THE RAW REVIEW For Episode 2/16/15

THE RAW REVIEW For Episode 2/16/15

The February 16th, 2015 episode of Monday Night Raw is the best episode of the WWE’s flagship show that I’ve seen since The Attitude Era.

Now I haven’t seen every episode in the past fourteen years and nothing overtly historic or game-changing appeared to happen last night (depending on how you viewed the show). But I cannot remember the last time in over a decade I haven't, at some point, mentally tuned out of RAW or rolled my eyes or groaned or sighed or been eternally frustrated with the direction of the company by the end of the night. There have been great episodes, to be sure, but few and far between have emanated from a sincere, professional wrestling perspective in quite some time (a perspective that has existed exclusively on NXT).

Last night, without any surprise returns or celebrity guest hosts or shocking appearances or broad soliloquies or over the top spectacle, Monday Night Raw delivered a consistently excellent television show that focused on realistic competition between a roster of athletes.

I read a lot of comments reacting to last night’s episode. Some positive, some still negative. The negative comments went on about how it was “same-old, same-old” and that the WWE is a shell of its former self.

To each their own, but this RAW was different than every other RAW we’ve seen recently.

Over the past few years a good RAW was defined by a Paul Heyman promo or an amazing match or a surprise appearance from Mick Foley or The Rock or the like. A good RAW over the past few years was typically resultant from one particularly good segment or one particularly good promo or the fact that it was a RAW immediately following a big pay-per-view like WrestleMania or even a good crowd that made bad spots more entertaining as a result of clever chants.

Goodness was not defined by the entire show subtly, consistently delivering genuine entertainment from top to bottom. A good RAW has often felt accidental, as if a series of random elements just happened to come together at the right time to distract from the philosophical sickness resting in the heart of the three-hour broadcast.

Last night was different because the show, first minute to last minute, was true to the fundamental nature of the professional wrestling medium.

Every story was about competition.

Typically, Monday Night Raw is an odd entertainment jigsaw puzzle, ill-fitting pieces of that puzzle shoved into place where they don’t belong. The result is a television mutant, a hybrid between reality television, audience participation game shows, improvisational skit-TV, one-hour-drama, thirty-minute-sitcom, and then, lastly and least importantly, a competitive-sport-simulation also known as professional wrestling. Everything that's good about the WWE, everything that makes the WWE unique is pushed aside in the pursuit of gaining the interest of people who will never have any interest in the WWE. That philosophy alienates the WWE's built in audience and all those people who would be watching if the show was truer to itself.

Last night was a professional wrestling show through and through.

Everything that happened sprang from the soul of athletic competition and a desire to be the absolute best athlete in the ring.

Everything that happened, even The Bellas stealing Paige’s outfit, was a natural, realistic extension of the pro-wrestling world where men and women compete for the right to call themselves a champion.

 Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns brawl in convincing fashion.

Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns brawl in convincing fashion.

I imagine many will consider last night’s episode of RAW pretty standard, and that’s because the shift in the show's perspective is largely imperceptible unless you’re really paying attention and unless you’re open to it.

I also imagine others will react in the positive, but without really knowing why, thinking, “This is really good tonight…and I can’t quite put my finger on why.” And that's a great reaction.

The reason you enjoyed the show more than you have in a while is because it was a realistic pro-wrestling show where human beings said things human beings would say, human beings did things human beings would do, and all the bad gimmicks and the bad booking stayed in the back where they belonged and simplicity and sincerity took center-stage.

Last night I watched a RAW that seemed to come from the same pro-wrestling philosophy that shapes NXT. Last night, I feel like I watched a RAW where Vince McMahon took the night off and said to Triple H, “Screw it…do whatever you want with it tonight and see what happens.”

What happened was a perfect benchmark was created, the measuring stick for a good episode of RAW that should inform the way future episodes are created.

RAW typically begins with a twenty/thirty minute promo exchange between babyfaces and The Authority with more and more characters being stacked on top of one another with each passing minute until it all explodes into some sort of physical altercation or the booking of a main event or opening match.

This RAW began with a straightforward, relatively brief exchange between John Cena and Rusev w/Lana.

 John Cena continues to explore new aspects of his character.

John Cena continues to explore new aspects of his character.

Cena, embracing the boos & the cheers as he normally does, first rallied an already hot crowd, getting them excited to be on RAW and getting them excited for Fastlane. He weaved in and out of selling the pay-per-view and the WWE Network and telling the story of his evolution - the best way to sell a pro-wrestling product. Cena’s need to transform into a darker, more violent version of himself in order to defeat his opponents has been a running (and entertaining) theme for the character of late. This latest feud with Rusev has once again incorporated that theme into the narrative, in addition to the fact that Cena is aging.

Surprisingly, despite a relatively brief build and despite the fact that it all began with an unceremonious backstage promo-interruption following The Royal Rumble, this feud between Cena and Rusev works perfectly.

Rusev gets to step outside the parameters of his Evil Russian gimmick and become something of a young, “Super Athlete” eager to dethrone the WWE’s most consistent top guy.

Cena gets to step outside the parameters of his “Superman White-Meat Babyface” shtick to become a man defending his legacy against a younger, healthier opponent.

 Cena stands tall on RAW.

Cena stands tall on RAW.

Cena has always been thematically associated with the US Army. He wears dog tags, and gives a salute before he runs down to the ring. Although such imagery is overt in meaning, Cena’s never explicitly been “The America Guy!” the way other pro-wrestlers have in the past. He's not an America-gimmick. It’s a subtler and, as a result, more powerful association when used correctly. It's a quick nod that occasionally informs a good Cena-promo. And even now, when he’s going up against the epitome of a nationality-gimmick, his relationship to American pride is a little more subdued. The USA chants filled the arena after Cena beat Rusev against the steel stage, but the fight was grounded in something real, something personal.

While American pride surrounds the feud like an intangible mist, the fight is really about young versus old, future versus past, young buck versus old dog, and the will to carry on and the strength to assert one’s dominance in a physical contest.

The feud is more resonant as a result. It actually means something.

National pride is a concept that can be hard to relate to and easily devolve into vapid, cheap chant-mongering.

A feud where a veteran athlete has to defend himself against the rising tide of change is something almost everyone can relate to. It’s much more powerful than Russia versus America, which has been the crux of Rusev’s battles up until this point.

This rivalry, following the physical altercations between Cena and Rusev two weeks in a row, represents the way human psychology actually works.

We say and we like to think that we’re fighting for some high-minded ideal like America! when we’re really fighting for something a little closer to home. We’re fighting to survive, we’re fighting to get something that we want or need (like resources for our society), we’re fighting to preserve our individual family and friends, we’re fighting to impress our fathers and our mothers, we’re fighting to prove someone wrong, or we’re fighting for the right to call ourselves the absolute best in the world.

I always like to point to The Batman as the touchstone for realistic, relatable, and incredibly fascinating character-psychology within the framework of a fantastical world.

Batman has transformed himself into an “idea” so as to more effectively strike fear into the hearts of the weak-minded criminal. In that way he becomes something intangible, but what drives Batman is incredible personal. Batman says and likes to think that he fights for concepts like “justice” and “the end of crime” and “peace”. But the truth, the infinitely more interesting truth about Batman is that he derives pleasure from punching The Joker’s skull into concrete. Batman does great things in his quest to end crime. He contributes to the betterment of the world. He is altruistic. But he also does what he does to right the wrongs of his childhood. With each purse-snatcher he takes in, with each super villain plot that he foils, with each murder he prevents he’s trying to prevent the kind of darkness that created him. He’s trying to save himself. It's not quite revenge, but it's not quite justice either.

And that’s what John Cena is trying to do right now. And he’s going to have to go to some dark places to do it.

 Cena stands triumphant over Rusev.

Cena stands triumphant over Rusev.

The first match of the night was a solid bout between Dean Ambrose and Luke Harper. Lately, I’ve watched Dean Ambrose with a sense of mourning. His character has not received the kind of support he’s deserved ever since the wonky finish at Hell in a Cell.

He’s seemed to have discovered a positive direction in chasing Wade Barrett and The Intercontinental Championship, however. He’s cut a few decent, straightforward promos, and the crescendo of his RAW narrative this week saw him tie Barrett’s hands to the ringpost and force Barrett to sign a contract for a championship match at Fastlane.

 Dean Ambrose forces Wade Barrett to sign a contract for an IC Championship match at Fastlane.

Dean Ambrose forces Wade Barrett to sign a contract for an IC Championship match at Fastlane.

It was an inventive contract signing that felt like a natural extension of the “Unhinged” superstar, while not veering into the camp that has defined Ambrose for the past several months.

The IC title has changed hands far too frequently and unceremoniously of late. And Barrett doesn’t seem to be someone the company has any long-term designs with.

Ambrose is someone who could legitimately carry the company-torch someday based on his style and talent, so giving Ambrose a physical match at Fastlane and WrestleMania, allowing him to carry The Intercontinental Championship for a significant amount of time would not only restore him, it would restore the title to its rightful place as a stepping stone.

Conversations should be had, right now, about what to do with that belt and what to do with Ambrose. The powers that be should look to NXT and consider who could be a great long-term opponent for Ambrose on the main-roster midcard. A goal of the WWE should be to raise up the IC Championship, to make that belt a money-maker, to make that match a significant draw in its own right, and one of the ways to do that is to take the reigns off a champion-Ambrose and then give him a new, impressive opponent like Adrian Neville or Sami Zayn throughout an entire calendar year. This kind of plan should start at Fastlane, and genuine care should be taken with Ambrose and that belt for the company needs Ambrose to be a success.

 Ambrose taunts BNB.

Ambrose taunts BNB.

One of the reasons the night was so successful was that it was segmented into complete mini-narratives (like this Ambrose/BNB contract-signing). There was an A-story between Daniel Bryan & Roman Reigns that ran throughout the whole show, and then an assortment of B, C, D, E, F, G stories (if a few letters were knocked off, it would have been a perfect show). The three hours still wore me down. By 10:34 PM I made the following note: great show…still tired.

What separated this RAW’s third hour from other RAWs was that there was actual good stuff in it: The Miz ordering Damien Sandow around with a bell whilst Sandow was in the middle of a match, a mixed-gender-tag match where Tyson Kidd humorously screamed at Natalya for losing after calmly telling Cesaro not to scream at Natalya for losing, three cryptic Bray Wyatt promos tethered together by crucifixion imagery (the tattoo on his shoulder used to great effect), Titus O’Neil and Darren Young reuniting in a surprisingly sense-making fashion to take on a more aggressive, imposing The Ascension, realistic backstage pre-match & post-match interviews and glimpses behind the curtain that showed wrestlers preparing for their matches, and Paige searching for a new outfit after The Bellas stole her ring-attire.

 Paige had to borrow an outfit from one of Adam Rose's "Rosebuds".

Paige had to borrow an outfit from one of Adam Rose's "Rosebuds".

The Paige segment was one that clearly epitomized the distinction between the excellence of this RAW’s perspective on the business and the badness of other episodes.

While, on the surface, The Bellas stealing Paige’s outfit is an excuse to see Paige in a towel and get a cheap pop from a crowd, and then get another pop from the crowd for seeing her in a cosplay outfit, it’s the kind of rib pro-wrestlers would actually pull on one another. It’s sorority-like. And it resulted in the best promo Paige has cut.

Interrupting Nikki Bella’s mean-girl jeers, Paige said one of the best things anyone’s said on the show in quite sometime, “Unlike you, I don’t need an outfit to make me look good. All I need to do is win.”

It’s rare to hear something so positively perfect on any show, especially in a segment people traditionally use as time to go to the bathroom. This statement weaves in the story of finding an outfit while simultaneously grounding the fiction in genuine athletic competition. In an era defined by “sports entertainers fight to entertain the crowd” I can’t emphasize enough how refreshing it is to hear any pro-wrestler say “All I need to do is win”. With that one simple statement, Paige sold herself, the Divas Championship, and her match against Nikki at Fastlane.

 Paige cuts an awesome RAW promo.

Paige cuts an awesome RAW promo.

So while the three-hour format was still too much, the entire show was populated with quality moments that stemmed from the same philosophy of realistic competition that defined the A and B stories.

Another quality moment was a brief, self-contained drama involving The Rhodes Brothers, Stardust & Goldust and their father Dusty. It was a story about the dissolution of their family into madness, with Cody definitively shrugging off his Cody-personae and embracing Stardust as his permanent gimmick. The way he phrased this transformation was excellent, conveying the notion that “Stardust” is what remains when Cody Rhodes explodes due to familial pressure.

 Stardust glares at his fallen brother, Goldust.

Stardust glares at his fallen brother, Goldust.

The emphasis on realism and competition wasn’t a tone that merely dictated the promos and the in-ring action.

Commentary, the most universally reviled aspect of the show of late, actually called some moves, repeteadly said the word “competition”, and Michael Cole even said that no one in “the history of this sport has been anywhere near Dusty Rhodes”. “Sport” is a word I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Michael Cole say.

Even the typically grating JBL transformed his heel-gimmick into a character that “loved competition” and wanted to “see a fight!”

And the way the three sold Fastlane and the WWE Network was short and to the point. No self-loathing grins or hateful winks and nods about “Nine-ninety-nine”. Just information. What it is…what you get if you buy-in.

Even Booker T had a few gems that contributed to the various stories: “I’m the youngest of eight kids, and trust me, it’s been a fight since day one!”

The three were actually focused on what was happening in the ring for the majority of the broadcast and they made efforts to get wrestlers (like The Ascension) over in the minds of those listening in a way they typically do not.

Two other good segments informed by the spirit of realistic competition involved Dolph Ziggler & Seth Rollins and Triple H & Ric Flair.

 Seth Rollins makes his way to the ring accompanied by J&J Security.

Seth Rollins makes his way to the ring accompanied by J&J Security.

Rollins came to the ring and cut a superb promo about being the absolute best performer in the WWE today; again, just hearing an athlete talk about why they're "the best" and why they "want to be the best" is delightfully refreshing. The power of repetition was on full auditory display here, as he said, over and over, the phrase “Right now!”, asserting himself as more than “The Undisputed Future”, but the living breathing “Now!” It’s a perfect catchphrase for him as it represents an evolution of his character, but also an evolution in the WWE itself.

This entire segment represented good-booking-awareness. Rollins chastised Erick Rowan and Ryback, but Dolph Ziggler, the superior performer and the fan-favorite, was the focus of Rollins’ speech. And Ziggler fired back with a few forth-wall-nudging insults about Rollins having a “bad Valentine’s day”. Ziggler’s somewhat inauthentic promo-style compromised the beginning of the segment, prompting Seth Rollins to completely interrupt him, get in Ziggler’s face, crack-wise about Ziggler's career being a joke, and say, in so many words, “I’m better than you!” To quote Stone Cold Steve Austin, it was “damn-near a shoot”.

 Seth Rollins dominates Dolph Ziggler on the mic.

Seth Rollins dominates Dolph Ziggler on the mic.

It was believable because it was the truth, and it prompted Ziggler to fight back about being the standard-bearer for in-ring excellence. This mic-battle embodied reality. The two said things that men would actually say to one another before a fight.

After this dialogue the fans were treated to a good match between the two that ended with a J&J run-in, setting up a rematch on SmackDown.

The parallel scene featured older stars Triple H and Ric Flair. It was a surprisingly emotional exchange that perfectly sold Hunter’s rivalry with Sting and perfectly sold the Fastlane pay-per-view.

 Triple H, COO of the WWE.

Triple H, COO of the WWE.

Last week’s RAW REVIEW focused primarily on the wishy-washy nature of this Sting invasion, and the hokey presentation of Fake-Stings torturing Triple H.

This week, Triple H’s promo addressed every criticism of that scene, transforming the feud into something clear, simple, relatable, and incredibly powerful for those with a sense of pro-wrestling history.

“Make no mistake, Sting is WCW…I am the WWE.”

And there you have it. Everything you need to know in one statement.

Ric Flair’s involvement added the necessary emotional embellishment, the wise-old father figure come to warn the son about a legendary warrior named Sting. Triple H expanded upon his motivations, making it about more than just representing the WWE, making it about his need to preserve his own legacy in the business, and the fact that he resents how, in his mind, “Sting made a career off of Ric Flair’s back”. Again, this nudges the forth wall, embraces the behind the scenes realities and showcases the genuine emotions of these men.

Triple H shoving Ric was a shock, and his subsequent, growling speech as he hovered over a cowering Flair made Sting versus Triple H seem like the most important thing you could ever possibly see - and that’s always how one should be made to feel about a segment or a match.

 Triple H shoves and screams at Ric Flair.

Triple H shoves and screams at Ric Flair.

And that’s also how this episode’s A-story made you feel about Daniel Bryan versus Roman Reigns.

I’ve criticized this Roman versus Daniel angle pretty intensely since its inception. I’ve considered it something we shouldn’t even be seeing. Initially, it represented the same wayward, stop-start, inability to commit to something in the right way, too eager to appease the angry masses kind of booking that has defined the past several years and left the importance of The Royal Rumble in shambles. I had wanted to see the WWE follow through on the promise of the RAW SNOWDAY episode that emanated out of the Stamford, CT headquarters where Paul Heyman singlehandedly sold Roman vs Brock.

But, over the past couple weeks, thanks in large part to SmackDown’s Tag Team Turmoil and, for this latest RAW episode, simply focusing on competition, realism, and an athlete’s desire to be the best and headline the most important event of the year, the feud has quickly become entertaining, interesting, and significant.

 Roman Reigns makes his way through the crowd.

Roman Reigns makes his way through the crowd.

Daniel and Roman bring out the best in one another, and they’ve been given a solid narrative framework and the freedom to do so.

Daniel was spectacular on commentary while Roman had a decent match against Kane. Daniel reiterated that he is “a better wrestler” than Roman Reigns. “Wrestler” is typically one of those taboos in the WWE, but the word flowed freely from the mouths of Daniel and even Michael Cole throughout the night. These are the subtle, but significant changes that contributed to a RAW that felt completely transformed from the RAWs we’ve come to know and disdain over the past several years.

It was, very simply, a pro-wrestling show, and it made no concessions to some imaginary casual viewer who tuned in to Monday Night Raw to not watch a pro-wrestling show.

Daniel’s cheap pop YES Chants throughout the match stemmed from that spirit of brotherly competition. Roman and Daniel exchanged knowing grins and protracted, angry glares, building their story with a series of relatable visuals.

 Roman grins at Daniel who goads him at commentary.

Roman grins at Daniel who goads him at commentary.

Roman responded in the way Roman would and should respond. He didn’t don the headset and stiffly joke around during the main event between Daniel and Big Show (as one would expect him to do given the way the company has used him over the past several months). He silently sat at ringside and then started engaging with the crowd, drawing attention away from Daniel. He posed for photos and signed autographs - a wonderfully ironic turn of events considering the way the crowd has responded negatively to the character since it became apparent the company was pushing him.

One of the reasons the Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns feud is working so well goes beyond what they’re doing in the ring or on the microphone. The intensity and believability of the rivalry exists in its purest state during their ringside moments when they’re glaring into each other’s eyes or bickering about whether or not they meant to hurt the other person. We faintly hear them say things like, “Get back in the ring!” or “We need to win!” or “I’m not gonna let you just win!” or “You did that on purpose!” or “What, you taking a break?” or “Focus on your damn match!” and these moments infuse their battle with emotional realism. Their bound by a common desire to be the absolute best, and their tenuous respect for one another breaks the instant the other person feels challenged.

 Roman and Daniel stare-down at ringside.

Roman and Daniel stare-down at ringside.

The breakdown between the two was one of the more believable, entertaining closing brawls I’ve seen in years.

It was like watching a fight between brothers.

And commentary teased bringing the show to a close to perfection (or the show was supposed to end early, but the director made the right call to go the extra few minutes - and those last few minutes were essential). After Daniel drop-kicked Roman out of the ring Michael Cole started to sign off. Roman then charged back into the ring and the brawl ensued. So when you had prepared yourself for a familiarly dissatisfying conclusion, a massive fight erupted between Daniel and Roman that eventually spilled out into the crowd. Referees tried to break them up as they climbed back into the ring.

Daniel calmed down and, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, extended his hand.

 The two grudgingly shake hands, and then immediately erupt back into a fight.

The two grudgingly shake hands, and then immediately erupt back into a fight.

If you remember Daniel Bryan’s feud with John Cena from a couple SummerSlams ago, you’ll remember that athletic honor played a big part in that story. Back then (much as he’s doing now) Daniel emphasized that he was a professional wrestler while John Cena was a sports entertainer. That’s essentially his argument with Roman Reigns, but Roman takes it down a new path, representing a younger guy trying his hardest to prove himself to the world.

It was genuinely surprising to see Roman and Daniel attack one another after the handshake and then viciously drag each other over the announcers table. It looked dangerous, and that element of danger, the stiffness of their punches and the rage in their faces made you believe that much more.

The best moment of the battle was an unexpected chair shot to Roman's back and then a sudden, brutal forearm to Daniel's head, knocking him off his feet. The crowd popped and Roman screamed.

Seeing the bearded, wild-eyed, frizzy-haired Daniel climb up on top of the announcer’s table after the two had finally been broken up, and scream at Roman while Roman gasped for breath and roared like a lion as the refs held him back was the perfect note to end on.

 Daniel Bryan glares at Roman Reigns in a rage.

Daniel Bryan glares at Roman Reigns in a rage.

Roman, inside and outside the fiction, has all eyes on him. I can't remember a WWE Superstar under the kind of constant scrutiny Roman Reigns is under. People hang on his every word, his every move, and his every facial expression looking for something to criticize, looking for something to hate.

Daniel can play the role of the hyper-critical smark who chastises Roman for not being able to deliver a good suplex, but do so in a way that a veteran pro-wrestler actually would when training a new talent. Roman then finds a suitable outlet for his frustrations in Daniel, a means of taking out the aggression he might feel for the fans without needlessly transforming into a heel (as so many are calling for).

This feud is about more than someone being a bad guy and someone else being a good guy.

It’s about respect, honor, and competition. And that’s a lot more interesting, original, and exactly where the company needs to keep Roman - grounded in a competitive world that’s not as simple as right & wrong, good & evil, a world founded on the spirit of sport.

It’s realistic that a lot of fans would hate an athlete like Roman. He's like that super-hyped star athlete drafted to a new team with a massive-bucks contract. He's shown a lot of promise and he has the aura of a star, but he's largely unproven with his new team. That happens all the time in the real world. And it's fine that this happens.

Roman Reigns is like Alex Rodriguez where Daniel Bryan is like Derek Jeter.

Athletes can be universally hated but still contribute to their team and still get the occasional pop when they hit a home run. That’s who Roman Reigns can be. A realistic athlete, a member of a sports organization who might grate because of his special treatment, but often proves himself in unexpected ways when he needs to.

That's the future of professional wrestling characterization. Less straight heel and straight babyface, less cheap heat and cheap pop, more athlete competing to win a championship because that's what drives them.

That's a world where people can cheer and boo however they want without it being the end of the world or the decay of some predetermined WrestleMania main event plan.

That’s the world that defined this RAW. That’s the world that made this the best RAW I’ve seen since I was a teenager. This is the RAW I’ve been clamoring for. This is what the WWE wants to be in the modern age - a sports competition simulation, a form of theater that merges sport with narrative.

This RAW utilized the current roster, the talent the company already has, and told good, convincing mini-stories from the bottom of the card to the top.

There was obvious care and consideration for the talent, a clear desire and design to get everyone over in a convincing way, a focus on showcasing the strengths of the product and hiding the weaknesses. And the company's greatest strength, Paul Heyman, wasn't even there! Imagine if he was!

This isn’t a RAW I imagine many will remember because people tend to remember massive high spots and forty-minute marathon matches and surprise appearances or the gratingly terrible segments.

This RAW was more subdued, focused, honest, and real. This RAW respected the intelligence of anyone who tuned in wanting to be entertained by a pro-wrestling show - jaded know-it-all-smart-mark and that elusive “general viewer” alike. The only way that wouldn’t be understood and appreciated is if one is irrationally entrenched in their hatred of the product.

 Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns destroy one another.

Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns destroy one another.

This was an important RAW, ladies and gentleman. It represents a positive direction for the company, a direction that resembles everything that makes NXT the best show the WWE currently produces.

Through positive reinforcement, we must let the WWE know that this is the kind of show we’re looking for, that the perspective & the philosophy behind the creation of this RAW is the perspective & the philosophy that will bring the WWE into a righteous future.

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