THE RAW REVIEW
When I look back at the WWE in October of 2014, I fondly remember deeply satisfying rivalries between Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins and John Cena and Brock Lesnar. I even remember that Randy Orton had some momentum. I remember Bray Wyatt had the command of the entire audience and I remember feeling more encouraged than ever about the future of the company’s main event.
Few will remember this, but last year’s Hell in a Cell was less important because of the stories, and more important because of the implications in the booking. There was a quiet war being waged for the main event, and a thematic war being waged between the past and the future.
There were two big Hell in a Cell matches; John Cena vs Randy Orton for the number one contendership for Brock Lesnar’s WWE World Heavyweight Championship and Dean Ambrose versus Seth Rollins in the epic conclusion of that year’s hottest feud.
WWE fans were, for the most part, genuinely excited about the product and deeply invested in these stories.
Fans went into Hell in a Cell concerned that the company would stick to the more familiar Cena versus Orton-booking with regard to the main event. In what seemed a turning of the tide and a victory for modern pro-wrestling fans, Dean and Seth were booked as the main event and went on last at the pay-per-view. It was a deeply satisfying moment in modern WWE history. It seemed to represent the company recognizing a need to get younger and a need actually listen to the cheers and the boos of the millennial audience.
That enthusiasm and the significance of that booking has since faded entirely from the product, and we are now limping into a pay-per-view that feels more like an afterthought than an event of great importance.
For this RAW, instead of encouraging today’s younger roster to tell compelling stories amongst themselves in sense-making segments and matches grounded in athletic realism, the WWE brought out three legends to transparently sell the audience a pay-per-view and the Network. The art of selling both in terms of in-ring performance and in subtly convincing an audience to buy a pay-per-view through storytelling has all but been abandoned by the company.
To make this criticism very easy to understand, here is an example of a good sell:
Seth Rollins betrayed his brother, Dean Ambrose, in an effort to gain company favor. He took a shortcut to the top, leaving his loved ones in ruin. Dean Ambrose, unwilling to let go of his brother, his love, driven mad by this betrayal, will stop at nothing to gain revenge and return, ten-fold, the pain Seth Rollins caused. At Hell in a Cell, Dean Ambrose will finally get his satisfaction. At Hell in a Cell, Seth Rollins will be trapped inside Dean’s playground. At Hell in a Cell, this Sunday on the WWE Network, you will see what happens when madness is set free.
Here’s an example of a bad sell:
Buy the WWE Network so you can watch Hell in a Cell this Sunday. It’s only $9.99. There are two big Hell in a Cell matches after all. You should believe this because these WWE Hall of Famers told you so.
There’s no story in that second pitch. There is, transparently, without any recognizable narrative guise (and therefore no emotional incentive), the equivalent of a desperate used car salesmen begging you to sign a bad lease.
Your interest hinges entirely upon your willingness to spend money. The relationship becomes that simple. The thought-process isn’t, “Oh man, I really need to see how this story plays out”, it becomes “I guess ten bucks isn’t too much money.”
People don’t care about affordability as much as they care about a good story, especially when we're dealing with professional wrestling. We are emotional creatures begging good storytellers to manipulate our desire to believe.
A good salesman is, first and foremost, a good storyteller.
Steve Austin’s opening easily outdid the other legends' segments. It made the most sense out of the three, as he was introducing one of the last remaining members of The Attitude Era, The Undertaker, and helping to promote his conversation with Brock Lesnar after the show. He spoke with convincing passion and fire and clearly wanted to get the talent over.
Where Austin served as a sense-making opener and didn’t need to do anything other than what he did (a way to get the crowd hyped and a way reorient everyone’s focus on the tradition of the Hell in a Cell match and the history of The Undertaker) the other two legends' segments served mostly to get those two legends over, not the talent nor the pay-per-view. They were fun skits meant to pop the crowd at the top of each hour, not scenes meant to advance an emotionally powerful story.
That’s why, when examining how this year’s Hell in a Cell go-home RAW was mostly not successful, it’s incredibly useful to compare it to last year’s episode which was very successful.
I’m writing this not to run the WWE down. I want the WWE to read this and genuinely consider it because I care about their product and I care about the future of the wrestling business.
Last year, only one legend needed to show up to help sell this main event.
And he sold it by telling a story.
Mick came out with the clear intent of getting Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose over. It was a tense segment that united past and present, imbuing an already hot rivalry with historical gravitas. The story wasn’t, “Hey everybody, cheer for Mick Foley! Buy the Network because you love Mick Foley!” The story was about Mick being a Hell in a Cell prophet. He arrived in the hopes of preserving the innocence of two young, precious talents. He talked about his life being divided into two stages: “pre-cell and post-cell”.
We learned that the scars of Mick’s Hell in a Cell history had never faded.
We felt the power of the words “Hell in a Cell” again and we knew that the steel monster would claim two new victims at the upcoming pay-per-view.
And we learned more about Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose in the process.
We learned that Dean, despite Mick’s warnings, believed he was ready, and that he had “lost his innocence long ago”. We learned that Seth, while destined for greatness as the WWE’s company-man, lacked the kind of animalistic madness it would take to thrive in the same violent world as wrestlers like Dean Ambrose and Mick Foley.
We felt a need to see how these two forces would collide, and Mick Foley’s prophecy transformed the cell into more than just a gimmick. The cell became a symbol for psychological trauma, emotional turmoil, and the perseverance it would take to overcome that trauma and that turmoil.
I found this scene so effective last year that I outright encouraged my readers to buy the Network and tune in.
It was nothing short of epic, and it was clear that great care and great consideration had gone into the construction of this story. There were characters with clearly defined roles and clearly defined motivations. There was depth, and the depth came as a result of Dean, Seth, and Mick speaking in honest, straightforward terms about their psyches.
This year, I don’t really know anything about The Undertaker nor Brock Lesnar.
Although last night’s exchange between Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt was spectacular, I also don’t really know anything about them.
And Dean Ambrose is nowhere near the main event, involved in a confusing tangent of Roman’s rivalry, struggling to formulate a tenuous bond with an absent Randy Orton.
Seth Rollins has been reduced to a prototypical, complacent coward who fails his way to the top month after month (he was once a cunning villain who outsmarted his competition).
And no one will remember a single promo from last night’s RAW. In fact, it's hard to believe many people will remember a single segment or match from last night's show, even on a night when The Shield briefly reunited.
So how did we get here?
How did we go from the energy and enthusiasm and genuine praise the main roster was consistently earning in 2014 to the low ratings, complacency, and borderline hatred we’re all experiencing today?
Again, I ask this question in the hopes of helping the WWE and its passionate fanbase.
Ironically enough, this steady decline began at last year’s Hell in a Cell.
Bray Wyatt, who had been absent from main roster programming for several weeks (the Wyatt Family was disbanded in a series of unceremonious, cryptic vignettes), interfered in the main event of last year's Hell in a Cell and attacked Dean Ambrose. This was done to bring the long-standing feud between Seth and Dean to a conclusion without either needing to win or lose clean, and also as a way of paying homage to Kane's debut at Badd Blood in 1997.
If you think back to Bray's interference though, you might recall that a ghost appeared in the middle of the ring before he attacked.
This ghost elicited a collective groan, and became a running joke in the professional wrestling community until eventually fading from public consciousness. It was a moment that compromised the believability and the integrity of the match. It was a hokey, out of place, and intrusive gimmick at odds with what the viewer had come to know and love about the Ambrose/Rollins rivalry.
Just when the viewers were encouraged to believe that the main-event tide had finally turned, along came a familiar spider named “Sports Entertainment”. “Sports Entertainment”, which allows for things like “super powers” and “ghosts” to exist in the WWE, interfered in a rivalry grounded entirely in emotional realism and athletic competition.
WWE fans reacted so negatively to the appearance of this ghost that the company quietly pushed this event out of the fiction and out of people's minds. You are likely reading this now and thinking, “Oh my god…that’s right…that happened!”
No explanation was ever offered with regard to how Bray Wyatt manifested this ghost. The reason no explanation was offered was because it was a bad, gimmicky idea that had no place in a 2015 narrative. Every single person in the audience knew, in no uncertain terms, that it was a bad special effect insulting of their intelligence. Today’s viewer is hungry for the emotional realism of professional wrestling not the spectacle of Sports Entertainment. In 2014, WWE fans were getting closer and closer to the professional wrestling realism they craved on the main roster...
...until this damn ghost showed up.
The ghost wouldn’t have been much of a problem if what happened after helped Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt get over. But that’s not what happened. No one benefitted from any of the good booking in 2014 following last year’s Hell in a Cell. This one pay-per-view represents the negation of the excellence that preceded it.
Bray Wyatt and Dean Ambrose languished in a meaningless feud afterward, a feud that never once offered an explanation for Bray’s obsession with Dean. Bray’s cryptic promos became a gag amongst fans. The audience grew tired of his schtick because there was no reason for his actions nor his words, just a lot of talk about Dean being “lost” and Dean being abandoned as a child.
Dean’s momentum was squandered in gimmick match after gimmick match, breaking his body on ladders and tables and thrusting his head into candy-cane-kendo-sticks.
Dean's appeal was compromised, his gimmick transformed purely into that of “The Lunatic Fringe!” and not that of a wounded brother out for vengeance. What had once endeared him to the "WWE Universe" was polluted by corporate simplification. He became a caricature.
And his body paid the price.
Dean lost match after match to Bray, often in absurd fashion; exploding televisions, getting shoved into ambulances etc.
These young men sacrificed their bodies and their momentum on a weekly basis in a zero-sum game, losing all credibility and all humanity in the eyes of the fans in the process. Two men, who had once been “top guy” material deeply connected with the millennial soul became mid-card talents unworthy of emotional attachment.
That’s what inconsiderate booking does.
Inconsiderate booking is not cognizant of the strengths and weaknesses of professional wrestlers nor what it is that the audience is actually connecting to in a particular performer. Inconsiderate booking attempts to strong-arm an audience into booing a performer like Bray Wyatt instead of encouraging Bray Wyatt to grow as a new kind of babyface for a new kind of wrestling fan. Inconsiderate booking slaps a label on a guy like Dean Ambrose, a man whose entire gimmick is about not being labelled, and regards him as nothing more than a fun, tee-shirt-selling trope rather than the chosen babyface of the millennial generation.
Inconsiderate booking adheres to a plan despite valuable feedback and despite the natural direction of a narrative, a talent, and an audience.
After last year’s Hell in a Cell, fans were taken to a Survivor Series main event based around whether or not The Authority would remain in power - not the emotional fallout of the previous month's rivalries.
John Cena stitched his team together at the last minute, contributing to a sense that the WWE didn’t really know what they were doing, and then Sting showed up, without reason, to put The Authority out of power.
Next came a parade of Monday Night Raw guest-hosts, contributing, once again, to a sense that there was no clear direction for the product and its characters. What had once been fueled by emotional and psychological believability was now propelled forward by questions like, “Will The Authority get their jobs back?”
Seth Rollins, who had once been confident and capable and focused on stomping Dean Ambrose out of existence, became motivated by bringing his former bosses back on television despite getting along just fine without them thanks to the aid of the ever-lovable J&J Security.
Lost in this mix are names like Dolph Ziggler and Cesaro and Damien Sandow and Fandango and Heath Slater, all of whom, in their own way, had earned the admiration of the fans at this time. Some might remember that Dolph Ziggler was the man who won last year’s Survivor Series. It was a truly triumphant moment that led fans to believe that the brass was finally taking him seriously. Not long after, he won The Intercontinental Championship. He had a good, enthusiastic run as champ that was then unceremoniously negated upon The Authority’s return in a forgettable match against Luke Harper on Monday Night Raw. These are the kinds of decisions that devalue championships. The stank of bad-booking passes from title-holder to title-holder, inevitably convincing fans to disregard the championship and the man or woman who holds it - hence the state of midcard titles not held by John Cena.
Seth Rollins would go on to have his classic with John Cena and Brock Lesar at The Royal Rumble, but that match was similarly stitched together at the last minute and a success despite itself. It was originally booked, a month in advance, as “The Final Chapter” between Brock Lesnar and John Cena following their less than satisfactory rematch at Night of Champions.
With so many changes to the pay-per-view main events and with so few convincing narrative justifications for those changes, fans became understandably restless.
Running in parallel to these excitement-negating decisions, is the behind-the-scenes story about Vince McMahon wanting to push Roman Reigns despite having never established him as a convincing top performer. The WWE fans and analysts were completely aware of this decision and were regularly voicing their concerns, emphasizing that while Roman Reigns was likable, he was not really over nor ready for the WrestleMania main event.
Roman was absent due to injury during most of this time, only to be gifted with Superstar of the Year in a transparent attempt to get him over and remind people of his existence. This was the moment fans started to turn on him. The audience knew that this was a sham decision that flew in the face of everything they had seen throughout 2014. He was being positioned to take a seat of prominence despite a complete lack of motivation or connection with the crowd.
In the midst of these concerns and mounting fan-frustrations, Vince McMahon appeared on the Stone Cold Steve Austin podcast on the WWE Network, and it became abundantly clear that he actively did not listen to “critics” and that he did not hold his millennial roster in high regard save a select, chosen few.
The perception that he was “out of touch” became the refrain of pundits and fans alike, leading into the Royal Rumble match which would determine the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania.
In an unexpected turn of events, Daniel Bryan returned early, and was quickly re-embraced by the WWE fans as the guy they wanted to main event Mania with Brock Lesnar. It seemed a fortunate twist of fate that he would arrive in time to win The Royal Rumble, right the wrongs of the previous year, and go on to headline 'Mania a second year in a row much to the satisfaction of all.
But Vince McMahon stood by his plan with Roman and, for the second year in a row, The Royal Rumble ended in a chorus of boos.
Not even an inexplicable visit from The Rock could get Roman Reigns over. If anything, The Rock's presence hurt Roman even more.
From here the WWE was forced to go into damage control, and for two months leading into WrestleMania, it was unclear what the main event would actually be. Roman Reigns was forced to cut belabored promos that undermined his tough-guy personae and these promos contributed even more to the idea that he wasn’t ready for the main event.
Paul Heyman cut promo after promo trying to sell WrestleMania with nothing to work with other than “Roman Reigns says he can beat Brock Lesnar, and Brock Lesnar says he can’t”. The feud was founded on nothing more than "I can. I will." That's not much to get emotionally invested in, but it sure looks good on a tee-shirt.
And then, on the go-home RAW leading into WrestleMania, Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar pitifully played tug of war with the championship belt.
Right about now, you might want to comment on how fondly you remember WrestleMania 31.
While fans remember 'Mania's stellar ending, they forget that it was one of, if not the most disjointed, depressing WrestleMania builds in the company’s history. Fans may also forget that one of the primary reasons the ‘Mania 31 main event was so successful was due in large part to Brock Lesnar announcing on ESPN that he had re-signed with the WWE.
This announcement capitalized on mounting enthusiasm for his character as well as mounting disdain for Roman Reigns. The match had a clear babyface and a clear heel. The audience had inverted Vince McMahon’s narrative, and the one good booking decision by the brass (Seth Rollins cashing in at the end) paid off.
But where did we go after that? It seemed some goodwill had been restored. Where is that goodwill now? How did we get, once again, from unanimous praise and love and excitement, to utter disgust several months later?
Brock Lesnar got “suspended” on the RAW after WrestleMania 31, negating the love he’d organically earned.
Seth Rollins began one of several stagnant feuds with Randy Orton, culminating in a convoluted Extreme Rules match where it was entirely unclear who won.
And this story went on and on for several months leading us all the way to right now, October 20th, 2015, one year later.
We have seen wonky main event finish after wonky main event finish, and Seth Rollins has steadily devolved into a weaker and weaker champion while the rest of the roster struggles for relevancy on an increasingly meaningless show.
All of this is without even mentioning #GiveDivasAChance or, in stark contrast to everything that’s happened on the main roster, the resounding success of NXT.
And it all began with that damn ghost.
I want this chronicle of the past twelve months to be of use to the WWE and to the WWE fan.
I want the WWE to learn from these obvious booking blunders, and for the WWE fan to feel adequately justified in their present-day discontent. There is a reason you are unhappy, and it is entirely due to bad-planning, a refusal to admit bad-planning, and a fundamental disconnect with what interests professional wrestling fans in 2015.
One year ago, to the day, we were happy.
Now, we are not.
It would stand to reason that if a series of bad decisions made over the course of twelve months results in an abundance of frustration, that a series of good decisions made over the course of twelve months results in an abundance of joy.
I humbly encourage the WWE to start making those good decisions this Sunday…on the WWE Network…for an undisclosed monthly sum...