Tonight’s RAW is the go-home show before Sunday’s Royal Rumble. With the recent stipulation that World Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns must defend his title in the Rumble match itself, the forthcoming pay-per-view is, on paper, the biggest Rumble since 1992, when the match was contested for vacant Heavyweight Championship. Potentially, however, this genuinely good piece of storyline booking could easily be marred by a lack of star power. With the likes of John Cena, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, and Daniel Bryan highly unlikely to be cleared to compete in time, WWE has so far suggested a mostly jobberific field of contestants. Furthermore, Paul Heyman spent a good part of last week’s show trying to weasel Brock Lesnar out of the Rumble match and straight into the main event at WrestleMania, so I’m half-expecting a swerve concerning his appearance on Sunday. Let’s see what unfolds tonight. Hosts are Michael Cole, JBL, and Byron Saxton.
Promo Time: Roman Reigns
At least it’s not the authority. We get a flashback from last week’s RAW, where Roman was placed in a one vs. all match (a phrase which will be run into the ground tonight) to highlight how the odds are stacked against him on Sunday. Brock Lesnar ended up standing tall last week, delivering an F5 to the champ, and so Reigns is here to call out the beast. Instead, he gets Chris Jericho, who is wearing a suit jacket without a shirt, instantly meaning that he cannot – must not – be taken seriously. Cole points out how experienced Jericho is in Rumble matches, which only highlights how depleted the roster is at the moment. After running through some of his catchphrases, Jericho offers Reigns a spot on the Highlight Reel alongside Lesnar tonight, suggesting that Reigns, Lesnar, and himself are the three favourites heading into the pay-per-view. Reigns accepts – believe that! Only, it doesn’t end at that, for The League of Nations enter the stage, with all but King Barrett taking a turn to state why they should be on the Highlight Reel (Alberto Del Rio mentions something about rice on the Caucasian). Jericho burns Sheamus by retorting, “I don’t want to have you on the show because I’m trying to keep things entertaining, but why don’t I have your Mohawk on the show so it can tell me why it makes you look so stupid.” Ha! Finally, an impromptu match between Roman Reigns and Rusev is booked by no-one in a position of booking authority, while Jericho inserts himself as the special guest referee.
Roman Reigns vs. Rusev
Despite being the referee, Y2J cannot save us from a punch-kick-chinlock match to kick off the show, nor can he keep his eye on all three of Rusev’s stable mates on the outside. The match, by the way, is largely background noise to the commentators discussing the logistics and statistics of the Rumble match, which in some way contradicts the supposed unpredictability of the stipulation and luck of the draw. Del Rio and Barrett distract Jericho on the apron, while Sheamus pulls Reigns to the outside and sends him crashing into the barricades on the other side of the ring. That’s enough for the man in the stripes (he commandeered Mike Chioda’s shirt during the commercial), and it leads to all three of the LoN entourage being sent to the back, which is then punctuated by Jericho executing the world’s crappest cartwheel. I’ve fallen over with more grace than that. A Superman Punch and a spear send Reigns into Sunday looking strong.
Final Rating: *1/2
Backstage, Jericho is looking particularly smug with himself, but here comes Stephanie McMahon to no doubt humiliate and emancipate him. She actually likes his booking of Reigns alongside Lesnar on the Highlight Reel, but still she admonishes him for doing it anyway. She reminds him that RAW is no longer Jericho and it is not 1999. It sure isn’t.
Brie Bella vs. Natalya
“Look who’s back,” states Byron of Nattie. I didn’t know she was gone. Paige, presumably face again, accompanies Natalya to the ring. It’s all done to promote the new season premiere of Total Divas, which I certainly won’t be tuning in for. Apparently, Paige has some issues with Alicia Fox, or ‘Foxy’. I certainly hope that feud doesn’t spill over onto the main roster shows – oh wait, it has done before the episode of Total Divas has even aired. In the match, Brie tries to channel her infinitely more talented husband with a knee to the face and a succession of kicks. “Brie Mode!” she wails. What is Brie Mode? I can only assume that it refers to eating copious amounts of rich, creamy cheese. Brie’s bragging bites her on the ass, as she gets caught in the sharpshooter and taps instantly.
Final Rating: ½*
The Wyatt Family vs. The Dudley Boyz & Ryback
First of all we get a recap of the tables match between The Dudleys and Erick Rowan and Luke Harper on Smackdown! The Dudleys won that match, but typical even-steven booking kicked in immediately after when the whole Wyatt clan decimated the victors post-match. Cole then reminds us that The Wyatts have issues with Ryback. Frankly, I would rather forget the uninspiring, tedious, and ill-suited rivalry between Ryback and Bray Wyatt in 2015. The worst Wyatt, which is Braun Strowman (and not Rowan), sits this six-man out. Luke Harper impresses me instantly with a big boot to Bubba’s face in the opening exchanges before the match settles down and D’Von takes the heat. Cole, the insipid gimboid, runs off his Fifty Shades of Former Wrestlers spiel – “shades of Bruiser Brody, shades of Sgt. Slaughter,” ad inifinitum. Ryback eventually gets the hot tag, and I am using hot in the absolute loosest sense of the word here, possibly even in the opposite sense, for nobody cares. Bubba returns the big boot favour to Harper, but shenanigans involving Strowman on the outside cause sufficient distraction for Harper to respond with the discus clothesline for the victory, much to the delight of my inner Harper mark.
Final Rating: *1/2
Cole announces that later tonight we will find out who will enter the Royal Rumble at number one. Personally, unless it is integral to the plot to know who enters at a given position, I would rather leave it to surprise on the night. Possible spoiler alert: it will almost certainly be Roman Reigns.
Big Show vs. Heath Slater
Slater is flanked by the rest of his newly-formed Social Outcasts stable. It has been implied that these goofs, along with a plethora of other ham and eggers, will be taking up valuable Rumble slots. The only saving grace might be that WWE has form when it comes to pulling various mid-carders from Rumble card on the day of the event. This needs to happen on Sunday. I’m not holding out too much hope for Bullet Club being on the show, but at the very least they need to throw in a few of the NXT stars (Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, and Sami Zayn spring to mind). The Social Outcasts would be best served in a role where only one of them gets a Rumble slot and they have to fight it out, or even have them do a few run-ins a la Kaientai in 2000. As for the match, Show knocks Slater out and then takes out the rest of his crew for good measure, hopefully eliminating them early.
Final Rating: N/R
Backstage, an irate League of Nations sans Rusev are joined by Steph. She gets in their ears about how Jericho screwed them earlier. I think this is leading to a run-in on the Highlight Reel later, which may not end well if Brock has something to say about it, which he most likely will.
Royal Rumble Number One Slot Draw:
Vince McMahon and Stephanie host. After Steph runs of a list of possibilities, including the suggestion that it might be a new face (A.J. Styles? Shinsuke Nakamura? Probably not), Vince cuts right to what most people probably know anyway: it could be Roman Reigns. He points out that the chances of it being Reigns are about the same as any of the audience winning the Powerball. I would expect that the chances of winning the Powerball are significantly higher than one in thirty. What do you know? It’s Reigns (the number one entrant, not the Powerball winner). We have a second and third re-draw, proving that it was rigged anyway. Why didn’t McMahon, in all his higher power, just forcibly put Reigns as the number one entrant rather than making us endure this palaver? Also, why didn’t Reigns come out and sock McMahon in the jaw?
Becky Lynch vs. Tamina
Charlotte and Ric Flair take a ringside seat for this bout, with Becky having recently challenged Charlotte for her Diva’s Championship at the Rumble. Speaking of Naitch, I genuinely think he should be one of the surprise entrants in the Rumble, even if he is really old and looks like a massive potato. After all, he is the only person to date to win a championship in a Rumble match, so logic dictates that he should be given an opportunity to defend his record. I’m sure he’d be game for it.
Naomi accompanies her Team B.A.D. sister, but where in the blue hell is Sasha Banks???!!! Without Sasha, they’re just a bad team. Becky heads out in a wacky Aztec-themed coat; I wish WWE would stop forcing Becky to be wacky and just let her get on with the Steampunk image and actually being a decent wrestler. Becky shows too much ass for Tamina in the early goings. She wants to be looking strong in this one, really, considering that she is trying to position herself as a viable contender for Charlotte’s title. Fortunately, she rallies and wins via the Disarm-Her. The match was a dud, but Becky cuts a post-match promo demanding an answer from Charlotte. The Flair heiress dismisses her claim, as she has already beaten her, so Becky resorts to paraphrasing Flair’s “limousine riding . . .” catchphrase (impressively, I might add), which riles old Naitch right up and he accepts the match on behalf of his daughter, much to Charlotte’s chagrin. Surprisingly, he doesn’t elbow drop his jacket. Hopefully that means he is saving energy for Sunday!
Final Rating: DUD
Dean Ambrose & Kalisto vs. Alberto Del Rio & Sheamus
Odd-pairing though Ambrose and Kalisto may be, this match sort of serves a purpose that combines multiple angles and two championship matches at the Royal Rumble. Kalisto has recently held the United States Championship for a cup of coffee, having won and lost it from Del Rio in the blink of an eye. Dean, meanwhile, has had recent bad blood (and bad matches, it has to be said) with Sheamus, but is also currently embroiled in a blood-feud with Kevin Owens, who is conveniently a guest commentator for the match. Ambrose and Owens will square off in a last-man standing match for the Intercontinental Championship on Sunday, which leads me to conclude that they won’t be pulling double duty, thus depleting the star power of the Rumble even further. That’s a shame, especially as I could see Dean Ambrose being positioned similar to how Roddy Piper was in 1992. King Barrett is also at ringside, for the record.
Ambrose and Kalisto actually put together a couple of decent tandem moves, which mostly involve Ambrose propelling his smaller partner into his opponents. Otherwise, it’s standard RAW tag team fare. Owens is one of the better guest commentators of recent weeks – and there has been a lot of them – and spends the time showing why he is one of the best natural heels in the company. He also belittles Saxton, which is fair game in my estimation. Naturally, he gets involved in the match, distracting Ambrose on the outside, while Sheamus, having just kicked out of Salida de Sol, finishes with the Brogue Kick. Cole and Saxton blame Owens’s interference for Kalisto’s loss, but it really had nothing to do with it.
Final Rating: **
We get a recap from last week, where Chris Jericho, the rotter, bounder, and cad that he is, deliberately broke Xavier Woods’s trombone. The video segues to New Day holding a memorial service for the departed Francesca the Trombone. Big E. leads the service by quoting “great American poet, Jay-Z.” These guys are a hoot.
A video package relays all the statistics and records of the Royal Rumble, as one would usually expect around this time. This year’s montage also includes two rather tentative statistics concerning this year’s championship elimination bout: 1) there are fifteen former champions on the roster – not confirmed in the match, mind; 2) there are potentially six former winners who could feature. Randy Orton appears on this video, so expect his “surprise” return.
Big E. vs. Jay Uso
This match is what Francesca would’ve wanted, right after the defiling of Chris Jericho’s bathroom. I miss Francesca. Big E. should, in theory, have the advantage here, as he started his WWE career as a singles wrestler and is a former Intercontinental and NXT champion. Naturally, he takes a shoeing from his tag-team specialist opponent. Interference from Xavier Woods costs Uso, though, and Big E. finishes with the Big Ending. The two teams will contest the Tag Team Championships at the Rumble, so in WWE booking world, the Usos would now be favourites to win. I really hope that New Day can keep the belts for the foreseeable future, but WWE have been hot on the Usos for a while now and their popularity has been confirmed by the WWE Universe via their ludicrous award of the Tag Team of the Year Slammy.
Final Rating: *
Backstage, Titus O’Neil, Mark Henry, and R-Truth discuss their chances of winning the Rumble (all zero). It’s no coincidence that all three men are black athletes, as WWE ran a #keepthedreamalive video at the start of the program, referencing the Civil Rights work of Martin Luther King, which is then brought up again in this segment. Newcastle white man, Neville, then throws his hand in, which I guess is supposed to be a little joke.
Titus O’Neill, Mark Henry, R-Truth & Neville vs. Stardust, The Ascension & Tyler Breeze
If the joke of the previous segment is that Neville is the odd man out, then on the opposite team it is Tyler Breeze who looks completely out of sync with his wacko teammates. Cole points out that all eight of these men are scheduled to be in the Royal Rumble; see, this is what I meant about it being full of jobbers – I’m looking at you in particular, Ascension. Breeze and Neville deserve better than this, and in fact, were it not for the obvious gimmick of putting Reigns in at number one, both guys could be ideal candidates for the first two spots in the match. Unfortunately, this match shows how much Tyler’s star has fallen since his call-up to the main roster, as he jobs to the Red Arrow. Surely Konnor or Viktor could have taken the fall for this one?
Final Rating: ¾*
Chris Jericho’s Highlight Reel
For all he reiterates it, I still don’t buy Jericho’s claim as a top three candidate for the Rumble win in 2016. Paul Heyman makes his way to the ring alone, leaving Jericho to speculate as to whether Brock is even here. “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know that there will be an F5 touching down tonight in Columbus, Ohio,” he articulates in retort. Y2J continues to goad Heyman by suggesting that he might be worried that Lesnar will be a target for many on Sunday. He also proposes a what-if scenario where it comes down to Jericho and Lesnar and Jericho wins. I call that an unlikely scenario. Heyman’s response is masterful as always, putting his client (and vicariously the Network) over as far back as 2015’s WrestleMania, where, he points out, Brock was not pinned for the title, and then goes on to highlight Lesnar’s legitimate drawing power. He further assures us all that Brock will turn the Rumble into Suplex City, which brings out the beast to ringside. He can’t even finish his entrance, though, before he is interrupted by Roman Reigns. There are no words, just a spear. The League of Nations then do the predicable run-in, but Lesnar recovers and sends them all to Suplex City early, only to subsequently eat another spear from Reigns. The lights then go off, signaling the presence of the Wyatt’s. Again, there is no discussion, just a discus clothesline from Harper to Reigns, before a Wyatt assault takes out both of the top two contenders (another impressive big boot from Harper to Lesnar, too) and leaves Bray and his band of men standing tall in the ring afterwards. Obviously this won’t happen, especially now that they have been booked strong in the go-home show, but WWE could do a lot worse than put the belt on Bray Wyatt (or – dare I dream? – Luke Harper).
THE RAW RECAP:
Most Entertaining: Vilify me if you must, but this one goes out to Luke Harper. Nobody was particularly stand-out on this show, but he looked impressive in his match and in the closing segment.
Least Entertaining: Tamina.
Quote of the Night: Jericho’s putdown of Sheamus just edges out Heyman’s F5 forecast.
Match of the Night: I suppose it has to be Ambrose & Kalisto vs. Del Rio & Sheamus.
Summary: As go-home shows for the most important Royal Rumble pay-per-view in over twenty years goes, this one was rather lackluster to say the least. I suppose that all necessary angles were furthered to the point where the undercard is set up and the main competitors for the Rumble are showcased, but there was a severe lack of quality in terms of the matches, plus most of the Rumble-related booking was predictable – did anyone not see Reigns being the number one? We finished with a decent Highlight Reel segment, but the whole show served to highlight the real problem that WWE faces at the moment: a lack of star power in their roster. Part of this problem is unfortunate injuries at key times, but part of it is their own doing with their 50/50 booking system that fails to truly make anyone a star. If WWE can get a good selection of surprise entrants/returning superstars, some decent NXT talent, and maybe some of Bullet Club in the Rumble, then they might still be able to pull off a decent, memorable show; if it’s just an endless succession of jobbers saying goodbye, then it might fall as flat as the previous two.