THE RAW REVIEW (12/29/14)

The last RAW of 2014 was a good representation of the entire year.

Some good performances, some progressive booking, some stilted performances, and some incredibly regressive booking.

2014 has been a good year for the WWE, despite the flaws, with several younger performers slowly rising to a place of prominence and, in so doing, reinvigorating some of the veteran talents. While fans have had to endure a truly disheartening stream of advertisements on an overlong flagship show and angles that seem booked and built by a blatantly out-of-touch board of directors, they’ve also been treated to an overall sense of increased hope and positivity and signs of legitimate change in the wake of significant events in the WWE fiction and in the actual WWE company.

There is still a great deal of work to be done, though.

RAW kicked off with a somewhat stiff opening segment between Edge and Christian. Sadly, their late 90s/early aughts schtick just doesn’t seem to resonate any more, either because they had to repackage their gimmick into a script or because today’s generation just doesn’t understand who they are and what they’re referencing.

The intensity picked up when Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar entered the scene.

When Lesnar and Heyman enter the arena, standing together as a truly villainous, all-powerful duo, I feel as though I’m watching a good scene in a good movie. These performers become forces of nature in an old-fashioned yet timeless tale of good versus evil - Brock is the brawn and Heyman is the brains. Thanks to Heyman’s oratory skills and Brock’s steely, serial-killer eyes, their threats to babyfaces like Edge and Christian are actually convincing.

Cena came to the rescue and settled into his traditional Cenaisms.

“The only reason I don’t come over there and knock you into next year is because I don’t want you to have an excuse at The Royal Rumble.”

To this, Brock just laughed and mouthed, “Okay.”

Cena went on, “I have a resolution and a gift. My resolution, to take that championship off your shoulder. My gift is for you Paul Heyman, and it’s right here,” and he balled up his fist and went to punch Paul in the face. Lesnar quickly rushed to the aid of his dark lord and advocate, and Cenar put Brock into an AA setup.

The result was a brief, fun exchange that teased the inevitable pre-pay-per-view brawl and exists as yet another small piece in the gradually expanding puzzle of John Cena’s eventual demise at the hands of The Beast Incarnate (should the WWE not have different plans for 'Mania, plans that don't involve Lesnar).

Where John Cena’s detractors just hear Cena being all Cena-y, I see a cheesiness that actually enhances the story.

Cena can be serious, sincere, and good on the mic, especially opposite Paul Heyman, but brief excursions into this more traditional goody-goody delivery works albeit in small doses.

Seeing Lesnar laugh off Cena’s threat is a perfect response that reaffirms the consistent theme of this feud; Cena is a fantasy living in a fantasy world, Lesnar is reality living in the real world. Cena’s threat sounds like the threat of a schoolyard do-gooder. It’s obnoxious, unrealistic, and childish. And that’s good. That helps tell the story of a good, but unrealistically moral human being disregarding reality in the pursuit of pure benevolence.

Cena's character is beloved by children for one very simple reason; the character is a child. And I don't mean that as a dig. The character just is that kind of innocent to the point of being obtuse child who wants to rescue all the other kids from the bullies. When that kid comes up against a bully that's not afraid of him, a bully that's better than him, that kid will then struggle to cope with the real-world, and I hope to see that potentially interesting struggle post-Rumble.

Next came a match between Dolph Ziggler and Rusev that wasn’t so much a match as it was a segue into a moment for Ryback.

After saving Dolph, Ryback cut a good promo recounting his history with the WWE. He told what could have been a genuinely touching story about his childhood had the WWE framed the moment with a little more sincerity, and had the audience not been terrible.

I’m going to break analyst kayfabe for a moment, and speak to you directly, purely as myself.

Stop chanting “What?”

Never, for the rest of your life, chant “What?” I don’t care if it’s a heel talking, I don’t care if Stone Cold Steve Austin tells you to start chanting “What?”

Never, ever, chant “What?” and especially don’t chant “What?” when a human being is bearing their soul to you.

I’m not even a fan of Ryback’s. His gimmick reminds me of a dark time in the WWE, a truly grating, frustrating pair of years that saw the slow demise of my favorite wrestler, CM Punk. But if Ryback is going to talk to me, as a man, and he’s going to have an important moment on RAW, I want to hear what he has to say, and it’s our job to pay him the respect to listen and to stop being petulant children who want to believe we control everything in the squared circle with our attention deficit cat calls. Our sense of ownership and entitlement is an illusion, given to us by the performers who we chant at not for.

If we want others to believe in pro-wrestling as much as we believe in pro-wrestling, if we want the WWE to treat us with respect, then we have to stop being obnoxious idiots who refuse to not only pay attention to what we’re watching, but refuse to understand exactly what we’re watching. And Ryback’s speech was a time for you to shut your mouth, and listen.

I understand the appeal of the "What?" chant. I understand the appeal of harmony with a massive audience. But resist the urge and stop ruining professional wrestling. The art of the promo is essential to the success of pro-wrestling and every time you chant "What?" you box these performers into a terrible place where it's impossible for them to get better and to tell a good story.

The purpose of the speech was to humanize the character and perhaps course correct whatever damage had been done to the gimmick in the past. For the most part, it was successful, but more can still be done to set the character on the right path, to make him a more relatable human being.

When I watched this segment, I couldn’t help but wonder why such moments are so rare, and why the WWE went to such great lengths to potentially save a performer while simultaneously disregarding and outright burying others.

We watched the WWE take care of Ryback on this RAW. We watched them actively trying to set things right for a performer, and put him, and, therefore, the company, in a better place.

This is a philosophy that shouldn’t be reserved for two or three performers, it’s a philosophy that should stretch across the board.

Though it was cut from the HuluPlus version (never a good sign), I found a piece of Cesaro’s promo on The entirety of the promo wasn’t there, but it was good, at the very least, to hear Cesaro talk about his place in the company. But where Ryback’s speech was indicative of the company protecting and helping Ryback, Cesaro’s moment was just another example of the company punishing a character for seemingly no reason.

Wade Barret quickly interrupted Cesaro and then defeated him (in a heelish way, I might add), making Cesaro look not only complacent, but inept. Cesaro’s comment, “I don’t connect, I deliver” was a great entry point into a potentially significant moment for that character. But it was stifled in the pursuit of…what exactly? Making Wade Barrett look good? Did this actually make Barrett look strong?

If the WWE really wanted to make Barrett look good then this RAW should have been in NY, not DC, where the crowd is reliably engaged and willing to support such moments.

Here Barrett’s return feels almost entirely insignificant, so not only is Cesaro damaged by the segment, Barrett is too. Barrett’s return also isn’t helped along by the fact that he’s made awkward, occasional appearances while he’s been recovering from injury.

At Survivor Series he showed up on the pre-show to cut a promo about beginning “The Barrett Era”. What did that mean? I’m probably the only person who remembers this, of course, but these moments reveal how nonsensical some of the WWE’s booking and creative decisions are. Everything that isn’t at the top of the card is inevitably happenstance and reactionary, a series of fiddling mistakes or random successes, where the devotion to supporting these talents is entirely schizophrenic.

Cesaro is the perfect example of this bad booking.

Cesaro was over at the beginning of 2014. Over. Beloved by the crowd. Towards the end of 2013 he was having spectacular matches with John Cena, even coming close to convincingly defeating Cena, and he was a legitimate contender at The Elimination Chamber.

Every time he did the Big Swing fans went insane. When he won the Andre the Giant Battle Royal fans went insane.

The next night, on the post-Mania RAW, when it was revealed that he was the next “Paul Heyman Guy”, fans went insane even though Paul was a heel.

Everyone wanted to love Cesaro, regardless of his association with Heyman.

Everyone wanted to see his Big Swing and marvel at his in-ring prowess.

And then what happened? What did the WWE do for Cesaro?

They kept trying to negate those natural, uproarious cheers for the character and turn them into boos. They kept trying, as hard as they could, to make Cesaro something the character simply didn’t want to be and something the crowd simply didn’t want Cesaro to be. They actively refused to listen to the WWE Universe, despite the fact that McMahon claims to listen to the live audiences.

They had Cesaro lose important mid-card championship title matches. They didn’t follow through on the Andre the Giant Battle Royal and put the IC or the US Title on Cesaro. He just lost matches.

They simply had him putz around aimlessly, accompanied by Paul Heyman for months, endlessly tinkering with his gimmick in a cosmetic, superficial way.

One week he has a jacket and he’s called The King of Swing, the next week he’s wearing a robe and he’s The Swiss Superman. One week he’s cheered for doing the Big Swing, the next week he’s heelishly teasing the Big Swing and denying fans the satisfaction of seeing it, trying to elicit heat. One week he’s walking to the ring with a cartoonishly puffed chest and wide, swinging shoulders with a smirk on his face. And then another week he’s no longer a grappler, but a serious brawler with taped hands and an angry scowl, no longer an English speaker, relying on Paul Heyman as an interpreter.

Then, when it comes time for Heyman to begin the program with Lesnar and Cena, Cesaro is dropped altogether, regarded as someone who “can’t connect”, and tossed into booking oblivion, regularly losing on pre-shows, and completely unable to find an adequate rival.

Why? Is this really an appropriate response to Cesaro suggesting in interviews that people might want to see someone other than John Cena at the top?

The higher-ups at the WWE’s must be actively lying to themselves if they fail to see how they are responsible for the slow dissolution of this character. I cannot imagine what it must be like to work in that locker room and have something like this happen to you, and then to be told by your boss that you’re just a weak little millennial who’s afraid to grab that brass ring, that you don’t joke around and pal-around enough with the guys in the locker room.

If the locker rooms of today's WWE are silent, sad places as devoid of camaraderie as Vince McMahon suggested in his interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin, then that is management’s problem. That is management's fault for allowing it to get that way. An unhappy locker room, as it’s been described in various podcasts and even on the WWE’s own Network, sounds a lot to me like a repressed locker room who is terrified to create anything for fear of being reprimanded, fired, or buried. This sounds like a typical office work place where everyone’s soul is crushed into their cubical, where everyone reverts to the status quo because doing anything else will ruin their lives.

It is a world of absolute contradiction, hypocrisy and paradox - think outside the box, but don't work outside the box...and also don't think outside the box!

Any good manager of a retail store or office in this country would see signs of low morale in their staff and work to correct it. And if they didn’t, they’d be fired by corporate.

A good manager takes responsibility for not only allowing a negative, hostile work environment to exist, but a good manager takes responsibility for creating one. A good manager thinks, “What am I doing wrong with these kids? What can I do to make them feel better about this place, to make these offices sound a little more upbeat? How did I let it get this way?”

There’s no reason Cesaro shouldn’t be a serious contender for winning The Royal Rumble this year.

There’s no reason Bo Dallas shouldn’t be in line for the IC Title, regularly cutting hilarious ten minute promos at the start of hour two.

There’s no reason the Divas shouldn't have more than five minute advertisments for Total Divas.

There’s no reason Bray Wyatt vs Dean Ambrose shouldn't be the best thing we're watching right now instead of a series of boring gimmick matches devoid of meaning and purpose.

There’s no reason everyone on that card, let alone the truly, undeniably talented performers, shouldn’t be considered, taken care of, and encouraged.

I’m not arguing for the codling of a younger generation that needs their hand held because they grew up in a world where “everyone wins”. Do you, WWE, actually believe that guys like Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler and Bray Wyatt and Cesaro and Roman Reigns and Bo Dallas are weak and want their hands held, that they’re not hungry and desperate for that top spot?

I’m arguing for taking the chains off an oppressed people, and allowing everyone’s natural charisma and talent to shine forth.

That is an environment that will thrive.

That is a happier locker room, a locker room that doesn't feel burdened by the edicts of twenty-five writers who have no idea what it's like to punch someone in the face or be punched in the face.

That is a WWE people actually want to see, not this sterile, totalitarian, corporate regime of factory-sealed, anesthetized products pushing other products.

This is the WWE people want to see.

Another example of the WWE's truly nonsensical booking is in debuting The Ascension on this show against Miz and Mizdow.

On a night when Miz and Mizdow unceremoniously lose the titles to The Usos.

Not only does the DC crowd not know who The Ascension is, they weren't going to cheer them for defeating the fan-favorite Mizdow.

Their brief match was awkward, dull, and helped absolutely no one.

And so a moment that should revitalize the entire WWE Tag Team Division, a moment that is supposed to be the biggest moment in two performers' careers is something fans shrug at. Fans are just confused by such a debut, and they're not the least bit inspired to think anything about The Ascension.

What was that year-long tag title reign in NXT worth? These two were "the most dominant tag team in NXT history" and when you watched that show, you often believed in their gimmick.

Here, on their RAW debut, they instantly seem like jobbers...even when they win.

Am I watching wrestling? Am I even watching sports entertainment? Or am I watching the internal political struggles of a family and a corporation, childishly trying to undermine one another?

Because seeing Charlotte lose in her debut a couple weeks back and seeing The Ascension debut in this manner, and seeing everything that's been done with Adam Rose and Bo Dallas, it certainly seems like someone working for the main roster is actively trying to destroy the potential of these NXT stars and stifle the future.

The only place where these talents get to demonstrate their potential is in the ring, free of a truly unbearable script, and sometimes not even there as evidenced by this forgettable debut.

Rollins and Reigns put on a good show next, where Reigns spent a good bit of time working Rollins' arm, the pace fluctuating between Reigns' more methodical, big-moves and Rollins' speedy, acrobatic offense. The match was also helped along by a genuinely enjoyable Big Show on commentary.

Big Show was, without question, the best commentator we’ve heard in years. He was funny, he was energetic, he reacted appropriately to Seth Rollins’ impressive moves, he helped tell the story, and he seemed to be enjoying himself.

For all the progress the WWE has made, commentary is one of those consistently reviled aspects of the show in 2014. It is so resoundingly despised by all kinds of WWE fans (not just the impossible to please smarks) that it's somewhat dumbfounding that the company hasn't made a change. While they have their moments, the trio of Cole, King, and JBL continues to grate. This is partially because they too aren’t permitted to naturally create a story, beholden to orders barked in their ears through the headsets.

Big Show, in his brief stint, revealed what can happen when someone is shooting off the cuff, and it was absolutely delightful.

Surprisingly, he is someone the WWE should consider behind the desk in years to come.

His attack on Reigns was also an impressive moment. He quickly tossed Roman over the announcers' desk and flipped the table. It was a moment of strength that actually made The Big Show seem big, which is welcome given how the character has often been represented as an almost childish goon.

The setup between he and Reigns doing battle at The Rumble is on the right track, and could culminate in a legitimately exciting exchange at the pay-per-view.

Next, Daniel Bryan gave a speech that chronicled his 2014, starting with his rivalry with The Authority and culminating in the news that he would be entering the 2015 Royal Rumble. There was an excellent, consistent theme of injury affecting these wrestlers' lives throughout the show. From the opening video detailing Edge's injury, to Bryan's tearful speech, to Ryback's humanizing moment, to the final evil threats of Seth Rollins, the pain these men and women endure was a point of emphasis. This is one of those surprising, encouraging qualities of the show, revealing of the company's increasing commitment to basic reality and their awareness of how to tell an actual story so as to elicit a positive response.

It will be interesting to see how the WWE books Bryan in 2015. He’s one of the only legitimately top men in the company so it’s good to have him back, but I can’t help but fear for how the WWE will handle his return.

The WWE is in desperate need of change, evolution, forging ahead into a bright, positive future that represents something people actually want to see.

On a night where Daniel Bryan announced his return (detracting from such a reveal at the event itself, but understandable given the need to sell the Network - and potentially setting up for an even bigger return for someone else), and where The Authority unceremoniously returned, there’s potential for the WWE to revert back into well-trod territory.

While the final segment had some good moments (at times it felt a little too amateur theater with far too many people trying far too hard to make a completely unrealistic scenario seem real, stumbling to remember lines), the fact that this was the way The Authority returned, without any legitimate setup, without any supporting angle is not a good sign for positive change.

John Cena bringing The Authority back could have been a massive angle that could have occupied Cena and Rollins for months, even playing a part in WrestleMania.

And what about Sting?

Part of the problem with the WWE is that kayfabe has become such a lost art, and by kayfabe I mean, in this case, basic storytelling. At this point, Sting’s appearance at Survivor Series was actually about Sting making an appearance at Survivor Series so as to create a memorable moment and increase sales.

It wasn’t actually about anything. What’s the story? Why did the character do that? Why did he care? What was his goal?

Now, with The Authority back, Survivor Series is almost negated, and the entire angle resulted in nothing more than a month of RAW guest hosts.

There is no narrative power behind this return, when there very easily could and should have been.

An entire angle could have been built around the fact that Cena could bring The Authority back. Now, they’re back, possibly, and it feels like no one did anything that mattered whatsoever. This will earn them heat, but heat resultant from narrative stagnation is not good heat.

It also doesn't help that I've listened to Triple H on podcasts talk about how he regards the performance-end of his job as something of a chore nowadays, that he's much more interested in building talent at NXT. While I almost always enjoy his performance, while he and Stephanie are a delightfully evil duo, to have this knowledge in the back of my mind inevitably effects how I view it, and I wonder if the WWE is simply too beholden to reusing a story that is nearly two decades old.

Even if The Authority's next run is spectacular, do we really need to keep seeing this story? Evil corporate bosses torture talent? This story peaked when it started back in the late 90s.

And, if I may play backseat booker, what if the WWE had been in trouble following the power-void resultant from The Authority's Survivor Series loss? What if Sting stepped in as the vengeful spirit of WCW, trying to destroy the WWE? What if the writers went along with any number of logical angles? What if there was a scenario where John Cena had to bring back The Authority to save the entire WWE organization…not Edge from a curb stomp?

What if The Authority came back reinvigorated as a face stable?

Now, unless it’s revealed on RAW next week that McMahon disregards John Cena’s decision or some other such nonsense, the feeling is one of a return to same-old-same-old. The feeling is one of a massive missed opportunity. I do not object to the return of The Authority, I reject to failing to tell the potentially great story that was staring the WWE in the face.

Now it’s easy for fans to chastise such decisions and angles when we don’t know the particulars of the decisions, when we don't actually know what they do have in store. Maybe there’s some WrestleMania angle involving The Authority that the WWE needs to start booking now. Maybe it will all lead to something amazing and satisfying.

But it’s very hard to imagine that. It’s very hard to see that.

And it should be easier.

And in 2015, I hope it will be.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section, and help The Work of Wrestling get over!

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