi is the next name announced for the Hall of Fame, a guy who failed as a singles wrestler with two horrible gimmicks before repackaging himself as a dancing fat ass in a thong who liked to put his considerable butt in his opponent's faces. It was announced prior to Raw via the Uso's Twitter, on instruction from WWE, that Rikishi was getting inducted, making that all three of the current Hall of Fame announcements that have been officially revealed prior to being announced. For a change, I can't fathom WWE's logic. Surely the anticipation of who the next inductee will be is more likely to get people watching the show than splurging it on social media earlier in the day. Do they think people will find out who is going in and then tune in just to see the announcement video?
Sin Cara vs. Damien Mizdow
Mizdow is accompanied by the Miz, who hogs all of the spotlight and walks in front of his vastly superior partner. Mizdow gets Miz a seat and gives him a microphone, so we know this is not going to be a real match. The crowd don't care and vociferously support Mizdow, but he has to stop wrestling and get Miz some water midway through. Mizdow gets caught with a Sin Cara dive as a result, prompting Miz to warn him to keep his eye on his opponent. Back in the ring, Mizdow has the match won but Miz stops him doing "the move he made famous", the figure four leglock. He gets rolled up and pinned because of it, which is WWE's most favourite finish in the whole world. They love it. They love it so much that they do it every week. Along with DQ finishes and the overuse of superkicks, it is one of their favourite things. Credit where it's due, Miz was pretty funny in his role here. I just hope WWE don't make their usual mess of things when they finally pull the trigger on their split.
Final Rating: *1/2
Bray Wyatt from the video screen wants to know, "Where do we go when we die?" and tells his unnamed target that, "For us, there is no death". Gee, I wonder what he means.
Curtis Axel vs. Dean Ambrose
Didn't we do this dance already? Axel stares longingly, hilariously, into the WrestleMania sign before the match and cuts another promo complaining about his never having been eliminated from the Royal Rumble. As Michael Cole points out quite correctly, he never actually got in the ring. Axel tries to get #AxelMania over, but I think he is fighting a losing battle. It would be hilarious if it did get over though, to the point that they had to make WrestleMania a four way. It will never happen, but I still think it has more chance than Kidd and Cesaro in the Authority. I really do. He doesn't last long here, getting a brief customary heat before Ambrose takes him out with his sweet clothesline and Dirty Deeds.
Final Rating: 1/2*
Post match, Ambrose calls out Bad News Barrett for an Intercontinental title match again. Bad News turns up backstage with a new segment: Bad News Zone or BNZ, a take-off of TMZ of course. Hey, anything with Barrett is gold, the guy is a comedic genius. If they could capture even a fraction of the charisma he showed on the JBL & Cole Show he would be over as a top guy.
Daniel Bryan & Roman Reigns vs. The Authority
Round two then, and it starts with Bryan attacked in the corner and Reigns taken out with a Kane and Show double chokeslam. The bell rings after that, and immediately Rollins pretends to be Brock Lesnar with a series of German suplexes. Again, perhaps not the best thing for a guy with a dodgy neck to be taking. Jamie Noble comes in and runs some spots with Bryan, with Bryan perhaps looking for revenge for his defeat to Noble on Velocity in 2003. Oh yes, that was a thing. Bryan gets beaten down by everyone, with Reigns again taken out to prevent him coming to his aid, this time courtesy of Big Show's big fat fist. It all gets to be too much for some to bear, so Ryback, Dolph Ziggler and Erik Rowan come out to even the odds. Pardon me if I don't shit myself with excitement. Everyone but J&J leave, and Bryan has things in hand only for Reigns to blind tag himself in and wipe out Mercury with a spear and pin him. Bryan is pissed that Reigns did nothing yet took all the credit, and the two have an argument that turns physical when Bryan pushes him, and Reigns retaliates with a spear to hearty boos. It's all getting rather interesting.
Final Rating: *
THE RAW RECAP:
Most Entertaining: Sting. He wasn't even technically on the show, but his character's involvement was nostalgic fun.
Least Entertaining: The New Day
Quote of the Night: "Here comes the Calvary (sic)" - Michael Cole. The place where Jesus was crucified? Or three midcarders doing a run-in in the main event?
Match of the Night: Oh, I don't know, they were all pretty shit. The Kidd/Cesaro-Usos tag match probably just about takes it thanks to the good work from Kidd.
Verdict: There were a few good things on here, namely Rusev and the Sting stuff, but the majority was generic, recycled toss. We have seen it all before. Be it the match-ups, the booking methods or the endless Authority stuff. Raw at its best when locked in competition with WCW was vibrant, exciting, unpredictable and daring. Raw in the PG Era is insipid, repetitive, lacking ideas and formulaic. You don't need to watch to know what happens, because if you saw the previous week's show and you know how WWE operate, you can pretty much predict the show in advance. I do think Fast Lane looks fairly good on paper and there are some intriguing things on the card, but the television leading up to it remains distinctly average. WWE need to pick up the pace and create a head of steam going into WrestleMania, because at the moment they are just coasting.
We’re in Denver, Colorado. Hosts are Michael Cole, JBL & Booker T. Tonight Triple H will make an announcement that will “shake the WWE Universe to its core”. Or he’ll book a match. One or the other.
Triple H's Core Shaking Announcement
Triple H & Stephanie McMahon. Hunter doesn’t make us wait for the big announcement, concerning “controversy” regarding the Royal Rumble. Oh wait, no, they ramble on about the Superbowl and Hunter even jokes about the #canceltheWWEnetwork movement. Another “fuck you” to the fan base. Thanks, guys. The big controversy is The Rock’s involvement in the Rumble match. Hunter cuts a bizarre quasi-shoot promo about outcomes of matches and eventually gets around to blaming Sting for getting in his business. Finally, after plugging the Network (only $9.99 folks!), he gets back to the Rumble and blames Rock for skewing the outcome of the Rumble match. This brings out Royal Rumble winner Roman Reigns. With speculation over the ‘Mania main event out comes Daniel Bryan, the man the fans actually wanted to win the Rumble. Bryan points out he never got a re-match after he was stripped of the title only for Hunter to cut him down for being too stupid for not just asking for a title shot when he came back. This brings out Seth Rollins to declare himself the number one contender, for breaking Brock Lesnar’s ribs. Hunter books Daniel Bryan vs. Seth Rollins tonight and the winner gets Roman Reigns at Fast Lane for the ‘Mania main event, if Roman agrees, which he does. Another chatty opening to Raw but at least this created some interest in the otherwise A to B booking of Lesnar-Reigns. It sure took an eternity to get there, again. This is one of the biggest issues with booking a three hour Raw every week. Creatively it’s always been a bad decision but the additional sponsorship keeps them up there. Actively making the product worse for quick cash. Does nobody see a problem with that in Titan Towers? Apparently Triple H does but the buck stops with Vince.
Roman Reigns vs. The Big Show
One of the worst aspects of Roman’s big push is that they’ve stuck him in with Big Show. Nobody wants to see Show as a hurdle for potential main eventers. Or Kane. He’s deathly dull in the role. At least Roman gets cheered for working him. The criticisms of Roman are largely because of how poorly his booking has been of late. Part of that is putting him in with Big Show. Nobody gets over working Show. Superman Punch but Seth Rollins whacks Reigns with the Money in the Bank briefcase and Show finishes with a chokeslam. I know people don’t want Roman as a main event just yet but having him get buried in the booking like this helps no one. Maybe they figured he should take a loss to take people’s mind off his win. There’s logic in there somewhere.
Final Rating: ¼*
Backstage: The Authority, on the air mind you, point out they couldn’t contractually strip Roman of the title shot and further point out they’ve got Seth Rollins positioned to take Roman’s ‘Mania match. Hunter goes on to say he’ll manipulate Steve Austin tonight on the Podcast too. Even through that’s a kayfabe killing shoot and this is ‘real’. What a mess.
Promo Time: Curtis Axel
He points out he was never eliminated from the Rumble match and claims he would have won if it wasn’t for Eric Rowan. Axel even gets in the ‘pointing to WrestleMania sign’ bit. He demands “justice”, which gets him beaten up by Dean Ambrose and thrown over the top rope.
Ambrose talks about trekking to WWE Headquarters through the snow last week to look at the photographs of legends and former champions there. He claims that because he beat Bad News Barrett, he’s next in line for the IC title (continuity is always welcome). Ambrose wants his picture in that hallowed hallway. Axel runs back in to eat the DDT and the crowd seem pleased enough with all of this. Ambrose is too good to be IC champion but so were plenty of other guys who had it. There are only so many spots. My main hope for this feud is that the IC title looks better because of it. Raise the profile of the champion and the belt means something. Secondary shouldn’t mean jobbers. It should mean guys who want to be main eventers and are nearly there. Book the champ strong, make the belt mean something and you’ll have another draw.
Video Control takes us to the WWE’s celebration of Black History Month. Firstly with some video of Ernie Ladd. I personally think the WWE should steer well clear of this, thanks to their questionable booking of black people as stereotypes in the past and The New Day, right now. Papa Shango, Saba Simba, Akeem “The African Dream”, Slick, Cryme Tyme, Nation of Domination, Kamala, Kofi Kingston (Jamaican me crazy), Virgil and the list goes on.
The Ascension vs. Goldust & Stardust
Booker T attacks JBL for continuing to bury the Ascension and this leads to bickering between the commentary team. Goldust gets planted with Fall of Man in a few seconds and the match is finally acknowledged by the “commentators”. “They’re not in the same league as the Power of Pain” says JBL. Worst. Commentator. Ever.
Final Rating: DUD
Promo Time: John Cena
He’s out here to ramble about Steve Austin’s podcast on the Network. He switches gears to “Triple H’s WWE”, which seems to involve him bringing up NXT guys to take John Cena’s spot. Well…good! That’s the point of the business. Bring up new talent and make the roster fresh, instead of recycling the same old matches and gimmicks over and over again. Cena just being Cena stopped being interesting years ago. Cena promises to never give up. Eventually he gets around to welcoming Ryback, Dolph Ziggler and Eric Rowan back to Raw. Steph pops onto the Titantron to book Ziggler against Bray Wyatt, Rowan against Rusev and Ryback against Luke Harper next. This segment was horrible. Are they trying to get these guys the rub by having them stand with Cena?
Ryback vs. Luke Harper
In a way I’m pleased this isn’t Kane but Harper is swiftly becoming just another big guy that the Authority use as an obstacle. Harper is quite mobile but when he hits a slingshot hilo JBL calls him a “zombie version of Eddy Guerrero”, which is pretty offensive. These guys get a decent powerhouse match going even though it rather exposes the lack of move set on Ryback. He’s still very much a quick squash guy. Much like Goldberg, the guy he’s basically based on. I’m actually quite surprised at how over Ryback has gotten based on a bunch of smashmouth power stuff. Shellshock finishes Harper off. Might as well strike while the iron is hot. Both men delivered here and had an entertaining match. The reason why Ryback is getting over is not so much the power moves but rather that he’s likeable too. He comes across like a nice simpleton. It’s hard to hate him based on that.
Final Rating: **
Jimmy Uso vs. Cesaro
This match has two backgrounds. One where Natalya and Naomi are friends and they want Tyson Kidd and the Usos to get along. The other is that Tyson Kidd just wants the tag titles. It’s weird to me that Cesaro is one of the best wrestlers in the WWE but all the commentators ever focus on is his freakish strength. Cesaro has way too much in his locker for poor Jimmy and he runs through an array of spots like the giant swing and a sick double stomp. Jimmy only has flying in his locker. He goes for the Superfly Splash but gets PLANTED with the uppercut. Cesaro wins. Good showing from Cesaro, working around Jimmy’s limitations.
Final Rating: **1/2
Video Control catches up with The Miz and Damien Mizdow and someone asks for Mizdow’s autograph (why is anyone backstage asking for autographs?). Miz gives him and Mizdow a dressing down. Mizdow continuing to mimic Miz during it. That is until Miz fires Mizdow as his stuntman and re-hires him as a PA. Mizdow continues the mimicry. He’s not all there. Elsewhere Eric Rowan has a heart to heart with John Cena, thanking Cena for being the first person to stand up for him. Cena manages to make it through the segment without making fun and wishes him luck tonight.
Dolph Ziggler vs. Bray Wyatt
Duelling chants for this one, which is a good sign. It means they’ve put two guys together who the fans actually care about. They don’t really deliver on the match, doing a lot of kick-punch stuff. The crowd continue to bite on both guys, which must be music to the ears of those in charge. Wyatt tends to avoid having Ziggler’s match and stalls a lot to avoid Dolph’s aggressive flying. There are way too many chinlocks though. Strategy is one thing but laziness is something else. I’m aware the WWE has a busy schedule and these guys can’t go all out, all the time but this style of match isn’t really acceptable anymore. Bray seems to be one step ahead of Dolph all match and having the heel boss proceedings, coupled with the feeling neither guy can afford to lose, creates a excitable atmosphere in the audience. Ziggler does a fine job of selling his shoulder, targeted by Bray throughout with nerve holds and such. Ziggler hits the Rocker Dropper but Wyatt pops back up and hits Sister Abigail for the win. Crowd were chanting “this is awesome”, which is a sign of how bad the WWE has been of late that this match stands out. They had a decent match if somewhat sluggish. The big spots worked and I was most pleased at a wrestler working a strategy throughout a match and it paying off with a logical conclusion. This doesn’t hurt Ziggler at all. Much like clean losses don’t hurt guys in the UFC when it comes to drawing. As long as they don’t get outwitted too often. A well-worked match, on the whole.
Final Rating: ***1/4
Video Control takes us backstage again. This time with Seth Rollins making fun of the crowd. The Authority say Daniel Bryan has no chance tonight. Rollins stops off to bury Randy Orton, so it looks like he’s coming back soon. Elsewhere Paige gets into a scuffle with the Bellas. Paige is getting a title shot at Fast Lane.
Paige vs. Alicia Fox
Nikki and Brie join commentary to talk about the Superbowl and JBL even name drops #leftshark. They should totally sign Left Shark. He’s uncoordinated enough to be in the Divas division, bless him. Alicia controls until Paige wins with a roll up. The Bellas attack Paige with spray tan afterwards as the crowd chant “nWo”. I like Paige but increasingly she’s got nothing to work with.
Final Rating: DUD
Video Control takes us to footage from the show Sirens where The Miz guest starred as ‘injured guy in gym’. That’s on USA Network tomorrow.
The Miz vs. Sin Cara
Mizdow is still impersonating Miz, drawing the ire of his employer. Sin Cara runs through his offence, which is a bit flippy but not good in any way. The camera still drifts across to Mizdow, who’s standing around sheepishly. It occurs to me that Miz vs. Sin Cara could be for a new Spot-Blowing Championship. I think Sin Cara would win. He falls over at least once before scoring the upset pin with Miz distracted by Mizdow taking off his sunglasses.
Final Rating: ¼*
Video Control gives us another look into the mind of Bray Wyatt. “People used to fear you. You let all that fear turn into love and admiration”. “I know you’re listening, find me”. FOLLOW THE BUZZARDS! Bray clearly sending out a message to the Undertaker there. Not sure how I feel about that. Bray wins me over with promos alone and he’s decent in the ring but the Undertaker’s match against Brock Lesnar was just awful and the streak is gone. Maybe I’m in the minority but I’d rather he didn’t come back this year. I’d be quite happy for him to go into the Hall of Fame though.
Rusev vs. Eric Rowan
Rusev just dismantles Rowan before he’s even in the ring thus turning this into a no-contest destruction. Lana invites us to a movie premier as the crowd “what” along. Damn you, Steve Austin! The ‘movie’ is Rusev destroying various guys. Poor Eric Rowan, once again an afterthought. I notice his ‘friend’ John Cena didn’t bother coming out here to help. Rusev gets his Russian flag caught in the rigging, which JBL calls “an omen”. He’s having a shocker this evening.
Final Rating: N/R
Video Control takes us backstage where Daniel Bryan chats to Roman Reigns, trying to get him over by association. Hey, these guys are friends, you don’t need to boo one of them! Roman gets heat by telling Bryan to leave.
Daniel Bryan vs. Seth Rollins
So the winner of this match gets Roman Reigns at Fast Lane and the winner of that match is challenging Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania. Seth Rollins has taken to this heel role extremely well and he’s the WWE’s best prospect at the moment. Obviously Bryan, Lesnar and Cena are ahead of him on the superstar ladder but if you were picking a guy to break into that top echelon it wouldn’t be Roman Reigns, it’d be Seth Rollins. Reigns position reminds me a lot of Diesel when he first won the title. But hey, he was awesome after the title run, when he turned tweener. They should just book Roman like that. Bryan wisely takes a lot of heat and feeds off the crowd on the comebacks. Bryan gets his jollies from lacing in kicks and knocking J & J Security over. Bryan looks to be in excellent condition, which makes his booking at the Rumble so much more befuddling. Seth plays his part and takes some fine bumps. Bryan brings the psychology on top of that by taking too many bumps on his neck and selling the hell out of the injury he just recovered from. Busaiku Knee is blocked into a powerbomb into the buckles. “This is awesome” chants the crowd for the second time tonight. Pleasing reactions and I’m sure Triple H at least feels vindicated in showcasing the wrestling tonight. Rollins is suckered into the Yes Lock but the ropes save. Show tries to help out so here comes Roman Reigns with a flying spear on Show. Awesome stuff. The distance between him taking off and actually landing it were amazing. It was like a tope outside the ring. Superman Punch to Seth. Busaiku Knee puts Bryan over and he’s going to Fast Lane to wrestle Roman Reigns. I really hope they know what they’re doing.
Final Rating: ***1/2
THE RAW RECAP
Most Entertaining: Bray Wyatt
Least Entertaining: JBL.
Quote of the Night: “Now, you’re eliminated” – Ambrose after throwing Curtis Axel out of the ring.
Match of the Night: Daniel Bryan vs. Seth Rollins.
Verdict: There was a notable up-turn in the quality of the in-ring action tonight and you have to wonder if that’s the WWE’s response to the recent critical beatings it has taken. If the in-ring is good it makes it a lot harder to be critical of the product as a whole. With more emphasis on the wrestling the show came across well. It is bizarre that the WWE has basically repeated 2014 by messing up the booking of the Rumble match and having to dig their way out of a hole. At least it’s entertaining to watch them do that but why make the mistake in the first place? Is it just Vince McMahon’s blind ignorance of what people are interested in? The whole “I’ll tell you what you want” will not work anymore. The sooner Vince McMahon realises he can no longer dictate to his audience, like the megalomaniacal control freak he is, the better. I enjoyed this show though and the booking here reflected the strengths of their top guys. Bryan, Rollins, Wyatt, Ziggler, Ambrose and Reigns should *all* be hot right now. It’s almost WrestleMania. They need these guys to come in as stars and own that show. This was a step in the right direction.