THE RAW REVIEW
That's the name that defined this episode of Monday Night Raw.
That's the name you now appreciate if you haven't had the privilege of watching him work on NXT (or in independent promotions over the past fifteen years as Kevin Steen).
This was a mostly enjoyable episode of RAW, but it was mostly enjoyable because of Owens' fascinating exchange with "The Face That Runs The Place", John Cena. I will save celebrating this segment for last, however (for it is the best), and get into this #RawRichmond Review by focusing on the WWE World Heavyweight Championship story.
Perhaps it was my good mood that contributed to me regarding the majority of the episode in a favorable light. Regardless of my good mood, matches like Bray Wyatt versus Dean Ambrose and segments like Kevin Owens destroying John Cena elevated this show above the monotony of the past several weeks/month. It still had its fair share of awkward moments, stilted deliveries, wonky booking, and ever-regrettable backstage segments, though.
It’s reassuring to see the company isn’t inexplicably casting Dean Ambrose aside despite the fact that he consistently elicits the strongest positive response from audiences, and that the character’s focus on Seth Rollins and the WWE World Heavyweight Championship didn’t suddenly vanish following the Payback pay-per-view.
The drawback to Seth & Dean reigniting their feud for an Elimination Chamber main even is that, like almost every build save Kane’s unending slow-burn moral quandary, it’s rushed. And it's even more rushed than usual because pay-per-views seem to be happening every two weeks now instead of once a month.
When Elimination Chamber was first announced, I didn’t think of it as a legitimate pay-per-view. It was initially presented as an almost random weekly Network special not unlike the recent King of the Ring tournament. I thought it was going to be one match to determine the Intercontinental Champion. When such thoughts are proven incorrect, I wonder if I’m not paying enough attention. While I admit it’s hard for a full episode of RAW to keep me glued to the screen these days, I also have to acknowledge that I inevitably absorb the information the WWE gives me (or don’t) as a result of the way they give it to me. Their constant scrambling to the next big sale often leaves viewers confused as to what they should actually expect, or they have to rely on imagination or they have to rely on rumor to follow the WWE's promotional style.
Elimination Chamber was announced by Michael Cole, seemingly out of nowhere, and it wasn’t made clear what any of the matches would be, what titles would be defended, what day it would air, and what any of it was about. It was only announced as a thing for you to buy.
Over the course of the past couple weeks of promotion and seemingly random match-making, it became apparent that it is, indeed, another pay-per-view taking place two weeks after another pay-per-view that took place two weeks after another pay-per-view.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest things might be getting a tad diluted.
I can’t get excited about pizza if I know I’m going to be eating pizza for every meal. And I love pizza. Love it.
This is the main roster pay-per-view schedule for the next couple months:
MAY 31st Elimination Chamber
JUNE 14th Money in the Bank
JULY 19TH Battleground
AUGUST 23rd SummerSlam
Including Payback & Elimination Chamber earlier this month/April, that’s five main-roster pay-per-views between WrestleMania and SummerSlam. I truly find it hard to believe that much is actually gained by having that many pay-per-views in such a short period of time. The company paints itself into a narrative corner where it's almost impossible to create consistently thrilling, must-see-TV with that kind of schedule, and the fans just end up feeling beleaguered and disrespected (all the bright spots aside - and there are bright spots).
And I’ll add NXT Take Over: Unstoppable to the schedule for good measure (though that serves as a palette-cleanser)
That’s a lot of pay-per-views.
That’s a lot of WWE Network adverts.
That's a lot of Michael Cole telling me to buy something.
That’s a lot of ways for Seth Rollins to avoid a fight while Kane continues to remain, for questionable reasons, the narrative glue of the WWE’s A-Story.
So as sense-making and entertaining as Dean Ambrose versus Seth Rollins is, I struggle to fully enjoy it because of the regrettable creative and marketing decisions orbiting their excellence.
I’m well beyond the point of being full when it comes to WWE pay-per-views and there’s still three left until we get to the one I actually want to see on the main roster.
And segments that could be spectacular, segments where Dean Ambrose threatens Seth Rollins, get bogged down by a script that dictates an ever-ironic Triple H and Stephanie act amused by the idiocy of everyone surrounding them while awkwardly inciting fights with phrases like, “Seth…get him!”
Walking in parallel with that awkwardness, is the goodness of Seth Rollins being built up as a reflection of Triple H. The way Triple H has transformed into a father-figure in the WWE, in part thanks to his stewardship of NXT, makes for an interesting dynamic between he and Rollins (much more interesting than the existence of an Authority stable). Some awkward scripting and line-delivery aside, the final imagery of the night with Seth Rollins giving Dean Ambrose The Pedigree and then holding his title over Dean was spectacular.
The heart of the story is good, revealing the cyclical nature of not just the WWE or the war between good and evil, but the cyclical nature of time itself. As the world moves on and a new generation overtakes the old, often fascinating connections and reflections are revealed in the midst of that process.
We are watching the members of The Shield, and other members of NXT, go through the same process men like Triple H went through almost twenty years ago. What makes the Seth Rollins story so potentially fascinating is that Triple H is the most consistently present character in the WWE - meaning he is a character that has evolved, in real-time, in the WWE fiction, from one year to the next without going to another promotion (universe) and his current state of being contains that history. So the viewer will have seen Triple H transform into a master with a legion of apprentices. Now, finally, he has selected his best apprentice, and this is most transparently (and effectively) represented in Seth Rollins adapting Triple H’s finisher, The Pedigree. Triple H has had protege’s before, but the stakes of this relationship are higher because it represents a legitimate transformation behind the scenes.
There is a great deal of potential to be mined here. There’s a chance for The Authority (which has stagnated) to naturally, quietly transform into a simple, recognizable, and powerful two-man-entity; a young, talented athlete and that talented athlete's promoter/manager.
Triple H and Seth Rollins could easily earn heat if they push forward together while not reverting to the momentum-negating, convoluted-booking-creating cowardly-heels that have dominated the title picture the past several years. The coward heel is a characterization that currently damages Seth Rollins and, therefore, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. There's a chance to raise up that title, Seth Rollins, and Triple H in the process if those two become an unstoppable force in the company.
Triple H and Seth Rollins could become a delightfully villainous duo, disrespecting all who dare to defy them and slithering their way to victory after victory until a certain Beast Incarnate’s suspension gets lifted (maybe by a jilted Stephanie McMahon who’s not too fond of all the attention her husband is paying to the slimy Rollins - a bit soap-opery, but I'll concede that point for continuity's sake).
The relationships between Seth, Dean, Roman, and Triple H must become the spotlight of the championship-scene without the often literal interference of a Kane or a Randy Orton. It is time, both behind the scenes, and on-screen, for a noticeable, permanent changing of the guard.
Corporate Kane’s internal struggle has ceased to make any sense whatsoever, and it is unfathomable that viewers would continue to be forced to watch The Authority stable exist in its current form when so much goodness is glaringly apparent elsewhere.
And all it takes is the brief intrusion of a NXT Superstar these days to reveal just how good RAW could be if it adapted the tone and style of WWE’s developmental division.
Several months back when Kevin Owens debuted in NXT I regarded it as the best debut I had ever seen live.
Now, I can comfortably write, that Kevin Owens’ RAW debut is the other best debut I’ve ever seen live.
Owens’ accosting Cena achieved several very simple, but incredibly important things: Owens introduced himself to a wider audience, Owens & Cena revealed how entertaining honesty and realism can be, Owens & Cena sold NXT Take Over Unstoppable better than any Michael Cole or ironic Authority-pitch ever could.
Owens has demonstrated on NXT, ever since he first arrived on the show, how a pro-wrestler can be a heel without being a coward (a seemingly simple reality that has eluded the main roster writers & performers). Everything Owens did, from denying Cena’s veteran advice (rightfully so as Owens has been wrestling longer than Cena) to stomping on The United States Championship just made sense. It made so much sense that it was almost shocking to see.
If we were still living in 2012, I can easily imagine a scene where Owens came out, talked a big game, and then got beat up by Cena, tossed over the rope, and then retreated, holding the back of his head while spittle flew out of his mouth - shamed and appearing foolish.
Today, thanks to what appears to be a healthy injection of common sense (both from a storytelling perspective and a marketing perspective), Kevin Owens was able to say and do things in his brief encounter with John Cena that were believable while maintaining an aura he’d long-established in NXT.
It was a scene main-roster fans just aren’t treated to these days; a scene where two men honestly argue and then try to dishonor or damage the other’s pride.
It was The Reality Era epitomized.
There was no fumbling with the scene to ensure John Cena overcame the odds.
There was no strong-arming the audience into not cheering Kevin Owens when he told John Cena to “spare him the veteran advice”. The focus was purely on creating good television and purely on selling viewers a very confident product.
There was only good storytelling supported by excellent performers, all of whom knew exactly what the purpose of the scene was and exactly what they needed to do.
A WWE that flows from this place of competitive realism is a WWE that doesn’t get caught up on rigid definitions of heel or face.
A WWE that flows from this place of competitive realism trusts a Kevin Owens to get over as a heel because he’s portraying a terrible human being who does terrible things without regard for the audience’s favor or disdain. Owens “fights for his family” but he stomps on The United States Championship, a championship that John Cena proclaimed “Our Championship” just moments before (a point Michael Cole emphasized to perfection).
Despite everything I wrote about being completely saturated by WWE products, despite the fact that Elimination Chamber is happening way too soon, I cannot help but be excited to see Kevin Owens do battle with John Cena.
That's his power.
That's the power of good storytelling, and a pro-wrestling based on realism.
This one appearance is everything the WWE should be in 2015 and beyond.
And Owens is a man who can make it happen.
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