THE RAW REVIEW
Within the first fifteen minutes, it was clear that this week's Monday Night Raw was going to be an excellent episode. The benefit of writing this weekly review of WWE’s flagship series is that it helps me remember a lot of the episodes, especially the successful ones, and recognize when a show is going to be good or not.
“Raw Snowday”, the February 16th episode where Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns brawled all over the arena, the Raw after WrestleMania (at least the beginning of it where Lesnar rampaged), the epic brawl between Brock Lesnar & The Undertaker, and the most recent episode of Raw all have something in common.
The episodes of Raw where the crowd goes completely insane and Twitter explodes with love and smarks start talking about how “things have finally changed” are all episodes where the story is rooted in believable sports-goals.
The unsuccessful episodes are ones where there is no conceit, no established framework to justify the events taking place in the ring nor backstage. Unsuccessful episodes of Raw are ones where the narrative hinges upon something like "The Authority is late to the show!"
The unsuccessful episodes are variety shows that wander aimlessly from one “entertainment” segment to the next without any semblance of a believable connective narrative tissue. With the exception of five or six episodes these past ten months, that lack of an emotional anchor defines Raw. That lack of a recognizable, believable, emotionally powerful framework is the reason viewership is at an all time low and fan discontent is at an all time high. At least before last night.
I don’t have to do much to prove that booking the other way, where there is a conceit, where the perspective on the business is that it is a sport where athletes compete for the prize, is the right way to book the show. This episode of Raw stands as an argument in favor of everything the company should be regularly doing.
Just listen to the San Diego crowd. Click on the #RawSanDiego trend (which is still trending at the time of this writing).
Right from the start, when Triple H announced that there would be a number one contender’s tournament for a shot at Seth Rollins’ WWE World Heavyweight Championship, the show was a success.
Raw suddenly had a story. Raw suddenly had characters with clear motivations. That single, simple premise orients every single performer around a common goal; become champion. That premise hooks every viewer. Smark, casual, young, and old alike. Become champion is something everyone understands. A simple premise that’s universal in appeal gives pro-wrestlers a blank canvas on which to move that audience to The Moment of Pop.
While the goal is shared, the way the pro-wrestlers go about realizing that goal is what separates them from their fellow athlete. That’s where their personalities live; in their unique approach to achieving success. A heel like Kevin Owens will rake someone’s eyes, put his foot on the ropes, scurry away, lure his opponent into a trap, or just pummel him, without remorse, even when the doctors are telling him to stop. A babyface like Roman Reigns will fight valiantly and with honor and athletic flair, attempting to prove that he is the absolute best at what he does.
That basic formula represents professional wrestling in its purest form:
- Present a match for a shoot (as if it's real).
- The winner of the match will advance in their division.
- Within that framework, good and evil work out their differences.
There’s opportunity to grow from that basic premise, to veer into incredibly complex and uncharted territory. Pro-wrestling is a malleable art. But, like most arts, when it’s true to itself and works from a place that showcases its strengths as a medium in its most basic form, it is a resounding success. And last night Raw was a resounding success.
The structure of the booking, apart from a few throwaway six-person tag matches, was superb because it retroactively gave meaning to Hell in a Cell. Not only would the winners of their first round matches on Raw go on to fight in a Fatal Four Way finale in the main event, the people chosen to be in the tournament in the first place were those who had won their Hell in a Cell matches.
Suddenly, I felt like my $9.99 and, more importantly, my time on my day off, meant something.
The matches were consistently spectacular, due in large part to the established stakes, each offering different styles, each offering a smaller story that contributed to the larger story.
The greatest benefit of booking in this way is that bumps matter.
We rarely consider how a poorly told story disrespects the sacrifice of the professional wrestler.
Imagine falling on your back every night and breaking your body and getting nothing out of it for your character.
A bump that doesn’t contribute to the ascent or descent of an entire roster in an ever-evolving, established narrative with a promised payoff is a pointless bump. When pro-wrestling is badly booked, pro-wrestlers, even when they’re booked to win, don’t gain anything from their physical, mental, and emotional investment. This is why it was so difficult to become invested in any of the matches at Hell in a Cell. Spectacular as many of the bumps were, fans have been trained to think that the events of a pay-per-view rarely carryover into Raw and rarely affect a pro-wrestler's placement on the card.
Pro-wrestling that’s badly booked is booked according to an individual’s whims, an individual’s biased likes and dislikes rather than a more gracious, communal perspective that accounts for the noble tenets of the medium and the reaction of the crowd.
If crashing through fifteen tables and winning your match gets you nothing more than a forgettable mid-card match at the next show, then what was the point of crashing through fifteen tables and winning your match? How does that booking shape someone's perception of the entire company's legitimacy let alone a particular talent?
If crashing through fifteen tables and winning your match makes you the number one seed in a title tournament, suddenly those bumps have meaning in the mind of the viewer. The sacrifice has a stackable effect on the story, and even on every other wrestler in that division. Last night, because every bump mattered, viewers got one of the best Raw-moments of the year. That moment wasn’t a spectacular high-flying maneuver or a fancy special effect or an over the top backstage skit.
The best moment of the night, and one of the best moments of the year, was nothing more than two powerful warriors staring at each other in a prelude to the finish.
Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens.
This scene could only be fully appreciated live. Professional wrestling fans had gone on a journey with these young men for three hours, building, little by little, to this moment.
The entire night, every single tournament match, every bump by every wrestler in this tournament, contributed to the intensity of this climax. From Dolph Ziggler to Alberto Del Rio, the crowd had been positioned to come unglued at the sight of Owens and Reigns staring each other down.
And Owens and Reigns soaked up that moment in a believable, powerful way.
This is the kind of moment that can only be earned when everyone’s sacrifice is respected and when everyone’s character has a solid motivation.
We knew how Kevin Owens fought. We knew how Roman Reigns fought. We knew that both were formidable. The way they had battled throughout the evening demonstrated that they were, indeed, the best and so it made sense that it would come down to them.
And both remained true to their characters to the last. Kevin Owens motioned for Reigns to get into the ring, indicating that he would allow him unencumbered entry as a sign of respect. But then, before Reigns could even get through the ropes, Owens kicked him in the face and set him up for The Pop-up Powerbomb.
Reigns, in a display of heroic athleticism, countered with a Superman Punch and a spear.
One. Two. Three.
A night the entire roster, and the WWE fan, could be proud of.
The only way to not be happy in this case is if you simply dislike Reigns. That contingent of fans certainly exists, and it could easily negate everything that this Raw did right.
I understand that perspective, even though I am a fan of Roman’s. He continues to struggle on the mic and he isn't portraying a consistent, relatable human being. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s resultant, in large part, from the unfortunate stew of influences around him; the brass expecting him to always be perfect and the fans always looking for an excuse to skewer him when he isn’t perfect.
I was rooting for Kevin Owens.
In the heat of the moment, I’ll always root for my guy.
When Roman scored the victory, my head fell backward and I sighed. That’s the psychology of many a fan today. We see Roman Reigns winning and we interpret it as Vince McMahon using his chosen golden boy to purposefully stomp on our chosen indy god.
That's a perspective that fails to see how much sense that finish actually makes in terms of the night's story. After a few seconds, I let that perspective go.
I remembered that Kevin Owens is The Intercontinental Champion. I remembered that Roman has an established history with Seth Rollins, and that if Kevin won and wound up facing Seth, it would likely lead nowhere and it would actually hurt Kevin a lot more than a good loss to Roman Reigns in the main event of a good Raw.
I remembered that I had seen a great story.
I hadn’t seen a booking decision.
And that’s the difference between a good Raw and a bad Raw.
A good Raw tells stories. A bad Raw tells booking decisions.
It must also be noted that the WWE effectively repackaged Seth Rollins in the course of these three hours. I still fear that he'll inevitably devolve into his counterintuitive, cowardly heel character, but the story told last night positioned him as a champion who has finally settled into himself. He is, at the very least, trying to be confident which is a big improvement over what the character has been the past several months.
This is the first time, since the Monday Night Raw after WrestleMania, that the WWE World Heavyweight Championship has been positioned, in a respectful fashion, as the nucleus of the WWE. This is the first time, in quite some time, that it feels as though we'll be able to watch Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns tell a great story about wanting to be the best athlete in the company.
We’ve been here several times before. I’ve proclaimed that “we’ve turned the tide” and that “a new era has begun” after episodes such as this one. I will do no such thing here, because I've seen what can happen after only a couple weeks.
Instead of making a bold proclamation, it is my hope that the reaction to this week’s Raw will serve as proof to the WWE that they must start booking, consistently, in this way.
You are already working so hard each and every week.
You might as well tell a story about how much hard work matters.