I was pleasantly surprised by two things this past week, and both of them had to do with World Wrestling Entertainment. The first was that despite not downloading the WWE App, I did not spontaneously combust. I was under the impression that that might happen, given the fervor and urgency with which I've been told to do so.
The second, and far more important, was the fact that I was pleasantly surprised by the Extreme Rules PPV and the Monday Night Raw that followed it. Given the tone and nature of several recent columns in this space, readers may find that as noteworthy as I. For weeks and weeks, I've been exhorting the WWE to make some changes and give us as fans some new faces and talents to enjoy. For the same amount of weeks, I've been seeing very little movement on that front. A few things have occurred to change this.
1. Curtis Axel
I admit to not being crazy about the name at first glance, but it's far, far superior to Michael McGillicutty. I also like that it plays off the history of this underrated wrestler without resorting to Mr. Perfect, Jr. Many of the TJR scribes have lamented the drop off the face of the earth that occurred to MM following the NXT/Nexus days, and rightfully so. It's a crime that an athlete like this was sitting on the sidelines while we received a steady diet of Great Khali. When the news broke that Paul Heyman would be adding to his stable on Raw, my smile couldn't get any wider. For starters, it meant that there would be something for one of the best talkers in the business right now to stay in our living rooms every Monday, even with Lesnar in dry dock and Punk on hiatus.
Secondarily, it would afford the opportunity to get someone else into the spotlight and give them instant heel credibility. Had WWE employed this technique with Ryback (despite my protestations to the angle at all), they wouldn't have had to drive him into the arena in an ambulance to get a modicum of heat. The crowd loves to hate Paul, and he loves to have them hate him. That is one of the largest of many reasons why early rumors of RVD being the Heyman Guy were silly. Rob Van Dam has never been, and will never be, an effective heel. It doesn't mesh with his personality. My fear, naturally, was that it would be someone already high up on the main roster. The WWE to their credit went in a completely opposite direction by pairing him with the former MM, and I could not be happier about that decision.
Heyman's introduction of Axel was nothing short of brilliant, setting him up perfectly for his first interaction with Triple H. While I question the move of having Triple H immediately crap all over the angle by slapping the "new guy" to the mat and issuing his challenge, it plays into Heyman's habit of doing anything and everything to gain an advantage and inserts his charge to the top of the line. I can't say I adored the eventual match itself, which featured Triple H betraying his doctor's orders (I can only imagine that guy as being Dr. Nick from the Simpsons) and collapsing mid-match in a medical emergency (a Razzie-winning performance if ever there was one). That said, it did give Curtis a chance to show off some of his moves and set the stage for the lingering effects the HHH/Lesnar match the night before will be having in the weeks to come. Axel is not fantastic on the mike and now has the perfect guy to help him with that. I'd have loved to see him attack the weakened HHH and really sink his teeth into the hated column, but I'll take what I got and enjoy the emergence.
2. The Shield
Where do I begin on this trio? I've previously stated my belief that the future of the company is clearly here, and the writers have finally stepped up to the challenge. The Shield have always been booked strongly, but the past couple days have been nothing short of fabulous for them. Both Dean Ambrose and the Seth Rollins/Roman Reigns combination won their title matches at Extreme Rules, and while I can't say those outcomes were really a surprise, to actually see it happen was nice and a throwback to the times when a stable controlled the bulk of the titles. Kofi Kingston was the perfect opponent for the arrival of Dean Ambrose (more on that in a bit), and did we really need him carrying around the US Title anyway? Been there, done that, slept through it. Kingston has fantastic offense and is a spot-a-holic, and Ambrose's unhinged attack pattern is a perfect foil. Overdue and very well done.
Meanwhile, I can only pray that last week's missive to end Team Hell No was a prelude to the actual event, as they also dropped the titles to the duo of Rollins and Reigns. This too was smart on several levels. Ambrose is clearly the frontrunner to break out, as he already possesses the look and the personality to crack the glass ceiling. The other two are impressive, no doubt, but having them function as a team while still relying on the pack dynamic is smart and protects them both. Daniel Bryan doesn't really need to be in a team with Kane to get fan support, and there is an abundance of big heels for the Red Machine to work with if they continue down that path. In the meantime, perhaps a dominant champion pairing can bring some excitement to the dormant tag division? The Shield get instant credibility with all three members being champs.
On Raw, it got even better. For starters, we were treated with a fantastic promo from all three men, particularly (no surprise) Ambrose. For once we were spared the nWo-like shaky backroom camera angles and instead were met headon in the ring by the trio, who delineated their path of destruction through the roster and came right at the fans and their heroes. Loved it. We then saw a six-man tag with all the principles from the night before, and that too was excellent and one of my favorite matches on Raw this year. Both Bryan and Kingston got their opportunities to shine in the match, Kane and Reigns were booked in short supply but like the strongest guys in the arena, and Rollins proved himself to be a one-man bump machine. As for Ambrose, it's clear we will be watching these matches in ten years and knowing we witnessed the breakout of a main eventer. The Shield won (as they should) after a highly competitive affair, and gave every indication that their dominance will continue for a good while longer. Well done.
3. Big E Langston
Nobody is more despondent than I am about the concussion status of Dolph Ziggler, who no sooner wins the title than sustains an injury and cannot wrestle. That has likely forced a few plans to change, not the least of which is the halt of the hinted-at rift between the champion and his larger-than-life cornerman. Langston did not have a dance partner at Extreme Rules, which was unfortunate, but the WWE made up for it by booking him strongly on Raw the next day. Accompanied by AJ Lee, they gave him the nod over Alberto Del Rio, fresh off a victory himself over Jack Swagger that made him number one contender. I've previously lamented the schizophrenic booking of the honchos, but I really liked this idea and felt it gave Big E a badly-needed boost. Should Ziggler be unavailable for a while, it makes perfect sense to me to have Langston play a major part in where that angle goes. He's still very raw and very green, but he's got a great look and is different than anything else out there right now. It also plays up quite well what happens when Dolph returns from the DL. More of that please.
4. Jack Swagger
I know what you're thinking, how can I add a person that goes 0-2 between the PPV and the following night? It's simple: I saw a hell of a lot of good things out of Swagger in those losses. His booking has been absolutely mind-numbing at times, but I give him credit that he's still hanging around and still working his ass off. I can't claim to have been a fan right out of the chute, but Swagger's background makes him perfect as a violent mat technician and that's a very good thing. I am hoping beyond hope that the Swagger/Del Rio storyline is over and done with. It's fine to put Del Rio over and have Swagger move on to other things, but let's just end those matches already. Not sure that the right-wing storyline will work as well with some different opponents, but Zeb Colter was delightful on Raw Monday. Really good reactions without overshadowing the match itself.
The "instant replay" angle from Extreme Rules was fine with me. There is nothing more stupid than the idea of employing instant replay in professional wrestling, but that's exactly the point. It adds a veneer of slight credibility to Colter's conspiracy claims and allows Swagger to maintain some value despite losing. The next night, the WWE Universe chose wisely in preventing us from another night of Khali or Little Jimmy, and instead paired Swags against Randy Orton, which was the right call. I'm quite sure that was not unexpected to the writing room, as it would be like asking the first 50 preteen girls you meet whether they'd like to meet Justin Bieber or Liberace. The match itself, though, was again very well done. I appreciated the length of it and liked Swagger aggressively attacking body parts, as is his wont. While Orton winning was necessary and not at all a surprise, Swagger was booked very solidly in the loss. I personally like the heel losing clean on occasion in a valiant effort rather than just another lame phony finish.
5. Summer Rae
I don't think this one needs an explanation.
All in all, a really good showing by the heels and even better, a bunch of new faces or faces we've seen getting some overdue quality time. I had my doubts going into Extreme Rules, and while I don't think it was a superlative PPV, it was above average, had some title changes, and generated some buzz. As for Raw, more like those three hours would be welcome. I can't remember the last time I didn't even think about fast forwarding through the DVR, and I had no desire at all to do so this week. Let's give the WWE credit for at least making some overtures about changing the guard. The business badly needs it, and we as fans deserve it. Let's just hope they are serious. Good show indeed.
Other Random Thoughts
* I'd be remiss to not mention that my favorite Raw of the year had a complete lack of John Cena. I thought his Last Man Standing match with Ryback was okay, especially considering those types of matches always follow the same standard pattern. I understand the necessity to have it end the way it did, but that doesn't mean I approve. I feel like this rivalry should have been done much later, both to help Ryback who is clearly overmatched right now and also to allow for him to lose without further damaging his character. The lack of reaction by the fans at Extreme Rules should be a solid indication that they screwed the pooch flipping him. Holding Cena off the show to sell his injuries and make him vulnerable is fine, but nobody is buying that Ryback has a serious shot at the belt this soon into Cena's new reign. Time to return to the drawing board.
* I can only hope the hints being dropped about Damien Sandow getting a weekly show segment on either Raw or Smackdown is accurate. Sandow is perhaps the funniest person they have on the roster right now, and while I enjoy his matches, I think that aspect of his character is what can really make him special. There are very few wrestlers who are funny enough to actually make you laugh each and every week, but still back it up in the ring, and he does both. Commentary would be fine as well, but I think this would be a great opportunity to give him even more exposure and let him work into his character in a fresh way. Plus it may mean no more show segments with The Miz, and that's best for all involved.
* There have been a lot of comments on Jerry Lawler returning to the ring to wrestle this weekend in Florida. While I can completely understand anyone being worried about his health (and we all remember the scary scene with him leaving Raw on a stretcher, utterly surreal) the decision to do this rests with him and him alone and I agree with it. We've all seen wrestlers coming back in no condition to wrestle (some of them much younger than The King) and it's a sad state of affairs indeed when that happens. King is in pretty good shape overall and while I freely admit it's not my cup of tea to watch him battle it out these days, he's a very good entertainer and a legend. Putting him in a special attraction match now and again is fun and a good thing. As with all athletes, disaster can strike at any time. We've all seen the sad stories of college age and younger athletes unfortunately passing away due to exerting themselves on the playing field. Lawler is doing what he loves, and should be commended for it. As for the color commentary, well, I can't be nothing but positive all the time, now can I?
That wraps it up for me this week. I appreciate you reading this and would appreciate your comments below as always. I'd also like to share a quick thought for anyone affected by the devastation in Oklahoma and elsewhere as a result of the severe weather. Please reach out to The Red Cross or a comparable charity if you can and send those folks some much-needed help.
Until next time, this is Mike Holland saying RIP to a great one in Ray Manzarek and I'll see you in this space next week.