THE RAW REVIEW
We’ve been here before…
A WWE pay-per-view that is met with resounding disdain is immediately followed by an episode of Monday Night Raw that elicits unanimous praise. As genuinely disheartened as I was by the Fastlane pay-per-view, as soon as I heard “Here comes the monaaaaaaaay!” and saw Shane O’Mac hit the RAW stage with his reliably fancy footwork, all wasn’t forgiven, but all was certainly forgotten.
That seems to be the motto of the WWE and its Universe; “Never forgive, always forget”.
As excited as I am for Shane’s battle with The Undertaker, I believe it is important for us to first keep this recurring pattern in mind and explore its implications. The WWE is often criticized for its inconsistent quality, but WWE fans (the sort labelled “internet fans”) are also criticized for flip-flopping with their emotions. One of modern pro-wrestling fan’s favorite past-times seems to be chastising other pro-wrestling fans for not being more in control of their reactions. It’s very easy to criticize people who Tweet their emotions. It’s very easy to make generalizations and say that pro-wrestling fans behave like erratic children who cancel their WWE Network one night and then proclaim how excited they are for WrestleMania the next.
But when I have a frank conversation with myself about why one night I’m screaming “enough is enough, and it’s time for a change” and the next night I’m screaming, “Shane O’Mac!!!”, I realize that I’m simply reacting to what the WWE gives me. I'm human. When I have a frank conversation with myself about what the WWE is and what need they service, I see a massive organization that has the power to manipulate the majority of its viewership into thinking and feeling exactly what they want them to think and feel, but often fails to do so. Although there’s no love lost between myself and sects of fans who I’d simply deem disrespectful, I cannot blame the majority of pro-wrestling fans for feeling the way they do when the WWE is entirely capable of molding fans’ emotions in the way a parent molds their child. Perception is shaped through choice and action.
Some children will be terrible no matter what the parent does, but a lot of kids reflect the conditions of their environment and the personalities of their parents.
If a large portion of WWE fans are obnoxious, petulant, needy, bipolar, complacent, armchair critics…what does that say about the environment the WWE has created? People can contend that the internet has made everyone a complacent, moody, overly emotional, self-adsorbed ass all they want. Despite the existence of the internet and the inevitable contingent of perpetually dissatisfied complainers it breeds, human nature has not changed. People react favorably to quality.
Rather than play a subtler version of “the blame game”, I will simply write that, as a WWE fan, I would appreciate it if the company would use its immense power to create a less contentious, maturer, more consistent emotional environment for itself and its fans. There is no good reason for this to be an unhappy family torn apart by screaming matches one night and brought back together over a game of Monopoly the next.
Enough is, indeed, enough, and it’s time for everyone to forgive everyone, to stopping finding a way to be right and to start working toward a more pleasant living arrangement. I will always believe that the WWE can lay this more consistent foundation and create a more positive atmosphere by telling stories rather than telling booking decisions.
WWE fans moan and groan when they feel like they’ve been transparently told a booking decision: Roman Reigns, despite a lack of mic ability and a poorly defined gimmick, wins at Fastlane because he’s the WWE’s chosen top babyface. WWE fans go insane with joy when they feel like they’ve been told a story that plays to a performer’s strengths: Roman Reigns, a strong, silent warrior who fights for what’s right, takes on an increasingly corrupt system, knocks out the boss, and wins the title from an undeserving Champion.
Study the difference in "likes to dislikes" of this Roman Reigns victory video and juxtapose them with the results of the WWE's Facebook poll on Fastlane:
REACTION TO ABOVE VIDEO OF ROMAN WINNING THE TITLE IN PHILADELPHIA
REACTION TO THE FASTLANE PAY-PER-VIEW
Stories based on the fact that pro-wrestlers inevitably work out their differences in the squared circle in the pursuit of Championship gold or control over their promotion, will almost always get over with any kind of viewer. Stories that are virtually nonexistent and take the viewer's emotional investment for granted will not receive a predominantly favorable response.
That’s why people popped for Shane McMahon. That’s why people watched in hushed awe as he stared at Vince and Stephanie McMahon. That’s why people gasped and chanted “Holy Shit!” when Vince McMahon announced that Shane McMahon would face The Undertaker at Hell in a Cell.
They were told a story. And it all made a glorious amount of sense.
The opening segment was enticing, pulling the viewer in little by little, letting the viewer know that Shane was, indeed, going to serve as the disgruntled WWE fan’s proxy. Shane McMahon is the lovable, blunt voice of reason challenging a corrupt system to change or die (sound like anyone else running for office?). This is the right time for the WWE’s real-world struggles and ongoing contentious relationship with its fanbase to be embodied in an on-screen narrative. It is one of the few angles that instantly guarantees butts in seats at WrestleMania, and it functions as a release valve. All those bottled up frustrations that have been mounting week after week, month after month, year after year now have an outlet outside of blogs & podcasts.
Punk once acted as that voice, but he was a wrestler who inevitably had to work with the way he was booked. His ability to channel wrestling fans’ frustrations into compelling drama could be easily negated with a loss or less mic-time.
Shane is, appropriately, an outsider who doesn’t necessarily have to worry about whether or not he’s going to start jobbing to Ryback in the midcard next week. Both in reality, and in the established fiction, he is a powerful, confident entity who can point out everything that’s wrong with the WWE with relative impunity. A liberated Shane who points out that under today’s regime ratings have declined, stocks have fallen, injuries are abundant, and fan discontent is higher than ever is, indeed, money.
It was a perfect scene (an incredibly clever way to erase Fastlane from people’s minds), particularly from the perspective of laying the foundation for a story that is accessible to casual pro-wrestling fans and diehard pro-wrestling fans alike. Even those who have no idea who Shane is because they weren’t yet born when he was crashing through glass panels and jumping Coast to Coast, will immediately rally behind him because he wants to bring down The Authority (and he seems like a cool guy because everyone is so happy to see him again).
During a ceremony designed to epitomize Vince & Stephanie McMahon’s disconnect with not only their fanbase, but with reality, Shane revealed the characters for who they really are; ignorant buffoons who don’t seem to realize they’re captaining a sinking ship. Hypocrisy and stubbornness defines The Authority (as it defines any totalitarian regime), and the worst nightmare of any Authority figure is a charismatic, determined and powerful leader who fears nothing and controls the collective will of the oppressed.
The scene told the first chapter of this compelling story, blurring fantasy and reality in a way that only professional wrestling can. And while it’s sometimes a little too easy to forget that this is supposed to be a wrestling show, the familial drama imbues the conflict with greater significance. Shane wants control of RAW so that he can make it a better show and preserve the McMahon family legacy. McMahon feels the grip on his creation loosening while (in real-life) he is repeatedly criticized for his "out of touch" style of booking. For his son to return in the hopes of “preserving a legacy of excellence” is the greatest possible insult to his efforts. Vince gave Shane the McMahon name, and so he feels a degree of dominion over not only the name, but over Shane. An older and wiser Shane, returning to the land of WWE like Gandalf The White reborn after battling The Balrog, denies his father’s dominion and now aims to take ownership of his name and his birthright. At a time when the WWE’s greatness is being questioned by all, the company’s prodigal son has returned to restore its greatness. And he’s going to have to go through The Undertaker and Hell in a Cell to get it.
Damn, that’s good! If that doesn’t get your blood boiling then I don’t know what will.
No one is immune to the charms of a good story, and if they are then they’re not pro-wrestling fans. Story is what defined every significant segment of this episode.
From Dean Ambrose versus Brock Lesnar to Charlotte toying with Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, all the major WrestleMania matches (save Kevin Owen’s inevitable IC-title defense) were set in motion by way of instantly recognizable emotional hooks.
Dean Ambrose’s fight against Brock is a peculiar David vs Goliath story where David is a bit of a masochist and Goliath is a bit of a psychopath.
Charlotte’s manipulation of Sasha and Becky is a natural extension of their battles in NXT, a transition that has taken an incredibly long time, but has subtly taken over the "Divas Division" in the past two months. Charlotte is the self-important, entitled heel Champion and Sasha and Becky are the earnest yet capable contenders who will gradually reveal themselves to not only be worthy of the title, but legitimate era-defining stars.
Sasha Banks, in particular, demonstrated in her match against Naomi an ability to reignite a tired crowd. As enjoyable as this episode was, it was still three hours so by the time Sasha came out to wrestle some of the energy was sapped from the arena. She brought it back with a quick, physical contest overflowing with confidence and commitment to the craft.
Everyone on the roster, regardless of gender, should pay attention to the way Sasha Banks locks-up.
It’s not some limp tangle, a purely “for show” game of arm wrestling meant to serve as a transition into higher intensity spots. When Sasha Banks locks up, it is a cataclysmic event. She is not taking that moment for granted. It looks like she is a wrestler trying to do what a lock-up is actually supposed to do in an amateur wrestling match (and that’s get in on your opponent, gain control, and take them off their feet). If you’ve ever (amateur) wrestled in real-life, you know the importance of that lock-up, how it tells your opponent what to think of you and how, in many ways, it will determine the outcome of the match. That reality informs Sasha’s performance as her hair whips through the hair and she stomps her boots and grimaces like a Boss. Without that style of lock-up, the response to that match would have been entirely different.
Crowds respond well to good stories and sincere intensity.
That simple observation of audience behavior is evident in the way people cheered for Triple H at the end of the show. Certainly, a large portion of that crowd is cheering for Triple H because they dislike the way Roman Reigns has quickly ascended through the ranks despite his lack of mic-ability and his wishy-washy character (showing Roman scrolling through his iPhone as he paces in the back perfectly epitomizes the kind of visual that undermines his gimmick and makes older fans react poorly to him). But, unless someone simply hates Triple H or remains steadfast in their fandom of Roman, it’s incredibly hard not to cheer for someone who behaves as confidently and directly as Triple H did in this closing segment.
Remember, Triple H was brutalized with a steel chair by Roman Reigns at TLC.
Of all the characters in the WWE’s current fictional universe the past several months, Triple H has been the only one with a legitimate beef. His actions, while extreme, are proportionate to the violence he endured at Roman’s hands a couple months ago. Triple H is a character who wants to be WWE Champion, who is proud to be WWE Champion, and who refuses to give up his throne to some young, brash, ungrateful, unruly employee.
I understand that he’s supposed to be the heel. I understand the story that the WWE wants me to believe in. I'm not some fool seeing what he wants to see or backseat booking from a place of self-importance. I am investigating the basics of the information presented to me on a weekly basis.
As I wrote several weeks back, Triple H is simply not a villain based on the fundamental structure of this story (regardless of however fans react to him and their reasons for reacting the way they do). Roman Reigns consistently projects an over-confident, blasé attitude that suggests he knows he’ll get back to the WWE Championship. He rarely ever seems worried about anything, passionate about anything, and when he does display emotion it tends to conflict with the tone of the scene he's in.
Ignoring his mic-work and the heat it inevitably gets, and instead focusing solely on the unprovoked attack of Triple H, his consistently indifferent demeanor, and his ever-present grin...in what way is Roman Reigns, the character, a hero worthy of sympathy and uproarious applause?
I contend that this is the primary reason people boo him, whether they want to admit it or not.
People see what they see, hear what they hear, and respond accordingly. It's not as though a large portion of wrestling fans are completely out of their minds and reacting with completely unjustified emotional responses to everything Roman Reigns does.
Beyond some smarky reasoning, and beyond the fact that the WWE constructs scenes that shine a massive spotlight on Roman Reigns’ weaknesses as a performer, many fans react to Roman negatively because he seems like a heel and the actual story has presented him, possibly by accident, as a heel.
He’s supposed to seem like a cool warrior who does what he wants, when he wants, but he’s actually a somewhat complacent, over-confident broheem who doesn’t follow through on his violent convictions. If he consistently attacked people at random, possessed a noble motivation for his actions, never smiled, and rarely (if ever) spoke, then he would actually seem like the badass the WWE wants him to be. If he exuded noble characteristics like confidence and determination, then he'd be a babyface despite any violent outbursts.
As is, Triple H will continue to be cheered.
And, it’s important to keep in mind that Triple H is wrestler from The Attitude Era. He can’t help but get himself over when he goes out there and gets in the zone. At TLC, when he was attacked with a steel chair by Roman, it’s possible to hear Triple H instruct Roman, as he’s writhing in pain on the mat, “Again! Hit me again!” He knows that a few more chair shots will go a long way in telling the story, and he’s willing to endure the pain. Similarly, he knows how powerful the sight of blood streaming down Roman’s face is. He knows exactly how much damage to dish out in that moment, when it’s time to give a Pedigree on the steel steps, and when it’s time to strike a pose. Triple H is very much in touch with pro-wrestling fans, and he uses that for whatever suits his purpose.
At his best, Triple H is a good storyteller who effectively tells the story of his own badassery.
Roman Reigns cannot contend with that if he's going to keep grinning his way to the top.
The whole story is certainly designed to get Roman over in the long-run, but, in moments like these, Triple H is going to play to his own strengths and present his WWE Championship as a symbol of great significance. He must do so if the title is going to mean anything on the shoulder of the next guy who holds it. To see Triple H raising that title over his head, screaming, blood dripping down his arms and tapped fists is instantly compelling. That’s exactly the kind of imagery that should be associated with the title and its holder.
With his speech about pro-wrestling being his religion, and this relentless attack upon an enemy who got what he had coming to him (depending upon your point of view), it’s really hard to see how Triple H is actually a villain in this story. The only villainous thing about him is that he’s still tied to The Authority, but so many modern pro-wrestling fans understand how that’s just window-dressing and almost entirely irrelevant at this point given Shane’s arrival and the fact that Triple H is regarded as the benevolent godfather of NXT.
So how does Roman Reigns actually become the WWE’s top babyface in this narrative?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the company is content to keep booking Roman Reigns for those fans who respond favorably to the surface of stories (fans who see heroes and villains in exactly the way the company wants heroes and villains to be seen), and just lets the rest of the audience “have fun” or “do what they want to do” because those pesky "internet fans" will never be happy.
I can’t help but feel that style of booking helps create the unnecessarily contentious environment that has defined the past decade. The group of people who will "boo Roman no matter what" is actually quite small - smaller than even the "diehard wrestling fan" minority who regularly watches RAW. That group of fans is a kind of extremist sect who in no way represents the majority of professional wrestling fans.
The vast majority of WWE-viewers simply want to be told a good story and for WWE Superstars to be booked in a way that makes sense; "makes sense" means emphasizing someone's strengths (like a unique ability to portray a beastly, vengeful General) and hiding someone's weaknesses (like a consistent inability to realistically portray human emotion or speak with believable passion).
The best parents get their disobedient children to behave properly by subtly making that child think they decided to do it all on their own - a form of reverse-psychology. "Make them think it was their idea" is something veteran pro-wrestlers often cite as an example of good ring-psychology.
This principle could be applied to professional wrestling fans and their relationship with Roman Reigns.
Rather than just forging ahead with Roman as he is, why not study all those times large, diverse crowds of WWE-fans actually popped for him (going back even to his days with The Shield)? Rather than allowing another ten years of dueling “Let’s go, WWE-Guy!” and “This WWE-Guy sucks!” chants, perhaps the WWE’s storytellers can have one of those franks conversations with themselves and figure out whether or not they’ve successfully created the character they’d hoped to create in Roman Reigns. They wanted a universally beloved babyface and they simply do not have it. And thinking, in response to this unfortunate reality, that "there will never be another universally beloved babyface" seems uncharacteristically defeatist.
Rather than continuing to ask Roman to do things in scenes that just aren’t connecting, perhaps ask him to operate within his creative wheelhouse. This doesn't mean he needs to turn heel. This doesn't mean he needs to "be himself". This doesn't mean he needs to "improve on the mic".
This just means that he needs to start telling stories in the way that he tells them. It means supporting him with scenes that highlight his strengths, and create a character in him that is consistent.
Talking, joking, and laughing just isn't it. And that shouldn't be a problem at all given the WWE's resources. A single-take of Roman Reigns punching a bag tells his story better than a Jack & The Beanstalk promo ever could.
He has always possessed a unique ability to tell his story through his body, through his athleticism, and through his eyes during passionate depictions of violence. That is his strength and just as all the top guys before him were free to explore their strengths, he should similarly be free to explore rather than tasked with being "everything for everyone". He is at his absolute best when he is focused on combat and contained within himself, completely uninterested in the fans even when they respond favorably to him.
Generals do not captivate their army of followers by saying, "Thank you so much for being here."
They scream, "Bleed with me!" and then they charge into the fray.
It’s not a sign of insecurity or weaknesses or even a bad idea to acknowledge one’s shortcomings or mistakes.
I’m terrible at math. You do not want me doing your taxes. If I tried to be your accountant, I’d become the biggest heel of your life even if I had good intentions.
But, I could edit your short story or your novel like it's nobody's business. That’s the kind situation the WWE has on their hands with Roman Reigns.
Let him be that strong, silent, angry warrior who’s more focused on winning than he is on engaging with the audience. Let him be that overconfident, brash young employee and encourage him to remain calm, stoic, and rough.
Let us all be a little happier that we live in this house together, WWE, and we’ll all help maintain it.
The WWE is a legacy worth preserving, and we are at a critical juncture in its history. Now is the time to commit to a prosperous, egalitarian future.
There is no better place to start than at WrestleMania.