Having fully lamented the disappearance of the traditional Survivor Series matches from the upcoming pay-per-view, the WWE did make some amends last night by announcing that there would in fact be two such matches on Sunday. The fact that one of those matches was created as the result of almost all current Divas playing a game of musical chairs on Raw might give you some glimpse of my general excitement regarding that announcement.
As to the other, it will feature the triumvirate of The Shield teaming with Zeb Colter's Real Americans going up against The Usos, current reigning tag team champions Cody Rhodes and Goldust (whose teaming up has been far preferable to their inane entrance music mashup, which frankly ruins both) and a mystery partner. While that partner has yet to be announced, considering that the end of Raw saw Rey Mysterio make his long-awaited return, that particular guesswork appears to be a non-issue at this point.
Regardless of whether or not that final piece is Mysterio, this match goes a long way toward getting the announced card back to respectability. Discounting The Wyatts' formidable tag team of Rowan and Harper, the four teams represented in this affair are the best in the promotion right now. (That is also excluding Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, who more than qualify in terms of star power but still need a lengthier run and a far better nickname.) As mentioned in this space last week, it allows for an excellent group of wrestlers to get onto the card and elevates this match to a potential "best in show" pedigree. And that's even without the jury being back in on Mysterio, who looked good in his return and will hopefully be geared up for one more great run.
Raw also allowed several other long-overdue developments to take place, and as a viewer I was grateful for those as well. Everybody Hates The Miz has been a pretty awful sitcom for the last year or so, so his "official" heel turn on Raw was the cat that's been out of the bag so long it's taken up residence in your living room. His reward for walking out on his well-intentioned partner is yet another appearance on the PPV pre-show against said partner. While Miz vs. Kingston is not going to entice too many to take the plunge and make the purchase, in my view, it at least enables Miz to do what he seemingly does best: Be exceptionally annoying and rightly hated for it. The excellent news about the former reality star's personality is that the only thing necessary to change his character's direction is make him do something unsportsmanlike. We're already programmed to want to boo him.
In addition, the Intercontinental Title has finally made its way off the less-than-effective waist of Curtis Axel and onto the formidable one of Big E Langston. While the twists and turns of the last several weeks (apparently due to Axel's injury) prevented this from happening in a truly memorable way, in one evening Axel was stripped of his gold and his mouthpiece (no longer a Paul Heyman client, as it were) and will therefore be promptly relegated to the middle of the card. While Axel has evident talent and the pedigree to prove it, his lack of development as a champion over his title reign didn't do him any favors. How much of that blame is to be placed on creative is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. I will say that placing Ryback in Heyman's corner and using Axel as a comic prop (watch him act like a random ninja opponent in any Bruce Lee flick) went a long way toward making him irrelevant very quickly.
As for Ryback, he has also apparently served Paul Heyman his walking papers (despite the rather obvious logic hole that Heyman clearly had already relegated Ryback to the dustbin in last Monday's excellent promo, but neither here nor there), and is now a heel for hire with no clear direction. Ryback's match with The Big Show had its moments (picking him up and delivering his finisher was the sort of gasping, circus-sideshow moment that the McMahons adore) but mainly consisted of headlocks and really bad attempts at hiding the forecasting of moves. If the intention here was to create credibility for the challenger going into his WWE championship match Sunday, consider that mission unfulfilled.
Ditto for the World championship, solidly around the frame of John Cena and most likely not going anywhere despite WWE's halfhearted attempts to convince us otherwise. Alberto Del Rio has done a credible job in the role of top heel, but is utterly incapable of allowing us to suspend disbelief long enough to think he has any shot at winning. It's difficult to embroil us in this feud when the challenger has lost a match simply by hearing the name of the current champ. An excellent pay-per-view lineup should feature matches at the top of the card that could go either way. A perfect example of that would be the historical record of the Undertaker's opponents at WrestleMania. Top-tier talent (Shawn Michaels, Batista, Edge, Randy Orton) has given shadows of doubts that perhaps the streak would end, even with the nagging voice in your frontal lobe telling you otherwise. Lesser lights (Big Boss Man, Show & A-Train, Giant Gonzalez) have, well, not made us think twice. I'll leave it to you to wager which side of the coin the two championship matches are on.
Heyman being freed up for his eventual reveal as the devious brains behind the Wyatt Family operation makes sense on many levels, not the least of which would be the ability to keep him feuding with former protégé Punk. As mentioned many times in this space, it's clear that feud is too deep and too darn good to be over anytime soon, so this should add another wrinkle. While I can (and have) written plenty on the disturbing demotion of Bryan from the championship picture to here on the back of a series of false finishes, The Wyatt Family are as excellent an opportunity as any to keep him close enough to the main event to be potentially forgotten until the appropriate moment.
Overall, I thought Raw did a better-than-expected job of delivering some of the goods we've been waiting for to get appetites whetted for Sunday. While not a country music buff (and, let's be honest, the theme was pointless and puzzling; one can only assume that the announcement of the return of the infamous GUEST HOST coupled with Monday's "concert" serves as a clear indication that WWE loves their celebrity plugs more than ever), it was dispensed conservatively enough that it seemed more logical and organized than your average Raw Roulette. It also gave us the opportunity to see two guys who could (and likely should) have some serious creative gripes beat each other's brains in with musical instruments. Discounting the overstuffed Survivor Series-esque main event (which was entertaining but a by-the-book spotfest at the end of the day with too much going on to qualify), Messrs. Ziggler and Sandow delivered the sports and the entertainment in one fell swoop. And worked in a Double J strut to boot.
This, then, is the counter-intuitiveness that has all-too-frequently plagued recent WWE events: Announce matches at the last minute (despite knowing, theoretically, what the plan is way before that, one would hope) and leaving excellent talent off the card in favor of rote matches that won't generate much in the way of interest or excitement. I don't want to pick on the Divas as representative (again) but the concept of Total Divas vs. Not-Total Divas is far from captivating and smacks rightly of a blatant merchandising push. One would think if this was a "must-do" that a regular match would suffice to allow the underdeveloped midcard to flourish in a traditional Series match that has the opportunity of elevating one (or several) talents, no?
It's still the current-stage WWE, mind you, so we had no development in the new on-air role for Kane. The Authority's solution for the train wreck that was the previous week was to allow Brad Maddox to be pummeled mercilessly (thank you), Vickie Guerrero to treat us to her superb, Raspberry-worthy bad acting (thanks again), and give Randy Orton a semi-vote of confidence while staying mostly away from the matches (eh). A more concerning development, however, is that even on the heels of what was a more than adequate Raw, the only development that might make you think twice about avoiding a "Big 4" PPV was the aforementioned Survivor match. We're far enough along into the eventual Road to WrestleMania that we should be trying a little bit harder at this point.
One very salient point at this juncture is if the creative team of the WWE is waiting far too long to make that 'Mania push. The Royal Rumble is an event that sells itself, quite frankly, and wattage will be added when Sheamus gets back off the shelf. But we've a long way to travel between here and there. The development of The Shield, The Wyatts, Bryan & Punk, and others will go a long way toward determining whether the malaise continues or the ball gets rolling and we see a newer main event picture take place. I'm a firm believer that much of the outcry over the company's handling of talent (Bryan in particular, but there are plenty of examples; see the music makers from Raw) is concern over the larger point that we've seen and lived it all with Cena and Orton. We're aware of their talent, we're aware that WWE loves them, and we're aware that as long as Randy stays away from the drug counter they're going to be in the main event picture for years and years to come. Why that means the perma-push is a good idea at the expense of who is going to need to pay the bills for the years following that would be a Gordian knot of a different sort.
Survivor Series should be handled expertly, both as a stand-alone event with historical significance (like WarGames, for example), but more importantly as a way to get fans excited about the biggest time in the WWE, November-April. Failure to do so makes one wonder aloud if the planning of more one-note premises like TLC and Elimination Chamber will be anything but a sexy match at the top and a bunch of nasty brutes after that. The overall star power in today's wrestling world is not enough to sell gimmick matches. There are no more Austins and Rocks and Foleys (or even Batistas, Jerichos, and Edges) to get that done. Put time and energy into creating and shaping the stars of tomorrow, give them short-term, high-impact feuds against each other and focus on their raw athleticism and personality. Whisk well and you've got a formula for upping the adrenaline considerably. Raw was a step in the right direction in some ways, but the WWE's GPS is still on a direct course for confusion.
* Will he or won't he? I speak, of course, of the inimitable Hulk Hogan, who continues to assert with tweets and dangled olive branches that he fully intends to be at WrestleMania. I don't see any scenario where this doesn't happen, mostly because Hogan and Vince McMahon will always be joined at the tip, two guys who love and loathe each other for what the other represents and actually is. And they both love buckets of cash. Hogan will be forever marketable, particularly in the high-definition marketing machine of the WWE, and Vince and company are in dire need of securing A-list talent for their biggest show. Concerned about whether Hogan will wrestle again? You should be. There's been historically an exorbitant lack of self-control on Hogan's part, and he's openly stated he's got at least one more match left in him. The fledgling WWE Network will be another big reason why they simply can't afford to let this opportunity lapse, no matter the cost. Be very afraid.
* Nice to see Xavier Woods show up on Raw, teaming with R Truth to do battle with 3MB's latest incarnation. While I'll never be on board with 3MB wasting quality roster space for an overwrought comedy gimmick, I appreciate the uniqueness of having them show up every week in a different way. Perhaps one of this weeks Drew McIntyre can be disguised as someone with a chance to win a match. But I digress. Woods is the latest example of the NXT feeder program working and working well. There is absolutely nothing lost by giving these guys a shot on the big stage and seeing what happens, even if the result is a trip back to the farm (Bo Dallas). I'll sit through all the 3MB matches you'd like to throw my way if I can get a longer look at some of the potential talent down the line.
* For anyone clamoring for the next member of the Wyatt Family or The Shield, I'd caution you to be careful what you wish for. The trip from tight, concise three-man unit to bloated regime collapsing under its own weight is one we've all learned by now. Stables are at their best when they are small, particularly when a manager of some type is involved. The amount of character development required in today's insider-based, fourth-wall-breaking era is a far cry from having random muscleheads pair up with no rhyme or reason. One need only witness the tragic spiral of the nWo, who went from the hottest thing in wrestling to a group that contained Big Bubba Rogers, The Disciple and Brian Adams to understand the intoxicating siren song of more, more, more. Particularly in the case of The Shield, they have all bases covered already with the existing members. Adding additional folks just to have more is inane. It's always difficult to inject discretion into pro wrestling, but often very necessary.
* Finally, if you're looking for a holiday gift for the wrestling fan in your life (including yourself; I fully endorse personal shopping) I highly, highly recommend the new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker of Grantland and Deadspin fame. The book takes you through the different time periods of professional wrestling, and recounts the stories of many that we as a community have lost, including unexpected looks at some wrestlers you may have forgotten about. I always find it difficult to locate a pro wrestling book that manages to capture the absurdity of the sport we love while not demeaning it. The fact that departed wrestlers are the vehicle used to communicate said information is both sobering and appropriate. You can tell this is written by a fan, and it provides some great insight to anyone who is curious about where wrestling came from. Good stuff indeed.