Last night's Raw was a harbinger of several things for World Wrestling Entertainment, and a couple of them were big time positives in my view. Heading into Battleground with one week short of the usual build time between pay-per-views, I'm not sure that the flagship show was completely successful in promoting its full slate of matches. While Main Event, Smackdown, et al will have their chance to cement viewer's viewpoints on just how good that show will be, one can't help but notice that the WWE still seems to give too much focus to the top of the card while not allowing the mid tier to bottom feuds to simmer accordingly. Touting the value of a $9.99 PPV makes perfect sense, but that doesn't mean wrestling fans will be satisfied when they actually feel like that might be what it's truly worth. Such is the challenge of the current wrestling environment.
On the flip side, Monday's Raw as a stand alone show was one of the better ones I've watched of late. The three hour Raws and how they drag are almost to the point of the stuff of legend, but most of last night's affair breezed right along nicely. I also thought a few of the matches and segments deserved specific recognition, which I'll expound on below. The episode had some continuity throughout, and the finish of the main event was booked fairly logically and allowed for each of the big players to have their time in the sun. Us hardened cynics know it remains extremely unlikely that anyone not named John Cena walks out of Sunday's match with the gold, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief in the name of some solid script writing. Special accolades to the Richmond crowd who were hot and interactive all night. It makes all the difference when the live audience are involved.
1. The Open
The best Raws have to have a solid opening segment, and this one delivered the goods. Roman Reigns really shouldn't like John Cena at this point in the game, and it was evident from the beginning that the Virginia crowd was in favor of that approach. While I think Reigns continues to grow into his opportunities to get out from behind the pack mentality and do his own talking, his minimalist approach provides a stark contrast to the loud blabbering that Cena has practically trademarked. The theme of the night harkened to the title match this weekend, whose drama can really only be provided by the looming questions of who may betray whom. I thought it allowed both guys to look good, but what followed was even better.
Dean Ambrose, the hardest working man on the microphone, has his own big match coming up with Seth Rollins in what should be a show-stealer, providing Rollins is healthy. (More on that later.) Ambrose began in typical fashion before being absolutely plastered to oblivion in a backstage attack orchestrated by the Authority in the form of Randy Orton, Kane, and Rollins. One of the most fantastic moments of the evening occurred after Ambrose got tossed into a garage door three or four times, plus random other beatings and a chokeslam, selling the hell out of everything, only to ask his aggressors if that was all they had. It was a movie type moment in a business fueled by entertainment, and it was perfect. We can leave off the rather minor quibble about why Reigns and Cena didn't even attempt to make the save, but the attack continued Rollins' sneaky tactics in the Ambrose faceoff and provided a suitable explanation as to why Ambrose would be MIA the rest of the night. Setting up the main event in the first segment, and doing it in a high tempo way instead of a dragging gabfest? Brilliant!
2. The Miz
I know, I know, I'm questioning it too, but I have to be fair here: how can the WWE writing team possibly repackage the Miz in a way that establishes him with any degree of credibility after everything we've seen? Booked like a running gag since his return a couple weeks prior (and suitably taking a back seat to the always-stellar Y2J), I had some definite questions about the longevity of Miz's movie star routine, harkening back to Andy Kaufman but coming up way more generally-arrogant-and-annoying Miz which we've already had plenty of experience with, thank you. Last night, the returning former reality star did not actually have his long-rumored boost from Ric Flair, but rather squared off against United States Champion Sheamus. Should be a cake walk, fella. Or maybe not.
The US title is booked so poorly at this point that I'm not really sure why it's relevant, and that's not really the Irishman's fault, though he's done little to make it special in any way. It's so irrelevant that rather than defending it at Battleground, Sheamus will be participating in the battle royal for the vacant Intercontinental Title surrendered by the injured Bad News Barrett. That may not seem like a big deal, but how hard is it to have Sheamus defend the belt and have a great showing in the battle royal as well before getting tossed out by his next US title contender? Cesaro, Bo Dallas, even Titus O'Neil could work. Titles should be defended on pay-per-views. Anyway, rant over! Miz displayed a bit more depth to his character, particularly by WWE's choice to show his face on the Tron for the entire match. While that, coupled with JBL's insistence to shout "moneymaker" to the point where Jerry Lawler actually had to explain to fans what he was talking about, was incredibly annoying, that after all is the point and the mission was successful. That Miz actually pinned Sheamus was even better. Elevating the middle of the card with good matches and the occasional unexpected ending is all we're asking really. We got it here.
3. The Tag Team Belts
Lest we forget, The Wyatt Family vs. The Usos was one hell of a bout at MITB. The obligatory rematch is on tap this weekend, with the wrinkle being that this time it's 2 out of 3 falls. I agree with the decision to change the match in some way, even if the change is superficial at best. The feud was furthered to some degree last night, with the Wyatts lying in wait and ambushing the Usos during their dramatic and epically long entrance performance art. Aside from the fact that it makes total sense for the Wyatts to do that, it literally took them a few moments to incapacitate the champions and leave them lying in the ring. That's smart, as it underlines the very real perception that the unhinged Bray followers have what it takes to get it done on Sunday. I've said before that the Wyatts are an angle that doesn't require championships in order to be effective, but that doesn't mean they can't snare the titles to further a greater goal. This presented them as a challenger favorite, a sentiment I'd imagine is shared by the majority of fans who watched the last PPV. I expect the rematch to be equally compelling, and this was a solid way to bump things along a smidgen without having the teams square off again before the big one.
4. The Détente
First of all, it's allowing me to use a mark of declension in a recap. Secondly, it caused détente to trend on Twitter. Those facts alone make this a winner, but it's so much more. WWE does these sort of segments all the time, and they very rarely work. Considering that Rusev and Swagger don't talk much (and that's probably for the best) and Lana can be shrill to say the least doing her best Russian accent, I can't say I was prepared to enjoy this as thoroughly as I did. Part of the reason I was incorrect can most certainly be attributed to the hot crowd I mentioned earlier, as they ate up Lana's invective and got her riled enough to channel the recently departed Vickie Guerrero. Zeb Colter's ability to wax eloquent on the stick is well known, and he was typically solid in his commentary here. Despite the beginnings of the angle, Zeb & Swags are now essentially faces, at least as long as they continue running down Mother Russia. Rather strange when you think about it, but hey, no need to think about it.
In any case, the most aggressive détente in the history of détentes took an unsurprising turn for the physical when Lana slapped the whiskers off our favorite Yosemite Sam clone. That led to an excellent showdown between the two big men, as Swagger got the early drop with a spear only to be met with some power moves by Rusev. A particularly inspired sequence saw the Russian attempt his superkick only to be met with the Patriot Lock, a surprise reversal that wouldn't have been out of place on an actual PPV. Rusev and Lana bid a hasty retreat, and both men ended up looking pretty effective. More importantly, the build for this match has been quite good. That's surprising when you consider there's no championship involved here. Feuds like this should be supported, because they tell a solid mid-tier story leading into the payoff. Considering how many false starts and red herrings the WWE matchmakers employ much of the them, I've got to give them credit where it's due. Build going into this match Sunday is at a fever pitch.
5. Sting's Return (Kinda)
As I mentioned in the Four Corners over the weekend, much was made out of what role Sting would have Monday. As it turned out, it was pretty much what most of us expected once we'd heard the Stinger had filmed a promotional commercial for the upcoming WWE videogame. That said, it was incredibly well done and perfect. It's valid if you tuned in wanting Sting to actually appear, but I for one had no such hopes. Sting belongs in the Hall of Fame and will have ample opportunity to be heavily involved in plenty of projects for the WWE, but at his age and this stage in the game the proper thing to do is a one-off match, if any at all. Should that be The Undertaker due to the rumored interest of both men, great, but otherwise the ship has sailed and there truly is no need except for the historical record. The reception Sting got without being there or hardly even being shown in the promo, however, proves the point that he's got plenty of merchandising and marketing juice available for the WWE.
The commercial itself was pretty cool, and the fact that Sting will be a playable character in WWE2K14 is historic in itself. For those of you reading like myself who savored those issues of Pro Wrestling Illustrated where dream matches were scripted between the top stars of the big two promotions, the opportunity to test Sting against the best of the WWE is unique and special. In today's era of far less competition and everyone having faced everyone else after two invasion angles, it might seem far-fetched to consider the significance of a guy who is tied into the main rival promotion being available in this way. Wherever they go from here, this was all they needed for tonight, and I enjoyed it.
6. Cesaro vs. Big E
Aside from the being the battle of two men whose names were shed for popularity reasons, this would be another good example of allowing the talent to step forward. Cesaro's been booked extremely well overall since acquiring the services of Paul Heyman, and everyone is waiting for the moment when Brock Lesnar rears his head and causes some potential friction in what's been a profitable alliance for both men. That was teased here to some degree, as Heyman failed to accompany Cesaro to the match due to being backstage teasing potential plans for The Authority. (Oh, whatever could they be? The plot, naturally, thickens.)
More importantly, the two guys had another in their series of very good matches, and Big E pulled out the surprise victory due to some slight interference from running buddy Kofi Kingston. Cesaro's star dims not much at all, and Big E gets a needed win to keep him on the fringe of success. Considering all three of these guys are in the I-C battle royal, one would imagine that more of this story is told on Sunday. Since the battle royal contains plenty of guys who have ZERO chance of winning (apologies, Khali and friends!) it makes good sense to book a couple of them strongly heading in. Big E should be perceived as a threat to win anything as physical as this, and it marked the second time in the show an "upset" was used in an intelligent manner. Can't do it all the time, but in the right moment it's a powerful tool.
Would there be any doubt these two would deliver going into their highly anticipated match Sunday? It stands to reason that part of Jericho's mission on this trip back to our television sets is to elevate the already red-hot Bray Wyatt, and it couldn't come at a better time. Monday's date will be marked down as the first time I heard "boring" chants during a Wyatt promo, though it can be chalked up to a very pro-Jericho crowd, and that has been my concern. Bray is immensely interesting but has to be brought along at the right pace, and a lengthy feud with a mat pro like Jericho is exactly what the doctor ordered. He's also one of the few talents who can match if not exceed him verbally, albeit in a completely different style. After the lighting parlor tricks, Bray scored another major blow with a behind-the-back attack and Sister Abigail. As an ingratiating madman, Bray Wyatt has to be approachable and dangerous in equal measure at all times. It's a tough job to pull off but it was done right here.
8. The Main Event
After appropriately building to it all night with the Ambrose Ambush and a series of backstage vignettes featuring the airing of the grievances from all members of the Authority faction to Triple H, there was the small matter of a handicap match to be had. As expected due to the talent in the ring, the bout itself was well-done if not particularly memorable, showcasing the strength of Cena and Reigns versus the chicanery and double-teaming of the heels. The whole point of this, then, was to showcase what just might happen at Battleground, and that was a success. Rollins did very well in the ring, but was tossed outside and apparently injured, therefore not able to participate in the climax of the action. That left friendly fire on both sides as Kane landed an errant shot on Orton and Reigns accidentally speared Cena.
Tossing out the typical disqualification victory for the faces, the end of this match was very well orchestrated. Orton blatantly took out his frustration with an RKO on Kane, thus cementing the ongoing simmering storyline of who can be trusted. Just to ensure that the fans had some seeds of doubt as to what will occur, however, favorite Reigns connected on Orton with the spear to close out the show as the last man standing. It's too early for Reigns to actually take that claim home, naturally, but it was the right thing to do to have him riding high at the end of the show and drum up more interest in him potentially capturing the gold. With Daniel Bryan out for the foreseeable future, it's evident the universe has selected R squared as their next champion, and this was an intelligent way to book the finish leading into a plot-filled Battleground main event.
So there you have it, folks, 8 big reasons why this Raw was a textbook blueprint for how to book the final show before a PPV and also how to put on an entertaining couple of hours of wrestling to boot. I won't pretend I didn't also watch a Sonic commercial with Adam Rose, more dreadful Divas matches, and a Great Khali match, but one can't have everything. As a final note, for anyone wondering: Ric Flair did indeed appear, and his segment was noteworthy just for his excellent flirting with Renee Young, but rather underwhelming. When you have a crowd as hot as this one and a legend as over as Flair, you'd expect a bit more than a random prediction and a John Cena photo op. I'll never criticize a Nature Boy inclusion, though.
As a postscript, it was reported after the match as mentioned above that Rollins may have suffered a knee injury after a Roman Reigns clothesline spot. While details aren't available as of press time, there is obvious concern over how this may impact Battleground plans and the status of Rollins in general. I can't argue that injuries have plagued the WWE of late, and at the worst possible times, but I don't concur with some that I've heard who feel that this should signal a change in offense for Seth. The most innocuous moves can cause the most serious injuries, and while the WWE would be wise to continue to pare down what is or isn't generally acceptable in a match for the safety of the athletes we enjoy watching every week, there have to be some differentiations between them and their styles are important to their character. Clearly, any high flyer must be cognizant of the potential for injury and the impact of said injuries on the length of their career. Let's hope it's nothing too major for a star on the rise.