It's always interesting to note when the WWE plans to have their semi-regular celebrations of the history of professional wrestling with their presentations of Old School Raw. Last night's Monday Night Raw was the first one of the new calendar year of 2014, and it was also the night when the WWE chose to forego much of their usual pomp and circumstance in order to take a look back through their (and our) shared histories. It's a bit unfair to judge any "special" episode of Raw the way one would your more traditional affair, but suffice it to say that many lessons were taken away last night. One of the ones this columnist took away in front page bold type is that many of the legends have more compelling stories despite being largely absent from television for quite a while than their contemporary counterparts.
There were a couple of much-hyped follow-ups from last week's excellent episode to close out 2013, and unfortunately neither of them lived up to the high mark. Perhaps due to the packed, frenetic, and at times highly random nature of the show, the revelation of Daniel Bryan as the indoctrinated member of the Wyatt Family didn't provide much pizzazz, short of perhaps the opening moment when he (and his trademark beard) appeared in the lantern light during the long walk to the ring. While tension was teased between the newest member of the stable and Bray's standard roughneck team of Harper and Rowan, it lacked the thoroughly compelling spirit of last week's episode. Next week's bout of Bryan teaming with Bray against The Usos should hopefully add another chapter to this story, and perhaps a more entertaining one. It's still an odd conundrum to have the fans cheering Bryan despite his newly minted character.
The second event was the appearance of Brock Lesnar for a second straight week, and with his part-time schedule, there is always a necessity to have that be a very big deal. As always, it requires a target for the ire, and that role was filled capably by the game Mark Henry, who suffered the same dreaded "broken arm" that befell Authority head Triple H during his own feud with Lesnar in the not-too-distant past. Once again, though, the excitement of the moment was a bit muted by the incredible obviousness of it all, a fate that was only slightly thwarted by the appearance of The Big Show for a face-to-face with Brock. Lesnar is a leviathan, and monsters should do battle with monsters. This is particularly true when the monster in question is of the Loch Ness variety, sticking its theoretical neck out from the pond on rare occasions to tease us and then plunging back to the murky depths below.
As to the returning legends, there will invariably be much conjecture over the ways they were used, their ability to still go in the squared circle, and what not. I for one am an enormous fan of the history of this storied world of pro wrestling, and while I at times rather resent the hastily scrubbed and sanitized version that WWE offers, they are the winners in the wrestling wars and therefore to them go the spoils. (A fact not lost on those humble souls themselves, as they touted their defeat of WCW in a tacky and unnecessary way during the show.) It is with that in mind that I was for the most part happy to see the returning faces and the celebration that accompanied them, be they underused (DDP), storyline-driven (New Age Outlaws), or otherwise. By the time Jake "The Snake" Roberts came out for a curtain call, the trip down memory lane had been an enjoyable one indeed.
But therein lies the rub for World Wrestling Entertainment. From the moment Ric Flair dressed down Randy Orton to begin the show (and, yes, I hoped in vain that they'd have Flair side with Randy and bring him some much-needed cachet) to the minute Roddy Piper displayed why he's been one of the guys dropping pipe bombs before they were even called that, it's evident that the older stories can be far more compelling. Even the well-versed characters we've come to know and love have suddenly exhibited strange tendencies indeed. Since when do The Shield sit back for a controversial interview that doesn't end in somebody going through a table? They've announced themselves as being one step ahead, but WWE's desire to react to the potential breakout of Roman Reigns has taken one of the more interesting tales of last year and torpedoed it to trope.
And that, as we know, is something that the current WWE has in spades. While good feuds simmer to a boil, bad ones burn on the stovetop, and there's way too much of the later. Alberto Del Rio will be in the Royal Rumble (which is a good thing, of course), but in the meantime we get to watch him face Sin Cara for the umpteenth time in the battle of who could care less. Ryback and Big E Langston have the potential to turn into a memorable feud (and, let's face it, Ryback needs a career coach, stat), but instead of capitalizing on that we got the slow, dull burn of him laughing like a hyena continuously on commentary while Curtis Axel tried his best to make his latest bout with the Intercontinental Champion interesting. No need to watch the matches through on DVR; I'm quite sure you've got the same ones saved already from am myriad of recent shows.
There was another poll featuring Damien Sandow, and fear not my friends, he's back to losing to The Great Khali. I won't fault the WWE for booking 3MB against the surprisingly reunited Too Cool & Rikishi (best use for all involved, really), but the roster sure looked mighty thin all of a sudden. The final match, which continued Reigns's solid booking at the expense of CM Punk, was good but clearly carried by the former champ. Reigns's offense is impressive and looks good on paper, but he's green at this point and I got the feeling as a viewer that Punk was really helping the story along by selling the hell out of every facial expression possible. If this episode was meant to focus on the excitement of the last and usher in the era of the WWE Network, it does not score a passing grade on my curve.
There are, as always, only so many stories to tell, and naturally some of those will fall by the wayside. The WWE has had a top-heavy roster since the brand split ended, and it's patently obvious when you receive news that a guy like Ezekiel Jackson is rehabbing again and you'd forgotten he's even in the company. If somebody who writes rather extensively on the subject needs that prompting, what hope does a casual viewer have? For every person brought up from NXT or returning to the fold like Batista or RVD, it equals more talent that will be relegated to Main Event or not even appear at all. It's not necessarily bad, it's just a fact of life, and no major promotion I've seen has been capable of overcoming this issue.
I've written previously on the idea that WWE has changed their business model, however slightly, with their acceptance of a practice they've long been reluctant to embrace: the signing of the part-time player. This is the precipice of history for pro wrestling, another seminal moment when Vince McMahon, should he play his cards correctly, can demonstrate why his niche sport has been so unbelievably successful over and over again. While I think the marketing and launch of the WWE Network will be a very difficult strategic game to play, and even harder to nail, it's hard to bet against a guy that nearly bankrupted himself getting pay-per-view onto the map. If Vince and the powers that be can get you or I to plunk down fifty on an event already, it's foolish to project that he can't get major income out of an evolving business model.
WWE, therefore, has correctly identified that they need to find new ways to reach the audience they need to reach to make this launch as successful as possible, and that means bringing in more viewers week after week. Celebrity name-dropping and reaching out to anyone that ever had a push in the business have already become commonplace, but it's no surprise that both were in high demand last night. The WWE already knows it has you and I in the bag, so it's moved on to torrid love affairs with anyone that will have them, thank you very much. Once those viewers latch on, though, the product will have to get better. The same story week after week doesn't really work in any type of entertainment, and certainly not in today's fickle, attention-deprived environment. That's something the head scribes might want to take seriously when examining what was offered up this time around.
At the end of the day, the WWE needs to build buzz for the Royal Rumble, knowing that it's the lead-in to the most important time for any wrestling fan, WrestleMania. That means throwing everything including the kitchen sink in hopes that enough noise is created. They are certainly off to a good start. Regardless of how you feel about Lesnar, Batista, or even the Bryan/Bray (Brayan?) storyline, it's created some energy that was lacking in recent months. The undercard needs some help, however, and it's an issue that has simmered largely quietly for some time. Wondering where the hell Christian is, lamenting why nobody not named Dolph Ziggler cares about Dolph Ziggler, and seeing Bad News Barrett try really, really hard serve notice that the answers might be more in front of their collective faces than they know.
Old School Raw was, as it's come to be expected, an enjoyable trip down memory lane. It serves as a signpost for the former, current, and future wrestling fan to get a taste of things to come while appreciating things that passed. While nobody can take a talent like Flair or Piper and use them as a counter for the current crop, it is an important question to ask if we will ever see such stars again. For that reason, OS Raw can be both a warning and a gift. If current talent are not given the means and opportunity to build themselves into a prospective legend, we are far past the time when those stories will write themselves. For 2014 to be successful, the WWE needs to deliver on its promise.
* One of the more surprising (in a good way) moments from last night's affair was Kane's backstage segment with Raw GM Brad Maddox. I've often exhorted at length over the uselessness of these "official" characters, particularly with the McMahon-Helmlsey faction inserting their faces into any and all sundry plotlines, but I am intrigued by what will happen with Kane. This man has to be one of the more interesting characters ever in the WWE, both in and out of the ring. He's intelligent, well-spoken, has an excellent sense of comic timing, and is more than capable of putting on a decent match when duty calls. From his varied history, it's become a bit difficult to think of The Big Red Machine as a truly menacing character, but he is obviously way more effective as a heel. That's why this backstage role gives him an opportunity to expound upon these many talents while not clogging up the works, so to speak. Writing talent into different roles so as to be able to juggle a loaded roster is one of the more challenging efforts the WWE has. This one, thus far, has been a success in my book.
* One of the more welcome cameos from last night was that of Nikolai Volkoff, who remains a great example of the bygone (but hopefully not forgotten) territorial era of wrestling. Volkoff is not generally one of the first names one comes up with when thinking of the big stars of wrestling in the 1970s and 80s, but he has been involved in some of the biggest and most heat-inducing feuds in history. From his many, many feuds with the incredibly popular Bruno Sammartino to his chasing of the WWF Title worn by Hulk Hogan during his rise to the top, Nikolai was as reliable a heat missile as they come, particularly when pairing said feuds with his singing of the Russian anthem. Many fans may forget that those roles were reversed when Volkoff feuded with Sgt. Slaughter during his infamous heel turn, playing the role of a liberated man following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For a guy that pretended to be the worst of the worst for such a long time, all accounts reveal Volkoff to be a warm, caring guy who's never taken himself too seriously. There aren't enough of those in the business, then or now.
* It will be interesting to witness whether the much-projected eventual feud between The Brothers Rhodes comes to pass, at least in time for WrestleMania XXX. At this point, it's particularly hard to fathom, since several high-profile teams are already cornering the market on potential breakups. What started as a bit of a passing fancy for the two sons of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes has morphed into something totally different, as Cody is over in a way that he's had difficulty following up on since the ball started rolling for him at MITB, and Dustin is quite frankly putting in the performances of his career night after night. Sometimes making a change just to make a change is the worst kind of move, and a dominant face tag team is a positive. While this family feud storyline always goes over very well in wrestling, and brother vs. brother nearly always makes for the most compelling kind of TV, there is frankly just no need to rush this. I do hope for both men that they get their dream match, as Cody has the tools to be a major player and Dustin deserves a fitting sendoff. I just hope it isn't anytime soon.
* Lastly, if you're wondering where Jim Ross was for legends night, he had recently made it clear that he would not be appearing. While I don't have access to any inside information on that situation, it's very clear that Ross will always be a student and a fan of the game, even as he potentially breaks into several different avenues. He continues to comment frequently on the goings-on of all things wrestling and MMA, and his website is a must-read both for fans of his and the business in general. Ross has gotten several different raps over the years, and I'm not sure some of the "amicable parting of the ways" he and the WWE had aren't on him at the end of the day. But he's been a stellar foot soldier in plenty of angles that were more than questionable, and his announcing is quite frankly the best of the best. Any day that the WWE doesn't have him in some capacity when he's available is an utter mistake on their part. I believe JR when he says he's okay with what happened and is moving on and focusing on the positive, but it's unfortunate that a major organization can't figure out a way to get the man responsible for some of the most revered calls in their history on the agenda.